Sunday, January 15, 2017

The God Who Creates (Genesis 1-2)

As we kick off a new year, we also kick off a new series of studies in God’s Word. In the past, we have devoted prolonged seasons of study to single books of Scripture, and I remain convinced that this is the best way to understand the Bible and to feed ourselves spiritually. However, I also believe that sometimes it is easy to “miss the forest for the trees,” and for that reason, I have felt inclined to “zoom out,” if you will, and take a broader look at Scripture over the next indefinite season of time. A number of years ago, I became acquainted with a Bible study plan called “The Essential 100” which covers 50 carefully selected passages of the Old Testament and 50 from the New Testament which provide the grand overview of the entire metanarrative of Scripture, the “Big Picture,” you may say. And so we begin today with the first of these studies, and rightly so, we begin the series where the Bible itself begins, with the creation account in the book of Genesis. Today we will deal with the first two chapters of Genesis, but for time’s sake, I will only read a selection of verses from these chapters. So, if you have your Bibles, and I hope you do, I invite you to turn to Genesis 1 as we begin. This is the Word of God:

Genesis 1:1 (NASB)
1  In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Genesis 1:26-31 (NASB)
26  Then God said, "Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; and let them rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over the cattle and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth."
27  God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.
28  God blessed them; and God said to them, "Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it; and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the sky and over every living thing that moves on the earth."
29  Then God said, "Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you;
30  and to every beast of the earth and to every bird of the sky and to every thing that moves on the earth which has life, I have given every green plant for food"; and it was so.
31  God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.

Genesis 2:1-3 (NASB)
1  Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts.
2  By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done, and He rested on the seventh day from all His work which He had done.
3  Then God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because in it He rested from all His work which God had created and made.

Genesis 2:7-9 (NASB)
7  Then the LORD God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.
8  The LORD God planted a garden toward the east, in Eden; and there He placed the man whom He had formed.
9  Out of the ground the LORD God caused to grow every tree that is pleasing to the sight and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Genesis 2:15-25 (NASB)
15  Then the LORD God took the man and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate it and keep it.
16  The LORD God commanded the man, saying, "From any tree of the garden you may eat freely;
17  but from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat from it you will surely die."
18  Then the LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him."
19  Out of the ground the LORD God formed every beast of the field and every bird of the sky, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them; and whatever the man called a living creature, that was its name.
20  The man gave names to all the cattle, and to the birds of the sky, and to every beast of the field, but for Adam there was not found a helper suitable for him.
21  So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept; then He took one of his ribs and closed up the flesh at that place.
22  The LORD God fashioned into a woman the rib which He had taken from the man, and brought her to the man.
23  The man said, "This is now bone of my bones, And flesh of my flesh; She shall be called Woman, Because she was taken out of Man."
24  For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.
25  And the man and his wife were both naked and were not ashamed.

The Word of the Lord, thanks be to God.

When we think of essential passages of Scripture, the creation account that we find in Genesis 1-2 should be at the top of the list. If we do not understand the creation account correctly, it is not likely that we will understand much else. Some of you are familiar no doubt with the game Jenga. In Jenga, the object is to remove blocks from a tall tower without making the tower topple. I submit to you that the creation account is an immovable block in the tower of Christian faith and practice, and by removing it, the entire tower crumbles to the ground.

In Romans 1, Paul says there that since the creation of the world, God’s invisible attributes, His eternal power, and His divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made. So, as we look into the biblical record of creation found in Genesis 1-2, we seek to know who this God who creates is and what He is like.

I. The Existence of God (v1)

In the first verse of Genesis, we find just ten words in English, merely five in Hebrew. And yet, never has more been said in so few words than in this sentence. Here we discover that this world and all it contains, and the universe surrounding it had a definite beginning point, when it came into existence by the God who existed eternally before it.

In these opening words we find the eternality of God expressed. Unlike everything other than God, God Himself has no beginning. He has always existed and always will. To say that God is eternal is to say that time does not change God, for God created time and exists beyond it. Psalm 90:2 puts the matter simply: “Before the mountains were born or You gave birth to the earth and the world, even from everlasting to everlasting, You are God.”

We also discover in these brief words that God is self-existent. The answer to the age old question, “Who made God?” is simply this: “No one made God, for God does not need making. Rather He is the One who made everything else.” The theological term for this self-existence is aseity, meaning that He exists from Himself. God is not dependent on us, or on anything else for His existence, for unlike every other thing that exists, God exists by virtue of His own nature. The medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury popularized the ontological argument for God’s existence, which can be summarized like this: “God is the Being which nothing greater can be imagined. Therefore, He must exist, because if He did not, then we could imagine something greater than Him, namely a God who does exist.” So this God who does not exist would not be God at all. The modern value of such an argument in dialog with an unbeliever may be debated, but the logic is solid. For a being to be such a One as we may rightly call “God,” He must exist, for if He does not exist by His very nature, then He is not qualified to be called “God” at all. This God, as Paul says in Acts 17:25, is not “served by human hands, as though He need anything, since He Himself gives to all people life and breath and all things.”

Finally, when it comes to His existence, we find the beginning of the unfolding of a mystery in this opening verse of Genesis that will require the entire Bible to see clearly. That mystery is God’s existence in a Triune nature. The Hebrew word translated “God” in verse 1 of Genesis 1 is the word Elohim. Strictly speaking, it is a plural word. Yet, this God is spoken of as a singular unity through this passage and the rest of Scripture. The verbs and pronouns that relate to Him in this passage are singular words. But  He says to Himself, “Let Us make man in Our image.” So we begin to see from the very first verse that God is unique in that He is both a singularity and a plurality. The great Hebrew passage of Deuteronomy 6:4 seeks to explain it a bit, saying that YHWH is our Elohim (there’s that plural word again), and YHWH is one! There are not many gods but one God. And yet, this One God exists as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. So, the book of John can speak of the Son (Jesus Christ) as the eternal and divine Word of God, through whom all things come into being, and apart from whom nothing comes into being that has come into being (Jn 1:3).

Now, it is obvious to all of us that not everyone agrees that God exists, or that the world came into existence by His direct creation. But, no matter what view anyone holds about why there is something rather than nothing, everyone has to affirm that something or someone is eternal and self-existent. And those who deny the biblical creation account have a trinity of their own to which they are devoted by faith. The view of atheistic materialism clings by faith to a trinity of matter, time, and chance. Matter, in their view is eternal and self-existent. And without the intervention of God to shape that matter according to some purpose, the combining, splitting, and mutating of molecules must occur by chance. So, all that we see in the world today has come into the form it has by a random series of accidents. So how can all this variety of life, all these geological features, all these atmospheric and cosmic phenomena which are the result of random chance accidents of molecular matter come into their present form without the guidance of a divine outside creative agent? Well, it would simply require time. Very, very, very long periods of time. Thus we have materialistic cosmologies which posit billions and billions of years of these random arrangements of matter coming into their present form. Can it be proven? Can it be observed scientifically? No. Why? Because it would take billions and billions of years to observe it. Thus, these worldviews are held, not by reason alone but by a manner of faith which is not dissimilar to the faith which believes in God. This materialistic worldview begins by faith with the presupposition that God does not exist. Remove the eternal, self-existent, Triune God from the picture, and you still have to answer the question of why we have something rather than nothing. And in His place is substituted the false Trinitarian idol of time, matter, and chance. If both positions are held by faith, what is the advantage of rejecting the biblical account of creation and the existence of God? It is simply this – by jettisoning God from my worldview, I remove all moral accountability, and place myself in a state of moral anarchy in which I can live however I desire. This is precisely why Paul says in Romans 1 that humanity has suppressed the self-evident truth of God’s existence in unrighteousness.

So, we begin to understand something of God’s existence in the very first verse of the Bible. He exists eternally, He exists by virtue of His own nature completely independent of any and every other person and thing, and He exists as a Trinity. Now from this we move on and discover …

II. The Power of God (1:3-2:3)

God has within Himself by virtue of His divine nature unlimited power. We speak of His omnipotence, meaning that He is all-powerful, or that He has the power to do all that He wills to do. In the creation account, we see the power of God on display as He creates something, indeed everything, from nothing (as the Latin phrase states, ex nihilo). Nothing was there, and from it, God made everything. Some of you are very creative people, and you have the ability to make wonderful things from raw materials. But, God creates without using raw materials, and that is something that no other person or thing can do. The universe came into being simply as a result of the exercise of God’s power. He did not assemble it from a kit as though it were a set of Legos or Lincoln Logs. There was nothing, and amid and from that nothing, God made everything.  

