Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Name of The Promise is Jesus - Matt 1:21-22

Audio available here.

Throughout the Bible we find that God’s people have chosen special and meaningful names for their children. That practice continues for many today. Before our children were ever born, God brought us through a difficult season of ministry through a study of the life of David, and we decided then that if God ever gave us a son, we would call him Solomon. As we considered names for Salem, I was in my third semester of Hebrew at Seminary, and having studied the significance of the word Shalom in some detail, we decided to use a derivative of that word for her name. In fact, both Solomon and Salem are derived from that important Hebrew word. Their names became the foundation of our prayers for our children. For Solomon, we have prayed the words of 1 Kings 10:24, “All the earth was seeking the presence of Solomon, to hear his wisdom which God had put in his heart.” And for Salem we have prayed the words of Psalm 76:2, “His tabernacle is in Salem.”

For some parents, the choosing of a name means making lists of choices, consulting books, and endless wrestling with possibilities. But for Joseph and Mary, there was no such process. They were not given the opportunity to choose the name of the child. God Himself chose this child’s name. This is fitting, for in reality, the child’s name was chosen by His true Father. And as with other children in the Bible, this child’s name communicated a divine message from God to humanity. God does not wait for the child to grow up and proclaim the message. The child is the message, and His name bears the message to humanity.

I. The Meaning of His Name

The angel told Joseph, “You shall call His name Jesus.” It was a common name for Jewish children in that day. It is the Greek form of the Hebrew names Joshua and Hosea, two significant Old Testament figures. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus is referred to as Jesus of Nazareth, to disambiguate Him from the many others named Jesus at that time. But this Jesus was not just one among many. In fact, so significant was this Jesus, that shortly after His lifetime, the name ceased to be as popular. Some avoided the name out of reverence for this Jesus, and others out of contempt for Him.

The name means “Yahweh is salvation.” Yahweh is the pronunciation we give to the unpronounceable name of God that was revealed to Moses at the Burning Bush. It is the name that communicates the essence of His nature and the name by which the people of His covenant know Him. Because of the commandment to not take the name of the Lord in vain, pious Hebrew scholars inserted vowels into this name from the more generic word for Lord, Adonai, indicating to them as they come to this name in Scripture to not even utter it out of reverence for the name. The combination of this name with the vowels from Adonai give us the name Jehovah.
In the giving of this name to this child, God was announcing to the world that humanity could be reconciled to God and made right with Him. He was announcing the nature of God, that God is gracious and loving, and mighty to save. This is His nature. This is why it so serious a matter to take His name in vain and associate Him only with damning. His nature is to save, because of His mercy and grace. But when His offer of mercy and grace are refused, only then does He condemn, and He does so justly and righteously because He is infinitely holy. But we mustn’t separate His holiness and His mercy, and thereby to fail to understand His nature of reaching out to redeem fallen humanity.

There are people who think of God as a cosmic policeman who is bent on finding all the fun in the world and putting an end to it at once. There are people who think of God only in terms of His judgment, a vengeful being ready to pour out wrath upon human beings. There are those who think that He isn’t there at all, and if He is, we can know nothing about Him. But the meaning of the name Jesus proclaims a message to us about the nature of God: “Yahweh is Salvation.”

II. The Mission of His Name

The angel told Joseph to call the child Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.” This is the reason for calling Him Jesus. His name signifies His mission. His name means “salvation” because that is why He came – to save us from sin. From the earliest pages of Scripture when man first fell into sin in the Garden of Eden, God had promised to send a redeemer to bring salvation. In Genesis 3:15, He promised to bring forth one born of a woman who would crush the head of the serpent, indicating that He would destroy the power of Satan that had led humanity into sin. From that point on, the Scriptures reveal more and more about the coming of this Savior, the Messiah. We learn in Genesis 12 that He will be a descendant of Abraham; we learn in 2 Samuel 7 that He will be a descendant of David. We learn in Isaiah 7 that He will be born of a virgin, and in Micah 5 that He will be born in Bethlehem. And in Isaiah 53 we learn that He will bring salvation through His own suffering for the sins of the people. These, and many other Old Testament prophecies, point the way to the first Christmas when Jesus was born. It is as if the shadow of the cross loomed over the manger where He lay. Here was the one who would live the sinless life that completely satisfied the holy and righteous will of God. Here was the one who would be crucified, though He did not deserve it, that our sins might be punished in Him. He became our substitute in death, that we might be forgiven and who conquered death for us that we might be made righteous in Him and receive eternal life. Here was the one who would save us.

The salvation that Jesus has come to bring us is sufficient for all of humanity, but all of humanity will not receive it. Jesus has come, not to save all people, but to save His people, from their sins. Who are His people? His people are those who will come to Him in faith and trust and believe upon Him to save them. These are they who recognize that they are indeed sinners in need of a Savior, and who come to Him for that salvation. It may be very bad news to say that you are a sinner, but it is the best news of all to say that Jesus came to save just that sort of person. Not everyone is willing to admit that he or she is a sinner in need of saving. Now, just because they don’t admit it doesn’t mean that it isn’t true. The Bible tells us that all human beings are born in a state of sinfulness, and human nature bears out the truth of it. Those who refuse to admit that they are sinners will seek neither Jesus nor His salvation and if they do not find salvation in Him, there is none elsewhere to be found.

