Spiritual Growth Resources

At my small group, Compass, we recently took several weeks looking at hindrances to our spiritual growth. Our pastor needed a little break. He had us list several things that keep us from growing then announced he wanted each of us to take a category. That’s probably the neatest thing about this teaching ‘series’. We were leading each other from the Word! Made for some great, honest discussion. Too good to keep confined, in fact. So I asked a few of my friends to write up their session in the form of an article and I’m building some web pages on my church’s site. I hope they are useful to others in building good disciplines! Here’s the first couple that are live. More to come!

Bible Study Tools

Prayer & Fasting

Spiritual Growth Resources

Don’t Miss Christ This Christmas

Our pastor has been teaching a series called “Don’t Miss Christ This Christmas”. It got me thinking about how we as followers of Christ can effectively shove off the busyness and commercialism of our culture. I think we are more affected by it than we really realize. Satan is so clever at deception. The answer to me is always fundamental: go to God’s Word. So if it helps, I wanted to re-post the expositional study I did on Christ’s birth a couple years ago. Some of it is in jest, poking fun at our incorrect nativities and songs, but there’s good truth to pull out too. Hope it benefits our priority, not just at Christmas time, but all the time.

The Incarnation (Part 1)

The Incarnation (Part 2)

The Incarnation (Part 3)

The Incarnation (Part 4)

Don’t Miss Christ This Christmas

More Than Conquerers (Part 2)

When we encounter the passages presented in the gospel regarding Jesus’ temptations (which can not only be found in Matthew 4:1-11, but also Mark 1:12-13 and Luke 4:1-13), one of the first questions that probably spring to mind is “could Jesus have even sinned?”  He’s God after all.  Holy and perfect and incapable of evil or sin.   In the sense of His divine nature, no, He could not have sinned.  Yet, Jesus is also fully man.  So yes, he was fully tempted.  His human and divine natures are distinct yet united.  (Take a look back at my 4-part Incarnation study for further insight into Jesus’ nature as both God and man.)  So in His humanity, Jesus was tempted in every way we are, and in His divinity He was not tempted.

David Platt, in a sermon on temptation, likened it this way.  If someone asked you to point out someone you love then posed the question, “could you murder that person?” you would emphatically answer “no!”  Morally speaking you could do no such thing.  Yet the question really has two meanings.  Physically, yes, you can absolutely commit the act.  Inasmuch,

“…Jesus, in His deity…could not have sinned.  He is morally incapable of such an action.  Yet at the same time, Jesus could have sinned in the sense that He was physically capable of eating bread or throwing Himself off a temple or bowing the knee to Satan.”

The temptations we face are nothing new.  All temptations are common to man, as 1 Corinthians 10:13 states:

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man.  -1 Corinthians 10:13a

Sure, we’ve devised new ways of surrendering to old temptations.  But we will be tempted no differently than Jesus was in the desert in those days because He was tempted in every way that we are.  The core to all temptation is the casting off of God as Father.  We see this in the methods Satan used against Jesus.  And there are three frontiers upon which all temptation falls.  And here they are:  we are tempted to provide for ourselves, protect ourselves, and exalt ourselves.  Let’s look at each of these.

Providing for ourselves has at its inherit temptation, the desire to fulfill our wants apart from God’s will.  God is a good Father who satisfies any desires we have.  The problem is, Satan is working in those areas of want.  So we are going to either trust that Jesus satisfies and is sufficient or we are going to find our own way and not be led into delight, but destruction.  Satan presented Jesus with the opportunity to do something about His intense hunger from His 40 days of fasting.  I can’t imagine going without food for that long! I get cranky when I go much longer than four hours!  But He knew the words of the Father that the bread of demons destroys.  The bread that fills the stomach would not last, but the daily bread of God’s Word would endure.

