Archive for December, 2013


Introduction

We’re all familiar with the concept of making New Year’s resolutions. Sometimes they’re taken seriously, but most people view resolutions as well-intentioned desires that will probably never be fulfilled for any significant amount of time. Even those who do take their resolutions seriously often become much less serious about this activity after they fail numerous times to achieve their goal.

I do think there is a theological reason behind this desire we have to start fresh. As the Scriptures teach, God’s fingerprint, as it were, is on all His creatures. That influence includes a conscience and an innate desire to “do better,” we might say. Because of sin, this God-given tendency to make improvement has been corrupted and it usually manifests itself in some misguided attempt.

Common resolutions seem to fall into one of two categories. The first category is that which relates to us on a personal level and the second is that which relates to us in terms of our relationships with others. Therefore, people will make a resolution as the New Year begins to take better care of themselves or break some detrimental habit. In the second instance, people will vow to give more attention to their essential responsibilities or to aspects of their lives that are creating problems for someone else.

Whatever the resolution might be, they all have one fatal flaw, and that fatal flaw is the fact that such resolutions originate in and depend upon human effort. If what we have determined to do will require real determination or a significant change of lifestyle, then we will quickly discover how difficult it will be to keep a resolution. Our fallen natures vigorously oppose any attempt to achieve true good.

My aim is to provide some Biblical guidance for the coming new year. As I do, I want to say that there is a Christian version of a resolution that, when enacted correctly, can be of great benefit to us. In Scripture, the most successful plans for the future—whether we are speaking of that individual, family, or even an entire nation—begin with the careful consideration of the past. It may be a previous experience or, in some cases, a command given by the Lord at some point in the past. The Word teaches us that part of the process of maturity for a Christian involves a measured concentration on things that have already been said or have already occurred.

As I read and thought about some of the stories in the Old Testament, I concluded that there are three primary categories in which this pattern of future planning based on the past may be observed. The first category that I would like to identify is what I will call monumental events. The Bible puts a lot of emphasis on those epic incidents in the history of God’s people. The emphasis is for the purpose of instruction long after the event itself has occurred.

Monumental Events

Without question, the most significant event in the history of the people of Israel was the Exodus from captivity in Egypt. After approximately 400 years, God spoke to Moses and informed him that He was about to deliver the descendants of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. This would be in fulfillment of promises made to those patriarchs.

This led to the unprecedented display of the power of God as He tormented the Egyptians with one plague after another until they finally agreed to let the people go. The devastation and death in the land of Egypt was massive; and when Pharaoh changed his mind and sent his army in pursuit of the fleeing Israelites, God once again intervened and they all perished in a remarkable manner.

Once they were beyond the reach of Egyptians, the people were given direction toward a particular land where God would settle them. We know the story, of course, and the sinful response of the people resulted in a 40 year long wandering in the desert until the generation that came out of Egypt was dead.

On a number of occasions during that lengthy period, the people were encouraged to obey by remembering their deliverance from captivity. Because the rescue from Egypt gave undeniable evidence of God’s regard for this people and how He was able and willing to use His power as He pleased, that event became a touchstone for every generation that lived thereafter. From the mouth of Moses and the prophets, the Israelites were constantly reminded of what God did in Egypt and the purpose of such frequent reminders was to instill courage and trust in the hearts of the people, especially when they were facing some new challenge or a superior foe.

Just after the Exodus, Moses made this declaration to the people: “Remember this day in which you went out from Egypt, from the house of slavery; for by a powerful hand the LORD brought you out from this place.” (Ex. 13:3) When these people faced difficult circumstances in the future, when it seemed that they were going to perish, or when they were commanded to do something that they did not believe they could accomplish, they were to think back to this day on which the power of God was unleashed so that they, His chosen people, might go free. And by remembering this unique display, they would be encouraged and their faith in God would be strengthened.

Beginning in the book of Exodus and concluding in the book of Haggai, there are several dozen references to Israel’s deliverance from captivity in Egypt. For example, in Amos 4 we read:

9 “I smote you with scorching wind and mildew; and the caterpillar was devouring Your many gardens and vineyards, fig trees and olive trees; Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD. 10 “I sent a plague among you after the manner of Egypt; I slew your young men by the sword along with your captured horses, And I made the stench of your camp rise up in your nostrils; Yet you have not returned to Me,” declares the LORD.

When the people heard of Egypt, they were to recall the awesome power demonstrated by God for their benefit. In this passage, He reminds them that in their recent history they had been subjected to various means of chastisement similar to what they know happened long ago. Ideally, the people would hear this reference and repent and realize that the power of God had been used for their deliverance and protection, and it could just as easily be used for their destruction if they continued in sin.

I’ve mentioned before that I was converted in October of 1975. Without going into all the details, let me say that I knew instantly that I had been born-again and nothing would ever be the same. That episode is my deliverance from Egypt. On countless occasions over years, I have recalled that experience in order to reorient my understanding of who I was and what God wanted from me. Many things have happened to me since that day, but nothing has approached the magnitude of that occurrence.

Not everyone, of course, has the kind of conversion experience I just described because they grow up in a Christian household and are taught to trust the Lord from the very beginning days of their lives. But I believe that as we walk with God during our lifetimes, we will have defining moments during which God tenderly instructs us, patiently comforts us, or mercifully delivers us in some manner.

You might remember a time of intense prayer that was unlike any other time in your life. You might remember a day when you sensed the loving ministry of the Holy Spirit while you were passing through some painful trial. And you have not forgotten that episode, whatever it was. Those experiences define us as believers and bring clarity to our perspective on how we should be living.

If you have had an experience like this or something similar, then I want to ask you how it has affected you since then. Again, it need not be something dramatic or life-altering. It may be that you observed some evidence of God’s activity in the life of a loved one or friend and it was profound enough that the memory remains with you. If there have been those times, have you allowed that defining moment, whatever it was, to remind you of the responsibility to live rightly before the Lord?

And today, as we are about to enter a new year, does that event (or perhaps several events that come to mind) have any bearing on what you hope to accomplish or on how you plan to conduct yourself in the next 12 months? By reflecting on these kinds of occurrences in our lives, we are made wiser—wiser about sin and about the deceitfulness of the flesh and about our own pride and certainly about how we are to use the time God has appointed for us.

If you make a New Year’s resolution this coming week, let it be grounded in those monumental events in your past. And, by the way, the events from which you should draw guidance may include destructive mistakes on your part or times when you fell into sin. Having been forgiven by God for some transgression and having been restored by His mercy; qualify as those monumental events that should forever affect the way you live on this earth.

Admirable Examples

The Bible is full of all kinds of examples, both good and bad. These examples make up the second category that I want to talk about. In this case, the example set by a single character, which brought God’s blessing on the nation, was ignored by those who came after him. I am referring to Gideon.

As much as any other man mentioned in Scripture, Gideon is an example of an ordinary person thrust into extraordinary circumstances according to what God determined should occur. Gideon demonstrated doubt, poor judgment, and fear at times, but an uncommon bravery and solid trust at others. We can learn from Gideon’s failures and his accomplishments. All in all, under Gideon’s leadership, the nation of Israel enjoyed 40 years of peace.

As Gideon’s life came to a close, we read this report:

Judges 8:33 Then it came about, as soon as Gideon was dead, that the sons of Israel again played the harlot with the Baals, and made Baal-berith their god. 34 Thus the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side; 35 nor did they show kindness to the household of Jerubbaal (that is, Gideon) in accord with all the good that he had done to Israel.

Obviously Gideon led the nation in such a way that there was general faithfulness before the Lord. But as this text says, once the restraint against disobedience was removed, which existed in the person of Gideon, the people quickly returned to idolatry and promptly forgot all the lessons that had been learned, or could have been learned, from the life of Gideon.

Gideon’s experience was not too complicated to understand. It was a matter of seeing God’s blessing upon that man when he was faithful and God’s hand of chastisement upon him when he was not. It was the simplest truth displayed throughout those 40 years and no one who seriously desired to walk rightly before God would have had any trouble learning valuable lessons from the life of Gideon.

