These Christmas messages were preached at Flagstaff Christian Fellowship through the years. Audio and manuscripts are available for each lesson.
Two additional Christmas messages may be located in other message series:
December 20, 1992
A man was bothered with continual ringing in his ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face. Over a period of three years he went to doctor after doctor. One took out his tonsils, one removed his appendix, another pulled out all his teeth. Nothing seemed to help. He still had ringing in his ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face.
Finally a doctor told him that there was no hope; he only had six months to live. The poor fellow quit his job and decided to live it up in the time he had left. He went to his tailor and ordered several suits and shirts. The tailor measured his neck and wrote down the size: 16. The man corrected him: 15. The tailor measured again: 16. But the man insisted that he had always worn a size 15 collar on his shirts.
“Well, all right,” said the tailor, “but don’t come back here complaining to me if you have ringing in your ears, bulging eyes, and a flushed face!”
Sometimes the solutions to life’s problems are more simple than we think. Our world has incredibly complex problems: wars, terror-ism, famines, catastrophes. People have complex problems: physical, emotional, and family problems. Sometimes we despair as we try to help others or to deal with our own problems. At times the proposed solutions seem so complex that we aren’t sure we can implement them.
But God provides a simple solution for all of the complex problems we face in this world. It is the simple solution of the Savior, whose birth we celebrate at Christmas.
Some would scoff and call it a simplistic solution, one that really doesn’t work. Others would say that it’s a nice legend, harmless enough; but they would never consider it as a serious solution to any significant problems.
God knows that the basic problem with the world is the sin of the human race. Any solutions that leave out dealing with the sin problem are the simplistic solutions. The only solution that offers true hope and help is that which takes into account the sinful hearts of people and offers a practical solution to that universal problem.
God’s Christmas message to us offers such a solution. The Savior whose birth we celebrate was to be named Jesus (Jehovah saves), for He would save His people from their sins (Matt. 1:21). The Christmas story as told by Luke, especially the story of the shepherds who went to see the Lord Jesus on the night of His birth, reveals that ...
God’s simple solution for man’s complex problems is a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The first thing that strikes us about this familiar story is:
Have you ever considered why the text does not read (Luke 2:8), “Now there were in the same region scribes and Pharisees, keeping watch over their scrolls and religious rituals”? Nor does it say, “There were in the same region kings and princes keeping watch at the palace.” God chose to reveal the birth of the Savior to simple shepherds who were going about their job. Why shepherds?
That God chose simple shepherds to be the first to know of the birth of the Savior is even more strange by human standards because in Israel, shepherding was a lowly task. Shepherds had not been schooled in the law and thus were considered ignorant. Their work made them ceremonially unclean. According to one Jewish treatise, shepherds were not trustworthy enough to be used as witnesses. According to another, help was not to be offered to shepherds and heathen (see Godet, Luke [I. K. Funk & Co., 1881], p. 81). So why did God choose shepherds as the first ones to receive the angels’ revelation concerning the Messiah’s birth?
In the first place, God chose shepherds to show that…
God puts His cookies on the bottom shelf. Because of that, the sophisticated and scholarly sometimes miss the truth of it. They’re looking too high; it’s beneath them to stoop to the lowest shelf, and so they miss what God offers freely to all.
If it were any other way, men could boast before God. If the gospel were some complicated philosophy that required a high I.Q. and years of study to grasp, then those who had attained it could congratulate themselves on how much more intelligent they were than the rest of the population. Those who were illiterate or not as intellectually gifted as others could never hope to qualify for salvation.
But the beauty of the good news about Christ is that it was first announced to lowly shepherds. They probably couldn’t read and write. They weren’t leadership material. But God’s love in Christ extended to them. The danger is that we will miss the gospel because it is so simple (1 Cor. 1:26-31).
Every time I think about this truth, I am reminded of a fellow I used to know in Seal Beach, California. Everyone called him “Seal Beach James.” Although he was in his twenties, he had the mental capacity of a child. But James knew and loved the Lord Jesus. Every day he would ride his bicycle, with a basket on the handlebars full of tracts, down to the beach and talk to people about the Lord. He would boldly go up to the muscle-bound beach bums playing volleyball and ask, “Do you know the Lord Jesus Christ?” The amazing thing is that sometimes one of them would actually stop and listen to James!
James’s mother, who had normal intelligence, did not know the Savior. If you were at a home gathering where James was, he would dial his mother on the phone, then hand it to you if you were standing near him, as you heard him tell his mother, “Mom, here is Steve Cole. He’s going to tell you about the Lord Jesus Christ.” And you were on!
To my knowledge, James’s mother died without putting her trust in the Lord Jesus. Perhaps it was foolishness to her. Too simple! But in the grace of God, her mentally handicapped son will one day be standing before the throne of God with myriads of saints singing, “Worthy is the Lamb!”
How about you? Have you given up your pride and come to the Savior who is Christ the Lord? No human merit is allowed at the foot of the cross where the Baby of Bethlehem died. He did it all. Only those who are simple enough to accept His gift will see the salvation of God.
In the second place, God chose shepherds as the first to receive the good news because…
We do not know the exact date of Jesus’ birth, but a December date is reasonable (Harold Hoehner, Chronological Aspects of the Life of Christ [Zondervan, 1977], pp. 25-27.) It is probable that the very sheep these men were tending in the fields that night were being prepared for slaughter at the Passover in Jerusalem a few months later. Thus it is symbolic that the shepherds who were watching the Passover lambs would be invited to Bethlehem to view the Passover Lamb of God, provided for the salvation of the world.
The Bible teaches that the wages of sin is death (Rom. 6:23), eternal separation from God. A holy God cannot accept sinners in His presence unless their sin has been paid for. If He did, He would not be just. In His love for us, God sent His own Son, born sinless through the miracle of the virgin birth, to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Just as when the Jews were delivered from Egypt, and were spared from the angel of death if they had the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts, so every person who applies the blood of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, to his life will be saved from God’s judgment.
So God revealed His good news to shepherds because (A.) the gospel is for the simple, not the sophisticated; and (B.) the gospel involved the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.
God has always had a special place in His heart for shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob were shepherds. King David was called from tending the sheep to shepherd God’s people. As such, David was a type of his promised descendant, who would reign upon his throne, who said of Himself, “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep” (John 10:11).
As the Good Shepherd, the Lord Jesus will care for you as no other can. He watches over you more carefully than any earthly shepherd could watch his sheep. He knows your deepest needs. He will protect you from wolves and thieves who would destroy your soul (Ps.23:4; John 10:10-13).
Of course, if the Good Shepherd has called you to Himself, then He also wants you to shepherd others. You may not be called as a pastor in the church. But like these shepherds of Bethlehem, the ordinary people God calls to the Savior are sent back to shepherd the sheep. It may be a Sunday school class, or a group of boys in Boy’s Brigade or girls in Pioneer Girls. It may be your family or a new Christian God brings across your path. As you grow to be more like the Good Shepherd, you will become a good shepherd over a part of His flock.
So the Christmas message is for simple people.
How simple and yet how sublime is God’s means of salvation! Who would have thought that Messiah would be born as a baby, and in such humble circumstances, at that! I would have thought that God would send His Savior as a full-grown man, a mighty warrior riding on a white stallion. Or if He were to be born as a baby, I would have looked in the palace, expecting to see the infant wrapped in fine purple, lying in an ivory and gold cradle, attended by servants.
Many would have stumbled over the angel’s directions (2:12): “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger”—a feeding trough! It smelled like any barn. Contrary to many artists’ conceptions, there was no halo over the baby’s head. Contrary to the children’s Christmas carol, the baby did cry. There were no photographers from the Jerusalem Post; no TV news crews; no dignitaries from the Temple. Just a plainly dressed carpenter and his young wife from the hick town of Nazareth. It wasn’t quite the way you would expect God to launch His Messiah into this world!
Who was this baby whom the shepherds found in such a common setting? The angel tells us (2:11): “For today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Micah (5:2) had prophesied about 700 years before that the Messiah (= “Christ,” God’s “Anointed One”) would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David. This baby fulfilled that prophecy, plus dozens of others. He was the Christ.
That He was fully human was clear to all who saw Him. His mother obviously had just given birth. But the angel said that this human baby was also “a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” A Savior, not a Judge; one who would deliver His people, not destroy them. For the angel to call this baby “the Lord” meant that the baby was over the angel. “Lord” is tantamount to Jehovah God. It is the same word used in 2:9, where it says that the glory of the Lord shone around the shepherds. The same word is used in 2:23 in reference to “the Law of the Lord,” and “holy to the Lord.” If, in 2:11, the word means some-thing different than the same word used in 2:9 & 23, surely Luke would have noted this. The baby in the manger of Bethlehem is none other than the Lord God in human flesh!
Nothing could be more simple and yet more inscrutably profound! God brings salvation to Adam’s fallen race by taking human flesh on Himself, yet without sin. Then, as our sinless substitute, He bore our sin to satisfy the righteous justice of God, so that God may be both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). How simple! Children can understand the simplicity of the gospel, and yet learned theologians cannot fathom its depths!
The Christmas message is for simple people. It is simple in content. Finally,
How should we respond? Just like the shepherds respond-ed. They believed the word of God through the angel, as shown by their leaving their flocks and going to Bethlehem. They told others what they had seen. And they went back to their sheep, glorifying and praising God.
The shepherds could have heard the angel’s proclamation and said, “Isn’t that interesting! What do you suppose it all means?” And they could have had a stimulating theological discussion around the fire that night. They could have sent a delegation to the rabbis in Jerusalem to get their interpretation of things.
Or they could have said, “We’ve always believed these truths. After all, we’re Jews, you know! Every good Jew believes that the Savior will come from the city of David. Thanks for telling us!”
What I’m getting at is that true belief is more than just intellectual assent. True belief always results in obedient response. The shepherds heard the angel, they left their flocks, and went straight to Bethlehem to see that which the Lord had made known to them. Their lives were never the same for it.
When God reveals Christ to your soul, you must take Him at His word. You must personally believe the revelation which God has given concerning His Son. If you have truly believed in God’s Son, you won’t be going on about life just as you were before. There will be changes in the way you live. No one is saved by good works, but saving faith always results in good works.
What are these good works? They are many and varied, but the shepherds show us two types of works:
Verse 17 states: “And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.” What had they seen? Verse 16 tells us: “Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger.” But remember, they saw with the eyes of faith. When you see God’s Son with eyes of faith, you cannot be silent. It was not a “silent night” once the shepherds visited the manger! They told others what they saw.
If they had stopped to think about it, the shepherds could have come up with a lot of reasons to keep quiet. Remember, shepherds weren’t trusted as witnesses. Nobody would believe them. And it really sounds kind of crazy: “You saw a bunch of angels, huh? This baby belonging to this poor couple out in the stable is God’s Messiah? Right!”
Not everybody is going to respond positively to the gospel. But if we’ve believed in God’s revelation concerning His Son, how can we be silent? This One is the Savior! He is God’s simple solution for every need of every human heart! If we really believe that, we’ve got to make it known!
Note verse 20: “And the shepherds went back and signed a book contract to tell all that they had heard and seen. They appeared on TV; they began a ministry called ‘Shepherds’ Vision’; they started traveling; they became famous.”
No, “... the shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them.” Went back where? To tend their sheep. What a letdown! They didn’t set up tours to the shrine in Bethlehem. They didn’t sign on as the public relations men for Messiah Ministries, Inc. They didn’t put on seminars on how to have visions of angels. They went back to the place God had called them, but now their lives were marked by praise.
Thirty long years went by before this Child of Bethlehem even began to preach. By then, the younger shepherds from that night were middle age. Why didn’t God move faster? Why didn’t He use these men to get some action going for Jesus while He was still a boy?
We American Christians often buy into a version of Christianity that’s not much like the simple Christianity of the Bible. We seem to have a need for the spectacular and big. People flock to miracle services, they listen to some guy’s supposed trip to heaven and hell, they idolize famous people who happen to be Christians, they feed on the latest seminars and popular cultural fads.
Maybe we ought to get back to the simplicity of steadfast Christian living, centered on “the simplicity and purity of devotion to Christ” (2 Cor. 11:3). Maybe we need to see that God is the God of the normal, not just the spectacular. He calls us to be Christians who glorify Him as we tend our sheep or swing our hammer or keep house. God calls us to live in the real world as His people, glorifying and praising Him for His gift of a Savior. It’s not always spectacular. But it is how people who have met the Savior are to live.
The kids were putting on the Christmas play. To show the radiance of the newborn Savior, a light bulb was hidden in the manger. All the stage lights were to be turned off so that only the brightness of the manger could be seen. But the boy who controlled the lights got confused and all the lights went out. It was a tense moment, broken only when one of the shepherds said in a loud stage whisper, “Hey! You switched off Jesus!”
I wonder if you could have accidentally switched off the simplicity of Jesus? Whatever problems you face, He is God’s simple solution—the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. He was born so that you can be born again. Will you receive Him as God’s gift for you this Christmas?
Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation
December 19, 1993
Special Christmas Message
A wife said to her husband, “Shall we watch the six o’clock news and get indigestion or wait for the eleven o’clock and have insomnia?” One wag put it, “The evening news is where they begin with ‘Good evening’--and then tell you why it isn’t.”
We live in a world filled with tragedy. If there’s anything this hurting world desperately needs, it is good news. Not only the world in general, but individuals need good news because their lives are strewn with suffering and sorrow. The Christmas story as told by Luke offers not only good news, but the best news in the world: The angel told the shepherds, “I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
The best news in the world is that Christ the Lord has come as the Savior for all.
Maybe you’re thinking, “That’s nice, but to be quite honest, it doesn’t relate to the problems I’m facing. It may give people a brief feeling of hope and peace every Christmas, but then we have to get back to reality. To be honest, this story doesn’t touch the pain I feel or the tragedy I struggle with on a daily basis.”
But if you’re thinking that, you don’t understand the significance of this news as it relates to you personally. The news that “there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,” is absolutely the best news there is or ever could be.
“There has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11). I’ll focus in a moment on the fact that He is the Savior. For now, consider that ...
The word is Greek for “anointed one” (the Hebrew is “Messiah”). It means that Jesus is the one sent and anointed by God the Father for His mission of salvation. He was anointed as a prophet to preach the gospel, as priest to offer Himself as the sacrifice for our sins, and as king to reign. He alone is able to reconcile sinful people to God through His sinless life, sacrificial death and resurrection.
The same word is used in verses 9, 22, and 23 to refer to Jehovah God. What a mystery, yet true: The Savior born in Bethlehem is God in human flesh. If He had been only a man, He could not have died for the sins of the human race. If He had been an angel, He could not have borne human sins. But He was Christ the Lord, God! God alone is great enough to deal with our sins.
He was born in Bethlehem. He didn’t descend from the sky, fully grown. He was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb and went through the stages of development just like any other human baby. What a wonder! As a man, the representative Man, He could bear the sins of the human race.
As God in human flesh, Jesus Christ is unique in all the world. He alone qualifies to be the Savior of the world. If you doubt the uniqueness of Jesus, I invite you to read the Gospel accounts with an open heart, and you will be convinced that He can be nothing other than fully God and fully man united in one person. That makes the news He brings about salvation the best news in the world, “good news of a great joy.”
Jesus did not come as a nice man offering a new philosophy about life. He did not come as a great moral teacher, giving some interesting tips and helpful insights on how to live a happy life. He came as the Savior! The only people who need a Savior are those in great peril. Even though you may not be aware of it, without Jesus as your Savior, you are lost, under God’s judgment! If you die without Him as your Savior, you are eternally lost!
A number of years ago, a toddler fell down a narrow well. Her mother went looking for her as soon as she realized she was missing and was horrified to hear her daughter’s voice coming from this deep, dark shaft. Fire fighters and other rescuers soon swarmed on the sight. News media arrived and for hours the attention of the nation was riveted on that field where desperate attempts were being made to rescue that little girl before it was too late.
That little girl didn’t need anyone to give her some ideas on how to live a happy life. She was doomed if someone didn’t save her from certain death. The most important news that desperate mother could hear in that situation was, “The rescuers have reached your daughter and she has been saved!”
You could have walked up to that mother as she anxiously awaited the outcome and told her, “I just heard on the evening news that it’s going to be sunny and warmer tomorrow.” Big deal! That’s nice news, but it’s not important when your child is lost down a deep well. You could have reported to her, “They just said on the news that the economy is on an upswing.” Wonderful, but trivial compared to the only news that mattered to that mother. When someone is lost and within hours of death unless they are saved, the only news that matters is that a savior has come who can rescue that doomed person.
That’s why the good news that a Savior has been born who is Christ the Lord is the best news in the world, because it deals with the most important issue of all, namely, where a person will spend eternity. Each person in this world is lost without the Savior. It is only a matter of time until they die without Christ and enter eternity under the judgment of a holy God. But in His mercy, God sent Jesus to save us from our sins. That is the most important news in the world!
Good news is only good if it is true. If I told you, “You’ve just inherited a million dollars,” you would only regard it as good news if it was true. If I was just making it up, it isn’t a cause for great joy.
The news that Jesus Christ is born as a Savior is nothing more than a sick joke if it is not true news. If it’s just a nice legend that warms our hearts every Christmas, forget it! If it’s not absolutely true, then it only offers false hope for eternity, when really there is none. But if it’s true that Jesus Christ can save us from our sins so that we do not come under the judgment of a holy God, then we must believe and act on it.
The Christmas story is not a fairy tale. It happened in history: “Today in the city of David there has been born ...” (v. 11). It happened on a particular day in history in a geographic location that was prophesied centuries before. The shepherds went and saw a live human baby. We’re not talking make-believe; we’re talking true history.
Luke begins his gospel by telling us that he investigated everything carefully from the beginning (1:3). Most scholars think that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was Luke’s direct source for the information in the birth narrative (2:19). To doubt the veracity of these events as recorded is to pit your word against that of a woman of integrity who was personally closer to these events than anyone else.
The historical accuracy of these events is further confirmed by the witness of the shepherds. There was no reason for them to fabricate a story about seeing the angels. Mass hallucinations of this sort are highly unlikely. In verse 20 we’re told that the things the shepherds heard and saw were “just as had been told them.”
The things they heard and saw--a common couple and their baby in a stable--were not the sort of things one would fabricate. If you were going to make up a story about the birth of the Savior, surely it would have sounded more like a fairy tale in a palace, with royal attendants and a baby that had a special glow around him. Instead we read of a common couple and a baby lying in a feeding trough.
Yes, there were miracles--the virgin conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb; the angels appearing to the shepherds. But these events are presented matter-of-factly, not embellished in a way that sounds make-believe. Unless you rule out miracles because you assume they can’t happen, there is no reason to doubt these reliable eyewitness accounts.
The truth of the narrative is further confirmed by the fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Luke states that Jesus was born in the city of David. Micah (5:2) had prophesied 700 years before that Bethlehem would be the place of Messiah’s birth. In Luke 1, Zacharias’ prophecy shows how the birth of John the Baptist fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy and would be followed by the coming of Messiah. In Luke 2:29-32, Simeon recognizes that this child fulfills the Old Testament hope for Messiah. In Luke 3, Jesus’ lineage is traced back through David, thus fulfilling God’s promise to David 1,000 years before.
We live in a culture that has largely abandoned the notion of absolute truth. Truth, for most Americans (and for many who claim to be evangelical Christians), is whatever works for the individual. If Zen Buddhism works for someone, then it is true for him; if Christianity works for another, then it is true, too, even though the two systems are mutually contradictory. The notion of objective truth has been replaced with subjective experience.
But if Jesus was born in history to the virgin Mary, if He is the fulfillment of prophecies made hundreds of years before His birth, and if the events surrounding His birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are verified by hundreds of reliable eyewitnesses, then you can’t shrug it off as a nice story that is true for some but not true for others. Believing in Jesus as your Savior is not just one option among many. It’s not something you can believe if it helps you to feel good inside, but if it doesn’t work, you can discard.
If Jesus is who the prophets predicted, who the angels proclaimed, who He Himself claimed to be and verified by His miracles, then your eternal destiny depends on your response to Him.
News isn’t really exciting news if it’s old or if it relates to something in the far-distant future. If you tell me that President Kennedy was shot, it doesn’t greatly affect me, because that’s old news. If you tell me that I will inherit a million dollars when I turn 70, that’s great, but it’s so far off that it doesn’t help me much right now. The best news is news that relates to me right now.
Notice the words in the story that give a sense of urgency to this message to the shepherds: “today” (v. 11); “Let us go straight to Bethlehem” (v. 15); “they came in haste” (v. 16). The good news about Jesus the Savior is timely, urgent news because it comes to people who, like these shepherds, sit in darkness and the shadow of death (1:79). Last Sunday, Don Massey didn’t know that it would be his last time in church. He went home, began to shovel snow, had a heart attack, and died at age 34. If he had died outside of Christ, he would have been lost.
Scripture implores us, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). You may not have tomorrow. It’s not something to put off for another day. It also promises, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you shall be saved” (Acts 16:31). As many Scriptures show, God saves you the instant you believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior. You need not clean up your life first. You don’t have to attend classes to learn more. No matter how great a mess you’ve made of your life, if you will turn to Christ as your Savior now, He will save you now.
If you’re putting off trusting in Christ as your Savior, you don’t understand your true condition before God. To put it bluntly, if you’re outside of Christ, you’re terminal! Like the little girl trapped in the well, it’s just a matter of time until you die. Can you imagine her telling her rescuers, after all the effort they went through to reach her, “I think I’ll stay down here a while longer, thanks”? If you know you’re doomed, you’re greatly relieved when a rescuer arrives, and you grab the life line they throw to you.
Some people once told Jesus about some Galileans who had been ruthlessly murdered by Pilate. Jesus must have startled them when he responded, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Then He related a situation where some people were killed when a tower fell on them, and repeated His warning, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3-4). He meant that we all are like the little girl trapped in that well. We soon will die, and unless we repent before then, we come under God’s judgment and will perish. It is to doomed people that this urgent good news comes, “Today ... there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”
Thus the news about Jesus is the best news in the world because it centers on the most unique Person in history, Jesus the Savior, who is Christ the Lord; and, because of the type of news it is: important, true, and timely news. Finally,
The angel announces it as “good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people” (v. 10). No doubt these Jewish shepherds understood that to mean the Jewish people. But there is also no doubt that Luke, a Gentile, would have his readers know that “all the people” means that there is no one to whom this good news does not apply. It is a fact of history that the good news of Jesus applies to all and transforms all who will believe. Savage tribesmen have been converted into peaceful missionaries through believing the good news about Christ. Civilized, educated savages as well have been transformed through believing this simple good news.
Shepherds were a despised group in Israel. They were not considered fit to be witnesses in court. Their work rendered them ceremonially unclean. The fact that God chose to reveal the Savior first to these shepherds shows that God often chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He often picks common, working people--shepherds and fishermen--in whom to display His grace.
The fact that these shepherds were sitting in darkness is symbolic of the whole human race, lost in the darkness of sin (1:79). It reminds us that the good news about Christ is only for sinners. As He told the self-righteous Pharisees, “I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32). The sudden bright light of God’s glory terrified the shepherds, as is always the case when sinners encounter the holy light of God’s presence. But the angel quickly relieved their fears and told them this incredibly good news. As John Newton put it in his classic hymn, “Amazing Grace,”
‘Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,
And grace my fears relieved;
How precious did that grace appear
The hour I first believed!
But the best part of this good news is not that it is for all people in general, but that it is for you personally: “there has been born for you a Savior” (v. 11). That means that this good news requires a personal response. Each person must respond as these shepherds did. They didn’t say, “Wow, that was really some experience, seeing all those angels,” and sit there the rest of the night with their sheep. They didn’t sit around discussing theology after the angel spoke to them. They didn’t say, “Thanks for the news, but we’ve always believed this” and stay where they were at.
No, they responded to the news by believing what God had revealed to them through the angel. Their faith was demonstrated by their going straight to Bethlehem to see it for themselves and then to return glorifying and praising God (vv. 15, 20). And what did they see? “Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger” (v. 16). No halo. No angels hovering there. Jesus didn’t look like a Savior. The place smelled like a barn, because that’s what it was. Very common, very simple. They could have scoffed and stumbled over it, as many do.
What about you? Will you scoff or stumble over the simple but profound message that the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, whose birth was announced by the angels to these simple shepherds, is Christ the Lord, a Savior born for you? That is absolutely the best news in the world, no matter what your situation in life. Jesus didn’t leave heaven and come to this earth and go through the suffering of the cross just to give you a boost or a few tips on how to have a happy life. He knew that you desperately need a Savior. He alone can save you from the penalty of God’s wrath because of your sins.
A sergeant was explaining to a group of soldiers about to make their first parachute jump what to do if their main chute did not open: “Snap back immediately into a tight body position. Then pull the rip cord of your reserve chute, and it will open, bringing you safely to the ground.”
A private nervously raised his hand. “What’s your question, soldier?” the sergeant called out.
“Sergeant, if my main parachute doesn’t open, how long do I have to pull my reserve?”
The sergeant looked directly into the young private’s eyes and replied earnestly, “The rest of your life, soldier. The rest of your life.” (Reader’s Digest, [2/82].)
How long do you have to respond to the good news that Christ the Lord has come as your Savior? The rest of your life! And since you’re already on your way down, but you don’t know how long before you hit the ground, I’d advise you not to delay!
Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation
December 25, 1994
Special Christmas Message
If God decided to send His Son to earth again to be born as a baby, and if He was looking for a suitable home where the child would be properly raised, would yours be in the running? Consider only the spiritual, moral, and relational qualities God would look for so that, from the human side, a couple could prepare the Savior for His ministry. Would your home qualify?
Why do you suppose that of all the people He could have chosen, God picked Joseph and Mary? I would have guessed that God would have picked somebody of prominence, perhaps a priest, a rabbi, a prophet, or a ruler. He would want His Son to be well-cared for, so I would have expected a family that was comfortable financially. Since His Son would need a first-rate education, God would probably pick a well-educated couple. Since the best schools, the best opportunities for meeting the “right” people, and for having the proper social upbringing would occur in a city, I would have expected the “right” couple to hail from Jerusalem.
But God didn’t do it that way. He picked an obscure couple, unknown in the religious and social circles of Jerusalem. The man was not a ruler or even a rabbi, but a carpenter of no notoriety. We know that they were poor, because they offered the poor-man’s sacrifice at Jesus’ birth, a pair of turtledoves or pigeons (Luke 2:24). As far as we know, they were not well-educated. They were common, working people, living in the small, out-of-the-way village of Nazareth in the northern part of Israel known as Galilee.
Why this couple? We don’t have time to examine them both today, so I want to narrow it down to Joseph. Why did God pick him out of all the other men in Israel for the awesome responsibility of being the earthly father to His incarnate Son? Though not much is written about Joseph in Scripture, enough is said to piece together a portrait of the man that provides helpful instruction to all who want to grow in godliness. Two qualities shine forth from Joseph’s life, qualities that may seem contradictory, but must be developed in balance: conviction and compassion.
Godly fathers are men of conviction and compassion.
While I’m focusing on fathers, the principle applies to every person, male and female, married and single, young and old: Godly people must develop biblical convictions which they hold to unswervingly; but they must hold those convictions with compassion toward others.
Four areas show Joseph to be a man of biblical conviction:
Joseph was “a righteous man” (Matt. 1:19). He followed God’s moral law. He didn’t believe in situation ethics, in bending God’s law to fit his situation. Even though it was sometimes very painful to obey, he obeyed God’s Word.
And in this situation, it was painful. Joseph loved Mary. They were engaged to be married. Many of us can recall those wonderful feelings that engulfed us when we met that someone special and she consented to be our wife. It’s a unique time in life, as you look forward to life together with the woman you love. Even though the Jewish customs were different than ours, we would be mistaken if we thought that Joseph was not caught up with the same feelings that we have when we fall in love.
According to Jewish custom, the engagement period lasted about one year before the marriage was consummated. But that period was taken much more seriously than our engagements are. The couple could not terminate the engagement except by a bill of divorce, and any breach of faithfulness was viewed as adultery (Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah [Eerdmans], 1:150). In other words, they were as committed as we are just after the wedding ceremony.
In that context, Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, and he knew that it wasn’t his baby. Remember, the Jews were not expecting a virgin birth of Messiah at this point. Mary’s condition was due to an unexpected, miraculous working of God. And so Joseph’s only conclusion was that Mary had been unfaithful. That thought pained him deeply. He knew that God took marriage seriously and that God wanted moral purity. Since he had not yet consummated their marriage and since he wanted a morally pure wife to raise his children, Joseph decided to break the engagement. Joseph held God’s moral law in highest regard, even above his own feelings.
It’s easy to have moral convictions until a situation comes up that causes you a lot of pain or grief. Then it’s easy to bend those convictions to fit what you want rather than what God wants. In our day of relative morality, it’s easy to grow accustomed to the loose standards of our culture and bend God’s Word to fit our lifestyle, rather than to hold firmly to God’s standards when everyone else, even fellow Christians, are compromising. I used to paint houses for a living. Often, when the owner would come home after we had been working all day, he would complain about the smell of the paint. But I had been working in there all day, and I didn’t notice the smell any more. If we’re not careful, that’s what happens to us morally: we get so used to the stench that it doesn’t bother us anymore.
But to be godly fathers, righteous men like Joseph, we need to hold strongly to the moral standards of God’s Word.
After the angel explained to Joseph the unique circumstances of Mary’s conception (1:20-21), Joseph went ahead and took Mary as his wife (1:24). That took a lot of courage in that culture (“do not be afraid,” 1:20). Their culture was not tolerant of having a baby out of wedlock. Mary’s pregnancy before marriage would have triggered a lot of condemning stares and vicious gossip. “Psst! Did you hear that she got pregnant before they got married? And I hear that it wasn’t even his baby!” For Joseph to stand with Mary, he had to fear God more than he feared the opinions of others.
To raise His Son, God picked a dad who feared God enough to stand with God against public opinion. Your kids need that kind of dad, too! Even if they complain, “But, dad, everyone else does it! Why can’t we?” they still need a dad who fears God and obeys His Word, who explains, “We can’t do that” or “we do this, because God’s Word says so.”
Please note Matthew 1:24; 2:13-14; 2:20-21; 2:22. Every time God commanded something, Joseph responded with instant, unquestioning obedience. It was the pattern of his life to obey God, even when it wasn’t especially convenient. “Flee to Egypt and remain there until I tell you” (2:13). “Move to Egypt? That’s a foreign country, Lord! They speak another language down there! How will I make a living? How can I get established in my business? It’s a hassle to move a family that far! U-Haul doesn’t even have a one-way rental to Egypt!”
Maybe you’re thinking, “It may have been a hassle, but none of these commands were all that big of deal: ‘Take Mary as your wife’; ‘Move to Egypt’; ‘Move back to Palestine’; ‘Move to Galilee.’ But a habit of obedience to God is made up of obedience in the everyday, mundane matters of life. You’re at Wal-Mart and the checker misses an item that was under your shopping cart. You’re out in the parking lot when you discover the mistake. Do you gloat about how lucky you were to get the item for free, or do you go to the hassle and expense of going back and making it right? Your kids are learning from your example!
The kind of dad God picked to raise His Son was a man of conviction as seen in his moral integrity, his courage to fear God more than public opinion, and his habit of obedience.
In Luke 2:22-24 we read of Joseph and Mary dedicating their son at the Temple. In verse 41 we learn that they had the custom of going to Jerusalem every year for the Feast of the Passover. In Luke 4:16 we discover that Jesus had the custom of weekly synagogue worship. Humanly speaking, where do you suppose Jesus learned that custom?
Every family has certain habits and customs. Some develop almost unawares, just by repetition. Others you develop deliberately by deciding that you want it to be a part of your regular family life. Once it’s in place, you don’t have to debate the matter every time it comes up. You just do it because it’s your custom or habit.
Joseph and Mary had the custom of worshiping God regularly as His Word commands. In modern parlance, they had the habit of regular church attendance. It wasn’t up for grabs. They didn’t just do it when there was nothing better to do or when they weren’t too tired. They just did it! It was their custom. And why was it their custom? Because it reflected the priority of God in their lives. They honored God by keeping His day set apart for Him.
Dads, it communicates loads to your kids if your family only goes to church when it’s convenient. The same goes for family Bible reading and prayer. It reflects your priorities. “We’re too tired to get up for church today, so we’re going to skip it.” “We need some time off, so we’re just going to have fun as a family this Sunday.” Your kids aren’t dumb. They figure out your priorities really quickly.
When God chose a man to raise His Son, He picked a man of conviction as seen in his moral integrity, his fear of God, his habit of obedience, and his godly habits of worship. But a man who is only marked by conviction can be stern and cold. He might make a great military officer, but he misses the mark as a godly dad. We also need compassion.
