The Purpose of Christ’s Coming

And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6 ESV).

This year I started reading the prophecy of Isaiah on December 1 — two chapters each day. It was not intentional but this practice led me to read this passage, “he who formed me from the womb,” on Christmas day. Interestingly, the reference here is to Christ himself, the one whose emergence from the womb we commemorate on Christmas.

Some scholars have described this passage as the Old Testament’s Great Commission. Christ’s coming was not simply so that we could have a quaint and sentimental celebration. His coming was to enlighten the nations to his Truth. He did not come just for Israel, He came for the whole world. That is at least part of the significance of the visit of the non-Jewish Magi in Matthew 2. Simeon told Mary and Joseph that their Baby would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” in Luke 2:32.

Christian orthodoxy teaches that the heart of man is inherently selfish. We tend to gravitate to what will please ourselves; we look at life from a lens that magnifies the implications of decisions on ourselves; we have trouble taking the focus off of our needs and putting the needs of others first. That is why Isaiah quotes God as saying to the incarnate Messiah, “It is too small a thing to just consider the needs of Israel; I want you to reach all of the nations.”

This inherent selfishness in fallen man is how the enemy of our souls keeps us from seeing the real purpose of Messiah’s coming. We focus on the gifts coming to us rather than the Gift that came to redeem a lost world. We are told that the physical needs of the materially less fortunate are more important than the redemptive needs of those who have never heard. By giving to material needs there can be an immediate gratification to our souls — we feel good about ourselves when we give, and we feed a subtle pride that suggests that we are better than others because we can give when, perhaps, they cannot.

There is never anything wrong with giving — we need to give; we should give; God desires that we give. We simply must guard against the pride that wells up inside as we imagine that WE gave, that others — including God — are dependent upon US.

Messiah’s purpose in coming was not to selfishly restore just His own people — His mission was to the whole world. This wasn’t the after thought to His life, death, and resurrection, as if Jesus happened to say, “BTW, before I leave, go out and tell people about Me now that I have risen.” It was the primary purpose of His incarnation.

The Incarnation of Jesus

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV)

Christians celebrate Christmas because it commemorates the incarnation of our Lord. Through this event the Creator God stepped into space and time and became a man, experiencing all of the joys and heartaches of human experience. Joseph, the man charged with the responsibility of caring for the infant Savior, was told that His name would be Jesus because He would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

The writer of the book of Hebrews began his letter by expressing the purpose of the incarnation a bit differently, saying that “[God] has spoken to us by His Son.” He wanted us to understand that Jesus’ purpose on earth was “to speak,” that is, to communicate (or reveal) the nature of the Godhead to men. To do so, as the rest of the book of Hebrews explains, Jesus had to leave the substantive world and enter ours, a world of forms and shadows, mere copies of the real and eternal. The incarnate Son revealed the real world.

At first, these two purposes seem to be unrelated — perhaps not at odds with each other, but certainly not supporting each other, as we would expect in the Scripture. A significant part of this disconnect stems from a misunderstanding of what God meant for men to be saved from their sins. For many in this era, to be saved means to have a happy place to go to when they die. It will be a place where their favorite foods will be served, where my neighbors (when I was a youth) used to hope they could set up their cribbage board and spend eternity in their favorite pastime. Certainly it will be a place where the sorrows and heartaches of this life will be over, where we won’t have to contend with sin any more, and where Jesus’ righteous reign will replace the flawed and dysfunctional government of this world.

The writer to the Hebrews, however, recognized that Jesus’ incarnation was more than a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card or even a season pass (eternally renewed) to the happiest place in the universe — it was the entrance of our Creator into human experience. He would “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15; 5:2); He would know what it was to struggle to be obedient (5:8); and through His intercession on our behalf (because He understands the human experience), He would be able to save us “to the uttermost” (7:25), not just from the penalty of our sin.

When we have a proper understanding of the biblical concept of salvation there is no conflict between the statement of the angel to Joseph and the purpose outlined by the writer to the Hebrews. Salvation involves an intimacy with the Godhead made possible only because God entered into that experience with us. The transformed Apostle Paul could write, then, that all of the perks of this world were mere rubbish in light of “knowing” Jesus (Phil 3:8-11). The Psalmist, Asaph, recognized that, of all that the world offered, the Lord Himself was “His portion” (Ps 73:26). And Solomon told us that there is a “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

Christmas is ultimately not about stables and mangers, wise men and gifts — it is about a God who wants to enter into an intimate relationship with those He created in His own image. He experienced our world so that we could experience His.

