We Work With You for Your Joy

SEMBEQ Conference | Montreal, Quebec

Before I read a passage of Scripture, I want to say thank you for a few things. David has expressed gratitude for you and extended the greeting from our elders who said yes to our coming, and I’m so thankful for that. But thank you for the invitation, thank you to Francois Picard and the friendship that is growing, and I appreciate it very much. You’ve been very kind to me. All of you and your team have been remarkably gracious servants to David and me in our presence here.

The second thing would be to thank God for the vision of SEMBEQ. I’m learning, I’m reading, I’m listening, and I’m understanding more all the time both about the history of the church in Quebec, which is the most remarkable history to me — the little I’ve heard of it here regarding the last 50 years or so — and the kind of price that was paid for the beginnings of the evangelical baptist churches here. And so, I’m grateful for just hearing about that, and for the vision that was begun and now is continuing for the way that you are training pastors.

You know, America may look like they have these giant seminaries that are knowing exactly what they’re doing. Well, they don’t know what they’re doing, and they’re all fumbling around, trying to figure out how to train pastors who are competent in loving people, explaining the Bible, helping the sick, winning the lost, and mobilizing missions. Seminaries all know that they’re defective. They don’t do all that they look like they can do. And so don’t feel intimidated by the big American seminaries. They all wish they could figure it out. They don’t know. They’re all trying to figure out how to do partnerships with local churches and how to invest the ministry back into the local church.

So you’ve got something very good. I’m sure it can grow and improve, but don’t throw it away because, probably, the seminaries will come here to learn rather than the other way around. So that’s another thing that I feel very, very thankful for.

A third thing that I feel thankful for is how receptive all of you have been to these messages, and a fourth thing is that I have enjoyed the music very, very much. I’ve had people ask me, “What do you think? Do you do music like this?” Well, the answer is I feel totally at home with your music, and I just wish I knew French better. I know enough of these songs that a few of them, I can sing and know exactly what I’m singing, even saying French words that I don’t know. And some of them, I just sing along in English. So, I thank God for the music that has been here and the spiritual quality of it. It has not impressed me that your leaders in music are trying to do performances for us to enjoy, but rather gather us up and take us to God, which is what worship is. And I could go on, but perhaps that’s enough.

Workers With You for Your Joy

Let me read a passage of Scripture and then pray with you. This is a passage I want to unfold for you, and if you happened to bring a Bible to this banquet, then I would invite you to turn with me to 2 Corinthians 1:24–2:4. The title We Work With You For Your Joy is my last effort to speak mainly to the pastors and church leaders of what your calling is all about. And those of you who are not pastors, I hope you will listen, learn, and pray this into the leaders of your churches.

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith. For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you. For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained? And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all. For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.

That’s a very complex passage, and it is filled with a theology of joy in ministry. And I want to talk about it with you for maybe 20 or 25 minutes.

Sorrowful, Yet Always Rejoicing

The apostle Paul did not treat this statement lightly: “We work with you for your joy” (2 Corinthians 1:24). That’s what I want every pastor and every church leader in this room to be able to say and mean, and know why you say it. We work with our people for their joy. It is not an easy or a cheap goal. It cost Paul tremendous suffering. And early this morning, in our first session, I read that long litany of sufferings that the apostle Paul said that he had. So this is not a light thing. He’s not talking about a kind of joy that doesn’t know pain and doesn’t know sorrow.

I mentioned in one of the sessions that the banner that flies over the worship services of our church is a banner that says “sorrowful yet always rejoicing,” which is a quote from 2 Corinthians 6:10. So here, we have Paul saying “we are workers with you for your joy.” Now that is not a crumb or a piece of food just thrown to the psychological types in the congregation who need a little bit of emotional encouragement. That’s not what it is. It’s a very careful statement of one of his deepest commitments.

He lived, he breathed, he preached, he wrote, and he suffered to advance the joy of the churches. That’s what he’s saying. He is saying, “I’ve worked, I’ve suffered, I’ve lived, I’ve been in prison, I’ve had stripes on my back, I’ve been beaten with rods, and I’ve had shipwrecks. And why? For your joy. I’m working for your joy.” That’s what he says in verse 2 Corinthians 1:24.

