His Joy and Ours
This is an important text for me personally.
I grew up in a context in which people believed certain things about the gospel and about Jesus, and it was easy to see why the gospel was good news: they believed that we needed a Savior, that Jesus came to be that Savior (and they were right). It was good news in theory—but in practice, it often ended up having a lot of strings attached: You CAN be saved, if and ONLY if you meet the following qualifications.
It is good news to have the possibility of being saved; it's good news to have the door to salvation opened. But if that possibility depends on conditions which I have to fulfill, but which in reality are out of my reach, the good news becomes bad very quickly—and even ends up being worse than if the door was simply closed, because it's a tease: like a mean adult who holds a cookie down to a child only to snatch it away just before the child can reach it.
Salvation always seemed that way to me: Jesus opened the door to salvation for me, and all I had to do was walk through it. But in order to stay saved—in order to stay in that room and not be yanked back out the door—I had to do things I knew I couldn't do. As Charles Spurgeon quoted in his famous Defense of Calvinism,
"If ever it should come to pass,
That sheep of Christ might fall away,
My fickle, feeble soul, alas!
Would fall a thousand times a day."
So the few times that I read my Bible when I was young, with this slightly confusing theological context in my mind, when I came to texts like today's texts, I had no idea what to do with them.
Remember that Jesus has just sent out his seventy-two disciples into villages to proclaim the good news—we saw that last week. Now, the disciples come back from their journey, and Jesus is going to talk to them again. He's going to talk to them about why the gospel is such good news. And what’s amazing here is how he’s going to frame it. He’s not just going to present the gospel as good news for the people they’ve just shared it with; he’s going to present the gospel to the seventy-two disciples who have just come back from the ministry, as good news for them (and by extension, for everyone who has accepted their message).
Joy in Salvation (v. 17-20)
17 The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” 18 And he said to them, “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven. 19 Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you.”
So the seventy-two return, and they’re pretty excited about all that they were able to do on the road. Essentially, the power of Jesus worked through them. They healed people; they cast out demons in his name. That’s great, and Jesus doesn’t deny it: “Yes, this is good. This is the beginning of the end for Satan, and you get to be a part of it.”
But he’s not going to leave it there; he’s going to say there’s something even better.
20 “Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
This is an image given multiple times in the Bible. The picture is of a book, a register, in heaven, in which God has written all the names of all of his children throughout history. What’s this picture trying to convey? It means that if you have faith in Christ:
• God knows your name—he knows you personally, not just as “a Christian”.
• Whatever gets written in his book stays written in his book (cf. Rev. 3.5). If your name is there, it will always be there, regardless of how imperfect you are.
• Your salvation is not just won by Christ, but assured by Christ. Nothing you do can take back what he has given you.
Why is this such a big deal? Because ordinarily, our relationships depend on how well we perform for the other person. People are friends, and they enjoy one another...until one of them does something to offend or hurt the other. Then they're not friends anymore. People get married, and then one spouse cheats on another, and they get a divorce. People get jobs, and then they realize their boss is cheating them out of their retirement, and they end that professional relationship.
Usually our relationships depend on both parties in that relationship doing their part to make it work.
There is one exception—one relationship that does not depend on performance to keep existing. And that, obviously, what a parent feels for their children.
Children may grow to hate their parents...but unless there's something seriously broken in them, parents always love their children. The child doesn't have to do anything in particular to earn that love; they don't have to "do their part" for their parents to keep loving them; and no amount of disappointment or pain will ever make them love their children less.
In France, every family has a book in which all the names of everyone in the family are written: the livret de famille. If your name is written in that book, it means that you're either the parent or the child of that parent. It's like a visual manifestation of the solidity of that relationship: nothing a child does can take their name out of that book. Nothing they do can make them not be their parents' child.
How far removed is this from the way we usually view our relationship with God?
We almost always imagine that our relationship with God depends on our performance to keep existing. Since it began with a choice to follow Christ (we'll get to that in a minute), we imagine that if we want God to keep loving us, we've got to do a "good job." And if for some reason we fail, or don't have enough faith, or love him enough, then he's going to get tired of us a throw us away.
But that's not how this relationship works. Our names are written in heaven. When we come to faith in Christ, we don't enter into a professional exchange of services—we are adopted by God. We are his children. Our names are written in his livret de famille. Nothing we do can ever make him love us more, or less.
