Monday, December 22, 2014

A Christmas Card from Isaiah (Matthew 1:22-25)

On Christmas Eve, 1939, C. S. Lewis penned a letter to his brother which begins, “I have been thinking much this week on the absurdity of Christmas customs in an infidel society, specially the Christmas card. Waiving the great absurdity of celebrating the nativity at all if you don’t believe in the incarnation, what in heaven’s name is the idea of everyone sending every one else pictures of stage-coaches, fairies, foxes, dogs, butterflies, kittens, flowers, etc?”[1] A few weeks ago, my wife was shopping and a woman approached her and showed her two Christmas cards, and asked, “I’m sending these to my business clients, and I was wondering, which one of them do you think is less offensive?” So, that is where we are now? Donia’s advice was for her to send the one that expressed her genuine thoughts, and if she was worried about offending others, maybe she shouldn’t send them at all. After all, a “Merry Christmas” card might offend an unbeliever, but a “Seasons Greetings” card might offend a believer. Maybe this woman was overthinking it, or maybe she was just keeping up with customs. And some go about it very early. You barely get the Thanksgiving turkey thawed out before the Christmas cards start rolling in. Well, I suppose there is nothing wrong with an early Christmas greeting. After all, the Bible announces messages of Christ’s birth even centuries before He came.

In our text in Matthew’s Gospel today, we read that all this – all of the events surrounding the coming of Christ into the world – took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. And the prophecy that is quoted here is from the book of Isaiah. Isaiah the prophet lived and ministered over 700 years before the birth of Christ. Talk about beating the Christmas rush! But here in this ancient prophecy is a clear, distinct message that announces and celebrates the coming of the Lord Jesus into the world. According to Matthew, you simply cannot understand what took place two thousand years ago in Bethlehem at the first Christmas without understanding that it had been foretold by the prophet centuries in advance. The verses we have read today are inseparably connected to those which come before it, which we have examined throughout this Advent season. Beginning with the genealogy in verses 1-17, and continuing through Joseph’s dilemma in verses 18-21, there is an unmistakable emphasis on one particular aspect of Jesus’ birth. He was born of a virgin.

We see it in verse 16, which says of Joseph that he was “the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.” Matthew has carefully constructed this sentence to make it clear that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. In verse 18, it is specified that Mary was found to be with child when Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and “before they came together,” that is, before they had consummated their marriage. This pregnancy was the result of the divine activity of “the Holy Spirit.” Again in verse 20, the message that the Lord sends to Joseph by way of His angel is that “the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Here in verse 23, Matthew ties Jesus to the prophecy of the virgin who will conceive in Isaiah 7:14. In verse 24, he states that Joseph preserved Mary’s virginity is maintained even after they finalized their marriage, until Jesus was born, presumably so that there would be no question about the nature of His birth. Over and over again, Matthew makes it clear (as Luke does as well in his Gospel) that Mary was a virgin when she conceived Jesus.

As Machen says, “It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt. There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point. … The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false.”[2] Of course, it would seem to us Evangelical Christians who hold to a high view of biblical inspiration, inerrancy, and authority, that the answer to that question should be obvious. Yet sadly over the course of the last hundred years or so, we have seen many notable Christians defect from orthodox belief in biblical Christianity, and not surprisingly one of the first doctrines to be jettisoned is that of the virgin birth of Christ. For example, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who was one of the most popular and influential pastors in America in the early 20th Century, boldly proclaimed from his pulpit, “I want to assure you that I do not believe in the virgin birth of Christ, and I hope that none of you do.”[3] In the middle of the 20th Century, William Barclay, one of the best-selling biblical commentators of all time, wrote of the virgin birth, “This is a doctrine which presents us with many difficulties; and our Church (the Church of Scotland) does not compel us to accept it in the literal and the physical sense. This is one of the doctrines on which the Church says that we have full liberty to come to our own conclusion.”[4] Coming closer in space and time, near the end of the 20th Century, Barnes Tatum, a self-proclaimed Methodist and the emeritus professor of religion and philosophy at Greensboro College (a Methodist college), said that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth “represent theological fiction.”[5] Meanwhile a more encouraging survey released just this week from the Pew Forum revealed that 73% of Americans do believe in the virgin-birth, including 96% of Evangelical Protestants.[6]

Coming back to our text, we want to explore today this account of the virgin birth of Christ, and specifically the ancient prophecy that it fulfilled. I’m calling it Isaiah’s Christmas Card. Here we see the source of the Christmas message, the specifics of it, and the subject of it.

I. The Source of the Christmas Message is God Himself (v22)

When it comes to the story of the virgin birth that we find in the Bible, we really have only two options of how it came to be recorded. Either it is a true story, or else someone made it up. There is no shortage of people who believe that the account is completely fabricated. But here, we have to ask ourselves, who made it up, and why? Did Matthew make it up? Supposing that he did, why would he? We have to admit, it does not make the story more believable, does it? And Matthew, who was a Jewish person, would be taking a great risk to make up a story about the infinitely holy God of the Hebrews becoming a man, and becoming one through such means. He would surely be branded as an arch-heretic for even suggesting such a thing. But, supposing he took this risk and made up the story for some reason, then the next thing we must suppose is that Luke happened upon his account, took it as plausible, and borrowed from it for his own story. Again, we have to ask, why would Luke do this? He was a medical doctor, and surely if anyone knew that virgins can’t bear children, he did! And we also have to wonder why Luke chose to tell the story from a completely different vantage point and including so many different details than Matthew did.

Well, perhaps we have it backwards. Maybe Luke made it up, and then Matthew borrowed from him. Luke was a Gentile, and perhaps he wished to create a backstory for Jesus that would align Him with the great heroes of pagan mythology who experienced supernatural births. But, as we noted last week, there are really no such parallel accounts in the pagan mythologies. Those stories have nothing in common with this one, and just a simple review of them would illustrate how vastly different the birth of Jesus came about when compared to those myths. But supposing he did this anyway, we would have to wonder why Matthew, the Jew, would copy such a story, and if he did, why he would have changed so many of the details? It seems that we must look elsewhere for a source. And thankfully, Matthew tells us the source of the Christmas story.

He says that all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord. Where did the story of a virgin born Savior come from? It came from the Lord! These are God’s words which were spoken. But, in His usual manner of dealing with the human race, God did not announce this message audibly from the heavens. As He so regularly does, He used a human agent to deliver the message—in this case, the prophet Isaiah. It was spoken by the Lord, through the prophet. The prophet was, if you will, God’s mouthpiece to deliver this message.

We need to understand a little bit about the original setting of Isaiah’s prophecy here. You recall that the Lord had promised to David that He would have a descendant who would reign forever and ever. Well, when we come to Isaiah 7, the descendant of David who was reigning over the southern kingdom of Judah at that time was a wicked king named Ahaz. Ahaz was in a bit of a jam. The superpower of Assyria was threatening to sweep across the region and conquer every nation in its path. So, Pekah, king of the northern kingdom of Israel, had entered into an alliance with Rezin, king of Aram (or Syria) to defend themselves against Assyria. They were putting pressure on Ahaz to join them, but Ahaz had refused. This did not set well with the alliance, so they turned on him and threatened to overtake Judah and install their own king, the son of Tabeel, as a puppet king in his place. But Ahaz had other plans. He had already secretly tried to gain favor with the Assyrians to protect himself against Rezin and Pekah. Now this plan meant almost certain disaster for Ahaz and all in Judah, because the Assyrians would surely just turn around and conquer Judah for itself. So, it is into this situation that the Lord sends word to Ahaz through Isaiah. The Lord longed to be the protector and defender of His people, not for them to trust Assyria to do it. So the prophet comes to the king and says that the Lord is willing to make him an offer he can’t refuse. He gives the king something of a “blank check” and says, “You name it, any sign you want, to prove that the Lord will protect and defend you and preserve the nation and the throne of David, according to His promise.” But Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, probably because deep in his heart, he was an unbeliever and had already planned to carry out the alliance with Assyria. So, the Lord speaks through the prophet and says, “Therefore, the Lord Himself will give you a sign.” And the word “you” here is plural – we’d translate it “all y’all”: “The Lord Himself will give all y’all a sign.” And the sign is that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son, and He would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The miraculous birth of this child would prove to Judah that the Lord had not forsaken His people or His promise to David. The Child would be the embodiment of the message that the Lord wanted Ahaz and all of Judah to believe by faith, that God truly was with them. But because Ahaz had already turned his back on the Lord, he would not live to see the fulfillment of that promise. He would see the Assyrians conquer the alliance of Rezin and Pekah, but he would not see Judah spared. In time, the Assyrians were overcome by the Babylonians, and the Babylonians would come in and take all of Judah captive into exile. But the Lord’s promise remained in tact. One day, the child would be born who would take the throne of David and reign forever. Centuries came and went, Judah went into captivity and came back, but continued to be dominated by one world power after another. Even at the turn of the first century, the Romans had the nation under its thumb. Many undoubtedly forgot about, and even gave up on the promise of Immanuel. But all of that was about to change.

