2 Corinthians 1:23 – 2:4 “I call God as my witness that it was in order to spare you that I did not return to Corinth. Not that we lord it over your faith, but we work with you for your joy, because it is by faith you stand firm. So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you. For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would all share my joy. For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you, but to let you know the depth of my love for you.”
The theme of these verses if the importance of Christian joy, and the concern of the apostle Paul not to do or say anything which would undermine the joy of the limping Christians of Corinth. He is explaining to them the reason for his failure to visit them. To go to the Corinthian congregation and create grief, and also for himself to be distressed by that visit would be disastrous pastoring. The destruction of Christian joy was evidently something the apostle feared as much as sinning. This concern to sustain a spirit of rejoicing in a congregation is quite unexpected, and it is fascinating to stumble across it here because it is a theme that we have tended to ignore.
Let me introduce this subject in this way. A mother was speaking to me about her Christian son. She was gently concerned about him. She did not say that he no longer believed in the Trinity, or the deity of Christ, or substitutionary atonement, or the five points of Calvinism. He assented to all the basic doctrines of the creed. She did not say that he had become a thief, or a blasphemer, or a drunkard. He was still living a moral life. But she said to me, “He’s lost his joy.” It was a very profound and correct observation of her son’s state of soul. Of course, you would have to add that he was no longer living under the power of those doctrines which he believed, and too much compromise with the world, and with a girlfriend had pulled him down, and a guilty conscience was now preventing him entering into prayer, worship and Christian service. He was pretty much a backslider. His sin was marginalising him. But his mother put her finger on this one key symptom of spiritual malaise, his loss of joy. There had developed a formalism in his church attendance. He listened to the preaching in a peremptory way. He stayed on the fringes of Christian activity. He came as often as he should without causing any more disappointment to those who were spectators of his declension. But there was no hiding the absence of true joy in his life. He had left the path of consecration to Jesus Christ because it seemed hard to him. But it shouldn’t be just ‘hard’, it should seem impossible – and yet his new life style, keeping Christ to a minimum place, was not satisfying him at all. So his joy had disappeared and he was living in no man’s land.
The great feature of our age is its joylessness. Drink, TV, rock music, casual sex and drugs are all the marks of an entire civilisation that has at its heart despair. Chemical dependence on nicotine, alcohol and drugs is the great give-away of that dark night in which the vast majority of people spend their days. This week, on November 16, 2000, Russ Conway, the popular pianist died aged 75. The Times said in its obituary: “His private life was an unhappy struggle with ill-health, drink and excessive spending. ‘I’ve tried everything there is to try,’ he said, ‘just in case I might be missing something'” (Times, November 18, 2000). To live without God is to live without hope. It was like that at the time of the New Testament apostles. Romans chapter one is a catalogue of pain, and the gospel brought joy into the world.
1. The Centrality of Christian Joy.
Have you considered the centrality of joy in the Christian life? Consider Philip going to the city of Samaria and proclaiming Christ there. The people accept the word of God and we are told, “So there was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8). It has been a city of despair until the gospel of the Lord Jesus was known. The good news brought great joy. What is true of a city awakened by the gospel is also true for an individual believer. Philip witnesses to the Ethiopian who entrusts himself to Christ and returns to Africa a new man. We are told that he “went on his way rejoicing” (Acts 8:39).
Or consider Paul’s great definition of the kingdom of God, that is, those who by a new birth have come to be reigned over and protected by the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ. How is it manifested that they are under the controlling power of the Saviour? Paul writes to the Romans, “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Roms. 14:17). Right up there alongside a righteous and peaceful life is Christian joy. Or think again of his earnest exhortation to the Greek congregation at Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phils. 4:4). For a church to have abandoned its joy was a fearful indictment upon it. Its very heart would have been ripped out. Rejoice in the Lord always! Or again, remember the fruit of the Holy Spirit’s indwelling our lives. What do you see in a sinner’s life when God himself comes to indwell him and he becomes a partaker of the divine nature? “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace …” (Gals. 5:22). You would expect a believer in God to become a loving man because God is love. But God is also joy. He is the blessed God. So those in whom he has taken up his abode must be characterised by joy. The apostle Peter reminds the Christians in Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia and Bithynia, that they “are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:9). There are many other similar verses in the Bible which we do not have time to consider now. The word ‘joy’ in fact occurs 62 times in the New Testament, and the word ‘rejoice’ over 40 times, and hundreds of times in the Old Testament – Old Testament Christianity was a joyful religion. Amongst the religious affections joy is next in importance to love, and those who are deficient in the one must be deficient in the other too, because the fruit of God’s working in our lives is one great work. That mother might have said to me, “My son has left his first love,” because he had. Love and joy are inseparable.
