And there was great joy in that city. (Acts 8:8)
This statement leapt off the page at me this morning with a kind of ‘out there’ challenge that got me thinking. When last – if ever – could we say this about our own city, or even town or village for that matter? Could we, if we’re entirely honest, actually say this at all? Have we actually witnessed this kind of public outpouring of joy? The answer, sadly, must be a resounding no, because the real truth is that most, if not none, of us have ever seen the real pure joy and peace that can only come with new life from God immerse and saturate our lives and those of our entire community. It’s a foreign concept, something we read about in Acts and which stirs up a kind of regretful nostalgia and a longing for the ‘more’ of God.
It compels us to consider the question as to why the ‘acts of the apostles’ seem to be limited to the apostles. It’s a matter of much debate and controversy, with extremes of opinion ranging from that declaring this to be a ‘past dispensation’ to the overwhelming emotional hype that has infused so many of our churches masquerading as the latest ‘move of God.’ We either see dry, stoic Christianity, or we see emotional excess. But we seldom see the joy spoken of in this passage.
Of course, if we look at the Bible, this isn’t scriptural. Jesus very clearly said ‘these things and more.’ So what has gone wrong? God is still the same. His Word and His promises are still the same. His commands and instructions are still the same. That puts the ball very squarely in our court. Clearly, the problem must lie with the church corporately and with believers individually. In an age where the world as we know it is rapidly moving towards the end, where reaching both the unsaved and those who are falling into apostasy around us has become absolutely critical, it’s time to take a step back and honestly evaluate this issue and where exactly we stand.
Living in the joy of the Lord should be constant, ongoing, and visible.
Before looking at the ‘why not,’ we should establish that the joy of the Lord has absolutely nothing to do with our feelings or emotions. It is a deep, inner, spiritual joy, an amalgam of peace, security, thanksgiving, and the awareness of God’s abiding presence. It is, first and foremost, supernatural. It remains constant through trial, hardship, and persecution, and it’s not dependent on emotional hype or stirring up to sustain it. It is not something we can conjure or simulate or control. It is the supernatural outworking of the life of Christ within us, a taste of eternity to root us and ground us in the source and sustainer of life.
Where the presence of Lord is, we will always find His joy. It’s unavoidable. And this is where it gets interesting, because where the presence of the Lord is, we should also find peace, salvation, forgiveness, mercy, grace, healing, deliverance… All of these things are bound up in the total ‘package’ of His joy. They are interactive. Each works to release the other, but this has absolutely nothing to do with ‘signs and wonders.’ It has to do with the presence of the Lord, the wellspring of joy which overflows into all the other things that will follow if His presence is there.
Now, let’s move on to the ‘why.’ It’s important to look at the context of this verse. It follows after the stoning of Stephen in chapter 7, in which we see his vision of the presence of the Lord – Jesus glorified beside the Father. But Stephen was stoned. Where’s the joy in that? Stephen’s joy wasn’t dependent on the circumstances. It was dependent on the assurance of the presence of the Lord, and his revelation and death set off a sequence of events that we now have as the Acts of the Apostles, and which included the conversion of Saul of Tarsus.
This chain reaction – which can be said to have had it’s beginning in the joy of the Lord – initiated virulent persecution against the new church and scattered the apostles. It also sent out the first evangelist. Phillip goes to Samaria, and our verse occurs after the presence of the Lord has manifested through his ministry. Why? Because Phillip took the presence and the joy of the Lord with Him. All those who scattered had one thing in common. They preached the Gospel. This is the outward sign of the inward joy. If we have the joy of the Lord, we cannot help but preach the Gospel, and the presence of the Lord will always be there to fulfill it.
What, then, sets these early apostles apart from us? How did they manage to find the boldness and the courage to preach in the face of opposition, to preach even in fear of their lives, to preach on the run, and to preach with the kind of conviction that changed lives and impacted cities? The answer is the joy of the Lord – the total and absolute assurance of the His presence always, no matter what. It wasn’t an abstract concept or doctrine. It was something they lived, breathed and spoke. It was part of their intrinsic identity. The life of Christ remained the centre of everything they did.
Living the joy of the Lord is this simple: total surrender to Christ. To live in the supernatural, we must first die in the natural. This is not the surrender of empty words and platitudes that we so often mouth in church worship. It’s the surrender that says, like Job, ‘thou He slay me, yet will I praise Him.’ It’s the kind of yielding that speaks of everything, all, and no turning back. The Bible tells us that the joy of the Lord is our strength. The word strength here implies far more than physical strength. It’s the inner strength we find when we dig deep, when in and of ourselves we have nothing left and God is our only and our all. It’s a supernatural strength that feeds our faith, solidifies our determination, sustains our endurance, and embues our patience.
The sad truth may well be that we don’t see this kind of impact in our lives, churches, and cities because we’re still limping along with one foot in the world. Our joy is incomplete, because it’s diluted with things of the flesh – desires, attitudes, emotional responses, perceptions, expectations, and opinions. To live in the joy of the Lord is to live in submission to the Lord. To coin an old phrase, ‘less of me is more of Him.’ Remember, the joy of the Lord is directly related to the presence of the Lord. If we only allow a portion of His presence, we’ll only have a portion of His joy.
For reasons beyond our comprehension, God has chosen to dwell in us. He has chosen to manifest His presence in us. I believe that the purpose in this is so that His presence can be released everywhere at any time. If we’re not living His joy, we’re not manifesting His presence, and the things that supernaturally followed the lives of the apostles simply won’t happen. This kind of transcending, transforming joy has absolutely nothing to do with special services or corporate prayer times or even national fasting. It has, first and foremost, to do with individuals – with you and me living as yielded vessels. The church did not go to Samaria in corporate outreach. Phillip went. But He went in the joy of the Lord because the presence of the Lord went with him.
This is a challenge for all believers in the end times: live in the joy of the Lord. Live in His presence. Immerse yourself in the Word and in the life of Christ. Surrender the things that clutter your spiritual life and let go of the things that hold you back. Nothing has changed except us. God’s intention was and still is to fully manifest His presence and His joy in and through us. It’s up to us to decide whether or not to let Him.
Lord, help us to hunger and thirst for Your presence and Your joy. Help us to live as the apostles did, with surrendered lives and willing hearts. Forgive us for so easily accepting the lie that You no longer work as You once did, and help us to be obedient to Your command to ‘go,’ making sure that we make space in us for You to go with us.