The night that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, it is well known that an angel, appearing to shepherds, proclaimed, “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people (Luke 2:10b).”
The theme of joy resounds and draws the attention of each of us who naturally desire gladness and joy in our lives. And the coming of Jesus to the world was indeed news of great joy. As Isaac Watts famously penned, “Joy to the world! The Lord is come; let Earth receive her King…” Watts based his lyrics on an interpretation of Psalms 98 and 96, but it is easy to imagine that Luke 2:10 played a part in that interpretation. We cannot understand the promise of joy from God if we do not understand that it is Jesus who makes such joy possible.
Yet, one might well wonder if men have truly stopped to think about the nature of the joy Jesus brings, for there is a paradox in Christian joy. The joy of the Lord was not established without sorrow, and it cannot be obtained without sacrifice.
Following the birth of Jesus, when Joseph and Mary brought Him to the temple to be presented to God as Moses required, they were met by a prophet, Simeon. “Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, ‘Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.’ (Luke 2:34-35; ESV)”
There was joy in the coming of Jesus, but Mary was also promised heartache and sorrow, a sword piercing her soul, and no doubt she experienced such sorrow as she was forced to watch her son, in pain upon the cross, bleeding profusely and dying unjustly.
Concerning the cross, Jesus likewise promised His apostles sorrow and joy, telling them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will weep and lament, but the world will rejoice. You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. When a woman is giving birth, she has sorrow because her hour has come, but when she has delivered the baby, she no longer remembers the anguish, for joy that a human being has been born into the world. So also you have sorrow now, but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:20-22; ESV)”
Jesus Himself, approaching the Cross, also knew both sorrow and joy mingled. Of Him, the Scriptures attest concerning His sacrifice, that He “for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 12:2b; ESV).”
Considering these things, it should be no surprise that followers of Christ are promised joy, but not a joy without sorrow; rather, like Christ, we are given a joy by which we can press through our sorrows in anticipation of the grace of God. Ours is sorrow with hope; joy gained through sacrifice and faith.
Paul, writing to the church in Thessalonica, told them that though they had sorrow, he did not want them to “grieve as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13),” and in encouraging the churches of Lystra, Iconium and Antioch, the apostle told them that only much tribulation would they enter into the Kingdom of God (cf. Acts 14:22).
Despite his expectation of tribulation, Paul was not a pessimist. He declared to the church at Rome that the Kingdom was a matter, not of food, but of “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy
Spirit (Romans 14:17),” and his subsequent prayer for them was that, “the God of hope,” would fill them, “all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit,” they would, “abound in hope (Romans 15:13).” Likewise, he would tell the Corinthian church, “In all our affliction, I am overflowing with joy (2 Corinthians 7:4; ESV).”
The joy of the Lord is not found in an absence of affliction, but in a right relationship with God and the hope of eternal life. This was the promise of the Messiah as He entered into the world, the tearing of the veil separating men and God, and the establishment of a new way to the Father (cf. John 14:6). In that relationship we can endure any shame and sorrow with joy and hope, knowing that at the end of the sacrifice is life eternal before the throne of God.
Jonathan McAnulty is minister of Chapel Hill Church of Christ. Viewpoints expressed in the article are the work of the author.