In the year 1514 a sensational forgery was published in Venice, Italy, purporting to be a description of Jesus Christ by one Publius Lentulus. This Lentulus was said to have been the Roman Procurator of Judea either before or after Pontius Pilate. The Lentulus family was indeed prominent in ancient Rome, but this “Publius Lentulus” never existed, except in the devious mind of some medieval perpetrator of hoaxes. Nevertheless, the forged document was widely circulated throughout Europe. Its description of Jesus of Nazareth, as I discovered it in the rare book room of the Library of Congress, follows:

He is a tall man, well shaped and of an amiable and reverend aspect; his hair is of a color that can hardly be matched, falling into graceful curls … parted on the crown of his head, running as a stream to the front after the fashion of the Nazarites; his forehead high, large and imposing; his cheeks without spot or wrinkle, beautiful with a lovely red; his nose and mouth formed with exquisite symmetry; his beard, and of a color suitable to his hair, reaching below his chin and parted in the middle like a fork; his eyes bright blue, clear and serene …

In the next paragraph appears a statement that has evidently had a strong impact on the church. It seems further to have exercised considerable influence on Christian art. The statement reads: “No man has seen him laugh.”

The inference is that humor, which does so much to alleviate the stress of our daily existence, had no part in Jesus’ life, and therefore, since we are his followers, should have no part in ours.

This fraudulent document is theologically unsound. Orthodox doctrine since the Council of Chalcedon (A.D. 451) has contended that Jesus Christ is “fully God and fully man.” How could he be fully man without laughing? If Jesus wept, he also laughed. Laughter is one of the characteristics that distinguish humans from other primates. It is also a characteristic of the kingdom of God. That, at least, is the way I read the apostle Paul, when he writes, “The kingdom of God is … joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17, NIV).

The Bible reminds us again and again of the “voice of mirth” (Jer. 7:34). The Book of Proverbs says that “a merry heart hath a continual feast”; that such a heart is “good medicine” (Prov. 15:15, 17:22). The psalmist sings, “Then our mouth was filled with laughter” (Ps. 126:2). Isaiah exults, “Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth” (Isa. 49:13). Jesus told his disciples that after he left them, “your grief will turn to joy … [which] no one will take away” (John 16:20, 22, NIV). The apostle Peter confirms that the Christians to whom he is writing “are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Pet. 1:8, NIV).

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How can we interpret the statement that the 70 evangelists Jesus sent out returned to him “with joy” (Luke 10:17) if we eliminate laughter? What else do we do when we are filled with joy?

Hebrews 12:2 gives a clear insight into our Lord’s attitude as he began his ministry. It reads: “Let us fix our eyes on Jesus … who, for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (NIV). Joy? What joy? The joy of heaven, of course! Because of heaven, he could take what he had to face on earth. Because of the wonder of eternity, he could run the gauntlet of time. Because of the glory of God his Father, he could put up with the sinful pride and unbelievable mistakes of the children of men. And because of the presence of the Holy Spirit in him, he could carry the buoyance of his eternal joy with him into the time zone of Palestine, sharing it with others while carrying out his Father’s will.

People have different ways of responding to challenges. Some spit on their hands, grit their teeth, and throw themselves headlong into them. Some butt their heads against a brick wall. Some laugh helplessly and shrug their shoulders. Some blow their tops. Some declare the challenge is not worth bothering about. Still others sit back and drink the cup of bitterness, predicting failure—and virtually insuring it.

Jesus’ way was to face the prospect squarely without illusions and discern through prayer and reflection where his role would take him. He wore no tinted glasses. He saw the worst all too clearly; but he also foresaw the future rewards of his harsh assignment. His work on the cross would bring a Savior to the human race in its moral and spiritual desolation, and he himself would be enabled to leave a clear witness to his Father’s love.

