What Was Jesus' "Joy Set Before Him"?
Most often, the church talks about joy at Christmas. Jesus’ thoughts, however, were on joy in the days before Easter. The phrase “for the joy set before Him” tells us that our Lord looked beyond the cross as a strategy to endure the humiliation, pain, and public death. Where do we find this phrase, and what does it mean for us?
What Bible Verse Says "For the Joy Set Before Him"?
The phrase “for the joy set before Him” appears in the New Testament book of Hebrews. Hebrews’ themes include:
- the supremacy of Christ
- the connection between the Old Testament and the Gospel
- perseverance in the faith.
First-century Christians came to faith amidst suspicion, political oppression, and relentless persecution. The writer of Hebrews encourages believers to endure, hold on, and keep their eyes on Jesus during great trials. He points to Jesus’ example as our model.
The phrase “for the joy set before Him” appears in Hebrews 12:2. Here it is with the preceding verse:
“Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him, he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2 NIV)
This is a powerful passage, but since it begins with “Therefore,” it’s wise to consider what the writer has just spoken about before this chapter.
What is the Context of Hebrews 12:2?
Throughout Hebrews, the writer has drawn on Old Testament references to make the case that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was sufficient for all. This writer, who does not provide his name, opens the book with powerful words that place Christ at the beginning of time. He states that while God spoke with previous generations through the prophets, now He speaks with us by Jesus. And Jesus is God’s son who will inherit all things. He also states that God created the universe through Jesus (Hebrews 1:1-2).
In this way, the writer reaches as far back as human history goes and indicates that Jesus was already present. He acknowledges that God spoke through the prophets but makes the case that now, in these last days, we receive God’s message through Jesus. He then spends the first ten chapters illuminating who Jesus is, how His life and sacrifice relate to the Old Testament laws and practices, and continuously draws our attention to what lies ahead.
The writer calls believers to live by faith. In Hebrews 11, he references a long list of faithful men and women who came before us, lauding their vision and faith. These comprise the “great cloud of witnesses” referenced in the opening of chapter 12. These faithful believers trusted forward in Jesus’ death on the cross while we rely back on the cross. And yet, also like these men and women, together we follow Jesus’ lead in looking ahead to a day when we will have even greater joy if we persevere.
What Was the Joy Set Before Jesus?
It’s reasonable to ask what was this joy that would be so wonderful, Jesus could lean on it to help Him endure the horror of death on the cross?
The writer hints at this in chapter 11. In Hebrews 11:10, he writes about Abraham, “For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
He writes in Hebrews 11:16 about all who live by faith: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.”
There is a place that we know by faith but will know one day be sight, where we will live with God and He with us. The joy of this is what can carry us through the tribulations of our times.
Further down in Hebrews 12, we get a better glimpse of this city:
“But you have come to Mount Zion, to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly, to the church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven. You have come to God, the Judge of all, to the spirits of the righteous made perfect” (Hebrews 12:22-23 NIV).
This city is one that the apostle John also glimpsed and writes about in the book of Revelation. The joy of this city is that there will be no more pain, sadness, or death. We will be with God, and He will be with us. There, we will live forever.
All the apostles, along with Paul, suffered greatly to spread the gospel and speak for Christ. First-century believers suffered when they came to faith. Their communities often rejected them, they lost jobs and standing, and synagogues or places of idol worship ejected them. Some were arrested, beaten, or martyred.
We are wise to listen to them when they tell us how they held on, how they persevered, and what they placed their hopes on. Paul writes in Romans 8:18 NIV, “I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.”
Even now, across the globe, Christians in places hostile to the gospel can teach us how to endure by holding onto the “joy set before us.” We must listen to their voices or to the Holy Spirit who testifies to their faithful suffering.
How Did Jesus Scorn the Cross’s Shame?
Death on the cross was a criminal’s death. It was the death suffered by a people oppressed by a more powerful nation. It was a public condemnation laden with humiliation and shame. This was the death Jesus died on our behalf.
Jesus scorned the shame of the cross by willingly accepting it on our behalf. His life was not taken from Him. He laid it down in obedience to the will of the Father.
Satan imagined he had achieved a victory with that cross. Here was the awaited Messiah, publicly crucified as a criminal, humiliated before the powers of Rome and the religious leaders. Here was the Son of God suffering guilt and shame on false charges. This was a temporary source of excitement for Satan, believing he was victorious.
Jesus, however, willingly suffered the temporary condition of the cross with all the associated public pain and shame, “scorning” it by keeping His eyes on the “joy set before Him.” That joy was the promised eternity with His Father and with all who believe in Him. Satan’s happiness was short-lived when Jesus rose from the grave. Jesus’ joy is eternal—both for Him and all who follow Him into eternal life.
We face many situations where we must be humble and forget ourselves to obey God and serve others. We do well to remember Jesus’ example – He who was present at creation, scorning the shame of the cross, to die for us–out of love. Whatever we are called to do in His name, even if we are called to suffer, we know we can access the same joy that strengthened Him to endure.
Where Is Jesus Now?
The Hebrews writer tells us that Jesus is now “seated at the right hand of the throne of God (Hebrews 1:2 NIV).” Jesus tells His disciples in John 14 that He is going on to prepare a place for us. The Holy Spirit is with us now to empower, guide, comfort us and remind us of all things. One day, Jesus will return. And after that will come the time when our faith will be made sight, and we will know the eternal joy of God dwelling with us.
Whatever we face in this life, whether hardships or trials, persecutions or sorrows, or rejection and hard work, like Jesus, we can persevere in our faith by keeping our eyes on the joy that awaits us in Christ. Happiness is momentary. The joy of the Lord is eternal and can be our strength as we encourage one another with it and consider the hope of it daily.
Photo Credit: Pixabay/Wokandapix
Lori Stanley Roeleveld is a blogger, speaker, coach, and disturber of hobbits. She’s authored six encouraging, unsettling books, including Running from a Crazy Man, The Art of Hard Conversations, and Graceful Influence: Making a Lasting Impact through Lesson from Women of the Bible. She speaks her mind at www.loriroeleveld.com.
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