It is important to note that Peter connects the rejoicing of Christians to their faith. True joy is always the outcome of a living faith. It has often been pointed out that the preposition translated ‘in’ means ‘into’ and suggests a deeply personal contact with Christ. In other words, their faith was not a surface or shallow response to the gospel. Instead it was a deep and intense taking hold of Jesus.
From one point of view, what matters most is not the strength of one’s faith but the object of one’s faith. Yet this truth should not be used to encourage a minimalist response to the gospel. Sinners should be urged to depend strongly on Jesus. We have an illustration of this in the way a worshipper in Israel was supposed to identify with the animal chosen as his sacrifice. When he identified himself with the animal, he did not merely touch it with his hand, he also used his hand to lean all his weight on the animal. Faith is like that hand and allows us to lean strongly on Jesus. No-one would say to the Israelite, ‘What a big hand you have.’ What mattered was not the size of his hand but whether or not it helped him to lean all his weight on the animal. The goal of faith is leaning entirely on Jesus. And when one does so, it opens the door to joy.
Or we can liken faith to a channel that runs between Christ and us. The question is not whether it is a long channel or a wide channel. It does not need to be a long channel because the distance between Christ and the souls of his people is not measured in miles; and it does not need to be a wide channel that functions as a kind of reservoir storing up blessings (Jesus is our reservoir, not our faith). Our faith is the channel that takes to us from Jesus the particular grace that we need at a given moment. We may need several types of grace every minute, and they always come to us by faith.
The joy of these Christians is ‘inexpressible and filled with glory’. What do these descriptions convey about Christian joy? First, they suggest that this joy is surprising. It is not unexpected that these early Christians are classified by Peter as lovers of Jesus. They loved him with a love that was clean, comprehensive and clinging, which is how all Christians love him. What was surprising, in a sense, was that they had great joy in him despite their difficult surroundings.
Second, these terms remind us that Christian joy exists because they have found what satisfies them. People can face trials if they know that the trials are worthwhile. And these Christians had discovered that the presence of Jesus was worth more than anything else. Nothing that happened to them prevented them from receiving continuous grace from Jesus.
Third, these descriptions are a reminder that joy is not dependent on things that we have. This is the great lie of the western world, that joy comes from accumulating things. The ones to whom Peter was writing had lost their things, but they had not lost their joy. True joy, whether in adversity or in prosperity, comes from drawing out of the fullness that is in Christ.
Fourth, true joy is anticipatory in that those who have it are always looking ahead to heaven. In this regard, we can say that faith is like a telescope that helps us see the blessings of the promised land before we reach it. The Spirit in our hearts functions as the earnest of the inheritance, assuring us that there is a better world, that at God’s right hand there are pleasures forevermore (Ps. 16:11).