Joy in the Holy Spirit in the Gathering of God’s People

David Peterson[1]


As we focus on the theme of joy in the gospel at this conference, I want to explore what the apostle Paul says about this in connection with our gatherings. By way of introduction, let me ask you how you consider your role in relation to the term ‘worship leader’. Many use it to identify those who prepare and lead church services, while others use it more narrowly to refer to musical directors or song leaders. Either way, this can have the unfortunate effect of restricting our understanding of worship and of the purpose of gathering as God’s people.

In the New Testament, God-honouring worship is a whole-of-life response to the grace of God shown to us in the Lord Jesus.It arises from a true understanding the gospel and is expressed in prayer, praise, submission, and service. Worship in this broad sense involves both adoration and action. Corporate worship plays a vital role in modelling and stimulating the worship that God seeks in our everyday lives.

Commenting on Romans 12:1 (‘I urge you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God; this is your true service’), Charles Cranfield rightly observes that congregational worship should be ‘the focus-point of that whole wider worship which is the continually repeated self-surrender of the Christian in obedience of life.’[2]The distinctive feature of our gatherings is that the ascended Lord Jesus inhabits them by his Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16-17; 2 Cor. 6:16-18). We encounter him through the ministry the Spirit enables us to have to one another, and we are challenged to express our dependence upon Jesus, to praise him, and to serve him together.

The ‘horizontal’ dimension to God-honoring worship is called edificationin the New Testament. Paradoxically, however, the edification of the church only takes place when we focus on Christ and seek to glorify him together. Ideally, the ministry of building up the church when we gather should have a flow-on effect in our homes, in our places of work, and in our community more generally.

In my judgment, therefore, the pastors or congregational leaders who have the overall responsibility for the care and nurture of the church are the ‘worship leaders’ of that congregation. Of course they will share that role with others, instructing and guiding those who exercise public ministries of one kind or another. Their oversight of the church will involve accepting ultimate responsibility for the content and arrangement of everything that is said or sung in the gathering. As good leaders, they will listen and learn from others who are gifted in particular ways, while seeking to give theological and practical direction to the whole church. Their sermons will play a vital role in the total experience of congregational worship, and they will look to see how every aspect of the gathering facilitates the worship of God’s people in their everyday lives. I’m trying to say that in biblical terms being the worship leader of a congregation is a much broader responsibility than is often imagined.

1. Joy in serving Christ together

I want to explore the interplay between the ‘vertical’ and the ‘horizontal’ dimensions of our gatherings by turning to an unusual passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans.In 14:16-18, the apostle says this: ‘Do not let your good be slandered. For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, butrighteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and receives human approval.’

Paul is addressing an issue that was particularly acute in the first decades of the Christian era, but the principles he articulates have an ongoing relevance for us. The issue was whether Christians were free to eat meat purchased in the markets, which had not been killed according to Jewish standards and may have been associated with idolatrous worship. Those described as ‘weak in faith’ said ‘such meat is unclean in God’s sight: we must not eat it.’ But Paul aligns himself with the ‘strong’ when he says,  ‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself’ (14:14).

He was probably referring to the teaching of Jesus found in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. The division between clean and unclean foods in the Law of Moses ‘corresponded to the division between holy Israel and the Gentile world.’[3]These regulations were a mark of Israel’s separation from the nations to belong exclusively to God. Yet, as the New Testament explains in various contexts, cleansing and sanctification are now available for Jews and Gentiles alike in a new covenant relationship with God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, the apostle immediately qualifies his claim with the words ‘still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean.’ The language here suggests that such a person has an intellectually well-grounded belief, not merely a subjective opinion. Given time and the right opportunity, Paul would doubtless want to explain the implications of the gospel that challenge the convictions of the weak. But he immediately turns to consider relational matters. Positively speaking, when such differences arise, love demands the pursuit of what promotes peace and edification.

Jesus’ teaching that ‘nothing is unclean in itself’ must be applied in the light of his emphasis on the absolute priority of loving one another. Hurting a fellow believer in this context means more than causing grief or emotional pain. ‘If your brother or sister is hurt by what you are eating, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy, by what you eat, someone for whom Christ died’ (14:15). This suggests the possibility of bringing about a person’s spiritual ruin by putting pressure on them to eat in a way that is ‘not from faith’, thus causing them to stand condemned before God (14:23).