The fact is people turn to substances (legal or illegal), self-help, therapies, entertainments, and all other manner of substitutions, and they will never be satisfied apart from God’s will.  In my battle against sin, I finally decided one day that I simply wanted Jesus more than I wanted to fulfill my own desires, however good they made me feel.  I had made it so complicated with all my “yah, but God, it’s just that…” justifications and it really came down to simply that.  I chose to devote time to the discipline of Bible study and God was faithful to reward me.  He showed me His goodness in His Word and I knew I could never want anything else!  Jesus Christ is sufficient for me, and while I’ll potentially always struggle to want that which is not in God’s will, I will not choose it over the good that God gives.  That is, God may never see fit to free me from my weakness, but I at last believe and trust that He has enabled me to fight it.  Just the small taste of His goodness whetted my appetite for more.  It’s giving up the mud pies in the slums for the paradise that awaits (paraphrased from C.S. Lewis).  Urges may tempt me, but I choose to let them drive me to prayer and Scripture and God Himself.

We are also tempted to protect ourselves. Satan had taken Jesus to the top of the temple.  He even used the Word to manipulate Jesus.  Satan knows Scripture!  So do we!  But what’s the difference?  It’s hearing vs. doing.  (James 2:19)  But Jesus was faithful!  He knew Satan’s lies because He was that in-tune with the Father.  He knew not to put God to the test in such a way.  And this is the heart of the temptation.  Self-protection is a lack of trust in God.  We cause ourselves to question His inherent presence in our lives and what He really says in His Word.  Satan was attempting to make Jesus test God’s protection.  But Jesus’ faith did not require such a test because He had complete faith and trust in His Father.

The first sin was committed because Satan twisted God’s words to Adam.  Be so wary when the question arises “does God really say?”.  In our societal pressures of tolerance and universalism, we would do well to remember that Scripture says the way is narrow that leads to life.  I believe it is much more narrow than any of us really care to think about.  Few walk that road, so when we find ourselves in the popular majority of the world’s opinion, let it be a red flag.  We must search the Word, ask the Spirit for wisdom, and let Him do His work, if we are humble enough to lay aside our political and social agendas.  We are tempted to question, twist, doubt, ask for signs, and complain, even though God has given us every reason to completely trust Him by sacrificing His Son.  When we remain in spiritual infancy, our faith wavers with our circumstances and we develop the attitude of “what has God done for me lately?”  But when we understand Jesus because we’ve invested time in the Word for ourselves, we can rest and not worry in His unshakeable, sovereign security.

Exalting ourselves, the third form of temptation, is an issue of pride.  Jesus was tempted to receive his reward right then and there, apart from the path the Father had planned for Him.  This was probably pretty enticing considering where Jesus was headed, and given the insight we get to the anguish He expressed over it (in the Garden of Gethsemane).  He had the choice of receiving His glory by the path of suffering that His Father had before Him, or the easy way Satan offered, if He’d just bow His knee to him.  Jesus was presented the choice for right-now gratification in place of eternal glorification. To choose gratification is a dually damning choice.  Asserting ourselves means we are taking from God His worship. Lifting ourselves; lowering God.  Doubly destructive.

We can take all the accomplishments, pleasures, and possessions now in an instant gratification world, and the Bible is very clear that that will be all we get.  Or we can heed Jesus’ words that the first will be last, and the last will be first in the Kingdom of Heaven.  Jesus told His followers, as recorded in Luke 9:23:

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

In following Jesus Christ, we have willingly abandoned our rights for the better will of God.  We are humble because we know we have nothing to bring to the table to make us right.  God did it all.  So we set a blank check before us to give to Him.  Our lives to do as He wills for the spread of the gospel.  The exaltation of His name, not our own.

We can triumph over temptation through Him.  This was the greatest truth God showed me from this passage. My weaknesses become an asset that I may use to rely on Him and be content in all circumstances.

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me.  For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. -2 Corinthians 12:9-10

We have the hope of Satan’s defeat and the assurance that the Church will be victorious in the war of the Kingdom: the exaltation of God by every tribe, tongue, and nation.  Jesus showed his qualification to be King in His victory over Satan.  Being tempted in every way common to man, He remained obedient to God and became the sacrifice for all sin.  Adam failed; one man’s sin condemned all.  Jesus won; one man’s sacrifice made recompense for all sin.  Hebrews 2:17-18 tells us why Jesus is not only the example, but the basis of claiming victory in our own lives through Him:

“Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation of the sins of the people.  For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.”

We do not have to be like the cattle being led into the slaughterhouse.  The Word does say that God will not let us be tempted beyond our ability.

No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your ability, but with the temptation he will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it. -1 Corinthians 10:13

Oh how I wrestled with that verse, not seeing any evidence of its truth in the suffering I endured in the battle.  I thought I had no way of escape and if God did not remove it from me, I would not last much longer, but be lost to it forever.  But a wise pastor told me to see the difference in my expectation.  God said He would open the door, but I have to choose to walk through it.

More Than Conquerers (Part 2)

More Than Conquerers (Part 1)

The temptations of Jesus as presented in Matthew were critical accounts to my recent liberation from a long-time sin in my life.  (I recently shared with my church this story, and invite you to watch it, if you have not, in my “But God…” post.)  I feel like I should lead with the summary statement right up front.  Jesus Christ was tempted in every way that man is tempted and was victorious, so He provides the basis from which I can be victorious in resisting temptation.

Never has there been more evidence in my life that there is a battle going on on a spiritual level between good and evil.  In those days of intense anguish, wanting so much to not do the thing I wanted to do, I could literally feel the crushing weight of combat.  With tears of frustration, I would cry aloud to God the Father to help me in that moment to resist the evil one.

Spiritual warfare is not something to consider lightly, especially to those who seek to live obediently in the global command of making disciples.  There is very much a spiritual world and we are involved in the war.  As I faced my battle I came to a clear determination in my mind that the devil is not omnipresent as God is.  Satan is created; God is Creator.  Satan is subordinate; God is sovereign.  I also realized that when I face temptation, it is Satan’s attack on the Kingdom of God, not just me.  That’s why temptation doesn’t end when we receive Jesus’ grace.  If anything, the intensity of battle has been ratcheted up a few notches.  Satan lost us, and he is going to make dang sure we don’t multiply disciples according to the Word of God.  That’s why it is so intense!  It’s about more than just ourselves!  It’s an assault on the Kingdom!

The spiritual war has high stakes.  Eternity hangs in the balance, and the battle is being waged wherever the gospel has the opportunity to be preached.  Which means, every tribe, tongue, and nation are subject to the war.  And you and I are involved personally as soldiers for the gospel.  For me, it came down to the fact that Satan was distracting me from being on the front lines of being a formidable force for the gospel.  The greatest scheme of the devil is to lure away followers of Christ from gospel effectiveness without us even realizing it.  In his book “Tempted and Tried,” Russell Moore likened it to cattle being led into a slaughterhouse.  Here’s an excerpt from his book:

In this system the cows aren’t prodded off the truck but are led, in silence, onto a ramp.  They go through a “squeeze chute,” a gentle pressure device that mimics a mother’s nuzzling touch.  The cattle continue down the ramp onto a smoothly curving path.  There are no sudden turns.  The cows experience the sensation of going home, the same kind of way they’ve traveled so many times before.

As they mosey along the path, they don’t even notice when their hooves are no longer touching the ground.  A conveyor belt slowly lifts them gently upward, and then, in the twinkling of an eye, a blunt instrument levels the surgical strike right between their eyes.  They’re transitioned from livestock to meat and they’re never aware enough to be alarmed by any of it.

I knew I had to examine my life hard and take on a level of vigilance against the devil’s schemes I had never maintained.  But how can I know I’m being led astray if I’m not aware that I am?  A clear gospel description of the life being lived in obedience of faith unfolded itself to me as I studied the Word.  It is the opposite of what the world, and regrettably many teachings in the church, say.  Jesus told His followers that the more they looked like Him and obeyed Him, the more the world would stand against them.  So that’s a measure.  What kind of hardships do I face for my faith?  Persecution is little known here in America, but there are ways in which we can and will suffer for the gospel.  We don’t go looking for suffering, but we should be expecting it.

It also became clear to me that I was subconsciously using religious activities to somehow balance my sin, as if I were justifying them.  That’s not too different from the Pharisees in Jesus’ time.  They honorably thought they were pleasing God by following a strict set of man-imposed rules (which they elevated to the same level as God’s Law).  But Jesus condemned them.  The scribes knew about the prophecies of the coming Messiah, yet they ignored who Jesus was while He was with them.  Was I fooled into thinking practices like going to church on Sundays or attending Bible studies or giving or serving in a prescribed ministry role earned me favor with God?  I never said that in so many words, but oh how deceived I was to acknowledge Christ but live my life the way I wanted.  But James implores followers of Jesus:

But be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. (James 1:22)

This is the subtle battleground where Satan wages his war.  And it’s a pattern that we must recognize and understand if we are to avoid.  So I’d like to recount some of the teachings I learned during my time dealing with the sin in my life.  The path of temptation always starts with the question of identity.  Whether you think too highly of yourself or too lowly, as long as you are focused on your present circumstances instead of the eternal picture, he will have his entryway.  This is why people are able to agree with one thing but do another.  (For example, “I believe sexual immorality is wrong.  But I will watch movies with openly sexual graphics.  Or I think it’s okay to have sex with my girlfriend now because we are going to be married.”)  Paul, in Romans, outlines the process.  First we practice a thing even though we know that those who do deserve to die.  Then we begin to give approval to those who practice them.  We have to remember who we are in Christ.  A very simple and powerful question I ask before a choice I am battling with is this:  will I honor Christ with this choice or am I crucifying Him again?

With our identity in a state of flux, our desires then become conflicted.  James says we are enticed by our own evil desires.  So make no mistake about it:  God does not tempt you.  Tempting has as its goal evil work.  God only accomplishes good.  God allows for testing to come in our lives to build our character to look more like Jesus and give glory to Himself when we make the right choice.  This is the purpose to which all things work together, in the well-known Romans 8:28 verse.  God intends for good what Satan intends for evil.  God, the Sovereign One, allows Satan, the subordinate one, to tempt us as a matter of testing us.  Desires build up slow and steady, driven by each of our unique personalities.  But God is able to change our desires to His desires if we live in obedient faith to His Word.  That’s why it is so important for us to all individually invest time and effort into studying this Word for ourselves!

Temptation progresses into a concealment of the future.  We are so easily able to put consequences out of our mind, whether temporal or eternal.  Not only are the evil spiritual forces willing to point us to what we desire, but they help us cover it up, fueling our repetition.  All the while, our relationship with the entirety of the Triune God is damaged.  The conscious choice of sin destroys our connection with the Father (Isaiah 59:2), it re-crucifies Jesus (Hebrews 10:26), and it grieves the Holy Spirit (Ephesians 4:30).  Our gospel effectiveness is destroyed and the kingdom of God is stifled through us.

…but your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God, and your sins have hidden his face from you so that he does not hear. -Isaiah 59:2

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins…  -Hebrews 10:26

And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. -Ephesians 4:30

[For further insight into how I believe our choices of entertainment are among the most deceptive in killing our God-given purposes, read my former post “A Recipe for Frog Soup”.]

Temptation is an assault on our claim as children of God.  When we commit sin, we reject Him as God the Father, who only wants what is best for us and detests that which destroys us.  The suffering we endure as followers of Jesus aligns us to be conformed to His image (Romans 8:17) because it is suffering that He endured.  But there’s hope in Him as we face being led to the slaughter like sheep.  For we are made to be “more than conquerers through Him who loved us.”  (Romans 8:36-37)  And we should expect no less than what Jesus endured and was yet victorious over.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. 22 He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. -1 Peter 2:21-22

 Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed. -1 Peter 4:12-14

In the next post, I’ll explore what God made alive to me in the account of Jesus facing temptations.

More Than Conquerers (Part 1)

The Incarnation (Part 4)

Continuing the story of Jesus’ birth:

12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. 13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.” 16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and 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. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

The wise men give Herod the slip and head back to their country. In the meantime, Joseph is warned by an angel to leave town because Herod has some malicious intentions for Jesus. Without the wise men’s inside information, Herod did not know who the child King was. So he resorted to devastating violence. Herod ordered the killing of every male child under the age of two. Given the population estimates of Bethlehem at the time, that means 10-20 families lost a child that night. Think about how we felt in recent violent acts toward children in our nation. The sorrow, misery, fear, and anger would be no different in Bethlehem.