The source of the Christmas message is God Himself, delivered through the prophet Isaiah. Peter says (2 Peter 1:11) that prophecy does not originate in the human will, but “men moved by the Holy Spirit spoke from God.” Isaiah was doing just that. Moved by the Holy Spirit, he had announced God’s message of the virgin born Savior who was coming to set His people free from the oppression, not of foreign powers, but from the oppression of sin that separated mankind from God. As the angel told Joseph, “He will save His people from their sins.” This was the Christmas message, announced centuries in advance by God Himself through His prophet Isaiah.

II. The Specifics of the Christmas Message are well detailed (v23a)

If you scan the headlines of the tabloids in the supermarket aisles, you will probably see things in the coming weeks about some psychic or fortune teller’s predictions about things to come in 2015 or things that were fulfilled in 2014. You are undoubtedly familiar with the name of Nostradamus. It has been said that this 16th Century occultist predicted everything from the Great Fire of London, to the rise of Napolean and Adolf Hitler, to the September 11 attacks, and the election of Barack Obama (by name) as the final president America would ever have. It would be pretty impressive if he actually predicted those things, but did he really? Most of the time when we hear that Nostradamus predicted something, it is either entirely fabricated, or else Nostradamus’s words have been stretched to absurdity to fit the circumstances. Nostradamus wrote in vague, almost nonsensical language that would be impossible to understand or interpret.

This is markedly different from biblical prophecy. Granted some biblical prophecy is very difficult to understand or interpret, but given the proper historical and theological backgrounds, we find that biblical prophecy is usually very detailed and specific. The prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is a great example of that.

Notice that the event which the Lord foretold through Isaiah was said to be a sign. Matthew doesn’t include that part, but in Isaiah, it says “the Lord Himself will give you a sign,” and then follows the portion that Matthew includes here. So, we have a sign. A sign is something out of the ordinary that is taking place to arrest our attention and reveal or affirm a revelation about who God is and what He is doing. And what is the sign? The prophet says, “Behold,” which means, “Look! See!” What are we looking for? “A virgin will be with child and bear a son.”

Now, there are a lot of folks who say that Christians have distorted Isaiah’s message here, and that the Hebrew word we translate as virgin really means a young woman of a marriageable age. They point out that there is another Hebrew word which specifically means virgin, and if the Lord had intended to speak of a virgin, He would have used that word. Well, in fact there is another word that specifically means virgin, and this word in Isaiah could possibly refer to a young woman of a marriageable age. However, in every occurrence of this word in the Old Testament where the meaning is clear, it seems to only be used to refer to a virgin. Machen observes that there is no place where the word is clearly used of a woman who was not a virgin, and “one may well doubt, in view of the usage, whether it was a natural word to use of anyone who was not in point of fact a virgin.”[7] Moreover, when the Old Testament was translated into Greek 200 years before the birth of Christ, the greatest Hebrew scholars in the world chose a Greek word for this passage which exclusively means virgin, and that is the same word that Matthew uses here. So, in speaking of the virgin, we are not dealing with a Christian interpolation, but rather with what seems to be the intended understanding of the original message.

Furthermore, Matthew actually translates the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14 better than most of our English versions do, for he includes the definite article, “the virgin,” where most of our English translations exclude the article in Isaiah, and render it “a virgin.” In fact, in the Hebrew, the definite article is present. We are talking about a very specific person: the virgin. Which virgin are we talking about? We are talking about the pregnant one! Search the annals of history, and you will find only one: Mary, the mother of Jesus. This is the sign – a pregnant virgin will give birth to a son. You see, if the word only means “a young woman of a marriageable age,” there is nothing noteworthy of that. It happens every day, all over the world. That would not capture our attention and interest. But, a pregnant virgin? That gets our attention! That’s a sign to behold!

So, Matthew tells us here that all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet. The Christmas message, foretold in the ancient Christmas card from Isaiah 7:14, comes to us from God and with specific detail.

III. The Subject of the Christmas Message is Immanuel (v23b)
Signs exist to catch our attention, and then to direct our attention to a greater truth. A stop sign is painted bright red and has reflective material on it so that it is hard to miss. But the point is not to stop and gaze on the beauty of the sign. The point is to see the sign, and understand that there is a reality to which the sign points. If you do not stop here at this sign, you could get a traffic violation, points on your license, an increase in your insurance rates, or worse, you could seriously injure or kill someone, including yourself! The point is not the sign itself, but the specific law and a general safety concern that the sign symbolizes.

So, the Lord announced through Isaiah that there would be a sign given to prove to His people that He was faithful, that He was with them, and that He had not abandoned His promises. The sign is a pregnant virgin. She is what catches our attention, but then we are directed to a greater reality beyond the sign. The point is really not about the virgin, but about the child she will bring into the world. She will bear a son, and His name will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” The message of Christmas, in Isaiah’s day, in the first Century, and today, is about this child who was born, who is God in the flesh. He is God with us.

But what about this name, “Immanuel”? Did not the angel command Joseph to call the child “Jesus”? And did he not provide the reason? Since “Jesus” means “The Lord saves,” this was to be His name because He had come to save His people from sins. So, why does the prophecy not say “Jesus”, but “Immanuel”? So far as we know, no one ever called Jesus by this name, but if we were to ask the question, “Who is Jesus?”, the name “Immanuel” would be a fitting answer. Who is Jesus? He is God with us. That is as good an answer as anyone could give in three words. The eternal God had come to dwell among us as a man, to be with us, and to rescue us from our sins by His life, His death, and His resurrection.

The Gospel of Matthew begins with the arrival of Immanuel, God with us, in the person of Jesus Christ. It ends with this same Jesus promising His people that He will be with us always even to the end of the age. Having reconciled His people to Himself by saving them from their sins, He promises to never leave us nor forsake us. For all eternity, He will be God with us, Immanuel.

Isaiah sent his Christmas card early – 700 years early. But in it, he proclaimed the wonder of Christmas. God Himself was speaking through the prophet to announce that a virgin would conceive and bear a Son, and that Son would be God in human flesh, Immanuel, our Lord Jesus. That is what Christmas is all about. As we go about this week exchanging greetings with others, let us be sure to point them to this Jesus, who is God with us, as the one who can save them from their sins. Isaiah’s message was Matthew’s message, and it is our message, because ultimately it God’s message, announced to the world at Christmas time and every other day of the year. Because of God’s love for us, He has come to be with us, and He has done all that was necessary to save us from our sins. The greatest Christmas gift ever given is Jesus, the gift of Immanuel, God with us. If you have never personally received that gift, I pray that you would find in this Christmas card from Isaiah an invitation to meet the Lord Jesus today and experience the wonder of God with us.

[1] Walter Hooper, ed., The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis (Vol. 2; New York: HarperCollins, 2004), 307.
[2] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (New York: Harper & Bros., 1930), 382.
[3] Quoted in J. Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ (Chicago: Moody, 1971), 16.
[4] William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Vol. 1, Rev. Ed.; Daily Study Bible Series; Philadelphia: Westminster, 1975), 20.
[5] Mark A. Kellner, “Virgin Birth Under Dispute.” Christianity Today (November 14, 1994). Accessed online, December 17, 2014,
[6] Accessed December 17, 2014.
[7] Machen, 288. 

Monday, December 15, 2014

The Messy Miracle of Christmas (Matthew 1:18-21)

Christmas is a season of wonders. We tell a wonderful story about a wonderful Savior, and we sing wonderful songs, and have wonderful celebrations. But Christmas can also be a time of worries. We worry about the busyness, the stress, the expense, family conflicts, painful memories that resurface, and so on. It seems like a strange juxtaposition, doesn’t it? Worries and wonders? If only we could have the wonders without the worries, that would be a truly authentic Christmas experience, wouldn’t it? Well, not so fast! It seems that Christmas wonders have always been accompanied by Christmas worries, even going back to the very first Christmas. In our text, Matthew tells us the Christmas story from the perspective of Joseph. As we might expect, it is filled with wonder. But even moreso than our own Christmas experiences, it is also filled with worries. He describes to us the miracle of Christmas, but not without the mess of Christmas. And this messy miracle of Christmas is our good news, our Gospel, which makes our salvation possible. So, we want to explore the miracle, but not without also examining the mess of Christmas.

I. The Mess of Christmas (vv18-19)

Contrary to popular belief, the phrase, “Cleanliness is next to godliness,” is not found in the Bible. The exact origin of that phrase is hard to pin down, but it has been around for a very long time. In reality, however, godliness is sometimes found in the messiest of places. Consider the first Christmas. Jesus was born in the first-century equivalent of a barn, wrapped up and put in a feeding trough. It was a far cry from the sterile environment of modern labor and delivery wards. But even before the moment of His birth, there was a mess surrounding the circumstances of His coming. Three such “messes” are set forth in verses 18 and 19 of our text. There was a complicated relationship, a scandalous pregnancy, and an expedient plan.

There are approximately 1.35 billion active users on Facebook. There are 11 options that a Facebook user can choose for his or her “relationship status.” It is estimated that 3% of users (40.5 million) choose “It’s complicated” as their relationship status.[1] That status likely describes a wide range of scenarios, most of them less than favorable to be sure. If Joseph and Mary had been Facebook users, it is possible that they would have had to choose “It’s complicated” as their relationship status, simply because there is no other option that describes the kind of relationship they were in.

Verse 18 says that they were “betrothed.” We don’t have anything like “betrothed” in our culture. Betrothed is more than single, more than engaged, and less than married. In a betrothal, a couple were considered to be husband and wife to one another, but not yet married. They would continue to live apart, and during the time preceding the wedding, the husband would prepare a home for his bride. Often a betrothal was arranged by the parents, and since marriage typically happened at a far younger age than it does in modern America, even young children could be betrothed to one another. Both parties in a betrothal were required to remain sexually pure; physical consummation could only occur after the wedding. To terminate a betrothal was not as easy as breaking off an engagement. Because betrothal was legally binding, a divorce was required to end the relationship. Like I said, it’s complicated.

Into the already complicated relationship of Joseph and Mary, another mess develops: a scandalous pregnancy. Matthew says it this way, “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (v18). Like us, Matthew has the privilege of knowing the details of the situation in hindsight. In the moment, however, the only person (besides God!) who knew the details was Mary. In Luke’s account, he records how the angel had appeared to her and revealed that she would bear a child, while remaining a virgin, by the power of the Holy Spirit. But keep in mind, at this point, Joseph has not seen any angels or received any revelations. All he knows is this: his betrothed bride-to-be is pregnant, and it is obviously not his child. Of course, I am sure she has told him that the child was conceived miraculously by the Holy Spirit, but if you put yourself in his shoes, you have to agree that this would be hard to believe. After all, virgins do not conceive babies. For Joseph, all signs indicate that Mary has been unfaithful to him. This is a real scandal.

The mess continues as Joseph begins to consider his options. Jewish law prescribed a strict penalty for a woman in Mary’s situation. In Deuteronomy 22:23-27, the law says that if the woman has been raped, she bears no penalty, but her assailant is to be put to death. If, however, it was a consensual act, then both parties were to be put to death. By the first century, Roman influence and a general laxity in application of the Mosaic law in situations like these, offered Joseph two additional options. He could accuse her publicly, have the betrothal terminated by a court of law, and make her the object of public shame and ridicule, and virtually destroying her future. Or, he could divorce her privately in the presence of two or three witnesses and dissolve the relationship. No one would know the details. “She could simply go away somewhere and secretly bear and raise the child” on her own.[2]

Now, Matthew tells us that “Joseph, her husband” was “a righteous man” (v19). Some translations use the phrase “a just man.” The meaning is the same. It means that he was careful in his observance of the law and was committed to obeying God. He would have been well within his rights of legal and moral justice to pursue a public trial and have his cause upheld, whether Mary be put to death or just forever shamed. But, in Joseph’s righteousness, there was also a strong sense of mercy. This is a true mark of godliness – a right and gentle balance of justice and mercy. He did not want Mary to be disgraced, so he planned to send her away secretly. The verb tenses in verses 19 and 20 indicate that his mind was made up, and this is what he would do. It was an expedient plan to fix the situation and be free from the mess.

What a mess! You think your Christmas is messy? I am not sure it can get much more messy than the first Christmas: a complicated relationship, a scandalous pregnancy, and an expedient plan. But it is into this mess that God intervenes and brings the miracle of Christmas! The mess does not stand in the way of the miracle! And in our Christmases, we must be careful that we do not allow the worries to overshadow the wonders. Just as He did in the first Christmas, God can intervene in our mess and concentrate our attention on the miracle. So, let’s turn our attention to the miracle of Christmas.

II. The Miracle of Christmas (vv20-21)

We probably all know people who believe that miracles are an impossibility. They are convinced that miracles have never happened, never do, and never will. Then there are others who call every sunrise, every blooming flower, every baby’s birth, and every stroke of happy providence in their lives a miracle. Well, which side is correct? In fact, neither of them are. We know that because God exists and is at work in the world, miracles are possible. And because we believe the revelation that God has given us in the Bible, we know that miracles have happened in the world. But, the Bible does not lead us to expect that miracles are happening all around us all the time. In fact, even in the Bible, miracles are rare. If they were not rare, we wouldn’t call them miracles. Miracles occur in connection with God’s revelation. When God imparts revelation of Himself to the world, He validates that revelation with miracles. We see it creation, in the time when the Law was given during the days of Moses and the Exodus, and when the prophetic ministry began with Elijah and Elisha. But after the days of those early prophets, we do not see miracles occurring, at least not with frequency or intensity. That is, not until the coming of Christ into the world. In the events surrounding His birth, and continuing through His life, death and resurrection and the ministry of His apostles, we see a great concentration of miracles. After all, in Christ, God was speaking afresh to the world. As the writer of Hebrews says, “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Heb. 1:1). With this new revelation of God in Christ, there comes a new outbreak of miracles, beginning with the events surrounding His birth. We find a number of them recorded in the familiar Christmas story in Luke’s Gospel, but we also find a good number of them here in Matthew. There are three in the verses before us today that I want to focus our attention on.

Notice first in verse 20 the miracle of divine communication. As we have already seen, Joseph’s mind was made up. He had determined that the best way to handle his messy situation was to divorce Mary secretly and move on with his life. He had settled the matter in his mind and was well enough at peace with his decision to lay down and go to sleep. We know that he was in a deep sleep, because he had a dream. Dreams primarily occur as we enter into that deep, REM sleep. Dreams are interesting and very difficult to define or analyze. There are many theories about why we dream, what dreams mean, and why some people have more vivid dreams than others. Very few of those theories overlap and agree with each other. But the Bible tells us that something unusual happened in Joseph’s dream. God sent him a message. Now, why should we take this seriously? After all, I don’t take my own dream seriously, so why should I take Joseph’s dream seriously? If you told me that you dreamed I gave you $1,000, I wouldn’t put much stock in your dream. Well, notice how the statement is worded. It does not say here that Joseph dreamed that he saw an angel. But this is not an account of what Joseph did, heard, or saw. It is an account of what the Lord did, and what the Lord showed and spoke to Joseph by this angel. It says that “an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” The subject here is the angel of the Lord. God took the sovereign initiative to dispatch His angel to Joseph to impart a message to him.

In this message, the angel of the Lord told Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” Through this angel, God was relating to Joseph personally, by name, and speaking directly into his current circumstance. He knew Joseph’s situation, his emotions, and his situation, and He addressed those very things in a direct way. He was assuring Joseph of the truth of the situation, and directing him in a very specific way. He was to go through with his plan to take Mary as his wife in marriage, because she had not been unfaithful or untruthful to him. Her story was true, and if he hadn’t taken her word for it, he could take the Lord’s word for it. It was a miracle of divine communication.

The angel speaks here of another miracle: the miracle of divine conception. The angel said, “the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” We refer to it as the virgin birth, but the miracle of it all was the virginal conception. The birth was very normal – after all, Mary did not deliver Jesus through her ear or her navel. He was born in the very natural way that all children are born. But, the miracle was in the conception. She conceived this child apart from relations with any man, solely by the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit who had imparted the child into her womb. That’s a miracle! Not only does this kind of thing not happen every day, it never happened before, and it has never happened since!

Now I want to say a word here about two very common objections to the story of the virgin birth of Jesus. There are some today who believe that miracles are not possible, and that the story of the virgin birth could only be credible to the superstitious, pre-scientific world. It is certainly true that we know far more about biology and genetics today than was known in the first century, but “even the relatively primitive stage of first-century science was sufficiently advanced for people to known that in every other known instance it required a biological father as well as a biological mother to produce a human child.” Thus, the “notion of a virginal conception was no more plausible in first-century Judaism that it is in the [modern] Western world.”[3] After all, it is obvious that Joseph did not believe at first that this was possible, hence his plan to divorce Mary. But we should also note that Mary found this hard to believe as well. In Luke’s Gospel, which focuses on her experience and perspective, when the angel of the Lord tells her that she will conceive in her womb and bear a son,” she says, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:30-37). And we must bear in mind that her account was not penned by a backwoods ignoramus; Luke was a physician (Col. 4:14). So the idea that primitive, unscientific people could believe this story easier than the sophisticated intelligentsia of our own day is simply off base. Even the major players in the story found it hard to believe, and yet even the most well educated kind of person in that day came to believe it by faith as a miracle of God.

There is another notion that the account of the virginal conception was fabricated in order to make the story of Jesus’ birth accord with other supernatural births in well-known pagan mythology. However, if one takes the time to investigate the alleged parallels between the biblical account of the virgin birth of Jesus and the supernatural births in pagan mythology, as J. Gresham Machen did nearly 100 years ago in his book The Virgin Birth of Christ, one discovers that there simply are no parallels! In the few accounts that speak of the virginity of the mother, there is no attempt to explain that she conceived the child while remaining a virgin. In almost all cases, there was a sexual act that occurred between the deity and the woman, which caused the conception (hence these stories are categorized by scholars today as divine rape), and in every case, the liaison was prompted by the perverse lust of the deity for the woman. There are absolutely no similarities between these accounts and what we find in Scripture, nor should we expect there to be. After all, the writings of the New Testament served to a great degree to demonstrate how unique and different Christianity is from the religious beliefs of the surrounding pagan world, and not to demonstrate how similar they were. So this theory is entirely without merit. The fact is that, if the story of the virgin birth of Jesus is not true, there is absolutely no reason why any Christian in the first century would have wanted to invent the story.

So we do not have here a primitive, pre-scientific, or pagan myth. What we have is the account of a miracle of divine conception, unlike anything that ever happened in fact or fiction before or after the birth of Jesus.

Now we come to the greatest miracle of all: the miracle of a divine child. Thus far, we’ve only seen the pregame show, now it is time for the announcement of the main event! The greatest miracle of Christmas is not in God’s speaking through angels. It is not even the virginal conception of the baby. The greatest miracle of Christmas is child Himself, and what that child was coming into the world to do. The angel said to Joseph, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (v21). If it is not already obvious from what has come before, it should obvious from this brief statement that we are not talking about an ordinary child! This child has come to do something that only God can do – rescue humanity from sin.

His name is significant. People name children for all sorts of reasons, some better than others. But the name of Jesus was not selected by Joseph and Mary. This name was chosen by God. The name “Jesus” means, “YHWH is salvation,” or “The Lord saves.” The people of God had long awaited a Savior, but there were varying opinions about what He would come to save them from. The word “save” can refer to deliverance from any number of troubles and afflictions, and God is faithful to save and deliver from a wide range of hardships. “He gives food to the hungry, He heals the sick, He comforts the brokenhearted. Many hoped the Messiah would save Israel from its Roman oppressors. But the angel declares God’s agenda. Jesus will not save his people from physical enemies; “He will save his people from their sins.”[4] He will reconcile humanity to God, overcoming the gulf of sin that separates us from Him. He will do this by living the life that none of us can live – a life of complete sinlessness and perfect righteousness; by dying the death that all of us deserve – under the just judgment and wrath of God being poured out on all of our sins; and by overcoming death forever through His resurrection. He did all of this for us, that in His death, He could be our substitute, bearing our sins under the outpouring of divine judgment; and that the merits of His sinless and righteous life could be imparted to us so that we are made right with God in Him. But you understand that not just anyone could do this for us. Only Jesus, because He is uniquely capable of being the mediator between God and man, for He is the divine God-man. In Jesus Christ, the eternal God became a man to save us from our sins.

But notice here that there is a qualification on this salvation. He will save His people from their sins. The Gospel is the good news that Christ has come to save sinners. Only those who are willing to confess that they are indeed sinners can be saved. I had to come before Christ and ask Him to save me, not from what others had done to me, but from what I had done to Him, in rebelling against God from the moment I was born. It is only those who acknowledge their sins before God, and turn in faith to Christ as Lord and Savior who become His people, and who are therefore saved. Have you turned in faith to God in Christ, acknowledging your sin and asking Him to save you? If so, you have become one of His own, and you have been saved from your sins. If you are His own, then you have the assurance that He will never leave you nor forsake you (Heb 13:5), and that He will complete what He has begun in you (Php 1:6), because He knows those who are His (2 Tim 2:19).

This is the greatest miracle of Christmas: the miracle of the divine child, Jesus Christ, God-in-human-flesh, who has come into the world to save us from our sins. Is your life a mess? Our great and gracious God specializes in messes. He intervened into the midst of a great mess on that first Christmas to bring about an even greater miracle. And He can intervene into the mess of your life, and even the mess of your Christmas, to draw your focus to the miracle of salvation which is found in the name of Jesus Christ, and in no other name. In the midst of whatever mess you find yourself in – whether it is the mess of a sinful life, the mess of a complicated relationship, a scandalous scenario, or even the mess of a hectic holiday – you can turn to Him and ask Him to draw you into the miracle of Christmas: that Christ has come to save us, to make us His own, and to unite us to Himself for all eternity.

[1];; Accessed December 10, 2014.
[2] John MacArthur, God With Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 57-58.
[3] Craig L. Blomberg, Matthew (New American Commentary, vol. 22; Nashville: Braodman, 1992), 58.
[4] Daniel Doriani, “The Origin of Jesus, Our Immanuel,” in The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary; Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2008), 26.

Monday, December 01, 2014

The Family Tree of Jesus (Matthew 1:1-17)

Today marks the beginning of Advent, and with Thanksgiving just behind us, we know that Christmas is going to be here before we know it. For some, it is, as the old song says, “the most wonderful time of the year.” For others, it is a time of unparalleled stress and anxiety. For some the anxiety of the season is alleviated by the joys of spending time together with their family. For others, it is that time together with the family that is the cause of all the stress and anxiety. Do you come from a mixed-up, messed-up family? I will let you in on a little secret: most of us do! So, rather than feeling like you have to hide that fact or be ashamed of it, you can just be honest about it and know that plenty of other folks around you can relate to you. My daughter showed me a little pin in a shop while we were on vacation that featured the lovable Disney chipmunks Chip & Dale, which said, “Our family tree is full of nuts.” Is yours? Well if so, a simple glimpse into the family tree of Jesus might be all the encouragement you need to know that God specializes in using mixed-up, messed-up families to accomplish His work.