The Music of Christmas

And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14, ESV).

While my previous blog highlighted some of the things I don’t like about the American Christmas holidays in this era, there are some really wonderful parts to it as well, especially the music that often accompanies the season.

There is no other time of the year when familiar strains of music exalting the Savior are played in public venues. Regularly I pray that someone’s heart would awaken when they hear, “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” Even the most hardened pagan can understand the message despite the antiquated, Shakespearean forms of these verbs. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will open the heart of a person to ponder the question, “What Child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Why did the “angels greet [Him] with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”?

For us who believe in Jesus, these lyrics give us opportunities to speak of the substance of the Christian Gospel while the rest of the world is merely “fa-la-la-ing” among their boughs of holly. Despite the political correctness of this world, the traditional carols (so far) are still considered part of our cultural celebration, so that the thoughtful pagan reveler might actually begin to link the celebration with Jesus, the King of Kings, rather than Santa Claus, the benevolent home invader.

I also pray for the innocent child who hears about the Baby Jesus and asks his/her parents why there is such a fuss over this Baby. What makes Him special? Perhaps the Lord will use the discomfort in the child’s parents over an innocent question to make them consider what really is the “mercy mild” that this Baby brought to reconcile God and sinners. Maybe the Lord will awaken their hearts to realize that they themselves are the sinners that He came to reconcile to Himself!

Even if the person doesn’t respond to the Gospel through the text of the familiar lyrics, the lyrics will have accomplished their purpose. It will be a sad scene for some as they stand before the throne of God on that day, as they try to justify their rejection of Christ by claiming that they had never heard the Gospel message. I can imagine the Lord stopping them mid-sentence (Rom 3:19) and bringing to their remembrance the music they heard in the mall or on their secular radio station that told them to “Fall on their knees” before the incarnate Son who became flesh on that holy night.

I know that there is much Christmas music these days that is pseudo-Christian or downright secular which we all enjoy, which highlights the cultural aspects of the season. We innocently dream of the white Christmases depicted by the Currier and Ives paintings while quietly wishing for a tender Tennessee celebration so that we don’t have to fight the weather. Nostalgically we can even smell the pumpkin pies, even if we are not originally from Pennsylvania. But I love the music of Christmas because inevitably we are drawn back to the stable near the overcrowded inn where Mary’s little boy-child was born so that men can live forevermore if they put their trust in Him.

Like Christ in His Sufferings

“That I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10, ESV).

“O to be like Thee…” is the cry of an old hymn that is seldom sung any more. Yet it reflects the idea that the goal of the Christian life is “Christlikeness,” being like Jesus. Paul spoke of the intense longing he had that Christ “should be formed” in the Galatian believers (Gal. 4:19). The formation of Christ in the believer was so important to him that he likened this intense longing to childbirth. In Romans 8 Paul told his readers that God’s plan from the very beginning was that His people would be “conformed to the image of his Son” (29).

The old hymn (and most popular opinion) would have us believe that Christlikeness in the Christian makes us “full of compassion, loving, forgiving, tender and kind.” If we have been conformed to His image we are active in “helping the helpless, cheering the fainting, seeking the wandering sinner to find.”

Now I hope my readers understand that I agree with the sentiments of this great old hymn, but there is another side to Christlikeness that Thomas Chisholm doesn’t overtly address in his hymn — the sharing in His sufferings. Alongside compassion and forgiveness, Paul also rejoiced that he could suffer as Christ suffered (Phil 3:10), that he could “fill up what was lacking in Christ’s afflictions” (Col 1:24). It’s hard to imagine that Jesus’ sufferings lacked anything, but Paul seems clear that there is a certain amount of suffering that His followers would experience in this life.

Often when we think of Christ’s sufferings, we focus upon the “Passion Week” those six intense days that culminated in the physical pain of His crucifixion. But the Old Testament gives us some indication that there were other times when Messiah suffered mistreatment and misunderstanding, and that He felt these sufferings keenly. Several of the Psalms are recognized as Messianic Psalms and give us hints into the emotions our Lord experienced.

The disciples recognized the Messiah’s zeal for the house of God when He drove out the moneychangers (John 2:17). This reference comes from Psalm 69:9 and the succeeding phrases and verses describe the anguish of our Lord as He bore “the reproaches of those who reproach [God].” He “wept”; He “made sackcloth [His] clothing, [He] became a byword to them” and was “the talk of those who sit in the gate.”

