The Supremacy of Christ and Joy in a Postmodern World

Desiring God 2006 National Conference | Minneapolis

I am picking up where Don Carson left off in his message from John 17. I invite you to look with me at John 17:13. This verse is the seed from which this message grew up. Jesus prays, “But now I am coming to you, and these things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” The short form of this message can be put in two observations about this verse.

The Short Version: Two Observations About John 17:13

1. Jesus’s Greatest Joy Is in the Glory of His Father

First, Dr. Carson said in passing that this joy is Jesus’s joy in doing the will of his Father. Yes, but I think the source of the joy is deeper than Jesus’s doing the Father’s will. It’s seeing the Father’s glory and being glorified with the Father. The perfect obedience of the Son is sustained by the joy that is set before him (Hebrews 12:2), and that joy was his return to the Father (see verse 5). So when Jesus says in verse 13 that he wants his joy to be fulfilled in us, he means that he wants the joy he has in his Father to be in us so that we would enjoy the Father the way he does.

2. He Shares This Joy with Us Through Propositions

Second, he says that the way he conveys this joy to us now is through understandable, Spirit-illumined, Spirited-ignited propositions. Verse 13: “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” “These things I speak.” And I speak in words and propositions so that my joy would be in you. “These things I speak.” Things like, “I accomplished the work you gave me to do” (verse 4). Things like, “You gave me a people out of the world” (verse 6). Things like, “All mine are yours and yours are mine” (verse 10). Things like, “I kept them in your name” (verse 12). Things like, “I am praying for them” (verse 9) Things like, “This is eternal life, that they know you” (verse 3). These things I speak — these words, these propositions, this understandable language I speak — that you may have my joy.

I am not toying with you. I am not tantalizing you. These things I speak, and when the Holy Spirit comes he will take these things and reveal my glory through these things (John 16:14) and my joy will be fulfilled through these things in your hearts.

That’s the condensed version of this message: 1) Jesus’s greatest joy is in the glory of his Father, and 2) he shares this joy with us by means of understandable propositions about himself and his Father and his work, which the Holy Spirit illumines and ignites as the kindling of our passion for Christ. Or, another term for these propositions is Bible doctrine.

The point is to simply affirm precious truth of doctrinally based joy over against the postmodern debunking of propositional revelation and biblical doctrine and expositional preaching — as though there were some other way to attain Christ-exalting joy.

The Long Version: Ten Steps

So what I would like to do in the rest of our time is give you the long version of this message that basically builds an argument for the indispensable place of joy conveyed from Christ to us through objective, propositional, biblical truth illumined and ignited by the Holy Spirit. The argument has ten steps.

1. All Things Are Dependent on God and Less Valuable Than God

God — the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, this one God — is the only being who has no beginning, and therefore everything else and everyone else is dependent on Him for existence and for value, and is, therefore, less valuable than God.

Neither of these truths is part of the postmodern worldview — neither God’s absolute, independent, eternal being, nor his supreme value above our own. But they are biblical and foundational. If we reject these or hide these, the mission of Christ and the transfer of his joy to us will be undermined.

Moses said to God, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I Am Who I Am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you.’”(Exodus 3:13–14)

In other words, God doesn’t get his being or his character from anything or anyone outside himself. He never came into being and therefore was not defined by anything outside himself. He simply is — and always was and always will be what he is. “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’ says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty’” (Revelation 1:8).

And therefore, the difference in value between him and us incalculably great.

Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales; behold, he takes up the coastlands like fine dust. . . . All the nations are as nothing before him, they are accounted by him as less than nothing and emptiness. (Isaiah 40:15, 17)

It is true that we have been made his children, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ. But we will never treasure that truth the way we should until we tremble at this one.

Oh that every person in this postmodern, self-exalting world would come to say, “I am totally dependent on God, and immeasurably less valuable than he is. And this is the beginning of my joy.”

Enjoying God’s Superiority

What words might the Holy Spirit use to open someone to the truth that their inferiority to God is good news? Perhaps this: What if we asked someone, “Would you want to watch a football game where all the players were no better than you? Or watch a movie where the actors could act no better than you and were no better looking than you? Or go to a museum to see pictures by painters who could paint no better than you?” Why are we willing to be exposed in all these places as utterly inferior? How can we get so much joy out of watching people magnify their superiority over us? The biblical answer is that we were made by God to get our deepest joys not from being superior ourselves but from enjoying God’s superiority. All these other experiences are parables. God’s superiority is absolute in every way, which means our joy in it may be greater than we could ever imagine.

2. God Did Not Create Out of Any Discontent, Defect, or Deficiency

From eternity, God has been supremely joyful in the fellowship of the Trinity, so that he has no discontent or defect or deficiency that would prompt him to create the world.

God does not act out of need. He acts out of fullness and ultimate self-determination. So Paul says in Acts 17:25, “He [is not] served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything.” And God says it like this in Psalm 50:12, 15, “If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and its fullness are mine. . . . Call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.”

God says: You don’t deliver me. You don’t supply my need. I am not served that way. I give, I make alive. I sustain. I deliver. Whether I create or sustain, I act from fullness, not need. I did not create you because I have need. God is joyful in the fellowship of the Trinity. “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). I love my Son. I am supremely delighted with my Son. And my Son has been with me from all eternity. And someday, if you trust him, he will say to you at the judgment, “Enter into the joy of your master” (Matthew 25:23). That is my Son’s joy in me and my joy in him. And the Spirit of the Father and of the Son — the Holy Spirit — carries our joy completely from all eternity. We are a happy God. We did not create you out of need.

3. God Created Human Beings to Know and Enjoy Him

God created human beings in his own image that he might be known and enjoyed by them and, in that way, display the supreme value of his glory — that is, the beauty of his manifold perfections.

“Bring my sons from afar and my daughters from the end of the earth, everyone who is called by my name, whom I created for my glory” (Isaiah 43:6–7). We were created not to improve God’s glory but to reflect it back to him and put it on display. And he didn’t give us minds and hearts to glorify him the way the stars and the mountains do (Isaiah 44:23). They do it unconsciously as the work of his fingers: “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).

But we were created with minds and hearts. Therefore, God commands us to know his glory with our minds and to treasure his glory in our hearts. “The earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Habakkuk 2:14). “Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!” (Psalm 96:3). “I will manifest my glory in your midst. And they shall know that I am the Lord” (Ezekiel 28:22 ). Paul says that God’s purpose is to “to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy” (Romans 9:23). “God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery” (Colossians 1:27). “God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6). We have been given minds to apprehend the glory of God.

And God has not just given us minds to know the glory of God, but hearts to treasure it and enjoy it. In the Old Testament, even the enemies of God knew how to mock the faithful remnant. “Your brothers who hate you and cast you out for my name's sake have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy.’” (Isaiah 66:5). The glory of God is the supreme joy of his people and even their enemies know it. Which is why Jude said that God would keep his people for this great final experience — joy in the presence of his glory: “Now to him who is able to keep you from stumbling and to present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy.” (Jude 1:24).

God created us to know and to enjoy his glory and, in this way, display its supreme value. We will come back to this in step five, but first there is a massive obstacle to our joy in God that must be removed.

4. Christ’s Death Makes It Possible to Know and Enjoy God

The Son of God, Jesus Christ, came into the world, lived a perfect life, died to bear the penalty for our sins, absorbed the wrath of God that hung over us, rose from the dead triumphant over death and Satan and all evil, so that all who receive Jesus as the Savior, Lord, and Treasure of their lives would be forgiven for Christ’s sake, counted righteous in Christ, and fitted to know and enjoy God forever.

Oh, how I wish that at least here, at the center of the gospel, there would be common ground among those who claim to be followers of Jesus today. But that’s not the case, and one of the reasons is that the postmodern mind, inside and outside of the church, has no place for the biblical truth of the wrath of God. And therefore, it has no place for a wrath-bearing Savior who endures God’s curse that we might go free. One of the most infamous and tragic paragraphs written by a church leader in the last several years heaps scorn on one of the most precious truths of the atonement: Christ’s bearing our guilt and God’s wrath.

The fact is that the cross isn’t a form of cosmic child abuse — a vengeful Father, punishing his Son for an offence he has not even committed. Understandably, both people inside and outside of the Church have found this twisted version of events morally dubious and a huge barrier to faith. Deeper than that, however, is that such a concept stands in total contradiction to the statement: God is love”. If the cross is a personal act of violence perpetrated by God towards humankind but borne by his Son, then it makes a mockery of Jesus’s own teaching to love your enemies and to refuse to repay evil with evil. (The Lost Message of Jesus 182–183.)

With one cynical stroke of the pen, the triumph of God’s love over God’s wrath in the death of his beloved Son is blasphemed, while other church leaders write glowing blurbs on the flaps of his book. But God is not mocked. His word stands firm and clear and merciful to those who will embrace it:

We esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all. . . . It was the will of the Lord to crush him; he has put him to grief.” (Isaiah 53:4–6, 10)

Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us — for it is written, “Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.” (Galatians 3:13)

For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do. By sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh. (Romans 8:3)

Whose sin? My sin. Whose flesh? Jesus’s flesh. Whose condemnation? God’s condemnation.