Notice how He does this. He does it by the Word of His power. He speaks things into existence. He says, “Let there be light,” and light comes into existence (1:3). He says, “Let there be an expanse in the midst of the waters,” and the sky comes into existence (1:6-8). He says “Let the waters be gathered into one place, and let the dry land appear,” and the Bible simply says, “and it was so” (1:9). He says, “Let the earth sprout vegetation …, and it was so” (1:11). He says, “Let there be lights in the expanse of the heavens … and it was so” (1:14-15). He says, “Let the waters teem with swarms of living creatures, and let birds fly above the earth,” and these things came into being (1:20-22). He says, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures after their kind: cattle and creeping things and beasts of the earth …,” and these things began to exist (1:24-25). This is the power of His word. He can speak to things that do not exist, and by His very word can cause them to exist.

Then we also notice that God has the power to take that which is unformed and unfilled and form it and fill it according to His good pleasure. Notice that Genesis 1:2 says, “The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters.” Pay special attention to those two adjectives, “formless and void.” God had created the earth, but it remained unformed and unfilled. Then, over the course of the subsequent six days, God formed it and filled it. The first three days of creation are devoted to forming what was unformed. On day one, he forms light and separates light from darkness, day from night, so we have time coming into being. Day two involves God separating the waters above from the waters below, that is, He made the sky and the atmosphere. On day three, He separated the dry land from the seas. Just as one who prepares to build a building has to first prepare the land on which to build, God had prepared and formed the unformed world to begin filling it with life. So on day four, He fills the sky that He has formed with objects to emit the light which He has made – the sun, the moon, the stars. On day five, He fills the seas with living creatures, and fills the sky with birds. On day six, He fills the earth with living creatures. By His power, God prepared everything perfectly and orderly. He did not create land dwelling creatures before there was dry land for them occupy. He did not create stars before there was a sky in which to hang them. We see that His power enables Him to create, to form, and to fill with meticulous perfection.  

Next we notice that God has the power to do something that we are never able to do. That is, He finishes what He starts. At the end of each day of the creation week, we read that “God saw that it was good.” At the end of the sixth day, “God saw all that He had made, and behold, it was very good.” And on the seventh day, God rested “from all His work which He had done” (2:2). God did not rest after His work for the same reasons that you and I rest after we work. He was not tired, exhausted, fatigued, or frustrated. He had not run out of time or energy. The simple fact of the matter is that He was finished. Chapter two begins with this statement: “Thus the heavens and the earth were completed, and all their hosts. By the seventh day God completed His work which He had done.” Recently, I was talking with my neighbor about our annual chore of raking leaves. He was out with his rake and blower literally every day from about Halloween until Christmas. I spent a week working on mine. And after all that work, we were commiserating about the fact that the yard was still covered in leaves! But we agreed together that we were finished. We had done all we could do. We were tired, and the leaf truck would soon come and collect what we had gathered, but it was futile to go on with the task because we would never gather every leaf. That is the way most of us work on things. We do it until we get tired. We do it until we run out of time. We do it until we cannot do it anymore, until it is sufficient, until it is “good enough.” But God does not work like we work. He works until He is finished, and when He is finished, it is complete and perfect. It is “very good.” And so He rests, not because He cannot do more, but because there is no more to do. That is a demonstration of His power.

Now, from this display of His power in creation, we move on to focus on the crown jewel of creation. All that God created bears the marks of His handiwork. All of it, as Romans 1 says, shows us His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature. But only one component of creation actually bears His image. And so now we consider …

III. The image of God (1:26-28)

Into this creation which has been formed and filled, God inserts a creature who will function on His behalf, unique from all other creatures. So unique in fact is the human race that more time, attention, and detail is given to man’s creation than to any other aspect of creation. We find the account of the creation of man given both in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2. There have been many sloppy and erroneous attempts to deal with these passages, which may be avoided by understanding how the text is arranged. In Genesis 1, we have a summary treatment of the whole of creation. In Chapter 2, there is a doubling-back and retelling in more detail of the creation of man. The marker in the text which reveals this transition is found in 2:4. There we read in English the words, “This is the account.” In Hebrew we find the word toledoth, which occurs throughout the book of Genesis as a boundary between sections. Scholars are divided as to whether verse 4 functions as the end of the first section or the beginning of the second section, but all are agreed that it is a transition point. So, in Genesis 1:26-30, we have the creation of humanity in the context of the six creation days; and in Genesis 2 we have the account of the creation of humanity as a specific focus in more detail.

It should be obvious to even the casual reader that there is something special and distinct about the man that God created on day six of creation week. In verse 26, God says, “Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness.” And here for the first time, we find God, not speaking something into existence, but crafting this creature from the things already made. In 2:7, we read that “the Lord God formed man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and man became a living being.” So here we have a creature crafted by the very hand of God and endowed with His own breath of life, shaped in His image and likeness. That makes man unique among all creation, and it means that human life bears a special dignity among all creation. Every human being who has ever lived or ever will bears the image of God in his or her very being.

Now what is entailed in humanity being made in God’s image? It means, most plainly, that there are ways in which man is like God and represents God. While some have sought to make a list of all this includes, there is no way to enumerate all that the image of God in man means. In any and every way that man is like God, it is a part of this image and likeness. Whatever else it may mean or include, it is a revealed truth in this very text that the image of God includes relationship, authority, mission. To no other creature but humans does God personally speak in the creation account. He speaks to man, and as a result of this communication with His image bearer, humanity is invited into the unique intimacy of a personal relationship with our Maker.

Notice that the very first thing God says after saying “Let us make man in Our image,” is “and let them rule ….” So God has appointed the human race as His emissaries in the earth, exercising an endowed authority on His behalf over everything else in creation. This authority is not absolute, but comes with accountability; therefore mankind’s authority is that of a steward or manager. We are not authorized to do as we please with the created world, but rather to do as God would have us to do on His behalf. Because we are His image-bearers and representatives on the earth, we are to do as He would do with what He has made.

Part of that authority includes a mission which God gave to humanity. Notice that in 1:28, we have the first commandment of the Bible. The Lord said to man, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth.” God desired that the earth would be filled with those who bear the image of God. As people made in God’s image who lived in a worshipful and obedient relationship with Him went forth into all the world, the earth would be filled with the knowledge and glory of God and governed in His name and for His purposes. “And I think to myself, what a wonderful world.” Had it not been for the entrance of sin, which we will discuss in Genesis 3, this is how the world would be.

So, as we see the God who creates revealed in Genesis 1-2, we find Him as the One who exists, the One who is all-powerful, and the One who has installed in the earth a representative species – humanity – to bear His image and serve Him. Now finally, we see Him as the One who is good.

IV. The Goodness of God (1:29-31; 2:5-9, 15-18, 21-25)

We see it throughout the creation account: God is good. He did not have to make anything at all, much less a world such as we have, filled with beauty. He did not have to make us at all, much less in such a fearful and wonderful way. He created us with senses to enjoy and appreciate all that He has made so that we would rejoice in His goodness and glory. And He did not set us out in a rugged wilderness to fend for ourselves and scavenge to meet our own needs, but rather placed man into a carefully prepared garden, where He demonstrated Himself as a generous and gracious provider for our every need.

Life itself is a gift from His hands, quite literally, as He formed humanity from the dust of the ground. The first breath ever taken by man was taken from the very mouth of God as God breathed into Adam’s nostrils upon creating Him. So, the next time someone says, “God never did anything for me,” consider that your very life and the air you breathe is a gift of His grace. It is not owed to you, and it can be taken away as easily as it was given.

With this life, God has also given us all we need to live it. He has given us food to eat. Notice in 1:29, He says, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed that is on the surface of all the earth, and every tree which has fruit yielding seed; it shall be food for you.” Again notice in 2:16, “From any tree of the garden you may eat freely.” Of course, there was one prohibition, one tree from which man was not to eat, and that brings us to another need that God provides: wisdom for guidance.

By marking off one tree – the tree of the knowledge of good and evil – as forbidden, God was instructing man in the matter of obedience. Man could know good and evil as a result of God’s revelation, rather than by the bitter education of personal experience. How many of you can remember from your childhood being told that something was hot and not to touch it? And what did you do? You touched it. You learned from personal experience what it feels like to be burned. But it would have been better for you to learn that from the instruction you were given rather than by experience. You see, this is how we must see God’s commandments. They are for our benefit, our guidance, and protection. God gives us wisdom to make decisions based on His revelation. When we disobey Him, there are consequences, and when we obey, there are blessings. Because God is good, He gives us wisdom for guidance.

