I would like to begin by asking a favor from you, namely, that you would test what I say by the Bible. There are many preachers traveling around the world teaching things that are not true — that are contrary to what the Bible teaches. The vast majority of you do not know me. So I am not asking you to trust me. You don’t know me well enough to trust me. I am asking you to listen carefully, and to test whether what I teach is what the Bible teaches. So my task here is not only to teach what the Bible teaches, but to teach it in such a way that you can see it in the Bible for yourself.
I believe the calling of the preacher is 1) to proclaim the truth — the reality — that is in the Bible, and 2) to show people that it really is in the Bible, and 3) to help people respond to that reality with thoughts and emotions and actions that correspond to the beauty and worth of this reality in the Bible.
Path to Joy
To help you see where we are going together in this message, let’s go first to Psalm 16:11, a psalm of David:
You [God] make known to me the path of life;
in your presence there is fullness of joy;
at your right hand are pleasures forevermore.
1. There is a path that leads to joy in the presence of God. It’s called “the path of life.”
2. God is the one who makes known this path. He directs us to it. He points us on the way.
3. This path leads to fullness of joy in God’s presence. Not ninety-nine percent joy, and one percent frustration — one hundred percent joy.
4. This path leads to pleasures at God’s right hand forevermore, not for a mere eighty years, or eighty million years.
5. This promise of full, eternal joy belongs to those who are in Christ, because 2 Corinthians 1:20 says, “All the promises of God find their Yes in him.” In Christ.
6. This full and lasting joy is found only in God’s presence. God is not saying, “My presence is one among many places where you can find joy that is full and forever.” No, God himself is the one we rejoice in. He is the reality that makes us glad. Therefore, this full and lasting joy can be found only here, in God’s presence.
7. Following this God-appointed path is our duty, not just a possibility, or option, but an obligation. Because God has shown us this path. God directs us to it. He calls it the path of life. He is not treating this path as a matter of indifference. He is telling us, “Get on the path that leads to fullness of joy in God’s presence, and pleasures forevermore, at God’s right hand.” It’s a God-given duty.
“God himself is the one we rejoice in. He is the reality that makes us glad.”
I have spent the last fifty years of my life trying to understand and apply the foundations and implications of this duty — the duty of finding fullness of joy in God, and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand. That’s what I want to talk to you about: Why should you make it your life’s vocation, now and forever, to find full and everlasting pleasure in God? And what difference will it make in your life if you do?
Cut the Nerve of Grumbling
One of the central Bible texts of this conference is Philippians 2:14–15:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing, that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked and twisted generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.
I’m not going to focus on this text. I’m going to focus on the Christian duty of pursuing God as our supreme pleasure. And what we will see is that, when we run down this “path of life” toward more and more pleasure in God — God himself — what we will find is that this pleasure in God cuts the nerve of grumbling and makes us radically different from the world around us. It turns us into God-centered, Christ-exalting, risk-taking Christians who live for the eternal good of others and shine like stars in the night sky.
So I want to give you seven reasons for why you should (duty!) pursue fullness of joy in God’s presence and pleasures forevermore at God’s right hand.
1. The Bible commands us to pursue joy in God.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because there are biblical commands to pursue our joy in God. Not suggestions. Not options. Commands.
Psalm 37:4: “Delight yourself in the Lord.”
Psalm 32:11: “Be glad in the Lord, and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart!”
Psalm 67:4: “Let the nations be glad and sing for joy, for you judge the peoples with equity and guide the nations upon earth.”
Psalm 100:1–2: “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth! Serve the Lord with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!”
Philippians 4:4: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.”
Matthew 5:11–12: “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.”
1 Peter 4:12–13: “Do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”
Romans 12:12, 15: “Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. . . . Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.”
I was on a panel once where one of the participants objected, “Pastor John, I don’t think you should tell people to pursue joy, but to pursue obedience.” My response was: “That’s like saying, ‘Pastor John, don’t tell people to pursue apples; tell them to pursue fruit.’” Because apples are one kind of fruit. And joy is one kind of obedience. Of course, I should tell people to pursue obedience. And I do — the hardest kind. The kind you can’t perform by a mere act of will.
Which leads to a second objection. We don’t have immediate control over our emotions or affections. So they can’t be commanded. Emotions are the sort of thing that cannot be commanded. My response to this is that God commands the emotions over and over in the Bible.
Desires are forbidden and commanded.
Exodus 20:17: “You shall not covet.” Coveting is a desire we should not have. Desire is an emotion. And God is saying, “Stop having that emotion — that desire.”
