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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!

Conclusion

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).

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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.”

Conclusion

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.

Conclusion

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)

Christmas [2002]: The Reason Jesus Came (Matthew 1:21)

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December 22, 2002

Christmas Message

Two of the most important questions for each person to answer are, “Who is Jesus Christ?” and “Why did He come to earth?” Martin Luther saw this when he said,

If anyone stands firm and right on this point, that Jesus Christ is true God and true man, who died and rose again for us, all the other articles of the Christian faith will fall in place for him and firmly sustain him.

So very true is Paul’s saying that Christ is the Chief Treasure, the Basis, the Foundation, and the Sum Total of all things, in whom and under whom all are gathered together. In Him all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge are hidden.

On the other hand, I have noted that all errors, heresies, idolatries, offenses, abuses, and ungodliness in the church have originally arisen because this article or part of the Christian faith concerning Jesus Christ has been despised or lost. Clearly and rightly considered, all heresies militate against the precious article of Jesus Christ. (Source unknown.)

The Christmas story is not primarily about the birth of a baby who would grow up to become a great moral teacher and example, although Jesus did become those things. Rather, it is the profound story of the birth of the Savior. After explaining that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit, the angel told Joseph, “And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The Hebrew name Jesus (= Joshua) means “Jehovah is salvation.” If you do not know Jesus as your Savior, then you do not know Him at all, because …

Jesus Christ came to save His people from their sins.

I want to examine this verse by asking and answering four questions: Who came? What was His purpose in coming? Whom did He purpose to save? What did He actually do? The first question will answer for us the question of Jesus’ identity. The last three will tell us the main reason why He came to earth.

1. Who came?

The context shows that this was no ordinary birth: Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit, apart from normal relations with a man (1:18, 20). This is, of course, the doctrine of the virgin birth of our Lord. Skeptics reject it because it is miraculous. William Barclay, for example, assures his readers (The Gospel of Matthew, The Daily Study Bible [Westminster Press], 1:20), “Our Church [he was from Scotland] does not compel us to accept it [the virgin birth] in the literal and the physical sense. This is one of those doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion.” He later calls the virgin birth a “crude fact” and argues that the point of the narrative is “that in the birth of Jesus the Spirit of God was operative as never before in this world” (p. 23).

But Matthew, who was one of the twelve, had direct access both to Jesus and Mary. Luke, who probably interviewed Mary, states that he carefully researched his gospel (Luke 1:3). Both men affirmed the miraculous virgin birth of Jesus. To reject this as actual history is to reject the testimony of two independent historians who lived at that time and whose writings have been accepted as factual history by thousands of scholars. The only reason for rejecting such miraculous events is an arbitrary bias against all miracles, which is a bias against God Himself, who is able to interrupt the laws of His creation according to His purpose. Thus it is reasonable to accept the virgin birth as historically true.

Why is it important doctrinally to affirm Jesus’ virgin birth? First, the virgin birth is essential to affirm the deity of Jesus Christ. If He was born of a human father and mother through natural biological processes, then He is not God in human flesh. Under those circumstances, He might be a man upon whom God’s Spirit rested in an unusual sense, but he still would only have been a man. His existence would have begun at conception, and thus He could not have been the eternal God in human flesh. Yet Jesus claimed many times that He was sent into this world from heaven, assuming prior existence. He told the Jews, “before Abraham was born, I am” (John 8:58).

Also, belief in the virgin birth is essential to affirm the sinless humanity of Jesus Christ. If He was born of natural parents, then He was born a sinner like all human beings since the fall, and He would have needed a Savior for Himself. If He had sin of His own, He could not have died as the substitute for others. To be born as a man who fully shared our humanity, Jesus had to have a human parent. Through the superintendence of the Holy Spirit in the virgin birth, Jesus was born as fully human and yet sinless. The angel told Mary that because the Holy Spirit would come upon her and the power of the most High would overshadow her, “for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Even though Mary herself was not immaculately conceived (she needed a Savior, Luke 1:47), Jesus was kept from her sin and born as fully human, yet without sin.

The angel (or Matthew, 1:23) cites Isaiah 7:14 as being ultimately fulfilled when this woman, Mary, who had not had relations with a man, bore a Son by the Holy Spirit, and this Son is none other than “God with us.” As a sinless man, Jesus could represent the human race as sin-bearer. As God the Son, His sacrifice was acceptable before God the Father.

The angel tells Joseph that he is to name this miraculous child Jesus, adding, “for it is He who will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). The Greek for Jesus is Iesous, from the Hebrew Jeshua, the contracted form of Jehoshua, which means Yahweh is salvation. “In the shorter form Jeshua the stress is on the verb; hence, he will certainly save” (William Hendriksen, The Gospel of Matthew, New Testament Commentary [Baker], p. 108). Since for the Jews a person’s name had significance, the name Jesus points us to the very essence of His being, namely, that He is the Savior. The title “Christ” means that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah, or Anointed One.

Charles Spurgeon pointed out (“Jesus,” Ages Software, sermon 1434, p. 656) that since the Father knows Jesus perfectly, when He directed that He be named Jesus, He was giving Him the best, most appropriate name possible. By giving Jesus that name, the Father commissioned Him to save sinners, and this constitutes the ground of our appeal to God for salvation.

Thus our answer to the question, “Who came?” is that Jesus Christ, born of the virgin Mary, is none other than the eternal God in human flesh, and that He came to earth primarily as the Savior.

2. What was His purpose in coming?

He came “to save His people from their sins.” To understand that phrase, you must understand the meaning of the word “save.” It is a radical word. You do not save someone who just needs a little help. You save someone who is unable to do anything to save himself. A person who is lost at sea needs saving. A person who has stopped breathing needs saving.

This means that prior to Jesus’ saving them, His people were helplessly, hopelessly lost in their sins. They were alienated from God, under His righteous judgment, and unable to free themselves from this condition. A Savior is one who has the power to rescue people who could not rescue themselves. Jesus has the God-given power to save His people from their sins.

It is important to affirm this, because there are many in evangelical circles who believe that Jesus’ ability to save anyone is contingent on the person’s exercising his “free will.” They say that He desperately wants to save them. He longs to save them. He has done everything that He can do to save them. He would save them if He could, but He can’t save them because of their unwillingness to be saved! So He sits in heaven wishing that everyone would say yes to His salvation, but unable actually to save anyone, because it all depends on the sinner’s “free will”! One writer actually goes so far as to say that if God could save everyone, but chose only to save some, He is immoral (Dave Hunt, What Love is This? [Loyal Publishing], p. 112)!

But note that our text does not say, “For He hopes that some will respond to His offer and be saved.” It does not say, “He’s going to give it His best shot and do all that He can do to save people, but it all depends on their choosing to be saved.” Thank God the text says, “He will save His people from their sins”! There isn’t any human contingency factor about it. “Salvation is from the Lord” (Jonah 2:9; Ps. 3:8; Isa. 43:11; 45:17). When Almighty God purposes to save a people, He saves that people!

In Isaiah 14:24 the Lord declares by oath, “Surely, just as I have intended so it has happened, and just as I have planned so it will stand.” In the context, the reference is to God’s breaking Assyria’s power, but if He is able to accomplish His plan to break the power of a mighty empire, can He not purpose to save and actually save His people from their sins? In Isaiah 46:9-10, God declares, “For I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is no one like Me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times things which have not been done, saying, ‘My purpose will be established, and I will accomplish all My good pleasure.” In the context, God is referring to His purpose of raising up Cyrus to accomplish God’s purpose for Israel. But, again, if the Almighty can raise up and take down a pagan king to accomplish His sovereign purpose, can He not purpose to save His people and actually save them from their sins?

Matthew 1:21 is a fulfillment of the promise of Psalm 130:8. The psalmist is overwhelmed by his sins. He is in the depths, about to go under, when he cries out in desperation to God. He recognizes that if God were to mark iniquities, no one could stand in His holy presence, but then adds, “But there is forgiveness with You, that You may be feared” (130:4). Based on the hope of God’s promises, he encourages Israel also to hope in the Lord, adding, “For with the Lord there is lovingkindness, and with Him is abundant redemption. And He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (130:7-8). Jesus is the promised Savior, who actually did redeem God’s people from all their sins.

To suggest that God’s sovereign purpose to save a people for His glory is conditioned on the feeble will of fallen man goes against all Scripture! In Ephesians 1, Paul sets forth the salvation that God has freely lavished upon us. He makes it very plain that our salvation comes totally from God. “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world” (1:4). “He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure [lit.] of His will” (1:5). Whose will? His will! “He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His good pleasure [lit.] which He purposed in Him” (1:9). In Christ, “we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will” (1:11).

I am simply saying what the Bible repeatedly affirms, that “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb” (Rev. 7:10, English Standard Version). When God purposes that Jesus will save His people from their sins, there isn’t any doubt about it. He will accomplish that purpose, to the praise of the glory of His grace! Our response should be: “Amen! Blessing and glory and wisdom and thanksgiving and honor and power and might be to our God forever and ever! Amen!” (Rev. 7:12, ESV).

Thus Jesus the Christ, who is God in human flesh, came for the purpose of saving His people from their sins.

3. Whom did He purpose to save?

Clearly, He came to “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21, emphasis added). But who are His people? In the context of Matthew, some may say that “His people” refers to the Jews, God’s chosen people. As Psalm 130:8 puts it, “He will redeem Israel from all his iniquities.” But if this means that all Jews will be saved, then we must conclude that God has failed in His purpose, since many Jews go to their graves rejecting Jesus as Savior and Messiah. Paul points out, “For they are not all Israel who are descended from Israel; nor are they all children because they are Abraham’s descendants” (Rom. 9:6-7). Rather, it is “those who are of faith” who are the true children of Abraham (Rom. 2:26-29; Gal. 3:9, 29).

Some would say that this refers to the whole world, since Jesus is “the Savior of the whole world” (John 4:42). While there is certainly a sense in which He is the Savior of the whole world (not of the Jews only; see Rev. 5:9), if His purpose in coming was to save every person who has ever lived, then we must conclude that He failed in His purpose. But since it is inconceivable that Almighty God could fail in His eternal purpose, “His people” cannot refer to every person in the world.

Some would say that “His people” refers to all who believe in Him for eternal life. I agree, but to say that is not to go far enough. The Bible says that because of the fall, all men are in spiritual death and darkness, unwilling and unable to come to Christ in faith (John 3:19-20; 8:43; Rom. 3:10-18; 8:7-8; 1 Cor. 2:14; 2 Cor. 4:4; Eph. 2:1-3). So we must ask, why do these people believe in Jesus? What enabled them to believe?

Scripture is clear that the only reason anyone believes in Jesus as Savior and Lord is that God has chosen them and drawn them to Himself (John 6:44, 65). The Spirit of God has quickened them from spiritual death to spiritual life (Eph. 2:4-5). He has opened their formerly blind eyes to see “the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ” (2 Cor. 4:4, 6). Both saving faith and repentance are gifts that God grants to His elect (Acts 5:31; 11:18; 13:48; 16:14; Eph. 2:8-9; Phil. 1:29; Heb. 12:2). They believe because God granted them faith.

Thus we must conclude that “His people” refers to those whom the Father has given to the Son (John 6:37, 39; 17:2, 6, 9), namely, His elect whom He purchased for God with His blood “from every tribe and tongue and people and nation” (Rev. 5:9). They are His people and there is not a shadow of a doubt about it, He will save them from their sins! (Read the verses above.)

There is one other thing to be noted about “His people”: They are sinners. As Jesus says (Luke 19:10), “The Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost.” These people are lost, alienated from God, because of their sins. As Jesus also says (Luke 5:31-32), “It is not those who are well who need a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” If you do not see yourself as a sinner in need of a Savior, then Jesus’ coming means nothing to you. If you think that you are a basically good person and that you will get into heaven through your own goodness, then you are not one of Jesus’ people. He came to save sinners and sinners only.

Thus we’ve seen that Jesus Christ, who is eternal God, took on human flesh to save His people from their sins. His people are those whom the Father has given to the Son. He does not hope that they will all choose Him someday, but it’s up to them to decide! Rather, He will accomplish His eternal purpose by saving them. That leads to the final question:

4. What did He do?

The answer is, “He actually saved His people from their sins.” In other words, Jesus’ death on the cross was substitutionary and specific. He died in the place of those He came to save. He did not offer Himself potentially for anyone who would later decide to believe in Him. Rather, He actually purchased His elect people from the slave market of sin by interposing His blood (Rev. 5:9), so that they do not have to pay for their own sins. Those whom He purposed to save, He saved. All whom the Father has given to the Son will come to Him, and of those, Jesus will lose none (John 6:37, 39). Jesus gives eternal life as His gift to all whom the Father has given Him (John 17:2).

When it says that He will save them from their sins, the meaning is twofold. First, He saves or delivers them from the penalty of their sins, which is eternal punishment in hell. That happens instantaneously at the moment a sinner is awakened to believe in Jesus as Savior and Lord. Second, He saves them from the power of sin in their daily lives. That happens gradually and progressively as the believer learns to walk in dependence on the Holy Spirit. It will not be perfected until the moment when we see Jesus (1 John 3:2-3). If a person is not growing in holiness and striving against sin, he needs to question whether he has been saved from his sins at all.

Conclusion

Our text is very plain: Jesus “will save His people from their sins.” My question to you is, “Are you one of His people?” If you ask, “How can I know?” the answer lies in answering some other questions. Has God opened your eyes to see that you are a sinner who deserves His judgment? If you think that you’re a pretty good person in God’s sight, then you are not one of His people (at least it has not yet been revealed). But if you say, “Yes, I know that I am a sinner, deserving of God’s judgment,” then the next question is, “Have you fled for refuge from God’s judgment to the cross of Jesus Christ?” “Are you trusting in His shed blood alone to pay the penalty for your sins?”

If you answer yes to those questions, you need to ask yourself further, “Is there any evidence that Christ has saved you from your sins?” It is possible to say that you have believed in Christ, but to have an intellectual “faith” that does not save. You must ask yourself, “Has God changed my heart?” Before you used to live for yourself only, with no regard for Christ or for what He did on the cross. But now, you love Jesus Christ and are flooded with gratitude because you know that He gave Himself on the cross for you. Before you had no hunger for holiness and were content to live in disregard of God’s commands. Now, although you do fall into sin, you mourn over your sins (Matt. 5:4), you confess them and seek to please God by forsaking sin and by obeying God (1 John 1:8-9; 2:3-6; Titus 2:14). Now your aim is to know Christ more and more (Phil. 3:9).

If you can honestly say, “Yes, those things are true of me. God has begun a good work in my heart,” then our text should bring you great joy and assurance. “He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 1:6). Jesus will save you from your sins!

If you answer no or you’re not sure if Christ has saved you yet, then give no rest to your soul until you know that your faith is in Christ alone for salvation. Either your sins are upon you or they are upon Christ. If that burden of sin is on you, Jesus bids you, “Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28). He promised, “The one who comes to Me I will certainly not cast out” (John 6:37). If you come to Jesus, you can know that you are one of His people and that He has saved you from your sins.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is believing in the virgin birth essential to the Christian faith? What other essential doctrines fall if it falls?
  2. Why is it essential to affirm that salvation is totally of God and not partly from God and partly from us? What is at stake?
  3. Is it right to give assurance of salvation to a person who claims to be a Christian, but who is living in known sin? Why/why not?
  4. How should we respond to the charge that the doctrine of election is not fair?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2002, 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 [2003]: On Wasting Your Life (Luke 2:36-38)

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December 21, 2003

Christmas Message

Life is short and uncertain. I am 56 years old, and the older I get, the more I think about the question, “Am I spending my life in such a way that when I stand before the Lord, I will hear, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant’?” How do you know whether you are wasting your life or investing it in the things that really matter?

In America we have several yardsticks by which we measure a life. One is usefulness. We are pragmatists at heart. We feel that if a person does something useful for society, whether it is a profession or a trade, he or she spends his or her life well.

Another yardstick we use is busyness or sheer activity. Our lifestyles reflect our values here—we’re all busy people. Our weekly calendars are full to the brim. We have the notion that if you just sit around and do nothing, you’re wasting your life.

We also gauge our lives by adventure and excitement. If we can’t get it firsthand, we pick it up vicariously on TV or at sporting events. Our heroes lead exciting lives, either through romance or life-and-death risk taking. We read magazines that tell us about the rich and famous, secretly wishing that our lives could be like theirs. We generally think that money and fame define success.

Often the world recognizes that having warm personal relationships is at the heart of a life well spent. If you read the obituaries, usually they mention a person’s work and hobbies. But they also mention the people whose lives were affected by the departed one. As Christians, we would concur that loving relationships with family and friends are an important measure of a life well spent.

Behind all of these yardsticks is that of personal happiness. Even if a person dies poor and unknown, if he or she was happy or content, that is what matters.

Against these yardsticks of a life well spent, I direct your attention to Anna. We meet her in the narrative about the dedication of the baby Jesus in the temple. She is described in three short verses, is not even quoted directly, and is gone. If we met a modern-day Anna, we would probably find her a bit odd. Her values clearly are out of sync with those of modern America. Can you picture a reporter for People magazine interviewing her?

Reporter: What is your name?

Anna: Anna, daughter of Phanuel, tribe of Asher. I’m Jewish.

Reporter: Whose daughter? How do you spell that? How old are you, Ma’am?

Anna: I’m 84.

Reporter: Well, I’ll bet you’ve lived an interesting life. What have you done with your life?

Anna: Like most Jewish girls, I got married in my teens, but my husband died when I was in my early twenties, before we had children. I’ve been going to the temple almost every day since then.

Reporter: You go to the temple every day? That’s amazing! What do you do there?

Anna: Well, I fast and pray a lot. And, I’m a prophetess, so I hear messages from God now and then.

Reporter: Right! (He thinks to himself, “Maybe this story belongs in the Guinness Book of World Records, not in People magazine!”)

What does the brief glimpse of Anna’s life teach us?

You will not waste your life if you spend it in devotion to God.

By our American standards, we might look at Anna’s life and think, “What a waste! Over sixty years spent in the temple fasting and praying! That’s not the kind of life I want to live.” I’ll grant that we’re not all called to devote ourselves to a ministry of prayer and fasting. Obviously, God had called her to that ministry, and she lived accordingly. But if we look just below the surface, we see that Anna lived fully devoted to God. God commends her life to us. In the Bible, every fact is confirmed by the testimony of two or three witnesses. Along with Simeon, God chose Anna to bear witness to the infant Jesus as the Messiah. Her life was well spent.

1. Devotion to God is really all that matters.

Isn’t it? Think about it—what else matters in this life? The Pharisees and scribes thought that their religious duties were what mattered. They scurried around the temple precincts that day performing their rituals, oblivious to this unique baby who was being dedicated to the Lord. They took pride in saying, “All my life I have kept God’s commandments.” But they missed the Messiah because they were really more devoted to their religion than to God. There is a difference, you know!

