Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

Category: Christology

THE DREAM ISAIAH SAW

4.2.7

Edward Hicks, “The Peaceable Kingdom”

 

The composer Glenn Rudolph tells us that he was writing his choral piece “The Dream Isaiah Saw” in 2001 and that he was still in the process of writing it when the 911 terrorist attack occurred.  The words are based on Thomas H. Troeger’s  poem “Lion and Oxen Will Sleep in the Hay,” which in turn is based on a prophecy by Isaiah found in Isa. 11:6-9 which says, among other things, that

“The wolf shall dwell with the lamb . . .

And the lion shall eat straw like the ox . . .”

(NKJV).

In his poem Mr. Troeger goes on to say,

“God will transfigure the violence concealed

deep in the heart and in systems of gain,

ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain . . .”

Isaiah’s prophecy was written 2,700 years ago, and yet, as Mr. Rudolph noted, the problem it addresses still exists today.  Civil wars have torn apart Syria and Yemen, the Islamic State has come and gone, and crime and corruption have driven thousands from their homes in Central America.  And here at home we have seen a poisoned political atmosphere, accompanied by mass shootings and bomb threats.  Is there any real hope for peace in the world?

Isaiah paints an extraordinary picture of the wolf dwelling with the lamb and the leopard lying down with the young goat.  It is hard to know how far to take the imagery.  Wolves, leopards, lions and bears are all carnivorous animals, and it is hard to imagine bears grazing and lions eating straw, as is mentioned in verse 7 of the text.  But Romans 8:19-22 in the New Testament does tell us that “the creation was subjected to futility” but that at some point “the creation itself also will be from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God.”  And we are told elsewhere that in the future God “will cause wild beasts to cease from the land, and they [i.e. God’s people] will dwell safely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods” (Ezek. 34:25-30).  Apparently there will no longer be any wild animals.

Mr. Troeger, in his poem, says that

“God will transfigure the violence concealed

deep in the heart and systems of gain,

ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.”

But the question remains, how will this take place?  Is it a realistic expectation at all?  Isaiah’s text goes on to say,

“They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain,

For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord

As the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).

The immediate context is Isaiah’s prophecy in Isa. 11:1-5 about the coming of the Messiah.  In keeping with the promises made to King David one of David’s descendants would someday occupy his throne.  “There shall come forth a Rod from the stem of Jesse, / And a Branch shall grow out of his roots” (v. 1 – the word translated “Rod” might better be rendered “shoot” – NASV, NRSV, ESV, NIV; Jesse was David’s father).

Isaiah then goes on to describe how this king will reign: “The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon Him ,” a Spirit of wisdom, understanding, counsel and might.  In other words the Messiah will possess all the attributes necessary in a ruler if he is to be good and effective.

But ultimately that wisdom and knowledge must be grounded in “the fear of the Lord” (v. 2).  “His delight is in the fear of the Lord” (v. 3a).  In order to understand things aright one must understand them as God intended them to be.  God is the Creator; we live in a universe that was ordered and structured by Him.  In order to understand things properly we must understand His creative will and purpose.  And while we may have a natural human tendency to assert our independence and think in terms of our own individual self-interest, God is concerned that we acknowledge Him and do what is just and right and true.

The end result of Messiah’s reign is that “with righteousness He shall judge the poor, / And decide with equity for the meek of the earth . . .” (v. 4a).  In almost any human civilization – one that has achieved any degree of prosperity – there will be a tendency for the rich and powerful to take advantage of the weak and poor.  This sometimes results in the outright corruption of the judicial system, with judges that would “justify the wicked for a bribe, / And take away justice from the righteous man’ (Isa. 5:23).  In this sense Mr. Troeger is correct in condemning the “systems of gain.”  And he is correct in thinking that such systems are “ripe for the judgment the Lord will ordain.”  The rulings of the Messiah, Isaiah tells us, will be in strict conformity with the law and the facts of the case.

And how will all of this come about?  There is one sense in which the Messiah’s kingdom is already here on earth, in the hearts of believers; and another sense in which it will not be fully manifested until the Second Coming of Christ.  In the Parable of the Tares and the Wheat (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43) Jesus said that the tares of the wheat grow together until the end of the age, when “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness . . . Then the righteous will shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father” (vv. 41,43).

Isaiah goes on to say, “They shall not hurt nor destroy in all My holy mountain, / For the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord / As the waters cover the sea” (v. 9).  The key to world peace is for the world to know God – to know His will, intents and purposes, to live according to His will.  And what He intended for us is not that we should lie, cheat and steal, much less kill each other in war; but rather that we should “love the Lord with all your heart” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Dt. 6:5; Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:34-40).  When we as human beings lose sight of the divine and eternal, when we forget that we are ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, our Creator, for our actions, human life degenerates into an endless conflict of warring factions and “identity politics,” and that is where we are today.