Notice that He also gives us work to do. Work is actually a blessing, for the ability and opportunity to work is a gift from God. God placed man in the garden and commanded Him to cultivate it and keep it. In so doing, God was giving the man opportunity to glorify Him by using the strength and energy supplied by God to care for the things God had made.

Then let us observe that, out of the goodness of God, he gave to man the help and companionship of a partner. The first time in Scripture that we read that something was “not good” is in 2:18, when God says, “It is not good for the man to be alone.” And so, God created for man a helper suitable for him. From his own flesh and bone, God fashioned a woman and brought her to the man. Here is one who is an equal with man, sharing with him in the image of God. But this equal partner is not an identical partner. They are compatible and complimentarian to one another. Just as the three persons of the Holy Trinity are equal in all respects, but each has a distinct role, so with man and woman, each are of equal value and worth before the Lord, equal objects of God’s love and blessing, but distinct in function and role. And without this beautiful distinction, obedience to God’s first command to be fruitful and multiply would be impossible. So, God creates the intimate union of marriage between a woman and a man, saying, “For this reason a man shall leave his father and his mother, and be joined to his wife; and they shall become one flesh.”

We see from all of this the goodness of God. He provides for everything we need and desire. Any attempt to find satisfaction apart from Him is futile because only He is good, and only He is able to provide what we need to live life as He created us and intended for us to live.

The God who exists, who is all powerful, and who is good, created you and me and everything else in this world. He created us in His image, that we might know the blessing of a personal relationship with Him. As we will see in the subsequent chapter, that relationship is hindered by our sin, but the God who made us loves us so much that He has acted on our behalf to redeem us from sin through the cross of Jesus Christ. It is only as we come to know God by faith in Christ that we can enter into the relationship for which we were created, that we can enjoy the goodness of His creation, and that we can experience life as He intended for us to live. As we study the creation account, there is much we can learn about the world and everything in it. But the primary thing that the Holy Spirit desires to convey to us in these inspired words is the truth of God, the uniqueness of mankind, and the joy of man living in union with His Maker in faith and obedience.

Saturday, December 31, 2016

How to Celebrate Christmas (Luke 2:1-20)


There is something that just seems right about being here this morning to celebrate Christmas here in worship on Christmas Day. In fact, long before Christians began to celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25, Christians began gathering on Sunday to worship the Lord in commemoration of His resurrection, which was on a Sunday. It was several centuries before Christmas traditions began to arise, and nearly two millennia before observances such as we are accustomed to keeping began to develop. So, it is doubly fitting for us to gather together today for worship – first and foremost because it is the Lord’s Day, Sunday; and secondarily because this Lord’s Day happens to coincide with Christmas.

If you are in the regular habit of being in a service like this on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, you are part of a very slight majority in America. A 2013 study by the Pew Forum reported that 54% of Americans do so. Meanwhile, the same study revealed that 86% of Americans gather with extended family or friends on Christmas Eve or Christmas Day, and the same percentage buy gifts for family and friends. It is reported that 79% of Americans put up a Christmas tree, and 65% send Christmas cards.

If you wanted to be more creative in your Christmas celebrations, you could adopt some more unusual customs that are practiced elsewhere in the world. According to a 2010 article from Travel and Leisure’s website, in Guatemala, the devil is burned in effigy on a bonfire. In Japan, eating at KFC for Christmas is so popular that some locations require reservations. In Wales, friends go from home to home singing, accompanied by someone dressed up as a dead horse.[1] Or maybe you are like Ebenezer Scrooge, who sternly rebuked his gracious nephew, saying, “Keep Christmas in your own way, and let me keep it in mine!” To which his nephew said, “But you don’t keep it,” and Scrooge retorted, “Let me leave it alone then!”

Undoubtedly your family has its own Christmas customs, as does mine. But if we really want to know how to celebrate Christmas, we need to look no further than the passage of Scripture which has just been read for us Luke 2:1-20. Here in the first Christmas, we find examples of the best ways for us to honor Christ and celebrate His birth in our Christmases! After the angel announced the good news of the Savior who had been born in Bethlehem, and the angelic host erupted in a song of cosmic praise, the shepherds, and those they encountered, celebrated the coming of Christ into the world in ways that we would do well to emulate!

I. Come and behold Christ the Lord! (vv15-16)

In the familiar song, “O Come All Ye Faithful,” we sing the familiar words, “Come and behold Him, born the King of Angels! O come let us adore Him, o come let us adore Him, o come let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!” As we sing those words, we are giving voice to the ancient shepherds who heard the angelic announcement. While they were out in the fields with their flocks, the angel appeared and said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” This was more than an announcement of good news, it was an invitation to come and meet this Child and behold Him for themselves.

Notice what the shepherds did. They said to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” And we read that “they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph and the baby as He lay in the manger.” How else should we respond to the good news, the Gospel, that a Savior has been born for us?

We, who are separated from God by our sins, have been invited to come and meet the One who was born to take away our sins. The Christ of Christmas’s manger is the Christ of Easter’s cross. This baby would grow to live a life of perfect righteousness, completely free from sin, and He would die to be our substitute, so that in Him our sins can receive the full penalty they deserve under the holy justice of God. He takes our sins, and He offers us His righteousness in exchange. This is how He becomes our Savior, as we turn from our sins in repentance and claim Him by faith as our Lord, trusting Him to save us and reconcile us to God. You have heard the good news – a Savior has been born for you. Have you come to behold Him by faith for yourself, and call upon Him to save you? If not, then this is the best of all possible ways to celebrate Christmas – to come in a hurry and find your way to Jesus. Then you will be able to receive Christ as the gift of Heaven given to you as your Savior to rescue you from sin and reconcile you to God.

II. Go and tell the good news to others (v17)

These shepherds had a story to tell! They had seen and met the Savior! God had become a human being in the person of Jesus the Christ, and they had just seen Him with their own eyes! They had to tell others what had happened to them. The Bible says, “When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.” As James Montgomery Boice said, “If their story was not worth telling, then no story that has ever been told is worth telling.”[2]

Not only did they have a story to tell, they knew that other people needed to hear this news as well. Others needed to know that a Savior had been born so that they could have hope and peace with God as well! These shepherds knew that they lived in a world filled with people who were lost, confused, and dying. Their world was no different than ours. All around us are multitudes who are, in the words of Ephesians 2:12, without hope and without God in the world. Lost, confused, dying, and separated from God the Father – this is the universal human condition. But Jesus had come to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life, that we might come to the Father by faith in Him (John 14:6). People who are lost need to find the way. Jesus is the Way! People who are confused need to find the truth, and Jesus is the Truth! People who are dying need to find life, and Jesus is the Life, and He said that no one comes to the Father but by Him. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all of us who have met Jesus and trusted Him as our Lord to proclaim to others that all of their desperate longings can be satisfied eternally in this Savior who has been born for them. We who have met Christ can celebrate His birth by announcing the good news to a world that needs to hear it!

III. Hear the good news with wonder (v18)

During the Christmas season, we have the good news presented to us in a variety of ways. There are the songs that sing of Christ’s birth. Christmas cards express Christian messages of faith, hope, and love. Our hearts are warmed every time we hear Linus tell Charlie Brown what Christmas is all about. We hear these things, but I wonder, do we wonder? The Bible says that those who heard what the shepherds were saying “wondered.” The word means “to be amazed,” “to marvel,” even “to be surprised.”

You know how your ears can become to dull to sounds you hear over and over again. We live in a very noisy place. From our house, we can hear the train. We also have a very noisy nightclub nearby whose loud music can rattle our windows. Our house is also right under the flight path of jets taking off at PTI. Many years ago, these sounds kept us up at night. Today we hardly notice it. But when someone visits our home for the first time and hears these sounds, they are amazed that we don’t even notice it. I suppose for some, the Christmas story is kind of like that. We have lost our sense of wonder at it.

If we would celebrate Christmas in the right kind of way, we would chase after that sense of wonder and never let it out of our grasp. How can we “get used to” or “get over” this astounding news of the grace of God? How we grow dull and merely yawn at the message that God has become one of us and come to save us? Perhaps we need to pray and ask God to help us recapture the wonder and amazement of the miracle of Christmas that this Savior has come. That would be a good way to celebrate Christmas – to revel in wonder, and to ask the Lord to multiply that wonder exponentially in our souls, as we hear the glad tidings that Christ the Lord has been born to save us!