As well as caring for individuals with different levels of maturity in their midst, the Romans Christians were to be concerned about the public scandal that their loveless behavior might cause. ‘Do not let your good be slandered. For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.Whoever serves Christ in this way is acceptable to God and receives human approval.’ Paul brings in some big theological guns to deal with a strange pastoral problem! The kingdom of God is revealed to outsiders when we serve Christ in the way that his Spirit makes possible in our ministry to one another.

The evidence for God’s rule in the lives of his people is ‘righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ This is both a statement of factand an implied challenge. Earlier in the letter, Paul refers to the righteousness by faith that is God’s gift to us in Christ, bringing peace with God, and the gift of the Holy Spirit (5:1-5). These are the essential blessings of life in the kingdom of God, and the reality of these blessings needs to be demonstrated in the everyday life of believers. We are to offer ourselves as ‘slaves to righteousness’ (6:19). We are to ‘live at peace with everyone’, even persecutors (12:18), and especially ‘pursue what promotes peace’ in the fellowship of God’s people (14:19).

‘Joy in the Spirit’ is not joy that we possess the Spirit, or merely joy in an inward experience of the Spirit. The joy that Paul speaks about is a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-24). This joy is inspired and made possible by the Spirit of God (Acts 15:32; 1 Thess. 1:6), enabling us to reflect on the truths of the gospel and express them in our lives. It is fostered when we ‘keep in step with the Spirit’, not becoming ‘conceited, provoking one another, envying one another’ (Galatians 5:25-26). In Romans 14, this means manifesting the righteousness, love, and peace that are characteristics of God’s kingdom. We experience joy in the Spirit when we are members of a fellowship where the apostle’s exhortation to pursue righteousness, love, and peace is taken seriously.

In setting this agenda for the churches in Rome, Paul lays a foundation for considering the content and purpose of our gatherings today. They are not simply for the spiritual gratification of individuals, nor for the satisfaction of one ‘party’ in the church or another, but for the nurture of the whole body of Christ by the expression of kingdom realities in our midst. The gospel is to govern attitudes and behavior and must be embodied in our corporate life. We serve Christ in serving one another. We impact the community where we find ourselves as we live out the truths of the gospel in fellowship together.

Those who lead our gatherings have a complex and demanding role to fulfill. As well as being concerned about the content and flow of a particular service, they will have an eye for the pastoral needs of individuals in that church and a concern for the growth and development of the church as a body. Additionally, they will consider the possible impact of the service on visitors and reflect on the implications of the whole event for the everyday life and witness of the participants.

2. Joy in edifying the church

Joy in the Spirit is explicitly associated with what ‘builds up one another’ in the very next verse of Paul’s exhortation: ‘So then, let us pursue what promotes peace and what builds up one another’ (Rom. 14:19). Edification or ‘building’ the church is God’sgreat work, as Jesus said: ‘on this rock I will build my church’ (Matt. 16:18). This is echoed in Ephesians 2:21-22, where we are told that God’s household is ‘built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the corner stone. In him the whole building, being put together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. In him you are also being built together for God’s dwelling in the Spirit.’

But believers have a part to play, as we commit to strengthening and maturing the church (Ephesians 4:11-16). The ascended Christ gave ‘some to be apostles, some prophets, some pastors and teachers, equipping the saints for the work of ministry, to build up the body of Christ.’ Edification takes place as we exercise gifts and ministries in service to one another and ‘speak the truth in love’.We ‘grow in every way into him who is the head’, looking to Christ to supply what is needed for the body to ‘build itself up in love by the proper working of each part.’ These verses warrant much reflection as we seek to apply them locally to our own context.

Corporate worship is not simply about encountering God together. It is a unique opportunity to ‘build up the body’, as we focus together on Christ and gospel. The vertical and the horizontal dimensions of Christian fellowship should be held together as we plan and lead our gatherings. This is exemplified in Paul’s exhortation to the Colossians: ‘Let the word of Christ dwell richly among you, in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts’ (3:16). Singing can be a means of expressing ourselves to God and exhorting one another. Romans 14 reminds us that when the word of Christ dwells richly among us it will be evident in the way we relate to God and serve one another in the church.

Edification is not merely intellectual stimulation, feeling good about your relationship with God, or being provoked to love and good works (Hebrews 10:24-25). It is a dynamic process of moving together towards ‘unity in the faith, and in the knowledge of God’s Son, growing into maturity with a stature measured by Christ’s fullness’(Ephesians 4:13). We can either help or hinder that process by the way we plan and lead our gatherings. Clearly, the exposition of God’s word will be central to the experience, but the ministry of the word is not limited to preaching. As the Scriptures are read, sung, and turned into prayer, various members of the body make their contribution, and the body builds itself up in love. As a result, we may collectively experience ‘joy in the Holy Spirit’.

The edification of the church takes place through Bible reading and prayer, preaching and testimony, in corporate confessions of faith, by teaching and admonishing one another through psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs, singing to God with gratitude in our hearts, and by exercising gifts and ministries in love for one another, either in an orderly fashion in the congregation or in one-to one ministries outside the gathering. When this dynamic process of growth is fostered among us, there is inevitably an outreach of love and truth to unbelievers and the church grows in numbers, as well as in maturity(cf. 1 Cor. 14:24-25; Eph. 2:19-22).

‘Joy in the Holy Spirit’ is both an individual and a corporate experience. Since your body is ‘a temple of the Holy Spirit who is in you’ (1 Cor. 6:19), the Spirit causes you to delight personally in being ‘joined to the Lord’, knowing that ‘you are not your own, for you were bought at a price.’ But the Spirit also unites us with other believers in the body of Christ, which is also called ‘God’s temple’ (1 Cor. 3:16). We experience joy in the Holy Spirit as we benefit from the relationships and the ministries that the Spirit makes possible and serve one another in that fellowship.

3. Joy in praising God together

Joy is experienced in human relationships as we acknowledge the character and contributions of others to our lives. Joy is experienced in our relationship with God as we learn to praise him together. Paul moves towards this conclusion in Romans 15:1by explicitly identifying with ‘the strong’ and speaking directly to them: ‘we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves.’ The themes of love and edification are picked up from the previous chapter as the apostle writes about pleasing one’s neighbour ‘for his good, in order to build him up.’

He backs this up by reflecting on the way ‘even Christ did not please himself’, citing Psalm 69:9 as a basis for encouraging endurance and hope in the situation. Then, his wish-prayer in v. 5 asks ‘the God who gives endurance and encouragement’ to grant that they may be in agreement with one another, ‘according to Christ Jesus’, so that they may glorify ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ with one mind and one voice.’This request prepares for the focus on Jews and Gentiles glorifying God together for his mercy in 15:8-12.

Paul wanted the Roman Christians to glorify God by supporting him in his great work of preaching to the nations (15:22-32), but he knew that they could not do that effectively unless they were united in what they confessed and sang about Christ and his saving work themselves.Praising God together empowers and motivates us to praise him in everyday life and ministry.

Four biblical texts are cited to show God’s intention for Gentiles to be united with Jews in praisinghim for the appearance of the Messiah and his rule over the nations (vv. 9b­­-12). This reminds us that the theological content of our praise must honor God, not just the fact that we praise him. Nevertheless, several praise-words are used in these texts, as in the Book of Psalms, helping to explain what it means to glorify God.

The first citation is from Psalm 18:40. Literally, it reads, ‘I will confessyou among the Gentiles (ἐξομολογήσομαί; cf. 14:11), and I will sing praiseto your name.’ God’s ‘name’ represents his person and character and is a synonym for his ‘glory’ (cf. Exod. 33:18-23).

A quotation from Deuteronomy 32:43 follows: ‘Rejoice(εὐφράνθητε), you Gentiles, with his people.’ The Greek verb used here means ‘be glad or delighted’ and is often associated with feasting and festivity (e.g. Luke 12:19; 16:19).[4]This command concludes the Song of Moses, where the sequence is significant. In this prophetic vision, rebellious Israel is punished (Deut. 32:19-35), and then vindicated by God (32:36-42), giving rise to this challenge for the nations to rejoice. By implication, the messianic deliverance provides the ultimate vindication of God’s covenant people, and enables Gentiles to rejoice with believing Israelites, experience the benefits themselves, and ‘glorify God for his mercy’ (v. 9a).

Human beings find joy in unity, whether it is in personal or family relationships, or supporting a sporting team or some great cause. But joy in unity so often escapes us because of prejudice and sin and cultural factors that divide us, even in our churches. The Bible’s promise, however, is that God has acted through his Son to bring about a profound and permanent unity with himself. In this unity we are commanded to rejoice! Paul wanted the divided congregations in Rome to celebrate their unity in Christ by acknowledging the great work that had brought them together and expressing it in their everyday relationships with one another.

The third citation is from Psalm 117:1 with slight verbal variation. This text is also in the form of a command: ‘Praise(αἰνεῖτε) the Lord, all you Gentiles; let all the peoples praise (ἐπαινεσάτωσαν) him.’ Once again, the original context is important for Paul’s argument. The psalmist calls uponallthe nations to praise God, because his faithful love to his people is great, and ‘the Lord’s faithfulness endures forever.’ Through Paul’s ministry, people from different nations came to join in praise with believing Israelites, because the messianic redemption had been accomplished, and its benefits were being widely offered. In our vastly more populated world today, a similar ministry is being carried out by an enormous army of gospel workers in every nation.

To ‘glorify’ God means to praise him for who he is and what he has done for us. John Piper helpfully highlights the significance of giving glory to God in this way:[5]

All the different ways God has chosen to reveal his glory in creation and redemption seem to reach their culmination in the praises of his redeemed people. God governs the world with glory precisely that he might be admired, marveled at, exalted, and praised. The climax of his happiness is the delight he takes in the echoes of his excellence in the praises of the saints.

As we confess what he has revealed about himself, sing about it, and rejoice in God in the presence of his people, we should be motivated to glorify God in every area of our lives. To glorify him as ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ means specifically honouring him as the one who has met us in the person and work of his Son. Glorifying God ‘together with one voice’ means being united in praise and proclamation for what he has done for us in Christ. If believers do this, it will be impossible for them to look down on one another, sit in judgment on one another, or ignore the needs of unbelievers. Spirit-directed praise will glorify the Lord Jesus and have a morally and spiritually transforming effect on us!

Sometimes in Christian circles, praise is identified with feelings, rather than theology, with individual expressions of adoration and appreciation, rather than corporate reflections on the character of God and his actions towards. Paul sets the balance right here, in line with the practice of many psalmists and other biblical writers. Praise arises from reflecting on God’s saving plan and its fulfillment in Christ. People from every nation can be exhorted to rejoice in the faithfulness of God to his promises and the hope that gives us for the future. Joy in the Spirit is linked with rejoicing in God and celebrating his goodness, not simply rejoicing that we are together and enjoying the company of one another (cf.12:12, 15; 16:19).

This brings us back to the foundational claim that ‘the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.’ The kingdom of God is all about receiving the righteousness, peace, and joy that come from God, experiencing those blessings as his people together, glorifying God for them, and sharing them with those who do not yet believe.

4. Joy in hoping

The theme of hope emerges in Romans 15:4: ‘whatever was written in the past was written for our instruction, so that we may have hope through endurance and through the encouragement from the Scriptures.’ The purpose clause here could be translated, ‘so that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we may have hope.’ Hope is a gift of God through the Scriptures, which is to be realized and experienced in everyday life and relationships. Paul has mentioned this important gospel theme several times so far in the letter (4:18; 5:2, 4, 5; 8:20, 24-25; 12:12; 13:11-14). His immediate point is that ‘hope is generated through carefully reading, understanding, and obeying the OT.’[6]The Spirit of God takes the truths of Scripture and writes them on our hearts.