Mr. Troeger, in his poem, says, “Little Child, whose bed is straw / take new lodging in my heart.”  Jesus told Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin in Jerusalem, “Most assuredly, I say to you, unless one is born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).  In the short run we can find peace and happiness by repenting of our sin, going to Christ in faith, and being reconciled to God.  But peace on earth as a whole awaits the Second Coming of Christ.  Even so, come, Lord Jesus!

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WHO IS THIS, SO WEAK AND HELPLESS?

4.2.7

Fra Angelico: The Annunciation

 

We have seen , then, that “unto us a Child is born, / Unto us a Son is given . . .” (Isa. 9:6; NKJV).  But who or what exactly was this Child?  The text goes on to make it clear that this was no ordinary human being.

“And His name will be called

Wonderful, Counsellor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father,

Prince of Peace.”

First of all, He will be called “wonderful Counsellor” (the two words probably go together – cf. NASV, ESV, NIV).  The fate of a nation often hangs on the decisions made by its leader.  But the Messiah will be a “wonderful Counsellor.”  He will decide cases wisely and make plans carefully, and He will do it in a way that is most compelling.

But then He is called “Mighty God.”  What is especially significant about this is that the Child is specifically called “God” – the verse points directly to the deity of Christ.  But He is specifically referred to as “Mighty God” – “El Gibor” in the Hebrew text.  As a noun “gibor” refers to a strong, valiant man, a mighty warrior.  In this context it describes God as One who is fighting for His people. “Who is this King of glory? / The Lord strong and mighty, / The Lord mighty in battle” (Ps. 24:8).

And then the Child is called “Everlasting Father.”  Tragically many younger people today have a hard time relating to a human father.  Too many of them have been neglected or abused by their own fathers.  But God is a father the way fathers should be.  He has a loving concern for His children, protected them and supplying their need.  “As a father pities his children, / So the Lord pities those who fear Him” (Ps. 103:13).  And whereas human fathers eventually die and are no longer a part of our lives, this Child is the “everlasting Father” – He will always be there to take care of our needs.

And finally the Child is called “Prince of Peace.”  He will be the ruler or administrator who will bring about peace.  But “peace” is much more than the mere absence of war or conflict.  The underlying Hebrew word “shalom” signifies a state of rest or tranquility that comes when our needs have been met and we are at peace with our fellow human beings.  It is a state of completeness and fulfillment.  And in a nation it comes when it is ruled wisely.

In short, the Messiah will possess all the attributes of a wise and effective ruler.

Moreover we are told that He will sit

“Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,

To order it and establish it with judgment and justice. . .”

\                                                                                   (Isa. 9:7)

He will be an heir of David and restore David’s kingdom in fulfillment of the promises originally made to David (II Sam. 7:8-16; II Chron. 17:3-14; Ps. 89).  And here again we can see the fulfillment of prophecy in the birth of Jesus.  He was born in the city of David (Bethlehem) and His earthly parents were descendants of David.  He is, in fact, the rightful heir to King David’s throne.

When He comes to set up His kingdom it will be marked by “judgment and justice.”  “Judgment” is the act of judging, of making decisions in cases in a manner that conforms to the law.  “Justice” or “righteousness” as it might better be rendered (NASV, ESV), is conformity with the law – not half-hearted compliance with a set of external regulations.  Thus the reign of Messiah will stand in sharp contrast with current human government, with all of its dishonesty and corruption.  And the passage concludes by saying, “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (v. 7).

And what are the implications for those of us living today?  There is a sense in which the kingdom is already present now among believers.  “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love, in whom we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins” (Col. 1:13,14).  But while we are here on earth we live “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world.”  Therefore we are called to be “blameless and harmless, children of God without fault” (Phil. 2:15).

We live in perilous times.  The world is becoming increasing hostile to Christian belief and practice.  But the reign of Messiah becomes a reality in our hearts when we turn from our sins and go to Christ in faith.  And we wait for His return at the end of the age to establish His kingdom upon the earth.  Let us watch and pray accordingly.

FOR UNTO US A CHILD IS BORN

4.2.7

Lorenzo di Credi, “The “Annunciation”

 

One of the questions Jesus had to confront during His earthly ministry was whether or not He really was He claimed to be – the promised Messiah.  For that matter we face the same question today: how do we know that He was the Son of God, the Messiah?  And part of the answer to that question lies in the prophecies that were made centuries earlier concerning the Messiah.  And some of the most important of these prophecies were made by Isaiah.