But note the text once again: As soon as Gideon was dead, the people returned to idolatry, and “the sons of Israel did not remember the LORD their God, who had delivered them from the hands of all their enemies on every side.” The word translated “remember” is the Hebrew term “zakar,” which means “to remember, to call to mind, to record.” When you examine the multitude of occurrences of this word in the Old Testament, it becomes apparent that in the Hebrew mind, “to remember” was an activity that involved more than simply producing a brief recollection of some event. To remember meant to recall something to mind, yes, but that recollection was for the purpose of instruction. Therefore, when the Jews were told to remember something, the meaning was that they were to take instruction in the present based upon a past experience.

Our text says that those living after the death of Gideon “did not remember the LORD their God.” This doesn’t mean that the people forgot there was a God. The writer means that the people ignored all that God had demonstrated toward them and for them in the past. He states that God had delivered the people from all their enemies repeatedly. That happened under the leadership of Gideon and should have been a powerful influence for good in the lives of Israelites even after Gideon was no longer on the scene.

After Gideon’s departure, men competed for the leadership of the nation. In one case, 70 men from the same family were murdered on the same day to provide for the advancement of one man to the throne. The peace of the past 40 years was replaced with political and moral chaos; murder, deceit, and disorder became the norm. All of this could have been prevented if the men of Israel had determined to follow the example of Gideon.

Becoming acquainted with genuinely godly people, that is, those whose lives are examples of faithfulness to God in every area, is not a common occurrence. Personally, I have met plenty of Christians worthy of respect, but few who could serve as a model for my entire life. Nevertheless, the lessons to be taken from those few examples are quite numerous and have served as guidelines, goals, and corrections throughout my life.

Unlike Israel, we do not want to miss such a valuable resource that God has placed in our lives. Therefore, I will ask: Have you been blessed to encounter someone whose example is worthy of imitation? Is there anyone in your life, past or present, whose walk with the Lord exemplifies what you desire for yourself? One characteristic that most of our examples will have in common will be the manner in which they react to difficult circumstances. It is during such times, that the example of others can provide us with the motivation and guidance that we need.

Think of the person or persons in your experience who fit this model and then ask yourself these questions: Am I sincerely striving to imitate that godly person? Am I able and willing to let those examples change my thinking and action? Does a life that is pleasing to God truly matter more to me then opportunities to express myself and go my own way? How do you plan to implement examples of godliness in your life the next 12 months? Where does your life need correction, the correction of a consistent and mature standard seen in the lives of those you admire most? Do you want to improve the manner in which you respond to a trial? What about love for the brethren in this congregation? Is that an area in need of reformation and, if so, has God put anyone in your life whose pattern may help you?

Let me emphasize that the most critical aspect of what I’m describing is not finding a godly person to imitate; the most critical aspect comes after identifying such a person. That is when you must determine whether you are willing to copy that person’s standard. Depending on the adjustment that needs to be made, you may have a significant struggle against your flesh. But if that change is necessary and if that change is what God commands and if that change is for your good and the good of others, then you simply must dedicate yourself to achieving that goal. And as we begin a new year, you have the perfect time to make this decision and formulate a plan by which it will be implemented.

Divine Character

We come now to the third and final resource upon which the people of God have depended when preparing for the future. This is the resource of God’s character. Since God’s character does not change, which means He is consistent in what He requires and how He responds to us, the better we know that character the better prepared we will be to analyze those areas in need of attention in our lives during this coming new year.

There are numerous examples in the Old Testament where God’s character is recalled and applied in a troubling situation. David does this frequently. In the Psalms, he often describes the threat of some enemy or some circumstance, but then reveals how he was delivered from fear and made bold when he meditated on some aspect of God’s character—it may have been God’s strength or God’s faithfulness or God’s mercy, but God’s character is that resource that completely changes David’s perspective and expectations.

It is not just in the Psalms, however, that we find such passages. Consider this statement found in Nehemiah 4:

“Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” (v. 14)

The context of this exhortation is an alliance of Israel’s enemies who have conspired together to fight against Jerusalem and interrupt the process of rebuilding, which is under the authority of Nehemiah. It was imperative that the work of rebuilding continue, so Nehemiah was not willing to stop in order to deal with this threat exclusively. Instead, he took steps to guard against the coming assault while, at the same time, continuing the work of reconstructing the city wall. Many of the people, however, became fearful because of the size of the army poised to enter the city. Nehemiah realized that he had to do something to stabilize his people so that they would not abandon their work.

Consider what Nehemiah had to offer. He could not assure the people that he had a well-trained army himself ready to defend the city. He could not refer to negotiations that he believed would preserve peace. Nehemiah could not attempt to convince the people that this coming enemy would be merciful. What, therefore, did Nehemiah have at his disposal that would eliminate fear, encourage bravery, and motivate a relatively small number of men to continue the very work their enemy insisted they stop? He needed something that was absolutely trustworthy, something that had been seen in the past, and something he knew would be just as dependable now. The only thing that meets those criteria is the character of God.

Therefore, Nehemiah exhorts the people: “Do not be afraid of them; remember the Lord who was great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives and your houses.” Remember the Lord! That is Nehemiah’s solution to the threat posed by the alliance of his enemies. We have no chance on our own. We cannot make a successful stand. On our own, the city will be taken in the work of rebuilding will cease and we will surely die.

Israel did not have to give up or stop building. What the men did have to do, however, was exercise faith. They had to trust God. They had to look back at previous examples where God came to the aid of His people, even in the most dreadful circumstances, and delivered them. Then they had to realize that God’s character does not change and they are still His people and He will, therefore, fight for them now.

Notice what was at stake: family and houses, which are among the most precious items in life. The coming fight would be for their existence. And, as already stated, what is needed in such a circumstance is that which cannot fail and that which does not depend upon human ability or effort. The Divine character meets these qualifications. The people could be fearless because the Lord is “great and awesome.” He had demonstrated these aspects of His nature countless times in the history of this nation. This wasn’t the first time God’s people were outnumbered. This wasn’t the first time God’s people appeared to have no chance of survival.

There are many more passages like this one in which the character of God becomes the foundation on which His people rest in dangerous surroundings. This single text, however, sufficiently illustrates this third category related to making plans for the future. Just after making the statement in verse 14, Nehemiah reveals that the enemy became aware that God had frustrated their plans. Therefore, “all of us returned to the wall, each one to his work.”

The unchanging character God is, of course, the most reliable basis for our plans for the coming year. Other things, which may have been reliable in the past, may still fail, but God’s nature cannot fail and the love He has shown to you in the past when He delivered you from harsh circumstances or when He removed a burden causing much anguish in your life, is the same today as it has always been. Therefore, any plans you make for this coming year, any resolutions you adopt, any changes you desire to see in yourself, any defeat of sinful tendencies and establishment of righteous practices must, first and foremost, be grounded in the unchanging character of God.

No one here can say that they have no need of correction in any area of their lives. God has provided this opportunity for you to examine yourself and follow the instruction He has given. Decide what aspect of your life needs reformation and then draw strength from one of those important events from your past and focus upon the admirable example of someone you’ve known and, above all, ground your effort in the holy and unchanging character of God. This is how Christians prepare for the future.

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Living in Peace

In my recent Advent devotionals, I have been concentrating on the concept of peace, which is closely associated with the coming of the Savior. This is not the kind of peace we normally think of in this world. This term describes the state of being free of condemnation before God and, therefore, enjoying all of His blessings in this life and the next through His Son, Jesus Christ.

We considered the promise of peace made by the prophet Isaiah in which he describes a cosmic transformation of the nature of this fallen world. And one of the issues on which he concentrates in his prophecy is the piece that Christ will bring to mankind when He arrives. That peace, in fact, will dramatically affect the way in which people treat one another and, in time, have significant influence on the whole human race.

In the second devotional, we looked at the declaration of peace found in Luke’s Gospel. As he reported on the birth of Christ, Luke included a wonderful story about shepherds who were visited by an angel out in the fields one night. The culmination of that announcement, during which the single angel was joined by a myriad of others, was that declaration of peace on earth as a result of the Baby’s recent birth. Once again, the worldwide impact is emphasized in the announcement made by the heavenly beings.

In the third devotional, we looked at the means of peace, also described in Luke’s account. Through an obscure figure, a man named Simeon, and for the first time in the birth narrative, the coming struggle between good and evil, between heaven and hell, was mentioned as this man spoke a short word regarding the future of the Baby Jesus. His coming would result in building up and tearing down, in salvation and condemnation. By declaring the Word of God to the world and offering Himself as a sacrifice for the sins of His people, the Savior would bring about the peace promised by Isaiah in the peace declared by the angels.

