Monday, December 26, 2011

Incarnate Logos

John 1:1–18

John and the Other Three Gospels

John says nothing about when or where Jesus Christ was born, doesn’t mention his baptism or wilderness temptation. He says nothing about his transfiguration, the last supper, how he sweated blood the night he was arrested, his Sanhedrin trial, or his cry, “My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?”

Perhaps most important, John doesn’t record a single one of Jesus’ parables; rather, as the Word made flesh, his very life functioned like his parables. When he feeds a hungry crowd from a lad’s lunch bag, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry again” (John 6:35). When he raises Lazarus from the dead, he says, “I am the resurrection and the life. Anyone who believes in me will live, even after dying. Everyone who lives in me and believes in me will never ever die” (11:25–26). He said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won't have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (8:12). He said, “I am the gate. Those who come in through me will be saved. They will come and go freely and will find good pastures” (10:9). He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me” (14:6). Behind all this was his insistence, “The Father and I are one” (10:30). And that’s the reason John’s story begins not in Bethlehem but in the eternal past.

Jesus Christ the Eternal Word

John’s account starts out, “In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Because the Greek term for “word” is logos, some commentators want to put a philosophical twist on this. They say John describes Jesus as the embodiment of the rationalistic ideals of Greek thought. But the “Word” that John describes is clearly the “Word” of the Old Testament. The word that was spoken in creation day after day, which made it so. The word that came in many and varied ways through the prophets. Indeed, John continues his identification of the Logos this way: “God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone” (1:3–4).

By the Logos, God pronounced, “‘Let there be light,’ and there was light” (Gen 1:3). And following that same sovereign Logos, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it” (John 1:5). On the other hand, “He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him” (1:10). He even “came to his own people, and even they rejected him” (1:11).

That didn’t stop the Logos from achieving his purpose in becoming human and making his home among us (1:14). He came and revealed God to us (1:18). He came to give new life as children of God to all who believe him (1:12–13).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Has this path through history using the Jesse Tree helped you to see the Old Testament hopes that Jesus Christ fulfilled?
  • Has this path helped you see Jesus Christ, who revealed God to us? Don’t reject Jesus Christ, either by outright rejection or by passive neglect of his claims on your life. During this Christmas season renew you commitment to be a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Jesus' Birth

Luke 2:1–20

Born in Bethlehem, City of David

Think of the stress that Joseph and Mary must have been facing. They were not yet married but had a baby on the way, for which there was no explanation that would satisfy most gossips. It was Roman tax time and the Romans were calling everyone back to their family homes to pay up. So off they went to Bethlehem. Escape from their neighbors’ malicious gossip might have seemed a relief, but the trip would certainly have been bad time for a very pregnant Mary. The Romans had arranged it for tax purposes, but God had arranged it to fulfill messianic prophecy that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2).

It’s interesting to note how God went about sending out his birth announcements. He didn’t send them to the Jerusalem symphonic guild, but to shepherds who heard by angelic choir. He didn’t send them to the diplomatic elite in Jerusalem but to pagan magi from the east who came and let slip the nature of their mission so that Herod found out by round-about means.

The angelic choir told shepherds about this greatest of all sons in the Jesse Tree. This was going to be the Son who brought peace everywhere that God’s favor rested. So these shepherds went off and became the first gospel preachers. They told everyone the Gospel (“good news”).

We’re still hearing this good news, and perhaps even from unlikely sources. Perhaps you heard it from your own children who you sent to church rather than taking them yourselves. Perhaps you heard it in a radio broadcast even though you hardly ever listen to the radio. Perhaps you even heard it from some now-discredited preacher. But then the shepherds were hardly the likely voices for great imperial pronouncements about the King of kings. And what can we say of how the message came to the magi?

Perhaps even you could be a gospel messenger, spreading this good news. Certainly you should pass the good news on to your children, as you have been doing with this Jesse Tree this month. Perhaps you have others who would be your natural audience if you would only speak up with the good news.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • If you were a shepherd who had just heard that message, who would you meet in the next seven days? “The shepherds told everyone” (Luke 2:17), shouldn’t you?

