The Star of Bethlehem: Moving from Biblical History to the God of the Heavens

cometDuring this Advent season, our church has been preaching through Jesus’ birth narratives in Matthew’s Gospel. And in Matthew 2:1–12 we find the incredible story of the Magi. Sunday, one of our other elders preached on that passage, which freed me to study more broadly about the nature of the Star of Bethlehem itself. Spurred on by Colin Nicholl’s fascinating book, The Great Christ Comet (book review and interview), I’ve been intrigued by this question: What in the heavens would lead the Magi to travel 550 miles to find king Jesus?

The biblical answer relates to the Old Testament prophecies in Numbers 24:17; Psalm 72:8–11; Isaiah 9:2; and Isaiah 60:6. But what about the astronomical answer? What was the sign of his Star?

This is where Nicholl’s book shines. He examines the biblical data, the various cosmic hypotheses, and then makes his case for the Great Christ Comet. I’m still working my way through the book, but for now let me share a summary of his biblical conclusions that help us think through the story of the Magi and the biblical testimony about the Star of Bethlehem. From this biblical foundation, he (and anyone interested in the topic) moves to consider the astronomical phenomena that might have led the Magi.

The Star of Bethlehem in Fifteen Points

Starting with the biblical data, Colin Nicholl makes twenty-two summary statements about Matthew 2 and the Star of Bethlehem (pp. 66–68). I’ve summarized his points below, showing his original numbers in parentheses. Except for Scripture quotations, all quotations are from The Great Christ Comet.
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Choose Your Focus This Christmas: Learning from Herod, the Magi, and Matthew (Matthew 2:1–12)

advent03In Matthew 2:1–12 we find the incredible story of the Magi. Sunday, Ron Comoglio, one of OBC’s elders preached a message on that passage. What follows are discussion questions related to that sermon and further resources for studying the incredible account of the Bethlehem Star which led the Magi to meet the Christ-child and offer him worship. Continue reading

Hermeneutics as Disciple-Formation

Christ in OTThe one who follows Jesus to the cross (but no further) is an admirer; the one who takes up the cross is a disciple. The admirer, unlike the disciple, follows Jesus only up to a point. . . . The Emmaus road admirers did not recognize Jesus; he was a stranger to them. They were incapable of reading the Scripture or the situation rightly. . . . Admirers [users and critics] of Jesus are able to follow the biblical testimony up to a point; they are able neither to recognize what it means for them nor to appropriate its perlocutionary effect [i.e., the way the word ‘works’]. Similarly, for many readers, the text is a ‘stranger,’ to be admired or followed only ‘up to a point.’ Like the Emmaus travelers, the itinerant reader may be familiar with the text without ever having a moment of recognition, without ever coming to a personal knowledge of the ‘strange new world of the Bible,’ without ever deciding whether the stranger [i.e., the triune God] is friend or foe.
 Kevin Vanhoozer, Is There a Meaning in This Text? —

Hermeneutics, technically defined, is “the science that teaches us the principles, laws, and methods of interpretation” (Louis Berkhof). Since college, this subject has been a passion and a pursuit. And so it is with great joy that I continue to consider this topic with the men of Occoquan Bible Church today.

Because the ‘science . . . of interpretation’ is actually part of God’s wise and gracious process of making disciples, it is vital we learn more than interpretive skills and techniques when we study hermeneutics. We must begin with the right posture of heart, which is to say the Holy Spirit must grant new eyes and new affections, so that as born again disciples of Christ our biblical studies bring us into greater communion with the triune God.

Keeping this personal knowledge of God at the center, I have tried to frame our study around the Father who Speaks, the Son who is that Spoken Word, and the Spirit who empowers us to believe and receive the Word of God. Most, if not all, of these thoughts are unoriginal, but novelty for novelty sake is never the goal of interpretation. Rather, the goal of Bible reading, I believe, is beholding Christ in all Scripture. With in mind, I share the notes here on three presuppositions (read: postures of the heart) disciples need to rightly understand the Word of God.

  1. Author — The God Who Speaks
  2. Text — The Word God Writes
  3. Audience– The Spirit Who Empowers Understanding (today’s lesson)

In these, my hope is to consider how faithful interpretation enhances doxology and discipleship. For any other aim misses the point of Scripture.  As Kevin Vanhoozer has wisely written, we must be disciples who receive the Word of God not mere admirers, dubious critics, or pragmatic users of God’s Word. To that end we pray and study.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds

The Necessity of Hardships: Why God Often Leads His Saints Into Dire Straits

sufferingFor we do not want you to be unaware, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.
— 2 Corinthians 1:8–9 —

When Jesus announced his impending death, he just as quickly announced the kind of “death” required of his disciples. Luke 9:23–24 reads,

23 And he said to all, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24 For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will save it.

