Boy Jesus | Luke 2:41-52


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:41–52

What did Jesus do when He was a boy?

The Gospels provide little information about Jesus’ early years. Mark and John begin their Gospels with an adult Jesus. Matthew and Luke provide brief descriptions of His parentage and birth. Only Luke tells us a story about Boy Jesus.

Some Christians in the early years of the church made up stories about Jesus’ childhood in order to fill in the gaps of the Gospels. One shows Boy Jesus making clay birds on the Sabbath. When a religious neighbor protests, Jesus brings the clay birds to life. Another story speaks of Jesus striking a playmate dead, only to resurrect him when the kid’s parents protest to Joseph and Mary.

None of the apocryphal stories has a basis in fact. The one story of Jesus’ childhood with any historical credibility is found in Luke 2:41–52. Jesus is 12 years old. His family goes to Jerusalem for the annual Passover Feast. When they leave to return home to Nazareth, they realize Jesus is not with them. (It’s easy to lose a kid in a caravan!) Joseph and Mary quickly return to Jerusalem to find Jesus.

Two things stand out to me in this passage: (1) Jesus is a smart kid. He knows how to interpret the Bible well enough to amaze everyone who listened to Him. (2) Jesus has an intensely personal relationship with God. He’s not just smart, in other words, He’s truly spiritual. In verse 49, He asks, “Didn’t you know I had to be in my Father’s house?” For Jesus, information about God is good. But a relationship with Him is better.

We shouldn’t read this passage as if Jesus were fully spiritually formed at age 12, however. As Luke puts it, “Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”

Jesus got smarter, bigger, more spiritual and friendlier as he aged. Even for the Son of God, spiritual formation was a process, just like it is for us.

So, what did Jesus do as a boy? Whatever it took to become the man God made Him to be. We would do well to follow Boy Jesus’ example.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

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The Hardest Part | Luke 2:21-40


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:21–40

Several years ago, I was working at a church in Costa Mesa, California. For Pastor Appreciation Day, the church gave each staff member a generous gift card to a nearby restaurant. Two or three weeks later, most of the staff still had their cards. Not me. I used it the day I got it. In fact, immediately after the chairman of the board of elders handed me the card in the service, as I was walking down the aisle, I looked at a friend and signaled that we were having lunch together that day. I have a problem with delayed gratification, it seems. The lyrics to a Tom Petty song could be my motto: “The waiting is the hardest part.”

Luke 2:21–40 tells the story of a man who waited to see “the consolation of Israel” (verse 25). His name was Simeon. Let’s take a quick look at his story.

According to Luke, Simeon was “righteous and devout” (verse 25). Moreover, “the Holy Spirit was on him.” Luke goes on to say, “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Messiah” (verse 26). From this statement, most interpreters reasonably infer that Simeon was old or near death when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple for ritual consecration. Taking Jesus in his arms, Simeon prophesied about the boy’s future.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised,
you may now dismiss your servant in peace.
For my eyes have seen your salvation,
which you have prepared in the sight of all nations:
a light for revelation to the Gentiles
and the glory of your people Israel (verses 29–32).

This Christmas song goes by the Latin title, “Nunc Dimittis,” meaning “you now dismiss.” In it, Simeon praises God for bringing salvation not only to “your people Israel,” but also to “the Gentiles.” For Simeon, salvation was an accomplished fact, even though Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lay 30-odd years in the future. He was certain that God would accomplish His purposes through Jesus Christ.

Simeon was not as certain about how individuals would respond to Jesus. “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed” (verses 34–35). In other words, God’s grace is certain, but our faith is an open question. Will we follow Jesus or not?

Simeon also says something to Mary: “And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” I think this statement refers to the maternal anguish Mary felt as she watched her firstborn son being crucified. Following Jesus isn’t easy. It always takes us to the cross.