So as much power as you may wield, even over demons, that is the smallest thing you have to be thankful for. This is why I have a problem with charismatic churches who put spiritual gifts on a pedestal as the most important part of the Christian life. I believe in spiritual gifts. I believe God still uses them for his glory today. But I don’t believe that they should be the center of our lives, or of our church, or of our preaching, or of our prayer, because Jesus says not to rejoice in our power in the spiritual realm, but rather because our names are written in heaven.
If you belong to him, you probably barely even realize just how great his love is toward you. Just how massive the gift of salvation is for you. Whatever good things he has given you, they are not the main reason for you to rejoice.
Christians are commanded to be happy. And they will be happy, for this specific reason: that their names are written in heaven.
Now I love what happens next. Jesus gives us a reason for us to rejoice. But then he does something incredible: he turns from our joy to his own.
Joy in Revelation (v. 21)
21 In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will.
This is one of the most glorious and incomprehensible truths of the Bible.
If you think about the way things usually work, and you think like I do, your mind will automatically go to action movies. The ones who always figure out the important things—the enemy’s master plan, the only way to stop him—are always the most brilliant and capable ones. The Tony Starks of the world. You never see ordinary people let in on this kind of monumental plan, because they’re ordinary, and you have to be brilliant to understand it.
That’s what happens in movies because that’s what happens in the world.
But that’s not what happens here. God never goes about things the way we would expect. He chose to hide his plan from the wise and understanding—for example, the religious leaders of his time who should have seen it coming—and reveal them to “little children.” To the ordinary. To the uneducated. To those who had no reason to be involved in such a story.
Jesus says this was God’s “gracious will.”
This should be good news to those (like me) who are idiots. Because clearly God is not interested in mere efficiency, at least not in the way we view efficiency. To my way of thinking, God could have gotten things done much faster and much more effectively if he had revealed these things to the Einsteins of the world, to the “wise and understanding,” as Jesus puts it. But he’s not interested in mere efficiency—he’s interested in grace.
God would rather reveal his plan to simple, uneducated men and women who know they can’t succeed, than to brilliant men and women who will soon be tempted to think they had anything to do with the plan’s success. And on those occasions when he does choose to use someone who is educated and brilliant (like the apostle Paul), he breaks the illusion of self-sufficiency first, showing Paul just how little he can do on his own, so that he might say, “I worked harder than anyone…yet it wasn’t me, but the grace of God that is with me” (cf. 1 Corinthians 15.10).
The first thing you realize when you begin to come into contact with the gospel is just how incomplete and ridiculous your efforts to succeed ever are. Even if everyone around you sees what you do as a rousing success, when compared with the eternal scope of God’s plan, your success is like that of a three-year-old who’s just learned to put on his shoes. (“Good job, kid, but it’s not that big a deal: I’ve been doing that for thirty-five years.”)
When we come into contact with the gospel, and we realize that our best efforts to succeed are actually pretty pitiful, we learn the wonderful, glorious news that that’s okay! That’s exactly the way it was meant to be—God chose to reveal his will to “little children,” rather than the wise and understanding.
Now, what’s most incredible about all this is not that God would choose to reveal his will to “little children” like us. What’s most incredible is that here we have an open window into Christ’s own thinking and emotions.
People, when they picture God, almost always imagine him as solemn and hyper-serious. They think of the old, angry God from Monty Python. When they think of Jesus, they think of a man who goes through life with a kind of assured stoicism—he only has two facial expressions: sad or serious. And in those rare moments when someone paints Jesus smiling, it’s usually in such a saccharin-sweet context that we can’t take it seriously (Jesus sitting on a rock in a halo of sunlight, surrounded by sweet children and butterflies and lambs—no wonder people have a hard time thinking he has anything to offer them).
But here we see Jesus actively rejoicing, and he says why he’s so happy.
“I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.”
Jesus loves that the Father wouldn’t do what people are expecting; that he wouldn’t reveal his will to the so-called important people.
And it’s a big deal that Jesus would rejoice in this. He is the Son of God; the Creator of all things. He’s seen a lot, because he made everything—how hard must it be to impress him?
When the sovereign Lord and Creator of all gets excited about something, that’s a pretty good indication that it’s a very, very good thing.
So Jesus gives us a reason for joy—that our names are written in heaven—and then gives a reason for his own joy—that God has chosen to reveal these things to little children rather than the wise and understanding. And now he’s going to take his joy, turn it around, and apply it to us—he’s going to help us make his joy our own.
