When we come to the New Testament, the Greek provides one central word for joy: chara. It is a cousin to charis, the New Testament word for “grace.” The connection becomes clear: biblical joy responds to the arrival of God’s gracious gifts. In some cases, biblical joy arises before the gift arrives as the believer trusts with certainty that God will come. This explains a passage like Habakkuk 3:17–18:
Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice [alaz] in the Lord;
I will take joy [giyl] in the God of my salvation.
Habakkuk was the prophet who announced that “the righteous shall live by his faith” (Hab. 2:4; Rom. 1:17). And at the end of his prophecies, we see Habakkuk doing just that. When all his eyes survey is loss and deprivation, he nonetheless sees by faith the firm promise of God. Yes, the Lord will come. Habakkuk is so sure of it that, amid heartbreaking circumstances, he rejoices in defiant expectation.
In an act of immeasurable grace, as a gift to His people, a culmination of all the Old Testament promises, God sends forth His Son. He comes to be the firstfruits of a long-awaited harvest (1 Cor. 15:20), He comes to be the everlasting King (Matt. 2:2), He comes to deliver us from our greatest enemies (1 Cor. 15:25–26), He comes to bring us out of exile to an everlasting home (Eph. 2:13), He comes as the presence of God dwelling in our midst (John 1:14) and imparting God’s very own joy to us (15:11; 16:24). Of all the gifts God has ever given, Christ is the greatest. And so, of all the joy we could ever experience in response to God’s gift, this joy is the greatest.
The “Mega Joy” of Christmas
Only three times in the entire Old Testament do we read of “great joy”: at the coronation of Solomon (1 Kings 1:40), at the recovery of the Passover under Hezekiah (2 Chron. 30:26), and at the dedication of the rebuilt wall after the exile (Neh. 12:43). In other words, while joy is prominent in the Old Testament, “great joy” is extremely rare and special.
That is why our eyes should jump as we open our New Testament to wise men from the east rejoicing “with great joy” at a star and angels announcing “good news of great joy” to shepherds (Luke 2:10; Matt. 2:10). A literal rendering of the Greek in each case would be “mega joy” (charan megalen). Those two words stand out even more when we recognize that they will not be paired again until resurrection morning, when we read not of shepherds or wise men, but of the women who “departed quickly from the tomb with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples” (Matt. 28:8; cf. Luke 24:52).
The joy of Christmas is no ordinary joy, but the “mega joy” of redemptive history. It discerns, by faith, the unsurpassable gift of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, and it trusts, often in defiance of painful circumstances, that nothing can prevent every last promise in Christ from coming to complete fulfillment.
Popular Christmas songs may add cheer in some seasons and antagonize our hearts in others. But there is another song that plays in the background of the believer’s life, supplying the real soundtrack of history: the great song of God’s triumphant redemption and promised restoration through the King of kings and Lord of lords.
It’s a song not about a happiness we pursue, but about a joy that pursues us. May the Spirit give you ears to hear it, give you faith to believe it, and make your heart full of joy, even as you rest not in your circumstances, but in your Christ.
This post was originally published on December 23, 2017.