The Challenge of Sharing Faith in America Today | Influence Podcast


“Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism Is Wrong,” reads the headline of a storyabout a new report from Barna Group. Titled Reviving Evangelism, that report details the erosion of support for evangelism among next-generation Christians. In Episode 169 of the Influence Podcast, I’ll be talking about this report with David Kinnaman.

David is president of Barna Group, a leading research and communications company that works with churches, nonprofits, and businesses ranging from film studios to financial services. He is also the author of several bestselling books, including Good Faith,You Lost Me, and unChristian. He and his wife live in California with their three children.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted form InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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Can We Trust the Gospels? | Book Review


“Faith is the great cop-out, the great excuse to evade the need to think and evaluate evidence,” argues the atheist Richard Dawkins. “Faith is belief in spite of, even perhaps because of, the lack of evidence.”

Like many of Dawkins’ quips, this one is catchy but inaccurate. Christians do not define faith that way. As Peter J. Williams notes in the Introduction to Can We Trust the Gospels?: “Coming from the Latin word fides, the word faithused to mean something closer to our word trust. Trust, of course, can be based on evidence.” Williams goes on to draw several lines of evidence that point to the Gospels’ historical reliability. It is written as an introductory text for a broad audience.

Those lines of evidence include what early non-Christian sources reveal about Jesus Christ and His followers (chapter 1), the sources and dates of the Gospels (chapter 2), accurate names for places and people (chapter 3), undesigned coincidences between the Gospels (chapter 4), the reliability of oral transmission of Jesus’ teachings (chapter 5), the reliability of textual transmission of the Gospels (chapter 6), how to account for apparent contradictions (chapter 7), and evidence for miracles (chapter 8).

In my opinion, chapter 3 — titled, “Did the Gospel Authors Know Their Stuff?” — is the strongest chapter. It argues that the evangelists “display familiarity with the time and places they wrote about” in terms of geography, personal names and other first-century details.

Take personal names, for example. Williams writes: “A series of scholarly studies has shown that, though Jews were located in many places in the Roman Empire, the different locations had rather distinct naming patterns, and the popularity of various names among Jews outside Palestine bore little relationship to those inside Palestine.” The statistical distribution of personal names in the Gospels tracks with the distribution of names in Palestine, but not outside of it. This suggests that the names reflect historical people, because “someone living in another part of the Roman Empire would not simply be able to think of Jewish names familiar to him and put them into a story.”

The weakest chapter is chapter 7, “What about Contradictions?” Williams identifies six formal contradictions within the Gospel of John and argues that the evangelist has recorded “contradictions at the superficial level of language to encourage the audiences to think more deeply” [emphasis in original]. In other words, John’s Gospel teaches dialectically. That’s a reasonable explanation.

Williams doesn’t address other kinds of apparent contradictions between the Gospels, however, such as whether Jesus was born while Herod the Great was still alive (Matthew 2:3) or when Caesar Augustus’ worldwide census was taken (Luke 2:1–2). Herod died in 4 B.C. The census occurred in A.D. 6. It is this kind of apparent contradiction between the Gospels that vexes readers more than John’s “deliberate formal contradictions.” I believe that there are ways to resolve such apparent contradictions, but Williams doesn’t mention them.

One other quibble. There is evidence within the New Testament that Jesus spoke Aramaic (e.g., Mark 5:41; 7:34). The Gospels themselves are written in Greek, however. Williams argues that it’s possible Jesus spoke Greek as well. I don’t discount that possibility. What Williams doesn’t mention is the possibility that Jesus spoke Hebrew. Obviously, Jesus read Hebrew, the language of Scripture (e.g., Luke 4:16–17). The discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls revealed that Hebrew was used in everyday conversation, not just religious discourse. Thus, Jesus could have spoken Hebrew as well.

This might explain something about Jesus’ use of parables. The most characteristic form of Jesus’ teaching in the Synoptic Gospels is the parable. “Though Jewish sources often attribute parables to rabbis,” writes Williams, “there are few parables in the Old Testament or Dead Sea Scrolls and none in the Apocrypha, and few are used by early Christians outside the New Testament.” What Williams doesn’t mention is that those rabbinic parables were told in Hebrew. Even when quoted in an Aramaic text such as the Talmud, the parable itself appeared in Hebrew.