In 2 Corinthians 2:1–2, he points out how deep this is. Let’s go a little further. He says in 2 Corinthians 2:1, “For I made up my mind not to make another painful visit to you.” He’s already visited them once and it was a painful visit, and he doesn’t want to make another painful visit. He gives the reason why he doesn’t want to 2 Corinthians 2:2. He says, “For if I cause you pain, who is there to make me glad but the one whom I have pained?” In other words, he is saying, “The reason I am working for your joy is because your joy is my joy. If I ruin your joy, who is there to give me joy?” That’s the way he’s reasoning and arguing.

The joy of the people in the churches is going to reflect back to him and become his joy. So he says in verses one and two, “I don’t want to make you sad, I don’t want to make you miserable. Who then would make me glad?”

Love in the Pursuit of Joy

Then in 2 Corinthians 2:3, he turns it around and says the converse, listen to this verse:

And I wrote as I did, so that when I came I might not suffer pain from those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you, that my joy would be the joy of you all.

So now, he’s saying not only that their joy is his joy, but that his joy is their joy. This is starting to sound like joy is important. This is starting to sound like Paul has given a lot of thought to this. This is not just something that came later, after the big issues. Paul’s whole ministry is being thought through in terms of relationships that affect joy this way and that way and that way. He says, “I felt sure of all of you that my joy would be the joy of all of you.” So it goes both ways. He is saying, “I want to work for your joy because your joy is my joy, and I want to be here, joyful for you, because my joy is your joy.”

And then we get to 2 Corinthians 2:4, and he puts a name on that. There’s a name for all of that. I’ll read it to you:

For I wrote to you out of much affliction and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to cause you pain but to let you know the abundant love that I have for you.

In other words, “What I’ve been talking about from 2 Corinthians 1:24–2:3 is my love for you. When I live for your joy so that your joy becomes my joy, and when I have a relationship with you in which my joy becomes your joy, there’s a name for that, and it’s called love. That’s what love is. Love is laying your life down for the joy of a church in the hope that God might fill the church with such joy that it would become your joy. That’s what love is.

Not a Social Club

Now, if I were to stop the message right here, it would sound like one big sentimentality. I haven’t even mentioned the name of Christ. And so if I were to stop here, I would have cultivated a kind of mutual admiration society: “I like you and you like me. We’re happy.” And that’s called a club. It’s not called a church. That’s a society. So something is missing. There’s a gaping hole so far in this message, but not in the text. I’ve just skipped a few words, and we need to go back and see them so that we don’t end on the note of, “Let’s all be a club. Let’s all be a happy club. I like you and you like me, so we’re happy. If you’re happy, I’m happy. If I’m happy, you’re happy. We’re just like the world.”

Let’s go back to verse 2 Corinthians 1:24 and fill out the picture. We want to be Christians, we don’t want to just talk about happiness. I’m going to read 2 Corinthians 1:24 again, and I want you to look carefully with me at the two — let’s call them book ends — in front and behind the statement “we work with you for your joy.” In the front, there’s a keyword, and in the back it’s the same word. So let’s read it. You listen for the word.

Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.

Okay, did you hear it? What was the word? It’s faith. He says, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, for you stand firm in your faith.” To me, that’s an amazing way of writing, because I expected him to say, “Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your faith.” That’s what I expected him to say. That would keep the parallel: “We don’t lord it over your faith, we come in alongside you and build up your faith.” But he didn’t say that. He stuck this word joy right in the middle of two faith statements. He says, “We don’t lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy,” as though joy could just stand right in the place of faith. So I’m going to call this — and I’m not making this up — the joy of faith. Now that occurs in the apostle Paul. That’s his phrase, not mine. Do you know where that’s found?

The Joy of Faith

The joy of faith is found in Philippians 1:23–25. Paul, you know, is struggling here. He is thinking, “Shall I die and go to be with Jesus, which is far better, or shall I press on here? I’m torn, it would be wonderful to be with Christ. It is needful to be with the church. What shall I do? That’s the situation. And he writes like this:

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 in the faith (joy of faith) . . .

Now, let this sink in. Here’s Paul, struggling with whether to go to heaven or stay on earth, and he decides in the Spirit that it is more needful to be on the earth. Why? Why does Paul think he needs to stay on planet Earth? Why? He says, “For your joy of faith.” He defines his whole reason, his whole apostolic reason for remaining in the ministry as, “I’m here for your progress and your joy of faith.” So to me, that underlines 2 Corinthians 1:24 as something absolutely essential to gospel ministry.

