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Oh the Deep, Deep Joy of Jesus

What Sustained the Man of Sorrows

Man of Sorrows. What a name.

Isaiah penned some of the most memorable lines in all the Bible when he prophesied about God’s coming “suffering servant”:

He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. (Isaiah 53:3)

We know from the New Testament, and the realizing of Isaiah’s words 700 years later, that this suffering servant would be not only the promised Messiah, but God himself — God’s own Son, come to rescue his people, by receiving in himself the justice they deserved. How can God himself, the happiest being in the universe, not only become man, but “a man of sorrows”?

Isaiah’s next words give the answer: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). He bore our griefs. He carried our sorrows. In his mission to save us, he entered not only into our flesh and blood but into our sorrows. And yet, even as prescient and memorable as Isaiah’s prophecy is, nowhere does the New Testament refer to Jesus as “man of sorrows.” Yes, he carried our sorrows, and he even had his own, but he was so much more than a man of sorrows. Fundamentally, he was a man of something much stronger.

Sustained in Sorrow

Jesus could not have borne our griefs and carried our sorrows had he not been buoyed by something deeper and more enduring. Imagine what emotional strength it must have taken to fulfill the words of Isaiah 50:6:

I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
     I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.

Did he ever taste sorrow. He entered into our sin-haunted environment and felt our infirmities, making himself able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). He spoke a blessing to those who mourn and weep (Matthew 5:4; Luke 6:21). At the tomb of his friend, “he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” (John 11:33). He wept (John 11:35). Then he was “deeply moved again” (John 11:38).

How was he sustained in the sorrows he encountered, not just in the course of normal human life, but in the unique steps he took as the suffering servant?

Deep, Habitual Joy

The surprising testimony of the Gospels is that Jesus was a man of unparalleled and unshakeable joy. “A joyless life would have been a sinful life,” writes Donald Macleod, “Jesus experienced deep, habitual joy” (Person of Christ, 171). While the Gospels focus on the objective, external aspects of his ministry, we do get a few precious peeks.

Not only was the divine Son infinitely happy with his Father before and during the foundation of the world (Proverbs 8:30–31), but the angels announced his human arrival as “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). He came, writes Warfield, “as a conqueror with the gladness of the imminent victory in his heart.” Hebrews 1:9 takes away any guesswork as to whether Psalm 45:7 addresses Jesus: “God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” King David had written about the joy that his great descendant would experience from God: “You make him most blessed forever; you make him glad with the joy of your presence” (Psalm 21:6). Jesus likened himself to a bridegroom (Mark 2:18–20), and his dour opponents accused him of having too much joy (Luke 7:34). He even taught that joy was essential in receiving his kingdom (Matthew 13:44).

We see Jesus’s own joy when he makes himself the shepherd in the parable of the lost sheep. What does he do when he finds his lost sheep? “Truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray” (Matthew 18:13). “When he has found it, he lays it on his shoulders, rejoicing. And when he comes home, he calls together his friends and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep that was lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who need no repentance” (Luke 15:5–7).

Jesus even casts himself as the woman in the parable of the lost coin. To what effect? We glimpse his own joy. “When she has found it, she calls together her friends and neighbors, saying, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found the coin that I had lost.’ Just so, I tell you, there is joy before the angels of God over one sinner who repents” (Luke 15:9–10).

Delight in His Father

We catch a double glimpse in Luke 10:17–22. First, when the seventy-two return with joy, celebrating that even the demons are subject to them in Jesus’s name, he challenges the source of their exuberance. “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Rejoice not in ministry fruit that is yours, but in your Father who has made you his. The joy that fed and sustained Jesus himself was not the sermons he gave, the sick he healed, even the dead he raised, but the relationship he had with his Father. The bottom of his joy was not what he did in the world but whose he was.

This is confirmed in the second glimpse in verses 21–22. He “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” and said,

“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”

He delights in being a child of his Father. He delights in childlike dependence (John 5:19, 30; 8:28; 12:49). He delights in receiving from his Father, and being known by his Father, and knowing his Father, and bringing others into knowing his Father. As the living embodiment of Psalm 16 (as confirmed in Acts 2:25), he says,

I have set the Lord always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be shaken. Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. . . . You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Psalm 16:8–9, 11)

Anguish, for Joy

Yet what was the place of his joy, then, in the week (and in the moments) when it mattered most? When he came to the cross, as sorrow after sorrow compounded with pain after pain, even then, would the joy that came from his relationship with his Lord be his strength (Nehemiah 8:10)?

