I’m going to begin with my conclusion since my goal is not to surprise you but to persuade you and bring you to a well-grounded and glad-hearted agreement with me.
The conclusion is this:
God’s ultimate aim in creation and redemption and judgment and providence is to display and communicate his glory by bringing into being and preparing and preserving a glorious bride for his Son, whose beauty will consist, most essentially, in her being supremely satisfied in the Son with the very satisfaction that God the Father has in the Son.
Now there are other ways to say it. Like:
God’s ultimate aim is to glorify himself by redeeming a people whose supreme and eternal joy will be to share in God’s joy in God.
Or, a third way to say it:
God’s ultimate aim is the aim of the gospel, which is the grace of God sending the Son of God to show the love of God by dying for the sinful people of God, so that they share in the joy of God without impugning the righteousness of God — forever.
I know that these are complex sentences. But I am speaking to a Bethlehem College and Seminary chapel, and my expectations are very high.
You do see the implication of this conclusion, namely, the divine purpose of all things collapses if God is not a happy God. This is because the goal of all things is that his people would share that happiness, and therefore glorify him as infinitely valuable and all-satisfying.
So what I would like to do in our time together is turn to Scripture and ask: Has God revealed to us in his word that he is a joyful God? And when we come to the cross of Christ, I will try to draw out the mystery of his joy in the face of sin and suffering. And, finally, I will try to show how all of this leads to our conclusion.
Our Joy-Filled God
Has God revealed to us in his word that he is a joyful God? Yes, he has. In many ways.
Beneath all his rejoicing is the volcano of God’s erupting zeal for the supreme worth of his own glory. God knows and feels, with infinite intensity, that his beauty and his greatness — his excellence — is the greatest treasure in the universe. Compared to him, all else is like dust in the scales.
Behold, the nations are like a drop from a bucket, and are accounted as the dust on the scales. (Isaiah 40:15)
Beneath all his delights is this volcanic passion for his name and his glory. You hear it, perhaps most explicitly, in Isaiah 48:
“For my name’s sake I defer my anger;
for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you,
that I may not cut you off. . . .
For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it,
for how should my name be profaned?
My glory I will not give to another.” (Isaiah 48:9, 11)
The Roots of God’s Joys
This is the deepest root of all his joys. Whatever reveals, expresses, magnifies, clarifies, esteems, prizes this glory — this name — will be part of God’s joy. And so his joys are many.
1. God rejoices in the works of his creation.
May the glory of the Lord endure forever;
may the Lord rejoice in his works. (Psalm 104:31)
“Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding. . . .
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone,
when the morning stars sang together
and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4–7)
And when those angels shouted for joy, they were holy angels, rejoicing with the joy of their Master. They were not idolaters.
2. God rejoices in all his works of providence, that is, all that he does in his sovereign rule of the universe and human history.
Whatever the Lord pleases, he does,
in heaven and on earth,
in the seas and all deeps. (Psalm 135:6)
Our God is in the heavens;
he does all that he pleases. (Psalm 115:3)
“[He declares] the end from the beginning
and from ancient times things not yet done,
saying, ‘My counsel shall stand,
and I will accomplish all my purpose [or good pleasure].’” (Isaiah 46:10)
God is pleased with everything he does, and he does what he does because it pleases him. In God, there is perfect harmony between what is right and what is most desired.
“I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth. For in these things I delight, declares the Lord.” (Jeremiah 9:24)
He does what he does because he delights in it. So he always does what is right because in God the highest desire and what is right always coincide.
This does not mean that God never disapproves or hates what he delights most to ordain. We will see this in Scripture very shortly when we come to the cross where “it was the will of [or pleased] the Lord to crush [or bruise] him” (Isaiah 53:10), the sinful bruising of which he hated, as he hates all sin.
3. God rejoices in doing good to his people.
“I will rejoice in doing them good, and I will plant them in this land in faithfulness, with all my heart and all my soul.” (Jeremiah 32:41)
“The Lord will . . . take delight in prospering you, as he took delight in your fathers.” (Deuteronomy 30:9)
Let those who delight in my righteousness shout for joy and be glad and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant!” (Psalm 35:27)
“Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.” (Luke 12:32)
Doing us good, prospering us, seeking our welfare, giving us the kingdom — these are God’s great joys.
4. God rejoices in the prayers of his people.
The sacrifice of the wicked is an abomination to the Lord,
but the prayer of the upright is His delight. (Proverbs 15:8, NASB)
Prayer is like incense before God (Revelation 5:8) where he smells the fragrance of faith that looks to him for everything.
5. God rejoices in the obedience of his people.
“Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)
When faith in Christ bears the fruit of good deeds Paul calls them in Philippians 4:18, “a fragrant offering, a sacrifice acceptable and pleasing to God.” He delights in the faith-filled obedience of his people, in spite of all its imperfections.
6. God rejoices not just in his people’s obedience, but in his people themselves.
The Lord takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love. (Psalm 147:11)
“I will rejoice in Jerusalem and be glad in my people.” (Isaiah 65:19)
“The Lord . . . will rejoice over you with gladness;
he will quiet you by his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zephaniah 3:17)
7. God rejoices in his Son. The deepest root of his delight in his people is his delight in his Son — the image of his own glory, the person with his own name.
Because what makes his people delightful is their conformity to the image of his Son.