Saturday, December 24, 2011

The Magi: Nations Come to the Christ Child

Records of Jesus’ time abound with notes of messianic hope, and eastern sages were roaming the region examining these messianic mysteries, and mostly coming up with a lot of baloney. On the one hand, Jewish historian Josephus wrote that “one from their country should become governor of the habitable earth” (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6.5.4). On the other hand, the Roman poet Virgil wrote his “Messianic Eclogue,” but this praised Caesar Augustus as “Savior of the World.” The first century a.d. Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “There was a firm persuasion… that at this very time the East was to grow powerful, and rulers coming from Judea were to acquire a universal empire” (Tacitus, Histories, 5.13). The second century a.d. Roman biographer Suetonius wrote, “There had spread all over the Orient and old and established belief, that it was fated at that time for men coming from Judea to rule the world” (Suetonius, Life of Vespasian, 4.5).

Matt 2:1–12

Historical Record

I suppose most of us have watched three little kids walk down the aisles in their bathrobes and paper crowns often enough that we don’t even wonder at this story of eastern sages visiting the Christ child after following a star. But the whole story ought to give us a bit of a pause. These guys weren’t prophets following the voice of God, they were eastern court advisers following a star.

That had sent the eastern magi on the prowl Seneca noted that magi had journeyed as far as Athens to sacrifice to the memory of the philosopher Plato (Seneca, Epistles, 58.31). Tiridates, King of Armenia, visited Nero in Rome and brought his magi along (Suetonius, Life of Nero, 13.1). So it should have been no real surprise that eastern astrologers might have their ears to the ground on this—or their eyes to the skies. They were expecting to hear of the birth of the world’s king.

But it is surprising to read in the New Testament that God helped them along. These magi were probably astrologers, which would normally lead us to identify them as charlatans at the least, and as occult agents at the worst. As court envoys from the east they would certainly have been trained not only in diplomatic protocol, but also in the occult studies that were in vogue in courts from Persia to Parthia. Extrabiblical tradition says they were from Persia, and Marco Polo named them as Baldassar, Gaspar, and Melchior and claimed to have seen the place where they were buried, “all three entire with their beards and hair.” So much for the historical record outside the Bible.

The Magi’s Worship

What is the significance of the magi in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth? They represent the kingdoms of this earth coming at the Nativity to pay homage to the Lord’s Messiah. They were paying fealty to “the king of the Jews” (Matt 2:2a), whom some thought would be the King of kings. These magis crossed Herod’s borders asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews?” Since Herod hadn’t brought his wife home from the maternity ward of Mount Sinai Medical Center, he quite naturally found this question a bit upsetting. These magi claimed, “We saw his star as it rose” (2:2b). Efforts to identify this astronomic phenomenon have all failed to develop a solid answer. Haley’s comet came through in 11 BC, about five years too early. Besides, it would take some quick-stepping camels to follow that streak across the sky. Some refer to a brilliant convergence of Jupiter and Saturn around 7 BC, which is a year or two early and would not have moved in such as way as to guide anyone anywhere. From 5 through 2 BC Serius, the dog star, kept showing up, but there’s no way to connect that with the magi either.

The magi may have bowed and scraped their way into Herod’s throne-room, but they said, “We have come to worship him”—not you (2:2b).

Herod’s Plot

The paranoid “King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this” (2:3). The very report of magi arriving from the east could have meant dangerous things afoot in the political realm. And these magi brought news of a potential rival to the throne of Judea. Was this some sort of intrigue against him that the Parthians were cooking up—after all, they were the Roman’s chief rivals for power in the region at that time. Maybe they were planning to throw their weight behind this “newborn king of the Jews”?

So Herod made some inquiries with his advisers, who pointed out that if there were any newborns who might claim the throne, they would have to come from David’s royal home town, as the prophet had foretold (2:4–6; see Mic 5:2). Herod ascertained the time that this birth must have occurred, and told him to go find that child and then report back to him so we could go and worship him too (2:7–8). Any wise men who believed that should have lost their “wise man” credentials.

