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New Years [2013]: How to Know God’s Will (Acts 21:1-14)

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December 30, 2012

With the New Year just ahead and because it relates to our most recent study in Romans 15 concerning Paul’s plans to go to Jerusalem, Rome, and Spain, and because many Christians often wonder about this practical matter, I want to talk about how to know God’s will. All Christians want to know God’s will for their lives, both in major and minor decisions. But it’s not always easy to figure it out and there are conflicting views on how to do it. So I want to help you think biblically about this.

Much of God’s will is revealed in the commands and principles of His Word. You don’t need to pray for guidance in these areas. In fact, you’re sinning if you pray about whether you should do something that God’s Word forbids. We just need to understand and obey the commands and principles that are in the Bible.

But what about the decision to marry Jane or Sally, when both girls love the Lord? What about deciding your major in college, or which job to take, or where to live? There are many such decisions where we want to know God’s will, but there are no verses that relate directly to the decision at hand.

Some depend heavily on subjective feelings, signs, a thought which they interpret to be God’s voice, or a verse out of context. A girl was praying about where to go to college, when she came upon the Lord’s words to Jacob, “Arise, go to Bethel.” Since her denomination had a college of that name, she decided that God was telling her to go to Bethel College. I hope that once she got there she didn’t read Amos 4:4 which says, “Go to Bethel and sin”!

On the other side of the spectrum, Garry Friesen wrote Decision Making and the Will of God [Multnomah Press, 1980], in which he argues that God does not have a specific will for the details of your life. Rather, as long as you act within the moral will of God and follow the principles of biblical wisdom, you’re free to decide as you wish. Thus, if Jane and Sally are both dedicated single Christian women, you’re free to marry whichever one you choose. You’d be wasting your time to ask God to reveal His will, especially through some sign or inner impression. In effect, God would shrug His shoulders and say, “They’re both fine girls. Get wise counsel and do as you please.” Friesen wants to eliminate all subjective feelings, impressions, and “inner peace” from the process of determining God’s will.

Although Friesen levels some valid criticisms against what he calls the traditional view of finding God’s will, I don’t agree with his primary thesis. My main gripe is that if we don’t need to seek God’s guidance for our decisions, then we don’t need to rely on Him in prayer about those decisions. If Friesen is correct, it would undermine many of the examples of answered prayer in the life of George Muller, where he asked God to provide a specific amount and God put it on the heart of a donor to give that exact amount at that time to meet Muller’s need. If Friesen is right, God doesn’t do that. I think that his view moves us toward Deism, where God isn’t directly involved with our daily lives. So, why pray?

But, then, how do we know God’s will? The bad news (or good news, depending on how you look at it) is that there is no simple formula in the Bible for how to know God’s will in situations that are within His moral will. If there were, we would probably apply the formula without seeking God Himself. The good news side of it is that God primarily guides us through our relationship with Him, as we grow to understand His Word and learn to walk in dependence on the Holy Spirit. But since even the best of us (including Paul) are imperfect sinners, it’s an imperfect and often uncertain process at best. But even when we miss God’s will due to our lack of understanding or sin, He is sovereign and gracious to overcome our mistakes.

The uncertainty of this process is revealed in the difference of opinion between godly scholars over whether Paul was right or wrong to go to Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had repeatedly revealed to Paul that he would encounter “bonds and afflictions” if he went there (20:23). Some commentators, such as Donald Barnhouse, Ray Stedman, and James Boice, argue (in light of 21:4) that Paul was either deliberately sinning or making a foolish mistake to continue his journey in light of these warnings. But most commentators argue that Paul was right to go. Our text and the history of Paul in Acts reveal some principles on how to know God’s will:

We should walk so closely with God that we discern His guidance as we live in obedience to His Word, in dependence on His Holy Spirit.

With that as a brief summary, I want to work through seven principles for how to know God’s will, some of which are in our text and others which come from Paul’s walk with God.

