A sermon preached at Trinity Fellowship, Toccoa, Ga., 8/16/98, and at University Church, Athens, Ga., 9/4/15.
1 The elder to the beloved Gaius, whom I love in truth. 2 Beloved, I pray that in all respects you may prosper and be in good health, just as your soul prospers. 3 For I was very glad when the brethren came and bore witness to your truth, that is, how you are walking in the truth. 4 I have no greater joy than this, to hear of my children walking in the truth.
INTRODUCTION: John’s message in his epistles can be summarized in three words. First, as we have seen, is Truth: that which is so, real, solid, good, right, summed up in the person of Jesus Christ; therefore that which abides in us as a dynamic principle transforming us, by which and in which we walk as indwelling truth shows itself in outworking love. The second word is Love: the practical outworking of indwelling truth, also ultimately summed up in the person of Christ, who gave us the new commandment that we should love one another as He had loved us, showed us how to understand His commandments as the handbook of true love, and commended His love to us in this, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Finally today we come to the third word, Joy. In 1 Jn. 1:4 the Apostle that Jesus loved says he is writing “so that our joy may be made complete.” And here in 3 Jn. he says he has no greater Joy than to hear of his children walking in the Truth. Joy! Joy? What is this thing he is talking about?
I. THE QUESTION OF JOY
First we have to address a serious question this word raises: “How is joy possible?” And it is made a question by the very nature of Christian joy. For surely joy is an emotion, and emotions are responses that by their very nature come and go and cannot be coerced. To force them is to destroy them. And yet Christian joy seems almost obligatory. It is part of the fruit of the Spirit in Gal. 5:22. Must we be happy in order to be spiritual? And then the Apostle Paul goes so far as to make it a command in Phil. 4:4. “Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say, rejoice!” How can you make an emotion a commandment when our emotions are not at our command? Trying to do so is the best way to suppress and kill the emotion in question!
Believers with a superficial understanding of these things, who try to follow these passages of Scripture without ever having asked these questions, sometimes come off as infuriatingly glib. Some of our older choruses capture that glibness all too well, to the point that they are guilty of false advertising about the Christian life. “I’m happy all the time, / Got true peace of mind / Since I found the Lord.” “At the Cross, at the Cross, where I first found the life, and the burden of my heart rolled away, / It was there by faith I received my sight” [so far, pretty good—but look what comes next], “and now I am happy all the day.” Really? Seriously? All the day? Every day? How many of us who sang those words can honestly claim them? The implication is that if you are not happy all the day—if you are, say, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief—there must be something wrong with you spiritually. Ahem. So there must be something more to Christian joy than simply a glib and superficial lightness of spirit. It must be something different from simple happiness. But what?
Here is an even harder aspect of the question of Joy. How is it possible to have joy amidst, not just the hassles, but all the struggles, sorrows, and pressures of life? The wrong kind of exhortation to joy, the wrong kind of application of Paul’s commandment to his readers and John’s desire for his, can simply add the burden of guilt to all the other burdens we carry. Or it can tempt the non-believer to dismiss us as unreal. So before we preach on Christian joy, we must face the reality of the Christian life in this fallen world in all seriousness. We had better get real about it!
Here’s what I mean. What if I were going through some of the things that people in some of the past congregations I have served have gone through at one time or another? These are all actual tragedies of life that I have personally walked through with real people. If I had seen several of my loved ones die over the last couple of years, and the ones left were fighting over the estate with increasingly hateful bitterness, could I have joy? If my home (a trailer) had been destroyed by a tornado and I had no insurance to replace it, could I have joy? If my parents were in a nursing home and did not even recognize me when I went to visit them, could I have joy? If I lived alone in precarious health, could I have joy? If I had a young son living with his mother in another state under less than ideal moral influences (she was a crack-head and her boyfriends—yes, plural—were drug dealers) and the courts wouldn’t let me do anything about it, could I have joy? If I were unemployed with no prospects and an uncertain future, could I have joy? Or what about the Apostle Paul himself? If due to the rejection of my message I was chained on the floor of a dungeon with my back raw from the scourge and I had just heard that people in a church I had planted were squabbling and bringing the Gospel into disrepute, could I have joy? If I were in exile on a desert island like the Apostle John, separated from my home and my friends and the churches I felt called to serve, could I have joy?
Do you want an honest answer? No, I could not! But let’s rephrase the question once more. (Often nothing is more important than asking a question the right way if you want to get the right answer.) Can God give joy even in these circumstances? Not “Can I have joy,” but “Can God give joy—in these circumstances? In worse ones? In yours? Now—here is the Gospel—here is the Good news! Now the answer is yes. Unless all of Scripture is a lie, yes! So today I would like to share with you what John can teach us about how.
