A Contrast of Kings at Christmas

Secular Christmas scenes are full of snow, wreaths, lights, and cookies. The roaring fires and flannel pajamas that appear on so many cards paint the holiday as one of coziness and warmth.

While there’s nothing wrong with these seasonal elements, none of them capture the biblical reality. Christmas is the time to rejoice in the Incarnation, the birth of Jesus.

But even in the Bible, Jesus’s birth was not an occasion for universal joy. While there was great celebration, the Christmas narratives are also serious, dark, and cautionary.

Herod the King

The second chapter of Matthew’s Gospel offers a stark contrast. Right from the beginning, we read that in the days of Herod the king the wise men came looking for the king of the Jews. This contrast seems intentional, as Matthew refers to Herod as “king” a total of three times (Matt 2:139).

While the wise men traveled a great distance to worship this new king (Matt 2:2), they went to Herod only for information. The wise men rejoiced when approaching the house where Jesus was, and they brought extravagant gifts, falling down in worship. Since God warned them away, the wise men didn’t even speak to Herod again.

Herod was “troubled” by this talk of a new king (Matt 2:3). The Jewish religious leaders reported that prophesies pointed to Bethlehem as the birthplace of a “ruler” who would “shepherd” the people of Israel (Matt 2:6). This was not good news for Herod.

Jesus the Child

The contrast between Herod and Jesus is heightened by the difference in their ages. Herod was an adult; Jesus had just been born. In fact, Jesus is referred to as a “child” nine times in this chapter.

Given the difference in physical ability and political power between Jesus and Herod, it seems bizarre that Herod was threatened by this baby. But Herod was so enraged when the wise men did not report back to him that he ordered the death of all male children in and around Bethlehem under two years old.

We should pause here and note the violence and devastation that Herod caused. His fear and his lust for power proved to be a murderous cocktail. These deaths were unspeakably cruel, selfish, and senseless, and they must have left Bethlehem residents horrified and empty with grief.

While Herod took drastic, human steps to eliminate Jesus, Matthew’s text shows us the supernatural elements used to honor and protect Jesus. The star that the wise men followed (“his star” in Matt 2:2) appeared both before and after their visit to Jerusalem (Matt 2:9–10) and led them directly to Jesus. Additionally, God acted through dreams to warn the wise men (Matt 2:12) and to direct Joseph and his young family (Matt 2:131922).

Finally, notice the role of prophecy in this chapter. In his birth in Bethlehem (Matt 2:5–6), his exile to Egypt (Matt 2:17), and his settling in Nazareth (Matt 2:23), Jesus fulfilled what the prophets had spoken. On the other hand, the prophecy that Herod fulfilled was one of tears and lamentation (Matt 2:17–18).

Worship Christ, the Newborn King

Jesus was declared a king at his birth. And the contrast between Jesus and all other kings continued through his earthly life and beyond.

Because Jesus is the great, high king, he is a threat to all who hold power. God demands (and deserves) our undiluted worship, and this is a problem for anyone who craves any glory that belongs to God.

This is a warning to all in authority: Worship Jesus as the high king willingly while you can. One day every knee will bow, whether willingly or not (Phil 2:9–11). Your power is delegated power and should be used to help those around you to flourish.

And for everyone, this is a call to worship Jesus. He is no mere human king; he is the Lord of all. And as Lord, he shows himself to be vastly superior to Herod.

Though he is powerful and his authority is absolute, he is merciful and gentle. We have all grasped for power; we have all neglected and rejected proper worship. But king Jesus offers love and forgiveness for those who turn to him.

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Learning from the Humiliation of Jesus

Jesus’s crucifixion was not only unjust, it was tortuous. The Romans were famous for their punishing, public executions.

But physical pain was not the only agony Jesus suffered in his final days. In fact, one Gospel writer highlights the emotional torment of Jesus far more than his bodily pain.

Mockery in Luke

As my small group made its way through the end of Luke this year, the humiliation of Jesus jumped out at me.

After Jesus was arrested, the men who held him abused him. Notice the way they mocked Jesus, belittling his position as a divine prophet.

Now the men who were holding Jesus in custody were mocking him as they beat him. They also blindfolded him and kept asking him, “Prophesy! Who is it that struck you?” And they said many other things against him, blaspheming him. (Luke 22:63–65)

Later, Pilate sent Jesus to Herod. Herod and his soldiers “mocked him.” As part of this humiliation, Jesus was dressed in “splendid clothing” (Luke 23:11).

Jesus was “railed at,” “scoffed at,” and “mocked” (Luke 23:35–3739). He suffered the indignity of being crucified with criminals. Jesus’s accusers threw the title of “Savior” in his face—surely he cannot be the Christ or the King of the Jews if he can’t even save himself!

The Pain of Public Taunting

Let’s consider these indignities carefully. In public, Jesus was denounced as being utterly powerless. Jesus couldn’t be the Christ, he couldn’t be the Chosen One, he couldn’t be the King.

Because Jesus was fully man, we can imagine some of what he felt during this mockery. Think of a core mission of your life or a label given to you by God. Now imagine someone screaming these taunts at you in the town square. You must not be a child of God! She is not much of a mother! He cannot be a true missionary!

Here’s the awful, terrible truth. Jesus was completely humiliated. He was mocked and taunted and denounced. He heard every biting word, and, one by one, they sliced open his heart.

Lack of Physical Suffering

When compared to the emotional pain that Jesus suffered, Luke records far less physical suffering.

Luke tells us about the beating from the soldiers (Luke 22:63) and the way Herod and his soldiers “treated him with contempt” (Luke 23:11). But Luke doesn’t record Jesus’s crown of thorns or his scourging by Pilate’s men (see Matthew 27:29 and Matthew 27:26, respectively). Luke also omits other incidents of beating, spitting, and slapping that we read in the other three Gospels.

These omissions don’t point to a contradiction. They also don’t mean that Luke was unaware of these abuses. Luke just chose to emphasize Jesus’s emotional suffering.

Why This Emphasis?

This may seem like a strange focus, but it is a natural conclusion to the way Luke writes Jesus’s story. Throughout his ministry, Jesus identified with those who were scorned and cast out. He elevated the humiliated and called his followers to humble themselves in service of others. Once we look for this thread, we see it woven through every page of Luke’s Gospel.

  • Jesus announced his ministry by saying he would focus on the poor, the captives, the blind, and the oppressed (Luke 4:18–19).
  • Jesus’s healings largely focused on those suffering in ways that put them on the margins of society. Among others, he healed a leper (Luke 5:12–13), a naked man possessed by many demons (Luke 8:26–39), a woman with a 12-year discharge of blood (Luke 8:43–48), a boy possessed by a violent demon (Luke 9:37–43), a woman with an 18-year “disabling spirit” which bent her in half (Luke 13:10–13), and a blind beggar (Luke 18:35–43).
  • He kept company with “tax collectors and sinners” at a time when religious leaders looked at such people with scorn and disgust. (See Luke 5:27–32Luke 7:34Luke 7:36–50Luke 15:1–2, and Luke 19:1–10.)
  • In the Beatitudes, Jesus blessed those who were poor, hungry, weeping, and hated (Luke 6:20–23).
  • Jesus’s teaching on discipleship emphasized self-denial (Luke 9:23–27), selling one’s possessions to give to the needy (Luke 12:33–34), and inviting the poor, crippled, lame, and blind to a banquet instead of friends and family (Luke 14:12–14).
  • Jesus showed concern for the humiliated in his parables. In the parable of the banquet, the master brought in the poor, crippled, blind, and lame (Luke 14:15–24). The father of the prodigal ran to meet his broken and humiliated son when he returned (Luke 15:11–24). And Lazarus, a poor beggar covered with sores, was elevated to heaven while the rich man suffered in Hades (Luke 16:19–31).
  • Peter proclaimed he was willing to die for Jesus (Luke 22:33) and wanted a fight when Jesus was arrested (Luke 22:50). He didn’t want to be identified with a humiliated Jesus (Luke 22:54–62). Jesus’s look at Peter (Luke 22:61) was a quiet rebuke; following Jesus does not bring the honor of a final glorious battle, it requires the willingness to give up one’s rights and die.

After Jesus loved and cared for the humiliated through his ministry, he became humiliated at the end. He took the place of those he loved.

Our Response

Jesus knows our humiliation because he was humiliated. He is able to sympathize with every one of our conditions and weaknesses (Hebrews 4:15). This is why we can draw near to his throne of grace with confidence, knowing that we’ll find all the mercy we need (Hebrews 4:16).

Jesus also calls us to willingly suffer humiliation for others. As we lower ourselves, giving up money or time or status, we elevate others.

In this, we embrace the pattern of Jesus, who suffered to save his enemies (including us, Romans 5:10). We also depend on (and demonstrate) the power of Jesus. Embracing humiliation for others is not natural; only after we have been changed can we seek out the lower place by the gracious work of the Spirit.

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Jesus, Our Eager Shepherd

What does Jesus think about me?

Does he love me, hate me, or tolerate me? When I sin—is he ashamed of me?

If you’re reading this as a Christian, you’ve probably wrestled with these questions. But here’s another question about Jesus that’s every bit as vital to our everyday faith: How does Jesus view his job?

Did he look forward to his earthly calling, or was he resigned to the task? Is he glad when we pray, or is it a chore for him to care for us?

Our understanding of Jesus’s attitude toward his work and his people affects our prayer lives, our evangelism, and our willingness to trust him. And while the Bible doesn’t record any pre-Incarnation conversations among the members of the Trinity, Scripture is not silent on this issue.

Exhortations to Elders

Peter writes instructions to elders near the end of his first letter (1 Peter 5:1–4). He uses the image of a shepherd with his flock, and he lists three ways shepherds must “exercise oversight.”

  1. Not under compulsion, but willingly (verse 2).
  2. Not for shameful gain, but eagerly (verse 2).
  3. Not domineering over those in their charge, but being examples to the flock (verse 3).

The comparison of God’s people to sheep is instructive if not flattering. Sheep don’t score high on IQ tests. They are prone to lose their way and wander from the herd. In their ignorance they expose themselves to predators, and they are rather helpless on their own.

As those charged to care for a flock like this, elders have a holy and difficult calling. Perhaps this is why Peter follows these commands with a reminder of the promised reward for faithful elders: “And when the chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the unfading crown of glory” (1 Peter 5:4).

