THOUGHTS ON THE CELEBRATION OF JESUS’ BIRTH

For those who believe in The historical reality of Jesus, the fact that He was born comes as no great revelation. Toward the end of every year, this reality gets a special boost as the subject becomes so unavoidable even the most ardent skeptic finds no escape. From the endless stream of increasingly cheesy movies to majestic, solemn cathedral presentations, Jesus’ birth hits much of the world right between the eyes!

This poses an interesting and awkward dilemma for many of us who ardently believe in the birth of the Christ. Those of us holding a restorationists point of view seek to take a fresh look at the nature of Christianity and revisit the revival of a completely biblical point of view in all we do.

On the matter of celebrating the birth of Christ, may of us may therefore feel somewhat  conflicted. We don’t want to throw cold water on efforts to honor the birth of Jesus. Nevertheless, we correctly declare that we neither know when Jesus was born nor have authority to bind any particular day for the celebration of His birth.

In this quest for biblical authority, however, we must not inadvertently slight the amazing fact of the incarnation. As with any biblical truth, we are privileged to praise and celebrate all God’s blessings any day of the year. Jesus was born and that is most worthy of praise and celebration at any and all times!

This post is therefore not another call to put Christ back in Christmas. My sights are set on much more expansive territory. I’m calling for a movement to put Christ back in Christianity.

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HELPING IN TODAY’S CULTURAL CLIMATE

Helping people in need is imminently biblical. This is not even open for any rational discussion. Nevertheless, at the risk of being completely misunderstood, I want to address a matter of priority that seems to need clarification. I enter this post with caution, trepidation, and uneasiness, yet enter I will.

Though I am usually well behind most folks when trends dawn on me, eventually awareness makes its way into my head. Of late, a shift towards what was once styled the “Social Gospel” strikes me as an emphasis making a comeback. In the company of this return, I also sense a growing ascetic spirit floating around.

I get it that our culture in America is significantly materialistic and I also realize the need to do regular self-analyses to discover if I have become possessed by my possessions. As a Christian, these are not small matters. The Bible has much to say in this area. However, I think I see a baby headed out the window with its bath water in this one.

Maybe I am simply justifying that I have stuff. I have not sold my stuff to feed and house the unfortunate, though I have spent considerable time and money helping people in need. Not only that, I do not believe such a virtual total divesting of my stuff is supposed to be the defining mark of my Christianity. I do not believe Jesus came primarily to feed people and make them well. He could have done both of these things to every person in Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, but He did not. What He did do was preach and teach as many people as He could about matters tied to eternity.

Yes, we should share our blessings. A lack of compassion cannot walk in fellowship with the Good News about Jesus. Yet, the Great Commission is about salvation. Granted, compassion can and will open doors, but only the Gospel can open the doors of Hades to free its captives (Rev. 1:18). Well fed and housed lost people eventually die without Jesus (cf. Jn. 6:49).

I don’t intend to be guilted into a quick fix “Christianity” that either substitutes being kind for speaking a good word for Jesus or liquidating my possessions for proclaiming truth. I reiterate; Jesus saves! Churches are groups of people primarily in the business of growing in Christ-likeness so they may help the lost become saved.

I appreciate congregations, such as the one I attend, which have very well thought out assistance initiatives. But, pardon what may seem to some as mere self-justification, let Christians in their compassionate sharing be known without apology for talking to people about the Christ.

 

THE WAY OF THE CROSS

It has been observed by many that Christianity involves the united concepts of Cross and Kingdom. N. T. Wright, in particular, has had many useful things to say about this inseparable combination. Church history, however,  has often severed the two, much to the detriment of Christianity.

If the Cross becomes a virtual “stand alone,” the life Jesus so powerfully exhibited in the Gospels becomes largely lost to the arena of everyday life. A reductionism sounding something like, “Jesus died and was resurrected and I am saved, hurry up Heaven,” results. People enter a holding-pattern just trying to wait out life so they can get out of here. A life Jesus intended to reflect both His values and the salvation/hope He won come to be hidden to those who most need to see them (Matt. 5:14-16; Jn. 13:34-35; Rom. 8:29).

Conversely, when , for all practical purposes, the Kingdom’s agenda for daily living pushes aside the atonement of the Cross, a form of social gospel develops separated from the power of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Right living as a virtual end in itself then isolates itself from the only true validation for a sanctified life (Rom. 6:20-22; Lk. 17:5-10).

