Never flag in zeal, be aglow with the Spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer.
Today we begin to answer the last question in our series of messages on Christian hope. Until now we have asked four questions:
- What is the definition of Christian hope?
Answer: a confident expectation of good things to come (Hebrews 6:11).
- What is the ground of Christian hope?
- the sovereign grace of God (2 Thessalonians 2:16), and
- the good news that Christ died for sinners (Colossians 1:23).
- What is the cause of Christian hope in the human heart? What brings it about and sustains it?
- the work of God in regeneration (1 Peter 1:3), and
- the promises of God in his Word (Romans 15:4).
- What is the content of Christian hope? What are we hoping for?
- the appearing of Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13),
- the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8:23),
- the consummation of our righteousness (Galatians 5:5),
- sharing the glory of God (Romans 5:2), and
- inheriting eternal life (Titus 1:2; 3:7).
Now we will pose one more question and, Lord willing, spend the four Sundays of July answering it. The question is: What is the fruit of our Christian hope? What comes from hope? Does hope produce anything in daily life?
Hope as a Tree
Let's use a picture to try to see what we have been doing over these weeks. Picture hope as a tree.
The ground from which hope can grow is the grace of God and the gospel of Christ.
The sprouting of the tree, the beginning of hope, happens in regeneration, or new birth.
The nutriment that sustains this new hope and makes it grow strong is the Word of God, especially the promises.
The strong fibers of the wooden trunk are the confident expectation that someday we will meet Christ face to face, we will have new bodies that never get sick again, we will be totally free from the struggle with sin, we will share in the glory of God, and we will never be threatened with loss because the new life will last forever and ever.
This simply leaves us now with the question: Does this tree bear fruit? The answer of the New Testament is a resounding Yes! And we are going to look at four of these fruits of hope.
- Hope bears the fruit of joy.
- Hope bears the fruit of love.
- Hope bears the fruit of boldness.
- And hope bears the fruit of endurance.
Or to say it another way, without Christian hope my life and your life cannot yield Christian joy or love or boldness or endurance. There are kinds of joy and love and courage and endurance that people have who don't hope in God, but these are not the Christian graces that glorify God and give evidence of his saving work in the soul. Joy and love and boldness and endurance that do not grow on the tree of hope in the ground of grace and truth are of no spiritual or eternal value.
Three Questions About Joy and Hope
Today we focus on the first fruit of hope. Our text is the first phrase in Romans 12:12—"Rejoice in hope!" We could paraphrase it like this: "Let your joy be the joy that comes from hope!" Or: "Bear the fruit of joy in the branch of hope!" Or: "Be glad because you have hope!" The text establishes a firm relationship between joy and hope!
To unpack this text let's ask three questions:
- What is Christian joy? (We have already answered, "What is hope?")
- Can this joy be commanded?
- How can we obey the command? How do joy and hope relate to each other in practical experience?
1. What Is Christian Joy?
It is very difficult to put emotional experiences into words. But let me try to at least point in the right direction with three contrasts—three things that joy is not and three things that joy is.
Christian Joy Is Not an Act of Will-Power
First, Christian joy is not an act of will-power, but a spontaneous, emotional response of the heart. Christian joy has this in common with all joy, whether Christian or not.
When Peter speaks in 1 Peter 1:9 of rejoicing with "unutterable and exalted joy" in anticipation of our final salvation, he is not describing a decision; he is describing an explosion. You can decide to brush your teeth, or get an allergy shot; but you cannot, in the same way, decide to rejoice. You can decide to do things that may bring you joy—drive to the country, visit a friend, read a psalm—but whether joy actually happens is not in your own power, the way many other acts are. It may or it may not be there.
That is what I mean when I call it spontaneous. You can prepare for it—like lifting your sail on a still ocean. But you cannot make the wind blow. The Spirit blows where it wills, and joy is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22).
That is the first contrast: Christian joy is not an act of will-power. It is a spontaneous, emotional response of the heart.
Christian Joy Is Not Superficial and Flimsy
Second, Christian joy is not superficial and flimsy, but deep and firm.
This is why people like to distinguish it from happiness and pleasure. Happiness and pleasure seem too superficial and flimsy. Of course we must be very careful here. There is a superficial happiness and a superficial pleasure. But the Bible also speaks of "pleasures for evermore in God's right hand" (Psalm 16:11); and it says, "Happy the people whose God is the Lord!" (Psalm 144:15). So the words happiness and pleasure don't have to be superficial. They can mean the very same thing joy does.