Jesus, the Chief Shepherd

Peter motivates local church elders with the forthcoming crown, but when he refers to Jesus as the “chief Shepherd,” he gives all of us much to ponder. Elders are shepherds; Jesus is the chief.

If the elders are told how to shepherd in verses 1–3, and if Jesus is the perfect and chief shepherd, then the characteristics urged in men are present fully in Jesus. Specifically:

  1. Jesus does not need to be compelled to be our shepherd; he does it willingly.
  2. Jesus does not shepherd us for gain; he does so eagerly.
  3. Jesus is not a demanding shepherd; he is an example to the flock.

Eagerness

Have you ever pondered this glorious truth (see point 2 above), that Jesus is our eager shepherd?

Think of all the pain, conflict, hardship, frustration, loneliness, separation, and sorrow involved in Jesus’ earthly ministry—especially in his passion. If that lay in front of us, we would flee.

And we often project our reaction onto Jesus. We think Jesus must have been talked into his rescue mission. Maybe he was willing, but he couldn’t have been excited.

No! Jesus was eager to save and shepherd us. While it meant tremendous suffering, he charged into the mission with zeal. He was motivated by joy.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1–2, emphasis added)

Jesus was eager to save us, and he is eager to love and keep us. We do not annoy or burden him with our confession and prayer. Our confusion and wanderings do not irritate him. He is not troubled by our doubts or questions. He welcomes our helplessness.

Jesus is our good, good shepherd. He feeds and tends and protects his sheep.

We can be as eager to trust Jesus as our shepherd as he is to embrace us as his people.

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Six Woes from Jesus Reveal His Perfection

It’s easy for modern Christians to scoff at the Pharisees. In the Gospels, they appear mean, petty, and vindictive. 

Let’s be careful, though. The Pharisees were the religious leaders of their day, enjoying and abusing their power and prestige. Today’s church leaders face these same temptations. 

But it’s not just leaders who need Jesus’s warnings. The Pharisees were honored in the first century, so those who weren’t Pharisees respected them. Therefore, at least some of the qualities Jesus rebuked in the Pharisees were present in the common synagogue member. If Jesus’s criticisms would have stung the average Jewish citizen back then, all Christians today should give full attention to his critiques. 

Six Woes From Jesus 

In Luke 11:37–54, we read some harsh words from Jesus. He was invited to dine at the house of a Pharisee, and the issue of pre-meal washing came up. Jesus offered this stinging rebuke. 

Now you Pharisees cleanse the outside of the cup and of the dish, but inside you are full of greed and wickedness. You fools! Did not he who made the outside make the inside also? But give as alms those things that are within, and behold, everything is clean for you. (Luke 11:39–41

Christians know that Jesus was perfect, but we seldom explore the details of his perfection. In this passage, Jesus levels six woes against the Pharisees and lawyers. As Jesus is the exact opposite of what he criticizes, we will see Jesus as the perfect religious leader and teacher. 

Woe #1: Tithing 

The first woe concerns the Pharisees and their tithes: 

But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, and neglect justice and the love of God. These you ought to have done, without neglecting the others. (Luke 11:42

It’s an absurd picture—these socially powerful men gathered around a scale, removing a precise portion of garden herbs. And those hearts that cared deeply about the weight of mint cared little for God or neighbor.  

Jesus was just the opposite. His entire mission was defined by justice and the love of God. His love for his Father compelled him in his quest to save sinners. Our holy God wanted to dwell with sinful people, and that could not happen without his just wrath aimed at those sins. Jesus came—as the perfect man—to solve this problem. 

Woe #2: Reputation 

In the second woe, Jesus focused on the Pharisees’ desire for acclaim and recognition. 

Woe to you Pharisees! For you love the best seat in the synagogues and greetings in the marketplaces. (Luke 11:43

As often happens with those in high positions, the Pharisees twisted the honor due to a leader into a hunger for praise. They were eager for people to flatter them and exalt them in religious and social settings. 

Though Jesus deserved the seat of honor, he faced derision and scorn. He did not seek out popularity but associated with the lowly. And his earthly life ended in the shame of a bogus trial and a gruesome death. Jesus humbled himself to the point of death (Philippians 2:8) so that his people might be rescued and exalted.

Make no mistake, one day everyone will see Jesus in the best seat—his throne—but during his earthly ministry he sacrificed his own comfort, ego, and reputation for others. 

Woe #3: Uncleanness 

Jesus’s final woe against the Pharisees was the most severe:

Woe to you! For you are like unmarked graves, and people walk over them without knowing it. (Luke 11:44

According to Jewish law, anyone who came into contact with a dead body or a grave was unclean (Numbers 19:11, 16). Since Pharisees were devoted to ceremonial cleanness, Jesus’s image of them was horrifying. 

The mercy and power of Jesus are seen in sharp contrast to this picture. By his touch, Jesus made unclean people clean! (See Matthew 8:1–4, for example.) 

Woe #4: Heavy Burdens 

After the first three woes, Jesus focused on the lawyers in the crowd:

Woe to you lawyers also! For you load people with burdens hard to bear, and you yourselves do not touch the burdens with one of your fingers. (Luke 11:46

It’s easy to see Jesus on the opposite side of this coin:

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light. (Matthew 11:28–30

The burden of following Jesus is one of dying to oneself. But this yoke is easy in view of the burden Jesus bore for sinners.  