Humanly speaking, where do you suppose Jesus developed His tender love for children, His heart for the downtrodden, His compassion for those who were like sheep without a shepherd? I realize that He was God and so He had God’s compassion. But, also, He was man, born as a baby, a child who had to grow “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (Luke 2:52). I vote for Joseph as the most likely human source for Jesus’ compassion. Two clues in Matthew’s gospel show us that Joseph was compassionate. Every dad needs these qualities:
When Joseph discovered that Mary was pregnant, he had two options according to the customs of the day: He could institute a lawsuit against Mary for her unfaithfulness. Although the letter of the law prescribed stoning for an adulteress, Joseph could safely assume that this penalty would not be enforced. But a lawsuit would have exposed Mary to public disgrace and ridicule. Or, he could hand her a bill of divorcement (necessary to dissolve the engagement), dismissing her privately without public fanfare.
Joseph chose the latter because he did not want to disgrace Mary (1:19). Even though he was in pain and he thought at this point that Mary was responsible for his pain, he didn’t want to get even or make her pay. He was considerate of her feelings. Biblical love, which we are to have even toward those who have hurt us deeply, seeks to protect and shield others rather than to make them pay.
As a godly dad, you need to think about how your actions make your child feel. You may be right in thinking that your child needs discipline. But you’re probably wrong to correct him in front of others. Maybe he’s done something that embarrasses you or makes you look bad. A godly dad judges his own pride, absorbs the embarrassment, and deals with the matter privately, because he is considerate of his child, even if the child has done wrong.
The various translations tone down the original of Matthew 1:20: Joseph “considered” or “thought about” these things. But the Greek word has the nuance of emotional reasoning. In some places it is used to describe angry, passionate reasoning. Joseph didn’t sit down and calmly weigh his options. He was in turmoil as he tried to figure out what to do, because he loved Mary deeply, but he wanted to follow God fully.
Leonard Griffith (Gospel Characters [Eerdmans], p. 21) imagines Joseph as saying, “Oh, the agony, the tortured days and sleepless nights! My life was finished. I could never love anyone else but Mary. Nazareth was empty and my heart was empty without her. ‘Why, O God, did you let this happen?’ I prayed over and over again.”
Joseph wasn’t a stern moralist. He was a considerate man, with deep feelings for the one he loved. While biblical love is primarily a commitment, not feelings, it is not devoid of feelings. Paul describes it as being patient and kind (1 Cor. 13:4). He compares his own love for his converts as being the tender love of a nursing mother, a fond affection for them (1 Thess. 2:7-8).
Hear me carefully on this: Almost as important as what you teach your children is how you communicate it. I’m not minimizing biblical truth, as you know if you’ve heard me teach. But I’m saying that God not only gave us heads to understand, but also hearts to feel. Your kids probably won’t grow up and remember the doctrine you teach them, at least not as their own convictions, unless you impart it to them with a tender love that opens their hearts toward you. Your kids (and others) are not likely to adopt your convictions unless they sense your compassion toward them.
How do you communicate your convictions and compassion to your kids? Of course, you have to model it. You can’t tell them one thing and do another yourself. Also, you have to teach it verbally by reading the Bible to them and talking about God’s ways. But there’s one ingredient in Joseph’s life that we sometimes forget: Time spent together. How do I know that Joseph spent time together with Jesus as He was growing up? By putting together two verses: Matthew 13:55, which describes Jesus as “the carpenter’s son”; and, Mark 6:3, which describes Jesus as “the carpenter.” How did Jesus learn the trade of carpentry? By spending time with Joseph. As they worked together and ate together, Joseph both modeled and talked with Jesus about the things of God. Godly values are communicated to your kids by modeling and talking in the context of time spent together.
An insightful third grade girl wrote the following observations about grandmothers (cited by James Dobson, What Wives Wish Their Husbands Knew About Women [Tyndale], pp. 47-48):
A grandmother is a lady who has no children of her own. She likes other people’s little girls and boys. A grandfather is a man grandmother. He goes for walks with the boys and they talk about fishing and stuff like that.
Grandmothers don’t have to do anything except to be there. They’re so old they shouldn’t play hard or run. It is enough if they drive us to the market where the pretend horse is, and have a lot of dimes ready. Or if they take us for walks, they should slow down past things like pretty leaves and caterpillars. They should never say “hurry up.”
Usually grandmothers are fat, but not too fat to tie your shoes. They wear glasses and funny underwear. They can take their teeth and gums off.
Grandmothers don’t have to be smart, only answer questions like, “Why isn’t God married?” and “How come dogs chase cats?” Grandmothers don’t talk baby-talk like visitors do, because it is hard to understand. Whey they read to us, they don’t skip or mind if it is the same story over again.
Everybody should try to have a grandmother, especially if you don’t have television, because they are the only grownups who have time.
Joseph was not rich or successful in his business. In his own day he was not well-known; if he hadn’t become the earthly father of Jesus, we never would have heard of him. He was a carpenter who walked with God, who developed godly convictions and communicated them with tender compassion in the context of time spent with the unique Son committed by God to his care.
Convictions without compassion creates distance in relationships. Compassion without convictions means weakness with regard to the truth, and will cause your kids to lose respect for you and for God. But put convictions and compassion together, combine them with time together over the years, and you have a succinct description of the man God chose to raise His Son. He was a dad for us to learn from, not just at Christmas time, but a dad for all seasons.
I encourage you in the coming year to commit yourself to spend time with God in His Word. It all starts there. You can’t impart to your kids what isn’t real for you. Ask God to make you a man of biblical conviction. But also, ask Him to develop in you a loving heart of compassion, and work on expressing it first toward your family. Take time to spend with your children. And your home will become the kind of home that God chose when He was looking for an earthly father to raise His unique Son.
Copyright 1994, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation
December 24, 1995
Special Christmas Message
The eccentric billionaire, Howard Hughes, owned several casinos in Las Vegas. When he died, the public relations director for Hughes’s company asked the casino managers for a minute of silence out of respect for Hughes. The message went out over the public address systems, and for a brief moment the noisy casinos fell silent. Housewives stood uncomfortably clutching their paper cups of coins at the slot machines. At the crap tables, stickmen cradled the dice in the crooks of their wooden wands. Then a pit boss looked at his watch, leaned forward, and whispered to the stickman, “Okay, roll the dice. He’s had his minute.” Some respect!
At the busy Christmas season, we’re all prone to give that same shallow “respect” to our Lord. We get caught up in the rush of shopping, sending Christmas cards, decorating the house, and entertaining guests. In the midst of it all we rush off to church, sit through the service thinking of everything we still need to get done, and rush out the door to get on with our tasks. And the Lord got His “minute”! But as the Sovereign of the universe, He deserves more. He deserves to reign as your Lord and King, every minute of every day.
The magi or wise men in the Christmas story can teach us how to be wise men (and women). No one knows for sure who they were. Contrary to “We Three Kings of Orient Are,” they were not kings and there may not have been three of them. It only says that they gave three types of gifts. They didn’t show up at the manger on the night of Christ’s birth, but at a house some months later. We don’t know what country they came from or if they rode camels. The best guess is that they were from a prominent class of royal advisors in Persia who studied astronomy, astrology, science, and religious matters. In the book of Daniel the word is used of a class of men who interpreted dreams and divine messages to the king (Dan. 1:20; 2:27; 5:15).
Perhaps they had heard about the Messiah from the Jews scattered through their country since the captivity. They may have read the prophet Daniel, since he was a prominent leader in Babylon and Persia centuries before. Somehow they had a knowledge of the Jewish Messiah and, through this special star, God had revealed to them Messiah’s birth. The star was probably a supernatural phenomenon (perhaps like the pillar of fire in the wilderness) which appeared in order to guide them, then disappeared, then appeared again to lead them to the very house where Jesus was. But no one knows for sure.
But we do know this for sure: The wise men responded to the light God gave them by seeking the Lord Jesus Christ. They were clear in their purpose: We “have come to worship Him” (2:2). Whether they were absolutely clear on His divine nature or not, we don’t know. But their words and actions point to more than the homage one would pay to an earthly king. They gave no such worship to Herod. They must have at least known that this newborn King was the One Daniel described as “One like a Son of Man” to whom “was given dominion, glory and a kingdom that all the peoples, nations, and men of every language might serve Him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion which will not pass away; and His kingdom is one which will not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13-14). In spite of many obstacles, they sought this newborn King until they found Him; and finding Him, they worshiped Him. We should do no less.
When God seeks men (and women), the wise respond by seeking His King.
We would be greatly mistaken, both factually and theologically, if we thought that these men were wise in and of themselves and that their wisdom was the reason they sought out the newborn King. Romans 3:11 plainly states, “There is none who seeks for God.” In 1 Corinthians 1:26-31, Paul shows that no one comes to God because of his own wisdom, but rather that God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise, so that no man should boast before God. The factual reason these wise men sought out Jesus was that God took the initiative by revealing to them some supernatural sign in the heavens which they connected with the birth of the Jewish Messiah. Theologically, Matthew is showing that though the Jews had the newborn Messiah right under their noses, due to their hardness of heart they missed Him. And, he is showing that this Messiah is not only King of the Jews, but also, as Daniel foretold, King of the nations.
We would also be mistaken if we concluded that God’s using a sign in the heavens with these astrologers somehow validated the practice of astrology. The Bible soundly condemns the notion that the heavenly bodies have some power over human destinies. It is the sovereign God who spoke the universe into existence who has control over human destinies! The fact that He condescended to use a star to speak to these stargazers simply shows His abundant grace in that when God seeks the sinner, He always stoops to our level and meets us there. He shines His light on us in ways that we can understand and respond to. That’s what the Christmas story is all about, that the eternal God took on human flesh so that He might “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
Perhaps you’re thinking, “Well, that’s all well and good, that we do not and cannot seek God until He first seeks us. But what if He hasn’t yet sought me? What am I supposed to do in the meantime--sit around and wait for a special star in the sky?”
But, the fact that you are right now hearing the gospel preached shows that God is seeking you! You may not have discerned it yet. It was a rare thing--just this once in all history--that God sought men through a miraculous sign in the sky. His far more common means is to seek lost people through the preaching of His Word. Since, then, you are hearing His Word preached, He is seeking you! The crucial question then becomes, “How are you responding to God’s seeking?” The fool responds by saying in his heart that there is no God (Ps. 14:1). But, ...
God sought these wise men, but then they had to respond by seeking His King. It was not an easy process. Several things could have hindered them from seeking and finding the Savior:
These men had to go on a long, difficult journey. In our day of jet travel, we can’t identify with it, because it took them weeks or months. The magi were probably fairly well-to-do men, used to comfortable dwellings. They had to give up those usual comforts. There was no interstate highway, no cars, no Holiday Inns, not even a McDonald’s! There were nights in the cold and the constant danger of robbers. And when they finally got to Jerusalem, they had trouble getting directions to the right place!
Why go through all this hassle? What was in it for them? Were they looking for some help to solve some of their personal problems? Maybe they could gain a position in the new King’s court? No, they couldn’t even talk with this King. He was probably between one and two-years-old when they arrived. It would be about 30 years before He began His public ministry. There wasn’t really anything in this trip for the magi. They didn’t say, “We have seen His star in the east and have come to get something from Him.”
The point is, when God seeks you, you should do everything it takes to seek Him, whatever the hassles, whatever the difficulties, for one reason: He alone is the living God and it is worth all the troubles if you find Him! If you seek God with the attitude, “I’ll follow Him if He makes my life go better,” you’re looking for Aladdin’s Genie, not the living God. No doubt the wise men’s lives got more difficult when they sought Jesus as King, and so may yours!
Can you imagine how these Gentile magi felt? They had traveled for weeks to worship the newborn King of the Jews. They arrived in the Jewish capital where the King would someday reign, expecting the city to be agog over His birth. They began asking, “Where is He? We saw His star in the east.” The street vendor says, “I haven’t heard of any king. But would you like to buy my wares?” They ask others, “Where’s your newborn King?” but receive funny looks and shrugs of the shoulders. So they think, “We must be asking the wrong people.” So they rush over to the temple precincts and ask the rabbis, “Where is your King?” But the rabbis don’t know of any newborn king. They point them toward Herod’s palace.
It would be as if someone from a foreign country had a dream of coming to the Grand Canyon. They finally save up the money and get to Flagstaff. They ask for directions to the Canyon. And people look at them as if they’re crazy and say, “The Grand Canyon? Never heard of the place.”
When Herod heard that there might be a newborn King of the Jews, he was not disinterested! He “was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (2:3). He was troubled because he was a suspicious tyrant who eliminated anyone who had a remote chance of challenging his rule. By the time he died, he had murdered his brother-in-law, mother-in-law, wife, and three sons, not to mention all the male babies in Bethlehem, plus a lot of other people. So you can see why when Herod got troubled, all Jerusalem got troubled with him!
But none of the religious leaders got troubled enough to follow the magi to Bethlehem. They could give the right biblical answers about Messiah’s birthplace. But they weren’t interested in taking a five mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem to see their newborn King. They probably thought the magi were a bunch of fanatics to travel all that distance to see a baby. But in spite of the indifference of those who should have been most excited, the magi went alone to Bethlehem to worship the newborn King.
The disinterest of others can hinder you from seeking the Lord Jesus as your King. The worst kind of disinterest comes from the religious crowd who know about the King, but they have not submitted their lives to His rule. They find it an interesting academic exercise to study the Bible, but they don’t allow it to confront their pride and selfishness. They think you’re a fanatic if you seek Him no matter what the cost. It threatens their lukewarmness. But don’t let their disinterest hinder you from seeking Him.
Again, put yourself in the magis’ sandals. They advised the kings of Persia. They were used to living in royal settings. After seeing the star of this newborn King of the Jews, they started their long journey. They must have had some expectations about what they would find when they got there. After all, not every king has a star announcing his birth! They went to Herod’s palace, but the newborn King wasn’t there. “Maybe He’s in one of the king’s vacation homes. He’s probably surrounded with gold, waited on by many attendants. We can probably stay in one of the guest houses on the grounds.”
But what did they find? “They came into the house and saw the Child with Mary His mother” (2:11). Mary and Joseph had moved into more permanent quarters than the stable where Jesus was born. But that was it--a common house in Bethlehem, common, working-class parents, and a common-looking child. No fancy robes, no attendants, no palace. Nothing that even hinted of royalty. And yet the wise men “fell down and worshiped Him” (not Mary!).
That took some faith! They had been to Herod’s palace and seen the splendor there, but they had not bowed in worship. But here in this common setting, they find this couple and their child. He didn’t perform any miracles. He didn’t have a halo. Angels weren’t hovering overhead. And yet they fell before Him in worship and presented Him with their treasures. If they were disappointed, they didn’t let it keep them from bowing before Jesus as King.
If you seek Christ as your Savior and King, you will have some disappointments. You probably will not find King Jesus to be all that you expected. You expected Him to quickly solve all your problems, but in fact, you seem to have more problems than before! You expected an abundant life, and that didn’t include suffering! But the one who learns from the magi will look beyond the disappointments and will bow before Jesus as their King with eyes of faith.
Wise men and women seek Jesus as their King in spite of difficulties, the disinterest of others, and disappointment.
The magi were important men back home. They were the equivalent of cabinet members, with responsible positions in their government. They had wealth and influence. And yet here they are bowing down on the dirt floor of a modest home in Bethlehem before a Jewish baby, proclaiming Him as their own Sovereign and King! Verse 10 tells us that when they saw the star as they left Jerusalem bound for Bethlehem, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy.” Matthew piles up superlatives to let us know that these guys were excited! When they got to the house, they weren’t hindered by their own dignity or pride from falling in worship before the Lord Jesus.
Proud Herod would never be found bowing in the dust, except before Caesar, and that only to get what he wanted from the despot. The scribes in Jerusalem knew nothing of the magis’ abandon in worship. They bowed when it was proper, but only in the Temple, in front of others who could see their piety. The magi alone bowed unabashedly to worship the infant whom they confessed as their King, even though He was not acknowledged by His own people.
We no longer worship Him as the Babe of Bethlehem, but as the risen, sovereign Lord of heaven and earth, who is returning in might and majesty to reign forever. But our dignity, our pride, often hinders our bowing before Him as King. “What would others think if I got carried away and gave myself in abandon to Jesus? What would it do to my reputation? People might think I’m a religious fanatic!” Herod and the Jewish religious leaders kept their dignity but missed their King. The magi lost their dignity but gained Jesus as their King. Swallow your dignity and join the wise men on the dirt before Jesus as your King!
After the magi gave their gifts, “they departed for their own country” (2:12). They didn’t set up a shrine and charge admission. They didn’t write a book about their trip. They quietly returned home and went on with their lives. But they were different men now, men who by faith had seen the King and worshiped Him. That’s what the Lord would have us do at Christmas: to respond to His initiative in sending His Son by seeking Jesus as our King. And, having found Him and worshiped Him, to return to our homes, our world, as different people, people who live under the sovereignty of the King.
There are three types of people in this story. There are those like Herod who hear of Jesus and are hostile toward Him. They want to eliminate Him from their lives because He threatens their running the show. Then there are those like the Jewish priests and scribes who know about Jesus. They can even quote Bible references about Him. But they’re indifferent to Him. They don’t go out of their way to seek Him. And then there are those like the magi. They responded to the light they had been given and overcame every hindrance until they found the Savior and fell at His feet in worship.
The third group were the wise men; those who sought Jesus as King. Maybe you’re not in the third group, but you’d like to be. What should you do? William Law, an 18th century devotional writer, gives the answer: “When the first spark of a desire after God arrives in [your] soul, cherish it with all [your] care, give all [your] heart unto it.... Follow it as gladly as the wise men of the East followed the star from heaven that appeared to them. It will do for [you] as the star did for them: it will lead [you] to the birth of Jesus, not in a stable at Bethlehem of Judea, but to the birth of Jesus in [your] own soul.”
Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
December 22, 1996
Special Christmas Message
We live in a day of “cafeteria Christianity,” where folks go down the line and say, “I’ll have some of this, but I don’t want any of that. I don’t like it.” They pick and choose what suits their fancy, as if they are free to take whatever they like from the faith and disregard the rest. Coupled with this is the prevailing dogma that doctrine is at best not important, and at worst intolerant and divisive. According to this view, it really doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re loving and accepting toward others, no matter what they believe.
All Christians enjoy the story of the birth of Jesus. The familiar narrative of Joseph and Mary, their trek to Bethlehem, no room at the inn, the humble birth of Jesus in the stable, and the adoration of the shepherds and the magi, makes for a story we never grow tired of repeating. But there is one part of the story that many professing Christians would just as soon leave out: the virgin birth of our Savior. In 1970 (Sept. 11 issue), Christianity Today published a survey that revealed that the virgin birth is denied by 60 percent of Methodists, 49 percent of Presbyterians, 44 percent of Episcopalians, 34 percent of American Baptists, and 19 percent of American Lutherans. I assume those numbers have not improved with age! Perhaps that part of the story sounds just too incredible for the modern mind.
And besides, what difference does it make? Isn’t the important thing that we believe that in Christ God was present among men? Why is it necessary to believe in the virgin birth? I want to answer that question in this message. I want you to see that ...
Belief in the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is essential.
A few doctrines are “fundamentals” of the Christian faith. Sincere Christians may differ on their understanding of the non-fundamentals--such areas as prophecy, spiritual gifts, and views of baptism. But to deny the fundamentals of the faith is to depart from the core of what it means to be a Christian in the historic sense of the word. The virgin birth is a fundamental doctrine of the Christian faith. To deny it requires that we deny the authority and truth of the Bible, the deity and sinless humanity of Jesus Christ, and that He is the Savior as taught in Scripture. Or, stated positively, to affirm these essential doctrines, we must affirm the virgin birth.
Since the Bible clearly teaches the virgin birth of Jesus, you can’t consistently claim to believe anything else the Bible says and at the same time deny the virgin birth. The main reason skeptics reject the virgin birth (or, more accurately, the virgin conception of Jesus) is that they assume naturalism and thus reject miracles as being mere fables passed down from a time when people were not as scientifically knowledgeable as we are today.
But the Bible begins by assuming the fact of God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and earth” (Gen. 1:1). It teaches that the reason men reject God is not intellectual, but moral: they suppress the truth because they do not want to turn from their sin and submit to the Lordship of the Creator (Rom. 1:18-21). The fact of an intelligent Creator is evident in His creation. To think that anything as complex as life on this earth could have evolved by sheer chance plus time is a leap of faith that runs counter to the principles of the scientific method. When we examine any complex mechanism, whether a watch or a computer, we do not assume that given enough time, such a thing could happen by chance. We know that an intelligent designer put these things together for a purpose.
Which is more logical: to conclude that something as complex as plant and animal life on this earth, and the conditions necessary to sustain it, interdependent as it all is, happened by sheer chance over billions of years, with the parts that needed the other parts hanging on for a few billion years until the other necessary parts evolved; or, to conclude that an omniscient, omnipotent Creator designed it?
If a supernatural God is the source of creation, then miracles are not a problem. He can interrupt the normal laws of His creation and perform supernatural deeds if He chooses. The angel states this to Mary when he announced that she would bear the Savior. She was puzzled as to how she could have a child, since she had not had relations with a man. He explained, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will over-shadow you; ...” He concludes, “For nothing will be impossible with God” (Luke 1:35, 37). It was a miracle.
Critics say that the virgin birth is just a myth similar to other ancient myths, where influential men were said to have been conceived by the gods having relations with human women. It’s not surprising that Satan would invent many such counterfeit stories to confuse and cloud the facts surrounding the birth of the Savior. But invariably such mythical stories sound like fables, whereas the biblical accounts read like factual history.
Matthew was one of the twelve, and we can assume that his source was either Jesus or Mary. Luke states that he made a careful investigation of the facts and talked with eyewitnesses (Luke 1:1-4). It is probable that he talked directly with Mary. Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are independent of each other, yet both men report the same miraculous event. Thus to reject the virgin birth a person must reject the word of two independent historians who lived at that time and whose writings have been accepted as factual history by thousands of scholars.
If a person rejects the historicity of the virgin birth and claims that it is only the “spiritual lesson” of the story that matters, then he has effectively cut himself off from the necessity of believing any of the history of the gospels. The “Jesus Seminar” is doing this very thing. A group of supposed scholars vote on their opinion of how likely each sentence and story of the gospels reflects what Jesus really said or did. The basis for their voting is pure subjectivism. Using the same method, we could establish that Plato or Shakespeare or any other author was not authentic, because it doesn’t “sound” like that author! We would have to reject the accuracy of all written history. But such fools are arbitrarily rejecting, on the assumption of naturalism, the historical research of credible sources.
In addition to the historical factor, Matthew (1:23) asserts for his Jewish readers that the virgin birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” There is much debate among Bible scholars as to the exact interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, which I can’t go into here for lack of time. But however you interpret Isaiah 7:14, Matthew is stating that its ultimate fulfillment meant that a woman who had not had relations with a man would bear a son and that this child was none other than God with us, God in human flesh. Mary was that woman and Jesus was her child, the promised Messiah of Israel.
I might add that there is no biblical basis for the view that Mary remained a virgin all her life. That teaching is based on the unbiblical view that sexual relations in marriage are impure. Other Scriptures (Matt. 13:55, 56; Mark 6:3) show that Mary had other children. If they were Joseph’s children by an earlier marriage, one of them, not Jesus, would have been heir to the throne of David. Matthew 1:25 implies that Mary and Joseph had normal relations as husband and wife after Jesus’ birth.
The virgin birth of Christ was only one of numerous prophecies written hundreds of years previous to His birth which He fulfilled. Together with the historical accuracy of Matthew and Luke, these prophecies affirm the truthfulness of the Bible. You cannot claim to believe the Bible if you deny the virgin birth.
If Jesus Christ is the son of a human father and a human mother through natural biological processes, then He is not God in human flesh. It’s that simple. He might, under those circumstances, be a man indwelt by God, a man upon whom God’s Spirit rested. But He would only have been a man. His existence would have begun at conception. He would not and could not be the eternal God in human flesh.
The Scriptures repeatedly affirm the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1,14). “But of the Son, He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom’” (Heb. 1:8). Jesus Himself told the Jews, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham came into being, I AM” (John 8:58). When Thomas saw the risen Lord Jesus and cried out, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus didn’t correct him for blasphemy, but rather He accepted and commended such worship (John 20:28, 29).
Alexander Maclaren observed, “No one ever proffered to Jesus Christ honors that He put by. No one ever brought to Him a trust which He said was either excessive or misdirected.... Christ takes as His due all the honor, love, and trust, which any man can give Him--either an exorbitant appetite for adulation, or the manifestation of conscious divinity” (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], sermon on Matt. 8:8-9, pp. 382-383). The same author, after pointing out that Jesus called men to believe on Him, concludes, “Either He was wrong, and then He was a crazy enthusiast, only acquitted of blasphemy because convicted of insanity; or else--or else--He was ‘God, manifest in the flesh’” (ibid., sermon on John 14:1, p. 257).
No natural union of a human husband and wife could ever bring God into this world. That is the core truth of the Christmas story, that the baby of Bethlehem is uniquely, “God with us.” The means God used to take on human flesh was the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. To affirm the full deity of Jesus Christ you must affirm His supernatural virgin birth.
If Jesus was born of natural parents, then He was born a sinner like all other human beings, and He would have needed a Savior for Himself. If He had sin of His own, He could not have died as the substitute for others. The Scriptures clearly teach that the whole human race, from Adam onward, is born under the curse of sin (see Romans 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3). To redeem that race from sin, Christ had to be identified with us in our humanity, but to be sinless Himself. Just as the Scriptures teach the full deity of Jesus Christ, so they clearly teach His full humanity. He was not a hybrid God-man, half of each. He is undiminished deity and perfect humanity united in one person forever.
Jesus had to have at least one human parent or He would not have shared our humanity. But through the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth, Jesus was able to be born as fully human and yet as sinless. The angel tells Mary that because the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her, “for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Mary herself was not immaculately conceived. Luke 1:47 makes that plain where Mary refers to “God my Savior.” You don’t need a Savior unless you’re a sinner. Some theologians have speculated that the sinful nature is communicated through the male, but we cannot say for certain. The earliest prediction of a Savior (Genesis 3:15) mentions Him as the seed of the woman, not of man (see also Gal. 4:4, 5). What we can say for certain is what the angel asserted, that because Mary would conceive miraculously through the Holy Spirit, her offspring would be the holy Son of God. The virgin birth is necessary to affirm the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ.
Thus, belief in the virgin birth is necessary to affirm the Word of God; the deity, and the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ. Finally,
Christmas isn’t just a story to make us feel warm and fuzzy about family, friends, and peace on earth. At the heart of the Christmas story is that the human race is lost, alienated from the holy God because of our sin. The angel told Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus [= Jehovah saves], for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Today you are either in your sins, alienated from God, facing His judgment; or, Christ has saved you from your sins, so that you are reconciled to God through faith in Christ. If you are lost, your greatest need is for a Savior. The virgin-born Jesus is the only Savior.
To be our Savior the Messiah had to be a man, because only man could die for the sins of the human race. The wages of our sin is death (Rom. 6:23) and that penalty must be paid either by the sinner or by an acceptable substitute. But that substitute must Himself be without sin. Furthermore, He must be more than a man to die for the sins of the whole human race. He must be God in human flesh. Bishop Moule once said, “A Savior not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”
In his classic book, The Virgin Birth of Christ ([Baker], p. 395), J. Gresham Machen wrote,
How, except by the virgin birth, could our Savior have lived a complete human life from the mother’s womb, and yet have been from the very beginning no product of what had gone before, but a supernatural Person come into the world from the outside to redeem the sinful race?... A noble man in whom the divine life merely pulsated in greater power than in other men would have been born by ordinary generation from a human pair; the eternal Son of God, come by a voluntary act to redeem us from the guilt and power of sin, was conceived in the virgin’s womb by the Holy Ghost.
The virgin birth is a picture of the new birth that God wants to bestow on every sinner. The initiative and power were totally from God. Mary could do nothing except passively receive what God would do for her. She couldn’t offer her best efforts, she didn’t need to promise to try hard to bear the Messiah. All she did was to say, “Be it done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). God did it all. You can’t try to save yourself or get into heaven by your own efforts. All you can do is receive what God has done in Christ. James explains, “In the exercise of His will He brought us forth by the word of truth,” and concludes, “Therefore putting aside all filthiness and all that remains of wickedness, in humility receive the word implanted, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:18, 21).
Radio commentator Paul Harvey tells of a man who did not believe that God had taken human flesh in the person of Jesus. He was a kind, decent family man, but he was skeptical about the message of Christmas and couldn’t pretend otherwise. So on Christmas eve, he told his wife that he was not going to church with her and the children, because he just couldn’t believe. So they went without him.
Shortly after the family left, snow began to fall. As he sat in his fireside chair reading the paper, he was startled by a thudding sound against the house, then another, then another. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against the living room window. But when he went to investigate, he found a flock of birds, huddled miserably in the snow. They had been caught in the storm, and in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his window.
He didn’t want to leave the poor creatures there to freeze. He thought of the barn where his children stabled their pony. He put on his coat and boots and tromped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the door wide and turned on the light. But the birds didn’t come in. He went back to the house and got some bread crumbs and sprinkled a path to the barn, but the cold creatures ignored the food and continued to flop around helplessly in the snow.
He tried catching them and shooing them into the barn, but they scattered in every direction, frightened by his well-meaning actions. As he puzzled over how he could help save these frightened creatures from sure death, the thought struck him, “If only I could become a bird and speak their language, then I could show them the way to safety in the warm barn.” At that moment, bells from the church rang out through the silent, falling snow, heralding the birth of the Savior. The message of Christmas suddenly made sense, and he dropped to his knees in the snow.
It is possible to believe in the virgin birth and incarnation of the Savior and yet not be saved. Salvation does not depend upon affirming the creeds. “The demons also believe” (James 2:19). Salvation depends upon personally receiving the free gift of eternal life which God offers to you through His eternal Son who took on human flesh through the virgin Mary on that first Christmas, who offered Himself as the substitute for sinners on the cross. If God is truly with us in Christ, then we must come to God only through Christ.
Copyright 1996, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
December 20, 1998
Special Christmas Message
“Am I mentioned in the will?” the nephew asked anxiously. “You certainly are,” replied the lawyer. “Right here in the third paragraph your uncle says, ‘To my niece Sarah, I bequeath $100,000; to my cousin Janice, $50,000; and to my nephew Charles, who was always curious to know if he was mentioned in my will, I say—Hi, Charles.’” (Reader’s Digest [11/77], p. 44.)
Well, I’ve never had a rich uncle or a rich relative of any sort. The only thing I’ve ever inherited was an old TV set from Marla’s grandmother. But if I did have a rich uncle, I’d want to be on good terms with him so that I’d be at least on his Christmas list, if not in his will.
We all enjoy receiving gifts at Christmas. But the greatest gifts we can receive are not from rich uncles, but from God. He made us; He alone knows what we all need most. As a loving God, He is ready to give us the best gifts. But He does not give His gifts indiscriminately. Both in the Bible and in our experience we see that some receive the blessings God offers while others go away with nothing. We would do well, therefore, to understand clearly how to receive from God so that we are not among those who miss out on the best gift of all.
The virgin Mary was one who received God’s blessings. In reference to her being chosen to be the mother of our Lord, she exclaimed, “For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me” (Luke 1:48-49). What a great thing to know, that future generations would count you blessed because God has done great things for you! Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55, called the Magnificat, from the first word in Latin) tells us how to receive God’s blessings as Mary did. In an earlier study of Luke, I covered the whole song. Today I’m going to focus only on verse 53: “He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.” This verse tells us how to receive from God:
God satisfies the spiritually hungry but He sends the self-satisfied away empty.
This is a basic spiritual principle that runs throughout Scripture. It is often expressed as God humbling the proud and exalting the humble (Luke 1:51-52). Dozens of verses emphasize this truth, but let’s look at just a few.
Mary’s song is similar to Hannah’s song (1 Sam. 2:1-10), which expresses Hannah’s praise after God answered her prayer for a son. God wanted to give Hannah a son because Israel needed a prophet to speak God’s word to His people. Hannah’s rival, her husband’s other wife, had many sons and daughters (1 Sam. 1:2, 4), but Hannah was barren because God had closed her womb (1:5). Closing Hannah’s womb may seem like a strange way for God to provide her with a son. Yet that is often the way God works. He promised Abraham and Sarah a son, but He waited until after they were well past childbearing years to give them Isaac. The principle is that God brings us to the end of ourselves, where we have lost our proud trust in our own ability. Then we cast ourselves on the Lord and He provides to show us His grace [read 1 Sam. 2:4-7].
The same theme governs Psalm 107. It shows four vignettes of people whom God put in impossible situations so that they would come to the end of themselves, call out to God, and then praise Him for His lovingkindness when He delivered them [read vss. 4-9, noting vs. 9]. Jesus taught the same truth in the Beatitudes, where He said that the mourners would be comforted, the hungry filled, and the meek would inherit the earth (Matt. 5:3-12). Paul expressed the same principle when he said that when he was weak, then he was strong, because his weakness forced him to rely on the Lord (2 Cor. 12:9-10).
The reason I emphasize this principle so much at the outset is that it runs counter to what most people think, that “God helps those who help themselves.” That familiar “verse” is not in the Bible. It is based on human pride and runs counter to the biblical principle that God helps those who come to the end of themselves and cast themselves upon Him. I often read articles that promote the popular view, that you’ve got to believe in yourself. Sadly, many Christians buy into this sort of thinking. But Scripture pointedly states, “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord” (Jer. 17:5). To trust in yourself is to turn away from trusting in the Lord!
Trusting in God does not mean that we sit around and do nothing. But it does mean that before we can do anything for God, we must recognize our own inability and rely on God for His grace and strength, so that He gets the glory. That’s the principle Mary expresses in Luke 1:53. Let’s examine the first half of the proposition:
Mary is not speaking primarily of physical hunger or riches, but is using metaphorical language to speak of the spiritually hungry and the spiritually rich, or self-satisfied. Mary clearly saw herself as spiritually needy. She was not born without sin. She recognized God as her Savior (1:47), implying that she was a sinner. God didn’t chose Mary to bear His Son because she was without sin. She mentions her humble state (1:48) and God’s mercy (1:50). Mary was a spiritually hungry woman whom God had sovereignly blessed because of His mercy. Note three things:
That is the qualification to receive from God—to be spiritually hungry. As Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). Righteousness refers to God’s holiness as personified in Jesus Christ. In reference to the Christian, it refers both to justification—to be declared right before God, which happens the moment a person believes in Christ; and, to sanctification—to live rightly before God, which is progressive over a lifetime and is never perfected until we stand before Christ. Jesus was referring to the person who has a deep desire to be like Him, to live a holy life in thought, word, and deed. That person will be satisfied.
There are many people, even many professing Christians, who desire happiness, but not righteousness. If God can make them happy, they’ll follow Him; but if not, they’ll look elsewhere. A couple who attended the church I pastored in California professed to be Christians. The wife suffered chronic back pain. When I heard that they were going to a Science of Mind “healer,” I talked to the husband about the spiritual danger. He replied, “My wife is in pain; we’ll go where she can get relief.” They stopped coming to the church. Truth didn’t matter to them. The living God didn’t matter. They just wanted relief wherever they could find it. I’ve known other professing Christians who walk out on their marriages or get involved in immorality because they’re seeking happiness above seeking God’s kingdom and righteousness.
Commenting on “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones says, “I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture you can be quite certain you are a Christian; if it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again” (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Eerdmans], 1:74).
Of course every true child of God is aware of many shortcomings in this regard. We’re all easily led astray by the selfishness that dwells within our sinful hearts. We have to fight it constantly. But if the pattern of our lives is that we violate God’s holy standards to pursue self-fulfillment, then we are fooling ourselves to call ourselves Christians.
Mary says that God fills the hungry with good things. To be hungry is to be aware of a desperate need. Relieving hunger is not a luxury; it’s a matter of survival. Probably none of us has ever experienced this level of need on a physical plane. Starving people aren’t interested in new stereos or computers, unless they can somehow sell them to buy food. Hungry people have one focus—where to find food. It consumes their whole existence from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. They need food.
That’s how we should hunger for God! Do you feel desperate to have your sins forgiven and to come to know God? If you have had your sins forgiven at the cross, do you now sense that whatever else in life you have, you must know God? The ones God satisfies are marked by that kind of spiritual hunger.
The “He” of verse 53 is God. He alone is able to meet our deepest needs. If we want to be satisfied, then we must seek God for the fulfillment of our spiritual hunger. He made us; He understands us thoroughly. He alone can meet the deepest needs of every human heart. So if we recognize our hunger, we must seek God to fill it.
To seek elsewhere is to seek that which can never satisfy completely. As the Lord speaks through Isaiah, “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me” (Isa. 55:2-3). God alone can satisfy the hungry heart.
David knew this. He was in the Judean wilderness, running for his life from the mad King Saul. Samuel had anointed David as Saul’s successor, but for the time being, David was a hunted fugitive. If I were David, I probably wouldn’t be writing songs at a time like that or if I were, the theme would be, “God, get me out of here! Give me relief!” But at just such a time, David wrote, “O God, You are my God; I shall seek you earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water” (Ps. 63:1). As he seeks God there in that barren wilderness, David exults, “My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth offers praises with joyful lips” (63:5). He knew what it meant to be satisfied with God alone, even when God had not yet provided him with physical comfort or with the position as king that God had promised.
Beware of seeking fulfillment apart from Jesus Christ. Satan offers all sorts of subtle temptations that seem to fulfill your needs, but they aren’t centered in Jesus Christ. They satisfy temporarily, but ultimately they do not nourish. The one who fills up on them will starve. It’s as if you were physically hungry and you came to me for food. Suppose that I had perfected a process for infusing the taste of steak and potatoes into old newspapers. It tasted great, but it was nutritionally useless. If you ate it, you would enjoy the taste and your hunger would go away. But you would starve to death. That’s what happens to anyone who seeks to be satisfied with anything other than God.
We’ve seen that the ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger. Also, God alone can satisfy our hunger. Third,
I’m focusing here on the word “filled.” It’s in the past tense (Greek, aorist) because Mary is quoting from Psalm 107:9 (106:9 in the LXX) which looks at how God has met the need of those who have called out to Him. But it points to His characteristic way of dealing with all who seek Him. He satisfies them or fills them full (the meaning of this Greek verb). It means that God doesn’t just give partially; He meets our needs fully. It’s the same word used in the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:12), where it says that after everyone was filled, they picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers. Everyone ate until they were satisfied, a feeling that many of us can identify with at this season of the year!
Of course there’s a sense in which we are both satisfied and yet still hungry in Jesus Christ. We who have tasted of God’s banquet in Christ are satisfied in the sense that the longing of our soul has been met. Our sins are forgiven; we enjoy peace with God; we have the joy of the Holy Spirit; we are ready to meet the Lord. In all of that and in much more, we are satisfied. And yet in another sense, as long as we’re in this body, we will be hungering and thirsting to know more of God, to experience more of what He has provided for us in Christ. Since God is infinite, we can never exhaust the delight of knowing Him.
Also, note that God satisfies the hungry with good things, not with junk food. God fills you with Himself, the source of all that is good and beautiful. “The good things” of our text does not refer to what our society calls “the good life.” Mary wasn’t referring to material prosperity, to a life of freedom from suffering, or to a feeling of self-fulfillment. She was referring to the satisfaction of the soul in God Himself, which transcends circumstances.
Many years ago a great monarch, Shah Abbis, reigned in Persia. The Shah loved his people. To understand them more clearly, he would mingle with them in various disguises. One day he went to the public baths dressed as a poor man. There in a tiny cellar he sat down beside the man who tended the furnace. He talked with the lonely man as a friend and at meal time, he ate some of his coarse food. In the weeks that followed, he visited the poor man often until the man came to love him dearly.
Then one day the Shah revealed his true identity to the poor man. The Shah waited, expecting the man to ask some favor or gift from him, but the commoner simply gazed in astonishment. Finally, he said, “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to partake of my coarse food, to care whether my heart was glad or heavy. On others you may bestow great riches; but to me you have given a much greater gift—yourself. I only ask that you may never withdraw the gift of your friendship.”
Friendship with God in Jesus Christ is what truly satisfies the soul! Mary affirms that God fills or satisfies the hungry soul with good things, namely, with the ultimate good thing of knowing Him. All that I’ve said thus far is to try to explain and apply the first half of this verse. But we must look briefly at the second half:
This is a shocking reversal of the natural order! In this world, the rich are the full; the hungry are the empty. But in God’s order, the rich are the empty; the hungry are the full. Note three things:
By rich, Mary means those who have no felt needs before God. Perhaps she is specifically referring to those who were the self-proclaimed spiritual leaders in Israel in her day. When God picked a family for His Messiah to be born in, He didn’t pick the family of the chief priest or of one of the leading rabbis. He went to a poor, unknown carpenter and his wife in Nazareth. The “rich” in Jerusalem were overlooked.
The surest way to receive nothing from God is to be satisfied with where you are at. The Pharisees didn’t see themselves as needy sinners before God. They saw themselves as righteous because of their good works. They saw themselves as better than “the sinners.” But they didn’t see themselves as God saw them! They were “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (Luke 1:51), and their pride blinded them to their true spiritual condition.
The church of Laodicea was like that. They had become lukewarm about spiritual things because they were complacent. Their view of themselves was, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s description of them is a bit different: “You are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked” (Rev. 3:17). How would you describe yourself spiritually? God sends away the self-satisfied, who do not see their true need before Him.
What a startling thing! The text doesn’t say that God ignores the rich or that He gives nothing to them. It says that He actively sends them away empty-handed. What a frightening thought, that God would send a person away! You may wonder, “Why would God do this? Doesn’t He want everyone to come to Him?” Yes, but they must come on God’s terms, not on their terms.
A Newsweek cover story several years ago [12/17/90, pp. 50-56] reported on the baby-boomers who were coming back into church now that they realized the need for religious values for their kids. But the article made it clear that these self-confident people are coming to God on their terms, not on His. “They don’t convert—they choose.” They want to know, “What’s in it for me?” They’re picky consumers, shopping for churches they like that offer services they want. The message to the churches is, “If you want to grow, you’d better cater to the customers’ needs.”
A similar article in Time [4/5/93, pp. 44-49] observed, “Increasing numbers of baby boomers who left the fold years ago are turning religious again, but many are traveling from church to church or faith to faith, sampling creeds, shopping for a custom-made God.”
You can custom-make an idol. But you can only come to the living God on His terms or not at all. His terms are that you recognize your sin and that you cannot save yourself. You must see yourself as hungry and starving unless God intervenes. He isn’t in the business of working out deals with self-confident young urban professionals. He actively sends the proud away.
What despair, to be sent away by God empty-handed! If God sends you away empty-handed, you have absolutely nothing. Paul expressed the same truth by saying that such people have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). What good are material riches in this life, if you spend eternity in that place Jesus described as “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48)? What good is passing pleasure or romance in this life, if you spend eternity in the place Jesus described as “outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30)? The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be full of the passing pleasures of this world, but to be empty-handed when you stand before God at the judgment.
What is the solution? How can we avoid having God send us away empty-handed? D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” To the church at Laodicea, God said that they needed to see their true condition as He saw them and to repent, to turn from their sin to Him. It was to that church that Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). He will truly satisfy the hunger of anyone who acknowledges his true spiritual need and who seeks Him.
Don’t seek happiness. Don’t seek fulfillment. Don’t seek pleasure. Hunger after God and His righteousness and He promises that He will fill you with good things.
Copyright Steven J. Cole, 1998, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
December 19, 1999
A family during the great depression was unable to afford anything but the bare necessities. One day the news came that a circus was coming to town. Tickets cost one dollar. The little boy came running home excited and eager to get the money from his dad. The father regretfully told his boy that he could not provide him with that much money, but if he went out and worked on odd jobs, he might make enough to purchase a ticket on his own. The dad promised to match what the boy could earn.
The boy worked feverishly and, just a few days before the circus came to town, he found that he had just enough, including his dad’s contribution. He took the money and ran off to town to buy his circus ticket.
The day the circus came to town, he grabbed his ticket and rushed to the main street, where he stood on the curb as the circus parade went by. He was thrilled to watch the clowns, elephants, and all of the performers. A clown came dancing over to him and the boy put his ticket in the clown’s hand. He eagerly watched as the rest of the parade went by.
After the parade, the boy rushed home and told his father that he had been to the circus and how much fun it was. The father, surprised that the boy was home already, asked him to describe the circus. The boy told of the parade that went down the main street and of giving his ticket to the clown. The father sadly took his son in his arms and said, “Son, you didn’t see the circus; all you saw was the parade.”
That boy reminds me of many people at Christmas time. They get caught up with the carols, trees, lights, and gifts. They think that they are experiencing what Christmas is all about. But really, all they’re doing is seeing the parade and missing the main event, the true joy of Christmas.
I want each of you to know the real joy of Christmas. The angel announced the source of that joy to the shepherds on that first Christmas night: “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11).
The great joy of Christmas comes through receiving God’s gift of the Savior, Christ the Lord.
Even if you haven’t received Christ as your Savior, you may have some good feelings at this season. It is a wonderful time of the year. It’s always good to be with family and friends, to enjoy good food, and to exchange gifts. But I’m talking about something different, something deeper. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long. It is the abiding joy of knowing for certain that things are right between you and God. It is the contentment that comes from knowing that you have a hope that holds constant beyond the uncertainties of this life. That kind of lasting joy comes only to the one who has personally received God’s gift of the Savior.
Why did the angel describe the news about the Savior as “great joy”?
Imagine how frightening the shepherd’s experience would have been. They had been sitting in the dark night, perhaps with only the light of a flickering fire, when suddenly the sky lit up like noontime! Add to that the sudden appearance of the angel. It was enough to scare anyone!
The shepherds sitting in darkness picture the lost human race, sitting in the darkness of sin and the shadow of death (1:79). When the glory of God in His holiness suddenly breaks in on people who live in the darkness of sin, the only response is great fear. In the Bible, even when godly people encounter God or His holy angels, fear is the only response. When God appeared to Moses on Mount Sinai, the mountain shook and there were lightning flashes, thunder, a thick cloud, and the sound of a loud trumpet. The people were so afraid that they dared not come near the mountain. When the godly Isaiah saw God through a vision, he cried out, “Woe is me, for I am ruined.” Suddenly, he realized that he was a sinner (Isa. 6:5). It is always a fearful thing for a sinner to see a manifestation of God and His glory.
But I fear that in our pagan culture, or even in the church nowadays, far too few know anything of the fear of God’s impending judgment on sinners. We have pulled God down and made Him out to be a benign old man who is tolerant of our sins. We think that the only ones He will judge are the worst of the worst—murderers, child molesters, and the like. And, we have lifted humanity up, so that we mistakenly think that most people are basically good. As a result, we don’t understand what the Bible teaches about God’s terrible wrath against sin and the great danger that threatens every person outside of Christ. Thus, we don’t really appreciate the good news of the coming of the Savior.
I often illustrate it this way: Suppose I were standing in a long line at the bank and you rushed in, grabbed me by the arm, and dragged me out of the bank. I probably would not appreciate it. I would shout, “What do you think you’re doing?” You replied, “I’m saving you from the bank!” I would say, “That’s very nice of you, but I don’t need saving. I’m not in any danger. You tore my shirt, you hurt my arm, and you made me lose my place in line.” I would not be very grateful.
But, suppose that a mob of terrorists had just taken me hostage in the bank and you rushed in and got me safely out of the bank. In that case, I would be most grateful, even if you tore my shirt, hurt my arm, and made me lose my place in line. Why the difference? Because in the second instance, I was in grave danger and I knew that if somebody didn’t save me, I was doomed. In the first instance, there was no perceived danger.
The Bible says that if you have not received Jesus Christ as your Savior, whether you realize it or not, you are in the greatest imaginable danger—eternal danger. If you should die without Christ, you will have to stand before a holy God against whom you have committed many offenses. The Bible says, “It is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment” (Heb. 9:27). After death it is too late to repent. No amount of good works or good intentions on your part will help in the day of judgment. And so, like these shepherds sitting in darkness and suddenly seeing this blinding light, you should be terribly frightened at the thought of God’s holy presence.
Against that backdrop, the message that the Savior has been born is the best of all possible news, because it brings the promise of eternal life to those who are under God’s judgment. So the news that a Savior has been born who will deliver all who receive Him is truly “good news of a great joy.”
Good news is only good if it is true. If I told you, “You’ve just inherited a million dollars,” and you said, “Really?” I replied, “No, I’m just kidding.” You wouldn’t rejoice. That news is worthless because it’s not true.
The news that Jesus Christ is born as the Savior is nothing more than a sick joke if it is not true news. If it’s just a nice legend that warms our hearts every Christmas, then let’s eradicate it once and for all, because it is offering hope for eternity where there is none. But if it is true news, then we must believe and act upon it.
Luke wants us know that this news is true. In Luke 1:3, he states that he had investigated everything carefully from the beginning. His gospel was the fruit of careful research. Most scholars believe that Mary, the mother of our Lord, was Luke’s direct source for the information in the birth narrative. Luke 2:19 reports that Mary “treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.” To doubt the veracity of these events recorded by Luke is to pit your word against that of a woman of integrity who was personally closer to these events than anyone else.
The witness of the shepherds further confirms the historical accuracy of these events. There was no reason for them to fabricate a story about seeing the angels. Mass hallucinations of this sort are highly unlikely. Verse 20 affirms that the things that the shepherds heard and saw were “just as had been told them.”
The things that they heard and saw—a common couple and their baby in a stable—were not the sort of things one would fabricate. If people were going to make up a story about the birth of a Savior, it would have sounded more like a fairy tale, with a palace in Jerusalem, not a stable in Bethlehem. The Savior would have had magical or mythical qualities. But there is none of that. Rather we find the straightforward reporting of events as they happened.
Certainly there are miracles: the virgin conception of Jesus in Mary’s womb; the appearances of angels. But these events are presented matter-of-factly, not in a way that sounds like make-believe. Unless one arbitrarily rules out miracles by assuming that they cannot happen, there is no reason to doubt these reliable eyewitness accounts.
The truth of the narrative is further confirmed by the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies. Luke states that Jesus was born in the city of David. Micah 5:2 prophesied 700 years before that Bethlehem would be the place of Messiah’s birth. In Luke 1:67-79, Zecharias’ prophecy shows how the birth of John the Baptist fulfilled many of Isaiah’s prophecies and would be followed by the coming of Messiah. Luke 3:23-38 demonstrates that Jesus’ lineage goes back through David, thus fulfilling God’s promise to David a thousand years before.
Francis of Assisi built the first Christmas manger scene in 1224. His purpose was to get the people thinking of Christ as a person who really lived, rather than as a mysterious, fictional deity. People in our day need to understand what Francis was trying to get across, namely, the historical truth of the Christian faith. Our culture promotes the idea that if you want to believe in Christianity, that’s O.K. for you. But it’s not for everyone. Whatever you believe is true for you, and whatever I believe is true for me. But there is no such thing as absolute truth in the spiritual realm.
But if Jesus was born in history to the virgin Mary, if He fulfilled prophecies made hundreds of years before His birth, and if the events surrounding His birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension are verified by hundreds of reliable eyewitnesses, then you cannot shrug it off as a nice story that is true for some but not for others. Jesus Christ is the Savior who was born in history, the living God in human flesh. If God has so acted in history, then it is really good news. If it is all legend, then it is terrible news, because it is purporting to be God’s revelation to man on the matter of our eternal destiny.
So the news about the Savior brings great joy because it is good news and it is true news.
He is a unique Person! Consider the uniqueness of this Savior born in Bethlehem.
*He is the Christ. Christ is Greek for “anointed one” (the Hebrew is “Messiah”). It means that God the Father sent and anointed Jesus for His mission of salvation. He was anointed as prophet to preach the gospel, as priest to offer sacrifice for sins, and as king to reign. He alone is able to reconcile sinful people to God through His life, His sacrificial death and His resurrection.
*He is Christ the Lord. The same word is used in Luke 2:9 and 23 to refer to God. The Savior born in Bethlehem is God in human flesh. If He had been only a man, He could not have saved us, because His death would not have had merit beyond Himself. If He had been an angel, He could not have borne human sins. But He was Christ the Lord, God! God alone is great enough to deal with the problem of our sins.
*He is a man. He was born in Bethlehem. He did not descend from the sky. He was conceived miraculously in Mary’s womb and went through the stages of development just like any human baby. What a wonder! As a man, the representative Man, He could bear the sins of the human race.
As God in human flesh, Jesus Christ is unique in all the world. He alone qualifies to be the Savior of the world. If you doubt the uniqueness of Jesus, I invite you to read the gospel accounts with the prayer, “God, if Jesus is God in human flesh, reveal that to me and I will believe and obey You.” You will discover that He can be nothing other than fully God and fully man united in one person. That makes the news He brings good news of a great joy.
The angel said that this news was not just for the shepherds, but for “all the people” (2:10). No doubt these Jewish shepherds understood that to mean all the Jewish people. But there is also no doubt that Luke would have his readers know that the good news is for Jew and Gentile alike, for any and all who will call upon the name of the Lord (Rom. 10:11-13).
It is a fact of history that the gospel applies to all and it transforms all who believe. Savage cannibals have been converted into peaceable missionaries through the good news of Christ. I read of a skeptic who was on a South Sea island. He was mocking Christianity. A local tribesman said to him, “If the missionaries had not brought us the gospel and we had not believed, we would have eaten you for dinner by now!” Wherever it goes, the gospel transforms sinful hearts. The gospel “is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16). Put your name in verse 11: “there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
I read a touching Christmas story about some poor country children who were eagerly awaiting their father’s arrival from his job at a foundry in the city. Every year when he came home for Christmas, he brought with him presents and goodies to eat and a fresh Christmas tree. But this year, the dad had been laid off and there were no presents and, most disappointing, no tree.
The kids still held out hope that their dad would come up with a tree. The dad promised that he would do what he could. He went into the garage and emerged some time later carrying a two-by-four, about five feet tall, with holes drilled on each side. He went down the street to a neighbor whose property was bordered on three sides by a row of evergreen trees. He asked permission to cut some of the branches, which he brought home and inserted into the holes in the two-by-fours, making a “tree.”
He was trying, but by no stretch of the imagination could this be called a Christmas tree. While the kids were trying to deal with their disappointment and the little girl who grew up to write the story was looking out the window and praying, there was a knock at the front door. The woman and her son from the property down the street with the trees were standing there with the tallest, most beautifully shaped Christmas tree that the children had ever seen. It filled the doorway. The woman also kindly presented the children with a number of small presents that meant a lot, since it was all that they got that year.
Every year that she was growing up, the woman who wrote the story saw a gaping hole in the row of evergreen trees around her neighbor’s property and she remembered that act of kindness and how God had answered her prayers. (From a story by Irene Lukas, Guideposts, Dec., 1976.)
Now I want to ask you a question: How would the neighbor have felt if she had cut down her tree for that family, and when she brought it over, the family said, “Oh, thank you, but we can’t accept that. We really aren’t interested”? And they politely shut the door. Don’t you think that the neighbor would rightfully have felt hurt? And by refusing the gift, that family would have missed the great joy of that Christmas. A gift only brings joy if it is received.
How do you think God feels after sacrificing His own Son so that you could have eternal life and be spared from judgment, only to hear you say, “Thank you, but I can’t accept that; I’m just not interested”? It doesn’t matter how politely you turn down an offer like that. Any refusal of such a sacrificial offer is an insult at best. The world may give you superficial happiness, but it won’t last. The only way to know the deep, abiding joy God wants you to have is to be reconciled to Him by receiving His gift, the Savior, who is Christ the Lord. It’s the greatest gift you could ever receive, but it only brings great joy if you accept it. Will you accept God’s gracious gift to you right now?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 1999, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
December 24, 2000
Special Christmas Message
Some years ago at my church in California, our secretary was preparing the December church newsletter. She asked me if we had any special family Christmas traditions. Not being a traditional sort of person, I replied, “We give gifts to one another.” But she didn’t put that in the newsletter. Apparently she didn’t think that giving gifts was unique enough to qualify.
Everybody who observes Christmas gives gifts, don’t they? More accurately, we don’t give gifts—we trade them. Someone gives me something, so I think, “Now I’ve got to give him something.” So I run out and get him something comparable in exchange. It feels uncomfortable just to receive without balancing the scale.
But at the heart of Christmas is the never-old story that God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, born in a humble stable, born to give His life for us on the cross. We cannot possibly even the score by giving back to God. His gift was too great, too precious. And yet, out of gratitude for what He did for us, we should respond from the heart by doing all that we can for Him—not to pay Him back, but to say thank you for such an indescribable gift.
I’m going to violate normal protocol today and talk about an offensive subject. Normally on Christmas Sunday, when there may be more visitors than usual, a pastor takes a safe course and talks about something everyone is fairly comfortable with, like love, peace, and joy. Everyone goes home feeling warm and fuzzy.
As I mentioned in a recent sermon, Jesus took risks in social situations to jar people into facing the truth. He was invited to a Sabbath dinner party with the leaders of the Pharisees (Luke 14). First Jesus offended them by healing a man, challenging their Sabbath rules. As if that were not enough, next Jesus watched the invited guests jockeying for the most prestigious seats. Rather than keeping His thoughts to Himself, Jesus proceeded to teach everyone to do exactly the opposite of what these vain leaders had done!
One of them tried to relieve the tension by exclaiming, “Blessed is everyone who shall eat bread in the kingdom of God!” Everyone nodded, “Amen!” They all assumed that they would be in God’s kingdom. But Jesus proceeded to tell the parable of the slighted dinner invitation, which showed that outcasts would get into the kingdom before these self-righteous leaders would. Jesus wasn’t your average, polite dinner guest! He knew that unless He jarred people, they wouldn’t face the truth.
So I’m going to breach protocol on this Christmas Sunday and talk about how much money you give to the Lord’s work. The ushers have locked all the exits! I may offend some who will say, “Of all the nerve, to talk about money on Christmas Sunday! I’m never going back to that church again!” If that’s what you’re thinking, you may need to wrestle with the issue that Jesus put to all of us: Are you serving God or mammon? My hope is that I will motivate some of you first to receive God’s indescribable gift to you and then, out of gratitude, to become a generous giver in response to Him.
My text is 2 Corinthians 8 & 9, two chapters where Paul says more about giving than in any of his other writings. He was trying to raise money from the Gentile churches for the poor in the Jerusalem church. Behind his appeal was his deep desire to see the church be united and not split along Jewish-Gentile lines. While I can only skim these chapters, I want to focus on two verses where Paul gives the motive for his appeal. In 8:9 he says, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, that you through His poverty might become rich.” And, in 9:15 he exclaims, “Thanks be to God for His indescribable gift!” Paul is saying,
In response to God’s indescribable gift, we should become generous givers.
God is a giving God. He gave the most astounding gift imaginable when the Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal second person of the Trinity, gave up the splendor of heaven and came to this earth, took on human flesh, and bore our sins on the cross. Earlier in this letter, Paul described it: “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Cor. 5:20). What a gift!
How can I begin to describe such an indescribable Person? If the heavens could open and we could all get a glimpse of Christ in His glory, we would be struck speechless and would fall at His feet as if we were dead (Rev. 1:12-17). We cannot begin to imagine the splendor, the glory, and the riches that Jesus Christ gave up to come to this earth. We can rightly say,
He was rich in power: “He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For in Him all things were created, both in the heavens and on the earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things have been created through Him and for Him” (Col. 1:15-16).
He was rich in glory: “And He is the radiance of His glory, and the exact representation of His nature, and upholds all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). He is one with the Father, having shared His glory before the creation of the earth (John 10:30; 17:5). He receives the worship of myriads upon myriads of angels, who bow before His throne proclaiming, “Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts, the whole earth is full of His glory” (Isa. 6:3). Of Isaiah’s vision John wrote, “These things Isaiah said, because he saw His [Christ’s] glory, and he spoke of Him” (John 12:41). We cannot begin to imagine the riches of Jesus Christ before He came to this earth. Yet,
Jesus Christ did not lay aside His deity for the simple reason that God cannot cease to be God. As Charles Wesley wrote in the familiar carol, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’ incarnate Deity.” And again in the same song, “Mild He lays His glory by, Born that men no more may die.” When Christ came to this earth, He did not empty Himself of deity (see Phil. 2:7). That is not the meaning of His poverty.
Rather, Christ’s preincarnate glory was veiled. Contrary to the Christmas cards with baby Jesus with a halo, Jesus looked like any other little Jewish baby. As a child, other kids didn’t look at Him and say, “Hey, that’s a neat Frisbee on your head! Where’d you get that thing?” His glory was veiled during His earthly life.
There were two exceptions. One was on the Mount of Transfiguration, when Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Jesus’ glory, with His face and clothes shining as bright as lightning. The other occasion was in the garden when the soldiers got a flash of His glory and fell backwards to the ground before arresting Him. This was to prove that He went to the cross of His own will, not because of the evil schemes of the Jewish leaders. He could have called legions of angels to deliver Him if He had chosen to do so.
Also, Jesus became poor in that He voluntarily gave up the use of certain divine attributes during His earthly life. He did not cease to have these attributes; He simply gave up His use of them. He could have struck His persecutors dead on the spot. He could have done many other things as God, but He chose not to.
Instead, He took on human flesh and became a servant, obedient to death on the cross. He could have been born in a palace; He was born in a stable. He could have been born with a superhuman body, not subject to pain, hunger, and tiredness; He was born with a body like ours, except for sin. He could have come to earth as an adult, strong and ready to assume power; He was born as a weak infant, who had to be rescued from Herod’s murderous threats. He could have been born into wealth, where His hands would never be rough from calluses; He worked as a carpenter. He could have begun His ministry as a miracle-working child or young adult; He waited until He was about thirty. He could have been waited on by a contingent of servants; He became a servant. Good men rightly should have died for Him; He died for sinners.
Who can describe the chasm between the glory of heaven and the humiliation of the cross? If billionaire Bill Gates were to give up his wealth and possessions and go to Calcutta, clothe himself in rags, eat meager food and serve the poor, it would not compare to what Jesus Christ did in giving up the riches of heaven to take on the poverty of our sinful humanity through His birth and death on the cross! From highest heaven He descended to the shame and agony of Golgotha. From the glory of perfect holiness, He was made sin on our behalf. None was richer than Christ was! None became poorer than He did for our sakes so that we might become rich through Him! He is God’s indescribable gift to us!
But part of the wonder of the gospel is that Christ became like us so that we may become like Him. He took on our humanity so that we may partake of His divine nature and be conformed to His image. Being rich in Him, like Him, we are to impoverish ourselves out of gratitude. Since Christ is the giver, par excellence,
Here’s where things get sticky (remember, this hits my pocketbook just as hard as it hits yours)! But the blow is softened by the motive that permeates these chapters, namely, God’s abundant grace toward us in Christ (the Greek word for “grace” appears 10 times—8:1, 4, 6, 7, 9, 16, 19; 9:8, 14, 15). Keep God’s grace in view and you will be motivated to give, even though it’s not always easy.
There are two ways you can tell that you’ve lost sight of God’s grace. The first is if giving is more of a duty than a delight. Grace means that God has blessed us abundantly when we deserved His judgment. Grace motivates us to abound in generosity in response to God’s abundant gift to us. So if your response to a biblical appeal to give is, “I’ll do my duty,” you aren’t focused on God’s grace.
The second sign that you’ve lost sight of grace is when you give inconsistently and insufficiently to the Lord’s work. Ten percent was the bare minimum under the Law of Moses, although probably it was much more, since there were several tithes. But if under grace you do less than you would have been required to do under law, then you’re probably not responding to God’s grace. Grace is never a license for sloppiness. True grace motivates us to abound in obedience out of love for God. With that as a backdrop, let me briefly mention seven marks of generous giving:
Paul says that the Macedonians gave “in a great ordeal of affliction” and out of deep poverty (8:2). Giving is more a matter of mindset than of income. If you have a giving attitude, you’ll find a way to give no matter how much you make. Studies show that the poor give more proportionately than the rich. A 1981 Gallup poll found that households making between $50,000-100,000 gave between 1-2 percent, whereas families earning less than $5,000 gave nearly 5 percent of their income to churches and charities.
So if things are tight and you’re not giving and you think, “Someday, when we have enough, we’ll give,” you’re playing games with God. Your problem is not an insufficient income; it’s incorrect priorities and poor spending habits.
They gave “according to their ability, and beyond their ability” (8:3). It dug into their lifestyles. They had to do without some things and postpone other things in order to give. Jesus applauded this kind of giving when He called attention to the widow who gave all that she had to live on (Mark 12:41-44). Not many of us have ever given sacrificially in that sense of the term.
A few years ago, the U.S. Center for World Mission was desperately trying to raise the money needed to pay off their campus so that they could be freed up for the task of mobilizing mission forces to reach the unreached peoples of the world. One young woman sold her car, gave the money to the center, and started taking the bus to work. That’s sacrificial giving! The center encouraged people to adopt a missionary lifestyle by living on one-third less for three months and giving the difference to missions. To their surprise, many who did so were missionaries or pastors who already made far less than the average American!
I struggle with the balance between being prudent in providing for the future (a biblical principle) and giving sacrificially. But I know that sacrificial giving puts you out on a limb where you have to trust God to provide and it brings great joy when you see Him do it. If you aren’t doing with less because you’re giving more, then I encourage you to try it the coming year.
“They gave of their own accord, begging us with much entreaty for the favor [lit., ‘grace’] of participation in the support of the saints” (8:3b-4). The Bible speaks very directly about money, as Paul does here. So in that sense it “pressures” us. But the motive is not guilt or gimmicks, but sincere love for Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in 9:7, “Let each one do just as he has purposed in his heart; not grudgingly or under compulsion; for God loves a cheerful giver.” Paul made the need known and challenged the Corinthians to give; but he wanted the money collected before he arrived so that there would be no human pressure.