I find it very comforting to see the expressions of how Messiah felt when His prayers seemed to fall on deaf ears (see Ps. 69:19-20, 29). The Father’s ears were not deaf, as we all know, but Messiah felt that they were, at least for a time — just as I do sometimes.

The Scripture speaks of the ebb and flow of life between suffering and comfort. Peter reminds us that “after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10). Suffering is not permanent, even if it seems like it for a while. But it is a necessary component of being like Jesus.

God’s Full Revelation

“For if you believed Moses, you would believe me; for he wrote of me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my words?” (John 5:46-47, ESV).

The Old and New Testaments of the Judeo-Christian Scriptures form the complete revelation of God’s direct communication to the men He created. This truth is under-emphasized in our day. Some strains of theology today suggest — if they don’t teach outright — that the New Testament has replaced the Old Testament, even that a Christian doesn’t need to read the Old Testament. Such teaching is wrong.

The New Testament is truly the final recorded Word from God, and it contains the essential teaching about Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, but it doesn’t make the Old Testament obsolete. Jesus Himself observed in the passage quoted above that “[Moses] wrote of Me.” Therefore to appreciate the singular intent of God in this world, it is important to understand the Old Testament as well as the New.

Someone who is a true basketball fan doesn’t merely tune into a game for the last 2 minutes of the game; he arranges his schedule to watch the whole game. A lot happened in the game before the last two minutes. Similarly, a lot happened in our world to bring us to Jesus. We can’t fully understand the New Testament until we have a grasp of the Old.

For example, why did Matthew begin his Gospel with the genealogy of Jesus? It was because of the promise given to King David that Messiah would come from his descendants. Without this knowledge, the first few verses of Matthew (and a portion of Luke’s Gospel as well) would be merely a long list of often-unpronounceable names that have no relevance to life today.

The Old Testament records the ways God has tried to communicate His Truth to men from the beginning. Sin had entered this world and God was/is intent on redeeming men despite it. Beginning in Genesis 3, He promised to send a person who would crush the serpent who had tempted men to sin. That person would become known in Jewish writings as “Messiah” and would be “a prophet like Moses” (Deut 18:15).

The list of hints, prophecies and pictures of Messiah are contained in almost every book of the Old Testament. Messiah Jesus didn’t just appear on the scene one day; He was the fulfillment of a long, remarkable plan of God to redeem men.

This is why our church has celebrated Passover for the past several years. This Jewish feast was intended by God (through Moses) to help His people to recognize Messiah when He came. Sadly it just became a ritual handed down from generation to generation. Happily, though, some of us have seen the fulfillment of the Old Testament in Jesus, and it has enriched us beyond measure.

The Sinless Savior

“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” (Matthew 1:23).

In my last blog I wrote of the importance of this prophecy to the demonstration that Jesus was the Messiah for Matthew’s audience. Certainly that was an important reason for Matthew’s inclusion of this in his Gospel. But he had another reason: Only a sinless Savior could satisfy the wrath of God for our sins.

The holiness of God is largely misrepresented in our day. We understand that a God who is holy is not stained by sin or any form of impurity, but we ourselves are conceived in sin and surrounded by sin, so our understanding of purity is conditioned by it.

When Jesus was “transfigured” — when Peter, James, and John followed Him up the mountain and He was met by Moses and Elijah — Mark described His garments as being “radiant and exceedingly white, as no launderer on earth can whiten them” (Mark 9:3). There was a degree of “whiteness” that exceeded what could be accomplished by human effort.

The comparison of character with clothing is not exact, to be sure, but it illustrates that we live in an imperfect world — a world which sin affects more than we are usually conscious of. The Lord, however, is not stained in this way. His is a perfect purity, a purity that would be marred by the slightest suggestion of sin. Any sacrifice for sin, then, could not be stained with sin itself; it too would have to be pure.

So the virgin birth of Jesus is more than a fulfilled Messianic prophecy; it is a necessary condition for the atonement that Messiah was to have accomplished. Paul said it this way, “He made Him who knew no sin to be sin on our behalf, that we might become the righteousness of God in Him” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

Paul’s statement leads to another important reason for the virgin birth of Jesus: the restoration of righteousness. When Adam fell in the Garden of Eden, he could never be restored to his righteous standing. There would never be a time when he could go back to the same sinless purity that he and Eve enjoyed then. He could be forgiven, but he could never have the same relationship with God as he had before he was estranged from him. It is like a man who is forgiven by his wife after an extramarital affair; the memory of his waywardness never leaves their relationship.

