I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. —an angel of the Lord (Luke 2:10)
The religion of Christ is the religion of joy. Christ came to take away our sins, to roll off our curse, to unbind our chains, to open our prison-house, to cancel our debt. . . . Is not this joy? Where can we find a joy so real, so deep, so pure, so lasting? There is every element of joy—deep, ecstatic, satisfying, sanctifying joy—in the gospel of Christ. The believer in Jesus is essentially a happy man. —Octavius Winslow
The angel’s message to the shepherds at the birth of Jesus condenses the gospel to its core: the “good news of great joy” wasn’t for some; it was “for all the people.” This is truly the best news there has ever been or ever will be.
What characterizes this good news is a deep, everlasting joy for any who will receive it. The Contemporary English Version renders Luke 2:10 this way: “good news for you, which will make everyone happy.”
The world Jesus entered desperately needed a redeemer from sin, hopelessness, and unhappiness. The mythological Greek gods (which the Romans had renamed) were seldom taken seriously. In daily life, Greek and Roman worldviews were centered more on Stoicism or Epicureanism, both of which failed to bring happiness. 1
The Stoics believed in truth and virtue. They exercised mental disciplines that allowed them to overcome emotions and rise above difficulties, similar to some forms of Buddhism today. Scholar William Morrice states, “There was no joy in it. Stoicism was essentially pessimistic in spirit, and its outlook upon life was dark and foreboding.” 2
Epicureanism, on the other hand, taught that happiness was found in enjoying life’s pleasures. According to Epicurus, “There was no place at all in religion for joy—except in the case of the gods themselves, who lived a life of perpetual happiness and bliss. The self-appointed task of the philosopher was to free men from the terrors and degradations of religion.” 3
Stoicism and Epicureanism have close counterparts in contemporary Western culture. As a religion, modern Christianity is viewed, sometimes unfairly and sometimes not, much like Stoicism: a duty-driven, negative, unhappy way of life.
The secular backlash against Christianity today has much in common with Epicureanism. Its message is to be happy however and whenever you can—don’t allow guilt and worry about moral standards to interfere with your happiness. (And just ignore the fact that your “happiness” often brings misery.) The so-called “mystery religions” in Greek and Roman culture affirmed that happiness could be found only in the gods, who alone were truly happy. Today’s New Age beliefs have some similarities to these religions. New Age followers correctly see that happiness is found in a higher spiritual being or force, but they don’t acknowledge the true God of the Bible. When Christianity emerged, the appeal of Jesus’ teachings was widespread. He emphasized truth and virtue, as did Stoicism, and the goodness of pleasures and happiness—including eating and drinking—as did Epicureanism. He also offered a true relationship with God, which the mystery religions fruitlessly sought. Just as he does today, Jesus offered the genuine happiness everyone wanted but had not found.
The psalmist was onto something when he said, “This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24). Yes, in that context he spoke of one particular day, but God has ordained all the days of all his people (see Psalm 139:16). How much happier we’ll be if we rejoice in what God is doing every day and every hour of our lives. Why wait many years—or until we’re with the Lord—to look back and say, “God, I finally see that you were at work even in those hard times; I wish I would have trusted you then”?
I have a close friend who genuinely believes that nearly every meal, get-together, retreat, or vacation is the best he’s ever experienced. This makes him fun to be with. His capacity to enjoy the moment and savor present happiness morphs into treasured memories of past happiness and anticipation of happiness to come. When he raves about today’s delights, I smile and enter into his happiness. And this reminds me of God’s own happiness and why I should enjoy Jesus not just in the biggest events of life, but also the smallest ones.
The true gospel cannot be improved upon. Theologian J. Gresham Machen (1881–1937) said, “In the gospel there is included all that the heart of man can wish.” 4 What do we wish for most? Happiness.
Our happiness is certainly not the only thing the gospel is about. However, it’s one of the wonderful things Christ accomplished through his redemptive work.
Circumstances constantly change, and good news comes and goes, but we should look to God for happiness now. Why? Because the Good News of happiness has come, it is still here, and it will never go away!
Jesus, how can I ever thank you enough for the sacrifice you made in order to secure our salvation and open the pathway to endless happiness? I can’t, and I know that, but I thank you sincerely for granting me an eternity to try.
1 Some of my thoughts here are inspired by William Morrice, Joy in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1985), 11.
2 Ibid., 12.