Isaiah’s prophecies came during a particularly difficult time in ancient Israel’s history.  The nation at that time was divided between two competing states, the kingdom of Israel in the north (also called Ephraim or Samaria), and the kingdom of Judah in the south.  Worried about the growing power of Assyria in the north, the northern kingdom Israel formed an alliance with neighboring Syria (Damascus), and together they threatened Judah which had refused to join the alliance.  The newly crowned king of Judah, Ahaz, appealed to the Assyrians for help, and the Assyrians in 734 B.C. invaded Palestine.  The northern and northeastern parts of Israel were annexed to the Assyrian Empire.

But the Jews were God’s chosen people.  How could all of this have happened to them?  Isaiah makes it clear that this was a judgment from God on a nation that had grown worldly and corrupt.  While the external forms of worship had been maintained, idolatry was widespread, as well as political corruption.  And God made it clear what He expected from them:

“Learn to do good;

Seek justice,

Rebuke the oppressor,

Defend the fatherless,

Plead for the widow.”

(Isa. 1:17; NKJV)

It was for their failure to live up to God’s standards of morality that war and devastation had come upon them, and eventually captivity.

It was in this context, then, that Isaiah’s remarkable prophecies came.  Isaiah describes the deep gloom that would fall upon the country as it would be invaded by the Assyrians: “Then they will look to the earth, see trouble and darkness, gloom of anguish; and they will be driven into darkness” (Isa. 8:22).  But in wrath God remembers mercy, and Israel is still God’s chosen people.  And so, in the midst of this dire prophecy comes a remarkable promise: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed” (9:1) – or, as we might better understand it “But there will be no more gloom for her who was in anguish” – NASV.  And then, referring specifically to two tribes in the north of Israel, Zebulon and Naphtali, it says,

“The people who walked in darkness

Have seen a great light;

Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death,

Upon them a light has shined.”

(9:2)

But how was this prophecy fulfilled?  And when?  The specific area mentioned (“Galilee of the Gentiles”) was part of the northern kingdom that was annexed to Assyria in approximately 733 B.C.  The next several verses speak of God having broken the rod of the oppressor, “For every warrior’s sandal from the noisy battle, / And garments rolled in blood,/ Will be used for burning and fuel of fire” (9:5).  But war would continue to be a fact of life in that area for many centuries to come.

But the text goes on to explain:

“For unto a Child is born,

Unto us a Son is given;

And the government will be upon His shoulder . . .”

(9:6)

In other words, the prophecy looks forward to nothing less than the birth of Christ.  And remarkably, when the Messiah, Jesus, did come, He began His public ministry, not in Jerusalem, the center of Jewish religious life, but in the north, in Galilee.  He grew up in Nazareth, located in the former territory of Zebulon, and His first miracle was performed in nearby Cana.  And much of His subsequent ministry was centered in Capernaum, located on the Sea of Galilee in what had been the territory of Naphtali.  It was a direct fulfillment of this prophecy.

But in what sense could it be said that “The people who walked in darkness / Have seen a great light” and “Upon them a light has shined” (9:2)?  Jesus would say that “I am the light of the world.  He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12), and “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me should not abide in darkness” (John 12:46).  The darkness, then, is not just the gloom of war and turmoil, and it does not just affect the people of ancient Galilee.  It is deeper and more pervasive than that.  It is the spiritual darkness that has engulfed the entire human race.  It is our self-centeredness, and our inability to see beyond our own immediate self-interest, that keeps us from acting as we ought.  This is the underlying cause of the crime, corruption, poverty and war that afflicts human society.  And into this sin-cursed world came the Son of God, bringing truth and salvation.  He is the light of the world.

And how will this light come into the world?

“For unto us a Child is born,

Unto us a Son is given . . .”

The Messiah would come into the world in the form of human child.  But, as we shall see, He was no ordinary human being.

The fact that the Messiah would come into the world and spend much of His ministry in Galilee is a remarkable testimony to the grace of God toward miserable sinners.  Israel had brought its troubles upon itself.  It fully deserved divine punishment.  But in wrath God remembered mercy (Hab. 3:2) and sent His Son to that very part of the country that had born the brunt of His wrath.

But it is even more true of all of those of us who have been saved by grace.  We were all lost sinners, all on our way to hell.   We were in spiritual darkness, and cared not for the things of God.  And yet in one way or another God brought us undeserving sinners to Christ to receive the forgiveness of our sins and changed lives.  We are now heirs of heaven.  Praise be to His holy name!

 

MAGNIFICAT

4.2.7

Fra Angelico, The Annunciation

 

Christmas, of course, is the time of year when we celebrate the birth of Christ.  But what is so special about Christ?  Have there not been other great men in history whose birthdays are worth commemorating?  What sets Christ apart from all the rest?