1. To know God’s will, you must write God a blank check with your life.

It’s futile to speculate about God’s will for your life unless you are totally committed to obeying it. God isn’t a travel agent who arranges your itinerary and then asks, “What do you think?” You say, “I’d prefer not to go to that Muslim country as a missionary. Could you change that to a few years in Hawaii, please?” He is the Lord, and it’s true that He loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life! But you must yield your entire life to Him up front, trusting that His will for you is good, acceptable, and perfect (Rom. 12:1-2).

Paul had long since done that. In Acts 20:24 he said, “But I do not consider my life of any account as dear to myself, so that I may finish my course and the ministry which I received from the Lord Jesus, to testify solemnly of the gospel of the grace of God.” In Acts 21:13 he again says, “I am ready not only to be bound, but even to die at Jerusalem for the name of the Lord Jesus.” Paul was totally committed to do God’s will, whatever it required.

Signing your life over to God may strike you as a bit scary. What if you do it and He tells you to go to some jungle as a missionary, when you don’t even enjoy camping for a night or two? But, remember, He is your loving Father and He is all-knowing and all-wise. His purpose is to be glorified through you by blessing your life. So you’ve got to begin by trusting Him.

Granted, His path for you may include some severe and difficult trials, including martyrdom. But you can trust that even in these, He will bless you in ways that you cannot imagine if you will trust Him and submit to Him. No one, including the martyrs in heaven, ever wrote God a blank check with his life and later regretted it. You must begin there if you want to know His will.

2. To know God’s will, grow to know Him intimately through His Word and His Spirit.

Paul had known the Lord and walked closely with Him for years at this point. This fact, along with the fact that there is no hint in the text that Paul was being disobedient, leads me to disagree with those who say that Paul was knowingly sinning here. I do think he made a mistake by going to Jerusalem and submitting to the elders’ plan to offer a sacrifice in the temple (see my message on Acts 21:15-40). But Paul’s aim for many years now had been to know Christ (Phil. 3:9-10). He knew God’s Word well, and he walked by the Spirit, not by the flesh (Gal. 5:16). While that doesn’t always prevent us from making mistakes, it is a key factor in determining God’s will.

I’ve been married to Marla for almost 39 years now. On many matters I could tell you what she would want without asking her opinion. I know her will because I know her. In the same way, knowing God’s will in a specific situation is very much bound up with knowing God Himself.

There are no shortcuts or easy formulas to knowing the Lord. It’s a process that requires diligently seeking Him in His Word and in prayer over time. For some reason, God has designed life so that you have to make some of the biggest decisions (career, marriage partner) when you lack the maturity that you will gain later in life! That’s one reason that you should seek the wise counsel of those who have followed the Lord for many years, including your Christian parents! In other words, if you haven’t walked with God long enough to know Him well, take advantage of the wise counsel of those who do know Him well.

If you’re a relatively new believer, you should probably postpone major life decisions, such as marriage, until you get a basic grounding in God’s Word (1 Cor. 7:17-24). You need to know the godly character qualities to look for in a mate. And, if you want a godly wife, you’ve got to be a godly young man, which requires some time in the faith. Don’t make major decisions rashly!

3. To know God’s will, act on biblical principles, not human wisdom.

I’m expanding here on the previous point to say that at times, God’s wisdom and ways are opposed to man’s wisdom and ways (Isa. 55:8-9). Not usually, but sometimes, God wants us to do something that goes against human logic. Earlier in his life, Paul had fled from Damascus to avoid persecution (2 Cor. 11:32-33). But here he is determined to go to Jerusalem even if it means martyrdom. While I think that Paul was wrong to ignore repeated warnings from the Holy Spirit (20:23; 21:4, 11), he was acting on what he believed to be biblical principles.

One biblical principle that governed Paul’s trip to Jerusalem was his strong conviction that in the church there is no Jew or Greek, but we are all one in Christ (Gal. 3:28). He was taking the collection that he had raised from the Gentile churches to the Jewish church as a demonstration of love and unity. Luke hardly mentions this collection (24:17), but from Paul’s epistles we know that it was a big deal to him (Rom. 15:25-32; 2 Cor. 8 & 9). James Boice suggests that Luke’s silence about it may reflect that he was not in favor of the idea (Acts [Zondervan], p. 358). But the principle behind it, the unity of the church, is an important biblical doctrine (John 17). Paul was willing to walk into the face of danger on the basis of his commitment to this truth.