This verse that I’ve picked out (2 Corinthians 1:24) is not an isolated verse. This idea of, “I work with you for your joy,” is not a throwaway statement that you might just say while you’re talking. It is thought through, it is profound, and it is deep. And when he’s over here in Philippians, wrestling with the biggest issues of life, the decision he makes is, “I will stay because my whole ministry is for the sake of the advancement and the joy of your faith.” To me, that elevates the issue of joy in the Christian life very, very high.

Seeing and Savoring Christ

We’re called upon to do this for our people, as Paul said, “Not that we lord it over their faith, but we work with them for their joy — namely, the joy of faith.” It’s not just any old joy. We’re not a mutual admiration society: “You’re happy and I’m happy. Everybody’s happy. This is a good place to be.” That’s not the point at all. The point is, “I want to come in alongside you and work for the joy of faith.” Well, now, you don’t have to do any speculation to know that he means faith in Jesus. He’s not talking about vague faith in anything; he’s talking about faith in Christ. So we need to taste and see and be satisfied with Christ.

My definition of faith is seeing and embracing and trusting and treasuring and being satisfied with Christ and all that God has become for us in Christ — the glorious deity of Christ; the humble, sinless, virgin-born humanity of Christ; the universe-upholding, universe-creating, miracle-working power of Christ; the covenant-keeping, law-fulfilling, righteousness-performing, perfection-providing obedience of Christ; the wrath-bearing, justice-satisfying, sin-atoning death of Christ; the death-defeating, devil-destroying, heaven-opening resurrection of Christ; and the sovereign, interceding, ever-present, never-leaving-us-alone kingship of Christ at God’s right hand.

I just give you a partial list of the things about Christ which faith embraces and is satisfied with and treasures. So when Paul says, “I work with you for your joy of faith,” he means, “I’m working with you so that your faith would see and savor and embrace and enjoy and treasure all there is about Christ. That’s my job.” He would say that the joy of faith is seeing and tasting and being satisfied with Christ. We work with you for that, for that kind of joy.

Streams from the Fountain

Now, let’s go back to this issue of sentimentalism. I said, on the basis of 2 Corinthians 2:1 and 2 Corinthians 2:3, that Paul said, “Your joy will be my joy and my joy will be your joy.” But now, I wonder whether those of you who are really sharp and have been listening for three days, are just worried a little bit about that; that a human would be my joy, not Christ? There’s a little bit of danger here. You’ll be my joy? I’ll be your joy? What about Jesus? How does that fit in? I mean, these are Paul’s words. These are not my words. I didn’t suddenly become horizontal, Paul did — “Your joy is my joy, and my joy is your joy.”

Now I have a solution. Because if the joy that I’m spreading is the joy of faith, if it’s the joy that receives and embraces and enjoys, and thus, magnifies Christ, then when I say your joy is my joy, I mean your joy in Christ is part of my joy in Christ. That’s what I mean. And when I say my joy is in Christ, then you should say your joy in him is my joy. It’s not that my joy all by itself, as an emotional phenomenon, is your joy. That’s just human. Every family is happy when momma is happy. It doesn’t take any spiritual life in order to have happiness in a group where everybody’s happy.

What makes the church is that our happiness is first the joy of faith. We have seen Christ. Our eyes have been opened. We’ve embraced all that God is for us in him and in the gospel, and then with that kind of joy, we look at each other and we’re thrilled that that’s happening in each other’s hearts. And my joy in Christ is enlarged by your joy in Christ, and there’s an ever expanding joy in Christ as more and more people experience the joy of faith in Christ.

So now, we start to get a feel that Paul really hasn’t abandoned his God-centeredness. He’s a very God-centered apostle. He’s a very Christ-centered apostle. If, when Paul was saying, “I don’t want to make you sad because if I made you sad, who would make me glad? And I don’t want to be sad because if I’m sad, then who would make you glad?” we just stopped right there, we wouldn’t understand Paul at all. We have to go back to 2 Corinthians 1:24 and see what he says: “Not that we lord it over your faith in the great Christ, but we are working with you for your joy of faith in the great Christ. And therefore, the joy that you have that makes me glad is the joy that I see in Christ, which magnifies him whom I love above all things.” That’s the way to understand the God-centeredness.