Those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son. (Romans 8:29)
Why did he predestine them to be conformed to his Son? Not only because God intends for Christ to be the firstborn among many brothers (Romans 8:29), but also because God intends for his Son to have a beautiful bride — to “present the church to [Christ] in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing” (Ephesians 5:27). And conformity to the glory of the Son is the most splendid beauty the bride could have.
God rejoices in the church because the church shares the beauty of Christ and becomes the bride of Christ. She is Christ’s image and his delight. So God’s joy in the Son is at the root of his joy in the church. And his joy in the Son is the deepest and highest and most original joy in God.
At the baptism of Jesus, the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17). The same divine exuberance for the Son overflows at the transfiguration:
A bright cloud overshadowed them, and a voice from the cloud said, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased; listen to him.” (Matthew 17:5)
Then Matthew applies Isaiah 42:1 to Jesus:
Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. (Matthew 12:18)
Only the Son of God was before God from all eternity. Only he is the deepest, highest, most original joy in the soul of God. All other joys derive from this. Which brings us now to the event where the complexity of God’s emotional life is on full display: the cross of Christ and the foundation of the gospel.
8. God rejoices in the sacrifice of his Son in the place of sinners.
Isaiah 53:10 is perhaps the most explicit statement of God’s heart on this point:
[The Lord was pleased] to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for guilt, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will [or good pleasure] of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
The Hebrew verb haphaz (“the Lord was pleased”) has the regular meaning of to delight in or to wish or to prefer, not simply to will or purpose. There are other Hebrew words that could be used if that were the only intention. The Lord “was pleased” to crush him (KJV, NASB).
Fragrant Offering to God
But we are not limited to Isaiah 53 in seeing God’s good pleasure in the death of his Son. Paul writes in Ephesians 5:1–2:
Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
What does “fragrant offering” mean? Fragrant to whom? Not to Herod. Not to Pilate. And until they learned to imitate God, not even the disciples. It was fragrant to God.
And Jesus knew it would be fragrant to God because he had said in John 10:17, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again.” The Father looks on the horrific laying down of the life of his Son and says, “I love you for this. This is beautiful. This is fragrant.” Which is why, as Jesus breathed his last, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46)
These hands were the hands of a very pleased Father. Very, very pleased. “Therefore God has highly exalted him.” (Philippians 2:9; see also Hebrews 2:9). Because he was “obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). This was the most beautiful, most glorious, most excellent act in the history of the world. God planned it, and was pleased by it. Infinitely pleased.
Hatred for Sin But Joy in Death
And yet, it was the most horrible, most sinful, most despicable, most God-desecrating human act in the history of the world. The murder of the Son of God is a great sin. There is no greater. And the Bible bears uniform testimony to God’s implacable opposition to sin, and his hatred of it. God’s wisdom cries out in Proverbs 8:13,
Pride and arrogance and the way of evil . . . I hate.
And again in Isaiah 61:8,
I the Lord love justice; I hate . . . wrong.
And what could be more clearly wrong than the conniving, cowardly, envious, expedient killing of the Son of God? But it was planned by God so that his good pleasure could be accomplished in it:
“Truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” (Acts 4:27–28)
What becomes plain at the cross is that both God’s hatred for sin, and his joy in the death of his Son for sinners — both are essential for the gospel to be a saving gospel.
Not only because sins were abounding around Jesus, but were also being laid on Jesus. Not only did Jesus say on the cross, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” in the midst of all this sinning, but before that he said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46)
The Mystery of Joy
Part of what made the death of Jesus pleasing to the Father was Jesus’s willingness to fall under the Father’s infinite displeasure. If Jesus had not willingly endured the forsaking displeasure of his Father, the Father would have taken no pleasure in the death of the Son. The entire saving achievement of the cross demands both.
Here we learn a great mystery about the joy of the Lord. It is not a simple thing — any more than Paul’s was a simple thing, when he said, “sorrowful, yet always rejoicing” (2 Corinthians 6:10). Or when he said, “rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Philippians 4:4), but confessed in Romans 9:2, “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart” for my perishing kinsmen. Always rejoicing.
Here is the mystery: Though God is grieved every hour of every day by sinning Christians (Ephesians 4:30), and though he is angered every hour of every day by rebellious unbelievers (Psalm 7:11), nevertheless the totality of his infinite joy is not diminished but rather served by the perfection of his responses to all things.
Delight in the Son
In conclusion, then, what did the Father and the Son achieve on Good Friday? Paul put it like this in Ephesians 5:25–27:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . so that he might present the church to himself in splendor . . . that she might be holy and without blemish.
And what is the splendor of the redeemed church? Her splendor is her blemish-free holiness. Her splendor is to be from sin and all its effects. And what is sin? It is exchanging the glory of God for the glory of the creation (Romans 1:23; 3:23). It is preferring, wanting, delighting in, being satisfied with anything above God. To be free from that is our splendor. Or to put it positively, the beauty of the bride of Christ consists most essentially in being supremely satisfied with her husband, the Son of God.
And having purchased that greatest of all gifts — that greatest of all beauties — how does he bring it to pass in the church — in us? Jesus shows us the answer by praying for it in John 17:24, 26:
“Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory. . . . I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”
How does our love for Jesus become a final and unsurpassed experience of his all-satisfying glory? It happens when the love with which the Father loves the Son becomes our love for the Son — when, in the age to come, God’s delight in the Son, becomes, by his Spirit, our delight in the Son.
Then our beauty — the splendor of the church — will be complete, and the marriage will be complete, and the glory of God will fill the universe as the overflow and exhibition of God’s delight in God.