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Spirit of Joy

And the disciples were filled with joy and with the Holy Spirit. Acts 13.52.

The “disciples” in this morning’s text are not the apostles, but the gentiles of Pisidian Antioch who have heard and received the gospel preached to them by Paul and Barnabas. In consequence, they have been filled with “joy” and with the Holy Spirit. And the two questions I find myself asking this morning are: What is joy? and, Can you ever have joy without being filled with the Spirit, or be filled with the Spirit and not have joy?

The noun “joy” in Greek is chara and one writer (E C Hoskyns) has called it “the delightful divine merriness”. And throughout Scripture that word and its Hebrew counterpart describe something that is no mere fleeting feeling that comes and goes depending on mood or situation, but a quality of life that flows from God himself when we enter into relationship with him. Isaiah says, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12.3) and that’s what had happened to these Gentiles in this morning’s text. As they drank the water of life they got filled with joy. C S Lewis once described his conversion in just those terms. He was he said, “Surprised by Joy”.

Joy cannot exist without God. The psalmist tells him: “You have made known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence” (Psalm 16.11). The literal Hebrew there is “in your presence fulness of joy”. God’s presence and joy go together. Paul says to the Romans: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Romans 15.13). The Holy Spirit is, of course, God present in the believer, so no wonder Paul makes the connection between the two. It is there again, even more strongly, elsewhere in that same letter: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17).

Joy is in fact part of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22) and it is nothing less than the joy of Jesus himself. “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete” (John 15.11). Jesus is talking here of joy that was still his on the eve of his crucifixion, even as he went to the horrors of Gethsemane and Calvary. It could not be driven out or removed by circumstance.

But if it cannot be removed, can it be suppressed? My own experience is that yes, it can … and that it all too often is! And Scripture bears this out, for otherwise there would be no need for Paul to command me and other Christians to “rejoice”. This is the verb chairo and it belongs with the noun chara. To rejoice is to express joy — to let it out; and that is something I must do as an act of will and love and obedience. “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” says Paul (Philippians 4.4); and the “always” there is pantote — on all occasions. Clearly, if I call myself a Christian but do not let my joy come through even (or especially) in the hard times, I am a contradiction in terms.

Of course, all rejoicing will reach its height at the end of the age. “Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready” (Revelation 19.7). Joy then will be joy unspeakable. But it is that joy that I can and do experience now by the infilling of the Holy Spirit.

Break forth into joy O my soul;
Break forth into joy O my soul.
In the presence of the Lord
there is joy for evermore;
break forth, break forth into joy.

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