This is not cheap sentimentality here; this is a profound apostolic reflection on the centrality of Christ, working a deep, deep joy in Christians. That’s what he is doing here. He’s trying to make plain to people that this is so.

Prepared to Suffer

Now, what’s very crucial is that when pastors begin to understand this, and it begins to transform your ministry that now you are workers for your people’s joy, you need to make very plain to them that in doing this, you are not pampering them but you are preparing them to suffer.

Now, I don’t want to preach this morning’s sermon all over again, but since many of you perhaps were not here this morning, I think it is very important that I read 2 Corinthians 8:1–2 again. So if you have your Bible, you can look at them with me. I won’t go deep. I will just remind you of what I said, and I hope now, when you see the link between 2 Corinthians 1 and 2 Corinthians 8, and the fact that working for someone’s joy is not pampering them but preparing them to suffer, you’ll see how they connect.

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia (grace arrived in 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).

Grace happened when Paul preached the gospel, and the effect was abundance of joy and great affliction. Life didn’t go better for the Christians in Macedonia. Life went worse for the Christians in Macedonia. In most places in the world that aren’t in the West, to become a Christian means to take more risks, not fewer risks. And in the first three centuries, when the church spread like wildfire, to become a Christian was to choose a life-threatening religion. If you choose to say, “Jesus is Lord,” and not, “Caesar is Lord,” you risk your life, and the church spread like wildfire.

That’s not the religion of America. And therefore, since nobody in America wants that religion, they don’t preach it very much. We preach felt needs, by and large. The thought is, “You don’t want to suffer? I won’t call you to suffer. You want a better marriage? I’ll give you a better marriage. You want kids that go straight? We have a message that’ll make kids go straight. You want a successful business? Jesus will help you get a successful business. What else would you like? Money? We can do that.” That’s the way we preach.

Workers for Joy, Not Pampering

That’s not the way Paul preached. Paul came to Macedonia, great grace was poured out on the preaching of the gospel, and affliction came. Affliction came. And what came with it? Abundant joy. That’s a different kind of human being. That’s supernatural. That’s called Christianity, pure and simple. This is basic Christianity. Grace comes down, affliction and joy go up, and it spills over in love to other people.

So when the apostle says in 2 Corinthians 1:24, “We are workers with you for your joy,” what is he saying? He’s saying, “Get ready to suffer. I’m providing for you a magnificent, solid, unshakeable, triumphant foundation on which to build your joyful lives as you suffer on the calvary road of love. That’s what he’s saying.”

So, pastors, I am calling you to lay down your lives for the joy of your people, but make sure they understand that you are not preaching that message to pamper them. You are preaching that message to prepare them for affliction and for suffering, because that’s what love will cost.

A Pastor’s Charge

Here are a few concluding applications. What does this imply about how to do ministry? I’ll make one general statement and then four very brief comments, and then we’ll be done. My general statement is that the main job of a leader in the church, a pastor, is that in every Sunday sermon, in every evening lesson, in ever wedding homily, in ever funeral meditation, in every banquet devotion, portray God in Christ as supremely desirable above all things.

You’ll notice, I didn’t just focus on the sermon. I could have also said in every board meeting, every committee meeting, and every hospital visit, there is one main task: “We work with you for your joy. As you lie there dying of cancer, my job is that I am here to work with you for a joy that will carry you through the Jordan River into the Promised Land. That’s why I’ve come to this room tonight. I want to help you maintain your joy while you die. And it’s not a cheap joy, it’s not a sentimental joy; it’s the joy of faith in the all-sufficient risen Christ.” That’s our job. Everywhere we go, we are working with people for their joy — even people who don’t know that, we want them to know that, and that’s what we do. So that’s my general statement for all leaders in the church. We are always, always trying to build a foundation under people’s joy of faith in Christ.

The Maintenance of Joy

Now here are four brief comments about that. What does that imply? Number one: it implies that the hardest job you’ve got is for your own joy to be maintained. What your people need from you most is your invincible joy in Christ. The main battle in the ministry is not with our people, it’s with our souls, our flesh — my disinclination to enjoy Jesus over money, power, book writing, preaching, and a big church. The temptations of my life are to find my satisfaction in ministry, not Christ. The temptations of my life are to find satisfaction in writing books, not Christ. The temptation is to find satisfaction in a little 11-year-old girl growing up to follow Jesus instead of Jesus.