The baby in the manger came into this world on a rescue mission. His name signifies that mission. His name means salvation, and through His life, death, and resurrection, He has come to provide it for sinners who turn to Him in repentance and in faith.

III. The Mystery of His Name

So far, we have said that the meaning of the name “Jesus” is “Yahweh is salvation.” And we have said that the reason He was given this name was that He would save His people from their sins. Now, if Yahweh, God, is the one who is salvation, and Jesus has come to save us, then who must Jesus be? Matthew tells us here, “Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL, which translated means, ‘GOD WITH US.’” The prophet is Isaiah, and the prophecy that is quoted here (in the capital letters) is Isaiah 7:14, spoken over 700 years before the virgin Mary gave birth to Jesus in Bethlehem.

You see, our state of sinfulness is so great, that it requires God Himself to act on our behalf to save us. And He has done so. Here in the person of Jesus, God has come to dwell among His people in the flesh. He is “God with us,” Immanuel. He is not merely a good man, nor even a godly man. Jesus Christ is the God-Man, not half-God and half-man, but fully God, and in the miracle of the incarnation, fully man. God did not merely send a representative to us. He became one of us, so that He might live the life that we cannot live, that He might die the death we deserve, and purchase by His very own blood the salvation that we could never otherwise obtain.

I had a conversation with a Muslim man on one occasion, and he accused me of being an idolater because I worshiped a man as God. I explained my belief that Jesus was not just a man, but that in Him, God became a man. He said, “God cannot do that.” I said, “Can God do anything He wants to do?” He said, “Yes.” I said, “Can he become a man?” He said, “No.” I said, “OK, let’s try this again: Can God do anything He wants to do?” Again he said yes. I said, “Then can God become a man?” And again He said no. This went on and on for some time, and ultimately it came down to the fact that my Muslim friend did not believe that God would ever want to become a man. He could not fathom that an infinitely holy God would ever desire to lower himself to humanity’s level. Why would God want to become a man? The only possible reason is that God loves us, and desires to save us from our sins.

God is holy and righteous and therefore must punish sin. But God is also loving and just and desires to save sinners so that they would not perish eternally. For a human being, this would pose a dilemma. How could we ever resolve the tension of that conundrum? But it is no dilemma for God. His thoughts and ways are infinitely higher than ours. For God, this would-be dilemma is resolved in one action planned out from the beginning. God would become one of us, satisfy His own demands on our behalf, receive our penalty in Himself on our behalf, and conquer death forever on our behalf, and offer the salvation that He has purchased for us to all who will come to Him by faith.

We find ourselves here three days after Christmas, and three days before New Year’s. And in a sense, that is a symbolic position. In reality, we are living between the first coming of Christ into the world, and the New Era that will be ushered in at His second coming. We do not know what 2009 will bring, much less what the time beyond that holds for us. But we know this: Because of what God has done for us in Christmas, we can have a brand new future that is secure and certain in His hands. Our past failures and sins can be put beneath the saving blood of Jesus and each new day offers us a clean start to live for Christ. The question is, before you can get ready for the New that God has in store for us in the coming year and those that will follow it if He prolongs the days, have you received the gift of His salvation? God is salvation. Jesus is God in the flesh who has came to save sinners. And the promise of God is that all sinners who turn to Him in repentance and faith and believe that He died on the cross for your sins and rose again will be forgiven and saved. That is God’s promise. And the name of the promise is Jesus.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Value of Hebrew and Greek to Clergymen

On a recent visit to my Alma Mater, Fruitland Baptist Bible Institute, I picked up from the library discard table a free copy of George Ricker Berry's The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament. In fairness, I should disclose the full title of the work: The Interlinear Literal Translation of the Greek New Testament With the Authorized Version Conveniently Presented in the Margins for Ready Reference and With the Various Readings of the Editions of Elzevir 1624, Griesbach, Lachmann, Tischendorf, Tregelles, Alford, and Wordsworth, To Which Has Been Added A New Greek-English New Testament Lexicon Supplemented by a Chapter Elucidating the Synonyms of the New Testament, With a Complete Index to the Synonyms.

As I began to thumb through this sizeable volume, the first thing to catch my eye after the lengthy title was the valuable article found on the reverse of the title page where one would normally expect to find the copyright information. Indeed, the copyright information is there, on a tiny bottom line reading only, “Copyright, 1897, by Wilcox & Follett Co.” But the overwhelming bulk of the page is devoted to “The Value of Hebrew and Greek to Clergymen,” penned I suppose (but uncertainly) by Berry. The text follows:

The Value of HEBREW and GREEK to Clergymen.

1. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot understand the critical commentaries on the Scriptures, and a commentary that is not critical is of doubtful value.
2. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot satisfy yourself or those who look to you for help as to the changes which you will find in the Revised Old and New Testaments.
3. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot appreciate the critical discussions, now so frequent, relating to the books of the Old and New Testaments.
4. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot be certain, in a single instance, that in your sermon based on a Scripture text, you are presenting the correct teaching of that text.
5. Without some knowledge of Hebrew and Greek, you cannot be an independent student, or a reliable interpreter of the word of God.
6. As much knowledge of Hebrew can be secured, with the same method, under the same circumstances, by the same pupil, in one year, with the aid of the Interlinear Old Testament, as can be gained of Latin in three years. Greek, though somewhat more difficult, may be readily acquired within a brief period with the aid of the Interlinear New Testament (which combines a lexicon) and an elementary Greek grammar.
7. The Hebrew language has, in all, about 7,000 words, and these 1,000 occur in the Old Testament over 25 times each.
8. The Hebrew grammar has but one form for the Relative pronoun in all cases, numbers and genders; but three forms for the Demonstrative pronoun. The possible verbal forms are about 300 as compared with the 1,200 found in Greek. It has practically no declension.
9. Within ten years the average man wastes more time in fruitless reading and indifferent talk, than would be used in acquiring a good working knowledge of Hebrew and Greek that in turn would impart to his teaching that quality of independence and of reliability which so greatly enhances one’s power as a teacher.
10. There is not one minister in ten who might not if he but would, find time and opportunity for such study of Hebrew and Greek as would enable him to make a thoroughly practical use of it in his work as a Bible-preacher and Bible-teacher.

Words of Comfort / Isaiah 40:1-11

Audio here.

One of my favorite Christmas traditions is listening to Handel’s Messiah. In fact, I am so fond of it that I listen to it year ‘round. In fact, I cannot read this passage without hearing in the back of my mind the orchestral sounds of the first four pieces from Messiah. The Minnesota Orchestra is advertising their upcoming performance of Messiah by saying, “The first words you hear in Handel's beloved oratorio are "Comfort ye!"—and in the middle of the hectic holidays, this phrase falls like balm on the soul.” There are many who find themselves in this day and time in need of just such a balm to be applied to their souls. We need to hear words of comfort. The economy is bleak, the political stability of our nation is uncertain, wars and violence mark the global landscape, the rise of crime and the environmental crises create fear, despair, and stress in our lives. Besides all this, the holiday season itself presents a heavy load of strain with all the preparations, the shopping, the gatherings, and the family dysfunction. For some there is sadness over past hurts that are accentuated at the holidays, or the grief that has come upon realizing that death has taken a loved one away from our holiday gatherings. In the midst of all of this, what we need is a message of comfort, to know that there is a God who cares about our pain, our heartache, our stress, and the general state of affairs in our lives and in the world, and that He will speak and act. We have just such a message in these words.

Isaiah the Prophet was God’s spokesman to the Southern Kingdom of Judah during the latter half of the 700s BC. Throughout that time, the Assyrians repeatedly attempted to invade and conquer the Northern Kingdom of Israel and the Southern Kingdom of Judah. Because of the wickedness and idolatry of the kings and people in the Northern Kingdom, God allowed them to be defeated by the Assyrians in 722 BC. This gave rise to even greater fears that the Southern Kingdom would be next. When the righteous king Hezekiah came to the throne in Judah around 716, he instituted many legal and spiritual reforms. He repaired and cleansed the Temple and called the nation to return to faithfulness to God.

Around 704, Hezekiah contracted an illness that threatened to end his life. The story of his sickness can be found in Isaiah 38. But Hezekiah turned to the Lord in prayer, and God answered and healed him. God promised to add 15 years to Hezekiah’s life. But God also declared that He would deliver the people of Judah from the threat of the Assyrians. However, it was not long after this that Hezekiah was tempted to turn away from simply trusting the Lord for protection. He entered into an alliance with the king of Babylon to take up arms together against Assyria. Isaiah learned of this and told Hezekiah that because of this, the Lord has declared that the people and all the possessions of the land will be taken away to Babylon (39:5-7). And in saying this, of course, Isaiah was clearly prophesying the Babylonian captivity that would eventually befall Judah.

Understandably, the realization that the nation faces certain destruction and deportation produced despair among the people. But immediately following the promise of judgment comes this message of comfort that we have read today. The judgment must and will come because of the unfaithfulness of the king and his people, but God says to the people that He is still “your God” He says in 40:1, and He still calls them “My people.” And speaking to them as if they are already in the captivity, for it is now fixed in His providence, God speaks comfort to the nation through His prophet. He says to the prophet, “Comfort, O comfort My people. Speak kindly to (literally, speak to the heart of) Jerusalem.” What are these words of comfort that God would have His prophet speak to His people in the midst of their despair? What are these words that we need to hear today? They are words of promise that began to come to pass as the people of Israel emerged from captivity in Babylon, and which continued to develop through the birth, the life, the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah, and which await ultimate fulfillment in the day of His return when His everlasting Kingdom of righteousness will be fully consummated. What the people of Isaiah’s day looked forward to, we look back upon. What they were called to believe by faith that God would do, we can believe by faith that God has done, and as we do we find the same comfort in these words that they found applied like a balm to our souls.