If rabbis told parables in Hebrew, and if Jesus taught in parables, it shouldn’t surprise anyone that Jesus might also have taught parables in Hebrew. It seems to me that this line of thought could strengthen the Gospels’ reliability by linking Jesus’ form of teaching to a form of rabbinic teaching common in Second Temple Judaism.

An introductory text such as Can We Trust the Gospels? can’t get too far into the weeds of scholarly argument, however. Despite my negative comments, I think Williams’ treatment of the issues on the whole is helpful and worth recommending to a general readership. Readers interested in a deeper treatment of the subject can read the works Williams cites in the footnotes.

Book Reviewed
Peter J. Williams, Can We Trust the Gospels? (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God | Influence Podcast


Publishers harvested a bumper crop of atheist book in 2006 and 2007. Letters to a Christian Nationby Sam Harris, The God Delusionby Richard Dawkins, Breaking the Spellby Daniel C. Dennett, and God Is (Not) Greatby Christopher Hitchens come readily to mind, among many others. Each of these book claimed in one way or another that belief in God was intellectually deficient, a matter of faith rather than reason.

The philosophers who contributed to Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for Godbeg to differ. They think there are good reasons to believe that God exists. In Episode 155 of the Influence Podcast, I talk to Jerry L. Walls about good  arguments for God.

Walls is Scholar in Residence and Professor of Philosophy at Houston Baptist University, as well as co-editor with Trent Dougherty of Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God, which is published by Oxford University Press.

P.S. This is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

“Our Father in Heaven”: How God’s Character Motivates and Directs Our Prayers


Today is the U.S. National Day of Prayer. When Jesus’ disciples asked for a lesson in how to pray, Jesus laid out a model prayer that starts like this, “This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven…”

Whom You Pray to Matters
The Lord’s Prayer (Matthew 6:9–13) consists of six petitions. When we pray, we ask God that

  • His name be hallowed,
  • His kingdom come,
  • His will be done,
  • our needs be met,
  • our sins forgiven,
  • and our souls protected.

Notice the order of these requests. First, we direct our attention to God and His concerns; then — and only then — we direct God’s attention to us and our concerns. When we prioritize God, we receive His blessing: “seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things [food, drink, clothing, etc.] will be given to you as well” (Matthew 6:33).

Notice also what Jesus assumes about God. The Lord’s Prayer tells us what to pray for, but it assumes certain things about God’s character and power. It assumes He is worthy of our requests and able to grant them.

These assumptions find expression in the name Jesus uses to address God: “our Father in heaven.” We are so accustomed to referring to God as our Father that we forget what a radical idea and innovative practice it was in Jesus’ own day. New Testament scholars believe that Jesus invented the habit of calling God, “Father.” He did so because He was conscious of His unique relationship with God. In John 20:17, for example, He distinguished His way of relating to God from ours: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” But His relationship with God is not a zero-sum game. We too can become God’s sons and daughters because Jesus is God’s Son par excellence: “In love,” Paul writes, “[God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will” (Ephesians 1:4–5). When we call God “Father,” we say something important about His character: He loves us, and it is His pleasure and will to welcome us into His presence.

When we call God “Father,” we say something important about His character: He loves us, and it is His pleasure and will to welcome us into His presence.

When we call God “our Father in heaven,” we say something equally important about His power. In the Bible, heaven is God’s dwelling place, the throne room from which He rules the universe. It connotes divine majesty and absolute power. Revelation 4:1–11 records John’s vision of heaven. It is a place of unimaginable beauty. All day long, angels and human beings worship God to the fullest extent of their abilities. They sing,

You are worthy, our Lord and God,
to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things,
and by your will they were created and have their being.

In light of this song, stop and reflect for a moment on the meaning of the words, “our Father in heaven.” The God who created and sustains the universe is pleased to be a Father to you and me. How can we not rest assured, then, that our prayers will be answered when we pray to such a God?

Who you pray to matters, it turns out, as much as — if not more than — what you pray for.

Responding to an Objection
Many people find it difficult to pray to God as their Father in heaven. Their earthly fathers were so bad that they cannot conceive of a heavenly Father in anything but negative terms. Additionally, some object that since God is neither male nor female, it is inappropriate to think of Him in masculine terms. They argue that either we should stop thinking of God in terms of sex, or we should start balancing masculine terms with feminine ones, praying to God as both “Father” and “Mother.”

Both points of view share a mistake. They assume that our God-talk is the result of projection rather than revelation. For them, the flow of imagery is upward: We conceive of God in our own image. According to the Bible, however, the flow is downward: He reveals himself through our language. Consequently, we should not see our heavenly Father through the distorting prism of earthly fatherhood — with its sinfulness and limitation. Instead, we should view earthly fatherhood in the light of heaven — with all its boundless perfection. As Paul wrote in Ephesians 3:15, it is from our heavenly Father that “every family in heaven and on earth derives its name.” (The Greek word rendered “family” is patria, literally, “fatherhood.”)

Calling God “our Father in heaven” implies both contrast from and comparison to our earthly fathers.

When we pray, then, we must remember the contrast between our heavenly Father and our earthly fathers. By the same token, however, we must remember that Jesus chose the image of fatherhood to describe God for a reason: We learn about what we do not know by means of what we do know. When, therefore, our earthly fathers act as God created them to, we see through their examples glimpses of how our heavenly Father treats us. Calling God “our Father in heaven” implies both contrast from and comparison to our earthly fathers, in other words.

A little parable in Matthew 7:7–11 makes this point clearly. Jesus asks, “Which of you, if his son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” Jesus admits that some earthly fathers are “evil,” in strong contrast to our morally perfect heavenly Father. This is a point of contrast. But even bad dads know how to give “good gifts.” So, a great dad — our heavenly Father — must know how to give really excellent gifts. This is a point of comparison.

Precisely because our heavenly Father gives great gifts, then, Jesus tells us: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.” Our good heavenly Father will see that we get what we need, “and quickly”; so let us “always pray and not give up” (Luke 18:1,8).

The Father as God
Why did Jesus call God Father? And what difference does it make for our prayers? The New Testament suggests three answers to the first question and one to the second. We call God Father because:

  • as God, He is the Father of Jesus Christ,
  • as Savior, He is the Father of all believers,
  • and as Creator, He is the Father of the entire world.

Because our heavenly Father is God, Savior and Creator, we can be confident that He loves us and gives us what we need. This is the difference God’s Fatherhood makes to our prayers.

When we examine the relationship between God and Jesus Christ, two things become apparent: (1) Jesus related to God uniquely, and (2) that uniqueness arose from the fact of His divinity. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels shows Jesus’ unique relationship with God. John 20:17 is a prime example: “I am ascending to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.” Jesus is not referring to two gods but to two ways of relating to God: His and ours.

The best explanation for this unique relationship is Jesus’ own divinity. Notice what He said in John 5:17: “My Father is always at his work to this very day, and I too am working.” John tells us that this angered Jesus’ religious opponents because “he was even calling God his own Father, making himself equal with God” (verse 18).

If the Father loves us so greatly that He gave the Son to save us, how can we not approach him confidently in prayer?

We are wading in very deep theological waters when we affirm Jesus’ divinity. If there is only one God (Deuteronomy 6:4), how can two persons — Father and Son — be God? (Or three persons, if we add the Holy Spirit?) And how can a man born in a stable be God? Over the centuries, the Christian tradition has developed the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation to answer these questions. The Trinity teaches that one God eternally exists as three persons — Father, Son, and Spirit. The Incarnation teaches that the Son has two complete natures — human and divine. I do not fully comprehend these doctrines — they are mysterious! — so I will not attempt to explain them to you here. Nevertheless, I believe both are based on the Bible and do not contain any obvious logical contradictions. They conform, in other words, to revelation and reason.

What I will point out is this: Both doctrines give us a powerful reason to pray. Paul writes in Romans 8:31–32: “If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all — how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?” If the Father loves us so greatly that He gave the Son to save us, how can we not approach him confidently in prayer? Nothing is “able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:39).