The magi went on their way and stopped where the star indicated, in Bethlehem (2:9–11). They entered the palace where the holy family was living and “bowed down and worshiped” Jesus (2:11a). “Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts” (2:11b). Some gifts were gold, perhaps pointing to the royalty of this son of David. Some were incense, perhaps pointing to the divinity of this Son of God. And some were myrrh, perhaps point to the passion of the Lamb of God. Certainly all this fulfilled the psalmist’s promise: “The eastern kings of Sheba and Seba will bring him gifts. All kings will bow before him, and all nations will serve him” (Ps 72:10b–11).

What do we make of this? Two points come to mind:

God brought these pagans to the Messiah - God used what we would consider highly suspect means. He used a star. A Jew or an eastern sage could have seen this, but the magi would have interpreted it through the framework of pagan astrological omens. Notice that God also used an Old Testament prophecy, even though it was interpreted through the scholarly lens of degenerating Judaism. Matthew starts with this international tone and ends with the Great Commission to all nations (28:18). The story begins with a record of a Lord Jesus who is for all. Simple shepherds come to the birth site guided by angelic message; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth is won’t come. Pagan astrologers come to the birth site guided by their own astrological interpretation and borrowed Scripture interpretation; the religious elite who know by exegesis where the birth will be don’t come.

At the same time, Jesus was coming to his own but not being received - Today, much of the world is showing a new receptivity to the Word of God. At Jesus’ coming, the Scriptures were heard by two audiences, Jewish Scripture readers and pagan star readers. Ironically, it was the pagans who eagerly followed the Word once someone told them about it.

This story doesn’t teach us that God will meet the sincere seeker, no matter what their convictions might be. Some say, “God helps those who help themselves.” We will do better at understanding this story if we acknowledge that the magi sought Jesus Christ because God had already sought the magi. One commentator says, “The star, the people of God in Jerusalem, and their Holy Scriptures are the external means of grace used by God in bringing the magi to Christ” (F. D. Bruner). We should realize that anyone coming to Jesus Christ is coming at God’s bidding, whatever the means that God might use.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Note how useless the orthodox understanding of Scripture is if your heart isn’t prepared to respond to it in obedience and worship.
  • How will you react to the demands of the Messiah for worship. Will you set out an orthodox representation of those demands and then ignore them, or will you fumble your way to a flawed but sincerely stance of worship—will you be a disciple?
  • What will you do at the foot of the Christ-child this Christmas season? Will you truly celebrate Christmas by worshiping Jesus Christ; or will you profane it with mere celebration while you remain at the helm of your own fate. Will you bow the knew in obeisance to the King of kings and Lord of lords?

Friday, December 23, 2011

Joseph: Trusting God

Matt 1–2; Luke 2:41–51; 3:23–38

Mary had the tough role, but Joseph’s role in the birth of the Messiah wasn’t so comfortable either. Who would have blamed Joseph if he had done through with the divorce he was considering? And notice, this decent man had been planning to do all that he could to avoid embarrassing Mary publicly (Matt 1:19).

A angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and gave him pretty much the same explanation that Gabriel had given Mary: This has been conceived by the Holy Spirit, not by some other man. Here’s the name you’re supposed to give him: “Jesus.” And all of this fulfills Isaiah’s prophecy of the “Immanuel” child (Matt 1:20–23, see Isa 7:14). So, “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (Matt 1:20).

“When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus” (Matt 1:24–25). And thus he shouldered a heavy responsibility. He took his very pregnant fiance off to Bethlehem when taxes came due. Sat by while she gave birth and began receiving visitors from near and afar. He must have wondered at all the royal imagery that the wise men from the east signified with their precious gifts. “I’m just a Galilean carpenter. What’s this they’re saying about our son?”