Also driving Paul was his heart’s desire for the salvation of the Jews. This was such a compelling force that Paul said that he would be willing to be cut off from Christ for eternity if it meant the salvation of the Jews (Rom. 9:3)! Because of this compelling desire to see the Jews saved, Paul was willing to sacrifice his life, if need be.

I must add, though, that at the same time, Paul seemed to be going against the biblical principle of submitting to one another (Eph. 5:21) and trusting that the Holy Spirit was speaking through other gifted members of the body. In my judgment, Paul fell into the trap that we all are prone to: his greatest strengths were at the same time his greatest weaknesses. He was strong in his commitment to preach the gospel whatever the cost. But that strength also made him stubborn and unwilling to submit to the godly counsel of others. So when we seek to follow some biblical principles, we need to be careful not to violate other biblical principles.

4. To know God’s will, analyze your gifts, motives, and desires in light of God’s sovereign purpose of being glorified among the nations.

It is possible to be committed to doing the Lord’s will, but to be in the wrong place or position. For example, perhaps Paul could have sent some delegates with the collection, but stayed away himself, and still have accomplished his desire of unifying the church. A key question, which is not always easy to answer, is, “Where can I be the most effective in furthering God’s kingdom in light of my gifts?” For example, I have a heart for missions, but I know that I’m not an evangelist. I’ve asked myself, “Am I more effective to stay in America and instill in God’s people a heart for missions or to go myself?” That’s one reason I’m near a university campus, because I want to see God raise up young workers for the harvest in missions (Matt. 9:38). If I ever sense that I can be more effective by going myself, I’ll be out of here!

Paul was admirable in his commitment to be willing to suffer and die for the name of Christ. But I can’t help but wonder whether someone should have asked him which would be more effective: to be in prison or dead; or to be free to continue ministering as he was? It’s not always God’s will for us to be so committed that we ignore our own safety. As I said, earlier in his life, Paul fled Damascus for his safety, which wasn’t wrong. He escaped from angry mobs in Thessalonica and Berea. He listened to counsel and didn’t go into the arena in Ephesus, where he could have been lynched (Acts 17:10, 13-14; 19:30-31). So I question why he didn’t change his plans in light of the repeated warnings of danger awaiting him in Jerusalem. I can’t help but think that he was unwise.

In addition to our gifts and how we can best be used, we need to examine our motives and desires. Am I truly seeking God’s glory and not my own? Is my heart open before Him, with no secret sins? If I can honestly answer yes, then I should ask, “What are my desires? What do I enjoy doing?” If I’m delighting in the Lord, then I can trust Him to give me the desires of my heart, either by confirming my current desires, or by changing those desires to be in line with His purpose (Ps. 37:4). He is a loving Father who delights in blessing His children by granting their holy desires. So if I’m delighting in Him, it’s legitimate in seeking His will to ask, “What do I enjoy doing?” That may be where I should serve Him.

5. To know God’s will, listen to and prayerfully evaluate the counsel of godly believers.

This is not always easy to do! Our text says that “through the Spirit” these believers told Paul not to set foot in Jerusalem (21:4). As I said, some think that Paul sinned by disobeying the direct word of God. But most commentators soften the phrase to mean that through the Spirit, the believers were expressing their concern and love for Paul. Or they say that the Spirit was warning Paul of the hardship that he would face, so that he would be prepared to endure it. But they don’t see it as the Spirit telling Paul not to go to Jerusalem.

After Agabus’ prophecy, even Luke and Paul’s other traveling companions (“we,” 21:12) joined in with the locals in trying to persuade Paul not to go to Jerusalem, and Paul’s response shows that they were getting to him. But he was so strongly persuaded that God wanted him to go to Jerusalem that he resisted their appeals.