Simeon’s message is an important one for instant gratificationists such as me to hear. Our culture wants microwave-dinner spirituality: quick and easy. But salvation requires “a long obedience in the same direction,” to borrow a phrase from Nietzsche — just like Simeon’s patience. And when we receive God’s grace, we find that the waiting wasn’t so hard after all.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Value, Worship, and Evangelism | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20

 

The Christmas story in Luke 2:1–20 teaches us five lessons. We looked at the lessons of sovereignty and humility yesterday. God rules over all creation, directing the course of history toward the fulfillment of His purposes. And one of His purposes is to draw all people to himself, which He does by sending His Son in the humble form of a baby in a manger. Today, we’ll look at three other lessons the Christmas story teaches about value, worship and evangelism.

What is most valuable to you? All right-minded people will say they care most about their relationships. The value of a loving family and good friends far outweighs that of material possessions. God values relationships too, to a degree that we will never fully understand. Most of our significant relationships are mutually beneficial; we supply what our friends lack, and they supply what we lack. But we have nothing God needs or wants. He loves us, not because of any benefits we provide Him, but simply because He loves us and because we need Him.

We see God’s values at work in the angel’s announcement of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. In Jesus’ day, shepherds rated low on the hierarchy of valuable relationships. They were considered dishonest and disreputable. And that, it seems to me, is precisely why God sent an army of angels to shepherds to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was His way of reversing worldly values and saying, “I value these men. I love them. I want to save them.”

At Christmas, we ought to pay special attention to people whom the world doesn’t value, precisely because that is what God does.

Worship is a way that we express God’s value to us. Notice the song of the angels: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests” (verse 14).

This song makes two statements: (1) that glory belongs to God and (2) that the byproduct of grace (divine favor) is peace among people. Unfortunately, we too often focus only on the second statement. We want peace on earth. But peace comes as the result of right values. Jesus said, “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6.33). The only way to have “all these things,” including peace, is to seek first God’s kingdom. God values you. Do you value God?

If you do, the next obvious question is this: Do you share God with others? The angel said to the shepherds, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people” (verse 10). And the shepherds shared the good news of Christ’s birth with everyone they talked to. “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child” (verse 17). The Christmas story is the gospel, and all who tell it become evangelists.

God values you. Do you value Him? And are you helping others to value Him? Those are good questions to ask yourself at this time of year.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Strength and Humility | Luke 2:1-20


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 2:1–20.

 

In Luke’s Gospel, the Christmas story begins on a throne and ends in a manger. As we read the unfolding of its plot, we learn valuable lessons about sovereignty, humility, value, worship and evangelism. Today, let’s look at the first two items on that list.

The Christmas story begins on the throne of Gaius Octavius, the nephew and heir to Julius Caesar. In 27 B.C., the Roman Senate proclaimed him Caesar Augustus (“the exalted one”), making him the sole ruler of the Roman Empire. Under his reign, Rome expanded its boundaries and established peaceful conditions throughout the lands under its control — the so-called pax Romana (“peace of Rome”). These lands included Palestine.

Empires are costly things, and at some point, Caesar Augustus decreed a census of his empire for the purposes of taxation. Such was the power of his sovereignty that thousands of miles from Rome, an affianced couple packed their belongings to make their way from Nazareth to Bethlehem so they could be enrolled for the census.

At one level, of course, the Christmas story is about the sovereignty of the Roman emperor. It is about his ability to make unknown people far away from him jump through hoops to bring him more money. And yet, a greater sovereignty is at work in the Christmas story, for biblical prophecy foretells the birth of the Messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), not Nazareth, which is where Joseph and Mary resided. Caesar Augustus may issue the decree, but it is ultimately God calling the shots. He makes Caesar jump through hoops to bring us a Savior. Now that’s sovereignty!

But to what end does God exercise His sovereignty? Does He pull strings so that the Savior is born in a palace? No. The home of a wealthy person? No. A nice hotel? No. A cheap motel? No. There is no room for Israel’s Messiah in any of these places. Instead, a cave where animals are penned is Mary’s hospital room, and a manger where animals feed is Baby Jesus’ incubator. If God has the power to make Caesar Augustus do His bidding, why doesn’t He provide better circumstances for Jesus’ birth?