The next time the Lord sent him a message in a dream was to tell him, Take the boy and his mother, and run for your lives. Herod’s in a slaughtering rage trying to kill all the little boys who might prove to be a Messiah and claim his throne. So Joseph pulled up stakes and ran for Egypt until he saw Herod’s name the International Herald Tribute obituary pages. Then the headed home.

In one sense, Jesus must have given them an easy ride as parents. This one who was God made flesh probably didn’t get into trouble with drugs and girls—I doubt if he even threw spitballs in class or got after-school detentions for pulling the girls’ pigtails. On the other hand, how easy could it have been for simple trades people from the hills to raise the King of kings and Lord of lords. They would head off to the temple, and Jesus would hunt up the scholars for intense Scripture discussions that would have sailed way over their heads. Mary and Joseph would exchange stories, and one of them would bring up Simeon’s blessing: “And a sword will pierce your very soul” (Luke 2:35).

Matthew’s genealogy traces Jesus ancestry through Mary, who was the mother of the Christ child. Luke’s doesn’t blush to trace Jesus’ line back from Joseph, even though he didn’t sire the child himself. Joseph must have served as a loving and faithful husband to Mary and father to Jesus, but he fades out of the Gospel story early on. Only the apocryphal works provide any detailed history of Joseph’s subsequent life and death. But heaven must have a warm welcome prepared for this faithful and humble servant to put aside his own dignity to protect Mary’s, laid aside his own paternal rights in obedience to heaven’s call, and loved his God, his wife, and his Son.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Compare and contrast the openness of Mary and Joseph to God’s guidance with your own receptivity to God’s call.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


Luke 1:26-38, 46-56

Jesus’ Birth Foretold (Luke 1:26–38)

The angel Gabriel announced the birth of Jesus to Mary. He came to a Galilean village named Nazareth (Luke 1:26), to the virgin Mary who was promised in marriage to Joseph, “a descendant of King David” (1:27). Gabriel said, “Greetings, favored woman. The Lord is with you!” (1:28), which left Mary “confused and disturbed” about what that might mean (1:29).

When Gabriel explained the “favor” in terms of pregnancy it only increased her confusion and concern: “But how can this happen! I am a virgin” (1:34). Gabriel explained how it would come about, and what her child would become. How: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (1:35a). Result: “The baby to be born will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God” (1:35b), “He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” (1:32–33).

Unlike Zechariah, who responded with incredulity to the angel’s announcement, Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true” (1:38). Indeed, when her aged relative Elizabeth met her, she said, “You are blessed because you believed what the Lord would do what he said” (1:45). One wonders what Gabriel must have thought, the great plan of God rests with a simple village girl!

Jesus’ Birth Extolled (Luke 1:46–56)

Mary responded to Elizabeth with a great song of praise for the Lord. One can imagine many other responses. Many girls would have fallen into deep depression, worrying about how this would ruin her reputation and put the jinx on her upcoming wedding. This belly won’t fit in my wedding dress—and Joseph won’t stand for this. One would almost expect to hear a litany of lengthy prayers asking God what was up with this plan. One can imagine her echoing Habakkuk’s words: “I will wait to see what the Lord says and how he will answer my complaint” (Hab 2:1). But Mary moved from instant obedience to insistent praise.

“Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!” (Luke 1:46–27). Rather than complain, God what have you done to me, she said, “He took notice of his lowly servant girl” (1:48a). She could only do this because she had complete faith in the message of the Lord that Gabriel had delivered. She may have feared that neighbors would talk, but she also knew “all generations will call me blessed” (1:48b). She kept focusing on what God was doing, now on how she was sacrificing. She didn’t reluctantly agree, “God can do this thing through me”; rather, she said, “He has done great things for me” (1:49b).

In fact, she didn’t even exult merely in her personal experience. She praised God for what he had been doing down through the generations, how he was keeping the patriarchal promise that had first been activated with Abraham (1:50–55). She recognized that what was coming to shape in her belly was God’s plan for the salvation of Israel and the world. And she praised God.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • At this Christmas season we can thank God for Mary’s ready obedience, and we should call her “blessed above all women” (Luke 1:42).

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Zechariah & Elizabeth: Hopeful Anticipation

Luke 1:5–25, 67–80

Birth of John the Baptist Foretold (Luke 1:5–25)

Around the time of Jesus’ birth to the young maiden Mary, God provided another miraculous birth, this time to an aged and barren relative of Mary’s. The old couple were Zechariah and Elizabeth, a priestly family. Following a pattern that the Old Testament developed several times to keep God’s covenant moving, God promised a miraculous birth to a barren couple. This had happened with the patriarchs and their wives and with Samson. And it would happen again most miraculously with Mary.

Zechariah was a priest serving his rota in the temple. Standing at the incense altar he heard God’s promise of a son to him and his aged wife. God gave him orders about naming the child “John,” and about committing him to something like the Nazirite vow (1:15a). God then promised, “He will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even before his birth” (1:15b), a promise that echoed the promise about prophets and deliverers (Judg 13:5, 7; Isa 49:1; Jer 1:5). Of course, Zechariah had some trouble getting his mind around that idea, just as Abraham and Sarah had when they were told their days in the nursing home would be livened by the birth of a child. And because Zechariah had a difficult time believing it, God promised him a sign: “You will be silent and unable to speak until the child is born” (Luke 1:20).

When Zechariah got off duty as a priest he went home and slept with his wife. At their age, Elizabeth may have found even that a bit of a surprise. And imagine her amazement when she got pregnant. I don’t know whether morning sickness or a big belly gave her the first clues, since there wouldn’t have been any missed periods to give the first alert. Of course, Zechariah’s frantic scribbling may have passed the news to her—perhaps on the night the gray, wrinkled couple conceived John in geriatric intimacy.

Before either John or Jesus were born, their mothers visited each other, and rejoiced at the thing that God was doing in their families. In fact the greeting of Mary, who was bearing Jesus in her womb, provoked quite a response. “At the sound of Mary’s greeting, Elizabeth’s child leaped within her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit” (Luke 1:41). The result was a brief prophecy: “God has blessed you above all women, and your child is blessed” (1:42). Under that same Spirit she identified Mary as “the mother of my Lord” (1:43). And she blessed Mary, “You are blessed because you believed that the Lord would do what he said” (1:45).

Birth of John the Baptist (Luke 1:57–66)

In due course, Elizabeth gave birth to a baby boy, to much rejoicing. When it came time to circumcise and name the child, the announced his name as “John,” which surprised everyone (Luke 1:60, 63). They could have been expecting Zechariah Jr. or the name of some favorite uncle or granddad. But this one belonged to the Lord not to his aged parents. “Awe fell on the whole neighborhood” (1:65) and news spread”

The question arose: “What will this child turn out to be?” (1:66).

Zechariah’s Prophecy (Luke 1:67–80)
The Holy Spirit not only opened Zechariah’s mouth after he properly named the child John. He was also “filled with the Holy Spirit” and prophesied (1:67), by way of answering the people’s question (1:66). Zechariah’s prophecy was actually twofold: It told of the coming Savior that God was sending (1:68–75), and he said his own son John would be a prophet preaching to prepare the way for that Savior (1:76–79; see Mal 3:1; 4:5; Isa 40:3–5).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • None of us ought to expect to place ourselves in the shoes of Zechariah, Elizabeth, and the Virgin Mary. They were people that God chose to act through and advance redemptive history in unique ways. But their response to promise, whether in incredulity or belief, can exhort us to respond with faith when God calls on us in our own humble service.
  • None of us ought to expect that our child is a John the Baptist, to say nothing of a Christ. But these mothers raised their sons to be used of God according to his promise. Commit yourself to raising your child in such a way that they will be open to serving God. And encourage them to do it when the times come for them to act on God’s call.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Haggai: Prophet of a Glorious Temple

Hag 2:1–9

It’s Now or Never (Hag 1:1–15, August 520 BC)

The people were back in the land after seventy years of exile, but the desert was not bursting into flower like they might have expected from reading Isaiah. Instead, the desert was creeping up on their farmland, as one drought year pulled into line behind another. Amos had diagnosed the sinful cause of this three centuries earlier, but no one had listened then. Now Haggai saw the same pattern and made the same diagnosis that Amos had made: It was divine rebuke (Hag 1:1–11). And Haggai’s audience listened and began to set things right (1:12–15).

