Saturday, December 7, 2013

The Miracle and Meaning of the Incarnation

“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.” – 2 Corinthians 8:91

The passage in which this verse is found is not concerned with what might be called “Christology” - that is, the doctrine concerning the person and work of Christ – but it is deeply concerned with some very practical issues, namely, the temporal needs that existed in Jerusalem and the corresponding obligation of the Corinthian Christians to help meet that need, just as their Macedonian brethren had already done. The need that Paul is wanting to meet is great, and so the effort called for to meet that need is also great. And therefore, the giving that needs to be done is going to require some sacrifice on the part of those who do give if the need is to be met. It is for this reason, perhaps, that Paul commends the Macedonian example:

We want you to know, brothers, about the grace of God that has been given among the churches of Macedonia, for in a severe test of affliction, their abundance of joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favor of taking part in the relief of the saints – and this, not as we expected, but they gave themselves first to the Lord, and then by the will of God to us (2 Cor. 8:1-5).

What is amazing about these verses are the things Paul puts together that we would not normally associate. For example, Paul puts “abundance of joy” with “extreme poverty” and “wealth of generosity” together. Extreme poverty normally does not coexist with abundance of joy and wealth of generosity. Furthermore, this was all in the context of “a severe test of affliction.” And it was a test. The question was whether or not joy and generosity would win out in the midst of affliction and poverty. The Macedonian Christians passed the test with flying colors. And now Paul is encouraging the Corinthian believers to do the same:

Accordingly, we urged Titus that as he had started, so he should complete among you this act of grace. But as you excel in everything – in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you – see that you excel in this act of grace also. I say this not as a command, but to prove [test] by the earnestness of others that your love also is genuine (vs. 6-8).

Perhaps it should not be surprising that Paul calls this “wealth of generosity” the “grace of God” (cf ver. 1). He emphasizes this aspect of their ministry of giving. In verses 1-8, Paul calls it “grace” four times (the word “favor” in verse 4 in the Greek is charis which is the word for “grace”). It is grace in that it is a gift which God has wrought in them (vs. 1 and 7), and it is grace because it is a gift freely given to those for whom it is intended. But it is also grace because, as Paul goes on to remind them in verse 9, it is a reflection of what our Lord and Savior has himself done for us. And thus Paul gives them the ultimate motivation for giving. As believers, they have received freely the greatest of all gifts – salvation – at the greatest of cost – the humiliation of God, and therefore there is no reason a believer can give that justifies a retreat into a grasping and covetous attitude of mind.

But there is more here than just a motivation to give generously. What Paul is doing here is something a bit more: he is asking them to give sacrificially. We can see this in the reference Paul gives to the Macedonian situation. But we also see it in the motivation given in verse 9. The incarnation of the Son of God was not just a generous gift, it was a sacrificial one.

Moreover, Paul is not just commending a one time sacrifice. The spiritual gifts to which Paul compares the gift of giving in verse 7 were not singularities in the lives of believers, they were characteristics of the life of faith. Even so, the sacrifice to which God called his Son in becoming a man was not just endured at the end. His was a life of sacrifice. His life began in a stable, continued in poverty and hardship, and ended on a Roman cross. In the same way, Paul is calling the Corinthian Christians to a life of sacrifice for others. Once this need is met, they will not have learned how to be like Christ if they revert to a Scrooge mentality.

But how do you get like this? Sacrificing for those we love is one thing, but Paul is asking them to sacrifice for those whom they have never met. This is why verse 9 is so important. We can live sacrificially for others because in doing so we are following Christ. I am imitating him, and in doing so, am pleasing him.

Consider the example of George Washington. It is a miracle that during the Revolution he was able to keep the Continental Army together for so long. It was a miracle because for the most part Congress supported it with little more than empty promises of future pay and supplies. Soldiers went months and years without being paid and in addition to that endured incredible hardship year after year. Winters were the worst (and Valley Forge was only one out of six or seven!). Add to this the fact that Washington lost more battles than he won. But in the end, Washington didn't need to win battles to win the war. He just needed to keep an army in the field long enough to wear the British down. And this he did. And the one of the reasons he was able to pull off such a miracle is because when Washington left Mount Vernon at the beginning of the war, he never went back – not even once – until the successful conclusion of the war 8 years later. He stayed in the field with his troops. He endured their hardships with them. He braved the cold, the hunger, the retreats, the fear, and the defeats right alongside his soldiers until the very end. His ability to identify with his men kept them loyal and persevering until Yorktown in 1781.

In this same way, I will be willing to sacrifice if I know that in doing so I am following my Captain, the Lord Jesus Christ. This is one of the reasons the doctrine of the incarnation is so important. If you have a defective doctrine of the incarnation, you are not going to give yourself sacrificially the way Paul is calling you to give. If you think, for example, that the incarnation was only the appearance of weakness, then you are not going to want to sacrifice very much. If you think that because Jesus is also God, he did not feel the pain, the temptations, the weakness, the frustrations, the loneliness, the hunger, the thirst, the rejection, the thorns pressing into his skull, the bone fragments on the leather strap ripping through his flesh, the nails piercing his hands and feet – then you are not going to follow him in the kind of sacrifice he is calling you to.

In other words, theology is very important. I never tire of saying this especially because we live in a time when theological study and thought is marginalized in many quarters. The irony is that many of those who seem to despise theology do so because, as they put it, “It's not applicable to life.” Surely this text shows the folly of such thinking!

