Tuesday, December 31, 2013
“Faith in the Incarnate God”
December 29, 2013 Second Reformed Church
This past week, Christians celebrated the birth of a baby boy, Yeshua ben Yoseph, better known to us as Jesus, Who was born to a virgin, named Mary, and the man she was engaged to, named Joseph. We understand that He was a real human baby, born as human babies are born. Yet, if that is all there is to the Person of Jesus – a real human being – even if He was born without Original Sin, even if He lived a holy life, He might be the top of the list of the heroes of the faith, but He would not be worthy of worship – for only God is worthy of worship.
In fact, if Jesus was just a human – even a holy and perfect human – He would not be able to be the Savior, because the Savior not only have to merit a holy life, but He has to pay the debt for the sin of His people for us to benefit from it. In other words, humans have two problems: we have sin for which we must pay a debt to God and we have to live a holy life – a perfect life under God’s Law – if we are to be right with God. It is not enough for us to be forgiven; we have to also be holy. And it is not enough for us to be holy – going forward, we must also be forgiven.
The only possible way for us to be right with God is if our Savior – Jesus – is both a real human being, so He could live under God’s Law and suffer the penalty for human sin, and the One True God, so He could live a holy and sinless life and survive the penalty for human sin – in One Person. Jesus has to be both completely human and completely Divine – God – in the same One Person to be our Savior and for us to benefit from His salvation.
That is why John is at pains in his Gospel to begin with a defense of Jesus’ Enteral Divinity – that He is God. Matthew and Luke wrote their Gospels and included genealogies which showed that Jesus is a human – among other things. John took up his pen to argue that Jesus is – at the same time – God.
In these opening verses, we see:
First, Jesus is called “the Word” by John, to argue that He is God’s full self-revelation.
Second, John the Baptist, in the power and the authority of the prophetic office, declared – testified – that Jesus is God.
And third, since Jesus is God, all those who come to Him by faith, are adopted as sons and daughters of God.
“In the beginning was the Word,”
The first readers of his Gospel would have immediately thought, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1, ESV). The opening of his Gospel is written to very purposefully connect the Word with God in its opening phrase, and the first readers would have gotten the parallel immediately. And so, Jesus is called “the Word” by John, to argue that He is God’s full self-revelation.
“and the Word was with God,”
With this image of God, the Creator, in mind, John explains that the Word was with God. And the “with” that they would naturally assume in this context is that the Word was with God at the Creation. The Word pre-existed the Creation. Before time and space and all the created stuff that exists was made, God is and the Word is. And, if there was any question as to what John was driving at, John wrote:
“and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.”
Not only did the Word exists before all things were created, not only was the Word with God, but the Word is God, Himself. The Word is God. The Word is divine. The Word is the One God, the Creator of everything that is.
Paul tells us the same thing, “[Jesus] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:15-16, ESV).
And some will argue that Paul does not say the same thing, although he says that Jesus, the Son of God, created all things, he also says that He is the “firstborn” of all creation. Doesn’t that make the Son of God less than God, a creation? The answer is “no.” In the context, the word that Paul uses means that the Son of God is God, yet, as a unique pre-existing Son, distinct.
How can the Son of God be the same One God and yet distinct from God? How can God, if He is One, be with the Word? This is part of the mystery of the Trinity. The Nicene Creed states this: “And in one LORD JESUS CHRIST, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God; Light of Light, true God of true God; begotten, not made, being of one essence with the Father;….” How this is possible is a mystery; the fact that the Scripture teaches that the Father and the Son are the same One God, yet distinct Persons, is a truth that we marvel at and understand in some ways – such as the need for the Savior to be both wholly human and wholly God, but we will not indulge in speculating.
The Son is the Creator:
“All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made.”
The Son is the Giver and Sustainer of Life:
“In him was life, and the life was the light of men.”
Paul quotes the poets of his day as he explains Who Jesus is with this reference: “In him we live and move and have our being;” (Acts 17:28a, ESV).
Life comes from the Son – both the initial created life, and also the spiritual life that God gives us to be His people. There used to be a theory called “spontaneous generation,” which stated that living things can just appear out of dead things – inert matter – but science has proven that false – life cannot just come into being out of nothing. Life brings life into existence. If God had not chosen to bring life into the Creation when He created, there would be no life in Creation. And if God did not choose to raise dead sinners from the dead, they would remain dead.
The life that the Son gives is the light. Light is necessary for life, both physical and spiritual. Light causes growth and restoration. Without light, life would wither and die.
John wrote in his first letter: “This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all” (I John 1:5, ESV).
Light also exposes the Truth. John uses the images of light and darkness through his Gospel and letters to make the distinction between Truth – that which is of God – and darkness – that which is of sin and the devil. God is Wholly, Holy Truth – in Him there is no lie or sin.
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Here John is telling us that it is impossible for evil to overcome Truth. God’s Word is shining in a world that prefers darkness – lies – evil, but the world and all its sin cannot obliterate or hide the Truth. Everyone knows in their heart that something is wrong – humans are not naturally right with God – but our natural preference is to turn away from God and not seek to be made right. As Paul quotes from the Psalmists, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (Romans 3:10-18, ESV).
Due to the sin of our first parents, all mere human beings since have been born with Original Sin – an inclination towards evil – the inability to please God morally. That is not how we were created, and God remains – the Word remains – the Light Who cannot be overcome by our sin and Who, Alone, can remove the darkness from us and make us spiritually alive.
And so John begins to show that Jesus – the Son of God – the Word – is God, Himself – having been with God in the beginning, not a created being, but the same Being as God, yet distinct in Person (somehow). He is the Giver and Sustainer of Life, the One Who gives first and resurrected life, the Light Who illuminates reality – the Light, Himself, not One Who borrows Light from another, Who cannot be overcome by the darkness.
For example: not matter how dark a room you put a lamp in, the light still shines from the lamp. Similarly, no matter how dark with sin and evil the world is, the Light of God is not overcome – He shines.
Jesus is the Word of God – God’s full self-revelation to humanity.
John then turns to a second argument for Jesus being God: John the Baptist, in the power and the authority of the prophetic office, declared – testified – that Jesus is God.
A true prophet was one who declared the Word of God to God’s people. John the Baptist was a true prophet and only spoke the True Word of God. He was recognized by the people – and the religious leaders – to be a true prophet of God.
“There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him.”
In John the Baptist's role as prophet, he was given the honor of declaring and announcing that the Savior had come: the Word of God had become a human being for the salvation of God’s people. As John recorded, “The next day [John the Baptist] saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, ‘Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks before me, because he was before me.” I myself did not know him, but for this purpose I came baptizing with water, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John bore witness: ‘I saw the Spirit descend from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but he who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain, this is he who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I have seen and have borne witness that this is the Son of God’” (John 1:29-34, ESV).
John explains that John the Baptist’s role was to be that of the prophet who announced the coming of the Son of God:
“He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.”
John the Baptist witnessed – or testified – in his prophetic office to the Truth of Jesus being the Son of God Incarnate – God come in the flesh.
However, just because the darkness cannot overcome the Light, those who are in darkness – who are spiritually blind – can deny the Light shines. Those who are physically blind can deny there is light in a room, even when there is, so those who are spiritually blind can deny that the Son of God has incarnate – they can deny that the Light has incarnate – they can deny that Jesus is the Son of God Incarnate – the Only Savior, the God-Man.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him.”
This is one of the saddest statements in Scripture: God had chosen Israel to be His people, yet they turned from God and chose to remain in spiritual darkness and fight against God and against the Light. They tried to extinguish the Light as though He was a created thing and not God Himself.
Paul anguishes over this as he writes: “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit—that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. They are Israelites, and to them belong the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the worship, and the promises. To them belong the patriarchs, and from their race, according to the flesh, is the Christ, who is God over all, blessed forever. Amen.
“But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but ‘Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.’ This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring” (Romans 9:1-8, ESV).
Paul loved his biological brothers and sisters in Israel – all those biologically descended from Abraham – and he groaned that – if it were possible for him to save the biological children of Abraham, he would give up his salvation for their sake. But he knew that wouldn’t work – it was never God’s plan to save all of biological Israel, but to save all those who believed in the Savior God would send – Who has now come into the world – the Child Whose birth we just celebrated – the Son of God Who came to earth in the Person of Jesus for all those who would believe, whether they were biological descendants of Abraham or not.
Paul explains this by pointing out that Ishmael was rejected, but Isaac was saved, even though they were both biological children of Abraham, and he goes on later to explain that – similarly – Esau was rejected and Jacob was saved, even though they were both children of Isaac. Salvation is not by biological birth, but by spiritual adoption – by believing that God did come to earth in the Person of Jesus to save His people.
John explains this, thirdly, as we see that since Jesus is God, all those who come to Him by faith, are adopted as sons and daughters of God:
“But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
John explains that all those who receive Jesus by faith as Savior – all those who receive the Word, the Life, the Light, the Son of God come in the flesh in the Person of Jesus – all these – not matter what biological line they come from – “for by faith you have been saved” – these God gave the right to become the children of God. What does that mean?
It means that they were not born the children of God, but they – we – were adopted as sons and daughters of God – we were legally made sons and daughters of God through our receiving Jesus by faith as our Savior.
Paul writes: “For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Romans 8:15, ESV). And, “for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26, ESV).
And James writes: “Of his own will he brought us forth by the word of truth, that we should be a kind of firstfruits of his creatures” (James 1:18, ESV).
God the Father only has One Begotten Son, the Son of God, Who incarnate in the Person of Jesus, but through Jesus’ Incarnation, Life, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension, all who believe in Him by faith for salvation are legally adopted as sons and daughters. We are brothers and sisters of Jesus, children of God, though only Jesus is God Himself. If Jesus were not God, He could not make us sons and daughters of God – we would not be the adopted of the Father.
And our reception of Jesus can only be through faith, which is the gift of God by which we receive God’s Word and believe it as wholly true, looking forward to the fulfillment of all that God has said with confidence and assurance. As John explained, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” – we are not saved by being biological descendants of Abraham, we are not saved by willing or choosing Jesus – because, as we saw Paul explain, “no one seeks for God” – but God chose us out of all of humanity and sent His Son – God in the flesh – to do all the work to make us right with God. So our adoption is all of God and all of grace. A most fabulous, incomprehensible gift of God.
As John concludes this section:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.”’) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known.”
Jesus is a real human being – just like all of us – and He had to be to take our place under the Law of God and then under the Wrath of God. But, in order for Him to merit righteousness and to survive the Wrath of God, He has to be God as well. Jesus, the Incarnate Word, is One Person, a real human being and God at the same time. It was necessary that He be so to save us, and He is the wondrous gift of God to us on Christmas and Easter and every day of our lives.
Jesus was born a real human being that first Christmas – and most people in the world of every religion will agree that there was a real human being named Jesus, Who was a teacher and preacher in first century Israel. Yet, John shows us that if that’s all Jesus is, it is not enough for us to be right with God.
Jesus is called “the Word” by John, to argue that He is God’s full self-revelation.
John the Baptist, in the power and the authority of the prophetic office, declared – testified – that Jesus is God.
Since Jesus is God, all those who come to Him by faith, are adopted as sons and daughters of God.
And those are reasons we know that Jesus is both fully God and Man, the Only Savior. And by God’s Grace, we have faith in the Incarnate God and receive His salvation.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, You are Wisdom, and our minds are too small to understand the depths and the riches of Your Mind. Yet, You have indwelt us in the Person of the Holy Spirit, having raised us to spiritual life with Jesus, so now we have the Light and we know the Truth that is You. Continue to help us to receive all that You have said by faith. And help us to believe and tell that Jesus, our Savior, is a real human being and the Incarnate God. For in Him Alone is salvation. To Him be the praise and the honor and the glory for ever and ever. In Jesus’ Name, Amen.
Wednesday, December 25, 2013
“The Faith of the Shepherds”
December 24, 2013 Second Reformed Church
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’ (Luke 2:8-14, ESV).
Shepherds. (cf. http://www.epm.org/resources/2008/Mar/11/shepherds-status/)
I have a friend who is from Scotland, and he has shown me pictures of his homeland, including some of shepherds – guiding their sheep in beautiful pastures – very relaxing and pastoral. Some of you may think of shepherds like that…but the shepherds we read about in the Gospel of Luke did not live in twenty-first century Scotland…
God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people, and Abraham was a shepherd. In the early years of Israel, they were a nomadic people and they were largely shepherds. It was a position of esteem – providing food and sacrifices.
However, once the people were in Egypt, they found themselves among an agricultural culture and people, who looked down on shepherds, because the sheep and the goats ate the crops, and the Egyptians did not consider sheep worthy to be sacrificed to their gods.
After four hundred years in Egypt, Israel also adopted the view that shepherds were the lowest of the low – on the level of tax collectors and waste collectors – that was the view that was in place in first century Israel – shepherds were dirty bums, untrustworthy, people you wanted to stay away from.
It was assumed that shepherds were thieves – you didn’t buy things from them – they were dirty, uneducated, and underpaid. They were also afforded no civil rights – shepherds were not allowed to hold public office or to be witnesses in court.
Given this to be true, we might wonder why in the world God gave the Good News to the shepherds. Why did they receive the revelation of the birth of Jesus? Why were they the primary people to whom God revealed the birth of the Son of God – the Savior? Why didn’t God reveal the Incarnation to the kings and prophets and priests of the land – people who would have been believed?
As we review the text in Luke, one thing stands out to us: the shepherds received the Word of God by faith – and we see this in at least six ways:
First, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith in that they immediately went to Bethlehem: “When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, ‘Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened,” (Luke 2:15a, ESV).