Woe #5: The Blood of the Prophets 

This fifth woe is the hardest of the six to decipher (Luke 11:47–51). Jesus condemned the lawyers for building the tombs of the prophets, the same prophets whom their fathers killed. “So you are witnesses and you consent to the deeds of your fathers” (Luke 11:48).

Jesus goes on to say that “the blood of all the prophets…may be charged against this generation” (Luke 11:50). 

If the lawyers approved of the death of the prophets, then they opposed the greatest prophet ever—the one standing before them. All the law and prophets pointed to Jesus, and the lawyers, who were supposed to be experts in the Scriptures, ignored these signposts. Because they despised the Son of God, their generation was guilty. 

Woe #6: The Key of Knowledge 

What is the goal of Scripture if not to point people to God? 

Woe to you lawyers! For you have taken away the key of knowledge. You did not enter yourselves, and you hindered those who were entering. (Luke 11:52

Jesus called people to follow him and worship the Father. He sought his Father’s presence and wanted the door to his Father’s house flung open for many. Jesus used the key of knowledge—understanding the nature and will of God—to bring people to God. 

3 Applications 

As we move from condemning the Pharisees to commending Jesus, we must realize the demands this passage makes on us. As people who are loved, saved, and secured by God, how should we respond? 

  • Don’t neglect your heart. It’s tempting to focus on our appearance, but God knows and cares about our hearts. He who made the outside also made the inside. 
  • Don’t mistake religious practice for love. We are often so consumed with the details of church activities that we miss the larger point. We should be giving, praying, serving, worshiping, and reading, but we must not neglect justice or the love of God. 
  • Invite others to God. The church is not a club or secret society, and the knowledge of God should be used to gather people, not scatter them.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.

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Singing Is An Act of Faith

hymnal

Singing is a big part of the Christian life. We sing several times each Sunday, and we read of singing throughout the Bible. Christians are musical people.

When viewed from outside the church, however, all this singing is weird. There’s no other part of life—except, perhaps, birthday parties—that involves as much singing as Christianity.

I notice this whenever we have an official ceremony at Washington & Jefferson College, where I teach. Most of these ceremonies end with the alma mater, a song written to express one’s undying loyalty to and affection for the school. (Most colleges have such a song.) The music begins and everyone stares at the program. If not for the student singers up front, there wouldn’t be much to hear. For those who don’t sing outside the shower, it is a strange moment. I’m supposed to sing these words? To a tune? With my mouth? It’s no wonder most students (and faculty) end up mouthing the words or standing in disinterested silence.

Why We Don’t Sing

For Christians, singing is simply part of the deal.

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth! Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing! (Psalm 100:1–2)

Paul commands the church to sing as well—see Colossians 3:16 and Ephesians 5:18–20. He connects this command to thankfulness, being filled with the Spirit, and “making melody to the Lord with your heart.” Singing is part of the way we glorify God as his body.

But, let’s face it. Not many of us are born singers. We are grateful for the word “noise” in the phrase “joyful noise.” We naturally make comparisons, and we feel awkward singing when our skills fall so far short of the worship leaders or soloists in church.

And beyond the lack of talent, singing exposes us. We put ourselves at risk when we sing; there’s nowhere to hide. Those near us hear our wrong notes, missed beats, and bad pronunciation. To avoid embarrassment, we sometimes decide to make a joyful noise internally.

Why We Sing

However, our obedience to God’s command to sing doesn’t depend on our ability. God doesn’t only want singing from the choir.

Think of an analogy. We wouldn’t leave giving, praying, Bible reading, caring for orphans and widows, or loving neighbors only to those who were naturally gifted. If a friend confronted us with the Biblical command not to gossip, we wouldn’t respond, “Oh, it’s okay—I’m just not very good at not gossiping!”

We’re not called to sing because we’re great singers. We sing because God is great and greatly to be praised! And, by God’s design, one of the chief ways we praise him is through song. He is worthy of our song, so we sing!

And as we sing, especially for those not naturally gifted, we exercise faith.

As we open our mouths to sing, we must believe the truth that God is pleased with us. We trust that because of Jesus’s work for us, our Father loves us and wants to hear our voices. Because he is good and tender and faithful, he won’t turn away if we can’t carry a tune.

In a world where we rely on our senses and instincts, this will take some adjustment. We must believe the Bible over our impulse to hide. We need to trust God that our relationship with him does not depend on our performance.

Jesus, the Perfect Singer

If we’re commanded to sing, and if Jesus has perfectly obeyed every command for us, then Jesus is a singer. In fact, he’s the best singer ever.

Think of your favorite hymn or praise song. Or think of the Psalms, most of which were written to be sung in worship by the people of Israel. Jesus has sung and continues to sing these songs of praise to God! His praise to God is perfect, and that obedient praise is credited to us. This is the good news of the gospel!

So when you stand to sing at church this week, don’t hesitate. Don’t worry about your skill. Open your mouth and make your melody, trusting that God loves and accepts you on the basis of his perfect son.

Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:1–2)

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Jesus Did Not Come to Bring Peace on Earth

fire

It’s too late for this year. But if you’re looking for a Bible verse for next year’s Christmas card, I have a suggestion.

Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. (Luke 12:51)

Your card is sure to be a hit, though it may get you disinvited from some parties.

What About the Angels?

In seriousness, this passage in Luke 12 raises some difficult questions. We’re used to reading and singing about “peace on earth” at Christmas. And for good reason!

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 2:13–14)

As we read closely, we see that the angels were praising God and praying as well. They both sought and heralded peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. So, the angels weren’t declaring an immediate, universal peace with the arrival of Jesus, but they were calling for a peace among his people.

Because the birth of Jesus was a definitive, declarative step in the victory of God, and because this victory brings believers peace with God, peace among God’s people is possible. We can rest in our acceptance by God, our common adopted status as his sons and daughters. We can stop tearing each other down and start building each other up. We can love each other as brothers and sisters.

Not Now But Later

I read that portion of Luke 12 and I think, Why not, Jesus?

Why didn’t Jesus come to bring peace on earth? There’s a deep part of me—maybe it’s within everyone—that cries out for true peace on earth. Now.

But Jesus came to bring division.

“I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled! I have a baptism to be baptized with, and how great is my distress until it is accomplished! Do you think that I have come to give peace on earth? No, I tell you, but rather division. For from now on in one house there will be five divided, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against her daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law.” (Luke 12:49–53)

Jesus’s “baptism”—likely his crucifixion—will kindle a fire. That fire will bring division based on allegiance and worship, and these fault lines will shoot through households and families.

Sons and daughters of the king will necessarily divide from those outside the kingdom. We love and work and sing and pray and plead for our neighbors, but eventually everyone’s heart follows their treasure.

But among God’s children, there should not be such division: “Peace among those with whom God is pleased.” Though peace will come imperfectly, it should come.

In this aspect as in many others, the church points ahead. We have God’s presence with us now, but we will have it fully in the age to come. We understand dimly now as we look forward to crystal clarity. And we aim now for the peace that will one day extend in all directions, forever.

No Peace for Jesus

We long for that future day without death or pain or any sign of the curse (Rev 22:3). It is coming as surely as the sun rises. But it comes at a cost. We will have peace because Jesus had none.

During his earthly ministry, life for Jesus was chaotic. He had nowhere to stay, no one who understood him, and a growing crowd of accusers. His life ended with betrayal, loneliness, pain, and disgrace.

But most peace comes through conflict. The peace that Jesus secured for us came through the anguish of the cross. God the Father focused his wrath against Jesus, who stood in our place. We can have peace now in part, and we can look forward to perfect peace, because Jesus knew no peace on earth.

Christmas Cheer

The reason for Jesus’s birth doesn’t lend itself to foil-stamped greeting cards. The Incarnation wasn’t about warmly-lit, soft-focused images to make people feel cozy.

But it was about love. It was about peace.

Remember Jesus’s purpose this season. He came to bring peace within the church, division with the world, and a sure hope that sustains us until he returns.


Photo Credit: raquel raclette (2017), public domain

 

The Man With Two Names: How Jesus is the Fulfillment of Immanuel

bible rock

We celebrate and sing the name “Immanuel” at Christmas, and rightly so. “Immanuel” means “God with us,” and in one sense this is the story of the entire Bible. It is certainly the story of Advent.

But a Bible search for the word “Immanuel” doesn’t return many results. Aside from its appearance in Matthew 1, we only find this name twice in the early chapters of Isaiah.

Matthew 1

When the angel of the Lord visits Joseph in Matthew 1, he tells Joseph to name Mary’s baby Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (v. 21). Matthew comments:

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us).” (vv. 22–23)

Since “all this” which took place must include the angel revealing Jesus’ name to Joseph, then the name “Jesus” fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy. But in Isaiah’s prophecy, the son would be called “Immanuel.”

This passage raises a question: How does the name “Jesus” fulfill the prophecy that this son would be named “Immanuel”?

Isaiah 7

We need some background before we land on an answer. After King Solomon’s reign, the nation of Israel splintered. The 10 northern tribes formed their own country with the capital of Samaria. This country was then referred to as “Israel” while the two southern tribes formed the country called “Judah.”

During the time of Isaiah, the Assyrian empire was gaining power, and the other nations in the area were scrambling. Israel joined Syria in a pact of mutual defense against Assyria, and they pressed Judah to join them. As Ahaz, king of Judah, resisted, Israel and Syria threatened to attack Judah and replace Ahaz with their own king.

Isaiah 7:10–17 is one of the best-known passages in all the Prophets. God told Ahaz to ask for a sign that God would protect Judah from their enemies. Ahaz refused, so God promised his own sign—the sign of Immanuel.

We know that the prophecy about the virgin bearing a son (v. 14) is fulfilled when Jesus is born. Matthew says so! But many biblical prophecies have both immediate and ultimate fulfillments. Is this prophecy fulfilled before Jesus is born?

Isaiah reveals the answer as we read on. One key is that the Hebrew word often translated “virgin” can also be rendered “young woman” or “maiden.” Thus, a miraculous birth is not necessary for an immediate fulfillment. Verse 16 also contains language pointing to a not-long-from-now fulfillment. And the beginning of the next chapter brings this first fulfillment into focus.