As I said, my (minority) view is that Paul’s zeal for Christian unity and for the salvation of his fellow Jews, coupled with his exemplary resolve (which also caused him to be stubborn at times), in this instance caused him to make a mistake. He should have heeded the repeated warnings of the Holy Spirit through other believers. At the very least, he should have paused to consider prayerfully the counsel of these godly believers. If Paul had not gone, he could have gotten to Rome and Spain much sooner than he did. He could have stayed focused on his calling to preach to the Gentiles.

We probably can’t know for sure this side of heaven whether Paul was right or wrong. But it is comforting that even if he made a mistake, God was still at work through Paul to accomplish His sovereign will. Through Paul’s arrest and incarceration, he got to preach the gospel to both the Roman and Jewish leaders. His prison epistles teach us much about enduring persecution and hardship with strong faith and joy in God. But the principle is, we must listen to and prayerfully evaluate the counsel that we receive.

Thus to know God’s will, write God a blank check with your life; grow to know Him intimately through His Word and His Spirit; act on biblical principles, not human wisdom; analyze your gifts, motives, and desires in light of God’s purpose for His glory; and, listen to and prayerfully evaluate godly counsel.

6. To know God’s will, prayerfully evaluate the circumstances that God providentially brings into your life.

Again, this is not easy! For example, God had now brought into Paul’s life repeated warnings against going to Jerusalem from many different sources. Should he have taken these warnings as God saying, “Don’t go?” Or, could they be to test his willingness to obey God’s will? Perhaps the warnings were to help both the saints and Paul stand firm after he was imprisoned, knowing it to be God’s will in advance. Perhaps Paul’s other circumstances, such as being able to get on ships that got him to Jerusalem in time for Pentecost, showed God’s approval for his going there.

As you can see, the same set of circumstances can be interpreted in a number of ways, and so we need to be careful in how we evaluate them. It’s usually not wise to “put out a fleece” to try to know God’s will. Sometimes closed doors do not mean “no,” and sometimes open doors do not mean “yes.” Finally,

7. After prayerfully following all of the above, in dependence on God, follow your best judgment, conscience, inner peace, and convictions, submitting to the consequences.

Ultimately, each person must determine God’s will for himself or herself. You can’t blame others for the decisions that you make. If Paul was right here and his friends were wrong, it illustrates the point that sometimes bad counsel comes from loving motives. It was because these people loved Paul that they pled with him not to go, but he had to go against the wishes of his friends to do what he thought God wanted him to do. But if Paul was wrong (as I think), then he had to submit to the consequences of ignoring the warnings that he had been given.

Although some (such as Friesen) argue that it’s wrong to rely on “inner peace,” I disagree. I grant that having peace about a decision is not an infallible guide. I’ve known Christians who “had peace” about a decision that was sinful! But if the decision is morally neutral and you have followed the steps above in dependence on God, there is a place for His peace to guide you.

The biblical basis for this is in 2 Corinthians 2:12-13, where Paul had an open door for the gospel (he lived for open doors for the gospel!), but he had no rest for his spirit because Titus had not arrived with news from Corinth. On the basis of his lack of peace, Paul walked away from an open door for the gospel to go look for Titus. Thus I believe there is a place for inner peace, even though it is subjective and not infallible.


What if you make a mistake in determining the will of God? If you come to realize that your mistake was due to stubbornness, self-will, or pride, confess it and ask God to overrule your mistake. I don’t think that Paul sinned by going to Jerusalem, but I do think that he made a mistake. But God used Paul’s prison years for His glory, and He can use our mistakes and even our rebellion if we submit to Him and seek to please Him.

Remember, the process of finding God’s will begins when you trust Christ as Savior and when you write Him a blank check with your life, being willing to do whatever He calls you to do. If you’ve never repented of your sins and trusted in Christ, you are clearly out of the will of God, because He wants you to be saved (1 Tim. 2:4).

Discussion Questions

  1. Is feeling a peace (or lack thereof) about something a valid factor in determining God’s will? (See 2 Cor. 2:12-14.)
  2. Do we need to seek God’s will for relatively minor decisions (what we wear for the day, etc.)? Why/why not?
  3. How can we know when to go against the counsel of godly people? What principles apply?
  4. Why is putting out a fleece (or asking for a sign) not a good practice when seeking God’s will?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2012, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Bibliology (The Written Word), Christian Life, Discipleship, New Year's, Pneumatology (The Holy Spirit), Spiritual Life

Christmas Messages

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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: 

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Christmas [1992]: The Simplicity Of Christmas (Luke 2:8-20)

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December 20, 1992

Christmas Message

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 its 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:

1. The Christmas message is for simple people.

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…

A. The gospel is for the simple, not for the sophisticated.

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…

B. The gospel involved the sacrifice of the Lamb of God.

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.

C. The gospel provided us with a Good Shepherd and calls us to shepherd others.

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.

2. The Christmas message is simple in content.

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,

3. The Christmas message is simple in its obligations.

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.

A. We must believe in the Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

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:

B. Having believed, we will tell others.

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!

C. Having believed, we will glorify God in the place He has called us.

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?

Discussion Questions

  1. Is it overly simplistic to say that Christ is God’s solution for every problem? What does that mean in practice?
  2. Why are American Christians so enamored with the spectacular? How can we develop God’s simplicity in our lives?
  3. A neighbor has a nominal “belief” in Christ. How would you explain to him the difference between his “faith” and saving faith?

Copyright 1992, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [1993]: The Best News In The World (Luke 2:8-11)

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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.

1. This is the best news because it centers on the most unique Person in history.

“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 ...

A. Jesus is the Christ.

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.

B. Jesus is the Lord.

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.

C. Jesus is a man.

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.”

2. This is the best news because of the type of news it is.

A. It is the best news because it is the most important news in the world.

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!

B. It is the best news because it is true news.

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.

C. It is the best news because it is timely news.

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,

3. This is the best news because it comes to all people.

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!

Discussion Questions

  1. 1.              Some say, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, just so you believe.” Why is the content of faith crucial?
  2. 2.              How can we know that there is such a thing as absolute truth? How can we know what that truth is?
  3. 3.              Is it necessary to feel lost in order to get saved? How can we share the gospel with people who don’t know they’re lost?

Copyright 1993, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [1994]: A Dad For All Seasons (Matthew 1:18-25 and other Scriptures)

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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.

1. Godly fathers are men of conviction.

Four areas show Joseph to be a man of biblical conviction:

A. Men of conviction have moral integrity.

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.

B. Men of conviction fear God more than public opinion.

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.”

C. Men of conviction develop a habit of obedience.

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.

D. Men of conviction develop godly habits of worship.

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.

2. Godly fathers are men of 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:

A. Compassionate men are considerate of others.

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.

B. Compassionate men have tender feelings for others.

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. How do parents know when to insist that their kids follow their convictions and when to wait for them to develop their own?
  2. How do you keep godly convictions from crossing the line into unreasonable rigidity or legalism?
  3. How can a man who has blown it get back on track with these qualities? Where does he start?
  4. Are you strongest in the area of convictions or compassion? Set some goals for growth this year in your weakest area.

Copyright 1994, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Fathers, Spiritual Life

Christmas [1995]: How To Be A Wise Man—Or Woman (Matthew 2:1-12)

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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.

1. God, not man, begins the seeking process.

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, ...

2. Wise men (and women) respond to God’s seeking them by seeking Jesus as their King.

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:

A. Wise men seek Jesus as King in spite of the difficulties of the process.

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!

B. Wise men seek Jesus as King in spite of the disinterest of others.

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.

C. Wise men seek Jesus as King in spite of disappointments.

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.

D. Wise men seek Jesus as King in spite of their own dignity.

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.”

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is it important to affirm that God, not man, always begins the seeking process (see 1 Cor. 1:26-31)?
  2. Does the wise men’s seeking imply that there is some human effort involved in salvation? Consider Luke 13:24; Eph. 2:8-9.
  3. What differences are there between the Jews who knew about Christ, but missed Him, and these Gentiles who found Him? Consider John 5:39-44; Rom. 9:30-10:4). How does this apply to us, who know about Christ?