So, let us pray to God, the Father of Jesus Christ!

The Father as Savior
The first reason we call God Father is because He is “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:3). The second reason is that He is the Father of all believers. Jesus has a unique relationship with God, but we can have a relationship with Him too, although in a different way.

That difference can be expressed as the difference between a natural-born and an adopted child: Jesus is God’s natural Son, but we are God’s adopted sons and daughters. As a natural Son, Jesus shares the Father’s DNA. He is divine by nature. We, on the other hand, do not share the Father’s DNA — we are not divine — but He invites us to enter a relationship with Him, a relationship of His choosing.

Please do not stretch this analogy too far. It is only a metaphor. God does not actually have DNA. But by the same token, do not ignore the analogy’s power! It is rooted in the biblical language of salvation. Consider Ephesians 1:4–5, “In love, [God] predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

If you think about it, the adoption analogy is a vivid picture of the gospel. Because of sin, we are orphans. Precisely because we are orphans, however, God has no parental duties toward us. We are someone else’s children, someone else’s problem. But God chooses to adopt us anyway. It is His “pleasure and will” to do so. Like all adoptions, the cost to the would-be parent is exorbitant. We become God’s sons and daughters “through Jesus Christ,” that is, by means of His death and resurrection. But God is willing to pay the cost because He loves us.

As God’s children and heirs, we can joyfully ask Him for anything we need. He chose to love us in the first place. Will He not also care for us on an ongoing basis?

How does our adoptive Father treat us? Are we merely wards of the state of heaven? Are we second-class members of God’s household? Are we like Cinderella — begrudged by the natural-born children and made to do slavish tasks? No! No! No! Listen to Galatians 4:6–7: “Because you are his sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, ‘Abba, Father.’ So you are no longer a slave, but God’s child; and since you are his child, God has made you also an heir.”

What difference does this change in status from slavery to sonship make for our prayer life? Listen to Romans 8:15–17: “The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship. And by him we cry, ‘Abba, Father.’ The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs — heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” As God’s children and heirs, we can joyfully ask Him for anything we need. He chose to love us in the first place. Will He not also care for us on an ongoing basis?

So, let us pray to God, the Father of all believers!

The Father as Creator
A third and final reason we call God Father is that He is the Creator of and Provider for the entire world. James describes him as “the Father of the heavenly lights” (James 1:17). Paul writes, “there is but one God, the Father, from whom all things came and for whom we live; and there is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live” (1 Corinthians 8:6). No wonder, then, he writes, “every family [literally, all fatherhood] in heaven and on earth derives its name” from the heavenly Father (Ephesians 3:15). Or that, quoting a Greek poet, he remarks: “We are his offspring” (Acts 17:28). God created and provides for us; therefore, He is our Father.

As Creator and Provider, the Father dispenses His blessings with impartiality and expects us to do the same. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:44–45). When it comes to the blessings of salvation and an eternal life with Him, God requires faith of us. With creature comforts and temporal goods, however, God is an equal-opportunity giver.

As Creator and Provider, the Father dispenses His blessings with impartiality and expects us to do the same.

God’s creatorship makes a tremendous difference in our prayer life, as Jesus himself pointed out. We spend our lives working hard to get stuff, some of which is good and necessary, some not. But often, we develop acquisition anxiety. We worry about acquiring what we need as well as what we simply want. To paraphrase the words of Jesus in Matthew 6:25–34, we worry about our lives, what we will eat or drink; and we worry about our bodies, what we will wear. We shouldn’t. To see why, we should pay attention to three questions Jesus asks us.

First, “Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes?” When we pray, God reminds us of our priorities and helps us see the difference between our needs and our wants.

Second, “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” When we pray, God reminds us of our value in His eyes and assures us that He will meet our needs.

Third, “Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your life?” When we pray, God administers a dose of reality medicine. Anxiety does not prolong life. Medically speaking, it shortens it. So do not worry; God will provide. Only the pagans run after all these things [food, drink, clothing, etc.]; our “heavenly Father knows that [we] need them.”

