1. Immediate Context
One of the current issues for the contemporary church to consider is the degree of our spontaneity in prayer and praise before God. In many services it seems there seems to be movement away from the Spirit-led direction we find in scripture (1 Cor 14:26) to something that looks increasingly rehearsed. Many people are even beginning to speak of performance and entertainment entering our congregations. What, for instance, has happened to the immediately inspired “spiritual song” Paul’s congregations were familiar with (Eph 5:19; Col 3:16)?
In praying about this issue recently I believe God helped me with some of the following insights. Many of them relate to knowing him directly as our unconditional “point of joy”.
2. Biblical Context
a. Old Testament
The entire Bible recognises joy as a primary indicator of the presence and pleasure of God. David prays that “the joy of salvation” be restored after his adultery and murder (Ps 51:12). Most importantly, he recognises this is a fruit of the anointing of the Holy Spirit (Ps 51:11). David stands in terror lest “the Spirit of the LORD depart” from him as it did from Saul (1 Sam 16:14). In such a situation his kingship would remain real and authoritative externally but lose its inner spiritual power. As a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14), David discerns that the maintenance of inner purity is a prerequisite for the living and vital presence of God (Ps 51:10). As the key Old Testament type of the coming King of Israel (Jesus the Messiah), to rule for God is David’s true “point of joy”.
These connections are affirmed by the context of the classical text from Nehemiah (8:10) “The joy of the Lord is your strength”. The experience of joy in participating in the restoration of temple worship depends on the inner renewal and cleansing from sin directed by the reforming work of the priest Ezra (Ezra 9 -10; Neh 9) conducted under the governorship of Nehemiah.
What is true for the insight of the kingly (David) and the priestly (Ezra) is also the case for the prophetic. Malachi speaks of the future coming of God’s messenger prior to a personal divine visitation. The result of the messenger’s refining work will be God’s pleasure (3:1- 4). Later, the messenger is identified with Elijah (4:5). As this figure is equated with John the Baptist in the New Testament (Matt 11:14;17:10- 13), we must now move to the Gospel accounts.
b. New Testament
1. John the Baptist
John the Baptist is the forerunner of the one (Jesus) who fulfils all that God sought to achieve through the three anointed offices of the old covenant, the prophet, priest and king. John is deeply aware of his own unworthiness in relation to Jesus (Matt 3:14), this is an inner prophetic discernment that Jesus is not one of “the people” who needed to confess their sin (Matt 3:5 – 6). This sense of unworthiness is not incompatible with but a prerequisite for John’s unbridled joy. This reveals that his “point of joy” is to prepare the nation for the ministry of Jesus as Messiah.
John preaches a message in relation to Jesus that both goes beyond the Old Testament expectations of Messiah and is limited by his own personal situation. “I baptize you with water; but on who is more powerful than I is coming…He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:16- 17).
John recognises the superior spiritual authority of Jesus in two dimensions. He is the one who is able to internalise the Spirit and bring upon humanity God’s fiery judgement. With respect to the latter, John stands fully in the tradition of the Elijah tradition in the Old Testament. The fire from heaven that fell on the sacrifice at Carmel led to the killing of the false prophets of Baal (1 Ki 18:38- 40), whilst the attempt by the evil king Ahaziah to conscript Elijah by force resulted in the incineration of 100 soldiers (2 Ki 1:9 – 12). For the Elijah tradition fire means the destruction of the ungodly.
According to Jesus, John is the hinge point between the “law and the prophets” and the coming of the kingdom of God (Luke 16:16). Even though John was the greatest person to be born under the law, “the least in the kingdom of God is greater than he” (Luke 7:28). This greatness cannot be a matter of personal piety, as though believers in Jesus were all more inwardly righteous than John. Nor is it a matter of the experience of the Spirit as such, for John is “filled with the Spirit from his mother’s womb” (Luke 1:15). The inward dimension that elevates the follower of Jesus above all those who preceded the coming of Christ is the reality of unconditional forgiveness.