2. The Foundation of Christian Joy.
Whence the source of this joy? It is two fold:
i] The foundation of this joy, first of all, is that the Son of God has come. He has taken frail flesh, lived, taught, died and risen from the dead. The preacher of the Sermon on the Mount has breathed our air. The one who walked on the water has thus demonstrated that he is the Creator of Genesis 1. The one who raised the dead – he himself also was killed, but he rose from the grave on the third day, and that is where Christian joy is conceived. God sheds his joy upon us by the resurrection of his Son from the tomb. “The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord” (John 20:20). The glory of that is this, that the resurrection does not belong to the world of hypotheses, or to the realm of ideas, or the sphere of doctrines. Christ did not rise in Narnia, in the land of fairy tales. He did not rise in ‘holy history’, wherever that zone of the neo-orthodox might be. The resurrection belongs to the sphere of facts. A new and empty tomb in Jerusalem 2,000 years ago, suddenly had a presence. A dead body was put in it and a stone rolled across the entrance. Then on the third day that body left that tomb alive, under its own steam, we might say. The tomb was empty again: Jesus rose. He triumphed over everything that destroys our joy – the power of evil men, the frustration of our hope, the suffering of the noblest and the best, the victory of the system, cruelty, torture and death. But God raised him from the dead and vindicated incarnate love. That is the great guarantee of our resurrection. My life does not consist of a few swift years that end in a coffin. Jesus lives and so shall I.
It seems to me that in moments when one stands on the precipice of doubt and unbelief, that one comes back time and again to this – the empty tomb. God has broken into human history at one point in time and space in utter grace and pity. He has dealt with the huge problem that our sin had caused him, which alienates the Holy One from our rebellious ways. God’s wrath has been appeased and now we may have peace with God through Jesus Christ. We may look back through our own lives and think of much that we have done, so inexcusable and so tawdry. “I can’t change those things,” we think and we despair. But neither can you change the life and death of Christ. The God-man has come and lived in this world as holily as the archangel himself, as free from sin as the Holy Ghost himself, and he has achieved this in a carpenter’s shop and while sitting and talking with fishermen or lawyers. We go back there, to that life, and nothing can change it, to the passion on Golgotha and his work of redemption, and nothing can change that. He finished what he set out to do, and from the grave he rose the third day, and nothing can affect that. All by himself he revived. You were no help to him when he redeemed you, but utterly alone, moved by love for us, he saved us. That is the foundation of our joy. Sovereign pity! He knew all about me but he loved me and determined to take me to himself for ever. He has done this once and for all.
ii] Another reason for joy is our own experience day by day of a living relationship with God. If joy is anything it is an experience. The apostle is talking about feelings that have come into his life exclusively from knowing God as his own Lord and Saviour. He now has an ongoing relationship with the Creator of the world, and he lives with this God. His joy is sustained by this. It comes from divine grace helping him in hours of need. There are periods of weakness yet he is given strength outside and beyond his own powers of endurance. There have been times of fear yet all turned out well. As he hears the gospel he is often given a fresh realisation of the wonderful nature of the gospel, that all his sins have been forgiven, past sins, present sins, future sins. There comes a fresh awareness of the glory of being a mere Christian, of having a new heart, a new status, new resources, and new hopes. What joy this gives him. He has a wonderful counsellor and divine prophet to teach him. He has a great High Priest at God’s right hand who daily lives to intercede for him. He has a Sovereign Protector guarding and keeping him who has put everything under an obligation that if it touches him at all it must work for his good. This same God has given him the Bible, and there are times when having read it, its truth and beauty ravish his heart and clean his conscience and fill his mind so much that he clutches it to his bosom and blesses God for the Scriptures. Over the years this God has answered his prayers above his asking and certainly his deserving. “I am a blessed man,” he cries to God and to the world. He quotes these words of Isaac Watts with absolute agreement:
“I would not change my blessed estate for all the world calls good or great,
And while my faith can keep its hold I envy not the sinner’s gold.”