Today, we want to look at some statements from Jesus Himself concerning this matter of peace. We’re going to consider one statement made by Him before the cross and one made by Him after the cross.

John 14:27 “Peace I leave with you; My peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.”

Before commenting on this statement, I want to establish the context. At the end of chapter 13, Jesus has a brief exchange with the apostle Peter. The Savior has indicated to His disciples that He soon will be leaving them. Jesus commands His disciples to distinguish themselves by their love for one another. He declares that “all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (13:35) Peter’s mind, however, seems to be focused on the coming departure of the Lord. Without commenting on the Savior’s admonition regarding love for one another, Peter asked: “Lord, where are You going?” He is told that he cannot follow the Savior, yet Peter insisted, “Lord, why can I not follow You right now? I will lay down my life for you.” At that point, Jesus predicts Peter’s denial that will take place when the Savior is arrested.

This is the background going into chapter 14 where the tone of the Lord’s remarks changed immediately to that of great comfort and encouragement. He knows that His disciples are troubled as they contemplate what He has just revealed to them. He urges them, nevertheless, to remain faithful. And He promises that He will go to prepare a place for them and, one day, receive His disciples to Himself so they might be with Him forever.

As this dialogue continues, Jesus assures His disciples that they are destined to do great things in service to Him and His kingdom. He again asserts the necessity of love manifested between them so that they might prove that they are, indeed, His followers. It is then that Jesus makes them aware of the Helper that will be sent from heaven to dwell with them and enable them to serve honorably and effectively. Immediately after the promise of the Holy Spirit, Jesus speaks the words found in verse 27.

Imagine how anti-climactic this statement from Jesus would be if He were simply referring to peace as the world typically thinks of peace. He is not promising the end of their personal struggles with one another, nor is the Savior promising that they will have a life of political tranquility. He is declaring to the disciples that they will live and serve within the context of a loving and eternal relationship with Him and His Father in heaven. This spiritual peace, as we have seen in previously, is directly tied to the fact that their accounts will be settled with God. They will be able to live out their days knowing that they are part of God’s redeemed family and that truth would provide them with confidence, determination, and purpose. They will be able to do wonderful things, just as Jesus predicted before, because they will be servants of the Most High. They will know His benevolence, mercy, provision, protection, and forgiveness.

With this truth firmly established in their hearts, the disciples could go forth and live triumphantly regardless of obstacles that they might encounter in the days and years to come. No matter what they face, they will be forever secure in the hands of God. Knowledge of this would be the source of contentment and courage as they set forth to build the kingdom of Christ. Nothing they encounter will shake their standing before God and nothing will be able to change the bonds of love between them, the Savior, and the Father, which Jesus will soon attain.

During this past year, how many times has your heart been troubled? How many times have you been fearful due to unpleasant or unexpected circumstances? Listen to what the Savior says after making this promise of peace to His disciples: “Do not let your heart be troubled, nor let it be fearful.” This was not just wishful thinking on Christ’s part. He was not simply trying to rally His troops in light of the coming ordeal of the cross. Jesus is telling His followers that they will know spiritual harmony and they will know the kind of security with God that is based in His sovereign nature and omnipotence. And they will live with this knowledge regardless of what this world throws at them, regardless of what challenges come their way, and regardless of what the enemies of the Savior might threaten or do.

When your heart is troubled, when your heart is fearful, this is where you turn. You turn to these wonderful declarations of our peace with God in Christ Jesus. You turn to these promises made by Jesus Himself before He went to the cross to pay for your sins and to remove the enmity between you and God. The peace that Jesus attained for us is a magnificent gift that we so desperately need to grasp and cherish in this sinful world. We will not escape trials, nor will we escape many painful episodes during our lifetime. But there is nothing, regardless of how painful or ferocious or cleverly designed by our adversary, that can disrupt our peace with God. This is a truth to which we should turn frequently, especially during those times when we grow weary or feel like we are going to be undone even as we attempt to live lives of honor and glory before God.

John 20: 19 So when it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and when the doors were shut where the disciples were, for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, “Peace be with you.” 20 And when He had said this, He showed them both His hands and His side. The disciples then rejoiced when they saw the Lord. 21 So Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you; as the Father has sent Me, I also send you.”

Once again let’s give our attention to the context of these verses. The 20th chapter of the Gospel of John records the event of the resurrection of Jesus Christ. John begins his report by telling us that Mary Magdalene made her way to the tomb of the Savior early that Sunday morning. While it was still dark, she arrived and discovered that the stone covering the entrance to the burial site had been removed. Mary’s assumption was that someone had taken the body of the Lord. This prompted Peter and John to run to the tomb to investigate what they were been told. They too found that the body of Jesus was no longer there.

Just as Mary explained to two angels that she was weeping because her Lord had been taken away, Jesus appeared before her. At first, Mary did not know it was Jesus, but when He called her by name, she recognized the voice of her Savior and began clinging to Him. After that, Mary made her way to the disciples and announced that she had seen the Lord and that he had sent a message to them, which she repeated. This is where our passage appears. Jesus has been to the cross, has suffered, has surrendered His life for the sake of His people, and has now been raised from the dead in triumph over death itself.

Still coping with the astonishing developments of that Sunday morning, John tells us that toward the end of the day, the disciples had taken refuge and were, in essence, hiding for fear of the Jews. Obviously, the disciples suspected that the Jews might now begin rounding up the followers of Christ, especially if they could use the excuse that these men had stolen the body of Jesus. The boldness and the discernment that will come to characterize these men soon enough is not yet present. But as they pondered recent events, “Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’”

What is the one thing that the frightened disciples needed at that very moment? They needed to have their hearts calmed the by the manifestation of God’s peace. And that is what Jesus announced to them. He had accomplished His mission and the peace that He promised was now theirs to enjoy. How strange it would be to continue in the fear of man when your Savior has just overcome death itself! The disciples needed to hear Jesus make that declaration. They needed to know that He was no longer dead, which meant that no earthly power or spiritual authority could bring Christ into subjection. On the contrary, He has just demonstrated that He has all power and all authority in heaven and on earth. Therefore, the only acceptable state in which His disciples could now exist was that of peace—peace with God.

Having pronounced peace upon them, the text says that Jesus then “show them both His hands and His side.” He proved to His disciples that He was indeed their Master, the One crucified upon the cross, taken down after giving up His life, and laid in the tomb. That tomb was now empty because He lived again. Realizing that this was, indeed, their risen Lord, the disciples rejoiced, John tells us. Can you comprehend the astonishment that must have filled the heart of the disciples? They must have been gloriously perplexed as they processed the truth of Christ’s victory over death. They must have believed and yet continued to wonder how such a thing could be. Their souls overflowed with gladness even as they continued to gaze upon the Savior in elated amazement.

John tells us that Jesus spoke again: “Peace be with you; as a Father has sent Me, I also send you.” And here we see another dimension of the peace that Christ attained for His disciples. They will soon go forth, not to return to their previous lives, but to continue the work of the Savior. The peace that Christ has established between them and God will now allow them to become His servants on the earth. Because of the atonement, these disciples are fit to become instruments in the hands of God as He continues to reveal His plan of redemption to the world.

Once they were enemies of God and doomed, but now they are children of God and destined to spend eternity in His comfortable presence. That which made such a dramatic alteration of their standing before God was the death and resurrection of Christ, facts that had now been confirmed before their very eyes. Before they faced the wrath of God, but now they will be enveloped in the love of God. Before they were worthless to the cause of truth and righteousness, but now they are going to become the heralds of God’s truth and righteousness.

Let me assure you, that it is no different for you. Because of what Christ did for you, you are no longer at enmity with God, but are now His beloved son or daughter. Because of what Christ did for you, you are no longer unable and unwilling to serve God, but are now able and eager to honor God with all your mind and all your strength. Because Jesus has made peace between you and God, you not only can serve Him, but you can serve His purposes for the rest of your days. Jesus took that which was dead and gave it life. Jesus took that which was spiritually corrupted and made it pure. Jesus took that which had no use in the kingdom of God and made it a precious treasure in the eyes of the King. That is what Jesus did for you and that is the truth in which you must ground your thinking day after day so that you are not undone by self-doubt or criticism or failure or fear.

