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:

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:

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

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.

An Outline of the Christian Faith, Part 4: Sovereignty (Revelation 1:8)


The word amen is Hebrew for “So be it!” We use it at the end of our prayers as an expression of hope that God will answer our requests. Used at the end of a doxology, however, the word has a different connotation. It is not so much an expression of hope as one of confidence: “It most definitely is!” rather than “So be it!”

The reason for the difference between the amen of hope and the amen of confidence is that in our ignorance, immaturity, and iniquity, we too often ask for things we should not have or cannot handle, at least not at the present moment. We hope for such things, but we are confident that God in his knowledge, wisdom, and holiness will always instead give us exactly what we need precisely when we need it.

Have you ever wondered why such hope and confidence are possible? Why we pray to God and praise his character? Earlier, I said that theology gives rise to doxology, faith to praise. But it is just as true that doxology directs us back to theology. We pray to and praise God because of who he is and what he does. Lex orandi, lex credendi: The law of prayer is the law of belief, as the early church often put it.

Revelation 1:8 turns from doxology to theology, from a word of praise to a word about God: “‘I am the Alpha and the Omega,’” says the Lord God, ‘who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” John repeats these expressions elsewhere in his Apocalypse.

Each of the phrases expresses God’s sovereignty. As Robert H. Mounce explains, “Alpha and Omega represent the Hebrew Aleph and Tau, which were regarded not simply as the first and last letters of the alphabet, but as including all the letters in between. Hence, the title sets forth God as the sovereign Lord over everything that takes place in the entire course of human history.”[i]

The doctrine of God’s sovereignty is the source of the Christian’s greatest comfort and deepest perplexity. It comforts us because “we know that for all who love God all things work together for good” (Rom. 8:28). Undoubtedly, the Christians in Roman Asia who first received John’s Revelation needed such comfort, which derives from a Latin word meaning “to give strength.” They needed strength to face the difficult days of imperial persecution that lay in their immediate future. Our days are differently difficult, but we need strength too. And so we pray.

God’s sovereignty is also the source of the Christian’s greatest perplexity, however, because we do not know how God accomplishes his will in the face of our rebellious willing. Scripture never solves the riddle of divine sovereignty and human will, probably because we would not comprehend the solution anyway. But it does call us to prayer and praise, to the submission of ourselves to God. For as our character and desires conform to his, our “So be it” gradually becomes his “It most definitely is!”

And for that, I think, we can all say a hearty “Amen!”

 

[i] Mounce, Revelation, 51–52.

Grace as Salvation and Spiritual Gift (Ephesians 3.7–13)


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SCRIPTURE READING

Ephesians 3.7–13:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

DEVOTIONAL THOUGHT

What is grace?

It is God’s unmerited favor toward sinners. God treats us better than we deserve. This is the kind of grace Paul has in mind when he writes, “by grace you have been saved” (Ephesians 2.5, 8). It includes all the love, acceptance, and forgiveness God gives us through Jesus Christ.

And yet, love, acceptance, and forgiveness do not exhaust the meaning of grace. In Ephesians 3.7–13, Paul writes about his mission to the Gentiles as a grace given to him:

Of this gospel I was made a minister according to the gift of God’s grace, which was given me by the working of his power. To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given, to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to bring to light for everyone what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places. This was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and access with confidence through our faith in him. So I ask you not to lose heart over what I am suffering for you, which is your glory.

With these words in mind, we can expand on our definition of grace. It is God’s unmerited favor toward sinners, and it is also his power at work in them to bless others. Consequently, when we speak of grace, we should speak of what God gives to us and what God gives through us. The former is salvation; the latter is a spiritual gift.

Notice several important truths about spiritual gifts:

  1. Their source is God. Paul writes about “the working of [God’s] power.” His words warn us about using our spiritual gifts without rooting them in spiritual disciplines, such as prayer and meditation, which keep us connected to our divine power source.
  2. They are highly individualized. Paul writes of the grace given “to me.” His spiritual gift was unique to him, just as your gift is unique to you.
  3. They require humility. Paul writes, “I am the very least of all the saints.” Some Christians get carried away with their own talents, and forget that their spiritual gift is also an undeserved divine favor. Paul never made that mistake.
  4. They promote enlightenment. All spiritual gifts demonstrate to a watching world “the unsearchable riches of Christ.” Some do this with words, others with actions. We should keep in mind here the saying attributed to St. Francis of Assisi: “Preach the gospel everywhere; when necessary, use words.”
  5. They require perseverance. Paul’s use of his spiritual gift brought him into conflict with the political and religious leaders of his day. But he willingly suffered because of the benefits that flowed from God through him to others. His “suffering” was their “glory.” Serving others is not always easy, but it is always worth the effort.

So, receive God’s grace. Then pass it along.

Of God, By God, For God (Ephesians 1.3–14)


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SCRIPTURE READING

Ephesians 1.3–14

DEVOTIONAL THOUGHT

After I proposed to Tiffany, we called everyone we knew to share our good news. We couldn’t stop talking about our engagement. After we got married, we couldn’t stop talking about how enjoyable our wedding and reception were. To this day, any mention of our wedding will spark a long, excited conversation between us. And why not? Good experiences should be talked about.

In Ephesians 1.3–14, Paul writes about salvation. But his words are not dry or academic. They are a Niagara Falls of praise, gushing forth excitedly and spilling over the boundaries of grammar and punctuation. The English Standard Version divides verses 3–14 into five complete sentences, the New International Version into eight, and the New Living Translation into fifteen. In Greek, verses 3–14 are one long sentence with 202 words. Paul simply cannot stop praising God, “who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.”

Tomorrow, I will write about “every spiritual blessing,” but today I would like to keep your attention focused on God. Why? Because we are constantly in danger of losing sight of the Giver for the gift. In verses 3–14, Paul mentions numerous spiritual blessings: We have been chosen by God, adopted into his family, forgiven of our sins, enlightened regarding God’s plan for the ages, given an eternal inheritance, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. It is easy to focus on these wonderful gifts. But isn’t the Giver most important? The wedding ring Tiffany gave me is quite valuable, but she’s the real prize. Just so, “every spiritual blessing” is good news, but God himself is the gospel. Paul keeps our attention focused on the Giver of “every spiritual blessing” in three ways.

First, he emphasizes that God initiates our salvation. In verse 4 we read, “He chose us…before the foundation of the world.” In verse 5, Paul writes, “He predestined us…according to the purpose of his will.” Verse 10 speaks of his “plan for the fullness of time.” And verse 11 mentions “having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” The language of choice, predestination, purpose, plan, counsel, and will reinforce the fact that our salvation is God’s decision.

Second, God accomplishes our salvation through his Son. Pay attention to these prepositional phrases: “in Christ” (verses 3, 9, 12), “in him” (verses 4, 7, 10, 11, 13), “through Jesus Christ” (verse 5), “in the Beloved” (verse 6), and “through his blood” (verse 7). Nearly every verse of Paul’s doxology points to Jesus Christ and his cross as the means of our salvation.

Third, God’s ultimate purpose in our salvation is his own glory. Notice the language of verse 6: “to the praise of his glorious grace.” And of verses 12 and 14: “to the praise of his glory.” At first glance, God’s ultimate purpose seems self-centered, as if he saves us so that we might toot his horn. But in reality, it is self-giving, for what God offers us is eternal joy with him. Always remember, God himself—and not merely his spiritual blessings—is the real gift of the gospel.

Our salvation is of God, by God, and for God, so let us praise him!

Liberator, Defender, Sacrifice (1 John 2:1-2)


Sin has a powerful grip on us humans, which we do not have the power to break free of. Only God has that kind of power. So how does he break the grip of sin on our lives? Answer: through the death of Jesus Christ.

We find a brief description of how God overcomes sin through Christ in 1 John 2:1-2:

My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense—Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

First, God announces his intention to overcome sin. When John says, “I write this to you so that you will not sin,” he is not merely stating his personal opinion. Rather, as an apostle of Jesus Christ, he is proclaiming a truth of the gospel. Indeed, according to 1 John 3:8, “He who does what is sinful is of the devil, because the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the devil’s work.” But Christ’s appearing was also constructive. According to 1 John 5:18, “We know that anyone born of God does not continue to sin; the one who was born of God [that is, Jesus] keeps him safe, and the evil one cannot harm him.”

From all this mention of the devil, you might conclude that the problem of sin is a problem of victimization. We are innocents who have been enslaved by an evil power. That is part of the biblical message. But the Bible also uses a legal metaphor to describe the problem of sin. We are criminal defendants—victimizers—who are guilty as charged, and God is the Judge in whose hands our sentence rests. Building on this legal metaphor, John writes that Jesus is “one who speaks to the Father in our defense.” Jesus Christ, in other words, is the advocate who makes the case for our innocence.

But how can Christ make a case for the innocence of his clients when they are patently guilty? It is here that John introduces a third metaphor, which is religious in nature. Jesus, he writes, is “the atoning sacrifice for our sins, not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.” In the ancient world, religious worship often included the sacrifice of an animal. The worshiper laid his hand on the animal’s head, symbolically transferring his guilt to it, and then the animal was killed in ritual punishment for the person’s sins. John uses this metaphor to describe what Jesus actually did. Through his death on the cross, Christ exchanged his innocence for our guilt so that we might get out from under the grip of sin.

In summary, Jesus Christ is our Liberator, Defender, and Sacrifice. That is how God overcomes the power of sin in our lives.

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