We see first of all in this message that …

I. We are comforted by words of gracious salvation (v2)

Twice the Lord says to the prophet, “Comfort,” suggesting emotional intensity. But the words with which Isaiah is to comfort them are not his own words. He is to speak to them the word of God. The verb tense of the phrase, “says your God,” indicates that God is repeatedly saying these words of comfort. The prophet is commissioned to speak to the hearts of all who are in Jerusalem these words of comfort concerning God’s gracious salvation. It is as if God is inviting them to receive the love that He desires to mercifully shower on them. Isaiah is ordered to tell Jerusalem that “her warfare has ended.” The word translated warfare here can also mean hard service or duress. This of course refers to the Babylonian captivity which is to come upon them in their future. It has yet to happen, but even before it takes place, God comforts them by telling them that is over. For seventy years, the Israelites will be captive in Babylon, but all the while they will be comforted in knowing that it is not forever. The time of duress will come to an end, for God has declared it.

And Isaiah is also commanded to say to the hearts of those in Jerusalem, “that her iniquity has been removed.” The Babylonian captivity was going to come about because of the sins of the people. God’s patience with the idolatry, unfaithfulness, and disobedience of Judah would reach its limit and the Babylonians would become the tool the Lord would use to discipline them. So, while the captivity would occur because of their sin, God has told them in advance that this iniquity would be removed. The word used here has to do with satisfaction. It tells us in essence that the sins of the people have been paid for and that they payment has been accepted by God as satisfactory. Now, what is interesting about this idea is that this wording is used elsewhere in the Bible only of God’s acceptance of the blood sacrifices in Leviticus. But this sacrifice that Isaiah refers to for the sins of the people is not one that they have provided for themselves, but rather they have received this “of the Lord’s hand.” God has not responded to their sins with the justice they deserve, but has provided “double for all her sins.” They have received a double portion of grace. God has provided the sacrifice, and God has accepted the sacrifice that is the sufficient payment for their sins.

How has God done this? What blood sacrifice does God have in view that is both provided and received by Him? It is none other than the sacrifice of which Isaiah writes in Chapter 53. There we are told of the coming Servant of the Lord who would bear our griefs and carry our sorrows, who would be pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities, chastened for our well-being, and scourged for our healing. Though the prophet says, “All of us like sheep have gone astray,” he also says that, “the LORD has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” Israel would await the coming of this suffering servant who would bear their sins. At this time of the year, we celebrate that He has come into the world, and it was for this purpose that He came – to bear the sins of humanity so that we may be saved from the judgment that our sins deserve. Israel would have been comforted to know that their captivity would not last forever, but would come to an end, and their sins would be paid for by God Himself. And regardless the conflict that we face today, the pain or hardship that we endure, we can be comforted as well by these words of gracious salvation—a salvation we do not deserve, but which God has provided abundantly by His grace for us in the person of Jesus Christ, who came to die for us.

There are more comforting words in this prophecy of Isaiah that we notice as well. In addition to the words of gracious salvation, …

II. We are comforted by words of revealed glory (vv3-5)

In some cultures, before a dignitary visits an outlying region, representatives are sent ahead to make sure that the roads are passable, that obstacles are removed, and that holes in the road are filled so that his travel will be along level ground. Here, Isaiah says that he has heard a voice crying out for just such a way to be prepared for a visitation that is to occur. But this is no earthly dignitary, but the King of Kings, the Lord Himself. “Clear the way for the Lord in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.” And once the way is prepared for His coming, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all flesh will see it together.”
The people of Israel could cling to hope in the midst of hardship knowing that God Himself had promised to manifest Himself in their midst. This would comfort them in the dark days of their captivity, reminding them that the glory of the Lord would be revealed for all nations to see. The Apostle Paul tells us in Galatians 4:4, “In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son.” That expression, “the fullness of time,” indicates that it was the precisely perfect moment in human history and in the timetable of God. All the necessary preparations had been made for the entry of the Messiah into the world. In Jesus Christ, the glory of the Lord is revealed for all humanity to behold. The writer of Hebrews says that Christ is the radiance of God’s glory. In His birth, His life, His teachings, His death on the cross, His resurrection and ascension, the glory of God has been revealed. As the message of Christ goes forth into all the world, all flesh can behold the glory of God through the eye of faith. As Paul says in 2 Cor 4;6, “For God, who said, ‘Light shall shine out of darkness,’ is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” Catch that – where do we find the knowledge of the glory of God? In the face of Christ! When the shepherds came from the field to look upon the babe in the manger, they were beholding the glory of God. When the wise men came later to the house where they dwelt, they knelt before the child in worship, for in Him was the glory of God made manifest. When Jesus was presented at the Temple, the old man Simeon took Him into his arms and cried out to God, “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace,
According to Your word; For my eyes have seen Your salvation, which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” And when He returns, all flesh will behold this glory together, and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

No matter what darkness we face as we live in this fallen world, we can persevere for we know that God has made the brightness of His glory to shine upon us in the face of the Lord Jesus Christ. He has come to dwell among us. He has placed His glory within us in the person of His Spirit, and He is coming again triumphantly to reveal His glory to all humanity. Do you find yourself on difficult days doubting that this is true? Well, there is no need to doubt it, the prophet has told us, “The mouth of the Lord has spoken it!”

