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.

Don’t Forget Jesus

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth (John 1:14, ESV).

It’s almost sacrilegious to say, but sometimes I find the Christmas season almost nauseating. It’s not that I don’t like the Christmas treats, and my wife is a great cook, along with all the others whose goodies I partake of. What I find nauseating is the endless repetition of the phrase, “the true meaning of Christmas,” when those spouting such drivel don’t know or won’t tell us what Christmas really does mean. My struggle is the willingness of men to focus on the trappings of Christmas while ignoring the Holiday.

It is NOT merely an opportunity to give gifts or do good to others. Don’t misunderstand — we are called upon to give and to do good for our fellow man, but that is true in every season of the year.

It is also NOT merely a chance to reflect upon how blessed we are. Yet during this season many people let these blessings proudly inflate their inner Scrooge by comparing themselves to the homeless or others in their family, or by how much they can deduct from their tax bill through end-of-the-year giving. Again, I say, there is nothing wrong with traditions of helping the less fortunate or visiting family or charitable giving. But these are not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

All of the things we will hear about the “true meaning of Christmas” are merely smoke and mirror devices used by the enemy of our souls to distract us from Jesus. In fact, some of the traditional religious institutions surrounding Christmas have become so familiar that we lose sight of Him.

The piety of Mary and Joseph that led the Lord to honor them by being the Messiah’s parents has given way to the idea that Christmas is now an occasion to provide for a homeless couple. No one denies the importance of helping the homeless, but that is not the lesson to be drawn from the narrative — it’s not “the true meaning of Christmas.”

The Christmas lights that used to remind us that Jesus is the light of the world are now the subject of TV special contests (complete with large financial prizes) to see who can create the most spectacular display. There are people who work year round to engineer these home decorations, without a thought (apparently) of Jesus. But we will hear them or some reporter explain that this is “the true meaning of Christmas.”

We could go on and on with the Christmas traditions that have been distorted to distract us from Jesus. The true meaning of Christmas involves Jesus’ willingness to lay aside the glory that was rightfully His to come to rescue mankind from sin. In that act He demonstrated the patient and giving nature of our Creator who fulfilled the plan that He had in mind from the moment Adam and Eve disobeyed in the Garden. That act also demonstrated the power of God to overcome the pride of men who falsely imagine that the world revolves around them. It’s not just a cliche — Jesus really is the reason for the season. Let us not forget Him.

The Significance of the Reformation

The Significance of the Reformation

The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple. (Psalm 119:130, ESV)

Five hundred years ago this month, an event took place that changed my life. No, I am not that old — despite what my kids think.

In October, 1517 an Augustinian monk nailed a list of grievances to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenburg, Germany and ignited a revival that historians have called the Reformation. Martin Luther’s issue ultimately was quite simple: The Judeo-Christian Scripture is the final authority in the world. Certainly many other ideas have spun off of that one, but this is the root which became the foundation of our civilization.

I was a naive, confused college student (interestingly, at a Lutheran liberal arts college) when I was first confronted with this idea, but not in the way you might think. Instead of promoting Luther’s idea, the faculty of my college had bought into the notion that to believe the Scripture was the height of ignorance. Only a fool would believe that Moses walked through the Red Sea on dry ground, that Jonah could survive three days in the belly of a fish, or that Jesus could walk out of His grave. I can only imagine what Luther himself might think about those who identified themselves with his name!

The fervor with which the faculty at my school repudiated the Bible’s authority made me wonder “Why?” If this book were just an anthology of myths and legends, why are there whole courses at this and other colleges describing why we should not believe it? Why are there endless books being written to explain away events that they tell us are comparable to Pecos Bill or Paul Bunyan? That fervor, rather than causing me to scoff at the fools who could believe such nonsense, drove me to it. I had to know whether it really was true or not.

That same issue — Truth — was behind Martin Luther’s stand against the excesses of the Roman Church. The circumstances he faced were different than mine, but the issue was the same, and that’s why that event changed my life. Yet I had more wrestling to do: What were the answers to the weighty questions that were raised by my professors? How can I reconcile seemingly unbelievable events with the modern world? As I pursued the Truth, those answers slowly came.

About this time I heard a noted (evangelical) theologian say, “The Scripture is God’s revelation of Himself and His will to men.” Although some of the answers were still fuzzy in my mind, it occurred to me that, if this man were correct, nothing was more important than finding out about Him. So I began a practice of reading through the Bible annually, which has continued to this day, and I intend to keep doing it until the day I die. At first I didn’t understand a lot of the history I was reading; I certainly didn’t understand many of the rules the Lord imposed upon His people, but it was His revelation of Himself. Through it I came to know Him. Slowly I began to make sense of the world around me.

David understood what I experienced when he wrote, “The unfolding of Your Word gives light” (Ps 119:130). Truth is not usually a lightning flash and boom of thunder (it can be, read Psalm 29). It is a methodical unfolding of His Truth. Sometimes, as with Martin Luther, it compels us to take a stand, but the courage to do so happens in the quiet moments as He reveals Himself.

My Fundamental Flaw

The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9, ESV).

I had a rough week last week. I learned that I am diabetic. For all of my adult life I have been healthy and whole, generally speaking. My back surgery in high school limited some of my activities, but not significantly. A dozen or so years ago I learned I had high blood pressure, but that was attributable to some OTC sinus medications, which I have cut out. I could stand to lose a few pounds, but no one would consider me to be significantly overweight.

I was really shocked when my doctor informed me of my diabetes. In fact, I was in denial for a couple of days. I considered myself to be a healthy man that had an occasional illness. In fact, I haven’t even had a major cold or flu for a couple of years. How could I have this fundamental flaw in my body? Yet multiple tests confirmed the diagnosis. Instead of viewing myself as a healthy man with an occasional illness, I must now consider myself to be a flawed individual, seeking to control my symptoms.

Americans (in fact, all mankind) today face the same issue as I do — to view ourselves as fundamentally flawed rather than generally whole. Like me, the society is mostly in denial. How could we be the biggest and best, the richest and most technologically advanced, and have a basic flaw to our character? Yet, the evidence should convince us, like the additional tests did for me. Justice is what the vocal minority opines it to be rather than an objective standard in our society; we (taxpayers, that is) continue to fund the barbaric practices of the abortion rights lobby that would make Attila blush; and, contrary to the most basic natural knowledge, we have declared the legality of same sex marriage. Yet we go on believing that the problems in our society come from outside ourselves — we’re good, the environment is not.

Biblical Christianity is the only religious system that views mankind as basically sinful, instead of basically good. All others — even the pseudo-Christian groups — mask the evil in our hearts by suggesting that a certain combination of good works will overcome any moral deficiency in us.

Several years ago, after one of the school shootings in our society, I heard a local radio personality interview a mental health professional. As they deplored the violence the host asked his guest, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” (echoing the book by the same title that was popular at the time). The underlying assumption was that we are good people, and that bad things happen to us from outside ourselves. Jesus was clear, “For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander” (Matthew 15:19, ESV, emphasis added).

The Founding Fathers of our country lived in an era when the foundational tenets of the society were Biblical. A generation before the Revolution the Colonies experienced a religious event known to historians as The Great Awakening. The moral courage that was required for them to put at risk their “lives, fortunes, and sacred honor” came from the Great Awakening. (Do you think any of our current crop of politicians would put their lives and fortunes at risk? Most are there to make a fortune!) The writings of Washington, Adams, Madison and Jay are steeped in a Biblical worldview, a worldview in which they understood that the human heart is “desperately sick” as Jeremiah noted (above).

To this condition the Bible declares that the atoning sacrifice of Jesus is the answer. The Apostle Paul declared that “[that sacrifice] is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom 1:16, ESV). Many have been tried, but no other solution will work.

I now recognize the fundamental flaw in my body, leading me to significant changes in my lifestyle. Assuming I get this under control, it may not affect me as it does some other people. But I can never look at a restaurant menu from the perspective of a healthy person again. Until and unless the people of our society change their perspective, the problems we face will continue to spin out of control, as surely as the blood sugar of us diabetics.

The Transformed Heart

But we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block, and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God (1 Corinthians 1:23-24).

The key idea of these two verses is the contrast between the unbeliever and the believer. Paul uses the phrase, “the called,” to identify the believer, whether he is Jewish or not. Increasingly in this Twenty-first Century, though, American churches are being populated by people who don’t understand the power of the transformed heart.

In Paul’s day, of course, to be a Christian meant that a person had to take a stand for Jesus; their baptisms were not inside the safety of a church’s baptistry, but out in the open, in a stream or a pond, where everyone could see. Christianity was not yet the State religion, the worship of Caesar was, and at various times and places in the First Century a public stand for Jesus would lead to persecution. In those times and places, the believer had to rely upon the power and wisdom of Christ within him.

When Christ transformed my heart many years ago the Holy Spirit made it clear that I couldn’t live by my wits or on the strength of someone else’s faith. I had to turn to Jesus – the the wisdom of His Word, applied to my life by the Holy Spirit – to deal with the issues in my life. As a young man back then those issues were not as complex as they would be if I were to meet Jesus today, but they were just as real. Thankfully as I continued to read and ponder the Scriptures, the entanglements of sin didn’t get as strong of a hold on me. But I noticed that many of those around me either couldn’t get past some aspect of their perception of Christianity (they “stumbled”) or they just considered my faith to be foolishness. Usually those who “stumbled” had some previous exposure to the Church (even if they weren’t ethnically Jewish) while those with very little or even no exposure just considered the Christian faith to be laughable.

But in our day the need for a transformed heart is not proclaimed with quite the urgency as in earlier generations of the Church. Since “sin” has become a “four letter word” in many circles, forgiveness is not proclaimed either. The proclamation has become “Christianity light” – all the flavor of Christianity with nothing that will offend. And in much the same way that people can get used to diet beverages (alcoholic or not), this generation has gotten used to the “light Church.”

The antidote to the “light Church” is the proclamation of “Christ crucified,” leading to the truly transformed heart. Along with Paul, we must let the chips fall where they may. If people stumble over this message or consider it foolishness, let them – because they are lost. And before they can be found (“called” in Paul’s vocabulary), they must realize they are lost.

Spiritual Warfare

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms (Eph 6:12).

Apparently my life is too entrenched in the physical world that surrounds me, because this verse always strikes a chord with me. Reading this, along with Ephesians 3:9-10, I am reminded that there is an unseen spiritual presence that somehow impacts the affairs of men that I can see. What the connection is between the spiritual world of “principalities and powers” and our physical world of personal survival, caring and rearing our families, standing for Truth in the political world and promoting Christ is impossible to understand. Perhaps one day when this life is over, we will understand it.

In the verses that follow Ephesians 6:2, Paul speaks about the spiritual armor that we are to don as believers in this battle, but there is another passage that speaks about the weapons that we are to use. That passage is II Cor. 10:4-5 which tells us that our weapons are spiritual and can pull down the strongholds (in the spiritual world) that are impossible if we only see this as a world of space and time. The weapons to which Paul refers are, of course, prayer and fasting. Some might include giving since Jesus included this in His Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 6).

Both of these “means of grace” (to use the term employed by the Reformers) are mysteries to most of us. Why does God need us to pray when He already knows what He wants done and has the power to accomplish it? Why did the ancients consider fasting to be a way “to make your voice heard on high”? Isn’t that what prayer itself does? If our Lord owns “the cattle on a thousand hills” and “the wealth of every mine,” why does He command us to give?

The answers to these are bound up in the reality that “our warfare is not against flesh and blood…” Somehow, what we do when we pray, fast and give impacts the spiritual world in ways that we will never completely understand while we are in this life. Certainly the practice of these disciplines creates a growth component for our lives here that will be satisfying while we remain on this side, but God’s purpose is much greater even than that. Somehow we make a difference in the unseen world, and the unseen world affects what happens around us. That’s why Psalm 149 can say that it is the glory of God’s people to pray and to impact the political world in far-away places (see vss. 6-9).

These spiritual disciplines can become wearisome to us at times, but we must continually feed on the Scripture to keep the truth before us that even if we cannot see visible results from these disciplines, they are effective in the unseen world.

The Gospel Yeast

Again he asked, “What shall I compare the kingdom of God to? It is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into a large amount of flour until it worked all through the dough.”  Luke 13:20-21

                 This is one of the few times in Scripture where yeast is not compared to sin. Most often it is used to speak of the way sin changes the state of a person’s heart. But in this case, that change is a positive one. The Gospel (the kingdom of God) actually alters the very nature of human development.

                 I came to know Christ in college. To many around me, the changes that took place in my life were probably considered changes that came with maturity and human development, but I knew different. There was a significant difference between the “BC” person and who I became.

                 Though my life as sheltered and stable, I grew up with no real sense of personal value. Before I came to Christ, I had no understanding of why I existed. I was scared to try new things because I feared ridicule or that I would fail and people would think poorly of me. I’m sure it was not intentionally communicated, but I believed my personal worth was a function of some unique contribution that I knew was not in me. Had I embraced an Eastern mystical religion in those days, it would have fit my don’t-rock-the-boat demeanor. I wasn’t passionate about anything so that I would avoid being criticized.

                 But Christ changed that. His presence in my life began to permeate everything I was and did. That “small” decision to trust Him with my life suddenly impacted the whole of my life, just like the yeast did to the dough in Jesus’ illustration. I recognized the Bible as the source of Truth; I saw Jesus as the Ruler over the universe; I may not have had clear vocational direction, but I knew it was somehow connected to my relationship with Him. All the pieces of my life that had previously seemed so fragmented, now were brought into order by His presence, like a magnet does to iron filings.

                 But it makes me wonder about some of the people near me. Has their internal orientation changed because of their decision to trust Christ? (Has the Gospel yeast permeated their lives?) Rather, have they viewed Christianity as “fire insurance,” simply to keep them from hell? When small children (even my own) trust Christ, does the Gospel yeast so alter their lives that they will be true to it in the turbulent adolescent years and beyond? Certainly, I can never peer into the hearts of these near me, but He does expect me to inspect the “fruit” or see if “the dough has risen.”

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!