The Divine Warrior Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes

samuel-zeller-364234And a Redeemer will come to Zion, to those in Jacob
who turn from transgression,” declares the Lord.
— Isaiah 59:20 —

Wars and rumors of war.

Throughout the world right now, armies are planning and preparing for various military operations. Closer to home, domestic abuse, interpersonal strife, and political injustice continue unabated. Just this week, I learned that a man was shot and nearly killed less than a block from my house.

All that to say, we live in a violent world. And it is right, to pray for, work for, and want for something better. But it is wrong, to think that this sort of violence is new or that God is unaware.

As Ecclesiastes says, “there is nothing new under the sun (1:9). Injustice, immorality, and bloodshed are as old as sin itself. But just as old is the promise that God redeem his people and deliver them from the curse of sin.

This was the promise in Genesis 3:15, when God said to the Serpent: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head and you shall bruise his heel.” And this ancient promise is just as good today as it was 4000 years before Christ.

Indeed, if you’re familiar with the Bible, you know how strange and circuitous God’s story of salvation story is. God did not bring peace to his people in Genesis 4. Rather, he let the world go to seed—literally.

In Genesis 4, Cain killed Abel in cold blood. Theologically speaking, the seed of the serpent killed the seed of the woman. And from this first act of aggression, bloodshed has followed. Yet, in the face of this violence, God chose one people from whom he would bring a peace-maker. Often Israel, like Abel, would find themselves subjected to the serpent’s seed. But at other times, they would themselves become a brood of vipers, earning the divine wrath of God.

This is how Isaiah 59 depicts Jerusalem, when God compares their sin to that of snakes and spiders. And it is this graphic image that Paul applies to the whole world, when he quotes Isaiah 59:6–7 in Romans 3:15–18:

Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.
Their feet are swift to shed blood;
in their paths are ruin and misery,
and the way of peace they have not known.

For us who live in the same dark world described in the Bible, we need to remember that this is the backdrop to the birth of Christ. Continue reading

The Arm of the Lord: From Moses to Isaiah to Christ

robert-nyman-442994In the Bible, the “arm of the Lord” is a vivid image of God’s saving power. But is it more than that? In Isaiah 59:16 and 63:5, the prophet tells how God will save his people by his own arm. In context, this builds on an important theme in Isaiah 40–66. But it also amplifies the promise of the messiah. Indeed, as we study “the arm of the Lord” across the Bible, I believe we begin to see how the “arm of the Lord” leads to the Son of God, who as Hebrews 10:5 says, citing Psalm 40, has received a body prepared by God.

Indeed, by better understanding the origin, development, and goal of this phrase (“the arm of the Lord”), we will gain greater insight into God’s Word and the work he planned for Christ to accomplish—namely the salvation of a people from all nations. Even more, we learn something about how the anthropomorphisms of the Old Testament are intended to direct us toward God in Christ.

So to organize our thoughts, lets consider the arm of the Lord in eight steps. 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

Creation, the Trinity, and the Incarnation: What “God with US” says to “ME and God”

 

manger “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us).
– Matthew 1:23 –

At Christmas, we remember the Eternal Son of God took on human likeness, so that the people made in his image might be reunited with their Maker. Most often when we consider the birth of Christ, we focus on the historical details—and rightly so. But it is equally appropriate to consider what the Incarnation teaches us about the Trinity and how the Trinity (God’s one-in-threeness) teaches us to reject self-centered individualism in order to live in new covenant community. Continue reading

The Priestly Aspect of the Imago Dei

priestIn The Christian FaithMichael Horton suggests four aspects of the Imago Dei, what it means to be made in God’s image. He enumerates them as

  1. Sonship/Royal Dominion
  2. Representation
  3. Glory
  4. Prophetic Witness

For each there is solid biblical evidence. Genesis 1:26–31; Psalm 8; and Hebrews 2:5–9 all testify to humanity’s royal sonship. Likewise, the whole creation narrative (Genesis 1–2) invites us to see man and woman as God’s creatures representing him on the earth. First Corinthians 11:7 speaks of mankind as the “glory of God.” Horton rightly distinguishes, “The Son and the Spirit are the uncreated Glory of God . . . human beings are the created reflectors of divine majesty” (401). They are, in other words, God’s “created glory,” which in time will be inhabited by the “uncreated glory” of God in the person of Jesus Christ. And last, as creatures made by the Word of God, in covenant relation with him, every human is a prophetic witness. In the fall, this prophetic witness is distorted. Humans are now ensnared to an innumerable cadre of idols (see Rom 1:18–32), but the formal purpose remains—to be made in the image of God is to be a prophetic witness.

Horton’s articulation is compelling, biblical, and beautiful. But it seems, in my estimation, to stress royal and prophetic tasks without giving equal attention to the priestly nature of humanity. To be fair, Horton refers to humanity’s priestly vocation under the headings of “representation” and “glory.” But because these are supporting the vocational idea of representation and the abstract idea of glory, we miss a key idea—the imago dei is by definition a priestly office. Or better, the imago dei is a royal priest who bears witness to the God of creation. Let’s consider. Continue reading

More Than Baby Talk: A Primer on the Incarnation

gloryPutting our children to bed is always a precious time to read the Bible, sing hymns, and talk about the day. But precious as it is, it is not always simple.