By combining Cross and Kingdom, the full story is revealed. Then, both Jesus’ life and death/resurrection are released to cover the earth with  an influential example of Christ-like values and a manifestation of the power of God for salvation.

Currently, in the culture of the United States, many of those seeking to represent the Christ have, often with an apparent unawareness, fallen into an incomplete portrayal of the fullness of Christianity. Wagons are circled by some as they eagerly examine world events hoping they will testify that the end is near. Such positions often come to make the world an enemy to be avoided more than a group of people wandering like lost sheep in need of rescue. Others who, in principle, develop a similar distorted Kingdom view, largely ignore the world and take comfort in their fortresses of sacraments and religious lists, hoping bad things will somehow just go away if they behave like good people.

Alongside this inadequate, virtual escapism is an equally troubling, unbalanced engagement in repairing our world through primarily temporal “fixes” doomed to gain, at best, limited, inadequate results. The Cross, though mentioned in such expressions, comes to play a secondary role to human involvement. As a for-instance, politics, while an unavoidable aspect of American culture and political involvement certainly being a potentially useful exercise, at the end of the day, politics is not attached to a cross. Kingdom culture can and has thrived amid grossly immoral and unjust political systems. The power of the Kingdom is that, being tied to the Cross, it can triumph even in death. Our light must not be darkened by passions that appear to burn brighter over things destined to perish in the end.

The solution is a Cross-centered, Kingdom life. The Bible instructs and history confirms, when Cross and Kingdom unite in their mutually complimentary, divine partnership, the world has the opportunity to see what is vital to its victory (Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21-23; Gal. 6:14). In  seeing this, there is both a greater hope for more changed hearts in the decisions affecting this life as well as a greater expectation for more souls won for eternity.

The Gift of the Holy Spirit and The Promise

A PROMISED GIFT

           In Acts 2:38b-39, the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is referenced and directly connected to the promise made to the Jews and all people God would call. The fulfillment of the promise was associated with the earliest preaching of the Gospel to the Jews (Acts 3:25). The Promise was fulfilled in Christ (Gen. 22:17-18; Gal. 3:16). However, though fulfilled, the significance of the Promise is not inactive today.

            The promise God made to Abraham is clearly and inseparably tied to our inheritance in Christ (Gal. 3:13-19; Rom. 4:13-16; 8:15-17; 9:8). The “gift of the Holy Spirit” is equally attached to both the promise and our inheritance (Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 8:16-17; Gal. 3:14, 18-19; Rom. 4:13-16; Eph. 1:13-14; I Cor. 2:12; Gal. 4:4-7; Acts 20:32; 26:18).

            The promise has been kept and its influence is truly amazing. We are children of the King of all creation (I Jn. 3:1). The “down-payment” or “earnest” or “pledge” of our inheritance became ours when we became Christians (Eph. 1:14; II Cor. 1:22). For all faithful Christians  the blessings of the promise to Abraham are as sure as God and the finished work of His Son (II Cor. 18-22). These blessings have been revealed by the Spirit Himself rather than by the mere words of men (I Cor. 2:10-12).

            Incredibly, the full greatness of the Promise has yet to be realized. Heaven will reveal what now is seen only through analogies to our temporal world. The complete realization of the promise is indescribable (I Jn. 3:2) The God who cannot lie, His Son who has paid the price, and the Spirit who has revealed what has been freely given to all unite to declare, “PROMISE KEPT”!

Jehoiakim and His Knife

“And it came to pass, when Jehudi had read three or four pages, the king cut it with the penknife, and cast it into the fire that was on the hearth, until all the roll was consumed in the fire that was on the hearth” (Jer. 36:23).

            King Jehoiakim sent for the scroll of Jeremiah.  When the scroll arrived, the King commanded it to be read. After only three or four pages had been covered, he took the scroll from the reader and with his knife he cut it to pieces and cast it into the fire. This revealed the attitude of the wicked king to God and his word.

            Down through the ages, others have opposed God and his revelation. Just as with Jehoiakim’s efforts, the message from God continues to survive all destructive efforts.  The Bible continues to reveal the “thoughts and intent of the heart.”  As long as the earth stands, the Word of God will be here to reveal truth. It will continue to probe the depths of the heart and, at times, bring inconvenient truths. “Heaven and earth shall pass away but my word shall not pass away (Matt. 24:33).