II. THE CONCEPT OF JOY
Let’s begin by looking at the concept of Joy. What is it, really? In 1 Jn. 1:4, John tells us that the fullness of joy is the ultimate goal of his whole teaching. “These things I write to you so that our joy may be made complete.” Therefore, since he talks about them so much, we may surmise that the key to Joy may be what he has to say about Truth and Love. Let me repeat that: The key to Joy is what John has to say about Truth and Love. Can you remember what we have said about Truth and Love in this series? Truth is so, is real, is straight, is good, is practical, is nothing less than Jesus, the living Word Himself. Walking in truth is walking in love is walking according to the commandments is walking with Jesus. Because Truth flows from the personal dynamic that is the life of Jesus Christ, indwelling Truth shows itself in outworking Love. If you do remember all of that, I think we are ready for a summary statement that relates those two concepts to Joy. I suggest it would go something like this:
As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by the spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love. Let me repeat that; it’s pretty important: As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by the spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love. Or in less technical language, you could say it is simply the positive appreciation of what it means to know Jesus. Do you understand what we are saying? You can have that dynamic inside you whatever the circumstances in your life may be, and while real tragedy and sorrow may be your experience—certainly will be your experience at some point in your life—this dynamic is stronger than any of that and will ultimately triumph over it. You will grieve, you will hurt, you will be frustrated, you may cry out in agony. But if indwelling Truth and outworking Love are realities in your life, Joy will sustain you in those trials and will triumph in the end. Now, that’s what I call Good News!
John’s concept then is very much parallel with Paul’s metaphor of the fruit of the Spirit. In other words, when Truth in the person of Jesus Christ indwells you through his personal representative the Holy Spirit, when it informs, transforms, redirects, and empowers your life, the result, the natural—or supernatural—fruit of this process is Love, Joy, and Peace. That explains how Joy can be a commandment. One cannot obey this particular commandment directly, but one can understand it as a command to cultivate the conditions in which Joy naturally grows. If I tell you to produce eggs, you might get frustrated: “I can’t lay eggs! What an unreasonable demand!” But if you thought about it a little further, you would realize I was really telling you to raise chickens. I’m telling you to feed your chickens, to provide them with a safe chicken coop, and to check their nests every day. You can’t lay eggs, but you can certainly do all of that.
So, then, we are to raise spiritual chickens. How? If we walk in the Truth, which means walking in Love, then we will know a deep joy that does not have to be forced, does not depend on outward circumstances, and gives us the strength to stand in all the tragedies of life, even ones like the ones I mentioned earlier. That is what we mean when we say that happiness depends on our circumstances, but Joy does not. As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love. So if this is the concept of Joy, that leads us to the conditions of Joy.
III. THE CONDITIONS OF JOY
How does Truth working through Love leave behind the track of Joy? It does it in several ways. First, the Truth is a joyful thing in itself. Good news is a joyful thing, and the Good News is the most joyful thing of all! What did the Angels say to the Shepherds? “Behold, we bring you good tidings of great Joy.” And what were those tidings? That unto them was born a Savior. In other words, that “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” That is Good News indeed! What could be more joyful than that?
Second, the Truth gives us a stable place to stand amidst all the changes of life. We live in a world that had many goodly inns but no final dwelling. If you are looking for rest and stability here, you are looking in the wrong place. The Truth tells you that and saves you from the frustration of false hope. It tells us that this life is not eternal but is a place of trial and testing—but it also tells us that another Day is coming in which we will find our ultimate fulfillment and that it will last forever. That is Good News indeed! What could be more joyful than that?
Third, Truth reorders our priorities and enables us to live by them. If the things that are unseen are eternal, then the souls of men are eternal and people are important. Truth thus turns us outward, causing us to love God and our neighbor rather than being preoccupied with ourselves and our troubles. Truth is also bracing and imparts strength to deal with those troubles while they last. And if we walk in the Truth, if indwelling Truth is indeed finding expression in outworking love, then we are experiencing the fulfillment of our natures as created in the image of the God who is the source of that indwelling Truth and outworking Love. That is a dynamic that makes possible an unshakeable joy that transcends whatever circumstances we may find ourselves in. That is Good News indeed! What could be more joyful than that?
We cannot make ourselves be joyful, but we can plant the seeds of Joy by walking in the Truth. If you want eggs, what do you do? Raise chickens. If you want joy, what do you do? Meditate on the truth of Jesus Christ and practice it until indwelling truth shows itself in outworking love.
