“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.

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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:

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

Responding to God with Simple Faith | Luke 1:26-38


Today’s Scripture reading:Luke 1:26–38

Luke pairs the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5–25) with the story of Mary so that, among other things, we can compare and contrast them for our spiritual benefit.

Let’s begin with the comparisons. In both cases, the angel Gabriel announces the imminent birth of a baby boy who will play a decisive role in Israel’s history (and in the world’s). In both cases, the conception is miraculous, either because Elizabeth is barren or because Mary is a virgin. And in both cases, the women experience God’s blessing upon them.

The NIV uses one word, favor, of both Elizabeth (Luke 1:25) and Mary (verse 30), but in Greek, there are two different words: epeidon (“to consider”) and charis (“grace”). Both words connote God’s favorable disposition toward Elizabeth and Mary. Interestingly, Luke also uses charis to describe God’s blessing on Jesus’ childhood (Luke 2:40,52).

Now, consider the contrasts:

  • Zechariah and Elizabeth are old; Mary is young.
  • They are married; she is an unmarried virgin.
  • They live in Judea, near Jerusalem; she lives far north in Nazareth of Galilee.
  • They are priestly; she is a peasant.
  • Zechariah doubts. Mary believes.

That last contrast is the important one. Staring an angel in the face, Zechariah doubted the good news. Staring at the same angel with similar good news, Mary believed. By pairing Zechariah and Elizabeth so closely with Mary, Luke shows us the importance of simple faith.

Over the years, based on my theological reading and experience with Christians of different denominations, I have come to believe that Catholics place too much emphasis on Mary and Protestants not enough. Some time ago, one of the networks aired a two-part docudrama on the life of Pope John Paul II, for whom I have great respect. Just after being elected pope, John Paul II prayed, “Totus tuus, ego sum,” which is Latin for “I am wholly yours.” And he said that to Mary! Despite my admiration for the late pope, I cannot help but think that this is fundamentally wrong. We are wholly Christ’s alone, in my judgment. That does not preclude loyalties to other Christians, but it does preclude total loyalty.

On the other hand, Protestants give Mary little credit. Perhaps as an overreaction to Catholics, we downplay her role in the story of our own salvation. Think of it this way. Without Jesus dying on a cross for our sins and rising from the dead three days later, we cannot be saved. But Jesus could not have died or risen again without being human, and being human requires birth. So Jesus could not have been born without Mary. And Mary could not have given birth unless she had given assent to becoming “the Lord’s servant” (verse 38). Therefore, to a certain degree, the progress of the gospel hinged on whether Mary said “Yes” or “No” to the angel’s announcement.

But isn’t that just what salvation is all about — the grace (charis) of God calling out for a response of faith? The progress of the gospel in us, it turns out, also hinges on whether we say “Yes” or “No” to God’s grace.

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

Struggling with Disappointment and Doubt | Luke 1:8-23


Today’s Scripture reading: Luke 1:8–23

The singing season of Christmas begins in the silence of a childless home. It becomes even quieter with the doubts of Zechariah.

While Zechariah is offering incense to God in the temple, an angel appears to him and tells him that he and Elizabeth will soon give birth to a son to be named John. According to the angel, this son “will go on before the Lord, in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the parents to their children and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous — to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (verse 17).

The angel’s words allude to Malachi 4:5–6, which foretells the ministry of a prophet “before that great and dreadful day of the Lord comes.” John is that prophet. (And Jesus Christ is the Lord!)

You might think that the angel’s good news would fill Zechariah with joy. Instead, when the angel appears, Zechariah is “gripped with fear” (Luke 1:12). This seems to be the natural reaction of human beings to heavenly beings (see Luke 1:29–30 and 2:9–10, for example). But Zechariah’s fear gives way to doubt. Here’s how Luke describes Zechariah’s reaction to the angel’s message: “Zechariah asked the angel, ‘How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.’”

Have you ever struggled with disappointment and doubt? Have you ever wished that God would part the clouds and send a message directly to you, to comfort you in your situation? Many of us seem to think that we would have more faith in God if only He were a bit more forthcoming about His existence and plan for our lives.

Zechariah’s encounter with the angel Gabriel dispels such illusions. Through Gabriel, God spoke directly to Zechariah. He spoke directly to the issue of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness. He offered hope not only to them, but to all Israel (and to us as well). But Zechariah doubted anyway. And so, the angel struck him silent.

Why did Zechariah doubt? Because he put greater faith in earthly realities than in heavenly revelation. He trusted his experience more than God’s message. He believed that childlessness was his lot in life, even when an angel from heaven told him otherwise. Reason told him that he and his wife could not have a son, but reason did not factor God into the equation and so became irrational.

God speaks good news to us as well. Let us believe his Word, so that our silent fears and doubts may give way to joyful song.

 

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

 

Silent Beginnings | Luke 1:5-7


Today’s scripture reading: Luke 1:5–7

Christmas is a singing season. Its catalogue of music includes an A to Z of joyous, hopeful tunes, both sacred and secular. Every song from “Away in a Manger” to “White Christmas” finds its proper place in this holiday season.

The singing began early with the events surrounding Jesus’ birth some 2,000 years ago. In his Gospel, Luke records the original songs of Christmas. They are best known by their Latin titles: “Magnificat,” “Benedictus,” “Gloria,” and “Nunc Dimittis.” Throughout this holiday season, I will be writing about these songs and the events that inspired them by taking a close look at Luke 1:5–2:52.

Although Christmas is a singing season, Luke begins his narrative of Christ’s birth with silence — specifically, the silence of a godly home without children. In biblical Israel, a large family was seen as evidence of God’s blessing, but childlessness was a source of shame (Luke 1:25).

The childless silence of Zechariah and Elizabeth’s home teaches us two things. First, in this life, obedience and blessing are not always linked. Luke emphasizes that both Zechariah and Elizabeth are devout Jews, not just in the eyes of other people, but “in the sight of God” himself (verse 6). Their childlessness is not a result of any sin or lack of faith on their part. On occasion, I hear of well-meaning Christians who tell sick people that an unconfessed sin or a lack of faith is the cause of their illness. But neither sin nor faithlessness explains Zechariah and Elizabeth’s childlessness here. In the providence of God — and for that reason alone — these godly people have no children.

Second, salvation begins when we recognize our utter need for God’s intervention. Luke tells us not only that Zechariah and Elizabeth did not have children, he tells us that they could not have children. Childbearing was beyond their ability, due to infertility and their advanced age. They could not have a child unless the Lord performed a miracle.

And so, the Christmas story begins with the forlorn silence of a childless home, of godly people who cannot have children. Why does Luke begin the Christmas story with Zechariah and Elizabeth? I see at least two reasons. First, He wants us to see a model of true godliness. Zechariah and Elizabeth worship God for His own sake, not for their own sake. They love God regardless of whether doing so results in this-worldly blessing. And second, Luke wants to show us our need. Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, we bring nothing to the table in our relationship with God. He alone works the miracle of salvation.