We will let Mary tell the story.  The gospels of both Matthew and Luke describe the birth of Christ; but Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective, while Luke tells it from Mary’s.  And quite an extraordinary story it is.  In Luke chapter 1 we are told that the angel Gabriel came to Mary to explain what was about to happen to her.  Gabriel told her that she would conceive a son, and call His name Jesus.  “He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David.  And He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Lu. 1:32,33; NKJV).  Mary would, in effect, be giving birth to the long awaited Messiah.  The prophet Daniel in the Old Testament had predicted that there would come One “like the Son of Man,” who would be given a universal dominion, and that “His dominion is an everlasting dominion, / Which shall not pass away, / And His kingdom the One / Which shall not be destroyed” (Dan. 7:13,14).

But how would this even be possible?  How could a child of Mary’s be considered “the Son of the Highest”?  Gabriel explained: this would be no ordinary birth.  Instead of the normal sexual relationship she would conceive by the Holy Spirit.  “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (v. 35).  In other words the child would be no ordinary human being.  While He would have a human mother (Mary), His Father would be none other than God himself, making the child both God and man at the same time.

Mary, as one might expect, was absolutely astonished.  A virgin birth would normally be considered impossible.  But Gabriel pointed out to Mary that “With God nothing will be impossible” (v. 37), and Mary replied, “Let it be to me according to your word” (v. 38).

Not long afterward Mary visited her relative Elizabeth, who in her old age had conceived a child who would become John the Baptist.  As soon as Mary entered the house and greeted Elizabeth, the baby in Elizabeth’s womb leaped.  And filled with the Holy Spirit Elizabeth declared “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!” (v. 42).  Elizabeth went on to call Mary “the mother of my Lord” (v. 43), and said “Blessed is she who believed, for there will be a fulfillment of those things which were told her from the Lord” (v. 45).  Elizabeth, in other words, realized that what was happening to Mary was extraordinary.

This led Mary to break out in worship with what has come to be known as the “Magnificat,” from the opening words in the Latin Vulgate translation (“Magnificat anima mea Dominum” – “My soul magnifies the Lord’).  She begins by praising God for what He has done for her personally: “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant” (v. 48).  What the Lord was doing in her life, using her to bring forth the Messiah, would have been extraordinary for any woman.  But significantly God did not choose an aristocratic noblewoman for this honor, but someone of “lowly state” – a young virgin engaged to a carpenter.  And, as a result, “henceforth all generations will call me blessed”; and so they did.

But then Mary goes on to reflect on the broader significance of the event for the human race as a whole.  Using language reminiscent of Psalm 113:5-8 and especially Hannah’s prayer in I Sam. 2:1-10, she declares that God’s mercy is on those who fear Him (v. 50).  Specifically God has scattered the proud, pulled down the mighty from their thrones, and sent the rich away empty, while exalting the lowly and filling the hungry with good things (vv. 51-53).

This may seem like a bit of rhetorical overstatement, given the fact that Mary had not yet actually given birth at the time that she said this.  But she is using verbs in the past tense to describe prophetically events yet to take place in the future.  Undoubtedly she is reflecting on Old Testament prophecies regarding the kingdom of the Messiah.  Throughout human history the rich, the strong and the powerful have taken advantage of the weak and vulnerable, and Israel itself had felt threatened by more powerful neighbors.  But when the Messiah comes all of this will be overturned, and perfect peace and justice will reign.  Isaiah could prophesy that “unto us a child is born” and “the government will be upon His shoulder,” and He will sit upon the throne of David “to order it and establish it with judgment and justice” (Isa. 9:1-7).  Mary concluded by reflecting on God’s mercy to Israel as promised to the patriarchs of old.

What Mary could not see was how all of this would be fulfilled.  What she could not have known is that Christ would come twice; that He would first have to make an atonement for human sin, and that then the gospel would go forth into the entire world calling men and women to repentance and faith.  Only after then would He return in the clouds in power and glory to take the throne and usher in an era of perfect peace.  In the meantime the kingdom exists in the hearts of true believers scattered throughout the world, largely invisible but real nonetheless.

The birth of Christ was the decisive turning point in history.  Up until then sin and darkness had ruled nearly everywhere.   The human race was sunk in superstition and vice.  But with the birth of Christ the light shone into the world, bringing spiritual life to untold multitudes with a hope for a better tomorrow.

And that is why we celebrate Christmas!

