The staff of The Western Journal is working a reduced schedule over Easter weekend to allow our employees the opportunity for rest and worship with their families if they so choose. We are re-publishing this article as a service to our readers, who reacted strongly to it when it first ran.
This originally was published on desiringGod.org in April 1987.
“Thou hast made known to me the ways of life; thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.”
— Acts 2:28
I begin with three questions for you to answer silently in your own mind.
First, do you want to be happy?
Second, do you want your happiness to be partial or full?
Third, do you want your happiness to stop or to last as long as you last?
The reason I count these questions worthy of Easter Sunday morning is not just because I think every person in this room cares about them, but also because these questions are the rock bottom concerns of the Bible.
Wherever the Bible has had its profoundest effect in people’s lives, it hasn’t been because of the demands of a new duty but because of the power of a new pleasure. Let me illustrate what I mean.
The Effect of the Bible on John and Mary Paton
John G. Paton was born on May 24, 1824, in Dumfries County, Scotland. His father was a weaver and had his stocking frames in a room of the house. And his father was godly. Paton’s biographer says that the churchgoing and Bible stories and Shorter Catechism were “not tasks but pleasures” in the Paton home.
The boy had to quit school when he was 12 to help his father support the family of 11 children, and when he was 17, he had a deep experience of conversion that brought all his parents love for Christ home to his own heart.
The call to Christian service became irresistible and Paton worked for 10 years as a city missionary in Glasgow among the poor children of the slums.
At 32, he accepted the call to missionary service in the New Hebrides in the South Pacific. In March 1858 he married Mary Ann Robson, and on April 16 they sailed together for the cannibal island of Tanna.
In less than a year they had built a little home and Mary had given birth to a son. But on March 3, 1859, one year after their marriage, Mary died of the fever, and in three weeks the infant son died. John Paton buried them alone, and wrote, “But for Jesus … I must have gone mad and died beside that lonely grave.”
One of the gifts that Jesus had given him to sustain him in those days were the words his wife spoke shortly before here death. And right here is where we see the profoundest effect of biblical Christianity. She did not murmur against God, or resent her husband bringing her there. Rather she spoke these incredible words — and you find them again and again where the Bible has sunk into the heart — “I do not regret leaving home and friends. If I had it to do over, I would do it with more pleasure, yes, with all my heart” (Fifty Missionary Heroes, by Julia Johnston, 1913, p. 153).
The Bible Produces a Serious Pursuit of Happiness
Among those who know the Bible best and who have experienced it most deeply, it has never diverted people from the quest for happiness and pleasure. Instead, it has caused people to get really serious about the quest. It has caused them to ask, “Do I really want to be happy? Do I want the fullest happiness possible? Do I want my happiness to last forever?” In other words, the Bible makes us stop playing games with our happiness. It makes us serious, even desperate, in our pursuit.
It makes a harried and overworked businessman go away for a few days and sit by the lake, and look at the sunset and the stars, and ask: “Have I found it? Is this what I am really after? Does it satisfy? Will it last?”
Jesus Christ never once condemned the quest for happiness. But often he has rebuked us for taking it so lightly.
Now what does all this have to do with Easter Sunday? Back in January when I first conceived of this message, I saw the connection in a new way, and I want to try to show it to you.
The Earliest Days of the Church
In Acts 1:3 Luke tells us that “Jesus presented himself alive after his passion by many proofs, appearing to his apostles during forty days, and speaking of the kingdom of God.” For 40 days he sought to prove to his followers that he really was alive, that his body was new and indestructible, that his death for sinners was validated, that his teaching was true, that his fellowship would be permanent, and that his cause would triumph in the world.
Then Jesus ascended into heaven and sat down at the right hand of God the Father. And there he will reign until his ransomed people are gathered in from every people and tongue and tribe and nation. Then the Lord will come a second time in power and great glory and the dead in Christ will be raised to reign with him forever and ever.
The Apostles Pondering the Old Testament
Then the book of Acts goes on to show us that for 10 days after Jesus had ascended to heaven the apostles and Jesus’ mother and his brothers devoted themselves to prayer in Jerusalem. During these 10 days Peter and the others must have combed the Old Testament for predictions and explanations of what was happening in these incredible days, because when the Holy Spirit finally comes upon them with power at the end of those 10 days, the apostles are full of Scripture. They explain everything in terms of the fulfillment of Scripture.
One of the psalms that Peter evidently pondered deeply goes like this:
“Preserve me, O God, for in thee I take refuge. I say to the LORD, ‘Thou art my Lord; I have no good apart from thee.’ As for the saints in the land, they are the noble, in whom is all my delight.
“Those who choose another god multiply their sorrows; their libations of blood I will not pour out, or take their names upon my lips.
“The LORD is my chosen portion and my cup; thou holdest my lot. The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yea, I have a goodly heritage.
“I bless the LORD who gives me counsel; in the night also my heart instructs me. I keep the LORD always before me; because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
“Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices; my body also dwells secure. For thou dost not give me up to Sheol, or let thy godly one see the Pit.
“Thou dost show me the path of life; in thy presence there is fullness of joy, in thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.”
— Psalm 16
The reason we know that Peter had given thought to this psalm is that he quotes from it in Acts 2:25-28. It was a psalm of David and Peter’s mind seemed to go something like this when he pondered this psalm.
What Peter Saw in Psalm 16
We know that God gave David a promise (in 2 Samuel 7:12-16) that one of his own posterity would be the everlasting king of Israel — the Son of David, the Messiah (Isaiah 9:6-7). David must have often thought of this wonderful thing — that in his own body, as it were, there was a king whose reign would never end.
And Peter noticed in reading the psalms of David that sometimes, as David expressed his own hope in God, he would be caught up by the Holy Spirit to say things about himself that went far beyond what his own experience would be. It was as though David were sometimes transported into the future of his son the Messiah and would say things that only the Son of David would experience sometime in the future.
How Will David Not Be Shaken?
This is what Peter saw as he meditated on Psalm 16. He read, “The LORD is at my right hand that I might not be shaken.” (You can see this in Acts 2:25.) And he asked perhaps, “In what sense will David not be shaken?”
So he reads on for the answer. Acts 2:26 — “Therefore my heart was glad, and my tongue rejoiced; moreover my flesh will dwell in hope.” And Peter ponders and answers his question: “The sense in which David will not be shaken is that his heart and his flesh are secure in God. He will be protected — soul and body.”
Will David’s Flesh Really Never See Corruption?
Then Peter asks, “How will they be protected? How safe is David really? Will he not die? Did he not die?” Peter reads on (Acts 2:27), “For thou wilt not abandon my soul to Hades, nor let thy Holy One see corruption.” Peter looks at this for a long time. He ponders, “Will David’s flesh really never see corruption? Will David really never see the decaying effects of the Pit? Does he really expect this much protection for himself?”
And suddenly (or gradually?) it dawns on Peter that these words go beyond anything that David experienced. David did die! David was buried! David’s flesh did see corruption. So Peter recognizes that David is no longer speaking merely for himself. The Spirit has lifted him up to see the destiny of the second David. And the voice of the Messiah is heard prophetically in the voice of his father David.
This Is What Happened to Jesus!
And then the connection with Jesus hits home. This is what happened to Jesus! Peter makes the connection for us in Acts 2:31 — “David foresaw and spoke of the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption. This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses.”
God’s Goal for Jesus’ Gladness
Now right here we begin to make the connection with that longing for happiness that I referred to back at the beginning. In Acts 2:28 Peter goes on to quote from the last verse of Psalm 16. But now we know that it is really Jesus, the Son of David, speaking through the voice of the prophet David:
Thou hast made known to me the ways of life;
thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.
And the psalm ends (though Peter doesn’t finish it), “In thy right hand are pleasures for evermore.”
In other words, what we see from this text is that God’s goal for Jesus Christ beyond the grave was that he might fill him with gladness. So he didn’t abandon his soul to Hades or let his flesh see corruption. He raised him from the dead to make him full of happiness forever and ever.
And what is the essence of this happiness?
Verse 28 says, “Thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.” Which means that we end this series on the pleasures of God where we began — with God the Son and God the Father delighting in each other’s presence. “Thou wilt make me full of gladness with thy presence.”
But what does Jesus experience in the presence of God? What are the pleasures in God’s right hand?
The first thing that comes to mind is glory. Jesus had prayed in John 17:5, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory which I had with you before the world was made.” Jesus had laid down his glory in order to suffer for us. Now he is eager to take it up again.
And the Father was eager to give it. That’s what Paul means when he says (in Philippians 2:8-11), “God has highly exalted him and given him a name which is above every name that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Our Gladness and the Gladness of the Risen God
Now what does the gladness of the risen God have to do with us?
Sanctioning the Pursuit of Gladness
Jesus didn’t just happen upon this gladness beyond the grave; he pursued it with all his might. Hebrews 12:2 says, “For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of God.”
In other words, Jesus was able to endure the cross because he knew it was leading to the Father’s presence where there is “fullness of joy” and to the Father’s right hand where there are “pleasures for evermore.”
This means that, if you are here this morning with a deep longing for happiness, you will not be told by Jesus Christ that this longing is bad, or that it must be denied or that you should have nobler goals on Easter than happiness. Jesus lived for the joy that was set before him. He is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith. And therefore he sanctioned the thirst of our souls by the thirst of his own.
Is Jesus for Us or for Himself?
But there’s more that has to do with us. If all Jesus wanted was the glory and gladness that he had with his Father before the world was, why did he come into the world in the first place? The Bible says, Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners like you and me (1 Timothy 1:15).
But someone might say, “I thought you said he was pursuing his own joy. You said he wanted to be glorified by the Father. Which is it? Does he want his own glory and his own gladness or does he want ours? This has been the key question of this whole series on the pleasures of God. Is he for us or for himself?”
Listen to his own answer one last time from John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to behold my glory which you have given me … before the foundation of the world.”
Yes he is for himself because he longs for the glory and the gladness of his Father’s presence. And yes he is for us, because he wants us with him there.
The Doubly Wonderful Message of Easter
The message of Easter is doubly wonderful.
It is wonderful to see the suffering Son coming home to the Father. What a reunion that must have been when Creator embraced Creator and said, “Well done Son. Welcome home.” What a wonderful thing to see the bloody Passover Lamb of Good Friday crowned with glory and honor, and handed the scepter of the universe!
But it is also wonderful to hear Jesus say, “I want others to be with me, Father. I want others to share my glory. I want my gladness in your glory to overflow like a mountain spring and become the gladness of others. I want my joy in you to be in them and their joy to be full forever and ever.”
On Easter Sunday morning, Jesus blew the lock off the prison of death and gloom and returned to the gladness of God. With that he put his sanction on the pursuit of happiness. And he opened the way for sinners to find never-ending satisfaction at the fountain of the glory of his grace.
From the right hand of God he speaks to everyone of us today and invites us to the never-ending banquet: “I am the bread of life; he who comes to me shall not hunger, and he who believes in me shall never thirst (John 6:35) … I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and whoever lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25–26).
John Piper is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. He is author of more than 50 books, including “Reading the Bible Supernaturally.”
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