Do not live a life full of apprehension, live a life characterized by confidence. Do not live a life that is unsteady and wavering, live a life that manifests stability and certainty. In other words, as you continue through this season of commemorating the birth of our Savior, commit yourself to a life grounded in daily evidences of that which He secured for us, even eternal peace with God.

The Means of Peace

This is the third study in my Advent Devotionals. First, I examined The Promise of Peace as presented by Isaiah; second, I looked at the Declaration of Peace, as recorded by Luke in his account of the shepherds visited by the angels; and now, I consider The Means of Peace, also found in Luke’s account of the birth of Christ.

In a recent study, I mentioned that one of the primary themes associated with the coming of Christ is peace. We considered one of Isaiah’s prophecies in which he said the Child to come would bring peace, restoration, and reconciliation to the whole world. In another devotional, we looked at a passage in Luke’s Gospel in which angels announced the birth of that Child; and one of the truths they emphasized was the arrival of peace in the Person of the Savior. In fact, everything associated with the birth of Christ carries this same encouraging tone—peace, relief, return to God, forgiveness of sins, and hope. Both before He came and after He was born, the Savior’s arrival was interpreted as the dawning of an age of peace and gladness.

After finding the Child and relating their experience, the last thing we read about the shepherds in Luke’s account is that they went on their way “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.” (2:20) And this is where Luke jumps ahead a week in his report and records that the Baby was given the name “Jesus,” according to the instructions of the angel who visited Mary. In our retelling and rehearsals, this is where the recounting of the Savior’s birth often stops.

At this point, all who know of the Savior’s birth are thankful and happy. But there is a bit of news about to be introduced into this story and it will completely change the tone. Some news is going to be announced that will require people to rethink the future and the ultimate reason for this Child’s birth.

In vv. 21 and following, we find Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus coming to the temple where they encounter a man named Simeon.

Luke 2:21 And when eight days had passed, before His circumcision, His name was then called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb. 22 And when the days for their purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him up to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “EVERY firstborn MALE THAT OPENS THE WOMB SHALL BE CALLED HOLY TO THE LORD “), 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what was said in the Law of the Lord, “A PAIR OF TURTLEDOVES OR TWO YOUNG PIGEONS.” 25 And there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; and this man was righteous and devout, looking for the consolation of Israel; and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.

Simeon was a Jew who faithfully attended to his religious duties. He is introduced in such a manner that his spiritual devotion is highlighted. (v. 25) Notice that Luke says that the “Holy Spirit was upon [Simeon].” This statement is made of few people in the Bible. The fact that it is made of this rather obscure figure in Luke 2 is intriguing. Simeon obviously walked with God and knew fellowship with God. In the plan of God, Simeon had one primary task to perform and that task was associated with the birth of the Messiah. Simeon was appointed to make a declaration that would provide balance to the world’s understanding of the Messiah’s mission. He is going to speak words that point to something else that is to come, something beyond the birth of the Messiah.

Given this description of Simeon, we are not surprised to hear that he was concerned for the spiritual condition of his people. Luke writes that Simeon “was looking for the consolation of Israel.” This phrase has a particular meaning; at that point in history, it referred to the redemption that would come with the dawning of the Messianic era. The “consolation” would be the Messiah’s arrival and rescue of the Jews. This brief statement tells us that the chief desire of Simeon’s life was to see the arrival of God’s promised Redeemer. He was one of the devoted Jews who continued to believe God’s promise of a Deliverer. He hoped it would come in his day, of course, and so it did.

The most unusual element of this story is revealed when Luke tells us that “it had been revealed to [Simeon] by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.” (v. 26) Simeon knew, therefore, that the Messiah would appear soon; he knew for certain that the redemption for which his people had waited was about to be manifested. We have no idea how long before this event Simeon had received this information. We can be sure, however, that his life had been affected by it.

At the time when Joseph and Mary came to the Temple, Simeon was moved by the Spirit to enter as well:

27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to carry out for Him the custom of the Law, 28 then he took Him into his arms, and blessed God, and said, 29 “Now Lord, You are releasing Your bond-servant to depart in peace, According to Your word; 30 For my eyes have seen Your salvation, 31 Which You have prepared in the presence of all peoples, 32 A LIGHT OF REVELATION TO THE GENTILES, And the glory of Your people Israel.” 33 And His father and mother were amazed at the things which were being said about Him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed– 35 and a sword will pierce even your own soul– to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

This was, of course, a Divinely-arranged encounter and the purpose of this encounter, as I indicated, was so that an announcement might be made that would complete the prophesied picture of the Messiah’s ministry. Simeon, as I noted, is going to reveal an aspect of Christ’s ministry that is emphasized elsewhere, is certainly discernible when we consider Christ’s work, but which is, nevertheless, frequently overlooked when it comes to commemorating the Messiah’s arrival. This announcement has to do with how this Savior will bring peace to the earth. Isaiah promised the peace, the angels announced the peace to the shepherds, but so far, the means of that peace, or how that peace will be achieved, has not been revealed.

It appears that Simeon recognized the child of Joseph and Mary as the promised Messiah. Luke records that Simeon took the boy into his arms, blessed God and began to praise Him (v. 28). The very issue that had occupied Simeon’s thoughts and prayers, that being the consolation of his people, now had become the focal point of human history with the arrival of the Christ-Child.

Having taken the Child into his arms and having realized that this was the Messiah that God promised and that the people of God had looked for throughout their history, Simeon declares that he now is ready to depart from this world because God had fulfilled His promise and his eyes had seen the Christ (v. 29). As God’s servant he had witnessed the arrival of the Savior. He was ready to rest in death assured that redemption had come.

Luke tells us about the reaction of Mary and Joseph; they were “amazed at the things which were being said about [Jesus]” (v. 33) As had happened before, they heard unusual remarks made about their Baby. Simeon understood the advent of the Messiah as a glorious event for which he offered praise to God. The things that he had said up to this point caused joyful amazement in the hearts of Joseph and Mary. However, Simeon’s tone changes and he paints a distressing picture of Christ’s destiny. From Simeon’s perspective, not only did the Messiah’s birth mark the beginning of salvation, it also signaled the beginning of turmoil: “Behold, this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed—and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (vv. 34, 35)

Earlier, I referred to the prophecy of Isaiah. That prophet predicted that a revolutionary process would take place in the world. He said it would begin with the birth of this Child. The world would come under His increasing dominion until He ruled over the whole earth, the prophet taught. Obviously, the coming of the Messiah represented a disruption of sin’s dominion and influence in this world. This disruption and realignment would, by necessity, involve human beings and would mean that their lives would be disturbed, to put it mildly. This aspect of the Messiah’s coming is what Simeon mentions in his last few words.

Simeon declares, “This Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel; and for a sign to be opposed…” (v. 34) The coming of the Messiah manifested the love of God as His plan of redemption continued to unfold, but it also marked the beginning of a process of separation. Some in Israel would be attracted to the Messiah while others would reject Him. Christ would be the cause of a division in the nation and, ultimately, of course, in mankind.

What Simeon predicted is precisely what has unfolded in history. Some have found forgiveness and everlasting life in Jesus, and others have encountered condemnation and everlasting death. There is no neutrality where Jesus Christ is concerned. The Scripture plainly declares that “He who believes in the Son has eternal life; but he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God abides on him.” (John 3:36) For some, therefore, the arrival of the Messiah meant condemnation.

This is Simeon’s message in Luke 2. The coming of the Messiah meant joy, of course, for those who longed for His coming and for those who had remained faithful to God; but the coming of the Messiah meant judgment for others who took pleasure in sin. Without Jesus, the day when we all stand before God to take responsibility for our lives will be a day of absolute horror. To stand in the pure light of Deity without Jesus to shield you will scorch a man down to the very center of his soul. No one will escape and no one, except those standing with Jesus, will receive mercy.

That elderly man was predicting that some men would oppose God’s Messiah and work against Him. What Jesus Christ represented and what He had to say would cause many to despise Him. He would cause the true intent of men’s hearts to be revealed. For the first time in the birth narrative, the coming struggle and suffering of Jesus Christ are mentioned. The fact that these elements are mentioned even at the birth of the Christ-Child emphasizes that a significant portion of His ministry would be concerned with disrupting mankind.

Simeon concludes his remarks with a special word for Mary: “and a sword will pierce even your own soul—to the end that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (v. 35) She would experience deep sorrow over the treatment given to her Son. His coming would cause there to be a revelation of the hearts of all. As we know from a later Biblical record, Mary did, indeed, live to see her Son hated and rejected and nailed to a cross upon which He died.

We know that the Messiah has come. All of the prophecies made concerning Christ’s arrival have been fulfilled and we are living in the days envisioned by the prophets. The coming of the Christ no longer is a promise, it is an accomplished fact of history. His work in this world has begun and the Church is evidence of the progression of that work. The coming of the Messiah means salvation. It means that a payment for our sin has been made and we are reconciled to God. These truths are cause for excitement, optimism, and thanksgiving. Give thanks to God for your salvation even as you pray for the world to embrace the Savior.

If you have a hymnal handy, you might enjoy the following short study I put together for Christmas Eve.

 

Isa 9:6 For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; and the government will rest on His shoulders; and His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah gives us an amazing description of the nature of the Child who is to come. He will have an authority that will encompass all rule, all dominions. He will mean light to a sin-darkened world and He will bring order to a world thrown into moral chaos by the fall. Then the prophet lists names/titles that describe what this coming One will be to mankind.

This description should be kept in mind when we think of Christ’s work today and when we consider what the future holds for the work of the Savior through His Church.

Isaiah 40:1-5  “Comfort, O comfort My people,” says your God.  2 “Speak kindly to Jerusalem; And call out to her, that her warfare has ended, That her iniquity has been removed, That she has received of the LORD’S hand Double for all her sins.”  3 A voice is calling, “Clear the way for the LORD in the wilderness; Make smooth in the desert a highway for our God.  4 “Let every valley be lifted up, And every mountain and hill be made low; And let the rough ground become a plain, And the rugged terrain a broad valley;  5 Then the glory of the LORD will be revealed, And all flesh will see it together; For the mouth of the LORD has spoken.”

This passage comes at the beginning of Isaiah’s extended commentary on the Servant of God. Chapter 40 marks a point of transition in which the prophet’s primary focus is on Christ, rather than Israel. This Servant will do what Israel as God’s servant failed to do.

The hymn Comfort, Comfort Ye My People is based on Isaiah 40:1-5. Many of the prophecies from this point in Isaiah express consolation and hope that Judah’s exile in Babylon is almost over. Isaiah 40: 1-5 is a passage with words of comfort that forecast a new reign. The passage also calls for preparation or repentance in light of what God is going to do.

The author of this hymn is Johannes Olearius (b. Halle, Germany, 1611; d. 1684). The hymn was written in honor of John the Baptist and published it in 1671. It was part of a collection of 1200 hymns, 300 of which were written by Olearius. Olearius came from a family with several Lutheran theologians. After his education, he was ordained as a Lutheran pastor himself. Although Olearius wrote a commentary on the entire Bible and a number of devotional books, he is best remembered for his hymn collection.

Micah 5:2 But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity. 3 Therefore, He will give them up until the time when she who is in labor has borne a child. Then the remainder of His brethren will return to the sons of Israel. 4 And He will arise and shepherd His flock In the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth. 5 And this One will be peace.

Other prophets, such as Micah, supply details regarding the circumstances of the Messiah’s birth. Roughly 700 years before the event, Micah foretold the place of the Savior’s birth; and he says something about the beneficial effect of His coming. The people of God will begin to be united under Him and He will be great and He will be peace—peace with God and peace among men.

The hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem was written by Phillips Brooks in 1868. At one point, he spent a Christmas Eve in Bethlehem at the Church of the Nativity, which made a tremendous impression on Brooks. Three years later, while pastor of the Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, Brooks was searching for a new carol for his children to sing in their Sunday School Christmas program. He then wrote the words of this hymn. The church organist, Lewis H. Redner, was asked to compose a melody that children could sing easily. On the evening before the program, Redner came forward with the tune that has become most familiar. He claimed that he was awakened from sleep with the turn running through his head.

What is predicted and described in the Old Testament is fulfilled at the time of the birth of Jesus Christ. This event is recorded at length by Matthew and Luke.

Matt. 1:18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows. When His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her, desired to put her away secretly. 20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for that which has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. 21 And she will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for it is He who will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, 23 “BEHOLD, THE VIRGIN SHALL BE WITH CHILD, AND SHALL BEAR A SON, AND THEY SHALL CALL HIS NAME IMMANUEL,” which translated means, “GOD WITH US.”

“Jesus” is the Greek equivalent of “Joshua,” which means “Jehovah saves.” This is the designation given by the angel to Joseph. Jesus would be God the Savior in human flesh. The angel declared that the birth of Jesus was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy that Immanuel (“God with us”) would come.

The hymn O come, O come, Emmanuel originated in the medieval Church of the 12th century. It began as a series of Antiphons—short “back and forth” statements sung as part of worship services during the Advent season. Each of the statements uses one of the many titles ascribed to Christ in the Scriptures. Today, most hymn books have only five statements, although there were more in earlier versions of the song.

Luke 2:1 ff. (Luke narrates the birth of Jesus) 8 And in the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields, and keeping watch over their flock by night.9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 And the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

Luke, of course, tells us the most about the birth of the Savior. In this passage, he describes the appearance of angels to a group of shepherds outside Bethlehem. To these ordinary men the announcement came of the birth of the One who would perfectly exemplify meekness and self-sacrifice.

The hymn While Shepherds Watched was written by Nahum Tate in 1700. This hymn is one of the most popular ever written. It is found in nearly every Protestant hymnal. It is a simple narrative account about the shepherds and is written on a level that allows it to be easily understood. The music for the hymn was adapted from a work of Handel.

Luke goes on to say: 15 And it came about when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they came in haste and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 And when they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child.

Silent Night was authored by Joseph Mohr who, according to his own testimony, intended to write “the perfect Christmas hymn.” The church organist, Franz Gruber, supplied the tune in time for a Christmas Eve service in 1818. The first performance of this song involved both Mohr and Gruber singing, while Gruber also played the guitar.

Our last selection, also reflecting the significance of the words of the angel to the shepherds, is Joy to the World, written by Isaac Watts. Watts said he did not intend this song to be a Christmas carol. Rather, it was a part of a work in which Watts paraphrased the message of many of the Psalms that spoke of the day of the Messiah’s reign.

 

One of the most interesting periods in history, I believe, is the period of silence between the close of Old Testament revelation and the incarnation, at which point revelation continued. After giving so much information about the coming Savior, information about His character and accomplishments, God stopped speaking. As just indicated, the last prophet to speak before this silence commenced was Malachi.

The people of Malachi’s day were steeped in sin. Some of the most serious charges ever made by God against wayward people are found in the book of Malachi. God accuses them of robbery—they were robbing God by withholding His tithe; perversion of justice—they were calling evil good; mistreatment of the needy—they were taking advantage of the poor and defenseless among them; showing contempt for God—they were offering to Him blemished animals in their sacrifices. And, in the midst of it all, God tells them He knows what they are thinking; they are thinking that God didn’t care about their wicked behavior or despicable lack of regard for Him. But they were wrong.

To say that the sin of Israel had been costly would be a massive understatement. The visitation of God’s covenant curses had decimated the nation, that nation that once had such a glorious future. About 100 years before the time of Malachi, the people had returned from the Babylonian captivity. Eventually, under the leadership of Ezra and Nehemiah, the temple and city walls of Jerusalem had been rebuilt. But instead of gratefully and humbly living out their lives in service to Jehovah, the people continued their unfaithful ways.

When Malachi came upon the scene, the people were far from God in heart, in devotion, and in faith. The time for God to exhort Israel to obedience and the days when He would patiently receive them back after periods of rebellion were coming to an end. One of the last things they hear, however, has to do with that message that has been given again and again, that promise of God upon which the nation was founded, the promise that the majority of the people counted as insignificant. The last words spoken to them are about God’s intention to save our race from the misery of sin:

3:1 “Behold, I am going to send My messenger, and he will clear the way before Me. And the Lord, whom you seek, will suddenly come to His temple; and the messenger of the covenant, in whom you delight, behold, He is coming,” says the LORD of hosts. 2 “But who can endure the day of His coming? And who can stand when He appears? For He is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. 3 He will sit as a smelter and purifier of silver, and He will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, so that they may present to the LORD offerings in righteousness. 4 Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the LORD as in the days of old and as in former years. 5 Then I will draw near to you for judgment; and I will be a swift witness against the sorcerers and against the adulterers and against those who swear falsely, and against those who oppress the wage earner in his wages, the widow and the orphan, and those who turn aside the alien and do not fear Me,” says the LORD of hosts.