John could only baptize, to literalise the Greek, “with a view towards the forgiveness of sins.” (Luke 3:3). John himself was a man born under the law so his own conscience could not grasped by the fullness of forgiveness that was yet to come through the sacrifice of Jesus. The limits of John’s understand is revealed by his inquiry to Jesus from prison, “Are you the one to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matt 11:3). Jesus’ reply details his work of healing and preaching that John must have already been familiar with (Matt 11:4- 5). The key to John’s anxiety is however revealed by the Lord’s final statement, “And blessed is he who takes no offence at me.” (Matt 11:6).
Such “offence” is registered in the human conscience, it is a moral matter (Matt 15:12; Acts 24:16). John felt extremely disturbed ethically because he was such a holy person, in an Old Testament sense (Hab 1:13 etc.), and knew that God does not “justify the wicked” (Exodus 23:7). Jesus seemingly indiscriminate acts of mercy and compassion were, by the radical absence of acts of judgement, incompatible with John’s expectations; there was no destructive “fire”.
What John seemed to fail to (fully) appreciate was that God’s point of joy was to bring forgiveness notwithstanding personal cost to himself. Apparently John did not understand Jesus’ omission of “fire” in the proclamation of his mission statement was because the fire of God’s wrath would fall on him at the cross.
Jesus embracing of a personal baptism in fire is especially clear through the so – called “Nazareth Manifesto”, where Jesus cites Isaiah 61:1- 2 but deliberately stops before “the day of vengeance of our God” (Luke 4:18- 19). Later, Jesus would say of himself, “I have a baptism with which to be baptized, and what stress I am under until it is completed!” (Luke 12:50). Jesus cannot baptise humanity in the Spirit until he is first baptized on its behalf in the cleansing fire of the divine judgement on the cross. The whole experience of Jesus’ joy in the Father revolves around this.
Peter records how at his baptism, “God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.”(Acts 10:38). From baptism Jesus begins to publicly operate as Messiah – prophetically speaking the word of God with authority, interceding as a priest for the lost, delivering from the powers of evil as the king.
The Gospel account of the baptism connects this to the joy of God. “When Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, “You are my Son, my Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:21-22). It is only as Jesus sets out publicly on the road to the cross to take away the sin of the world (John 1:29) that the Father is able to express the fullness of his joy. Only in the presence and authority of this joy can Jesus minister with effective power, for joy is the sensible inner witness that “God was with him.”
Later when we read that “Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit” (Luke 10:21), it is in the context of the advance of the kingdom of God through the mission of the seventy disciples. Jesus joy is not that demons are being cast out, but that the expression and reception of the great works of the disciples reveal that people’s names are written in heaven (Luke 10:20). It is the saved state of others that fills the Son with the pleasure of the Father. This is something Christ consistently teaches (Luke 15:7, 10; Matt 25:21, 23).
In order to bring this joy to the lost, Jesus must be deprived of it at the cross. In taking the cup of the Father (Matt 26:39) he bears the wrath of God (2 Cor 5:21) and loses the divine pleasure (Mark 15:34). The death of Jesus is the one place in all of history where obedience to God means separation from God’s joyous presence; this is the baptism of fire that John prophesied must fall on sinful humanity. In entering into this state of dereliction Jesus takes away the spiritual joylessness of fallen human life.
The fruit of Christ’s struggle is the indelible joy of the resurrection. “You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.” (Heb 1:9). “For the sake of the joy that was set before him (Jesus) endured the cross, disregarding the shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2). This is the joy of the new creation and as such is joy indestructible.
c. The Christian Life
Jesus promised the quality of his resurrection joy to his followers (John 15:11;16:20-24;17:13). He imparted this reality by his resurrection presence (Luke 24:41, 52). Since the ascension of Jesus the reality of his joy of at the right hand of God is conveyed by the Holy Spirit who is always with the disciples (John 14:18-20). What is conveyed is not a joy of this world, easily affected by the circumstances of life, but the undisturbed joy of the new creation that has come for the cosmos in Christ. Such an experience is so intense it can be described as “an indescribable and glorious joy.” (1 Pet 1:9). These words sum up the fact that such a joy is literally heavenly.
The Spirit, given at Pentecost by the ascended and victorious Lord (Acts 2:33), continually stirs up joy in the obedient church (Acts 2:46). Wherever the Spirit is outpoured there is joy (Acts 8:8,13:52; 15:3). It is one of his fruit (Galatians 5:22) because it is Jesus he is imparting.
A closer examination of many of the above contexts reveals however that this is the joy of salvation separated from self concern. It is a pure and not a selfish joy. “The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the holy Spirit.”(Romans 14:17).
This kingdom is not to be equated with the church, ministry or any ordinary human activities. It is concentrated upon only what God can do; reconcile men and women to himself in Christ. Absence of joy therefore within the people of God points to a failure to understand and live in the principles of the kingdom of God.
At a deeper level, because the gospel is “the gospel of the kingdom of God” (Mark 1:14- 15; Acts 8:12;20:25; 28:23), joylessness indicates a failure to be impacted by the gospel as God’s power for salvation (Rom 1:16). Paul naturally remarks of the Thessalonians, “in spite of persecution you received the word with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit.” (1 Thess 1:6). He connects these things together when in his struggle with the Galatians he remarks that they have lost their joy and the flow of the Spirit because of their legalism (Gal 3:1- 5;4:15).
Lack of joy indicates a deficiency of that deep inner experience where believers feel cleansed once and for all by the power of the blood of Jesus. This permanent cleansing marks the difference between the old and new covenants. Under the old code, that which prevailed for David, Ezra, Elijah and John the Baptist, only the flesh or outer person could be purified (Heb 9:13). A once for all cleansing of the conscience from works that lead to death awaited the supreme and sufficient sacrifice of Jesus upon the cross. From now on, God’s joy is complete towards the elect in Christ as their sins are remembered no more (Jer 31:31 -34; Heb 8:12;10:16- 17).
The cleansing within that Jesus spoke of to his disciples (John 13:10; 15:3) has now washed over the consciences of the people of God. Their hearts have been “cleansed by faith” through the offer of “forgiveness in the name” of Jesus (Acts 15:10;10:43).
Whatever their previous condition when they entered the kingdom of God they “were washed,..sanctified,…justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” (1 Cor 6:11cf. Titus 3:5).
The writer of Hebrews sums up much of the implications of this by saying, “Therefore my friends, since we have confidence to enter into the most holy place by means of the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened up for us through the curtain (that is, through his flesh), and since we have a great high priest over the house of God, let us approach with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Heb 10:19- 22). His anticipation is that those freed from their sins in this way shall participate in the dynamic of the worship of heaven that is, in the spontaneous exultant praise of the guiltless who are continually indwelling God as their point of joy (Heb 12:18- 24).
The symptoms of a lack of spontaneous praise or “flowing in the anointing” suggest that there are a range of situations where ministers in churches are operating outside their primary area of anointing. People may not even be conscious of their God-appointed “point of joy”. Job descriptions should be tailored to the individuals God sends and not vice-versa.
Where the point of joy is unclear or poorly appropriated it is inevitable that the church succumb to ritual. That is, to forms and procedures which are thought to be pleasing to God by virtue of their careful and correct enactment. This will be revealed by our responses to “error or mistakes”, especially in public worship. We must seriously consider to what degree we are putting our trust in a rehearsal culture above a relational culture and are unconsciously being deceived.
I believe this point was made clear through the “faults” in a recent children’s Christmas presentation. Everyone present entered more fully into the spirit of what was happening. Truly, it is “little children” who enter into the kingdom of God. Such freedom should always be with us as we worship in the Spirit of liberty (2 Cor 3:17).
Under all this however there must be the fundamental matter of the conscience’s being impacted by the blood of Christ, for it is the conscience that registers right and wrong. Authority to approach God in prayer and praise and to express him in ministry is directly proportional to our inner legislative authority’s (conscience) knowledge that before God we have been “made perfect” (Heb 10:14). Those who sense this as a spiritual rather than a moral truth recognise themselves to be, in Christ, “plenipotentiaries”, ambassadors of the Prophet, Priest and King with full power and authority to enact his will upon the earth (Matt 28:18- 20; John 20:20 -22) especially in ministering by and to God his point of joy, the message and means of forgiveness – the gospel.
May God help us to see these things clearly and to grow in the expression of the boundless authority of the forgiven life.