The Sadducees thought that political influence and power were what mattered. “Life after death,” they scoffed, “is just pie in the sky when you die. What matters is here and now!” A group of them passed within yards of the child and Anna as they debated the latest edict from Rome.

The temple merchants thought that a good income was what mattered. They hawked their temple money and sold their officially approved sacrificial animals within earshot of this carpenter, his wife, and their newborn son. They lived well and left a nice inheritance to their children when they died. But they missed God’s Savior that day.

In contrast to all of these, Anna knew that devotion to God is all that matters. She recognized the child as God’s promised Messiah. She was wiser than all the religious leaders in Jerusalem!

I read once about a computer company that went public and its president became an instant millionaire. Hours later he lost control of his Ferrari, crashed through 20 feet of guardrail, and was killed. The Los Angeles Times reported, “Until the accident at 4:30 Wednesday afternoon, it had been the best of days for [the president] and the thriving young company, …” The same week another obituary for a Chinese politburo official, who died of a heart attack, stated that his “death came one week before he was expected to be elected vice president of China.” If either man died without Christ, we should ask, “What does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his own soul?”

I once read of a man who thought that he knew how to live to be 120. I thought, “Okay, what if he succeeds? Then what?” Even if we could figure out how to live to 900, like the early patriarchs, we still have to die and face eternity. In light of that, devotion to God is really all that matters in this life! With it, we can enjoy earthly blessings if God grants them. Without it, we’ve really wasted our lives. The fact is, not everyone can attain the things that the world labels as success. But,

2. Devotion to God is available to everyone.

No matter what your station in life, you can devote yourself to the Lord, and that makes whoever you are and whatever you do count in light of eternity. Take Anna, for example.

Anna was a woman. While Jewish women enjoyed more respect in that day than women in other cultures, there still was a fair amount of discrimination against them. The rabbis did not approve of the same amount of instruction in the Torah being given to girls as to boys. They regarded women’s minds as not adapted for such investigations (Alfred Edersheim, Sketches of Jewish Social Life [Eerdmans], pp. 132-133). Women were restricted to an area of the temple called “The Women’s Court.” They could not enter the inner court where the ceremonies were performed. According to Josephus, women and slaves could not give evidence in court (cited by Roland de Vaux, Ancient Israel [McGraw-Hill], 1:156).

And yet the Lord is pleased to include the testimony of Anna concerning Jesus. God is no respecter of persons. He is pleased with the devotion of any person, male or female.

Anna was a widow. In fact, she had been widowed at an early age. She easily could have grown bitter toward God. She could have complained of her loneliness. Widows in that culture didn’t have much opportunity to get an education and learn a business or trade to provide for themselves. They were often the target of unscrupulous businessmen. No doubt Anna had experienced a difficult life. And yet she did not turn her back on God. In fact, God declares that He has a special concern for orphans and widows: “A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows is God in His holy habitation” (Ps. 68:5). Anna took refuge under God’s protective care. Her trials drove her to deeper devotion to God, not away from Him.

Anna was elderly. While the elderly were more respected in that society than they are in ours, they were still subject to abuse. In our pragmatic society, the elderly are often viewed as a useless burden on society. They can’t take care of themselves. They can’t make a living. But, thankfully, God does not view the elderly that way, and neither should we! If an elderly person is devoted to God, their life and death is precious in His sight (Ps. 116:15).

The point is, no matter what your station in life—male or female, young or old, rich or poor—you can devote yourself to God and He will be pleased with your devotion. The world may ignore or despise you, but God always has had such a godly remnant. They are the salt of the earth; they preserve the whole mass from corruption. You can be counted among them.

Thus, devotion to God is all that matters; it is available to all.

3. Devotion to God takes many outward forms, but it always involves worship, witness, and waiting.

A. Devotion to God involves worship.

Probably Anna did not live in the temple, but Luke means that she was there all the time. The word translated “serving” (NASB) has the nuance of worshipful service to God. Anna’s worship took the form of “fastings and prayers” (2:37).

Fasting usually means going without food for some period of time for the purpose of seeking God in prayer. For the Jews, the most common fast lasted from sunrise to sunset, although the Bible mentions longer fasts. The Day of Atonement was an annual national fast. Otherwise, fasting was done in times of personal or national distress, or as preparation for special times of seeking the Lord. If you’d like a challenge, read (as I did this year) John Piper’s A Hunger for God [Crossway Books], subtitled, “Desiring God Through Fasting and Prayer.” I confess that I am no where near Pastor Piper in his experience with fasting. I have, though, found it to be a beneficial way of seeking the Lord when I needed to know His will and in times of crisis. (Donald Whitney, in Spiritual Disciplines of the Christian Life [NavPress], has a helpful chapter 9, “Fasting” for the Purpose of Godliness.”)

Anna’s worship also took the form of prayers. God gifts some of His saints by enabling them to devote large blocks of time to the ministry of prayer. Part of that time involves interceding for others, but part of it also consists of praise and thanksgiving. The main thing in prayer is to seek God and commune with Him.

Even if the ministry of worship through fasting and prayer is not your area of gift, you still should set aside time to seek the Lord as Anna did. Whether it is a half-day each quarter, one lunch hour each week, or an hour or two each weekend, I encourage you to put it on your calendar. Spend the time in devotion to the Lord. Read His Word, sing some hymns or praise songs, and pray. I have found that if I don’t put it in my schedule, other things crowd it out and I don’t do it.

B. Devotion to God involves witness.

Anna couldn’t keep it to herself; she “continued to speak of Him” to others (2:38). If your cup is brim-full, you can’t help but slop some of it on others. If your heart is full of thankfulness to God, who sent His Son to save you from your sins, people around you will know about it. Some believers justify not witnessing by saying, “I don’t talk about it; I just live the message.” But part of living the Christian life is talking about it!

We all talk about the things we love. Have you ever been around a sports fanatic? What does he talk about? “Did you see that game last night!” Have you ever been around a young man or woman who has just fallen in love? What do they talk about?

Yes, you need to be tactful and sensitive. Yes, you need to wait on the Lord for the right opening. But, most of us don’t err on the side of being too bold. The order, by the way, is important: Worship first, then witness. The reason Anna was telling everyone about the Lord Jesus was that she spent much time in private devotion with the Lord. All too often, the reason that we do not bear witness is that we have lost our first love.

C. Devotion to God involves waiting.

Not only Simeon and Anna, but others also were “looking for the redemption of Jerusalem” (2:25, 38). While that phrase has nationalistic overtones, it also refers to the spiritual redemption that God had long ago promised and now was bringing to fruition for His people (Isa. 40:1, 9; 52:9; 63:4). J. C. Ryle (Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], 2:74-75) observes that although these people lived in a wicked city, they “were not carried away by the flood of worldliness, formality, and self-righteousness around them. They were not infected by the carnal expectations of a mere worldly Messiah, in which most Jews indulged. They lived in the faith of patriarchs and prophets, that the coming Redeemer would bring in holiness and righteousness, and that His principal victory would be over sin and the devil.” With Jacob, all who are devoted to God cry out, “For Your salvation I wait, O Lord” (Gen. 49:18).

Devotion to God is really all that matters. It is available to everyone. It takes many outward forms, but always involves worship, witness, and waiting for His final redemption to come.

4. Devotion to God is one and the same with devotion to Jesus Christ.

Anna was devoted to God, but the instant she saw the baby Jesus, she thanked God and began to speak of Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Note:

A. God the Son and God the Father are inextricably joined in Scripture.

Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). He said, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The mystery of the Christmas story is that the eternal God took on human flesh in the person of Jesus. Through the miracle of the virgin birth, Mary’s offspring is Immanuel, which means, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). While we can never fully understand the nature of the Trinity, we must affirm the revealed truth of Scripture, that the one God exists as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

This means that you cannot know God the Father apart from knowing Jesus, God the Son. In John 8:19, Jesus told the Jews, “You know neither Me nor My Father; if you knew Me, you would know My Father also.” First John 2:23 states, “Whoever denies the Son does not have the Father; the one who confesses the Son has the Father also.” You cannot separate God and Jesus Christ. Those who say they worship God, but who deny the deity of the Son of God, are badly mistaken. Jesus claimed, “He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him” (John 5:23).

B. God the Son is the Redeemer of God’s people.

Anna was looking for “the redemption of Jerusalem,” and she found it in Jesus. The entire human race is in bondage to sin and under the just condemnation of God’s law. But God sent “Christ [to redeem] us from the curse of the Law, having become a curse for us … in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith” (Gal. 3:13-14).

The concept of “redemption” implies three things. First, redemption implies antecedent bondage. A free person does not need redemption; slaves need redemption. Every person is born enslaved to sin and under the curse of judgment imposed by God’s holy law. Second, redemption implies cost. A price must be paid to buy the slave out of bondage. Since the wages of sin is death, that was the price to redeem us from our sins. A sinless substitute had to die in our place to satisfy God’s justice. Jesus Christ did that on the cross. Third, redemption implies the ownership of that which is redeemed. Since Christ bought us with His blood, we are not our own. “For you have been bought with a price: therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:20).

When the slave trade was active in West Africa, the traders would go into the interior and capture hundreds of people. They would put an iron collar around the captives’ necks to keep them in check until they arrived back at the coast for shipment. A chain went from one iron collar to the next, so none could escape.

As the captives marched through the villages on the way to the coast, a villager sometimes recognized a friend or relative among them. If he were financially able, he could redeem that person with a payment of silver or gold. He delivered him from bondage by the payment of a price. Scripture says, “you were not redeemed with perishable things like silver or gold from your futile way of life inherited from your forefathers, but with precious blood, as of a lamb unblemished and spotless, the blood of Christ” (1 Pet. 1:18-19).

We see God’s great love in that He sent His Son to this earth to meet the demands of His holy justice. What God required, He provided at great cost to Himself. Jesus came to offer Himself as the price of our redemption. If you have not been redeemed through Christ’s blood, then whether you realize it or not, you are enslaved to sin and headed for God’s eternal judgment. You are wasting your life. Receiving by faith God’s gift of redemption is the beginning of a life of devotion to Him.

Conclusion

On his deathbed at age 52, Matthew Henry, whose commentary on the whole Bible is still widely used almost 300 years later, said to a friend, “You have been used to take notice of the sayings of dying men—this is mine: that a life spent in the service of God and communion with Him, is the most pleasant life that anyone can live in this world” (source unknown).

Anna would agree. A life devoted to God is not wasted. It is a life well spent. A life devoted to anything else, no matter how noble or how highly praised in the world, is a life ultimately wasted. Here is an action point for the New Year: Read John Piper’s excellent new book, Don’t Waste Your Life [Crossway]. It’s about how to lose your life for Christ’s sake, and thereby not waste it. I wish I had read it when I was 20. Whether you are young or old, you will find reading it to be a profitable use of your time!

Whatever you do for a living, make sure that devotion for Jesus Christ is at the heart of why you are living. To live for anything else is to waste your life.

Discussion Questions

  1. Would you agree with or dispute the statement, “Devotion to God is really all that matters”? What are the implications of this biblically?
  2. If a person is fully devoted to God, will he or she go into “full-time” Christian service? Why/why not?
  3. Should every person seek to find fulfillment in his or her job? Why/why not?
  4. How can a Christian know where and in what capacity God wants him or her to serve?
  5. How can we maintain fervent devotion to Jesus Christ in the midst of life’s pressures?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2003, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Christmas, Spiritual Life

Christmas [2004]: Christ, the Hope of the World (Luke 2:25-35)

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December 19, 2004

Christmas Message

During World War II, six pilots took off from an aircraft carrier in the North Atlantic to scout some enemy submarines. While they were gone, the captain of the carrier was forced to issue a blackout alarm. The ship went totally dark.

When the pilots tried to return, they could not find the ship. They radioed, “Give us some light, we’re coming home.” The ship’s radio operator replied, “Order: blackout. I cannot give you light.” In turn, each pilot desperately radioed the same message: “Just give me some light and I’ll make it.” Each time, the operator had to radio back, “No light—blackout!” Because there was no light on that ship, six young pilots went to their graves in the icy North Atlantic (adapted from, Paul Tan, Encyclopedia of 7,700 Illustrations [Assurance Publishers], # 5366).

We live in a dark world that desperately needs light. The birth of Jesus Christ, who is God’s salvation, brought the light that offers hope to a world of despair.

Soon after Jesus was forty-days-old, His parents brought Him into the temple in Jerusalem, in accordance with the Law of Moses, to offer the appropriate sacrifice for Him as their firstborn male (Lev. 12:8; 5:11; Exod. 13:2, 12). It was a common sight. Most people in the temple precincts that day ignored this poor, common couple and their baby. But the face of one old man, Simeon, lit up with rapturous joy. He came up to this couple, took their baby in his arms, looked heavenward, and exclaimed (Luke 2:29-32),

Now, Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel.

Here is an old man with true light and true hope, centered in that little baby, the Lord Jesus Christ. Simeon did not possess unusual genius or powers of perception. The text (2:26) says that the Holy Spirit had revealed to him that he would not die until he had seen the Lord’s Christ. The Spirit led Simeon into the temple that day at precisely the time that Joseph and Mary came with the baby Jesus (2:27). The Spirit obviously revealed to Simeon, “There He is! That little baby is the One!”

If Simeon had been relying on his natural powers, he would have missed Him. He would have been looking for a royal procession, with all of the pomp and circumstance attending the child of the king. The high priest and the Sanhedrin would have been swarming around the procession.

Instead, all that he saw was a carpenter, his young wife, and their baby. There was no halo over Jesus’ head. But the Spirit directed Simeon to approach this ordinary-looking couple and their ordinary-looking baby. With eyes of faith, Simeon saw in their arms the Light of the world, born to bring hope to all peoples. To see Him today, you must also look with eyes of faith that have been opened by God’s Spirit. Pray that God would grant you eyes to see what many miss (Luke 10:21-24).

Before we look more carefully at this story, I want to remind you that it is not a fairy tale or legend. Luke begins his Gospel by telling his first reader, Theophilus, that he has investigated everything carefully and written it out “so that you may know the exact truth about the things you have been taught” (Luke 1:1-4). Luke probably interviewed Mary to get the details about these early events in the life of her Son. This account is factual history, not make-believe. That’s important to keep in mind, because hope based on fairy tales is not solid hope. Hope built on truth will do for you what it did for Simeon: It will release you to die in peace.

I want to answer the question: What does it mean to hope in Christ? How can we know the hope that flooded this old saint about 2,000 years ago? His story shows that…

To hope in Christ is to recognize and personally trust Him as God’s salvation.

In order to hope in Christ, first…

1. We must recognize Jesus for who He is: God’s Christ, the only way of salvation.

The most crucial question in life for each person to answer is the one Jesus asked His disciples: “But who do you say that I am?” (Matt. 16:15). Everything hangs on the correct answer to that question! If Jesus is who He claimed to be, then we must bow before Him as the Sovereign Lord and yield all that we are and have to His service. If He is not who He claimed to be, then our faith is worthless. You’re free to live as you please (1 Cor. 15:14, 32).

Peter gave the correct answer to Jesus’ question: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Jesus affirmed that answer, “Blessed are you, Simon Barjona, because flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but My Father who is in heaven” (Matt. 16:16-17). To recognize and believe in Jesus as God’s Christ, the Father must open our blind eyes. Jesus, born of the virgin Mary in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy (Mic. 5:2), is the Lord’s Christ.

Christ and Messiah are synonyms for the word anoint (Christ from the Greek; Messiah from the Hebrew). Jesus is God’s Anointed One, promised for thousands of years in the Old Testament. Psalm 2 identifies God’s Anointed One as His Son and promises that He will rule the nations with a rod of iron (Ps. 2:7, 9; Rev. 19:15).

Luke says that Simeon was looking for “the consolation of Israel,” a term for the Messiah taken from Isaiah 40:1-3:

“Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God. “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; and call out to her, that her warfare has ended, that her iniquity has been removed, that she has received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.”

That last verse refers to the forerunner of Christ, John the Baptist (Luke 3:4-6). The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that this baby in Mary’s arms was “the Lord’s Christ, the consolation of Israel”! Simeon’s prayer reveals three essential truths about Jesus:

A. God prepared Christ as a light for revelation to the Gentiles and the glory of His people Israel (2:32).

God prepared salvation. This means that it comes totally from Him, according to His purpose for the ages. It is not the result of brilliant men philosophizing about how we can get to heaven. Rather, it is God’s revelation of the plan of salvation that He devised. “All peoples” (2:31) refers to the whole world. God’s salvation through Jesus is not exclusively for the Jews, but through them to all the nations. Verse 32 is probably best understood to mean that Christ, who is God’s salvation (2:30), would be light for all people, but in particular, revelation to the Gentiles and glory for Israel (Darrell Bock, Luke [Baker], 1:244). In Luke 1:78-79, Zecharias had prophesied that Jesus was “the Sunrise from on high” who would “visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Israel, as well as the Gentiles, needed the light of Christ.

The Bible is clear that as fallen sinners, both Jews and Gentiles are spiritually blind (Matt. 13:14-15; 15:14; John 9:39-41; Eph. 4:18). As such, they cannot know what God is like by philosophy or reason. Not knowing what God is like, they cannot exercise their “free will” to come to God, any more than a blind man can choose to see. Spiritually blind people need an infusion of supernatural power in order to see.

In the Old Testament, God chose to reveal Himself to the Jews, and through them to bring the Savior who would be a light to the nations. He told Israel (Isa. 42:6-7),

“I am the Lord, I have called you in righteousness, I will also hold you by the hand and watch over you, and I will appoint you as a covenant to the people, as a light to the nations, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the dungeon and those who dwell in darkness from the prison.”

So Jesus, God’s Christ, is the light to the whole world, but He is in particular the glory for Israel in that “salvation is from the Jews” (John 4:22; see also, Rom. 9:1-5). But, as we know, and as Simeon alludes to (Luke 2:34-35), the Jews as a people would reject their Messiah.

But as Paul explains (Romans 11), God used Israel’s rejection of Christ to open the door of salvation to the Gentiles. He brought a temporary hardening on Israel, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. But then, all Israel will be saved (Rom. 11:25-26). I understand that to mean that just prior to Christ’s return, there will be a widespread revival among the Jews. Today, the Jews in Israel are about 80 percent atheistic and most of the rest, like the Pharisees, reject Jesus and trust in their own legalistic righteousness. But, the day will come when, as the Lord says (Zech. 12:10; 13:1),

I will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him, as one mourns for an only son, and they will weep bitterly over Him like the bitter weeping over a firstborn…. In that day a fountain will be opened for the house of David and for the inhabitants of Jerusalem, for sin and for impurity.

Thus Jesus is the Light, and His coming served as “revelation to the Gentiles.” He revealed God’s way of salvation to all the nations in a way that was revealed only to the Jews before His coming. He also serves as “the glory of [His] people Israel.” His coming fulfilled God’s many promises to bring the Savior through the nation of Israel (Isa. 46:13; 60:1-3). But, also,

B. God prepared Christ to bring judgment on all that oppose Him.

Simeon tells Mary (2:34-35), “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” This is the first hint in Luke’s Gospel that Christ’s coming would not bring salvation and peace to everyone. Note first the word, appointed (2:34). That word assures us that the evil men who opposed and crucified Jesus did not somehow thwart God’s sovereign plan. He appointed Jesus for the cross, and yet those that crucified Him were responsible for their evil deeds (see Acts 2:24; 4:27-28).

