Was Jesus a Christian Hedonist?
Today, we close out the week with a question from a longtime listener of the Ask Pastor John podcast, named Chris. Chris quite simply asks this: “Pastor John, is Jesus a Christian Hedonist? If so, what would be your primary proofs from the Bible?”
Well, he asks quite simply and I answer quite simply. Yes. Without the slightest hesitation, Jesus lived to glorify his Father by enjoying him as the sustaining power in all his suffering and by seeking to enjoy him forever on the other side of the greatest suffering and by means of the greatest suffering. So, that is what I mean by being a Christian Hedonist. And, to boot, he taught us to be motivated in the same way.
Here are some of the texts to consider. In his final, great High Priestly Prayer in John 17 he says, “I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:4–5). So, he was pursuing this restoration of the fullness of glory and joy in his Father’s presence. And then he prays for us that we will become part of it in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.” That is what Jesus was referring to, I think, when he said that one day we would enter into the joy of our Master (Matthew 25:21, 23). His consummated joy with the Father would one day be ours. That is what he was pursuing, and that is what he wants us to pursue.
“Jesus pursued joy in his Father, and that is what he wants his disciples to pursue.”
We see this confirmed explicitly in Hebrews 12:2. It says we are to “[look] to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who 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.” That was the power that brought Jesus through his suffering: the joy that was set before him. It is not a defective motive to be sustained by the hope of joy on the other side of and as a result of your obedience in suffering. That is not a defective motive. To call it defective, like so many philosophers have, is to indict the Lord Jesus with defect.
And then he told us to make this joy in God our top priority. That is what the command to love God with all the heart means. We don’t enrich God with our heart when we love God with all our heart. Our hearts are enriched by him. That is what loving God with all the heart means. He becomes our supreme treasure. So, when Jesus says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart” (Matthew 22:37), he means: find God to be your heart’s total satisfaction. What else could he mean? Find his beauty and his glory, his justice, his goodness, his truth, everything there is about him, find that to be your heart’s treasure. It is what love God with all the heart means.
Then he underlines this when he says in Luke 10:20, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you.” So, the disciples had just come back, and God had used them to cast out demons and set people free. And they were thrilled at the power that God had given them. And Jesus says, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” In other words, beware of even having ministry triumphs as a competing joy in your heart alongside your joy of being there with God in heaven. Make God your supreme joy, even higher than the joy of ministry joys — indeed, the basis of all ministry joys.
And then, to underline this, he warned us against a kind of self-pity when we make sacrifices for him. I remember when I first saw this years ago where he had just got done sending the rich young ruler away and said how hard it is to enter the kingdom of heaven. And Peter pipes up and says, “See, we have left everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28). In other words, we have made some sacrifices here, Jesus. We are not in that category. And Jesus’s response to him is amazing. And I wish I could hear his tone of voice, you know, like, “Come on, Peter!” I am not sure about his tone of voice, but here is what he said. “Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life’” (Mark 10:29–30).
“The joy that was set before Jesus was the power that brought him through his suffering.”
Now, what is the point of that? The point is: Peter, come on. Do you really think that in making the sacrifices you have made, you struck some kind of bad deal that should cause you to have any element of self-pity at all? You have exchanged one house for hundreds. You have exchanged one life for eternal ages of life. That is pure Christian Hedonism in telling Peter: Stop feeling sorry for yourself in following me in spite of all the suffering that it is going to cost you.
And then, finally, I would say that Jesus motivates us over and over by appealing to the joy that comes to those who treasure Jesus enough to suffer loss in this world for the greater joy that is set before him. Just listen to these and see whether or not this is pure Christian Hedonistic motivation when Jesus talks like this. “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great” (Luke 6:35). In other words, in this life, don’t expect anything back. You are just going to have trouble in this life. But, oh, will your reward be great!
So, press on in loving your enemies because your joy is going to be full along this path and at the end of this path, especially. Or Luke 14:13–14, “But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.” So, how is he motivating us to love the poor? He is motivating us to love the poor because our joy at the end of the line, no matter what it has cost us in this life, is going to be overflowing. And if we love the poor, maybe we will be able to take some of them with us as we go, which is why this is not mercenary to be motivated this way.
And then he says in Matthew 6:19, “Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy and where thieves break in and steal.” In other words, that is a stupid way to invest in your life. Rather, verse 20, “lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven” — be rich in heaven; try to be rich there — “where neither moth nor rust destroys and where thieves break in and steal.” How do you do that? How do you lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven? Luke 12:33 says, “Sell your possessions, and give to the needy. Provide yourselves with moneybags that do not grow old, with a treasure in the heavens that does not fail, where no thief approaches and no moth destroys.” Clearly, we are to make big sacrifices in this world which prove to be no sacrifice at all because it is investment in our treasures growing bigger and bigger and bigger in the age to come.
And then the most familiar statement of all, perhaps, from Acts 20:35, one of the few quotes from Jesus outside the Gospels, “It is more blessed” — more satisfied, more happy, more contentment-producing when you lay your head down on the pillow at night — “It is more blessed to give than to receive.” That is pure Christian Hedonism.
“Jesus was the best Christian Hedonist who ever existed, both in his own motivation and in his teaching.”
So, my answer is yes. Jesus was a Christian Hedonist. He is today a Christian Hedonist, I would argue — that could be another APJ — the best one ever. Jesus was the best Christian Hedonist who ever existed, both in his own motivation and in his teaching about motivation. He lived through the glory of his Father by being satisfied in his Father — in living and dying. He was sustained by the joy in this life that he had with his Father and would have with his Father in full, and he sought the fullness of pain-free joy on the other side of the cross — and that is what got him through. And in all of this, he taught us. He taught us how to live and how to suffer for the joy that is set before us in God.