Take Heart and Get to Work (Hag 2:1–9, October 520 BC)

Haggai acknowledged that the temple they were working on was a humble affair compared with the lavish temple of Solomon (2:3). But he assured them of God’s promise that the rebuilt temple would experienced unequaled glory and peace (2:6–9). So the people needed to get to work on it (2:4–5).

God promised, “I will shake all the nations, and the treasures of all the nations will be brought to this Temple” (2:7a). Egyptian plunder had financed the Hebrew wilderness trip and helped them build their wilderness tabernacle. The wealth of the nations was flowing through Solomon’s imperial coffers when he built the former temple. This community of returned exiles was poor, but their temple would be financed by international money, because it ultimately belonged to God. Indeed, shortly after Haggai’s prophecy, the Persians order the temple opponents to pay the full cost of rebuilding Israel’s temple (Ezra 6:8–12). And later on, the half-breed king Herod the Great and his successors would lavish wealth on the temple of Jesus’ time.

God promised, “The future of this Temple will be greater than its past glory” (Hag 2:9). Under the Herods this became true even as an architectural matter. But most importantly, it was to a rebuilt temple that the Lord of the temple eventually came (Matt 12:6). Indeed, he came an superseded the temple built by human hands, the temple built of merely stone. In other words, Haggai’s prophecy resonated with the same kind of great end-time hopes that Isaiah expressed (Isa 2:2–5).

Promise and Prediction (Hag 2:10–23, August 520 BC)

Haggai had warned how rapidly sin spread (2:10–14), and told them the poor harvests were the result of disobedience (2:15–17). But Haggai said, blessings would come as the people obeyed God and rebuilt the temple (2:18–19).

Finally, he gave a strong message of assurance for “Zerubbabel the governor of Judah” (2:20–23). God would shake heaven and earth, judging the nations and eliminating hostility to his people, his temple, and his kingdom on earth (2:20–22). Zerubbabel was Jehoichin’s grandson, so people were looking in his direction to see what God would do by way of restoring the Davidic dynasty that he represented. But Zerubbabel was only serving as a Persian appointee to rule a small backwater community within a larger district within the vast Persian empire. God told him “I will make you like a signet ring on my finger,… for I have chosen you” (2:23). Zerubbabel disappeared in a few years without notice of his fate, but in him the Davidic line had been renewed in Jerusalem. Even today, a Hanukkah hymn contains these words:

Well nigh had I perished,
when Babylon’s end drew near;
through Zerubbabel I was saved
after seventy years.

The fulfillment of all the promised of the renewed Davidic line would occur in Jesus Christ, but Zerubbabel was a signal that the dynasty still had a future to be realized in God’s good time.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Do you ever get discouraged at the small things on which you’re working, even though you keep hearing about the great kingdom of God? Commit yourself to “get to work” on your assignment in the kingdom of God, and let God take care of filling it with glory in his own time and way.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Jeremiah: Prophet of Judgment and Renewal

Jer 8:18–9:1; 31:31–34

Jeremiah’s Despair over Judah (Jer 8:18–9:1)

Jeremiah had the unpopular task of making the Lord’s legal case against his people. Even at his call, God had told him, “You will stand against the whole land—the kings, officials, priests, and people of Judah” (Jer 1:18). But God continued, “They will fight you, but they will fail. For I am with you, and I will take care of you” (1:19). He had to tell Judah, “No amount of soap or lye can make you clean” (2:22); “you will be led into exile” (2:37); “Even faithless Israel is less guilty than treacherous Judah!” (3:11).