1 Peter 2:2: “Like newborn babies, desire the pure milk of the word.”
Contentment is commanded.
Hebrews 13:5: “Be content with what you have.” Contentment is an emotion. It is commanded.
Earnest, heartfelt love is commanded.
1 Peter 1:22: “Love one another earnestly from a pure heart.” Loving earnestly from the heart is an emotion.
Hope is commanded.
Psalm 42:5: “Hope in God.”
1 Peter 1:13: “Hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.”
Fear is commanded.
Luke 12:5: “Fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell” (see also Romans 11:20).
Peace is commanded.
Colossians 3:15: “Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts.”
Zeal is commanded.
Romans 12:11: “Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.”
Sorrow is commanded.
Romans 12:15: “Weep with those who weep” (see also James 4:9).
Tenderheartedness is commanded.
Ephesians 4:32: Be “tenderhearted, forgiving one another.”
Gratitude is commanded.
Colossians 3:15: “Be thankful.”
So it is not unusual that joy in God’s presence and pleasures at God’s right hand in Psalm 16:11 is a duty, an obligation. God has the right to command anything it is right for us to do, whether we have the moral ability to do it or not. And biblical Christians have always believed that in our fallen, sinful condition, we are spiritually dead and do not have the moral ability to please God. Romans 8:7–8: “The mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. And those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”
Therefore, we must be converted. We must be born again. We must be profoundly changed. And that leads to the second reason we should pursue our full and lasting joy in God.
2. Conversion awakens superior pleasure in God.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because conversion is the awakening — the coming into being — of a superior pleasure in God.
The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field. (Matthew 13:44)
“Conversion is the awakening — the coming into being — of a superior pleasure in God.”
This is a description of what happens when a person encounters and is changed by the presence of the kingdom of God, that is, the presence of Jesus, the King. It is like finding a treasure that is so valuable, and so satisfying, that it takes all the other pleasures in life and lowers them under this supreme pleasure in the King. That’s the point of his selling everything he has to buy the field where the treasure is. The treasure has become more precious, more satisfying than everything else in his life.
And don’t miss the little phrase “in” or “from his joy.” “And from his joy he goes and sells all that he has.” This is not a burden. He is happily giving up his house and car and fields and books and computers. This is simply a stunning way to show that conversion to Christ means the awakening — the coming into being — of a superior pleasure in the King of kings. That’s what it means to become a Christian.
3. Saving faith is being satisfied.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because being supremely satisfied in God is part of what saving faith is.
Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst.” (John 6:35)
Notice how the two halves of this verse are parallel.
He who comes to Jesus will not hunger. He who believes in Jesus will never thirst.
Both halves of this verse are describing the same thing: How shall our soul-thirst and soul-hunger be satisfied forever? The answer is by coming to Jesus, or — this means the same thing — by believing in Jesus. So, I would define saving faith from John 6:35 as a coming to Jesus so as to find the thirst and hunger of our souls satisfied.
Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. (2 Corinthians 1:24)
Notice how Paul seems to substitute the word joy for the word faith. “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your . . . ” And we expect him to say “faith.” But he says “joy.” And then he returns to “faith.” “For you stand firm in your faith.” So Paul seems to treat joy in Christ as part of what it means to have faith in Christ. The same thing shows up in Philippians 1:25.
I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better. But to remain in the flesh is more necessary on your account. Convinced of this, I know that I will remain and continue with you all, for your progress and joy of faith. (Philippians 1:23–25)
Paul’s aim in his ministry, he says, is the Philippians’ “progress and joy of faith.” “Joy of faith” may mean “joy that accompanies faith” or “joy that comes from faith” or “joy that is part of faith.” In any case, all these texts teach at least that “joy in Christ” is not separable from “faith in Christ.” To embrace Christ by faith is to embrace him as a soul-satisfying treasure. Faith is coming to Christ so that the thirst and hunger of our souls are satisfied.
4. The essence of evil teaches the pursuit of joy.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because to find that supreme satisfaction anywhere else is the essence of evil.
Be appalled, O heavens, at this; be shocked, be utterly desolate, declares the Lord, for my people have committed two evils: they have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters, and hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water. (Jeremiah 2:12–13)
What are the two evils that my people have committed? 1) “They have forsaken me, the fountain of living waters.” 2) “They have hewed out cisterns for themselves, broken cisterns that can hold no water.”
I am arguing that this is the very essence of all evil in the world. This is what is most evil about all evil: tasting God, assessing God, sampling God, and finding him bad-tasting, unworthy, undesirable. And not only that, but to degrade God even further, evil is to replace him with an empty hole in the ground that offers no refreshment. Evil is preferring anything more than God. Evil is finding God less satisfying than other satisfactions in your life.
This was the source of all evil in the garden of Eden (Genesis 3:6). And it has remained the essence of evil ever since.
When the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate.
So, on the one side was God, with full and everlasting pleasures at his right hand. And on the other side was a piece of fruit: Good to taste. Pleasure for the eyes. Desired for independent wisdom. God versus a piece of fruit. The fountain of living water, and an empty hole in the ground. And what do we do? We prefer the fruit and the empty hole, and we push God out of our minds. That is the essence of all evil.
Therefore, it is our duty to reverse that, and pursue full and everlasting satisfaction in God — over all else.
5. Jesus’s teaching about self-denial encourages us to pursue joy.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because Jesus’s teaching about self-denial is based on this pursuit, rather than contradicting it.
I know this sounds backward. How can Jesus’s teaching that we should deny ourselves actually teach that we should indulge ourselves — in God? But that is exactly what I think Jesus teaches. All Christian self-denial is for the sake of ultimate, eternal satisfaction in God. In fact, I would argue that the effort to deny yourself God as your supreme pleasure is idolatry and blasphemy. God offers himself to us as the infinitely valuable, infinitely beautiful, supreme treasure of the universe for our full and everlasting enjoyment. And if we turn that offer away, saying, “I must deny myself that full and everlasting enjoyment in you, God,” we are idolaters, blasphemers. Listen to Jesus:
If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. (Mark 8:34)
So, make no mistake about it. There is real self-denial. There is a real cross. Real suffering to endure for Jesus. A real death to die. The old John Piper must be crucified (Galatians 2:20; 5:24). I must daily count myself dead with Christ (Romans 6:11). There is real self-denial. Christianity is costly. But! How does Jesus argue in the next verse to motivate us to live this way?
For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:35)
What’s his argument? Why should we not try to save our lives by avoiding the service of Jesus? Because if we do, we will lose our lives — forever. Why should we be willing to lose our lives in the service of Jesus? Because if we do, we save them — forever. So what does the argument assume? It assumes that no true disciple will throw away eternal joy in God for a mere eighty years of worldly self-indulgence. Disciples are not idiots. Jesus is assuming that a true disciple wants joy in God forever, more than we want all that this world can give. And if pursuing eternal joy in God costs us everything here, we will deny ourselves everything here. That’s how the argument works!
So the fifth reason it is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God is because Jesus’s teaching about self-denial is based on this pursuit, rather than contradicting it.
6. Pursuing pleasure in God helps us love people.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because we cannot love people here and now if we try to abandon this pursuit.
If we are indifferent to God as our supreme satisfaction, we will not be able to love people as the Bible defines love. Consider 2 Corinthians 8:1–2. Paul is taking up an offering for the poor in Jerusalem, and he is motivating the Corinthian believers to be generous in their giving by telling them how the Macedonian Christians were generous. And this is relevant for us here because in verse 8 Paul calls this Macedonian generosity love. “I say this not as a command, but to prove by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine” (2 Corinthians 8:8).
We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. (2 Corinthians 8:1–2)
Where did this “wealth of generosity” come from among the Macedonians? Paul says it was the overflow of joy. “Their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part.” Joy in what? Not in prosperity. They were giving out of “extreme poverty.” Not in peace and comfort. They were giving out of “a severe test of affliction.” So this is not an example of the prosperity gospel that today has spread around the world — to our shame.
Their joy was not because affliction was removed. It was increased. Their joy was not because poverty was taken away. It was “extreme.” So what were they rejoicing in? Verse 1 says, “We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia.” They were rejoicing in the grace of God! Their sins were forgiven. They were accepted by God. His wrath was removed. Every barrier to seeing God, and knowing him, and being with him, and enjoying him had been removed by the grace of God in Jesus Christ. And God himself was now so precious, so satisfying, so sure that affliction and poverty could not stop their joy. And that joy overflowed in a wealth of generosity for the poor in Jerusalem — and Paul calls this overflow of joy love!
“If we are indifferent to God as our supreme satisfaction, we will not be able to glorify him from the heart as we should.”
So, here’s my definition of Christian love for people, based on this text: Love is the overflow of joy in God that meets the needs of others. Or, to put it another way, joy in God has in it an impulse to increase by including others in it. The Christian knows that joy in God grows by making sacrifices to meet the needs of others, and to bring them into our joy in God.
I conclude that if God is not your overflowing joy — your overflowing satisfaction — you will not be able to love people like this. And this is what Paul calls Christian love.
7. We glorify God most when he satisfies us most.
It is our duty to pursue full and eternal pleasure in God, because God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him.
If we are indifferent to God as our supreme satisfaction, we will not be able to glorify God from the heart as we should. The first question of the Westminster Catechism asks, “What is man’s chief end?” The traditional answer is: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy him forever.” I am now arguing that man’s chief end is to glorify God by enjoying him forever. By enjoying God supremely as our supreme treasure, we glorify his worth, his beauty, his desirability. And if we don’t enjoy him, we make him look defective. Let’s consider Philippians 1:20–23.
It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be at all ashamed, but that with full courage now as always Christ will be magnified [glorified!] in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labor for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell. I am hard pressed between the two. My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.
Paul’s all-consuming passion was that Jesus Christ be magnified in his body, whether in life or death. I hope that is what you say, namely, that your goal in life is that Christ be seen as magnificent because of your life and your death.
How will that happen? Paul tells us. He says that the reason Christ will be magnified in his body by life or death is that for him “to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21). Christ will be magnified in his life because to live is Christ. And Christ will be magnified in his death because to die is gain. So let’s just focus on how he glorifies Christ in death.
My hope is to magnify Christ in my body by death. How? For to me to die is gain. So experiencing death as gain makes Christ look magnificent. But that argument doesn’t work yet. There is a piece missing. What’s missing is how death is gain. He answers that in verse 23: “My desire is to depart [to die] and be with Christ, for that is far better.” The reason death is gain is because it means being with Christ in a new way. He gets more of Christ, more immediacy. More glory. More of Christ.
So now, let’s restate the argument: My expectation is that Christ will be magnified — shown to be magnificent — in my body in my dying, because I will experience my dying as gain because of getting more of Christ. When I lose everything that death takes away, and exchange it all for Christ, I will cry, “Gain!”
Do you see what that means about how we make Christ look great? Paul finds so much satisfaction in Christ that losing all of this world in death will be called “gain.” So here is my paraphrase: Christ is most magnified in Paul when Paul is most satisfied in Christ, especially in suffering and death.
And I draw out the principle: God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in him, especially in our suffering. If we do not find God supremely satisfying in our suffering, we will not glorify God as Paul shows us we should. Here is how he put it in Philippians 3:8: “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ.”
This is how we glorify Christ: by treasuring him above all that life can give, and all that death can take. We glorify Christ by experiencing him as more precious, more beautiful, more satisfying than anything else.
God Gets the Praise; We Get the Pleasure
I will close with an illustration of this last point — this seventh and most important argument for why it is our duty to find full and lasting pleasure in God above all else.
Suppose I bring home fifty roses, holding them behind my back on our fiftieth wedding anniversary, and ring the doorbell. Noël comes to the door and looks perplexed because I don’t usually ring the doorbell. Before she can say anything, I pull the roses out and say, “Happy anniversary, Noël!” She says, “O Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you!” And suppose I say, “It’s my duty. It’s what a husband is supposed to do. It’s what the most authoritative marriage manual says I should do.”
That’s a bad answer. Why? What’s wrong with duty? I’ve been arguing in this whole message for duty. What’s wrong with following the book? Getting it right? Let’s rewind and give the right answer.
Ding-dong. “Happy anniversary, Noël!” “O Johnny, they’re beautiful. Why did you!” “Because it makes me glad to celebrate you. You make me happy. In fact, there’s nobody I would rather spend the evening with than you. So why don’t you go change, because I have plans for us tonight.” That’s the right answer.
“We glorify Christ by experiencing him as more precious, more beautiful, more satisfying than anything else.”
But why wouldn’t she say, “You are so selfish! It makes you glad to celebrate me. I make you happy. There’s nothing you’d rather do than spend the evening with me”? Why is that response from her unthinkable?
Because when someone enjoys you as a person, you get the glory; he gets the joy. When a husband says, “You make me happy,” you get the honor; he gets the happiness. When he says, “There’s no one I’d rather spend the evening with than you,” you get the praise; he gets the pleasure.
And so it is with God. If we knock on the church door Sunday morning and God opens and says, “Why are you here?” the most important answer is: Because being with you makes me glad. He gets the praise; we get the pleasure.
This is the path of life. God has shown it to us. In his presence there is fullness of joy; at his right hand are pleasures forevermore. I have come to Holland to urge you with all my heart to follow that path. Because God is most glorified in you when you are most satisfied in him.