And this brings us to the third point …

III. We are comforted by words of eternal truth (vv6-8)

Isaiah hears a voice saying, “Call out!” But the prophet knows not what to call out. And so the voice he hears tells him, “All flesh is grass and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” That word translated as loveliness is sometimes translated goodness or even glory. It is the Hebrew word chesed which is used repeatedly in the OT to express the faithfulness and covenant love of God to His people. Well that sounds pretty good, right? Flowers are pretty. We like flowers. But it is not the beauty of the flower to which God likens the faithfulness or loveliness of humanity. It is another attribute of the flower that God speaks of. “The grass withers, the flower fades when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers and the flower fades.” Yes, flowers, for all their beauty, are only a fleeting beauty. No sooner than they bloom but they begin to wither and fade. So it is with humanity and all the faithfulness that humanity can muster. It looks nice, but it is not lasting. Human beings and their deeds are temporary. We are frail, fallen, flawed, and fickle, like the tender petals of the flower. And just as God gives live by His Spirit, His ruach (the word translated as breath here), so He also brings an end to man’s days. Not many are the days of man upon the earth.

“But wait!”, we say. “I thought these were supposed to be words of comfort. This does not sound very comforting!” Indeed there is nothing we can say about the nature of humanity that is comforting. Comfort is not found in the nature of man, but rather in the nature of God. By His righteous nature, His words are true and trustworthy. Though mankind is fleeting, fading, fickle, frail and failing, the prophet must remind the people that “the word of our God stands forever!” Seventy years of time will elapse during the captivity of Babylon, and another 500 after that, in which Israel will wonder if the promises they have heard will come to pass. But God is not a man that He should lie. His word stands forever, and blessed are those who hold fast to those words patiently and persevere as they await the fulfillment of His Promise. The fact that God has spoken and that His Word stands forever is a great comfort to His people.

In God’s perfect time, not only would His word be fulfilled, His word would become Flesh. We are familiar with those words which open the Gospel According to John: “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.” In the birth of Jesus, all the promises and prophecies of what God would do for His people became incarnate. The hope of redemption, the hope of deliverance, of forgiveness of sin and the hope of salvation emerged from the virgin’s womb to be wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in the manger. As the writer of Hebrews says, God, who had spoken in the past in various ways, had spoken fully and finally to man in the person of Jesus.

As we persevere in the life of faith awaiting Christ’s return, we find ourselves surrounded by those who seek to persuade us to abandon the promises of God to which we cling by faith. Peter writes in 2 Pet 3:4 that mockers will say, “Where is the promise of His coming?” But if we will let our mind venture back to the manger, we will be reminded that God’s word stands forever. In the birth of the Christ of Christmas, we have the full assurance that every promise He has made will come to pass. As Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:10, “For as many as are the promises of God, in Him they are yes; therefore also through Him is our Amen to the glory of God through us.” We are comforted by this message that “the Word of our God stands forever.”

Finally, we look to verses 9-11, and find that, in addition to the comfort that we can have through the words of gracious salvation, the words of revealed glory, the words of eternal truth, …

IV. We are comforted by words of tender care (vv9-11)

In these verses the one who has been commissioned begins to commission others. You who believe God’s comforting words, announce them to others. Get yourself up on a high mountain and tell this good news so that everyone can hear it. Say to them, “Here is your God!” Literally, “Behold” or “Look!” “Here is God!” Though He is coming with a ruling arm, notice also that this same arm will gather those who are His close to His heart as He carries them like a shepherd. He has not born His arm for wrath, but for mercy. Notice the words of tender care in the imagery of this Shepherd. He tends His flock, He gathers His lambs, He carries them in His bosom, He gently leads the nursing ewes.

The imagery of sheep and Shepherd is used throughout the Bible. We are familiar with the tender words of His care found in Psalm 23. We have seen the words of Isaiah 53, “All we like sheep have gone astray.” We know the promise of the Lord Jesus, “I am the Good Shepherd.” We recall that when Jesus miraculously fed the multitude, that He looked upon them with compassion for they were like sheep without a shepherd. This is the state of humanity separated from God, wandering aimlessly through the world following only the destructive instincts of human nature. But Christ has come to gather His sheep in His arms and carry them close to His heart with tender care.

