The secret of lasting joy

Bible reading: 1 John 1 : 1-4    Sermon Niek Tramper

What -do you think-characterizes Christians most?  According to the apostle John it is: joy. That’s why he writes in verse 4 ‘And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full’. Once I heard a preacher say: ‘the mark of a Christian is JOY. It is just three letters: J O Y. It means Jesus first, Others next and Yourself last!’

Literary John says: ‘we write you that your joy (some manuscripts read: our joy) me be a completed one. So he indicates that that this joy should reach a full measure and that it stays like this. It certainly is no accidental happiness. It is a lasting joy.

In trying to understand this joy: what it is not?

(1) It is not the kind of happiness that people think to find by avoiding information of all suffering and evil in the world around. Some people don’t want to be confronted with the problems of the world. They keep themselves far from the daily painful reality (till the moment that they cannot escape it any longer and suffering enters their personal existence). Some Christians say: the world is bad, we are strangers & pilgrims, so let us concentrate at the eternal life. This is a runaway mentality creating a false kind of happiness. This kind of thinking brought Marx to accuse religious people, in particular Christians that their religion was opium of the people. Christian faith never can be a drug to escape reality, instead it paves the way toward reality. The apostle John is very realistic about the world and its problems. Christians take part in this world and suffer from all the problems.

(2) Joy as John mentions it is not fun or pleasure. We might consider the emerging fun and entertainment culture in the West after the 2nd World War as a late reaction to the Victorian 19th century. Today there is a lot offered in the Western media to entertain people, to give them fun and pleasant emotional feelings. One of the marks of the affluent Western society of the last 50 years is that it tries to fill minds and hearts with things that immediately satisfy. They provide an instant experience of satisfaction and happiness. In an affluent society many people are concerned about what satisfies them most whether it is buying nice furniture, or offering everything for a career, or investing in friends and relationships. They think, or say it silently with their attitude: ‘What else do we need?’

How to describe this lasting joy positively?

You cannot explain it simple with a definition. We need to go deeper into the New Testament to understand the nature of the joy mentioned here. See e.g. Phil. 4:4 (‘Rejoice in the Lord always’) and John 15:11 (‘…that My joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete’). According the famous 20st century preacher in London Martyn Lloyd Jones it can be described as: (1) a delight, a state of complete satisfaction that doesn’t focus at a personal feelings or experience. It is a delight in something or somebody else and it includes all human faculties: mind, heart, emotions and desires. You can have intellectual satisfaction, e.g. when you solve a puzzle. You also can have emotional pleasure when you meet a friend, or physical happiness when you feel healthy and strong. But these are all limited pleasures and in general they don’t last very long. (2) an exultation that is provoked by something new. Compare the exultation around the birth of a child, when everything is well. The father and mother all full of joy and want  to tell it to others. This exultation is combined with strength. They are lifted above their selves have forgotten the pain and the concerns around the birth.

Is it possible for humans to posses a joy that can be maintained always, even in circumstances of suffering and pain?

The apostle John says: such a joy exists. It is a complete and lasting joy. It is a joy that you can discover even in the room of a very sick person or somebody who is going to die. It is a fundamental joy in the Lord that is stronger than suffering and death even.

It is really important to know the secret of this joy because we are living in an age of cynicism and frustration. Frustration is a mark of today’s (Western) society. You hear in parties and receptions. People complain that they are victims, victims of the government, of colleagues or members of their family. Cynicism is everywhere in the Western world. Recently I saw the advertisement of somebody who announced her own death. She said farewell to everybody, indicated that she had a last good day with family and friend, and felt sorry that she left an open space, but life wasn’t bearable any longer. A lot of pain and frustration seem behind these words, far from joy. It shows the urgency of the questions where to find the reality of a lasting joy, if it exists.

Why the Gospel is the real fundament of joy?

If you ask for the root of lasting joy, you need to discern again. We shouldn’t deal with symptoms only. Like when you suffer from headache. You may take pills to take away the symptoms. But you cannot escape the question: what is the real cause of this headache? John is not speaking about symptoms. He does not say: how you can put right yourselves in a difficult and stressful world? He does not give indications how to search for happiness, which is very popular in our world. Look for example how it is done in healing movements like mindfulness. Nearly everybody searches for happiness. But the apostle says: if you look for happiness like this, you only deal with the symptoms. You want to pick the fruits, but you forget the tree and its roots. Happiness will disappear as soon as you catch it. It is like a nice flower. As soon as you pick it, it withers. John Piper in his famous book ‘Desiring God’ cites the Westminster Catechism about lasting joy: ‘The chief end of man is: to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.’ Here is the real cause of true happiness. Where do you find it? John’s answer is not psychological, emotional, but theological. The joy is firmly rooted in the Gospel. About this Gospel we learn from verses 1 – 3 the following:

(1) The gospel is a declaration, proclamation and a showing.