Usually, a writer wants to grab the attention of his readers right off the bat with something catchy, unique, and interesting. Matthew opens with … a genealogy. Yes, friends, here we have one of the infamous long lists of names that occur sporadically throughout the Bible. These are the passages people come to in their reading and say, “OK, this is just a bunch of names,” and then they skip over them. But we must remember two things before we just skip over sections like these. First, remember that, according to 2 Timothy 3:16, “All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable.” This passage, therefore, comes to us not from the pen of a human writer who doesn’t know how to properly arrest our attention from the get-go, but rather from God the Holy Spirit, who has literally breathed these words into print through the use a human author. And, the Holy Spirit has given us this and every other passage of the Bible for our benefit and profit. There is something here that can teach us, that can reprove us, that can correct us, and that can train us in righteousness. Second, we must remember that our greatest hope for eternity rests in the fact that God relates to every member of the human race on an individual basis, and that He is even fond of recording their names in books. The Bible tells us that He has a book called the Book of Life, and only those whose names are recorded therein shall enter into the eternal heavenly city. So, when you come upon a list of names in God’s book, be encouraged, and seek the assurance through saving faith in the Lord Jesus that your name is also recorded in God’s book as well.

Now, as we look here at Jesus’ “family tree” if you will, there are many interesting features I’d love to point out. I am limited by time to focus on three today. Let’s think of them as the roots, the branches and the leaves of Jesus’ family tree.

I. The roots of Jesus family tree run deep into the soil of biblical prophecy.

Have you ever done any serious research into your family tree? For some it is a hobby, but for others it is much more than that. In ancient Israel, establishing one’s lineage was essential for a number of reasons. One’s genealogy could make a difference in a real estate transaction, the inheritance one received, and even how one was taxed. Genealogies also determined who was qualified to serve as priests or kings.

Matthew begins this genealogy, and indeed his entire Gospel, by asserting that Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” These three titles are all interconnected. Many have come claiming to be the Messiah. But in order for one to really be God’s anointed Messiah, the Savior who was promised to come and deliver God’s people from bondage to sin, He must be both a descendant of Abraham and a descendant of David. It becomes apparent that Matthew is intent on establishing the link between Jesus, David, and Abraham. David and Abraham had one significant thing in common: upon both of these men, God had bestowed a promise that would affect the entire human race, and in each case, the promise was to find its fulfillment in a son who was to be born.

God promised that He would make Abraham to be a blessing and said to him, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:1-3). God clarified that promise later to Abraham, saying, “In your seed all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 22:18). So, the promise is that God will touch the entire human race across the planet through the life and work of one particular descendant of Abraham.

To David, something similar was promised in 2 Samuel 7. There, as David desired to build a temple for the Lord, God’s answer came to him. David would not be allowed to build the Lord a temple, but the Lord would establish a house for David (v11). God said that upon David’s death, a descendant would come who would build a house for the name of the Lord, and the Lord would establish His kingdom forever (vv12-13). Thus, through his promised descendant, David’s house, his kingdom, and his throne would be established forever (v16). When David heard these words, he said, “Who am I, O Lord God, and what is my house, that You have brought me this far? And yet this was insignificant in Your eyes, O Lord God, for You have spoken also of the house of Your servant concerning the distant future.” And then David said something that English Bible translators have still not found a way to do justice with the Hebrew. David said, “And this is the (in Hebrew) torat ha adam, O Lord God.” What does that phrase mean? Well, torat is a derivative of torah – it means “law or contract.” The word adam – that’s the word we translate as the name Adam, but it also means “mankind” in general. So, what David is saying here as he responds to the promise of the Lord is, “This is the contract that You are making with the entire human race, O Lord God.” This son of David who is to come and reign forever will be king over all kings, and will reign over all nations.

Abraham had many sons, and so did David. But one after the other, each one managed to uniquely prove themselves to not be the expected son through a wide range of disappointments. But, God had determined from eternity past how He would send the promised Son into the world. “When the fullness of time came,” the Bible says, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal 4:4). The promised son of David and son of Abraham was also to be the Son of God and the uniquely born son of a woman. Unlike anyone ever born in the history of humanity, God sent His Son into the world as a descendant of Abraham and a descendant of David, yet without a human father. He was born of a virgin. And this also represents the fulfillment of a great biblical prophecy. In Genesis 3, immediately after humanity was plunged under the curse of sin by Adam’s disobedience, God promised that a Redeemer would come as “the seed of woman” (Gen 3:15). And Matthew’s genealogy recognizes this in a very interesting way. Notice in verse 16 how he brings the line down to Jesus. After listing one link between father and son after another, he has finally come to Joseph. But rather than saying that Joseph begat Jesus or was the father of Jesus, he says, for the first time in the genealogy, that Joseph was the husband of Mary, by whom Jesus was born. He is clear that Joseph was not the father of Jesus, but Mary was His mother – the virgin through whom God brought the promised Son into the world.

There is one additional significant prophecy that the family tree highlights here as well. It concerns a man named in verse 11: Jeconiah. This king was the last of David’s descendants to occupy the throne in Judah before the Babylonian captivity. Because Jeconiah continued in the evil ways of his father and the evil kings who had reigned before them, God declared that Jeconiah would never have a descendant to reign upon the throne of David. In Jeconiah, the line of kings that began with David and extended through Solomon and his descendants came to an end. But almost immediately after that prophecy concerning Jeconiah in Jeremiah 22, there is another in Jeremiah 23 which says that God will send a Messiah who is the Righteous Branch of David. So, the line which extended from David through Solomon has come to an end in Jeconiah, but there will be a new line from David that will produce the Messiah. After all, God had promised in Isaiah 7:14 that He would not forsake the house of David, but would send a child into the world through David’s line who would be born of a virgin, and who would be “Immanuel,” which means “God with us” (Isa 7:14). 

Now, notice, Joseph is a descendant of Jeconiah. That means that if Jesus is the biological son of Joseph, then He cannot be the Messiah who will inherit David’s throne forever. But Jesus is not the biological son of Joseph. He is the Son of God, born to the virgin Mary. But how then does He have access to the throne of David if He is not a descendant of David? Well, in fact, He is a descendant of David on His mother’s side. Mary is a descendant of David, not through Solomon and through Jeconiah, but through another of David’s sons, Nathan. How do we know this? We know it from Luke. Much has been made over the differences between the genealogies of Jesus found in Matthew and Luke. But the solution is actually quite simple. Matthew presents Joseph’s lineage, and Luke presents Mary’s. But Luke does not name Mary in the genealogy, he names Joseph. Why? Well, it comes down to sloppy reading on our part and imprecise translation on the part of our English versions. While Luke 3:23 seems to indicate on the surface that Jesus was “as was supposed, the son of Joseph”, and that Joseph was the son of Eli, there is good reason to understand this instead to read that Jesus was supposed by many to have been the son of Joseph, but was in fact a descendant of Eli. And who is Eli? He must be the father of Mary.

So, Matthew’s genealogy, together with that of Luke, shows us that the roots of Jesus’ family tree run deep into the soil of biblical prophecy to prove Him to be the Messiah.
Having examined the roots of Jesus’ family tree, we move to the branches.

II. The branches of Jesus’ family tree reach wide beyond all boundaries and barriers.

We recently had a dead branch cut off of a huge tree in our back yard. That tree stands right in the middle of the yard, but this branch extended out from it all the way across the back property line. Tree branches don’t bother to investigate land plats and survey lines, they just spread out and grow. And the branches on Jesus’ family tree have grown to exceed all boundaries and barriers, as we see here in the genealogy.

Notice how the branches reach wide beyond socio-economic boundaries. This is no list of blue-bloods here. Granted, there are 15 kings on this list, but of many who came before David, and those who came after Zerubbabel, we know very little. We know that some of them were simple peasants and blue-collar kind of folks. Before becoming king, David was just a shepherd as his father before him had been. Joseph was a carpenter. This list includes the rich and the poor, the royal and the peasant, the “Who’s Who” of Jewish history, and the “Who are you” of Jewish history.

Next notice how the branches reach wide beyond the boundaries of gender. In a patriarchal society, usually all that mattered in any discussion of genealogy was the relationship between father and son. Most written genealogies did not even include women. Matthew includes five of them here. Recently one of our college students asked me how I would respond to a statement made by a professor that Christianity had subjugated women throughout history. I can’t exactly repeat my answer here, because of the decorum of the hour. Friends, though you hear this nonsense on a regular basis, you need to know that Christianity almost singlehandedly revolutionized the way that women were treated, valued, and respected in society. And even within the early decades of the church we see that already taking shape in that Matthew is willing to break the customs of the day to include the names of five women in the genealogy of Jesus – something which, by the way, the Gentile writer Luke did not even do in his genealogy. Those five women are Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.
Then notice how the branches of Jesus’ family tree reach wide beyond the bounds of ethnicity. The Hebrew peoples were, and still are, a very ethnically proud people. Consider how Paul says in Philippians 3:5 that he might boast of his heritage before he came to faith in Christ: “circumcised the eighth day, of the nation of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews.” But Jesus’ family tree would be nearly scandalous to most thoroughgoing Hebrews of His day, even if the ethnicity of those represented herein were all that was considered. That scandal is multiplied by the fact that the Gentiles listed are all women. You realize that there is an ancient prayer, still prayed by Orthodox Jews, in which men give thanks to God that they were not born as slaves, as Gentiles or as women. Here in Jesus’ genealogy are several Gentile women! Rahab in verse 5 was a Canaanite – one of the idol-worshiping people that God had determined for Israel to supplant and eradicate as they repossessed the land of promise. Ruth was a Moabite. Moabites were particularly despised as a people because their origins were in the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughters. The Jewish law prohibited Moabites from entering the assembly of worship to the 10th generation (Dt 23:3). Bathsheba was most likely a Hittite, since that was the ethnicity of her husband Uriah.
As these branches of Jesus’ family tree reach wide beyond all these boundaries, there is a comfort and encouragement to be found. You may believe, for some reason or another, that Jesus cannot relate or identify with you. Friends, the genealogy of Jesus shows us that no matter who you are – male or female, rich or poor, or wherever you are from, the Lord Jesus can and does relate to you and identify with you. God’s promise to Abraham was that his seed would bless all the peoples of the earth. We see how God was preparing the world for the coming of Jesus, and preparing Jesus for the redemption of the world. And that brings us to the final feature of Jesus’ family tree. The roots run deep, the branches reach wide, and …

III. The leaves of Jesus’ family tree fall down upon the righteous and the sinful.
My next door neighbor doesn’t have many trees in his yard. What few were there, he cut down as soon as he moved in a few years ago. But, he has a yard full of leaves. There are trees in every yard around his, so he gets his share of raking duties every fall, even though not a single leaf that falls in his yard comes from his own trees. I feel kind of bad for the guy, and that’s one reason I try to keep my leaves under control. I have lots of trees, therefore I have lots of leaves. But in our neighborhood, everybody gets leaves. No one is disqualified from the “blessing” of spending every weekend in the yard with a rake and a blower, even those who don’t deserve it.
There is this notion that many people have that they are “not good enough” to come to Jesus. Friends, there is a sense in which none of us are good enough to come to Him. That is why He came to us. He came to save sinners. The fact that you are a sinner does not disqualify you from God’s grace in Jesus Christ; in fact, it qualifies you to be a recipient of that grace. If you weren’t a sinner, you wouldn’t need grace and wouldn’t need saving. But we are all sinners – even the best of us – and Jesus has come to save us from our sins.

Look at the line of people whom God used to bring Jesus into the world. Some of these folks belong in the Hall of Fame of godly people; others belong in the Hall of Shame of worldly people. But all of them were sinners in need of grace. Abraham and David are the pillars of Hebrew history, but both were deeply morally flawed men. About half of the kings named were men of faith, but nearly all of them made terrible judgments in their personal lives and as leaders. The other half of the kings listed were desperately wicked.

And then there are the women. Friends, it is not just that Matthew included women, three of whom were Gentile, but it was the scandalous nature of some of these women that would really raise the eyebrow of the original readers of this genealogy. Tamar’s story is recorded in Genesis 38. It is rated R. Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute, seduced her father-in-law, and became pregnant with twins, one of whom is Perez, the ancestor of the Lord Jesus listed here. As John MacArthur writes of her, “Don’t bother looking for her redeeming virtues. … Scripture records no happy ending to her life.”[1] Then there is that Canaanite woman Rahab. All of Scripture refers to her as “Rahab the harlot.” Even when she is mentioned twice in the New Testament as a model of genuine faith, she is nonetheless referred to as a harlot. The most noble thing she ever did was to tell a lie. And yet God saw fit to include her in the family tree of Jesus as the great-great-grandmother of King David. Then there is Ruth. Though not guilty of a scandalous sin, so far as we know, she was of a despised line that was rooted in a drunken act of incest. She was a convert and a believer in the true and living God, and was rescued from the poverty and shame of her widowhood and childlessness by Boaz, the son of a prostitute. And then there was Bathsheba. The sin is not hidden here even in the genealogy: “David was the father of Solomon by Bathsheba who had been the wife of Uriah.” Everyone is familiar with how David seduced Uriah’s wife into an adulterous liaison, and after a failed attempt to cover up his shameful deed, he resorted to murder of Uriah, who had been one of his most faithful and loyal soldiers.

Friends, you may think, “God would want nothing to do with me! He can’t save me. He can’t use me. In my past there is great sin!” Friends, there is probably no sin you could commit or imagine that was not represented in the very individuals whom God used to bring His Son into the world. What have you done, or what have any in your family done, that is any worse than what these had done? Jesus, the sinless One, identifies with sinners! He came from sinners, and He came for sinners. No matter who you are or what you have done – you are not so good that you do not need Him, and not so bad that He cannot reach you. He can save you from your sin and use you in His family tree even as He has used these.

The family tree of Jesus has roots that run deep in the soil of biblical prophecy. It has branches that reach wide across all boundaries and barriers. And it has leaves that fall upon the righteous and the sinful. And that family tree is still growing. In Matthew 12, Jesus pointed to those who trust in Him by faith and said, “Behold My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother” (Matt 12:49-50). Have you come into this family by faith in the Lord Jesus? God has promised to adopt as sons and daughters all those who receive Him. This Christmas season, we celebrate that God has come to dwell among us. He has come through the mixed up, messed up family tree that we read about here. What a wonderful time of the year to tell others that no matter who they are, where they are from, or what they have done, the promised Messiah Jesus can save them and set them free from their sins. He was born to do just that.

[1] John MacArthur, God With Us (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1989), 31. 

Monday, October 27, 2014

A New Commandment (John 13:31-38)


Sometimes when things are “new,” they aren’t really “new.” Someone recently asked me if I had heard about the “new” professional basketball team coming to North Carolina this year: the Charlotte Hornets. Of course, most of us know that this is not really a “new” team, or a “new” name. This was the name of Charlotte’s NBA team when it came into the league in 1988. Then that team moved to New Orleans in 2002, and two years later, the Charlotte Bobcats came into the league. But this year, it’s a new team: the Charlotte Hornets. But it isn’t really a new team at all. It is the same old team as the Bobcats, and the name is the same old name of the team now known as the New Orleans Pelicans. So, it is not new as in “brand-new”, but it is new as in “renewed.” They have a new logo, they’ll have some new players, and hopefully a better record, but otherwise, you know, it’s the same old team it used to be.

In our text today, Jesus gives His disciples a “new commandment.” The new commandment is to “love one another.” Now, this is not a new commandment as in “brand new.” It is actually an old commandment. In Leviticus 19:18, God had commanded His people to “love your neighbor as yourself.” In Mark 12:31, Jesus said that this was the second greatest commandment, second in importance only to the command to love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.

So, in what sense could this commandment that Jesus gave the disciples in the Upper Room be called “new”? Well, there are new features to it. There’s a new focus. The command is for Christians to love one another. But are we not supposed to love all people? Jesus said that we were even to love our enemies (Mt 5:44), did He not? Well, the point here is not that we are to love others less, but to love our brothers and sisters in Christ even more. The love we have for each other in the Body of Christ is being drawn up to a higher standard than that which the world recognizes as “love.” We are to love our neighbors “as ourselves.” But we are to love one another in Christ with a new, and even higher standard, as Jesus says, “as I have loved you.” The love of Jesus for the special objects of His redemption far surpasses the love that we have for others, or even for ourselves. His love for those whom He has redeemed was a self-giving, sacrificial love that led Him to lay down His life for us. And this new standard is how we are to love one another in the family of God. As Kostenberger writes, “This rule of self-sacrificial, self-giving, selfless love, a unique quality of love inspired by Jesus’ own love for the disciples, will serve as the foundational ethic for the new messianic community,” the Church of Jesus Christ.[1]

The kind of love that Christ has for us, and with which we have been called to love one another, is nowhere expressed in more clear and specific terms than in 1 Corinthians 13, the passage which was read at the beginning of the service today. This passage is often assumed to relate to the kind of romantic love that may exist between a man and a woman, but that is not the context of the passage. First Corinthians 13 is sandwiched between the longest and most practical teaching on the exercise of spiritual gifts in the ministry of the Church that is found anywhere in Scripture. Paul’s point in 1 Corinthians 13 is that, whatever our spiritual gifts may be, what matters most is that we exercise those gifts in the kind of sacrificial, selfless love that Christ Himself has lavished upon us. So, what is this love like? It is patient, kind, not jealous or arrogant, it does not act unbecomingly, does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not keep a record of wrongs, rejoices in truth, not in unrighteousness, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things. This is how we are to love one another within the Church of Jesus Christ. This is the new command: we are to love one another as Christ has loved us. The command is simple enough for a child to memorize, but so profound that even the most spiritually mature Christian cannot help confessing how far short we fall of the standard.

So, there is a new focus and a new standard, and hence this is rightly called “a new commandment,” or in Latin, mandatum novum. Maybe you’ve attended a “Maundy Thursday” service before on the Thursday before Easter. That word “Maundy” comes from this Latin word mandatum, and that service commemorates Jesus’ gathering with His disciples here in the Upper Room where He gave this new commandment. Today, we want to focus on the commandment and several aspects of it that are found in our text today. As we do, my prayer is that we will find our love for one another in the Church of Jesus Christ being drawn up to this higher plane where we love each other even as Christ has loved us.

I. The reason for the new commandment: Christ has been glorified (vv31-32).

Throughout all human history, God has been relentlessly working to make His own glory known in the universe. In nearly everything we pray for, we ask (or else we should ask) for God to bring glory to Himself through the circumstances. So, if you were to consider the entire sweep of history and ask, “When and where was God the most glorified?”, what would the answer be? Would it be at Creation, when God spoke the universe into existence by the Word of His power and declared it to be “very good”? Would it be the Exodus, when God brought His people out of bondage through a series of monumental miracles, including the parting of the Red Sea, and the utter defeat of the world’s most powerful nation at that time? Would it be at the first Christmas when the Lord Jesus came into the world and was worshiped by angels in the heavenly places? Surely God was glorified in all these things, and countless more. But the point in space and time in which God was most supremely glorified was in the death, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ. We often consider these things as three separate events, but it is right in some situations to consider them as a whole. Christ’s death is meaningless apart from the resurrection and ascension, and His resurrection and ascension are predicated upon His suffering and death. They are inseparably bound as one significant event – the event through which God was most glorified, and in which He most glorified His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ.

In verse 31 Jesus begins to speak following the departure of Judas Iscariot. Judas is the “he” of verse 31 when it says, “when he had gone out.” Out he went, into the darkness of the night, to betray the Lord into the hands of His killers. And as he departed, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in Him.” Now that the wheels of His suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension have been finally set in motion, all of human history past, present, and future, flows together in this dramatic display of the glory of God-in-Christ. They do not have to wait an indeterminate amount of time to behold the glory of God in these events. He says, “If God is glorified in Him, God will also glorify Him in Himself, and will glorify Him immediately.” It is as if Jesus says, “The events you are about to behold are astonishingly glorious!”

It didn’t seem that way at first did it? Being betrayed and abused? Being slandered and shamed? Being mutilated and murdered? Doesn’t seem glorious, does it? But it is glorious, because this is the provision God is making to rescue His creation from the curse of sin. Here every promise God ever made is coming to pass in some sense, including the very first promise of redemption: the seed of woman is crushing the head of the serpent. Here sin is receiving the full outpouring of wrath it deserves; here death is being dealt a fatal blow; here the victory and vindication of God-in-Christ is manifested through the bloody cross, the empty tomb, and the heavenly ascension of Jesus.

And this is the reason for the new commandment for us to love one another. It is only in this glorification of Christ in His death, resurrection, and ascension, that we see perfect love exemplified. Here is the breadth, the length, the height, and the depth of divine love. Romans 5:8 says it: “God demonstrated His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Earlier in John’s Gospel, in John 3:16, Jesus said, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” Elsewhere, in his First Epistle, John will write, “By this the love of God was manifested in us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world so that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:9-10). The word propitiation means “to turn away wrath.” Because God loved us, He sent His Son to turn away the wrath that our sins deserve. He diverted that wrath upon Jesus in our place, so that as Jesus was dying, He cried out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” He was bearing the full outpouring of divine wrath in our place, and became our propitiation, because He loves us.

 In that First Epistle, once John explains that this “is” love, he says, “Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another” (1 Jn 4:11). It seems that John was paying attention in the Upper Room! That is exactly what Jesus was saying. He was saying, “This is how I have loved you, and it is how you are to love one another.” It is only as Jesus is glorified in His cross, His resurrection, and His ascension that perfect divine love is exemplified. But, we must also say that it is only as Jesus is glorified through His death, resurrection, and ascension, that we are enabled to love one another in this way. In Jesus’ departure from this world, He promised His disciples that He was not leaving them alone, but sending His Spirit to live within them. And beloved, it is only as we are indwelt and empowered by the Holy Spirit that we can love one another in a way that reflects the love of Jesus Christ. It is a love that is entirely unnatural, and wholly supernatural. It requires supernatural enablement to live out this kind of love, and this is why Christ has given us His Spirit – to enable us to live in obedience to His commandments, including this new commandment to love one another as He has loved us.

So, the first aspect of this new commandment that we have considered here is its reason. We are to love one another because Christ has been glorified through His death, resurrection and ascension. Only this glorification of the Lord Jesus exemplifies His love for us, and only this glorification of the Lord Jesus enables our love for one another. Now, let’s consider the second aspect of this new commandment.

II. The Realm of the New Commandment – Christ’s followers are to love one another here and now (v33).     

There’s a little saying that you may have heard – “To live above with the saints we love, Oh! That will be glory. But to live below with the saints we know, well, that’s another story.” Most of us could kind of resonate with that. We’ve found out that life together with others, even with other Christians in the church, can be like putting a bunch of porcupines in a small cage. Someone is going to get stuck! And so we may be tempted to think that this unconditional Christlike love for one another is impossible in the here and now. Surely we must have to wait for heaven, when we are all perfected, to give and receive this kind of love to our brothers and sisters in Christ, right? Well, in fact, no. This kind of Christlike love is what we have been called to exercise in these days, here in this world, in this church, as we wait for the hope of heaven to be fully realized.

In verse 33, Jesus explains to the disciples that He will only be with them a little while longer. “You will seek Me,” He says, but “where I am going, you cannot come.” He had said the same thing to the unbelieving Jews earlier, in John 7 and 8. But there is a difference in what He said to those, and what He says here to His own. He had told the unbelievers, “You will seek Me, and will not find Me.” He said to them, “You will seek Me, and will die in your sin.” But He does not say these things to His own. To them He says merely, “You will seek Me, but you can’t come where I am going,” and the implication is at least, “not now,” or “not yet.” So, we understand that Jesus is saying He is ascending back to heaven, from whence He came, while His followers remain earthbound for now. Have you ever wished you could just go immediately to heaven as soon as you become a Christian? It sure would eliminate a lot of suffering, wouldn’t it? But, it would also mean that the Lord’s work would have no one to carry it on here on earth. And part of that work involves Christians loving one another as Christ loves us. That’s why the very next words out of Jesus’ mouth are the new commandment. It is as if He is saying, “I’m going away, and you are staying here for now, and while you wait here and now, love one another as I loved you.”