.           People today may not commonly use a knife or fire to destroy the Word, but their motives may be the same. When people fail to read and study the will of God the effect is as if they were cutting and burning the Bible. The Bible has no affect on their life and the person soon dies spiritually.  “Man cannot live by bread alone.”

            When a preacher will not preach the Word in completeness or teaches the “doctrines and commandments of men,” he, in effect, destroys the Word. When we fail to teach and live the whole council of God, we are cutting and burning the Bible. When anyone seeks to destroy God’s Word by denying the true nature of the Book, the cutting and burning continues.

            Today, we do not need to cut and burn the Bible to destroy it; we can simply leave it on a shelf or table to collect dust. In homes where a family does not allow the fullness of truth to hold sway, Scripture may as well be incinerated. Churches where the Bible is a mere pew ornament may as well take out knives and fire up a brazier

            We must exercise vigilance to prevent the full Gospel from becoming an incomplete, distorted, or disrespected relic of God’s great gift.

The Power of Love

The Power of Love in Speaking a Good Word for Jesus

As we consider how to approach friends and neighbors with the gospel of Christ, let us continually be mindful that we are not trying to win arguments, but rather secure hearts. Of course, we do need to prepare ourselves to present intelligent and compelling answers to their questions. The thing to remember, however, is that we will be distinguished by our love for others, our love for each other, and our love for Jesus (I Cor. 13:1-3; Jn. 13:34-35; 17:21-23).  Isn’t it amazing God saw fit to design a plan of salvation that would be most effectively communicated by the one thing each of us is capable of doing well?  Our ability to love is not limited by our intellect, our wealth, or our social standing; it is limited by our lack of concern for the needs of others.

Paul well understood this reality. He taught this truth arrestingly to the Corinthians who were obsessed with the idea of obtaining status by gaining miraculous gifts.  Today, in different ways, we may also be consumed with secondary pursuits. Such things may seem to be keys to improving our influence for Christ, but as at Corinth, absent our genuine love for people, we are just wasting our time.

While the dynamics governing the human heart may be elusive, they are nonetheless knowable.  Our hearts are not captured by people who are smarter, more athletic, or generally more successful than we are, our hearts are touched by small, sometimes insignificant, acts of kindness. Such things go unnoticed by many, but are treasured by the individuals who receive them.  As we improve our ability to communicate our Lord’s gospel, let’s not forget to continue to work on our ability to love.

“If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but do not have love, I have become a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.  And if I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.  And if I give all my possessions to feed the poor, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but do not have love, it profits me nothing” (I Cor. 13:1-3).

THE PROMISE OF GOD AND OUR HOPE

            The idea of the “Promise” runs powerfully through all eras of biblical history.  It is a unifying theme of the most fundamental sort. Without this theological binding of the Bible story via Promise, the irresistible force bringing the Old Covenant forward to meet the New Covenant would be absent. Promise is a theme that looms exceedingly large on the horizon of Scripture.

EARLY FORESHADOWING

            Implied in God’s words to Eve in Genesis 3:15, is the first hint we have of the Promise. It is a somewhat enigmatic statement mixing both human and divine elements of God’s great salvation plan. Deliverance would eventually be secured. Additionally, its satisfaction would in some way be through the special agency of a woman.

            The “rest of the story” dramatically completes its course in the Virgin Birth (Gal. 4:4) and in a derivative sense in the church (Rom. 16:20). However, the Virgin Birth and its relationship to the “Seed Promise,” great though it is, is not the more dedicated path Scripture follows. Abraham will be the key figure in God’s highlighting the significance of Promise.

GOD AND ABRAHAM

            The peg God which uses to anchor the idea of Promise is found in His dealings with Abraham. Genesis 12:1-3 is the staging area from which God moves forward with the importance of His promise. It is also at this point God expresses two basic elements to the Promise. First, He will build a great nation through Abraham. In support of this, either blessings or curses await those who deal with Abraham and those who are aligned with the Promise. The nation we will come to know as Israel will fulfill its role overseen by Jehovah’s mighty arm.

            Second, there was in the Promise a universal blessing. All people would benefit from the work God would affect through Abraham and his descendants. This is a point most of Abraham’s descendants would fail to appreciate. Israel was not the end of the plan grounded in the Promise; the holy nation that would occupy the Promised Land was the means to a much greater end (Gal. 3:17-29).

            The greater conclusion of the matter, however, would be accomplished many years in the future. The journey of the Promise through the years of Abraham and the great nation’s contributions would nevertheless provide an awesome display of God’s greatness.

THE JOURNEY FROM ABRAHAM TO ISRAEL

            From beginning to end, this journey is filled with God’s unceasing work  to secure the goal of His plan. Though many faithful men and women would participate in the journey, none were perfect. All could have potentially brought this vital enterprise to an abrupt halt, but God would not have it so.

            Almost as soon as God made His promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3), we encounter a problem. Pharaoh, fooled by Abraham’s ruse, takes Sarah into his house (Gen. 12:10-12). Had not the Lord intervened—end of the story! The intervention of God, however, will be present at every twist and turn of His plan’s development.

            Another very interesting point on the journey comes from Genesis 15:1-21. Here, Abraham despairs over the absence of an heir from his own body. Under the customs prevailing at the time, Abraham’s chief servant, Eliezer, would be reckoned as his heir.

            God, however, assures Abraham he will have a son of his own flesh. The Lord again lets Abraham know that his descendant will be vast in number. On this occasion, God goes even further to assure Abraham that His promise can be trusted. God will quite literally cut a covenant with Abraham (cf. Jer. 34:18-20).

            There is something unique about this covenant procedure in Genesis 15. Normally, both parties entering the covenant agreement would walk between the pieces. In this case, however, Abraham was deliberately put to sleep and Jehovah, represented by smoke and fire, passed through the pieces alone (cf. Ex. 40:34-38). God’s promise to Abraham was further guaranteed by the covenant the Lord imposed upon Himself as He walked between the divided animal carcasses alone.

            There is, however, yet another assurance. The Hebrews writer references this when he speaks of God’s twofold guarantee of His promise (Heb. 6:9-20). Here, Genesis 22:17 is quoted as providing an “oath” to further seal the promise. This oath comes immediately following the “sacrifice” of Isaac, an act directly linked to the crucifixion of Jesus and tied to Abraham’s continuing faith (Heb. 11:17-19; Jas. 2:21-23—note the tie in to Gen. 15:6).

            Yet, amazingly, there is even more.  The inseparable, companion verse to Genesis 22:17 is verse 18. This is the verse where it is explicitly stated that in Abraham’s “seed” all the nations will be blessed. It is verse 18 Paul quotes in Galatians 3:16, one of the most powerful Promise passages in the entire Bible. The singular masculine pronoun of Genesis 22:17 thus gives the special singular meaning to “seed” even though elsewhere the singular form of seed almost always has a plural denotation referencing the entire nation of Israel (note Gen. 22:17b). Abraham’s seed of the Promise was no less than the Christ!

            Consider how God took His promise from Abraham to Isaac. He overcame the “Hagar Diversion,” opened the aged Sarah’s womb, renewed Abraham’s ability to father a child, protected the promise from going through Ishmael, interceded to once again thwart Abraham’s “she’s my sister” foolishness, and delivered Isaac from death (Gen. chapters15-22; Rom. 4:16-25).

            Nevertheless, the journey from Isaac to Jacob/Israel, short though it is, remains fraught with roadblocks to overcome before arriving at the place God intends. Rebekah’s womb must be opened, Jacob, the second born, must muddle through all manner of interesting twists, Sarah’s womb must be opened, and Joseph, though given firstborn status, will be superseded by his less noble brother Judah as the one through whom would come the Messiah (Gen. 26-50; I Chron. 5:2).

            How might we summarize the meaning of these things? The short of it is that when God makes a promise, He keeps it and He keeps it in His own intended way. Human weaknesses, plots, lies, improbable odds, unlikely twists and turns, etc. cannot derail the Lord’s Promise.

            The Promise made to Abraham concerning the salvation to be offered to all men and women was always secure because it was God who made the Promise. Additionally, as we touched upon earlier, the Promise is also secure because of Jesus, the ultimate one to whom the Promise was made (Gal. 3:16). The Promise was made by God the Father to God the Son—God to God. The Promise made possible by the life of Christ was, therefore, just as secure at the point of fulfillment as it had been at the point of inception. God never fails.