How then do we find this Joy amidst the trials of life? How do we raise those chickens of indwelling truth and outworking love to gather the eggs of joy they leave behind in the heart and soul? There is no formula, no quick fix, no crisis experience at the altar or any other short cut that can be the answer to that question. We must first know the Lord, the source of Truth, and be committed to Him. Then we must let His Truth saturate our minds, permeate our spirits, and inundate our hearts until our attitudes and our actions begin to take on the character of Truth. This is not just a matter of studying texts or doctrines, though of course such study is involved, is in fact indispensable. It is not less than that but more; it is a matter of living in relationship with the Christ who is the source of Truth and Love. There are no short cuts.
What are some of the Short Cuts people try? They all short circuit the dynamic of indwelling truth, outworking love, and joy left behind.
First is Denial. Do not take the short cut of denying the troubles and sorrows of life. We are tempted to do this because we feel the need to pretend that we have Joy in front of other Christians. But it is unbiblical, it is unrealistic, and it deprives us of the support of Christian brothers and sisters and insures that we will not find real Joy. As in salvation, so in the Christian life, we must begin by admitting our need.
Second, realize that Joy is a Byproduct of Truth and Love; therefore it is not something you can pursue directly for itself. Missing this is another short cut that will deprive you of Joy. Because we must walk in the Truth, i.e., walk with Christ, we must study the Scriptures looking for the right things: not Joy itself but the Truth and Love which are the source of Joy. This is true in so many ways. Don’t read the Bible looking for comfort, but rather for the God of comfort—and you will find comfort in Him. Don’t read it looking for a blessing, but for marching orders—and you will find blessing in the journey. Don’t read it looking for Joy but for Truth and Love. Then we will not just mouth the Truth, but walk in it; then it will begin to indwell us, and Joy will be the result.
And third is what I call Spiritual Gluttony. We must not short circuit the process by taking in the Truth but not giving it out, in both word and deed. You cannot have too much spiritual nourishment, but you can have too little spiritual exercise. Truth that is learned but not lived will just go to spiritual fat. It will do more harm than good. As Love is the practical outworking of indwelling Truth, so Joy is the emotional residue left behind in the psyche by spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love. Speaking the truth in love and acting the truth in love are therefore essential to the process.
IV. THE CULTIVATION OF JOY
All right, then. If we can have joy in even the most trying circumstances because it is not dependent on them but is the byproduct of indwelling truth and outworking love; if we realize that it is a byproduct so that we stop trying to lay eggs and instead raise chickens; if we avoid the shortcuts of denying the sufferings and sorrows of life and the pain they cause, of making joy our focus instead of the Lord who is the truth that indwells us and loves out of us; if we stop just taking in the Word without giving it out in word and deed; what then do we do?
We’ve really already answered that question. Indeed, this whole series has been the answer to it. Walk in the truth. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly. Meditate on His person, His teachings, His goodness, His love, His sacrifice, His resurrection, His glory. Then, out of that contemplation, out of that truth living in you, live the life of love. Don’t just avoid breaking the Ten Commandments negatively, but live them positively out of love. Worship God. Adore His Son. Find ways of giving expression to that adoration. Think of how you can serve your neighbor by protecting, safeguarding, valuing, and nurturing his life, his property, his family, his reputation. Do it not as a duty but as a privilege, because that is what Christ in you, the hope of glory, makes you want to do. Be crucified with Christ so that you no longer live, but Christ lives in you. And the life you live in the flesh, live by faith in the Son of God, who came in the flesh and loved you and gave Himself up for you. Live the Christian life! This is what it is. Do it, give yourself to it, throw yourself into it, with the encouragement and in the company of your brothers and sisters. Do it consistently over time so that Truth abiding in you gives birth to love. And you will begin to discover joy as the emotional residue left behind by the track of the spiritual dynamic of indwelling truth and outworking love. Share that with each other. Let it be infectious. Nothing less than this joy produced in this way catching on in the church can be the spur to the revival we so desperately need in our day of so much discouragement and defeat.
CONCLUSION: Can we have Joy in the presence of death, loss, apparent futility, suffering? Yes–if we know Jesus Christ and in him the Love of God; yes, if as the Truth He indwells us and transforms us through his Spirit; yes, if Joy is the emotional residue left behind by the track of the spiritual dynamic of indwelling Truth and outworking Love. May it work thus in us, for the glory of our Lord and Savior. Amen.
Here endeth the Lesson.