Isaiah 8

In Isaiah 8:1–8 we read of the way God will bring about his thorough judgment.

One of the striking features of this passage is the strangeness of Isaiah’s son’s name: Maher-shalal-hash-baz (v. 4). This name means “the spoil speeds, the prey hastens.” Through this name God was communicating his plan to break the Israel-Syria alliance by the coming of Assyria.

Isaiah was used to giving his children names with messages. In Isaiah 7:3, God told Isaiah to take his (older) son Shear-jashub with him to speak to Ahaz. This name means “a remnant shall return.” This son carried his name as a reassuring message to Ahaz, designed to give him confidence in God.

It’s impossible to miss the parallels between Isaiah 7:16 and Isaiah 8:4. The birth of Maher-shalal-hash-baz is tied to the victory of Assyria over Israel and Syria. As Immanuel comes, Judah will be free from the immediate threat of these nearby nations.

But how should we understand the meaning of “Immanuel” in Isaiah 8:8?

Even when defeat looks near and the Assyrian army is filling the land, it is still Immanuel’s land. God will not abandon his people, even in their darkest hour. Assyria will come in like a flood, sweeping Syria and Israel away. But Assyria will eventually fade from history. Judah will remain in the land of Immanuel. God will be with them.

There is one final mention of Immanuel in this chapter. Though not a title, Isaiah specifically refers to “God with us” in verse 10:

Be broken, you peoples, and be shattered;
give ear, all you far countries;
strap on your armor and be shattered;
strap on your armor and be shattered.
Take counsel together, but it will come to nothing;
speak a word, but it will not stand,
for God is with us. (Isaiah 8:9–10)

Isaiah was speaking to those who would attack Judah in the future. He dared them and warned them that they would be broken and shattered. The reason all their counsel will come to nothing and none of their words will stand is because God is with them.

Putting It Together

What does this background to the name “Immanuel” add to our reading of Matthew 1?

“Immanuel” in Isaiah is a sign for God’s people that they will see victory over their enemies. Despite the doom and devastation, God will be with them, and they will be victorious. Isaiah’s son was a first, imperfect version of Immanuel, pointing to God’s victory over military enemies through his presence.

Notice how the announcement to Joseph fulfills this prophecy. Jesus will “save his people from their sins.” For God’s people then and for us now, our sins are an enemy. They are worse than any menacing country. We are no match for them on our own, and we dare not make peace or an alliance with these scoundrels.

Sometimes our sins seem overwhelming and damnable. These rise to our necks and threaten to drown us—

But Jesus is Immanuel, God with us! He will save us from our sins!

For those who trust in him, he has taken away the punishment our sins deserve. And he will strip our sins of their power over us, taking away their allure, appeal, and longevity.

The more we see the strength and rebellion of our sin, the more we see the glory and love involved in the work of Jesus for us. He is God with us, and this is good news worth celebrating, not just at Christmas but all year long.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Aaron Burden (2016), public domain

 

The Good News of the Ascension of Jesus

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“Do not cling to me.”

This can’t be the reception Mary Magdalene was expecting when she encountered the resurrected Jesus.

Mary had been weeping outside Jesus’ tomb. You can imagine her distress, having just watched her dear friend suffer a humiliating, grisly death. Now his body was missing.

Jesus walked up to her while she investigated the empty tomb. Mary initially thought he was the gardener, but when Jesus spoke her name, she recognized him! She called out, in Aramaic, “Rabboni!” (John 20:16).

But instead of an embrace or some other warm gesture, Jesus was much more direct:

“Do not cling to me, for I have not yet ascended to the Father; but go to my brothers and say to them, ‘I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)

Read in the wrong light, this sounds cold, almost cruel. But in this statement, Jesus reveals his focus on his Father and also provides hope for Mary and the other disciples.

Jesus Longed for His Ascension

As you read through the Gospels, especially the Gospel of John, you’ll find that Jesus focused much more on his ascension than we do. By “ascension,” I’m referring to Jesus’ bodily return to heaven after his resurrection (see Luke 24:50–51 and Acts 1:9–11).

In John 20, Jesus didn’t want Mary to think he’d be on earth forever. He didn’t want her to get attached to his resurrected form. There was still work to do.

We think of Jesus’ work for us in three distinct categories: his life, death, and resurrection. But Jesus would have us add his ascension as a fourth category. And there’s no doubt this was his most anticipated work.

The Ascension Is Relational

Jesus loved his Father and longed for a reunion.

  • Jesus says to his disciples, “You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I” (John 14:28).
  • “I came from the Father and have come into the world, and now I am leaving the world and going to the Father” (John 16:28).
  • Jesus prays to his Father, “And I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one” (John 17:11).

Before his incarnation, Jesus enjoyed perfect fellowship in the immediate presence of God the Father. This is what he longed to reclaim, and it’s one reason the ascension was so important to him.

In his ascension, he would experience the unbroken presence of his Father.

Don’t miss the fact that Jesus’ ascension was a bodily ascension. This matters! It means that in the incarnation Jesus took on and identified with the human body for all time. It also means that, as the head of the new humanity, Jesus shows us the destination of the redeemed: to be with God, bodily, forever (see Revelation 21:3).