Scholars debate whether verse 34 refers to one or two groups. If the former, the meaning is that those who stand in their spiritual pride must fall before Jesus before they can rise in salvation. If the latter, it means that Jesus will divide men. Those who oppose Him will fall in judgment. Those who accept Him will rise in salvation (Leon Morris, Luke [IVP/Eerdmans], p. 89). While both views are true spiritually, probably the second view is the sense here (Bock, p. 247).

The next phrase, “a sign to be opposed,” underscores the fact that although Jesus is the Christ, the hope of Israel, many would oppose and reject Him. He would also reveal the “thoughts from many hearts.” Thoughts has the nuance of hostile thoughts (Bock, p. 250). Jesus’ life and ministry would expose the inner hostility of those that opposed Him.

The point is, you can’t be neutral toward Jesus Christ. He draws a line in the sand and demands that you take sides. Either you acknowledge Him as God’s Christ, submit your life to His absolute lordship, and “rise” in salvation. Or, you think, “I’ll do it my way,” and you will “fall” in judgment. Everything hinges on the correct answer to the question, “Who do you say that I am?” Simeon’s words point to a third truth here:

C. God prepared Christ to bring salvation through His death.

Simeon parenthetically tells Mary, “a sword will pierce even your own soul.” There are at least ten views of what this may mean (Bock, pp. 248-249). I believe that it refers to the extreme anguish that Mary felt when she saw her Son rejected and crucified (Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel According to St. Luke [Charles Scribner’s Sons], pp. 70-71).

Immediately after Peter’s confession, Jesus declared that, “He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised up on the third day” (Matt. 16:21). God’s plan in sending His Son in human flesh was that He would die as the sacrifice that God’s justice demands for our sins. “The wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23), which means, eternal separation from God. Either you trust Jesus’ death as payment for your sins now, or you will pay that penalty yourself.

So the first thing is to ask God for eyes to see Jesus as God’s Christ, the only way of salvation.

2. We must personally trust Christ as God’s salvation.

Simeon had already trusted God’s Christ as his salvation before he saw the baby Jesus. His hope rested in God’s promise to send the Savior. When he saw Jesus, he recognized Him as the fulfillment of God’s specific promise, that he would not die before he had seen the Christ. Thus he could exclaim, “Now Lord, you are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, according to Your word” (2:29). In seeing Jesus, Simeon saw God’s salvation (2:30).

Simeon had to see Jesus by faith. There was nothing physically extraordinary about Jesus or Mary and Joseph. There was no halo and no parade of dignitaries marching behind this baby. All that Simeon had was God’s word and the Holy Spirit’s revelation. Simeon trusted God’s word, and therefore he overflows with hope in this little baby as God’s Christ, His salvation.

If you have looked to Jesus in faith as your only hope of God’s salvation, then with Simeon, you are ready to depart from this earth in peace. If you have not done so, if you view Jesus as perhaps a great religious leader, but not as God’s salvation, you are in spiritual darkness, opposed to Him. Your response to Jesus Christ reveals the thoughts of your heart (2:36).

Conclusion

Maybe you’re wondering, “How can I know if my hope and trust are truly in Christ?” A glance at Simeon’s life (this is the only time he is mentioned in Scripture) shows us seven characteristics of the person who trusts Jesus as God’s salvation. Not all of these qualities will be immediately evident, but they will be developing in the one who hopes in Christ. Check yourself against this list:

(1). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you seek to live a righteous and devout life.

Simeon is described as “righteous and devout” (2:25), which refers to his character. Righteous means that his behavior in the sight of God and towards his fellow man was in accordance with God’s standards. Both in private and in public, Simeon sought to obey God. Devout has the connotation of reverent or careful. Simeon was careful about his relationship to God. While we can skim over those two words in an instant, they reflect a lifetime of cultivation. These qualities do not just happen accidentally. They reflect a deliberate commitment to live in a manner pleasing to God.

(2). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you live in the fullness of the Holy Spirit.

The Holy Spirit is mentioned three times in 2:25-27. It is obvious that Simeon’s life was marked by dependence on God’s Spirit, and this was before the Day of Pentecost! Since that day, all that trust Christ as Savior possess the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:9). We are commanded to walk by the Spirit (Gal. 5:16), which means consciously to depend on Him in every step we take. Would you have missed the Spirit if He had withdrawn from your life last week?

(3). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you view yourself as God’s servant.

Simeon (2:29) calls God by a title that is not used often in the New Testament, “Sovereign Lord” (NIV; NASB, “Lord”). We get our word despot from it. It has the nuance of “absolute ownership and uncontrolled power” (Thayer’s Greek English Lexicon of the New Testament [Harper & Brothers, 1887], p. 130). Simeon refers to himself as the Lord’s bond-servant. Bond-servants were the property of their masters and had no personal rights. Everyone bought by the precious blood of Christ recognizes, “you are not your own[?] For you have been bought with a price” (1 Cor. 6:19-20).

(4). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you have insight into spiritual truth.

Through the Holy Spirit, Simeon understood far more than the religious leaders of the day. He knew that this child in his arms was the promised Christ. He knew that not all would welcome Him, but that there would be much opposition, resulting in deep anguish for Mary. He knew that God’s Messiah was also given as a light to the Gentiles, something that the early church had to grapple with up through the Jerusalem Council! Paul explains that while the natural man cannot understand the things of God, the spiritual man appraises all things, because “we have the mind of Christ” (1 Cor. 2:14-16).

(5). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you bless God for sending Jesus to this earth.

When this dear old saint held the baby Jesus in his arms, he blessed God for fulfilling His promises. Everyone who has trusted Christ as Savior is filled with thanksgiving to God “for His indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15).

(6). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you are satisfied with Jesus alone.

All that Simeon needed in life was to hold Jesus in his arms. That one moment in the temple, holding God’s Savior, made all his life worth living. It satisfied his soul so that he had accomplished all that he aimed at in life. With the psalmist, Simeon could say, “besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Ps. 73:25b). With Paul, Christ was Simeon’s “all in all” (Col. 3:11). When you have trusted Christ, you are satisfied with all that He is to you!

(7). If you recognize and trust Christ as God’s salvation, you are ready to depart this life in peace.

Simeon’s words picture a sentinel who had been given the assignment of keeping watch through a long, dark night for the rising of a special star. Finally, he sees the star rising in its brightness. He announces it to his commander and has fulfilled his duty. He can now take his rest (Norval Geldenhuys, Commentary on the Gospel of Luke [Eerdmans], p. 119). When you’ve trusted in Christ as Savior, you know that you are right with God. Your eyes have seen the light of His salvation. When He gives the word, you are ready to depart this life and be with Him forever.

Jesus Christ is the hope of the world, but you must put your hope in Him personally. To hope in Christ means recognizing and personally trusting Him as God’s salvation.

If Christ is your salvation, you can have hope no matter how difficult your circumstances. During World War II, some American prisoners in a German concentration camp secretly received word of the Allied victory three days before the Germans heard of it. During those three days, their circumstances were no different. They still suffered all the hardships that they had become used to. But their attitude changed dramatically. A wave of hope spread among the prisoners. Victory and liberation were assured! They could endure those last three days because they had hope.

Whether you’re suffering from a difficult disease or grieving the loss of a loved one or facing overwhelming trials of some other nature, you can have hope if you will trust Jesus Christ as God’s salvation for you. He has won the victory. Those who hope in Him will not be disappointed!

Discussion Questions

  1. Why is “who do you say that I am?” the most important question in the world?
  2. Some say that if spiritually blind people do not have the ability to open their eyes, God is unfair to judge them for not opening their eyes. How would you refute this error (with Scripture)?
  3. How can a believer be filled with the Holy Spirit? Is it a growing process or a “pull the lever” kind of matter?
  4. Can a person “accept Jesus as Savior,” but not as Lord? Why must the two always be joined?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2004, 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 [2006]: The Eternal Word Made Flesh (John 1:1, 14)

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December 24, 2006

Christmas Message

As I’ve said before, there is a question that is the most crucial question in all of life, which you must answer carefully. If you have not answered this question correctly, you are not ready to die and you are not equipped to live. It is a question that affects every area of your life.

The question is the one that Jesus asked His disciples (Matt. 16:15), “Who do you say that I am?” Your answer to that question determines your eternal destiny. Maybe you’re thinking, “I thought that my eternal destiny was determined by having faith in Jesus Christ.” True, but unless you know who Jesus Christ truly is, your faith is in an imaginary Jesus. For your faith truly to be in Jesus, you must understand who He is. The Mormons and the Jehovah’s Witnesses have some sort of faith in some sort of Jesus, but he is not the Jesus revealed in the Bible. Such faith will not save anyone.

Your answer to that question not only affects your eternal destiny, but also how you live. If God has opened your eyes to see that Jesus is Lord, then He has something to say about whom you marry, about how you relate to your mate and how you rear your children. He tells you how to operate your business, how to manage your money, and how to govern all of your life. If Jesus is the Lord of the universe, then He must be the Lord of every aspect of your life, beginning on the thought level.