 But because of the sinless character of our Savior, we who trust Him (including Adam and Eve, if they looked forward to the atonement of Christ) can be restored to that original righteousness. Our sins were imputed to Him when He died for us; His righteousness was imputed to us. Our relationship now is just as if we had never sinned. That is only possible if Jesus is born sinless, of a virgin.

Signs of the Messiah

Now all this took place that what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet might be fulfilled, saying, “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.” And Joseph arose from his sleep, and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took her as his wife, and kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus (Matthew 1:22-25).

When Joseph learned of Mary’s pregnancy prior to the consummation of their marriage, his first thought was to “divorce” her privately. (In that society an engagement was as binding as a marriage, so the term “divorce” is appropriate.) Much has been made, properly, about Joseph’s integrity in that he did not desire to damage her reputation any more than it already had been or would be damaged through the pregnancy prior to their consummation. So the angel had to meet him in a dream to prevent this.

Matthew included this incident in his Gospel to demonstrate the fulfillment of the prophecy from Isaiah concerning the virgin birth of the Messiah. It was a well-known prophecy and needed to be documented if the Jewish people were to believe that Jesus really was Messiah.

Prognosticators in various fields — meteorology, economics, as well as religion — look for signs to determine the validity of a phenomenon. The National Weather Service has studied the weather conditions just prior to significant weather events so they can warn us when similar conditions exist. In the aftermath of a storm they will dispatch analysts to determine if a fallen tree or structure was the result of straight-line winds or the twisting of a tornado. Investment counselors observe the political and economic conditions when the stock market rises and falls to make the wisest decisions concerning our retirement funds. The religious prognosticators tend to be less accurate because the Scripture they consult was written in cultures and languages far different from our own.

Matthew is doing the same in this context. The phenomenon of Jesus’ ministry, especially His death and Resurrection begged the question, “Is/Was He the predicted Messiah?” Accuracy in assessing this was vital because the hope of the Jewish nation was at stake. If He were not the Messiah, they must continue to watch for someone else to fulfill the prophecies; if he were the Messiah, He was the King and needed to be obeyed.

Although the Messiah was predicted to come through Jewish ethnicity, He was not a Savior only to the Jews. Prophecies are abundant that describe His desire that ALL nations come to Him. Still, the evidence that Matthew drew together in his Gospel for his Jewish audience makes it clear that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah predicted by the ancient prophets of Israel. Therefore if a man rejects Him as Messiah, he must reject the Scriptures (or at least Matthew’s Gospel) as having any authority.

The God of Details

“…and to Jesse was born David the king. And to David was born Solomon…and to Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:6,16).

Like any other authors, the Gospel writers had a particular audience in mind when they wrote. John wanted skeptics to “believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing [they] may have life in His name” (John 20:31). Luke wanted his Greek audience (“Theolphilus,” see Luke 1:1-4) to know the exact truth concerning Jesus. Mark wrote to a Roman audience, so was less concerned about the things that a Jewish culture would consider important. But Matthew intended his Gospel to convince a Jewish audience that Jesus was the promised Messiah.

It was for this reason that he began with the genealogy that traced the heirs to the throne of Israel to Jesus. The promise to David was that Messiah would sit upon his throne, and God cannot lie. Somehow, despite the Babylonian Captivity, despite the intermarriage of the Jewish people with the pagan residents of Palestine when they returned from Babylon (see Ezra 9 and Nehemiah 13), and despite more than 500 years of not having an actual king on the throne of Israel, the genealogical records of the day showed that the rightful heir was a man in Nazareth named Joseph whose (adoptive) Son would be the subsequent King.

Until the lineage of Jesus could be traced to David, there could be no acknowledgement of Jesus as the Messiah. But now that this could be established, some other Messianic prophecies would have to be seen as having been fulfilled (the subject matter for a future blog).

Our society doesn’t value our heritage the way that the Jewish society did and, perhaps, still does. We allowed the obstruction of the birth records of President Obama so that his heritage could not be traced. Those legal records were of less importance to us than the political agenda that he espoused so we ignored them. But this blog is not about political matters.