Interestingly, although he is speaking of the coming day of the Messiah, this prophet focuses attention for the first time on another character—not the Messiah Himself, but one who will appear at the time of the Messiah to serve as a herald of the Savior’s arrival. Speaking through Malachi, the LORD describes one He calls “My messenger.” The task of this messenger will be to “clear the way” before the LORD. We know, of course, since we have additional information, that this messenger is John the Baptist, the man who preached repentance to the Jews and called them to prepare themselves for Christ’s arrival.

In reference to the coming of God in the flesh, the LORD asks: “But who can endure the day of His coming?” This question sets the mood for what follows, which is a warning that the Messiah will come to purify the people of God; His arrival will mean judgment. He is not coming to accept the people as they are, but to make them into what they should be—and that is part of the wonderful story of our salvation

The people of Judah and Jerusalem, which is a way of describing those who follow the LORD in the day of the Messiah, will be made pleasing to Him once again (v. 4). The Messiah will ensure the acceptability before God of all who are found with Him. Those who break God’s laws, however, will have every reason to fear, the LORD adds (v. 5).

So, Malachi is the last to speak and his message is both encouraging and disturbing. As I noted already, after this, there is silence from God. And this silence was not short in duration. It lasted for more than 400 years. The faithful and unfaithful alike who were alive with Malachi went to their graves with those final words of the LORD ringing in their ears.

The Jews of Malachi’s day were under the authority of the Persians who had conquered the Babylonians, the ones used by God initially to disperse His people in response to their unfaithfulness. For the first 60 years of this period of silence, the Jews remained under Persian rule. Then, as Daniel had predicted many years before, the Greeks, under the leadership of Alexander the Great, subdued the Persians. Eventually, the Jews came under the Syrians who were the political descendants of one of Alexander’s generals. The Syrians took over Judea and the region was divided into various provinces, including Judea, Samaria, and Galilee. This period of Syrian rule was one of much calamity for the Jews.

Antiochus the Great, the leader of the Syrians at the beginning of this period, was harsh in his treatment of the Jews, but his successor, Antiochus Epiphanes began a campaign of terror against them. In 170 BC, Antiochus marched on Jerusalem under the pretense of quieting various Jewish factions He promptly destroyed the city and committed unspeakable acts against the Jews. Thousands were killed; women and children were sold into slavery. The temple was invaded and the Holy of Holies desecrated. Jewish religion was outlawed and a foreign governor was appointed. All copies of the Law that were found were burned or otherwise mutilated; those in whose possession copies of the Law were found were executed. After offering a pig on the altar of God, Antiochus erected on that spot a statue in honor of the pagan god, Jupiter Olympius.

If we understand the significance of the temple and the Holy of Holies within the temple, then we understand the stunning implications of this event. The temple represented the presence of God in Israel; the Holy of Holies was the place where He appeared to the high priests. God has left His people. This event, like few other events ever could, signaled the breach between God and His covenant people. The year was 168 B.C., and still, no word from God.

Three years later, a resistance movement emerged under the capable leadership of Judas Maccebeus, or Judas “the hammer.” The movement grew and, in time, Jerusalem was retaken from the Syrians, the temple was refurnished and on the 25th of December, three years to the day after Antiochus sacrificed that pig on the altar of God, the sacrifices of the Jews were offered once again. This resistance movement, however, was greatly hampered by fighting between the orthodox Jews who wished to preserve their heritage and those who wished to continue the assimilation of the Jews into the surrounding culture. In time, the Maccabean family died out and a rival family, the Herods, moved into a position of power. The Herods secured the support of the Romans who were, at this time, conquering that territory. From 63 B.C. onward, the Romans were in control. The Jews had passed from under the authority of the Persians to the Greeks, and from the Greeks to the Syrians, and from the Syrians to the Romans.

In about 3 B.C., Herod the Great died and his son, Herod Antipas, became king over the region in which the Jews lived. Now, God began to speak once again:

Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zacharias, of the division of Abijah; and he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 They were both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and they were both advanced in years. 8 Now it happened that while he was performing his priestly service before God in the appointed order of his division, 9 according to the custom of the priestly office, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were in prayer outside at the hour of the incense offering. –by the way, let me note here that the people had been taught to pray for the Messiah during this particular incense offering– 11 And an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 Zacharias was troubled when he saw the angel, and fear gripped him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zacharias, for your petition has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will give him the name John. 14 You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord; and he will drink no wine or liquor, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit while yet in his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God. 17 It is he who will go as a forerunner before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, TO TURN THE HEARTS OF THE FATHERS BACK TO THE CHILDREN, and the disobedient to the attitude of the righteous, so as to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.”

In this familiar story, we are told about Zacharias and Elizabeth, the parents of John the Baptist. Elizabeth and Zacharias are introduced as “both righteous in the sight of God, walking blamelessly” before Him (v. 6). This phrase does not mean that they were without sin; it means that they were true worshipers of Jehovah. We also are told that they were childless and “advanced in years.” (v. 7) Luke means to indicate that although they wanted children, Elizabeth was barren and, at this point in their lives, the two were beyond the time of having offspring. Luke states further that Zacharias was chosen to perform a particular act during temple worship (vv. 8, 9). He was to enter the temple and offer the incense that was associated with both the morning and evening sacrifices. The interesting element here is that there were so many qualified priests at this time, that a man had an opportunity to perform this task only once in his lifetime.

We know what happened while Zacharias was in the temple. An angel of the Lord revealed that he soon would become a father (vv. 11 ff). This child, the angel explains, “will be great in the sight of the Lord.” (v. 15) And the angel applies to this child the prophecy of Malachi, that prophecy we just considered—those words that were among the last spoken by the LORD before His voice fell silent (vv. 16, 17). That prophecy, you’ll remember, told of a figure who will appear just before the Messiah, and his task would be to announce the Savior’s coming. Here, the angel adds that this messenger “will turn many of the sons of Israel back to the Lord their God.” This quotes from the very end of Malachi’s book where the LORD again emphasizes the ministry of the coming Messiah.

Now that the silence is broken, the news that had been anticipated for so many generations is being broadcast by God to His servants. For over 400 years, God had said nothing, but now He is speaking again and what He is saying is the most wonderful message our race could hear. The day of redemption has arrived; the day of the Messiah, promised in the Garden of Eden and longed for by the faithful, is dawning.

Elizabeth conceived and gave birth; Zacharias, having been made deaf and dumb by the angel, insisted that the boy be called “John.” His ability to communicate was restored and we are told that “Zacharias was filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied.” His words are found in Luke 1:68-79. For four centuries, the people of God have had no communication, no assurance that God would keep that promise He made, no revelation telling them to remain hopeful. But now the Spirit moves upon Zacharias in the same way He did upon the prophets of the Old Testament. Their words were the words the Spirit wanted communicated and the same is true in this instance.

As he begins, Zacharias blesses the Lord God of Israel because the birth of his son meant that God was coming to visit His people and accomplish their redemption (v. 68). Zacharias believed that the birth of John means God is worthy to be praised—not just because John is born, but because of what is going to happen in connection with John’s birth. Additionally, two things stand out in this prophecy. First, Zacharias ties together many of the ideas and themes that are part of the story of redemption from Adam through Isaiah. The overall theme, of course, is mentioned immediately: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited us and accomplished redemption for His people.” This is what the promise given by God was all about for those many centuries. God promised to save the faithful and deliver them from sin.

Zacharias says, the Lord “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of David His servant.” (v. 69) This is a common metaphor in the Old Testament. It is a symbol of power and victory. In this case, Zacharias is connecting the birth of John to the Messianic prophecies concerning the house of David. The Messiah would be a descendant of David and would come to occupy David’s throne to rule over the people of God. In vv. 70-75, he refers to God’s previous promises of redemption spoken through the prophets. The events unfolding had been foretold long ago and had been anticipated by the faithful. Above all, as Zacharias says, the coming of the Messiah would mean that we would be able to serve God without fear, serve Him in holiness and righteousness all our days. This is what the faithful longed to see generation after generation; they lived for this day, they prayed for this day, they knew that the day of the Messiah would mean salvation for the world.

The second element that stands out in this prophecy is the specific information given about John, the son of Zacharias. After tying together many of the Messianic strands in his prophesy, Zacharias adds information not yet given. The ministry of John would be unique among all the prophets who ever spoke for the LORD. He is the last prophet to appear before the Messiah, who Himself is God’s final Prophet. John will be “the prophet of the Most High” and he will “go on before the Lord to prepare His ways.” (v. 76) Zacharias shows the association between John’s coming ministry and that of Christ when he says that John will “give to the people the knowledge of salvation by the forgiveness of sins.” (v. 77) John will declare to the people that the way of redemption has come and that in Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness and reconciliation—the very things needed by fallen man.

Notice how Zacharias closes his prophecy: the Messiah will come “to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” (v. 79) This is a partial quote from Isa. 9 where that prophet characterized the people as being in spiritual darkness. So John’s ministry would be to announce that the One spoken of in such prophecies had come and with Him had come deliverance from the darkness of sin.

Here again we see how the message of hope has been one. John would not predict the Messiah’s coming, like all his brethren before him, he would announce that their predictions were realized and now the time had come to receive the Messiah, not just long for Him; now the time had come to embrace Him instead of hoping for Him; now, that which had been the focus of attention throughout history was a reality. God was no longer silent, but had come in the flesh and was preparing to save His people.

From this story of the breaking of God’s silence, we should come to an important realization: God does not ignore sin. This is one of the ironies of this season. Much of the world is celebrating its condemnation. If Christ has come, it means that sin is real and the fall of our race is real and our condemnation before God is real and our alienation from God is real. For those not found in the Savior, His arrival means judgment. His coming means deliverance for those who love Him, but just as assuredly means judgment for those who do not embrace Him.

Throughout history people have often mistaken the supposed silence of God to indicate that He is not there or, if there, cares little about the behavior of those on the earth. When God is not speaking or striking down His enemies, the wicked assume there is no accountability. They ridicule those who warn them about the coming day of judgment. Christians alone have reason to celebrate. The coming of Christ meant our deliverance from condemnation, not our confirmation in condemnation. Keep this in mind as you interact with people this season. Spend some extra time, perhaps, praying for the salvation of a friend or relative.

Previously, I noted that the work of redemption is described in various ways in the Bible. The primary theme associated with the ministry of Christ, however, is peace. Before He came, the prophets described peace as one of the leading characteristics of His reign as our Redeemer-King. While on earth, Jesus frequently spoke of peace as He taught His disciples and, on occasion, strangers. In the epistles, we find this same theme expounded upon.

The lack of peace between God and man is traceable, as we know, to man’s fall in the Garden; that incident set the human race on a course of conflict—conflict with God, of course, but also conflict with one another. This latter issue is described by God when He confronts our first parents and the serpent. The LORD says that two lines will come forth from the woman—the line of the Deliverer and the line of the serpent. They will engage in continuing battle until the serpent’s head is crushed by the One who will be sent into the world from heaven.

The coming of the Savior is often described as the arrival of peace, the cessation of conflicts, and the end of hostility throughout God’s creation. The Lord’s appearance is seen as a restoration of the harmony that once characterized God’s creation. In the Savior, fallen man is reconciled to God and enjoys peace once more.

Please read Luke 2:1-20

In the first seven verses of Luke 2, we are given a brief account of Christ’s birth. Luke merely gives us a broad description of the circumstances in which the Child was born. In response to an order by the Romans, Joseph made his way to Bethlehem in order to register for a census (vv. 1-4). Luke adds that Joseph was accompanied by Mary who was engaged to him and who was “with child.” (v. 5) Nothing else is said to establish the context for what is about to take place.

We know from other portions of Scripture that Joseph is aware that Mary has conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and he knows that she is carrying the Christ. After this limited introduction, Luke writes:

“6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

One issue of inconvenience for Joseph and Mary was the fact that they could not secure a normal hotel room due to the fact that the city was filled with visitors who had come to register for the census. But the truth is, God arranged this context for the birth of the Christ.

Think of all the wonderful descriptions of Christ that we find in the Bible. Think of all the wonderful things said about Him—what He would be and what He would do; think of the fact that previous generations had hoped in Him, had prayed for His coming, and had been kept from despair by the mere thought that someday the Messiah would come into the world.

The fact that Mary and Joseph did not have a typical place to spend the night is attributable to something more than the overcrowding of the city due to the census. Through His prophets, the LORD declared that the circumstances of the Savior’s birth would emphasize His humble character. God appointed these circumstances and this time so that His Son would come into the world in a manner fitting for a Servant.

But let’s also remember a few other things, such as God’s declaration that the One to come would crush the head of the serpent and destroy his works. And remember God’s dramatic judgment of sin in Noah’s day to demonstrate that righteousness would yet triumph (and thus the promise of a Deliverer was kept alive).

Recall God’s words to Abraham in which that patriarch heard of a world-wide blessing to be brought by the Savior; and the days of Moses, the people were reminded with every sacrifice—especially the annual sacrifice for the nation on the day of atonement—that a great and powerful Savior would one day come and accomplish in reality what was pictured in the types of the Levitical system.

Remember how the coming Savior was presented in David’s day—as a beautifully arrayed and victorious Warrior-King; and think back to Isaiah’s incredible description of the work of the Messiah. He would bring light to those sitting in darkness; He would bring peace to the world; He would have all authority and He would be God in the flesh.

Keeping all that in mind, keeping in mind the magnificent buildup that the Messiah has had over the centuries, keeping in mind what His coming meant to mankind, listen again to Luke’s words: “6 While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

The Baby referred to is that One promised by God, explained to Abraham, pictured in Israel’s religious services, described by David as a stunning and mighty King, and presented by Isaiah as Ruler of the earth! And here He is being born in a stable—not a palace, not even in a home; and being wrapped in cloths, not garments of royalty.

And yet—and here is one of the unique truths about the Christian faith—this is perfectly in keeping with everything we have learned about the Messiah. How can that be? It is so because the information given to us prior to this event describes a King of a different kind and a Ruler of a different authority and a Captain of a different army. This One comes to accomplish a great feat, but not through the means normally employed in this world.

From the moment of His birth to the day of His death, Jesus displayed meekness. This Savior comes to rule by submitting to Another and gain the conquest by surrendering Himself. This is God’s Messiah, not the world’s version; this is the One who saves from sin and gives eternal security, not one who merely delivers from temporal threats. This is the Christ, the Savior of our race and Luke’s portrayal of His humble beginning is completely in keeping, as I said before, with the image we have throughout the Old Testament.

After telling us the most basic facts about the circumstances of the Savior’s birth, Luke continues and describes the announcement that was made on that night. Somewhere outside the town of Bethlehem, there were certain shepherds (v. 8). These men had settled in for the night; their animals were resting and they, no doubt, would soon take turns sleeping and keeping watch over the flock.

On this night, everything appeared routine. In fact, everything seemed routine throughout the whole world. There were no celebrations because no one knew what was happening. However, heaven knew was happening and Luke tells us about heavenly beings who made an announcement regarding the Savior’s birth:

9 And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; 11 for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”

One second, these shepherds were enjoying a quiet evening after a long day of hard work; they were preparing for the night watch. The next second, however, the area is filled with the purest light they have ever seen and an angel is speaking to them. They had never had such an experience. They were simple men, men of no renown.

Yet, they were the perfect candidates to be the first to hear of the Messiah’s birth. He, too, will be a Shepherd. He will be judged as a Man of no renown in the eyes of the world; He will know what it is to labor and to care for those around Him. He, too, will have a flock—the very elect of God—and He will love them and tend to them and even give Himself for them. So it is entirely fitting for these shepherds to have this announcement made to them.

The fear felt by the shepherds was only momentary and what they heard from the angel immediately vanquished any dread. “Do not be afraid,” he said, and he had good reason to make that statement! The Savior, the Son of David, had been born in the city of David, just a short distance away! They must have been instantly overwhelmed with various impulses—confusion, curiosity, hopefulness.

The shepherds, no doubt still dumbfounded, are then told how to find this Savior (v. 12) and the scene then changes as “there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.’” (v. 13) The magnificence of this moment grows now as the announcing angel is joined by a host of others and together they praise the LORD. This must have been an astonishing sight—the night sky filled with angels singing to God.

This scene ends with the shepherds determining to go straight into Bethlehem to find this Christ-Child. And, just as they had been told, they found the Baby lying in a manger (v. 16). Naturally, as Luke tells us, the shepherds related their recent experience with the angels (v. 17). As they related this news, “all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds.” (v. 18)

Luke specifically mentions Mary among those who listened to the shepherds’ report (v. 19). She heard these men state that her Baby was the Messiah, the Savior promised and anticipated. Here, we are told that she “treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart.” The idea in the Greek is not simple astonishment, but holy wonderment and, further, the notion is that Mary kept going over these elements in her mind.

Finally, the shepherds are on their way, “glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.” (v. 20) And this is where Luke ends his report on the birth of the Savior. The peace promised has been declared.

In Scripture, the work of redemption is described in various ways. The primary theme associated with the ministry of Christ, however, is peace. The fall of man disrupted the peace of the Garden and immediately set the human race on a course of conflict—conflict with God, of course, but also conflict with one another.

This latter issue is described by God when He confronts our first parents and the serpent. The LORD says that two lines will come forth from the woman—the line of the Deliverer and the line of the serpent. They will engage in continuing battle until the serpent’s head is crushed by the One who will be sent into the world from heaven.

From that point forward, the lack of peace is the dominant concept when man’s nature and relationship with God is discussed. Fallen man has no peace with God; fallen man has no peace with himself. The coming of the Savior, therefore, is frequently described as the arrival of peace, the cessation of conflicts, and the end of hostility throughout God’s creation. The Lord’s appearance is seen as a restoration of that harmony that once characterized God’s creation. In the Savior, fallen man is reconciled to God and enjoys peace once more.

At this time of year, we are commemorating the coming of salvation in the person of Jesus Christ. Traditionally, Advent is a time for reflection upon the state of the world prior to the arrival of the Savior. This reflection is for the purpose of emphasizing the wonderful gift God supplied to us when He sent His Son to redeem us by giving Himself for us.

Please read Isaiah 11:1-10.

The Character of the One to Come

The prophet paints an incredible picture of a future time when One will appear who will have nothing less than a cosmic impact on creation. All aspects of creation are going to be influenced by His coming. Whenever this event occurs, given Isaiah’s description, things will never be the same in this world.

Isaiah speaks about the character of One to come. In the previous chapter, the prophet described this Figure with several titles. Already, therefore, we know this Deliverer will be unlike any other before Him. Isaiah, for example, refers to Him as Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. These designations alone fill the mind with amazement and incredible curiosity. No one has ever walked the earth to whom these titles could be attributed. Now, in our present passage, the prophet adds even more.

A King is coming, one of the house of David—a rightful Ruler who will reign in perfection. If the source of much of the world’s turmoil is injustice and the mistreatment of one against another, then this prediction would be encouraging news, to be sure. Isaiah promises that One will arrive who will reign without fault.

God’s Spirit, he adds, will be upon this Individual. He will excel in wisdom and understanding—because He will have the wisdom of God! He also will be equipped with power and all knowledge; He will fear the LORD, meaning that He will relate to God in a proper manner.

Everything said about this Figure is encouraging and adds to the joy associated with this prediction. Regardless of how bleak things looked in Isaiah’s day, and the situation was most distressing for anyone who truly loved the LORD, this prophecy would revive the hope that righteousness would one day cover the earth, just as Isaiah declared at the beginning of this book.

The Distinctiveness of His Ministry

Note also that Isaiah speaks of the distinctiveness of the Savior’s ministry. Stating again that previous idea, the prophet says the delight of this coming Servant, that is, the thing that will bring Him the most encouragement, is “the fear of the LORD.” He will live to please God and God’s pleasure will be His greatest satisfaction. His work on this earth, therefore, will be marked first and foremost by concern for the will of God. His chief aim will be the accomplishment of God’s desire.

This dedication to the will of God means, of course, that the labor of this Servant will conform to God’s nature and God’s laws. Therefore, Isaiah declares that He will “not judge by what He sees, or decide disputes by what His ears hear.” (v. 3) Here is one of the fundamental issues in the human experience—justice. We are involved with some aspect of justice frequently. We may be the target of a wrongful act or we may be accused of a wrongful act. We may witness evil carried out against the innocent or we may be aware of a scheme to defraud.

Whatever the case, we desire justice—not the kind perverted by our fallen natures, but true justice, the kind that faithfully reflects the character of God. This Deliverer will be distinguished by His dedication to true justice. He will not be influenced by anything other than the pure Word of God. He will not be swayed by what He sees or hears. Instead, as the prophet says, “righteousness” will be the standard of His reign.

This Servant will apply the standard of God and only that standard in His ministry. As a King, indicated as this passage begins, He will instruct and decide and correct according to that which corresponds to the nature of God. It is this standard by which He will judge the poor (cf. v. 4). In true fairness, He will oversee the meek of the earth, Isaiah adds. What more can a poor man with no influence and no means to protect himself from injustice desire other than an impartial judge? What more can he hope for than a judge who is dedicated to truth and who cannot be swayed by bribes or lies or promises of reward?

This Servant of God will be the perfect Ruler! He will dispense justice that is untainted, justice that is pure. For that reason, the poor need have no fear of oppression in His day. All the meek of the earth will have in this Deliverer a source of defense; His reign will be so different from that to which they are accustomed. Now, justice is perverted and bought and manipulated. But the day is coming when these things will no longer be possible.

How will this coming King enforce His will? Will He come with a superior army? Will He subdue through sheer brute force? The prophet explains in a simple fashion how this coming One will assure true justice in His realm: “He will strike the earth with the rod of His mouth, and with the breath of His lips He shall kill the wicked.” (v. 4) With His words this King will establish His rule; with His words He will judge the people; with His words He will ensure that the poor and meek are treated fairly.

By God’s holy standard, the poor will be protected and justice will be guaranteed. For this reason, the wicked should fear, as I noted. In the day of this King, bribery and intimidation will be of no use whatsoever. One will sit in judgment who cannot be influenced except by God’s perfect law. That is the dread of all evil men. If they face an immovable standard of truth and justice, they are doomed.

The Legacy of the Servant

Naturally, such a King is going to create a legacy. He will affect the domain over which He presides. Isaiah gives us some insight regarding what will happen to the world when this Servant comes. He describes a fundamental change in the nature of what we know as those who are born here, live here, and die here. The influence of this Champion of Righteousness will not be limited to talk, but will bear fruit in the lives of those who follow Him; this, in turn, will affect the surroundings where those who follow Him dwell.

The prophet uses some striking images in his description: “the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat, and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together . . .” (v. 6) In this sin-corrupted world, wolves eat lambs, leopards eat goats, and lions feast on fattened calves. These descriptions, therefore, are meant to indicate a change at the most fundamental level.

These phrases speak of the removal of hostility between God’s creatures. A reversal of the nature of this world will be affected by the coming of the Savior. This is a typical way in which the Bible instructs us concerning the coming of Christ. His presence marks the end of sin’s reign over God’s creation and the beginning of the reestablishment of harmony.

Moreover, Isaiah says that “a little child shall lead them.” Again, I think he is referring to a fundamental change so that innocence prevails while evil subsides. Isaiah adds additional descriptions in vv. 7 and 8 that are in line with this picture of peace on the earth and the turning back of the aggression that came as a result of the fall of man.

This portion of the prophecy concludes with a wonderful, all-encompassing declaration regarding the result of the Savior’s coming. In v. 9, after another statement describing the harmony that will be realized in that day, the text states that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Here you get the impression of a world-wide phenomenon. We saw before that the “weapon” this coming Savior will use is the Word of God. Now we are told that this Word will eventually cover the earth.

Isaiah’s prophecy is being fulfilled as the gospel is preached and God calls His people from every time and every land. Jesus Christ, as Isaiah adds in v. 10, stands now as a signal to the nations. And as the resurrected Jesus taught His disciples in the Great Commission, He is gradually covering the earth with that glorious gospel.