Well, in this sermon series on issues facing Christians today, our topic this morning is: being joyful. And I’m aware that some hearts will be sinking already - because life right now may have left you feeling far from joyful. And yet turn to God’s Word, to the Bible, and it says things like this: ‘Be joyful always... for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus’ (1 Thessalonians 5.16-18)’; and ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’ (Philippians 4.4). Ie, God is saying that joy – that sense of having blessings to count and to celebrate – is possible always, whatever we’re going through. And the clue to how that’s possible is in those words I just read out, where the Bible says, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always.’ There’s no doubt that things like health and happy circumstances bring joy and that things like sickness and sad circumstances threaten it. But the Bible is saying we can find consistent joy, but only in the Lord – ie, by counting and celebrating the blessings we have in our relationship with him. So if we’re in that relationship through faith in Jesus, I want to remind us this morning of the blessings we can always count and celebrate. And if you’re not yet at that point – if you’re still just looking into the Christian message – I hope this’ll be a window onto what is on offer.
Let me just say two other introductory things. One is this: although the Bible says it’s possible to be joyful always, that doesn’t mean it’s possible to experience nothing but joy always. In 2 Corinthians 6.10, Paul described himself as ‘sorrowful yet always rejoicing.’ So it’s not that he always experienced nothing but joy - eg, he went through terrible physical pain and sickness. But in the midst of all that, he was always able to find joy in his relationship with the Lord. So we’re not talking about something that’s unmixed with other feelings and emotions: eg, you can be joyful in the Lord and bereaved, joyful in the Lord and in pain, joyful in the Lord and sad over a relationship that’s ended.
The other introductory thing to say is this. Although each of us individually is responsible for finding joy in the things we’re going to look at, I don’t want to sound as if I think finding joy is purely an individual matter. Eg, the times in my life when I’ve felt lowest have taught me that I need my fellow-believers to help me find joy in these things we’re going to look at this morning – when in my depressed moments I’ve either forgotten them or just can’t believe they’re any longer true for me. So we need one another’s help in this. When you’re down, you need others to point you to the sources of joy we’re going to look at this morning. And when they’re down, they need you to do likewise. But even then we can be ‘super-spiritual’ and forget that often, when a Christian brother or sister is down, they need not a sermon but an invitation round to a meal, or a visit, or some down-to-earth practical help.
So let’s turn now to Romans 5. And let me read from v1:
1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith... (v1)
And that sums up Paul’s letter to the Romans so far. Most of you will have been here for the sermon series we’ve just finished in Romans 1-3. And these next two pictures sum up what we’ve seen in Romans:
The crown stands for God, the box underneath stands for our lifetime and the big black arrow at the right hand end stands for the judgement we deserve from God at the end of our lives, for all our wrongdoing - as Paul puts it elsewhere, the judgement of being ‘shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power’ (2 Thessalonians 1.9). That’s the picture of where we are without the saving work of the Lord Jesus. But now look at this next picture of someone trusting in the risen Lord Jesus (whom I’ve represented by the ‘J’ in the crown):
In the last passage of Romans we looked at (3.21-31), Paul explained that when the Lord Jesus died on the cross, he was taking on himself the judgement we deserve so that we need never face it. So that if I’m trusting in the Lord Jesus, that black arrow of judgement is no longer waiting for me in the future – it’s already fallen in the past, on Jesus. And if you ask, ‘But what about the sins you have yet to commit - couldn’t they still jeopardise God’s acceptance of you?’, the answer is, ‘No’ - because at the cross, God anticipated every sin I would ever commit – my past and future sins – and paid for their forgiveness. So that word ‘justified’ in v1 means ‘declared by God to be in the right with him forever’. It means there’s no arrow of judgement hanging over me today, nor will there be tomorrow, nor next week nor next year, nor up to and including the day of judgement (despite the fact that I will not be sinless for any of that period). So with those pictures in mind, please now look down at v1 again:
1 Therefore, since we have been justified through faith [ie, trusting in the Lord Jesus’ saving work on the cross], we have peace with God [ie, God holds none of our sin against us and never will] through our Lord Jesus Christ [ie, it’s not through anything we’ve done], 2 through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace [ie, undeserved, unearned love] in which we now stand. [And since that status of being justified will never change, since I know I’ll pass safely through the day of judgement and be welcomed in to heaven, Paul can go on to say, end of v2:] And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (vv1-2)
And that brings us to the first of the three sources of joy mentioned in this passage that we can always count and celebrate:
First, REJOICE IN YOUR FUTURE IN HEAVEN (v2)
And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. (v2)
‘Hope’ in the Bible means future certainty (it doesn’t have the note of uncertainty that the English word ‘hope’ has). And ‘the glory of God’ means the state we’ll be in, in the new creation, beyond this life, if we’re trusting in the Lord Jesus. It’s like when a flower comes out in the garden and there’s that moment when you say, ‘The rose is out in all its glory’. It’s that moment when it’s absolutely perfect, fresh, flawless, wonderful - breathtaking. And ‘the glory of God’ is when we experience that sort of perfection when we’re raised from the dead in sin-free, pain-free bodies in a sin-free, pain-free world. And one of the ways the Bible describes it is in terms of what won’t be there. So, eg, Revelation 21.4 says, ‘There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.’ So, eg, there’ll be no more bereavement; or operations and convalescing; or disability and wheelchairs and walking sticks; or infertility or chemotherapy; or the physical decline and indignities of old age; no more stress or depression or loneliness; no more sinning ourselves with all the frustration and self-dislike that can bring; and no more being sinned against.
And Paul says: rejoice in that! I don’t know if you read that talk on heaven which was reprinted in the church newsletter [see the ‘Coloured Supplement’ section of the JPC website – www.church.org.uk – June 2007 ‘Rock Solid Future’], but I quoted the Puritan writer Richard Baxter, from his book The Saints’ Everlasting Rest. In one chapter he tackles the question, ‘How can we rejoice in our future in heaven?’ and he says some very helpful things – one of which is: let circumstances lead you to rejoice in heaven. Eg, if things are good – eg, if marriage or family life is a real joy to you right now – then lift your thoughts to heaven by telling yourself, ‘Heaven will be infinitely better than this.’ And if things are difficult right now – eg, if you’re struggling with unwanted singleness and the loneliness it can bring – then lift your thoughts to heaven by telling yourself, ‘Heaven will not be like this. This will never happen in heaven.’ But the other thing, obviously, is to let the Bible lead you to rejoice in heaven. I try to avoid too often making the application; ‘Read your Bible’ because it can become tiresome. But I make no apology for that application here. Because the more I’ve read my Bible over 25 years of being a Christian, the more I’ve realised it’s largely about our future in heaven – it’s as if 99% (at least) of the blessings we have in the Lord Jesus await us in the future beyond this life.
So, says Paul, rejoice in your future in heaven. Dwell on it when the Bible makes you think of it. Let circumstances - good and bad - lift your thoughts to it. Talk about it with other believers. And bank on it to compensate – more than compensate – for all the hard things you’ve been through or are going through. And that links to Paul’s next point. Because he doesn’t just say, Rejoice in the prospect of a future without suffering.’ He says in v3, ‘Rejoice in your sufferings in the present.’ So,
Secondly, REJOICE IN GOD’S USE OF YOUR SUFFERINGS (vv3-4)
3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings... (v3)
Now let me say straight away what that doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean, ‘We enjoy our sufferings.’ We don’t and can’t enjoy pain or exam-failure or opposition to our faith or being made redundant (and so on) – such things are intrinsically unenjoyable. And you only see what Paul means by reading on. So look at v3:
3 Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; 4 perseverance, character; and character, hope. (vv3-4)
That word ‘produces’ is literally the word ‘works’ – the same word Paul uses in Romans 8.28 when he says that, in his sovereignty, God ‘works all things for the good of those who love him’. So what Paul’s saying here is that God is sovereign – ie, he’s in complete control of all that happens to us - and he allows the sufferings that come our way for the purpose of making this chain of events in vv3 and 4 happen in us:
•So firstly, it says ‘suffering produces perseverance’. So something bad happens to us, and it tests our faith in God’s goodness and makes us ask questions like, ‘Does he really care? Is he really worth trusting and living for if he lets this kind of thing happen?’ And you reach a fork in the road where either you go on trusting him or you stop. And a genuine believer - because God has given them faith and will himself sustain that faith to the end - perseveres.
