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What are the major characteristics of your life as a Christian? Stop and answer that question as honestly as you can. As a reader of Tabletalk, you probably understand yourself to be a sincere follower of Christ. What are the major characteristics of the life of a follower of Christ? Many of us have one word that comes to our minds: love. Indeed, our lives are to be marked by our love for God and others as we perceive God’s love for us.

Writing about the characteristics of the Christian life, Paul says, “The fruit of the Spirit is love” (Gal. 5:22). Love is the first characteristic listed as the fruit of the Holy Spirit in our lives. But many Christians are surprised by the second characteristic that Paul mentions. What is the very next characteristic in Paul’s list? It is “joy.” It is right there after “love”—“joy.”

How can joy be such a distinguishing mark for the Christian? The world can know joy, just as it can know love. How, then, is the joy wrought by the Holy Spirit different from the world’s joy? It is a transcendent joy. How can that be? We are quite ordinary people. This joy has a supernatural aspect. The source of this joy is a heart that has been changed by the Holy Spirit—a heart that has been produced by a rebirth. It is a joy empowered by the Holy Spirit, who indwells us and is constantly transforming our lives. This reborn and indwelled life arises every morning and shouts, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Ps. 118:24). It celebrates the physical and spiritual feasts that the Lord brings to our lives daily.

I love the eighth chapter of Nehemiah. A remnant of Israel has returned to Jerusalem from exile in Babylon. The people are being called by their leaders, Ezra and Nehemiah, through the Word of God to celebrate the harvest Feast of Booths. Evidently, Israel had not celebrated this feast for decades. Read about it for yourself:

And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, “This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.” For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, “Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, “Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.” And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them. (Neh. 8:9–12)

God was calling His people to remember and joyously celebrate that He is the Lord of the harvest. Does He not still call us to do this? Are we daily reveling in the immensity of God’s physical and spiritual provisions?

On our worst days, we are still bathed in God’s incomparable grace.

Paul said it this way: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). Notice the word “always”—it is to be a constant joy. By the power of the Holy Spirit, it is a joy that we choose even in the worst circumstances. When Paul and Silas were in the physical and spiritual darkness of the innermost part of a jail in Philippi, when their backs had been laid open by a torturous beating and they were in stocks, what did they do? They chose to pray and sing (Acts 16:25). Their joy transcended this awful midnight of their lives. On our worst days, we are still bathed in God’s incomparable grace. The horrific events of our lives cannot remove the sovereignty of God the Holy Spirit from our reborn hearts, the blood of Christ from our souls, and the certainty of coming glory from our minds. It is in the darkest of times that this joy shines the brightest. This joy is a powerful witness to the world around us.

The returning exiles wrote a song in their joyful celebration:

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
     we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
     and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then they said among the nations,
     “The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us;
     we are glad. (Ps. 126:1–3)

The world was in awe of their joy. Does our joy daily say to the world, “The Lord has done great things for us”? The Philippian jailer was converted when he observed the transcendent joy of Paul and Silas.

Ezra and Nehemiah said to the people, “Do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” We want to say: “No, Nehemiah, you got that wrong. It should be that the strength of the Lord is your joy.” But he did not say that. He said, “The joy of the Lord is your strength.” Believer, what keeps our lives from being eaten alive by sorrow and despair? What keeps us from cynicism and hopelessness? The joy of the Lord is our strength. The word translated “strength” can also be translated “fortress” or “refuge.” Thus, we can say, “The joy of the Lord is our fortress, our refuge.”

Many great cities of the ancient world had an acropolis. When the city was attacked by the enemy, the inhabitants of the city retreated to the acropolis, the fortified height of the city. The acropolis of the kingdom of God is the joy of the Lord. That is our fortress.

So today, I am forced to ask myself, “Is this transcendent joy a hallmark, a distinguishing characteristic, of my life?”

Perseverance of the Saints

Enabling Our Elders to Work with Joy

Keep Reading The Doctrines of Grace

From the December 2023 Issue
Dec 2023 Issue