The answer comes in one word: humility. The humble circumstances of Christ’s birth allow everyone to draw near to Him. Rulers have bodyguards to protect them from the crowds. The wealthy live in gated communities that keep away uninvited guests. Hotels and motels have front desks that limit entry to all but paying customers. By contrast, anyone can walk into a barn. Jesus is humble; all are welcomed to draw near to Him.

Even those who wish to kill Him. In Philippians 2.8, Paul links Jesus’ humility with His death on the cross for our salvation. Jesus does not bother to surround himself with layers of protection to keep the people away. Instead, from birth to death, He draws all people to himself. And in His humble sovereignty lies our salvation.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Through Us, Not Without Us | Luke 1:67-80


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:67–80.

 

In this passage, Zechariah teaches us something important about Jesus Christ and something important about ourselves. Yesterday, we looked at what he teaches us about Christ. Today, we will look at what he teaches us about ourselves. Pay careful attention to verses 76–80.

Notice, first of all, that this is a statement about John the Baptist. Zechariah is telling us who John will be (“a prophet of the Most High”) and what he will do (“prepare the way” for the Lord). Each Gospel mentions John’s ministry in some way or another (e.g., Matthew 3:1–12, Mark 1:3–8, Luke 3:2–17, John 1:19–34). And in each Gospel, John prepares the way for Jesus.

Second, Zechariah’s statement about John highlights a central theme in the Christmas story, namely, the role of human beings in God’s plan of salvation. Mary accepted the divine gift of bearing Jesus Christ in her womb for nine months. Joseph accepted the divine gift of fathering a son who was not his biological child. John drew great crowds to himself, only to direct their attention and loyalty to another man, Jesus Christ.

In each case, God accomplishes His plan of salvation through human beings, not without them. God does not impose His will on these people. He invites them to place their faith in Him. So, Mary says, “I am the Lord’s servant. May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38). And Joseph “did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24).

Such willing obedience is not easy. It requires great humility. It demands that we think first of God’s will, not of our own wills. One of the most poignant statements in the Gospels comes from John’s lips as he realizes his ministry is drawing to a close: “Jesus must become greater; I must become less” (John 3:30). God works through us, not without us, and the more we obey Him, the more others can see Jesus through us.

Which brings me to my third and final point: Just as John was an evangelist within his sphere of influence, so we are evangelists within ours. Do we prepare the way for the Lord into the hearts of our friends and family members? Do our lives and words give people “the knowledge of salvation” (verse 77) so that they can find forgiveness, mercy, spiritual illumination, guidance and peace?

If not, why not? God worked through John in the first century. He works through us today, if we become less so that He can become greater.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

What Christ Redeems Us From and To | Luke 1:67-80


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:67–80.

 

Whether the songs are sacred or secular, Christmas is a singing season. In the Gospel of Luke, we read the original four Christmas songs: Mary’s “Magnficat” (1:46–56), Zechariah’s “Benedictus” (1:67–80), the angels’ “Gloria” (2:8–14), and Simeon’s “Nunc Dimittis” (2:25–33). We have already looked at Mary’s “Magnficat”; today and tomorrow, I want to look at Zechariah’s “Benedictus.” It tells us something important about Christ and something important about ourselves.

Here’s the first half of the song:

Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel,
because he has come to his people and redeemed them.
He has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David
(as he said through his holy prophets of long ago),
salvation from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us —
to show mercy to our ancestors
and to remember his holy covenant,
the oath he swore to our father Abraham:
to rescue us from the hand of our enemies,
and to enable us to serve him without fear
in holiness and righteousness before him all our days (verses 68–75).

Notice the past tense of the verbs in the second line: “has come” and “redeemed.” When Zechariah offers this prayer, Jesus’ ministry, death and resurrection lie 30 years in the future. Yet so certain is the victory God will accomplish through Christ that Zechariah can speak of it as an already accomplished action.