The shepherds heard the Word of God given by the angels that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem, and they received it by faith, and they went immediately to Bethlehem. They didn’t debate the meaning of what the angels said. They didn’t discuss whether it was true or not. They didn’t think about the meaning of the words that were spoken. They didn’t seek out officials to justify their faith in what they had heard. They heard the Word of God by faith and any thought of who they were in the hierarchy of society was left behind, and they went immediately to Bethlehem.
Would we have immediately left our work – our lives – and gone? Perhaps we are thinking that it would never happen to us – we are too insignificant, but shepherds were the bottom of the barrel! Surely, each one of us has or can be called up for jury duty – they could not, because they were so low in society. Are we so quick to heard the Word of God and receive it by faith and go? If we read or hear read or preached something from God’s Word, would we receive it by faith and go – willing to leave everything behind and not worry about ourselves or our previous understandings or our feelings, but just go, because God has spoken?
Second, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and confessed that the Lord God had revealed the Good News to them: “which the Lord has made known to us” (Luke 2:15b).
They shepherds immediately recognized that what the angels were telling them was the Word of God Himself. Even in their low station, they knew the Word of God well enough that when it was spoken; they knew it was none other than the Word of God Himself.
Do we recognize the Word of God? Do we recognize when something has been read or preached from the Bible? Do we know that it is the Word of the One Holy God, Who cannot change; the Only One Who can make us right with God and save us from His Wrath? Or do we debate it? Do we argue that these are modern times and we can’t believe God’s Word? Do we argue that the Word of God must change for changing times? Do we have more faith in Social Security than in the Word of God?
Third, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and went quickly: “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger” (Luke 2:16, ESV).
They shepherds heard the Word of God and received it by faith and they left immediately and they went quickly! They ran to the stable door. They were so excited that the Savior had come that they ran and burst in to see – they had to see! God has come to earth!
The holidays can be a great time – having family around, but not everyone believes, and some families are fractured. Presents are nice – especially books – but they don’t last eternity. There’s a lot of traffic this time of year – what are we running to? Have we found Something – like the shepherds – that is Eternal – exciting to the point of everlasting joy? Are we afraid to say, “Merry Christmas!”? Is He enough for us to run to?
Fourth, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and they testified to what had happened. “And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child” (Luke 2:17, ESV).
Can we imagine the scene? Mary has given birth. Joseph is with her, comforting her, and rejoicing in the birth of their Son, the One Who is called, “God with us.” All of a sudden, the door flies open and these shepherds – these dirty, sheep-smelling guys, burst into the room – we have no idea how many there were.
“This is Him! This is the One the angels told us about! We were in the fields, watching over our flocks – protecting them – and suddenly, the sky burst open, and the Glory of the Lord God shown down on us – we fell to the ground in fear – God had come into the presence of we humble shepherds! But then, an angel told us not to be afraid – God was not coming to strike us down, but to reveal the arrival of the Savior to us, of all people. He told us that the Baby had been born – God had come to earth in the person of a baby – your Son – the joy of all peoples. He told us that the Savior had been born in Bethlehem – the Savior, the Christ, the Lord – our God – and he gave us the sign that He would be here – in a manger – in swaddling cloths. Look! The Savior has been born! And we dropped everything and ran here, because we had to see – the Savior – the Savior – and the angel was joined with a great multitude, praising God for His Gift of the Savior. And here we are.”
The shepherds must have been about to burst – have you experienced that immense joy – where you could do nothing less than tell someone? Have you ever just had to tell someone that Jesus has come – the Savior has come – there is hope for all those who believe in Jesus!?
I fear that we don’t think we have the right words to say – that we won’t be convincing enough – that we’ll get ourselves into a conversation we won’t know all the answers to. Perhaps you feel like a first century shepherd. You know, those guys who ran to the manger and told what they had heard to Mary and Joseph. Let us pray that the Holy Spirit will bring to our remembrance the Word that we have heard – that we would tell what we know and have heard.
Fifth, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and they were believed by the people they told. “And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:18-19, ESV).
The shepherds told Mary and Joseph – and they told everybody else. We’re not told who the people are that they told, but we can imagine that with such great news, they told everyone they came in contact with – certainly on the way back from Bethlehem and from that day forth. What they heard and believed by faith had a life-changing impact on them – as it does on all believers – does it not?
We’re told that all those who heard the shepherds’ story “wondered.” Did you ever wonder what that means? Did the people hear the story and wonder what the shepherds had been drinking? Did the people hear the story and wonder if the shepherds had been out in the fields too long? The word means that they were amazed – they were filled with awe – the people who heard the Word of God related by the shepherds received it and were filled with awe – they couldn’t believe it – the Promise had come – salvation was being made for all those who would believe – the Evangel had come – the Good News had come – the Savior had come. Amazing – worthy is our God to be worshipped!
A willing heart that hears the Good News of Jesus Christ will be filled with awe – it will be led to worship. Let’s not close our mouths when someone rolls their eyes or looks at us like we have finally gone over the edge. Have you ever had the privilege of talking with someone about Jesus and seeing the Glory of God in their eyes as their heart receives Him by faith and rejoices?
We’re told that Mary “pondered” what the shepherds said. Have you ever pondered what that might mean? Of course she did not doubt their message – she had received the Word of God by faith and believed and humbly received the Work of the Holy Spirit in her that she would bear the Son of God. Here, what we are being told is that she preserved what the shepherds said in her mind – she memorized their account of the angels’ visit and announcement. What an amazing story she had to tell Jesus as He grew up – the creatures of Heaven announced His Birth and revealed it to shepherds who came and visited Him as a baby.
Sixth, the shepherds received the Word of God by faith and gave thanks and praised God. “And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them” (Luke 2:20, ESV).
The shepherds received the Word of God by faith, they went to see the Baby, they told others about His Birth and they thanked God for revealing His birth to them – the lowest people of society – that they would be the first to know that God the Savior had come. They praised God as worthy of all praise for His faithfulness in keeping His promise to send a Savior for all those who would believe. They glorified God – telling all those they came in contact with about God and what He had done – revealing God for Who He is and praising Him for being God.
And what about us this Christmas Eve? Are we thanking and praising and glorifying God for Who He is and what He has done? Are we unafraid to pray and to proclaim that Christ the Savior has come? God is faithful. God is merciful. God is gracious. God is good. God is loving. God is truthful. God keeps His promises.
But we still haven’t answered the question, have we? Why did God reveal the birth of Jesus to shepherds – to people who would have been hard-pressed to find others that would believe them – especially anyone who mattered? Wouldn’t it have made more sense for God to tell the kings and priests and prophets and have them come? Wouldn’t the word have spread and been believed more readily if God had chosen someone important to reveal this Good News to?
Paul gives us some insight into why as he writes:
“For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written, ‘I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.’ Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (I Corinthians 1:18-25, ESV).
One reason that God revealed this message to the shepherds is that God wanted to put down the wisdom of humanity. God wanted to show that salvation is by the wisdom of God and not by the wisdom of humans. God wanted to reveal Himself in a way that would make no sense unless it was received by faith.
And, if we’re thinking, “Well, wasn’t that a bad plan? Wouldn’t God have achieved more by appealing to the wisdom of humans – by bringing His Son and Salvation into the world through a way that humans could naturally understand?”
And there we prove Paul’s point: the Incarnation is not the way that humans would naturally think would be the best way to make ourselves right with God, but God knew it was the best way – the only way – that would be acceptable – possible – in His Sight.
Paul continues with more insight on this:
“For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord’” (I Corinthians 1:26-31, ESV).
Another reason God revealed the Good News of the birth of Jesus to the shepherds is the same reason that God uses people like me – and you – God wanted it to be obvious that the message and the Salvation came from God and not from the shepherds – or us. God wanted to receive all praise for the Incarnation and for Salvation, and God accomplishes that by usually using people that are small in the world’s eyes.
Paul writes, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you” (II Corinthians 4:7-12, ESV).
Just one point here, which we’ve noted before – it’s easier to find a specific diamond in a litter box than in a box of diamonds. And so God uses people in whom the Gospel will be easier to see. If the king of Israel brought the angels’ message to Mary and Joseph, it would have been obscured by the king being there, but it shown brightly coming from the shepherds.
So, if you believe you are inadequate to tell others the Gospel – for whatever reason – very good! Tell others, and it will be easier to see.
And if you have not believed the Gospel because of the sins of the Church or individual Christians or because you don’t want to be associated with shepherds and other losers like me – look beyond the messenger to the message. Consider if you are right with God, and if not, what you might do to be worthy of God’s acceptance. And if you understand that the answer is nothing – you can do nothing to make yourself right with God, hear the message again – that on that first Christmas, God began to fulfill His Promise to provide salvation for all those who will believe through a savior – through Jesus, the Son of Mary, the Son of God.
As Calvin wrote, “If then we desire to come to Christ, let us not be ashamed to follow those whom the Lord, in order to cast down the pride of the world, has taken, from among the dung of cattle, to be our instructors” (Calvin’s Commentaries, Luke 2:8).
Brothers and sisters, God has sent His Son, Jesus, to be the Promised Savior. Receive the Word of God by faith, immediately and quickly come to Him in your heart, confess that this is the Word of God, and then tell others, and thank and praise and glorify God.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You for the faith of the shepherds. We thank You for revealing the birth of Jesus to them. We ask that we would not be ashamed of them for their low station in society, and that we would not be ashamed of our natural abilities, but seek to tell others what we have received – what we have believed – that they, too, might come to faith in the Only Savior. And may we be quick to give voice to You in thanks and praise and by glorifying You. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.
Tuesday, December 24, 2013
Monday, December 23, 2013
“And, Part 1”
December 22, 2013 Second Reformed Church
“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1, ESV).
We have talked about receiving the Word of God by faith for some weeks now. We have seen that faith is not a thing that we do, but a gift from God by which we receive what God has said in His Word. And as the author of Hebrews wrote, by this gift of faith, we receive the Word of God and we have absolute assurance that the things that God has promised in His Word will come to pass, and we are convicted – we believe as true and historical realities – all those things that we have not seen – things that have occurred before we lived – such as the world-wide flood of Noah, beings which are invisible – like the angels, and things which have yet to occur – such as the restoration of the Creation. Because God has revealed Himself to us and gifted us with faith to receive His Word, we hear God’s Word read and preached and we believe that it is all true. Christianity is a historical religion, not a book of stories that merely teach us to be moral people.
We have been looking at the major figures that the author of Hebrews has put forth in his book for us to look at and witness faith working – these are to be an education and an inspiration to us as we live the lives of faith that God has given to us.
As the chapter comes to a close, the author of Hebrews rapidly presents a number of people and types of situations for our consideration.
In this, we learn:
First, there are many more examples of faith in the lives of believers in the Scripture.
Second, we are not to make these men and women into idols.
Third, instead, we are to be so encouraged to look to Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith.
“And what more shall I say? For time would fail me to tell of”
The author of Hebrews could have gone on for many more chapters going through the lives of believers – Christians, showing examples of faith in their lives, but instead, he leaves off after mentioning major figures of the patriarchal period in detail, and quickly mentioning the names of some figures from the periods of the judges and kings – believing that his readers would know the histories, or could hear them in worship.
The author of Hebrews was not attempting to catalog every Christian who ever lived – or even every figure of the Scripture – but to give a representative group so his readers could see that there are many more examples of faith in the lives of believers in the Scripture.
We’ve noted before that we have the unparalleled privilege in history to have our own copies of the Bible in our own languages – as well as churches every few blocks – some of them even Christian – where you can hear the Word of God read and preached and hear about these figures and see their faith and be inspired to live lives of faith, just as they did, because they are no different from us – at least in two ways: they were all sinners and they all received faith as a gift.
The Bible is unique in religious texts in that it tells us about all of the stupid, naïve, and sinful things that the saints did. God purposely left the truth of their failings in there so we would not become enamored with any man of woman of the faith – we are not to make these men and women into idols.
Especially in these days when we hear “the Christmas story” – that Santa brought the Baby Jesus to the manger, having defeated the Heat Miser and the Abominable Snowman, and turned Scrooge’s and the Grinch’s heart extra-large, just in time for the wise men to come with gold, which should be spent during the Christmas sales to support the economy so this remains a Christian nation.
The True Christmas story is the beginning of the fulfillment of the Gospel, but the Gospel doesn’t make any sense unless we know the bad news – the reason for the Gospel: “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way;” (Isaiah 53:6a, ESV), “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,” (Romans 3:23, ESV).
The question for humanity, whose Answer is all the more prominent in this time of year, is, how can a person be right with God? We cannot be right with God through any of the saints – not even Mary – because they were all sinners – we can only be made right through Jesus Christ, if we believe in our hearts that God came to earth in the Person of Jesus, lived a perfect life under God’s Law, died for the sins of everyone who would ever believe, and physically rose from the dead and ascended back to His throne.
As we consider the heroes of the faith – both in the Scripture and outside of the Scripture – remember last week I said it was good to read good Christian biographies – after the Scripture – to see examples of living by faith. But the examples cannot end there, because every single one of them is or was a sinner – just like you and me. Which is an encouragement to us to not give any excuse for not living by faith. Because we who believe have been indwelt by God the Holy Spirit – and Jesus said, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26, ESV). The Holy Spirit will lead us in becoming like Jesus.
And here was see again, that our salvation is all of God. Even our faith – and the faith of the saints of old – is a gift. As Paul tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:8-10, ESV).
The saints received their faith as a gift from God, through which they received the Word of God, and were enabled to do the good works that God predestined for them to do – and the same is true of us.
So, if they were sinners, just like us, and they received faith as a gift, just like us, though we may find them inspiring in our living by faith, we ought never to put them on a pedestal. If we see something in the lives of these saints that we desire to aspire to, we ought to aspire to it, not to be more like them, but to be more obedient and faithful to our God and Savior.
Before we say more about that, let’s take a moment to look at these figures he names:
Gideon was a farmer during the time of the judges when Midian oppressed Israel, and God came to Gideon and told him that had chosen him to overthrow Midian. But Gideon told God He must have the wrong man – since he came from a small tribe. But God assured him that He was with him, so Gideon offered up a sacrifice and God caused fire to burst up from the ground and swallow the sacrifice.
Then God told Gideon to tear down the altar – the Asherah pole – and offer up a sacrifice on the hill, but he was too afraid to do it in the day time, so he did so at night. After he cut down the idol and offered up the sacrifice to God, God promised to lead Gideon in saving Israel from the Midianites. Yet, Gideon doubted and asked God for another sign – he would put out an animal fleece, and if the fleece was wet, but the ground dry in the morning, he would believe God. So God did what he asked, but Gideon still doubted and asked God to make the fleece dry and the ground wet, and God acquiesced again.
Finally, Gideon believed and gathered 32,000 soldiers to fight with him. But God told him that was too many – if they won in battle, it would seem that they had won, and not won by the Hand of God, so God whittled the number to 10,000, and finally to 300 men to fight against the entire nation of Midian, and by faith, Gideon and the 300 defeated Midian. (cf. Judges 5-7).
Barak was called to be a judge during the persecution by Jabin of the Canaanites, his general Sisera, and the prophetess, Deborah. Deborah called Barak to her and told him that God would lead him to victory against the Canaanites, but Barak was afraid and doubted God and said he would only go to war if Deborah came with him. Deborah told him that she would come with him, but because he doubted God, a woman would get credit for the victory.
So Barak went off to war with Deborah in tow and was victorious over the armies of the Canaanites. However, Sisera escaped from him. In fleeing for safety, he went to the tent of a woman named Jael, and she promised him safety, but when he fell asleep, she took a tent peg and drove it threw his head and down into the ground, achieving the credit for victory over the armies of the Canaanites. (cf. Judges 4-5).
Samson was called to be a judge from birth and his mother raised him as a Nazarite, but Samson was a playboy and submitted to the pagan woman, Delilah, who got him to reveal that it was through his Nazarite vow – part of which was never cutting his hair – that God gave him his strength. And Delilah had his hair cut off, and he was taken into slavery and blinded by the Philistines.
One day the Philistines were throwing a massive party, and they brought Samson out to make fun of him. Samson stood between the two pillars holding the house up to support himself, and he repented of his sin and asked God to strengthen him once more. God heard his request, and Samson pulled the pillars out of place, killing himself and all those in the house – more people than he had killed for the Lord in all the years before totaled together. (cf. Judges 13-16).
Jephthah was called to be a judge and fight against the Ammorites, but rather than just believe God’s Word, he made a foolish vow – that if God would really lead him to victory over the Ammorites, when he returned home, he would sacrifice the first thing that came out of his front door.
God led Jephthah to great victory, and when he came home to the adulation of his people, his only daughter came out of his front door. And after a period of mourning, he sacrificed his daughter. (cf. Judges 10-11).
We remember David, the second king of Israel, who, by the Hand of God, extended the United Kingdom of Israel to the greatest extent it would ever be. He was called the man after God’s own heart – the writer of many of the Psalms – builder of many great buildings in Israel, but not the Temple.
We also know that though he had wives and concubines, one day he lusted after Bathsheba – a married woman, and had sex with her, and got her pregnant. And when he could not convince her husband to sleep with her so it would look like the child was his, David had her husband killed in battle.
Samuel was the last judge – one of the Major Prophets – the leader of Israel in very dark days. He was given to the Temple as a child and served his whole life. He anointed the first and second kings of Israel, though he argued with the people on behalf of God against having a king.
We are not given a specific example of a sin that Samuel committed, but since he was a mere human, we know that he was a sinner.
“and the prophets”
Here, along with the author of Hebrews, I turn the reading of the rest of the Old Testament – and the New – to hear the history of the faith of the men and women of God that He called to Himself as His people.
The author of Hebrews turns to examples of the things that the saints did through faith – through believing the Word of God – through receiving the Word of God.