Now, if we are going to love one another here and now like Christ loves us, then several things are going to be invariably true. We are talking about imperfect Christians imperfectly loving other imperfect Christians in an imperfect world. That means we are going to get our hearts broken. A lot! We are going to have to love people who try to make us not love them. We are going to have to love people who are going through some unspeakably difficult times. And there are going to be times when we are hard to love as well. But this is the realm of the new command, the laboratory of love if you will. The time is now, and the place is here, for Christians to love one another as Christ loves us. There are things we do now that we will not do in heaven, and things we will do in heaven that we cannot do here. But loving one another is a project that is to begin now, and never end for believers in Christ.

I want to just quickly point out how John took this to heart. Notice in verse 33, Jesus addresses the disciples with tender affection, calling them “little children.” That’s supposed to be endearing, not condescending. It is the only time the Greek word is used in John’s Gospel. But John was so moved by Jesus’ tender love for His own, that seven times in his first Epistle, he refers to his fellow Christians with this same expression. He is mirroring the love of Jesus as he relates to them. And he is doing it here and now. And we must love one another here and now as well.

So, our first aspect of the new commandment was the reason (Christ has been glorified); the second aspect was the realm (here and now). So, we come to the third and final aspect here, and that is …

III. The result of the new commandment: When Christians love one another, they show Christ to one another and to the world. (vv 35-38).

Christians often adopt a kind of symbol to identify themselves as followers of Christ. Maybe it’s a cross on a necklace, a cross on a lapel pin, an ICHTHYS fish on the back of the car, or any number of other things. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with any of these, and in fact, these or other such symbols could open the door for witnessing opportunities if one is intentional about seeking them. However, we also know that none of these things prove that the person is a Christian. A non-Christian can just as easily buy  a necklace pendant, a lapel pin, or a car emblem as a Christian can. But Jesus gave His followers one certain identifier that would mark them out in the world. We find it in verse 35: “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” As Francis Schaeffer wrote, “This passage reveals the mark that Jesus gives to label a Christian not just in one era or in one locality but at all times and all places until Jesus returns.”[2]

Amazingly, Jesus says that when Christians love each other, it is proof to the world that we are His followers, and a powerful defense of the truth of the Gospel. As we love each other in here, in the family of God which is the Church, we are showing Christ to the world out there. The third-century Christian leader, Tertullian, said that the deeds of a love so noble, as the Christians of his day had toward one another, had led the unbelievers to “put a brand upon us. See, they say, how they love one another.” He said that the unbelievers marveled that these Christians were “ready even to die for one another.”[3] That is what the pagans were saying about the church in that day. What do they say of the church today? The report is not good, brethren! As we look at our internal relations, it is no wonder! As this love is found lacking in the church, so will wane the influence of the church for Christ in the world!

Schaeffer writes that Jesus here gives “a right to the world. Upon his authority he gives the world the right to judge whether you and I are born-again Christians on the basis of our observable love toward all Christians. … [I]f people come up to us and cast into our teeth the judgment that we are not Christians because we have not shown love toward other Christians, we must understand that they are only exercising a prerogative which Jesus gave them.”[4] Friends in this day and age when the culture’s perception of the church of Jesus Christ and of Christ Himself is going, frankly, down the drain, can we not rise up to the challenge of our day and show the genuineness of our faith and the credibility of the Gospel by loving one another in the way that Jesus has commanded us? As we do, we show Christ to the world.

But then, also, as we love one another in this way that Christ commands, we show Him to one another within the church. Let’s look at Peter here in the final three verses of the chapter. Jesus has barely gotten the words of the new commandment out of His mouth, when Peter says, “Lord, where are you going?” And when Jesus tells him that he cannot follow, but will later, Peter replies, “Lord, why can I not follow you right now? I will lay down my life for you.” Now I want you to notice something very important here. Jesus has commanded His disciples to love one another because He is leaving them. But Peter is more interested in going away with Jesus than he is in obeying the command and loving his fellow disciples. Now, we say, “Well, isn’t it a good thing to want to be with Jesus?” Sure, it is, but not in disregard or disobedience to the Lord’s command. He said, “You stay here and love each other,” and Peter says essentially, “No, I don’t wanna do that, I just want to have my own private thing going on with you.” Now, here is a danger my friends that will tempt every one of us at some point or another and has swallowed multitudes over the history of the Church. We will be tempted to turn our back on the church and pursue a private, individualized relationship with Jesus, assuring ourselves all the while, “I don’t need those other folks anyway. I have Jesus and He is enough.” Friends, there is no doubt that if Jesus was all you had, He would indeed be more than enough, but the New Testament repeatedly warns us that a faith in Him that does not engender a love for one’s fellow believers is at best shallow, and often counterfeit. In John’s First Epistle, one of the assurances we find that we are followers of Christ is our love for the brethren.

Now, it is really hard to find fault with Peter here, because we can actually resonate with him so often. We do sometimes just long to be with Jesus and to leave this broken, fallen world behind. But here is the thing, if you want to be where Jesus is now, start by loving one another, because in a very real sense, He lives in all His people in the person of the Holy Spirit. And if you want to lay down your life for Him, as Peter says he is willing to do here, then you can do no better than laying it down in love for one another. You say, “Jesus I would die for you!” He says, “Will you love your brother or sister in Christ?” And we will so often say, “Well, now, seriously! I would die for you!” And just like Peter, if we are unwilling to die to ourselves in love for one another, we are in no way willing to lay down our lives for Him in death. Peter is all talk here, but when the rooster begins crowing, we will see the mettle of his commitment proven. He will deny the Lord three times.

Here’s the thing. We should all want to depart and be with Christ. In Philippians 1, Paul said that was “far better.” But love for one another in the church only further stimulates the hope we have of heaven. It does this in two ways. First of all, when it is done well, our love for one another is like a sneak preview of what eternity in heaven will be like. Second, when our love for one another malfunctions and we hurt and disappoint one another, that imperfect love only makes us long all the more for the perfections of heaven, where there will be no disappointments and no imperfections in our love for one another. So, our love for one another shows Christ within the church by stimulating our hope for heaven.

Then, our love for one another shows Christ within the church by anchoring us in enduring faith. You see, there isn’t a single one of us who, like Peter, may not in any given circumstance be strongly tempted to deny our faith and deny the Lord Jesus. But as we love one another with the love that Christ has shown to us, we are bearers of the good news to one another that He will never leave us nor forsake us. We remind each other of the love of Christ that exceeds our imperfections and failures. We remind one another that He first loved us, so that we can love Him and each other as a response to Him. And as we love and are loved in this way, we are continually strengthened in our faith in Christ.

So you see that when Christians love each other as Christ loves us, and as He commanded us to do, we are showing forth Christ. We are showing Him to the world, proving the genuineness of our faith and the truth of the Gospel when they behold our love for one another. And we are showing Him to the Church, as our love stimulates our mutual hope for heaven and anchors us in enduring faith. Therefore, as Paul said in 1 Corinthians 13:13, “now faith, hope, love, abide these three; but the greatest of these is love.” Love is the greatest because it is able to produce and strengthen faith and hope. And when we arrive to the portals of glory, faith will pass away and be replaced with sight. Hope will pass away, having been ultimately satisfied with the reality of Christ’s eternal presence. But love will remain, and will be perfected, and will be exercised for all eternity. The Lord Jesus has given us a new commandment, so that His church might begin now to live in the love that we will know for all eternity. This love is showing Jesus to the world and to one another. This love, here and now, manifests the presence of Christ within the hearts of His people, even though He has been glorified through His death, burial, and resurrection. Therefore, “love one another, even as Christ has loved you, you also love one another.” This is the new commandment of Jesus Christ for His people. May we be found in faithful obedience to it.

[1] Andreas Kostenberger, John (Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 423-424.
[2] Francis Schaeffer, The Mark of the Christian (2nd ed.; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2007), 14.
[3] Tertullian, Apology, 39.7. Accessed October 24, 2014.
[4] Schaeffer, 23.