But on the other hand, this text also shows us that a study of theology should never be entered into as an end in itself. Theological reflection is not meant to improve our ability to prove to others just how clever we are, or to one-up those who disagree with us. Instead, the true purpose of doctrine is to cause us to come to Christ, to come to know Christ, and to follow and glorify him with our lives.

The doctrine of the incarnation, of which the apostle speaks, is thus a very practical doctrine. Indeed, it serves many purposes besides being a motivation to give to those in need. And a proper consideration of the Son of God coming in flesh ought to arouse our hearts to thankful worship and holy adoration. It is a subject worthy of our consideration and frequent meditation (as it was of the angels, Luke 2:13,14), and which we would now like to reflect upon. Consider with me the miracle and the meaning of the incarnation.

The Miracle

It was a miracle that God stooped so low as to take upon himself a human nature. John Flavel, the Puritan, shows clearly just how marvelous this was. He writes, “The distance between the highest and lowest species of creatures is but a finite distance. The angel and the worm dwell not so far asunder. But for the infinite glorious Creator of all things to become a creature, is a mystery exceeding all human understanding. The distance between God and man is an infinite distance.” The apostle put it this way: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor.”

How could the Son of God become poor? Normally, when we think of someone becoming poor, we assuming that through some unfortunate circumstance they have lost all, or much of, their wealth. Becoming poor means losing what you previously had. Is this what happened to Christ?

Yes and no. Yes, because Christ temporarily lost the glory he had with the Father before the world was (John 17:5). Jesus prayed that his disciples would see his glory in the age to come – a request that would be meaningless if he had that glory while he was upon the earth (John 17:24). And on the cross, he lost fellowship with the Father, as he was forsaken by him while bearing upon himself the sins of his people. So there were some huge things that Christ lost by becoming a man.

But we must emphatically say no, if by “becoming poor” we mean that Christ lost his divine nature. He remained God after he was born as a man. Throughout his ministry, our Lord asserted his equality with the Father (John 10:30), and his divinity in the “I am” passages, such as John 8:58. The apostle John himself wrote, “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. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father's side, he has made him known” (1:14,18). He was God. And as God, he ever remained eternal, unchangeable, infinite, and perfect.

However, our Lord became poor, not so much by what he gave up, but by what he added. “Remaining what he was, he became what he was not.” He did not become poor by divesting himself of divinity, but did so by adding to himself “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3). In doing so, he “made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:7). He entered in upon all the experiences of humanity by becoming flesh. And thus the Infinite One became finite, experiencing all the infirmities that men face. The All-powerful became weak and helpless. At first an infant, the Creator and Sustainer of all became dependent upon a human mother.

What a stoop this was! It is no wonder that theologians have called this the humiliation of Christ. He was humiliated beyond our comprehension. For not only was he born in conditions that were less than favorable – such as being born in a stable of poor and obscure parentage – but in the fact that he was made in the “likeness of sinful flesh” – not that he was sinful, but that Christ in his humanity experienced all the bodily and psychological effects that sin has wrought on the human race. Sickness, weakness, suffering, temptation, persecution, loneliness, mental agony: all these became the lot of the Son of God. The fact that he who once enjoyed the praise of angels stooped to bear the insults of wicked men surely shows us the poverty which Christ endured for the sake of his people. He was a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. He trod the wine-press alone. It was in this way, then, that he became poor.

We need to realize that this was a literal event. The Son of God actually became a human person by being “conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary” (to use the language of the Westminster Shorter Catechism). He did not, as some of the ancient heretics maintained, merely parade in human flesh like a wolf in sheep's clothing. He was not God masquerading as a man. Nor did he simply appear as if he were as man, as the Docetists believed (cf. 1 John 4:2,3). This was as much an event of history as the presidency of Abraham Lincoln. This is the mystery of the gospel: “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16, KJV). The gospel is not a nice story that merely teaches lessons about how to be nice to others. The gospel is predicated upon the fact that God himself invaded human history in the person of his Son to set things right, to restore mankind, to do what man could not.

But we also need to realize that this was a supernatural event. Some people don't want even to consider the possibility that historical and supernatural can go together. And indeed, if you begin on the assumption that the universe is a closed system – or that God does not exist – then these two things cannot go together. Naturalism is the only possibility. However, we believe that there are very good reasons to believe not only that God exists, but that God rules the universe. And if this is so, it would be strange to rule out the possibility of the supernatural.

Thus, the Christian has no problem in affirming that the Son of God did not become man by being begotten in the ordinary way through a father and mother. Instead, he was begotten by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the virgin Mary, as predicted in OT prophesy (Isa. 7:14; cf. Micah 5:2). The Spirit of God, in some mysterious way, formed the flesh of Christ out of Mary's substance, so that he is completely human, although remaining the Son of God (Lk. 1:35).

This was not the creation of a new being: the fact that this is called an incarnation underscores the fact of Christ's preexistence as the eternal Son of God (Gal. 4:4; Jn. 1:14). The Word that was in the beginning assumed human nature and was made flesh, so that he became both fully man and fully God (cf. Rom. 1:3,4).