Rightly do we sing of his cross as “my burden gladly bearing.” He walked the path of obedience, into the lion’s mouth, to the holocaust, toward the gates of hell itself, not by mere duty. He fulfilled his calling with no less heart than he would expect of his undershepherds: “not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly” (1 Peter 5:2). Being willing and eager, not duty-bound, was no added extra. It was essential. Such was “as God would have” it. “Such joy,” writes Macleod, “was an indispensable element in the psychology of his obedience.” He offered himself not begrudgingly, or from obligation, but through his own willing eternal spirit (Hebrews 9:14).

Isaiah had prophesied, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied” (Isaiah 53:11). Yes, there was anguish. But a satisfying sight beyond the pain that lay before him sustained him in the crucible. At his Last Supper, we see the anguish, and the joy that held him. He strengthened his own soul as he prepared his men:

“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)

It would be true for his men because it would be true for him first. His sorrows would turn to joy. He would endure “the anguish, for joy.” And not for a thin, short-lived pleasure, but for one that no one could ever take away.

Joy Set Before Him

In the garden, the night before he died, he was “sorrowful and troubled” and confessed, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matthew 26:37–38). In the agonies of his betrayal by a friend, denial by a disciple, trial by corrupt rulers, mocking and scourging by godless soldiers, and crucifixion in public, how was he sustained? By joy. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Hebrews 12:2).

Jesus endured the most difficult, most shameful, least righteous, most unfitting anguish any human had faced, or ever will — and did so “for the joy that was set before him.” How, then, for those of us who call ourselves his people, “Christians,” little christs, can joy in God not explode with significance for everyday life?

He Gives His Own Joy

How can we not listen when such a man of joy — joy so deep and durable that it would send him willingly into such jaws — turns to us and says, “Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Matthew 5:12)? “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for behold, your reward is great in heaven” (Luke 6:23). “Rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10:20). Jesus is no hypocrite when he tells us to rejoice. He is the man of joys, drawing us into his own. He wants our joy to be full (John 16:24). Misery may love company, but the fullness of joy is even more contagious.

One of the most astounding claims Jesus makes on the night before he died is that he will not leave us to the paucity of our own joy. He wants his joy to be ours — not just that we would have joy, but that we would have his joy. The very joy of the Son of God himself poured into our souls. And he says it twice so that we don’t miss it.

First, to his disciples, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). How attractive his joy must have been to those who knew him best, his own disciples, for him to make this statement to them. If Jesus had been morose or sullen, there would have been no appeal to “that my joy may be in you.” But if he is the man of joys, if he indeed has been anointed with the oil of gladness beyond his companions, then how could we not want to share in his joy?

Second, then, he prays to his Father, “Now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (John 17:13). Jesus is the happiest being in the universe. As God’s Son, and God himself, he is “the happy God” (1 Timothy 1:11). As human, he is the most truly joyful, satisfied soul who has ever lived — so satisfied that he embraced the greatest anguish. And now, wonder of all wonders, he not only wants to make us happy, but he pours his own joy into us. “Christ not only offers himself as the divine object of my joy,” writes John Piper, “but pours his capacity for joy into me, so that I can enjoy him with the very joy of God” (Seeing and Savoring, 36).

How He Does It

How does he pour his own capacity for joy into us? The common thread between John 15:11 and John 17:13 is through his words. “These things I have spoken” (John 15:11). “These things I speak” (John 17:13). Let us not treat it lightly that the very Word of God (John 1:1, 14; Hebrews 1:2; Revelation 19:13) has spoken to us in the words of his apostles and prophets (Luke 11:49; Ephesians 2:20; 2 Peter 3:2), and that through his words, by his Spirit, we now taste his own joy.

Paul calls it “the joy of the Holy Spirit” when he calls us not just to imitate Jesus’s sufferings but his joy in them: “You became imitators of us and of the Lord, for you received the word in much affliction, with the joy of the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). And if, in this joy of the Spirit, we now “rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8), what fullness will we enjoy in the life to come?

Is it any wonder, then, what words might hold the most promise and grace for eternity? What will we hear at that climactic moment when we come to the end of this life, and pass over into the next? How might the man of joys, deeper than all sorrows, welcome his own into his presence? What might he say to those to whom he pledged to give his own joy and expand our capacity to enjoy his Father with his own sonly delight?

Again, he says it twice: “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).