But it is true to say that Christian joy is deep and firm rather than superficial and flimsy. The reason we know this is that the Bible describes Christian joy as flourishing right in the midst of pain and suffering. Romans 5:3, "We rejoice in our sufferings." 1 Thessalonians 1:6, "You received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit." 2 Corinthians 8:2, "In a sever test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have over flowed in a wealth of liberality."
This is clearly a very peculiar emotion that not only endures but seems to even flourish in affliction. It is even more startling to read that Paul's joy could exist not merely alongside suffering but even in the midst of sorrow, which seems to be its opposite. In 2 Corinthians 6:10 he describes himself "as sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as poor, yet making many rich; as having nothing, and yet possessing everything."
This is what I am trying to get at when I say that Christian joy is not superficial and flimsy but deep and firm. I think I tasted a little bit of Paul's meaning in my own experience, for example, when my mother was killed in 1974. I wept more than I ever had, but it was not as those who have no hope (1 Thessalonians 4:13). Deep beneath the turbulence on the surface of my life there was a strong current of confidence and joy that all was well in the hands of a sovereign God.
That is the second contrast to help us understand Christian joy. First, it is not an act of will-power, but a spontaneous, emotional response of the heart. Second, it is not superficial and flimsy, but deep and firm.
Christian Joy Is Not Natural
Third, Christian joy is not natural but spiritual.
This distinguishes Christian joy from all other joys. When something is called spiritual in Scripture, it means that it comes from the Holy Spirit and has the character of the Holy Spirit. Don't ever make the mistake of thinking that something is "spiritual" simply because it has to do with the spirit, and that something is natural simply because it has to do with the body or with material things.
Pride is natural, but resides in the spirit of man. Envy is natural, but resides in the spirit of man. And so it is with jealousy and anger and strife and self-pity and resentment and bitterness and covetousness and hatred and selfishness. These all come from the inner spirit of a person, but they are not called spiritual in the Bible. They are called natural, because no special, supernatural influences of the Holy Spirit are needed to produce them. We produce these things by our own nature. So they are called natural.
What makes something spiritual is that it is produced under the special influences of the Spirit of God, and has the character of the Spirit of God. So when we say Christian joy is spiritual, not natural, we mean that it is produced by the Spirit of God and is the kind of joy that God has.
Galatians 5:22 says, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace . . . " 1 Thessalonians 1:6 says that the Christians "received the word in much affliction and with the joy of the Holy Spirit." Romans 14:17 says that "the kingdom of God . . . is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." And Jesus on several occasions said that he wanted to have his joy fulfilled in his disciples (John 15:11; 17:13).
So there is plenty of biblical evidence that Christian joy is not the mere product of the human spirit in response to pleasant circumstances. It is the product, or fruit, of God's Spirit. And it is not just a human joy; it is the very joy of Christ fulfilled in us.
A Warning Against False Joy
One of the practical reasons that this is important to know is that it warns us against a false joy. There is a natural joy even in spiritual things which many mistake for a spiritual joy. For example, from the parable of the four soils Jesus gave this interpretation of the seed sown on rocky ground:
As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is he who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. (Matthew 13:20)
Here is a joy in the word of God that is not a spiritual joy and is no evidence that a true conversion has taken place. It is not the work of the indwelling Spirit of God. It does not have the character of Christ's joy. It vanishes like the dew when the hot sun of affliction rises in the sky.
Why does this joy vanish so easily? Why is it superficial and flimsy? Evidently because it was not a joy in God but merely in some of the comforts that God might give. When the afflictions and the persecutions and the hard times come, and the comforts disappear, so does the joy. Because it was not the fruit of the Spirit; it was not the joy of Christ that delights in God no matter what the external circumstances are.
In response to our first question, then, What is Christian joy?—
- First, it is not an act of will-power, but a spontaneous, emotional response of the heart.
- Second, it is not superficial and flimsy, but deep and firm.
- Third, it is not natural, but spiritual.
Now in view of all this we turn to our second question:
2. Can This Joy Be Commanded?
Can God command us to rejoice if joy is not an act of will-power but a spontaneous emotional response of the heart and is not a product of natural resources but a fruit of the Holy Spirit? The answer that lies on the face of Scripture at many places is: Yes, he can, and he does.
Commands to Rejoice All Over the Bible
Matthew 5:12, "Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven." 1 Thessalonians 5:16, "Rejoice always!" Philippians 4:4, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say rejoice!" 1 Peter 4:13, "Rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings." And even though the word for rejoice here in Romans 12:12 is literally a participle ("rejoicing in hope"—NASB, KJV), the meaning is clearly imperative: "rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer"—these are clearly things we are obliged to do. This is even more clear in verse 15, where all the versions translate it as a command: "Rejoice with those who rejoice!"
So the answer is, Yes, God can and does command his people to rejoice. Even though joy is not controlled by our will-power, and even though it is a fruit of God's Spirit and beyond our natural resources, nevertheless we are commanded to have this experience!
Why Are We Commanded to Have Joy?
Why? Because we ought to have it—God is infinitely worthy of our delight. And because the only thing standing between the command of God to rejoice and our experience of that joy is a sinful heart—a heart that delights more in the things of the world than in God. And if we try to excuse our disobedience by saying, "I can't rejoice in God; I have a sinful heart," our words will not excuse us; they will condemn us.
In short, it is right for God to command his creatures to have a spontaneous, deep, spiritual delight in him, the same way it is right for God to demand that we be born again (John 3:3) and that we get a new heart (Ezekiel 18:31). Righteousness does not cease to be a duty just because we are wicked.
And so we come to our last question:
3. How Can We Obey This Command?
And since the text says, "Rejoice in hope," we ask, "How does hope figure into our obedience to this command?" And since we have seen that Christian joy is a fruit of the Spirit, we must also ask, "How do the Holy Spirit and hope relate to each other in producing joy?"
There are two places in Romans where joy and hope and the Holy Spirit are all brought together so we can see how they relate to each other (5:2–5 and 15:13). We will only have time to look at one of them.
Joy, Hope, and the Holy Spirit
So let's consider Romans 5:2–5.
Through him [i.e., Christ] we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in our hope of sharing the glory of God. 3) More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4) and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5) and hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us.
In verse 2 Paul says that he does the very thing that he commands in Romans 12:12: he rejoices in hope, specifically, hope in the glory of God.
Then in verse 3 he says that he rejoices in his sufferings as well. But why? The answer is that it's just another way of rejoicing in hope. Follow his train of thought: the reason we rejoice in suffering is that suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope! So what he is really rejoicing in when he rejoices in suffering is more hope. Hope is the great source of joy in Paul's life.
Matthew Henry put it like this:
The joy and peace of believers arise chiefly from their hopes. What is laid out upon them is but little, compared with what is laid up for them; therefore the more hope they have, the more joy and peace they have . . . Christians should desire and labor after an abundance of hope. (Commentary on Romans 15:13)
But how does this hope and joy in Romans 5:2–4 relate to the work of the Holy Spirit? This is what Paul tells us in verse 5: "And hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit which has been given to us."
Verse 5 says that underneath our hope, giving it an unshakable foundation, is the love of God. And the work of the Holy Spirit is to pour this love into our hearts, to make us see it and grasp it and cherish it.
Now we can put the pieces together: first, there is the love of God which chooses us and calls us and justifies us and guarantees for us a share in the glory of God. Then, there is the work of the Holy Spirit that pours the love of God into our hearts so that we recognize it and cherish it. Then, out of this deep experience of the love of God grows an unshakable hope even in the midst of suffering. And finally, in this hope we rejoice.
How to Fight for Joy in Everyday Life
How then do we obey the commandment to rejoice? How do we fight for joy in the ups and downs of everyday life?
First, let us acknowledge that by nature we are sinners and helpless to become the kind of people who rejoice in the glory of God rather than our own glory.
Second, let us cry out to the God of hope that he would send his Holy Spirit and pour the love of God into our hearts.
Third, let us set our minds on the biblical expressions and evidences of God's love for repentant sinners. For example:
Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written,
- "For thy sake we are being killed
- all the day long;
- we are regarded as sheep
- to be slaughtered."
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
And so, finally, when the love of God has filled us with hope in the glory of God, we rejoice in that hope, and again I say to you, REJOICE!