We in this society are not concerned about Truth in many venues. The Supreme Court ignores the plain sense of the text of the Constitution to legislate from the Bench; video and eyewitness evidence is disparaged if it doesn’t fit the politically correct template. We conveniently ignore what we don’t agree with in moral and ethical arenas.

Matthew convincingly shows Jesus to be Messiah in his Gospel, but that doesn’t matter if there is no objective Truth. As long as we can decide for ourselves what Truth is, we will allow the general society to dictate what we will choose to believe. Let us enjoy this freedom while it lasts, because no society has ever survived with this spirit, and it will not be tolerated when we face the God who so very carefully arranged the circumstances so that we would recognize His Son when He appeared.

Believe in Jesus

 
38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’ (John 7:38, ESV).

The Greek language in which the New Testament was originally written does not contain punctuation marks as we do who speak and write in English. Therefore when we read in our English Bibles and see punctuation, we must remember that they are not “inspired” in the same way as the words themselves. Most of the time the translators are very competent and the punctuation expresses the meaning of the text, but there are some places where the meaning is ambiguous or uncertain. The text above is one of those places.

Many translators connect the phrase, “as the Scripture has said,” with the statement that follows. But the problem with this is that there is no place in the Old Testament Scriptures (that part of the Word of God that had been recorded when Jesus walked among us) where this statement is made. In fact, there is nothing close to this statement to be found when we cross-reference the words and phrases of this text.

For me, therefore, I prefer to see this phrase as connected to the first clause, “Whoever believes in me as the Scripture says…” (drop the commas). Paraphrased, then it might read, “If you will believe in Me in the way that the Scriptures describe, your life will overflow with joy and satisfaction.” Personally, I think this is the sense of Jesus’ words that day.

It also answers the question, “Why do Christians today lack that inner joy and peace that the Bible promises?” Because they don’t really believe in Jesus as He is portrayed in the Scriptures.

The greatest problem in Christian theology today is our deficient understanding of Christology – who is Jesus. The Old Testament enjoins us to “Seek [His] face…” (Ps 27:8) – His Person. What He does for us will follow once we understand Who He is.

Without knowing it, many years ago I happened upon the richest meditations in the Scriptures when I found and considered the three great Christological passages of the New Testament: John 1:1-4, Colossians 1:15-18 and Hebrews 1:1-4. In their own ways, these three passages describe the Second Person of the Trinity as the Creator, as the Sustainer and as the Judge of all mankind, with each branching off these ideas in their own ways. Since the Bible contains a remarkable unity, despite the diversity of human authorship, these passages amplify rather than contradict the Old Testament teachings concerning the Messiah. Nothing in them is inconsistent with the teachings of Moses or the Prophets. The rest of Scripture notwithstanding, my life has been joyful and satisfying largely because I have chosen to believe what these passages tell me about Jesus.

Yours will be too. Believe what the Scripture says about Jesus to enjoy life as God intended it.


Too Small a Thing

It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth” (Is. 49:6).

 

            The last chapters of Isaiah’s prophecy are often seen as a Messianic prophecy of the “Suffering Servant.” This includes that wonderful passage that describes our Lord’s crucifixion in Isaiah 53. Here in this passage in the 49th chapter, God the Father describes the scope of the commission of His Servant, Jesus, to include the Gentile nations as well as the Jews.

 

            Despite the opinion of the Jews in the First Century, it was always God’s intent to bring all the nations of the world to Himself. Just in the last part of Isaiah, he mentioned God’s love for the “islands” at least a dozen times. This is in addition to the numerous references to “Gentiles,” the “nations” and the “ends of the earth.” It’s to His praise that the Church in the last century and a half has finally begun to reach these people that He has always desired to redeem.

 

            In Matthew 24:14, Jesus links His own return with the proclamation of the Gospel to all the nations, “This gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” Perhaps this is why my heart jumped when I heard a few months back that our missionaries had targeted a remote people group to whom they would take the Gospel. It was in one of the most remote areas of the globe and the thought occurred to me, “Maybe this is that last tribe that needs to hear!”

 

            As our local church prepares for our annual Missions Conference, it is my desire that the Lord will burden each of our hearts with some evangelistic ministry around the world. A few years back He led us to begin praying for a resistant group of people in Thailand, and today they are starting to awaken to His Truth. They are beginning to throw off the chains of idolatry and turn to Christ. May He be praised!