He looks at the creation and sees the glories of the heavens and the earth in a way he never perceived them when he was an unbeliever. I was given a signed copy of Ric Erenbright’s “The Art of God” (Tyndale House Publishers, 1999) this summer. He is a member of Grace Community Orthodox Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon. He had been a vague Darwinist, repudiating his Christian upbringing until the mid-eighties when some major changes took place in his life which reopened his eyes to God. His father died, and he began to read the Bible and to look again at the creation. The blinkers were steadily removed until he could no long deny the truth before him: “the perfection of everything in the heavens and on earth could only have come from the mind of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-loving Designer, and never from an eternity of time plus chance.” He is a professional photographer and the photos of this coffee-table book make you “Ooh” and “Ah” with delight. He concludes the book with a photograph of a sunrise at Sparks Lake in Oregon, and he says, “It was clear, cold, and silent when I finished shooting and sat back to enjoy the beauty before me. The ever frantic rush to capture the fleeting light of dawn was over, and now I could relax and soak up the natural splendour of my surroundings. Like Jonathan Edwards I felt ‘wrapt and swallowed up in God’ – on the verge of sensory overload – when the perfect stillness was suddenly shattered by a shrill cry and a sudden rush of wind as a bald eagle swooped close overhead and soared out over the lake. All I could do was laugh. The day had barely begun, but I’d already been shown a lifetime of beauty” (op cit, p.146). That is Christian joy in God’s creation – the laugh of faith, like Sarah’s.
So we are saying that there is a reason for Christian joy. There is the great objective fact that the good news is true. The Son of God has come, lived, preached, died and risen again. He did things in his life and on Calvary and in the tomb which become the foundation of Christian joy. This is a visited world. The Creator has become created. The Ruler of all things has become dependent. Omnipotence has become weak. The sustainer of everything – fed at his mother’s breast. God has become man and died for sinners. Good news! He did these things in history, but he also does things in our experience day by day which give us additional cause for joy. So, one of those definitive statements which Luke periodically makes in the book of the Acts says, “the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit” (Acts 13:52). That is normative Christianity. It wasn’t simply a manufactured ersatz kind of joy. It wasn’t the result of human manipulation. It wasn’t worked up by mere man. It wasn’t created by music and mood. It wasn’t on tap. It was the result of the work of God the Holy Spirit himself. God has purposed to make us men and women of joy.
3. Unbiblical Authoritarianism the Threat to Christian Joy.
“In order to spare you … I did not return to Corinth” (v.23). Paul’s opponents were accusing him of speaking with a forked tongue, promising he would visit them soon and then not turning up. “He is a vacillator. You can’t rely on him,” his enemies said. But Paul’s change in plans were pastoral. If he went there and confronted them with their sinful behaviour they would at that time have become angry, and perhaps confused, and even turned against the very doctrines he had taught them. “There is no point in my going at this juncture if I end up wringing their noses until the blood flows,” thought Paul. One angry word begets another, and so it goes on until there is an irreconcilable feud. So Paul determined to stay away from them for a time and first of all write them a letter (cp. v.3 & v.4): “I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you” (2 Cors. 2:1).
There is no need for those church members who are going through times of barrenness and unhappiness with themselves, grumbling at the church and the minister, to be confronted by the minister or requested to appear before the elders. There are problems that are not of the preacher’s making, and not of the church’s making, and there is nothing we can do or say that can change a man’s family tensions or the difficulties he has at his workplace. He is resentful at life itself, and we elders keep smiling and preach the Lord Jesus to him and his family, and in time his loving heavenly Father will prevail over him, and his sweetness will return – when God has taught him what he needs to learn in that crucible. But we will not ‘bring matters to a head’, as men say, and demand a better spirit.
The apostle says, “not that we lord it over your faith” (2 Cors 1:24). Paul had done plenty of domineering when he had been a leading Pharisee. He had loved to be called Rabbi, ‘master of God’s Word.’ He had fed his own ego with the praises that only Holy Scripture deserves. Let’s be aware of that danger. The congregation here calls me ‘Geoff.’ That is my name. Americans kindly call me ‘Dr Thomas.’ I am not a doctor. I will live and die as ‘Geoff.’ It is far too late for me to change that, and I do not particularly desire to alter it. That is my Christian name.
Saul of Tarsus had manipulated people with his superior knowledge of God’s word and tied up heavy loads and put them on men’s shoulders, but he himself was not willing to lift a finger to move them. “Walk only so far on the Sabbath! Tithe your herbs! Always ceremonially wash before eating food! Support your parents in old age!” he cried, but he had found escape clauses for his own behaviour – they all did. How often do ministers lay standards of conduct upon their own children which they themselves have never lived by? A congregation has an unwritten list of peculiar do’s and dont’s which are given much significance. Newcomers start to think that conforming to those details is the mark of being an outstanding follower of Christ. The whole gospel perspective disappears under such attitudes, and Christian joy goes with it. Paul had learned from that sad period in his life: “not that we lord it over your faith.” Other men might be repressive, but not the apostle Paul.
Let us examine the Pharisaic destruction of a joy, the memory of which made Paul’s conscience sensitive. We find it in John 9 and the incident in which the Lord heals on the Sabbath day the man who was born blind. Unlike Paul, the Pharisees don’t stay away from this scene. They seek out the man and investigate the matter. Here is a classic example of lording it over someone whose life has been transformed by Jesus Christ. All the stages of heavy shepherding are here:-
i] They create an atmosphere of intimidation. They demand the presence of the man’s parents and began to question them: “Is this your son? Is this the one you say was born blind? How is it that now he can see?” (John 9:20). The Pharisees had long ago established a reputation for a kind of rule that was harsh and unyielding. The parents went to that meeting under an implied threat and were fearful: “the Jews had decided that anyone who acknowledged that Jesus was the Christ would be put out of the synagogue” (John 9:22). The man’s parents had been faithful members of the congregation all their lives. They had never caused any trouble in the assembly. Their friends and relatives were part of that body, but now they must agree with the Pharisees on everything or they would be out!
ii] There was a cruel dividing of family and friends in the process of discipline. The parents were summoned to the meeting that their words might be used against their own son or against the Lord Jesus. They were being pressured into abandoning their child out of fear in his hour of need. Would he ever respect them again if they did not have the courage to support him in this inquisition?
iii] The Pharisees used lengthy sessions to break the suspect or establish his guilt. How Paul would have remembered interrogations like that. They went over and over every detail of this man’s story. Their interpretation of the events had to prevail. They were certain that Jesus was a sinner, so they bullied away at the man who once had been totally blind. He became provoked: “I have told you already, and you do not listen. Why do you want to hear it again? Do you want to be his disciples too?” (John 9:27). Walter Chantry says, “The temperature rose even higher as the Pharisees hurled insults at their spirited victim. In response to their abusive tactics, his manhood rose to even greater heights. He boldly defended Jesus and rebuked the Pharisees. No doubt there was some heat in the man’s speech after his being provoked. Then his outburst, the irritation their injustice had provoked, was used by his inquisitors as evidence that his attitude had been wrong all the while!” (“Shepherding God’s Flock”, ed. Roger Beardmore, Sprinkle Publications, 1989, p.188 et al).
iv] They grew indignant that a mere member would question them: “how dare you lecture us!” (John 9:34). They began by interrogating him about Jesus and healing on a Sabbath. They ended with the issue of his opposing them. This case of discipline had begun with alleged heresy and immorality, but it was ending as a defence of the officers and their reputation. Nothing is as bad as criticising the leadership as a heavy shepherd. The whole church will collapse if the leaders are criticised about anything they do.
v] They relentlessly persecuted the one who disagreed with their opinion and their policy. The man who was healed would not submit to them and his fate was to be driven out of the fellowship: “they threw him out” (John 9:34). What had he done? He had had his sight restored on the Sabbath by the Lord, and for that he was excluded and ostracised. That is the tyranny of abusive authoritarianism. Saul of Tarsus knew these techniques only too well and hated them with a vengeance. That was what he once had done, and now the sight of a strong believer domineering weak Christians appalled him. Of course John 9 with its revelation of those heavy shepherds is followed by John 10 and the revelation of the good shepherd who loves his sheep and gives his life for them. The apostle Paul was a wonderful under-shepherd. He had rid himself of all those tyrannical attitudes to Christ’s sheep.
Is the sort of behaviour seen in those Pharisees merely historical? Not while there is a flock of Christ’s sheep. There will always be a Diotrophes who loves to be first (3 John 9). Think of the pain which Exclusive Brethren wen through in the last fifty years. They came under the influence of a Canadian called Taylor so completely that they became known as the ‘Taylorite Exclusive Brethren.’ Peter Caws writes of his own experience (Evangelical Times, September 2000), telling of an aunt in Jamaica who wrote in bewilderment to him that her brother – Peter’s father – had said in his annual letter that this would be the last time he would ever write to her because she was not walking in the truth and he was obliged to keep himself from further association with her. In order to satisfy his own righteousness he was willing to wound a defenceless relative. “In 1962, on my last visit to their house, my parents told me (their hands resting on books of ministry, a talisman against my own ‘uncleanness’) that I would no longer be welcome there. They maintained that position for the rest of their lives.
“I never saw my mother again. When she died in 1980, nobody told me for weeks. I was allowed to see my father, twice, towards the end of his life, although never alone. These were distressingly brief meetings, like supervised visits to a relative in prison. And I was later told that, in reporting the visit to the local ‘care meeting’, it was insisted, pathetically, that I had not been made welcome. It was important not to be seen by the other brethren as yielding in the matter of family affection.” One finds it hard to believe that Christians could treat one another in that way.
Peter Cawes gives another extraordinary example of this authoritarianism. A Christian uncle and aunt, disgusted with Taylorite popery, left the movement, but then a few years later the wife contracted leukaemia. It was suggested that her twin sister should donate to her a bone-marrow transplant which might have given her a few more years of life. But that twin was still in fellowship with the Taylorite Exclusive Brethren and the leadership in her meeting denied this appeal because the lady had ‘withdrawn from us.’ She died within two weeks of receiving that refusal. They had written rejecting the request, they said, “in all tenderness.” In other words, in all tenderness they let her die, in order to safeguard their own purity. What a wretched business!
One thinks of the parable Jesus told of the enemy sowing tares amongst the wheat, and as they spring up together the servants ask their lord if he wants them to go down to the field and destroy the weeds. “No. You may destroy the wheat in the process,” he says to them. Let them grow together until the harvest. So important is the wheat that the lord didn’t want a single plant to be destroyed. It is worth more than all the difficulties of separation at the great harvest day. The big feet of heavy shepherds tramples on many true plants, and the church must always be on its guard against them, whenever there are strong personalities who develop a following. So Paul hated with a passion heavy shepherding. “Not that we lord it over your faith,” he can declare. He had decided not to go to Corinth at that time but rather to write them a letter first.
4. Biblical Safeguards for Christian Joy.
In these verses the apostle outlines the ways in which Christian joy can be sustained:-
i] By pastoral encouragement and example our joy is sustained: “we work with you for your joy” (v.24). Not ‘ we work over you’, and not, ‘we work for you and instead of you.’ A good teacher works with a pupil, watches his struggles and points out his weaknesses and encourages him. A pastor does not pose like an expert, issuing his dicta, making his congregation dependent upon him and his ‘expert knowledge.’ There is an extraordinary example of this in the October edition of a magazine called “Bible Review.” A woman named Susan Ackerman, associate professor of religion at Dartmouth College, puts her oar into the fierce debate going on in the state of Vermont about legalising same-sex unions. The people of that state are divided into two camps about the matter. Susan speaks up, and this is how she puts it, “Both sides may do better to turn to Bible scholars. As a biblical scholar I do in some sense know better than many other people what the text is saying. To put the matter more diplomatically: We biblical scholars have an expertise in the Bible by virtue of our years of study and specialised training, and it would have made more sense to ask us experts what we thought the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality were.” She is saying that ordinary Christian people cannot read the Bible and understand what it says about homosexual conduct. I am sure we all want to know what this ‘expert’. We must have experts or we are doomed to ignorance. What does expert Susan have to say? It is this, that “the sorts of long-term, committed gay and lesbian relationships we often find in our society are not condemned by the Bible.” The expert has spoken! The Bible says, “Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion” (Roms. 1:27). But the expert interprets it to mean the very opposite of what it says. It reminds one of the modernists Machen spoke of who protested that they believed in the resurrection of Christ but interpreted it to mean that he did not rise from the dead. Can you see the wisdom of God in not giving us any kind of magisterium, so-called ‘expert’ interpreters of the Scriptures, chaining our consciences to their philosophies? Rather, God gave us a lucid Bible that makes wise the simple who go to it in faith, who ask for the Holy Spirit to cast his light upon it. Certainly the moral passages in the Bible are amongst the clearest parts of the word of God, and they unreservedly condemn homosexual activity and desire.