The Meaning

When some people talk about “divine revelation” they like to say that God has mainly revealed himself in events rather than in words. And they like to say that it honors Christ to say that God's greatest revelation has not come to us in the pages of a book, like the Bible, but through the events in history concerning the Son of God, like the incarnation and crucifixion, and so on. Of course, they do this to get around worrisome things like “verbal inspiration” and “inerrancy.” But the problem with this is that such a view of Divine revelation is incomplete. We are not about to deny that God has revealed himself in history, and ultimately in the person of his Son – in fact, we glory in it. But events need to be interpreted; without interpretation, they have no real meaning.

When we come then to the incarnation and ask the question, “Why was Christ born into the world?” we must begin not with our own ideas but with what God has indeed revealed in the pages of Scripture. And in our text, the apostle is very exact as to the meaning of the incarnation. He says: “For your sake he became poor, that you by his poverty might become rich.” That is the reason why Christ came into the world, why he was born in such a low condition, why he suffered as he did, and died an accursed death on the Cross, why he endured the wrath of God and was buried for a time (Shorter Catechism). It was for our sakes, that we might be rich.

There are three ways in which Christ's humiliation created the wealth of his people.

First, Christ's birth was necessary for the redemption of his people. We, being fallen, have forfeited any right to redeem ourselves, and are hopelessly bound under the wrath of God against sin. We would not redeem ourselves anyway, since in the disposition of our hearts we are alienated against God (Rom. 8:7). And we cannot redeem ourselves on account of the strictness of God's law, both in its precepts and penalty.

The precepts of God require the obedience of the heart, and not just external conformity. A man might be outwardly blameless before men, yet there has never been a man that has been able to constantly love God with all the heart.

On the other hand, the penalty of the law of God requires infinite satisfaction, sin being committed against a Being of infinite glory. No man is able to do this. Therefore, help must come from other quarters. And so it did; God came to redeem us from the curse under which we had fallen. But it was necessary for God to become a man in order to redeem us. In order for human people to be redeemed, sin must be dealt with and expiated in their nature (cf. Heb. 2:9, ff). That is the very reason why the blood of bulls and of goats would never suffice to take away sin (Heb. 10:1-10). Angels are not redeemed because Christ did not become an angel. But men are redeemed because the Word became flesh. Further, not only must God become man because man sinned, but he must do so because the penalty of sin is death. Christ had to be born that he might die and so redeem us to God.

Not only so, but in order that men might be redeemed, a ransom must be provided that would sufficiently cover all the sins of those who would be redeemed. Thus, not only must the redeemer be man, but he must also be God. For only God could provide such a ransom that could cover the sins of those who would believe. And so we see the absolute necessity of the incarnation. No mere man or woman could ever redeem others, no matter how perfect he or she might be. This is an act which only God can accomplish. As Loraine Boettner has well said, “It was for [the purpose of redemption] that He became incarnate, so that, as God dwelling in a human body, God clothed in human flesh, He might assume man's place before the law and satisfy Divine justice. Only a truly human person could suffer and die, and only a truly Divine person could give that suffering infinite value.”

Redemption has really brought unimaginable wealth to the people of God: forgiveness, a right standing before God, adoption into his family, an inheritance with the saints, eternal felicity and everlasting happiness. Who could ask for or desire more than that? What greater blessings could ever be enjoyed than those enjoyed by the elect? Christ died, not to give us corruptible riches, but everlasting treasure, which can never lose its luster and which can never be taken away from us.

And this, my friends, is what separates the true evangelical religion of Christ from the false gospel propagated by false prophets. Christ did not die to elevate human nature: he died to give us life. He did not die merely to set for us an example, but to redeem us to God. Do you believe this? Is this your hope? Is this the source of your confidence, that Christ died for you?

The second way in which we are made rich by the humiliation of Christ is that through Christ's identification with us in all the trials and temptations through which his people pass, so that he can truly sympathize with them in all the vicissitudes, trials, and temptations of life. He experienced them to their utmost, yet without sin. This is something that the writer of Hebrews especially wanted to emphasize: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weakness, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are; yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). In moral temptations, in physical suffering, in mental agony caused by loneliness, desertion, calumny, persecution, he can sympathize with all his people, for he endured them all. “Jesus wept.” This cannot but yield great encouragement to suffering people, for there is no condition in which he cannot help.

Finally, we are made rich through the incarnation because through the Word becoming flesh, we have the most full revelation of God to men. We cannot see God who is Spirit (Jn. 1:18). But in Christ, we have a full revelation of the Divine being to men, “for in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9). In Christ, the glory of God appears to men. He has revealed God to man in a most full and concrete way. What Abraham never saw, what Moses was not allowed to see, we see in the person of the Lord Jesus Christ. He who beholds Christ beholds God (Jn. 14:9).

And this is true even today when we cannot behold Jesus with our eyes. But we can behold him in the Word, the Scriptures of the New Covenant. We can see him in the Gospels, hear his word and watch him heal the multitudes and die the appointed death on the cross. We can see these events interpreted for us by his apostles in the epistles. And we can read the Old Covenant through the New and see Christ there.

Behold the Man who was born to die for sinners! May the Lord grant us eyes of faith to see him and hearts of repentance to please him and feet of obedience that follow him in ways of sacrifice. He gave up more than we could possibly imagine so that we could be richer than we could possibly imagine. What he asks us to give is nothing in comparison. And he gave so much more. So follow him. May the incarnation lead us to a new level of sacrificial following of our Lord.

1All Scripture quotations are from the English Standard Version (ESV).

Monday, December 2, 2013

The People God Invited to be the Welcoming Committee for the Entrance of his Son into the World

In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might be rich.”  I love how Paul describes the incarnation in terms of grace.  In the Christmas season, when so much focus is placed on buying gifts for others, we need to remember that the greatest gift ever given was something no one could buy – the gift of God’s Son coming into the world.

This gift – this grace – was the most important event that had ever taken place upon the earth until that time.  As Wayne Grudem has put it, the incarnation was the greatest miracle that ever took place, for it involved the Son of God taking unto himself a human nature and coming into the world of sinful men.  And yet God did not give this gift wrapped in glitter; he gave it to humble people in the most inconspicuous way.  When kings and queens make an entrance into any place, usually only the noblest are invited amidst great pageantry.  But that’s not how God does things.  When Jesus came into the world, God didn’t invite kings and princes and the wise and noble to attend his Son’s entrance.  Instead, he invited the lowly, the unknown, the poor, and strangers from faraway places.  

What does this tell us about God, his Son, and the salvation he came to accomplish?  Specifically, what does it tell us about the grace of this gift?

Joseph and Mary – The Foundation of Grace in the Promise of God

Probably of all the people who attended the entrance of Christ into the world, the two most intimately involved were Joseph and Mary.  The first two human faces the incarnate Son of God saw were those of Joseph and Mary.  God chose Joseph and Mary to be the human parents of the Son of God.  Joseph of course is only the “supposed” father of Jesus (Luke 3:23); Mary was still a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb.  Nevertheless, he acted as his father until he died (evidently, sometime between Jesus’ twelfth and thirtieth years).  Mary not only brought him into the world, but also was able to attend his ministry and witness his death, resurrection, and ascension. 

The remarkable thing about Joseph is that he was a descendent of King David, a point that both Matthew and Luke are careful to make (Mt. 1; Lk. 3).  This is important because the Messiah was promised to come from the line of David (Isa. 9:7; Jer. 23:5).  In fact, when the angel addresses Joseph, he addresses him as “thou son of David” (Mt. 1:20).  Later, Paul would remind Timothy that this was an integral part of the gospel he was to remember: “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8; cf. Rom. 1:3).

The coming of Jesus into the world was thus the fulfillment of a promise.  This is an amazing reminder that despite external appearances to the contrary, God always keeps his word.  It might have seemed by that time that God was going to renege on his promise.  After all, the line of David had fallen into almost complete insignificance.  Joseph was a simple carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, an obscure town in northern Palestine.  Israel was no longer its own nation, but ruled by the Romans under the Edomite King Herod.  And yet it was at this time that God moved in history to bring into the world his Son who would bring redemption to men.

God was also working out his promises through Mary.  God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her, “Behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Lk. 2:31-33).  That was an incredible promise to a young girl like Mary.  Yet she believed the Lord: “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (v. 38).  She believed what the angel had said: “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (v. 37).  

We can probably learn a lot of things from Joseph and Mary, but the thing that stands out to me is that God is always true to his word and that he can use the most insignificant people (in the eyes of the world) in the most desperate of times to accomplish his purpose.  

The Shepherds: The Freeness of Grace

They were unimportant in the eyes of the powerful and prestigious.  “Shepherds in an agrarian society may have small landholdings, but those would be inadequate to meet the demands of their own families, the needs of their own agricultural pursuits, and the burden of taxation.  They were, then, peasants, located toward the bottom of the scale of power and privilege. . . . Good news comes to peasants, not rulers; the lowly are lifted up.” (Joel Green, Luke (NICNT, 131).  Note the implied contrast between the shepherds and the Roman emperor in Luke 2. 

They were unimportant in the eyes of the religious.  They were not part of the priesthood, nor were they scribes.  They were not part of the established religious system.  Nor were they prophets like John the Baptist.  Though we are led to assume they were pious men by the response they gave to the announcement of the Birth (Luke 2:15, 17, 20), nevertheless, they were unknown to the religious scene of the time.

They were unknown to the world both then and now.  We don’t know their names, or what happened to them after this.  They come into the birth narrative and then disappear without a trace.

The lesson is that God exalts the lowly and humbles the proud.  And he does this through his Son’s redemption.  Prestige, power, wealth, and wisdom do not qualify someone for God’s favor, though these certainly make one important in this age.  In fact, they are often stumbling blocks to the favor of God (e.g., the rich young ruler in Matthew 19; see also 1 Cor. 1:25-31).  Of course, it is not that worldly poverty puts one automatically in the category of the saved.  Poor people are lost, too.  Poverty does not make one holy.  Rather, God seeks those who are “poor in spirit,” who see their own spiritually impoverished state before God, who mourn over their sins, who feel their vileness before a holy God.  Jesus did not come to call to repentance the righteous (those who are in their own eyes at least, rich before God), but sinners (those who feel the poverty of soul before God).

Moreover, being known to men is a really big deal to a lot of us.  We call it fame, and most of us want it.  But the shepherds were not famous.  And just as riches can become an obstacle to seeking God, even so fame can present just as big an obstacle.  Jesus told the Pharisees of his day, “How can you believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that comes from God only?” (Jn. 5:44).  In other words, Jesus is claiming that their pursuit of fame stood in the way of their embracing the Son of God.  Later in the Gospel, John gives this assessment of such people, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (Jn. 12:42, 43).  Being known to men may get your career advanced.  But it will not save you.  The only thing that really matters in the end is being known to God, being “approved unto God” (2 Tim. 2:15; Rom. 2:29).  The shepherds were not famous, they were not known to men.  But they were known to God.  