I must add that once you have seen that Jesus truly is the Lord God in human flesh, you will have to come back repeatedly to that crucial question, “Who do you say that I am?” John the Baptist, the bold prophet who served as the forerunner to Jesus Christ, had certainly answered that question. He proclaimed Jesus as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). He went on to explain (John 1:30), “This is He on behalf of whom I said, ‘After me comes a Man who has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” Jesus was six months younger than John, but John affirmed Jesus’ preexistence. John proclaimed (John 1:34), “I myself have seen, and have testified that this is the Son of God.” John was clear on that crucial question.

But later, Herod imprisoned John. As the months passed and he was not released, he began to wonder, “Am I mistaken? If Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and I am His messenger, why doesn’t Jesus open these prison doors and get me out?” Surely, John and his disciples were praying fervently for his release, but those prayers were not being answered. So John sent messengers to Jesus to ask (Matt. 11:3), “Are You the Expected One, or shall we look for someone else?” His difficult circumstances and his unanswered prayers made him waver on the crucial question: Is Jesus really the Son of God? Have you been there with John?

Jesus sent back a clear answer (Matt. 11:4-6), “Go and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who does not take offense at Me.” John would have recognized that Jesus’ words show that He is the promised Messiah, fulfilling the prophecies of Isaiah 35. So even though John would soon lose his head, it really didn’t matter, since Jesus is the Son of God. And when you are in prison and God isn’t answering your prayers, it is essential that you are clear about who Jesus really is.

You will face other times when you struggle with hard issues: Why does a loving God allow so much suffering in this world, especially with little children? Why does an almighty, loving God allow so many people to die with no opportunity to be saved? There was an occasion when Jesus taught some difficult things. He said that (John 6:53-54) “unless you eat the flesh of the son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in yourselves. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Many of His disciples stumbled over these words.

But Jesus didn’t soften His words. Rather, He asked them (6:61-64), “Does this cause you to stumble? What then if you see the Son of Man ascending to where He was before? It is the Spirit who gives life; the flesh profits nothing; the words that I have spoken to you are spirit and are life. But there are some of you who do not believe.” He added (6:65), “For this reason I have said to you, that no one can come to Me unless it has been granted him from the Father.” John adds (6:66), “As a result of this many of His disciples withdrew and were not walking with Him anymore.” But, rather than backing off, Jesus turned to the twelve and asked (6:67), “You do not want to go away also, do you?”

Have you been there? I have! You were following Jesus when you came up against some hard words that you didn’t like. You were tempted to turn away. What did you do? How do you process those difficult moments? Peter goes back to that crucial question. He answered (6:68-69), “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life. We have believed and have come to know that You are the Holy One of God.” If Jesus is the Holy One of God, who has the words of eternal life, then you must follow Him, even when He speaks difficult words that you don’t like.

All of this is to introduce our text. John begins his Gospel with no introduction. He doesn’t bother to tell you who is writing. There are no greetings. He hits you right off with the answer to the crucial question, the answer that perhaps you weren’t even aware that you needed! He states (John 1:1), “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”

Then, after expounding on that statement (1:2-13), John comes back to the crucial question—who is Jesus Christ? He sets forth one of the greatest mysteries that our minds can try to comprehend (1:14): “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth.” The eternal Word, the Almighty Creator, took on human flesh and dwelt among us! John writes his gospel to present the glory of this unique Person of Jesus Christ, “so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name” (20:31). The simple but profound message of our text is,

Because Jesus Christ is the eternal God in human flesh, we must trust Him as Savior and follow Him as Lord.

Let’s look first at verse 1, which shows…

1. The Word is revealed in eternity as God (1:1).

John makes three affirmations in verse 1:

A. Jesus is eternal.

Verse 14 makes it clear that the Word is Jesus. In a moment we will look at the implications of referring to Him as the Word. But for now, focus on the statement, “In the beginning was the Word.” It reminds us of the opening statement of the Bible (Gen. 1:1), “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Both statements hit you with force. They do not let you debate, “Does God exist?” They don’t present themselves as, “In my opinion, if you care to accept it, …” Rather, it hits you before you have time to duck, “In the beginning God….” “In the beginning was the Word….” Pow!

John wants us to see that he is writing about a new creation that centers in the eternal Word, who is also the Creator of all things (1:3). The statement means, in the beginning of time, before the heavens and earth existed, the Word was already existing. There never was a time when the Word was not.

You can’t wrap your mind around that concept! I may be able to fathom billions of years ago, although even that is beyond my comprehension. But how can you fathom eternity without time? Everything that we perceive, including the earth, the sun, and the universe, had a beginning. The Word had no beginning!

B. Jesus is the second person of the Trinity.

John continues, “and the Word was with God.” Leon Morris (The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans, 1971], p. 76) explains the preposition (“with”), “The whole existence of the Word was oriented towards the Father. Probably we should understand from the preposition the two ideas of accompaniment and relationship.” He notes that John’s repeating this in verse 2 shows that it is not a casual comment, but one of great importance.

In the first phrase, John establishes the eternal nature of the Word as God. In the second phrase, he shows that the Word “existed in the closest possible connection with the Father” (Morris, ibid.). It shows that the Word is not an impersonal idea or philosophy, but a Person. This Person is distinguishable from God, although (as the first and third phrases show), He is eternal God.

Although xxour finite minds cannot comprehend the mystery of the Trinity, Scripture is clear that God is one God who exists in three distinct persons. Each person is fully God and yet He is not three Gods, but one God (see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology [Zondervan, 1994], pp. 226-258).

C. Jesus is God.

The third phrase is, “and the Word was God.” As Morris states (p. 76), “Nothing higher could be said. All that may be said about God may fitly be said about the Word. This statement should not be watered down.” He clarifies (p. 77), “John is not merely saying that there is something divine about Jesus. He is affirming that He is God, and doing so emphatically as we see from the word order in the Greek.”

If you have had an encounter with the Jehovah’s Witnesses, you know that they claim that the Greek text says, “the word was a god,” because there is no Greek definite article before “God.” Every cult errs with regard to their view of the person of Jesus Christ. Satan knows that if people do not have the biblical view of who Jesus is, then they have answered the crucial question wrongly. If they do not truly know the Son, they will not honor Him as God. If they do not honor the Son, they do not honor the Father, either (John 5:23).

So how do we answer the Jehovah’s Witnesses? First, this is the only way in Greek to say, “the Word was God.” If John had put the definite article before God, it would have equated the Word totally with God, thus negating the distinction between the Word and God that he made in the second phrase. Second, without getting too technical, there is a rule of Greek grammar (Colwell’s rule) that shows that when definite nouns precede the verb, they regularly (about 80 percent of the time) lack the definite article. For example, the same Greek construction is in John 1:49, where Nathaniel proclaims, “Rabbi, You are the Son of God; You are the King of Israel.” There is no article before “King,” but obviously, Nathaniel isn’t saying, “You are a king of Israel.” He was proclaiming Jesus as the King of Israel. The lack of the article emphasizes the quality of the noun.

Third, there are many other Scriptures that clearly proclaim Jesus as God. When, at the climax of John’s gospel (20:28), Thomas sees the risen Jesus, he proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” The Jehovah’s Witnesses claim that he was making an exclamation! But that would have been swearing. Surely, Jesus would have rebuked so serious a sin. Instead, Jesus affirms Thomas’ confession.

Years later, on the Isle of Patmos, the apostle John had a vision of the risen Lord (Rev. 1:17-18). John fell before Him as a dead man. Jesus said, “Do not be afraid; I am the first and the last, and the living One; and I was dead, and behold, I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of death and of Hades.” Isaiah 44:6 says, “Thus says the Lord, the King of Israel and his Redeemer, the Lord of hosts: ‘I am the first and I am the last, and there is no God besides Me.’” In light of Isaiah, clearly Jesus was claiming to be the Lord of hosts, the only living and true God!

Thus verse 1 affirms, Jesus is eternal; He is the second person of the Trinity; and, He is God. Also, it affirms that…

D. God has spoken in Jesus.

John refers to Jesus as “the Word.” There have been books written on this subject, but to keep it brief and simple, consider two things:

(1). As the Word, Jesus reveals what the invisible God is like.

You cannot know my thoughts unless I put them into words. God is spirit, and thus invisible to our finite senses. As Paul says (1 Tim. 6:16), He “dwells in unapproachable light, whom no man has seen or can see.” Or, as John (1:18) says, “No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God [some manuscripts read, “Son”] who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him.” Jesus Himself asserted (John 14:9), “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Thus it is only through Jesus that we can know God personally (Luke 10:22).

(2). As the Word, Jesus shows our responsibility towards God.

Hebrews (1:1-2) begins, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world.” If God has spoken to us and Jesus is His Word, then we had better listen to and obey Jesus! As John 3:36 draws the line, “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son will not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” To ignore God’s word to us in Jesus is a serious mistake! Jesus is the eternal God, the authoritative Word of God. Ignore Him to your eternal peril!

2. The Word is revealed in time as God in human flesh (1:14).

John 1:14 is one of the most wonderful and yet unfathomable verses in the Bible! How can God, who is spirit, become human flesh? How can the eternal become temporal? How can the unchangeable God take on a human body, subject to change? How can the immortal die as the substitute for our sins? How can the man, Jesus, whom John saw, also be the eternal Creator of the universe? But in spite of the incomprehensible mystery, this is what the Bible declares. As the angel explained to Mary (Luke 1:35), “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.” John 1:14 makes four statements:

A. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

“The Word” takes us back to verse 1, meaning, the eternal Word who is God. This eternal one became flesh. John could have used a more mild term, such as, He became man. Perhaps John used “flesh” to counter the false teaching of the Docetists, who denied the true humanity of Jesus (1 John 4:2-3). They asserted that all matter is evil, which the Bible does not teach. Although Jesus does not share our sinful nature, He is completely human.