•So then, ‘perseverance [produces] character’. That word is literally ‘tried and testedness, proveness.’ It’s the word they’d have used in those days in the jewellery trade - of precious metals. So, eg, someone might claim that something was gold and you’d test it, and if it genuinely was gold, it would be proven: ‘the genuine article’. And Paul’s saying here that when we come through suffering and have kept trusting God, it proves the genuineness of our faith. It proves that God really has planted faith in our hearts and that he really is keeping it going and will continue to keep it going – which is why Paul could write in Philippians 1.6 that he was, ‘confident of this, that he who began a good work in you [ie, God who gives faith] will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ.’
•So then, end of v4, the last link in this chain is that ‘character [tried and testedness, proveness] produces hope.’ Ie, if you can look back and see that God has already brought you through sufferings, you have all the more reason to look forward and think ‘I will keep going and make it to heaven as a believer because God has already given me plenty of evidence that he is keeping me going, and that he will not let me fall away however tough the going gets.’ And to grow into that assurance is vital - because there’s clearly not much comfort in rejoicing in heaven if we’re constantly in doubt about whether we’ll make it there, or whether we’ll fall away en route.
I don’t know whether, like me, you read Christian biographies to learn from the faith of other believers. Often you learn from their faith in the face of suffering – eg, a while ago I was reading about the English Reformers who were burnt at the stake in Oxford for their faithfulness to the Biblical gospel. And you read that sort of things and find yourself asking, ‘If I was put in that position, under that kind of pressure, would my faith survive?’ That’s another way of asking the question, ‘Is my faith genuine?’ And Paul is teaching in this second part of Romans 5 that God uses our sufferings to assure us that it is, as he puts us through pressures and difficulties and brings us through still trusting.
So, says Paul, rejoice in God’s use of your sufferings. Rejoice that what happens to you is completely in his control – you’re never the ‘victim’ of circumstances or ‘fate’ or ‘accidents’. Rejoice that he allows those things so as to test and strengthen your faith and to increase your assurance that he is keeping you trusting him - and will continue to, right to the end. And, in fact, many can testify that they’ve experienced their deepest joy in the Lord – their greatest sense of his closeness to them and his hand on their lives – right in the midst of their sufferings.
Thirdly, REJOICE IN GOD’S LOVE AS SHOWN AT THE CROSS (vv5-11)
The last point begs the question, ‘But how at any time, whatever I’m going through, can I know that God is being good to me? Where can I anchor my confidence that he loves me right now – especially when right now is very hard? That’s what Paul goes onto next. Look at v5, again. He’s just been talking about hope in vv2-4, and now he says:
5 And hope does not disappoint us... (v5)
A better translation would be ‘hope will not disappoint us.’ I was in London yesterday and I arrived at King’s Cross station in the hope that the 1740 GNER service would get me back to Newcastle. But my hope was ‘disappointed’: it was cancelled. And in v5, Paul is raising the question, ‘Is it possible for a believer in the Lord Jesus to hope in this glorious future in heaven, but to arrive on the day of judgement and find that hope horribly disappointed – ie, to find him or herself turned away after all because of sins committed since coming to faith?’ And Paul’s answer is a resounding, ‘No’: for someone genuinely trusting in the Lord Jesus, there is absolutely no possibility of such disappointment. Now how can we be sure of that? Read the whole of v5, now:
5 And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. (v5)
That’s a shorthand way of saying, ‘Because, as we heard the gospel, God, by his Holy Spirit, opened our hearts to understand – to ‘see’ - what happened when Jesus died on the cross.’ And vv6-8 says what you do ‘see’ if the Holy Spirit has done that work in your heart:
6 You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man [which, on Paul’s scale was obviously ‘one notch up’ from a ‘righteous’ man] someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners [ie, right at the other end of the scale – at our worst], Christ died for us. (vv6-8)
And those verses are crucial if the joy we find in God’s love for us is to be consistent – because one big reason why we lack joy is that we try to ‘read’ God’s love for us off the wrong places and conclude (wrongly) that it fluctuates. So one thing we do is try to ‘read’ God’s love off our feelings: if we feel loved by God, we find ourselves able to believe God loves us. But our feelings so easily mislead us: they fluctuate so much and for so many reasons. The other thing we do is to try to ‘read’ God’s love off our circumstances: if our circumstances are good (as we see things), we find ourselves able to believe God loves us. By contrast, if circumstances are not good (as we see things), we tend to doubt that he loves us. But the trouble is: we can’t ‘read’ circumstances accurately. Eg, we’ve all had the experience of pursuing something that we thought was good for us and it turned out not to be; equally, we’ve all had the experience of bad circumstances that, in retrospect, we can see were good for us. So, we can’t reliably ‘read’ God’s love for us off either our feelings or our circumstances – and if we try to, it’s a recipe for losing joy.
So where can we reliably ‘read’ the love of God for us? The answer is in v8: off the cross. Now, if you or I had been writing v8, we would have written, ‘But God demonstrated [past tense] his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ But that’s not what it says. It says, ‘But God demonstrates [present tense] his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’ Ie, the cross – a past event – is the ongoing, unchanging, standing demonstration of God’s present love. And I know this is a struggle to believe if you’re going through hard things right now, but it’s true: God’s attitude to you right now, today, is exactly the same as his attitude to you that Good Friday when he gave his Son for you to die on the cross - because the cross is the standing demonstration of his love, and the logic of vv6-8 is that if he loved us at our very worst (and we can’t get worse than our very worst), then we can be sure that his love towards us will never change. And if only we truly took that on board, we’d stop asking the question, ‘Does God still love me?’ – to which, if you’re trusting in Jesus, the answer is always, ‘Yes.’ And Paul wraps up that line of thought in vv9-11:
9 Since we have now been justified by his blood [ie, that arrow of judgement has fallen in the past on Jesus, in my place], how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! [ie, that arrow will not fall on me in the future, on the day of judgement. Then v10 pretty much repeats the same thought:] 10 For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! [And here’s where the train of thought is leading, and where Paul makes explicit the third source of joy in this passage:] 11 Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (vv9-11)
So, not only can I always rejoice in my future in heaven (point 1, v2), and not only can I always rejoice in God’s use of my sufferings for my spiritual good (point 2, vv3-4), but I can always rejoice in God’s love as shown at the cross. I can rejoice in God himself, who is faithfulness and love personified.
So those of us who feel down, or for whom circumstances seem bad – we need to discipline ourselves not to let those feelings or circumstances ‘tell’ us that God doesn’t love us. Instead we need to anchor our confidence that God does love us at the cross. But that applies equally to those of us who do feel good about life right now – those of us who can identify plenty of earthly joys, plenty of good circumstances. Because it’s a superficial faith that anchors its joy only in God’s gifts, rather than in God, the Giver, himself. And although earthly sources of joy (like good work, good marriage, good times with friends, etc) contribute to our sum total of joy, our joy will only be consistent – we will only be joyful always – if we find it in the three places to which God’s Word has pointed us to today:
• Rejoice in your future in heaven (‘we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God’, v2)
• Rejoice in God’s use of your sufferings (‘we rejoice in our sufferings...’ (v3)
• Rejoice in God’s love as shown at the cross (‘we rejoice in God, through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation’, v11)