What’s the point of this flight to Egypt and back? Again, the sovereignty of God is at work. There is a purpose. There is a parallel in the Old Testament that is important to see. In the Old Testament, God delivered His people Israel out of Egypt and established the Mosaic Covenant. In the New Testament, God brings deliverance to all people when the Deliverer was called out from Egypt, establishing the New Covenant. The Old Testament Scriptures quoted here are from Hosea 11:1 and Jeremiah 31:15.

“When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son.” -Hosea 11:1

“Thus says the Lord: ‘A voice is heard in Ramah, lamentation and bitter weeping. Rachel is weeping for her children; she refuses to be comforted for her children, because they are no more.’” -Jeremiah 31:15

The latter was written when Babylon was conquering Judah and ripping families apart as they carried people away into exile. Like the night Herod had the baby boys killed, this would have been a time of excruciating heartache and sorrow. But right after that, in verses 16 and 17, God promises that they will not be forgotten.

“Thus says the Lord: ‘Keep your voice from weeping, and your eyes from tears, for there is a reward for your work, declares the Lord, and they shall come back from the land of the enemy. There is hope for your future, declares the Lord, and your children shall come back to their own country.’” -Jeremiah 31:16-17

You see, Jesus provides the new exodus from the slavery of sin and He ends the exile from God that sin causes. There is hope in the midst of hurt and life in the midst of death.

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

After Herod dies, the family returns but not to Bethlehem. Things have not settled down entirely because Herod’s son was an apple that had not fallen far from the tree. So they went to Nazareth. And here we see a third prophecy fulfilled in this section. Except that Matthew says the prophets foretold this, yet there is no mention of it in the Old Testament. Christ coming from Nazareth is a picture of what He would endure in His ministry and ultimately His death. Nazareth was not a well-respected town and pretty low on the economic scale of the day. Because of His Nazarene heritage, Jesus would have a hard time being taken seriously by many people. And indeed, this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy in chapter 53:

“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief.” -Isaiah 53:3

This is actually a fitting end to the story of Jesus’ birth. It’s the final impression for the direction that His life would head. He came to save sinners but would be rejected by them. I think if we are honest with ourselves, many of us will find we actually identify more with Herod than we care to admit. We’re afraid of Jesus invading our kingdoms. We see His commands as buzzkills and keeping us from doing the things we enjoy. We see following Jesus as a too great a cost rather than having infinite worth. We have all the knowledge in the world about who He is but fall short of an obedience of faith that He desires of us. And so we come to the point of decision. Will we respond like the religious leaders and utterly reject Jesus? Jesus condemned these men. You can have all the knowledge of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings, but unless it leads to repentance, it means nothing. The rejection of Jesus results in condemnation and leads to an eternity in hell.

Will we respond like the masses would, who followed Jesus so long as He met their wants? This is consumerism Christianity and is really no Christianity at all. Jesus would go on to say that these people who claim Christ but do not obey are fooling themselves into thinking they are eternally secure (Matthew 7:21-23). I shudder to think what percentage of church-goers, particularly in the Bible Belt, are living under this false assumption. Whether thinking that going to church or Bible study on a weekly basis or even doing missionary work saves, both actions are of man doing something. They don’t save. They are responses to our salvation. If we accept Jesus’ salvation but reject his lordship, that is not an authentic, saving faith.

The third group we see in Matthew are the disciples of Jesus. These are followers who follow Him with an obedience of faith. Worship, praise, suffering, and sacrifice lead their lives. This is salvation. Jesus began His ministry by saying “follow me and I will make you fishers of men” and He ended by saying “go and make disciples of all nations”. Everything in between was preparation for this task. This is a privileged commission for followers of Jesus, who count it a joy to be considered worthy to give their lives for the sake of the gospel. From the prophecies that told of His coming, to God’s sovereign orchestration of His birth, and all the way to the end of the age in Revelation, Jesus came to save us by the grace, and to the glory, of God and the spread of His name to the ends of earth.

Every single person who encountered the baby Jesus could do only one thing: worship. And they left with such joy they had to tell others about Him. Christ had come. He is the salvation to our sin. He brings hope and life where neither exist. Don’t become desensitized to this miracle or let consumerism block you from the joy of this event. This is a Christmas story worth telling all year.

The Incarnation (Part 4)

The Incarnation (Part 3)

Chapter 2 of Matthew sets the timeline for the events that follow.

1 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, 2 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.”

Some wise men from the east came to visit after Jesus’ birth. Not at the time of… after. Unfortunately, our nativities need some adjustment because it would have taken some time for these wise men to travel from their area to Bethlehem. And despite what “We Three Kings” and “The First Noel” say, they didn’t see a star in the east, they came from the east. So they had to travel west and therefore the star must have shown in the west. And there’s really no factual evidence that there were only three men. We generally assume so because it is simply stated that there were three gifts. However, they would likely have traveled with a large group given their position. But that’s not to say they were actual kings. Scripture does not name them as authoritative rulers that we define as kings. Wise men, or magi, in the east were very prominent people in society, but they were more likely studious individuals in astrology and distinguished in the realms of religion and politics. They must have had at least some Jewish influence in their lives because they knew the significance of the star as an announcement of a King’s birth and traveled with the motivation to worshipping Him.

Twice in the Old Testament, the star that signified Jesus’ birth was prophesied. In Numbers, Israel was on their way to the promised land. Their trek made the king of Moab nervous and so he called a seer to curse the people, but what he said was quite different.

“…A star will come from Jacob, and a scepter will arise from Israel.” -Numbers 24:16-17

So we see a man in the east prophesying a star and a King. Then in Matthew, we see the star leading the wise men from the east to the King. Also, in Isaiah:

“…the Lord will shine over you, and His glory will appear over you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your radiance…” -Isaiah 60:1-6

Isaiah said that the nations would come to Jesus’ light. In Matthew, men from another nation were drawn to the star’s light. Don’t miss this. Some of the first people to worship Jesus were men from another nation.

3 When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

6 “‘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.’”

Herod, as the king at that time, was none to happy to hear that a child was born that people were calling a king. He gathered the religious leaders and asked about it. They quoted Micah 5:2.

“But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.”  -Micah 5:2

Did you catch that? The religious leaders knew the prophecy. These worship leaders and keepers of the Law knew exactly who Jesus was. They knew the Scriptures foretelling of His birth and who He was supposed to be. And yet in the end, they would deny Him as King and the Son of God. This is a sobering reminder that mere knowledge of Scripture is not enough. To know the Word but fail to respond is dangerous.

Micah’s prophecy confirms the King would come from Bethlehem in the land of Judah. David was a shepherd and Jesus would rule as a shepherd. (See also Ezekiel 34:11-24 and John 10:1-18.) Herod had a plan, so he called the wise men to him and told them when they found the child to let him know. The pretense was that he wanted to worship Jesus too, but really, he intended to kill Him.

7 Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. 8 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.” 9 After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh.

By this time Jesus’ family had moved into a house and He was less than 2 years old, probably months old to just over a year (accounting for how long the wise men would have traveled west). The wise men followed the star once more. But this time things are a little different. The star moved in front of them, guiding them to exactly the house Jesus was in and came to rest there. Their immediate reaction to seeing the baby was worship and offering. These high class, powerful men fell on their knees before a baby! Should that not be our reaction as well?

The gifts they presented could very well have significance in God’s design and there is some debate among religious scholars about that today. Studies by John Macarthur and William Hendricksen provide good, simple commentary about the gifts. Gold has, throughout history, been associated with royalty. The gift of gold acknowledges Jesus’ kingship. Frankincense was used throughout Old Testament history in ceremonies of worship and offerings. The gift of frankincense acknowledges Jesus’ deity. Myrrh was used both as a perfume and spice used in burials. The gift of myrrh acknowledges Jesus’ humanity and foreshadows his death.

The birth of Jesus is surrounded by worship. It is for His praise that God orchestrated the events of history that led to the birth of Jesus. He directed nature and He drew nations to the event. Matthew makes the message clear. In the beginning, the message is to come and worship the King. In the end, the message is go and spread the Kingdom. We have this responsibility and this privilege. Our Savior’s birth causes us to desire nothing less.