Copyright 1995, Steven J. Cole, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation), Wisdom, Worship (Personal)

Christmas [1996]: The Virgin Birth--Why Believe It? (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 1:26-38)

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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.

1. Belief in the virgin birth is essential to affirm the truthfulness of the Bible.

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.

2. Belief in the virgin birth is essential to affirm the deity of Jesus Christ.

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.

3. Belief in the virgin birth is essential to affirm the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ.

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,

4. Belief in the virgin birth is essential to affirm that Jesus Christ is the Savior.

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. A person says to you, “It doesn’t really matter what you believe, just so you believe in something.” How would you answer him?
  2. Some who claim to be evangelical Christians say that the Bible contains errors, but that it is infallible on matters of faith and practice. Why is this view dangerous? How would you refute it?
  3. Some critics argue against the virgin birth because Mark, John, and Paul are silent on it. How would you answer them?
  4. How would you answer a critic who said that the virgin birth sounds like other pagan legends?
  5. How would you witness to a person who says, “I don’t believe in miracles. Show me a miracle and I will believe?”

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

Related Topics: Basics for Christians, Christmas, Christology, Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [1998]: How To Receive From God (Luke 1:53)

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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:

1. God satisfies the spiritually hungry.

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:

A. The ones God satisfies are marked by spiritual hunger.

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.

B. God alone can satisfy our 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,

C. God satisfies the hungry.

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:

2. God sends the self-satisfied away empty.

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:

A. God sends away the self-satisfied.

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.

B. God actively sends them away.

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.

C. God sends them away empty-handed.

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can a Christian develop a deeper hunger for God?
  2. What is the proper balance between seeking God Himself versus asking Him to meet our needs?
  3. To what extent should our evangelistic approach try to meet the felt needs of lost people?
  4. Is it wrong to try to “market” the church? Why/why not?

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

Related Topics: Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation), Spiritual Life

Christmas [1999]: The Joy of Christmas (Luke 2:10-11)

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December 19, 1999

Christmas Message

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”?

1. The news about the Savior brings great joy because it is good news for sinners.

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.”

2. The news about the Savior brings great joy because it is true news.

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.

3. The news about the Savior brings great joy because it is news of Christ the Lord.

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.

4. The news about the Savior brings great joy because it is for all people.

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?

Discussion Questions

  1. John Piper states, “God is most glorified in us when we are most satisfied in Him.” In light of this, why is joy an essential quality for believers?
  2. What is the difference between joy and happiness? How can we increase God’s joy in our lives?
  3. We are commanded to “rejoice always” (1 Thess. 5:16). Is it wrong, then, to be sad? Is depression sin? Defend your answer with Scripture.
  4. What would you say to someone who said, “If Christianity works for you, that’s great, but it’s not my thing”?

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

Related Topics: Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [2000]: God’s Gift, Our Response (2 Corinthians 8 and 9)

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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!

1. God’s indescribable gift is the person of His Son.

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,

A. None was richer than Christ was.

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,

B. None became poorer than Christ became.

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,

2. We should become generous givers.

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:

A. Generous giving applies to all, even to the poor.

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.

B. Generous giving is sacrificial.

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.

C. Generous giving is voluntary, not pressured.

“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.

D. Generous giving is based on a commitment to Christ and His people.

“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).

E. Generous giving involves planning and faithful follow-through, not impulsive promises.

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.

F. Generous giving looks to God for money to give.

“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!

G. Generous giving reaps bountiful results.

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.

Discussion Questions

  1. How can we know where to draw the line on luxury (hot running water is a luxury in many parts of the world)?
  2. Is it right for a person behind with creditors to give to the Lord’s work? Should he get out of debt first?
  3. How can we know the balance between saving for our own future needs and giving to meet present needs?
  4. With all of the appeals for funds, how can we prioritize our giving?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2000, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Finance, Soteriology (Salvation)