In this church, we publish financial information for the same reason that you keep track of how much is in your checking account, so that you can be informed and act accordingly. I teach what the Bible says about giving and encourage you to respond to the Lord. If we need a certain amount for facilities or for missions, we inform you of the amount and pray that you will be faithful to the Lord. None of the staff know the amount that anyone gives. We want you to give of your own accord in response to the Lord.
“They first gave themselves to the Lord and to us by the will of God” (8:5). Tithing can foster the notion that you give ten percent to God and spend 90 percent as you want to. Biblical giving is based on the premise that God owns 100 percent; you manage it for Him and someday will give an account for what you did with His resources. Underlying the concept of biblical giving is that you have submitted to the lordship of Jesus Christ and that you are committed to furthering His work through His people.
The Lord isn’t after your money; He’s after you! But He knows that you are so tied to your money, that He really doesn’t have you until He has your money. So in order to follow Him, you’ve got to sign everything over to Him (Luke 12:33; 14:33).
The Corinthians had promised to give a year before, but they had not followed through (8:10). Paul here is saying, “Follow through on your promise.” The promise should be made purposefully, not impulsively (9:7). Prayerfully plan how much you can give. But then once you’ve promised God and planned to give a certain amount, you’ve got to be careful to follow through or greed will gobble up your giving.
From talking with missionaries, I found out that Christians who are faithful givers are rare. They tell a missionary they will give a certain amount, but they don’t follow through. Put yourself in the missionary’s shoes: How would you like your paycheck to fluctuate because your employer forgot to pay you every so often? If we promise a missionary that we will give a certain amount, then we should give it every month and make it up if we miss.
Or, what about your giving to the church? Do you give a set amount off the top, and if you miss a week, do you make it up? It’s a matter of faithfulness to the Lord, who entrusts you with everything you have. Giving God the leftovers or dropping a few bucks in the plate to ease your conscience isn’t biblical giving. The biblical way is to give to the Lord regularly off the top, as a matter of planning, not to give just when you feel like it.
“God is able to make all grace abound to you, that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed” (9:8). Five times in that short verse Paul uses the words “all,” “always,” “everything,” or “every.” Twice he emphasizes “abound” and “abundance.” He’s saying that God will supply you with all you need to give and more if you will look to Him for it and give it to His work when He gives it to you. In other words, as long as you keep the bottom of your funnel open, God keeps pouring in the top. But if you close up the bottom in greed, God stops pouring in the top.
As you probably know, George Muller supported over 2,000 orphans through prayer, without making his needs known. But Muller didn’t just ask and receive from God. He also gave generously to the Lord’s work. At one point he fully supported ten missionaries in China. Over a 54-year period, he gave away 86 percent of what he received for his personal support. He could have become wealthy and lived in luxury. Instead, he kept the bottom of the funnel open and God kept pouring in the top. Ask God for money to give and watch Him supply it!
There’s a basic principle: If you sow sparingly, you reap sparingly; if you sow bountifully, you reap bountifully (9:6). Give generously and you’ll see God use you in a greater way. He will use you to meet needs (9:12). Thanksgiving will overflow to God. Those to whom you give will glorify God and pray for you as they yearn for you (9:13-14). You will be enriched in everything (9:11)! God’s work will prosper because of your faithfulness.
A four-year-old boy asked his father, “Daddy, what does ‘ignore’ mean?” His father explained that it meant not to pay attention to someone. The boy responded, “I don’t think we should ignore Jesus.” Puzzled, the dad replied, “I don’t either.” Then the boy explained, “But that’s what the Christmas carol says, ‘O come let us ignore Him.’”
Many people really sing it that way, don’t they? They ignore God’s indescribable gift while they furiously pursue exchanging and collecting expensive junk that nobody really needs. Meanwhile, churches often need funds, missionaries lack support, and opportunities for the gospel to penetrate unreached people groups are missed. We need to seek first His kingdom and righteousness!
Could you be ignoring Jesus this Christmas? You need to receive Him as God’s provision for your sin. God freely offers you His indescribable gift of eternal life. If you’ve received His gift, He wants you, because of His grace, to follow Jesus in impoverishing yourself so that others can become rich through Him.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.
December 22, 2002
Two of the most important questions for each person to answer are, “Who is Jesus Christ?” and “Why did He come to earth?” Martin Luther saw this when he said,
If anyone stands firm and right on this point, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, who died and rose again for us, all the other articles of the Christian faith will fall in place for him and firmly sustain him.
So very true is Paul’s saying that Christ is the Chief Treasure, the Basis, the Foundation, and the Sum Total of all things, in whom and under whom all are gathered together. In Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.
On the other hand, I have noted that all errors, heresies, idolatries, offenses, abuses, and ungodliness in the church have originally arisen because this article or part of the Christian faith concerning Jesus Christ has been despised or lost. Clearly and rightly considered, all heresies militate against the precious article of Jesus Christ. (Source unknown.)
The Christmas story is not primarily about the birth of a baby who would grow up to become a great moral teacher and example, although Jesus did become those things. Rather, it is the profound story of the birth of the Savior. After explaining that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit, the angel told Joseph, “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The Hebrew name Jesus (= Joshua) means “Jehovah is salvation.” If you do not know Jesus as your Savior, then you do not know Him at all, because …
Jesus Christ came to save His people from their sins.
I want to examine this verse by asking and answering four questions: Who came? What was His purpose in coming? Whom did He purpose to save? What did He actually do? The first question will answer for us the question of Jesus’ identity. The last three will tell us the main reason why He came to earth.
The context shows that this was no ordinary birth: Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit, apart from normal relations with a man (1:18, 20). This is, of course, the doctrine of the virgin birth of our Lord. Skeptics reject it because it is miraculous. William Barclay, for example, assures his readers (The Gospel of Matthew, The Daily Study Bible [Westminster Press], 1:20), “Our Church [he was from Scotland] does not compel us to accept it [the virgin birth] in the literal and the physical sense. This is one of those doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion.” He later calls the virgin birth a “crude fact” and argues that the point of the narrative is “that in the birth of Jesus the Spirit of God was operative as never before in this world” (p. 23).
But Matthew, who was one of the twelve, had direct access both to Jesus and Mary. Luke, who probably interviewed Mary, states that he carefully researched his gospel (Luke 1:3). Both men affirmed the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus. To reject this as actual history is to reject the testimony of two independent historians who lived at that time and whose writings have been accepted as factual history by thousands of scholars. The only reason for rejecting such miraculous events is an arbitrary bias against all miracles, which is a bias against God Himself, who is able to interrupt the laws of His creation according to His purpose. Thus it is reasonable to accept the virgin birth as historically true.
Why is it important doctrinally to affirm Jesus’ virgin birth? First, the virgin birth is essential to affirm the deity of Jesus Christ. If He was born of a human father and mother through natural biological processes, then He is not God in human flesh. Under those circumstances, He might be a man upon whom God’s Spirit rested in an unusual sense, but he still would only have been a man. His existence would have begun at conception, and thus He could not have been the eternal God in human flesh. Yet Jesus claimed many times that He was sent into this world from heaven, assuming prior existence. He told the Jews, “before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58).
Also, belief in the virgin birth is essential to affirm the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ. If He was born of natural parents, then He was born a sinner like all human beings since the fall, and He would have needed a Savior for Himself. If He had sin of His own, He could not have died as the substitute for others. To be born as a man who fully shared our humanity, Jesus had to have a human parent. Through the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth, Jesus was born as fully human and yet sinless. The angel told Mary that because the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the most High would overshadow her, “for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Even though Mary herself was not immaculately conceived (she needed a Savior, Luke 1:47), Jesus was kept from her sin and born as fully human, yet without sin.
The angel (or Matthew, 1:23) cites Isaiah 7:14 as being ultimately fulfilled when this woman, Mary, who had not had relations with a man, bore a Son by the Holy Spirit, and this Son is none other than “God with us.” As a sinless man, Jesus could represent the human race as sin-bearer. As God the Son, His sacrifice was acceptable before God the Father.
The angel tells Joseph that he is to name this miraculous child Jesus, adding, “for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The Greek for Jesus is Iesous, from the Hebrew Jeshua, the contracted form of Jehoshua, which means Yahweh is salvation. “In the shorter form Jeshua the stress is on the verb; hence, he will certainly save” (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew, New Testament Commentary [Baker], p. 108). Since for the Jews a person’s name had significance, the name Jesus points us to the very essence of His being, namely, that He is the Savior. The title “Christ” means that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, or Anointed One.
Charles Spurgeon pointed out (“Jesus,” Ages Software, sermon 1434, p. 656) that since the Father knows Jesus perfectly, when He directed that He be named Jesus, He was giving Him the best, most appropriate name possible. By giving Jesus that name, the Father commissioned Him to save sinners, and this constitutes the ground of our appeal to God for salvation.
Thus our answer to the question, “Who came?” is that Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, is none other than the eternal God in human flesh, and that He came to earth primarily as the Savior.
He came “to save His people from their sins.” To understand that phrase, you must understand the meaning of the word “save.” It is a radical word. You do not save someone who just needs a little help. You save someone who is unable to do anything to save himself. A person who is lost at sea needs saving. A person who has stopped breathing needs saving.
This means that prior to Jesus’ saving them, His people were helplessly, hopelessly lost in their sins. They were alienated from God, under His righteous judgment, and unable to free themselves from this condition. A Savior is one who has the power to rescue people who could not rescue themselves. Jesus has the God-given power to save His people from their sins.
It is important to affirm this, because there are many in evangelical circles who believe that Jesus’ ability to save anyone is contingent on the person’s exercising his “free will.” They say that He desperately wants to save them. He longs to save them. He has done everything that He can do to save them. He would save them if He could, but He can’t save them because of their unwillingness to be saved! So He sits in heaven wishing that everyone would say yes to His salvation, but unable actually to save anyone, because it all depends on the sinner’s “free will”! One writer actually goes so far as to say that if God could save everyone, but chose only to save some, He is immoral (Dave Hunt, What Love is This? [Loyal Publishing], p. 112)!
But note that our text does not say, “For He hopes that some will respond to His offer and be saved.” It does not say, “He’s going to give it His best shot and do all that He can do to save people, but it all depends on their choosing to be saved.” Thank God the text says, “He will save His people from their sins”! There isn’t any human contingency factor about it. “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; Ps. 3:8; Isa. 43:11; 45:17). When Almighty God purposes to save a people, He saves that people!
In Isaiah 14:24 the Lord declares by oath, “Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand.” In the context, the reference is to God’s breaking Assyria’s power, but if He is able to accomplish His plan to break the power of a mighty empire, can He not purpose to save and actually save His people from their sins? In Isaiah 46:9-10, God declares, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” In the context, God is referring to His purpose of raising up Cyrus to accomplish God’s purpose for Israel. But, again, if the Almighty can raise up and take down a pagan king to accomplish His sovereign purpose, can He not purpose to save His people and actually save them from their sins?
Matthew 1:21 is a fulfillment of the promise of Psalm 130:8. The psalmist is overwhelmed by his sins. He is in the depths, about to go under, when he cries out in desperation to God. He recognizes that if God were to mark iniquities, no one could stand in His holy presence, but then adds, “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (130:4). Based on the hope of God’s promises, he encourages Israel also to hope in the Lord, adding, “For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (130:7-8). Jesus is the promised Savior, who actually did redeem God’s people from all their sins.
To suggest that God’s sovereign purpose to save a people for His glory is conditioned on the feeble will of fallen man goes against all Scripture! In Ephesians 1, Paul sets forth the salvation that God has freely lavished upon us. He makes it very plain that our salvation comes totally from God. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (1:4). “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure [lit.] of His will” (1:5). Whose will? His will! “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure [lit.] which He purposed in Him” (1:9). In Christ, “we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (1:11).
I am simply saying what the Bible repeatedly affirms, that “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10, English Standard Version). When God purposes that Jesus will save His people from their sins, there isn’t any doubt about it. He will accomplish that purpose, to the praise of the glory of His grace! Our response should be: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” (Rev. 7:12, ESV).
Thus Jesus the Christ, who is God in human flesh, came for the purpose of saving His people from their sins.
Clearly, He came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21, emphasis added). But who are His people? In the context of Matthew, some may say that “His people” refers to the Jews, God’s chosen people. As Psalm 130:8 puts it, “He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” But if this means that all Jews will be saved, then we must conclude that God has failed in His purpose, since many Jews go to their graves rejecting Jesus as Savior and Messiah. Paul points out, “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (Rom. 9:6-7). Rather, it is “those who are of faith” who are the true children of Abraham (Rom. 2:26-29; Gal. 3:9, 29).
Some would say that this refers to the whole world, since Jesus is “the Savior of the whole world” (John 4:42). While there is certainly a sense in which He is the Savior of the whole world (not of the Jews only; see Rev. 5:9), if His purpose in coming was to save every person who has ever lived, then we must conclude that He failed in His purpose. But since it is inconceivable that Almighty God could fail in His eternal purpose, “His people” cannot refer to every person in the world.
Some would say that “His people” refers to all who believe in Him for eternal life. I agree, but to say that is not to go far enough. The Bible says that because of the fall, all men are in spiritual death and darkness, unwilling and unable to come to Christ in faith (John 3:19-20; 8:43; Rom. 3:10-18; 8:7-8; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1-3). So we must ask, why do these people believe in Jesus? What enabled them to believe?
Scripture is clear that the only reason anyone believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord is that God has chosen them and drawn them to Himself (John 6:44, 65). The Spirit of God has quickened them from spiritual death to spiritual life (Eph. 2:4-5). He has opened their formerly blind eyes to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). Both saving faith and repentance are gifts that God grants to His elect (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:48; 16:14; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; Heb. 12:2). They believe because God granted them faith.
Thus we must conclude that “His people” refers to those whom the Father has given to the Son (John 6:37, 39; 17:2, 6, 9), namely, His elect whom He purchased for God with His blood “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). They are His people and there is not a shadow of a doubt about it, He will save them from their sins! (Read the verses above.)
There is one other thing to be noted about “His people”: They are sinners. As Jesus says (Luke 19:10), “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” These people are lost, alienated from God, because of their sins. As Jesus also says (Luke 5:31-32), “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” If you do not see yourself as a sinner in need of a Savior, then Jesus’ coming means nothing to you. If you think that you are a basically good person and that you will get into heaven through your own goodness, then you are not one of Jesus’ people. He came to save sinners and sinners only.
Thus we’ve seen that Jesus Christ, who is eternal God, took on human flesh to save His people from their sins. His people are those whom the Father has given to the Son. He does not hope that they will all choose Him someday, but it’s up to them to decide! Rather, He will accomplish His eternal purpose by saving them. That leads to the final question:
The answer is, “He actually saved His people from their sins.” In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross was substitutionary and specific. He died in the place of those He came to save. He did not offer Himself potentially for anyone who would later decide to believe in Him. Rather, He actually purchased His elect people from the slave market of sin by interposing His blood (Rev. 5:9), so that they do not have to pay for their own sins. Those whom He purposed to save, He saved. All whom the Father has given to the Son will come to Him, and of those, Jesus will lose none (John 6:37, 39). Jesus gives eternal life as His gift to all whom the Father has given Him (John 17:2).
When it says that He will save them from their sins, the meaning is twofold. First, He saves or delivers them from the penalty of their sins, which is eternal punishment in hell. That happens instantaneously at the moment a sinner is awakened to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Second, He saves them from the power of sin in their daily lives. That happens gradually and progressively as the believer learns to walk in dependence on the Holy Spirit. It will not be perfected until the moment when we see Jesus (1 John 3:2-3). If a person is not growing in holiness and striving against sin, he needs to question whether he has been saved from his sins at all.
Our text is very plain: Jesus “will save His people from their sins.” My question to you is, “Are you one of His people?” If you ask, “How can I know?” the answer lies in answering some other questions. Has God opened your eyes to see that you are a sinner who deserves His judgment? If you think that you’re a pretty good person in God’s sight, then you are not one of His people (at least it has not yet been revealed). But if you say, “Yes, I know that I am a sinner, deserving of God’s judgment,” then the next question is, “Have you fled for refuge from God’s judgment to the cross of Jesus Christ?” “Are you trusting in His shed blood alone to pay the penalty for your sins?”
If you answer yes to those questions, you need to ask yourself further, “Is there any evidence that Christ has saved you from your sins?” It is possible to say that you have believed in Christ, but to have an intellectual “faith” that does not save. You must ask yourself, “Has God changed my heart?” Before you used to live for yourself only, with no regard for Christ or for what He did on the cross. But now, you love Jesus Christ and are flooded with gratitude because you know that He gave Himself on the cross for you. Before you had no hunger for holiness and were content to live in disregard of God’s commands. Now, although you do fall into sin, you mourn over your sins (Matt. 5:4), you confess them and seek to please God by forsaking sin and by obeying God (1 John 1:8-9; 2:3-6; Titus 2:14). Now your aim is to know Christ more and more (Phil. 3:9).
If you can honestly say, “Yes, those things are true of me. God has begun a good work in my heart,” then our text should bring you great joy and assurance. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Jesus will save you from your sins!
If you answer no or you’re not sure if Christ has saved you yet, then give no rest to your soul until you know that your faith is in Christ alone for salvation. Either your sins are upon you or they are upon Christ. If that burden of sin is on you, Jesus bids you, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). He promised, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). If you come to Jesus, you can know that you are one of His people and that He has saved you from your sins.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, All Rights Reserved.
December 21, 2003
Life is short and uncertain. I am 56 years old, and the older I get, the more I think about the question, “Am I spending my life in such a way that when I stand before the Lord, I will hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’?” How do you know whether you are wasting your life or investing it in the things that really matter?
In America we have several yardsticks by which we measure a life. One is usefulness. We are pragmatists at heart. We feel that if a person does something useful for society, whether it is a profession or a trade, he or she spends his or her life well.
Another yardstick we use is busyness or sheer activity. Our lifestyles reflect our values here—we’re all busy people. Our weekly calendars are full to the brim. We have the notion that if you just sit around and do nothing, you’re wasting your life.
We also gauge our lives by adventure and excitement. If we can’t get it firsthand, we pick it up vicariously on TV or at sporting events. Our heroes lead exciting lives, either through romance or life-and-death risk taking. We read magazines that tell us about the rich and famous, secretly wishing that our lives could be like theirs. We generally think that money and fame define success.
Often the world recognizes that having warm personal relationships is at the heart of a life well spent. If you read the obituaries, usually they mention a person’s work and hobbies. But they also mention the people whose lives were affected by the departed one. As Christians, we would concur that loving relationships with family and friends are an important measure of a life well spent.
Behind all of these yardsticks is that of personal happiness. Even if a person dies poor and unknown, if he or she was happy or content, that is what matters.
Against these yardsticks of a life well spent, I direct your attention to Anna. We meet her in the narrative about the dedication of the baby Jesus in the temple. She is described in three short verses, is not even quoted directly, and is gone. If we met a modern-day Anna, we would probably find her a bit odd. Her values clearly are out of sync with those of modern America. Can you picture a reporter for People magazine interviewing her?
Reporter: What is your name?
Anna: Anna, daughter of Phanuel, tribe of Asher. I’m Jewish.
Reporter: Whose daughter? How do you spell that? How old are you, Ma’am?
Anna: I’m 84.
Reporter: Well, I’ll bet you’ve lived an interesting life. What have you done with your life?
Anna: Like most Jewish girls, I got married in my teens, but my husband died when I was in my early twenties, before we had children. I’ve been going to the temple almost every day since then.
Reporter: You go to the temple every day? That’s amazing! What do you do there?
Anna: Well, I fast and pray a lot. And, I’m a prophetess, so I hear messages from God now and then.
Reporter: Right! (He thinks to himself, “Maybe this story belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records, not in People magazine!”)
What does the brief glimpse of Anna’s life teach us?
You will not waste your life if you spend it in devotion to God.
By our American standards, we might look at Anna’s life and think, “What a waste! Over sixty years spent in the temple fasting and praying! That’s not the kind of life I want to live.” I’ll grant that we’re not all called to devote ourselves to a ministry of prayer and fasting. Obviously, God had called her to that ministry, and she lived accordingly. But if we look just below the surface, we see that Anna lived fully devoted to God. God commends her life to us. In the Bible, every fact is confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. Along with Simeon, God chose Anna to bear witness to the infant Jesus as the Messiah. Her life was well spent.
Isn’t it? Think about it—what else matters in this life? The Pharisees and scribes thought that their religious duties were what mattered. They scurried around the temple precincts that day performing their rituals, oblivious to this unique baby who was being dedicated to the Lord. They took pride in saying, “All my life I have kept God’s commandments.” But they missed the Messiah because they were really more devoted to their religion than to God. There is a difference, you know!
The Sadducees thought that political influence and power were what mattered. “Life after death,” they scoffed, “is just pie in the sky when you die. What matters is here and now!” A group of them passed within yards of the child and Anna as they debated the latest edict from Rome.
The temple merchants thought that a good income was what mattered. They hawked their temple money and sold their officially approved sacrificial animals within earshot of this carpenter, his wife, and their newborn son. They lived well and left a nice inheritance to their children when they died. But they missed God’s Savior that day.
In contrast to all of these, Anna knew that devotion to God is all that matters. She recognized the child as God’s promised Messiah. She was wiser than all the religious leaders in Jerusalem!
I read once about a computer company that went public and its president became an instant millionaire. Hours later he lost control of his Ferrari, crashed through 20 feet of guardrail, and was killed. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Until the accident at 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, it had been the best of days for [the president] and the thriving young company, …” The same week another obituary for a Chinese politburo official, who died of a heart attack, stated that his “death came one week before he was expected to be elected vice president of China.” If either man died without Christ, we should ask, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”
I once read of a man who thought that he knew how to live to be 120. I thought, “Okay, what if he succeeds? Then what?” Even if we could figure out how to live to 900, like the early patriarchs, we still have to die and face eternity. In light of that, devotion to God is really all that matters in this life! With it, we can enjoy earthly blessings if God grants them. Without it, we’ve really wasted our lives. The fact is, not everyone can attain the things that the world labels as success. But,
No matter what your station in life, you can devote yourself to the Lord, and that makes whoever you are and whatever you do count in light of eternity. Take Anna, for example.
Anna was a woman. While Jewish women enjoyed more respect in that day than women in other cultures, there still was a fair amount of discrimination against them. The rabbis did not approve of the same amount of instruction in the Torah being given to girls as to boys. They regarded women’s minds as not adapted for such investigations (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life [Eerdmans], pp. 132-133). Women were restricted to an area of the temple called “The Women’s Court.” They could not enter the inner court where the ceremonies were performed. According to Josephus, women and slaves could not give evidence in court (cited by Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel [McGraw-Hill], 1:156).
And yet the Lord is pleased to include the testimony of Anna concerning Jesus. God is no respecter of persons. He is pleased with the devotion of any person, male or female.
Anna was a widow. In fact, she had been widowed at an early age. She easily could have grown bitter toward God. She could have complained of her loneliness. Widows in that culture didn’t have much opportunity to get an education and learn a business or trade to provide for themselves. They were often the target of unscrupulous businessmen. No doubt Anna had experienced a difficult life. And yet she did not turn her back on God. In fact, God declares that He has a special concern for orphans and widows: “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows is God in His holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). Anna took refuge under God’s protective care. Her trials drove her to deeper devotion to God, not away from Him.
Anna was elderly. While the elderly were more respected in that society than they are in ours, they were still subject to abuse. In our pragmatic society, the elderly are often viewed as a useless burden on society. They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t make a living. But, thankfully, God does not view the elderly that way, and neither should we! If an elderly person is devoted to God, their life and death is precious in His sight (Ps. 116:15).
The point is, no matter what your station in life—male or female, young or old, rich or poor—you can devote yourself to God and He will be pleased with your devotion. The world may ignore or despise you, but God always has had such a godly remnant. They are the salt of the earth; they preserve the whole mass from corruption. You can be counted among them.
Thus, devotion to God is all that matters; it is available to all.
Probably Anna did not live in the temple, but Luke means that she was there all the time. The word translated “serving” (NASB) has the nuance of worshipful service to God. Anna’s worship took the form of “fastings and prayers” (2:37).
Fasting usually means going without food for some period of time for the purpose of seeking God in prayer. For the Jews, the most common fast lasted from sunrise to sunset, although the Bible mentions longer fasts. The Day of Atonement was an annual national fast. Otherwise, fasting was done in times of personal or national distress, or as preparation for special times of seeking the Lord. If you’d like a challenge, read (as I did this year) John Piper’s A Hunger for God [Crossway Books], subtitled, “Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer.” I confess that I am no where near Pastor Piper in his experience with fasting. I have, though, found it to be a beneficial way of seeking the Lord when I needed to know His will and in times of crisis. (Donald Whitney, in Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life [NavPress], has a helpful chapter 9, “Fasting” for the Purpose of Godliness.”)
Anna’s worship also took the form of prayers. God gifts some of His saints by enabling them to devote large blocks of time to the ministry of prayer. Part of that time involves interceding for others, but part of it also consists of praise and thanksgiving. The main thing in prayer is to seek God and commune with Him.
Even if the ministry of worship through fasting and prayer is not your area of gift, you still should set aside time to seek the Lord as Anna did. Whether it is a half-day each quarter, one lunch hour each week, or an hour or two each weekend, I encourage you to put it on your calendar. Spend the time in devotion to the Lord. Read His Word, sing some hymns or praise songs, and pray. I have found that if I don’t put it in my schedule, other things crowd it out and I don’t do it.
Anna couldn’t keep it to herself; she “continued to speak of Him” to others (2:38). If your cup is brim-full, you can’t help but slop some of it on others. If your heart is full of thankfulness to God, who sent His Son to save you from your sins, people around you will know about it. Some believers justify not witnessing by saying, “I don’t talk about it; I just live the message.” But part of living the Christian life is talking about it!
We all talk about the things we love. Have you ever been around a sports fanatic? What does he talk about? “Did you see that game last night!” Have you ever been around a young man or woman who has just fallen in love? What do they talk about?
Yes, you need to be tactful and sensitive. Yes, you need to wait on the Lord for the right opening. But, most of us don’t err on the side of being too bold. The order, by the way, is important: Worship first, then witness. The reason Anna was telling everyone about the Lord Jesus was that she spent much time in private devotion with the Lord. All too often, the reason that we do not bear witness is that we have lost our first love.
Not only Simeon and Anna, but others also were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:25, 38). While that phrase has nationalistic overtones, it also refers to the spiritual redemption that God had long ago promised and now was bringing to fruition for His people (Isa. 40:1, 9; 52:9; 63:4). J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 2:74-75) observes that although these people lived in a wicked city, they “were not carried away by the flood of worldliness, formality, and self-righteousness around them. They were not infected by the carnal expectations of a mere worldly Messiah, in which most Jews indulged. They lived in the faith of patriarchs and prophets, that the coming Redeemer would bring in holiness and righteousness, and that His principal victory would be over sin and the devil.” With Jacob, all who are devoted to God cry out, “For Your salvation I wait, O Lord” (Gen. 49:18).
Devotion to God is really all that matters. It is available to everyone. It takes many outward forms, but always involves worship, witness, and waiting for His final redemption to come.
Anna was devoted to God, but the instant she saw the baby Jesus, she thanked God and began to speak of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Note:
Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The mystery of the Christmas story is that the eternal God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Through the miracle of the virgin birth, Mary’s offspring is Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). While we can never fully understand the nature of the Trinity, we must affirm the revealed truth of Scripture, that the one God exists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
This means that you cannot know God the Father apart from knowing Jesus, God the Son. In John 8:19, Jesus told the Jews, “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” First John 2:23 states, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” You cannot separate God and Jesus Christ. Those who say they worship God, but who deny the deity of the Son of God, are badly mistaken. Jesus claimed, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23).
Anna was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem,” and she found it in Jesus. The entire human race is in bondage to sin and under the just condemnation of God’s law. But God sent “Christ [to redeem] us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us … in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14).
The concept of “redemption” implies three things. First, redemption implies antecedent bondage. A free person does not need redemption; slaves need redemption. Every person is born enslaved to sin and under the curse of judgment imposed by God’s holy law. Second, redemption implies cost. A price must be paid to buy the slave out of bondage. Since the wages of sin is death, that was the price to redeem us from our sins. A sinless substitute had to die in our place to satisfy God’s justice. Jesus Christ did that on the cross. Third, redemption implies the ownership of that which is redeemed. Since Christ bought us with His blood, we are not our own. “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).
When the slave trade was active in West Africa, the traders would go into the interior and capture hundreds of people. They would put an iron collar around the captives’ necks to keep them in check until they arrived back at the coast for shipment. A chain went from one iron collar to the next, so none could escape.
As the captives marched through the villages on the way to the coast, a villager sometimes recognized a friend or relative among them. If he were financially able, he could redeem that person with a payment of silver or gold. He delivered him from bondage by the payment of a price. Scripture says, “you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).
We see God’s great love in that He sent His Son to this earth to meet the demands of His holy justice. What God required, He provided at great cost to Himself. Jesus came to offer Himself as the price of our redemption. If you have not been redeemed through Christ’s blood, then whether you realize it or not, you are enslaved to sin and headed for God’s eternal judgment. You are wasting your life. Receiving by faith God’s gift of redemption is the beginning of a life of devotion to Him.
On his deathbed at age 52, Matthew Henry, whose commentary on the whole Bible is still widely used almost 300 years later, said to a friend, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men—this is mine: that a life spent in the service of God and communion with Him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world” (source unknown).
Anna would agree. A life devoted to God is not wasted. It is a life well spent. A life devoted to anything else, no matter how noble or how highly praised in the world, is a life ultimately wasted. Here is an action point for the New Year: Read John Piper’s excellent new book, Don’t Waste Your Life [Crossway]. It’s about how to lose your life for Christ’s sake, and thereby not waste it. I wish I had read it when I was 20. Whether you are young or old, you will find reading it to be a profitable use of your time!
Whatever you do for a living, make sure that devotion for Jesus Christ is at the heart of why you are living. To live for anything else is to waste your life.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.
December 19, 2004
During World War II, six pilots took off from an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic to scout some enemy submarines. While they were gone, the captain of the carrier was forced to issue a blackout alarm. The ship went totally dark.
When the pilots tried to return, they could not find the ship. They radioed, “Give us some light, we’re coming home.” The ship’s radio operator replied, “Order: blackout. I cannot give you light.” In turn, each pilot desperately radioed the same message: “Just give me some light and I’ll make it.” Each time, the operator had to radio back, “No light—blackout!” Because there was no light on that ship, six young pilots went to their graves in the icy North Atlantic (adapted from, Paul Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], # 5366).
We live in a dark world that desperately needs light. The birth of Jesus Christ, who is God’s salvation, brought the light that offers hope to a world of despair.
Soon after Jesus was forty-days-old, His parents brought Him into the temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the Law of Moses, to offer the appropriate sacrifice for Him as their firstborn male (Lev. 12:8; 5:11; Exod. 13:2, 12). It was a common sight. Most people in the temple precincts that day ignored this poor, common couple and their baby. But the face of one old man, Simeon, lit up with rapturous joy. He came up to this couple, took their baby in his arms, looked heavenward, and exclaimed (Luke 2:29-32),
Now, Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.
Here is an old man with true light and true hope, centered in that little baby, the Lord Jesus Christ. Simeon did not possess unusual genius or powers of perception. The text (2:26) says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. The Spirit led Simeon into the temple that day at precisely the time that Joseph and Mary came with the baby Jesus (2:27). The Spirit obviously revealed to Simeon, “There He is! That little baby is the One!”
If Simeon had been relying on his natural powers, he would have missed Him. He would have been looking for a royal procession, with all of the pomp and circumstance attending the child of the king. The high priest and the Sanhedrin would have been swarming around the procession.
Instead, all that he saw was a carpenter, his young wife, and their baby. There was no halo over Jesus’ head. But the Spirit directed Simeon to approach this ordinary-looking couple and their ordinary-looking baby. With eyes of faith, Simeon saw in their arms the Light of the world, born to bring hope to all peoples. To see Him today, you must also look with eyes of faith that have been opened by God’s Spirit. Pray that God would grant you eyes to see what many miss (Luke 10:21-24).
Before we look more carefully at this story, I want to remind you that it is not a fairy tale or legend. Luke begins his Gospel by telling his first reader, Theophilus, that he has investigated everything carefully and written it out “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Luke probably interviewed Mary to get the details about these early events in the life of her Son. This account is factual history, not make-believe. That’s important to keep in mind, because hope based on fairy tales is not solid hope. Hope built on truth will do for you what it did for Simeon: It will release you to die in peace.
I want to answer the question: What does it mean to hope in Christ? How can we know the hope that flooded this old saint about 2,000 years ago? His story shows that…
To hope in Christ is to recognize and personally trust Him as God’s salvation.
In order to hope in Christ, first…
The most crucial question in life for each person to answer is the one Jesus asked His disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Everything hangs on the correct answer to that question! If Jesus is who He claimed to be, then we must bow before Him as the Sovereign Lord and yield all that we are and have to His service. If He is not who He claimed to be, then our faith is worthless. You’re free to live as you please (1 Cor. 15:14, 32).
Peter gave the correct answer to Jesus’ question: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed that answer, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16-17). To recognize and believe in Jesus as God’s Christ, the Father must open our blind eyes. Jesus, born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy (Mic. 5:2), is the Lord’s Christ.
Christ and Messiah are synonyms for the word anoint (Christ from the Greek; Messiah from the Hebrew). Jesus is God’s Anointed One, promised for thousands of years in the Old Testament. Psalm 2 identifies God’s Anointed One as His Son and promises that He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7, 9; Rev. 19:15).
Luke says that Simeon was looking for “the consolation of Israel,” a term for the Messiah taken from Isaiah 40:1-3:
“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.”
That last verse refers to the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist (Luke 3:4-6). The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that this baby in Mary’s arms was “the Lord’s Christ, the consolation of Israel”! Simeon’s prayer reveals three essential truths about Jesus:
God prepared salvation. This means that it comes totally from Him, according to His purpose for the ages. It is not the result of brilliant men philosophizing about how we can get to heaven. Rather, it is God’s revelation of the plan of salvation that He devised. “All peoples” (2:31) refers to the whole world. God’s salvation through Jesus is not exclusively for the Jews, but through them to all the nations. Verse 32 is probably best understood to mean that Christ, who is God’s salvation (2:30), would be light for all people, but in particular, revelation to the Gentiles and glory for Israel (Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:244). In Luke 1:78-79, Zecharias had prophesied that Jesus was “the Sunrise from on high” who would “visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Israel, as well as the Gentiles, needed the light of Christ.
The Bible is clear that as fallen sinners, both Jews and Gentiles are spiritually blind (Matt. 13:14-15; 15:14; John 9:39-41; Eph. 4:18). As such, they cannot know what God is like by philosophy or reason. Not knowing what God is like, they cannot exercise their “free will” to come to God, any more than a blind man can choose to see. Spiritually blind people need an infusion of supernatural power in order to see.
In the Old Testament, God chose to reveal Himself to the Jews, and through them to bring the Savior who would be a light to the nations. He told Israel (Isa. 42:6-7),
“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”
So Jesus, God’s Christ, is the light to the whole world, but He is in particular the glory for Israel in that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22; see also, Rom. 9:1-5). But, as we know, and as Simeon alludes to (Luke 2:34-35), the Jews as a people would reject their Messiah.
But as Paul explains (Romans 11), God used Israel’s rejection of Christ to open the door of salvation to the Gentiles. He brought a temporary hardening on Israel, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. But then, all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-26). I understand that to mean that just prior to Christ’s return, there will be a widespread revival among the Jews. Today, the Jews in Israel are about 80 percent atheistic and most of the rest, like the Pharisees, reject Jesus and trust in their own legalistic righteousness. But, the day will come when, as the Lord says (Zech. 12:10; 13:1),
I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn…. In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.
Thus Jesus is the Light, and His coming served as “revelation to the Gentiles.” He revealed God’s way of salvation to all the nations in a way that was revealed only to the Jews before His coming. He also serves as “the glory of [His] people Israel.” His coming fulfilled God’s many promises to bring the Savior through the nation of Israel (Isa. 46:13; 60:1-3). But, also,
Simeon tells Mary (2:34-35), “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” This is the first hint in Luke’s Gospel that Christ’s coming would not bring salvation and peace to everyone. Note first the word, appointed (2:34). That word assures us that the evil men who opposed and crucified Jesus did not somehow thwart God’s sovereign plan. He appointed Jesus for the cross, and yet those that crucified Him were responsible for their evil deeds (see Acts 2:24; 4:27-28).
Scholars debate whether verse 34 refers to one or two groups. If the former, the meaning is that those who stand in their spiritual pride must fall before Jesus before they can rise in salvation. If the latter, it means that Jesus will divide men. Those who oppose Him will fall in judgment. Those who accept Him will rise in salvation (Leon Morris, Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 89). While both views are true spiritually, probably the second view is the sense here (Bock, p. 247).
The next phrase, “a sign to be opposed,” underscores the fact that although Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, many would oppose and reject Him. He would also reveal the “thoughts from many hearts.” Thoughts has the nuance of hostile thoughts (Bock, p. 250). Jesus’ life and ministry would expose the inner hostility of those that opposed Him.
The point is, you can’t be neutral toward Jesus Christ. He draws a line in the sand and demands that you take sides. Either you acknowledge Him as God’s Christ, submit your life to His absolute lordship, and “rise” in salvation. Or, you think, “I’ll do it my way,” and you will “fall” in judgment. Everything hinges on the correct answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simeon’s words point to a third truth here:
Simeon parenthetically tells Mary, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” There are at least ten views of what this may mean (Bock, pp. 248-249). I believe that it refers to the extreme anguish that Mary felt when she saw her Son rejected and crucified (Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke [Charles Scribner’s Sons], pp. 70-71).
Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus declared that, “He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt. 16:21). God’s plan in sending His Son in human flesh was that He would die as the sacrifice that God’s justice demands for our sins. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), which means, eternal separation from God. Either you trust Jesus’ death as payment for your sins now, or you will pay that penalty yourself.
So the first thing is to ask God for eyes to see Jesus as God’s Christ, the only way of salvation.
Simeon had already trusted God’s Christ as his salvation before he saw the baby Jesus. His hope rested in God’s promise to send the Savior. When he saw Jesus, he recognized Him as the fulfillment of God’s specific promise, that he would not die before he had seen the Christ. Thus he could exclaim, “Now Lord, you are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word” (2:29). In seeing Jesus, Simeon saw God’s salvation (2:30).
Simeon had to see Jesus by faith. There was nothing physically extraordinary about Jesus or Mary and Joseph. There was no halo and no parade of dignitaries marching behind this baby. All that Simeon had was God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s revelation. Simeon trusted God’s word, and therefore he overflows with hope in this little baby as God’s Christ, His salvation.
If you have looked to Jesus in faith as your only hope of God’s salvation, then with Simeon, you are ready to depart from this earth in peace. If you have not done so, if you view Jesus as perhaps a great religious leader, but not as God’s salvation, you are in spiritual darkness, opposed to Him. Your response to Jesus Christ reveals the thoughts of your heart (2:36).
Maybe you’re wondering, “How can I know if my hope and trust are truly in Christ?” A glance at Simeon’s life (this is the only time he is mentioned in Scripture) shows us seven characteristics of the person who trusts Jesus as God’s salvation. Not all of these qualities will be immediately evident, but they will be developing in the one who hopes in Christ. Check yourself against this list:
Simeon is described as “righteous and devout” (2:25), which refers to his character. Righteous means that his behavior in the sight of God and towards his fellow man was in accordance with God’s standards. Both in private and in public, Simeon sought to obey God. Devout has the connotation of reverent or careful. Simeon was careful about his relationship to God. While we can skim over those two words in an instant, they reflect a lifetime of cultivation. These qualities do not just happen accidentally. They reflect a deliberate commitment to live in a manner pleasing to God.
The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in 2:25-27. It is obvious that Simeon’s life was marked by dependence on God’s Spirit, and this was before the Day of Pentecost! Since that day, all that trust Christ as Savior possess the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9). We are commanded to walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), which means consciously to depend on Him in every step we take. Would you have missed the Spirit if He had withdrawn from your life last week?
Simeon (2:29) calls God by a title that is not used often in the New Testament, “Sovereign Lord” (NIV; NASB, “Lord”). We get our word despot from it. It has the nuance of “absolute ownership and uncontrolled power” (Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament [Harper & Brothers, 1887], p. 130). Simeon refers to himself as the Lord’s bond-servant. Bond-servants were the property of their masters and had no personal rights. Everyone bought by the precious blood of Christ recognizes, “you are not your own[?] For you have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).
Through the Holy Spirit, Simeon understood far more than the religious leaders of the day. He knew that this child in his arms was the promised Christ. He knew that not all would welcome Him, but that there would be much opposition, resulting in deep anguish for Mary. He knew that God’s Messiah was also given as a light to the Gentiles, something that the early church had to grapple with up through the Jerusalem Council! Paul explains that while the natural man cannot understand the things of God, the spiritual man appraises all things, because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16).
When this dear old saint held the baby Jesus in his arms, he blessed God for fulfilling His promises. Everyone who has trusted Christ as Savior is filled with thanksgiving to God “for His indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).
All that Simeon needed in life was to hold Jesus in his arms. That one moment in the temple, holding God’s Savior, made all his life worth living. It satisfied his soul so that he had accomplished all that he aimed at in life. With the psalmist, Simeon could say, “besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Ps. 73:25b). With Paul, Christ was Simeon’s “all in all” (Col. 3:11). When you have trusted Christ, you are satisfied with all that He is to you!
Simeon’s words picture a sentinel who had been given the assignment of keeping watch through a long, dark night for the rising of a special star. Finally, he sees the star rising in its brightness. He announces it to his commander and has fulfilled his duty. He can now take his rest (Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke [Eerdmans], p. 119). When you’ve trusted in Christ as Savior, you know that you are right with God. Your eyes have seen the light of His salvation. When He gives the word, you are ready to depart this life and be with Him forever.
Jesus Christ is the hope of the world, but you must put your hope in Him personally. To hope in Christ means recognizing and personally trusting Him as God’s salvation.
If Christ is your salvation, you can have hope no matter how difficult your circumstances. During World War II, some American prisoners in a German concentration camp secretly received word of the Allied victory three days before the Germans heard of it. During those three days, their circumstances were no different. They still suffered all the hardships that they had become used to. But their attitude changed dramatically. A wave of hope spread among the prisoners. Victory and liberation were assured! They could endure those last three days because they had hope.
Whether you’re suffering from a difficult disease or grieving the loss of a loved one or facing overwhelming trials of some other nature, you can have hope if you will trust Jesus Christ as God’s salvation for you. He has won the victory. Those who hope in Him will not be disappointed!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, All Rights Reserved.
December 24, 2006
As I’ve said before, there is a question that is the most crucial question in all of life, which you must answer carefully. If you have not answered this question correctly, you are not ready to die and you are not equipped to live. It is a question that affects every area of your life.
The question is the one that Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” Your answer to that question determines your eternal destiny. Maybe you’re thinking, “I thought that my eternal destiny was determined by having faith in Jesus Christ.” True, but unless you know who Jesus Christ truly is, your faith is in an imaginary Jesus. For your faith truly to be in Jesus, you must understand who He is. The Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have some sort of faith in some sort of Jesus, but he is not the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Such faith will not save anyone.
Your answer to that question not only affects your eternal destiny, but also how you live. If God has opened your eyes to see that Jesus is Lord, then He has something to say about whom you marry, about how you relate to your mate and how you rear your children. He tells you how to operate your business, how to manage your money, and how to govern all of your life. If Jesus is the Lord of the universe, then He must be the Lord of every aspect of your life, beginning on the thought level.
I must add that once you have seen that Jesus truly is the Lord God in human flesh, you will have to come back repeatedly to that crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?” John the Baptist, the bold prophet who served as the forerunner to Jesus Christ, had certainly answered that question. He proclaimed Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He went on to explain (John 1:30), “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” Jesus was six months younger than John, but John affirmed Jesus’ preexistence. John proclaimed (John 1:34), “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” John was clear on that crucial question.
But later, Herod imprisoned John. As the months passed and he was not released, he began to wonder, “Am I mistaken? If Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and I am His messenger, why doesn’t Jesus open these prison doors and get me out?” Surely, John and his disciples were praying fervently for his release, but those prayers were not being answered. So John sent messengers to Jesus to ask (Matt. 11:3), “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” His difficult circumstances and his unanswered prayers made him waver on the crucial question: Is Jesus really the Son of God? Have you been there with John?
Jesus sent back a clear answer (Matt. 11:4-6), “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” John would have recognized that Jesus’ words show that He is the promised Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah 35. So even though John would soon lose his head, it really didn’t matter, since Jesus is the Son of God. And when you are in prison and God isn’t answering your prayers, it is essential that you are clear about who Jesus really is.
You will face other times when you struggle with hard issues: Why does a loving God allow so much suffering in this world, especially with little children? Why does an almighty, loving God allow so many people to die with no opportunity to be saved? There was an occasion when Jesus taught some difficult things. He said that (John 6:53-54) “unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Many of His disciples stumbled over these words.
But Jesus didn’t soften His words. Rather, He asked them (6:61-64), “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” He added (6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” John adds (6:66), “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” But, rather than backing off, Jesus turned to the twelve and asked (6:67), “You do not want to go away also, do you?”
Have you been there? I have! You were following Jesus when you came up against some hard words that you didn’t like. You were tempted to turn away. What did you do? How do you process those difficult moments? Peter goes back to that crucial question. He answered (6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” If Jesus is the Holy One of God, who has the words of eternal life, then you must follow Him, even when He speaks difficult words that you don’t like.
All of this is to introduce our text. John begins his Gospel with no introduction. He doesn’t bother to tell you who is writing. There are no greetings. He hits you right off with the answer to the crucial question, the answer that perhaps you weren’t even aware that you needed! He states (John 1:1), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
Then, after expounding on that statement (1:2-13), John comes back to the crucial question—who is Jesus Christ? He sets forth one of the greatest mysteries that our minds can try to comprehend (1:14): “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The eternal Word, the Almighty Creator, took on human flesh and dwelt among us! John writes his gospel to present the glory of this unique Person of Jesus Christ, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). The simple but profound message of our text is,
Because Jesus Christ is the eternal God in human flesh, we must trust Him as Savior and follow Him as Lord.
Let’s look first at verse 1, which shows…
John makes three affirmations in verse 1:
Verse 14 makes it clear that the Word is Jesus. In a moment we will look at the implications of referring to Him as the Word. But for now, focus on the statement, “In the beginning was the Word.” It reminds us of the opening statement of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Both statements hit you with force. They do not let you debate, “Does God exist?” They don’t present themselves as, “In my opinion, if you care to accept it, …” Rather, it hits you before you have time to duck, “In the beginning God….” “In the beginning was the Word….” Pow!
John wants us to see that he is writing about a new creation that centers in the eternal Word, who is also the Creator of all things (1:3). The statement means, in the beginning of time, before the heavens and earth existed, the Word was already existing. There never was a time when the Word was not.
You can’t wrap your mind around that concept! I may be able to fathom billions of years ago, although even that is beyond my comprehension. But how can you fathom eternity without time? Everything that we perceive, including the earth, the sun, and the universe, had a beginning. The Word had no beginning!
John continues, “and the Word was with God.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans, 1971], p. 76) explains the preposition (“with”), “The whole existence of the Word was oriented towards the Father. Probably we should understand from the preposition the two ideas of accompaniment and relationship.” He notes that John’s repeating this in verse 2 shows that it is not a casual comment, but one of great importance.
In the first phrase, John establishes the eternal nature of the Word as God. In the second phrase, he shows that the Word “existed in the closest possible connection with the Father” (Morris, ibid.). It shows that the Word is not an impersonal idea or philosophy, but a Person. This Person is distinguishable from God, although (as the first and third phrases show), He is eternal God.
Although xxour finite minds cannot comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, Scripture is clear that God is one God who exists in three distinct persons. Each person is fully God and yet He is not three Gods, but one God (see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], pp. 226-258).
The third phrase is, “and the Word was God.” As Morris states (p. 76), “Nothing higher could be said. All that may be said about God may fitly be said about the Word. This statement should not be watered down.” He clarifies (p. 77), “John is not merely saying that there is something divine about Jesus. He is affirming that He is God, and doing so emphatically as we see from the word order in the Greek.”
If you have had an encounter with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know that they claim that the Greek text says, “the word was a god,” because there is no Greek definite article before “God.” Every cult errs with regard to their view of the person of Jesus Christ. Satan knows that if people do not have the biblical view of who Jesus is, then they have answered the crucial question wrongly. If they do not truly know the Son, they will not honor Him as God. If they do not honor the Son, they do not honor the Father, either (John 5:23).
So how do we answer the Jehovah’s Witnesses? First, this is the only way in Greek to say, “the Word was God.” If John had put the definite article before God, it would have equated the Word totally with God, thus negating the distinction between the Word and God that he made in the second phrase. Second, without getting too technical, there is a rule of Greek grammar (Colwell’s rule) that shows that when definite nouns precede the verb, they regularly (about 80 percent of the time) lack the definite article. For example, the same Greek construction is in John 1:49, where Nathaniel proclaims, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” There is no article before “King,” but obviously, Nathaniel isn’t saying, “You are a king of Israel.” He was proclaiming Jesus as the King of Israel. The lack of the article emphasizes the quality of the noun.
Third, there are many other Scriptures that clearly proclaim Jesus as God. When, at the climax of John’s gospel (20:28), Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that he was making an exclamation! But that would have been swearing. Surely, Jesus would have rebuked so serious a sin. Instead, Jesus affirms Thomas’ confession.
Years later, on the Isle of Patmos, the apostle John had a vision of the risen Lord (Rev. 1:17-18). John fell before Him as a dead man. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Isaiah 44:6 says, “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.’” In light of Isaiah, clearly Jesus was claiming to be the Lord of hosts, the only living and true God!
Thus verse 1 affirms, Jesus is eternal; He is the second person of the Trinity; and, He is God. Also, it affirms that…
John refers to Jesus as “the Word.” There have been books written on this subject, but to keep it brief and simple, consider two things:
You cannot know my thoughts unless I put them into words. God is spirit, and thus invisible to our finite senses. As Paul says (1 Tim. 6:16), He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” Or, as John (1:18) says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God [some manuscripts read, “Son”] who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Jesus Himself asserted (John 14:9), “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Thus it is only through Jesus that we can know God personally (Luke 10:22).
Hebrews (1:1-2) begins, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” If God has spoken to us and Jesus is His Word, then we had better listen to and obey Jesus! As John 3:36 draws the line, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” To ignore God’s word to us in Jesus is a serious mistake! Jesus is the eternal God, the authoritative Word of God. Ignore Him to your eternal peril!
John 1:14 is one of the most wonderful and yet unfathomable verses in the Bible! How can God, who is spirit, become human flesh? How can the eternal become temporal? How can the unchangeable God take on a human body, subject to change? How can the immortal die as the substitute for our sins? How can the man, Jesus, whom John saw, also be the eternal Creator of the universe? But in spite of the incomprehensible mystery, this is what the Bible declares. As the angel explained to Mary (Luke 1:35), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” John 1:14 makes four statements:
“The Word” takes us back to verse 1, meaning, the eternal Word who is God. This eternal one became flesh. John could have used a more mild term, such as, He became man. Perhaps John used “flesh” to counter the false teaching of the Docetists, who denied the true humanity of Jesus (1 John 4:2-3). They asserted that all matter is evil, which the Bible does not teach. Although Jesus does not share our sinful nature, He is completely human.
“Dwelt among us” means, literally, “tabernacled among us.” The tabernacle in the Old Testament was an earthly picture of God’s dwelling place among men. Jesus, in His human body, was God “pitching His tent” among men for a period of time.
God’s glory was associated with the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34, 35). With regard to Jesus, when He performed His first miracle, turning the water into wine, John 2:11 reports, “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” (See, also 11:4, 40.) John, of course, also saw Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, although he does not report that in his Gospel (see 2 Pet. 1:16-18). But there is a deeper sense in which God’s glory was manifested at the cross. When Judas went out to betray Jesus, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (John 13:31; see, also, 12:23-28). When John and the other apostles saw Jesus willingly offer Himself for our sins, they supremely saw the glory of God (see 2 Cor. 4:4-6).
The word “only-begotten” is better translated, “unique” or “only one of His kind.” The same word is used to refer to Isaac (Heb. 11:17). He was not Abraham’s only son, but he was his unique son, the son of the promise. Only begotten does not refer to Jesus’ being born of Mary or to His coming into existence at some time in the past (which He did not). Rather, it points to His unique relationship to the Father as the eternal Son. He is God’s Son in a unique way that no one else is or ever could be.
This phrase probably refers back to the Word. John adds these terms here because both are essential for understanding our salvation. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, shown to those who deserve His judgment. If you can earn salvation, then you don’t need grace. Only sinners need grace. The only way you can receive God’s salvation is to acknowledge your need as a sinner, renounce all trust in yourself or your own merit, and trust in the grace of God as shown at the cross of Christ.
Truth points to God’s character. He is absolute truth. By contrast, Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). As the God of truth, His righteous standard calls us to truth, but we have sinned and fall short of His perfect righteousness. Jesus claimed (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” Jesus embodied the truth and lived in accordance with God’s truth. When He offered Himself on the cross, as the sinless substitute, He paid the penalty for sin that we deserved. Thus He upheld God’s truth and yet could offer us grace. But, you must respond to God’s truth in Jesus:
2 Corinthians 4:4 states regarding those who are perishing, “in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Unless God opens your eyes, you cannot see the glory of Christ, the eternal Word who became flesh. But, Paul continues (4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” When God opens your eyes to see His glory in Christ, you will instantly see the answer to life’s most crucial question: Who is Jesus Christ? He is the eternal Word who took on human flesh. His glory was especially revealed when He died on the cross on behalf of undeserving sinners, to satisfy God’s wrath. Therefore, I must trust Him as Savior and follow Him as Lord.
Have you answered that crucial question? If not, read the Gospel of John and ask God to open your eyes to see the glory of Jesus Christ. When He does, you will trust in Him as your Savior. If you have trusted Christ, but you’re struggling with difficult matters, come back to that crucial question. You must follow Him as Lord, even if He doesn’t deliver you from prison and even if a wicked king cuts your head off. Everything in this life and in eternity rests on the right answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Can you say, “Lord Jesus, You are the eternal Word made flesh, the glory of the unique Son of the Father, full of grace and truth for me”?
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.
December 23, 2007
Special Christmas Message
The children were putting on the annual Christmas play at church. To show the radiance of the newborn Savior, a light bulb was hidden in the manger. At the appropriate moment, all of the stage lights were to be turned off except for that one. But the boy controlling the light panel got confused and shut off all the lights. There was a dark moment of silence, broken when one of the shepherds said in a loud whisper, “Hey, you switched off Jesus!”
Even though we all know that Christmas is about the birth of the Savior, it’s easy to get caught up in the cultural approach to the holiday and switch off Jesus. While there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of a white Christmas or having a Christmas tree, or giving gifts to one another, the real meaning of Christmas deals with a much more urgent matter, namely, salvation.
Salvation has nothing to do with chestnuts roasting on an open fire or other warm, fuzzy feelings about an ideal Christmas holiday. Salvation deals with the messy fact that sinners need to be rescued from God’s judgment. God sent His Son to bear the judgment that guilty sinners deserve. If at Christmas time, we don’t think about the fact that God sent the Savior, we’ve switched off Jesus! As the angel told the shepherds that night when Jesus was born (Luke 2:11), “for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
This theme of salvation also comes through in the prophecy of Zacharias, the father of the forerunner, John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79). You will recall that although Zacharias was a godly man, some months before the angel had struck him dumb because he doubted the promise that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son in their old age (Luke 1:20). But now that son was born and Zacharias’ tongue was loosed. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he spoke this prophecy that focuses on the great salvation that God was about to bring. It shows us that ...
Christmas means that God sent us the Savior in the person of Jesus Christ.
Our greatest need at Christmas time is not for more things. We’ve all got plenty of things. Neither is it for personal fulfillment, though many think that’s what they need and madly try to find it. Our greatest need is not even for the love of family and friends, as important as that is. The greatest need of every person is for salvation, because all have sinned against God. If we die in our sins, we face God’s eternal judgment. God’s salvation reconciles us with Him and gives us true hope, both for time and eternity. Our primary need is to know that we have received God’s salvation.
Salvation is the theme of Zacharias’ prophecy: He mentions “redemption” (1:68); “salvation” (1:69, 71, 77); and, “being delivered” (1:74). I want to draw out four themes from these verses related to salvation:
Salvation is of the Lord. This comes through strongly in these verses. Note first that the Lord God “visited us” (1:68, 78). We did not go searching for Him; He came and visited us. He saw our helpless condition, took pity on us, and came down to meet our enormous need in the person of the Savior.
This prophecy is steeped in the Old Testament. The theme of God visiting His people comes from Genesis 50:24, 25. As Joseph was dying in Egypt, he predicted that God would visit his descendants and bring them from there to the land which He had promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the LXX, the Greek uses an emphatic Hebraism, “in visiting, God will visit you,” which means, “God will surely visit you.” Then Joseph repeats, “At the visitation with which God shall visit you, then you shall carry my bones with you.” After an interval of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, we read of God telling Moses (Exodus 3:16): “Visiting, I have visited you” (see also, Exod. 4:31; 13:19).
Even so, in Zacharias’ time, Israel had not heard a word from the Lord in 400 years. The nation was now under the Roman yoke of oppression. It seemed as if God had forgotten His people. But then, after the birth of the forerunner of Messiah, and knowing the angel’s promise to Mary that she would bear the Son of God, Zacharias prophesies, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us.”
If you were living in abject poverty and one day a kind billionaire visited you, you might have a ray of hope that he would take pity on you and give you some help. But God has done more than that. He not only saw our desperate condition and sent us help; He actually took our human condition on Himself! He took on human flesh, not as a mighty king, above our weaknesses, but as a baby, subject to our frailty, yet without sin. As if that were not enough, He even took our sin on Himself on the cross, bearing the penalty we deserve! It was all God’s doing because of His tender mercy (1:78), not because we deserved it. God visited us in the birth of Jesus Christ.
There are many other evidences in our text that salvation is God’s doing, not our doing. He accomplished it (1:68). “He raised up a horn of salvation for us” (1:69). The horn is a symbol of the strength of an animal, such as a bull (Ps. 132:17; 18:2). Here it points to the fact that salvation required God’s mighty power because our enemy is so strong. But God did it—He raised it up. He did it in accordance with many prophecies which He had given centuries before (1:70-71). Alfred Edersheim found more than 400 Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, but even apart from these specific prophecies, the whole of the Old Testament points to Christ (in Norval Geldenhuys, Luke [Eerdmans], pp. 93-94).
Furthermore, God sent the Savior in accordance with the oath of His covenant with Abraham (1:72-73). Two thousand years before Jesus Christ was born, God sovereignly chose Abraham, a pagan living in the city of Ur of the Chaldeans, and promised to make a great nation of him, to give his descendants the land of Canaan, and to bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:1-3). During His ministry, Jesus told the Jews who contended with Him, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus Christ was the descendant of Abraham in whom God’s promises were fulfilled.
God also raised up John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, in accordance with prophecies made hundreds of years before. In Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1; 4:5, God predicted that He would send His messenger in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way before Messiah. Even though Zacharias and Elizabeth were humanly beyond their childbearing years, God sent His angel to promise them that they would have this son who would fulfill these prophecies by making “ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).
The point is, God did all this apart from human initiative, effort, merit, or ability. God planned it, He prophesied it, and He carried it out, in spite of Zacharias’ doubts and inability to father a son. The salvation God provided in Jesus Christ comes totally from Him. We cannot do anything to earn it or work for it. All we can do is receive it.
This runs counter to the common notion that we can save ourselves by our own effort or ability. It goes against the idea that we deserve to be saved. No! Salvation is from God, apart from human merit, that no one can boast. If you think you can do something to save yourself or to provide for your own salvation, you do not understand what Christmas means.
Though His name is not mentioned specifically in Zacharias’ prophecy, His person is described so that there is no mistaking it. This horn of salvation is from “the house of David” (1:69). Zacharias and Elizabeth were both descended from Aaron who was from the tribe of Levi (Luke 1:5), but Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah through David (Matt. 1:2-17; Luke 3:23-38). As we’ve already seen, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (John 8:56-58).
Also, as Luke 1:76 shows, the coming Savior was none other than the Lord God in human flesh. John went “before the Lord to prepare His ways,” The Lord (who is God) is Jesus. John recognized the divinity of Jesus when he affirmed that Jesus had a higher rank than he because He existed before him, even though physically John was six months older than Jesus (John 1:30).
Zacharias refers to this Savior as “the Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78), a reference to Malachi 4:2: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Jesus Himself claimed, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Clearly, Jesus Christ is the Savior of whom Zacharias and all Scripture prophesied. As the angel told Joseph after explaining how Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).
In the earlier part of this prophecy, Zacharias speaks of salvation with reference to national deliverance from enemy nations (1:71, 74). This political aspect of salvation will be fulfilled in Christ’s second coming, when He will return and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish His kingdom rule over all the earth. But the Jews in Jesus’ day erred in that they saw God’s salvation through Messiah almost completely in such political terms.
But John’s ministry was intended to show Israel that salvation “consisted in the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77, literal translation). John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Even though Israel was God’s chosen people by nationality, they still had to be reconciled to God individually through repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. Since God is holy, no sinner can stand in His presence. Since He is just, He cannot dismiss sins without the payment of the penalty. He has ordained that the penalty for our sins is death (Rom. 6:23). But because of His tender mercy, He took on Himself the penalty we deserved so that we might go free. John would later announce Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
Zacharias (1:79) brings together a couple of references from Isaiah (9:2; 60:1-3), which describe those who need God’s salvation as “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” The picture is of travelers who have lost their way in the wilderness and night falls. They grope for the path, but it eludes them. Finally, in despair, they can do nothing but sit down in the darkness, where death from wild beasts lurks in the shadows. They can’t sleep because they are too cold and too afraid. Every time a wolf howls in the darkness, they shiver in fear. They huddle in the darkness, hoping for the morning light. Finally, they see a faint glow in the eastern sky. Slowly but surely the darkness yields to the bright morning sun. In its light, they find the path that leads to peace and safety.
It’s a graphic picture of those who sit in the darkness and shadow of death that comes from sin. They are lost in the darkness, not knowing which way to go. They are afraid of death, always lurking in the shadows. They don’t know what to do and they can’t do anything to find their way. They need light!
Then, perhaps at Christmas time, they hear that a Savior has been born. The glimmer of hope in the eastern sky begins to dawn. They hear further that this Savior died to save His people from their sins. The sky brightens. But, still, they wonder if they can be good enough to earn this salvation which Christ offers. Then they hear that it is not something that anyone can earn, but that God offers forgiveness of sins freely because of His tender mercy. The sun rises in its full light into their soul, guiding them into His way of peace.
The word “tender” (1:78) literally means, “bowels.” The Hebrews thought of the bowels as the seat of the emotions. It points to God’s deep compassion for sinners. Many erroneously think that God is mean and harsh, waiting to strike them down for their sins should they dare show up at His doorstep. But Jesus portrayed the heavenly Father as the father of the prodigal son who, when he saw his son in the distance, felt compassion for him (the Greek verb in Luke 15:20 is related to this noun, “bowels”), and ran and embraced him, and kissed him. Do you know this tender mercy of God in your life today?
You must understand that God must judge all sin or He would no longer be just. He can’t just brush it aside. At the judgment, He will pour out His eternal wrath on all sinners who have not put their trust in Jesus. But, God is not only just, but also merciful. His great love and mercy caused Him to send His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserved. If, like the prodigal son, you repent of your sins and come to Jesus, He will forgive you completely and you will know His tender mercy.
Years ago, a man named Dr. Barnardo, who ran a London orphanage, was approached by a dirty, ragged little boy who asked for admission. The doctor looked at him and said, “But my boy, I don’t know you. What do you have to recommend you?”
The boy was not only needy, but also bright. He quickly held up before Dr. Barnardo his ragged coat and with a confident little voice said, “If you please, sir, I thought these here would be all I needed to recommend me.” Dr. Barnardo caught him up in his arms and took him in, because that truly was all he needed to recommend him—his rags.
Do you need forgiveness? Then bring the rags of all your sins and apply to Jesus. He bore your penalty in His body on the cross. Because of His tender mercy, God will pardon all who seek His forgiveness. Salvation means the forgiveness of our sins by God’s mercy. There’s no such thing as sin that is greater than the tender mercy of our God!
Thus salvation is God’s doing, not ours. It is accomplished through Jesus Christ, the Sunrise from on high. And, it means the forgiveness of sins by God’s mercy. But that’s not all:
Zacharias says that we, “being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (1:74-75). Contrary to what many think, salvation is not primarily about us and our happiness. The Christian life is a blessedly happy life, full of joy and gladness. But God doesn’t save us so that we can live happily ever after, ignoring the needs of others. He saves us so that we might glorify Him (make Him look good) as our joy in Him overflows into a life of holy service. People who think they’re saved but who live for themselves and their own happiness to the neglect of others are deceived. True salvation always results in a holy life given over to serving our gracious God who has granted deliverance from the bondage of sin.
Years ago a Salvation Army officer, Captain Shaw, went to India as a medical missionary to a leper colony. His eyes welled with tears as he saw three lepers in front of him, their hands and feet bound by chains that cut into their diseased flesh. Shaw turned to the guard and said, “Please unfasten these chains.” “But it isn’t safe,” the guard replied. “These men are not just lepers; they’re dangerous criminals.”
“I’ll be responsible; they’re suffering enough,” Shaw said, as he took the keys, and tenderly removed the shackles and treated their bleeding ankles and wrists.
About two weeks later Captain Shaw had his first misgivings about freeing these criminals. He had to make an overnight trip and feared leaving his wife and child alone. His wife insisted that she wasn’t afraid; God would protect her. So the doctor left. The next morning when Mrs. Shaw went to her door, she was startled to see the three criminals lying on her steps. One explained, “We know the doctor go. We stay here all night so no harm come to you.” That was their response to the doctor’s act of love for them—to serve him freely out of gratitude. That should be our response to God’s freeing us from bondage to sin—to give our lives in holy service to Him.
Zacharias’ prophecy tells us the meaning of Christmas: That God sent us a Savior in the person of Jesus Christ. I am inadequate to explain this to you; God Himself must break through if you would grasp it and respond.
During the Christmas season of 1879, an agnostic reporter in Boston saw three little girls standing in front of a store window full of toys. One of them was blind. Coming closer, he heard the other two trying to describe the playthings to their friend. He said he had never thought of how difficult it would be to explain what something looks like to someone who has never been able to see. That incident became the basis for a newspaper story.
Two weeks later this same agnostic attended a meeting conducted by the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody. His purpose was to catch Moody in some inconsistency. But he was greatly surprised to hear Moody use his newspaper account of the three children to illustrate a spiritual truth. He said, “Just as the blind girl couldn’t visualize the toys, so a lost person can’t see Christ in all His glory.” He said that God must open the eyes of those without Christ so that the person will acknowledge his sin and trust the Savior in humble faith. God opened that newsman’s eyes. He saw his own need and discovered for himself the truth of Moody’s words. (From, “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980-1981.)
If you have never trusted in Christ as your Savior, you sit in darkness and the shadow of death. But through my words today, God is visiting you with the good news that He is merciful to sinners. Ask Him to shine into your heart to guide you into the way of peace. Repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you turn to Christ you will know His tender mercy that forgives all your sins. You will know the real meaning of Christmas: that God sent us a Savior in the person of Jesus Christ.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, All Rights Reserved.
December 21, 2008
Special Christmas Message
A four-year-old boy and his family were sitting outdoors enjoying lemonade and cookies when a bee started buzzing around the table. The boy was very upset and his mother tried to calm him. “Nathan, that bee is more afraid of you than you are of him,” she said. “Look how much bigger you are. Besides, if that bee stings you, his stinger will fall out and he’ll die.”
Nathan considered this for a moment and then asked, “Does the bee know that?” (Adapted from Reader’s Digest [06/93], p. 20.)
That was a good question! There are important questions in life that we need to ask and answer correctly: “Is there a God?” “How can I know Him?” “Is there life after death?” “Do heaven and hell exist?” “If so, where will I go when I die?” “How can I know for certain that I’m right about the answers to these questions?”
At the root of all these important questions is a crucial question that every person must answer. In fact, every person will answer this question, either now or at the judgment. But if you wait to answer it until the judgment, it will be too late! You will answer it correctly there, but the answer will condemn you to an eternity in hell without God. So you need to answer it correctly now!
The question you must answer and respond to correctly is, “Who is Jesus Christ?”
The correct answer to this question will answer all of the questions I just asked: “Is there a God?” Jesus came to reveal the Father to us. “How can I know Him?” You can only know God through His Son Jesus Christ. “Is there life after death?” Jesus tells us authoritatively how to go to heaven and avoid hell. “How can I know for certain that I’m right about the answers to these questions?” Are the accounts about Jesus and His claims true or false? Is there adequate evidence to believe these accounts? Especially, is there historically valid evidence that Jesus arose bodily from the dead? The apostle Paul did not hesitate to hang the entire Christian faith on the answer to that one question (1 Cor. 15:14, 17).
You will have times when you struggle with doubts that stem from difficult questions: How can a loving God permit the terrible suffering and injustice in the world? How can God be three persons and yet one God? How can certain biblical accounts that seem to contradict each other be harmonized? These and many more questions may trip you up. But if you come back to the correct answer to the question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” it will be the bedrock to stand on as you work through your doubts and questions.
You will also have times when you are strongly tempted to sin. How can you resist? It seems like sinning will bring you happiness and pleasure. If you forget who Jesus is, you will probably succumb. But if you remember who He is, you will be able to withstand the temptation.
You will also have times when you will go through difficult trials. It will seem as if God has forgotten you. You won’t understand why these things are happening. In your grief, you will be confused. But coming back to this crucial question will give you perspective to sustain you through your trials.
So the correct answer to this question determines how you think and how you live. It determines where you will spend eternity. Thus it is not surprising that the answer to this question is the major focus of each of the gospel narratives. John, for example, plainly states that he wrote his gospel (20:31), “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.” Arguably, the identity of Jesus is the focus of the entire Bible. But for sake of time, I want to examine this question, “Who is Jesus Christ?” in the context of Luke and then zero in on the words of the angel to the shepherds.
Luke hits the matter of Jesus’ identity early and then throughout the book. Luke begins his gospel by telling his original reader, Theophilus, that he has researched these matters carefully (Luke 1:1-4). He claims to write this account so that Theophilus will know the exact truth. In other words, Luke is writing an accurate historical account. This is not fiction!
First, Luke gives the account of the birth of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of the Messiah. Then he follows with the visit of the angel to Mary. He revealed to Mary both the miraculous means of her conception and the identity of her offspring (Luke 1:35): “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
We will come back to the angel’s announcement to the shepherds. But just after Jesus’ birth, both Simeon and Anna bore witness to the fact that this child was the Lord’s Christ, the Savior, and the redeemer (Luke 2:26, 30, 38). When the crowds wondered if John the Baptist might be the Christ, he denied it and stated that he was not fit to untie the thong of Jesus’ sandals because Jesus was far mightier than he (Luke 3:16).
Even Satan tacitly acknowledged Jesus’ identity when he challenged Him (Luke 4:3), “If You are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Again he taunted from the pinnacle of the temple (Luke 4:9), “If You are the Son of God, throw Yourself down from here.” He was trying to use the truth to camouflage his temptation. At the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, the demons also recognized that He is “the Holy One of God” and “the Son of God” (Luke 4:34, 41). Although they were not and could not be subject to Him, they still knew the truth about who He is.
When Peter experienced the miraculous catch of fish, he instantly recognized that Jesus is the holy Lord and that he had no basis to be in His presence. He cried out (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!” When Jesus forgave the paralytic’s sins (prior to healing him to prove His authority to forgive sins), the Pharisees grumbled (Luke 5:21), “Who is this man who speaks blasphemies? Who can forgive sins, but God alone?” Who indeed?
Later, when John the Baptist was in prison, he struggled with doubts. He sent messengers to Jesus asking (Luke 7:19), “Are You the One who is coming, or do we look for someone else?” Jesus sent back the reply, based on a Messianic prophecy in Isaiah 35, (Luke 7:22-23), “Go and report to John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have the gospel preached to them. Blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” Jesus’ miracles and teaching revealed His identity.
Later, when Jesus was having dinner with a Pharisee, He forgave the sins of the woman who anointed His feet. The other guests grumbled (Luke 7:49), “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” Luke repeats the same crucial question after Jesus calmed the storm. The disciples fearfully asked (Luke 8:25), “Who then is this, that He commands even the winds and the water, and they obey Him?” Later, Herod heard about the miracles that Jesus was performing. He worried that maybe John the Baptist had risen from the dead. So Herod said (Luke 9:9), “I myself had John beheaded; but who is this man about whom I hear such things?” He asked the right question, but he never answered it correctly!
Later, Jesus asks the twelve (Luke 9:18), “Who do the multitudes say that I am?” After they give some of the incorrect answers, Jesus pointedly asks (Luke 9:20), “But who do you say that I am?” Peter responded with his confession, “The Christ of God.” Yet even then, the disciples had many erroneous notions about who Jesus was. They did not understand that the Christ had to suffer before He entered into His glory (Luke 24:26). The ultimate confession comes from God the Father, who testified at Jesus’ baptism (Luke 3:22), “You are My beloved Son, in You I am well-pleased.” And, again at Jesus’ transfiguration, the Father testified (Luke 9:35), “This is My Son, My Chosen One; listen to Him!”
If we had the time, we could work our way through the entire Gospel of Luke (as well as the other Gospels) and see the words and deeds of Jesus, all of which testify to His identity. After His resurrection, Jesus explains to the disciples that all of Scripture testifies to Him (Luke 24:27, 44).
But I want to focus briefly on Jesus’ identity as the angel proclaimed it to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” This is a unique statement, in that the word “Savior” is only used two other times in the gospels. In Luke 1:47, Mary said that she “rejoiced in God my Savior.” It occurs once in John (4:42). Other than that, “Savior” in the Gospels only occurs here at Jesus’ birth. Also, the words “Christ the Lord” translate a Greek expression found nowhere else in the New Testament (Leon Morris, Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 85). It is literally, “Christ Lord.” So the angel’s pronouncement should arrest our attention.
Luke, who probably interviewed Mary, gives more detail to the miracle of the virgin birth than any other New Testament author, explaining that the Holy Spirit performed this miracle in Mary’s body (1:34-35). In this unique way, God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Jesus was born in the city of David, which is Bethlehem. Luke will go on to show that Jesus grew up as a boy, gradually attaining maturity (2:40-52). Luke also traces Jesus’ physical genealogy all the way back to Adam, showing that Jesus was descended from David (3:23-38).
All of these historical details mean that the Christmas story is not a legend, but rather is a true account of the life of a real man. It is based on the eyewitness testimony of credible people. We need to emphasize this in our day. So many legends, such as Santa Claus, have become intertwined with the Christmas story that people lump them all together and forget that the birth of Jesus Christ as reported in the Bible is true history.
Some may ask, “Who cares if it’s history or not? The story about Joseph and Mary, the Christ child, the angels, the wise men, the shepherds, and the manger, is a heartwarming tale that children love to hear. It helps everyone focus on peace on earth for a few days every year. So what difference does it make whether it’s really true or not?”
It makes all the difference in the world! If it’s just a heartwarming legend, you can choose to believe or disbelieve it, based on how it makes you feel. It’s a completely subjective decision, binding on no one.
But if the story actually happened as Luke reports, then the birth of Jesus confronts every person with objective facts that cannot be shrugged off as personal opinion. The fact that these events happened means that God exists and that He truly broke into human history in the birth of Jesus in fulfillment of many prophecies. The fact that God sent Jesus as a Savior implies that people without the Savior are alienated from God and desperately need to be reconciled to Him through the forgiveness of their sins.
These facts mean that you don’t just believe in Jesus because it makes you feel warm and happy inside, or because He helps you face life’s problems or because you like the Christian traditions. It means that you believe the Christian message because it is true. Even if it brings you persecution and death, you cling to it because it is authentic history. Jesus came to earth as a man to bear our sins.
The angel tells the shepherds that this good news of great joy for all people is that a Savior has been born. The name “Jesus,” revealed to Joseph by the angel (Matt. 1:21), means, “Yahweh saves.” Jesus did not come as a nice man offering a new philosophy about life. He did not come as a great moral teacher, offering some helpful insights on how to live a happy life. He came as the Savior!
A number of years ago, a toddler fell down a narrow well. Her mother went looking for her as soon as she realized she was missing and was horrified to hear her daughter’s voice coming from this deep, dark shaft. Fire fighters and other rescuers soon swarmed on the scene. News media arrived and for hours the attention of the nation was riveted on the desperate attempt to rescue that little girl before it was too late.
That little girl didn’t need anyone to give her some ideas on how to live a happy life. She was doomed if someone didn’t save her from death. The most important news that that desperate mother could hear in that situation was, “The rescuers have saved your daughter!” When someone is lost and within hours of death unless they are saved, the only news that matters is that a savior has come who can rescue that doomed person.
The good news that a Savior has been born who is Christ the Lord is the best news in the world, because it deals with the most important issue of all, namely, where you will spend eternity. If you die and do not have Jesus Christ as your Savior, you will spend eternity under the judgment of a holy God (John 3:36). But in His mercy, God sent Jesus to save us from our sins!
“Messiah” is the Hebrew and “Christ” is the Greek word for “Anointed One.” It refers to Jesus as the Anointed King and Priest, who brings God’s salvation to His people. In the Old Testament, the only two office bearers to be anointed were the King and the High Priest. Jesus brought both of these offices together in one person. The title, Christ, especially focuses on the fact that Jesus is the One who fulfilled all the Old Testament prophecies about the promised Savior. He alone is able to reconcile sinful people to God through His sinless life, sacrificial death, and bodily resurrection. He is coming a second time, not to offer salvation, but to judge the world and reign in righteousness. Since Jesus is God’s Anointed One, we dare not ignore or reject Him!
Thus Jesus is fully human. He is the Savior. He is the Christ.
The title means that Jesus is God. What a mystery, yet true: The man Jesus, born in Bethlehem, is God in human flesh! A mere man could not have died for the sins of the human race. If He had been an angel or some super-human being, He could not have borne human sins. But as the sinless God-man, He alone could bear our sins.
The Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Mormons say that Jesus is the Savior, but they deny that He is God. But we must interpret Lord in light of its use in the Old Testament and in light of its context in Luke. In the Old Testament, the Lord clearly is Yahweh, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob! It is used over 6,000 times in the Septuagint to translate “Yahweh” (Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50 [Baker], p. 218). It refers to Jesus’ sovereignty and deity.
Luke uses the same word in 1:43, where Elizabeth refers to Mary, who is carrying Jesus, as “the mother of my Lord.” She also adds that Mary was blessed because she believed the word spoken to her by the Lord (1:45). In the next verse (1:46), Mary breaks into praise, exclaiming, “My soul exalts the Lord.…” When Elizabeth gives birth to John, everyone heard that the Lord had displayed His great mercy toward her (1:58). As the child grew, Luke states that the hand of the Lord was with him (1:66). When Zacharias broke into praise, he blessed the Lord God of Israel (1:68). In 2:9, Luke says that the angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. He uses it in 2:23 to refer to “the law of the Lord” and “holy to the Lord.”
If Lord means something different in verse 11 than it does in these many other references in chapters 1 & 2, surely Luke would have clarified it. The angel means that Jesus, born to the virgin Mary, is none other than God in human flesh. The Savior had to be man to bear the sins of humans; but He also had to be God so that His sacrifice had merit before God’s holy throne. Only Jesus is that unique Savior.
So the correct answer to the crucial question that you must answer is, “Jesus is fully human, He is the Savior, He is the Christ, and He is the Lord God.” But, you can answer that question correctly and yet go to hell. As we’ve seen, the devil and his demons know the correct answer to that question, but they are not saved.
The angel announces that this good news of the Savior’s birth is for all the people (2:10). But then he gets personal (2:11), “there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” You must respond personally by trusting Jesus as the only one who can save you from God’s judgment and by submitting to Him as your Lord.
Use these shepherds as an example of how you should respond. They didn’t say, “Wow, that was really some experience, seeing all those angels,” and sit there the rest of the night with their sheep. They didn’t sit around discussing theology after the angel spoke to them. They didn’t say, “Thanks for the news, but we’ve always believed this,” and stay where they were at.
No, they responded to the news by believing what God had revealed to them through the angel. Their faith was demonstrated by their going straight to Bethlehem to see it for themselves and then to return glorifying and praising God (Luke 2:15, 20). And what did they see? “Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger” (Luke 2:16). No halo. No angels hovering there. Jesus didn’t look like a Savior. No palace. The place looked and smelled like a barn, because that’s what it was. They could have scoffed and stumbled over it, as many do.
What about you? Will you scoff or stumble over the simple but profound message that the baby Jesus, born in Bethlehem, whose birth was announced by the angels to these simple shepherds, is Christ the Lord, a Savior born for you? Jesus didn’t leave heaven and come to this earth and go through the suffering of the cross just to give you a boost or a few tips on how to have a happy life. He knew that you desperately need a Savior. He alone can save you from the penalty of God’s wrath because of your sins. But, how will you respond to this good news?
So the crucial question that you must answer and respond to correctly is, “Who is Jesus Christ?” One day, everyone will get it right. The apostle Paul says (Phil. 2:10-11) that “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
But some will bow on that great day in terror as they hear the Lord say (Matt. 25:41), “Depart from Me, accursed ones, into the eternal fire which has been prepared for the devil and his angels.” They responded too late to the question we all must answer, “Who is Jesus Christ?”
But you can respond correctly right now! You can welcome Jesus Christ as your Savior from God’s judgment. You can bow before Him now as your Lord. Then on that day you will hear Him say (Matt. 25:34), “Come, you who are blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2008, All Rights Reserved.
December 20, 2009
Special Christmas Message
If you know much about your ancestors, it is likely that you know of a few skeletons in your family closet. The phrase refers to family members whose shameful ways and deeds the family would rather remain hidden from public view.
I don’t know much about my ancestors. I can’t even name my great-grandparents. But I do know that one of my great-grandfathers spent twenty years in the Indiana State Penitentiary on a murder charge. My dad has told me that he may have taken the rap for his son. But either way, there are some skeletons in our family closet!
The Bible doesn’t keep the door shut on the skeletons in the family closets of its heroes. Even when it comes to tracing the ancestry of the Messiah, shows us the unsavory characters in the family line. The list includes (and even highlights) an adulterer who murdered his lover’s husband to cover up the misdeed. There are idolaters, liars, and a man who committed incest with his daughter-in-law, whom he thought was a prostitute (which says something about his lack of morals). Another woman in the list was a prostitute. And, there is a notoriously wicked king who burned his sons to death as offerings to a pagan idol. It’s a rather motley crew to produce the Savior of the world!
Matthew sets forth this tainted lineup as he traces the ancestry of Jesus the Messiah. In all honesty, it seems like a dull way to begin a book, much less to launch the New Testament! I doubt if any editor today would accept such an opening for any book. Most of us probably just skip these sections when we read through the Bible. Perhaps we wonder why God would take up space in the Bible with this boring list of difficult to pronounce names of people who lived thousands of years ago, half-way around the world. How is it relevant to us?
I suggest that this list of names is quite relevant for us. For one thing, all of these people lived for a short while and died. So the list reminds us that we, too, will not live forever. Whether we die relatively young or live for a century, death and judgment before the God who knows all of our deeds is inevitable. And so the most relevant issue for each of us to be clear about is, “where will I spend eternity?” And, “how can I be sure of this?” You don’t want to be wrong on such an important matter! You need to be sure that you have Jesus Christ as your Savior.
Christ’s genealogy shows that God sent a Savior for sinners and that He fulfilled His promises in Jesus Christ.
This list includes a broad spectrum of people. Some we know about, but others we know only by their names here. There are kings and commoners. Oddly for the patriarchal Jews, there are some women on the list. Also, oddly for a Jewish genealogy, three of those women were Gentiles, the fourth was married to a Gentile, and three were notorious for immorality. The list is obviously not fabricated, because no religious Jew would have put together a list like this if he were trying to impress his readers with the pedigree of the Messiah.
But everyone on the list shares something in common: whether they were relatively good people or notoriously bad, they all were sinners who needed a Savior. In Romans 1-3, Paul argues that everyone, whether pagan Gentiles or religious Jews, are guilty before God as sinners. He sums it up (Rom. 3:23), “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” And so everyone needs a Savior. Even the godly virgin Mary, mother of the Messiah, acknowledged her need for a Savior when she prayed (Luke 1:47), “And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” She goes on to say (Luke 1:54-55) that through the One in her womb, God has remembered His mercy to Abraham and his descendants. Good people do not need God’s mercy. Sinners need His mercy. Jesus is the Savior of sinners who cry out for God’s mercy.
Let’s look at the four other women (apart from Mary) in the list and see how each of them teaches us something important about God’s salvation as provided in Jesus Christ.
Tamar’s story (Matt. 1:3) occurs in one of the most sordid chapters in the Bible, Genesis 38. Judah, her father-in-law, had taken a Canaanite wife, who bore him three sons. Judah took Tamar, a Canaanite woman, as a wife for his first son, but that son was evil in the Lord’s sight and the Lord took his life. Judah then told his second son to go in to Tamar to conceive an heir for his deceased brother. When that son dodged his responsibility, the Lord killed him. Judah then promised Tamar that when the third son grew up, she could be married to him. But he either forgot or ignored his promise. Tamar then disguised herself as a prostitute, hiding her face under a veil. Not knowing that it was she, Judah had relations with her and she became pregnant with twins, Perez and Zerah. Perez was in the line that led to Jesus Christ (Matt. 1:3).
Tamar’s history illustrates that Jesus is the Savior of sinners. He deliberately associated with the tax collectors, who were notorious scoundrels. Matthew, the author of this gospel, was one when Jesus called him. Jesus was known as the friend of sinners (prostitutes and others, Matt. 11:19). When the religious Pharisees expressed their disgust with this, Jesus replied (Matt. 9:12), “It is not those who are healthy who need a physician, but those who are sick.” He added (Matt. 9:13b), “I did not come to call the righteous, but sinners.” He did not mean that some are righteous enough to get into heaven on their own. Rather, He wanted the Pharisees to see that they were sinners who needed a Savior every bit as much as the tax collectors and prostitutes did.
You may think, “But I’m not as sinful as a prostitute or a swindler! I have my faults, but I’m not a terrible sinner!” Be careful! That was the mistake of the Pharisees. Their self-righteousness caused them to reject the Savior whom God sent. The angel who told Joseph that Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit added (Matt. 1:21), “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” To benefit from the reason that Jesus came, you must recognize in the first place that you have sinned against the Holy God and that all of your good deeds will not atone for your sins. You need a Savior and Jesus is that Savior. But, how do we obtain this salvation?
Rahab (Matt. 1:5) has come down to us in biblical history with the epithet, “the harlot.” Just as we can’t think of Thomas without thinking of “doubting,” so we can’t think of Rahab without thinking, “the harlot.” Like Tamar, she was a Canaanite woman, excluded from God’s covenant people. She lived in Jericho. She knew that the city was going to be destroyed and she believed in the God of the Hebrews, that “He is God in heaven above and on earth beneath” (Josh. 2:11). So she hid the Hebrew spies and pleaded with them to spare her life and the lives of her family.
In the great New Testament chapter on faith, we read (Heb. 11:31), “By faith Rahab the harlot did not perish along with those who were disobedient, after she had welcomed the spies in peace.” But James 2:25 states, “In the same way, was not Rahab the harlot also justified by works when she received the messengers and sent them out by another way?” There is no contradiction. James is making the point that genuine saving faith is not merely intellectual assent. The demons have that kind of faith, but are not saved. Rather, saving faith always results in a life of obedience. Rahab proved that her faith was genuine by her obedience in risking her life to protect the Hebrew spies.
The balance between Hebrews and James regarding Rahab is especially important in our day. Many have been told that if they believe in Jesus as their Savior, they will receive eternal life and go to heaven. That is certainly true, but in many cases, these people do not understand what it means to believe in Jesus. It does not mean just to agree that He is your Savior, but then to go on living as you’ve always lived. Genuine saving faith always includes repentance for your sins. If you truly believe in Christ, you will live in obedience to Him. As 1 John 2:3 states, “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments.” The fact that Rahab is listed here as the wife of Salmon shows that she turned from her life of prostitution. By faith in God’s promise, she experienced His salvation. By His grace, she even became an ancestor of the Savior.
Like Tamar and Rahab, Ruth was a Gentile. She was a Moabite and thus outside of God’s covenant people. Unlike Tamar, Rahab, and Bathsheba, Ruth was a moral woman. She was married to a Jewish man who died. When her mother-in-law decided to return to Israel, out of love Ruth chose to go with her. She made the great confession (Ruth 1:16b), “Your people shall be my people, and your God, my God.”
But as a Moabite woman, the Law of Moses excluded Ruth from the people of God (Deut. 23:3). As such, she is a type of those who are good, moral people. They are not flagrant sinners. But they are still under the curse of God’s holy law. James 2:10 says, “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles in one point, he has become guilty of all.” That condemns everyone, even those who are as good as Ruth was. Work your way through the Ten Commandments, interpreting them on the heart level as Jesus did (Matt. 5:21-30), and you will see that you stand guilty before God on every count!
How, then, did Ruth find her way into the genealogy of Christ? I cannot relate the story in detail here, but the short Book of Ruth tells how Ruth found grace and love in the eyes of a man who was her kinsman-redeemer. Boaz paid the price of redemption and took Ruth, the Moabite woman, as his bride. It’s a beautiful picture of how Christ, our Redeemer, paid the price of our redemption with His own blood. As a result, we Gentiles, who formerly were excluded from God’s people and, even if we were good people, were condemned by His law, were brought into His family as His chosen bride (Eph. 2:11-22)!
Thus Tamar shows that the salvation Christ brings is for sinners. Rahab teaches us that this salvation is received through faith. Ruth illustrates that God’s salvation is for Gentiles condemned by the law but redeemed by His grace. That brings us to…
In the Greek text, Matthew 1:6 does not name Bathsheba, but refers to her as “her of Uriah,” a way of alluding to her and David’s sin of adultery. Probably Bathsheba was a Jew (1 Chron. 3:5). As such, she and David remind us of the fact that even believers can fall into gross sin. While we should never justify or excuse such sin, Bathsheba’s place among the ancestors of Christ shows us God’s grace in preserving His elect, even when they sin (Luke 22:31-32). We have the assurance (Phil. 1:6) that “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.”
These four women illustrate from different angles the great news that God saves sinners. If you have failed terribly, God sent the Savior for you! Maybe you don’t just have skeletons in your family closet. Maybe you are the skeleton! This genealogy invites you to come to Jesus and ask Him to save you from your sins. If you have trusted in Christ as Savior, but have fallen into serious sin, this genealogy invites you to turn back to Christ, experience His forgiveness, and walk in fellowship with Him again. In Christ, God sent a Savior for sinners.
His name is stated in verse 1, “Jesus Christ”; again in verse 16, “Jesus … who is called the Messiah”; and, in verse 17, “the Messiah.” The name “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” “Christ” means “Anointed One” (Hebrew, “Messiah”) and points to Jesus as God’s anointed Savior and King. Apart from this first chapter and one other time, when the mocking Pilate refers to “Jesus who is called Christ” (27:22), Matthew does not use the name Jesus Christ again. The title “Christ” is only used rarely. Otherwise, Matthew simply uses “Jesus.” Alexander Maclaren (Expositions of Holy Scripture [Baker], on Matt. 1:1-16, p. 6) suggests that the purpose is “to assert and establish, at the very outset, His Messianic, regal dignity, as the necessary supposition to all that follows.”
The fact that we have here a genealogy of Jesus Christ (1:1) establishes an important truth: our faith is rooted in history, not in myth or legend. Matthew was writing primarily to first century Jews, who kept detailed genealogical records. If Matthew had fabricated this, the Jews would have challenged him on it. Granted, there are some difficult problems with the genealogy: Matthew arranges it into three groups of 14 each, but the third group only has 13 names. Various solutions have been suggested, but as yet, none are completely satisfactory (D. A. Carson, Expositor’s Bible Commentary, ed. by Frank Gaebelein [Zondervan], 8:68). Also, there are difficulties trying to harmonize the genealogies in Matthew and Luke (ibid., 8:64-65).
A major part of our problem in trying to resolve these difficulties is that being 2,000 years removed from the gospel writers, we lack their sources. But Luke begins his gospel by stating his careful historical research (Luke 1:1-4). The fact that there are harmonistic problems between the gospels shows that the writers were not in collusion, fabricating a story to look good. They were eyewitnesses of the ministry of Jesus or they interviewed eyewitnesses. So even if we can’t resolve every minor problem, we can trust the integrity of the record. And a major point of Matthew’s genealogy is that we are dealing with a real person, descended from the royal line of David back to Abraham.
Joanne Shetler spent years in the Philippines with the Balangao people, translating the Bible into their language and trying to tell them the good news of the Savior. But it was slow going. One day Ama, a man who had “adopted” her as his Balangao daughter, picked up an English New Testament from her desk, opened it to this genealogy on page one of Matthew, and stared at it. He could read enough English to realize what he was seeing. Amazed, he asked her, “You mean this has a genealogy in it?”
She said, “Yeah, but just skip over that so you can get to the good part.”
But his eyes were still riveted to the page. “You mean this is true?” he asked, as he struggled through the list of names.
Shetler got some shelf paper and wrote the genealogy from Adam to Jesus, from the ceiling down to the floor. Ama took it all over the village, explaining, “We always thought it was the rock and the banana plant that gave birth to people. But we don’t have their names written down. Look, here are all the names—written down!”
The Balangaos loved Matthew’s written genealogy. It proved the Bible was true. Ama came to believe in Christ as his Savior. He became an enthusiastic evangelist, church leader, and Bible translator. When the Balangao New Testament was finally dedicated, he got the very first copy (from And the Word Came with Power, Joanne Shetler with Patricia Purvis [Multnomah Press], pp. 81-82).
Matthew makes two main points with his genealogy:
Matthew lists this first, above the fact that Jesus is the son of Abraham (1:1). Also, his three divisions may be summarized as: the origins of David’s kingdom (2-6a); the rise and decline of David’s kingdom (6b-11); and, the eclipse of David’s kingdom (12-16). At the moment of despair, when it would seem that God’s promise to David that his heir would occupy the throne forever was lost, Jesus the son of David, the promised Messiah was born!
We cannot say for certain why Matthew groups the genealogies into three groups of 14. It may have been a mnemonic device. He deliberately leaves out several generations of kings to achieve the number 14. It may be significant that in Hebrew, the name David adds up to 14 (“D” = 4, “V” = 6; 4 + 6 + 4 = 14). D. A. Carson suggests (p. 69), “And if the third set of fourteen is short one member, perhaps it will suggest to some readers that just as God cuts short the time of distress for the sake of his elect (24:22), so also he mercifully shortens the period from the Exile to Jesus the Messiah.”
Note one other feature: Matthew is tracing Jesus’ legal right to the throne through Joseph. But he makes an important shift in verse 16. Up to this point, he has said, “So and so was the father of so and so,” etc. But when he gets to Joseph, he changes that formula and states that Joseph was “the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born.” “Whom” is feminine in Greek, showing that Joseph was not the physical father of Jesus. (Matthew goes on to explain the virgin birth more fully in 1:18-25.) If Jesus had been the physical descendant of Joseph, He would have been barred from the throne of David by a curse on Jeconiah (Jer. 22:30; Matt. 1:11-12). But since Jesus was not the physical descendant of Jeconiah through Joseph, but rather his legal descendant, he qualifies as the legitimate son of David, heir to his throne. Jesus is the Messiah!
Jesus is not only the son of David, but also the son of Abraham (1:1). This takes us back to the covenant that God made with Abraham 2,000 years before Christ, where He promised Abraham that through his seed, all the families of the earth would be blessed (Gen. 12:1-3). There are preview glimpses of this through the Gentile women in the line of Christ. As we’ve seen, three of the four women listed were Gentiles, and the fourth was married to Uriah the Hittite, a Gentile. This shows us that Jesus, the son of Abraham (Matt. 1:1), brings the blessing of Abraham beyond Israel to the nations. This comes to its fullness when Jesus, at the end of Matthew, commands His disciples to go and make disciples of all the nations (28:19). God is moving all of history to fulfill His covenant promises to Abraham and to David. Jesus, the son of David, will return in power and glory to reign on David’s throne. Jesus, the son of Abraham, is blessing the nations as the gospel goes forth around the world.
So this genealogy of Jesus the Messiah should give us great hope as we think on His birth. His first coming represented the fulfillment of a 2,000-year-old promise to Abraham and a 1,000-year-old promise to David. His Second Coming will fulfill the repeated New Testament promises that He will come to judge the earth. Although it seemed to Israel that God’s promises to Abraham and to David might never be fulfilled, they were fulfilled in God’s perfect timing. Although it may seem that Jesus’ promise to come again may never be fulfilled, it will be fulfilled just as He said.
The question is, are you ready for that day? Have you turned from your sins and put your trust in Jesus as your Savior and Lord? The stories of Tamar, Ruth, Rahab, and Bathsheba show us that God’s mercy extends to all sinners who will repent and trust in Christ. The genealogy of Jesus as the son of David, the son of Abraham, shows that God keeps His covenant promises. Today is the day of salvation. Tomorrow may be the day of judgment. Come to Christ while you may!
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2009, All Rights Reserved.
December 25, 2011
Special Christmas Message
We live in a day of cafeteria Christianity, where churchgoers think that they’re free to go down the line picking what they like from the Bible, but rejecting or at least ignoring the rest. “I like God’s love, grace, mercy, and kindness. Yes, give me a large helping of those! But I don’t care for His holiness and justice, thanks.”
When people do that, they’re creating an idol, a god of their own liking. But the Bible reveals God as He is, not as we may want Him to be. Being a Christian means that I must embrace and submit to God as He has revealed Himself, not to some modified version of God that is more to my liking.
Today we’re going to be instructed by a teenage Jewish girl who knew God well beyond her years. Our text is Mary’s hymn of praise in response to Elizabeth’s recognition through the Holy Spirit that Mary was expecting the promised Messiah. In this hymn, Mary extols God for His great mercy, but also for His righteous judgment. Her theme is similar to Paul’s theme that we’ve just studied in Romans 9. Although she was probably only 15 or 16-years-old when she spoke these words, Mary had a deep understanding of who God is. From her we learn an important truth:
We should glorify God for His mercy in salvation and for His judgment on the proud.
To correct some widespread false teaching, the Bible is clear that the virgin Mary was not immaculately conceived. She is not the “Queen of Heaven” or “Co-Redemptrix” with Jesus. We are not to pray to her. She cannot obtain or impart salvation to anyone. The Bible is clear that Mary is not to be elevated above any other believer. But at the same time, we should not react to the erroneous veneration of Mary by neglecting to learn from her.
To glorify God means to extol Him for His attributes and His actions. It is to make God look as good as He really is. Thus,
Mary’s hymn brims with information about the attributes of God. But it’s not dry, academic information. Mary exults in God as she considers what He has done in choosing her to be the mother of the Savior. She calls Him “God my Savior” (1:47), which implies that Mary knew she was a sinner; none but sinners need a Savior. Implicit in the term “Savior” is the fact that we are lost and alienated from God because of our sin. We don’t just need a little boost from God to set things right. We don’t just need a few tips on how to succeed in our families or businesses. Savior is a radical term that implies that we are helplessly, hopelessly lost unless God in His mighty power intervenes to rescue us.
Mary refers to God’s power when she calls Him, the “Mighty One who has done great things for me” (1:49). She is referring to the miracle of the virgin birth. She adds, “He has done mighty deeds with His arm” (1:51), referring to His scattering the proud, who would scoff at the notion that they needed a Savior. God is mighty in mercy to the humble, but mighty in judgment toward the proud.
Mary further teaches that God’s name is holy (1:49). His name refers to His person, the sum of His attributes. To be holy means to be set apart. In this context, it refers not only to God’s absolute moral righteousness, but also to His being set apart as the only sovereign authority over people (Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:152). Thus He is to be held in highest esteem and to be feared.
Thankfully, Mary does not leave us with just these attributes of God, or we would not dare to approach Him! She goes on to emphasize God’s mercy: “His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him…. He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy” (1:50, 54). Mercy refers to God’s compassion due to our misery as sinners. His mercy is on those who recognize His holiness and bow in reverence before Him. His mercy caused Him to send the Savior.
In addition to His mercy, Mary adds that God “has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God gives good things to His children. After instructing us to ask, seek, and knock in prayer, Jesus concluded (Matt. 7:11), “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give what is good to those who ask Him!” Salvation from God’s judgment is the best gift of all.
In line with this, Mary shows that God is faithful to His covenant promises: “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy, as He spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and his descendants forever” (1:54-55). Even though 2,000 years had elapsed since God’s promises to Abraham, God had not forgotten. What God has promised, He will fulfill in His time.
In giving instruction on how we can magnify the Lord, Charles Spurgeon encourages us to ponder the attributes of God:
Begin with his mercy if you cannot begin with his holiness; but take the attributes one by one, and think about them. I do not know a single attribute of God which is not wonderfully quickening and powerful to a true Christian (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 51:308).
Thus Mary teaches us to know God as He has revealed Himself in His word, so that we can glorify Him. Also,
Understanding God’s mercy and grace is fundamental to a relationship with Him. We are saved by God’s grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). As we received Christ Jesus the Lord, so we are to walk in Him (Col. 2:6). His mercy and grace should permeate our daily walk with Him. Note three things about God’s mercy:
God’s mercy is a sovereign mercy. Mary mentions God’s mercy to Abraham and his offspring (1:55). There is only one reason that Abraham became the father of our faith: God sovereignly chose him. Abraham was a pagan man from an idolatrous family in a pagan land when God called him (Josh. 24:2).
Why didn’t God call Abraham’s whole family? Why didn’t God choose people already living in the land of Canaan? Why did God choose the descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob to be His people? Why not Ishmael? Why not Esau? Why not the Europeans, Asians, Africans, or North and South Americans? We don’t know why. All we know is that God chose Israel because of His sovereign purpose (Deut. 4:37; 7:7; 9:4; 10:15). As Paul cites God’s word to Moses (Rom. 9:15), “I will have mercy on whom I will have mercy.” Paul adds (Rom. 9:16), “So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy.” If you have tasted the Lord’s kindness in salvation, glorify Him for His sovereign mercy.
God’s mercy is a covenant mercy. God made a covenant with Abraham and repeatedly reminded him and his descendants of that covenant as the basis of His dealings with them. God’s new covenant assures us that we have permanent forgiveness through Christ’s blood (Heb. 8:10-12). If He has begun a gracious work in you, you can be assured that He will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus (Phil. 1:6), not because of your performance, but because of the promise of His new covenant in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s mercy is a benevolent mercy. “He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). God is a loving Father who will tenderly do that which is good for His children all the days of their lives. Though we often face difficult trials, and even death, we can know that the Good Shepherd is with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. He has prepared a place for us in heaven where “He shall wipe away every tear from [our] eyes; and there shall no longer be any death; there shall no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain” (Rev. 21:4). Hallelujah!
When we contemplate the nature of our God and His great mercy towards us in Christ, we will join Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
But, perhaps you’re wondering, “How can we know that we are the objects of God’s great mercy?” Mary gives us some signs:
Mary mentions at least five characteristics of those who have received God’s great mercy.
Mary calls God “my Savior” (1:47). It’s very personal. Mary was from a Jewish home. The Jews were God’s chosen people. She easily could have thought, “We’re good Jewish people. We keep the Sabbath and follow the commandments. That’s all I need.” But even though she was a moral young woman from a religious family, she knew that she was a sinner who needed a Savior. She had personally trusted in God and His Messiah as her Savior.
It’s not enough to know God as your parents’ Savior. It’s not enough to belong to your parents’ church. Christ must be your Savior. That means that you see yourself as a sinner who has broken God’s holy law. You stand guilty and condemned before His righteous justice. There is nothing you can do to deliver yourself. All you can do is cast yourself on His mercy and trust in Jesus as the One who bore your penalty on the cross. When you do that, you will come to know God in Christ as your Savior.
Mary’s hymn of praise is full of Scripture. It’s similar in many ways to Hannah’s song of praise (1 Sam. 2:1-10), but there are also citations from the Psalms and references to other portions of the Old Testament. Although she was a young girl in a culture that tended to restrict Scriptural training to boys, Mary knew the Bible. We’ve already seen that she knew a great deal about God’s attributes. She knew what God had done in the history of His people, and what He had promised to do in sending His Messiah.
Peter exhorts us (1 Pet. 2:2, 3), “Like newborn babes, long for the pure milk of the word, so that by it you may grow in respect to salvation, if you have tasted the kindness of the Lord.” I gained some painful insight into that verse when I was a young father. I made the mistake of taking our newborn into my arms when I was not wearing a shirt. She saw my nipple, and even though it was surrounded with hair, it looked good enough. She latched onto me, thinking that she would get the milk she craved. I discovered that a newborn goes after her mother’s milk with a vengeance! Have you tasted the Lord’s kindness? Go for the milk of His Word.
There is probably not any special distinction between “soul” and “spirit” (1:46, 47). What Mary means is that from the depths of her innermost being, she was exalting God and rejoicing in Him. She was worshiping God in truth, since her words came right out of Scripture. But she was also worshiping Him in spirit, since her praise came out of her heart (John 4:24). Her entire being was caught up with the majesty of God and His mercy, as expressed in this song.
It’s no accident that the longest book of the Bible (Psalms) is a song book. God loves to hear the praises of His people. He wants us filled with joy as we think about what He has done for us. Heaven is filled with praise and joy. The saints gather before the throne and sing, “Worthy is the Lamb that was slain to receive power and riches and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing” (Rev. 5:12). The chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever. Those who have received His mercy are filled with praise and joy.
We’ve already seen Mary’s big view of God. But note also that she refers to “the humble state of His bondslave” (1:48). She mentions that God has “exalted those who were humble” (1:52). The word means “lowly.” She also states that those who have received God’s mercy fear Him (1:50). Without exception, those who have encountered the living God are awed by the greatness of His splendor and terrified because of their own shortcomings and sinfulness in His holy presence. John Calvin explains (The Institutes of the Christian Religion [Westminster Press], 1.1.2),
It is certain that man never achieves a clear knowledge of himself unless he has first looked upon God’s face, and then descends from contemplating him to scrutinize himself. For we always seem to ourselves righteous and upright and wise and holy—this pride is innate in all of us—unless by clear proofs we stand convinced of our own unrighteousness, foulness, folly, and impurity. Moreover, we are not thus convinced if we look merely to ourselves and not also to the Lord, who is the sole standard by which this judgment must be measured.
The more we see how great God is, the more we will sense our own sinfulness, which will lead us to magnify all the more His abundant mercy toward us in Christ.
“He has filled the hungry with good things” (1:53). This refers primarily to spiritual, not physical, hunger. Jesus said, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied” (Matt. 5:6). They will be satisfied in God, yet they will still hunger and thirst for more of Him.
The prerequisite for being filled is to be hungry. If you’re filled with your own self-righteousness, you’re not spiritually hungry. If you think that you’re a basically good person, and that God might be a nice accessory to help you reach your goals, you’re not hungry. Truly hungry people are not cool, confident, have-it-together sort of people. Hungry people are desperate. They know that they will perish if they don’t find food soon. Spiritually hungry people recognize their desperate spiritual condition and cry out, “Save me, Lord, or I perish!” God fills such hungry souls with “good things,” namely, with Himself. They are satisfied with Him and yet they always long for more of Him.
It would be great if everyone acknowledged his need for God’s mercy, as Mary did. But her song not only glorifies God for His mercy, but also for His judgment.
This part of Mary’s song is out of sync with our tolerant, “judge not,” immoral culture. But we ignore it to our peril!
God judges the proud. Mary describes these as “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (1:51). Pride is a heart attitude of self-sufficiency. The proud person thinks that he doesn’t need God. Pride is the original sin that brought Satan down. He appealed to Eve’s pride, that she could be like God, and she fell. Pride is at the root of all our sins. The Bible declares, “God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Pet. 5:5). Suffice it to say, you don’t want God as your opponent! So fight your pride on the thought level every day!
God also judges the powerful. “He has brought down rulers from their thrones” (1:52). Mary is not referring to faithful rulers who humbly serve God and their people, but to arrogant rulers who wield their power for their own advancement, with no regard for the people they rule. God will be glorified in bringing judgment against such powerful, self-centered despots (Rom. 9:17).
God also will be glorified when He judges the rich: He “sent away the rich empty-handed” (1:53). Mary is referring to the selfishly rich, who live lavishly with no concern for the needy (Luke 12:15-21; 16:19-31; 1 Tim. 6:17-19). But she is also referring to those who think that they are spiritually rich because of their own righteousness, when in fact they are spiritually poor. If they do not repent of their self-righteousness, they will face God in judgment.
If you’re not living with every area of your life under the lordship of Jesus Christ and with a view toward the day when you must give an account, you need a reality check! God will be glorified, either in saving you or in judging you. Make sure that it is the former, not the latter! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). But there is the “terrifying expectation of judgment” (Heb. 10:27) for those who cast off Christ’s lordship.
Mary emphasizes God’s powerful judgments on these people: He scatters the proud (1:51), brings down the rulers (1:52) and sends the rich away empty-handed (1:53). What frightening words! God does not just ignore such people or leave them alone. He actively scatters them, brings them down and sends them away empty-handed! You may ask, “Why does God do this? Doesn’t He desire that all people be saved?” Yes, He invites all to come and receive His mercy, but they must come on His terms, not theirs. He doesn’t negotiate a compromise with sinners. Either we bow before Him as Lord or He will actively bring us down in judgment.
Maybe you’re thinking, “This doesn’t sound like a warm, fuzzy Christmas message, where we all gather around the manger and adore the baby Jesus, while the angels sing, “Glory to God in the highest.” But judgment is a part of the Christmas story, from the lips of Mary herself. She glorifies God for His mercy in sending the Savior for all who will humbly receive Him. But she also glorifies God for His judgment on those who proudly reject Him.
You can’t pick and choose which attributes of God you like, and ignore the rest! God isn’t operating a religious cafeteria! You come to Him His way, as a guilty sinner needing a Savior, or not at all. If you repent of your pride and selfishness and sin, and come to the cross, He will pour out His tender mercy on you. If you proudly cling to your own righteousness and self-sufficiency, God will send you away empty. And if God sends you away empty, you’re absolutely empty! You don’t want to go into eternity empty, without God’s mercy!
D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” The church at Laodicea professed to be a Christian church. Things seemed to be going fairly well there, from their perspective. They said, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God’s perspective was a bit different: “You do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” (Rev. 3:17). The Lord told them to repent. He also told them, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him, and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20).
That offer still stands. If you will repent of your sin and cry out to Jesus Christ to save you, God will pour out His tender mercy on you. Then you will be able to sing Mary’s song, “My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.”
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2011, All Rights Reserved.
December 23, 2012
Special Christmas Message
A question that I often ask people who come to me for counsel is, “Do you want God’s blessing in your life (or in your marriage, or with your kids)?” I’ve never had anyone say, “Nah! I’m not interested in that!” We all need and want God’s blessings. We all want to receive good things from God. He made us; He alone knows what we need most. As a loving Father, He is ready to give His children the best gifts.
But He does not give His gifts indiscriminately. Both in the Bible and in our experience we see that some receive the blessings God offers while others go away with nothing. So we would do well to understand clearly how to receive good things from God so that we are not among those who miss out on the best gift of all.
The virgin Mary was a young woman who was uniquely blessed by God. In reference to her being chosen to be the mother of our Lord, she exclaimed (Luke 1:48b-49a), “For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed. For the Mighty One has done great things for me.” What a great thing to know, that future generations would count you blessed because God has done great things for you! In Mary’s song (Luke 1:46-55, called the Magnificat, from the first word in Latin), she tells us how to receive God’s blessings. In another message, I covered the whole song. Today I’m going to focus only on verse 53: “He has filled the hungry with good things; and sent away the rich empty-handed.” This verse tells us how to receive good things from God:
God satisfies the spiritually hungry with good things, but He sends the self-satisfied away empty-handed.
This is a basic spiritual principle that runs throughout Scripture. It is often expressed as God exalting the humble and humbling the proud (Luke 1:51-52). Dozens of verses emphasize this truth, but let’s look at just a few.
Mary’s song is similar to Hannah’s song (1 Sam. 2:1-10), which expresses her praise after God answered her prayer for a son. God wanted to give Hannah a son because Israel needed a prophet to speak God’s word to His people. Hannah’s rival, her husband’s other wife, had many sons and daughters, but Hannah was barren because God had closed her womb (1 Sam. 1:2, 4, 5). Closing Hannah’s womb may seem like a strange way for God to provide her with a son. Yet that’s often the way God works. He promised Abraham and Sarah a son, but He waited until after they were well past childbearing years to give them Isaac. The principle is that God brings us to the end of ourselves, where we have lost our proud confidence in our own ability. Then we cast ourselves completely on the Lord and He provides to show us His grace. Note how 1 Samuel 2:5-7 expresses this theme:
Those who were full hire themselves out for bread, but those who were hungry cease to hunger. Even the barren gives birth to seven, but she who has many children languishes. The Lord kills and makes alive; He brings down to Sheol and raises up. The Lord makes poor and rich; He brings low, He also exalts.
The same theme governs Psalm 107. It shows four vignettes of people whom God put in impossible situations so that they would come to the end of themselves, call out to God, and then praise Him for His lovingkindness when He delivered them. In the first line of our text, Mary cites from Psalm 107:9, “For He has satisfied the thirsty soul, and the hungry soul He has filled with what is good.” Jesus taught the same truth in the Beatitudes, where He said that those who mourn would be comforted, the hungry would be filled, and the meek would inherit the earth (Matt. 5:3-12). Paul expressed the same principle when he said (2 Cor. 12:10b), “When I am weak, then I am strong.” His weakness forced him to rely on the Lord’s strength.
The reason I emphasize this principle at the outset is that it runs counter to what most people think, that “God helps those who help themselves.” That familiar “verse” is not in the Bible! It’s based on human pride and runs counter to the biblical principle that God helps those who come to the end of themselves and cast themselves upon Him. I often read or hear the popular view that you’ve got to believe in yourself to succeed. Sadly, many Christians buy into this false idea. But Scripture pointedly states (Jer. 17:5), “Cursed is the man who trusts in mankind and makes flesh his strength, and whose heart turns away from the Lord.” To believe in yourself is to turn away from trusting in the Lord!
Trusting in God does not mean that we sit around and do nothing. But it does mean that before we do anything, we must recognize our own inability and rely on God for His grace and strength, so that He gets the glory. That’s the principle Mary expresses in Luke 1:53. Let’s examine the first half of the proposition:
Luke 1:53a: “He has filled the hungry with good things.” Mary is not speaking primarily of physical hunger or riches. She is speaking metaphorically of the spiritually hungry and the spiritually rich, or self-satisfied. Mary clearly saw herself as spiritually needy. She was not born without sin. She recognized God as her Savior (1:47), implying that she was a sinner (Matt. 1:21). God didn’t choose Mary to bear His Son because she was without sin. She mentions her humble state (1:48) and God’s mercy (1:50). Mary was a spiritually hungry woman whom God had sovereignly blessed because of His mercy. Note four things:
That is the qualification to receive from God—to be spiritually hungry. As Jesus said (Matt. 5:6), “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.” Righteousness refers to God’s holiness as personified in Jesus Christ. In reference to the Christian, it refers both to justification—to be declared righteous before God, which happens the moment we believe in Christ; and, to sanctification—to live righteously before God, which is progressive over a lifetime and is never perfected until we stand before Him. Jesus was referring to the needy person who has a deep desire to be like Him, to live a holy life in thought, word, and deed. That person will be satisfied.
There are many people, even many professing Christians, who desire happiness, but not righteousness. If God can make them happy, they’ll follow Him; but if not, they’ll look elsewhere. A couple who attended the church I pastored in California professed to be Christians. The wife suffered chronic back pain. When I heard that they were going to a Science of Mind “healer,” I talked to the husband about the spiritual danger. He replied, “My wife is in pain; we’ll go where she can get relief.” They stopped coming to the church. Truth didn’t matter to them. The living God didn’t matter. They just wanted relief wherever they could find it. I’ve known other professing Christians who walk out on their marriages or get involved in immorality because they’re seeking happiness, not holiness. They’re grabbing momentary happiness wherever they can find it, but they’re forsaking God, who alone can satisfy their hunger for time and eternity.
Commenting on “those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,” Martyn Lloyd-Jones says (Studies in the Sermon on the Mount [Eerdmans], 1:74), “I do not know of a better test that anyone can apply to himself or herself in this whole matter of the Christian profession than a verse like this. If this verse is to you one of the most blessed statements of the whole of Scripture you can be quite certain you are a Christian; if it is not, then you had better examine the foundations again.”
Of course every true child of God is aware of many shortcomings in this regard. We’re all easily led astray by the selfishness that dwells within our hearts. We have to fight it constantly. But if the pattern of our lives is that we violate God’s holy standards to pursue happiness through sin, then we’re fooling ourselves to call ourselves Christians (1 John 2:3-5).
Mary says that God fills the hungry with good things. To be hungry is to be aware that you have a desperate need. Relieving hunger is not a luxury; it’s a matter of survival. Probably none of us has ever faced physical starvation. Starving people aren’t interested in new smart phones or computers, unless they can somehow sell them to buy food. Hungry people have one focus—where to find food. It consumes their whole existence from the time they wake up until the time they go to bed. They need food.
That’s how we should hunger for God! Do you feel desperate to have your sins forgiven and to come to know God? If you’ve had your sins forgiven at the cross, do you now sense that whatever else in life you have, you must know God? The ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger.
The “He” of verse 53 is God. He alone is able to meet our deepest needs. If we want to be satisfied, then we must seek God alone for the fulfillment of our spiritual hunger. He made us; He understands us thoroughly. He alone can meet the deepest needs of every human heart. So if we recognize our hunger, we must seek God to fill it.
To seek elsewhere is to seek that which can never completely satisfy. As the Lord speaks through Isaiah (55:2-3), “Why do you spend money for what is not bread, and your wages for what does not satisfy? Listen carefully to Me, and eat what is good, and delight yourself in abundance. Incline your ear and come to Me.” God alone can satisfy the hungry heart.
David knew this. He was in the Judean wilderness, running for his life, either from King Saul or, more likely, from Absalom his son, who led a rebellion against him. If I were in that situation, I probably wouldn’t be writing songs or if I were, the theme would be, “God, get me out of here right now!” But at just such a time, David wrote (Ps. 63:1), “O God, You are my God; I shall seek you earnestly; my soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, in a dry and weary land where there is no water.” As he seeks God there in that barren wilderness, with his enemies in hot pursuit, David exults (63:5), “My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness, and my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.” He knew what it meant to be satisfied with God alone, even though his life and his kingdom were threatened with extinction.
Beware of seeking satisfaction apart from Jesus Christ. Satan offers all sorts of subtle temptations that seem to fulfill your needs, but they aren’t centered in Jesus Christ. They satisfy temporarily, but ultimately they do not nourish. The one who fills up on them will starve. It’s as if you were physically hungry and you came to me for food. Suppose that I had perfected a process for infusing the taste of steak and potatoes into cardboard. It tasted great, but it was nutritionally worthless. If you ate it, you would enjoy the taste and it would fill your stomach. But you would starve to death. That’s what happens to anyone who seeks to be satisfied with anything other than God.
We’ve seen that the ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger. Also, God alone can satisfy our hunger. Third,
I’m focusing here on the word “filled.” It’s in the past tense (Greek, aorist) because Mary is quoting from Psalm 107:9 (106:9 in the LXX) which looks at how God has met the needs of those who have called out to Him. It points to His characteristic way of dealing with all who seek Him. He satisfies them or fills them full (the meaning of this Greek verb). It means that God doesn’t just give partially; He meets our needs fully. It’s the same word used in the feeding of the 5,000 (John 6:12), where it says that after everyone was filled, they picked up 12 baskets full of leftovers. Everyone ate until they were satisfied, a feeling that many of us can identify with at this season of the year!
Of course there’s a sense in which we are both satisfied and yet still hungry in Jesus Christ. We who have tasted of God’s banquet in Christ are satisfied in the sense that the longing of our soul has been met. Our sins are forgiven; we enjoy peace with God; we have the joy of the Holy Spirit; we’re ready to meet the Lord. In all of that and in much more, we’re satisfied. And yet in another sense, as long as we’re in this body, we will be hungering and thirsting to know more of God, to experience more of what He has provided for us in Christ. Since God is infinite, we can never exhaust the delight of knowing Him.
God satisfies the hungry with good things, not with Twinkies. God fills you with Himself, the source of all that is good and beautiful. “The good things” of our text does not refer to what our society calls “the good life.” Mary wasn’t referring to material prosperity, to a life of freedom from suffering, or to a feeling of self-fulfillment. She was not preaching the “prosperity gospel”! She was referring to the satisfaction of the soul in God Himself, which transcends circumstances. God is the ultimate good thing!
Many years ago a great monarch, Shah Abbis, reigned in Persia. The Shah loved his people. To understand them more clearly, he would mingle with them in various disguises. One day he went to the public baths dressed as a poor man. There in a tiny cellar he sat down beside the man who tended the furnace. He talked with the lonely man as a friend and at meal time, he ate some of his coarse food. In the weeks that followed, he visited the poor man often until the man came to love him dearly.
Then one day the Shah revealed his true identity to the poor man. The Shah waited, expecting the man to ask some favor or gift from him, but the commoner simply gazed in astonishment. Finally, he said, “You left your palace and your glory to sit with me in this dark place, to partake of my coarse food, to care whether my heart was glad or heavy. On others you may bestow great riches; but to me you have given a much greater gift—yourself. I only ask that you may never withdraw the gift of your friendship.”
Friendship with God in Jesus Christ is what truly satisfies the soul! Mary affirms that God fills or satisfies the hungry soul with good things, namely, with the ultimate good thing of knowing Him. All that I’ve said thus far is to try to explain and apply the first half of this verse. But we must look briefly at the second half:
Mary says (Luke 1:53b), He “sent away the rich empty-handed.” This is startling! It’s a shocking reversal of the natural order! In this world, the rich are the full; the hungry are the empty. But in God’s order, the rich are the empty; the hungry are the full. Note three things:
By rich, Mary means those who have no felt needs before God. She may have in mind those who were the proud, self-proclaimed spiritual leaders in Israel in her day. When God picked a family for His Messiah to be born in, He didn’t pick the family of the chief priest or of one of the leading rabbis. He went to a poor, unknown carpenter and his wife in Nazareth. Those in Jerusalem who thought that they were spiritually “rich” were overlooked.
The surest way to receive nothing from God is to be satisfied with where you’re at. The Pharisees didn’t see themselves as needy sinners before God. They saw themselves as righteous because of their good works. They saw themselves as better than “the sinners” (John 9:34). But they didn’t see themselves as God saw them! They were “proud in the thoughts of their heart” (Luke 1:51), and their pride blinded them to their true spiritual condition.
The church of Laodicea was like that. They had become lukewarm and complacent about spiritual things. Their view of themselves was (Rev. 3:17), “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing.” God describes them a bit differently (Rev. 3:17): “You are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked.” How would you describe yourself spiritually? God sends away the self-satisfied, who do not see their true need before Him.
How startling! The text doesn’t say that God ignores the rich or that He gives them nothing. It says that He actively sends them away. What a frightening thought, that God would send a person away! You may wonder, “Why would God do this? Doesn’t He want everyone to come to Him?” Yes, but they must come on God’s terms, not on their terms.
Many years ago a Newsweek cover story (12/17/90, pp. 50-56) reported on the baby-boomers who were coming back into church now that they realized the need for religious values for their kids. But the article made it clear that these self-confident people are coming to God on their terms, not on His. “They don’t convert—they choose.” They want to know, “What’s in it for me?” They’re picky consumers, shopping for churches they like that offer services they want. The message to the churches is, “If you want to grow, you’d better cater to the customers’ needs.”
A similar article in Time (4/5/93, pp. 44-49) observed, “Increasing numbers of baby boomers who left the fold years ago are turning religious again, but many are traveling from church to church or faith to faith, sampling creeds, shopping for a custom-made God.”
You can custom-make an idol. But you can only come to the living God on His terms or not at all. His terms are that you recognize your sin and that you cannot save yourself. You must see yourself as hungry and starving unless God intervenes. He isn’t in the business of working out deals with self-confident young urban professionals. He actively sends the proud away.
What despair, to be sent away by God empty-handed! If God sends you away empty-handed, you have absolutely nothing. Paul expressed the same truth by saying that such people have no hope and are without God in the world (Eph. 2:12). What good are material riches in this life, if you spend eternity in that place Jesus described, “where their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48)? What good is passing pleasure or romance in this life, if you spend eternity in the place Jesus described as “outer darkness,” where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matt. 25:30)? The worst thing that could happen to anyone is to be full of the passing pleasures of this world, but to be empty-handed when you stand before God at the judgment.
What’s the solution? How can we avoid having God send us away empty-handed? D. L. Moody said, “Christ sends none away empty but those who are full of themselves.” To the church at Laodicea, God said that they needed to see their true condition as He saw them and to repent—to turn from their sin to Him. It was to that church that Jesus said, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock; if anyone hears My voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and will dine with him, and he with Me” (Rev. 3:20). And best of all, He brings the dinner! He will truly satisfy the hunger of anyone who acknowledges his true spiritual need and who seeks Him.
Don’t seek happiness or fulfillment or pleasure in the things of this world. Seek God! Hunger after God and His righteousness and He promises that He will fill you with good things.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.
December 21, 2014
Special Christmas Message
A familiar saying goes, “The spirit of Christmas is giving.” We all feel good giving to those in need. The Salvation Army capitalizes on this by having bell ringers in front of stores all over the country. But dropping a few coins in the kettle is impersonal giving. We don’t know who will benefit by our gift. And we’re okay with that.
But when it comes to those we know, giving is usually better described as exchanging. The neighbor brings you a plate of Christmas cookies, so you quickly turn it around by taking her something to even it up. It feels awkward to receive without giving in return. But I’d like to suggest that the true spirit of Christmas isn’t giving, at least on our part; it’s receiving! Here’s why: At the heart of Christmas is the wonderful news that God sent His only Son to earth to give Himself on the cross to save us from our sins. You can’t repay a gift like that! All you can do is receive it! It was infinitely costly to God, but it’s totally free to us. So,
The spirit of Christmas is receiving because at the heart of Christmas is God’s grace, which only can be received.
But people have a hard time understanding and accepting God’s grace because we all want to think that we can do something to earn our way to heaven. In fact, all the world’s religions teach that you must do something to earn heaven. Marla and I spent the holiday spanning New Year’s Eve of 2000 in a remote village on the northern border of the Czech Republic, where I was teaching a group of college students. During a break, we were walking around the village when a local man who spoke English befriended us. It turned out that he took us on a nice hike and even let us use his computer to email our kids.
During the only question and answer session that I had with the students during that conference, someone ushered this man into the room. He sat and listened for a few minutes and then he raised his hand and asked, “What’s the difference between Christianity and other world religions?” I thought, “Thank You, Lord, for such a great question that allows me to make the gospel clear!” So I told him that all the other religions in the world, including some that go under the banner of Christianity, teach that you get to heaven by your good works. But the Bible teaches (Rom. 4:5), “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”
I don’t know whether that man ever responded to the gospel, but what I explained to him is what Christmas is all about: the message that God offers to forgive your sins and give you eternal life through His Son. All you can do is, receive His gift.
To illustrate this point, we’re going to look at an unlikely text for a Christmas message. Rather than looking on the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, this incident took place at the end of His life, the night before He died. But it captures the essence of what He came to do and thus, the essence of Christmas, which celebrates the truth that the eternal Word took on human flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14). It’s the story of how Jesus got up from the Last Supper, took a basin of water and a towel, and washed the disciples’ dirty feet. It’s a parable of why Jesus had come into the world and of what He would send His disciples out to do after He left this world (read John 13:1-17). Note three things:
John begins (John 13:1-2) by noting that the foot-washing took place during the Passover. Jesus is our Passover lamb, slain to spare us from God’s judgment when we apply His blood to our sins. He also notes that Jesus loved His disciples to the end, or to the utmost. Even though He was facing the most horrible suffering imaginable, Jesus was thinking about His disciples and their needs, not about His own needs.
John (13:3) also notes that Jesus had come forth from God (there’s the link to Christmas!) and was going back to God. Jesus left the glory of heaven to be born to the virgin Mary so that He could die for our sins. John also notes that the Father had given all things into Jesus’ hands. Jesus was willing to let those hands be nailed to the cross for us. But in this story, those sovereign hands laid aside His garments, took a towel and basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
Ray Stedman (Secrets of the Spirit [Revell], pp. 13-14) points out the parallels between Jesus’ enacted parable here and Paul’s well-known words in Philippians 2:5-11. Here, Jesus rose from supper and laid aside His garments, just as He rose from His throne of glory and emptied Himself, which means that He temporarily laid aside His glory. Then Jesus girded Himself with a towel and did a servant’s lowly job by washing the disciples’ feet, just as Paul says (Phil. 2:7) that Jesus took “the form of a servant.”
Then Jesus poured water in a basin, just as in a few hours His blood would be poured out on the cross. In Paul’s words (Phil. 2:8), He “became obedient to the point of death.” He began to wash the disciples’ dirty feet, just as the application of His blood to sinful human hearts cleanses them from all guilt and defilement. After He had washed their feet, He took back His garments and reclined again at the table. After His resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, resuming His place of glory again (Phil. 2:9-11). As Hebrews 1:3 tells us, “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” And so the foot-washing is a short drama that shows Christ’s work of redemption from glory to glory.
But there’s a twist in the story when Jesus comes to Peter. There was a stunned silence in the room as Jesus washed the other disciples’ feet. But in typical fashion, Peter spoke up (John 13:6), “Lord, do You wash my feet?” (The pronouns are emphatic, showing Peter’s shock.) Then we read (John 13:7-10):
Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”
That interchange pictures God’s grace, which is at the heart of the meaning of Christmas. We begin with Christ by getting washed all over, which makes us completely clean. The Bible calls this the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). It’s a once and for all bath that does not need repeating. God forgives all our sins at that moment. But as we walk in this dirty world, our feet get dirty. To maintain our relationship with Christ, we need to apply His cleansing to our everyday sins. By telling Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” Jesus meant that if Peter could not allow Jesus to wash his feet, then how could he submit to let Jesus serve and save him at all?
We begin with Christ by receiving His grace and we continue with Christ by growing in His grace (Col. 2:6; 2 Tim. 2:1). None of the disciples did anything to deserve Christ’s washing their feet. It was a job normally done by servants, but not by masters to their slaves. But Peter was uncomfortable with Christ doing that for him. He thought that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, not having Jesus wash his feet. Later, he was ready to lay down his life for Jesus, but he didn’t want Jesus to lay down His life for him.
But the story shows that Christ came to cleanse us from our sins. To have a relationship with Him, we must begin by receiving His grace and then continue to walk in His grace. This isn’t a minor point: He says that if we don’t accept His grace and let Him wash us, we have no part with Him!
At first glance, Peter’s refusal to let Christ wash his dirty feet looks like humility. But actually, it stemmed from pride. Peter wasn’t comfortable just receiving from Christ. That leads to the second point:
There are two sides to this:
Pride wants to reciprocate. Pride is embarrassed by receiving without giving in return. Pride wants to offer something to God to pay its way. Then the proud person can take some credit for getting right with God. But to come to God, we have to recognize that we have nothing to offer Him, except really dirty feet that need His cleansing. Pride takes different forms:
Pride often hides under the mask of humility. Peter’s protest (John 13:8), “Never shall You wash my feet!” sounds humble, but it really stemmed from pride. In effect, he was saying, “These other guys may let You wash their feet, but not I! I know better than You do in this matter. I should be washing Your feet!”
Embarrassment can be a sign of pride. Peter was embarrassed by this whole thing. Maybe the other men needed their dirty feet washed, but that was beneath Peter’s dignity. Besides, his feet weren’t that dirty! Elisabeth Elliot (Love Has a Price Tag [Christian Herald], p. 39) said that one evening she overheard her young daughter singing to her cat, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like you.” Others may be wretches with dirty feet, but not me!
Discomfort with being close can be a sign of pride. To let someone wash your feet, you have to let him get uncomfortably close. When he does, he might not only discover that your feet are dirty, but also that they smell! That’s embarrassing! To allow the Lord to wash your life means that you have to let Him see all the dirt! Of course, He knows how dirty they are anyway!
An independent spirit is another form of pride. Each of the disciples was perfectly capable of washing his own feet, and probably would have preferred doing it that way. When it comes to salvation, pride says, “Really, Lord, I’d rather do it myself!” To let Jesus wash your feet is to admit that you can’t do it yourself.
Pride is sometimes the driving force behind serving Christ. Sometimes those who serve Christ do so out of the pride of thinking that they can pay Him back. They can’t accept His grace as free. They want to at least help out. But you can’t do that with Christ. Any service that we render to Him should stem from gratitude, but not from any notion that we can pay Him back for His gracious gift to us on the cross. To cite Isaac Watts’ familiar hymn,
When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of Glory died
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.
To begin a relationship with Christ, you have to judge your pride. It’s a barrier to receiving His grace.
Salvation is God’s free gift to those who deserve His judgment. It’s possible because Christ paid the penalty that we deserve. John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” What should you do when someone offers you a gift? You receive it. So, John 1:12 promises, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” God gave us His Son. You receive that gift by believing in Him, not in yourself. You never could be good enough to deserve heaven. You can’t pay back a gift as costly as the gift of God’s own Son!
Suppose that you were invited to a billionaire’s home for dinner with dozens of other guests. The chef put on a feast that was served by many waiters. As you went to leave, you put a quarter in the billionaire’s hand and said, “I know you went to a great expense to put on this meal. Here, I wanted to help out.” He didn’t need your quarter and it would only be an insult to his gift.
But our proud human nature resists God’s grace. We want to pay our own way. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son illustrates this. The prodigal squandered his inheritance on loose living and finally hit bottom by slopping pigs and eating their food. He had no basis for deserving his father’s love. His father would have been perfectly justified to say, “You smelly, dirty, no-good excuse for a son—get out of here and never come back!” But, instead, when he returned home, his loving father ran to him, embraced him, and threw a party to celebrate his return. That’s a beautiful picture of God’s grace toward sinners who repent!
But the older brother was incensed. He had worked hard for his father and he was proud of it. He thought that if anyone deserved a party, it was he. So when his father went out and pleaded with him to come in to the party, he indignantly replied (Luke 15:29-30),
“Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”
He didn’t understand grace. In fact, he didn’t even like grace. He thought, “I don’t need grace because I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at. You owe it to me, Dad! I don’t want grace. I want what I deserve! Grace is for no good bums, like my brother!”
But if we don’t receive God’s grace in Christ, we have no part with Him. We begin with His gracious “bath” and we continue having our feet washed by His grace. In that context and in that context only, we can then learn to serve our gracious God:
After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He said to them (John 13:14-15), “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Once you’ve let Jesus wash your dirty feet, then you can wash others’ dirty feet and you can let them wash your feet. It’s only after you’ve received from Christ that you can serve Him and let others serve you. We can apply this in at least four ways:
Because we’re all imperfectly sanctified sinners, we cannot maintain or deepen relationships with one another without forgiving those who wrong us and asking forgiveness of those we wrong. Jesus emphasized this in His parable (Matt. 18:23-25) of the servant who was forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents, equivalent to about 150,000 years’ wages for a working man! But then he went out and grabbed a fellow slave who owed him about 100 days’ wages (a large sum, but nowhere close to what he had been forgiven) and demanded that he pay up or go to prison. The point is, God has forgiven us an incalculable debt of sin. We need to forgive those who have sinned against us. Withholding grace from those who wrong you is not a Christian option!
Paul describes this aspect of “foot washing” in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” The humility of recognizing that your feet sometimes need washing too is implicit in that verse.
If you aren’t serving with the awareness that you’re a recipient of God’s grace, then you will expect some positive response when you help others. If you don’t get it, you’ll feel hurt and unappreciated. But when you realize that you’re a recipient of God’s undeserved favor, you then can give without expectation of any appreciation or repayment.
When you recognize that all that you have is because of God’s grace (1 Cor. 4:7), it frees you to give generously to the Lord’s work. You don’t do it to earn points with God or to gain leverage over others who now owe you one. Rather, as Jesus said (Matt. 10:8), “Freely you have received; freely give.” Or, as Paul put it (2 Cor. 9:8), “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.”
So the foundational question is, have you entered into the true spirit of Christmas by receiving God’s undeserved gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ? Have you let Jesus wash away the dirt of your sins? To do so, you must admit that your feet are dirty and that you can’t wash them yourself. All the good works in the world could never erase the debt of sin that you owe the holy God. But what you cannot do, God did: He sent His own Son to die on the cross in your place. He offers total forgiveness and eternal life to every sinner who receives His free gift. As Paul put it (Rom. 6:23), “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Have you received that gift?
J. C. Ryle (Foundations of Faith [Bridge Publishing], p. 218) told a true story of a mother whose daughter ran away and fell into a life of sin. For a long time, no one even knew where she was. But eventually that daughter returned, mourned over her sin, and trusted in Christ to forgive her and save her.
Someone asked the mother what she had done to bring her daughter back. What means had she used? She said, “I prayed for her night and day.” But that was not all. She also said, “I never went to bed at night without leaving my front door unlocked. I thought that if my daughter came back some night when I was in bed, she should never be able to say that she found the door locked. She should never be able to say that she came to her mother’s home, but couldn’t get in.”
And so it happened. One night the daughter came back, tried the door, and found it open. At once, she came in to stay, to go out and sin no more. That unlocked door is a beautiful illustration of God’s grace toward sinners. God’s door is always unlocked whenever you are willing to come home. Jesus is that unlocked door into heaven. To receive Him is to enter into the true spirit of Christmas.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
December 20, 2015
Every year at this season we hear “Joy to the World” played over the audio systems of stores and we sing it ourselves at church. But a skeptic might rightly ask, “How can you sing ‘Joy to the World’ when the world is so messed up? ISIS and Al Qaeda are competing to see who can murder the greatest number of innocent people. Boko Haram is terrorizing Africa. We’ve recently had the Paris and San Bernardino massacres. Russia has caused devastation in the Ukraine. There are natural disasters around the world, such as the earthquakes in Nepal and flooding in India. Our inner cities are overrun with drug trafficking and gang violence. Sex trafficking of children and vulnerable women is a thriving industry. And you’re singing ‘Joy to the World’?”
Isaac Watts wrote that great Christmas hymn based upon Psalm 98, so I thought that it may be helpful to meditate on that psalm so that we understand why we can truly and rightly sing, “Joy to the World.” This psalm portrays God as the victorious warrior, bringing salvation for the whole world, but conquering and judging all who oppose Him. When we understand that the Psalms testify of the Lord Jesus Christ (John 5:39; Luke 24:44), we can sum up the message of this psalm:
The coming of Jesus Christ as Savior, King, and Judge is a cause of great joy for all the earth.
The psalm falls into three stanzas of three verses each. We can view them from several different angles. Temporally, the first stanza looks at past salvation; the second at present kingship; and the third at future judgment. The first is directed at Israel; the second is addressed to all the earth; and the third calls on all creation. The first answers the question, “Why praise Him?” The second tells us how to praise Him. The third shows us who should praise Him. The first stanza portrays God as our Savior; the second, God as our King; and the third, God as our Judge.
O sing to the Lord a new song,
For He has done wonderful things,
His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory [or, “accomplished salvation”] for Him.
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
Note three things here:
“Salvation” is the theme of these first three verses. It occurs (in the Hebrew text) in each verse. Instead of “gained the victory” (NASB), the marginal reading is more literal: “have accomplished salvation.” We aren’t sure when this psalm was written. Some commentators say that it was after Israel returned to the land after the Babylonian captivity, whereas others argue that it was earlier. But whenever it was written, it is celebrating some great deliverance that God accomplished for His people. But in light of Jesus’ victory on the cross, ratified by His resurrection from the dead, we can legitimately apply it to the salvation from sin and judgment that He accomplished for us.
The narrative of Jesus’ birth shows that we are on target in applying this psalm in this way. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecy (Micah 5:2), the angel proclaimed to the shepherds (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The terms he used seem to “repeat the sounding joy” of Psalm 98: “good news”; “great joy”; “for all the people”; “a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord.”
Adam Clarke (Clarke’s Commentary [Abingdon-Cokesbury], 3:532) pointed out the parallels between Mary’s song when she heard that she would bear the Savior (Luke 1:46-55) and Psalm 98, which he attributed to David (he used KJV; I’m using NASB):
David: “O sing to the Lord a new song.”
Mary: “My soul exalts the Lord.”
David: “For He has done wonderful things.”
Mary: “For the Mighty One has done great things for me.”
David: “His right hand and His holy arm have gained the victory for Him.”
Mary: “He has done mighty deeds with His arm; He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.”
David: “The Lord has made known His salvation; He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.”
Mary: “And His mercy is upon generation after generation toward those who fear Him.”
David: “He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel.”
Mary: “He has given help to Israel His servant, in remembrance of His mercy.”
When the psalmist tells us to sing “a new song,” it isn’t restricted to composing a new song or singing the new song that he has just composed, although those options are included. But beyond that, it refers to singing to the Lord when He does something new in our lives or when we have a new experience of His grace. And there is no greater experience of God’s grace than the new birth that brings salvation to those who were in spiritual darkness and death. As Zecharias prophesied regarding his promised son, John the Baptist, who would prepare the way of the Lord, the Messiah (Luke 1:77-79), his role would be…
To give to His people the knowledge of salvation
By the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
With which the Sunrise from on high will visit us,
To shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the way of peace.”
So the point is, when God works the miracle of salvation in your heart, forgiving all your sins, shining His light into your darkness, giving His eternal life to your dead soul, all because of His tender mercy, you should sing a new song to Him, praising Him for His great salvation!
It took “His right hand and His holy arm.” The same imagery occurs in Isaiah 52:10 (see also, Isa. 59:16; 63:5):
The Lord has bared His holy arm
In the sight of all the nations,
That all the ends of the earth may see
The salvation of our God.
This means two things: First, salvation is not a matter of human effort, but rather of God’s mighty power. If it requires God’s holy arm, then He doesn’t need our puny efforts to help Him out! In Ephesians 1:19-21, Paul prays that the eyes of our hearts would be enlightened so that we might know “what is the surpassing greatness of His power toward us who believe.” This power, he adds, is “in accordance with the working of the strength of His might which He brought about in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion.” That’s the power that it took to rescue us from Satan’s domain of darkness and transfer us to the kingdom of His beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins (Col. 1:13-14)! Since salvation is a matter of God’s mighty power, no sinner is beyond hope! We may think someone is hopeless, but God is mighty to save!
Second, if God’s holy arm saved us, then He is sufficiently powerful to keep us and to provide all that we need for life and godliness. Jesus said (John 6:39), “This is the will of Him who sent Me, that of all that He has given Me I lose nothing, but raise it up on the last day.” (See also, John 10:27-30.) As 2 Peter 1:2-3 promises, “Grace and peace be multiplied to you in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord; seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence.” As he goes on to say, these things are granted to us in His precious and magnificent promises. God’s Word is a treasure house of benefits and blessings for you if He has saved you. Has He worked the miracle of salvation in your heart?
As Psalm 98:2-3 states:
The Lord has made known His salvation;
He has revealed His righteousness in the sight of the nations.
He has remembered His lovingkindness and His faithfulness to the house of Israel;
All the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
God’s covenant promise to Abraham was to bless all the families of the earth through his seed or posterity, that is, through Jesus Christ (Gen. 12:3; Gal. 3:14, 16; Luke 2:28-32). As Paul wrote (Gal. 3:13-14), “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who hangs on a tree’— in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we would receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” We who are Gentiles should rejoice at this great news! Before Christ, we Gentiles (Eph. 2:12), “were at that time separate from Christ, excluded from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world.” What a bleak picture! But then Paul adds the good news (Eph. 2:13), “But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.”
Perhaps, though, someone is wondering why the Bible talks about Jesus becoming a curse for us by hanging on the tree. Why did it require Jesus’ blood to provide salvation? To begin with, God is absolutely righteous. By making known His salvation, He reveals His righteousness in the sight of the nations. Being absolutely righteous means that God cannot just brush away our sin. The just penalty of sin, which is death, must be paid, either by the sinner or by an acceptable substitute. That’s what the Jewish sacrificial system was all about.
But righteousness is not God’s only attribute. He is also full of lovingkindness or “steadfast love” (ESV). When Moses asked God to show him His glory, the Lord responded (Exod. 33:19), “I Myself will make all My goodness pass before you, and will proclaim the name of the Lord before you; and I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show compassion on whom I will show compassion.” The Lord further gave Moses this amazing revelation (Exod. 34:6-7), “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.” That revelation of God’s character is repeated often in the Old Testament. It shows us both His righteousness in punishing sin, but also His love and mercy in forgiving the sin of those who seek Him.
The fact that salvation depends on God’s righteousness and lovingkindness shows that it is not due in any way to any human merit or good works. It is due to God’s grace alone. As Romans 4:4-5 explains, “Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.” God’s salvation is revealed through His righteousness and His lovingkindness. Have you tasted the kindness of the Lord (1 Pet. 2:3)?
The birth of Jesus demonstrates God’s faithfulness to the house of Israel, so that all the ends of the earth might see His salvation (Ps. 98:3). For centuries, Israel waited for God to fulfill His promise to send the Savior. Finally (Gal. 4:4-5), “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” Jesus, born of the virgin Mary through the Holy Spirit, God in human flesh, showed that God remembered His faithfulness. The godly old Simeon prayed as he held the baby Jesus in his arms (Luke 2:29-32):
“Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation,
Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
A Light of revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”
So the first stanza of this wonderful psalm shows us God the Savior. Every sinner can rejoice because the righteous, loving, faithful God has revealed His salvation through Israel in the sight of the nations.
Shout joyfully to the Lord, all the earth;
Break forth and sing for joy and sing praises.
Sing praises to the Lord with the lyre,
With the lyre and the sound of melody.
With trumpets and the sound of the horn
Shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.
Briefly note three things:
The mood of this stanza is not drab, ho-hum, boring mumble through some songs while you read the bulletin or think about the football game on TV after church! Note the commands: “Shout joyfully!” “Break forth!” “Sing for joy!” “Sing praises!” Again (in case you missed it!), “Sing praises!” “With the lyre, the sound of melody, with trumpets and the sound of the horn!” “Shout joyfully!” Does that describe your worship? Does it describe our worship as a church? If not, why not? As I told you last year after I spoke in Illinois to about 700 mostly Korean brothers and sisters, I wish I could import their worship to our church! They were not passive! They were exuberant! The Lord of all the earth, the King, is worthy of such worship.
Twice this stanza emphasizes that we are to shout joyfully and sing praises to the Lord. Again it states that we are to “shout joyfully before the King, the Lord.” This is to say that worship isn’t about us. We aren’t singing to ourselves. We’re coming before the King, the Lord, and singing praises to Him! We’re worshiping in His presence. Would your worship be any different if you kept that in mind?
You can’t rightfully rejoice and sing praises to the King if your heart is in rebellion towards Him. He must be your King, not just with lip service, but in your heart, if you want to rejoice in Him as you should. Make sure each morning as you spend time with Him and every week when we gather for worship that your heart is in submission to Him. God is our Savior; He is our King. Finally,
Let the sea roar and all it contains,
The world and those who dwell in it.
Let the rivers clap their hands,
Let the mountains sing together for joy
Before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth;
He will judge the world with righteousness
And the peoples with equity.
Again, briefly note three points:
The psalmist calls on inanimate creation to praise the Lord because when He comes, He will revoke the curse. When Adam and Eve sinned, God imposed a curse on the earth. It no longer yielded a bountiful crop without man’s sweat (Gen. 3:17-19). Death entered the world, both on humans and on all animal life. Paul (Rom. 8:19-22) describes it as creation groaning and suffering the pains of childbirth as it awaits release when we fully experience the glory of our salvation when Christ returns.
People today go to one of two opposite extremes. Those who put “Love Your Mother” bumper stickers on their eco-friendly cars deify and worship the earth, not the Creator. On the other hand, some rape the earth, mowing down the rainforest or slaughtering endangered species for their own gain. As Christians, we should be good stewards of the earth, using it wisely as our Creator tells us to do. While many evangelicals are skeptical about human-caused climate change, it seems to me that all Christians should be in favor of cleaning up the environment. I grew up breathing Los Angeles smog, so I’m glad that they have improved the air quality there in recent years. When we’ve traveled in China, the pollution is horrendous. Creation groans under that sort of thing, but it will rejoice when Jesus returns and restores it to its original glory.
The psalmist pictures the sea roaring, the rivers clapping, and the mountains singing together for joy because the Lord is coming to judge the earth (see Isa. 55:12). Until then, we can enjoy the beauty of God’s creation and we should work to preserve that beauty. But it won’t be fully restored to the original glory until the Lord returns to judge the earth. Then the wolf will dwell with the lamb, the lion will eat straw like the ox, and the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra without harm (Isa. 11:6-8). Isaiah 11:9 concludes,
They will not hurt or destroy in all My holy mountain,
For the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord
As the waters cover the sea.
If inanimate creation rejoices when the Lord comes for judgment, then how much more should we who know Him long for His coming! But, finally,
Revelation 19:11-16 describes the coming of the Lord as the conquering warrior King, which Psalm 98 celebrates:
And I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and wages war. His eyes are a flame of fire, and on His head are many diadems; and He has a name written on Him which no one knows except Himself. He is clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God. And the armies which are in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, were following Him on white horses. From His mouth comes a sharp sword, so that with it He may strike down the nations, and He will rule them with a rod of iron; and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty. And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, “KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS.”
When He comes again as the righteous Judge, either you will rejoice greatly because you have received His gracious salvation, or you will shrink back in horror, because you rejected Him as your Savior and King.
And so, when you hear or sing “Joy to the World,” make sure that Jesus’ coming is truly a source of joy for you and not a cause of fear! As Isaac Watts wrote:
Joy to the world! The Lord has come
Let earth receive her King!
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven and nature sing.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders of His love.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2015, All Rights Reserved.
December 25, 2016
At some point in your life, you will have to wrestle with the question, “Is Christianity really true?” Perhaps you were raised in a Christian home and have never questioned the Christian faith, but at some point, you will. Maybe something you read raises serious questions that threaten Christianity. Or a college professor ridicules the faith as a bunch of ancient, unscientific myths. A friend tells you that he is an agnostic and gives many reasons why he doubts the Bible. The attacks leave your head spinning and you begin to wonder, “Could Christianity be just a bunch of legends?”
Or, perhaps you made a profession of faith in Christ and never have doubted your faith, but then you’re hit with difficult trials that shake your world. You pray, but God seems to be on vacation. You can’t make any sense of what is happening to you. Doubts start creeping in, slowly undermining your trust in God and His promises. The enemy tempts you with the thought, “You’re just believing a fairy tale!”
Or, maybe you’re reading the Bible and you come across verses that seem to endorse slavery. You read how God ordered the slaughter of the Canaanites, including women and children. Or you read one verse that seems to contradict another verse. You come to difficult doctrines, such as the eternal punishment of unbelievers or God’s predestining some, but not all, to eternal life. Difficult issues like this cause you to question the truthfulness of the Bible.
What should you do at such times? When I’m there, I come back to the most crucial question that every person needs to answer correctly. This question is far more important than the questions of what career you should pursue, where you should live, or whom you should marry. It’s the question that Jesus asked His disciples. He began with the safer question (Matt. 16:13), “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” The disciples answered (Matt. 16:14), “Some say John the Baptist; and others, Elijah; but still others, Jeremiah, or one of the prophets.”
Then Jesus asked the crucial question (Matt. 16:15), “But who do you say that I am?” Peter gave the profound answer (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed Peter’s answer (Matt. 16:17), “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven.”
But, a short time later, Peter’s faith in Jesus was shaken when Jesus told the twelve that He would suffer at the hands of the Jewish leaders and be killed and raised up on the third day. Horrified, Peter rebuked Jesus for saying such a thing (Matt. 16:21-22)! But Jesus sharply rebuked Peter (Matt. 16:23), “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s.” At that point, Peter either could have walked away from following Jesus or he had to fall back on his earlier confession about who Jesus really is.
A similar thing happened on another occasion. Jesus taught some things that were repugnant to Jewish sensibilities: they must eat His flesh and drink His blood if they wanted to have eternal life. He also taught them that no one could come to Him unless it had been granted to him from the Father (John 6:44, 53-57, 65). These were hard teachings. Then we read (John 6:66-67), “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore. So Jesus said to the twelve, ‘You do not want to go away also, do you?’” Again, Peter answered, coming back to the crucial question of Jesus’ identity (John 6:68-69): “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” Peter was not oblivious to the difficulty of Jesus’ teachings, but he was sustained by his certainty about who Jesus is.
The four Gospels don’t leave us in the dark on this crucial question of who Jesus is. Repeatedly they show us how Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies, healed the sick, opened the eyes of the blind, raised the dead, and calmed the stormy sea with a word. Matthew opens his Gospel by tracing the genealogy of Jesus from Abraham through David to show that Jesus is the promised seed of Abraham who would bless the nations. He is the Son of David who would rule on his throne forever. Then in the birth narrative, Matthew reveals further who this unique child is:
Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Savior of sinners, no less than God with us.
Matthew 1:18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” To understand the situation, you have to realize that the Jewish betrothal system was more than our engagement. Parents usually arranged marriages and secured them with a formal contract. After this, the couple would be referred to as husband and wife, although they did not live together or consummate the marriage until after a yearlong waiting period, during which the purity of the bride was to be demonstrated. If she was found to be with child during that period, it was obvious that she was not pure and had been unfaithful. Thus the marriage could be annulled (this paragraph relies on Louis Barbieri, Jr., The Bible Knowledge Commentary, New Testament [Victor Books], ed. by John F. Walvoord & Roy B. Zuck, p. 20).
So when it was revealed that Mary was pregnant during this waiting period, Joseph, assuming that she had been unfaithful, planned to send her away quietly, not wanting to disgrace her. No doubt he was deeply wounded to think that the young woman he loved would do such a thing. But then an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, revealing that the child Mary was carrying had been conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit in fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 (Matt. 1:23): “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” This is the first of at least 40 citations in Matthew from the Old Testament which show that Jesus is the promised Jewish Messiah (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew [Baker], pp. 80-82).
Right away, the reader of Matthew’s Gospel is confronted with a crisis of faith: Should I believe that Jesus was miraculously conceived in the virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit without a human father, or is this just an ancient myth that grew up around an illegitimate birth? Liberal scholars, who assume that miracles are mere fables passed down from a time when people were superstitious and scientifically ignorant, are quick to point out that there were numerous “virgin birth legends” floating around the ancient world. These were not strictly parallel, in that they all were stories of a god having relations with a woman, resulting in a half-god, half-human creature, which is not the case here. But nonetheless, liberals argue that the story of Jesus’ virgin birth fits into this mythical genre.
But the Bible records not just one, but two separate accounts of the virgin birth. Luke, who claims to have investigated carefully the events recorded in his Gospel (Luke 1:1-4) and probably learned of the story of Jesus’ birth directly from Mary, records how an angel told her that she would conceive a son and name Him Jesus. When Mary asked how this could be since she was a virgin, the angel replied (Luke 1:35), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”
So, you have a choice: Do you believe the testimony of these two writers, both of whom lived at the time and who both got their information from reliable sources? Or, do you doubt the testimony because of an a priori bias against the possibility of miracles? As far back as 1970, Christianity Today (Sept. 11) published a survey that revealed that 60 percent of Methodists, 49 percent of Presbyterians, 44 percent of Episcopalians, 34 percent of American Baptists, and 19 percent of American Lutherans, deny the virgin birth. I assume those numbers have not improved over time! Perhaps you wonder, “Is it important to believe in the virgin birth?” Yes, here’s why:
If Jesus Christ is the son of a human father and a human mother through natural biological processes, then He is not God in human flesh. He might, under those circumstances, be a man indwelt by God or a man upon whom God’s Spirit rested. But He would only have been a man. His existence would have begun at conception. He could not be the eternal God in human flesh.
But the Scriptures repeatedly affirm the full deity of the Lord Jesus Christ. John 1:1, 14: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.... And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” Hebrews 1:8: “But of the Son, He says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom.’” Jesus Himself told the Jews (John 8:58), “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was born, I am.” When Thomas saw the risen Lord Jesus and cried out, “My Lord and my God,” Jesus didn’t rebuke him for blasphemy, but rather He accepted and commended such worship (John 20:28, 29). In Revelation 1:8, the Lord God says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” In Revelation 22:13, Jesus says, “I am the Alpha and the Omega.” Or, as Matthew (1:23) adds, this child is, “God with us.”
No natural union of a human husband and wife ever could bring God into this world. The means God used to take on human flesh was the miraculous conception of Jesus in the womb of the virgin Mary. To affirm the full deity of Jesus Christ you must affirm His supernatural virgin birth. If Jesus is not fully God, then He could not be our Savior. As Bishop Moule stated (preface to Robert Anderson, The Lord from Heaven), “A Saviour not quite God is a bridge broken at the farther end.”
Just as the Scriptures teach the full deity of Jesus Christ, so they clearly teach His full humanity. He was not a hybrid God-man, half of each. He is undiminished deity and perfect humanity united in one person forever. But if Jesus was born of natural parents, then He was born a sinner like all other human beings, and He Himself would have needed a Savior. If He had sin of His own, He could not have died as the perfect substitute for others. The Scriptures clearly teach that the whole human race, from Adam onward, is born under the curse of sin (see Romans 5:12; Eph. 2:1-3). To redeem that race from sin, Christ had to be identified with us in our humanity, but be sinless Himself.
Jesus had to have at least one human parent or He would not have shared our humanity. But through the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth, Jesus was able to be born as fully human and yet as sinless. As we saw, the angel told Mary that because the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the Most High would overshadow her, “for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Mary herself was not immaculately conceived. In Luke 1:47 Mary refers to, “God my Savior.” You don’t need a Savior unless you’re a sinner. Some theologians have speculated that the sinful nature is communicated through the male, but we cannot be certain about that. The earliest prediction of a Savior (Genesis 3:15) mentions Him as the seed of the woman, not of man (see Gal. 4:4, 5). What we can say for certain is what the angel asserted: because Mary would conceive miraculously through the Holy Spirit, her offspring would be the holy Son of God. The virgin birth is necessary to affirm the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ.
This isn’t just interesting but useless theology. Because Jesus is the eternal God in human flesh, we can come to Him with all of our needs, knowing that He is able to come to our aid. We know that He knows all of our inner struggles and secrets, and yet He loves us and wants a personal relationship with us (John 21:15-19). And, because He is fully human, Jesus can sympathize with our weaknesses. He is a merciful and compassionate high priest who invites us to bring our every need to Him (Heb. 4:14-16). So in answer to the crucial question, “Who is this child?” we must affirm, “Through the virgin birth, He is fully God and fully man.”
Christmas isn’t just a story to make us feel warm and cozy about family, friends, and peace on earth. At the heart of the Christmas story is the truth that the human race is alienated from the holy God because of our sin. Thus the angel told Joseph (Matt. 1:21), “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Jesus means, “Yahweh saves.” Salvation is a radical word. People who can help themselves may need a little help or support now and then, but they don’t need saving. People who are basically good, but just need some moral improvement, may benefit from a few helpful hints, but they don’t need saving. But sinners, who are dead in their trespasses and sins (Eph. 2:1), at enmity with the Holy God and under His righteous wrath because of their sins (John 3:36), need saving!
The greatest news in the world is that which the angels announced to the shepherds on the night of Jesus’ birth (Luke 2:10-11), “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” All the people includes the worst of sinners, as the apostle Paul spoke of his own past in persecuting the church (1 Tim. 1:15), “It is a trustworthy statement, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, among whom I am foremost of all.” Best of all, all the people includes you!
The only way that Jesus could save us from our sins was to live the sinless life which God demands and then to offer Himself as the perfect substitute to pay the penalty that we deserved. If God forgave all sins without the penalty being paid, He would not be a just judge. He would not be holy. Through the birth, sinless life, and substitutionary death of His eternal Son Jesus, God could be both just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:26). As Paul explained (2 Cor. 5:21), “He [God] made Him [Jesus] who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, so that we might become the righteousness of God in Him.” Perfect righteousness, full forgiveness, and eternal life is offered as a free gift to every sinner who trusts in Jesus! As Paul exclaimed (Rom. 6:23), “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (See also, John 3:16; Eph. 2:8-9.)
Suppose you get sick and go to the doctor. He examines you and determines that you have a serious illness. He prescribes a drug that has been proven to cure your illness. You go home and research the drug and read testimonials from people who have taken the drug and have been cured. But that knowledge, even though proven to be true, will not do you a bit of good unless you personally take the medicine.
In the same way, it’s not enough to answer correctly the crucial question, “Who is this child?” He is the One miraculously born of the virgin Mary, fully God and fully man. He was also born to save His people from their sins. Thousands of people can testify that Jesus has saved them from their sins. But knowing these truths or hearing these testimonies is not enough. You must respond by personally trusting in Jesus Christ to be your Savior and Lord. Have you done that? Take the medicine God prescribes while you can!
Jesus is God in human flesh. He came to save us from our sins. But, Matthew also wants us to know that…
As we’ve seen, Matthew 1:23 cites Isaiah 7:14: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’” Jesus is none other than the living God with us! If you have trusted in Him, Jesus promised that you dwell in Him and He dwells in you (John 14:20, 23; 15:1-5; 17:20-23). Just as Matthew begins with this promise that Jesus is God with us, so he ends with Jesus’ promise (Matt. 28:20), “I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” After commanding us to be free from the love of money, Hebrews 13:5 assures us, “for He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you.’” Jesus—God in human flesh—is always with us who have trusted in Him!
One of the best books that I read this year was Ryan Lister’s The Presence of God [Crossway]. He develops this significant biblical truth (p. 24): “the presence of God is a fundamental objective in our redemption and, simultaneously, the means by which God completes this objective.” Dr. Lister shows that throughout the storyline of the Bible (p. 25), “God is working to establish a people and a place for his presence.” God was with Adam and Eve in the garden, but their fellowship with Him was broken because of their sin. But through His covenant promises culminating in Jesus’ taking on human flesh to dwell with us; and through His death, resurrection, and second coming; at the end of the Bible we read (Rev. 21:3), “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them ….’” The new heavens and new earth will be God’s dwelling with us and our dwelling with Him throughout eternity!
But the message that God dwells with us in the person of His Son, who came to offer Himself on the cross to pay the penalty for our sins, is only good news if you have received the Lord Jesus as the One who bore your sin (John 1:12). Robert Reymond (The Evangelical Dictionary of Theology [Baker], ed. by Walter Elwell, p. 550) points out that since God is infinitely holy and we are all sinners deserving His wrath, we “could hardly blame God had he sent His Son as ‘God against us’ or ‘God opposed to us.’ When, however, he reveals His Son as ‘God with us,’ the messianic task, full of grace and the promise of salvation, is suggested.” If you have welcomed Jesus as your Savior and Lord, then God is not against you, but for you (Rom. 8:31)!
At this time every year, people wander through stores looking for the right gifts as the sound systems play Charles Wesley’s, “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing,” with its verse, “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Immanuel.” But they miss that profound truth of who Jesus is while they go on shopping! Don’t miss it yourself: Jesus is fully God and fully man, the Savior of sinners, no less than God with us! Put your trust in Him and you will have an anchor for your soul whenever the storms of doubt or trials assault you.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2016, All Rights Reserved.