The invitation to follow Jesus is not road of glory, even as it leads to glory. And this is part of the plan. God tests the faith of his followers to prove its sincerity. As Peter learned from Jesus (see John 21:18), the path of discipleship is sovereignly tinctured with suffering for the purposes of glorifying God and purifying the saint (cf. 1 Peter 1:7).

Believers, young and old, often struggle with this fact. Often, when God rescues someone from sin and the consequences of sin, the general tenor of life improves. The fruits of repentance are love, joy, peace, etc. Yet, amidst such blessings comes divinely ordained hardship. Jesus spoke of Saul that he would “show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name” (Acts 9:16). And, indeed, God shows everyone of us differing degrees of affliction so we would refuse to trust in self and only trust in him (see 2 Corinthians 1:8–10). One example of this is found in Acts 16 and bears our prayerful meditation. Continue reading

Our Long-Awaited Hope: Seeing God’s *Son* Through the Scriptures

hope

From where does hope come? And why does it take so long to get here? 

In our microwave age of instant information and Siri solutions, we don’t wait well. Yet, Christianity is a religion of patient endurance, long-suffering, and waiting—pure and simple waiting. Throughout the Old Testament, the people of God are told to wait. After the Exodus, Israel is forced to wait forty years because of their sinful unbelief, and at the other end of the Old Testament, Israel is left waiting for their messiah to bring a new exodus. Just the same in the New Testament, Hebrews 6:12 instructs, be “imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises.”

We should probably take it as axiomatic, then, that God wants his people to wait. Anyone who has ever prayed knows that the waiting is where God does his working. Saints are not matured in a day; they are formed in periods of years, decades, and generations. Hence, in this season of Christmas when we reenact Israel’s waiting of the Christ’s birth, we do well to think about the way that God promised his Son, so that in our waiting, hope would flourish.

From Genesis 3:15 to Jesus (to Revelation 12 too), the promise of a child-savior runs through the Bible. During Advent, we remember most explicitly the details related to the Angelic host, the Magi, and the Bethlehem Star, but God’s inspired apostles also send us back into the Old Testament to remember all that led up to Christ’s birth. Thus, in keeping with the pattern of waiting and watching in Scripture, it is worth observing just how and how often and how long God prepared the way for Jesus to come through a myriad of promises and prototypes leading up to the birth of Immanuel, God with us. (Fittingly, what follows is not short. But how could it be? The arrival of Christ’s birth took millennia.)

What follows is a thread of verses that trace how God prepared the way for Jesus. It begins with God’s promise of son in Genesis 3:15 and continues to see how this theme is expanded and developed through the history of Israel. It’s not a short journey, but neither was the voyage the Magi took to worship Jesus (approx. 500 miles in around two months time). In this age of fast-paced consumerism, may God give us grace to look long and longingly at the Messiah whose arrival took millennia to achieve, and may God produce fresh hope in us for the second advent of God’s Son. Continue reading

Immanuel: How God Came to Us (Matthew 1:18–25)

advent03This week we started a new sermon series through Matthew 1–2. As we celebrate the birth of our Lord, we look to the way Matthew explained his birth as the “fulfillment” of God’s promises of old. For instance, as Matthew writes, Jesus is Son of Abraham and the Son of David (Matthew 1:1), the “Immanuel” promised in Isaiah 7:14 (Matthew 1:23), the royal son born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2), and the child like Israel who God brought out of Egypt (Matthew 2:13–15; Hosea 11:1)—to name but a few. 

Matthew’s Gospel begins by introducing  who Jesus is and how to read the Old Testament in the light of his coming. So important is this information about the Messiah’s identity, Matthew crafts a 42-person genealogy to identify Jesus. Two years ago, Jared Bridges preached on Matthew 1:1–-17, so we began this year with Matthew 1:18–-25.

In what follows, I have included discussion questions about Sunday’s sermon and resources to consider biblical interpretation and the birth of Jesus Christ. You can listen to or read the sermon on online. Or even better, if you are in Northern Virginia, come join us during this advent season. Continue reading

The Church’s Place in *Picturing* the Gospel (A Review of 1 Corinthians 1–10)

obc-1 corinthiansThe church is more than a holding tank for Christians; it is a family portrait of God’s people. Created and sustained by the gospel, God’s local church, when it abides in the word of Christ, reflects God’s unity, holiness, and love. Yet, such Spirit-empowered characteristics do not come automatically. They must learned from Scripture and taught by the Spirit.