A few days ago, as our five year old was minutes from dream land, he began asking questions about Jesus’ birth. I listened to my wife explain that Jesus had always existed. And I heard him respond, “Yes, but he was also born,” exposing the challenge that if Jesus was born than he must have had a beginning. Right?

Perhaps, we have the making of a little Arian in our home (as in Arius from the fourth century Africa, not the Third Reich in twentieth century), or perhaps he is simply experiencing the challenge that we all face when we begin to press into the incarnation of Jesus Christ. What does it mean that the eternal Son of God who was with God before the beginning of time (John 1:1) took on flesh and became a man in time?

The Incarnation

The subject of the incarnation is puzzling for adults let alone little boys with active imaginations. Continue reading

The Beauty of the Incarnation

When God created the world, he filled it with splendor and beauty.  The sky above flashes a myriad of colors, and the world below is covered with majestic mountains, lush valleys, winding rivers, hidden lakes, and fields filled abundant wildlife.  All of which highlight the wise creativity of our God.

The beauty of our planet is so pervasive, that many give their lives for the preservation of the environment or the thrill of filming the most exotic locales.  Yet, God’s beauty is not just seen in creation.  The pages of history, while smeared with darkness and death, display a redemptive beauty that in the end will swallow death.  Aside from the death-defeating resurrection itself, nowhere is the jaw-dropping beauty of God’s sovereign story-telling more evident than in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.

Thus, as we think about aesthetics and the beauty of God in creation, history, and redemption, we must behold Christ’s humble beginnings.

Continue reading

On the Incarnation: How Should We Talk About Christmas?

Yesterday, I preached from John 1:1-5 on the eternal Son of God who came to be God with us.  One of my main points was the fact that while Jesus had a beginning, the Son of God did not. The Son takes on flesh to become fully human, but in no way does God the Son lose or set aside his deity.

Today, Matt Smethurst says something very similar in his post at The Gospel Coalition.  In his article, “God Plus or Bust: Lose the Incarnation, Lose It All,” he helpfully points to an article by J. I. Packer called “The Vital Question” which articulates two kinds of Christologies.  Matt’s synthesis of Packer’s article points out that “All Christologies . . . can be boiled down to two basic brands: “Man Plus” and “God Plus.”  He unpacks this saying,

“Man Plus” Christologies almost unanimously agree that Jesus was an utterly unique figure. He was no ordinary man. He was man plus a number of things—a unique sense of the divine, uncommon personal charisma, unfettered religious devotion, God-given insight, and so forth. Jesus of Nazareth was a godly man, perhaps even the godliest man ever to walk the earth. Nevertheless, the idea that Jesus was God is a myth. It doesn’t correspond to space-time fact, nor does it really need to.

“God Plus” Christology, on the other hand, is the orthodox position. It’s the view that Jesus of Nazareth was actually—that is, historically, publicly, objectively, necessarily—God incarnate. He was divinity plus humanity. Wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was the eternal second person of the Trinity.

Understanding the nature of the Incarnation is vital–not just for the seminary lunchroom–but for all believers.  Knowing who God is and how he has come to rescue us is vital for our faith.  Celebrating Christmas as a holiday that commemorates a special child born in a manger who just happens to be divine–whatever that means–sets the believers faith in a vulnerable position. Such a belief is true as far as it goes, but it is little different than the “man plus deity” of liberal theology.  By contrast, knowing that God himself took on flesh–that he added something to his deity, namely a human nature–in order to save his people with the full power of Deity Incarnate, gives vitality and endurance to believe that what God started two millenia ago, he will finish at the end of the age.

Much praise is due to God for all that he is especially for the fact that Jesus is not just “man plus.”  He is “God plus,” “God with us!”

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

Darkness: The World In Which Christ Was Born

The Darkness 

While we think of Christmas as a season of light, the truth is, the birth story of Jesus Christ is filled with darkness.  Anticipating the birth of the Christ child centuries before Mary was great with child, Isaiah writes that the light that was coming into the world, came to a people shrouded in darkness (9:1-7).  Gloom, anguish, and contempt were just some of the adjectives used to describe this darkness.

Thus, in order understand the full revelation of the light which came into the world when Christ was born, we need to recognize the darkness into which our Christ was born.  Today, we will consider seven aspects of the darkness, aspects not out of God’s control, but rather sovereignly ordained such that Christ’s light would radiate all the more brilliantly.

First, when Christ was born, the word of God had not been heard for four centuries.  Malachi is the last book in the Old Testament, written in the fifth century BC.  It concludes with the statement that God would send Elijah the prophet as a forerunner for the Messiah.  But since that last pregnant statement, which would eventually be fulfilled in John the Baptist, God had been silent.  And everyone knew it.  Listen to some of the Jewish writers of the day.

