Reading God’s Word in 2017

December 30, 2016

Jesus Christ is the hinge of history. All history prior to His birth points toward Him; all history afterwards looks back at His life, and forward to His second coming. The story of this world is the story of the glory of God, as God redeems fallen man and, indeed, all of creation to the praise of His glorious grace.

At this hinge, at the first Christmas, God became man, Immanuel, God with us; Jesus then lived the only perfect life, a life in which He loved God the Father with all His heart, all His soul, all His mind, and all His strength every minute of every day, and always loved His neighbor as Himself; Jesus suffered and died, taking upon Himself all the sins of all of God’s people of all time; God raised Him from the dead, proving that the penalty was sufficient, the price was paid. He will return to overcome all opposition, to exercise perfect justice, to wipe every tear from the eyes of His people, and to establish His eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace.

This is the storyline of the Bible, the plotline of God’s work in this creation. Do you know it? Do you see and understand how God has worked through the centuries to fulfill His plan to sum up all things in Christ?

One excellent way to gain that understanding and thereby impact your daily life is by following a Bible reading plan that will help you to make these connections.

In 1984 I first read through the entire Bible following a plan that guided me chronologically through the events recorded in Scripture. I saw God’s plan in a new light; I saw the centrality of Christ in a fresh way; I saw how all Scripture held together, from God’s work through the people of Israel, their apostasy, the destruction of the temple, the exile and the return from exile, the coming of Christ, the crucifixion and resurrection, the spread of the church, and Jesus’ second coming. Passages like Leviticus and Ezekiel, which I had struggled to read before, now I saw in a new light; the familiar gospels and epistles took on new meaning as I read the story of God’s glory in sequence.

A chronological plan does have a weakness, however: For almost 10 months, all of one’s devotional reading is in the Old Testament. While this is fine for one year, as a pattern to follow again and again, it is not healthy. Therefore, fifteen years ago I developed the Bible Unity Reading Plan. Like the plan I had followed in 1984, the Bible Unity Reading Plan takes the reader through the entirety of the Bible over the course of a year. The difference is that the Unity Plan organizes about two-thirds of the Scriptures into a chronological track, but assigns a reading from the other Testament every day. This achieves the benefits of seeing God’s storyline, while drawing our attention every day to both Old and New Testament truth. I have followed this plan or a minor variant every year since.

The Shorter Bible Unity Reading Plan similarly has two tracks every day, a chronological track and a reading from the other Testament. The only difference is that the shorter plan covers only a bit more than half of the Old Testament while taking the reader through the entirety of the New. 

As D.A. Carson says, “At their best, Christians have saturated themselves in the Bible. They say with Job, ‘I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread’ (Job 23:12).’” Will you saturate yourself with the Bible in 2017? I encourage you: Commit yourself to following the plotline of the Bible consistently through the coming year. Come to next Christmastime with a deeper understanding of how the birth of Christ is the hinge of history, so that you might be that much more in awe of the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, rejoicing in His sovereign mercy and being steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, confident that He will indeed sum up all things in Christ to the glory of His Name and the good of His people.

[We’ll have copies of the Bible Unity Reading Plan and the Shorter Bible Unity Reading Plan on the foyer table at our services this Sunday. You can also download them at the links. In addition, there is an Android app available that takes you through the plan.]

Unto You is Born . . .

December 9, 2016

How do you respond to Christmas?

  • Not to materialism, ads, crowded malls, TV specials, and fake Santas;
  • Not to performances of Nutcracker and Messiah and Dickens’ Christmas Carol;
  • Not even to caroling and Christmas Eve services.

But how do you respond to the story of the birth of Jesus?

Consider: How does a four-year-old respond to Christmas?

Most four-year-olds have only the vaguest memories of the previous Christmas, but they remember enough to be thoroughly excited.  All is fresh and wonderful and magical and delightful.

Can you recapture that wide-eyed response – to the true story of Christmas?

As we walk through Luke’s account of the first Christmas, put yourself in the place of someone who has never heard it before. Imagine yourself a traveler in Judea in the first century. You hear the story from a shepherd. All is new. All is fresh. How do you respond?

Let’s look at Luke 2:1-21 under 3 headings:

  • Action
  • Proclamation
  • Response

Action

The first action is taken by Augustus, emperor of Rome – seemingly the most powerful man in the world. He commands that all in the Roman Empire be registered for taxation. Among the Jews, this meant that the male head of each family would have to return to the town of his ancestors, Bethlehem.  So Joseph must travel with pregnant Mary.

Understand: Joseph and Mary go to Bethlehem only because of the command of Caesar Augustus. Surely this is an unwelcome inconvenience for Mary, to take a several-days journey while pregnant.

But they had to go – for God had said through the prophet Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2-5). So God uses Caesar Augustus to get Mary to Bethlehem, in fulfillment of prophecy.

Don’t pass over this incident. Marvel at the sovereignty of God.                Augustus had his own reasons for calling for this tax registration. He did what he thought would secure his own reign and build up his power own power. He had no idea that the most important effect of his registration concerned the new-born king who far surpasses him in power and might.

As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the LORD; he turns it wherever he will.” And God turned the heart of Caesar Augustus in order that Mary gave birth in Bethlehem.

The second action: Mary gives birth to her son, wraps Him in cloths, and lays Him in a manger – a feeding trough for cattle (Luke 2:6-7). Unlike in most popular accounts, Luke does not say she gave birth the night she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem. But the birth does take place as prophesied. The child is born. The son is given. And the government will be upon His shoulders. He is the long-awaited Messiah. He is the conquering King.

Yet this magnificent birth takes place in a far from magnificent setting: Within the prophesied city, yes, but not in a palace, not even in a house.

Traditionally, Mary gives birth surrounded by animals – “the friendly beasts.” But we don’t know that. All we know is what Luke tells us: There was no room for them in the normal place travelers would stay, so stayed elsewhere. Either there was an animal’s feeding trough in the place where they stayed, or, needing some resting place for the child, Joseph found an unused manger, cleaned it out, and carried it to where they stayed.

So a young girl, a virgin, gave birth to a tiny, crying baby and put him in a feeding trough.

Meanwhile,

  • the emperor gave commands,
  • armies marched,
  • politicians connived.

They all thought they were very important men of action.

But the most important event  – the most important event to that point in all of history – took place when that young girl gave birth. The Messiah is born.

Proclamation

God has planned this event since before the beginning of time. And so now He proclaims it, telling others the significance of what just happened. He sends a large number of angelic messengers to announce the birth of the long-awaited Messiah.

  • He could have sent them to Caesar Augustus, but doesn’t;
  • He could have sent them to King Herod,  but does not;
  • He could have sent them to the High Priest or the chief priests, but He avoids them.

Instead, God chooses to send His messengers to a group of poor shepherds herding their flocks in the middle of the night.

Picture the scene: The night is dark – exceptionally dark to our eyes, for of course there are no electric lights anywhere. There is not even any glow from Bethlehem or Jerusalem. They’ve collected the sheep and goats so they can guard them from predators, and have kindled a fire in their midst. It is dark. Quiet. No sound of cars or trains. Perhaps a dog barks in the distance. The only sound is the low murmur of their conversation.

Then: Flash! A tremendously bright light!  An Angel, blazing brightness, mighty in strength, overwhelming in power, appears in front of them. They are blinded, hardly able to see anything. In the midst of their surprise and fright, the angel speaks: “Fear not! For behold, I proclaim to you a good and great joy that will be for all the people.”

Why is this is so good, so joyous?

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord!”

Why did the angel say, “Unto you”? He could have truthfully said, “For a Savior, Christ, the Lord is born this day!” But he adds, ‘Unto you.”

He adds the phrase because that’s what makes it joyous! Unto you! Unto all the people!

  • Not just to the rich and powerful
  • Not just to the Pharisees and Sadducees
  • Not just to the chief priests and the scribes

But to you shepherds! To all the people, young and old, rich and poor, healthy and sick, strong and weak! The prophecy in Isaiah had been, “Unto us a child is born,” so the angel says: This child is born unto you!

So this is the long-awaited day, the day when there would be no more delay. The child is born. At last.

But who is this child? How does the angel describe Him? With three words: Savior. Christ (or Messiah). And Lord.

Realize: The normal Jewish teaching at this time did not consider the Messiah to be divine. He was clearly a descendant of David. With great power He would restore the Kingdom of Israel. So they thought of Him as a Savior in that sense: He would deliver them from their earthly enemies, their earthly oppressors.

But throughout the Old Testament, God Himself is termed the Savior, or the “God of my Salvation.” And God saves not only from earthly enemies, but also from spiritual enemies – and even death itself.

So in the Old Testament God is Savior, and the Messiah is Savior.

But the angel doesn’t only call the child Savior and Messiah. He also calls this child Lord.

This word is not usually associated with the prophecies of the Messiah in the Old Testament. Rather, in the Greek translation of the Old Testament used in Jesus’ day, this same word translated “Lord” is used in place of Hebrew name of God (Jehovah or Yahweh).

So is the angel then saying: “God is Savior; the Messiah is Savior. God is Lord; the Messiah is Lord. Therefore the Messiah is God”?

Since the word “Lord” can also be used of a king or a prominent individual, we can’t be definitive. Nevertheless, there is a strong hint in the angel’s words: “This is the Messiah that you have expected, that you have hoped for – but He is greater than you ever imagined! This Messiah is Savior – He will save you from a far greater enemy than the Romans. This Messiah is Lord – not just an earthly king, but Immanuel, God-with-us, Yahweh, God Himself.      This child born unto you is God Almighty.”

Picture the shepherds at this point: Overwhelmed with fear and surprise at the angel’s appearance; astounded and confused by the angel’s words; knowing they are at the center of a great event. And then the angel says something preposterous: “This will be a sign for you. You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

That might have been the greatest surprise of the night! That these angels would appear to poor shepherds to announce the Messiah’s birth is quite surprising. But the long-awaited Messiah – wrapped up like a common poor infant, placed in a feeding-trough?

But as if to underline that this is the greatest news the world has ever heard, so that shepherds see that being a baby in a manger does not diminish His glory, a huge number of angels now suddenly appear, praising God: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased.”

Indeed, God’s is bringing the highest glory, the deepest praise to Himself through the birth of His Son. And He promises peace among those with whom He is well-pleased. Not a general “goodwill toward men.” But peace with God for those who are His people, for those who are His treasured possession, for those who are the true Israel.

In the same prophecy in which Micah names Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah’s birth, he says, “He shall be their peace” (Micah 5:5). And so the angels say: “The time is now! The child is born unto you! God’s peace is here! God’s glory shines forth! The Messiah, the Savior, the Lord is with you!”

Response

The shepherds are the first to respond. They say, “We’ve got to get to Bethlehem, now! We’ve got to see what God has told us about.” So they go as fast as they can.

It must take a while – where are they to find a baby lying in a feeding trough? But they succeed. In some nondescript place, they find Mary, and Joseph, and the infant Messiah.

The shepherds excitedly tell Mary and Joseph all that happened, all the angels said. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20).

So how do the shepherds respond?

  • Not with pride “Aren’t we special! God sent his angels to us!”
  • Not with marketing savvy: “Let’s see if we can get a book contract for the story!”
  • Nor with skepticism: “How can that poor little baby be David’s heir?

Instead, the shepherds respond with joy.  With faith. They give glory to God. They tell others – not to make a buck, but to share this great good news.

What about Mary? What is her response?

Verses 18 and 19 contrast Mary’s response with the response of those who heard the shepherds’ story: “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19).

Those who hear the shepherds wonder at the news. The word translated “wonder” can imply surprise, or even being disturbed. So for most who hear the news, the shepherds’ report becomes an interesting tidbit of news:  “Did you hear what old Joe said happened last night?” “And I heard from Sarah that . . .” The news sparked conversation. It made life interesting for a while. Each person wanted to be the first to let others know of this strange report. But like most news stories today, after being a topic of conversation, of concern for a  while, life goes on. People forget about it. They don’t talk about it any more. Oh, they have some vague recollection of the story. But it has no real impact on their lives. They have no change of heart, no deeper understanding of God.

Mary’s response was different. She took all this to heart. She turned them over and over in her mind. She didn’t understand them, but more and more she sees that her conception of her baby, this Messiah, needs to grow.

Indeed, her question is: “What child is this who laid to rest on Mary’s lap is sleeping?”

And that’s your question too: Who is this child? What is your response?

  • Can you respond like a four-year-old – with wide-eyed wonder at the good and great joy?
  • Can you respond like the shepherds – with faith and excitement, praising God, telling others?
  • Can you respond like Mary – pondering these truths, treasuring them up, thinking about them over and over?

How we need all three responses!

For this is the joyous news, the greatest of all joys!

  • Unto you has been born a Savior, the Messiah – the Lord!
  • Unto you – lost in sin, dead in rebellion, doomed to destruction;
  • Unto you – mockers of God, violators of His Law, idolaters at heart;
  • Unto you  a child is born.
  • Unto you a son is given.

This Child Himself will be your peace. This Child will be your entryway to God. This child will die to pay the penalty for your sins, if you only believe in Him, if you only see Him for who He is: Your Savior, Your Messiah, Your Lord.

Unto you is born this day a Savior!

God orchestrated all events for centuries so that a Roman emperor would issue a command bringing an unknown young girl from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God enabled her to give birth in humble surroundings, yet sent His majestic army to proclaim the great joy. And similarly God has brought you to the point where you have heard this story, this great joy.

Unto you a child is born: So glory to God in the Highest! Praise Him!

How will you respond?

 

(This is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached December 18, 2005 at Desiring God Community Church. The audio is available here.)

 

 

 

Advent and the Judgment Seat of Christ

December 2, 2016

The Advent season is upon us: Jesus is coming!

But what Jesus?

Yes, Jesus the tiny baby, born to Mary while she was still a virgin, really unable to care for Himself, really human.

Yet also Jesus the promised King, the future Judge, the One before whose Judgment Seat we all must stand, “so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil” (2 Corinthians 5:10).

This Jesus was born on Christmas Day. The Final Judge.

And one day you will stand before Him.

Think about that: You! You, alone. Not with your father or mother. Not with your brother or your sister. Not with your pastor or your friend. You must stand before this King. And there, as Paul says, you must bear your own load alone (Galatians 6:5).

So imagine yourself there before Him. Your Judge knows all you ever did, all you ever said, all you ever thought. You can’t hide. You can’t make excuses. You can’t compare yourself to others. You can’t plead ignorance. You can’t claim there were extenuating circumstances. You can’t lean on your spouse or your parent or your child or your pastor or your friend.

Your Judge will expose every selfish motive and every hidden sin.

Ponder that encounter – that encounter that is sure to come.

Does that image strike you with fear?  Are you terrified to have all you’ve hidden brought to light?

With that coming judgment in mind, the Apostle Paul exhorts us, “Each one must examine his own work” (Galatians 6:4 NAS). We must test ourselves – and see if we pass the test.

But what is the test? Is it: “Did I do enough good works to satisfy God? Am I good enough to meet His standards?”

No! Rather, the test is a test of faith. Is my “faith” just lip-service? Or is there evidence that my faith in Christ is real?

So, Jesus the Judge asks: “Did you live a life of active dependence on Me, turning away from yourself and your own resources and your own wisdom and turning to Me? Did you acknowledge My power and My sacrifice on the cross? Did you show that I was worth more than all the world has to offer?”

If you are indeed saved by grace through faith, there should be no terror at the prospect of this judgment. No worry. No embarrassment.

For there is no purgatory, no remaining punishment for sins, no painful recompense for those in Christ. He already has paid the price! Instead, if you are in Him, the Father will wipe every tear from your eyes, and there will be no more sorrow or crying or pain.

Indeed, to the extent that you are worried about your sins coming to light at Christ’s Judgment Seat, to that extent, you are depending on works; to that extent, you are guilty of the sin of pride.

For if your faith is genuine, what will be outcome of Christ’s judgment?

Your Judge will proclaim, “I paid the penalty for all these revealed sins! My blood covers them all.”

And that leads to all the more amazement, all the more joy, all the more delight for you in the Savior. As you see the depth of your own sinfulness as never before, you will see the depth of His mercy as never before. In this way, even your sins will work to the praise of His glorious grace.

So the result is not embarrassment. Not suffering. But joy at His amazing grace.

Thus, at Christ’s judgment seat, there are two possible final statements from the Judge:

First: “Created to glorify Me, you instead showed that you despised Me. I cast you into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” (Matthew 8:12, 22:13, 25:30).

Fear that final judgment!

But if you pass the test, if you are in Christ, no matter what your sins might be, the final statement from the Judge will be: “Well-done, good and faithful servant – by My sacrifice, by My grace, enter into the joy of your Master” (Matthew 25:21, 23).

Jesus was born to Mary in order to make that final, merciful judgment possible. So throw yourself on His mercy! Lose all desire for the praise of men! Rejoice that Jesus was born to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10)!