This Sunday’s message attempted to capture these truths from an overview of 1 Corinthians 1–10. Last week we considered the relationship between the universal and local church, and how the latter is designed to frame the family of God in any one locale. This week we turned to the life of the church, which does not earn salvation but which does reflect the Savior when spiritual unity, holiness, and love are present.

In what follows you can find discussion questions and resources for further study. The sermon can be found online and the notes are available here. Continue reading

The Law and the Gospel: What God Has Joined Together, Let No Man Separate

john

In an effort to emphasize grace, many gospel preachers have fallen into the trap of denying the law. Formally, this is called antinomianism, a condition that has often plagued Reformed preachers of grace. While popularly, antinomianism often arises as preachers or believers eschew the shackles of legalism, it is more fundamentally a case where grace itself is misunderstood.

Recently, in reading Sinclair Ferguson’s historical, theological, and pastoral book, The Whole Christ: Legalism, Antinomianism, and Gospel Assurance—Why the Marrow Controversy Still Matters, I have been reminded of the importance of making this point. Antinomianism is not so much the opposite of legalism (nor the reverse). Rather, legalism and antinomianism are both fundamental misunderstandings the gospel, the way the law leads to the gospel (see Romans 3:21; 1 Timothy 1:8–11), and the way in which the gospel fulfills the need created by the law—namely, a righteousness that comes by faith (not works of the law), but which also esteems the law as it is written on the heart of those who believe the gospel.

I hope you can see that the relationship between law and gospel is more complex than simple supersession or discontinuity. In what follows, I will draw from The Whole Christ to help show how law leads to gospel and gospel pardons from legal guilt and empowers to obey the law. Continue reading

Let’s Increase the Drama: Kevin Vanhoozer on the Church as Gospel Theater

drama.jpegWhy should you commit to, participate in, become a member—or however you want to describe it—of a local church? Because Christians are called to gather to “dramatize” the gospel of Jesus Christ.

While “drama” in the church is often a troublesome condition related to strife and gossip; rightly understood, drama is the very reason why the church exists. Consider the insightful words of Kevin Vanhoozer (The Drama of Doctrine), who describes the communion of the church as a theater troupe called and commissioned to interpret God’s Script through their faithful living and Word-based improvisation.

The church has to celebrate what no other institution can celebrate: communion with God and communion with others. The Lord’s Supper is a communal act of solemn, yet ultimately joyful, thanksgiving. The shared bread and wine recall the theo-drama’s climax and rehearse the play’s conclusion. It is a key scene to the meaning of the whole, and it ought to affect our interpretation of all the other scenes. The Supper cannot, however, be performed by individual actors, no matter how virtuosic their talent; it takes a company. A company is, in the first instance, an assembly. The church is that singular assembly that keeps company gospel and with one another, not least by breaking bread together (com panis = “with bread”). But the church is a company, second, in the theatrical sense: a troupe of speakers, singers, and actors. It is the company of the forgiven, and this is why the company communicates, indeed radiates, joy.

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The Church’s Place in *Framing* the Gospel (A Review of 1 Corinthians 1–10)

sermon photoIn 2016 our church has spent the year in 1 Corinthians, at least the first 10 chapters. As we turn our attention to the birth of Lord in just a couple weeks, we took time to review a few aspects of ecclesiology (the doctrine of the church) that we’ve seen in Paul’s letter. For now the debate about Trinity-gender analogies (1 Corinthians 11:3) and head coverings (11:6, 10) will have to wait.

In what we considered yesterday, I made seven applications from 1 Corinthians 1–10 related to the universal and local church. Here they are in list form. You can listen or read the sermon notes; study questions and further resources are listed below.

  1. The church is both local and universal.
  2. The universal church is made of local churches.
  3. Individual Christians experience the universal church thru the local church.
  4. The local church calls the universal church to walk together as disciples of Christ.
  5. The local church (not the universal church) has been given leaders who know their sheep.
  6. The local church has power AND wisdom to exercise the keys of the kingdom.
  7. The local church provides visible boundaries for the universal church.

All sermons in the series “The Life-Changing Gospel in God’s Local Church” can be found here. Continue reading