And the way this happens is through Christ.  God “knows us” in a loving, saving way through his Son.  The only one who is important in God the Father’s eyes is his Son.  But when Jesus came into the world, he did not come to represent himself, but to represent his elect and to live and die for them in their stead.  And so God now sees them through his Son.  Though in themselves they are wicked and undeserving of the least of God’s mercies, God sees them in Christ, and therefore loves them in Christ and accepts them in Christ.  When a person is “known” by God in this kind of saving way, that person is truly famous.

Simeon and Anna: The Beauty of Grace

The shepherds illustrate the freeness of God’s grace in introducing unknown and unimportant peasants to the birth of the King of heaven.  They were tending their sheep, not spending weeks and years in fasting and prayer in the temple.  And yet God ushered them into his presence; he surrounded them with a choir of angels and pointed them to his Son.  On the other hand, the characters of Simeon and Anna illustrate what God’s grace does in the lives of redeemed sinners.  In contrast to the shepherds, we know the names of this prophet and prophetess, and we are given a thorough “background check” and some of their history.  Of course, Luke’s purpose in this is to provide believability for their claims about Jesus.  But it also serves to exemplify the power of grace in men and women, and what true religion really looks like.  

And this needs to be celebrated in our day.  Though it is true that we devalue the Cross if we make good works of any kind a precondition for the enjoyment of the grace of God, we also devalue the Cross if we do not rejoice in its power to change lives and reorient us toward God and away from ourselves and our idols.  To devalue to Cross in the first way leads to legalism; to devalue the Cross in the second way leads to licentiousness and antinomianism.  Legalism and licentiousness are both forms of bondage and should be avoided at all costs.  We need to recognize the fact that God’s grace can find a person in any condition, but we also need to recognize the fact that it does not leave a person in the same state in which it found him.  Grace changes lives.  And it had changed Simeon and Anna.  Their testimonies are a striking example of the beauty of holiness in the lives of believers.

Note how they are described.  Simeon is described as a “just and devout” man, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25).  The fact that he was “just and devout” showed that he loved God’s law and sought to place all of his life under obedience to God.  Moreover, his hope was set not on this world, but on the redemption that was to bring the entire world into the kingdom of God, for he was waiting for “the consolation of Israel.”  This is the “salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (vs. 30-31).  Simeon longed for the time that the whole world would embrace the Lordship of Christ, and now that he had seen the Messiah, he was ready to “depart in peace” (v. 29).  Further, Simeon was a man who was led by the Spirit of God.  God revealed the coming of Christ to him by the Spirit and by the Spirit was led into the temple to meet the Christ.  Thus, Simeon was a Spirit-led man who life was characterized by holiness and hope.

Anna is similarly described: “And there was one Anna a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:36-37).  In a day when marriage for a woman was as much a necessity as it might have been desirable, it is incredible that Anna did not let that deter her from seeking God in the temple as a widow.  Seeking the Lord was the most important thing to her, more important than finding a husband or living a “normal” life.  And as a result, God rewarded her seeking by letting her become a part of the welcoming committee of his Son into the world.

These two people also illustrate the fact that God rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6).  As we enter this Christmas season, my hope is that we do not become distracted by the glitter and forget the God-Man, Jesus Christ, but that we would rather seek him more persistently – and find him in new and amazing ways.

The Magi: The Scope of Grace

Of all the people God invited to welcome his Son into the world, the Magi are the most unlikely.  They were from the east, probably Babylonia, and belonged to a class of magicians and astrologers.  They were almost certainly Gentiles, not Jews, since they did not know the birth place of the Messiah.  Thus, whereas the shepherds and Simeon and Anna were all Jews and belonged to the people of God, these men were outsiders who knew little of what God’s word had to say.  And yet God invited them, and in fact went so far as to use a star to get them there!

The implications of their visit are obvious.  God was showing the world that Christ is not merely the leader of the Jewish nation, but he is the King of all the world.  He is the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Even before the Great Commission was given by Christ to his disciples, God was bringing people from the nations to bow at the feet of Jesus and render worship and homage to him.

The visit of the Magi is a compelling reminder also that God’s people come from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation, and that it is wrong to associate the kingdom of God with a particular culture.  That is to say, we must not mistake white-American culture with the culture of God’s kingdom.  We need to remember that our culture has been molded by forces other than the gospel, and insofar as it is a product of this age, it also needs to be redeemed.  A recent example of a failure to remember this can be seen in the brouhaha over "holy" hip-hop in certain circles, some condemning it, some defending it.  Though I am not personally a fan of hip-hop, it does seem to me that those who condemn it are making the mistake of stamping the music of a certain culture (namely, European/Western) with God’s approval and condemning everything else.  But our cultural sensitivities must not be mistaken for sanctified discernment, and we need to be ready to thank God that he is redeeming men and women in other cultures who then express their gratitude to him in ways appropriate to that culture.

The Entrance of the King

If you look back at the narratives involving Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and the Magi, they are not ultimately about them.  They are about Christ, and the events in which they were involved only served to underline the uniqueness and the glory of the one they were invited to welcome into the world.  

For example, Joseph and Mary are not the main point of the birth narrative.  After the incident in the temple when Jesus was 12, we hear nothing further about Joseph.  And even though Mary is one of whom “all generations shall call . . . blessed” (Luke 1:48), yet she is not accorded the worship in the New Testament that has for centuries characterized some sections of Christianity.  Rather, they both recognized that they were only playing a small part in a bigger movement meant to highlight not their own but the glory of God.  The bigger picture is that “She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).

Also, when you read about the shepherds, you almost immediately forget about them as you are introduced to the angelic messenger and the choir that attended the scene.  As Luke puts it in 2:9-14, “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid.  And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.  And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, 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, good will toward men” (or, “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” - ESV).  

What is the point of this passage?  It is not the shepherds, surely.  It is about Christ, the fact that the news about his birth is news of great joy – that it is for all people (like the Magi) – that he is a Savior, Christ the Lord – and that in the mission of his Son God was getting glory to himself and bringing peace to men.

Or take Simeon and Anna.  The entire point of the narrative, even the introduction to their characters, is to highlight not them but Christ.  It is to announce that Jesus is God’s salvation (v. 30), that he is the light for both Jew and Gentile (v. 32).  Similarly, as soon as Anna heard of the entrance of Jesus into the temple, Luke tells us that she “gave thanks . . . unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (v. 39).

Or consider the Magi.  The chief point of the narrative has little to do with the Magi themselves.  Rather, Matthew is at pains to point out the fact that despite Herod’s claim to the throne, the true King of the Jews is not Herod but Jesus (Mt. 2:1-2).  The gifts they bear are fit for a king (v. 11).  Even the passage that is quoted to show the Magi the way points up to the Lordship of this baby: “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel” (v. 6).  

None of us are important.  Christ is the only one who is truly important.  He is the only one who can save us from our sins, which is our greatest need.  He alone can deliver from the wrath of the just and holy God who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Mt. 10:28).  He alone is truly the King, invested with divine glory and honor and sovereignty.  With the shepherds, with Simeon and Anna, with the Magi, we need to seek him.  God’s word, which shines more brightly than the star of the Magi, points us to him (2 Pet. 1:19).  They welcomed the Son of God into the world, and God is now inviting you to welcome his Son into your heart, to bow to him, to trust in him, to love and obey him.  He is the only one worthy of real devotion, and he alone will not disappoint those who fully place their hope in him.

We need to see him for who he is.  We need to seek him.  We need to worship him.  In doing so, we will find the joy announced by the angels to the shepherds, participate with Magi who rejoiced with great joy when they saw the star pointing the way to the manger, and join with Simeon who held the baby Jesus in his arms, his heart overflowing with gratitude and joy in seeing the Messiah, knowing that redemption had finally come.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Thanksgiving to God the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God

“But fornication, and all uncleanness, let it not be once named among you, as becometh saints; neither filthiness, nor foolish talking, nor jesting, which are not convenient, but rather giving of thanks.” Eph. 5:3-4.

Over against filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting, Paul puts giving thanks. It doesn’t at first seem like thanksgiving is the opposite of what it is set against. Shouldn’t Paul have said, “Instead of the filthy mouths, you should speak that which is holy, pure, and clean”? But he doesn’t do that. He puts thanksgiving as the antidote and opposite of unholy speech. 

To see why Paul would have done this, I think it is necessary to understand exactly what Paul meant by the terms he uses in verse 4. “Filthiness” refers to moral filth in general. Paul seems to be applying it here in this verse to filthy speech. In verse 12, Paul says that there are some things of which it is shameful to speak. Filthiness belongs to that category. Believers do not make fun of wickedness, nor do they take delight in it.

“Foolish talking” is exactly that: it is the talk of a fool. It is the “idle word” that brings into judgment (Mt. 12:36). It is speech to no use, and that does not edify. It is the “corrupt communication” which Paul forbids, which should be replaced with “that which is good to the use of edifying, that it may minister grace to the hearers” (Eph. 4:29). It is the talk of one who knows not God, whose godlessness is betrayed by the things they like to talk about.

“Jesting” is an interesting word: it refers to someone of ready wit, but who turns it to bad use. It is someone who is good at the allusive joke, the double entendre. It is the description of a person whose nimbleness of expression is put in the service of the devil.

Put together, these words describe a variety of people: from those whose language is just plain vile to those whose talk is aimless and meaningless. Though both ends of this spectrum may seem pretty diverse, the fact is that both kinds of people have at the bottom the same problem: their lives are not oriented around God. And this is discovered in the things they talk about. That’s not to say they are not oriented around something. They most certainly are. But if their lives are not held in their proper orbit by the gravity of the reality of God, then they will orient themselves around things that are at best trivial and at worst vulgar. And thus their speech becomes at best foolish chatter and at worst filthy talk.

Throughout chapters 4 and 5 of Ephesians, Paul has been developing the idea that Christian behavior is to be different precisely because they are oriented differently from those who are not believers. They are not to act “as other Gentiles walk, in the vanity of their mind” because they “have not so learned Christ.” Rather, they have been created in the image of God in righteousness and true holiness (4:17-24). And this should exhibit itself in certain differences in lifestyle (cf. vs 25,ff.). In chapter 5, Paul urges the Ephesian disciples to live differently because though they once lived in darkness, now they have been enlightened by the Lord (5:8). Verses 3-4 of chapter 5 thus should be understood in this context. Filthiness, foolish talking, and jesting are characteristic of those who do not know the true God. Believers, who do know God in Christ, should therefore turn away from such behavior. It is “not convenient,” which is to say, it is neither fitting nor proper conduct for one who professes to be an imitator of God (5:1).

But why put thanksgiving as the opposite of these vices? I think the answer is obvious if we just reflect on the nature of true thanksgiving. First, though Paul does not explicitly say it in Eph. 4:4, it is understood that God is the object of thanksgiving. Paul is not talking about thanking your grandmother for giving you those socks (though that is a good thing to do!). He is saying that we should thank God for everything he gives to us.

Consider the following verses. In Ephesians 5:18-20, Paul explains what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like. One of the fundamental ways a Spirit-filled person may be discovered is in the fact that they are thankful people: “Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ.” God is the object of thanksgiving here. In Philippians 4:6, Paul writes, “Be careful [anxious] for nothing; but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made know unto God.” God is the object of both prayer and thanksgiving in the text. In 1 Thess. 5:18, we are commanded, “In everything give thanks: for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.” The universality of the command in this verse requires the object of thanksgiving to be God. 

Of course, the Old Testament, especially the Psalms, is filled with commands to give thanks to God. “O give thanks unto the LORD; for he is good: for his mercy endureth forever. O give thanks unto the God of gods: for his mercy endureth forever. O give thanks to the Lord of lords: for his mercy endureth forever” (Ps. 136:1-3). The expression of the psalmist indicates that not only is thanksgiving to God right but that it is a delight.

On the other hand, an ungrateful heart to God is denounced in the strongest language in Romans 1. Describing those who suppress the truth of the knowledge of God in favor of unrighteousness, Paul says that they “glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened” (v. 21). In 2 Tim. 3:2, Paul says that one of the characteristics of the last days will be an abundance of those who are unthankful and unholy.

So when the Bible commends and commands thanksgiving to us, we are to understand it as referring primarily to God as the object. And this is a huge piece of the puzzle to understanding why Paul would place thanksgiving as the opposite and antidote to filthy speech. It is because thanksgiving to God is the natural outflow of those whose lives are oriented around God, whereas filthy and foolish speech is the natural outflow of those whose lives are not oriented around God. 

What then is thanksgiving? Thanksgiving is the heart-felt expression of the believer in Christ, despite his or her external circumstances – be they good or bad – that God has been, is, and will remain good to me because of what his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, did and is doing for me by his life, death, resurrection, and intercession. The kind of thanksgiving commanded of believers is more then than a national holiday on which we have some kind of generic happy feeling for the good things we have enjoyed in the here and now. The thanksgiving commanded in Scripture is specifically Christian, and it is to be a characteristic of the follower of Christ whether the road is smooth or rough. Thus Paul says that we are to thank the Father always for all things in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 5:19).

The kind of thanksgiving required of believers is therefore impossible apart from Christ. It is impossible not only because Christ is the object of thanksgiving, but because his redemption is the basis of it. And so we see why Paul might have put thanksgiving as the opposite of filthy speech. It is because thanksgiving in the sense of which he is speaking is not something anyone can do. A pagan can clean up their mouths. But thanksgiving in the sense of which Paul is speaking is only something a redeemed man or woman can do. It is an attitude that can only be properly held by a God-centered person. And so by contrasting sinful words with thanksgiving, Paul is again underlining the difference of behavior and attitude between those who belong to Christ and those who don't.

Consider then how thanksgiving to God is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

1. A thankful heart recognizes the sovereignty of a Good and Just and Holy God over all things.

First, a thankful heart recognizes that whatever happens to me, it comes through the hands of a loving Father. This includes bad things as well as what we would normally call good things. In other words, thanksgiving is not just commanded when the “lines have fallen for me in pleasant places” (Ps. 16:6, ESV), but also when afflictions befall us (cf. Ps. 119:71). After all, we are commanded to give thanks “always for all things” and “in everything” (Eph. 5:19; 1 Thess. 5:18). With Corrie Ten Boom, we need to learn to be thankful even for the fleas.

But how do you do this? It is easy to be thankful when we are prospering in every way. But for many of us it can be unimaginably difficult to be thankful when terrible tragedy strikes. The only way we can do this is to know that God works all things for good to those who love him (Rom. 8:28). The only way we can do this is to know that “our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor. 5:17), and to know that God is the one who is producing it. The only way we can do this is to be able to say with Job, “Naked came I out of my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return thither; the LORD gave, and the LORD hath taken away; blessed be the LORD” (Job 1:21). 

Having to know the reason why something happens to us is not going to generate a thankful heart. But trusting in a trustworthy God who is wise and powerful and loving even when calamity strikes is the only ground in which thankfulness can live and prosper.

In the middle of the American Civil War, Robert E. Lee and his wife Mary lost their daughter Annie at 23 years of age. Lee was away from his family at this time. Only able to console his wife by letter, he wrote these lines which illustrate the kind of attitude a thankful heart takes in times of catastrophe: “I cannot express the anguish I feel at the death of our sweet Annie. . . . But God, in this as in all things, has mingled mercy with the blow, in selecting that one best prepared to leave us. . . . I wish I could give you any comfort, but beyond our hope in the great mercy of God, and the belief that He takes her at the time and place where it is best for her to go, there is none.”1

When, therefore, a person can thank God in every circumstance in life – who can say with Paul, “I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content” (Phil. 4:11) – then that person glorifies God as the sovereign and good God that he is. Such a person is in the truest sense God-centered. Therefore, thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

2. A thankful heart recognizes its own unworthiness and the grace of God behind every gift.

I think we can all agree that thanksgiving cannot emerge from a heart overgrown with bitterness and self-pity. But people are bitter and have pity-parties because they think God has dealt them an unfair hand. In other words, they don’t think they deserve the bad things they have had to endure. Most of us, if not all of us, are prone to this attitude, especially here in the West. We have had it good (in comparison with many Third World countries) so long that we have begun to equate things like a house with a two-car garage as one of the necessities of life. If we can’t get our “needs” met, we begin to grumble and think God unfair. Instead of thanking God for what we do have, we complain about what we do not have.

Such a person cannot be God centered. To be God centered, to live coram Deo, before the face of God, is to recognize our own weakness and wickedness. It is to be like Peter, the minute he recognized that Jesus was more than just another rabbi, and to say, “Depart from me; for I am a sinful man, O Lord” (Luke 5:8). It is to be like Job, as soon as he got his interview with God, and to say, “Behold, I am vile” (Job 40:4). It is to be like Isaiah, when he saw God “high and lifted up” and with him to say, “Woe is me! For I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts” (Isa. 6:5). 

Now, I’m not for a minute saying that a person who lives in the presence of God is going to be immune to hardship. I am no advocate for Stoicism. The best of believers will weep. The holiest of men sometimes have cause to say, “I am weary of my crying: my throat is dried: mine eyes fail while I wait for my God” (Ps. 69:3). God-centeredness does not lead to a glibness and shallow bubbliness that pretends that everything is alright when it isn’t. 

Rather, a God-oriented heart recognizes that I have not received what I truly deserve: eternal separation from God. It recognizes that I am a sinner, worthy of the wrath of God, and that everything short of that is really and truly a gift. 

But a thankful heart does not stop there. It not only recognizes grace in loss, but grace in plenty. It recognizes that when we are filled with food and gladness (Acts 14:17) that this is really a gift of God’s grace. It does not take God’s good gifts for granted, but like the leper in Luke 17:11-19, returns and gives thanks. A God-centered person does not consider themselves worthy of such gifts, and so delights to thank the God who graciously gives them. Therefore, thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

3. A thankful heart recognizes that God is the best of all gifts.

I take it as axiomatic that the giver is always greater than the gift. And nowhere is this truer than of God. When a person thanks God, they are implicitly affirming this reality of him. When we recognize that “every good and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17), we are saying that the good gifts have come from God and that without him we would not have them. 

But a thankful heart actually says more than that. I do not show thankfulness to someone who has given me a gift if I like the gift but despise the giver, or if I like the gift more than the giver. Although we might expect that of children, it would be offensive in adults. Even so, I do not show thankfulness to God if I love his gifts more than God himself. 

The reason why Paul could exhort others to be thankful in every circumstance is because he himself was thankful in every circumstance. And the reason why he was thankful in every circumstance is given in Phil. 1:21: “For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” As long as Paul had Christ, he was good to go. Even so, a truly thankful heart affirms that God is indeed the greatest of all gifts, the summum bonum, as the Puritans used to put it.

But this is just what a person who is God-centered recognizes. They know that God is indeed the best of all gifts. They know that the goal of redemption – that God might bring us to himself (1 Pet. 3:18) – is better than living forever in perfect health with plenty of money in a tropical paradise without him. Thankfulness is thus the echo of a God-besotted heart, and therefore thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

4. A thankful heart sees all earthly blessings in the light of the saving and secure grace of God.

What I mean by this is that for a Christian, every earthly blessing is a true blessing because of their enjoyment of “all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph. 1:3). The Christian is in a position that an unbeliever cannot enjoy. The man of the world may truly enjoy great wealth and prosperity. But they are enjoying something that will inevitably be taken away from them. Or, if their prosperity disappears in the here and now, they have nothing upon which to fall. But the Christian occupies an entirely different position. He can be thankful for the blessings of this age, and remain thankful even if they are taken away from him. This is something the man of the world cannot do.

Suppose a person were expected to be thankful that they had a good life, even though they knew that they were about to die and go to hell. It is immediately obvious that such an expectation would be ludicrous. However, a believer can be thankful in every circumstance because of his/her confidence in a sovereign and saving God. A Christian knows that despite what happens here, he/she is justified by grace and accepted before God. This is something that cannot be taken away from them. They know that they have an inheritance in heaven that cannot be taken away. A Christian may lose his job, his family, his health. But nothing can separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

It is the glory of God in the salvation of sinners that it is sure. Jesus places the security of the believer in greatness of God: “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me: and I give unto them eternal life; and they shall never perish, neither shall any man pluck them out of my hand. My Father, which gave them me, is greater than all; and no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand” (Jn. 10:27-29). Therefore, it is the joy of a God-centered person to rejoice in this reality and truth. It is the joy of believer to find a reason in the security that God provides for being thankful always for all things. And therefore thanksgiving is the most fitting expression of one whose life is centered on God.

1John Perry, Mrs. Robert E. Lee: The Lady of Arlington, page 260.

A Prayerful Close to a Powerful Epistle (Hebrews 13:18-25)

  What is the epistle to the Hebrews? What was the author trying to do? Well, he tells us in verse 22, when he writes, “And I beseech you, b...