As Paul goes on to show (vv. 8-12), a key aspect of the biblical hope is that Jews and Gentiles will be united in praise of God by the work of the Messiah. If the ‘strong’ act in a Christ-like way towards the ‘weak’, all will be encouraged to press on in hopeful service to their Lord.

The fourth citation (v. 12) is attributed to Isaiah and is in the form of a messianic prediction. Isaiah 11:10 is abbreviated to read, ‘The root of Jesse will appear, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; the Gentiles will hope in him.”[7]Jesse was the father of David, making this is a prophecy about a son of David who will rule both Israel and the nations in such a way that the hope of the nations is fulfilled in him (cf. Rom. 1:3-6; Jer. 23:5 [“a righteous branch of David”]). Jesus provides that hope for humanity because he is the Messiah who ‘did not please himself’ (vv. 3-4), but gave himself up to deliver believers in every nation from the rule of sin and death(5:15-21).

Paul picks up the theme of hope from the citation in v. 12, as he addresses a wish-prayer to ‘the God of hope’ in v. 13: ‘Now may the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you believe, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.’  Being filled ‘with all joy and peace in believing’ (ἐν τῷ πιστεύειν [CSB, ‘as you believe’]) in this context means that joy and peace come from believing the gospel about the crucified and resurrected Messiah.

The purpose of this divine filling is ‘so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit’. As Paul indicates earlier in Romans, we can ‘exult’ in the hope of sharing in the glory of God, even in the midst of suffering (5:2, 4, 5; 8:17-30). Rejoicing in hope, being patient in affliction, and persisting in prayer are also linked together in 12:12.  Paul wants the gospel hope to be fully experienced by believers as they struggle with various afflictions, or experience conflict in their midst. Both the weak and the strong may ‘overflow’ with this transforming hope, as the Holy Spirit enables them to express joy and peace in their relationships.

Confessing a common hope in Christ, as we rejoice together in what he has accomplished for us, should be a major feature of our gatherings. This advances God’s purpose for us as his people. Sharing together in the praise of God should have a profound impact on Christian relationships and Christian living. As we acknowledge our common hope, we are filled with the joy and peace that comes from believing the gospel and enabled to show genuine love to one another in Christ (12:9-16; 13:8-10).

Our gatherings should focus us week by week on God and the gospel. Indeed, our gatherings should be shapedby the gospel, so that we are regularly brought back to its fundamental claims and have the opportunity to renew our relationship with God on that basis. But this does not mean being utterly predictable, dry, and dreary! The claims of the gospel are expressed and laid upon us in so many different ways in the New Testament, providing us with different patterns for encountering him together. Joy in the Spirit will be experienced as we explore those possibilities together.


It is remarkable that Paul develops the theme of joy in the Holy Spirit in the unusual context of Romans 14-15. These chapters show us the importance of teaching and embodying gospel truths in our gatherings, so that these realities can be reflected in everyday life and relationships. Paul’s argument in this passage presents a significant challenge to all who pastor our churches and lead our gatherings.

[1]Delivered at the 2019 Bethlehem Conference for Pastors and Church Leaders, Minneapolis MN, and based on the Christian Standard Bible (2017).

[2]C. E. B.Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 2 (ICC; Edinburgh: Clark, 1979), p.602.

[3]Gordon J. Wenham, ‘The Theology of Unclean Food,’ Evangelical Quarterly 53 (1981), p. 11. These laws were meant to be an aid to Israel in maintaining her holy status and fulfilling God’s covenant purpose (Exod. 19:5-6).

[4]Cf. William J. Morrice, Joy in the New Testament(Exeter: Paternoster, 1984), pp. 27-32. Paul more commonly uses χαἰρω, which means ‘be in a state of happiness and wellbeing’ (BDAG). Morrice (pp. 68-75) notes the etymological connection with χἀρις (‘grace, favour’). God’s grace is the most profound reason for rejoicing.

[5]John Piper, Desiring God. Meditations of a Christian Hedonist (Oregon: Multmomah, 1996), p. 46.

[6]Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans(Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1998), p. 748.

[7]Although ῥἰζα can mean “root” (as in 11:16-18), the image here is of a “shoot” that springs up from the root (BDAG).