In our present fallen, rebellious condition, nothing — I say it again carefully — nothing is more crucial for humanity than escaping the omnipotent wrath of God. That is not the ultimate goal of the cross. It is just infinitely necessary — and valuable beyond words.

The ultimate goal the cross — the ultimate good of the gospel is the everlasting enjoyment of God. The glorious work of Christ in bearing our sins and removing God’s wrath and providing our righteousness is aimed finally at this: “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Jesus died for us so that we might say with the psalmist, “I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy” (Psalm 43:4).

5. Enjoying God Is Not a Means but an End

The enjoyment of God above all else is the deepest way that God’s glory is reflected back to him. The enjoyment of God terminates on God alone and is not performed as a means to anything else. It is the deepest reverberation in the heart of man of the value of God’s glory.

We can do good works as a means to many things. We can speak good words as a means to many things. We can think good thoughts as means to many things. But we cannot enjoy God as a means to anything. We don’t choose joy in God as an act for the sake of something beyond joy in God. That’s not the way joy works. You don’t enjoy your wife so that she will make your supper. You don’t enjoy playing ball with your son so that he will wash the car. You don’t enjoy a sunset so that you can become a poet. There are no so that’s in the experience of joy.

It’s the very nature of joy to be a spontaneous response to something that you value. Joy comes to you. It rises spontaneously as witness to what you treasure. And therefore, it reveals more authentically than anything what your treasure is. “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Matthew 6:21). Joy is unique in its capacity to witness to what we treasure.

There Is No Such Thing as Hypocritical Joy

There is no such thing as hypocritical joy. There are hypocritical smiles, and hypocritical laughter, and hypocritical testimonies about our joy, and hypocritical good deeds and kind words. But there is no hypocritical joy. Joy is either there as a testimony to what you treasure. Or it isn’t there.

God knew what he was doing when he created us to know and enjoy him. His aim is that we reflect and display the worth of his glory. God created us to enjoy him, because joy is the clearest witness to the worth of what we enjoy. It’s the deepest reverberation in the heart of man of the value of God’s glory.

6. Our Enjoyment of God Overflows in Acts of Love

Nevertheless, the enjoyment of God in Christ is the spring of all visible acts of self-denying, sacrificial love that display to others the worth of God in our lives. God can see the reflection of his worth hidden in our heart’s enjoyment of his glory. But God aims at more than hidden reflections. He aims for his glory to be visible to others not just to himself. Therefore, God has constituted us so that our enjoyment of him overflows in visible acts of love to others.

One of the clearest biblical witnesses to this truth is 2 Corinthians 8:1-2, where Paul says, “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.” First, the grace of God is revealed. Then joy abounds in that grace. Then joy overflows in a wealth of generosity. And that in spite of the fact that of their “affliction” and “poverty.” This the way God made us: Joy in God overflows in sacrificial, self-denying acts of love. (See Hebrews 10:34; 11:24–26; 12:2; 13:13–14.)

And these acts of love, flowing from joy in God, Jesus said, bring glory to him: “Let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). And what is this peculiar light that shines through deeds of love and attracts praise to God’s glory and not to ours? It’s the promise of joy carrying us over all obstacles to love. That’s what Jesus said in the preceding verses: “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” (Matthew 5:11–12). This joy is the light that displays the worth of God through the deeds of love that the joy sustains.

There is no doubt that the postmodern world — like every world — must hear the gospel proclaimed and must see the glory of God flowing in many streams of radical, sacrificial deeds of love. My point here is that the enjoyment of God is the headwaters of all those streams and that’s why they make the glory of God visible.

7. God-Glorifying Joy Is Rooted in True Knowledge

The only joy that reflects the worth of God and overflows in God-glorifying love is rooted in the true knowledge of God. The only God-glorifying joy that flows from the mystery of what we don’t know about God rises from the projection into the unknown of what we do know. And to the degree that our knowledge is small or flawed, our projections will probably be distortions, and the joy based on them a poor echo of God’s true excellence.

This is a response to the postmodern minimizing of propositional truth and biblical doctrine. The experience of Israel in Nehemiah 8:12 is a paradigm of how God-glorifying joy happens in the heart. Ezra had read the word of God to them and the Levites had explained it. And then text says says, “And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions [this is, to share!] and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” Their great rejoicing was because they had understood words. Most of us have tasted this experience of the heart burning with joy when the word of God was opened to us (Luke 24:32).

Twice Jesus said that he taught his disciples for the sake of their joy. John 15:11, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.” John 17:13, “These things I speak in the world, that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves.” And what we mainly see in the word is the Lord himself — offering himself to be known and enjoyed. “The Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (1 Samuel 3:21).

True Knowing Glorifies Jesus

The point is that if our joy is going to reflect the glory of God, then it must flow from true knowledge of how God is glorious. If we are going to enjoy God duly, we must know him truly. How can our joy reflect the worth of God if it is not rooted in truth about God? If you say, “My joy is in the journey toward knowing, not the arrival,” you make an idol out of the journey and you turn heaven into a disappointment. Jesus is not honored most by the exploration of various Christologies, any more than your wife would be honored by your indecision concerning her character. Jesus is honored by our knowing and treasuring him for who he really is.

He is a real person. A fact. A fixed, unchanging reality in the universe, independent of our feelings. Our feelings about him do not make him what he is. Our feelings about him reflect the value of what we think he has. And if our knowledge of him is wrong, to that degree our enjoyment of him will be no honor to the real Jesus. Our joy displays his glory when it’s a reflex of seeing him for who he really is.

The Role of Mystery in Our Joy

What then is the role of mystery in our joy? The Bible says, “Now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now we know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). If you get most of your joy from what you don’t know about God, God is not glorified in your joy. His Son and his Book and his world are the revelation of his glory. He has made the knowledge of himself possible. The function of mystery in the awakening of God-glorifying joy is like the unexplored mountain ranges you can barely see from the magnificent cliffs where you worship. You have seen much — if only a fraction. You have climbed. You know these mountains. God has made himself known in the mountain ranges of the Bible in such a way that all the discoveries of eternity will be the revelation of the God you already know truly in Jesus Christ.

Therefore, the joy you have in what you know of God is intensified by the expectation that there is so much more to see. The mystery of what you don’t know gets its God-glorifying power from what you do know. God is not glorified by strong feelings of wonder that flow from ignorance of what he is like.

8. Believing Falsehoods About God Hinders Love and Joy

Therefore, the right knowledge of God and his ways is the servant of God-glorifying joy in God and God-glorifying love for people. Having ignorance of God and believing falsehoods about God hinder God-glorifying joy and God-glorifying love. And they hinder God-glorifying friendships and Christ-exalting camaraderie.

I stress this because it is a very different take on the ground of friendship and camaraderie than you find at the Emergent Village:

We believe in God, beauty, future, and hope — but you won’t find a traditional statement of faith here. We don’t have a problem with faith, but with statements. Whereas statements of faith and doctrine have a tendency to stifle friendships, we hope to further conversation and action around the things of God.

I have two responses to this. One is to ask: Are there any statements which, if your friend really believes them, will destroy him? Statements perhaps like, “Jesus is not God.” Or, “God is unjust.” Or, “Jesus did not die for our sins.” Or, “I don’t need to trust Jesus to escape God’s wrath.” And if there are statements which, really believed, will destroy your friend, then denying those life-destroying statements and writing down the ones that lead to everlasting joy would sustain, not stifle, friendship.

True Friendship: Sharing a Vision of God

The other response is to recall the distinction C. S. Lewis made between the love of romance and the love of friendship. “Lovers are always talking to one another about their love; Friends hardly ever about their Friendship. Lovers are normally face to face, absorbed in each other; Friends, side by side, absorbed in some common interest.” (The Four Loves, 58) In other words, in romance, two sit across from each other and tell each other how much they like about each other. In friendship, they don’t face each other, but stand shoulder to shoulder, facing a common challenge or a shared beauty or a great God.

For Lewis — and I think this is close to the biblical understanding of friendship — the greater the shared vision, and the shared joy in that vision, the deeper the friendship. It’s true; there is a risk that when you make a statement of faith about what you see in God, someone will turn away and say, “I don’t see it,” or, “I don’t like it.” At that point, courtesy and tolerance are possible, but not any deep friendship.

It seems to me that the “emergent” ethos uproots friendship from the solid ground of biblical doctrine, and therefore preserves it in the short run as a cut flower, but in the long run without the roots in shared biblical truth, it will not be able to weather the storms that are coming. And worse, while it lasts, it does not display the worth of God because it’s not rooted in a true vision of his character and work.

The apostle Paul wrote in Galatians 1:8, “Even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.” Friendship hangs on believing the same gospel. The main joy of God-glorifying friendship is joy in a common vision of God.

9. Embrace True Doctrine and Build Relationships upon It

Therefore, let us not marginalize or minimize healthy biblical doctrine about the nature of God and the work of God in Christ, but rather let us embrace it and cherish it and build our friendships and our churches on it.

10. The Church Exists to Display the Supremacy of Christ

And thus may the Church become the pillar and buttress of the truth, and therefore of joy, and therefore of love, and therefore the display of the glory of God and the supremacy of Christ in all things — the very reason for which we were created.