Babylonian Talmud, Yomah 9b:After the latter prophets Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi had died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel, but they still availed themselves of the voice from heaven’

Josephus, Against Apion: From Artaxerxes to our own times a complete history has been written, but has not been deemed worthy of equal credit with the earlier records, because of the failure of the exact succession of the prophets’

1 Maccabees: So they tore down the altar and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until there should come a prophet to tell what to do with them.’

Without the word of God present among them, the people walked in spiritual darkness.

Second, the people of God were under the oppressive rule of Rome.  This is evident in the birth story of Jesus.  Luke 2:1 records the census taken up by Caesar Augustus.  It was a blatant reminder that the people of Israel were owned by another.  Likewise, Herod, a descedent of Edom, ruled in Jerusalem.  Long gone were the days of a Davidic king. Much like today, soldiers walked the streets of Jerusalem.  Only they were not 19-year old Israelis with M-16’s.  They were Roman guards, called to police the city of David.

In some ways, Israel had escaped exile.  No longer did they live in Babylon.  But in many ways, they were exiles in their own country.  Even their own temple was built by a foreigner—Herod the Great was a descendent of a rival nation.  Political darkness reigned!

Third, the nation of Israel was fracturing.  Four groups in Israel sought and fought to lead the people.  (1) The Pharisees resided in Jerusalem.  They attempted to shape religious life in Israel through their traditions.  Jesus had many run-ins with these legalistic Jews, who led astray the people of God (cf. Matt 23). (2) Sadducees opposed the strict legalism of the Pharisees, and only embraced Moses law (Gen-Deut).  They rejected the resurrection, belief in angels, but still had a influential place in the temple and law courts.  (3) The Essenes, who lived in a commune near Qumran–they were the scribes who penned and preserved theDead Sea Scrolls–lived an especially pure life.  They devoted themselves to God, and prayed for God’s overthrow of Rome. (4) The Zealots were a band of brothers who did not pray for change so much as they sought violent means of overthrowing Roman rule.

The result of these four competing sects in Judaism led to constant friction, only increased by the oppressive rule of Rome.  Riots were common.  Tension was unceasing. Darkness permeated Judaism.

Fourth, the birth of Jesus came through a virgin.  Now, in our day, we celebrate Mary as an example of devotion and faith.  We send Christmas cards with creche scenes on them and sing songs praising God for this humble servant.  But it was not so then.  Matthew 1 records that Joseph, who was a righteous man, one who loved Mary, sought to divorce her quietly.  Why?  Because everyone knows how a child is conceived!  Mary’s child would grow up ridiculed as the son of an unchaste women (cf John 8:41).  A virgin birth was not a celebrated event in ancient Israel.  Darkness surrounded it!

Fifth, the census was a considerable imposition.  Living in Nazareth, Mary and Joseph lived more than 100 miles North of Bethlehem.  Yet, there was no way around it.  They were forced by legal constraint to make the arduous trip.  Without a highway, a car, a cushioned seat, or a suspension system; the teenage couple were forced to walk over hills and through streams.  While we celebrate the pilgrimmage today with illumined festivity.  This was a dark walk.

Sixth, the poverty of Mary and Joseph did not fit the royal son they had.  Not only were the conditions leading up to Christ’s birth dark, so too was his birth.  Luke 2:7 records that there was “no place for them in the inn.”  This is probably because it was filled up with travelers coming for the census; but it may also be the case that Joseph, a carpenter by trade, did not have the means to pay for or to pay extra for a room.  Money talks, right?  But it is clear, that Joseph had no bargaining power.  Mary and Joseph went to the stable, where Jesus was born and laid in a manger.  Without family or hospitality, darkness surrounded them.  

Seventh, through the hostile forces of Herod, Satan tried to kill Jesus.  Poverty was not the only source of darkness; persecution followed Jesus’ birth, so that he was constantly under threat.  Matthew 2 records the details.

Matt 2:1-8. Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet: “‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.'” Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.”

 Herod, so paranoid for his own position and power that he had multiple family members executed, attempts to use the wisemen to lead him to the Christ child—not to worship, but to exterminate. When he learns that the wisemen have not complied with his scheming, he orders the execution of all the children in and around Bethlehem.

Matt 2:16. Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.

The Good News of Great Darkness

Darkness is everywhere in Christ’s birth, which should not come as a surprise when we think of the prophecies in the Old Testament and the conditions of the world that God created.  As John 1 says, “The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world, . . . yet the world did not know him.”

The reality of Christ’s darkness is not in itself comforting, but when we consider that Christ came into the darkness in order to bring light, the truth is staggering beautiful.  For we all face seasons of darkness, and God in the flesh knows exactly what that looks like and feels like.

Remembering that the light of Christ came in the darkness of night gives us hope that God can still pour light into our hearts and shine light into our lives.  No matter how dark it may be, no matter where the darkness comes from, God is the light who enlightens everyone, and has come to take up residence in the lives of those who look to Christ.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss