April 21, 2017
Recall that Hannah, the mother of Samuel, suffered deep distress and provocation because of her inability to conceive (1 Samuel 1:1-11). Consider these words that she prayed after God granted her heartfelt plea, giving her a son whom she then handed over to the Lord:
The Lord kills and brings to life;
he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The Lord makes poor and makes rich;
he brings low and he exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the Lord’s,
and on them he has set the world. (1 Samuel 2:6-8)
Pray with me in response:
O Lord, You are sovereign over all things: Over life and death, over poverty and prosperity, over success and failure. You give us a grant of life and breath and time and resources to be used for Your glory – and You take those away from us when so doing is for Your glory. We acknowledge You as our rightful Sovereign, agreeing with Scripture that You not only have a right to do as You please, but that all You do is good and wise. We ourselves deserve not one iota of all the gifts you give – not even one sip of water or one breath of air. Indeed, we confess that we only deserve Your wrath and judgment.
Throughout our lives You have given us good gift after good gift, and we have failed to thank You for so many. We confess that rather than thank You we have acted as if we deserve them or earned them. So we now say wholeheartedly, Thank You, O gracious and generous Father, for Your ample provision, poured into our overflowing cup.
Yet those obviously good gifts are the ones that most easily produce thankful hearts in us. So now we say further: When you remove any blessing from us – whether health or resources or friends or status or life itself – we know that then too You are doing good. When you lift up someone else to a position higher than our own, we acknowledge that You do right. When we suffer physical or emotional pain, we agree with Your apostle that our deepest afflictions, seen through the lens of eternity, are light and momentary, and always work in us an eternal weight of glory that far surpasses the pain (2 Corinthians 4:17).
We know that all Your goodness to us, however it is expressed, comes about only because of the crucifixion and resurrection of our Savior, the Lord Jesus. We know that His once-and-for-all sacrifice is the only way we gain access to Your presence, the only basis for Your giving us what we don’t deserve. So we bask in what we in no way merit: Your steadfast, everlasting love for us in Christ.
Thank You that both Your provision and Your removal of blessings are part of Your wise governing of the world that will bring about the culmination of all things – the creation of a new heavens and new earth, the summing up of all things in Christ, the salvation of those from every tribe and tongue and nation, the perfection of His glorious Bride, the Church, and the wiping of every tear from our eyes. How we long for this final day! Come, Lord Jesus!
April 7, 2017
“Not one word of all the good promises that the LORD had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass” (Joshua 21:45).
Think of the promises God had made to the house of Israel – including those made before Israel existed!
- God promised that Abraham’s descendants would inherit the land of Canaan (Genesis 13:14-17).
- God promised Abraham that He would bring his descendants out of slavery with great possessions (Genesis 15:13-14).
- Hundreds of years later, God promised that He would use Moses to rescue the people from slavery in Egypt (Exodus 3:7-10).
- God promised that He would harden Pharaoh’s heart so that he would not let Israel go, even after Moses conducted miracles (Exodus 4:21).
- Yet God promised eventually Pharaoh would drive the Israelites out of Egypt (Exodus 6:1).
- God promised that He would not just bring the people out of Egypt, but that He would bring them to Himself (Exodus 6:6-8).
- God promised plague after plague after plague on the Egyptians – and they all came about (Exodus 7 to 10).
- God promised that the firstborn in every house in Egypt would die, but not in the houses of the Israelites (Exodus 11:4-7).
- God promised that the Israelites would walk across the Red Sea on dry land, but the Egyptians would drown (Exodus 14:13-18).
- God promised that He would provide meat and bread to the people in the desert (Exodus 16:11-12).
We could go on and on. God promised direction in their travels, defeat of enemies, parting of yet more waters – and all came about.
The people had doubted and murmured; the enemies had been strong and powerful. But God fulfilled every promise – despite the enemy, despite the people’s lack of faith.
So, what about you? Do you trust God to fulfill His promises? And do you recognize the greatness of those promises? Here are a few on which to meditate:
- Jesus will return with power and great glory (Matthew 24:30).
- He will reign over an eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace (Isaiah 9:6-7).
- Jesus will destroy Satan and his minions (Revelation 20:10).
- God will complete the good work He has begun in you (Philippians 1:6).
- Indeed, we will be like Him (1 John 3:2).
- God will bring to Himself through faith in Jesus those from every tribe and tongue and people and nation (Revelation 7:9-10).
- Throughout this life, He will watch over you and guide you, and then bring you to Himself forever (Psalm 23:6).
- He will work all things together for your good and His glory (Romans 8:28).
- God will so work that at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow and every tongue confess that He is Lord, to God’s glory (Philippians 2:10-11).
- God will wipe every tear from your eyes, having ended death and mourning and crying and pain (Revelation 21:6).
- God will rejoice over us, His people, with loud singing (Zephaniah 3:17).
- By the blood of Jesus, you are declared fully righteous; He will remember your sins no more (Romans 3:21-25, Hebrews 10:11-18).
He has sworn by Himself that this is so – and it is impossible for God to lie! So hold fast to the confession of your hope without wavering (Hebrews 6:13-19); stand firm on His level ground, not sliding down into unbelief (Psalm 26); eagerly anticipate the fulfillment of every promise. For He is the faithful God, who keeps His covenant of love to a thousand generations of those who love Him and keep His commands (Deuteronomy 7:9).
March 31, 2017
How important is prayer? How important is watchfulness – for ourselves and for one another?
Travel with me to Gethsemane, the night our Lord will be betrayed. He is sorrowful and troubled. He asks His closest friends, Peter, James, and John, to come to the garden with Him, and to sit while He prays. He is in deep need. He wants their presence, their prayers. Yet after a while, He returns and finds them sleeping. He asks:
“Could you not watch one hour? Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Mark 14:37b-38)
The hour has come. The betrayer is at hand. Both Jesus and His disciples are about to undergo severe trials. And yet Peter, James, and John neglect to watch and pray.
Jesus knows they want to stay awake, to remain with Him, to intercede for Him: “The spirit is willing.”
Their flesh, however, is weak. They are exhausted. They lack focus. Rather than spur each other on to watchfulness, they become silent; their eyelids droop; and they sleep.
In noting that their flesh is weak, Jesus is not providing them with an excuse. Quite the opposite. Because their flesh is weak, they must call upon God to help them fight temptation. They must help one another to remain watchful.
What about us? Our flesh is weak, just like the disciples. And we have the same enemy assaulting us, tempting us, lying to us, deceiving us. Furthermore, just like the disciples, we must have more than a willing spirit; our statement, “Yes, Jesus, I will follow You!” is not sufficient for us to truly follow Him, to avoid temptation, and to live to God’s glory.
Given our weak flesh, given the power of our enemy, what must we do?
We must do what Peter, James, and John did not do that momentous night: We must keep alert; we must rouse one another; we must be aware of our weaknesses and Satan’s wiles.
And that means we must pray. The road set before is challenging and dangerous. We cannot travel it individually by our power. Indeed, we cannot travel it together by our human power. Yet just as Jesus instructs His disciples, all Scripture instructs us: Pray without ceasing. Depend on God. Call out to Him in the day of trouble – for yourself and for your brother and sisters. He is the God of all comfort; He is the God of all might; He is the Father of mercies. So pray for watchfulness and strength; pray for eyes to see reality as it is; pray for one another in this battle; pray for God’s Kingdom to come, His will to be done; pray against the schemes and power of the devil.
A Bible scholar of the last century wrote, “The essence of the road of the righteous is this: it is a road too difficult to walk without the companionship and friendship of God.” This God stands ready to strengthen and confort you, to enable you to build up and comfort others, to cause you to watch and pray effectively. Know that your flesh is weak. So don’t be content with a spirit which is merely willing. Cry out for the resources only God can give you to be able to watch and pray and encourage and persevere.
February 3, 2017
Those of you following the Bible Unity Reading Plan recently read these words that God says to Pharaoh through Moses and Aaron: “How long will you refuse to humble yourself before me?” (Exodus 10:3)
Indeed, that is God’s question to every man. You would think that we humans – weak, sinful creatures that we are – would easily humble ourselves before the One who fashioned the universe, before the One who is holy, holy, holy, before the One who offers us grace and mercy and eternal joy through Jesus Christ though we deserve His wrath. But not so. From the Garden of Eden until today, we humans have found humbling ourselves before God to be a great challenge.
So as an encouragement to humble yourself, listen to these Scriptures. Let them dwell in you richly. He saves a humble people. Make sure you are among them.
Psalm 18:25-27 (from this coming Sunday’s sermon text): With the merciful you show yourself merciful; with the blameless man you show yourself blameless; with the purified you show yourself pure; and with the crooked you make yourself seem tortuous. For you save a humble people, but the haughty eyes you bring down.
Psalm 25:8-14 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way. He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way. All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great. Who is the man who fears the LORD? Him will he instruct in the way that he should choose. His soul shall abide in well-being, and his offspring shall inherit the land. The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes known to them his covenant.
Psalm 147:5-11 Great is our Lord, and abundant in power; his understanding is beyond measure. The LORD lifts up the humble; he casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the LORD with thanksgiving; make melody to our God on the lyre! He covers the heavens with clouds; he prepares rain for the earth; he makes grass grow on the hills. He gives to the beasts their food, and to the young ravens that cry. His delight is not in the strength of the horse, nor his pleasure in the legs of a man, but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him, in those who hope in his steadfast love.
Psalm 149:3-4 Let [the children of Zion] praise his name with dancing, making melody to him with tambourine and lyre! For the LORD takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with salvation.
Proverbs 3:33-34 The LORD’s curse is on the house of the wicked, but he blesses the dwelling of the righteous. Toward the scorners he is scornful, but to the humble he gives favor.
Proverbs 15:33 The fear of the LORD is instruction in wisdom, and humility comes before honor.
Proverbs 22:4 The reward for humility and fear of the LORD is riches and honor and life.
Isaiah 66:1-2 Thus says the LORD: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool; what is the house that you would build for me, and what is the place of my rest? All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the LORD. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.
Zephaniah 3:11-12 ”On that day you shall not be put to shame because of the deeds by which you have rebelled against me; for then I will remove from your midst your proudly exultant ones, and you shall no longer be haughty in my holy mountain. But I will leave in your midst a people humble and lowly. They shall seek refuge in the name of the LORD.
Luke 1:46-55 [Mary is a model of humility for all of us.] And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”
John 13:3-5 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Philippians 2:3 Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.
Colossians 3:12-17 Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
Ephesians 4:1-3 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
James 4:4-10 You adulterous people! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world makes himself an enemy of God. Or do you suppose it is to no purpose that the Scripture says, “He yearns jealously over the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”? But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Be wretched and mourn and weep. Let your laughter be turned to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you.
1 Peter 5:5b-7 Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.” Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.
(All emphases are added).
January 20, 2017
At noon today Donald Trump took the oath of office and became president of the United States. Barack Obama greeted and applauded the new president. Among those present were past presidents Carter, Clinton, and Bush. Each of those past presidents opposed the candidacy of Donald Trump; all honored his inauguration.
Forty years ago, I came to understand how unusual and how precious that is.
In November 1976, Jimmy Carter defeated incumbent Gerald Ford in a close election (Ford would have won had he received about 11,000 additional votes in Ohio and 15,000 additional votes in Mississippi). Two months later, I traveled to western Kenya to teach secondary school. My students were particularly interested in the recent inauguration. After one of my first classes, a group stayed afterwards to discuss American politics. They asked me:
“Why did Gerald Ford leave office?”
That seemed a strange question. I replied, matter-of-factly, “Because he lost the election.”
“Yes, we know he lost the election. But why did he leave office?”
That is: Why did the man holding the most powerful office in the world, the commander in chief of the most powerful military in the world, voluntarily step down from power rather than wielding that power to remain in office?
Kenya, a scant thirteen years after independence, had never experienced a change of presidents. There was no history of peaceful transition of power among presidents in Kenya – or anywhere else in Africa. Indeed, there was little faith in Kenya’s constitution, little of the faith on display at the Capitol today: The faith in the democratic system of government. We Americans have more faith in Democracy than we have in our preferred parties and candidates. We believe that even if our preferred candidate loses, even if the winner advocates ideas we abhor, we should not try to subvert the election process. We believe we are better off fighting back in the next election.
My Kenyan students didn’t understand that; they did not realize that had Ford tried to remain in power despite the election results, 99 percent of those who voted for him would have opposed him.
So, two exhortations:
First: No matter whom you supported in the primaries or the general election, no matter whether you think Donald Trump is a great hope for our country or a great danger, thank God that you live in a country where such peaceful transitions take place. Thank God that past presidents of both parties publicly welcomed the new president. Thank God for His mercy in allowing this country to continue these democratic traditions despite our many sins and failures.
Second: Remember these words of the Apostle Paul, quoted today at the inauguration by Franklin Graham:
I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people, for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way. This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all (1 Timothy 2:1-6a).
Paul urges us to pray for those in high positions of civil authority. Why? So that instead of having life and livelihood threatened daily by government officials or marauding bands, we might live peaceful lives of witness to the truth of our Lord Jesus, proclaiming His redemption and living out His love.
Remember: Paul wrote these words when Nero was emperor of Rome. He prayed for the emperor and commanded others to pray for the emperor not out of political support, but out of Christian obligation.
So regardless of your politics, pray for President Trump. Pray for the Vice President, for cabinet officials, for others of high position. Pray for wisdom. Pray for repentance. Pray for humility. Pray for peace in our land and effectiveness in bringing peace around the world.
And pray that in this peace, the Gospel might go forth as a testimony to all nations, so that the end may then come (Matthew 24:14), and our Lord might return, ushering in His eternal Kingdom of righteousness and peace – the ultimate, once-and-for-all transition of power. Even so, come Lord Jesus.
January 6, 2017
How can you please God?
Can you please Him by working on His behalf?
We often think: If we would just witness more (or more effectively); if we would just give more to the church, or attend services more regularly, or pray more, or help the poor more diligently then God would be pleased with us.
Is that right?
Consider what Jesus said to His disciples after interacting with the Samaritan woman, telling her He was the longed-for Messiah: “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to accomplish his work” (John 4:34).
Jesus has quoted Deuteronomy previously, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4). Jesus loves the word of His Father. He delights to do His will. He finds sustenance and satisfaction and fulfillment in accomplishing the Father’s plan. So, in this particular case, He found joy and sustenance from seeing this woman whose life was a wreck come to saving faith as He shared the Good News of the coming of the promised Christ.
So Jesus found joy in following God. Surely we too should find joy in following Him.
But what about the flip side of that truth? Does our activity, our accomplishment, our obedience please God?
We have to be careful here. Scripture makes some subtle but vital distinctions in this area. Consider, for example, Psalm 147:10-11:
His delight is not in the strength of the horse,
nor his pleasure in the legs of a man,
but the LORD takes pleasure in those who fear him,
in those who hope in his steadfast love.
We never impress God. However strong we may be, however great our accomplishments might appear, God doesn’t jump up and down, saying, “Awesome! I’m so happy you did that! Do it again! Show me what you can do!”
Instead, what gives God pleasure? He rejoices in our dependence on Him, in our acknowledgment of His power and authority, in our trusting in His love for us and commitment to us.
Furthermore, consider 1 Thessalonians 4:3: “This is the will of God, your sanctification.” That is, God’s will is for you to be made holy. For you to be set apart for Him. For you to be like Him, like Christ.
So putting these biblical thoughts together: We, like Jesus, delight to do God’s will and to accomplish His work. But God’s work and God’s will include not only actions on our part, but also our becoming like Jesus: Having patience, love, kindness, devotion, endurance, gentleness, piety, and self-control. So He desires us to become like Jesus – and for us to help others to become like Jesus. That never happens through our own strength, through our own will-power, through “the strength of a horse” or “the legs of a man.” No. That only happens as we devour His Word, as we depend on His grace, as we submit to His wisdom, as we rejoice in His love. Activity in and of itself does not honor Him. Becoming Christlike and acting Christlike honor Him.
So, no, in and of itself working on God’s behalf does not please Him. He takes no delight in my puny strength, my puny abilities, my puny accomplishments.
But God takes great joy in our fulfilling His purposes for us – as we become more like Jesus inside and outside, in thoughts and attitudes as well as in words and deeds.
So by all means witness – out of the overflow of your joy in Christ. Give generously – knowing all you have is a grant from God to be used for His glory. Worship corporately – in spirit and in truth. Help the poor – with the compassion of Christ for the glory of Christ. Become like Jesus – and act like Him. This is how you can please God.
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.]
December 9, 2016
- 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:
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.
- 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.
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!”
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.)
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)!
November 4, 2016
Who are you?
Where does your security come from?
Where does your joy come from?
We who call ourselves Christians must ask these questions whenever we are making decisions. Whether we are deciding how to budget our income or how to vote, we need to test our motives and passions: Are we acting consistently with who we are in Christ, with our security in Christ, with our joy in Christ?
With the election four days away, let’s think about each of these questions with respect to Christians in this world, and then draw some implications for how we should vote.
First: Who are you in Christ?
If Jesus is your Savior, if He is your Lord, you are a citizen of the Kingdom of God (Philippians 3:20). You are loved by the Father as His child (John 16:27, Romans 8:13-17). You were dead in trespasses and sins, but He has miraculously made you alive in Christ (Ephesians 2: 1-5). Having begun this great work in you, He guarantees that He will complete it (Philippians 1:6), as He makes you – together with all those in Christ – into the perfect, spotless Bride of Jesus (Ephesians 5:27).
Thus, your identity does not come from your race, your ethnicity, your class, your income, your education, your height, your weight, your physical prowess, or your intelligence. Nor does your identity come from the country of your birth, or the country of your earthly citizenship. We can celebrate our ethnicity; we can rejoice in our countries. And all these factors influence how we think and how we serve. But our identity in Christ trumps them all. Our identity in Christ is far more central than them all. Thus, as children of God we are free from the control of government (Matthew 17:24-27). So the apostles did not bow to the will of powerful leaders when commanded not to speak of Jesus (Acts 5:27-29). Nevertheless, for the sake of Jesus we submit to government when to do so does not conflict with God’s commands (1 Peter 2:13-17).
Second: Where is your joy?
As those united to Christ, our greatest joy must come from Him – not from the things of this world, not from our position in this world, not from the country of which we are a part (Philippians 4:4-5, 1 John 2:15-17, Psalm 73:25-26). Jesus is our great treasure – worth more than all the world has to offer, so that even if we lose all in order to follow Him, our joy increases (Matthew 13:44-46, Mark 10:17-31).
Thus, your joy is not rooted in your country. Your country might fall apart, or be overcome by a foreign power, or be taken over by evil men. Such has happened to Christians time and again over the last 2,000 years. Yet you have an indomitable joy in Christ.
Third: Where is your security?
Jesus tells us that He has all authority in heaven and on earth – all authority, over every ruler, over every terrorist, over every spiritual power. Furthermore, He promises that He is with us; God will never leave us nor forsake us (Matthew 28:18-20, Hebrews 13:15). He knows exactly what we need, and will provide us with everything necessary for us to grow in Christlikeness and to serve His purposes (Matthew 6:25-33, 2 Peter 1:3). Furthermore, Jesus will return in power and great glory (Matthew 24:30); He will overwhelm all rebels against His authority, right every wrong, end all human countries and states, and establish His eternal Kingdom of peace (2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Revelation 11:15). God Himself will wipe every tear from our eyes, and we will see Him face to face (Revelation 21:4, 1 Corinthians 13:12).
So our security does not depend on the defense policy of our government or on the effectiveness of the police force or on the equity of the criminal justice system. The IRS may run amuck and the Fed may exercise foolish economic policy. We may be persecuted; we may be convicted unjustly and sentenced to death. But, as the Apostle Paul said even when facing execution, “The Lord will rescue me from every evil attack and will bring me safely to his heavenly kingdom. To him be glory for ever and ever. Amen” (2 Timothy 4:18). Not a hair of our head will perish, even if we are hated by all and put to death (Luke 21:16-18). In Christ, we are completely secure.
What, then, are our responsibilities as citizens?
In this world, we are aliens and exiles (1 Peter 2:11), similar to the Jewish exiles in Babylon. The prophet Jeremiah tells these exiles that their sojourn in that foreign country will not be permanent, but will be lengthy – longer than the lifespan of most of the exiles. So he instructs them, “Seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare” (Jeremiah 29:7). Just so for us. We and we are to work to improve the country of our sojourning in a variety of ways – but especially, of course, in bearing witness to the love and grace of God the Father through Jesus His Son.
Surely voting is one way that we exercise that responsibility. We are to seek the welfare of the United States where God has sent us into exile. By voting, we can help to bring into local, state, and national offices men and women who will serve the country well, who may improve the welfare of our city, our state, our country – and even the world.
So I am mystified by statements from some Christian leaders, arguing that we have no obligation to vote. Surely the state cannot force us to vote – let us obey God rather than man! But just as surely we are to seek the welfare of this country – and we can, we must do so through voting (and through thousands of other means).
Voting as a Joyous, Secure, Christ-Follower
So if we are to vote, how do we decide on which candidates to support?
On my ballot in North Carolina this election are candidates for 23 offices. Some of these candidates are wise and well-qualified; they will serve well. Enthusiastically support such candidates. Vote for them as a way to seek the welfare of those around you. Your hope, your joy, and your security are not wrapped up in their winning the election. But learn about the candidates and vote for those who you think will improve life for your fellow citizens.
But the big question this year is how to vote for president – an office which is consequential not only for the welfare of this country, but for the welfare of the entire world. Some Christian leaders have opined that no Christian should vote for Trump; others have said no Christian should vote for Clinton; still others have argued that no Christian can vote in good conscience for either of them.
I think these arguments are wrong. Why?
First, as we’ve indicated, our identity, our hope, and our joy are not wrapped up in any candidate. We can vote for a candidate without setting our hope in him or her, without identifying ourselves as followers of him or her.
Second, in voting we are seeking the welfare of our country, state, and city to the glory of God. That voting decision – particularly in a case like this year’s presidential election – is a judgment call. Indeed, it is a particularly complex judgment call. We should expect different Christians - with varying levels of understanding of economic policy, foreign policy, and judicial policy, and different weights on the importance assigned to each– to differ in their judgments. Past experience will also affect the way such judgments are made. So surely how to vote in a presidential election like this is a disputable matter among Christians, a matter of wisdom. We therefore should treat it like the disputable matters discussed in Romans 14. In particular, “Let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother” (Romans 14:13). Your brother or sister in Christ had better be much more precious to you than your presidential candidate. And the way you discuss politics could indeed put a stumbling block in the way of your brother or sister. So treat this presidential election as a judgment call – and respect the judgment calls of fellow believers, even when you think they are wrongheaded.
Third: How can you make a wise judgment between Trump and Clinton?
Let me lay out four scenarios. Which is most applicable to you depends on your judgment of the candidates and what other considerations you think are most important for the future welfare of the country.
a) First possibility: You think there is a good chance one of the two major candidates would end up on balance being good for the country. You disagree with some political stands that candidate takes, and you recognize and regret his or her character flaws – yet, on balance, with the uncertainty about the future that always accompanies voting, you honestly believe there is a chance this candidate could serve the country well. If so, vote for that candidate.
b) Second possibility: You think both candidates are deeply flawed, and electing either as president could have serious negative consequences for the country and the world. But while you think both are potentially disastrous, you think one has the potential to be much worse than the other. You may decide to vote for the lesser disaster (but may not – see scenarios three and four also). For example, abstracting from this election: If I thought one candidate would end up killing ten million people, and the other would end up killing thirty million people, I might well vote for the one who would kill ten million. I would not be endorsing that candidate; I would not be aligning myself with that candidate; I certainly would not be setting my hope in that candidate. Rather, in wisdom before God I would be making the decision that as far as I can tell will lead to the greatest welfare for the country of my exile.
c) Third possibility: Your assessment of the two major candidates is similar to (b) above – you think either would be disastrous. But in this scenario you want to do all you can to raise the low probability of another candidate becoming president. That would require that neither Trump nor Clinton attain 270 electoral votes, and that some electoral votes go to another candidate. In that case, the House of Representatives would choose the president from among the top three candidates in the electoral college, with each state delegation getting one vote. With Clinton’s lead in the polls shrinking and Evan McMullin having a decent shot at winning Utah this outcome is not impossible. In this case, you would vote for McMullin in Utah, Johnson in New Mexico, or any other third party candidate in states where they might win. But North Carolina is different. Should Clinton win here, she almost certainly will get 270 electoral votes. The only candidate who can beat her in this state is Trump. So in this scenario, you would vote for Trump in North Carolina as the strategy that will most effectively raise the probability of someone other than the two major candidates becoming president.
d) Fourth possibility: Again, you think both Clinton and Trump would harm the country. You may or may not think one is considerably worse than the other. But in your judgment, the two parties are able to nominate deeply flawed candidates and then run predominantly negative campaigns because they do not believe voters will abandon them for a third party. You think the country would benefit from having more than two choices in future elections – and you think that the two parties would be more likely to work together during the next four years if they were to perceive a third party threat (as they did after the 1992 election, when Ross Perot received 19 percent of the vote). In this case, vote for whichever third party or write-in candidate you consider the best.
My friends, in Christ we are secure. In Christ we have indomitable joy. And in Christ we know who we are: Chosen, beloved, set apart for Him. No election will change any of that.
So work for the welfare of the country of your exile. Pray for this country. Vote wisely – following whichever scenario most accurately fits your judgment.
And then – with joy, with confidence – entrust the church in this country to God and to the word of His grace (Acts 20:32). He is able to build her up and to give her the promised inheritance – and will do so. And in the end – whatever the outcome of this election – the gates of hell will not prevail against her (Matthew 16:18).