But to do this he’s going to have to go back a step—back before our efforts, back before we every tried to know him or serve him. He’s going to lay down the simple foundation that unless he himself acts, none of us can make any efforts at all.
Joy in Election (v. 22-24)
Let’s take it bit by bit. V. 22:
22 All things have been handed over to me by my Father...
So the Father God has ultimate authority and ownership over everything that exists, and he has given this authority and ownership over to Jesus.
...and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son...
This simply means that no one knows God but God. Because we are created in his image, our souls are drawn to God; they desire to know him. But because we are born in sin, we can’t know him. The only man who can know God is the man who is God—the only man who is without sin. God the Son, the man Jesus, knows God the Father, and he is the only man who can know the Father by himself.
That sounds like bad news: because we are sinful beings, it is impossible for us to know God. That’s the way things work naturally. But Jesus goes on:
...no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
So if Jesus chooses to reveal the Father to you by his Holy Spirit, on the basis of his life, death and resurrection, then you can know him, because your sin has been removed from you. Jesus took it on himself and bore the punishment for that sin.
Let’s look at this in the context of what he has said so far.
Certain people reject Christ, and certain people accept Christ (we saw that last week).
If we accept Christ, then God fulfills all his promises to his people for us.
If we reject Christ, the means of God’s salvation, then God rejects us.
If we accept Christ, our names are written in heaven. We will always belong to him. We will always love him. The moment when we placed our faith in Christ, we met God; we know him now, and we are constantly growing in our knowledge of him.
And if that has happened for us, if we know God today, it is because Jesus chose to reveal him to us.
No one knows the Father except the Son, and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.
This answers the question of how our relationship with God began.
If you have faith in Christ, if you have accepted his gift of salvation, if your name is written in heaven, if you know God, it is only because Jesus freely chose to give you this great gift of knowing him. It has nothing to do with you, or anything you did. It is only because of his free choice to reveal the Father to you.
And this fact, Jesus says, should make us wildly, eternally HAPPY.
23 Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! 24 For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
In other words: you guys are lucky beyond all comprehension. You all are blessed beyond all reason. This is something so many people have wished for, and not gotten. Their souls desired God, but because they didn’t desire him as God—because they didn’t want to submit to God as he reveals himself—they didn’t get God.
Everyone who rejects God gets exactly what they ask for; and they don’t even realize that the thing they rejected is the very thing they always wanted. And let’s be clear: this is the case for all of us naturally—because we are all sinners, we all naturally reject God.
But God, in his sovereign wisdom, gave all authority to Christ, and Christ, in his incomprehensible love for sinners, chose to reveal the Father to us, though we are no better than those who don’t know God, and sometimes we’re even worse.
We want to find some kind of rhyme or reason in our salvation—I’m saved because I made the right choice to follow Christ, or I’m saved because I understood something about God that others don’t, or I’m saved because I have something God needs to fulfill his plan.
All of that is a lie. God doesn’t need us, and on your own you couldn’t choose to follow Christ or understand him. If we are saved, it is only because Jesus chose to reveal the Father to us. It is only because when the choice was put in front of us to accept or reject Christ, he showed us what we needed to see, and he made us hear what we needed to hear.
This is why he doesn’t say we are worthy or deserving, but blessed.
“Blessed are the eyes that see what you see! For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
This text is absolutely loaded with things for us to take away, but I’d like to simply observe four. If we take what Jesus says here seriously, there will be four inevitable results in our lives; if we take the words of Jesus here in the context of the whole of Scripture, four things will be more and more visible in our lives.
The first result is humility.
If you are saved, it is not because you first chose to accept Christ, but because Christ chose to reveal the Father to you. The only reason you made that choice is because he chose you first.
Jonathan Edwards called this God’s “arbitrary choice”—not arbitrary in the sense that there’s no reason, but in the sense that we can’t understand why God did what he did. There is nothing you have ever done, or could ever do, to make yourself more—or less!—worthy in God’s eyes.
The gospel makes humble servants, who know the grace they have received, although they can’t see the reason why; and who are then driven to show that same grace to others, although they may have every reason to do otherwise.
The second result is thankfulness.
If you are saved, your salvation was given to you by the One who had every reason to condemn you. And the measure of your salvation is much greater than most Christians believe: God didn’t just make salvation possible for you; he made you saved. You were dead, and he made you alive.
