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.)

 

 

 

At Last! The Psalms!

October 7, 2016

This Sunday we begin a multi-year sermon series on the book of Psalms. If our Lord is willing, over something like 75 sermons, we’ll cover the entire book from “Blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked” (Psalm 1:1) to “Let everything that has breath praise the Lord! Praise the Lord!” (Psalm 150:5). Most weeks, as on October 9, we’ll consider more than one psalm. We’ll also break up the series into groups of about 15 sermons, returning to Romans to complete that series after the first set of psalms, and interspersing other New Testament series with the remaining psalms.

Why the book of Psalms?

At one level, it’s about time to consider it! While we read Scripture from this book almost every Sunday, only a handful sermons at DGCC have taken any of the psalms as their text.

At another level, the book of Psalms fits well with where we are in our preaching. Both Fred and I have focused in the past several months on key doctrines of the faith – who is God, what is man? How are we not condemned before Him? Where is the world headed? The psalms help us to see and to live out what must follow from such doctrines – the emotions, the affections, the praise, the crying out – as we live life in a sinful, fallen world.

Furthermore, when you read the psalms – personally, in your family, or in corporate worship – you are linking yourself with followers of God over the last three thousand years. Over centuries and millennia, these psalms have expressed and shaped the affections and emotions of God’s people. We pray that God will do the same with us – that our prayers might be shaped by these psalms and our attitudes might become more consistent with biblical doctrine as we hear and speak and live out these psalms.

Let’s look at seven forms that this expressing and shaping of emotions takes (modified from Mark Dever’s similar list in The Message of the Old Testament):

Praise: We proclaim the greatness of our God to all peoples and, indeed, to all creation, citing who He has proclaimed Himself to be:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song; sing to the LORD, all the earth! 
Sing to the LORD, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 
Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples!  
For great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 
For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the LORD made the heavens. 
Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary. 
Ascribe to the LORD, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength!
Psalm 96:1-7

Remembering: We remind ourselves of God’s faithfulness to His covenant, especially as shown in the history of His people:

When the waters saw you, O God, when the waters saw you, they were afraid;
indeed, the deep trembled.
The clouds poured out water; the skies gave forth thunder;
your arrows flashed on every side.
The crash of your thunder was in the whirlwind; your lightnings lighted up the world;
the earth trembled and shook.
Your way was through the sea, your path through the great waters;
yet your footprints were unseen.
You led your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.
Psalm 77:16-20

Thanksgiving: Giving thanks in the psalms is not private, between an individual and God. Rather, thanksgiving in the psalms is always a form of public praise. Whether the psalmist is thanking God for assisting him personally or for helping the people, the thanksgiving praises God for such acts:

Some were fools through their sinful ways, and because of their iniquities suffered affliction; 
they loathed any kind of food, and they drew near to the gates of death. 
Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble, and he delivered them from their distress. 
He sent out his word and healed them, and delivered them from their destruction. 
Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love, for his wondrous works to the children of man! 
And let them offer sacrifices of thanksgiving, and tell of his deeds in songs of joy!
Psalm 107:17-22

Trust: Praising God for who He is, remembering His covenant love and faithful deeds, and thanking Him for His work on our behalf all serve to deepen our trust in Him. So the psalms call upon us to trust Him always, especially in the midst of trials and difficulties:

Now I know that the LORD saves his anointed;
he will answer him from his holy heaven with the saving might of his right hand. 
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the LORD our God. 
They collapse and fall, but we rise and stand upright.
Psalm 20:6-8

Honest Lament:  Yet while we are in such trials and difficulties, God often seems distant and confusing. We cry out and don’t see an answer; we ask God to intervene, and don’t understand how He is at work. Many psalms reflect this confusion, this darkness; indeed, more than one-third of the psalms contain a lament. One author says there is so much lament in the psalms to “show that the experience of anguish and puzzlement in the life of faith is not a sign of deficient faith, something to be outgrown or put behind one, but rather is intrinsic to the very nature of faith” (R.W.L. Moberly, as quoted by B Waltke et al, The Psalms as Christian Lament, p. 1). Often these laments sound similar to Job’s cries:

O LORD, why do you cast my soul away? Why do you hide your face from me? 
Afflicted and close to death from my youth up, I suffer your terrors; I am helpless. 
Your wrath has swept over me; your dreadful assaults destroy me. 
They surround me like a flood all day long; they close in on me together. 
You have caused my beloved and my friend to shun me; my companions have become darkness.
Psalm 88:14-18

Love for and Obedience to God’s Law:  We delight in God’s revelation of His character in His Law, and strive to follow it by His grace, knowing that in following Him we find true life, true joy.

Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day. 
Your commandment makes me wiser than my enemies, for it is ever with me. 
I have more understanding than all my teachers, for your testimonies are my meditation. 
I understand more than the aged, for I keep your precepts.
I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. 
I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me. 
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth! 
Through your precepts I get understanding; therefore I hate every false way.
Psalm 119:97-104

Repentance: Though we love His Law and strive to follow it, we often fall short. So we turn from our sin, confessing that God rightly condemns us and seeking forgiveness by His grace and mercy.

Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love;
according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. 
Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin! 
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. 
Against you, you only, have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight,
so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment.
Psalm 51:1-4

May God be pleased to express and shape our affections and emotions through this great book, and so continue to transform us into His people who live to His glory among all the nations.

 

Preparing for Suffering

June 17, 2016

Five days ago Omar Mir Siddique Mateen walked into the Pulse Bar in Orlando and killed 49 people. Not one went to that bar last weekend thinking, “I’m going to die tonight”

Imagine that your brother, your sister, your friend, your classmate, or your next-door neighbor were among those killed. How would you respond?

We rightly shrink in horror from that heinous crime.

But in the four days since the Orlando terrorist attack, about 170 other people have been murdered in the US; about 6400 have died of cancer, about 6700 of heart disease; about 100 were killed by drunk drivers.

Then on Tuesday, also in Orlando, two-year-old Lane Davis was dragged underwater by an alligator and drowned. Lane’s father, wading into the water, didn’t have an inkling that there was any danger to the boy.

Imagine that Lane was your brother, your nephew, your grandson, or your son. How would you respond?

In the days since that tragedy, approximately another 200 little boys and girls under five years of age have died in the US.

In this rich and predominantly peaceful country, we can live under the illusion that death is something strange, something unusual – something we can avoid, we can put off indefinitely if we drive carefully, eat well, and exercise diligently.

But death is all around us. Tragedies happen. All the time.

Furthermore, in the years ahead, unless Jesus returns in the next few decades, every one of us will die. Some will know they are dying. Some won’t. Some will die swiftly and painlessly. Others will die horribly. But we will all face death. It is certain.

So shouldn’t we prepare for it? Shouldn’t we learn how to approach the tragedies that will undoubtedly come in this life – so that we will be prepared both to help others in the midst of such crises, and to endure them biblically ourselves?

This Sunday we begin a short sermon series on the book of Job. We have been making our way through Paul’s letter to the Romans for more than a year, and still have much to cover in that great epistle. We’ve come to one of the best-known verses in all of Scripture:

And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose. Romans 8:28 NAS

What a promise! What comfort! And how great is the God who can make such a promise!

