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Lesson 7: A Life of Joy and Gladness (Acts 2:25-28)

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Everyone wants to be happy. The Rolling Stones complained years ago that they couldn’t get any satisfaction, but clearly satisfaction was their goal. Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine observed, “I am not alone in this desire [for happiness], nor are there only a few who share it with me: without exception we all long for happiness… They may all search for it in different ways, but all try their hardest to reach the same goal, that is, joy” (Confessions, X, 21, cited by John Piper, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy [Crossway Books], p. 70).

Probably you could explain all human behavior as a search for joy or happiness or satisfaction, although most search in the wrong place. People get married and pursue a certain career because they hope to find happiness through these things. They divorce and change careers for the same reason. People commit sexual immorality because they think that it will bring them happiness. They steal because they think that having material possessions will satisfy. Murderers kill because they think that they will be happier if they get rid of an enemy or take what belongs to the other person. Even suicidal people hope that death will bring relief from their problems.

One of Satan’s most successful lies is that God is a cosmic killjoy who wants everyone to be miserable. People view God as a great sadist in the sky, who gets perverse delight in making His creatures miserable.

But even a casual reading of the Bible reveals that, to the contrary, God is a being who has great joy and that everyone who comes to know Him enters into the only true and lasting joy possible. The Psalms overflow with joy and gladness. Jesus told the disciples that He spoke to them so that His joy would be in them and their joy would be made full (John 15:11). The fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in the believer is first love, then joy (Gal. 5:22). God has promised eternal, lasting joy for us in heaven (Rev. 21:4). The Puritans had it right when they said, “The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” So, rather than discouraging us from seeking joy and gladness, the Bible rather exhorts us to seek it, but to seek it in the right place. God Himself is the source of all joy and gladness. If we seek joy in God, we will find eternal satisfaction.

In his sermon on the Day of Pentecost, Peter cited Psalm 16:8-11, and applied it to Jesus Christ (“for David says of Him,” Acts 2:25). Peter is arguing that this psalm, in which the author says that God will not allow his body to undergo decay, did not ultimately apply to David, whose body did undergo decay. Rather, as a prophet, David was writing about his descendant, Jesus the Messiah, whom God raised from the dead. Thus while on one level the psalm applied to David, on another level it applies only to Christ.

What I want you to see is that the subject of the psalm, Jesus Christ, was full of joy and gladness. He says, “My heart was glad and my tongue exulted; moreover my flesh also will abide in hope” (2:25). “You will make me full of gladness with Your presence” (2:28). Peter left off the final line of the psalm, which reinforces the theme, “In Your right hand there are pleasures forever” (Ps. 16:11). Since Jesus was full of God’s joy and gladness, if we are growing to be like Christ, we will be growing in God’s joy and gladness. Our text teaches us that …

God wants us to be growing in His joy and gladness.

While true joy and gladness come from God, our text breaks it into three sources: Joy and gladness come from knowing God’s presence; from being conformed to God’s holiness; and, from the hope of God’s raising our bodies so that we can eternally dwell with Him.

1. Joy and gladness come from continually knowing God’s presence.

“For David says of Him [Jesus], ‘I saw the Lord always in my presence; for He is at my right hand, so that I will not be shaken’” (2:25). Peter is citing the Greek translation of Psalm 16. The Hebrew reads, “I have set the Lord continually before me.” It implies a deliberate action. To have the Lord at one’s right hand signifies protection. Advocates would sit to the right of their clients to defend them in court (R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of the Acts of the Apostles [Augsburg], p. 86). Bodyguards would stand on the right side so they could cover the person they were protecting with their shields and still have their right arm free to fight (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary, Acts 1-12 [Moody Press], p. 65). Jesus had God’s joy and gladness because He continually knew God’s presence. But before we go further, we need to define the terms “joy and gladness.” The best way to understand it is:

A. Joy and gladness are exemplified in Jesus.

At first you may think it strange to lift up Jesus as the great example of joy and gladness since He was known as a man of sorrows who bore our grief (Isa. 53:4). It is ironic and instructive that the shortest verse in the English Bible is John 11:35, “Jesus wept.” But the shortest verse in the Greek New Testament is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “Rejoice always.” The two verses are not contradictory. Biblical joy and gladness do not deny sorrow and grief. In the garden, Jesus told the disciples that His soul was deeply grieved to the point of death (Mark 14:34). Hebrews 12:2 says that Jesus, for the joy set before Him, endured the cross. The cross itself was not joyful, but there was great joy ahead. Thus, biblical joy and gladness are the deep undercurrent or foundation in God that sustain the believer in and through times of sorrow and grief.

On my 36th birthday, I had to conduct the funeral of a 39-year-old man who had died of cancer. After the service, I was consoling the widow, who was weeping, when her former pastor bounced up with a big smile and said, “Praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” I wanted to pop him in the mouth! What he said was true, but he was denying the biblical command to weep with those who weep (Rom. 12:15). Biblical joy and gladness are not a superficial happy face that we paint over deep sorrow. Rather, they are the foundation that comes from knowing that our sovereign God works all things together for good to those who love Him and are called according to His purpose (Rom. 8:28).

I am saying that if we want a picture of biblical joy and gladness, we should look at the life of Jesus Christ. Though He went through times of great difficulty and sorrow, especially as He bore our sins on the cross, He also had times of great joy and gladness. The word gladness is used in Luke 15:32, where the father of the prodigal son explains to his complaining older son, “We had to be merry and rejoice, for this brother of yours was dead and has begun to live, and was lost and has been found.” Throughout that chapter, Jesus emphasized the great joy in heaven when a single sinner repents (Luke 15:5-7, 9-10, 23-24, 32). On another occasion, Jesus rejoiced greatly in the Holy Spirit over God’s sovereign grace in the lives of the apostles (Luke 10:21-22). The word used there is the same word in our text translated “exulted.”

Jesus told the disciples that He wanted His joy to be made full in them (John 15:11; 17:13). Although He acknowledged that they would be sorrowful when He was crucified, He also promised that when they saw Him alive again, they would rejoice, and no one could take that joy away from them (John 16:20, 22). Thus biblical joy does not deny times of sorrow and grief. But it does overcome such times because it rests on the sovereign God and His certain promises to every believer. I like the way John Newton, in his hymn, “Glorious Things of Thee are Spoken,” called our legacy, “solid joys and lasting treasure.”

What was the source of Jesus’ abiding joy?

B. Joy and gladness result from continually cultivating God’s presence in our lives.

David says of Jesus, “I saw the Lord always in my presence; for He is at my right hand, so that I will not be shaken” (2:25). Jesus lived each moment aware of the Father’s presence. He never had a second when He lived unto Himself. The only time He did not know the Father’s presence was that awful moment on the cross when He cried, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” Jesus always lived in God’s presence.

That is the key to joy and gladness, daily to cultivate a sense of God’s presence. Then, even if we go through trials, we will not lose our joy, because God is with us. Jonathan Edwards expressed it well in a sermon, “God the Best Portion of the Christian” (The Works of Jonathan Edwards [Banner of Truth], 2:106):

Hence we may learn, that whatever changes a godly man passes through, he is happy; because God, who is unchangeable, is his chosen portion. Though he meet with temporal losses, and be deprived of many, yea, of all his temporal enjoyments; yet God, whom he prefers before all, still remains, and cannot be lost. While he stays in this changeable, troublesome world, he is happy; because his chosen portion, on which he builds as his main foundation for happiness, is above the world, and above all changes. And when he goes into another world, still he is happy, because that portion yet remains.… But how great is the happiness of those who have chosen the Fountain of all good, who prefer him before all things in heaven or on earth, and who can never be deprived of him to all eternity!

We all face the danger of enjoying God’s gifts, but not loving Him as the One who gave these gifts to us. Augustine used the illustration of a man who made a ring for his bride-to-be, but she loved the ring more than her betrothed who made it for her. Certainly she should love the gift. But what would we think if she said, “The ring is enough. I do not want to see his face again”? Augustine concludes, “God, then has given you all these things. Love Him who made them” (cited by Piper, Sovereign Joy, p. 71).

As we go through our day, we should see God’s hand in every situation. Every trial He brings lovingly to shape us into the image of Jesus Christ. Every blessing He graciously gives to show us His great love. Every delight to our senses, whether the taste of food or the beauty of creation or the sounds of birds chirping, should cause us to rejoice in the presence of our God.

While I often fall far short of experiencing God’s constant presence in my life, I can offer three things that will help you move in the right direction:

First, spend time often with God in His Word and in prayer. Even if it’s a short time, get up early enough to meet with God before you head out the door. The godly George Muller used to say that “the chief business of every day is first of all to seek to be truly at rest and happy in God” (A. T. Pierson, George Muller of Bristol [Revell], p. 257; see also pp. 314-315). Memorize His Word and meditate on it throughout your day.

Second, relate everything, even little events, in your day to God’s providence. Everything is from His loving hand. Nothing happens by chance. As the hymn writer put it, “Every joy or trial falleth from above, traced upon our dial by the Sun of Love” (Francis Havergal, “Like a River Glorious”).

Third, take time often to enjoy God in His creation. I don’t know what people do who live in a place like New York City, where there are few opportunities to get out in God’s creation! I often sense God’s presence and am caught up in worship as I enjoy what God has made. A year or two ago, Marla and I were hiking in Weatherford Canyon on a fall day. The trail leads you into a dense aspen grove, where the trees are so thick, you feel as if you’re walking into a building. There was a yellow canopy overhead and a yellow floor beneath. It was snowing lightly, with big flakes floating down through the trees. If you can’t sense God’s presence and glory at a time like that, you may not know God!

Thus Jesus shows us that the first way to know joy and gladness is continually to know God’s presence.

2. Joy and gladness come from being conformed to God’s holiness.

Jesus is here called God’s “Holy One.” He was without sin, as even His enemies had to admit (John 8:46). Hebrews 1:9 says of Jesus, “You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness above Your companions.” Note how righteousness and gladness go together.

Again, Satan perpetrates a great lie. He makes us think that real happiness is found in sin, whereas holiness is a dull, wearisome matter. But God’s Word teaches that holiness and happiness are inextricably bound together. Sin may give momentary pleasures, but it always wreaks destruction and death.

Clearly, a person living in sin could not be happy in God’s holy presence. Men love darkness and want to hide from the God who is light, because their deeds are evil (John 3:19-21). When Jonah disobeyed God, he tried to run from God’s presence (Jonah 1:3, 10). So the only way to know the joy and gladness that come from God’s presence is to know that your sins are forgiven through faith in Jesus Christ and to be walking in obedience to Him, beginning on the thought level.

In our text, the Lord Jesus prays, “You have made known to me the ways of life” (Acts 2:28). This refers to God’s paths of righteousness that lead to true life—eternal life—that begins now. The one who lives for sinful desires is on the way that leads to destruction and death. The one who puts to death the sinful deeds of the flesh knows God’s ways of life (Rom. 8:13).

In his excellent book, The Legacy of Sovereign Joy, John Piper observes (p. 146),

The battle to be holy—the battle for sanctification—is a battle fought at the level of what we love, what we cherish and treasure and delight in.

To be sure there is real self-denial and real discipline and gouging out of the eye and cutting off of the hand—a spiritual severity of warfare that many have not attained. But it must be said—and let the apostle say it with all authority—that the secret beneath this severe discipline, the secret to severing all else as rubbish, is to savor Christ as gain (Philippians 3:8).

The battle for holiness is a battle to be fought mainly by fueling the fires of our passion for Christ. Sanctification is the triumph of “sovereign joy.”

When David sinned with Bathsheba, he was miserable until he confessed his sins and prayed, “Restore to me the joy of Your salvation” (Ps. 51:12). If you lack God’s joy, examine your heart and make sure that you are not entertaining any known sin. Confess and forsake it and with David entreat God to restore to you the joy of His salvation. True joy and gladness come only as we continually know God’s presence and walk in His paths of holiness.

3. Joy and gladness come from the certain hope of God’s raising our bodies so that we can eternally dwell with Him.

The joy of Jesus in this psalm is the joy of knowing that God would raise Him from the dead before His body would undergo decay. We can rejoice because we have the certain hope that because Jesus was raised, even so we will be raised when He returns (1 Cor. 15). The instant we die, our soul goes to be with Jesus in heaven (2 Cor. 5:8). But our bodies await that great moment when “the Lord Himself will descend from heaven with a shout, with the voice of the archangel, and with the trumpet of God; and the dead in Christ shall rise first. Then we who are alive and remain shall be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and thus we shall always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16-17).

All of the blessings that God gives us in this life are just samples to whet our appetites for the eternal blessings that we will enjoy in His presence in heaven. Do you like to eat? Heaven is pictured as a great banquet. Do you like to rest from hard work? Heaven, as Richard Baxter put it, is the place of “the saints’ everlasting rest.” Do you enjoy your relationship with your mate? I used to be bothered by Jesus’ words, that there will be no marriage in heaven. I’ve said to Marla, “How can it be heaven if I can’t be married to you?” But then it dawned on me, that my earthly marriage is just a dim picture of the eternal joy that I will have when I am united with my heavenly Bridegroom forever.

Jesus says that His flesh will abide in hope (2:26). The literal meaning of “abide” is “to put down a tent.” The idea is that as long as we’re in this body, we will hope in God and the promise of the resurrection. But like a tent, our hope is temporary, until the resurrection, when we no longer need to hope because the promise is realized (Rom. 8:24-25).

Don’t miss the application: As the Lord’s people, we should be filled with the certain hope of His coming and the resurrection of our bodies, when we shall dwell with Him eternally. Such hope will fill us with joy and gladness. Only when you’re ready to die are you ready to live. You can have true joy in this life only when you know that you will have eternal joy in the next life, after death.

And the psalmist isn’t just talking about a trickle of joy and gladness in this life. He says, “You will make me full of gladness in Your presence” (2:28). Don’t rest until the Lord fills you with His joy and gladness. Of course, we won’t be totally full of His joy until we’re with Him in heaven. But we should seek Him continually, not settling for a trickle of joy, but asking Him for the fulness of His joy that comes with our salvation.


In a sermon, “The Christian Pilgrim” (Works, 2:244), Jonathan Edwards has a paragraph that I often have thought about, because it jars me as I see how far short I fall of Edwards’ knowledge of God:

God is the highest good of the reasonable creature; and the enjoyment of him is the only happiness with which our souls can be satisfied. To go to heaven, fully to enjoy God, is infinitely better than the most pleasant accommodations here. Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but the enjoyment of God is the substance. These are but scattered beams; but God is the sun. These are but streams; but God is the fountain. These are but drops; but God is the ocean. Therefore it becomes us to spend this life only as a journey towards heaven, as it becomes us to make the seeking of our highest end and proper good, the whole work of our lives; to which we should subordinate all other concerns of life. Why should we labor for, or set our hearts on, any thing else, but that which is our proper end, and true happiness?

God desires that you be full of joy and gladness. You will find it only in Him. Aim for it, seek after it, and don’t rest until you enjoy a good measure of it! As you grow in God’s joy and gladness, He will be glorified through your life. As John Piper puts it, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.”

Discussion Questions

  1. If God wants us filled with His joy, is it a sin to be depressed? Why/why not?
  2. Is a sense of God’s presence a feeling, a mental recognition, or both?
  3. Why do most people not associate holiness with happiness? Why is any unholy happiness fleeting at best?
  4. Since Christians are to be filled with the hope of Christ’s com­ing, can we legitimately be pessimistic or cynical? If so, how?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Sanctification, Spiritual Life

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