Paul says in Colossians 2.13:
And you, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him...
We were dead in our trespasses—that is, we were dead, and we deserved it. And even so, God made us alive.
If you know this—think about it—it will change the way you see every relationship, and every circumstance. You will be less likely to grow frustrated with people, because you’ll know how frustrating you are. You will be less likely to cynically assume the worst about people, because you’ll know that God doesn’t see you as you are, but as what he’s making you become. You will be less likely to despair at disappointment because (as I often joke), whatever pain you’re going through, you should be in hell…so it’s still a good day.
The third result is assurance. It is the assurance of knowing that if you are saved, you will stay saved. If you look at the language Jesus uses in this text, there is nothing unsure or conditional about it—these things are sure.
In v. 18 Jesus makes this surprising proclamation: “I saw Satan fall like lightning from heaven.” In other words, this is the end of Satan’s reign.
He says (v. 19) that he gives the seventy-two authority over all the power of the enemy. Now, this is a narrative text: it describes something that happened, not necessarily something that is true for all believers. It doesn’t mean that all Christians will be able to cast out demons or walk on serpents and scorpions.
But Satan’s authority over us is indeed broken—those who belong to Christ are no longer under the authority of Satan. We now have the power to say no to his temptations, and the authority to order him to flee. He will come back and tempt us again, but we now have the authority of Christ to never let him win.
And our assurance is even greater than that. Not only has Satan fallen like lightning from heaven, but our names are written in heaven. In Revelation 13, when John sees his vision of Satan having influence over the world, there is one group who is not under Satan’s influence:
everyone who name was written before the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who was slain (Rev. 13.8).
If you have faith in Christ, you name is written in the book of life…and it always has been. God had your name written in the book before he even created the world. God’s plans always come to pass; what he proclaims from the beginning, he achieves at the end. If he planned to save you, he will save you.
If your name was written in his book before the foundation of the world, it will still be there when Christ comes to renew the earth.
God’s children can have absolute, iron-clad assurance that if they belong to him, they always will.
The last result is obvious, given all that Jesus has said: it is JOY.
We have a long list of reasons for joy in this text.
The Christian’s joy is the joy of knowing that although you are imperfect, you are being made perfect; the joy of knowing that although you don’t deserve it, you have received boundless love from the holy God; the joy of knowing that although you sin every single day, you never have to doubt your salvation or wonder if you’re “still saved”; the joy of knowing that you are a part of something bigger—a mission which has eternal, cosmic significance.
Jesus rejoices that the Father has hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children. And this fact—the source of his happiness and ours—that our names are written in heaven—that we see and hear things that many people long to see and hear—gives glory to God. To reveal these things to us was his gracious will.
Jesus rejoiced in this. And he commands us to rejoice in this.
So the call of this text could not be simpler: Christians, be happy. Don’t be happy for the sake of happiness; be happy in your God. See the grace that he has given you to open your eyes and open your ears and open your heart; see the grace that he has given you in having written your name in heaven before the world began—and rejoice.
It’s possible that for today, this is easy for you. Most of you here are young, and haven’t lived long enough to have the joy beat out of you. I know you don’t believe that when you’re twenty-five, but trust me: however bad life has been so far, it’ll probably get worse. A lot worse. That’s life in a fallen world. So although this sermon may not feel necessary for you today, it will be soon.
There will come a time when you will suffer—perhaps more than you ever imagined possible. And that’s the moment when you’ll understand why God doesn’t just encourage us to be joyful, but actually commands us to rejoice. When we know that joy in God is not just a gift he gives us, but a responsibility as his children, we understand that we’ll need to work at it. We’ll need to fight for it. When the pain of life crowds everything else out, we’ll need to work hard to call to mind all the reasons he has given us for joy—and the reasons he gives us barely scratch the surface of his grace to us.
So do not take this as an exhortation: it is a command. Do not rejoice at the power you have received to resist the devil—that’s circumstantial. Rejoice that your names are written in heaven. The real reasons for joy God gives us do not depend on our situation: they cannot be touched by any circumstance or painful situation. No matter what we’re going through, these things will not move or change.
So rejoice, brothers and sisters. Today, tomorrow, and forever.
And if you don’t know God today, this commandment is for you as well—come to Christ, and rejoice in him forever. If you come to him today, not only are you not under God’s wrath; you have received every reason for joy that we have.
Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.