IV. Treasure the good news and ponder it (v19)

Around my office, I have many things that I treasure. There’s a sculpture that my grandfather made, pictures of my kids, and pictures they have drawn, pictures of my wife and my friends, objects I have brought back from my travels, and so on. And within all of our hearts, we have similar kinds of treasures. Memories of magical moments when we wished that time could just stand still. We cherish them and cling to them, pulling them to the forefronts of our minds just to behold them for a minute and smile.

The Bible says that Mary treasured this moment, when all of these things were occurring around her – the birth of her child, the visit of the shepherds, the stories they told of angels who had visited them, and the memories of her own visitation from an angel who announced God’s plan for her to bear this child. These things and many more, “all these things,” Mary treasured and pondered in her heart. To “ponder” is to reflect meditatively. When one is pondering, he or she is thinking intently about something, piecing it together like a puzzle, and tying together the strings of understanding and meaning. Mary was connecting dots in her mind, reflecting on God’s mercy and grace to her, and considering all that the birth of this child meant to her, and what it would mean to the whole world.

This is how we are to celebrate Christmas. We are to take the truths of God’s word as treasures into our hearts and ponder them. We are to take “all these things” in: the promises and prophecies that foretold the birth of the Savior, and the narrative accounts of how it came to pass, and the Gospel truths that proclaim the salvation that Jesus was born to bring us. We ponder them, reflecting meditatively upon them. We ponder the moment when these things became real to us personally, that moment when we first turned to Christ in faith and trusted in Him to save us. We ponder how His grace has worked within us since that day. We ponder the promise of heaven and the hope of eternity spent in God’s presence, all because this Savior has been born for us! We ponder the miracle, and we ponder the mystery, and we ask the Lord to deepen our understanding and sharpen our affection and adoration for Him as we rehearse these treasures in our hearts and minds.

It would be a wasted Christmas if we take in all the customs and traditions and do not spend time pondering the treasures of who Christ is and what it is that He has done for us, is doing in and through us, and will do with us forever. Though there is much perhaps that we do not understand, we cling to Him by faith, and ask Him to enlarge our faith into understanding, and to do so evermore until our faith becomes sight and we behold Him face to face.

And then finally, we can celebrate Christmas as we …

V. Go back with glory and praise to God for the gift of the Lord Jesus

Verse 20 says that the shepherds went back – back to their fields, back to their flocks – but they went back as changed men. They went back glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen. They were caught up in the worship of God-in-Christ.

There have been many popular Christmas songs over the years that asked why the special feeling of Christmas can’t last all year long. Maybe you have wondered the same. Within a few days, the presents will all be unwrapped and put away, the tree will come down, and we will go back. For some who are here visiting family and friends, you will go back home. For those who have enjoyed a few days off, you will go back to work. We have to go back. But we do not have to go back the same. If we have truly celebrated Christmas – if we have beheld Christ, if we have told the story, and heard it afresh with wonder, if we have treasured these things and ponder them in our hearts, we can go back praising and glorifying God for all that we have heard and seen concerning this Lord Jesus who was born to save us. We can go back with a fresh commitment to worship the Lord Jesus every day, and to serve Him with gladness, filled with His Spirit and with songs of praise in our hearts.
I have to tell you about one of the first times I ever heard Chad sing. Some years ago, when his brother Brad was on staff with me at a different church, Chad and his band came and they sang a song called “A Different Way.” It starts out about the visit of the Magi, who, after they visited Jesus and were warned of Herod’s evil plot, decided to leave a different way. The song says, “No matter what road you may be walking, come to Jesus today, and you’ll leave a different way.” The Magi did, and the shepherds did too. In fact, all who truly have a personal encounter with Jesus do.

If we encounter Him, He will transform us, and we will leave a different way. Then we will know that we have really celebrated Christmas, and the amazing thing is that everyone we meet will know it as well. And perchance, as we explain to them how we have celebrated Christmas, they may come to celebrate it in this true way as well.

Richard Walters gave me a copy of a wonderful prayer some time ago, and I think it captures my own sentiments and my prayer for us all as I bring this message to a close:
May you be filled with the wonder of Mary, the obedience of Joseph, the joy of the angels, the eagerness of the shepherds, the determination of the magi, and the peace of the Christ Child! May it be so today, and every day, for Christ’s sake, and in His name we pray, Amen.

[1] Accessed December 18, 2014.
[2] James Montgomery Boice, The Christ of Christmas (Phillipsburg, NJ: P & R, 2009), 170. 

Monday, December 19, 2016

O Little Town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2; Luke 2:1-7)


Augustus Saint-Gaudens is one of America’s most famous sculptors. In Chicago’s Lincoln Park, his 12-foot tall statue of Abraham Lincoln stands, which is regarded the finest portrait statue in the United States. From the mid-1800s until his death in 1907, Gaudens sculpted some of the most notable figures in the world. But one of his lesser known works of a lesser known subject stands outside the Trinity Church in Boston. Standing before a large cross, with one arm draped across a Bible on a pulpit, with the figure of Jesus behind him with His hand on his shoulder, the robust figure of Rev. Phillips Brooks stands with one arm raised high. The inscription reads, “Phillips Brooks: Preacher of the Word of God; Lover of Mankind; Born in Boston, AD 1835; Died in Boston, AD 1893; This Monument is Erected By His Fellow Citizens, AD 1910.” If you pass by that statue sometime, you might find a small group of people standing there singing, “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” which Brooks wrote in 1868. 
In the Winter of 1865, while Brooks was serving as pastor of Philadelphia’s Holy Trinity Church, he traveled through the land of the Bible. During Christmas week, he wrote home to say,

After an early dinner, we took our horses and rode to Bethlehem. It was only about two hours when we came to the town, situated on an eastern ridge of a range of hills, surrounded by its terraced gardens. It is a good-looking town, better built than any other we have seen in Palestine. . . . Before dark, we rode out of town to the field where they say the shepherds saw the star. It is a fenced piece of ground with a cave in it (all the Holy Places are caves here), in which, strangely enough, they put the shepherds. The story is absurd, but somewhere in those fields we rode through the shepherds must have been. . . . As we passed, the shepherds were still ‘keeping watch over their flocks or leading them home to fold.’

A few months later, the pastor wrote back to his church from Rome, reflecting on that Christmas Eve he spent in Bethlehem:

I remember especially on Christmas Eve, when I was standing in the old church at Bethlehem, close to the spot where Jesus was born, when the whole church was ringing hour after hour with the splendid hymns of praise to God, how again and again it seemed as if I could hear voices that I knew well, telling each other of the ‘Wonderful Night’ of the Saviour's birth ….

It was the memory of that Christmas in Bethlehem that prompted him to write the carol that we all know so well. At Christmastime, we turn our thoughts to Bethlehem and to the wondrous thing that happened there as God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ and dwelt among us. But it was not by accident that Bethlehem was the place where this miracle occurred. God orchestrated the events of history to bring all these things to pass in the little town of Bethlehem. It was a place of promise, a place of providence, and a place of provision.

I. Bethlehem was a little town of promise (Micah 5:2)

Centuries before that night when Christ was born, God had announced through His prophet Micah that Bethlehem, the hometown of King David, would be the birthplace of another ruler. But this king who was coming would be no ordinary ruler. “From you [Bethlehem] One will go forth for Me [the LORD] to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, From the days of eternity.”

With these words, God promises that the little town of Bethlehem is significant in His purposes, for from it, He will send forth One who will rule on His behalf. This One who is to be born in Bethlehem has origins that predate His own birth. His goings forth are from eternity. Only God is eternal, and in the person of Jesus Christ, God became one of us. John says of Him in his gospel, “In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God, … and the word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory.” Philippians 2:5-11 puts it this way, He “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men.”

In Matthew 2, when the magi came to inquire of Herod where to find the newborn King, Herod summoned all the chief priests and scribes and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. Without hesitation they responded, “In Bethlehem of Judea,” and they cited this prophetic passage of Micah to support their claim. The prophecy was well known that the Messiah was to be born in this little town of Bethlehem. It was a little town of promise.