And if that subtle shift begins to happen, the people will discern that something’s gone wrong. They’ll think, “He’s sort of pragmatic now. He’s just sort of like the world. He doesn’t seem to have the aroma of Christ about him anymore. He doesn’t seem to have spent time with the Savior anymore. He’s just working. He’s trying to make things work. He’s trying to get some things to happen here. He doesn’t seem to be the God-saturated man of the Spirit that he used to be.” That’s the main battle.

Grounded in the Gospel of Christ

Number two: you will now, if you embrace this, ground or base everything in the gospel of Christ crucified because in the gospel, which is the center of the biblical witness, Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, he as buried, and he rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Corinthians 15:3–4). That central gospel will be the ground of almost everything you say because in the gospel, the light that satisfies the soul is shining most brightly. And in the gospel, all the other shinings of God’s mercy were purchased for sinners. The gospel is the foundation and the sum of everything. So you’ll have a very gospel-centered, gospel-based ministry.

The Sovereign Goodness of God

Number three: You will sustain joy for your people by teaching them the glorious truths of God’s sovereignty. Now the reason I mention this is that I’ve said you’re preparing them to suffer. It would be so unloving to say to a group of people, “I’m preparing you with joy so that you can be sustained in suffering,” if you didn’t tell them that our God is sovereign and he will not let anything befall you except what will be good for you. At least in my church, that, just above the gospel, is the foundation on which many broken-hearted people take their stand.

My church right now seems to almost have an epidemic of children being profoundly wounded. One little girl was found with a big cancerous lump on her hip. She’s six years old. Another 11-year-old girl has leukemia, having gone through her first bone transplant. We’re hoping it will work. There’s a six-year-old boy with so many seizures in his brain that they took out 40 percent of his brain to try to make the seizures stop because his development has been arrested, and the surgery did not work. Picture parents who’ve lived for six years with a little boy who just jerks all the time, and they do this one surgery, they hope, that even though it will ruin his mind in one way, it might fix it, and it didn’t fix it. And there are others.

Now, each one of those parents are, in my judgment, the heroes of the world. The world is not worthy of these women and these men. The world is just not worthy of them. One family pushes this little six-year-old Michael, with his squawking and jerking, into the prayer circle before worship at 8:15 a.m. to be with us. Everybody in this prayer circle, maybe 15 or 20 of us, know the situation and we do not begrudge all this disturbance over in the corner, jerking around in his little stroller and making sounds that if you didn’t know what was going on, you’d say, “Shut that kid up.” Nobody says that. We just stand in awe of the joy in these parents. We just stand in awe.

Mutual Joy in Sorrow

And if I have ever said your joy is my joy, I would say it there. Because they’ve sat under my ministry for 10 years and they’ve said to me face-to-face, as so many have, “Had we not learned about an all-sovereign God who provides strength through suffering and works everything together for good, we would’ve gone crazy.” I’ve had so many people tell me that.

So, this third application is simply just say to you, for me, the sovereignty of God is not mainly something to be fought about, it’s not mainly something to be argued about, and it’s not mainly something to be written about, though I love to write about it; it’s mainly something to put under people’s feet when they’re crashing to the ground in the midst of a world that seems totally out of control, and they find themselves landing on a rock that cannot shake.

We have a kingdom that cannot be shaken, and it’s called the sovereign goodness of God. No matter what comes into our lives, he will be there. He’ll stand there. He’s almighty. He ordains all things for our good. That has landed on my people as grace. I’m sorry, deeply sorry that it lands on some people only with controversy.

Ministers of Grace

Number four: when we undertake to minister for the joy of our people, we will come down out of the pulpit, we will get alongside them, we will put our arms around them, and we will minister the grace of God to them. The ministry is not simply teaching. It’s not simply preaching. We are Christ to our people, and Christ touched the leper, he put the children in the midst, and he dealt mercifully with women of the street and did not begrudge their gratitude when they kissed his feet. Jesus was on the ground, moving among sinful, broken people, and so are we, if we are going to say, “I am a worker with you for your joy.”

So please, if you remember anything from our time together, remember 2 Corinthians 1:24, the middle of the verse, surrounded by faith, and in the middle, we are workers with you for your joy. Paul said, “I came here to do this.”