This destination should shape our longings. When our aspirations or goals are dashed, when we experience pain in body or soul, we can lift our eyes to our final home. The new heavens and the new earth await, and we will dwell with God!

The Ascension Is Functional

Though Jesus wanted the heavenly reunion that his ascension would accomplish, he also had work to do. In his ascension, Jesus accomplished and began several vital tasks for our salvation.

Jesus is coronated as King.

Jesus was declared to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead (Romans 1:4). The Old Testament background for the title “Son of God” (see Psalm 2 and 2 Samuel 7) makes it clear that this title has a royal meaning. By his resurrection, Jesus was declared to be the king!

If the resurrection declared Jesus to be King, then the ascension functions as his coronation ceremony. It was important that his disciples saw him depart, ascending to his throne, knowing he would return in the same fashion.

For more support of this function of the ascension, note the following:

  • Jesus has conquered and sat down with his Father on his throne (Revelation 3:21), where he is praised (Revelation 5:6–14).
  • Peter says that God made Jesus Lord, sitting at his right hand until his enemies are his footstool (Acts 2:34–36). This is the language of a king.
  • Paul writes that Jesus must reign (like a king!) until he has put all enemies under his feet (1 Corinthians 15:25).

Jesus sends the Holy Spirit.

We begin to learn what the ascension means when we consider what we would lose if it never happened. Here’s a huge implication: If Jesus never ascended, his followers would never have received the Holy Spirit.

Nevertheless, I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you. (John 16:7)

Let’s not underestimate the sending of the Spirit! Because of the Spirit, we have the conversions at Pentecost, the growth and expansion of the early church, and the Bible. If the Spirit were not sent, you and I would not be Christians!

Jesus is our heavenly high priest.

Jesus’ ascension also takes him to a place of great importance. He is now at the Father’s right hand, and his ongoing work there is vital.

  • The Bible tells us that Jesus is the true high priest for his people. He “is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:25). Jesus brings his people to God for true deliverance and salvation.
  • Jesus is also our heavenly advocate. He reminds his Father of his sacrifice for sin and holds our status as sons and daughters before God. “If anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 John 2:1).
  • Jesus transcended physical limitations in his ascension. Though he keeps his human body forever, Jesus is now able to listen, rule, and heal without the familiar time and space restrictions we know.

What the Ascension Means for Us

The ascension of Jesus is a glorious fact that has scores of implications for his people. Here are a few:

Assurance

As our high priest, Jesus sat down at God’s right hand, indicating that his work of sacrifice is done (Hebrews 10:11–12). Our standing with God doesn’t depend on our actions or our emotions, but on the finished work of Christ.

Confidence

The enthroned king has been given all power to rule, and this power is his to dispense to his church (see Ephesians 1:15–23). Nothing can stand in the way of God’s purposes, and he will accomplish them with power, often through us.

Hope

When Jesus spoke to his disciples about his departure from earth, the note was joyous, not mournful. “And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:3). In this one verse, Jesus gives at least three reasons for hope.

He is preparing a place for us. He will come again. He will take us to be with him.

This is the destiny for those who, by God’s grace, call on Jesus in faith.


Note: I benefited greatly from reading these three articles in researching this topic: Why Is the Ascension So Important?Four Reasons Jesus’ Ascension MattersMore Than an Afterthought: Six Reasons Jesus’s Ascension Matters.

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Dawid Zawiła (2016), public domain

 

15 Marks of a Disciple of Jesus

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Christianity is not a club.

Jesus does not want cheerleaders or groupies. Following Christ is not about T-shirts, slogans, or hashtags. Jesus calls us to be children of his Father. He calls us to be his disciples.

Because Jesus has a unique role in God’s plan of salvation, he is more than an example. The best mirror we find in the Gospel accounts is not Jesus but his disciples.

15 Marks of a Disciple of Jesus

Here are fifteen things we learn about being a disciple of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke.

  1. A disciple is called (Luke 5:1–11). Jesus didn’t need a recruiter. He called and his disciples “left everything and followed him.” Likewise, God calls us as disciples, not because we are worthy but because of his grace (2 Timothy 1:9).
  2. A disciple is taught (Luke 6:20–49). Jesus spent a lot of time teaching his disciples about reality. Who did the Messiah come for? Who is worthy of salvation? What is the kingdom of God? We are just as ignorant and resistant to the truth; we need instruction.
  3. A disciple is a follower (Luke 7:11). Inherent in the definition of a disciple is one who does not choose his own direction, causes, or values. Disciples follow Jesus.
  4. A disciple is aware of the kingdom of God (Luke 8:9–10). Jesus reveals truth to his disciples that is obscured to others. Because God’s kingdom is not worldly or political, we must be taught the values and requirements of the king.
  5. A disciple is a servant (Luke 9:14–17). Jesus’ disciples got their hands dirty, distributing multiplied food to the hungry people. Sometimes walking with Jesus means picking up bread crusts and fish bones.
  6. A disciple is sent to proclaim the kingdom of God (Luke 9:1–6; 10:1–12). Jesus sent out his twelve apostles and then seventy-two others as laborers in a plentiful harvest (Luke 10:2). As those sent with a message to proclaim, his disciples were in danger as lambs among wolves (Luke 10:3) because they were announcing a different king. The heavenly kingdom they announced valued peace (Luke 10:5) and healing (Luke 10:9), not riches and power. Challenging existing authority structures is often unpopular.
  7. A disciple confesses Jesus as Christ (Luke 9:18–20). Peter famously confessed Jesus as “the Christ of God.” This is the most important question we face as well: Who do you say Jesus is? We must answer this daily, reorienting our priorities, our passions, and our purpose around the Messiah.
  8. A disciple is a witness (Luke 10:23–24). The apostles walked with Jesus. Many longed to see what they saw. This is part of God’s “gracious will” (Luke 10:21). We also witness the love and power of Jesus through his Word and his work in the world. The arena is much bigger now, but his disciples still sit court-side.
  9. A disciple denies himself and takes up his cross (Luke 9:23–27). A disciple’s life was not glamorous or lucrative. It was full of hardship and danger. Make no mistake—if your highest values are comfort, peace, and safety, you will lose your life. But if you lose your life for Jesus’ sake, you will save it.
  10. A disciple is committed (Luke 9:57–62). Jesus teaches that following him is not easy; it requires everything. “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”
  11. A disciple is a cross-bearer and a cost-counter (Luke 14:26–33). Following Jesus is serious and costly. It may cost family and friends; it may cost time and comfort; it may even cost your life. Jesus says, “Any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.”
  12. A disciple is rebuked by Jesus (Luke 18:15–17). When we submit to Jesus as Lord, we acknowledge his perfection, his wisdom, and his authority to correct us—and we need a lot of correction! The disciples were rebuked by Jesus, and if we do not know the same, we’re probably not encountering the Lord. This ongoing process happens as we read his Word and interact with his people. God’s rebuke is evidence of his love for his children.
  13. A disciple praises God (Luke 19:33–40). When disciples see Jesus clearly, the “King who comes in the name of the Lord,” they rejoice and praise the Father who sent his Son. Following Jesus is not primarily about doing, but about worshipping.
  14. A disciple spends time with his Master (Luke 22:11; 22:39; 22:45). In the hours before his arrest, Jesus yearned for time with his disciples. They ate with him, talked with him, and sang with him. As God changes our hearts and gives us new desires, chief among them will be love for him. We seek out and spend time with those we love.
  15. A disciple is redeemed, comforted, and dispatched to the world (Luke 24:36–53). Jesus seeks out his disciples after his resurrection though they were absent at his crucifixion and burial. He speaks peace and comfort to them. He died for their sins and rose from the grave so they also could have new life. As he sent his disciples into the world with the promise of the Spirit (v.49), so he also sends us.

Disciple, Will You Take Up Your Cross?

There is no place for pride among those who follow Jesus (Luke 22:24–27). We are called, taught, directed, equipped, and corrected by our Master. We cannot meet our greatest need—reconciliation with God—and we often bristle at this reality.

But Jesus is a loving Savior. When we confess our pride, he graciously restores us. Our sin-debt has already been paid, so he doesn’t hold it against us. He is also the Risen King, who replaces our pride with humility, through the work of His spirit within us.

Jesus continues to call us today. Will you take up your cross as a disciple and follow the One who was taken up on the cross for you?

This post originally appeared at Unlocking the Bible.


Photo Credit: Kathy Büscher (2013), public domain

Now, We Laugh

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The victory seemed sure. Against the odds death lashed this man to the wood, this wonder who spoke so much of life. Jesus had assaulted death’s kingdom at every turn, and now, with a final cry, he ran out of breath.

His body found a tomb, and fear stationed a rock and guards. These bouncers would let no one in.

They faced the wrong direction. They missed the show.

∞∞∞

Who knows what sounds or sights burst inside. Perhaps it was ear-splitting, a blinding flash. Maybe it was quiet and small, a hiccup of life stirring the body.

Jesus flung death aside and the boulder with it. The grave clothes lay discarded on the ground. The mighty guards passed out from fear, replaced by heavenly officers.

As he walked out of the tomb, Jesus laughed at death. The righteous Son of God had finished his work. Now he pulsed and thrummed with life.

∞∞∞

We follow our Savior between the times. We see the hatred and the grabbing of the old way, kicking and jerking toward and within us. We mourn and cry and resist.

But we are not all mourning. We know the new way. We laugh at the good news—not because it’s funny, but because it’s so good. We are amazed and overcome and grateful, and we laugh the laugh of those who are free.

We laugh that the good news would be spoken to us. We laugh that we would be loved and adopted. We laugh that we would be promised such a future.

∞∞∞

Death will make its final, futile attempts. It will throw us in the ground, a stone on top.

Who knows what sounds or sights will come. Jesus will fling death aside and the stone with it. The heavenly officers will take us further up and further in to the city coming down.

As we join the throng, we will laugh at death. Where is your sting? Where is your victory?

∞∞∞

Without the curse, without frustration and thorns, we will rejoice forever. In the presence of our Father, we will know as we have been fully known. In our joy, we will laugh.

That joy is not just for Then. It is not just for Easter morning. It is for now and now and now, because the bond Jesus secured cannot be broken. We are grabbed and held by everlasting, full-to-the-brim love.

We will laugh forever because we will be with God, safe. And we laugh now, because we need the practice.


Photo Credit: cheriejoyful (2011), Creative Commons License