Scripture quoted from the English Standard Version.  Commentary from “Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Jesus in Matthew” by B&H Publishing Group.

The Incarnation (Part 3)

The Incarnation (Part 2)

With a look at Jesus’ heritage, I hope you found something new to take away and see there’s more under the surface than just a list of names.   We probably have the tendency to just skip over those lists when we are reading the Bible, but remember this when you see names:  God knows your name, and He has purposed you into redemption history just like those people.  Keeping on with the story, picture the scene that begins in verse 18.

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.

Mary and Joseph were engaged and one day Mary finds she is pregnant. In that culture an engagement was more legally binding than it is today or in our society. So separating would have been tantamount to divorce. Mary and Joseph had not been together intimately, so the only logical conclusion Joseph must have arrived to was that Mary had been with another man. Sometimes I think we are able to detach emotion from accounts like this, maybe because they happened so long ago or to people we don’t know. Or maybe we are even desensitized because this type of situation (on the surface) is so common in our society. But just think about this situation happening to you. Whether you are Mary who has unexplainably pregnant and probably considered a liar or Joseph who was certain he’d been cheated on. Not a good situation. Joseph must have been rich in compassion, though, because he opted to settle the matter quietly rather than shaming Mary publicly.

Then an angel came and clarified what was going on.

20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

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

24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

It’s important to note that the angel addresses Joseph as “son of David”. Here again, it is being established that the baby, who Joseph is about to learn was conceived by the Holy Spirit, was coming from the line of David as promised. Matthew quoted Isaiah 7:14.

Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. -Isaiah 7:14

Immanuel would be a completely new concept to Israel. God dwelled in the Holy of Holies of the Temple and could only be accessed by the designated priest one day a year. Fair to say they saw Him as detached in many respects. To say “God is with us” was a game-changer. As confusing as all this probably was to Joseph, he obeyed God. He married Mary, never was intimate with her while she was pregnant, and named the baby Jesus.

So what do we know about Jesus to this point? He was physically born to Mary. Jesus is Mary’s son by birth. He is also Joseph’s son by adoption. Legally, Jesus is in every way Joseph’s as he is Mary’s. We know that adoption makes a child belong to a set of parents. Adoptive parents do not speak of an adopted child apart from any children they have by natural birth. All of them are their children. The children take on that family name and grow up in that family’s heritage. There is no differentiation. Therefore, Joseph’s lineage ties Jesus to King David as Jesus’ father. The angel also told Joseph that Jesus was coming to save people from their sins. So Jesus was very much born into a fallen world in need of salvation and ultimately, Jesus is God’s Son. Why was Jesus born of a virgin? To show us that salvation is in need of a divine solution; it cannot be accomplished by any means of man.

Jesus was born of human and came from God. He is both man and divine. Our minds are wired to think either/or but in God’s power, He is both/and. But 100% of both defies our logic. (There are several such mysteries in Scripture that we’ll likely never understand this side of heaven.) It’s not 50/50, mind you; it’s 100% of both. That’s why He was born a baby and also created the universe. That’s why He died and yet conquered death. This is a concept we may not fully understand but generally accept. In fact, we are probably used to the idea and don’t really give deeper consideration to it. But it is worth looking into what this really means.

Because Jesus is fully human, He possesses the full range of human characteristics. That means He had a physical body just like us. His body required sleep and food like ours. In fact, Matthew shows us that Jesus was hungry and tired at times. He also mentally developed like us. The gospel of Luke tells us that Jesus increased in wisdom as he grew up. It’s probably hard for us to separate the Jesus we know who began teaching such profound words with a baby who started out with a simple “mama” and “dada” just like we did. But it’s true! He experienced human emotion. We see joy, anger, and sadness throughout his life. Altogether, Jesus was like us outwardly, meaning his humanity was plain to see. In fact, people from his hometown had a hard time accepting what He had to say because they just knew him as the kid from Nazareth.