The apostle was not lording it over the congregation in Corinth but working alongside them, writing to them three or four letters, visiting them, sitting with them and listening to them, praying for them and with them, and working to advance their blessedness and contentment in Christ. Joy steadily comes when you sit under the best pastor-preacher and Christian leadership you can find.
ii] By learning to stand firm by faith our joy is sustained: “(because it is by faith you stand firm)” (v.24). I may get bad news, but I trust my heavenly Father. He is in charge of my life. Another difficulty may come crashing into my life, but I am trusting the Lord Jesus who ever lives to intercede for me. The whole church seems to isolate me, and my own family have deserted me, but I am still trusting God. He will stand by me. The earth is moving and the mountains are being carried into the midst of the sea, but the Lord of hosts is with us, and the God of Jacob is our refuge. The only joyful Christians are the ones who stand firm, and we know one fact about every single one of those who stands firm – he is trusting in God. “By faith you stand firm.”
iii] By resolutely maintaining our Christian liberty our joy is sustained: “So I made up my mind that I would not make another painful visit to you” (2:1). The apostle says, “I made up my mind.” This is the only place in the Bible where these exact words are found. They are a great example of the Bible’s teaching of human responsibility. Think of a child who does something by himself and he shows it to you. Because he himself did it, that creation has become his delight. The Christian uses his mind. Paul thought deeply about situations and personalities and the meaning of the Bible. “Shall I visit the church in Corinth or delay? Shall I write them a letter, or not? What shall I write, these words or this phrase? They might misunderstand that, so I’ll put it like this…” By his own volition he thought and planned and made up his mind how he would act. It was never that the Spirit came upon him and then he became a mindless puppet so that he did not have to think. It is never like that. His innate dignity and freedom were always there. So it is with you. Your mind must always be used 100%. Do not think that because one day you can write something utterly freely that what is written has to be the very words of the Spirit of God who has been moving you. Nor must you think that on another day you may be writing a letter in fits and starts with lots of scratching out that then you can judge the Spirit of God was not helping you. You work with 100% involvement and God works with 100% involvement. You work together. You decide and God decides – together. You make up your mind and God makes up his mind on something. God will never reduce you to an automaton. You have to make up your own mind. But you must also acknowledge that everything comes from God. He is guiding you in all your decision-making processes, and this is where your joy will be found.
Paul told the weak Christians in Rome that they had to be fully persuaded in their minds. They were a group in the congregation who were keeping certain days, like the seventh day of the week, and they were not eating certain food like bacon. The apostle did not tell them to stop doing that, nor did he tell the elders to call a church meeting and announce that all members of the church were to act in the following way. Paul told them, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). Concerning the weak Paul told the strong members of the church who had fun on the seventh day of the week, and ate bacon and egg, “Accept them, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1). That is the way of Christian joy, recognising my own freedom in Christ concerning disputable things and also the freedom of others. “It is for freedom Christ has set us free” (Gals. 5:1). That is our basic privilege. No Christian should have to struggle in a church to assert that.
iv] By mutual encouragement within the church our joy is sustained: “For if I grieve you, who is left to make me glad but you whom I have grieved? I wrote as I did so that when I came I should not be distressed by those who ought to make me rejoice. I had confidence in all of you, that you would share my joy” (vv.2 & 3). A century ago a young woman from a well-to-do family heard the gospel message and professed to trust the Saviour and went along to an evangelical church. She wore more fashionable clothes and jewellery because that was what she and her family always wore. She was not conscious that there might be one or two in the church who would take offence at her appearance. The majority of those in the church were glad to see her there each week. But one of the leaders of the church took it on himself to speak to her about coming to the Lord’s Table in such a ‘worldly attire.’ She was pained and bewildered. She did not know that Christianity was about wearing a certain style of clothes. She left the church, returned to her old companions and finally married a man who had no interest in Christianity. If that elder had read these word of Paul in verse 2 he would have paused before speaking as he did: “if I grieve you, (and you leave the church) who is left to make me glad (because there is no one in the non-Christian world who can do that), but you – whom I have grieved” One source of the congregation’s gladness had been driven out of the church. That joy had gone. It is a grief when by our own mistakes, or harshness, we offend people and they leave the church. Our gladness goes with them.