Jeremiah wanted to intercede for his people, so the Lord told him, “Run up and down every street in Jerusalem.… Look high and low; search throughout the city! If you can find even one just and honest person, I will not destroy the city” (5:1). So judgment was coming, in the form of invasion and exile.

Jeremiah said, “My grief is beyond healing…. I hurt with the hurt of my people.… If only my head were a pool of water and my eyes a fountain of tears, I would weep day and night for all my people who have been slaughtered” (8:18, 21; 9:1). He prayed, “Is there no medicine in Gilead? Is there no physician there? Why is there no healing for the wounds of my people?” (8:22). This was all about the near future that Jeremiah could see.

Jeremiah’s Hope for Israel (Jer 31:31–34)

But Jeremiah could also see far in the distant future of God’s people. God promised, “I will restore the fortunes of my people of Israel and Judah” (30:3). “My people will serve the Lord their God and their king descended from David—the king I will raise up for them” (30:9). For the present, “Your wound is incurable.… I have wounded you cruelly, as though I were your enemy. For your sins are many and your guilt is great” (30:12, 14). I will restore heal (30:17), but not yet. “The fierce anger of the Lord will not diminish until it has finished all he has planned” (30:24).

But things would change. The original covenant promise had been, “I will be your God” (Gen 17:7; Exod 6:7; Lev 11:45; 22:33; 25:38; 26:12; Num 15:41; Ps 146:10; Isa 46:4; Jer 7:23; 11:4; 30:22; Ezek 36:28). “In that day” the Lord would renew that relationship: “I will be the God of all the families of Israel, and they will be my people” (Jer 31:1). Those who eventually “survive the coming destruction” (31:2) would celebrate restoration (31:2–30).

Jeremiah described something far greater than just a return to the original covenant arrangements: “‘The days are coming,’ says the Lord, ‘when I will make a new covenant with the people of Israel and Judah’” (31:31). The promise of the new covenant was the same, but the Lord said, “This covenant will not be like the one I made with their ancestors.… They broke that covenant” (31:32). The difference would not be in the promised, but in the people’s power to sustain their life in the covenant. “‘This is the new covenant I will make with the people of Israel on that day,’ says the Lord, ‘I will put my instructions deep within them, I will write them on their hearts’” (31:33a–b). This would finally correct the fault Jeremiah kept finding in God’s people: hearts that were stubborn (3:17; 7:24; 9:14; 11:8; 13:10; 16:12; 18:12; 23:17), uncircumcised (4:4; 9:26), and desperately wicked (4:4; 17:9). Jeremiah described this as “circumcision” of the heart (4:4), an act which even the Law had promised (Deut 10:16; 40:6) but which came only with the work of Jesus Christ (Rom 2:29). It would only be this radical change that truly empowered God’s people to observe God’s law (Deut 30:8; Ezek 11:20; 36:27).

But as I said, the covenant promise remained the same: “I will be their God, and they will be my people (31:33c). And it didn’t entail a new law; it was the same law that Jeremiah repeatedly accused them of breaking (Jer 6:19; 9:13; 16:11; 26:4; 44:10). What would have changed is their inner commitment to the Law, which would only come with the new heart and new life in Christ Jesus (Jer 24:7; 32:39).

When that time came, the people would no longer need priests and scribes to teach and enforce the law. Instead, “‘Everyone, from the least to the greatest, will know me already,’ says the Lord.” (31:34a). This is the Holy Spirit taught condition that Isaiah also prophesied (Isa 54:13), Jesus described (John 6:45; 17:6), Paul spoke of (2 Cor 4:6), Hebrews described (Heb 8:10–11), and John promised his audience (1 John 2:20; 5:20).

Thanks be to God, that promise of a new heart has come in the regenerating work of Jesus Christ (Heb 8:10; 10:16). And the reason God can say, “I will never again remember their sins” (Jer 31:34) is that Jesus Christ has made the final sacrifice, so that “there is no need to offer any more sacrifices” (Heb 10:18).