It is certainly not speculation, an idea or philosophy. Martyn Lloyd Jones: ‘Part of the sickness of the church today is that she is bothered with all kinds of ideas, stories, activities, man’s searching after God, etc. John and his fellow apostles however have something to declare.’ They bring an exiting and surprising report. John immediately starts with it in his letter, without any greetings or mentioning addressees. The Gospel is not a suggestion, but a declaration. It is the message of a herald, comparable with the happy father or mother who wants to tell that a baby is born. Or like the news of an ambassador to whom a message is entrusted for the country where he (or she) is hosted. He doesn’t bring his own opinion, but he transmits joyful news. What the church moves is a unique message. She is far from a political meeting or a scientific congress with all kinds of theories and possibilities.

(2) The announcement of the Gospel comes to us on the authority of the apostles.

It is the amazing news about Jesus, his death and resurrection from the death. Now, hesitance and doubt occur in many churches, because they are afraid to be accused of arrogance. People around ask – and they rightly do so – : ‘Wherefrom do you have the authority to claim a truth that opposes daily human experience and seems to surpass every scientific research?’ Christians should welcome such questions. The apostle John is very clear about it. He emphasizes that it is not simply his experience, it is the common witness of the apostles. ‘We have seen’ (3 times), ‘we have heard’ (2 times), ‘we have touched’. Many people may say (and have said): ‘It was their experience. You may explain the Christian faith in terms of psychology. They had such an overwhelming experience and they ascribed it to Jesus of Nazareth.’ But the apostle is clearly referring to irrefutable facts, not ideas, or human suggestions. There are many eye and ear witnesses and they all could have been asked about it in John’s time. We only know the overwhelming and joyful truth of Jesus because of the eyewitnesses who agreed in their testimony. When we come to faith in Jesus, we share in this apostolic witness. John says: you have fellowship with us. Many people, also Christians claim spiritual experiences, dreams, remarkable co incidents and even appearances of Jesus. Some people seek this kind of experiences. They say: it might be easier for me to believe if I have such an experience. But it can never be the fundament of Christian faith. We cannot know Jesus apart from this apostolic witness. You may add your experience and test it according to the witness of the apostles.

What actually is the message of the Gospel?

Summarized John states in verse 1-3: ‘I have the most amazing and unbelievable thing that a man can ever say and I have nothing else to add. It is this: the Word of Life was made flesh and dwelt among us. We recognize the parallel with the Gospel of John (1:1). He was ‘already in the beginning’, so He doesn’t have a beginning. He is from eternity. He is the eternal Word (logos). John actually wants to say: ‘I had an idea about God, but now I have seen who He really is. John uses the word of his opponents ‘Logos’. Their understanding of ‘logos’ was something like a life principle, a power, a spark that is an intermediate between a spiritual God and a material world. But John uses this word ‘logos’ very differently. This is the eternal Word that was God that was active in creating the world. Everything is made by Him. He supports everything by the Word of His power.

This Word was manifested. ‘We have heard, we have seen, we have looked upon it (vs. 3). We have handled (touched) Him.’ There is a certain progression in the manifestation. Christ was real man, not a phantom. Also when He rose from the death, He had a real body (Luke 24: 39‘ Give me something to eat’; John 20 ‘Look at my hand and at my feet’.)

On this very earth where we are living, where we are struggling, where we experience sin and pain, on this very earth, the Son of God came in human flesh. John is concerned what this means to his readers. Look at verse 3 ‘So that you may also have fellowship with us…’ It means: that you share in the apostolic witness; that you see the reality of life in Christ. He has manifested the real light of life opposite to the world that is in darkness. But He didn’t only manifest Life, He also gives life. ‘All who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ (Gospel of John 1:12). It means: you may become partakers in that life, so that the life of Christ is in you, so that He takes away your old self, your sins, your addiction to the old world, that will never change its pattern and you may become citizens of His new and everlasting Kingdom that will fulfil the world in the end.

And this, only this, will bring full everlasting joy in the midst of a cynical, frustrated society that tries to improve itself in vain for ages.

A double encouragement based on this passage:

(1)   To confess that we have often passed by the source of our joy. We tried to find happiness without changing our ‘roots’. So we bring our old, selfish life to Him to ask Him to renew it, to make it transparent with his eternal light, in order that our life may be cleansed and the joy of his salvation will be restored unto us. So that we glorify God and enjoy him forever.

(2) To express our thankfulness and joy to the God of life. To honour Him and to enjoy Him in giving back all the gladness of the Gospel, and to express the longing to pass it on, to be a link in the chain of the apostolic witness. To be a joyful witness to our friends, colleagues and fellow students ourselves.