Good Humor And Grim Prospects

Is something here for the rest of us? Let’s assume that I am facing a major problem. I can confront it realistically, in all its ramifications and perils. I can estimate what sacrifice it will take. I can consider what good can be recovered in view of the risks; whether something can someday be done to help others in the same predicament. And then I can look beyond the present crisis to the satisfaction and reward of having done the right thing in the sight of God, for his sake and also for the sake of those who love and trust me. This kind of approach has a noble cast to it; it seems to reflect the mind of Christ. But also it provides me with humor as a windbreak for weathering the storm.

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Twin motives set the course of Jesus’ life on this earth. One was the exalted nature of his vocation, which called him to save us from our sins and fit us for heaven. The other motive was the joyful anticipation of his early return to his Father. As a consequence he was able to enter upon his ministry with a light heart, filled with the Holy Spirit and with love.

“Don’t worry about tomorrow,” Jesus advised his disciples. “Your heavenly Father knows what your needs are.” To Peter’s question about John’s prospects, Jesus replied, “What’s it to you? You follow me.” In each incident you may have noticed a twinkle in the eye or a disarming smile on the face of our Lord. You didn’t catch it? Well, it’s a secret! Keep reading.

As Prof. John Knox says, Jesus was a Man of incomparable moral insight, understanding and imagination, of singular moral purpose and integrity, of extraordinary moral courage and ardor, of intense devotion to duty, and [please note] of joyous trust in God.… Although He took life very seriously, there is no reason to think He took it solemnly; perhaps He took it too seriously to take it solemnly.… [He presented] the whole gamut of human life with absolute fidelity and with freshness and great good humor.… [He] believed that what is beautiful and good in the world and in human life is to be enjoyed without apology.

Not Hello, But Rejoice!

What was Jesus’ first spoken word after his resurrection? According to Matthew, it was addressed to Mary Magdalene and the “other Mary.” They had learned that Jesus had risen, and were running “with fear and great joy” to tell the disciples. His greeting has been variously translated as “Hail!” “All Hail!” “Good morning,” “Greetings,” “Don’t be frightened,” and “Peace!”

None of these translations adequately render the Greek of Matthew 28:9. The word is chairete, and it means rejoice! The agony was finished; the arrest, the trial, the conviction, the sentencing, the mocking, the beating, the torture, the crucifixion, the final words had all become history. Now the resurrection had taken place as a hard, palpable fact, and everything was changed. From the risen Jesus’ own mouth we hear the word that tells us his joyous mood has returned: Rejoice!

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At the close of Orthodoxy, G. K. Chesterton declares that “joy … is the gigantic secret of the Christian.” He adds that Jesus, when he came to earth, kept that secret to himself. “He concealed something.… There was something that He hid from all men, … some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”

The Laughter Of Victory

As we walk through Galilee with Jesus, we must watch for hints of his secret, and we will bear in mind both the Source of his joy, and the way he exhibited it. But we must not forget that as important as joy is, it is only one of his attributes. To concentrate on the joy and neglect the Source is to cut off the blossom from the root.

C. S. Lewis closes his autobiographical Surprised by Joy by declaring that joy is really a road sign pointing us to God; once we have found God, we no longer need to trouble ourselves so much about the quest for joy.

Laughter can be cruel, harsh, derisive, or hysterical. A mocking laugh can ruin a career; a savage laugh can lead to murder. Laughter can also be triumphant. In Eugene O’Neill’s curious play Lazarus Laughs, the resurrected Lazarus dramatically emerges from his tomb, still wrapped in grave clothes, and gives a mighty bellow of laughter—as if the last enemy, death, had finally been disarmed and vanquished.

If we had been present at those times when Jesus laughed, we might have noticed that his laughter had a similar tone. But in addition to the holy tone of triumph there was, I believe, something merry and infectious about Jesus’ laughter. It must have sounded so hearty and warm, so open and appealing. Centuries later the poet Isaac Watts unlocked the secret. He wrote that Jesus brought “joy to the world” and set heaven and nature singing, so that even the rocks, hills, and plains could “repeat the sounding joy.”

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