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • What better response to this branch of the Jesse Tree than to guide your children toward the one who would give them the “new heart” and enable them to follow God’s will. Guide your children in a prayer for the gift of a new heart.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Messianic Light to the Nations

Isa 9:1–7

Yesterday we saw Isaiah leading all of Hezekiah’s court and temple personnel in prayer for deliverance and prophesying the downfall of their enemy. Today’s reading shows him prophesying that God would raise up his ultimate deliverer in Jesus Christ, who will rule the world.

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light” (Isa 9:2; Matt 4:16)

Sin darkens life with the very shadow of death, and salvation can be described as coming into the light (Eph 5:8, 13–14; 1 Pet 2:9; 1 John 1:5–7). One way of talking about the coming of the Messiah was to say, “the morning light from heaven is about to break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Luke 1:78–29a; see John 12:35, 46). This light was the light at the end of the tunnel of slavery and foreign oppression (Isa 9:3–5), but the light was not only for Israel. Jesus was “a light to reveal God to the nations” (Luke 2:32). Indeed, Jesus Christ came claiming, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life” (John 8:12).

“For a child is born to us, a son is given to us” (Isa 9:6a)

This was to come not through the birth of a child, a “son” after the fashion of Psalm 2:7. He would be God’s own son and a son in Israel, a son from the line of David whom God himself would call “my son.”

He will be given great titles (Isa 9:6b–7)

I suppose the first thing to note is that we have four not five titles. I’ve sat in a fair number of Christmas programs and heard: “He will be called ‘Wonderful’, ‘Counselor’, ‘Mighty God’, ‘Everlasting Father’, and ‘Prince of Peace’,” which has followed the older translations (e.g., KJV, ASV). But the first of these titles is “Wonderful Counselor,” not just the unattached adjective “Wonderful.”

Wonderful Counselor - I like the NET Bible’s rendition of this as “Extraordinary Strategist.” In the ancient Near East, the office of counselor was often attached to the palace, and it could even be a royal title in its own right (Mic 4:9). Certainly it took on messianic scope (Isa 11:2). He would rule God’s people wisely.

Mighty God - Perhaps in Isaiah’s own context it indicated that the coming king would be the warrior God’s own representative (e.g., Ps 45:6), much as the sign child born in Ahaz’s time could be called “Immanuel” (Isa 7:14). Certainly the New Testament’s use of this saw it as an indication of the messianic king’s deity. Certainly, even for Isaiah himself, the understanding would have been that fighting against this king was fighting against the Lord himself (see Ps 2:2).

Everlasting Father - We shouldn’t misunderstand this title as collapsing the Jesus’ sonship into fatherhood; the New Testament clearly portrays the Son and the Father as separate persons. Rather, this symbolic use of “father” portrays the messianic king as a protector of his people, just as we see elsewhere (e.g., Isa 22:21; Job 29:16). The qualifying adjective “everlasting” would be especially appropriate to the one who inherited the eternal Davidic promise (2 Sam 7:1–18; 1 Chr 17:1–15).

Prince of Peace - This title depicts the messiah as one who establishes the kind of security and strong position for his people that ensures their reliable well-being. The Hebrew term shalom doesn’t indicate just the absence of strife; rather, it indicates a strong and secure position wherein the benefits of the kingdom of God are ensured and enjoyed in comfort. Indeed, this sometimes comes about through messianic warfare to subdue all enemies (Pss 72; 144).

He would inherit the throne of his ancestor David. This would be the ultimate branch of the Jesse Tree, the ultimate fulfillment of every promise and hope that belonged to the Davidic dynasty.

This memorable promise was not forgotten. When Jesus Christ was born, they realized that this was the wonderful child that Isaiah had promised (Luke 1:78–79). A child—indeed—but the Mighty One come to give his people light and peace.

Questions, Reflections, and Commitments

  • Do you think you would have believed an old priest if you had been there to hear him tell people that this baby was the almighty messiah king? (Luke 1:67–79) What does your answer to yourself tell you about how open you are to God?