The world calls us to “be happy.” On the other had, God invites us to be overflowing with joy. What’s the difference?
Scripture: Leviticus, chapters 1-3; Acts, chapter 13
Acts 13:44-52 (CEB):
On the next Sabbath, almost everyone in the city gathered to hear the Lord’s word. When the Jews saw the crowds, they were overcome with jealousy. They argued against what Paul was saying by slandering him. Speaking courageously, Paul and Barnabas said, “We had to speak God’s word to you first. Since you reject it and show that you are unworthy to receive eternal life, we will turn to the Gentiles. This is what the Lord commanded us: ‘I have made you a light for the Gentiles, so that you could bring salvation to the end of the earth.’”
When the Gentiles heart this, they rejoiced and honored the Lord’s word. Everyone who was appointed for eternal life believed, and the Lord’s word was broadcast throughout the entire region. However, the Jews provoked the prominent women among the Gentile God-worshipers, as well as the city’s leaders. They instigated others to harass Paul and Barnabas, and threw them out of their district. Paul and Barnabas shook the dust from their feet and went to Iconium. Because of the abundant presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives, the disciples were overflowing with happiness.
Observations: Overflowing with Joy
From the outside, there was not much reason for Paul and Barnabas to be overflowing with happiness.John Mark had abandoned them when they left Cyprus (Acts 13:13). When they arrived in Pisidian Antioch, the people welcomed them, only to have the Jewish leaders turn people against them. Many Jews and God-fearing Gentiles rejected the message of the Gospel, although some of the Gentiles rejoiced and honored the Lord’s word (verse 48). Eventually, they were “run out of town” (see verse 50). Why would they be overflowing with happiness when they were kicked out of a place where their ministry was bearing fruit?
The simple answer is that they could see God’s work, both in them and through them. The CEB translation overflowing with happiness is a bit misleading; the Greek word here means “joy.” In the Biblical sense, “joy” does not mean “happiness.” I think the easiest way to understand this (although certainly not precise) is that “happiness” is grounded in our circumstances, while “joy” is grounded in God. I preached a series on joy last fall, and I came to the conclusion that joy comes from recognizing God’s work in our lives and in the lives of those around us.
We can experience that joy even when our circumstances are “bad.” In fact, you could say that the ability to experience joy in bad circumstances is evidence of God’s work in us. In Galatians 5:22 Paul identifies joy as one of the fruits of the Spirit. The Spirit works in us in spite of our circumstances. And in verse 52 of our passage for today, Luke confirms that the disciples were overflowing with happiness because of the abundant presence of the Holy Spirit in their lives.
Application: Overflowing with Joy
Well, how do we foster the abundant presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives? It’s not like we can go to a faucet, turn on the tap, and fill ourselves with the Spirit! The filling comes from God. But there are things that we can do to prepare ourselves, and to invite the Spirit’s abundant presence in us. It’s not a secret formula, or a magic spell; instead, it involves daily surrender to God’s will. In Acts 13:43, Paul and Barnabas urged them to remain faithful to the message of God’s grace. To receive God’s grace, we must acknowledge our need for it. Our efforts, on their own, don’t mean anything.
Paul had worked and worked for God’s favor, doing things he felt honored God – but they meant nothing in the light of eternity. “These things were my assets, but I wrote them off as a loss for the sake of Christ. But even beyond that, I consider everything a loss in comparison with the superior value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have lost everything for him, but what I lost I think of as sewer trash, so that I might gain Christ and be found in him. In Christ I have a righteousness that is not my own and that does not come from the Law but rather from the faithfulness of Christ.” (Philippians 3:7-9, CEB).
We shouldn’t forget that the list of the fruit of the Spirit includes love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Apart from the Spirit’s abundant presence, that sort of fruit is sorely lacking. We only begin to see that fruit in our lives when we surrender completely to God’s will. When we stop trying to be “in charge” and allow the Sovereign of the universe his rightful place, we begin to experience the joy and peace that only He can give. That’s what it means for us to be overflowing with joy!
Father, thank you for reminding us that real joy and peace only come from you. We don’t experience those things until we acknowledge your authority over our lives. Guard us from Satan’s temptations to take control of our own lives; that only brings heartache and despair. When your Holy Spirit is abundantly present in our lives, though, we are overflowing with joy.
Jesus promised us peace – a peace that only comes from the Prince of Peace. Help us to willingly submit ourselves to the authority of the Prince of Peace. “Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7). Help us to overflow with your joy and peace as we live under the government of the Prince of Peace. Amen.