Do you find yourself fearful in this world? Confused, distressed, and in despair? Fear not! Enter into the fold of the Shepherd who loves you, who was born for you, who has laid down His life for the sheep. Look upon the child in Bethlehem’s manger and “Behold your God.” Hear this word of comfort and receive it, and then like the shepherds of Bethlehem, go out glorifying and praising God, go to the mountaintops and shout this message that God has come to us in the person of Jesus that we might be saved. He is coming again, and will bear His arm in judgment as a righteous ruler, but He has come first to bear the arm of a Shepherd. He calls us to come to Him like sheep and receive His mercy, His compassion, and the care of His tender affection.

Comfort, O Comfort My people, says your God. Speak kindly to them. Speak to their hearts. Call out to them. And what shall we call out to them that might comfort them? We point them to the babe in the manger and say “Behold your God!” And we speak words of gracious salvation, revealed glory, eternal truth, and tender care.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Keeping Christ in Christmas (2 John)

Audio available here.

Today marks the first Sunday of Advent, the season of four Sundays prior to Christmas in which Christians reflect on the first coming of Christ into the world, and spiritually prepare ourselves for His second coming. And this being the weekend after Thanksgiving, we find that the thoughts of most of those we know have turned toward the most prominent winter holiday. Most of those whom we know have already put an evergreen tree up in their home, and many have even decked the lawn with twinkling lights and assorted decorations. Friends have begun sending greeting cards and shopping for gifts that they will give to their loved ones. Many radio stations have interrupted their normal programming in exchange for a ‘round the clock fare of seasonal music. The airwaves are filled with songs like, “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire,” “Let it Snow,” “Jingle Bells,” “Walking in a Winter Wonderland,” and “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.” On television, we find holiday favorites like “Miracle on 34th Street,” “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Christmas Story” (the movie about the Red Rider BB Gun), and various adaptations of the Nutcracker. And all of this has how much to do with the miracle of God becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ? Precisely zero percent.

In recent years, there has been an outcry of Christians against the widespread practice of taking Christ out of Christmas. Well meaning Christians have organized boycotts against stores which train their workers to say, “Happy Holidays” or display signs that say, “Seasons’ Greetings,” instead of “Merry Christmas.” Yet in our own lives, we continue to engage in meaningless traditions that are every bit as devoid of Christ as those comparatively mundane gestures. This runs parallel to a similar trend among Christians who lobby to have the Ten Commandments displayed in classrooms and courthouses, when we do not even display them in Christian churches and homes. We are right to seek to keep Christ in Christmas, but we fail to be consistent in even our own practices. If we expect the culture to have a Christ-centered, Christ-saturated winter celebration, then we who are Christ’s followers must lead by example and keep Christ at the center of our Christmas celebrations as well. Does this mean that we should all have life-sized light up nativity scenes in our yards, give gifts of Bibles and cross-necklaces, and wear “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” pins on our lapels all season long? No, I believe that keeping Christ in Christmas is simpler than that.

In Second John, this tiny epistle to which we turn our attention today, the Apostle John gives us two specific admonitions for keeping Christ in Christmas. You see, the de-emphasizing of the Christmas miracle is not a new phenomenon. Within the first century of the Church’s history, a conflict arose within the church against those who sought to deny the miracle of the incarnation. The doctrine of the incarnation is crucial to the Christian faith, for in it we set forth our belief that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, and that He came into the world through the miracle of the virgin birth to save us from our sins. If He was not fully God and fully man, He could not atone for sin in His death on the cross. Apart from the miracle of the incarnation, there is no redemption for humanity, no hope for humanity beyond the grave, no Christianity and no Christmas. But some in the early church began to be influenced by the various philosophies of the surrounding culture and abandoned this belief that God became a man in the person of Jesus. It is these heretics whom John confronts in the letters of First and Second John, calling out their errors and strengthening the church against their false teachings.

Here in 2 John, the Apostle is writing the members of a church in a nearby area. He refers to the church as “The Chosen Lady,” and to the church’s members as “her children.” In keeping with this imagery, he concludes by passing along greetings from “the children of your chosen sister,” that is, members of the church where John is serving as “the elder,” or pastor. We know that John spent many years as the elder of a church in Ephesus. It was likely there that the conflict with these false teachers first arose, and now fearing that they will begin traveling far and wide teaching the same heresies, he writes to warn this neighboring congregation about it. In doing so, he gives two admonitions for continuing to walk in faithfulness to Christ. I believe that in our day, when it seems that the culture wants a Christmas without a Christ, and when so many of our own traditions have so little to do with the person of Jesus, that these admonitions will go far in helping us to keep Christ in Christmas. And they don’t cost a dime and are relatively stress free. Now there’s a Christmas present for us all.