II. Bethlehem was a little town of providence (Luke 2:1-5)

God has chosen a virgin named Mary to be the mother of the Messiah. Mary was betrothed to a carpenter named Joseph. They lived in another little insignificant town called Nazareth, but it was on the opposite end of the land from the place where the Messiah’s birth had been prophesied. But God providentially directs the affairs of men and the world in which we live. Paul says in Romans 13 that no governing authority exists except those which have been established by God. And in the providence of God, He raised up one Augustus Caesar to rule the Roman Empire. Mind you, Augustus was not a devout worshiper of God. In fact, not too many years after this, Augustus would be declared to be a god, and the worship of the Roman Emperor would be established during his reign as Caesar. But God can use anyone and anything to further His purposes. Throughout the Scritpures, we find Him speaking through a donkey, raising up pagan nations to discipline His own people, and using imperfect people to carry out His perfect purposes. So it should come as no surprise that He can use a godless emperor to set the events in motion that will bring about His promised events.

Augustus declared a census of the entire Empire. And one of the stipulations of this census was that everyone must go back to his own hometown. Jameson, Fausset, and Brown’s commentary gives this excellent summation:

But how came Joseph and Mary to remove thither from Nazareth, the place of their residence? Not of their own accord, and certainly not with the view of fulfilling the prophecy regarding Messiah's birthplace; nay, they stayed at Nazareth till it was almost too late for Mary to travel with safety; nor would they have stirred from it at all, had not an order which left them no choice forced them to the appointed place. A high hand was in all these movements.

God’s meticulous providence guided Mary and Joseph back to the place of promise where the prophet had foretold long ago that Messiah would be born. And so Bethlehem becomes ground zero for God’s entry into the world. It was a little town of providence.

Now finally …

III. Bethlehem was a little town of provision (2:6-7)

When the Lord commanded Abraham to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, Abraham told Isaac that they would go up to make a sacrifice. Isaac said, “We have fire and wood, but where is the sacrifice?” And Abraham’s response was this: “God will provide for Himself the lamb” (Gen 22:8). And from that time on, God was known to His people as YHWH Jireh, the Lord who provides. And we have come to know Him as such as well. He is the One who meets our need with His gracious provision.

It was here in this little town of Bethlehem that God provided for our greatest need, and provided for Himself the Lamb that would be our sacrifice. Had our greatest need been poverty, God would have sent a financier. Had it been ignorance, He would have sent a professor. Had our greatest need been boredom, He would have given us an entertainer. But our greatest need is deliverance from our sinful condition, which keeps us separated from God. Therefore God provided us with a Savior. When the angel appeared to Joseph in Matthew 1, he said, “You shall call His name Jesus.” The name “Jesus” means “YHWH is Salvation.” The angel said that this must be the child’s name, “for He will save His people from their sins.”

The name of the town, “Bethlehem,” means “House of Bread” in Hebrew. And here the One was born who said, “For the bread of God is that which comes down out of heaven, and gives life to the world … I am the bread of life; he who comes to Me will not hunger, and he who believes in Me will never thirst” (John 6:33-35).

And so the first gift ever given at Christmas was the greatest gift ever given – a gift from God to man. And unlike some of the gifts we give each other, we don’t look at this gift and wonder, “What in the world do I need that for?” Rather, we look at this infant, born to live righteously in our place, born to die as a substitute on our behalf; and then we look at ourselves, born in sin, living in rebellion, destined for eternal separation from God because of our enmity with Him. And we take this gift in our arms, and say, “Thank you God, this is just what I needed! This is what I’ve always wanted.” “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Bethlehem was a little town of prophecy, providence, and provision.

It didn’t make it into our hymnals, but Phillips Brooks wrote a final stanza to his beloved Christmas carol about the little town of Bethlehem. It went like this:

Where children pure and happy
    Pray to the Blessed Child
Where misery cries out to Thee
    Son of the Undefiled
Where Charity stands watching
    And Faith holds wide the door
The dark night wakes, the glory breaks
    And Christmas comes once more

Pure and happy ones, the hymnwriter says to you, “Pray to this blessed Christmas child.” Miserable and afflicted one, cry out to this Son of the Most Holy God. And in love and faith, you will find the glory of the Lord breaking into your dark night, and Christmas will have come once more.

How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him still, the dear Christ enters in.

O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend on us we pray. Cast out our sin, and enter in, be born in us today. We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O Come to us, abide with us, Our Lord Emmanuel.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

The First Noel (Genesis 3:15)

A familiar song that is heard this time of year says, “The first noel the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” That word noel comes to us from French, and it generally equates with “Christmas.” It comes into French from the Latin natalis, which relates to “birth.” So, in English we have the word natal, which comes from the same Latin word, and is probably most commonly associated with something like a neonatal unit at a hospital, where newborn babies receive care. But it is the French word noel that we often find occurring in Christmas songs and Christmas cards. And if we speak of “the first noel,” as the familiar song says, we tend to think of that one in the second chapter of Luke where the angels bring the good news of Christmas to the shepherds. This, however, is not “the first noel,” or first “Christmas message,” that we find in the Bible. Far from it, in fact. Prior to the coming of Christ into the world at that first Christmas, there were numerous prophecies and proclamations of the coming Messiah who would rescue His people from sin and establish His everlasting kingdom of peace and righteousness.

If we want to find “the first noel,” we have to look further back in history from the one “the angel did say” unto “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” The very first noel is the one that the Lord God did say unto a certain evil serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the first human beings to whom he lied. We find it in Genesis 3:15. Theologians refer to this verse as the protoevangelium – “the first Gospel” – for here, in the moments immediately following the first sin of the human race, we find the first promise of redemption that will save the human race from the curse of sin.

Though this message may not often appear in Christmas cards and Christmas carols, it is as much a part of the Christmas story as the angels, the shepherds, and the magi. Genesis 3:15 is the seed from which the Christmas tree grows. And so, as we look at this, the first noel, we want to consider the reason for Christmas, the reality of Christmas, and the result of Christmas.

I. The reason for Christmas

Fill in the blank: “________________ is the reason for the season.” Now, if you said, “Jesus,” you are right, but that’s a Sunday School answer. You know what I mean about a Sunday School answer, don’t you? The story is told of a little boy in Sunday School; when the teacher said, “I’m thinking of something small and grey, has a fuzzy tail, likes to climb trees and eat acorns,” the kid said, “Well, it really sounds like you are talking about a squirrel, but the answer is probably Jesus.” So, let’s think about it for a moment, and move beyond the Sunday School answer and fill in the blank: “_____________ is the reason for the season.” There are probably many words, including Jesus, that will fill the blank correctly, but the one I’m thinking of is “Sin.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “There he goes again. He’s so hung up on preaching about sin that he’s gone and dragged it into Christmas now.” Well, no, I haven’t dragged it into Christmas. It was there from the beginning. In fact, apart from sin, there is no need for Christmas. First Timothy 1:15 says, “It is a trustworthy saying, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” So, in a very real sense, sin is the reason for the season.

In the verses preceding our text, we find the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is obvious that we are not merely talking about a reptile, but a spiritual, personal being. The serpent is referred to with personal pronouns, and is described as one with intelligence, speech, and knowledge that surpasses even that of the man and woman who were created in the image of God. The serpent has an awareness of the supernatural world.[1] And so, later on in Scripture, the identity of the serpent is made plain, but it was never in doubt. Revelation 12:9 speaks of “the great dragon … the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.” Whether he adapted to the physical form of a serpent, or the imagery of the serpent is used metaphorically here, we do not know, and it doesn’t matter all that much. The point is that Satan had come into the garden of paradise in order to bring about the ruin of humanity by deception and temptation.

He came to the woman and began to cast doubt on the Word of God. “Indeed, has God said …?”, he began. Subsequently, he would flatly deny the truthfulness of God’s promise. God had said, “In the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Satan said, “You surely will not die!” It is always a tactic of the enemy to entice us to question what God really has and has not said.

But he went further, “has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” In point of fact, God had not said that. Actually God said they could eat freely from any tree of the garden, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was God’s will that humanity understand good and evil by His revelation, and not by personal experience. It was for their good that God gave them a restriction on this tree, that they might trust Him at His word and not experience the devastation of disobedience for themselves. But Satan always seeks to arouse within us a doubt concerning the nature of God. He entices us to question whether or not God is really good, and whether or not He really has our best interests at heart in His will. So, Satan said to Eve, “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You see, he has her thinking now that God is holding her back from attaining her maximum potential; from achieving her best life now.

So, with doubts in her mind about God’s word and His nature, Eve took the fruit and ate it. She had been deceived. But when she offered it to Adam, he simply ate along with her. His sin was not that of being deceived, but of flatly disobeying a clear command of the Lord. Scripture is clear and consistent that human sinfulness has its origin, not in the deception to which Eve fell prey, but to the disobedience of Adam. And it was because of this sin, the promise of a coming Redeemer was proclaimed. Because God desires and designed man for an eternal relationship with Him, He immediately announced that He would bring about deliverance for humanity.

With the entrance of sin into the world, the cosmic conflict between God and Satan entered a new theater of battle. The battle began when Satan, who was created as an angel, rebelled against the Lord and took a host of angels with him in the revolution. But by bringing humanity into the fray, the battle moved to the earth, where we continue to live in the midst of the strife. The Lord said to Satan, “Because you have done this … I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That phrase “her seed” points to the One who would come to deliver humanity from sin, the Messiah Jesus. He would come to wage war against Satan and save those who trust in Him.  

As a foreshadowing of what the Redeemer would do for humanity, verse 21 says that “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” He did not make for them a garment of wool. A lamb can be shorn of its wool and it will grow back. But the Lord made garments of skin, and the only way a living thing can provide its skin is to die. Remember that the Lord said, “In the day that you eat from this tree you will surely die.” Indeed, on that day they began dying physically. And death spread to all men through sin. But God inaugurated a process of redemption for humanity on that day, by which an innocent substitute could die as a sacrifice for the guilt of the sinner. Just as the animal died as a sacrifice to become a covering for Adam and Eve’s sin guilt, so the Redeemer would come and suffer on behalf of sinful men to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And this brings us to the second element of this first noel.

II. The reality of Christmas

We have all seen lots of artwork depicting the nativity scene, haven’t we? We’ve got a lovely stained glass scene here in the sanctuary and these figures we put out at Advent, and maybe we have nativity figures we put up in our home. We see the scenes on Christmas cards, magazine covers, and so on. Here is Jesus, minutes after emerging from His mother’s womb, sleeping peacefully while his adoring mother, in her full attire, spotless and clean, looks on with a smile and a radiant glow about her. And they’re in a barn. I don’t know about you, but that scene is not reminiscent of any barn I have ever been in, nor is it reminiscent of any labor and delivery scenario I have ever seen. I’ve watched two children be born. If we were to have posed for a picture in either situation, it would have taken days for us to look like the nativity characters we typically see. It is not a nice, neat, tranquil thing. And neither should we think of Christmas as such. God forbid that we consider His coming into the world to deliver us from sin a nice, neat, tranquil thing. The reality is far different from the artwork depicting it.

The reality of Christmas is that the Savior who was promised to come did come in a very unusual way. When the Lord spoke of “her seed,” He was indicating that the Redeemer would come into the world in a way that no other being ever has. The word “seed,” when used of human beings, can have a general reference to “offspring,” but most commonly it is used to refer to the descendants of a male, not a female. This is evident when we see how the Hebrew scholars translated this passage into Greek over two hundred years before the birth of Christ. They chose to translate the Hebrew word that is translated for us as “seed” with the Greek word spermatos. That is an unusual word to attribute to a female. Under normal circumstances, we might have expected the Lord to say that he would put enmity between Satan and the woman, or between Satan and the human race, and between his seed and Adam’s seed. But He said “her seed.” And this points to the unusual reality by which Jesus Christ came into the world through the virgin birth.

Isaiah understood the strangeness of this idea, so when he spoke of the coming of the Messiah, he said in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” There are many who assert that the word used by Isaiah here should refer, not to a virgin, but to a young woman of a marriageable age. It is interesting that the Greek translation of the Hebrew here (again, produced 250 years before the birth of Christ) uses a word that exclusively means “virgin.” It is the same word used in the New Testament to describe Mary’s virginity. You do not have to be a Bible scholar, however, to realize that there is nothing significant about a young woman of marriageable age bearing a son. The child’s birth is a sign because of its strangeness. He would be born “the seed of woman,” that is, without an earthly father, to a mother who is a virgin when she conceives.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, her response was, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Literally, the Greek text says, “How can this be, since I have not known a man,” employing “known” in the common euphemistic sense of sexual relations. But the angel explained it to her: “The angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:26-35).

And so we have the wonderful statement in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In order to redeem us from the curse of sin and adopt us anew as His rightful sons and daughters after our sinful rebellion, God became a man, coming into the world through the virgin birth, in fulfillment of the promise made in the Garden of Eden. The redeemer would be the seed of woman, and that title can be applied to no one else but Jesus. His coming into the world through the unusual and complicated circumstances of a virgin birth is the reality which we celebrate at Christmas. It was foretold in the first noel.

We come now to …
III. The result of Christmas

A number of years ago, I heard one of the great preachers of the last half century, Dr. Haddon Robinson, preach a great message at a pastors conference. He began rather bluntly by saying, “I want to confront something that I think is present here in this room. I want to address a specific prejudice that many of you are guilty of. I believe that there are a lot of you who don’t like … snakes.” Guilty as charged! I hate snakes! I have trouble sleeping at night if I even see a picture of a snake. I have friends who love snakes, and they tell me that there are good snakes, and harmless snakes. Listen, in my opinion, the only good snake is a dead snake, and every snake is harmful to me because I feel like I’m having a heart attack whenever I see one! So I will confess to you that, when it comes to snakes, I am a serial killer. I’ve been known to run over them, put the car in reverse, and run over them a few more times just to make sure I got them good. But the best way to get rid of a snake is to cut off its head. And I have found morbid joy in so doing on a number of occasions in my life.

But the first noel is not telling us about how to deal with our snake problems. It is telling us how God is going to deal with our sin problem. He is sending a Redeemer into the world who is going to defeat Satan fully and finally. The Lord said to the serpent concerning the one who would be born as the seed of woman, “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” The Hebrew word translated “bruise” could just as well be translated as “crush.”

So we see here that the ancient conflict between God and Satan will have as its climax an encounter in which there is suffering on both parts. Satan will inflict harm on the Redeemer, and the Redeemer will inflict harm upon him as well. But notice the difference. The Redeemer will be bruised, or crushed, at the heel. Some of you have suffered foot injuries, and you know they are no laughing matter. An injured heel can be debilitating for a season, but usually such injuries are temporary. Bones heal and muscle rebuilds. But a crushing of the head is a fatal blow. There is no recovery when the head has been crushed. And here we have the foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ.

At the cross, Jesus laid down His life and died. It must have appeared as if the first noel was a lie! Jesus was dead and Satan was enjoying the victory he seemed to have won. The bloody, battered body of Jesus was put away behind the sealed stone tomb. But on the third day, the most extraordinary thing happened. This One who was dead returned to life in triumph. In His death, He had taken all of our sin – beginning with Adam’s and including all the sin of the entire human race – and He suffered the punishment of that sin under the full outpouring of God’s judgment in His death. He was the substitutionary sacrifice whose death rescues us from our sin guilt and provides a covering of righteousness for us. Here is the fulfillment of the imagery in the slaying of the animal in Eden that Adam and Eve could be covered with garments of skin. And in overcoming sin and death and hell for us, Jesus delivered the final fatal blow to Satan. With His bruised heel now healed, He crushed the head of the evil one forever.

First John 3:8 says, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” In the words of Hebrews 2:14-15, Christ came, and suffered and died, “that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

If you’ve ever removed the head of a serpent, you know that there is a short period in which the nerves in the body continue to function, causing the snake to flop around and wiggle. And I suggest to you that the works of the devil that are ongoing in the world today are just this – the flipping and flopping about of a defeated and destroyed enemy whose demise is imminent. The day is coming when Christ shall return and cast this serpent of old into his eternal destruction. Revelation 20:10 says that the devil “who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone,” where he will be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” And the glory of God’s grace toward us in defeating this enemy and rescuing us from his bondage can be seen in Romans 16:20, where we read that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet!

While the echo of the crunch of forbidden fruit was still reverberating in the garden, the promise was made that the serpent’s head would be crushed. This is why, throughout history, Satan tried to forestall and prevent Christmas from happening. The slaughter of the Hebrew children in Egypt was a Satanic attempt to end the line that would bring Christ into the world. Haman’s efforts to destroy the Jews in the days of Esther had its origins in the heart of darkness as a means of preventing the seed of woman from being born. Herod’s order of the murder of all the male children born in Bethlehem was yet another feeble attempt to prevent this outcome. And finally at the cross, Satan seemed to have won the battle. But the battle was not over. The risen Christ would come forth from death having conquered the devil forever and rendered him powerless over those who have faith in Jesus. Though he may try to remind you of your sinful past, you can stand by faith in Christ and remind him of his future – a future that is sure and settled, and has been since God spoke the words of the first noel to him in the Garden of Eden.

This is the result of Christmas! The Redeemer has come! The Seed of Woman, Jesus Christ, has come into the world and destroyed the works of the serpent forever. And we share in His victory by faith. God had spoken it in the first noel.

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” has undergone many changes since it was first written. We sing it to a different tune, under a different title, and with different words than the original composition. But in the original hymn, there was this long forgotten stanza:

Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s Conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.

Those words reflect the first noel, the protoevangelium, the first Gospel message, and first Christmas song. By God’s grace, may we all know and experience the reason, the reality and the results of Christmas. We can, because the seed of woman has come, and the serpent’s head has been crushed.

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 38. 

Monday, November 21, 2016

In Everything Give Thanks (1 Thessalonians 5:18)


Have you ever “sought God’s will”? Have you ever prayed for God to show you or make known to you His will? It is a noble aim, for who among does not wish to live our lives in accordance with God’s will. A problem arises, however, when we come down to how we go about seeking God’s will, or how we expect God to make it known. Often times, we expect God to make His will known by some sign or some experience or emotion. At times, perhaps, we expect others to inform us of what God’s will is. It is as though we believe that God has hidden His will away from us, and expects us to go on some odyssean quest to find it, not unlike some mythological adventure to lay hands on the Holy Grail. What this amounts to, in fact, is a mistaken notion of who our God is. He is not hiding His will from us, but rather desires to guide us in the doing of His will. And this is why He has revealed Himself and His will to us plainly in His Word, the Bible. Everything that the Bible says “do,” it is God’s will for us to do. Everything that the Bible says, “do not do,” it is God’s will for us not to do it! Now let us not be like the rich young ruler, to whom Jesus said, “Keep the commandments,” and he responded, “Which ones?” When Jesus began to enumerate them, the young man said, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?” (Matt 19:16-22). If we say, “Well, I am waiting for God to let me know what His will is,” the answer is that He has told you in His Word. And if we say, “All these things I have kept; what am I still lacking?”, then we lie to ourselves and to God. The fact of the matter is that we have our hands full with the doing and not doing of what is plainly stated in Scripture, and if we will but obey His Word, we will find ourselves actually doing His will as His providence directs our lives. Even if we reduce it down to the two greatest commandments of loving God and loving our neighbor, beyond this, we are free in Christ to follow the desires of our hearts.

In 1 Thessalonians 5, we find a passage in which several aspects of God’s will for our lives are spelled out specifically. It includes encouraging one another, appreciating those who labor for the Lord, living in peace with one another. It also includes admonishing the unruly, helping the weak, and showing patience to all; not repaying evil with evil, but always seeking the good of others. In verses 16-17, Paul says, “Rejoice always; pray without ceasing.” And then in verse 18, he says, “in everything give thanks; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.” His will encompasses all these things, and others which are set forth in Scripture, but today – on the Sunday preceding Thanksgiving – I want to focus our attention on this singular aspect of God’s will for His people: “In everything give thanks.”

I. What does it mean to “give thanks”?

One of the greatest demonstrations of thanksgiving in the Bible is found in Luke 17. There we read about ten lepers “who stood at a distance” as Jesus passed by. They cried out to Him, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” And Jesus did just that. He spoke, and they were healed of their disease. As they went away from Him, one “turned back, glorifying God with a loud voice, and he fell on his face at His feet, giving thanks to Him.” Jesus said, “Were there not ten cleansed? But the nine – where are they?” (Luke 17:11-19).

We all find ourselves somewhere in that story. All of us are like those lepers. We have nothing in and of ourselves to commend ourselves to God or for which to boast before men. Anything and everything we have comes to us from God’s gracious hand. And so, we are ever recipients before Him. Moments ago in this service, we collected an offering. In that moment, perhaps you thought, “I am a giver. I am giving what is mine to God.” No, for what we give to God is but a portion of what He first has given to us. So we are always the receiver, even in our giving. Now, there are some who, like the one leper in the story, who recognize this and render appropriate thanks to the Lord. Some see that apart from His provision, we would have nothing and be nothing. And so we give Him thanks. But many more, and all of us at times, are like the other nine. Having received freely from God all that we have, we fail to render thanks to Him for His mercy and grace.

To give thanks or show gratitude is to recognize God is the ultimate giver of all good things. As James 1:17 says, “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow.” He may give to us through intermediate agents, but He is the ultimate source of the gift. Suppose someone gives you a gift of some sort. It is right to give them thanks for their generosity, but then we must also give thanks to God, who put it in their hearts to give. A thankful person is one who recognizes this and acknowledges to God and man that all that we have and all that we are is ours because of the kindness of God.

The great Puritan Richard Baxter, in his monumental work A Christian Directory, devotes a great deal of attention to thankfulness. He begins, “Let thankfulness to God thy Creator, Redeemer, and Regenerator, be the very temperament of thy soul, and faithfully expressed by thy tongue and life.” And then he says, “An unthankful person is but a devourer of mercies, and a grave to bury them in, and one that hath not the wit and honesty to know and acknowledge the hand that giveth them; but the thankful looketh above himself, and returneth all, as he is able, to Him from whom they flow.” [1]

Suppose that you were to invite a guest to dinner at your home. In preparation for the occasion, you go out and spend a lot of money on special ingredients for the meal, and you slave away for hours in the kitchen and dining room. You make all the favorite dishes of your guest, and clean the house and set the table to perfection. Some of you will do this very thing this week. Now, suppose that your guest arrives. As you open the door for your guest, he or she walks past you without a word, plops down at the table and begins to bang the silverware on the table saying, “I’m hungry! Feed me!” Overlooking the impertinence, you serve the feast that has been loving and painstakingly prepared. Imagine your guest then helping himself or herself to excessive portions, depriving others of their own portions, and gulping them down hurriedly, before arising from the table and bolting out the door without a word. Maybe they pause at the door and turn back to you and say, “I will be back for breakfast in the morning!” And off they go into the night. How would you feel about that? Have they not been but a devourer of mercies? Have not your mercies been buried in the shallow grave of their ungrateful bodies? How offended we would be if such were to happen at our dinner tables on Thursday! And yet, we are all guilty of an ever greater ingratitude toward God on occasion, and some habitually.

Again, Richard Baxter says, “True thankfulness kindleth in the heart a love to the Giver above the gift.”[2] That means that we do not merely give thanks to God for the things He has given to us and done for us, but we thank Him for being a God who loves us and cares for us enough to provide for our needs. The gifts are great! But the Giver of these gifts is even greater! This is why it is beneficial for Christian people to periodically and prayerfully fast. Fasting is typically associated with giving up food or with certain kinds of food. But in reality, a fast can be of anything in our lives. For example, we might fast from such things as watching television or engaging in social media. Whatever it is that we choose to give up for the season of fasting, the purpose is to move our gratitude beyond the gifts themselves and focus our joy with laser-like precision on the Giver Himself. Fasting says, “God, you are greater to me than _____________.” And you fill in the blank with whatever it is that you are giving up. And in so doing, we demonstrate our gratitude for God because of who He is, and not merely what He has done for us or given to us.

The greatest lesson in thankfulness I ever learned was taught to me one night, many years ago, in a prayer meeting in another church I pastored. It was the Wednesday night before Thanksgiving, and I began the prayer meeting by having us sing together, “Count Your Blessings, Name Them One By One.” And then I asked every person present to name one thing for which they were thankful. So it began, “my family,” “good health,” “the freedoms we have in America,” “my job,” “my home,” and so on. And as we came around to a precious elderly woman – one of the greatest prayer warriors and wisest students of the Bible I have ever known. She said, “Well, it’s not that I am not thankful for all those things that have already been mentioned, but even pagans can be thankful for those things!” And then, from memory, she began to recite from the first chapter of Ephesians,

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ, just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will, to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved. In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of His grace which He lavished on us. In all wisdom and insight He made known to us the mystery of His will, according to His kind intention which He purposed in Him, with a view to an administration suitable to the fullness of the times, that is, the summing up of all things in Christ, things in the heavens and things on the earth. In Him also we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to His purpose who works all things after the counsel of His will, to the end that we who were the first to hope in Christ would be to the praise of His glory. In Him, you also, after listening to the message of truth, the gospel of your salvation – having also believed, you were sealed in Him with the Holy Spirit of promise, who is given as a pledge of our inheritance, with a view to the redemption of God’s own possession, to the praise of His glory.

Then she said, “That is what I am thankful for!” The room was silent. Some were embarrassed, some were ashamed, and some (myself included) were convicted! That dear saint, who is now with the Lord, taught me and a whole lot of other folks that night that, of all people, Christians have so much for which to give thanks! We have been given every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ! We have been chosen, predestined, adopted, redeemed, forgiven, enlightened, saved, sealed with the Holy Spirit! So, as Baxter says, “True thankfulness having a just estimate of mercies comparatively, preferreth spiritual and everlasting mercies before those that are merely corporal and transitory.” And he goes on to specify what some of those spiritual mercies are: “The saving of our souls from hell, and promising us eternal life, besides the giving us our very beings and all that we have.” He says that these things “oblige us to be totally and absolutely His, that is so transcendent a Benefactor to us, and causeth the thankful person to devote and resign himself and all that he hath to God, to answer so great an obligation.”[3]

So what does it mean to give thanks? It means to ever recognize the goodness of God, who by His loving and gracious nature, has given to us all that we have and all that we are. It is to thank Him for the gifts, but most of all to honor Him as the merciful Giver and yield ourselves to Him in full faith and allegiance. Baxter says, “A creature that is wholly his Creator’s, and is preserved every moment by Him, and daily fed and maintained by His bounty, and is put into a capacity of life eternal, must needs be obliged to incessant gratitude.[4] And with this understanding of thanksgiving, we are prepared to tackle the more difficult question that 1 Thessalonians 5:18 raises for us. It is God’s will for us to give thanks, and to give thanks in everything.

The question we now consider is …

II. How can I give thanks in everything?

Most of you know that I am a tremendous nerd when it comes to Disney stuff. It’s been a lifelong obsession. Now, I take a lot of flack for that from some people. People say, “That’s just kids’ stuff.” Well, I happen to agree with C. S. Lewis on what he said about children’s literature. He said, “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally (and often far more) worth reading at the age of fifty …. The only imaginative works we ought to grow out of are those which it would have been better not to have read at all.”[5] Elsewhere he said, “A book worth reading only in childhood is not worth reading even then.”[6] It is really fascinating to go back and revisit the stories, whether in book or movie, that I enjoyed as a child and see how they impact me now as an adult. It is an entirely different experience, and mostly for the better. One example of this is the Disney movie “Bambi.” When I was a kid, I really didn’t like this movie! It was so sad! I mean, who takes a kid to watch a movie in which such terrible things happen to the main character? Spoiler alert: less than half way through the movie, Bambi’s mother gets killed and his forest home goes up in flames! When I was a kid, all I could think about was how much this poor little deer lost. But now I’m an adult, and I realize that life is filled with loss. So Bambi is not unique in the losses he suffered. And I think that is one of the points of the movie that I get as an adult that I missed as a child. It’s not really about what he lost, but about what he had. At every stage of life, in spite of the hardships he faced, Bambi had the support of loving relationships to help carry him through.

You see, when the Bible tells us to give thanks in everything, we need to understand that it is not telling us to give thanks for everything. The idea is not here that we should stand on the side of the road after a terrible car accident and say, “Well, thank God for that!” If we fall down the steps, we don’t say at the bottom, “Thank you Lord for that fall down the steps!” I chose silly examples out of sensitivity and discretion, but you can imagine the scenario of far worse things. There have been many times when I have been in the middle of a sorrow- and shock-filled room saying, “Lord, why?” And the one thing I am always sure not to say to hurting people is, “Well, now, let’s give thanks to God for this terrible thing that has happened.” No, there are many things in life that we have encountered and will encounter for which we cannot give thanks.

Though we cannot give thanks for them, however, we can give thanks in them. And that is what the Bible says here. IN everything, give thanks. No matter what it is that you are going through, there is something (likely, many things) for which you can give thanks to God! It is not always easy to do in the midst of disquieting circumstances, but if we will tune our hearts to praise and thank Him, we will find that even in the midst of the difficulties, His goodness abounds to us. Here again, Baxter’s words are so helpful: “If you cannot be so thankful as you desire, yet spend as much time in the confessing of God’s mercy to you, as in confessing you sins and mentioning your wants. Thanksgiving is an effectual petitioning for more: it showeth that the soul is not drowned in selfishness, but would carry the fruit of all His mercies back to God.”[7]  

When all you can think of is what you have lost and what you lack, it helps to discipline your mind to consider what you have, what you have not lost, and what you cannot lose. Baxter says, “Compare thy proportion of mercies with the rest of the people’s in the world. And thou wilt find that it is not one of many thousands that hath thy proportion. It is so small a part of the world that are Christians, and of those so few that are orthodox, reformed Christians, and of those so few that are seriously godly as devoted to God, and of those so few that fall not into some perplexities, errors, scandals, or great afflictions and distress, that those few that are in none of these ranks have cause of wondrous thankfulness to God.” And Baxter says this is true, even of “the most afflicted Christians in the world.”[8]

If we could but train our minds to ever rehearse all that is ours in Jesus Christ … it would change our perspective every day that we live. Whether on the mountain top or in the valley; whether at work or at home; whether in the hospital or the funeral home; if we could recount before God with thanksgiving all the blessings that He has bestowed upon us, we would know that no matter how bad things are, we are never alone, never forgotten, never abandoned, never unloved. This is why Philippians 4:6-7 says, “Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Again Baxter: “Let the greatness of the manifold mercies of God, be continually before your eyes. Thankfulness is caused by the due apprehension of the greatness of mercies.”[9]

So what are these manifold mercies which are to be continually before our eyes? Time does not permit me to quote Baxter at length here, for he expounds on a full fifteen of them. But let me summarize and condense as much as I am able.

  • The love of God in giving us a redeemer, and the love of Christ in giving His life for us.
  • God's grace, His pardon of all our sins, His justification (that is, He has clothed us in the righteousness of Christ), our adoption into His family, and the promise of eternal life.
  • His providence and the servants He used to bring us to faith in Christ.
  • The faith, repentance, and right desires, which He has given to us by the power of His Holy Spirit who dwells within us to put sin to death and purify us
  • He has placed us in His church, given us His word, and fellowship with His people.
  • The kindness that is shown to us by His people, even as they admonish, reprove and encourage us.
  • The preservation and deliverance of our souls from error, seduction, terror, distress, temptation "and many a soul-wounding sin."
  • “The mercies of adversity,” be they necessary chastisements, or the honor of suffering for His name, and His comfort that accompanies these adversities.
  • The fellowship we have with God in our public and private acts of prayer, meditation, and worship.
  • That He chooses to use the likes of us for the good of others.
  • His patience with us which preserves us in faith in spite of our "constant unprofitableness and provocations."
  • "Our hopes of everlasting rest and glory, when this sinful life is at an end."[10] 
    • “Let heaven be ever in thine eye, and still think of the endless joy which thou shalt have with Christ – for that is the mercy of all mercies; and he that hath not that in hope to be thankful for, will never thankful aright for anything. … The more believing and heavenly the mind is, the more thankful.”[11]

It is for these reasons, and countless more we could list, that the child of God who has been born again by faith in Christ can give thanks in everything! These are mercies that are ours in Christ for eternity. No matter what we lose in this life, and we will lose much because of sin’s devastation of the human race and this world, these things are ours and can never be taken from us, lost, or forfeited! When we have lost it all, we have not lost it all! We can give thanks to God for what those who have it all have never had! So the Christian does not have one day a year to call “Thanksgiving.” For the follower of Jesus, every moment of every day is Thanksgiving. Baxter says, “Aggravate these mercies in your more enlarged meditations, and they will sure constrain you to cry out, ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name!” He is quoting Psalm 103:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless His holy name.
Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget none of His benefits;
Who pardons all your iniquities, who heals all your diseases;
Who redeems your life from the pit,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and compassion.

If you have yet to come into a personal relationship with God by faith in Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, you still have much for which to give thanks to God. Though you are separated from Him, His love knows no boundaries. He gives you life and breath and every good thing in your life. Most of all, He has given you this day called “today” and this moment called “now” as an opportunity for you to respond to His love and grace by turning from sin and self to cast yourself upon Him in faith and receive the infinite and eternal mercies of salvation and eternal life in Jesus Christ. With thanksgiving, would you turn to Him and be saved?

[1] Richard Baxter, A Christian Directory (Grand Rapids: Soli Deo Gloria, 2008), 142.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Ibid., 142-143.
[4] Ibid., 143.
[5] C. S. Lewis, “On Stories,” in Of Other Worlds (San Diego: Harcourt, 1975), 15.
[6] Lewis, “Fairy Stories,” in Of Other Worlds, 38.
[7] Baxter, 145.
[8] Ibid., 144.
[9] Ibid., 143.
[10] Summarized, paraphrased, and condensed from Baxter, 143-144.
[11] Ibid., 145.