FOR GOD SO LOVED THE WORLD

 

 

The whole point of Christmas is beautifully summed up in the most famous verse in the Bible: “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16; NKJV).  And it is the most famous verse in the Bible for good reason: it encapsulates in just a few words the central point of the Christian message.

The verse begins by saying “For God so loved the world . . .”   This is itself is a remarkable thing.  John almost always uses the word “world” in a negative sense: “For all that is in the world – the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life – is not of the Father but is of the world” (I John 2:16).  The world is a world of lost sinners who are in rebellion against God and have given themselves over to sinful desires and vices.  It is a world that is patently guilty in the sight of a perfectly just and holy God.

How, then, could God “love the world”?  Certainly not in the sense that He found the world adorable, for it most certainly was not.  Rather the word “love” is used in a different sense here.  It is the pity and compassion that God shows towards a suffering humanity.  It is a love which is directed towards the unlovable, and it is a love which is marked by self-sacrifice.  “For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die.  But God demonstrates His own love towards us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:7,8).

But how did God demonstrate His love toward us?  “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son . . .”   As noted earlier, when Jesus is called God’s “only begotten Son,” that means that He is God’s Son in some special and unique way.  Jesus was God’s Son from all eternity, and shared the Father’s divine nature.  That means that when God “gave His only begotten Son” He was giving up the one Person who was nearest and dearest to Himself – His most precious and beloved relation.

And the text says that He “gave” His only begotten Son.  When one person “gives” something to someone else he surrenders control over it.  And how did God the Father “give” His Son?  By sending Him into the world to die on the cross.  By letting His Son assume the guilt of lost sinners and bear the penalty in Himself.  But letting Him die a slow agonizing death.  The sky was darkened and Jesus cried out “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  It had to have been the most horrible moment of Jesus’ entire existence.  The Father punished the Son for our sins.

But why would God ever do such a thing?  What could possibly be gained by it?  Our text says, “that whoever believes on Him should not perish but have everlasting life.”  The recalls the language of Daniel 12:2, where speaking of the future resurrection of the dead it says

“And many of the those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake,

Some to everlasting life,

Some to shame and everlasting contempt.”

Jesus Himself had warned His disciples, “And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.  But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28; the word translated “destroy” is a different form of the same verb translated “perish” in John 3:16).  What is at stake here is nothing less than man’s eternal destiny.  We will spend eternity in either heaven or hell.  Salvation is what makes the difference, and that required an atonement for sin.  Only Christ could do that.

But there is a condition attached to the promise.  The promise of salvation is to “whoever believes in Him.”  The phrase in the Greek (ho pisteuon eis auton) suggests more than just believing something about Jesus.  It implies placing one’s trust in (eis) Jesus, relying on Him as our only hope of salvation.  It requires a personal and conscious act of commitment on our part.

The birth of Christ, then, was an unparalleled demonstration of divine love toward a sinful and rebellious human race.  And we miss its full significance unless we ourselves recognize our personal need.  We are fallen sinners; Christ came into the world to save us.  Let us go to Him in full repentance and faith to receive the forgiveness of our sins and new life from above!

THE LIGHT OF THE WORLD

 

 

“In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.  And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.”                            John 1:4,5; NKJV

 

The Bible often uses the word “darkness” as a metaphor for man’s lost condition.  It refers partly to man’s spiritual blindness, and partly to his evil deeds.  When we are in a dark room we cannot see.  We grope around blindly.  We stumble over objects we cannot see.  And that is how the Bible describes the spiritual blindness of fallen man.

“The way of the wicked is like darkness;

They do not know what makes them stumble.”

(Prov. 4:19)

The natural man, the man outside of Christ, tries to shut God out of his thinking.  He tries to devise an alternative explanation of reality.  And yet he must still live in a world created by God, and all he succeeds in doing with his secular thinking is to blind himself to reality.  He squanders his substance on the fleeting pleasures of life, wrecks his relationships and ruins his health.  He harms himself and others in the process.  By living for self he destroys himself.  In the end he is left with an empty, ruined life.

But darkness is also a vivid image of all the evil that exists in the world.  The apostle Paul could speak of “the unfruitful works of darkness,” and says that “it is shameful even to speak of those things which are done by them in secret” (Eph. 5:11,12).  As human beings we have a natural propensity towards evil; and yet we also have a conscience, and are aware that many of the things that we do are wrong.  As a result we experience shame and try to hide our actions from public view.  And so darkness becomes a cloak for evil deeds, the place where shameful things are done.

Moreover darkness is a metaphor for the pervasive gloom and despair that results from man’s fallen condition.  The psalmist could speak of

“Those who sat in darkness and in the shadow of death,

Bound in affliction and irons –

Because they rebelled against the words of God,

And despised the counsel of the Most High . . .”

(Ps. 107:10,11)

The man without God finds himself in a hopeless position.  He simply exists, and he has no realistic hope of life after death.  He drowns his sorrows in alcohol and drugs.

“Therefore justice is far from us,

Nor does righteousness overtake us:

We look for light, but there is darkness!

We grope for the wall like the blind,

And we grope as if we had no eyes;

We stumble at noon day as at twilight;

We are as dead men in desolate places.”

(Isa. 59:9,10)

This, then, is the world into which Christ was born 2,000 years ago.  And John says that “In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

There had been, of course, prophets that had come before Jesus, the most recent of which had been John the Baptist.  But Jesus was a prophet unlike any which had gone before Him.  As the Son of God He had a comprehensive knowledge of all things.  Moreover He was perfectly blameless in His personal conduct.  As such He was a ray of light shining in the darkness, exposing evil and enabling us to understand God’s purpose and will for our lives.  He enables us to see things as they actually are and live accordingly.  As Jesus Himself put it, “I am the light of the world.  He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12).  “I have come as a light into the world, that whoever believes in Me will not abide in darkness” (John 12:46).

“And the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it,” John tells us (John 1:5).  The word translated “comprehend” literally means “to seize, lay hold of, take possession of.”  The commentators debate exactly what John meant by this, but the context suggests that the world rejected the light – refused to take it as its own.  And herein lies the tragedy of the Incarnation: Christ came into the world bringing salvation, but the majority of the human race refuses to accept it.  “And this is the condemnation, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil” (John 3:19).  In our modern world we call this “secularism” – we banish religion from the public sphere; we even try to take Christ out of Christmas!

Christ is the light of the world.  The world is a dark place indeed, filled with malice and deceit, sorrow and despair.  For all of our social and economic problems, our root problem is spiritual: we are estranged from our Creator.  Christ has come to us as a light from heaven, offering us a path of escape.  Has He shone His light in our hearts today?

AND THE WORD BECAME FLESH

 

 

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.”

John 1:14; NKJV

 

We have seen, then, in our last blog post, that Jesus is “the Word,” the Logos, the Creator of the universe.  In John 1:14, however, the apostle John goes on to make a most remarkable statement: “And the Word became flesh.”  And this brings us right to the heart of the mystery of the Incarnation.

The Bible uses the word “flesh” to denote human existence in all of its earthly weakness, limitations and frailty.  “And the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not strive with man forever, for he is indeed flesh . . .” (Gen. 6:3).

“All flesh is grass,

And all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.

The grass withers, the flower fades,

Because the breath of the Lord blows upon it . . .”

(Isa. 40:6,7)

Here, then, is the remarkable thing about the Incarnation: that the infinite God could become finite man, and be both at the same time.

John goes on to say that Christ “dwelt among us.”  The word translated “dwelt” literally means “to pitch a tent,” and here apparently refers to the temporary nature of Christ’s stay here on earth.  It also recollects the Tabernacle in the Old Testament, and God’s “Shekinah” glory which accompanied Israel through the wilderness.  And John says that Christ dwelt “among us” – He shared our earthly existence: our sorrows and joys, and even our temptations.

And then John goes on to say “and we beheld His glory”; and here John is speaking of his own first- hand experience as one who knew Jesus personally during Jesus’ ministry here on earth.  John personally had the opportunity Jesus perform miracles and of listening to His teaching.  And John, along with Peter and James, had the special privilege of witnessing the Transfiguration, in which Jesus’ face shone and His clothes became bright white; and they heard a voice from heaven saying “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.  Hear him!” (Matt. 17:1-8).

John says that Jesus’ glory was “the glory as of the only begotten of the Father.”  All Christians are sons of God, in the sense that they have been adopted by Him.  But Jesus was God’s Son in a special, unique way.  He was the One who shared the Father’s eternal divine nature.  In that sense He was God’s “only Son.”

And finally John says that the Son’s glory was “full of grace and truth.”  “Grace” is God’s goodwill or kindness, often undeserved by its beneficiaries.  John usually uses the word “truth” in its usual English sense: that which is true, as opposed to what is false.   And both of these, according to John, were brought to us by Jesus.  “For the law was given through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).  Christ, through His teaching and example brought us a full and perfect revelation of the will of God.  But more importantly, He brought us salvation, the forgiveness of sins.

This, then, is the remarkable thing about the birth of Christ: that the eternal Son of God would come down here to earth and take on the form of a finite human being.  And why?  Because He loved us enough to die on the cross to save us from our sins. It was an amazing act of love and condescension.           How much do we owe Him!  And how we should imitate His example of self-sacrificing love!

“Who is this so weak and helpless,

Child of lowly Hebrew maid,

Rudely in a stable sheltered,

Coldly in a manger laid?

‘Tis the Lord of all creation,

Who this wondrous path hath trod;

He is God from everlasting,

And from everlasting God.”

Wm. Walsham How

THE MEANING OF THE CROSS


On Good Friday, of course, we commemorate the death of Christ on the cross, a historical fact that we largely take for granted today.  Yet it is hard to imagine how problematical that was in Jesus’ own day.  He proclaimed Himself to be the Messiah, yet he was crucified by the Romans.  For Jews who had been expectantly waiting for the Messiah this was not the way it was supposed to turn out.

The confusion in people’s minds can be seen in Jesus’ own disciples.  At one point, towards the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus was traveling with His disciples to the northern extremity of Palestine.  During the course of their trip Jesus asked the disciples who people thought that He was.  “John the Baptist,” “Elijah,” “one of the prophets” were some of the answers He got.  But then Jesus asked the disciples, who did they think that He was, and Peter gave the answer: “You are the Christ” (Mark 8:29; NKJV – “Christ” is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew “Messiah”).

But at this point Jesus tells them something that utterly astonished them.  “And He began to teach them that the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected by the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again” (v. 31).  “Killed”?  The Messiah?  That wasn’t supposed to happen.  The “Son of Man” is a reference back to an Old Testament prophecy about the Messiah.  In Daniel 7:13,14 we are told of “One like the Son of Man, / Coming with the clouds of heaven,” and “. . . to Him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, / That all peoples, nations and languages should serve Him.”  And the Jews of Jesus’ day were expecting just such a Messiah.  And yet here was Jesus, telling His disciples that “the Son of Man must suffer many things, and be rejected . . . and be killed.”  How could such a thing be true?

Understandably Peter found this hard to accept, and he had the temerity to rebuke Jesus for saying such a thing.  Jesus, in turn, rebuked him (vv. 32,33).  What Peter and most of his contemporaries failed to realize is that before the Messianic reign could begin, before there could be universal peace on earth, an atonement for sin had to be made, and that was the primary purpose of Christ’s first coming to earth.

But that was not all.  Not only was the Messiah called upon to suffer on the cross, but that had implications for His disciples as well.  “Whoever desires to come after Me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow Me” (v. 34).  You call yourself a Christian, a follower of Jesus.  But what does that involve?  What it means is that just as Jesus was rejected and put to death, so too we must be prepared to suffer rejection and persecution.  This, of course, goes against our grain.  Our natural instinct is for self-preservation.  And yet what is required of us as disciples of Jesus is self-denial.  We must, each one of us, “take up his cross.”  We do this figuratively when we suffer trials and difficulties as a result of our testimony for Christ.  In this way we “follow Him.”

“But,” someone might say, “that is absurd.  Why would anyone willingly sacrifice his self-interest for someone else’s sake?  What is to be gained by it?”  Jesus goes on to explain. “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (v. 35).  Here we are confronted with a paradox: in order to gain our life we must be prepared to lose it.  Jesus goes on to explain in verse 38: “For whoever is ashamed of Me and My words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of him the Son of Man also will ashamed when He comes in the glory of His Father with the holy angels.”  Currently we live in a fallen and sinful world – “this adulterous and sinful generation” Jesus calls it.  It is a world that hates the message that Jesus preached, and therefore hates us when we also preach it.  But then, referring back to the prophecy in Daniel about “the Son of Man,” Jesus points to a day sometime in the future when the Messiah will return and punish evil and reward good.  At that point the tables will be turned and those who suffer persecution now will be amply rewarded.

And so Jesus asked a pointed question: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?” (v. 36).  What is the point of being successful in this life if we spend an eternity in hell?  What will we have gained?

As modern Americans we are preoccupied with the here-and-now.  We devote our time and energy to getting ahead, or at least surviving, in this life, and scarcely give any thought at all to the life to come.  We “look out for good-ole number one,” and to “get along we go along.”  But what a terrible mistake it all is.  Life will not last forever, and this world will eventually come to an end.  And what then?

Today we are living in a rapidly changing society.  The western world is shedding the last vestiges of Christianity.  Are we prepared to take up our cross and follow Jesus?

THE MEDIATOR

So why did the Son of God have to become man, and live and die here on earth? The answer: so that He could serve as a mediator between God and man.
But why would we need a mediator? Because the human race has become estranged from God and has incurred His wrath. God is absolutely holy and free from sin of any kind. We, on the other hand, are sunk in sin and rebellion, led captive by our self-centered feelings and desires. We routinely do what God has told us not to do, and we fail to do what He has told us to do. This has resulted in a profound state of alienation between God and us.
But remarkably, God did not leave things in this state of affairs. Even though He has every right to be angry with us, He “desires all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth” (I Tim. 2:4; NKJV). We are sinners, but we are still God’s creatures made in His image. The solution? “For there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus . . .” (v. 5).
A mediator is someone who comes between two estranged parties and tries to reconcile them. In particular, if one party has offended the other the mediator goes to the offended party and pleads on behalf of the one who has caused the offense.
In our case Jesus is our mediator. We have offended God; God is angry with us. Jesus became one of us so that He could act as our representative before God the Father.
But granted that Christ is our mediator, our representative; what could He possibly say to the Father? We are patently guilty. But what our text says next is most extraordinary. He “gave Himself a ransom for all . . .” (v. 6). A ransom is a price paid to secure the release of a prisoner or slave. In our case the ransom secures our release from the debt we owe God as a result of our sin. To reconcile us to the Father Christ had to present some sort of offering or sacrifice. But what could possibly be adequate? What could possibly atone for all of our sins?
What Jesus did was nothing less than astonishing: He “gave Himself” – He offered Himself up as a sacrifice for our sins. This perfectly satisfied God’s justice and turned away His wrath. And Christ did this at the cost of His own death on a cross.
What does all of this mean for us personally? We are “justified freely by His grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God set forth as a propitiation by His blood, through faith . . .” (Rom. 3:24,25). To be “justified,” in this context, means to be declared righteous in the sight of God. And “having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 5:1). Because of what Christ has done on our behalf it is possible to have our sins forgiven, to have peace with God, and to know Him personally as our loving Father and not as our condemning Judge. And this is not because we are naturally good people – far from it – but because Christ came to be our Savior from our sins. To receive that salvation we must personally repent of our sins and put our trust in Christ as our Savior. We are “justified by faith.”
And that, in a nutshell, is the meaning of Christmas!

THE SON OF MAN

 

If Jesus was God, then why would He have to become man? Why would He have to come into the world, be born of a virgin, and then suffer and die on a cross? At Christmas we celebrate the incarnation. But why did Christ have to become incarnate?

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews goes on to discuss this point. “For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things, and through whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to perfect the author of their salvation through sufferings” (Heb. 2:10; NASV). By “author” he means the one who began or originated our salvation. And it is said of the author that God “perfects” Him. Jesus was, of course, morally perfect. But simply as the Son of God He could not have functioned as our Savior. Something more was needed. He needed to become man as well as God, so that He could serve as our representative in making an atonement for sin.

Christ, in effect, had to become “one of us.” “Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). There is a sense in which our experience is utterly unlike God’s. We have to cope with all the physical limitations of life on this planet. We experience hunger and thirst, and physical exhaustion; not to mention sickness, disease and injury. There is the emotional pain and suffering we endure in this world of human conflict and turmoil. Then there is the inner temptation to do what we know is morally wrong, with the guilt and shame that brings.   And finally there is the stark reality of death. We live with the fact that we will all eventually die. As full of life and health and vitality as we may be now, eventually we will become cold corpses lying in the ground. And to a great extent that fear of death controls our thinking and behavior now; “. . . who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives” (v. 15). Our behavior is controlled by our circumstances because we dread the final end, and seek to postpone it by any measure at our disposal. And this sometimes results on ethical compromises on our part. When threatened with extinction we cave in.

But how would the Son of God know any of that? In a theoretical sort of way, of course, He would – as God He is omniscient. But He would never have experienced any of this firsthand. “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in thing pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (v. 17). Jesus came to fulfill the role of a priest. To “propitiate” means to placate the anger of an offended God.   In Old Testament time the high priest would offer up sacrifices on behalf of the people. In effect the priest was acting as the people’s representative before God. Thus in order to Christ to perform that role, He had to become our representative, and He could only do that if He is in some measure like us. Then He can be “merciful,” i.e. feel pity and compassion for us; and “faithful,” – trustworthy and reliable. And thus Christ had to become man. “For since He Himself was tempted in that which He has suffered, He is able to come to the aid of those who are tempted.” But in order for that to happen the Son of God had to become man. And that is exactly what happened that day in Bethlehem.

Later on in the epistle the author draws the practical application from all of this: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Heb. 4:15,16). The blessed truth is that we have a Savior, a Savior who has made atonement for sin and now makes intercession in heaven for those who are His by faith. Thus, for us who believe, life should not be a hopeless struggle for survival followed by the grave. Because of what Christ has done we can find salvation in Him. And once having found salvation we can go directly before God in prayer and receive a genuinely sympathetic hearing. And it all began in Bethlehem.