2 John 4, verse 5
3 John 3, verses 3 & 4
Some weeks ago, we considered the epistles of John. I was struck with the word in 3 John verse 4 where John says, “I have no greater joy than these things that I hear of my children walking in the truth”. It is a superlative statement – I have no greater joy. I would like to consider a number of statements on the part of the epistle writers, where they speak of their joy.
We read in the second epistle of John where he says, “I rejoiced greatly that I have found of thy children walking in truth, as we have received commandment from the Father”. Two separate letters for different circumstances, I would suppose. But what gives the inspired writer joy and is expressed with particular emphasis in the second one, is that he hears of his children walking in the truth.
This is not the first time that John has had occasion to refer to “truth” or “the truth”. He refers to it with some frequency in his first epistle. There is reference to the truth in a number of different contexts and we were able to consider them each in its own context and what I found encouraging was that we considered each of them as we came to them and there was no sense of necessity to deal with this concept of the truth by way of specifying it exactly or by defining it in detail.
It would be generally true, I suppose, to say that “the truth” refers to the way in which God has made Himself known in the person of Jesus Christ. There are several references in John’s first epistle and, of course, it is a word which appears frequently in his gospel. Consideration of the truth is a formative process and I think that this comes into evidence in the Christian’s walk. That means the whole manner of our life is dictated and regulated by all that belongs to the truth and where this is the case, the inspired writer says that he has “no greater joy than these things that I hear of my children walking in the truth.”
I would like to suggest that, since John is writing under divine inspiration, he is reflecting divine approval and that when Christ’s own are seen to be walking in the truth, the pleasure of God is being promoted. Now, I would like, with a light touch, to look at Paul’s epistles and to consider what he considers to be his joy.
We might begin with the epistle to the Romans, chapter 15 and verse 32. He says there, “in order that I may come to you in joy by God’s will, and that I may be refreshed with you. And the God of peace be with you all. Amen”.
This is Paul’s farewell in his letter to the Romans. There is then an appendix and another conclusion. In chapter 16 and verse 19 he says, “For your obedience has reached to all. I rejoice therefore as it regards you; but I wish you to be wise as to that which is good, and simple as to evil”.
He speaks there of their obedience having reached to all. Now I would suppose the indications are that Paul had not been to Rome but he had a report that the word of the glad tidings had been embraced by the Romans and, of course, obedience is a very significant part of the word of the glad tidings. It comes early in the epistle, (1:5): “by whom we have received grace and apostleship in behalf of his name for obedience of faith among all the nations”.
The Romans, then, had responded to the word of the glad tidings and had been obedient to it. Obedience is a subject which he takes up and extends further in chapter 5, where he speaks about the obedience of the one man in contrast to the disobedience of another man. So obedience is a theme in the epistle to the Romans and the apostle declares his joy (Romans16:19): “I rejoice therefore as it regards you”, because their obedience had reached to all.
This is something which the apostle approves of and, speaking as divinely inspired, reflects, I think, the pleasure of God in obedience to the glad tidings.
If we refer to the first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 16 verse 17, Paul says, “I rejoice in the coming of Stephanas and Fortunatus and Achaicus; because they have supplied what was lacking on your part”. This is first reference to joy or rejoicing in Paul’s first epistle to the Corinthians. We know what obtained in Corinth and what required to be corrected; these things were not a matter of joy to the apostle. Reference to joy or rejoicing does not appear until right at the end when he speaks about the way in which the coming of three faithful brothers supplied what was lacking on the part of the Corinthians.
However, in second Corinthians he can speak about their joy. Chapter 7:6: “But he who encourages those that are brought low, even God, encouraged us by the coming of Titus; and not by his coming only, but also through the encouragement with which he was encouraged as to you; relating to us your ardent desire, your mourning, your zeal for me; so that I the more rejoiced”.
At last, the apostle can speak about finding something with regard to which he can rejoice as to the Corinthians and he continues in chapter 7:13: “For this reason we have been encouraged. And we the rather rejoiced in our encouragement more abundantly by reason of the joy of Titus, because his spirit has been refreshed by you all. Because if I boasted to him anything about you, I have not been put to shame; but as we have spoken to you all things in truth, so also our boasting to Titus has been the truth; and his affections are more abundantly towards you, calling to mind the obedience of you all, how with fear and trembling ye received him. I rejoice that in everything I am confident as to you”.
Things had required correction, to which the apostle drew attention in his first epistle. But Titus had been to Corinth and there had been encouragement for Paul to the extent that he can say in verse 7, “so that I the more rejoiced”. I find this section interesting in more ways than one. We find Paul deriving joy from the joy of Titus. And I find the way in which Titus can be encouraged by the response of the Corinthians rather interesting. I find it quite remarkable that they received Titus with fear and trembling.
In the first epistle Paul has to acknowledge that he was among the Corinthians “in fear and in much trembling” (1 Corinthians 2:3). Perhaps that is not surprising. What he had to deal with in the first epistle were things that were simply characteristic of the city. They had been characteristic of the city for centuries. I remember reading a little bit of secular history about the war between Persia and Greece. The author had occasion to mention that, several centuries before New Testament times, Corinth had been a byword for corruption. I think Paul might have wondered when the Lord told him in a dream, “I have much people in this city” (Acts 18:10). In Corinth?
Titus was able to give a report to Paul which not only relieved him but gave him the opportunity to rejoice. I find it interesting that the Corinthians received Titus with fear and trembling. If Paul had been among the Corinthians with fear and in much trembling, it gives an indication of what a formidable character Titus was. I think that this may be confirmed in the epistle to Titus where he is given a commission to attend to things in Crete. The public state of affairs in Crete was probably pretty similar to that in Corinth and it required a man of the stature of Titus to deal with its consequences.
But the Corinthians had not simply met Titus’ exacting standards, they had given him joy. It was a matter of joy on the part of Titus as he communicates this to Paul. It is very fine to see two brothers working together in this way where one finds joy in the response of the brethren to Paul’s letter and he can convey it to the other brother who was the author of the first corrective letter.
Galatians follows Corinthians and any reference to joy is remarkable by its absence. The word is used once, I think, when Paul speaks about the fruits of the Spirit. But there is not a single reference in the Galatian epistle to the joy of the apostle. They had begun in spirit and were seeking to be made perfect in flesh by resort to legalism and there is no joy, nothing that the apostle can refer to as a matter of joy.
He does say that he is willing to, “again travail in birth until Christ shall have been formed in you” (Galatians 4:19). Now, travail in birth, of course, is no matter for joy. A birth is, of course, but travail is no matter of joy. It was the very antithesis of joy that Paul felt he would have to proceed with in order for Christ to be formed in them.
The epistle to the Ephesians follows the epistle to the Galatians. Once again there is no reference to joy or the apostle rejoicing in the epistle to the Ephesians. However, be assured that I am not going to attempt to suggest that things in Ephesus were the way things were in Galatia. Very far from it.
We know how the apostle opens to the Galatians; it is a very brief salutation that he gives them. To the Ephesians, we are all familiar with chapter 1:3 “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenlies in Christ; according as he has chosen us in him before the world’s foundation,” and so on. The opening of the epistle to the Ephesians is as far from the opening to the Galatians as you can imagine. I should like to refer to the apostle’s two prayers in this epistle.
Read a few verses of the first one (Ephesians 1:15), “Wherefore I also, having heard of the faith in the Lord Jesus which is in you, and the love which ye have towards all the saints, do not cease giving thanks for you, making mention of you at my prayers”. He does not speak about joy but he gives them a very strong commendation. “that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, would give you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the full knowledge of him” and so on. This is how the apostle can pray for the Ephesians.
I should like to refer also to his second prayer (3:14), “For this reason I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, of whom every family in the heavens and on earth is named, in order that he may give you according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with power by his Spirit in the inner man; that the Christ may dwell, through faith, in your hearts, being rooted and founded in love, in order that ye may be fully able to apprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of the Christ which surpasses knowledge; that ye may be filled even to all the fulness of God. But to him that is able to do far exceedingly above all which we ask or think, according to the power which works in us, to him be glory in the assembly in Christ Jesus unto all generations of the age of ages”.
Such was the condition among the brethren in Ephesus that he was able to pray in these superlative terms that they might enter into wonderful spiritual things: “the love of the Christ which surpasses knowledge; that ye may be filled even to all the fulness of God”. He concludes with a doxology. There may be no reference to joy or rejoicing but what he knows of Ephesus makes him free to pray in those terms. Those are magnificent, glorious, spiritual blessings that he feels free to pray for. Is there that, perhaps, which transcends joy? I leave it for your consideration.
To the Philippians, then. This is the great epistle of joy. Verses 3 and 4 of chapter 1, “I thank my God for my whole remembrance of you, constantly in my every supplication, making the supplication for you all with joy, because of your fellowship with the gospel, from the first day until now”.
We noticed that it was the practice of the brethren that gave John the superlative joy that he expresses in his second and third epistles: it was the way that they were walking. Once again it is the practice of the brethren that is the subject of Paul’s joy: because of their “fellowship with the gospel, from the first day until now”. I suppose that this involved practical support for the brethren but I think it may also indicate the way in which they were aligning with his mind and spirit with regard to the gospel.
Remembering that we are looking at these references to joy as reflections of the view of the Lord Himself; if the inspired writer can speak in those terms, he was speaking in a way that reflected His pleasure.
We might continue with verse 15, “Some indeed also…”. (He is talking again about the preaching of the glad tidings.) “Some indeed also for envy and strife, but some also for good will, preach the Christ. These indeed out of love, knowing that I am set for the defence of the glad tidings; but those out of contention, announce the Christ, not purely, supposing to arouse tribulation for my bonds. What is it then? at any rate, in every way, whether in pretext or in truth, Christ is announced; and in this I rejoice, yea, also I will rejoice”. So he rejoices at the preaching of the glad tidings even if it is done with impure motives!
Proceeding into chapter 2, he says there in verse 14, “Do all things without murmurings and reasonings, that ye may be harmless and simple, irreproachable children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation; among whom ye appear as lights in the world, holding forth the word of life, so as to be a boast for me in Christ’s day, that I have not run in vain nor laboured in vain. But if also I am poured out as a libation on the sacrifice and ministration of your faith, I rejoice, and rejoice in common with you”.
He has expressed his appreciation in their support of the apostle in the glad tidings earlier, but what we find here is that the Philippians were active in the same exercise. They were “harmless and simple, irreproachable children of God in the midst of a crooked and perverted generation” among whom they appeared as lights in the world. It was the promotion of the word of the glad tidings actively by the Philippians: they appeared as lights in the world.
I think Philippi might have been a difficult place in which to render the Christian testimony. I tend to think of Philippi in the light of the epistle to the Philippians which is a very warm and, as we have said, joyful epistle. But if we remember Paul’s first encounter with Philippi in Acts chapter 16, I think it becomes clear there that Philippi was not an easy place in which to bear the Christian testimony. It had been Paul’s practice systematically in his other journeys to go into the synagogue and to tell the Jews in the synagogue that they were looking for the Messiah and he could tell them who the Messiah was. That was his customary mode of approach. It would seem that that was not available to him in Acts chapter 16. He is reproached when he is brought before the authorities. One of the issues that is raised is that he was a Jew, and he was teaching customs that were incompatible with what belonged in a Roman colony. So I think that Philippi was not an easy place in which to bear the Christian testimony.
He is commending the Philippians for their holding forth the word of life in circumstances such as these and he is happy to be poured out as “a libation on the sacrifice and ministration of your faith”. Something extra was to be added and he was happy to be that extra that would be poured out to enhance the sacrifice and ministration of their faith. So he says, “I rejoice, and rejoice in common with you all”.
One more reference in Philippians. “So that, my brethren, beloved and longed for, my joy and crown, thus stand fast in the Lord” (Philippians 4:1). What a commendation of the Philippians that was: the apostle’s joy and crown! They would be a tribute to him. The crown is something that is received as a reward for something well done and he identifies this reward with the company of the Philippians: “beloved and longed for, my joy and crown”. He encourages them to stand fast in the Lord. This is a very fine recognition that they are given and, for the moment, we are viewing any comment that relates to the apostle’s joy as a reflection of the approval of heaven.
One reference in Colossians chapter 2. “For I would have you know what combat I have for you, and those in Laodicea, and as many as have not seen my face in flesh; to the end that their hearts may be encouraged, being united together in love, and unto all riches of the full assurance of understanding, to the full knowledge of the mystery of God; in which are hid all the treasures of wisdom and of knowledge. And I say this to the end that no one may delude you by persuasive speech. For if indeed in the flesh I am absent, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing and seeing your order, and the firmness of your faith in Christ. As therefore ye have received the Christ, Jesus the Lord, walk in him, rooted and built up in him, and assured in the faith, even as ye have been taught, abounding in it with thanksgiving”.
There were good conditions in Colosse. It is interesting how he phrases the expression of his joy, “rejoicing and seeing your order”. This must have been by report because the indications are that he had never been to Colosse but he is happy to see their order. I think that if anyone was keen on organisational order, they might have found things very satisfactory in Galatia but this is order of a different kind and the apostle can express his approval of it. It is interesting to see how he opens to the Colossians in chapter 1: in verses four and five, he refers to faith and love and hope. In 1 Corinthians 13 the apostle speaks about three things which abide: faith, hope and love and these are in full evidence in Colosse.
From verse 9 onwards there is a very exalted prayer by the apostle indicating the way in which things were in good order in Colosse and what it leads into is one of the distinctive delineations of the glory of the Lord Jesus. The brethren in Colosse were ready for the reception of this.
To the Thessalonians, then, chapter 2. It is interesting in the opening of the epistle to the Thessalonians he can also speak of the way in which faith, hope and love are manifested in them. In chapter 2:19, “For what is our hope, or joy, or crown of boasting? are not ye also before our Lord Jesus a his coming? for ye are our glory and joy”.
He had spoken of the way in which the word from the Thessalonians had sounded out, “not only in Macedonia and Achaia, but in every place your faith which is towards God has gone abroad”. He commends the way they had, “turned to God from idols to serve a living and true God, and to await his Son from the heavens”. And then there is this statement at the end of chapter 2 that, “ye are our glory and joy”. I think there is an echo of the way in which he can speak to the Philippians where he, as we have noticed, can speak of them as, “my joy and crown” and he can hail the Thessalonians as, “ye are our glory and joy”. He goes on to speak about the way in which he wished to be reassured that things were progressing with them, and how he would send Timotheus in order to be able to bring a report of this kind to him.
One more reference, then, in second Timothy and this time the word is to an individual. 2 Timothy 1:3 “I am thankful to God, whom I serve from my forefathers with pure conscience, how unceasingly I have the remembrance of thee in my supplications night and day, earnestly desiring to see thee, remembering thy tears, that I may be filled with joy”.
So, he can express joy in his letters to companies and to an individual. He can speak in the way that we have noted in these two verses, “that I may be filled with joy; calling to mind the unfeigned faith which has been in thee, which dwelt first in thy grandmother Lois” and so on, “and I am persuaded that in thee also”.
Well, we have considered the contexts in which the apostle can speak of his joy and we have suggested that these reflect the divine pleasure. What I would like to do now is to consider the fact that these expressions of joy were also reflections of the mind of the inspired writers who spoke.
When John says, “I have no greater joy” he was actually speaking about his own response to what he saw as to those who were walking according to truth and in every one of the circumstances that we have looked at in the various epistles, it was also Paul’s own expression of joy that we read about. I trust that it is legitimate to suggest that he is reflecting the divine pleasure but it was also his own joy that he was expressing. What, I hope, we have been able to trace is that he is talking about aspects of the practice of the brethren: the way that the brethren were behaving, the way that they were developing in the knowledge of the Lord and the way that they were bearing testimony. These were things that gave Paul and John their joy.
Now, I think that, if someone finds his joy in the prosperity of the brethren, there is strong evidence of the instinct and the mind of the shepherd. As Paul stands before Agrippa he gives, I think, a summary in Acts, of what his commission was. In Acts 26,:16, “for this purpose have I appeared to thee, to appoint thee to be a servant and a witness both of what thou hast seen, and of what I shall appear to thee in, taking thee out from among the people, and the nations, to whom I send thee, to open their eyes, that they may turn from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive remission of sins and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me”.
Now that is very much, it seems to me, a service of enlightening. He was bringing the light of God, made known in Jesus Christ and it was a light which would result in receiving “remission of sins and inheritance among them that are sanctified by faith in me”. Perhaps a rather more direct commission to shepherd is given to Peter, in the Lord’s gracious service to him at the end of John’s gospel.
I think that not only was Paul one who brought light to men but in all these circumstances where he speaks of his joy, there is indication that his joy is related to the spiritual prosperity of the brethren. Paul’s expressions of joy are the expressions of a shepherd. You can think of the word to the Philippians where he speaks about sending Timothy, chapter 2 and verse 19, “But I hope in the Lord Jesus to send Timotheus to you shortly, that I also may be refreshed, knowing how ye get on”. That is the instinct of a shepherd. “For I have no one like-minded who will care with genuine feeling how ye get on”. So he regrets that there would seem to be a lack of those who had the instinct of a shepherd. “For all seek their own things, not the things of Jesus Christ”.
I would like simply to close by repeating something which we had in a reading a few weeks ago, when it was stated quite emphatically that the shepherd is a gatherer. Satan is a scatterer but it is the instinct of the shepherd to gather. I think that in these things, which constituted the personal joy of the apostle, you see the instincts of the shepherd to gather.
In closing I would just touch lightly on our recent circumstances. Gathering in person in a room is the way of meeting to which we have been accustomed and this, in recent times, has not been possible. But what we have had is the present technological facility and there has been gathering of another kind. One consequence of this is that we have met with those with whom we would not have done so in normal circumstances and this beyond simply geographical constraints. I just wonder whether it might be appropriate to ask ourselves whether this is some indication from the Lord as to gathering more widely, and that not simply geographically, beyond our previous boundaries.
What we have found is that we have a great deal in common and we have had profit from engagement with one another. I would hesitate to use language that might be, in any way, sectarian but we have been gathering from, may I say, more than one circle of practical fellowship to mutual benefit.
It is the instinct of the shepherd to gather. Paul, in his shepherding activities, finds joy in it. I just wonder whether circumstances have been allowed, recently, which allow us to gather where perhaps, until now, barriers might have existed but our extensive common ground has allowed us to edify and encourage one another.
I would wish to avoid strenuously any appearance of driving an agenda. We have seen the dreadful consequences of activity of this kind in the past. I trust, however, that I might have the liberty to leave us all with the question as to whether we are being given, shall we say, some gentle guidance of the Lord as to ways in which this gathering, which is the instinct of a shepherd, might be furthered.
Address for Croydon by Jim Macfarlane, on Zoom, 1 May 2021