It is important for us to understand that Jesus is fully human because we can be assured that He can identify with us. He gets it. He knows what we go through. Isn’t it important for you to have that assurance when you go to someone for care, comfort, or support? You want to know they are empathetic with you. Otherwise, you don’t really make a connection and what they have to say probably won’t weigh that much with you.

Because Jesus is fully divine, He possesses the full range of divine characteristics. He has command over nature. In fact, creation was made through Jesus (Colossians 1:16). So if He made it, it shouldn’t be surprising that He has power over it. Case in point, there is an account of Jesus controlling a storm. He can walk on water because He created the water. He has power over disease. There are many stories about Jesus healing the blind, lame, and sick. Jesus has authority over sin. He is able to offer forgiveness. Jesus also has power over death. He raised people from the dead and ultimately, He raised Himself from the dead.

It is important for us to understand that Jesus is fully divine because we can be assured that He can identify with God. Jesus did not inherit humanity’s sinful nature nor the pronouncement of guilt that comes with sin. We don’t have to doubt the accounts that the gospels give us about the “strange” things Jesus did. He made them anyway! While His human and divine aspects are wholly distinct, they also work in perfect unity. Put together, Jesus’ birth ends up being the most extraordinary miracle in the entire Bible.

If He had come straight from God with no human parents—say, He just showed up out of nowhere one day—we would have a hard time believing He could really understand us. It would probably be even a more apprehensive relationship that led to obedience out of fear rather than love. I think about Greek mythology’s depiction of the people living to please the gods out of fear they will be struck down. (A lot of people, I’m sure, live this way toward God, too.) On the flip side, if Jesus had been born of two human parents by natural means, we probably wouldn’t credit Him His divinity. And therefore we wouldn’t give Him the obedience of our lives that He deserves. And indeed, this is an obstacle for many people today who view Him as a good teacher, but having no divine authority. (e.g. This is the major difference between Christianity and Islam.)

Jesus—fully human and fully divine—came to save people from their sins. He turns hurts into joy, suffering into satisfaction, rebellion into righteousness, and sin into salvation. In one man, Adam, all were condemned to death. In one man, Jesus, all would be made righteous who believed in Him and find life. Adam succumbed to sin; Jesus saves from sin. Where one man’s sin condemned all, another man’s obedience leads to grace greater than all our sins (Romans 5:20). Jesus is transcendent over us and He is also Immanuel—God with us.

Jesus is born in Bethlehem, and what follows is pretty standard knowledge to even those who do not accept Jesus as Savior. Or is it? We sing a lot of Christmas songs that depict a scene that isn’t exactly scriptural. And I think it is time for us to throw away the watered down versions of the Christmas story so deeply ingrained in our culture and see it for what God intends—the coming of our Savior who deserves our worship, praise, surrender, and sacrifice.

For starters, the night of Jesus’ birth was very unlikely a “silent night”. Anyone who has had a baby or kept a baby or even knows someone who has a baby knows that newborns result in many sleepless nights. Again, if Jesus is fully human, he was fully a newborn baby. And once a baby does finally sleep for a couple hours, what parents are going to be happy about “lowing” livestock making noise (Away in a Manger). Just because Jesus is our divine Savior does not mean we need to give Him some romanticized appearance of being any less human than He was. Jesus was a crying, sleeping, feeding, pooping baby just like any other.

We know from other gospel accounts (like Luke) that Mary and Joseph had traveled to Bethlehem to take part of a census. Joseph, being of the lineage of David, had to register there, the hometown of David. Because of the crowded conditions, they had to stay in a stable, where Mary gave birth to Jesus. An angel appeared to some nearby shepherds announcing the birth. There was a great chorus in heaven and the shepherds were intrigued enough—to say the least—to go see the baby. When they found the child exactly as told by the angel, they told others about Him and went back to their flocks rejoicing and worshipping God. The Savior had come. Is the shepherds’ reaction any less than what we should do?

Consider this question this week.  When we study the Bible, we don’t just want an emotional reaction–whether it be guilt or joy–we want change.  In my next post, we’ll continue the story and decide what our response should be.

Scripture quoted from the English Standard Version.  Commentary from “Christ-Centered Exposition, Exalting Jesus in Matthew” by B&H Publishing Group.

The Incarnation (Part 2)