Mike McElroy

I rejoiced in the Lord greatly that now at length, you have revived your concern for me. - Philippians 4:10

I was looking at Christmas cards we've received this season, and noticed something interesting about two I happened to read, one right after the other. One said, "May you be blessed with peace and happiness...." The other one said, "May your Christmas be blessed with peace and joy." Just one word is different. Both words are wonderful. And both sentiments are appropriate here at Christmas time.

Are they wishing the same thing, with just a slightly different word? I think so. Is one more appropriate or spiritual or accurate than the other? I think not. Happiness and joy are not the same thing, but they should both be part of our emotional makeup as Christians. The two words are synonyms, with a slight difference in meaning.

Most Bible students would answer, "What is Philippians?" if the clue on Jeopardy said, "This Pauline epistle repeatedly emphasizes joy." Paul was imprisoned when he wrote the little four chapter jewel we know as Philippians. But incarceration did not squelch Paul’s joy. His relationship to Jesus and the privilege of serving the Lord gave him joy deep in his heart. Paul’s buoyant, irrepressible joy shines through in eighteen places in the letter to the church in Philippi.

Most of those references are about the permanent state of ongoing blessedness we enjoy in our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is a quality of life and emotional response to our spiritual blessings. It is not diluted, dimmed or destroyed by hardship. It doesn't fade if someone is unkind or if we don't get our way. That's joy in the abiding, enduring, whole-life sense of the word.

Our text today, however, is something different and quite specific. Paul "rejoiced" that the church had sent some assistance to him while he was in prison. The groceries or funds or whatever they sent blessed him and made him happy. Beyond his general whole-life joy, this positive emotion was a response to something that happened, a celebration of the thoughtful care the Philippians had shown by their gift of love.

So Christmas is a time for both joy and happiness. We rejoice in the good news of great joy that Jesus our Savior was born. And we may be happy about giving or receiving a gift, or the occasion of seeing family members. Both are wonderful emotions. One is broader and deeper than the other, but both are positive, desirable states of mind.

If Paul's deeper, broader joy had been based on what people did for him, he had some joyless days ahead of him. He described a time near the end of his life in 2 Timothy when he was all alone and no one was there for a trial date. The concern that others had shown before wasn't there that day. His faithful co-workers weren't by his side that day. But his confidence and praise didn't stop. He was more aware of the Lord's presence with him, and even had a gentle, benevolent spirit toward those who were not there with him in his hour of need. He was still thankful for the privilege of ministry and being in the eternal kingdom.

So maybe we could put it this way: If happiness is about specific things that happen along the way, joy is more about the way itself--the way of knowing Christ, being in Christ, enjoying spiritual blessings in Christ. I want to combine those two Christmas card blessings in my Christmas prayer for you. I pray that your Christmas will be a happy occasion, filled with good things and people you love. But I also pray that your Christmas will be joyful, with vivid, fresh awareness of how blessed we are to have a Savior who came to solve the biggest problem in our lives. He came to give us the greatest blessings we can know in the gift of himself. Be happy. Be joyful. Merry Christmas, dear reader.