I. Keeping Christ in Christmas Involves Watching Out For Subtle Deceptions (v7)

John reminds the church to which he is writing that there are many who do not acknowledge that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. Now it is interesting to me that he does not say that these have “come in,” as if to suggest that they have attacked the church from the outside. Rather, he says they have “gone out into the world.” As 1 John indicated, these false teachers were originally a part of the church, but they mixed the pure message of Christ with the impurities of worldly philosophies. After causing disruption in the church and leading astray some of the faithful, they departed from the church to spread their errors elsewhere. In 1 John 2:19, he wrote, “They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us; but they went out, so that it would be shown that they all are not of us.”

And then notice that he also says of them that they are deceivers. In teaching this false message that denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, they seek to lead people away from the truth. In so doing, they become agents of him who was the first deceiver, Satan. In the form of the serpent, Satan deceived Eve in the garden, luring her into first doubting, and then disobeying God’s word. Here, John likens them to the ultimate deceiver and even refers to them as “Antichrist.” While we typically reserve that term for the end-time world ruler who will step onto the stage before the second coming of Christ, John has already declared that the spirit of the antichrist is already at work in the world. Before his statement about their going out from us in 1 Jn 2:19, he wrote in 1 Jn 2:18, “Children, it is the last hour; and just as you heard that antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have appeared.” And John went on to write just a few verses later, “Who is the liar but the one who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, the one who denies the Father and the Son.” And then in 1 Jn 4, the apostle exhorts the believers, saying, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world.” And the litmus test that John gives to those Christians as they faced the heresies of their day was this: “every spirit that confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God; and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God; this is the spirit of the antichrist, of which you have heard that it is coming, and now it is already in the world.” So, by denying that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh, these deceivers have put themselves in league with Satan, and have become forerunners to the antichrist who will come to deceive the nations at the end of time.

Now, think for a moment about this false teaching that these people were spreading. John says that they were denying that Jesus Christ had come in the flesh. Today we find ourselves 20 centuries removed from the life and times of Jesus and one will not find anyone who denies that a person named Jesus of Nazareth ever lived. Much more impossible than that would it have been to find someone who denied His existence who lived within the lifetime of eyewitnesses. But it was not that they denied that Jesus lived. They denied that He was God incarnate. It appears that in John’s day there were various groups and individuals who had combined Christian doctrine with Greek paganism and invented new theories about the nature of Jesus. One of the central tenets of Greek Gnosticism and its forerunners was the belief that all matter is inherently evil. Therefore, in the minds of those who held these teachings it was unthinkable that God could take upon Himself literal human flesh. Some, who would become known as the Docetics, believed that Jesus only appeared to be human, but really wasn’t. He did not leave footprints in the sand where He walked, and if someone were to strike him, their hand would pass right through him. One of the most popular views of that day was the teaching of a man named Cerinthus. He taught that Jesus was not born of a virgin, but born in the normal biological way to Joseph and Mary. He was just a man. However, they taught that when Jesus was baptized by John, an emanation of God whom they spoke of as The Christ descended upon Him and gave Jesus divine power throughout His life. Then when Jesus’ sufferings began, the Christ departed from Jesus. Thus, there was the divine being, the Christ, who temporarily indwelled the sinful human being, Jesus, without ever commingling the two natures. This was a blatant and heretical denial of the central truth of Christianity that God became a man in the person of Jesus who was fully God and fully human.

John warns that anyone who was deceived by this error was in danger. He says in v8, “Watch yourselves, that you do not lose what we have accomplished, but that you may receive a full reward.” John and the other apostles and early missionaries have worked to establish worshiping communities of faithful followers of Christ, built upon the rock-solid teaching of who He is and what He has done for humanity. If they are led astray into these false teachings, all that they have worked for and accomplished will be destroyed. Those who have genuinely been saved will not lose their salvation, but will lose the fullness of the reward that they might otherwise receive for their faithful perseverance in the truth when they stand before Christ. Of course, the reality is also that many who are deceived by these false doctrines were never saved in the first place. Therefore John warns in v9 that anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ in all actuality does not have God. Right doctrine is a mark of the true believer. According to John, The one who abides in the teaching, he has both the Father and the Son. Those who resist the false teachings and endure in their allegiance to the truth about Jesus demonstrate themselves to be true children of God and followers of Christ.

So serious an issue is this that John goes on to say in v10-11, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting, for the one who gives him a greeting participates in evil things.” Of course, John is not saying here that we should have no contact with unbelievers, neither give them hospitality or even speak to them. Rather, the ones of which he speaks are those who claim to be coming in the name of Jesus and teaching truth about Jesus, but who in reality have abandoned Jesus in heresy. This is similar to what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 5. There Paul says, “I wrote you in my letter not to associate with immoral people; I did not at all mean with the immoral people of this world, or with the covetous and swindlers, or with idolaters, for then you would have to go out of the world. But actually , I wrote to you not to associate with any so-called brother if he is an immoral person, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or a swindler—not even to eat with such a one.” It is not possible to live in this world apart from unbelieving and immoral people, and in the Great Commission, Christ has called us to take the good news of salvation to them. But both John and Paul discourage us from associating with those who call themselves believers but who deny the truth and who live in open sin. By withdrawing fellowship from these, we make it clear to them and to others that we do not endorse their sin or their heresies, and we do so in hopes that they will come to repentance and return to right faith and right practice and be restored into Christian fellowship.

One of the leaders of the Church in the second century was a man named Irenaeus. He was a disciple of Polycarp, who had been a direct disciple of the apostle John who wrote these words. Irenaeus tells a story about John that illustrates this principle; a story which he claims he learned from Polycarp, who may have been an eyewitness of the event. John was going to a public bath one day in Ephesus when it was reported to him that Cerinthus, the one who had been teaching these false things about Jesus, was also there. And when John heard that Cerinthus was there, he did not say, “Well, let’s go have a cappuccino and share a conversation about our spiritual journeys.” John, the beloved apostle, exclaimed, “Let us fly, lest even the bath-house fall down, because Cerinthus, the enemy of the truth, is within.” So it seems on this matter, John practiced what he preached.

Now as we seek to apply this to our lives and particularly to this theme of keeping Christ in Christmas, there are few points I want to make. First, Christmas is about the miracle of the incarnation in which God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ. This is an undeniable biblical teaching. And we must beware of any attempt to remove Christ from the centrality He deserves in this seasonal celebration. As various Christmas traditions are emphasized that bear no connection to Christ, subtle but certain deceptive denials of this fundamental truth occur. And those deceptions are found in surprising places. Remember that the heresy John was confronting arose within the church. So we must be careful that we keep Christ central in our church practices (not only at Christmas, but throughout the year) and in our personal lives as well. Christless Christmas and Christless Christianity destroy the witness of the church that has been two millennia in the making. While we may want to soften our convictions so as to not offend our unbelieving friends and relatives during the Christmas season, we must be more concerned about offending the God who has called us to persevere in truth! Christmas offers us an opportunity not so easily found at other times during the year to present a clear and bold testimony for Christ to our lost friends and loved ones. And if they are lost, they are already condemned in their unbelief as Jesus says in John 3:18. They aren’t going to be more lost because they get offended at our attempt to make Christ central in Christmas. But if there are those who claim to be Christian, and who deny the truth about Christ, we must be careful that we do not embrace them as brothers and sisters, thereby sending a convoluted message to those who genuinely do not know the truth. We must make clear where we stand on the issue of Jesus, and entrust the fallout to Him.

Keeping Christ in Christmas is about more than the songs we sing, the decorations we use, and the vocabulary we employ in our holiday greetings. It involves watching out for subtle deceptions.

II. Keeping Christ in Christmas Involves Walking in Biblical Truth (vv4-6)

When John wrote to this church, he called attention to the consistent demonstration of their faith in Christ. He says in v4, “I was very glad to find some of your children walking in truth.” And “walking in truth,” he says, means that they are living obediently to the Father’s commandments. And as John has expressed in his first epistle and reiterates here in v6, love for God demonstrates itself in obedience to Him. No one can say that they love God if they disobey His commandments. There are many commandments of God found in the Scriptures, but Jesus said that all of them can be distilled into two: Love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself. As we love God, we obey Him. We prove our love by our obedience, and our loving obedience to Him leads to loving one another. This is really the crux of the matter that John is pointing out here. In v5, he emphasizes that we in the church of Jesus Christ should love one another. So, “walking in truth,” is not merely about having correct knowledge, but also about living that truth out in a demonstration of love for God and for one another.

When people see these characteristics in the life of a Christian, they see the affect that Christ has on our lives, and they notice the difference. They don’t always understand the difference, and that is why we must always be prepared to give a verbal witness as well. As it is written in 1 Peter 3:15, “Sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you.” According to Peter, godly living will cause people to notice a difference in your life, and they will want to know about that difference. But, a verbal witness alone, without being accompanied by a godly life under the Lordship of Christ, will not persuade anyone. They will only see a difference in your vocabulary, not your lifestyle. But when they see a life characterized by love for God and love for one another, they will take notice, and the door is opened for a verbal witness for Christ.

If you are a Christian, it will be no surprise to most people that you desire to emphasize Jesus at Christmastime. But what many of them may not expect to see is how you desire to keep Christ preeminent in your life throughout the year. If you want people to take you serious when you talk about Jesus at Christmas, they must know that you are serious about Jesus on the other 364 days of the year as well. After all, a Christianity that only expresses itself once a year in our lives is not very attractive to the world. They say that the Christmas shopping season began last Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. That may be, but Christmas living is a year ‘round season. If you want to keep Christ in Christmas, walk in His truth year ‘round.

It all comes down to this: Christmas is be a celebration of the greatest miracle of all –God became a man in the person of Jesus Christ to live and die for us. By His death on the cross, our sins are forgiven. By His righteous life, we are made righteous in Him. He is the greatest gift ever given, God’s gift of love and grace to undeserving people such as we are. And when we walk in that truth throughout the year, being alert to the subtle deceptions that arise that would steer us away from that truth, Christ will be present in our Christmas, and throughout the year.