“Dwelt among us” means, literally, “tabernacled among us.” The tabernacle in the Old Testament was an earthly picture of God’s dwelling place among men. Jesus, in His human body, was God “pitching His tent” among men for a period of time.

B. We saw His glory.

God’s glory was associated with the tabernacle (Exod. 40:34, 35). With regard to Jesus, when He performed His first miracle, turning the water into wine, John 2:11 reports, “This beginning of His signs Jesus did in Cana of Galilee, and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” (See, also 11:4, 40.) John, of course, also saw Jesus’ glory on the Mount of Transfiguration, although he does not report that in his Gospel (see 2 Pet. 1:16-18). But there is a deeper sense in which God’s glory was manifested at the cross. When Judas went out to betray Jesus, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him” (John 13:31; see, also, 12:23-28). When John and the other apostles saw Jesus willingly offer Himself for our sins, they supremely saw the glory of God (see 2 Cor. 4:4-6).

C. Jesus’ glory was that of the only begotten from the Father.

The word “only-begotten” is better translated, “unique” or “only one of His kind.” The same word is used to refer to Isaac (Heb. 11:17). He was not Abraham’s only son, but he was his unique son, the son of the promise. Only begotten does not refer to Jesus’ being born of Mary or to His coming into existence at some time in the past (which He did not). Rather, it points to His unique relationship to the Father as the eternal Son. He is God’s Son in a unique way that no one else is or ever could be.

D. Jesus was full of grace and truth.

This phrase probably refers back to the Word. John adds these terms here because both are essential for understanding our salvation. Grace is God’s unmerited favor, shown to those who deserve His judgment. If you can earn salvation, then you don’t need grace. Only sinners need grace. The only way you can receive God’s salvation is to acknowledge your need as a sinner, renounce all trust in yourself or your own merit, and trust in the grace of God as shown at the cross of Christ.

Truth points to God’s character. He is absolute truth. By contrast, Satan is a liar and the father of lies (John 8:44). As the God of truth, His righteous standard calls us to truth, but we have sinned and fall short of His perfect righteousness. Jesus claimed (John 14:6), “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” Jesus embodied the truth and lived in accordance with God’s truth. When He offered Himself on the cross, as the sinless substitute, He paid the penalty for sin that we deserved. Thus He upheld God’s truth and yet could offer us grace. But, you must respond to God’s truth in Jesus:

3. Our response to the eternal Word made flesh should be to trust Him as Savior and follow Him as Lord.

2 Corinthians 4:4 states regarding those who are perishing, “in whose case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelieving so that they might not see the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” Unless God opens your eyes, you cannot see the glory of Christ, the eternal Word who became flesh. But, Paul continues (4:6), “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” When God opens your eyes to see His glory in Christ, you will instantly see the answer to life’s most crucial question: Who is Jesus Christ? He is the eternal Word who took on human flesh. His glory was especially revealed when He died on the cross on behalf of undeserving sinners, to satisfy God’s wrath. Therefore, I must trust Him as Savior and follow Him as Lord.

Conclusion

Have you answered that crucial question? If not, read the Gospel of John and ask God to open your eyes to see the glory of Jesus Christ. When He does, you will trust in Him as your Savior. If you have trusted Christ, but you’re struggling with difficult matters, come back to that crucial question. You must follow Him as Lord, even if He doesn’t deliver you from prison and even if a wicked king cuts your head off. Everything in this life and in eternity rests on the right answer to Jesus’ question, “Who do you say that I am?” Can you say, “Lord Jesus, You are the eternal Word made flesh, the glory of the unique Son of the Father, full of grace and truth for me”?

Application Questions

  1. Why is it more important than anything else to be clear on who Jesus really is?
  2. Can a person deny the deity of Christ and yet be saved? Why not?
  3. What would you say to someone in a cult who said, “I just can’t understand the Trinity”? How would you proceed?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2006, All Rights Reserved.

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

Related Topics: Christmas, Christology, Discipleship, Soteriology (Salvation)

Christmas [2007]: What Christmas Really Means (Luke 1:67-79)

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December 23, 2007

Special Christmas Message

The children were putting on the annual Christmas play at church. To show the radiance of the newborn Savior, a light bulb was hidden in the manger. At the appropriate moment, all of the stage lights were to be turned off except for that one. But the boy controlling the light panel got confused and shut off all the lights. There was a dark moment of silence, broken when one of the shepherds said in a loud whisper, “Hey, you switched off Jesus!”

Even though we all know that Christmas is about the birth of the Savior, it’s easy to get caught up in the cultural approach to the holiday and switch off Jesus. While there’s nothing wrong with dreaming of a white Christmas or having a Christmas tree, or giving gifts to one another, the real meaning of Christmas deals with a much more urgent matter, namely, salvation.

Salvation has nothing to do with chestnuts roasting on an open fire or other warm, fuzzy feelings about an ideal Christmas holiday. Salvation deals with the messy fact that sinners need to be rescued from God’s judgment. God sent His Son to bear the judgment that guilty sinners deserve. If at Christmas time, we don’t think about the fact that God sent the Savior, we’ve switched off Jesus! As the angel told the shepherds that night when Jesus was born (Luke 2:11), “for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

This theme of salvation also comes through in the prophecy of Zacharias, the father of the forerunner, John the Baptist (Luke 1:67-79). You will recall that although Zacharias was a godly man, some months before the angel had struck him dumb because he doubted the promise that he and his wife, Elizabeth, would have a son in their old age (Luke 1:20). But now that son was born and Zacharias’ tongue was loosed. Filled with the Holy Spirit, he spoke this prophecy that focuses on the great salvation that God was about to bring. It shows us that ...

Christmas means that God sent us the Savior in the person of Jesus Christ.

Our greatest need at Christmas time is not for more things. We’ve all got plenty of things. Neither is it for personal fulfillment, though many think that’s what they need and madly try to find it. Our greatest need is not even for the love of family and friends, as important as that is. The greatest need of every person is for salvation, because all have sinned against God. If we die in our sins, we face God’s eternal judgment. God’s salvation reconciles us with Him and gives us true hope, both for time and eternity. Our primary need is to know that we have received God’s salvation.

Salvation is the theme of Zacharias’ prophecy: He mentions “redemption” (1:68); “salvation” (1:69, 71, 77); and, “being delivered” (1:74). I want to draw out four themes from these verses related to salvation:

1. Salvation is God’s doing, not our doing.

Salvation is of the Lord. This comes through strongly in these verses. Note first that the Lord God “visited us” (1:68, 78). We did not go searching for Him; He came and visited us. He saw our helpless condition, took pity on us, and came down to meet our enormous need in the person of the Savior.

This prophecy is steeped in the Old Testament. The theme of God visiting His people comes from Genesis 50:24, 25. As Joseph was dying in Egypt, he predicted that God would visit his descendants and bring them from there to the land which He had promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In the LXX, the Greek uses an emphatic Hebraism, “in visiting, God will visit you,” which means, “God will surely visit you.” Then Joseph repeats, “At the visitation with which God shall visit you, then you shall carry my bones with you.” After an interval of 400 years of slavery in Egypt, we read of God telling Moses (Exodus 3:16): “Visiting, I have visited you” (see also, Exod. 4:31; 13:19).

Even so, in Zacharias’ time, Israel had not heard a word from the Lord in 400 years. The nation was now under the Roman yoke of oppression. It seemed as if God had forgotten His people. But then, after the birth of the forerunner of Messiah, and knowing the angel’s promise to Mary that she would bear the Son of God, Zacharias prophesies, “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us.”

If you were living in abject poverty and one day a kind billionaire visited you, you might have a ray of hope that he would take pity on you and give you some help. But God has done more than that. He not only saw our desperate condition and sent us help; He actually took our human condition on Himself! He took on human flesh, not as a mighty king, above our weaknesses, but as a baby, subject to our frailty, yet without sin. As if that were not enough, He even took our sin on Himself on the cross, bearing the penalty we deserve! It was all God’s doing because of His tender mercy (1:78), not because we deserved it. God visited us in the birth of Jesus Christ.

There are many other evidences in our text that salvation is God’s doing, not our doing. He accomplished it (1:68). “He raised up a horn of salvation for us” (1:69). The horn is a symbol of the strength of an animal, such as a bull (Ps. 132:17; 18:2). Here it points to the fact that salvation required God’s mighty power because our enemy is so strong. But God did it—He raised it up. He did it in accordance with many prophecies which He had given centuries before (1:70-71). Alfred Edersheim found more than 400 Messianic prophecies in the Old Testament, but even apart from these specific prophecies, the whole of the Old Testament points to Christ (in Norval Geldenhuys, Luke [Eerdmans], pp. 93-94).

Furthermore, God sent the Savior in accordance with the oath of His covenant with Abraham (1:72-73). Two thousand years before Jesus Christ was born, God sovereignly chose Abraham, a pagan living in the city of Ur of the Chaldeans, and promised to make a great nation of him, to give his descendants the land of Canaan, and to bless all the families of the earth through him (Gen. 12:1-3). During His ministry, Jesus told the Jews who contended with Him, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad” (John 8:56). Jesus Christ was the descendant of Abraham in whom God’s promises were fulfilled.

God also raised up John the Baptist, the forerunner of Christ, in accordance with prophecies made hundreds of years before. In Isaiah 40:3 and Malachi 3:1; 4:5, God predicted that He would send His messenger in the spirit and power of Elijah to prepare the way before Messiah. Even though Zacharias and Elizabeth were humanly beyond their childbearing years, God sent His angel to promise them that they would have this son who would fulfill these prophecies by making “ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:17).