God is the Father of the entire world. He created us; He also will provide for us. So, let us pray to Him!

Fatherhood, Feelings, Facts and Faith
God is our heavenly Father. He created us, saved us and provides for our needs. So, when we pray, we ought to remember and give thanks for His powerful love.

Unfortunately, we do not always feel God’s love. Sometimes, we feel that God is ignoring or neglecting us. When we are anxious about our material needs or disconsolate about our spiritual condition, we want to feel God’s reassuring hand and hear His soothing voice. But we don’t.

What should we do?

First, we should remember that feelings are not reliable guides to reality. In high school, I competed in a speech meet that I felt I had won. I spoke flawlessly. My only real competitor, however, jumbled the opening lines of her speech and started over. I was sure the trophy was mine, but the judges pronounced my competitor the winner. My feelings had led me astray, as feelings often do.

When life is going well and our emotions are all positive ones, it is easy to believe in God and do His will. But take those crutches away, and will any faith in Him remain?

Second, in light of the unreliability of our emotions, we should let facts determine our feelings. God’s Word is the most reliable source of information we have about Him, so what it says about Him should determine how we feel about Him, especially when we go through difficult circumstances. In Matthew 6:25–27, Jesus noted two facts: (1) God cares for you more than birds, whose needs are always met; and (2) anxiety is unhelpful. Jesus let those facts shape His emotional life, and He encouraged His followers to do the same.

Third, and finally, we should walk by faith. St. John of the Cross wrote about “the dark night of the soul,” when we do not feel God’s presence or comfort at all. Interestingly, he considered such nights a gift from God. When life is going well and our emotions are all positive ones, it is easy to believe in God and do His will. But take those crutches away, and will any faith in Him remain? Are we fair-weather friends to God? Do we love God for God, or selfishly?

Faith is not a leap in the dark. It is not a belief in the bizarre or absurd. It is the simple trust that God can be taken at His word. God loves you powerfully. That is a fact whether you feel it or not. Have faith, and one day — if not today — the facts and your feelings will meet, and you will see God “face to face” (1 Corinthians13:12).

P.S. This article is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

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:

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:

The Blessings of Believing | Luke 1:39-45


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:39–45

In Luke 1:39–56, the stories of Elizabeth’s and Mary’s miraculous conceptions intertwine when the two women meet. They are relatives, it turns out, and what could be more natural than family members sharing good news? It also helps that Elizabeth lives in the Judean hills, a far piece from little Nazareth; and young Mary no doubt needs a respite from the gossip about her pregnancy.

At their first encounter, Elizabeth says four things worth pondering:

First, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear” — literally, “the fruit of your womb.”

This line of Scripture makes an appearance in the Catholic rosary as the second line of the “Hail, Mary” prayer. But if Catholics pay too much attention to Mary, Protestants pay too little. Mary was uniquely blessed among women because she gave birth to the Son of God. We do a disservice to God’s Word when we fail to remember Mary with honor for her obedience to God, which played an important role in our own salvation. Had Jesus never been born, after all, He could not have possibly died on the cross for our sins or risen from the dead for our eternal life.

Second, “But why am I so favored, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?”

This is an astonishing question at two levels: (a) in traditional cultures, the young pay homage to the old, not the reverse, as is the case here; and (b) Elizabeth calls Mary “the mother of my Lord.” This is the first time — but certainly not the last — in which Jesus Christ’s coming into the world reverses traditional cultural patterns of relationships.

Third, “As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.”

That baby is John the Baptist, of course. This is the first time — but certainly not the last — that John will witness to the messiahship of his kinsman, Jesus.

And fourth, “Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!”

In my opinion, this is the key statement. None of us will ever be become the mother of the Son of God, like Mary. Elizabeth will never announce her favor at meeting us. John the Baptist will not leap for joy at our arrival. But the Lord will bless us if we believe His promises to us, just as He blessed Mary and Elizabeth.

 

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

The Songs of Christmas, Part 1

The Songs of Christmas, Part 2

The Songs of Christmas, Part 3

The Songs of Christmas, Part 4

The Songs of Christmas, Part 5