And yet, a dear friend who had recently suffered horrible tragedy once told me, “If one more person quotes Romans 8:28 to me, I’m going to kill him!”

What led others to misuse this great verse, so that it was not a comfort but a barb?

I believe the problem was a lack of understanding of the lessons of the book of Job – lessons that the Apostle Paul knew well, indeed, that he assumes the readers of Romans know.

In Job, we see a good man – kind, generous, loving, dutiful, pious, and upright – lose his goods, lose his children, and lose his health, all in a few days. Then his friends come and make matters worse. Buffeted by all this tragedy, Job deeply questions the goodness and justice of God.

In this book we learn about some of the causes of pain and suffering in this life; we learn of the hatred of our enemy, Satan; we learn of the majesty and sovereignty of God, even over Satan; we learn some of God’s purposes, as well as the nature of genuine faith.

So through this book, we can gain a solid and necessary foundation for understanding Romans 8:28 and following.

Through this book we can become genuine comforters, instead of the “miserable comforters” (Job 16:2) who tormented Job and my friend.

And through this book, we can prepare for the tragedies that undoubtedly await us in the years ahead.

So join us. And may God’s Word build us up and equip us, so that in the day of trouble we might look to Him in the full confidence of faith.

How Much is Jesus Worth?

March 24, 2016

If you could become any one of these four people, which would you choose?

  • (a) The richest, most successful businessman in the world;
  • (b) The most popular, most attractive movie star in the world;
  • (c) The president of the United States;
  • (d) An aids orphan in a slum.

Which do you choose?

Some of us might have a hard time choosing between a, b, and c; but would anyone pick d?

Let me change the question: You now have the same four choices, except: if you choose a, b, or c, you do not know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. If you’re the aids orphan, you do.

Which do you choose now?

Is the choice hard?

Do you see what I’m asking? How much is Jesus worth? Is knowing him worth more than all of Bill Gates’ fortune? Is knowing Him worth more than all the fame or power of a movie star or a president?

This is the central theme of Mark 14:1-25: How much do we value Jesus? The passage is like a play: there are four main characters or groups of characters, all revolving around Jesus, all assessing Jesus’ worth. The characters are:

  • The chief priests and their associates
  • An unnamed woman
  • Judas
  • The other disciples

The passage divides itself into five scenes. We’ll briefly clarify or elaborate on a few points in each scene, then compare and contrast some of these characters, drawing out lessons for ourselves.

Scene 1: Mark 14:1-2. The Chief Priests and Associates

At this time, Passover was the most widely-attended Jewish festival. At least a few hundred thousand Jews came from afar to celebrate. The chief priests want to arrest Jesus, but since many of these attendees thought highly of Jesus, they want to move on the sly, stealthily, and to take Him into custody after the feast.

Scene 2: Mark 14:3-9, Jesus, the Disciples, and a Woman

Picture the scene: Jesus and his disciples, possibly with other guests are eating at the home of Simon the Leper — presumably a former leper whom Jesus had healed. This house is in Bethany, a couple of miles outside Jerusalem, where Lazarus and his sisters, Mary and Martha, live. As is the custom in this time and place, they are not sitting down to eat but reclining, lying with their feet away from the table, resting on their left arms, using their right hands to eat. The table is short, perhaps a foot high.

During the meal a woman enters the room carrying an incredibly expensive jar of perfume. She not only opens the jar, but breaks it, filling the room with its aroma. Then, rather than putting a small amount on Jesus, she pours the entire jar on him.

John tells us the identity of the woman: Mary, the sister of Lazarus. He also tells us that she does not stop at his head, but pours the perfume on his feet, and wipes those feet with her hair.

The plant that produces nard was grown only in the Himalayas, and so the perfume is very expensive. If the stated value of three hundred denarii is accurate, this would be about $15,000 in the US today. Nard was literally a gift for a king.

Some rebuke Mary for this “waste,” saying the profits from its sale could have been given to the poor. But Jesus accepts this offering, saying it prepares His body for burial.

Scene 3: Mark 14:10-11, Judas and the Chief Priests

Judas goes to the chief priests, and offers to betray Jesus. They are delighted. Judas can help them find Jesus in a private place, so they can arrest Him where there are no crowds to start a riot.

Matthew tells us the amount of money they offered him: 30 pieces of silver, likely worth about $5000 for us. The chief priests pay Judas about one-third of the value of the nard Mary poured out on Jesus.

Scene 4: Mark 14:12-16, Jesus and the Disciples, Preparing for the Last Supper

With all the crowds gathered in Jerusalem for Passover, finding a place to eat the celebratory meal is a real problem. Although they have been in Jerusalem almost a week, the disciples have made no arrangements for a room.

Jesus, however, had graciously prepared details ahead of time. Presumably during His last visit to Jerusalem, Jesus made arrangements for a room to be available for this special meal. He then works miraculously, arranging that when the designated disciples arrive in the city they will see a man carrying a jar of water (an unusual event in these times). They do so, and prepare for the meal.

Scene 5: Mark 14:17-25, Jesus and His Disciples: The Last Supper

Jesus and the disciples wait until they can move under the cover of darkness to the upper room. Here, while they are eating, Jesus breaks the news that one of the twelve disciples will betray Him. Twice before — in Mark 9:31 and 10:33 — Jesus has said that He will be betrayed. But the disciples had not understood, and clearly did not think that one of the twelve would be the betraying agent. They cannot believe this – clearly the eleven have no suspicions of Judas – and each one asks Jesus if he is the betrayer.

In this culture, to be betrayed by one “who is eating with me,” who “dips with me in the bowl” was considered particularly treacherous. To eat with someone implied friendship, trust, and an obligation to help and protect. So by speaking of their eating together, and saying that the betrayer is “one of the twelve,” Jesus is emphasizing the enormity of the evil of what is happening.

Jesus then institutes the Lord’s Supper, saying the bread is His body, and the cup is the blood of the covenant.

The Characters: Jesus

Now let’s turn our attention to the characters. We will look first at Jesus, and then draw some comparisons and contrasts with the others.

Mark clearly presents Jesus as in control of the situation. Jesus is not surprised by anything that happens. The chief priests are trying to move secretly, on the sly, but Jesus knows their plans and arranges matters so that His arrest does not take place until He has finished His other work. Judas thinks he is fooling the others – and he succeeds in fooling his fellow disciples. But Jesus knows of the betrayal, and lets Judas know that He knows. Jesus is well-prepared for this momentous last meal, making arrangements ahead of time.

But most importantly, Jesus presents Himself as precious through the institution of the Lord’s Supper. There are two aspects his preciousness to unpack here. First:

(1) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus pays the penalty for our sins

When offering the cup, Jesus says “this is my blood of the covenant which is poured out for many.” Jesus here identifies himself Old Testament sacrifices, whose blood, we are told in Leviticus 17:11, was poured out on the altar “to make atonement for your souls.” Paul later makes an explicit parallel between Jesus and the Passover lamb, stating “Christ our Passover also has been sacrificed” (1 Corinthians 5:7).

What does this mean? As the author of the book of Hebrews writes, “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” God is a just God; He is the moral authority in the universe. He makes sure that every wrong is paid for, exactly as it deserves. And each of us sins in many ways. Most fundamentally, each of us fails to praise God as we He deserves; instead, we dishonor Him by our actions, our inaction, our thoughts, and our words. But Jesus, the perfect, unblemished lamb, offers His life to pay the penalty for all our sins, enabling us to enter God’s presence spotless and pure. This is what we act out and celebrate when we partake of the Lord’s Supper. This is how precious Jesus is.

But there’s even more:

(2) The Lord’s Supper signifies that Jesus lives within you

Given that Jesus pays the penalty for all our sins, we should respond by living out lives that honor and glorify Him. But how can we do that, since we are so prone to selfishness, self-centeredness, and other forms of evil?

Jesus says the cup is His “blood of the covenant.” Jeremiah prophesied that, in the new covenant, God would put His law within His people, on their heart (Jeremiah 31:33). So God’s law will not be something external, rules that His people will have to live up to. No. His law will be on their heart, within them, and they will have true intimacy with Him.

So Jesus gives us this wonderful picture: We are to eat His flesh, and drink His blood; we are to have His life within us, always. Remember, God had commanded the Israelites not to drink any blood of any kind, and to drain all the blood from an animal prior to cooking its meat. For the life is in the blood, and that serves to make atonement for their souls (Leviticus 17:11). So when Jesus tells us to drink His blood, He tells us to have His life within us. Christ in us, the hope of glory (Colossians 1:27). So by the power of the living Christ within us, we not only can stand before God with our sins paid for; we also are transformed eventually into His likeness, as He lives out His life in us.

So we are to drink up Jesus’ life, we are to consume Him, for, as Jesus says in John 6:55, “My flesh is true food, and My blood is true drink.” This is the lesson for us: Feed on Him, devour Him, get all our sustenance from Him, value Him above all else, desire Him more than anything, glorify Him with our money, our time, all that we are. Jesus is the most precious of all.

Reactions to Jesus by the Other Characters

How do the other characters react to this most precious One? The woman, Mary, is central here. All others are in contrast to her.

Mary vs the Chief Priests

The chief priests pay money to destroy Jesus; Mary gives much more money to anoint Jesus for burial.

Mary vs the Disciples

The disciples have had much more instruction from Jesus than Mary ever had. Jesus had even prophesied to them about His death at least three times. Nevertheless, they act completely unprepared for His death. They do not act as if they expect anything to happen; they don’t even make any preparations for their last Passover meal together.

On the other hand, Mary surely does not understand all that is happening, but knows that she will not have Jesus with her much longer. Despite not having heard Jesus’ prophecies about His death, she knows that He will die, and knows that Jesus is more precious than anything else imaginable. So she gives up what is most valuable to her – this jar of nard, perhaps a family heirloom – to prepare His body for burial. She demeans herself even to the point of rubbing His feet with her hair, knowing that Jesus is the most precious of all.

Mary vs Judas

Judas is one of these disciples, one of the intimate circle that Jesus has loved and taught. Judas has traveled with Jesus for three years, and has heard those prophecies about His death. Judas has even been empowered by Jesus to perform miracles when He sent the disciples out two by two. But now, Judas sells the most precious person in the world. For $5000, Judas gave up the source of all true life.

Mary has had much less contact with Jesus, but values Him above all else. She gives up three times what Judas received for betraying Him, in order to honor Him and acknowledge Him as precious.

But there’s another contrast between Judas and Mary. In Mark 14:21, Jesus says, “Woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed!” This verse proclaims both God’s sovereignty and man’s accountability. God is sovereign; He foretold Judas’ betrayal 1000 years previously. And He arranged events so that all would take place according to His good, perfect, and wise plan. God is in control.

Yet Judas chooses to betray Jesus, and is responsible for that choice. For what he does, the name “Judas” becomes the name of a traitor.

What is the contrast with Mary? She too was part of God’s plan, acting out the preciousness of Jesus for all the world to see. She too made a choice. Her name too will live for all time: “Wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her” (Mark 14:9).

So why are these scenes together? Why does Mark put the story of Mary’s anointing of Jesus right next to the story of the Last Supper?

Mary lives out the picture of the Lord’s Supper. Mary is feeding on Jesus, showing that she values Him above all else – and this is what Jesus pictures for us in the Lord’s Supper.

Conclusion

Are you sold out to God? Or are you just sold out? Mary was sold out to God. Judas was sold out. Just as Esau sold his inheritance for lentil stew, Judas sold his soul for $5000.

That seems incredible to us — but what’s your price? Do you have a price?

  • Physical punishment for yourself?
  • Physical punishment for your family?

While many of our brothers and sisters around the world and in the history of the church have to ask that question, for us the prospect of physical punishment or death for proclaiming the preciousness of Jesus seems abstract, unreal. So ask yourself this question: Is your price a steady job and a nice income and a nice house and a nice car and college for the kids?

Good things, all: But are you devoting yourself to these goals more than you are devoting yourself to following Jesus? Is the pursuit of these things, is your plan to achieve all these things, standing in the way of your making a radical, life-changing commitment to God? Standing in the way of your expressing you wholehearted devotion to Jesus, like Mary?

Instead, are you more like Simon’s dinner guests: calculating, “Oh, that’s too much to give to Jesus! We’ll give him our worship on Sunday, and a tenth of our income (maybe); that should be enough. But, Hey! What I do with the rest of my money and the rest of my time, that’s up to me.”

Are you sold out to Jesus and the gospel? Or are you only playing at church?

You don’t owe Jesus only a tenth of your income. You don’t owe him only your worship on Sunday. You owe him everything! You owe Him your entire life!

But this is not some onerous debt you have to repay, which hurts each time you make a payment! For when you yield to him, when you give up these pseudo-successes and pseudo-pleasures the world offers, when instead you feed on Him, and drink Him up – you find the real love, joy, and peace the world so much longs for. You get to know the most precious, the most beautiful, the most loving person in the world. And as you get to know Him, and as you see Him and learn more and more of Him, as you drink Him up, you become like Him.

So do that! Drink him up! Feed on him!

Taste and see the goodness of the Lord – and enter in to the joy of His presence.

So, yes, I would rather be a poor aids orphan in a slum – and know Jesus – than the richest man in the world, and not know Him. I know that that’s the right choice. I don’t always act consistently with that knowledge, but I know it’s right.

What about you? Is Jesus more precious to you than anything in this world?

[This devotion is a shortened and edited version of a sermon preached July 30, 2000. You can read the entire sermon here.]

Christmas and Missions

December 24, 2015

What does Christmas have to do with missions?

Biblically, missions should never be far from the center of our Christmas celebrations, for two reasons:

  • First, Jesus is the greatest example of a cross-cultural missionary. For missions concerns crossing cultural boundaries. We, the church of Jesus Christ, must send missionaries cross-culturally if we are to fulfill the task our Lord gives us: Bringing worshipers from every tribe and tongue and people and nation to Him. And, think: Who crossed the greatest cultural divide ever? Jesus Himself! He came from the glory of the throne-room of God into the womb of a woman, and then into a feeding trough for cattle. What an example!
  • Second: Jesus is more than an example. Jesus became man in order to purchase for His own possession ONE people made up of all the peoples of the earth. He came so that all will see that NO CULTURAL BARRIER will keep people from God. He came so that God will be praised in EVERY language. He came so that the purpose of the creation of every people group would be fulfilled: To glorify God.

So for a true believer in Jesus – as opposed to someone who is simply a cultural Christian – Christmas should be a time of particular focus on the task that Christ gives His church – the task similar to our Lord’s cross-cultural journey, the task made possible by His incarnation: Crossing cultural barriers, going even to hard, resistant peoples – even when that is uncomfortable and dangerous – for God’s glory, for our joy, for the joy of those peoples.

Thus, one of our primary objectives at Desiring God Church is to lift our eyes! To help us all to see this worldwide vision of God!

So many think that Christianity is about having a place to unwind on Sundays, a place to make friends, a place where you will learn to be a better husband or father or wife or mother; a place that will teach your children to respect you; a place that might make you look more respectable; and/or a place that will provide you with a death insurance policy, so that when you die you won’t go to hell.

I hope if you’ve attended Desiring God Church even one Sunday, you no longer think that way – if you ever did.

I have nothing against making friends, or learning to be a better marriage partner. I have nothing against teaching children the truths of God’s Word, and helping parents to love their children and raise them. We do indeed try to make DGCC a place where all those happen. I don’t even have anything against unwinding – though I don’t think listening to me preach helps anyone unwind.

But we are about something much greater than any of these:

  • Our mission is to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.
  • Our mission is to go ourselves and to help others go to make disciples of ALL NATIONS, baptizing them, and teaching them to obey all that Jesus commands us.
  • Our mission is to fill the earth with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.

Our vision is thus not small and achievable. Rather it is huge and biblical.

How do you respond to such a vision and mission?

Your first response is probably, “I can’t fulfill that personally! And we can’t even fulfill that corporately!”

That’s right. You can’t. We can’t.

But don’t stop with that response and despair!

Ephesians 3:20 says God is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine.”

That is, God is so great, so mighty, so creative, that our best efforts at imagining what He is able to do are far beneath His capabilities.

And, with that in mind, think: He not only COMMANDS us to make disciples of all nations; He guarantees that HE will bring that about THROUGH us. Similarly, He not only COMMANDS us to be the light of the world; He guarantees that He will fill the earth with the knowledge of His glory as the waters cover the sea.

And what else that we can’t imagine might God do?

William Carey was born in 1761 into a poor family in England. He had little schooling, having been apprenticed to a shoemaker from the age of sixteen.

But God called him to Himself during those teen years. From that early age, Carey began to study the Bible voraciously. He then began to preach. For several years he served as pastor in tiny churches, while still supporting himself and his family through shoemaking.

In 1792, the 31 year old Carey – still unknown, still serving in small churches – preached at a meeting of Baptist ministers. His text was Isaiah 54:2-3:

Enlarge the place of your tent, and let the curtains of your habitations be stretched out; do not hold back; lengthen your cords and strengthen your stakes.  For you will spread abroad to the right and to the left, and your offspring will possess the nations and will people the desolate cities.

Do you see the picture?

Your tent is set up. It seems sufficiently big for those who take shelter in it. But even though it doesn’t look like it now, you’re going to need a much bigger tent! So pull up the stakes, and get stronger ones! Place them much further away! Lengthen the cords that attach the tent to the stakes! Sure, this will be disruptive, difficult, and unpleasant – but do it! Why? “You will spread abroad!” Your offspring will possess the nations! You will multiply greatly!

Carey was preaching to pastors from a few small Baptist churches in an insignificant section of England. They had thought their only task was ministering to their people and evangelizing their villages. Instead, Carey said : Yes, you have a task here. Do it well! But God is also calling you to target all the nations! And he continued: “Expect great things from God! Attempt great things for God!”

So these ministers took up a collection, and a couple of years later sent Carey off to India as a missionary. He experienced many years of frustration and difficulty and tragedy. But in the end he was the translator or publisher of Bible translations into 40 different Asian languages; some of his translations are still used today (even by some of us at DGCC). Carey is rightly called the father of modern missions.

As Ruth Tucker writes, “Carey’s life profoundly illustrates the limitless potential of a very ordinary individual. He was a man who, apart from his unqualified commitment to God, no doubt would have lived a very mediocre existence.”

I don’t want to live a very mediocre existence. You don’t want to live such an existence either.

So we put Carey’s words in the DGCC vision and values statement:

Each person [is] encouraged to expect great things from God and to attempt great things for God, as God develops the gifts He gives to each believer.

Expect great things from God – because even in our weakness, He is able to do exceeding abundantly beyond all we ask or imagine! We do not have a millionth of the passion for God’s glory that He does! So imagine how God might use us for His glory!

And then, expecting great things from Him, step out! Attempt great things for God, by His power.

William Carey had to leave his beloved congregation, his beloved England; he even had to override the protests of his wife. It was hard. But he trusted God. He stepped out. And God used Him far beyond his greatest dreams.

Just so, we must step out.

But how can you step out – when you’re shackled by the customs of your culture? How can you think outside the box, and expect great things from God, and then attempt great things for God?

That only happens when you move toward fulfilling not only the Great Commission, but also the Great Commandment.

Jesus says the greatest commandment is to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, strength. And we won’t disciple all nations unless we love God; we won’t spread a passion for God unless we experience that passion for God. As John Piper says, “You cannot commend what you do not cherish.”

So how do we go about raising our affections for God?

How do we come to love God more than we love our ease and comfort – more than we love our jobs and salaries and four bedroom houses – more than we love our health insurance and retirement benefits – more than we love our Toyotas and Hondas? Indeed, how do we come to love God more than we love our fathers and mothers, more than we love our sons and daughters (Matthew 10:37)?

If we are to love God, we must KNOW Him. We must know what He is like. And as we come to know him better, we should love Him more.

Beth and I will celebrate our 36th wedding anniversary next week.

When we first married I thought I loved her. And I’m sure, in a sense, I did.

But that love pales in comparison to the love I have for her today.

For in the last decades I have come to know her much more deeply than I knew her before our marriage.

  • I have watched her six times as she gave birth to our children
  • I have seen her discipline and love and raise those children
  • I have seen her faith and steadiness in times of crisis
  • I have partnered with her in teaching and counseling others, and thus seen and heard the wisdom God has forged in her
  • I have been the recipient of her love and care year after year
  • I have seen her hurt, and weeping, and overcome
  • I have seen her support and lift me up, even when I took our family in challenging directions
  • I have seen her deep and solid faith in God in all circumstances.
  • I have seen her sin – and I have heard her confessions
  • I have seen her forgive me, by God’s grace, time and again

I know her now in a way I could not have known her 36 years ago.

And so, I love her today much more profoundly.

In the same way, we deepen our love for God by coming to know Him better and better. Thus, if we are to fulfill the greatest commandment, we must strive to know Him! As the Apostle Paul writes,

I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ. . . . I want to know Christ (Philippians 3:8,10)

Hosea is even more explicit: “Let us know; let us press on to know the LORD” (Hosea 6:3).

So, my friends: Make that your goal in 2016. Aim to know God – through prayer, through His Word, through others in the church, through loving your neighbor. Aim to love God more as you know Him better. And as you love God more, your passion for His glory will multiply.

Then pray: “Lord God! What does loving you with all my being mean in my life? Open my eyes! Help me to dream God-sized dreams! Use me for your glory!”

In light of that prayer, ask yourself: “What is God calling me to do? As I expect great things from my beloved God, what should I attempt for Him?”

Don’t be satisfied with comfort! Love God above ALL. And dream about how you might glorify His Name

  • Among the nations overseas
  • Among the nations in Charlotte
  • Among the urban poor
  • Among unwed mothers
  • Among needy children
  • Among academic elites
  • Among your neighbors and colleagues and fellow students

Follow the cross-cultural example of the Christ of Christmas!

Spread the news of the salvation bought by the baby in the manger!

Imagine. Dream. And then let’s step out together in 2016 to spread a passion for the supremacy of God in all things for the joy of all peoples through Jesus Christ.

(Much of this is taken and edited from a sermon preached 12/12/2004, “Christmas and the Great Commandment.” Text and audio are available.)

 

Why Does God Save Anyone?

December 17, 2015

In this Sunday’s sermon, we will consider the link between the baby born in the manger and the call to missions. What is that link? What does Jesus becoming man, becoming Immanuel – God With Us – have to do with our making disciples of all nations? The link is partly explained in Revelation 5:8-14, which we will read during the service.

In the opening verses of the chapter, John, the author of Revelation, sees God sitting on His throne, holding a scroll. An angel asks, “Who is worthy to open the scroll?” But no one is found worthy. This leads John to weep. But an elder tells him not to weep, for there is One who is worthy: The Lion of the tribe of Judah. John looks up to see the lion- but instead sees a Lamb, looking as if it has been slain. The Lamb takes the scroll. Praise then erupts in the throne room of God.

These words of praise are well-known to many of you. To help us see why God saves anyone, I’m going to quote those words incorrectly. Without looking at your Bibles, see if you can identify what is wrong:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10, modified)

That sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? There is no obvious heresy in those modified verses.

However, that modification leaves out the most important part of our redemption. That modification leaves out the main point of the incarnation, the main point of the cross, the main point of the resurrection.

Here is how it really reads, with the previously left out words in bold:

“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.” (Revelation 5:9-10)

The point of redemption is not primarily to save us from hell.

The point of missions is not primarily to save people groups from hell.

The point of evangelism is not primarily to save our neighbors from hell.

The point of redemption, the point of missions, the point of evangelism is to purchase a people FOR GOD, a people who will live TO HIS GLORY, a people who will DELIGHT IN HIM ABOVE ALL ELSE, and MAGNIFY HIS name.

The incarnation is not primarily about you.

The cross is not primarily about you.

The resurrection is not primarily about you.

The incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection are primarily about GOD.

Indeed, if we are to leave out any words from Revelation 5:9, we should leave out the word “people.” For that word is not in the original language. The middle of verse 9 reads, literally:

“You ransomed for God by your blood from every tribe and language and people and nation.”

The word “people” is clearly implied – it’s right to include that word in our English versions. But the Greek shows even more clearly than the English versions that GOD is the focal point of our redemption!

And Revelation 5 is not alone in this regard. All the great texts on redemption make this clear – if only we would open our eyes!

  • Consider Ephesians 1:7: “In him we have redemption through his blood.” Is redemption then about us? No, for Paul begins by saying, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” and he goes on to say that this redemption is “to the praise of his glory.”
  • Or consider Romans 3:25-26: “This was to show God’s righteousness. . . that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.” Redemption is to show GOD’s righteousness. Redemption was not accomplished because of how special man was. Rather, redemption displays God’s righteousness.
  • Or consider the closing words of Romans 11, as Paul wraps up the great doctrinal section of his letter: “From him and through him and to him are all things, to him be the glory forever!” He is the center!

So: God’s eternal plan of redemption is not primarily about saving man from sin. It is primarily about bringing glory to God. The Gospel is God-centered, not Man-centered.

So be careful not to talk about it in a man-centered way! Christ did not ransom people just to ransom them from hell. He ransomed people FOR GOD. He sends us out on mission FOR HIM.

Know that if you are ransomed, you are ransomed for HIM.

If you are not yet ransomed: Yes, He offers to save you from hell. But He doesn’t stop there. He saves you FOR GOD – so that your life will be lived for Him. He will love you, hold you, wipe away your every tear. You will find your joy in Him, and in nothing else. He saves you so that you might fulfill the purpose of your creation: To glorify Him.

So remember this Christmas season: Christ became man FOR GOD. Jesus died on the cross FOR GOD. Jesus rose from the dead FOR GOD. We make disciples of all nations FOR GOD. And you too can be saved – FOR GOD.

 

(Much of this devotion is taken from a sermon on Revelation 5:9-13 preached Easter Sunday, March 27, 2005. Text and audio are available.)

Beginning Romans

March 28, 2015

We begin this Sunday a new series of sermons on the book of Romans, The Power of God Unto Salvation to Everyone Who Believes.

Throughout church history, God has used this letter time and again to bring many to faith and to restore His church to Gospel truths. Read the biographies or the writings of Augustine, of Luther, of Bunyan, of Wesley, and you will see the great influence of the book of Romans.

The title of our series is taken from Romans 1:16, which reads in part, “the gospel . . .  is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.”

Note three key truths in this brief sentence:

  1. The Gospel is not only Good News. It is not only an offer or invitation. It is a power. It is a power granted to people. And it is a power that is effective, that produces a result: salvation.
  2. And what can we say about this salvation? The Gospel not only saves us from God’s just wrath – His righteous punishment, from hell itself – which all men deserve (Romans 1:18, 3:23). Nor does the Gospel save us only from our self-destructive passions and desires (Romans 1:24-27). That is, the Gospel is not simply a get-out-of-hell-free card. Rather, the Gospel saves us unto being Christlike (Romans 8:29). The Gospel transforms us from the inside out (12:2). It is indeed the power of God unto salvation, unto becoming what God created us to be.
  3. This Gospel, this power unto salvation, is to everyone who believes. It is not to all Jews because they are descended from Abraham; it is not to those who have the Scriptures because they have the Scriptures; it is not to those who prove themselves worthy or who look righteous in the eyes of others. Rather, this power unto salvation is for all who look away from themselves and look to the power of God unto salvation, who look away from their own efforts and look to Jesus who has already made the effort.

So this Gospel, this power – this Spirit-wrought ability to be conformed to Christlikeness – is yours now as a gift, if you believe, if you trust, if you depend on Christ alone. As the Apostle says to those who have received this power, “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (Romans 13:14).

And that present, in-this-world salvation from slavery to sin culminates in the eternal, joyful state – when we, as “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” are glorified with Him (Romans 8:17) and revealed as the sons of God (Romans 8:19).

That’s the glorious theme of the letter to the Romans.

So I encourage you: Read the book in its entirety, noting the way Paul weaves this theme throughout. Let this letter begin to dwell in you richly – and pray with me that God would use this great epistle for His glory in the life of DGCC as He has used it so often in His people over the centuries.

But how are we to approach this letter? How should we go about interpreting it?

Consider these three guidelines:

  1. Look at the context. Many of you have heard me quote D.A. Carson: “A text without a context is just a pretext for a proof text.” We must look at the context, then look at the context, then keep looking at the context. How we interpret any one verse must make sense in the flow of thought in the surrounding paragraph, in the chapter, in the letter, in the New Testament as a whole, in the story of the Bible as a whole. While this exhortation holds for the interpretation of all Scripture, the near context is especially important when interpreting Romans. Paul is always a logical thinker who advances his argument systematically, but in Romans – unlike, say, his second longest letter, 1 Corinthians, where he addresses a series of somewhat separate issues in the Corinthian church – he sustains his argument over most all of the book.
  2. Ask the right question. If you don’t ask the right question you cannot get the right answer. And if the question you ask seems to have no good answer, perhaps you are asking the wrong question. As a possible example, consider Paul’s account of his struggle with sin: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15). Many interpreters ask the question: Is Paul talking about his pre-Christian life, or his life as a believer? The question itself presupposes that he is talking about one or the other. And in the history of interpretation of Romans 7, scholars have marshaled strong arguments for one answer to that question or the other. But what if both non-Christians and Christians can experience such a struggle – and yet neither all non-Christians nor all Christians have that struggle? In that case, we would have asked the wrong question, and the question itself would have diverted us from properly understanding the passage. We have to ask the right questions.
  3. Know the Old Testament. We cannot understand the book of Romans without an understanding of the Old Testament. Paul quotes the Old Testament about fifty times in this letter – an average of almost four times a page in my Bible. He draws time and again on Old Testament stories: Adam, Abraham, Jacob and Esau, Pharaoh and Moses, David. He speaks of Old Testament ideas and uses Old Testament categories: Law, circumcision, remnant, sacrifice. We must dig into the Old Testament if we are to dig into and profit from Romans.

So join me in eagerly anticipating what God will do through our time in this great book. May these truths dwell in us richly, so that we may become what God intends us to be individually and corporately, and therefore we might play our role in bringing about “the obedience of faith for the sake of His Name among all the nations” (Romans 1:5).

God’s Law and Life in His Family

February 11, 2015

Those of you following the Bible Unity Reading Plan read the Ten Commandments this last week. How is that Law relevant for us today?  Why did God give the Ten Commandments to the people of Israel? Did God give these commandments so that the people could enter into a relationship with Him by keeping them?

How can we answer questions like this?

We must look at the context of the commandments:

  • Including the immediate context of the passage,
  • Including the context of the storyline of the book of Exodus,
  • Including the context of the overall storyline of the Bible,
  • Including what the New Testament has to say about these commandments.

Consider first the immediate context and the storyline of Exodus. The people of Israel were slaves in Egypt. While they were still slaves, God said, “Israel is my firstborn son” (Exodus 4:22).  Not after they kept the Law. Before they even received the Law, Israel was in the family of God.

God then rescues the people from slavery and brings them to Mt Sinai. He states: “I bore you on eagles’ wings and brought you to myself” (Exodus 19:4). Then in introducing the Ten Commandments, He says, “ I am Yahweh your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” (Exodus 20:2, emphasis added). The people were already with Him, they belonged to Him, He was their God prior to Him speaking the Ten Commandments. The relationship preceded the Law.

Subsequently, the people explicitly violate several of the commandments in the incident of the golden calf (Exodus 32). God punishes the people via the Levites, and many are killed. But He reveals His very nature:

Merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty (Exodus 34:6b-7a).

How can he both forgive iniquity and not clear the guilty? The story of the Bible eventually tells us: The sacrificial system provides hints; the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 develops the idea more fully; the perfect sacrifice occurs at the cross; and the Apostle Paul tells us that God is both “just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Romans 3:25).

And so God does not say to His disobedient, rebellious people, “That’s it! You broke the Ten Commandments! You’re no longer my people!” Instead, in the latter chapters of Exodus He commands them now to build the tabernacle – the picture of His presence in the midst of His people.

The point is this: We do not enter into a relationship with God by keeping the Ten Commandments, or any other law, or any other rules. Nor do we remain in relationship to God by keeping His law or by keeping rules. We enter into a relationship with Him by His grace and mercy through the cross. And we remain in relationship with Him by His grace and mercy through the cross. This is the very center of biblical Christianity.

What then is the role of the Ten Commandments? What is the role of Law?

The Nature of the Ten Commandments: Life in a Family

When we hear the word “law,” we normally think of some set of restrictions on our behavior. A sign on I-85 says that there is a law prohibiting you from driving faster than 65mph. If you see a police car in your rearview mirror, you will restrict your driving speed. You will not drive 80mph.

But God’s Law is not fundamentally a set of restrictions on our behavior. Instead, God’s Law fundamentally is a revelation of His character. Through the Law, He tells us what He loves and what He hates: “I Yahweh love justice; I hate robbery and wrong” (Isaiah 61:8). God in His very essence hates and despises sin, He despises evil; in His very essence, he loves righteousness and justice.

Now, connect this with the idea of God’s people being His family. When we had six little children running around the house needing correction, we would sometimes say, “We’re Pinckneys – we don’t act that way. Instead, in this family, this is how we behave.” That’s similar to what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount: “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48).

Thus, when God tells us to obey His Law, He is saying, “Become like Me! I have brought you to Myself! You are part of my intimate family! This is your identity; this is who you are. So act like it’s true! Act like me!”

So God does not give us the Ten Commandments, saying, “Obey these and you will be in My family.” Nor does He say, “Obey these in order to remain in My family.” Instead, He says to the Israelites, “You are in the family. And this is how those in my family live. This is how they reflect my character.”

Four Implications of the Ten Commandments Revealing God’s Character

If the Ten Commandments tell us how to take on God’s character, then there are at least four implications we can discern from Scripture:

First, these are all positive commands, not just prohibitions

For we don’t become like God by avoiding certain behaviors!

Consider the seventh commandment: Do not commit adultery. Lots of people never commit the physical act of adultery, but they are filled with lust. As Jesus points out, such people have broken the commandment without engaging in the physical act (Matthew 5:28).

But we are not to simply expand the command, saying, “Do not commit the physical act of adultery or lust.” Rather, we are to be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect. We are to take on His character. Thus, with regard to the seventh commandment, we are to honor all marriages, we are to build up our own marriages and the marriages of others to the glory of God.

So each commandment both prohibits some attitudes and behaviors, and commends others.

Second, no one will succeed in fully taking on the character of God

As 1 John 1:8 says, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” None of us will reach perfection in this life. God’s Spirit will work in those He has saved so that we bear the fruit of the character of God:

The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Galatians 5:22-23).

But in this life that work remains incomplete. We can never say, “At long last: Now I am like God!”

Third, Jesus fully displayed the character of God

He said He came to fulfill the Law (Matthew 5:17) – and He did. He showed us what God is like: “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).

Fourth: How then can we fulfill the commandments and be holy? By union with Christ!

Through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, God not only saves us from our rebellion, wiping out the negatives in our accounts. He also adds positives – He credits us with the righteousness of Jesus Himself. In union with Christ, we along with all other believers are counted righteous:

God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. (2 Corinthians 5:21)

Jesus fulfilled the Law. We fulfill the Law not by perfectly keeping the Law, but through union with Christ, through being credited with Christ’s righteousness. And we learn practically how to take on the character of God, how to take on His family likeness in our day to day lives, via the Law.

How then is the Law, and the Ten Commandments in particular, relevant for us today?

The Ten Commandments are not a law code for ancient Israel in our modern sense of “law code.” Nor are the Ten Commandments primarily restrictions on our behavior. Rather, the Ten Commandments are a revelation of the character of God, so that those in His family might know Him better, love Him more, and become like Him by His grace. And this only happens in and through the work of Jesus Christ on the cross.

(Parts of this devotion are taken from a sermon on Exodus 20:1-3 preached May 9, 2010, “Having Been Saved By Grace, Do You Put God First?” The audio is available here.)

Who Am I?

February 6, 2015

“Who am I?”

Many people spend years trying to answer that question.

We Americans in particular spend time and energy trying to discover ourselves. So we take personality tests and, in evangelical circles, spiritual gift inventories. We want to know who we are.

At the beginning of Exodus 3, Moses thinks he has answered that question. He had an extraordinary childhood:

  • Hidden in the Nile River to escape Pharaoh’s edict that all Hebrew baby boys should be killed
  • Found by Pharaoh’s daughter
  • Brought into the palace and raised as her son
  • Given the best upbringing, the best education
  • He became “mighty in words and deeds” (Acts 7:22)

As a young man, he rightly identifies himself with God’s people rather than with the Egyptians. He turns his back on riches and power. He seems to have seen himself as the logical vessel through whom God would rescue His people from Egypt.

But then Moses acts in his own power, not God’s. Thinking he is the key actor in this drama, he kills an Egyptian who is beating a Hebrew. His own people reject him as leader (Exodus 2:11-14). So the highly-educated and talented Moses leaves Egypt, and becomes a shepherd out in the sticks. He stays there for forty years.

Initially Moses seems to miss Egypt; he gives his first son a name that laments his exile. But over time that lamentation turns to contentment. Moses hadn’t taken a Myers-Briggs test or a spiritual gift inventory, but after all these decades, he has decided who he is. “Who am I? A shepherd. Nothing more.”

Then one day Moses sees a bush burning, but not consumed by the fire. As Moses approaches, God speaks to him: “Go! I’m sending you to Pharaoh! Bring my people out of Egypt!”

Moses is flabbergasted. God challenges his self-assessment. Who is he?

So he asks:

”Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring the children of Israel out of Egypt?” (Exodus 3:11)

God answers in two ways – two ways that are absolutely key for Moses as well as for us.

The first answer is in Exodus 3:12:

God’s first answer: Surely I will be with you.

God is saying: “What matters is not your personality, your experience, your education, or your preparation. What matters is that I am with you! What defines you is that I work through you!”

Do you see? This is why Moses failed before! He was in the prime of life, well-connected, energetic, mighty in speech. And he blew it. He blew it because God was not with him in the actions he took.

For all of us: This is the most important aspect of who we are. Not our personalities. Not our education or life experiences. Not our family or ethnic backgrounds.

Instead: Is God with you? Are you stepping out in God’s power for His glory? As you seek to help others – are you leaning on Him? Depending on Him? Trusting Him?

Moses tells God: “Who am I? I’m inadequate for this task.” God tells him: “Yes, you are – by yourself. You proved that 40 years ago. But you’re the one that I am with! And if I’m with you – my grace is sufficient for you. For my power is made perfect in your weakness.”

Now look at the rest of Exodus 3:12:

“And this shall be the sign for you, that I have sent you: when you have brought the people out of Egypt, you shall serve God on this mountain.”

God’s second answer: You shall worship God

Many commentators struggle over this sentence. We normally think of a “sign” in such a context as something that encourages us, something that shows us we’re able to complete a task, or something that gives us direction in a task.

But Moses thinks he is inadequate for bringing the Israelites out of Egypt. How does the fact that they will worship God after they are already out of Egypt help or guide Moses now?

This is a key point. God is here answering not only the question: Who is Moses. He’s also answering the question: Who are the people of Israel? His answer is: “You all are the ones who may worship Me. This defines you. This is who you are.”

Remember, God is holy. Left to ourselves, we are repugnant to him. Defiled. Unholy. Stained. In this state, we cannot approach Him to worship Him – except on His terms. He – and only He – can tell us how we may worship and who may worship.

So understand: Who we are is a result of our relationship to Him. That is: Our identity is defined by this relationship to God.

  • Those who reject Him forever ultimately become irrelevant and unimportant. Their only purpose in eternity is displaying God’s justice.
  • Those who are His spend eternity fulfilling the purpose of their creation: Worshiping Him, giving praise, honor, and glory to Him, delighting in Him and they learn more and more of His inexhaustible goodness forever and ever. This defines them.

So as Moses showed us through his earlier failure, we will do nothing for God apart from His working in us. Indeed, we have nothing to offer others. We are inadequate. But if He is with us – we can offer everything pertaining to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3). Indeed, God has promised to work in us and through us to bring about the filling of the earth with the knowledge of His glory. God has promised to bring about worship through us.

So, ask yourself: “Who am I?”

Scripture tells us: “I am by nature an object of God’s wrath. I am a rebel against my rightful King’s purpose for me.  I am one who will not submit to God. I am one who wants to be god of my life.”

But through Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross, we rebels, like Moses, can have a new identity. We can be forgiven. We can become children of God. We can become ambassadors of God, God making His appeal through us. We can become worshipers.

Therefore: “Who am I?”

May we all be able to say truly:

“I am the one whom God is with.  And I am the one who worships God.”

(Parts of this devotion are taken from a sermon, “I Am Who I Am” on Exodus 3:11-22, preached December 27, 2009. Audio of that sermon is available online.)

 

Jacob and Joseph: Pursuing Your Greatest Joy

February 6, 2015

Think of someone you dearly loved whom you have lost. What would you do to have that person back? Would you do anything? Anything?

This is the situation in which Jacob finds himself in Genesis 45 and 46. Imagine the scene: At 130 years of age, Jacob waits nervously for his eleven living sons to return with food from Egypt. For 22 years he has thought that his favorite son Joseph is dead. For 22 years he has mourned him. And much against his will he sent Benjamin, Rachel’s only other child, to Egypt. The sons have been gone for weeks now, perhaps for months. Jacob worries about their return. He sleeps fitfully, and wakes up at night thinking he should never have let Benjamin go. “He’ll never come back! He’ll disappear just like Joseph, and my last connection with Rachel will be gone! I’ll die in misery!”

But this day, he hears the donkeys arrive – his sons have returned! He goes out to meet them, and sees Benjamin right up front. Benjamin! Still alive! But before Jacob can reach him, before he can embrace him, all the sons cry out, “Father! Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!”

Jacob is stunned. “Joseph? Alive? And ruler of Egypt? Is this some type of cruel joke?”

But the brothers tell him the story – all the words of Joseph, as the text tells us. And they must confess their own part in the story – without accusations or argument. When Jacob hears their heartfelt confession and Joseph’s God-centered words – “It was not you brothers who sent me here but God” – Jacob realizes, “Those indeed are the words of my son.”

So he concludes (Genesis 45:28):

“It is enough; Joseph my son is still alive. I will go and see him before I die.”

Ask yourself: If you were to find out that that loved one you miss more than anything was alive, living a few hundred miles away, wouldn’t you rush there? Wouldn’t you go right away and see that person? That’s what Jacob feels. And that’s what he begins to do.

So Jacob travels with his family until they reach the southernmost tip of the promised land, Beersheba. To keep traveling toward Egypt will mean leaving the promised land. Evidently, Jacob is beginning to doubt the wisdom of that step. Genesis 46:3 tells us he is afraid to go down to Egypt.

What is he afraid of? We can speculate about many possible fears, but he fundamentally fears disobeying God!

The news about Joseph has caused Jacob to remember the greatness of his God. In recent years Jacob has allowed the difficult circumstances of his life to overshadow his trust in God’s sovereignty. But he knew God. He had wrestled all night with God, and in the end clung to Him, not letting go. He knew that holding on to God was more important than any danger he had to face. He knew God was worth more than all else.

And now, God has proved Himself once again to Jacob. God has kept Joseph alive despite Jacob’s years of doubt. God has watched over Joseph and miraculously exalted him in Egypt. Learning of God’s miraculous faithfulness has renewed Jacob’s faith.

But he is faced with a dilemma: Jacob has a strong desire to see Joseph – and would God really save Joseph, exalt him, and not want Jacob to go to him?

On the other hand: God sent Abraham out of Ur of the Chaldeans to “the land that I will show you” (Genesis 12:1). And then after Abraham arrived in Canaan, God told him, “To your offspring I will give this land.” (Genesis 12:7). God had promised Canaan to Abraham and his descendants – not Egypt. Indeed, God had brought Jacob’s mother from far away so that Isaac would not leave the promised land. And in Genesis 31:3 God had told Jacob himself to leave his father-in-law’s house and return to this land: “Return to the land of your fathers and to your kindred, and I will be with you.”

All of these memories would lead Jacob to think that he would be disobeying God, displeasing God, to go down to Egypt. But there is one more memory that would have underlined this danger more than all the others. When Abraham first came to Egypt, right after God told him He was giving him the land of Canaan, a famine occurred in the land. And Abraham did not seek God’s face, but disobeyed God, traveling where? To Egypt! Abraham feared the famine, did not trust God, and left the promised land – leading his wife into danger and almost into disaster (Genesis 12:10-20). Jacob does not want to follow this example.

So Jacob thinks: “I only want to go where God wants me to go. God has shown Himself to be loving and gracious and sovereign and good through bringing my son virtually back from the dead. Should I now presume to leave the land of my calling – the very land God promised to my grandfather and father, the very place he instructed me to enter – when God has shown his power, might, and love so clearly?”

Therefore, Jacob halts before leaving the promised land. He decides that his proper response to the revelation about Joseph is not to go to Egypt – the proper response is to worship God. So he does.

And God calls out to him in a night vision: “Jacob! Jacob!” Jacob is listening, and replies: “Here I am.” God continues:

Then he said, “I am God, the God of your father. (Genesis 46:3a)

That is, “I am the God of the covenant. I am the God who brought Abraham out of Ur. I am the God he disobeyed to go to Egypt. I am the God who will bring about the fulfillment of all my promises through your offspring.”

“Do not be afraid to go down to Egypt, for there I will make you into a great nation.” (Genesis 46:3b)

God had promised Abraham that he would make him into a great nation (Genesis 12:2). And now he tells Jacob that that promise will be fulfilled through Jacob in Egypt.

“I myself will go down with you to Egypt, and I will also bring you up again, and Joseph’s hand shall close your eyes.” (Genesis 46:4)

In Hebrew, there is a strong emphasis on “I.” We could translate this verse, “I, even I will go down with you to Egypt, and I, even I, will bring you up again.”

God is saying, “Jacob, there is no conflict between following your desire to see Joseph and your desire to serve me. I will fulfill both desires. Go! I am with you! I will bring you back! And your beloved son will be with you until your death. I will not take him away from you again.”

Jacob acts wisely here. He shows a willingness to part with what he wants most on earth to hold on to God. And God gives him both.

Finally, Joseph and Jacob are reunited:

[Joseph] presented himself to him and fell on his neck and wept on his neck a good while. 30 Israel said to Joseph, “Now let me die, since I have seen your face and know that you are still alive.” (Genesis 46:29-30)

Jacob last saw Joseph when he was 17, going out to seek his brothers, dressed in his many-colored coat. He’s now 39, dressed in the robes of an Egyptian ruler. But this exalted personage is Jacob’s son! His beloved son! Dead, and now alive!

Jacob is content. Living with Joseph will be a joy; but now even death holds no fear.

Jacob had feared dying in sorrow (Genesis 42:38). Now, through the very trip he didn’t want Benjamin to take, Jacob is reunited with Joseph. He fears death no more.

What a joyous reunion!

Question: Is the reunion with Joseph Jacob’s greatest joy?

Jacob knows that the answer to that question is “No”. At Beersheba he was willing to give up this reunion. For Jacob knew a yet greater joy: The joy of knowing and following the God of the universe. The joy of fulfilling God’s purposes for his life.

Jacob knew this God to be:

  • The good, loving God, who always keeps His promises;
  • The merciful God Almighty who protected Joseph and miraculously exalted Him.

True joy can only be found in obedience to Him. To disobey the source of all good gifts is to seek pain eventually, not pleasure.

So Jacob’s greatest joy is found in following God, clinging to Him. God had granted him the great earthly joy of holding his son raised to life. But he knew: Having Joseph without God is no gain.

What about you? Your purpose in life is to glorify God. Your greatest happiness will come from fulfilling that purpose. We often must give up lesser pleasures to pursue greater ones. The path to your greatest joy can be paved with saying “No” to what seems good. Indeed, Jesus told His disciples:

If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it. (Mark 8:34-35)

If instead you try to hold on to what you think you need for joy in this life, you will lose – you will never attain the greatest joy of following Jesus.

As 17th century English pastor William Gurnall says,

A man never comes to enjoy himself truly, in any comfort of his life, till [he is] prepared to deny himself readily in it.

Are you prepared to deny yourself readily every comfort of your life?

God is not stingy – He doesn’t withhold something or someone from you just out of meanness, or to reserve it for Himself. If He withholds something from you, He does that for a purpose. If we give up a highly-desirable joy – even our greatest earthly joy, as Jacob was willing to do – we do so for the much greater joy set before us.

If your possessions, friends, or family members are more important to you than God, if they become idols to you, you will not enjoy them truly. You will not enjoy them fully. Indeed, those very idols will become to you a source of great pain. But if you accept them as God’s gifts to you – which he could easily take away at any time for your good – if you can see them as undeserved presents showered on you by One Who loves you more than you can imagine – then they can be sources of great joy.

Are you – like Jacob – willing to say no to some pleasures in order to pursue your greatest pleasure?

(Parts of this devotion were taken from a sermon, “True Joy and Self-Denial” on Genesis 45:16-47:27, preached November 14, 2004. Both text and audio of that sermon are available. The William Gurnall quote is from The Christian in Complete Armour, (Banner of Truth, 1964; originally published 1662-1665), Volume 1, p. 569.)

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