The point is, God did all this apart from human initiative, effort, merit, or ability. God planned it, He prophesied it, and He carried it out, in spite of Zacharias’ doubts and inability to father a son. The salvation God provided in Jesus Christ comes totally from Him. We cannot do anything to earn it or work for it. All we can do is receive it.

This runs counter to the common notion that we can save ourselves by our own effort or ability. It goes against the idea that we deserve to be saved. No! Salvation is from God, apart from human merit, that no one can boast. If you think you can do something to save yourself or to provide for your own salvation, you do not understand what Christmas means.

2. Salvation is accomplished through the person of Jesus Christ.

Though His name is not mentioned specifically in Zacharias’ prophecy, His person is described so that there is no mistaking it. This horn of salvation is from “the house of David” (1:69). Zacharias and Elizabeth were both descended from Aaron who was from the tribe of Levi (Luke 1:5), but Jesus was descended from the tribe of Judah through David (Matt. 1:2-17; Luke 3:23-38). As we’ve already seen, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s promise to Abraham (John 8:56-58).

Also, as Luke 1:76 shows, the coming Savior was none other than the Lord God in human flesh. John went “before the Lord to prepare His ways,” The Lord (who is God) is Jesus. John recognized the divinity of Jesus when he affirmed that Jesus had a higher rank than he because He existed before him, even though physically John was six months older than Jesus (John 1:30).

Zacharias refers to this Savior as “the Sunrise from on high” (Luke 1:78), a reference to Malachi 4:2: “The sun of righteousness will rise with healing in its wings.” Jesus Himself claimed, “I am the light of the world; he who follows Me shall not walk in the darkness, but shall have the light of life” (John 8:12). Clearly, Jesus Christ is the Savior of whom Zacharias and all Scripture prophesied. As the angel told Joseph after explaining how Mary had conceived through the Holy Spirit, “You shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

3. Salvation means the forgiveness of our sins by God’s mercy.

In the earlier part of this prophecy, Zacharias speaks of salvation with reference to national deliverance from enemy nations (1:71, 74). This political aspect of salvation will be fulfilled in Christ’s second coming, when He will return and defeat Israel’s enemies and establish His kingdom rule over all the earth. But the Jews in Jesus’ day erred in that they saw God’s salvation through Messiah almost completely in such political terms.

But John’s ministry was intended to show Israel that salvation “consisted in the forgiveness of their sins” (1:77, literal translation). John preached “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3). Even though Israel was God’s chosen people by nationality, they still had to be reconciled to God individually through repentance and the forgiveness of their sins. Since God is holy, no sinner can stand in His presence. Since He is just, He cannot dismiss sins without the payment of the penalty. He has ordained that the penalty for our sins is death (Rom. 6:23). But because of His tender mercy, He took on Himself the penalty we deserved so that we might go free. John would later announce Jesus as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).

Zacharias (1:79) brings together a couple of references from Isaiah (9:2; 60:1-3), which describe those who need God’s salvation as “those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death.” The picture is of travelers who have lost their way in the wilderness and night falls. They grope for the path, but it eludes them. Finally, in despair, they can do nothing but sit down in the darkness, where death from wild beasts lurks in the shadows. They can’t sleep because they are too cold and too afraid. Every time a wolf howls in the darkness, they shiver in fear. They huddle in the darkness, hoping for the morning light. Finally, they see a faint glow in the eastern sky. Slowly but surely the darkness yields to the bright morning sun. In its light, they find the path that leads to peace and safety.

It’s a graphic picture of those who sit in the darkness and shadow of death that comes from sin. They are lost in the darkness, not knowing which way to go. They are afraid of death, always lurking in the shadows. They don’t know what to do and they can’t do anything to find their way. They need light!

Then, perhaps at Christmas time, they hear that a Savior has been born. The glimmer of hope in the eastern sky begins to dawn. They hear further that this Savior died to save His people from their sins. The sky brightens. But, still, they wonder if they can be good enough to earn this salvation which Christ offers. Then they hear that it is not something that anyone can earn, but that God offers forgiveness of sins freely because of His tender mercy. The sun rises in its full light into their soul, guiding them into His way of peace.

The word “tender” (1:78) literally means, “bowels.” The Hebrews thought of the bowels as the seat of the emotions. It points to God’s deep compassion for sinners. Many erroneously think that God is mean and harsh, waiting to strike them down for their sins should they dare show up at His doorstep. But Jesus portrayed the heavenly Father as the father of the prodigal son who, when he saw his son in the distance, felt compassion for him (the Greek verb in Luke 15:20 is related to this noun, “bowels”), and ran and embraced him, and kissed him. Do you know this tender mercy of God in your life today?

You must understand that God must judge all sin or He would no longer be just. He can’t just brush it aside. At the judgment, He will pour out His eternal wrath on all sinners who have not put their trust in Jesus. But, God is not only just, but also merciful. His great love and mercy caused Him to send His own Son to bear the penalty that we deserved. If, like the prodigal son, you repent of your sins and come to Jesus, He will forgive you completely and you will know His tender mercy.

Years ago, a man named Dr. Barnardo, who ran a London orphanage, was approached by a dirty, ragged little boy who asked for admission. The doctor looked at him and said, “But my boy, I don’t know you. What do you have to recommend you?”

The boy was not only needy, but also bright. He quickly held up before Dr. Barnardo his ragged coat and with a confident little voice said, “If you please, sir, I thought these here would be all I needed to recommend me.” Dr. Barnardo caught him up in his arms and took him in, because that truly was all he needed to recommend him—his rags.

Do you need forgiveness? Then bring the rags of all your sins and apply to Jesus. He bore your penalty in His body on the cross. Because of His tender mercy, God will pardon all who seek His forgiveness. Salvation means the forgiveness of our sins by God’s mercy. There’s no such thing as sin that is greater than the tender mercy of our God!

Thus salvation is God’s doing, not ours. It is accomplished through Jesus Christ, the Sunrise from on high. And, it means the forgiveness of sins by God’s mercy. But that’s not all:

4. Salvation results in a life of holy service to God.

Zacharias says that we, “being rescued from the hand of our enemies, might serve Him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before Him all our days” (1:74-75). Contrary to what many think, salvation is not primarily about us and our happiness. The Christian life is a blessedly happy life, full of joy and gladness. But God doesn’t save us so that we can live happily ever after, ignoring the needs of others. He saves us so that we might glorify Him (make Him look good) as our joy in Him overflows into a life of holy service. People who think they’re saved but who live for themselves and their own happiness to the neglect of others are deceived. True salvation always results in a holy life given over to serving our gracious God who has granted deliverance from the bondage of sin.

Years ago a Salvation Army officer, Captain Shaw, went to India as a medical missionary to a leper colony. His eyes welled with tears as he saw three lepers in front of him, their hands and feet bound by chains that cut into their diseased flesh. Shaw turned to the guard and said, “Please unfasten these chains.” “But it isn’t safe,” the guard replied. “These men are not just lepers; they’re dangerous criminals.”

“I’ll be responsible; they’re suffering enough,” Shaw said, as he took the keys, and tenderly removed the shackles and treated their bleeding ankles and wrists.

About two weeks later Captain Shaw had his first misgivings about freeing these criminals. He had to make an overnight trip and feared leaving his wife and child alone. His wife insisted that she wasn’t afraid; God would protect her. So the doctor left. The next morning when Mrs. Shaw went to her door, she was startled to see the three criminals lying on her steps. One explained, “We know the doctor go. We stay here all night so no harm come to you.” That was their response to the doctor’s act of love for them—to serve him freely out of gratitude. That should be our response to God’s freeing us from bondage to sin—to give our lives in holy service to Him.

Conclusion

Zacharias’ prophecy tells us the meaning of Christmas: That God sent us a Savior in the person of Jesus Christ. I am inadequate to explain this to you; God Himself must break through if you would grasp it and respond.

During the Christmas season of 1879, an agnostic reporter in Boston saw three little girls standing in front of a store window full of toys. One of them was blind. Coming closer, he heard the other two trying to describe the playthings to their friend. He said he had never thought of how difficult it would be to explain what something looks like to someone who has never been able to see. That incident became the basis for a newspaper story.

Two weeks later this same agnostic attended a meeting conducted by the famous evangelist, D. L. Moody. His purpose was to catch Moody in some inconsistency. But he was greatly surprised to hear Moody use his newspaper account of the three children to illustrate a spiritual truth. He said, “Just as the blind girl couldn’t visualize the toys, so a lost person can’t see Christ in all His glory.” He said that God must open the eyes of those without Christ so that the person will acknowledge his sin and trust the Savior in humble faith. God opened that newsman’s eyes. He saw his own need and discovered for himself the truth of Moody’s words. (From, “Our Daily Bread,” Winter, 1980-1981.)

If you have never trusted in Christ as your Savior, you sit in darkness and the shadow of death. But through my words today, God is visiting you with the good news that He is merciful to sinners. Ask Him to shine into your heart to guide you into the way of peace. Repent of your sins and trust in Jesus Christ as your Savior. If you turn to Christ you will know His tender mercy that forgives all your sins. You will know the real meaning of Christmas: that God sent us a Savior in the person of Jesus Christ.

Application Questions

  1. How can we help people who do not know Christ see their true, desperate condition before God (see Gal. 3:10, 24)?
  2. Why are people inclined to think that they can do something to save themselves? How does Romans 9:16 refute this?
  3. Will the fact that God offers forgiveness by His mercy lead to loose living? Why/why not?
  4. How can we deepen our daily awareness of God’s tender mercy toward us?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2007, 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)

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