“—who through faith conquered kingdoms,”
We think of Joshua and David in particular. Beginning with the end of the exodus out of Egypt and the conquest of the lands up the east of the Jordan and the conquest of Jericho, which we looked at recently, to the conquering of Canaan.
We think of the judges whom God appointed after the exodus and before the first king, who, with the prophets, brought and enforced the Word of God among the people.
This would include all those who believed – the promise of the Exodus, the promise of the Promised Land, up to the promise of a future salvation by God, making His people right with God, by God Himself coming to live a righteous life and pay the debt for the sin of His people, while crediting them with the righteousness that He earned.
“stopped the mouths of lions,”
Here, we think of Daniel, in particular, during the Babylonian exile, when King Darius passed a proclamation that only the king should be worshipped, and when Daniel refused and worshipped God by faith, he was thrown in the lions’ den. But, in the morning, when the king came, Daniel was alive, God having shut the mouths of the lions so they would not hurt him. So the king confessed faith in the God of Daniel and threw his accusers in the lions’ den – all of whom we eaten by the lions before their bodies hit the ground. (cf. Daniel 6).
“quenched the power of fire,”
Three young men, named in Babylon – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, were thrown into a furnace to die for not worshipping the statue of the king. But they walked around in the fire – with a fourth Man – a preincarnate manifestation of the Son of God – and the king set them free, confessing faith in the God of these young men of faith, (cf. Daniel 3).
“escaped the edge of the sword,”
Many escaped the sword: David escaped the sword of Saul until God set him on the throne. Elisha escaped the sword of Ahab, and saw God put Ahab to death.
“were made strong out of weakness,”
Again we think of Samson who became weak through his sin, yet God allowed him to become strong again to take vengeance in God’s Name.
“became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight.”
This is the history of the men and women of God who God led to conquer the Promised Land, with God always fighting in the forefront.
And so we see:
There are many more examples of faith in the lives of believers in the Scripture.
And, we are not to make these men and women into idols. Because they are sinners, just like us, and because their faith – like ours, was a gift from God, through which they received God’s Word, and were enabled to do the good works that God predestined for them – and us – to do.
Still, we are to be encouraged by them to live by faith – to do those good works that God sets before us, just as He sets good works before all we who believe – that we would do them.
They key is to move beyond the fallible – sinful – example we are given in the Scripture and be so encouraged to look to Jesus as the author and finisher of our faith. We will look at this more in the coming weeks, Lord willing, but for now, let understand, as Paul writes:
“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:4-10, ESV).
God has given us grace – He, according to His Own Sovereign Good Pleasure, has raised all those who believe from spiritual death – not because of anything we did, but for His Sake. And He has given us faith that we would be able to receive His Word and believe it wholeheartedly. God has made us who we are for His Sake, through Jesus Christ, for the good works that He predestined that we would do.
So let us take encouragement as we receive the histories of Abel, and Enoch, and Noah, and Abraham, and Sarah, and Isaac, and Jacob, and Moses, and Joshua, and Rahab, and Gideon, and Barak, and Samson, and Jephthah, and David, and Samuel, and all the others God has been pleased to record in His Word for us to learn from.
Yet, let us acknowledge their failings and sins and shortsightedness and doubts and strive to be more faithful, more obedient, receiving the Word of God with greater assurance and conviction, as men and women who know Who the Savior is, that He has come, and that He has work for us to do.
“What should I do?” some of you may be thinking? What work does God have for me?
I got into a discussion with a Baptist friend during a dinner the other night, and he said that we Reformed folk can’t believe in missions and evangelism because we believe that God has chosen all those who will ever believe. I explained to him that that is not true – while it is true that you and I cannot convert anyone or change the number of people God has chosen to receive Him by faith, God has given us the command and the privileged to be the usual way in which He brings people to Himself. We don’t evangelize because we think we will save someone, but because God has chosen to use us to bring people to Himself, and in evangelizing, as God is pleased, God will bring people to Himself.
With Christmas upon us, we have an easy “in” to the discussion: if someone wishes you “happy holidays” or “Merry Christmas,” you might ask them, “why?” “Why is this day any different from any other? Do you know what it’s about?”
It’s a place to start; and don’t be afraid, grace, faith, and salvation are all in God’s Hands.
Let us pray:
Almighty God, we thank You again for the examples of men and women of faith that You have given us in the Scripture. Thank You for showing us that You do use Your people to accomplish Your Work. Thank You for showing us that despite even our sin, You are Sovereign in bringing about Your purposes. Help us to be one of those men and women of faith that the author of Hebrews doesn’t have time to name, that we might do great things by Your Hand and for Your Name. For it is in Jesus’ Name we pray, Amen.