A pastor’s aim is to make the whole range of Christians in the congregation rejoice. But it works both ways, a congregation should be a blessing to a pastor too. See Paul’s definition of a church – “those who ought to make me rejoice” (v.3). So often it was not like that, and Paul ended up carrying the cares of all the churches. It should not be like that. This week I had a letter from a lady who had worshipped once again in our congregation in August, and taken cassettes home with her. She wrote, “My family and I, and John in particular, have been challenged and helped through your ministry over more than thirty years now, so I thought that if any encouragement is called for in your work for the Lord, then maybe I could contribute to it. I will add your name to my prayer list, and feel sure that our elder daughter will join me in this.” She made me rejoice, and I often am encouraged in such ways. It just keeps me hanging on. Getting an occasional letter like that makes a perfect day. Paul describes his hope in a group of Christians thus:- “you would share in my joy.”
v] By the apostolic message our joy is sustained: “I wrote as I did …” (v.3): “For I wrote you… (v.4). I am making the simplest point, that no one will know true and lasting joy who is a stranger to the letters of the apostle Paul. If you don’t literally read and get familiar with the New Testament then you will not know joy. Thomas Bilney was one of the leaders of the Reformation in England. He was a student at Trinity Hall, Cambridge. He heard about a new book, the Greek translation of the New Testament and he secretly bought a copy. Almost the first sentence he read as he flicked over its pages were these words of the apostle Paul to Timothy, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief” (I Tim. 1:15). He read that verse over and over. It was as if a refreshing wind was blowing over his soul, or a treasure had been put into his hands. His doubts were ended and he became a Christian. He knew a joy that he had never known before. Its source was a letter of the apostle Paul.
One evening in May 1738 a young man called John Wesley went to a religious meeting in Aldersgate Street in London, and one person read to him and the others Luther’s preface to Paul’s letter to the Romans. That night he wrote in his diary describing what happened as he listened, “I felt my heart strangely warmed; I felt I did trust in Christ, in Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death; and then I testified to all there what I now first felt in my heart.” Then he went to his brother Charles Wesley with a group of people from that meeting and declared “I believe.” Charles wrote in his journal, “We sang a hymn with great joy.” A source of joy is the message of the New Testament. When you read and understand Paul’s letters you discover joy. C.S.Lewis was riding upstairs in a double-decker bus when the truths of the gospel impressed themselves on his heart. You remember the title of his biography? “Surprised by Joy.” So Christians sit under ministry which preaches from the letters of Paul, and we privately read from those letters every month.
vi] By Christian love our joy is sustained: “For I wrote you out of great distress and anguish of heart and with many tears, not to grieve you but to let you know the depth of my love for you” (v.4). Why do we weep at funerals? Because of our love for the dead. That is why Jesus wept at the grave of Lazarus. Why did Paul often pause when he was writing a letter to the Corinthians and dry his face from his tears? Because he loved them, and they were acting in such a sub-Christian manner. There was terrible wickedness in the congregation: a man had taken his father’s wife, and the church people turned a blind eye to it. The son was there: the grief-struck father was there, and the church was doing nothing. Even amongst the pagans of Corinth there was a sense of shock at that conduct. Their indifference to blatant sin really hurt Paul because he loved them, and so he showed his love by writing to them a costly letter.
In love joy is sustained. How many cold marriages would be immeasurably improved by one of the spouses being more loving? So much marriage counselling consists of encouraging the husband and wife to be more affectionate to one another. Paul says, “I must let you know the depth of my love for you.” He was determined to communicate it, to actually show them his affection. When they read one of his letters or when Paul was there with them they felt loved. A biography of Lord Alfred Douglas appeared this month. He was involved in a relationship with Oscar Wilde which resulted in that playwright spending a time in Reading jail. Poor Alfred Douglas was raised in a pathetic household. A reviewer says, “Who would want to be born into the standard-issue British noble family, where anything like parental affection and domestic happiness was considered eccentric or downright vulgar?” Little wonder that people grow up and live such joyless muddled lives when they have been raised without knowing whether they are loved by their parents.
So those are the biblical ways that true joy can be safeguarded and encouraged. If you are at this stage in your life thinking, “I must try everything that there is to try in order to find joy” then don’t ignore Jesus Christ. I have told you of the joy the gospel brought to the early church, and I have given you examples across the centuries of the discovery of joy by Bilney, Wesley and C.S.Lewis. So many of us Christians would testify to you tonight of the joy that Jesus Christ has given to us. By faith in him you too can stand.
19th November 2000 GEOFF THOMAS