What redemption does Jesus’ coming into the world purchase? Zechariah uses two prepositions: from and to. Through Christ, Zechariah says, God has redeemed us “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” Zechariah is no doubt thinking in national and religious terms. As a good Jew living in the hill country of Judea, he interprets the birth of Jesus as deliverance of Israel from the oppressive power of the Romans. And in a sense, he’s right. The work of Jesus Christ ultimately undoes the oppressive power of any government that disobeys God’s law and violates the human rights of its citizens. Jesus does this as His Church earnestly follows Him and applies truly Christlike principles to the society in which it lives. But more immediately, the work of Jesus Christ delivers people from the original Axis of Evil: sin, death and the devil. Compared to that Axis, human governments are mere pikers.

So, deliverance is deliverance from. But it is also deliverance to. Pay attention to verses 74–75: Through Christ, God redeemed his people “to enable us to serve him without fear in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.”

Zechariah says “without fear” because “perfect love drives out fear” (1 John 4.18). When we receive God’s love and return it to Him, our fear of divine judgment gives way to joy in divine grace. And out of that grace, our spiritual and moral character changes. God replaces our sin with his “holiness and righteousness.”

What has Christ redeemed you from? What has Christ redeemed you to? Let your life in Christ become your personal Christmas song today!

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here:

Grace, Faith and Obedience | Luke 1:57-66


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:57–66.

 

In this passage, Zechariah emerges from nine months of silence with an important message. We will see what that important message is in a moment, but it might be helpful first to remember why Zechariah had been silent so long. His silence was divinely imposed because he had doubted the angel’s message regarding the miraculous conception of his son.

Don’t you wish God worked promptly with you, like he did with Zechariah? Don’t you wish that every time you obeyed God you would receive an instantaneous blessing? Or that every time you disobeyed God you would get an immediate slap on the wrist? Wouldn’t it be easier to obey God (and harder to disobey) if you experienced the consequences of your actions immediately?

Psychologists refer to this kind of dynamic as behavioral programming. In my college psychology class, my lab partner and I tested this dynamic on a rat. We put him in a contraption known as a Skinner box. (It was named after B. F. Skinner, a pioneer in behavioral programming.) If the mouse lowered a switch on the wall of the box, it received a pellet of food or a drink of water. The mouse quickly learned how to lower the switch. But the Skinner box also allowed us to shock the mouse with a small electrical current if it performed a behavior we didn’t desire. The mouse quickly learned to do what we wanted it to do.

God is not a behavioral programmer. Life is not a Skinner box. You and I are not mice. Usually, God does not respond to our behavior with immediate carrots or instantaneous sticks. He wants us to put our faith in Him and do the right thing because those are the right things to do, not because we are looking for the spiritual equivalent of food pellets and sips of water.

But on occasion, He does respond to our behaviors with immediate consequences. He did so with Zechariah. And when God does this, He wants to teach us a very important lesson.

In Zechariah’s case, that lesson was not just faith and obedience, although I’m sure Zechariah learned them both as he watched his aged wife grow big with their son through her months of pregnancy. Instead, the primary lesson Zechariah learned was this: The Lord is gracious.

According to Luke 1.57–66, Zechariah regained his speech the moment he named his son. Elizabeth wanted to call her baby boy John, but the friends and family wouldn’t let her. John was not a family name. Shouldn’t he be named after Zechariah or after one of his grandfathers? So the friends and family went to Zechariah and asked his opinion.

“He asked for a writing tablet, and to everyone’s astonishment he wrote, ‘His name is John.’ Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God” (verses 63–64).

In Hebrew, the name John means “the Lord is gracious.” God was gracious to Zechariah, giving him a second chance after a long period of discipline. God offers grace to us too. The only question is whether we’ll respond like Zechariah, with faith and obedience.

 

P.S. This article is cross-posted at InfluenceMagazine.com. For earlier posts in the Songs of Christmas devotional, see here: