The Reason for Joy
“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
-Luke 2: 10-111
The Joy of a New King
The announcement of the angels to the shepherds is “good news of great joy.” They are proclaiming to the shepherds the gospel that “Jesus is Lord.” God has chosen to come to us as a human in Jesus. His birth presents us with juxtaposition. He was born into a royal linage, being a descendent of David; but he was also born among livestock. The creator God comes to us as a child born into a family that could not find room in an inn. The juxtaposition helps us understand what is going on in the nativity story. God, the almighty Lord of the universe, came to us as one of us to save us. It is an act of humility. The great Christ hymn of Philippians 2 describes it well:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”2
God condescended to us because God loves us. He did not come to punish us. He did not visit us in wrath. Rather, He came to save us from the sin and death that torments us. It’s all in the Bible verse we all know. “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”3 This is certainly good news of great joy.
I believe there are also other aspects that we might not immediately recognize packed into this message from the angel. It is about more than a joy in our personal salvation. The Greek word used here for “I bring good news” is εὐαγγελίζομαι. This is a verbal cognate of εὐαγγέλιον, which is most often translated as “gospel.” In other words, you could translate the words of the angel as “I bring you the gospel.”
The angel also calls Jesus “Savior” (Greek: σωτὴρ) and refers to him as “Christ the Lord” (Greek: χριστὸς κύριος). “Christ” in English is basically a transliteration of the Greek χριστὸς. The Greek χριστὸς is an attempt to represent the Hebrew concept of the Messiah. This all takes place in the “city of David.” The mention of David recalls a better time for Israel when they were under the rule of a good king.
Thus, the angel’s message could be paraphrased as, “I bring you the gospel. The Messiah has arrived in the ancestral city of David. He is both Savior and Lord.” The words Gospel, Messiah, Savior, and Lord all have political connotations. I am not arguing that their primary purpose was political, but a first century audience would hear resonances with the message they heard from government officials. The “gospel” was often associated with news from the Roman emperor. The “messiah” in Jewish thought was believed to be a political figure among other things. “Savior” and “Lord” were terms that referred to the emperor. By saying Jesus is “Lord”, the angels are implicitly saying that Caesar is not.4
Again, I am not arguing that the angel’s message is intended to be primarily political. The angel is not announcing that Jesus is going to usurp the throne from the Roman emperor. However, the angel is using terms that have political connotations to signal that the map of the universe is being redrawn.5 Rome is not the final authority. Jesus is at the center of the entire created order as the head of all things. True authority rests on this baby born in Bethlehem.
Therefore, the arrival of Jesus does not mean joy only in your personal salvation. The arrival of Jesus means joy for us as individuals, joy for the nation, joy to the world, and joy for the whole of the universe. Our joy is for our personal salvation in Jesus and for the fact that Jesus sits as the true authority over the universe.
The Quality of Joy
“And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.”
Getting Lost in the Grammar
The angel’s message highlights the reason for joy. The joy of the magi indicates something about the quality of that joy. “They rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” The Greek in this passage is ἐχάρησαν χαρὰν μεγάλην σφόδρα. The verb is ἐχάρησαν, which is a 3rd person plural verb for “they rejoiced.” The verb is modified with the adverb σφόδρα, which means “greatly” or “exceedingly.” Hence, you get the ESV translation, “they rejoiced exceedingly.”
The noun for joy is χαρὰν. This word is a cognate of the verb. They are related to the same etymological roots. This is a cognate accusative, which often just indicates a direct object. However, this “joy” also has an adjective modifier, the Greek μεγάλην (translated as “great”). So the translation is “great joy.” Because joy is modified by an adjective, it emphasizes the action of the verb.6
The point of this discussion of grammar is that Matthew has managed to pack every superlative he can into the phrase. This is not a fleeting moment of joy. It is consequential. We talked about it in the previous post, but this is the joy you feel at the birth of a child. It is the joy reserved for major happy life events. It is significant and all encompassing.
This joy is available to us. The same Jesus that the magi rejoiced at finding is the same Jesus that has called us unto himself. The love that God has shown us in Jesus is cause for us to “rejoice exceedingly” here in the present.
Joy is available to us in Jesus. However, joy in the Gospel is not always easy, and it is not automatic. External forces can easily cause us to lose sight of the joy we have in Jesus. Our circumstances might be a contentious relationship. Our bank account might not be as robust as we want it to be. The mechanizations of society at large may be conspiring against us. Sometimes, complete despondency seems our only option. However, there is always joy to be found in Jesus. We may not feel joy in our current circumstances. But every Christian should rest in the fact that a complete and all-consuming joy is coming with the return of Jesus.
When the curtain is pulled back, everyone will see and acknowledge Jesus as the true authority in the world. Through Jesus, new heavens and a new earth will be established. It will be a world in which the physical corruptibility we currently experience will be no more. It will be a world characterized by the perfect love and justice of God. Joy will be the overriding disposition of those found in Christ in this new age. Our joy may be fleeting right now, but there is coming a day when joy will be our only live option.
That coming joy may seem like a faint glimmer right now, but it is inevitable. Advent is a season set aside to explicitly celebrate the joy in the coming of Christ Jesus. That joy may be easy to find in our present. It may be hard. If that is the case, Advent can be a season for recharging and remembering the joy that we already have and the joy that is coming in Jesus. It is a time to celebrate joy in Christ in all its forms. It is a time to celebrate the joy we have access to now because Jesus came to us as God incarnate those many years ago in Bethlehem. It is a time to celebrate the joy that is coming when Christ returns to claim the world that is properly his.
Whether the joy is present or future, everything resolves in the message of the angel to the shepherds. There is good news of great joy in the arrival of our newborn king.
1All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).↩
4 N.T. Wright discusses these aspect of Paul’s thought in Paul and the Faithfulness of God (Fortress Press, 2013). Some introductory thoughts are found on p. 42f.↩
5This language of the map being redrawn comes from Peter Oakes, “Re-Mapping the Universe: Paul and the Emperor in 1 Thessalonians and Philippians” JSNT 27.3 (2005) 301-322.↩
6 Daniel B. Wallace, Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics (Zondervan: 1996): 189.↩