“Do not rejoice in that this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” (Luke 10:20)

Over the years, I have heard various missionaries and Christian leaders say that these words of Jesus indicate that he intends that his disciples should find their joy and satisfaction not in their ministries but rather in their personal salvation (justified status with God). I found a recent example of this thinking in a book I am reading, The Emotionally Healthy Leader.

Jesus sends out seventy-two disciples two by two. When they return, they are excited to report significant numerical impact and that the demons submit to them in his name. Jesus affirms their activity of kingdom building, but he also reminds them of something more important: “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Luke 10: 20). In other words, he wants them to remember that their joy comes from their relationship with him, not their achievements for him.  (Scazzero, Peter. The Emotionally Healthy Leader: How Transforming Your Inner Life Will Deeply Transform Your Church, Team, and the World (p. 37). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.)

First of all, let me be clear. I do not question that our personal salvation in Christ is reason for great rejoicing. Our justification is an amazing gift of grace that will fill us with joy for all of eternity.

But this great gift of grace is not intended to be enjoyed alone. Our names are written in heaven with many other names; we have been numbered among God’s people. For the faithful in Israel, much of their joy in being listed in God’s book of life was because they were assured that they were part of the community of faith whom God had approved.

To say that Jesus was encouraging his disciples to find their joy only or even primarily in their individual relationship with God and that he was downplaying any sense of joy that we might experience when others are reconciled with God through our ministry seems to cater far too much to Western individualism.  It does not account sufficiently for the collective mindset of Jesus’ disciples. After all, heaven rejoices when one sinner repents (Luke 15:7, 10), so why would heavens’ citizens on earth not also do so?

That observation then leads to a deeper question. Is it legitimate for a believer to find as much or even greater joy in what he/she does, in the fruit of their ministry, and not just in who we are?

Many in the evangelical world have argued strongly that we should find our joy first in our identity rather than in our accomplishments. There is much to be said in favour of this position, and I would largely concur. Our joy is founded upon our identity and our relationship with God as his beloved child. But I do not think it is biblical to go further than that and say that we should not find joy or even great joy in the fruit of our ministry.

Note the following examples:
  1. Paul finds such great joy in those that he has led to faith (Phil 1:4, 2:16, 4:1, 2 Cor 1:14, 2 Cor 7:4-7, 1 Thes 3:7-9).
  2. The apostle John says he has no greater joy than that this children walk in the truth (3 Jn 4).
  3. Jesus himself rejoices in the spiritual growth in those He has been discipling (Luke 10:21).

So how should we understand Jesus’ command in Luke 10:20?  I believe it needs to be understood as forbidding a boasting or exulting in one’s abilities or authority (spiritual or otherwise). If we are going to rejoice in ministry results, that joy should be in what God has done (his writing of the names of the names in heaven).  Yes, we may have been the instrument through which a person believed, but God did the saving.

In this passage, Luke says that Jesus is full of joy in the Holy Spirit when he sees what God is doing through His ministry (Luke 10:21).  But his praise is directed toward the Father, because he recognizes that this growth in the disciples is due to what the Father was pleased to do (Luke 10:22). Jesus was the teacher, but the Father opened the eyes of his disciples to the truth.

Jesus’ command can also be understood as warning the disciples not to get overly excited about temporal sensational acts of deliverance, when what is really important and joy-giving is eternal deliverance. The disciples’ rejoicing in Luke 10 is not so much in the people they have helped, but rather about their personal victory over the Evil One in specific spiritual battles. Jesus tells them to focus more on the final victory and the security they will enjoy when all the battles are over. After all, demons that are cast out can return to the same person if nothing has been done to fill the vacuum (Luke 11:24-26).

Spurgeon comments on this verse,

“Moreover, it is very unsafe to rejoice unduly in the work which we have done because the work, after all, may not turn out to be all that it appears. I do not know how much of real good the 70 had worked. There can scarcely have been very many converts, for otherwise the number of the names would have been greater when the disciples assembled in the upper room at Pentecost.”  (Sermon by C.H. Spurgeon on Oct 29, 1876)

We see Paul rejoicing in the Philippian believers because of the hope he had of being proud of his work on the day of Christ (Phil 2:16, 4:1). The same is true of his joy and boasting in the Corinthians (2 Cor 1:14); it is based on his hope of being able to boast on that final day. What we want is fruit that will last, which Jesus promises to all those who remain in him (John 15:5, 16).

So should we downplay our sense of joy and satisfaction in the fruit of our ministry?  Based on the biblical examples above, I don’t think so. We should be careful not to claim the fruit as primarily our work.  We are merely instruments, but instruments that have the ability to rejoice in being used by God.  We should also keep the focus on lasting fruit rather than temporal progress.  We want lives to be impacted for eternity, and witnessing the transformation of a life should always give us greater joy than the satisfaction we experience in finishing a newsletter or finally getting to 100% support.

Rejoice that your names are written in heaven!  But also rejoice that God has used you to introduce more people to Jesus – so that the list in heaven grows longer! I dare say the joy of the second may be as great or even greater than the first.