A DAVIDIC MOMENT

            There is a significant, additional element in the journey of the Promise to the Christ; David immerges as a major player in the unfolding drama of salvation. Israel had sought a king so they might be like the nations around them (I Sam. 8:4-9). This request is allowed by God and results in Israel’s first king, Saul. There is, however, an odd twist here. Genesis 49:10 had clearly declared Judah as the regal tribe—Saul was a Benjaminite. This seeming problem is easily resolved when we consider a few points from the general, surrounding context.

            The people wanted a king to suit their understandings of what a king should be like. What better choice to satisfy such thinking than an exceedingly handsome and exceptionally tall man linked to might and valor (I Sam. 9:1-2)?  The people’s choice award went to Saul. Only “certain worthless men” opposed the choice (I Sam. 10:27).

            Saul, as most know, was not a good king. His heart sided with the people rather than with God (I Sam. 15:1-23). Now it was God’s turn. When God made his choice we are not at all be surprised to see that His choice came from the tribe of Judah (I Sam. 16:1, note that Bethlehem was in Judah). We also should not be surprised to find that when God chose a king He did not look at “outward appearance,” but at “the heart” (I Sam. 16:6-7; cf. I Sam. 13:14). The most impressive looking brother, Eliab, did not have the right heart (I Sam. 16:6; 17:26-28).

            David, a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22), would add a special feature to the development of God’s Promise to Abraham. As king over the great nation God brought into being, David would not simply be a man of significance for the nation, David would be the king who, along with his dynasty, would be of great significance to God’s universal Promise (Lk. 1:30-33; Acts 13:23). While the much shorter lived Northern Kingdom of Israel would have nine dynastic families, Judah would have but one—the house of David. It is, therefore, no wonder that God chose to highlight both Abraham and David in the highly Messianic genealogy of Matthew 1:1.

            Consider the Messianic stamp God placed on David’s dynasty in II Samuel 7:12-19. David’s son Solomon would serve as a type of Christ and his kingdom as a type of the Messianic Kingdom (cf. Acts 2:29-30).

            On the first Pentecost after the Resurrection of Jesus, God, having given Him all authority (Matt. 28:18; Dan. 7:13-14; I Cor. 15:20-28; Phil. 2:9-11; Eph. 1:19-23) sat Jesus at His right hand as king over the New Israel (Acts 2:29-36). The new King sent forth the Holy Spirit of the Promise and people were invited into the New Kingdom under the New Covenant (Gal. 3:14; Acts 2:33, 38b-39; Heb. 8:7-13). God made good on His promise. It was never in doubt!

THE PROMISE CONTINUES TO BE EFFECTIVE

            As referenced in Acts 2:38b-39, the “gift of the Holy Spirit” is directly connected to the Promise. The fulfillment of the Promise was associated with the earliest preaching of the Gospel to the Jews (Acts 3:25). The Promise was fulfilled in Christ (Gen. 22:17-18; Gal. 3:16). Yet, though fulfilled, the significance of the Promise is not inactive today.

            The Promise is clearly and inseparably tied to our inheritance in Christ (Gal. 3:13-19; Rom. 4:13-16; 8:15-17; 9:8). The “gift of the Holy Spirit” is equally attached to both the Promise and our inheritance (Acts 2:38-39; Rom. 8:16-17; Gal. 3:14, 18-19; Rom. 4:13-16; Eph. 1:13-14; I Cor. 2:12; Gal. 4:4-7; Acts 20:32; 26:18). The Promise has been kept and its influence is truly amazing. We are children of the King of all creation (I Jn. 3:1). The “down-payment” or “earnest” or “pledge” of our inheritance became ours when we became Christians (Eph. 1:14; II Cor. 1:22). For the faithful Christian, the blessings of the Promise to Abraham are as sure as God and the finished work of His Son (II Cor. 18-22). They have been revealed by the Spirit Himself rather than by the mere words of men (I Cor. 2:10-12).

            Incredibly, the full greatness of the Promise has yet to be realized. Heaven will show what now can only be seen through analogies to our temporal world. The complete realization of the Promise is indescribable (I Jn. 3:2) The God who cannot lie, His Son who has paid the price, and the Spirit who has revealed what has been freely given to all unite to declare, “PROMISE KEPT”!