December 27, 2020

Here is the worship guide for Sunday, December 27, 2020.

PDF version of the worship guide to download or print.

The livestream will begin at 10:30 a.m. on our Facebook page or YouTube page.

A picture containing drawing Description automatically generatedWelcome and Announcements

Opening Prayer

Hymn: “Go, Tell It on the Mountain”
Words: John W. Work Jr. Music: Spiritual, harmonized by John W. Work III.

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.

While shepherds kept their watching o’er silent flocks by night,
behold throughout the heavens there shone a holy light

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.

The shepherds feared and trembled when lo! above the earth
rang out the angel chorus that hailed our Savior’s birth.

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.

Down in a lowly manger the humble Christ was born,
and God sent us salvation that blessed Christmas morn.

Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere;
go, tell it on the mountain that Jesus Christ is born.

Hymn: “Angels, from the Realms of Glory”
Words: James Montgomery. Music: Henry T. Smart.

Angels, from the realms of glory, wing your flight o’er all the earth;
ye who sang creation’s story now proclaim Messiah’s birth:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

Shepherds, in the fields abiding, watching o’er your flocks by night,
God with man is now residing; yonder shines the infant Light:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

Sages, leave your contemplations, brighter visions beam afar;
seek the great Desire of nations; ye have seen the Infant’s star:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

Though an Infant now we view Him, He shall fill His Father’s throne;
gather all the nations to Him; ev’ry knee shall then bow down:
Come and worship, come and worship,
Worship Christ, the newborn King!

Time of Prayer
Matthew 6:7–13 (ESV)

“And when you pray, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do, for they think that they will be heard for their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. Pray then like this:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
10  Your kingdom come,
your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
11  Give us this day our daily bread,
12  and forgive us our debts,
as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13  And lead us not into temptation,
but deliver us from evil.
[For yours is the kingdom and the power
and the glory forever. Amen.]

Hymn: “It Came upon the Midnight Clear”
Words: Edmund H. Sears. Music: Richard S. Willis.

It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old,
from angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold:
“Peace on the earth, goodwill to men from heavens all gracious King!”
The world in solemn stillness lay to hear the angels sing.

Yet with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long,
beneath the angel strain have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and man, at war with man, hears not the love song which they bring:
O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and hear the angels sing!

All ye, beneath life’s crushing load, whose forms are bending low,
who toil along the climbing way with painful steps and slow,
Look now! for glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing:
O rest beside the weary road and hear the angels sing.

For lo! the days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old,
when with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold;
When peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.

Sermon: “Flee”
Matthew 2:13–23 (ESV)

13 Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Rise, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 And he rose and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, “Out of Egypt I called my son.”

16 Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men. 17 Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah:

18  “A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.”

19 But when Herod died, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt, 20 saying, “Rise, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the child’s life are dead.” 21 And he rose and took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there, and being warned in a dream he withdrew to the district of Galilee. 23 And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth, so that what was spoken by the prophets might be fulfilled, that he would be called a Nazarene.

Hymn: “Fullness of Grace”
Words and music: Keith Getty, Kristyn Getty, and Stuart Townend.

Fullness of Grace in man’s human frailty; this is the wonder of Jesus.
Laying aside His power and glory, humbly He entered our world.
Chose the path of meanest worth; scandal of a virgin birth.
Born in a stable, cold and rejected: here lies the hope of the world.

Fullness of grace, the love of the Father shown in the face of Jesus.
Stooping to bear the weight of humanity, walking the Calvary road.
Christ the holy innocent took our sin and punishment.
Fullness of God, despised and rejected: crushed for the sins of the world.

Fullness of hope in Christ we had longed for, promise of God in Jesus.
Through His obedience we are forgiven, opening the floodgates of heav’n.
All our hopes and dreams we bring gladly as an offering.
Fullness of life and joy unspeakable: God’s gift in love to the world.

Benediction
Romans 15:13 (ESV)

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.

 

December 24, 2020

Here is the worship guide for our Christmas Eve service.

PDF version of the worship guide to download or print.

The livestream will begin at 5:00 p.m. on our Facebook page or YouTube page.

A picture containing drawing Description automatically generatedWelcome and Announcements

Opening Prayer

Hymn: “The First Noel”
Words: Traditional English Carol. Music: Traditional English Carol.

The First Noel the Angel did say,
was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay;
in fields where they lay keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel!

They looked up and saw a star
shining in the East beyond them far;
and to the earth it gave great light,
and so it continued both day and night.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel!

And by the light of that same star
the wise men came from country far;
to seek for a King was their intent,
and to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel!

Then let us all with one accord
sing praises to our heavenly Lord
Who hath made Heaven and earth of naught,
and with his blood mankind hath bought.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel, born is the King of Israel!

Scripture Reading and Prayer
Isaiah 42:1–9 (ESV)

Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.
I am the Lord; that is my name;
my glory I give to no other,
nor my praise to carved idols.
Behold, the former things have come to pass,
and new things I now declare;
before they spring forth
I tell you of them.”

Hymn: “What Child Is This?”
Words: William C. Dix. Music: Traditional English Melody.

What Child is this, who, laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, while shepherds watch are keeping?

This, this is Christ, the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary!

Why lies He in such mean estate, where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here the silent Word is pleading.

This, this is Christ, the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary!

So bring Him incense, gold, and myrrh, come, peasant, king to own Him.
The King of kings salvation brings; let loving hearts enthrone Him.

This, this is Christ, the King, Whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring Him laud, the Babe, the Son of Mary!

Hymn: “Exult in the Savior’s Birth”
Words and music: Matt Boswell and D. A. Carson.

Shepherds watched their flocks at night, attending lowly sheep.
Now within a cattle shed, a much stranger watch they keep.

Today, a Savior has been born and He is Christ, the Lord.
Placed within a humble trough, this baby must be adored.

Pagan wise men from the East seek out the infant King.
Trackless miles behind them lie and now all their rev’rence bring.

They have come to worship Him with spices and with gold.
Countless millions seek Him still, whose advent was long foretold.

For to us a child is born, to us a Son is giv’n.
He shall reign in righteousness, this Counselor King from heav’n.

The government will rest on Him, He is the mighty God.
Prince of Peace, this gentle King, yet rules with a mighty rod.

Scriptures say that Mary’s boy was born that He might die.
Angel voices burst in praise, their harmony fills the sky.

Sing, “Glory in the highest heav’n!” Sing, “Gracious peace on earth!”
Those on whom His favor rests exult in the Savior’s birth.

Sermon: “Worship the King”
Matthew 2:1–12 (ESV)

1 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

“‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. 11 And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

Hymn: “We Three Kings of Orient Are”
Words and music: John Henry Hopkins, Jr.

We three kings of Orient are: bearing gifts we traverse afar—
field and fountain, moor and mountain—following yonder star.

Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

Born a King on Bethlehem’s plain: gold I bring to crown Him again,
King forever, ceasing never over us all to reign.

Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

Frankincense to offer have I, incense owns a Deity nigh;
prayer and praising, all men raising, worship Him, God on high.

Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume breathes of life of gathering gloom—
sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

Glorious now behold Him arise: King and God and Sacrifice;
Alleluia, Alleluia! Earth to heav’n replies.

Oh, star of wonder, star of night, star with royal beauty bright,
westward leading, still proceeding, guide us to thy perfect light.

Hymn: “Silent Night, Holy Night”
Words: Joseph Mayr. Music: Franz Gruber.

Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright
round yon virgin mother and Child! Holy Infant so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace

Silent night, holy night, shepherds quake at the sight
Glories stream from heaven afar, heavenly hosts sing: “Alleluia!”.
Christ, the Savior is born, Christ, the Savior is born

Silent night, holy night, Son of God, love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth, Jesus, Lord, at Thy birth.

Benediction

May God grant you the grace to be like the wise men, making every effort to worship King Jesus. May Jesus, the Prince of Peace, grant you peace as you come to him.
May the Holy Spirit fill your heart with the love of God.
Merry Christmas. Go in peace.

 

December 20, 2020

Here is the worship guide for Sunday, December 20, 2020.

PDF version of the worship guide to download or print.

The livestream will begin at 10:30 a.m. on our Facebook page or YouTube page.

A picture containing drawing

Description automatically generatedWelcome and Announcements

Opening Prayer

Hymn: “O Come, All Ye Faithful”
Words: Latin Hymn, ascribed to John Francis Wade. Music: John Francis Wade.

O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant;
O come ye, O come ye to Bethlehem!
Come and behold Him, born the King of angels!

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

God of God, Light of Light eternal,
lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb;
very God, begotten, not created;

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Sing, choirs of angels, sing in exultation;
O sing, all ye citizens of heav’n above!
Glory to God, all glory in the highest!

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Yea, Lord, we greet Thee, born this happy morning;
Jesus, to Thee be all glory giv’n;
Word of the Father, now in the flesh appearing!

O come, let us adore Him, O come, let us adore Him,
O come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord!

Hymn: “Once in Royal David’s City”
Words: Cecil F. Alexander. Music: Henry J. Gauntlett.

Once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed,
where a mother laid her Baby, in a manger for His bed:
Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ, her little Child.

He came down to earth from heaven, Who is God and Lord of all,
and His shelter was a stable, and His cradle was a stall:
with the poor, and mean, and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.

Jesus is our childhood’s pattern; day by day like us He grew;
He was little, weak, and helpless, tears and smiles like us He knew;
and He feeleth for our sadness, and He shareth in our gladness.

And our eyes at last shall see Him, through His own redeeming love;
for that Child so dear and gentle, is our Lord in heaven above:
and He leads His children on to the place where He is gone.

Time of Prayer
Isaiah 43:1–7 (ESV)

1 But now thus says the Lord,
he who created you, O Jacob,
he who formed you, O Israel:
“Fear not, for I have redeemed you;
I have called you by name, you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you;
when you walk through fire you shall not be burned,
and the flame shall not consume you.
For I am the Lord your God,
the Holy One of Israel, your Savior.
I give Egypt as your ransom,
Cush and Seba in exchange for you.
Because you are precious in my eyes,
and honored, and I love you,
I give men in return for you,
peoples in exchange for your life.
Fear not, for I am with you;
I will bring your offspring from the east,
and from the west I will gather you.
I will say to the north, Give up,
and to the south, Do not withhold;
bring my sons from afar
and my daughters from the end of the earth,
everyone who is called by my name,
whom I created for my glory,
whom I formed and made.”

Hymn: “Joy Has Dawned”
Words and music: Keith Getty and Stuart Townend.

Joy has dawned upon the world, promised from creation—
God’s salvation now unfurled, hope for ev’ry nation.
Not with fanfares from above. not with scenes of glory,
but a humble gift of love—Jesus born of Mary.

Sounds of wonder fill the sky with the songs of angels
as the mighty Prince of life shelters in a stable.
Hands that set each star in place, shaped the earth in darkness,
cling now to a mother’s breast, vuln’rable and helpless.

Shepherds bow before the Lamb, gazing at the glory;
gifts of men from distant lands prophesy the story.
Gold—a King is born today, incense—God is with us,
Myrrh—His death will make a way. and by His blood He’ll win us.

Son of Adam, Son of heaven, given as a ransom;
reconciling God and man; Christ, our mighty champion!
What a Savior! What a Friend! What a glorious myst’ry!
Once a babe in Bethlehem, now the Lord of hist’ry.

Sermon: “God with Us”
Matthew 1:18–25 (ESV)

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

23  “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”

(which means, God with us). 24 When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, 25 but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.

Hymn: “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”
Words: Charles Wesley. Music: Felix Mendelssohn.

Hark the herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King;
peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled!”
Joyful, all ye nations rise, join the triumph of the skies;
with the angelic host proclaim, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Christ by highest heav’n adored; Christ, the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity,
pleased as man with man to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Hail, the heav’n-born Prince of Peace! Hail, the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings, ris’n with healing in His wings.
Mild He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die,
born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing, “Glory to the newborn King!”

Benediction
2 Thessalonians 3:16 (ESV)

Now may the Lord of peace himself give you peace at all times in every way. The Lord be with you all.

 

My Servant

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 22, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or continue reading).

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year. . . . It’s the hap-happiest season of all.” Or the song says. Are you feeling it this year? Does it feel wonderful and hap-happy?

When I was a child, I felt the thrill of “the Christmas spirit,” whatever that is. I used to love lights and music and Christmas movies and TV specials and special food and gifts. Especially the gifts. But as I get older, I find those things to feel a lot less special.

Yesterday, I saw a picture that someone posted online. It was of a dumpster that said “EMPTY WHEN FULL.” The joke, of course, was how can a dumpster simultaneously be empty and full? But perhaps that’s the way some of us feel at Christmas. We’re full of food, our lives are full of stuff, our schedules may be full, and our relatives may be full of it, but we feel empty.

For some people, the holidays remind them of what they’ve lost in the past year. The other day, I was writing Christmas cards to people. Two were to people who were now celebrating their first Christmas after the death of a spouse. Another was to someone who lost a spouse the previous year. One was to a couple that lost a child this year. The holidays can highlight what we have, but they can also highlight what we’ve lost.

Many people try to cover up that emptiness and loss. The message of secular Christmas celebrations is, “Be happy.” If you don’t feel happy, the key is to celebrate more, to buy more things, to spend more time with family. The holiday takes on this strange empty meaning. It’s not really about anything other than celebrating celebration, feasting on festiveness, an attempt to buy pieces of peace. It’s about nostalgia and sentimentality and the many dozens of ways that the Hallmark and Lifetime Channels can make Christmas romance movies out of the same basic plot.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy Christmas lights, and some Christmas music. I’m a sucker for Christmas decorations. I love getting presents. Occasionally, I enjoy spending time with family. It’s not that these things are bad. But I need more than that. I suspect that you do, too. If that’s all there is to Christmas, then it’s just the largest Hallmark holiday, a phony reason to celebrate for celebration’s sake.

Providentially, the real meaning of Christmas is not found in all those trappings. The meaning of Christmas is that God sent his ultimate servant to rescue us. This servant didn’t come to put a feel-good band aid of tinsel over our problems. He didn’t come to fill our emptiness with more food and drink and money. He came to heal us, which required getting to the root of our problems. God loves us so much that he didn’t send us a comedian or entertainer, a politician or a general, an economist or a get-rich-quick adviser. He didn’t manipulate our emotions. Instead, he gave us a Savior, his own Son.

Today, we’re going to learn about Jesus and what he has done for us by looking at passages from the book of Isaiah. We have been studying the Gospel of Luke, which is all about Jesus in a very direct way. But this month, we’re taking a look at some passages from a book about a prophet called Isaiah. God sent a message to his people through a man named Isaiah in the eighth century BC, roughly seven hundred years before Jesus was born. He gave them a message about who he is, what their problem was, and the hope that would come through one person, a special child, a descendant of King David. Over the last three weeks, we’ve looked at who God is, our problems of sin and idolatry, and prophesies about a coming king. This week, we’ll look at passages about a servant of God.

The first one is Isaiah 42:1–7:

1 Behold my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen, in whom my soul delights;
I have put my Spirit upon him;
he will bring forth justice to the nations.
He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice,
or make it heard in the street;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a faintly burning wick he will not quench;
he will faithfully bring forth justice.
He will not grow faint or be discouraged
till he has established justice in the earth;
and the coastlands wait for his law.

Thus says God, the Lord,
who created the heavens and stretched them out,
who spread out the earth and what comes from it,
who gives breath to the people on it
and spirit to those who walk in it:
“I am the Lord; I have called you in righteousness;
I will take you by the hand and keep you;
I will give you as a covenant for the people,
a light for the nations,
to open the eyes that are blind,
to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon,
from the prison those who sit in darkness.[1]

God promised Israel that he would send his servant into the world. The Holy Spirit—the third person of the triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) would rest upon this servant, empowering him. Though the servant has power, he would be gentle, especially with people who were “bruised reeds,” people who were beat up and knew they needed help. To those people, he would bring comfort. Though he’s gentle, he is strong, and he will work until he brings justice to the whole Earth.

Then, we’re told that the God who has made the whole universe, who gives life and breath to everyone on the Earth, says this about his servant: God will give this servant to his people as a covenant, which is kind of like a contract that establishes a relationship between two parties. The way that God and his people will be related will be through this servant. He will gather the remnant of Israel, God’s people, to himself. He will be a light to all the nations—people from across the globe will come to God through him. The people who are living in darkness will see a great light (Isa. 9:2).

That is the first of four “servant songs” found in the book of Isaiah. The next one is in the beginning of chapter 49. Let’s turn there now. Here is Isaiah 49:1–6:

1 Listen to me, O coastlands,
and give attention, you peoples from afar.
The Lord called me from the womb,
from the body of my mother he named my name.
He made my mouth like a sharp sword;
in the shadow of his hand he hid me;
he made me a polished arrow;
in his quiver he hid me away.
And he said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing and vanity;
yet surely my right is with the Lord,
and my recompense with my God.”

And now the Lord says,
he who formed me from the womb to be his servant,
to bring Jacob back to him;
and that Israel might be gathered to him—
for I am honored in the eyes of the Lord,
and my God has become my strength—
he says:
“It is too light a thing that you should be my servant
to raise up the tribes of Jacob
and to bring back the preserved of Israel;
I will make you as a light for the nations,
that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”

Here, God’s servant is called from the womb of his mother. His words will be powerful: his mouth is like a sharp sword. He is called Israel. He is the one who will truly be God’s person. If you read the Old Testament, which is long and complicated, you’ll see that most of it is about a group of people, a nation, called Israel. And it doesn’t take much reading to see that these people are in many ways failures. They were supposed to live for God, worship him, represent him on Earth, and obey him. But they don’t worship God alone; they also worship false gods, which are called idols. They don’t obey God, living according to his commandments and laws. Instead, they often live like everyone else lives. They, like everyone else in the world, deserve condemnation, to be cut off from God forever.

But not this servant. He will be perfect. Yet at first his work will seem to be in vain. His work doesn’t always appear to have accomplished something great. But God said to this servant that he would bring his people back to God. He would be a light to the nations—this is the second time we’ve seen that. He would bring salvation to people throughout the world. That salvation is reconciliation with God. It’s a salvation from the condemnation that their sins have earned them. They will be saved from a broken relationship with God, from rebellion, and from all that comes with it, including death and condemnation. And this salvation will come through this servant.

The third song about this servant comes in the next chapter. Let’s look at chapter 50:4–11:

The Lord God has given me
the tongue of those who are taught,
that I may know how to sustain with a word
him who is weary.
Morning by morning he awakens;
he awakens my ear
to hear as those who are taught.
The Lord God has opened my ear,
and I was not rebellious;
I turned not backward.
I gave my back to those who strike,
and my cheeks to those who pull out the beard;
I hid not my face
from disgrace and spitting.

But the Lord God helps me;
therefore I have not been disgraced;
therefore I have set my face like a flint,
and I know that I shall not be put to shame.
He who vindicates me is near.
Who will contend with me?
Let us stand up together.
Who is my adversary?
Let him come near to me.
Behold, the Lord God helps me;
who will declare me guilty?
Behold, all of them will wear out like a garment;
the moth will eat them up.

10  Who among you fears the Lord
and obeys the voice of his servant?
Let him who walks in darkness
and has no light
trust in the name of the Lord
and rely on his God.
11  Behold, all you who kindle a fire,
who equip yourselves with burning torches!
Walk by the light of your fire,
and by the torches that you have kindled!
This you have from my hand:a
you shall lie down in torment.

The servant says that God has given him wisdom, a tongue that will sustain those who are weary. Again, this man has powerful words, words that not only can cut like a sharp sword, but words that can also heal.

This servant has his ear open to God. He listens to God. He does what God tells him to do. He is not rebellious. He is even obedient in the face of persecution. People will strike him, pull his beard, and spit on him. But this servant didn’t run away from such rough treatment. Because God strengthens him, he is able to face that affliction square on, setting his face like flint toward it. He knows that God will not let him be put to shame. No one will be able to say that he’s guilty. He will be vindicated.

This servant calls all who are living in darkness to come to him in the light, to fear the Lord and to obey his servant. As I said last week, the fear of the Lord isn’t necessarily being afraid of him. Though, if you’re on the wrong side of God, you should be afraid. But the fear of the Lord is having a very healthy, awestruck respect for God. If you know who God truly is, you will fear him, respect him, honor him. And if you do those things, his servant says, you will obey the voice of his servant. You will come to him, the light of the nations, instead of living in darkness. But those who remain in darkness, who think that they can light their own way with their own torches, will lie down in torment. In other words, those who trust that they can cure themselves, who can fix their greatest problem, which is a broken relationship with God and rebellion against him, will not only remain in darkness, but they will be punished.

If we can’t bring ourselves back to God, and if our efforts to do so result only in torment, how can we ever get back to God? As we’ve already seen, the key is the servant of God. But how does this servant make us in the right with God? How does he fix this problem of a broken relationship?

To answer those questions, we must look at the fourth and final song of the servant. This one begins at the end of chapter 52 and runs through all of chapter 53. Let’s first read Isaiah 52:13–15:

13  Behold, my servant shall act wisely;
he shall be high and lifted up,
and shall be exalted.
14  As many were astonished at you—
his appearance was so marred, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of the children of mankind—
15  so shall he sprinkle many nations.
Kings shall shut their mouths because of him,
for that which has not been told them they see,
and that which they have not heard they understand.

We’re told that God’s servant will be exalted. He will be high and lifted up. Yet though he’s exalted, his appearance will be marred. We must remember that this servant will be struck and beaten. He will be battered. But he will “sprinkle many nations.” That means he will cleanse many people, washing them from what defiles them, which, according to the Bible, is sin. His work will be so great that even kings will be rendered speechless by what he will do.

Let’s now look at chapter 53. We’ll read the first three verses:

1 Who has believed what he has heard from us?
And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

This servant will grow up like a root out of a dry ground, which means that he will be greater than his historical circumstances. His background on Earth will be humble. He won’t look majestic. He won’t look exceptionally beautiful. He will look rather ordinary.

But there’s something more. He will be despised and rejected. He will be a man who knows sorrow and grief. People will hide their faces from him. They will betray him and reject him. And we’re told even this: we esteemed him not. If we saw him on Earth, we would probably reject him.

This servant has a strange combination of qualities. He’s powerful, given strength by the Holy Spirit. He is wise and his words are powerful. They are able to condemn and save. God will be with him and he will not be put to shame. He will be vindicated and declared righteous. Yet he will also suffer and be rejected.

We’re also told that his suffering does something. He doesn’t suffer in some meaningless, pointless way. Look at verses 4–6:

Surely he has borne our griefs
and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.

This servant will bear our griefs, our sorrows, our iniquities, or sins. Though we thought he was rejected by God, condemned and afflicted, the reality was that he was being condemned in our place. His suffering—his being pierced and crushed—was for our sake. He was crushed for our sins, not for his own. The condemnation—the chastisement—that we deserve fell upon him so that we could have peace with God. His wounds heal us. We were like sheep, going astray, wandering from God. Each one of us was like that. But God does something amazing. He takes our sin and lays it on his servant, who suffers in our place.

The reason that we feel empty is that we were made to have a relationship with God. Because that relationship is broken, we have a God-shaped hole within us. We were made to love God and worship him and obey him. But instead of going to God to have that hole filled, we try to fill it up with other stuff, often with things that aren’t necessarily bad. But those things, even good things, weren’t made to fill that hole. So, we’re empty when full. We’re not full of God, but things he made, thinking that we can be satisfied by the gifts instead of the Giver. As Augustine wrote over sixteen hundred years ago: “You [God] stir men to take pleasure in praising you, because you have made us for yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”[2] He might have said our hearts are empty until they are filled by God. Until then, we’re a bunch of dumpsters.

Yet this servant is the one who was treated like trash. Look at verses 7–9:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
yet he opened not his mouth;|
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
and there was no deceit in his mouth.

He was afflicted, beaten, led to die. But he didn’t protest. He didn’t try to escape this fate. He was like a sheep led to slaughter. He was cut off from the land of the living, paying for the sins of God’s people. He died among wicked people, and his body was laid in the tomb of a rich man, even though he never did anything wrong. He never did violence to other people. He never said anything deceitful. He only told the truth. He was never selfish. He only loved God and other people. Yet he still was treated like garbage.

But this wasn’t an accident, or just the result of the works of evil people. Look at verses 10–12:

10  Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
make many to be accounted righteous,
and he shall bear their iniquities.
12  Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
and makes intercession for the transgressors.

This servant suffered because it was God’s will. It was God’s plan. His suffering was an offering for our guilt.

But there’s good news. Even though this servant is crushed and afflicted, led to slaughter, killed and laid in a grave, he will see his days prolonged. He will see his offspring. He will be satisfied. This servant, though he is killed, will live. He will make many to be accounted righteous. He will take away their sin and make them in the right with God. He will also live to intercede for sinners, to go between God and them, to lift them up in prayers to God.

Of course, these servant songs are all about Jesus. He alone is the One sent by God to be a light to the world. He alone is perfectly righteous and perfectly wise. He alone was sent to bear the sins of his people.

Jesus is not just a servant. He is the Son of God. He, along with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are the triune God. But he was sent by the Father to become a human being in a “dry ground,” in humble circumstances. Though he was and is all-powerful, he looked like an ordinary human being. He was conceived in a miraculous way—by a virgin—but otherwise, his background was rather ordinary. He was a carpenter’s son. He grew up in a small town, away from the capital city. He didn’t act like the rulers of the Earth, trying to appear powerful, using their power to their own advantage. He was humble.

He lived the perfect life. He was never rebellious toward God the Father. He perfectly loved, honored, and obeyed God. Yet he was rejected by the very people who should have known who he is. He was mocked, rejected, betrayed, arrested, tortured, and killed. This was because people are evil, and they did an evil thing to him. But ultimately, it was God’s plan to have him killed. And it was Jesus’ plan; he laid down his life voluntarily. He did this to take away our sin. Strangely, his death is his victory and exaltation. How is Jesus “high and lifted up”? On the cross!

Not only did Jesus die, but he rose from the grave in a body that can never die again. His resurrection showed that he has power over sin and death, that his sacrifice paid the penalty for sin in full, and that his people, though they will die in this life, will be resurrected to eternal life. He lives to see people come to faith in him, and he intercedes for those people. He prays for them. He is their advocate.

This is the message of Christmas. God sent his Son into the world to save his people from their sin, to make atonement for their sin, to receive the penalty they deserve.

This message is hard to receive. A lot of people don’t like it. They don’t like it because it says that we are bad, that we have done wrong, that we deserve condemnation, and that we can’t fix ourselves. But that’s the truth. Evil isn’t just something that’s “out there.” It’s within us, and we can’t remove it from ourselves. As the Russian author Alexander Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) once observed, “If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”[3]

But Jesus came to take away our sin and our guilt. He came to be destroyed in our place. He also came to give us new hearts, to give us the Holy Spirit, who gives us the strength to live the way that we should, to cause us to love God and obey him.

But notice that in that last song, the servant only takes away the sins of God’s people. He bore the sin of many—not all. He causes many—not all—to be accounted righteous. Not everyone benefits from the work of Jesus.

How do we have become part of God’s people, so that our sins are removed from us and we are put int the right with God? We need to see that our own torches can’t remove our darkness. Our own attempts to feel good will fail, often because they are only superficial. Only Jesus can get to the root of our problems and dig them out.

Recently, I had surgery to repair a hernia. The hernia itself wasn’t as bad as it could be. I couldn’t see a visible bulge. I wasn’t bent over in pain. But it was uncomfortable, and the fact is that once a hernia starts, it doesn’t get better on its own. If left alone, it would get worse. In rare cases, it could be life-threatening, though mine wasn’t.

I recognized that I had a problem that I couldn’t fix. So, I found a doctor who could fix me. I actually saw a couple of doctors who didn’t accurately diagnose the problem. But my surgeon did, he told me he could fix it, and I said I wanted that. So, on December 12 I went to the hospital and had the surgery.

Having surgery is a strange thing. You are yielding control of your body to others. They tell you to take off all your clothes and put them in a bag. They give you a little apron to wear and little socks. You lie on a bed, and they put an IV in you. And you wait. Then, when it’s your time, they wheel you around on that bed and bring you to the operating room.

It’s so strange to be wheeled around in a bed. Usually, when we get in bed, the bed stays where it is. So, it’s odd to lie in a bed that’s moving. And it’s odd to be pushed around, at least when you don’t normally have that done for you. I could have walked to the operating room, but I wasn’t in control. I realized I couldn’t fix myself. I had to give control over to those who could fix me.

Then, they knock you out and the surgeon does his work. I didn’t fully understand the surgery, but I didn’t need to. I only had to trust that the surgeon could fix me. I had to have faith in his understanding and skill, not in my own.

After surgery, things felt worse. I’ve improved and I will continue to heal, but the healing doesn’t come immediately. Sometimes, in order to be made well, we have to feel worse for a while.

And all of this is a lot like salvation. If we understand that we have a problem we can’t fix, and that Jesus alone is the Great Physician who can fix us, we put our trust in him. We yield control of our lives to him. And it might feel like weakness. But what it is is simply facing reality. We are not in control. We can’t fix ourselves.

We don’t need to know everything about Jesus in order to be fixed. We don’t need to know everything about how that salvation works. We simply need to put our trust in Jesus. And when he fixes us, it may feel worse at first. Or, it may feel like instant relief, or perhaps a little bit of both. But Jesus promises to be with us as we heal, and he gives us the Spirit to strengthen us.

Jesus’ work isn’t finished. Justice has not been established across the whole Earth. But he makes us right with God if we come to him in faith. If we do that, we will listen to the servant of God’s voice and obey him. And if we do that, we will find our lives changed.

I urge us all to put our trust in Jesus. Only he can make us right with God. Only he can remove the cancer of sin, taking away our shame and guilt. Only he can give us eternal life. Everything else that we try to make us right is just a band aid. Jesus gets to the root of our problem. Let’s turn to him this Christmas.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Augustine, Confessions, trans. Henry Chadwick (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 3.
  3. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2007), 75.

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah: My Servant

The food, music, decorations, and gifts that we experience at Christmas are nice, but they often leave us feeling empty. We need more than celebration and feasting to be well. Fortunately, God gave us his servant, Jesus (God’s Son and the anointed King of Israel), to heal us. We can learn more about Jesus by looking at some passages in Isaiah, who prophesied about God’s servant and what he would do. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 22, 2019.

A Son Is Given

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 15, 2019.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon (or read below).

Two weeks ago, I told one story of being in Louisville. Here’s another short one. In August 2018, I was in Louisville, taking classes. While there, I met up with a friend who used to be an associate pastor of a church in this area. He picked me up and we drove to dinner. As he was driving, I noticed something odd. We were passing a small pubic space, a little park space in the middle of a rotary that featured a statue of a man on a horse. The statue had some bright orange paint on it. It wasn’t painted entirely orange. That would be odd. But, no, it looked like the statue was hit with a balloon filled with bright orange paint. The paint had splattered on the statue and then dribbled down the statue.

Though I didn’t know who the subject of that monument was, I recognized what had happened. The statue was probably of someone who had served the Confederate Army in the Civil War. Louisville is sort of the gateway between the South and the Midwest, but it’s still on the southern end of the Mason-Dixon line. It has a southern heritage. And someone had dared recognize a man who had once been on the wrong side of the slavery issue. So, someone had recently decided to vandalize that monument.

It turns out that the statue was of a man named John Castleman, who helped found Louisville’s park system. He had also fought for the Confederate Army. He was recognized for his contributions to the city, but now people have decided that someone like that shouldn’t be honored, because his legacy is tarnished. His support of slavery stains his character more than bright orange paint. At least that’s what some people think.

Similar things have happened throughout our country. There has been a debate about whether we should continue to honor people who had once done wrong things or supported wrong causes. Do we continue to have statues and plaques and other monuments that honor such people? Or should those remembrances of things past be removed?

I understand why people are uncomfortable with honoring people who once supported slavery. The statues don’t exist to honor their contributions to slavery, per se. Still, they supported and even fought for that institution, and that makes us uncomfortable, because we know that slavery is a grave evil, and the institution of slavery in this country is one of the nation’s great sins.

Yet when this debate about monuments is held, I think about this: If we were to remove every statue of every person who ever did something wrong, which statues would remain? It’s not hard to point out the errors, the flaws, and faults in people, especially those of different eras.

Think of Martin Luther, the great Protestant Reformer. He was a Catholic priest, monk, and professor who saw that what the Catholic Church practiced was contrary to what is in the Bible. He was a brave man who was willing to act, to call out this problem. He dared to translate the Bible into a language that the people of Germany could understand, which encouraged others to translate the Bible into the vernacular. (This was at a time when the official Bible of the Catholic Church was in Latin.) He was willing to die for the truth of the Bible. It’s possible that we wouldn’t be in this kind of church were it not for Luther. We owe him a debt of gratitude.

But Martin Luther wasn’t perfect. He was known for his colorful language, often insulting people in memorable ways. There’s a website called the “Lutheran Insulter.”[1] You can visit the website and be insulted by Luther’s own words, which are carefully cited. If you want to read another insult, you click “Insult me again.”[2] We might laugh or blush at some of his language. But Luther also wrote some things about Jewish people who did not believe that Jesus was the Messiah, their King and Redeemer, and we would generally view the language he used as anti-Semitic. It’s true that Jewish people who do not believe in Jesus are not God’s people. They are separated from God by their sin. But the same is true of everyone who does not believe in Jesus. But Luther singled out Jewish people and his writings about them make us uncomfortable. And this brings up an awkward tension. Do we honor Luther for his positive contributions? Do we renounce his anti-Semitism? Do we do both?

And what of Martin Luther King, Jr., who was named after Luther? The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is regarded as a great hero of the twentieth century. He spoke out against racism. He advocated a non-violent approach to fighting against that evil. He frequently appealed to the Bible. He spoke and wrote eloquently. We should all be thankful for his work. He is honored in many ways today. Most major cities have a street named after him. There’s a federal holiday named after him.

But was Luther perfect? Not at all. He received a PhD in systematic theology from Boston University. Many years after his death, when his papers were being collected and organized, it was noticed that significant portions of that dissertation were plagiarized. More importantly, King rejected major doctrines of the Christian faith. In papers he wrote at seminary, he doubted the doctrines of the Trinity, the resurrection of Jesus, salvation by substitution, and the second coming of Jesus. He said such doctrines were “contrary to science.”[3] There is no evidence that he refuted those earlier positions. To reject the Trinity and the resurrection and salvation through the death and resurrection of Jesus is to reject Christianity. You can’t be a Christian and believe they are simply myths. Additionally, there is evidence that King was a serial adulterer.[4] How do we view this Luther? Do we continue to honor his positive contributions even while lamenting all his moral failures?

And it’s not just MLK. A couple of months ago, NPR had a story about Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the most famous Indian who has ever lived. The story said that Martin Luther King Jr. visited the former home of Gandhi, in Mumbai. This was in 1959, eleven years after Gandhi was killed. King wanted to spend the night in Gandhi’s old bedroom because he could feel “vibrations of Gandhi.” (That, by the way, is something that a Christian wouldn’t say.) The article noted that this is the 150th anniversary of Gandhi’s birth. Such anniversaries invite closer scrutiny of past leaders. The story noted that a statue of Gandhi was removed from a university in Ghana last year, because he had once written some racist things, saying that white people in South Africa should be the predominant race, and writing some troubling things about black people. So, at least earlier in his life, Gandhi had held some racist ideas.[5]

We could continue to scrutinize famous people of the past, digging up dirt on their lives. Even the greatest human beings have been significantly flawed. Their reputations are stained by sin, by racist ideas, by personal moral failings. If we were to remove every statue of every sinner, there would be no statues left. Well, there would be statues of only one man, the God-man, Jesus of Nazareth. Part of the reason why we celebrate Jesus’ birth at Christmas is because he was the only man who never failed.

This month, we’re looking at passages from the book of Isaiah that explain Christmas, as well as the whole story of the Bible. In the first week, we looked at passages that show a big view of God. As the only true God and the Creator of the universe, there is no one like him. He transcends what we can understand completely. He is big, and we are small in comparison. Last week, we talked about the great problem that we all have: We are separated by God because of our sin. Instead of worshiping the one true God alone, and instead of living life on his terms, we worship other things, things that dictate how we live. We call those things, those false gods, idols. We are, all of us, failures, deeply flawed, stained by sin. If there statues of us, they deserve to be torn down.

If the story ended there, it would be bad news, because God cannot put up with such failure forever. Sin is rebellion against God. It is corrosive. It destroys his good creation. God would be right to punish and eliminate all sinners. But God is also merciful and gracious. He is patient. And God had a plan to provide the perfect human, the only one who has never sinned.

This morning, we’re going to spend our time primarily looking at two passages from the book of Isaiah, a book that was written over twenty-seven hundred years ago, about seven hundred years before Jesus was born. Both of these passages express the hope that a son would be born who would come and make all things right.

The first passage is Isaiah 9:1–7. Before I read this passage, it’s important to know a little bit of history. Isaiah was a prophet in Israel, in Jerusalem, at a time of unrest. The northern kingdom of Israel had separated from the southern kingdom, called Judah, about two hundred years earlier. In Isaiah’s day, the super-power of the world was Assyria, and they threatened Israel. Also, the northern kingdom of Israel had partnered with Syria and they threatened Judah. In this midst of these foreign threats, the people of Judah needed hope that God would one day take care of their enemies, that he would cause his light to shine on people who were living in darkness. And Isaiah promises just that.

Here is Isaiah 9:1–7:

1 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

This passage begins by talking about gloom and anguish. Specifically, two places are mentioned: Zebulun and Naphtali. These were tribes of Israel, both of which were to the west of the sea of Galilee. These were areas that first fell to the invading Assyrian empire. They knew what it was like to be in anguish and gloom, as a foreign army overtook them. The people of the land were deported. Their land was divided into three Assyrian provinces. It was overrun by Gentiles, people who weren’t part of Israel.

The basic idea here is that these lands that were once conquered will experience glory. The people who once lived in darkness will see a great light. The nation that was once beaten down and in despair will one day be filled with joy. The nation that was spoiled will one day divide the spoils of war. They will have victory over their enemies. They were once under the yoke of their foreign oppressors, but soon they will be delivered. God will break that yoke, as well as the rod of oppression. All the garments and equipment associated with war will be burned up, destroyed. Earlier in Isaiah, we’re told that there will be a day when the weapons of war—swords and spears—will be turned into tool used to farm—plows and pruning hooks (Isa. 2:4). There will be an end to war.

The key to this victory, to this light and joy and peace, is found in verse 6. A child will be born. Specifically, a son will be born. The government will rest upon him. God’s kingdom will be ruled by him. And this special child, this son, will be called four names. The first is Wonderful Counselor, which refers to the wonderful, or supernatural, counsel that he will give. Unlike all of Israel’s previous kings, this king will make perfect decisions because he is perfectly wise. He will never hold false views and give wrong advice.

He will also be called Mighty God. Now, it’s possible that the Hebrew phrase behind that name could be translated as something like “Mighty One of God” or “Warrior of God.” But in the very next chapter of Isaiah, the one true God is called “mighty God” (Isa. 10:21). It’s likely that Isaiah’s original audience thought that this son would represent God, but not actually be God. That’s because they couldn’t imagine that God would become a human being. That seemed impossible. Yet that is what Isaiah prophesied. Somehow, the child who will be born will also be God.

He is also called Everlasting Father. This does not mean that God the Father would become a child. We believe that God is one being in three persons: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. While they are perfectly united, it’s important not to get these three persons confused. The word “father” can be used in nonliteral ways, the way that Catholics will refer to a priest as “Father.” Obviously, he’s not their biological father, nor is he God the Father, but he is viewed as a kind of leader, provider, and protector. And that’s more or less how “Father” is used here. He will care for his family. He will lead them. He will provide for them. He will protect them. Unlike all the other kings of Israel, who not only lacked perfect wisdom and often weren’t mighty or godly, this “Father” will be everlasting. His reign will have no end.

Finally, he will be called Prince of Peace. Perhaps the people of Isaiah’s day were hoping only for political peace. That’s what so many people want. Or, they want peace with family members, and perhaps some kind of economic victory. More often, we want these things plus a sense of internal peace, a peace in our souls. But that peace won’t come unless we have peace with God. And that is ultimately what Isaiah is talking about. This child, this son, will bring real, lasting peace, peace with God, to his people.

Verse 7 make explicit some things I’ve already said. This child’s reign and the peace that comes with it will know no end. He will reign on David’s throne forever. David was the great king of Israel. But David was flawed. He had many wives, though God made marriage to be something that unites one man and one woman. Though David had multiple wives, he wanted more. He saw another man’s wife, Bathsheba, and wanted her because she was beautiful. So, he took her. And she became pregnant. To cover up what he had done, David had Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah, killed. David certainly had his own sins. But this descendant of David would not be like David. He would reign perfectly. He would be perfectly righteous, always doing what was right. He would make sure that justice was always done. There would be no corruption in his administration. And God would make all of this come to pass: “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.”

In short, Isaiah is promising victory for those who were defeated. He is promising peace and joy to those who were apart from God and despairing. He promised light to those who were in darkness. All of this would come through this special son, who would not only be a descendant of David, but also Mighty God himself. Because he is God, he will reign forever.

This promise that God made through Isaiah would probably have seemed a little hard to believe twenty-seven hundred years ago, when Israel was divided and partially defeated. And it’s hard to believe now, that there would be a perfect leader, particularly when we consider that even the greatest of men have their sins. But that is what God promised.

The promise continues in Isaiah 11. Look at Isaiah 11:1–5:

1 There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him,
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
And his delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide disputes by what his ears hear,
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
and he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth,
and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt of his waist,
and faithfulness the belt of his loins.

This prophecy of Isaiah is about the same child. He would come from the “root” of Jesse, who was king David’s father. And from this root would come good fruit. That’s because the Holy Spirit would rest upon him, and the Holy Spirit would give this king wisdom, understanding, counsel, might, knowledge, and a fear of the Lord. When we talk of “fear of the Lord,” we don’t necessarily mean being afraid of God. It’s more like having a healthy respect for God. Unlike the kings that came before this king, this king would be perfectly wise, perfect in his understanding and knowledge. Wisdom, the knowledge of how to live rightly, comes from the fear of the Lord (Prov. 9:10). This king would be a good king because he would live for God. This king would take care of the poor. He would defeat the wicked. He would always do what is right.

If you take a look at all our political leaders, such a leader sounds too good to be true. Imagine if we were told we would have a president who would be like this. We couldn’t imagine that happening. All our presidents seem foolish or proud or conceited or wicked. They lack true fear of the Lord. But not this leader.

We’re also told in Isaiah 11 that this leader would bring about real, lasting peace. Look at verses 6–10:

The wolf shall dwell with the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat,
and the calf and the lion and the fattened calf together;
and a little child shall lead them.
The cow and the bear shall graze;
their young shall lie down together;
and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.
The nursing child shall play over the hole of the cobra,
and the weaned child shall put his hand on the adder’s den.
They shall not hurt or destroy
in all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.
10 In that day the root of Jesse, who shall stand as a signal for the peoples—of him shall the nations inquire, and his resting place shall be glorious.

Some of that language is a poetic way of imagining real peace. Imagine a wolf living peacefully with a lamb instead of wanting to devour it. Who could imagine a young child leading dangerous and wild animals? Who could imagine an infant or a toddler laying safely near snakes?

Yet God promised that this king, who comes from Jesse’s lineage, would bring about such peace. This king will put an end to destruction and harm. In fact, he will cause the whole Earth to be full of the knowledge of God. People from all the nations of the Earth will come to him.

These passages sound too good to be true. But they are true, and they are about Jesus. He is the offspring of David who will reign forever. He is the only one who is perfectly wise, perfectly righteous, perfectly just. He is the only one who has perfectly worshiped and honored God the Father. And one day he will bring about perfect peace on Earth.

We know these passages are about Jesus because only he could fulfill them. Also, Matthew, who wrote a biography of Jesus, quotes the beginning of Isaiah 9, saying that Jesus fulfilled that passage by visiting the territories of Zebulun and Naphtali (Matt. 4:13–16). Only Jesus is both a son who was born and also Mighty God. He is the only perfect leader, the only perfect man, the only perfect human being who has ever lived.

At Christmas, we celebrate his birth because it is a miracle. The eternal Son of God, who has always existed, became a human being. God is not like us in some important ways. God is eternal. We have a beginning. God doesn’t have a body; he is spirit. We have bodies. God is omnipresent. We are limited to one space, as well as one time. God is perfect. We are not. How can God become a human being and still remain God? It’s hard to understand, but this is by no means impossible. We know it’s not impossible because it happened. Jesus is God the Son, and he added a second nature to himself. He is one person with two natures, one divine and the other human. He was and is truly human. He has a body. He was born. He ate and drank. He became tired and slept. He had a full range of human emotions. He felt pain. He suffered. He died. Jesus is truly God but he’s also truly human.

Part of the reason why Jesus came is because every other human failed to live as they should. We may not have written racist statements or committed adultery or murder, but we have all failed to love God and live for him. We have failed to keep God’s moral code. If we’re being honest, we have to admit that we’ve failed to keep our own moral codes. But Jesus has never failed. He’s not selfish. He can’t be bought or sold.

And not only has he always done what is right, but he’s always held the right ideas. He’s not racist. He hasn’t advocated for the oppression of innocent human beings. His theology is perfect.

And he’s perfectly wise. He’s clever. He knows the right thing to say. Even in the midst of persecution and pressure, he always said and did what was right.

You can’t see all of that by reading these two passages in Isaiah, but if you look to the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you can see that. We have been studying Luke’s Gospel, and we’ll finish it next year.[6] You can learn more about Jesus by reading those Gospels. We have almost all of the sermons on Luke available online. If you don’t know Jesus yet, I urge you to read about him. Read his words. Consider his life. Only he is perfect.

The reason why he needed to be perfect was because God wants and even demands a perfect human being to covenant with him. In the end, God can only dwell with those who aren’t corrupted by sin. Jesus lived a perfect human life in order to fulfill God’s righteous demands.

But Jesus also came to die. I’ll talk more about this next week, when we talk about how God saves his people. But for now, it will suffice to say that Jesus came to pay the penalty that we deserve. Though he was and is perfect, he was treated like the worst criminal. If we’re to think about statues, it’s like this: Jesus let his statue be destroyed so that statues of corrupted men and women wouldn’t e torn down. That’s metaphorical, of course. The fact is that we deserve to be torn down, condemned by God, removed from his good creation. Jesus didn’t deserve that. But he came to take that penalty for us. And he also came to give us his righteousness.

But what of all the talk of Jesus reigning forever and defeating enemies? The truth is that Jesus didn’t come to do all of that, at least not when he first came to Earth. But the promise is that though he returned to heaven, he will come again to bring about perfect peace on Earth. All who trust in Jesus, who willingly come under his rule, who properly fear him, who believe that he is the only one who can make us and the world right with God, will live with God forever in a perfect world. All who reject Jesus will be judged and condemned. They will be cast out and remain in darkness forever. When this happens, the world will be recreated. There will be no more hurt or destruction in God’s creation. The wolf shall lie down with the lamb. The knowledge and glory of God will cover that new Earth the way the waters cover the sea.

The only way to have that promised peace, to have a place in that perfect world, is to trust in Jesus. Every other leader who has ever come and gone is flawed and failed. We’re all a mixed bag of good and evil. But not Jesus. He is the only one who never failed. Receive this gift that God offers by putting your trust in him.

Notes

  1. https://ergofabulous.org/luther.
  2. After several clicks, my favorite is: “You should not write a book before you have heard an old sow fart; and then you should open your jaws with awe, saying, ‘Thank you, lovely nightingale, that is just the text for me!’” From “Against Hanswurst,” pg. 250 of Luther’s Works, Vol. 41.
  3. Joe Carter, “9 Things You Should Know about Martin Luther King, Jr.” The Gospel Coalition, January 19, 2014, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/9-things-you-should-know-about-martin-luther-king-jr-2.
  4. Joshua Horn, “Was Martin Luther King Jr. a Christian?” Discerning History, April 17, 2018, http://discerninghistory.com/2018/04/was-martin-luther-king-jr-a-christian.
  5. Lauren Frayer, “Gandhi Is Deeply Revered, But His Attitudes on Race and Sex Are Under Scrutiny,” National Public Radio, October 2, 2019, https://www.npr.org/2019/10/02/766083651/gandhi-is-deeply-revered-but-his-attitudes-on-race-and-sex-are-under-scrutiny.
  6. See the sermons on Luke available at https://wbcommunity.org/luke.

 

The Gospel according to Isaiah: A Son Is Given

The prophet of Isaiah foretold the coming of a special child, a son who would be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace. This person would make all deliver his people and bring about righteousness, justice, and peace. Jesus is the fulfilment of these promises. Find out how Jesus is the leader we want and need. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 15, 2019.

The Gospel according to Isaiah, Part 2 (Sin and Idolatry)

In our second installment of this series, we look at what the book of Isaiah says regarding sin, the thing that separates us from God. At the heart of sin is a broken relationship with God. We replace the true God with a false god, an idol, something that we can control. God calls us back to himself through Jesus. Brian Watson preached this sermon on December 8, 2019.

Born This Day in the City of David

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on the morning of December 24, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (or see below).

What does Christmas mean to you? What is it all about?

Perhaps the best way to find out what Christmas means to each one of us is to think about what comes to mind when we think of Christmas. What are the images in your head? What does your nativity set look like? What are the sights of Christmas? Lights? Decorations? What are the sounds of Christmas? Songs? Bells? Laughter? What are the smells of Christmas? Something baking in the oven, like cookies? Spices?

Does anyone here think of Christmas and then imagine a dirty, smelly room and a baby crying?

Probably not, but that’s how the first Christmas was, when Jesus was born. From a worldly perspective, or a natural perspective, the birth of Jesus wasn’t special or attractive. There was nothing glorious about it. But God delights in doing amazing things in unexpected ways. And, as we’ll see this morning, the birth of Jesus is contrary to what we expect when we think of a King and a Savior.

We’re continuing our exploration of the Gospel of Luke this morning by considering only seven verses. We’ll be reading Luke 2:1–7. To give us a sense of context, let me quickly review what we have seen thus far in Luke.

Luke is one of the four Gospels in the New Testament of the Bible. Each Gospel is a biography of Jesus, focusing on who he was and what he did, particularly in his miracles, his teaching, his death on the cross, and his resurrection. Each Gospel has its own emphases, its own themes. Luke is interesting because it was written by someone who didn’t actually witness the events he wrote about. Luke says at the beginning of his Gospel that he wrote this history on the basis of eyewitness testimony. He used written documents, he interviewed people, and he combined those historical accounts of Jesus into this book of the Bible (Luke 1:1–4).

In the rest of the first chapter of Luke, he tells two related stories of how an angel of God announced the coming of two special children. The first child is John, better known as John the Baptist. He was born to an old couple who were previously unable to have children. John’s role would be to turn the hearts of the people of Israel back to God and to prepare the way for the coming of the second child (Luke 1:13–17, 75–79).

That second child is Jesus, the long-awaited anointed King, the Messiah or Christ. He is also called the “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), or the Son of God. The angel Gabriel told Mary, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, that Jesus would be supernaturally conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. This certainly was no ordinary baby.

Now, the time for Jesus’ birth has come. So, let’s read through this morning’s passage and then I’ll point out a few things this passage teaches us. Let’s read Luke 2:1–7:

1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.[1]

Here’s the first point I want to make: Luke is writing history. He situates the birth of Jesus during the time of Caesar Augustus, and also during time of Herod the Great. Herod was mentioned in the first chapter (Luke 1:5). Since he died in 4 B.C., this must have been prior to that time. Some of us may be surprised to learn that Jesus wasn’t born in the year zero, or the year 1 A.D. Well, there is no year zero. And the fact that he wasn’t born in A.D. 1 is due to the fact that the numbering of years didn’t come until centuries later. And Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25, either. The reason that date is used to observe Christmas is because it was the date of a festival in the Roman Empire. If you want to know more about those details, you can read the article that I wrote, the one that is inserted into your bulletin.[2]

What’s important for us to see this morning is that Luke gives us two indications of when Jesus was born. It was during Caesar Augustus’s reign. He was the first emperor of the Roman Empire and he reigned for forty years (27 B.C.–14 A.D.). When he was born in 63 B.C. he was named Gaius Octavius. He was the grandnephew of Julius Caesar. When Julius Caesar was murdered (in 44 B.C.), he had named Octavius as his adopted son and heir in his will. Octavius then joined forces with two other men, including Mark Antony, to defeat Julius Caesar’s assassins. And when Octavius and these two other men fought against each other, Octavius prevailed. He was later named Emperor by the Roman Senate.

I’ll talk a bit more about Augustus in a moment. For now, it’s important to see that he was the most powerful man in the world at this time. And it was during Augustus’s reign that Jesus was born.

Luke also mentions another name, Quirinius. He was governor of Syria a few years after Jesus was born. The reason he is mentioned is because Luke tells us that Augustus decided to have a registration, or census, taken in the Empire. Luke says this decree required “all the world” to be registered. This is a bit of hyperbole, but it’s a phrase that was used of the Roman Empire (see also Col. 1:6). It’s not far from the truth, since the Roman Empire included most of the world known to people like Luke. Augustus wanted this census to be taken in order to tax everyone living under his jurisdiction. In addition to gaining revenue for the Empire, it was a way of showing the people who was boss.

Some people think that this mention of Quirinius is an indication that Luke got his history wrong, because a census under Quirinius was taken in 6 A.D., some ten years after these events. I deal with this in the article I mentioned earlier. There are two ways of dealing with this issue to show that Luke wasn’t wrong. One, it’s possible that an earlier census was taken, or that this same census had begun years earlier and took a decade to complete. It’s possible that an earlier census was overseen by Quirinius prior to his time as governor of Syria. It’s also possible that the same census took a long time to complete, that it had begun under someone else’s oversight, and that it was finished by Quirinius years later. So, that way of dealing with the issue states that we don’t really know all the details of this period of history. That’s fairly common for the ancient world. We don’t know everything that happened. We have to rely on artifacts, most of which are ancient writings. Some things were never written down, and much of what was written has not survived decay and destruction.

The second way of dealing with this issue is to realize that perhaps verse 2 isn’t translated correctly. The ESV says, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” But a footnote in the ESV says it could be translated, “This was the registration before Quirinius was governor of Syria.” That’s because the Greek word translated as “first” could also be translated as “before.”[3] If that is case, then Luke is not wrong at all. In fact, in Acts, the sequel to the Gospel of Luke, he tells of the effects that Quirinius’s census had on the Jewish people—it led to a rebellion (Acts 5:37). So, Luke is basically saying, “The Roman Emperor called for a census. No, this wasn’t that census, the one carried out by Quirinius. This was an earlier one.”

This census was taken according to Jewish customs, which had people return to their ancestral homes. Joseph, who was betrothed to Mary, was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, the premier king of Israel who was from Bethlehem. Perhaps Joseph had inherited some property there. We don’t know. What we know is that this registration required him to go to Bethlehem. We also know he took Mary with him. Perhaps they had already been married yet did not consummate the marriage, and that is why they are said to be betrothed. If that is the case, she might have been required to be with Joseph. I’m sure he wanted his wife to be with him when she gave birth. So, for that reason, they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a journey that might have been about 90 miles or so.

The second thing I want to point out is that Luke probably wants us to compare Caesar August and Jesus. Augustus was the leader of the world’s superpower. He was the most powerful man in the world. He received the title “Augustus,” which means “Illustrious One,” or “Exalted One,” when he became Emperor. He was also known as Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, or “Commander Caesar, Son of the God, the Illustrious One.” That is because Julius Caesar was viewed as being divine. Over time, the Roman Emperor was viewed as a god and he was worshiped.

Augustus was known for expanding the size of the Roman Empire to include more of Europe and Africa, for strengthening the Empire, and for establishing what was known as the Pax Romana, or “peace in Rome.” Ironically, that peace was achieved through violence. One way to achieve peace is to conquer your enemies with the sword until they submit.

If you asked anyone in the Roman Empire in those who days who was the most important person in the world, the most powerful person in the world, anyone would say, “Caesar Augustus.”

But little did they know that the most powerful and most important person who ever walked the planet was being born in an unexpected place. Jesus, the King of kings, was born to a couple of humble people in a strange place, among animals. And he was placed in a feeding trough.

I should say now that some of the details of the Christmas story that we imagine aren’t necessarily true. There’s no mention of Mary heading to Bethlehem on a donkey. She probably walked, which would have taken several days. And when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, they weren’t rejected by an innkeeper who said, “Bah! Humbug!” There is no innkeeper mentioned. In fact, the word that is translated here as “inn” might mean “guest room.”[4] Houses at that time were simple. They didn’t have many rooms. There would be a main room for the people who lived there, a room for guests (because hospitality was necessary in a world without hotels), and perhaps a separate room for animals. Animals were brought inside to be kept warm. Or perhaps the body heat of the animals would help keep the humans warm. Joseph and Mary probably found lodging in someone’s house, but they weren’t put in the guest room. No, they were in a room with animals, which is why there was a manger there. And they placed their baby in that manger, or feeding trough.

There couldn’t be a greater contrast between Augustus, the Emperor, and Jesus, the Messiah. I bet if you told people in their day that the most powerful king the world has known was about to be born, they would imagine that birth taking place in a palace in a major city. They would imagine that the parents were a king and queen. But Jesus was born to two ordinary people, and he was born among animals, probably in filth.

There’s a children’s Bible that we’ve read a number of times to our kids. It’s called The Big Picture Story Bible. (We have a few copies on the back table, available for anyone who wants them.) This is what that children’s Bible says about Caesar and Jesus:

This Roman ruler thought he was very important. One day he wondered to himself, How will everyone know that I am the great Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the world? I know! I will count all the people under my rule. Surely that will show the world how great I am. So Caesar, the Roman ruler, the king of the whole Roman world, began counting all his people to show everyone how great he was. What Caesar did not know was that God, the world’s true ruler, the king of the universe was getting ready to show everyone how great he was. . . . And do you know how God was going to do this? Not like Caesar . . . not proudly, by counting all his people, but humbly, by becoming one of his people. In the power of his Spirit, God would bring his forever king into the world as a baby![5]

God often does the unexpected. He uses the small, weak, poor people more often than he uses the powerful and the rich. God delights in showing his strength through human weakness. God seems to enjoy doing things in a way that we would never imagine.

In Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, she says of God,

51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate (Luke 1:51–52).

God was doing just that in Jesus’ birth. God even used Caesar to cause Jesus to be born in Bethlehem. If not for the census, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth. But it was prophesied that a ruler would come from Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2). God is greater than the greatest human beings, and even when they don’t know him and claim to be gods, he can use them to do his will.

Jesus is the one who brings about true peace, peace with God. He didn’t come the first time to set up a political kingdom, at least not in the way the world would imagine a political kingdom. He didn’t come with a big army, ready to conquer the Roman Empire. He could have done that. But he didn’t. The reason that Jesus came was to take care of our biggest need, our problem of sin. Sin is our rebellion against God. It’s more than just wrong actions. Sin includes wrong desires and wrong motivations. It’s a power that is at work within us, corrupting us from the inside out. What we need is someone who can remove our sin and make us right in God’s eyes.

In Matthew’s Gospel, an angel says to Joseph, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20–21). Jesus came to save his people from their sins. He does that by living the perfect life that we don’t live. Therefore, he fulfills God’s requirements for humanity. But he also dies a death in our place, taking the penalty for our sin. When Jesus was born, he was wrapped in swaddling cloths. After he was crucified, his body was wrapped in linen cloths (Luke 24:12; John 19:40). We need to remember that Christmas led to Good Friday, when Jesus died to pay for our sins. And that story leads to the good news of Easter, when Jesus rose from the grave and cast aside those cloths. He was unbound, having defeated the powers of sin and death.

Augustus created a peace of sorts through military strength. Jesus creates real peace through his own death. The greatest man who has ever lived was not proud. He was humble, laying down his own life.

And that leads me to the third point I want to make: God comes down to us in our filth. We often have a nice, pleasant view of Jesus’ birth, even though we know he was born among animals and placed in a manger. Our view of Christmas is sanitized. But the reality was that it was probably a filthy, foul-smelling environment.

Years ago, I read a book of Advent and Christmas readings. Some of these writings were by authors like C.S. Lewis and Martin Luther. Others were written by authors I didn’t know, some of whom were Catholics. One such author was Giovanni Papini.[6] He begins by saying Jesus was born in a real stable, one that was dirty, not the tidy stable of our imagination. He says that the only clean thing in the stable is the manger, where the hay is placed. (I can’t imagine the manger and its way was too clean, but I suppose it would be relatively clean.) Then he starts to describe how the hay is made. He writes,

Fresh in the clear morning, waving in the wind, sunny, lush, sweet-scented, the spring meadow was mown. The green grass, the long slim blades, were cut down by the scythe; and with the grass the beautiful flowers in full bloom—white, red, yellow, blue. They withered and dried and took on the one dull color of hay. Oxen dragged back to the barn the dead plunder of May and June. And now that grass has become dry hay and those flowers, still smelling sweet, are there in the manger to feed the slaves of man. The animals take it slowly with their great black lips, and later the flowering fields, changed into moist dung, return to light on the litter which serves as bedding.[7]

That’s a nice picture, isn’t it? Where is he going with this? Well, we must read on:

This is the real stable where Jesus was born. The filthiest place in the world was the first room of the only pure man ever born of woman. The Son of Man, who was to be devoured by wild beasts calling themselves men, had as his first cradle the manger where the animals chewed the cud of the miraculous flowers of spring.

It was not by chance that Christ was born in a stable. What is the world but an immense stable where men produce filth and wallow in it? Do they not daily change the most beautiful, the purest, the most divine things into excrement? Then, stretching themselves at full length on the piles of manure, they say they are “enjoying life.” Upon this earthly pigsty, where no decorations or perfumes can hide the odor of filth, Jesus appeared one night.[8]

We take the beautiful things that God has made and turn them into filth. And Jesus came into that filth. And, as we’ll see later in the Gospel of Luke, people acted beastly towards Jesus and they killed him. This was all God’s plan.

Think about that. God stoops down and enters into our filth. We don’t have to clean ourselves up to get to God. No, he rolls up his sleeves and comes into the muck of this life to rescue us. That is what is amazing about Jesus and about Christianity. Religions generally say, “Do this and you’ll be acceptable to God. Do this and you’ll get to heaven, Paradise, Nirvana, etc.” Christianity says, “You can’t do that. Your sin taints all your efforts. You can never make yourself pure enough. You can’t save yourself to get to God, so God must come down and save you.” That is why Christmas is amazing.

And we must see that Jesus lived a real life. Yes, it started with a miraculous conception. But he lived as a human being. As a baby, he soiled his diapers. And I’m sure he cried. The familiar hymn, “Away in a Manger,” says “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” But that is silly. We have no reason to believe that Jesus wouldn’t cry. He cried as an adult, why not as a child?

The sights of the first Christmas included animals and probably a very simple structure with a dirt floor. The smells include manure. The sounds included a woman in labor and a baby crying. God enters into this environment to save us. He enters into our chaos, our noise, our filth.

Here’s a fourth thing that we should see in this passage: The baby Jesus is placed in a feeding trough. This is where the food for animals would be placed. Perhaps this is no accident. If we turn all the beautiful things that God has made in this world into filth, perhaps we need better food. And Jesus provides that food. He is our spiritual food. Food sustains life. Jesus says, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst” (John 6:35). Of course, this is a metaphor. We “feed” on Jesus by trusting that he alone gives us eternal life. He alone can save us from our sin. He alone gives us true life. He alone can satisfy the deepest cravings of our souls. It’s no wonder that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, for Bethlehem means “house of bread.”

No emperor could do this. No president or prime minister can. No businessman, no scientist, no professor, no celebrity, no entertainer, and no athlete can do this. Only Jesus can. He is the greatest person who has ever lived, yet he came humbly, stooping to our level to bring us up to his.

So, how should we respond to this message? I think there are two ways that people generally respond to Jesus. I suppose one way is the way of Caesar. We could rely on our own strength, too proud to see that we need a savior. We could say, “I find all that talk about being a beast and turning good things into crap offensive. I’m not like that.” Perhaps we have some knowledge that we do need a savior, but we don’t want to come under the authority of Jesus. If that is the case, we’re responding with the way of Caesar.

Another way of responding is the way of Joseph and Mary, and, as we’ll see tonight, the way of the shepherds. We can receive the gift of Jesus with joy and humility. We can submit our lives to God’s authority. We can wonder that God would come to save lowly people like us. I must say this as clearly as possible: no matter how much you’ve fouled up your life, no matter how much you’ve taken beautiful things and turned them into excrement, Jesus can save you. Turn to him and trust him. Learn about him, believe that he is who the Bible says he is and that he has done what the Bible says he has done. Confess your sins to him and ask him for cleansing.

Jesus came as a baby, but this is no kids story. We dare not sanitize the story by making it a cute little tale. No, this is a real, gritty story. And because of that, it’s a powerful story. Best of all, it’s true. Jesus, the light of the world, entered into our darkness. Jesus, the only pure human who has ever lived, came into our mire. Jesus, who gives us the water of life (the Holy Spirit), came to clean us up. He did this at a great cost to himself. He is the greatest Christmas gift, and his salvation comes to us without price. Will you receive this gift?

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. “When Was Jesus Born?” can be read at https://wbcommunity.org/when-was-jesus-born.
  3. πρῶτος.
  4. The Greek word is κατάλυμα.
  5. David Helm, The Big Picture Story Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 235–241.
  6. Giovanni Papini, “Ox and Ass,” in Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2004).
  7. Ibid., 236.
  8. Ibid., 236–237.

 

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 31, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

Do you know what a “bucket list” is? A “bucket list” is a list of things to do before you kick the bucket. According to one website, here are the top ten bucket list ideas:

1. See the Northern Lights.

2. Skydive.

3. Get a tattoo.

4. Swim with dolphins.

5. Go on a cruise.

6. Get married.

7. Run a marathon.

8. Go zip-lining.

9. Go scuba diving.

10. Ride an elephant.[1]

I looked at a few similar lists and there’s a lot of overlap on these lists. Most of top bucket list items involve travel, seeing something unique, and achieving something significant. So, other bucket list items might involve traveling to all fifty states or all seven continents, seeing the Great Wall of China, and writing a book.

What’s on your bucket list? What do you want to see or do before you die?

Today, we’ll look at how two older Jewish people reacted to the baby Jesus. It seems they both had a very short bucket list, a list that had only one item: See the Messiah. They wanted to see God’s anointed one, the one who would redeem God’s people, who would bring the promised “consolation of Israel.”

This morning, we’ll be reading Luke 2:22–40. Before we start reading, I’ll briefly remind us of what we’ve seen so far in Luke’s Gospel. Luke begins by explaining how this book is a work of history. He wrote of the amazing things that God had done through Jesus, and his history was written on the basis of eyewitness testimony. The first chapter of Luke showed us how the angel Gabriel promised that two special children would be born. First, John the Baptist would come. He would urge Israelites to turn back to God and he would prepare the way for the second child. The second child is Jesus, who was conceived in a virgin’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit. He was the anointed one, the one who would inherit the throne of David, the one who would rule forever, the “Son of the Most High.”

The second chapter of Luke begins with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because the Roman emperor, Augustus, had decreed that a census should be taken. The census required that Jews travel to their ancestral homeland. Joseph was from the tribe of Judah and the line of David, who was from Bethlehem. So, Joseph and Mary traveled to the “city of David.” Jesus was born there amid animals, in a very humble and perhaps quite filthy environment. This is not the way you would expect such a special child to be born, but it shows that God comes to us in our filth.

After Jesus is born, angels appear to some shepherds and tell them the good news that the Savior, the Lord, the Christ is born. They announce that there is peace on earth among those with whom God is pleased. The shepherds race to discover that indeed the Christ is born. They glorified and praised God for all that they had seen.

In today’s passage, we find out what happens when Joseph and Mary bring their child to the temple in Jerusalem. They bring Jesus there to fulfill the law that God gave to Israel. When they do, two older Israelites are overjoyed.

Let’s first read verses 22–24:

22 And when the time came for their purification according to the Law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (as it is written in the Law of the Lord, “Every male who first opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”) 24 and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, “a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.”[2]

Why do Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple? They brought him there to fulfill two things written in the law of the Old Testament. One is the purification that must occur after a woman gives birth. The book of Leviticus says that after a woman gives birth to a male child, she is unclean for seven days. Then, the child should be circumcised on the eighth day, which is when Jesus was circumcised (Luke 2:21). Then, for the next thirty-three days, the woman shall not touch anything holy or enter the temple. At the end of this time of purification, she shall bring a sacrifice: a lamb for a burnt offering and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering. If she couldn’t afford a lamb, she should offer two pigeons or two turtledoves (Lev. 12:1–8). The law says, “And the priest shall make atonement for her, and she shall be clean” (Lev. 12:8).

To our ears, all of that sounds very strange. Why would a woman be ceremonially unclean after childbirth? Isn’t giving birth a good thing? Well, we can’t understand this idea without having some concept of the holiness of God. According to the Bible, God is holy. That means he is transcendent and pure. The presence of sin in the world taints us, however, and makes us unholy. If there were no sin in the world, there would be no blood shed. In fact, one of the consequences of sin is that childbirth would become painful (Gen. 3:16). If sin, which is a rebellion against God, never existed, life would be different. According to the law that God gave Israel, Israelites could offer sacrifices to atone for sin. In the book of Leviticus, other things that might not seem inherently sinful, like mold and mildew, could render something unholy. The idea is that the negative things in the world are the result of sin, and the holiness code of Leviticus taught the Israelites that if they were to approach God, they needed to become pure.

The second part of the law that Joseph and Mary fulfilled concerned the firstborn child. The firstborn Israelites belonged to the Lord. They were God’s and they needed to be bought back, or redeemed. This idea goes back to the exodus, when God brought the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. To free the Israelites, God sent ten plagues on Egypt. The tenth plague was the death of all the firstborn in the land of Egypt. The only way that anyone could avoid this fate was to sacrifice a lamb and place the blood of the lamb on the door frame and lintel. Since God allowed the firstborn Israelites to be spared, they belonged to him (Exod. 13:2, 12–15). Later, the law required a redemption price of five shekels, which was equivalent to about six months of wages (Num. 18:16).[3]

I don’t want to get bogged down in the details of these Old Testament laws. The point is that Joseph and Mary were obedient to God. They followed his law. The fact that they sacrificed two birds shows that they were not wealthy. When the present Jesus to the Lord, there’s no mention of their paying a redemption price. Perhaps they simply offered Jesus to God without paying the redemption price. The idea would be that Jesus is God’s, dedicated to his service. They might have been saying, “He is yours, not ours.”[4]

Beyond these details, it’s interesting that Luke mentions Jerusalem, the temple, and the law. We already saw one scene at the temple, when Zechariah offered incense in the temple and the angel Gabriel appeared to him. Throughout both the Gospel of Luke and the book of Acts, the temple will play an important role. Of course, the temple was the center of Judaism. It was where God was worshiped, where God’s special presence dwelled, and where various sacrifices were offered. But Jesus came to replace the temple. He is the true temple, the dwelling place of God. He is Immanuel, “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). He is the true sacrifice; in fact, he is the true High Priest. He’s also the “place” of worship for Christians. We don’t have to go to a particular building or city to worship God. We can meet God if we are united to Jesus.

Luke also emphasizes the law. Five times in this passage we’re told that Joseph and Mary did things according to the law (Luke 2:22, 23, 24, 26, 39). We saw last week that the law of Caesar Augustus brought them from Nazareth to Bethlehem (Luke 2:1–7). But it is the law of the Lord that brings them to Jerusalem, and there is no doubt that the law of the Lord is greater than the law of any human ruler.[5]

The fact that Joseph and Mary observed God’s law shows that they were faithful Israelites. But it also has a greater theological significance. According to the apostle Paul, “[W]hen the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4–5). Jesus came to obey the law perfectly, which is something that no other Israelite did, something that no other human could do or did do. And he came to do away with the law. That doesn’t mean that he came to put an end to morality, or moral principles. But the particular set of laws that God gave to Israel wasn’t intended to be permanent. It revealed their sin, it taught them important principles, and it prepared them for the coming of the Messiah.

The law is superseded by the Holy Spirit. It’s no surprise that Luke would emphasize the law and the Holy Spirit in the same passage. The age of the law was passing away, and the age of the Holy Spirit was arriving. We see this in the next several verses. Let’s read about a man named Simeon. I’ll read verses 25–32:

25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. 26 And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. 27 And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, 28 he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,

29  “Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
30  for my eyes have seen your salvation
31  that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
32  a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”

I want to explore three things in this passage. One concerns who Simeon is. We’re told he was “righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” We’re also told the Holy Spirit was on him, the Holy Spirit told him he wouldn’t die before seeing the Messiah, and that the Holy Spirit led him to the temple to see Jesus. The Holy Spirit is the third person of the triune God, and he is very active in Luke’s Gospel and in Acts. We’re not told how old Simeon is, but we get the sense that he was advanced in years. It seems like he had been waiting for years.

The second thing I want to point out what Simeon was waiting for. He was waiting to see the “consolation of Israel.” The Greek word translated as “consolation” is παράκλησις (paraklēsis). It’s sometimes translated as “comfort,” and that reminds us of passages in the Old Testament that promised God would bring comfort to Israel. The most famous is Isaiah 40:1: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.” Another passage is Isaiah 49:13:

Sing for joy, O heavens, and exult, O earth;
break forth, O mountains, into singing!
For the Lord has comforted his people
and will have compassion on his afflicted.

That Greek word is also related to the word παράκλητος (paraklētos), which Jesus uses to describe the Holy Spirit. The word is often translated as “Helper” or “Comforter” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). God will bring comfort and consolation to Israel by means of the Holy Spirit. And Simeon knew that the day of consolation had arrived. The Messiah, anointed by God’s Holy Spirit, had come to redeem his people.

The third thing I want to point out is what Simeon said. When Simeon sees Jesus, he takes the baby in his arms, and he sings the fourth hymn that we find in the first two chapters of Luke. It is known as Nunc Dimittis, which is a Latin translation of the first two Greek words, “now dismiss.” Simeon tells God that he can now depart in peace, for he has seen the salvation of God. He knows that Jesus is the Savior, the one who will bring peace between God and his people. And this salvation is not just for ethnic Israel only. It is for all people, both Jews and Gentiles. The idea of a “light to the nations,” or a “light to the Gentiles,” also comes from the book of Isaiah (42:6; 49:6; 60:3). It had always been God’s plan to save Gentiles through his Messiah.

Before we move on, we should wonder that an old man would have spent so much time waiting to see a baby. We should wonder that this man, after seeing this baby, said that he could now “depart,” which might be a euphemism for death. He is saying to God, “I can now die. I have seen what I wanted to see.” Some people want to see other countries or famous landmarks before they die. I bet there were some people in Red Sox Nation who said, before 2004, “God, just let me live long enough to see the Sox win the World Series.” They hadn’t won it all in a lifetime (from 1918 to 2004). But World Series don’t matter that much in the grand scheme of things. And as great as it is to travel, to see unique sites, traveling doesn’t take care of our biggest needs. Traveling can’t promise eternal life. Various achievements, like running a marathon or writing a book, can’t make us right with God or give our souls rest.

But what Simeon saw was indeed the greatest thing anyone could see. He saw God in the flesh. Jesus is not just the Messiah, but he is the Son of God. That means he is divine. He is and has always been God the Son. And when he was conceived, he added a second nature. He was and is truly God, but he also became—and still is!—truly human. He came to fulfill the law for us and he came to pay the penalty for our sin for us. He came as the true sacrifice for sin. Simeon saw this, and he knew that his life was complete.

This is the hope of Israel. It is what faithful Israelites waited centuries to see. And it is the hope of all the nations. Simeon’s words echo another passage in Isaiah. This is what Isaiah 52:7–10 says:

How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of him who brings good news,
who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness,
who publishes salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice;
together they sing for joy;
for eye to eye they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you waste places of Jerusalem,
for the Lord has comforted his people;
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
10  The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.[6]

Simeon serves as a watchman, waiting for the salvation of Israel to come. And he sings of the good news that God has brought salvation to his people. He saw that the Lord had come to Zion, Jerusalem, to save. He knew that salvation would extend to people of all nations. He rejoiced and was glad.

Simeon’s words caused Joseph and Mary to marvel. But he wasn’t done. Let’s read verses 33–35:

33 And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. 34 And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed 35 (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.”

So far in Luke, the news of Jesus’ coming has been all joy. But now there’s an ominous tone. Simeon says that the child has been appointed for the fall and rising of man, that he will be opposed, that a sword will pierce Mary’s soul, and that the secret thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. Simeon says that Jesus will be a polarizing figure. Some people will receive him and others will oppose him. In the book of Isaiah, it says that God “will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many shall stumble on it. They shall fall and be broken; they shall be snared and taken” (Isa. 8:14–15). And yet God says, also in Isaiah,

Behold, I am the one who has laid as a foundation in Zion,
a stone, a tested stone,
a precious cornerstone, of a sure foundation:
‘Whoever believes will not be in haste’ (Isa. 28:16).

In the New Testament, this language is applied to Jesus (Rom. 9:33; 1 Pet. 2:6–8; cf. Luke 20:17). The idea is that for some, Jesus is a stumbling stone. He is offensive. People trip over him and fall. But others will build their lives on Jesus. He will be their rock. And he is the cornerstone of the church.

Jesus himself said that he came not to bring peace, but to bring a sword (Matt. 10:34). That does not mean that Jesus was violent. What Jesus meant was that he will divide people. Some will trust him and others won’t. It was true two thousand years ago and it remains true today. Jesus knew that. Simeon knew that. But I doubt that Mary and Joseph knew that when Jesus was just a baby.

Jesus is divisive because he reveals our true condition. He said he is the light of the world (John 8:12). Light is a good thing. The light of the sun provides warmth. Without that light, there would be no photosynthesis. Without photosynthesis, there would be no plant life. Without plant life, there would be no animal life. We wouldn’t be here. But light also reveals the truth, and a lot of people don’t want the truth about the spiritual conditions revealed. Jesus said,

19 And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. 20 For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. 21 But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God (John 3:19–21).

Jesus reveals that we’re sinners. He told his own brothers, “The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify about it that its works are evil” (John 7:7). That’s a verse that most churches won’t read. But Jesus said it, and he did tell us we’re sinners who need to turn from our sin and turn to God.

Simeon also told Mary that this child would cause “a sword [to] pierce through your own soul also.” I can’t imagine how Mary took this news. I wonder what she thought. How would her soul be pierced by a sword? What does that mean? It probably refers to the pain she would experience as Jesus’ mother. Sometime after this event, Joseph and Mary would take Jesus to Egypt to hide from King Herod. Luke doesn’t tell us about this, but Matthew does (Matt. 2). Herod the Great heard that the “King of Israel” had been born in Bethlehem. That was a threat to his own rule. So, he had the male infants in Bethlehem killed. An angel warned Joseph about this and he took his family to Egypt. Next week, we’ll see an event that caused Mary great distress (Luke 2:41–52). But the greatest distress must have been caused by Jesus’ death. Mary was there at the cross when Jesus was crucified. He was treated like the worst of criminals, an enemy of the state. And Mary had to witness her own son’s execution (John 19:25).

Jesus brings joy and comfort. But he also brings pain. In the end, that pain leads to greater joy for those who are united to Jesus. I’ll say more about that later.

But before I do that, let’s meet the other Jewish person who waited for the consolation of Israel. Let’s read verses 36–38:

36 And there was a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived with her husband seven years from when she was a virgin, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She did not depart from the temple, worshiping with fasting and prayer night and day. 38 And coming up at that very hour she began to give thanks to God and to speak of him to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem.

At the same time, there was an old woman named Anna who was a prophetess. We’re told that she had been married for seven years and then lived as a widow. The ESV says she was married until she was eighty-four, but the original Greek could be translated “and then as a widow for eighty-four years.” If she had married quite young, perhaps at age thirteen (not unheard of for Jewish woman of that era), she would be over one hundred at this time. Either way, she lived as a widow for a long time. She spent every waking hour at the temple complex, waiting for the redemption of Israel. We’re not told her actual words, but we are told that she was a prophetess, and that when she saw Jesus at the temple, she gave thanks to God and told everyone else who was waiting for the redemption of Israel. God has come in the flesh as a baby, a baby would grow up to be Israel’s Savior and King.

After offering sacrifices and dedicating Jesus to the Lord, we’re told that Joseph and Mary moved back to Nazareth in Galilee. Luke is probably compressing the events. It’s likely that after this, they returned to Bethlehem for some time, then went to Egypt in exile, and only later moved to Nazareth. At any rate, let’s finish today’s passage by reading verses 39 and 40:

39 And when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 And the child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom. And the favor of God was upon him.

We’ll talk more next week about how Jesus grew, became strong, and was filled with wisdom. But for now, I want us to think about a couple of things. One, let me return to that idea of a bucket list. What is on your bucket list? What do you want to see before you die? Could that something ever compare to seeing God in the flesh? Could that something ever compare to seeing God come to rescue his people? Jesus came to save his people. When he first came as a baby, he didn’t come to fix every problem in the world. But he came to fulfill God’s righteous demands, to obey God’s law where we have so often failed. And Jesus came to die to pay for the sins of all who will ever trust in him. Our bucket list items are so pathetic and trivial when compared to Jesus.

For those of us who know Jesus, let me ask this: What do you want to see God do before you die? Is there something you are waiting for God to do? Is there a way that you can work to make that a reality in your life?

Another way of asking this is to ask, why are you still alive? What does God want for you to do? God doesn’t just want us to live pleasant lives of comfort, to retire from work and just wait around. God has planned in advance good works for us to do (Eph. 2:10). Sometimes, we need to wait on God to do the impossible. But many times, we need to act. We should be faithful to do the things that God wants us to do, the things that are clearly stated in Scripture. Make those your bucket list items.

Those who are faithful wait on the Lord. And those who are faithful act on God’s word. Simeon and Anna were faithful. They waited. But they also acted. When the Spirit led Simeon, he went. Anna had been waiting at the temple. We might say she was actively waiting. And Simeon and Anna were blessed. The many decades of their lives had been a prelude to meeting Jesus. They were rewarded for their patience and their faithfulness.

Often in the Bible, we read of older people whose greatest moments came later in life. That was true for Abraham and Moses. It was certainly true for Simeon and Anna. You may be retired and in the last years of this life. But that doesn’t mean you’re finished doing God’s work. You may yet see God do amazing things in your life. We tend to think of our lives as winding down at the end. What if your six, seven, or eight decades of life have all been leading to something that is still ahead? What if the best is yet to come?

In fact, the best is yet to come. Even the old and the frail have hope that the best years aren’t behind, but ahead. Simeon and Anna saw Jesus in their latter years. Those who have put their trust in Christ will see their Redeemer. In their flesh, they will see God. But they won’t meet him as frail, weak, mortal beings. No, when Christians meet Jesus, they will see him with perfect eyes in glorious, immortal, resurrected bodies. They will live in a perfect world with him forever.

But for those of us who don’t know Jesus, or who perhaps are not quite committed to Jesus, I want to say something. Earlier, I said that Jesus is a polarizing figure. He produces division. People either embrace him or reject him. They will find him to be a stone of offense or a rock upon which they can build their lives. Which side are you on?

Simeon said that Jesus would cause the falling and rising of many. All of us are bound to fall. We will die. That is a fact. And we fall in the sense that we do things that are wrong. We sin against God and each other. The question is whether we will rise. Those who fall at the feet of Jesus in repentance, who confess their sin and ask for mercy will find forgiveness. They will rise. Those who humble themselves before God will be exalted. But those who refuse to do this will simply fall, with no rising. And that falling will continue forever.

Admitting our sin can be painful. Repentance can feel like a sword is piercing our soul. In fact, there are elements of the Christian life that feel painful. God often uses our pain to cause us to grow. He uses painful events in our lives the way a surgeon wields a scalpel. God causes us pain in order to heal us. But that pain is far better than an eternity of misery, of being cut off from God.

And Christianity is the only religion that says that God knows pain. He knows what it’s like to be cut off. He knows what it’s like to have a sword pierce him, at least metaphorically speaking. When the first human beings sinned against God, they were evicted from Paradise. Adam and Eve had to leave the Garden of Eden. Then God placed cherubim, angelic creatures, to guard the path back to the Garden. And they wielded a flaming sword (Gen. 3:24). The idea is that if someone were to try to get to Paradise, they would be cut down by the sword. We need someone to take the sword for us, to open up the path to Paradise so we can be reconciled to God. And that’s what Jesus did on the cross. He took the sword so that we don’t have to. He fell, bearing God’s righteous, holy wrath against sin so that we don’t have to. Yet after he fell, he rose from the grave. His resurrection guarantees that his work on the cross has the power to defeat sin and death. All who follow Jesus can follow him back to Paradise.

Many people oppose Jesus because they don’t want to be told they are evil, because they don’t want to accept his authority, because they don’t want to change. But Jesus is our only hope. He is the only one who can bring us comfort and joy. He fell so you can rise. He was pierced by the sword so that you don’t have to experience God’s condemnation. I urge you to follow Jesus. Trusting him should be at the top of your bucket list.

Notes

  1. https://www.bucketlist.net/ideas/#top10.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. Gordon J. Wenham, Numbers: An Introduction and Commentary, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1981), 161.
  4. Compare this dedication to 1 Samuel 1:22–28, when Hannah dedicated her son Samuel to the Lord’s service.
  5. “Caesar’s authority brings the family to Bethlehem (2:4); the law’s authority brings them to Jerusalem, the first time the city is mentioned in the narrative. Following the pattern of step parallelism, Luke conveys his conviction that God’s law is higher than the law of the emperor.” David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament: (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 131. “Step parallelism” means that two events run parallel to each other, but the second event is greater. In chapter 1, the parallels between John and Jesus show that while both are special, promised children, Jesus is greater. Here, the parallels show that God’s law is greater than Caesar’s.
  6. I have italicized some of the key words that connect that passage to this one.

 

My Eyes Have Seen Your Salvation (Luke 2:22-40)

After Jesus is born, his parents bring him to the temple to fulfill the law. There, two older Jewish people meet Jesus and praise God for what they have seen. It seems they waited their whole lives to see Jesus. What are you waiting for?

Born This Day in the City of David (Luke 2:1-7)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 2:1-7. Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the most humble–and filthy!–circumstances. Jesus, the true King, is contrasted with the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus. Jesus came humbly into this world, stepping into our filth to rescue us from our sins.

When Was Jesus Born?

It is Christmas, one of the most beloved holidays of all, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is a stunning historical event. It is amazing to think that God would become man, that he would be conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in the humblest of circumstances, all to rescue sinful human beings and join them to himself. Without Christmas, there would be no Good Friday and no Easter. Without Christmas, we wouldn’t have the hope of Jesus’ return in glory, to make all things new.

Yet for all we know about the importance of what happened at Christmas, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born. Now, if you assumed that Jesus was born exactly 2017 years ago, on the morning of December 25, that is understandable. We do celebrate Christmas every year on the same day, and the calendar says it is 2014 A.D., or Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” which means that even the way we reckon time reflects the reality of Jesus’ birth. The problem is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 1 B.C., or in the year A.D. 1 (there is no “year zero”). In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.

Before I explain more about what we do and do not know about Jesus’ birth, let me explain why I’m writing about this issue. It has become somewhat popular to cast doubt on the Bible. A recent series on the History Channel, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” seems intended to make people doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. On another network, the Smithsonian Channel, an episode, titled “Mystery Files: Birth of Christ,” casts doubt on the birth of Jesus by focusing on chronological issues in Luke’s Gospel. The show mentions that Luke has “conflicting versions of events.”

What are we to make of all this? Is Luke’s Gospel historically reliable? When was Jesus born?

To help us understand these issues, it is worth quoting theologian Gerald Bray at length:

The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the result of a series of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process. He therefore came up short and was never corrected. As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at the that time of the year. Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world. He cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter. Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that. The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.”[1]

There are two things worth noting in that passage. It explains why our calendar says 2017 even though Jesus was likely born 2020–2022 years ago (more on that later). It also explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, even though Jesus was likely not born on that date. Additionally, Bray correctly observes that what matters is not the date, but the fact that Jesus was born. Since we’re not certain of exactly when he was born, and since his birth is worth celebrating, we must select some date.

Bray says that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god, who was also identified as Cronus, father of Zeus. The feast, which began on December 17, featured sacrifices at the temple of Saturn and a public banquet.[2] Another feast, that of Sol Invictus, the “unconquerable sun,” was held on December 25. By the fourth century, worship of this sun god was combined with the worship of Mithra, a god born out of a rock who “battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation.”[3] According to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, “Christians took advantage of this ‘day off’ to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian in the fourth century, this date turned into the legal holiday we know as Christmas.”[4] One Roman Calendar (the “Philocalian Calendar”), compiled in 354, states that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in the year 336. This is the earliest record we have of a December 25 Christmas. In later years, Christmas was celebrated on this date throughout the Roman empire.

It is important to note that pagan cults like Mithraism emerged in the second century, well after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. The fact that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the day of a pagan festival had nothing to do with exactly when Jesus was born. Rather, they had the day off, and they decided that instead of participating in pagan rituals, they would worship the true God instead. This seems to have been a bit of a counter-cultural protest.

Christians also appropriated certain pagan symbols in their celebration of Christmas, giving them a new meaning. Consider the following explanation:

The church thereby offered the people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it assimilated into its observances many customs of the pagan winter festivals such as holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, and log fires. At the same time new Christmas customs such as the nativity crib and the singing of carols were introduced by Christians.[5]

In reality, Jesus was born in a part of the year when shepherds would be abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) reported that some believed Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon, a month in the Egyptian calendar.[6] This date would correspond to May 20. This date is possible, but we can’t say with certainty that Jesus was born on that day.

What about the year of Jesus’ birth? Jesus must have been born, at the latest, in early 4 B.C. We know this because Herod the Great was alive at the time, and he died in that year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod died after an eclipse and before the Passover. The mention of the eclipse allows us to date Herod’s death quite accurately: he must have died between March 4 and April 11 of that year.[7] It is likely that Jesus was born sometime earlier, perhaps as early as 6 B.C., because Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed.

None of this is problematic. If Jesus was born in 5 B.C., it would mean that in the year 28, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1; he started his reign in A.D. 14), he would be about 32 years old, which harmonizes well with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Only one problem remains: Luke also says that right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be made. Most translations state that this census was conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). As far as we know, Quirinius was the governor of Syria in A.D. 6–7 and Josephus tells us there was a census in A.D.6. (Acts 5:37 states that this census was the reason that Judas the Galilean revolted against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Remember this fact, because it shows that Luke was aware of this census and the impact it had on the Jewish people.) Some have used this information to claim that Luke’s Gospel is wrong. I have heard such claims on the History Channel and National Public Radio.

There are a few possible answers to the questions surrounding the census. One, we do know that there were several censuses held in the Roman empire. As far we know, Augustus decreed three censuses around this time. Some areas had periodic censuses; Egypt had one every 14 years. It is possible that an earlier census in Palestine could have been conducted, in addition to the one in A.D. 6. It is possible that the Roman census was carried out according to Jewish customs, which would require males to return to their ancestral homes. Since Joseph was betrothed to Mary and she was pregnant, perhaps he took her with him so that they could be together for the birth of Jesus. Nothing that we know from history excludes the possibility of a census ordered by Augustus for the whole Roman empire and carried out in Palestine around 6–4 B.C.

The real question concerns Quirinius. Luke 2:2 states, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of A.D. 6 was conducted, but this was about ten years after Jesus was born. We don’t have a record of him being the governor of Syria around 6–4 B.C. So, the question of Quirinius involves a second answer.

We must begin by stating that our knowledge of ancient history is not complete. We also must note that Luke says the census at the time of Jesus’ birth was the first census, which suggests it was followed by at least one more. It is possible that Quirinius had something to do with an earlier census, even if he were not technically the governor of Syria at that time. It is possible that Quirinius was an administrator who was responsible for overseeing the census. Luke could be using “governor” in an anachronistic sense, so that while Quirinius wasn’t governor at the time of the census, he became governor later. The Greek of Luke 2:2 literally reads, “This was [the] first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Just as we might talk about what President Obama did in the US Senate—“This was the voting record of Obama, President of America”—Luke may be referring to the past actions of Quirinius, who was best known, from Luke’s historical vantage point, for being governor of Syria.

It is also possible that the census took many years to carry out, that it started around the time Jesus was born, and it finished under the watch of Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, in A.D. 6. If this were the case, he would have been responsible for collecting the taxes (the ones based on the census). His name would be somewhat infamous, and therefore it would be one attached to the whole multi-year process of census and taxation that began at the time of Jesus’ birth.[8]

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Luke didn’t get his history wrong. As stated earlier, Luke was aware of the A.D. 6 census, for he alludes to it in Acts 5:37. That census instigated a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. The census he mentions in Luke 2 did not produce a rebellion, so he is clearly aware of at least two censuses. And, quite obviously, Luke knew that Herod was still alive during this time, as Luke 1:5 shows. He didn’t get the chronology of events wrong.

Another possible solution is that Josephus was wrong and Luke was right. After all, Luke proves himself to be an accurate historian elsewhere in his Gospel as well as in the book of Acts. According to Darrell Bock, “That no other source mentions such a census is not a significant problem, since many ancient sources refer to events that are not corroborated elsewhere and since Luke is found to be trustworthy in his handling of facts that one can check. Since the details of this census fit into general Roman tax policy, there is no need to question that it could have occurred in the time of Herod.”[9] Additionally, the number and quality of manuscripts of the New Testament far surpasses those of other ancient documents, including the writings of Josephus and Roman historians. We don’t know everything that happened in the ancient world, but we have no reason to doubt what the New Testament tells us.

There is yet another possible solution to this problem, one that is simpler. Luke 2:2 could be translated, “This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[10] This is because the Greek word usually translated as “first” (πρῶτος) could be translated as “before,” as it is in John 1:15, 30; 15:18. If this is the right reading, then this census was sometime prior to Quirinius’s infamous census. It would be as if Luke were saying, “Caesar August decreed that there should be an Empire-wide census—no, not that census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This was an earlier one.”[11]

In the end, we may never know exactly when Jesus was born. But what we do know of history does not contradict what Luke has reported in his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:3). There is no reason to doubt the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel. So go, tell it on the mountain, “Jesus Christ is born!”

Notes

  1. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 564.
  2. S. E. Porter, “Festivals and Holy Days: Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 370.
  3. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and Greeks, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134.
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 36.
  5. O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 238–239.
  6. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:333.
  7. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 904.
  8. Darrell L. Bock, “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 378.
  9. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 906.
  10. The English Standard Version’s footnote says, “Or This was the registration before.”
  11. This reading is mentioned by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 137. See also David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 118.

 

The Tender Mercy of Our God

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 17, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advanced (see also below).

Christmas can be an exciting time. It’s a time of celebration and joy. But it can also be a time of depression for many. Depression can be caused by many things. Perhaps it’s due to loneliness, or the sadness in remembering a loved one who has died. But perhaps that depression comes from broken promises.

So many people break promises. How many times have politicians broken their promises? Too many times to count, I’m sure. Do you know how you can tell a politician is making false promises? His lips are moving. Think of all the marriage vows you’ve ever heard recited. How many people have kept their promise to live as a lawfully wedded couple “for better and for worse, for richer and for poorer, in sickness and in health, till death do us part”? Think of all the times that parents or siblings or friends have broken promises, both small and large. Think of how many times we have broken our promises to others.

There are other broken promises, too. So much in life promises joy, satisfaction, fulfillment, and happiness. Advertisers make us feel like if only we get the newest gadget or some other product, then we’ll feel complete. Sometimes we come into the holiday season hoping to get a certain feeling. That happens with milestones in life, too. We think, “If only I get that job, I’ll feel accomplished,” or, “If only I could retire, then I’d be happy.” Those goals and dreams promise so much, but when they arrive we’re often disappointed. It’s as if we believed those things promised us something great, but then we find out it’s all a lie.

But there is someone who always keeps his promises, and that is God. God never lies. But God’s promises aren’t always fulfilled the way that we expect them to be. When God makes a promise, we often start to imagine how he’ll fulfill that promise, and our imagination is often wrong. Though God doesn’t always give us what we want, he always keeps his promises and he always gives us what we need.

We’ll see this today as we continue to look at the Gospel of Luke. Today, we’ll see how God kept his promise to Zechariah and Elizabeth to give them a son in their old age. And we’ll see how their son, John, will prepare the way for the salvation that God promised in the Old Testament.

Before we look at today’s passage, I just want to remind us of what we’ve seen so far. Luke begins his Gospel by explaining that it is an historical account of what God has done. Luke used eyewitness testimony to write his history.

He begins his history with the story of a priest, Zechariah, and his wife, Elizabeth. They were old and unable to have children. Yet God promised Zechariah that they would have a son named John. The angel Gabriel told Zechariah that John would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God” (Luke 1:16).[1] John’s role, as we’ll find out, was to prepare the people of Israel for the coming of their anointed king, the Messiah.

Zechariah found this hard to believe, so he questioned what the angel said. In response, Gabriel said, “you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (Luke 1:20). And from that time, Zechariah could not talk.

Last week, we found out that the angel Gabriel made an even more amazing promise to Mary. Though she was a virgin, she would conceive a child by the power of the Holy Spirit. That child would be called Jesus. He would be the son, or heir, of King David, but he would also be “Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32). Mary believed this message and later she praised God with a hymn known as the “Magnificat” (Luke 1:46–55).

Today, we’ll see that Elizabeth gives birth to the promised child, John. When that happens, and when Zechariah responds in faith, he is able to speak and he, too, praises God.

Let’s begin by reading Luke 1:57–66:

57 Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. 58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. 59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, 60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” 61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” 62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. 63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. 64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. 65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, 66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Elizabeth gives birth to the child that God had promised to her and Zechariah. As you might expect, this birth was received with great joy. (Joy is one of the major themes at the beginning of Luke’s Gospel.) John’s parents had him circumcised on the eighth day, as Jewish law required (Gen. 17:10–12; 21:4; Lev. 12:3). Circumcision was a sign of the covenant that God had made with Abraham, the patriarch of the Jews. It taught them that they were consecrated to God, special, to be holy. It also taught them that the Messiah would come from their people. (I don’t want to be graphic, but there was a reason this sign was etched onto a procreative organ). And it taught them that they needed to have their old selves “cut off” or removed in order to be God’s people. Even in the Old Testament, there are times when circumcision refers metaphorically to a change of heart (Deut. 10:16; 30:6; Jer. 4:4; cf. Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3).

The child wasn’t officially named yet, and the people who witnessed his circumcision wanted to call him “Zechariah,” since sons were often named after their fathers. But Elizabeth says, “No; he shall be called John.” The people don’t understand, because no one in the family had that name. So, they ask Zechariah. Apparently, he wasn’t just mute, but he was also deaf, because they had to make hand signals to communicate to him. Zechariah agrees with what Elizabeth said and what the angel Gabriel had told him. The child’s name is “John.” This may not seem like a big deal. But it represents Zechariah’s faith in the message he heard months earlier. We know that because when he affirms that the baby’s name is “John,” he is able to speak once again. The name “John” means “Yahweh [God] is gracious.” Zechariah knows and believes this message, and when he responds in faith to God, he is able to praise God.

The fact that Zechariah and Elizabeth name their child an unexpected name, and that when they do, Zechariah can once again speak, causes the people to fear God and wonder what this child was going to do. Luke tells us that they “laid [these things] up in their hearts.” He will later say this about Mary (2:19, 51). The only way that Luke could know what these people were thinking is if he talked to them, or to those who knew them. This shows that Luke had written his account based on eyewitness testimony.

This story is a bit unusual, but it’s very significant. Zechariah and Elizabeth were previously unable to have children. She was barren. Her barrenness reflected the spiritual state of Israel. They were barren, lacking spiritual life. Between the Old and New Testaments, it seems that prophecy had stopped. In the Old Testament, the prophets said, “Thus says the Lord . . .” But for centuries, it seemed as though God was silent. The Jews were waiting for a word from God. They were waiting for God to come and rescue them from their enemies. The birth of this child, John, is a sign that this period of barrenness and silence has come to an end.

It’s no accident that Zechariah’s name means “Yahweh has remembered.” God remembered his promises made hundreds and even thousands of years earlier, and now he was making good on those promises.

We see this clearly in Zechariah’s words of praise. Like Mary’s “Magnificat,” this is written in Luke in the form of a hymn.[2] We’re told that Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit when he said these words. We’re also told that Zechariah prophesied these words. This is a message from God, delivered for the sake of the people who wondered what God was doing by giving Zechariah and Elizabeth a son.

So, let’s read the whole passage, and then I’ll go back and dissect it a bit. Here are verses 67–80:

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

68  “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,
for he has visited and redeemed his people
69  and has raised up a horn of salvation for us
in the house of his servant David,
70  as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,
71  that we should be saved from our enemies
and from the hand of all who hate us;
72  to show the mercy promised to our fathers
and to remember his holy covenant,
73  the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us
74  that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
might serve him without fear,
75  in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
76  And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
77  to give knowledge of salvation to his people
in the forgiveness of their sins,
78  because of the tender mercy of our God,
whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high
79  to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,
to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Not only are Zechariah’s words prompted by the Holy Spirit. Not only are they words of prophecy, telling the people what God was doing by giving the world these special babies, John and Jesus. But Zechariah’s words also represent the Jewish hope for their Messiah. This is important, because without this understanding, it’s hard to appreciate the significance of Christmas. You can’t appreciate the birth of Jesus without having some idea of context. Fortunately, Zechariah’s words give us that context, and they show that God keeps his promises.

Let’s look more carefully at his words. In verse 68, John begins this hymn with a blessing. In the Bible, God is often blessed for great things he has done for his people (Ps. 72:18–19). Zechariah’s words echo King David’s in 1 Kings 1:48. When David was about to die, he knew he would be succeeded by his son, Solomon, and he said these words, “Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who has granted someone to sit on my throne this day.” Zechariah now blesses God for a greater Davidic King.

Zechariah blessed God because “he has visited and redeemed his people.” Notice that these words are in the past tense. Zechariah is so certain that God will do this work that he says it’s a done deal. It’s as if it’s already been accomplished. The language of “visitation” often refers to God delivering his people. It’s used in the book of Exodus when God “visited the people of Israel” (Exod. 4:31). The Israelites were slaves in Egypt and God redeemed them. That is, he freed them from slavery. God was now doing something similar.

In verse 69, Zechariah says that God “raised up a horn of salvation” for Israel. Horns were a symbol of strength. Think of animals that have horns and attack with them, like bulls, buffalo, or oxen. Their horns are their strength. In one of King David’s psalms, he calls God his “horn of salvation (Ps. 18:2). God is raising up a figure in the house of David who will have the strength to save his people.

The mention of the house of David is important because God had promised David that he would have an offspring, a “son,” who would inherit his kingdom and who would reign forever. God made this promise to David about a thousand years before Jesus was born. God told David, “When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever” (2 Sam. 7:12–13). This promise came to David through the prophet Nathan, who was one of many prophets who delivered God’s promises to his people. That’s what Zechariah acknowledges in verse 70. God spoke a consistent message through these prophets. That’s why we’re told that he spoke by the one mouth of his holy prophets. God had revealed these promises through different prophets across the centuries. One of the reasons I trust that the Bible is God’s word is that it tells a unified story. It gives us one message of God and his salvation of his people. This was written by dozens of people over the span of centuries. Yet all of them bear witness to the same truth.

In verse 71, Zechariah says that God’s promise was to save his people “from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” In the Old Testament, the promises of David’s offspring, the anointed forever-king, the Messiah, often talk of salvation for God’s people and judgment for those who oppose God. In last week’s Advent reading, we were told of a special child, a son, who would be born. The government would rest upon his shoulders and he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7). This morning, we heard that the people who walked in darkness had seen a great light, which brought them joy (Isa. 9:2–3). Sandwiched between those two passages are these verses:

For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire (Isa. 9:4–5).

The Messiah would put an end to oppression. That was good news, because Israel often had enemies who oppressed them. Pharaoh enslaved them and was so threatened by them that he wanted to kill their male children. In later years, they had been in exile in Babylon, then under Persian rule, and under Greek rule. When Jesus was born, they were under Roman occupation. Israel waited for the Messiah to deliver them from all their enemies. And often, these enemies seemed to be foreign nations. God had delivered the Israelites in the exodus, about fourteen hundred years earlier. The Jews were waiting for God to deliver his people once again.

The expectation was that this would be done through a Davidic king. We don’t have time to look at this passage this morning, but if you read Isaiah 11, you can get that idea.[3] We also see a promise of a righteous king in Jeremiah 23:5–6:

“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell securely. And this is the name by which he will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’”

They were waiting for a righteous king would bring about justice and security. They needed a king to save them and to crush their enemies.[4]

But this hymn of Zechariah shows that Israel’s own enemy was its own sin. In verse 72, he mentions “the mercy promised to our fathers.” In verses 76–78, he says that John’s job would be to “go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of sin, because of the tender mercy of our God.” Mercy can mean kindness or compassion. It also has the sense of sparing someone something they deserve. God promised to be merciful to Israel. He promised to remember his covenant. When the Israelites were in Egypt, God remembered his covenant with Abraham (Exod. 2:24).[5] Of course, it’s not that God forgot that covenant. God knows everything. But that language means he acted based on the covenant he made with Abraham.

A covenant is like a binding pact between two parties. But it’s not just a legal document. It’s more personal than that. It combines the law with personal obligation and relationship. It contains promises. It expects certain behavior in return. God promised Abraham he would bless him and his offspring, and he would bless the world through his offspring (Gen. 12:1–3). But Abraham had to obey God by circumcising himself and his son, and all subsequent Israelite men had to be circumcised (Gen. 17:1–14). God made great promises to Abraham, but he expected obedience in return.

Later, after God brought the Israelites out of Egypt, he made a covenant with the nation at Mount Sinai. He gave them his law and he said that if they kept it, they would be his “treasured possession,” “a kingdom of priests,” and “a holy nation” (Exod. 19:5–6). But the Israelites were never perfectly obedient, or even close. They continued to rebel against God, and they often worshiped other, false gods.

Years later, God made a covenant with David, promising him a King who would reign forever, as we saw earlier (2 Sam. 7). But in order for there to be a forever kingdom of people ruled by this forever king, there had to be a way for Israel’s sin to be removed. The mercy that the Israelites needed wasn’t mercy from foreign enemies. They needed deliverance from their sins. They needed forgiveness. They needed God to remove their sins.

God promised that. He promised a new covenant. Under the terms of this treaty, God would write his law on his people’s hearts, by means of the Holy Spirit. He would give all his people direct knowledge of himself, so they wouldn’t have to have priests mediate that knowledge. Instead, all of God’s people would be priests. He would forgive his people of their sins. And, most importantly, they would be his people, and he would be their God. (See Jer. 31:31–34 and Ezek. 36:35–27.)

This is what the Israelites needed. It’s what all of humanity needs. We all need to be rescued. We all need to be saved from our enemies. But our true enemies are not political enemies, or foreign nations. That’s what people think about today. We think our enemies are “those people” on the other side of the political aisle. We think of enemies as people of different religions, or people from different countries. We may think our enemies are problems like health problems and a lack of money. But the real enemy is our sin. In a way, we are our own enemies. The Bible also says there are spiritual forces that are our enemies, too. Satan is an enemy, but so are our desires. The power of sin, which corrupts God’s creation, is what causes all those other enemies, such as wars, poverty, disease, and even death. So, what we really need is a Savior who can rescue us from sin.

Fortunately, God promises to save his people from sin. He promises forgiveness. But the only way a just God, who is a perfect judge, can take away the consequences of sin is if someone else would pay for these sins. Zechariah looked forward to a political rescue, and perhaps a spiritual rescue. But he didn’t realize that this Son of David, the one his boy John would point to, would have to die in order to achieve that salvation. That’s what Jesus would do. He would live the perfect life that no human being besides him has lived, yet he would die to take on the sins of everyone who turns to him in faith. All the covenants of the Bible are connected, and all of them are fulfilled in Jesus. Jesus died to take the penalty of the old covenant, the one that focused on the law, and his death inaugurated the new covenant, the one marked by the activity of the Holy Spirit. On the night before he died, he took the cup of wine that was drunk in the Passover meal and he said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:20).[6] Everyone who trusts that Jesus is who the Bible says he is and that Jesus has done what the Bible says he has done receives the benefits of that new covenant. We can be forgiven for all the wrong things we have done.

Zechariah probably didn’t know this or couldn’t have imagined it, though in a famous passage in Isaiah 53, there is a servant of Israel who suffers for the sins of the people. But Zechariah knew, as he says in verse 78 and 79, that “the sunrise [of God] shall visit us from on high, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” He knew that he and everyone else was in darkness, living under the long, looming shadow that death casts. It seems that death swallows up everything and that the world is a dark place. Nothing within the world can stop death. Nothing in the world lives up to the promises the world makes to us. We hear a lot about “peace” at Christmas, yet we often don’t feel peaceful. We see beautiful lights at Christmas, but those electric lights don’t penetrate the depths of our soul. They don’t remove our sadness or loneliness. They certainly don’t remove our sin. Neither do the gifts we give, or the food and drink we consume.

We need a light from outside, a light from outside this world, outside this universe. And Jesus is that light. He is the Lord, who is God, but he also became man. In perhaps the greatest miracle, Jesus was and is the God-man, uniting the two parties of God and humanity that had been separated by sin. He saves those who turn to him in faith. As another prophet, Malachi said, “But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings” (Mal. 4:2). Jesus is God’s light, the light of the world (John 8:12), who shines on our darkness, revealing our sin, but also bringing life and healing to those who will confess their sin and their need for a Savior.

Zechariah is a model of faith. At first, he doubted God’s message and he was made deaf and dumb for a while. But he eventually came around and trusted God and acted on that faith. And then he was able to speak and praise God. Notice that Zechariah says, in verses 74 and 75, that God delivered his people “from the hand of our enemies,” so that this people “might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all [their] days.” Why does God save a people? Why does God save anyone from sin, from death, from condemnation? He does it so that they would serve him. God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt so that they could serve him (Exod. 3:12; 4:23; 7:16; 8:1, 20; 9:1, 13; 10:3, 7; 12:31). And God rescues people from slavery to sin so that they would serve him. Jesus is not some “insurance policy” we use once we die to get into heaven. He’s not a golden ticket or a lottery ticket. He’s certainly not a genie. Jesus is not just a Savior, he is also a King. And those who trust him will serve him.

Now that we’ve looked at this passage, I want us to think of two ways that it applies to our lives. One, salvation and faith lead to service. We see this in Zechariah’s life. He trusted God and then praised God. His son, John, would serve God by calling Israelites to turn from their sin and to the Messiah, to receive forgiveness. Salvation should lead to changed hearts, hearts that love and praise God, hearts that are thankful, and hearts that are ready to serve. That was true for the Old Testament Israelites and it’s true for us.

It seems that Zechariah thought salvation was for the Israelites, and his hymn focuses on God’s promises to his Israelite forefathers. But Gentiles are included in the new covenant. In the Old Testament, male Israelites had to be circumcised to be part of God’s covenant community. In the new covenant community, you have to have your heart “circumcised” by the power of the Holy Spirit. You have to be born again, and this is a gift of God. If you trust in God, you have received that gift. The apostle Paul said of Christians, “we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh” (Phil. 3:3). If you worship God by the power of the Holy Spirit and glory in Jesus, you are part of God’s people. If you put no confidence in your “flesh”—your strength and abilities—then it shows you are trusting only in Jesus to make you right with God.

If you have been reconciled to God through Jesus, are you living for Jesus? Do you serve Jesus by serving his church? Do you serve Jesus by obeying him in your whole life?

The second thing I want us to see is that God’s salvation is not always what we imagined it might be. Many Israelites seemed to think that when the Messiah came, he would bring about a political deliverance. He would destroy the enemies of God and God’s people and establish a visible, political kingdom. They didn’t realize that he would come in two stages. They didn’t realize that first the Messiah would come and live a life of righteousness and then die an atoning death for his people. They didn’t realize that he would rise from the grave, ascend into heaven, and come back in the future to put an end to all enemies and establish a new creation. But that’s what God did and will do through Jesus. Jesus came once to save us from sins. But he will come again in the future to judge. And, for those of us living in the in-between times, life is not always easy.

Some people may wonder think things like, “If Jesus is real, then why is there still evil in the world?” Or they may ask you, “If your Jesus is real, why is your life not better?” Of course, most people won’t say that to you, but they may think it.

Salvation is not the promise of a “good life” now. Yes, Jesus rescues us from the condemnation that comes with sin. But after we put our trust in Jesus, we still wrestle with our sin. We still must be on guard against the powers of darkness. We will still die. God never promises an easy life. In fact, he promises a hard life. Jesus told his disciples the world would hate them and that they would face tribulation (John 15:18–25; 16:33). But Jesus said he overcomes the world (John 16:33) and he promises his followers the Holy Spirit, the “Helper” (John 14:16, 26; 15:26; 16:7). In other words, God gives us his presence, he gives us himself. And though life is sometimes hard, he gives us comforts and joys along the way. And the final promise is eternal life in a perfect world with him and all his people. In that new creation, there will be no more enemies, not even the enemy of death.

The reason why that promise hasn’t come true yet is because when Jesus returns to destroy all of God’s enemies, he will remove all evil from the world. He will judge everyone who has rejected him and he will cast them out of the world and into hell. God removes evil by removing evil from people who trust him or by removing evil people who reject him. But when Jesus comes to make all things new, to remove all the bad of the world, it will be too late to turn to him for salvation. So, why hasn’t Jesus come again? Because God has given us time to turn to Jesus. A life of following Jesus is not what we might always imagine. It might not be what we want. But it is most certainly what we need. Turn to him and serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness all your days.

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. This hymn is known as the “Benedictus.” Like the “Magnificat,” that word comes from the Latin translation of the first Greek word. In this case, the word is “blessed.” (The Greek word is related to a verb from which we get our word “eulogy.” A eulogy is literally a series of “good words” said about the dead.)
  3. Clearly, Isaiah 11 refers to the Messiah. He is “a shoot from the stump of Jesse,” David’s father (verse 1). He is anointed by the Holy Spirit (verse 2). And He will rule with righteousness (verses 3–5). He will usher in an age of peace (6–10). And he will bring about a second exodus (verses 11–16).
  4. The Jewish expectation at the time that Jesus was born was that a Davidic king would rescue Israel by defeating its enemies. See the non-biblical text, Psalms of Solomon 17:23–27, which was written in the second or first century B.C.:23 See, O Lord, and raise up their king for them,
    a son of David,
    for the proper time that you see, God,
    to rule over Israel your servant.
    24 And undergird him with strength to shatter unrighteous rulers.
    25–26 Cleanse Jerusalem from the nations that trample it in destruction,
    to expel sinners from the inheritance in wisdom, in righteousness,
    to rub out the arrogance of the sinner like a potter’s vessel,
    to crush all their support with an iron rod;
    27 to destroy lawless nations by the word of his mouth,
    for Gentiles to flee from his face at his threat,
    and to reprove sinners by the word of their heart.
  5. See also Mic. 7:18–20 for the hope that God would act on the covenant promises to Abraham.
  6. Read Jeremiah 33:14–26 and notice the language that connects the covenants made with Noah (a so-called “covenant with creation”), Abraham, Israel, and David.

 

The Tender Mercy of Our God (Luke 1:57-80)

Brian Watson preaches a message on Luke 1:57-80. John the Baptist is born, and after he is named, his father Zechariah praises God. Find out how God always keeps his promises and, in his mercy, saves his people through the one John pointed to: Jesus.

Jesus Was Born of a Virgin

This sermon was preached on December 21, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.

PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).
Additional thoughts related to the virgin birth.

Matthew 1:18–25

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”—which means, “God with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.[1]

You know the story: in a quiet, unassuming, small town, an amazing event happens: a visitor from far away arrives in the form of a baby. He was sent by his father from a distant place on a mission. And though the world did not take notice of this baby, his human parents raised him, and he grew in strength and wisdom. One day, though, the world would know the identity of this incredible man. He would confront evil and protect the weak. He would stand for truth, justice, . . . and the American way. That’s right, I’m talking about Superman.

It’s interesting how many parallels there are between Superman and Jesus. Superman was sent by his father, Jor-El, to Earth from the planet Krypton, just as God the Father sent Jesus, his Son. Superman’s birth name is Kal-El, which is very close to what in Hebrew means “voice of God,” while Jesus is referred to as the Word of God (John 1:1). Kal-El, or Clark Kent, grows up in a small town in Kansas. Superman grew up in a small town in Galilee. The last Superman movie, Man of Steel, has many other allusions to the Jesus story, such as Superman being 33 when he starts his ministry—I mean, mission.[2] It’s interesting, but I don’t think it’s surprising, and perhaps it’s not a coincidence. I think there’s something in the human heart that realizes that things aren’t right. The world is not right. We’re not right. We need someone to help us. It’s no wonder superhero stories have been created. Superheroes are like us, but they’re much more. They’re more powerful, more heroic, more noble. We long for a hero like Superman who will come and make things right.

And we long for deliverance from the predicament that we’re in. A few weeks ago, we watched the movie, Interstellar. I don’t want to spoil the movie in case you plan on watching it, but it’s set in the not-too-distant future. Something bad is happening to the Earth: a blight is preventing crops from growing and the food supply is growing short. So a plan is hatched: a select group of astronauts and scientists will try to find another planet where humans can live. Without spoiling the plot, I’ll say this: the makers of the movie put their hope in science and humans. In this movie, there is no God; there are no superheroes. There are only humans, humans who have science, humans who are brave and risk everything for family, humans who evolve in ways that are impossible for any species to evolve. And it is this evolution that transcends the dimensions of time and space, helping humanity survive. We are our own saviors.

Granted, superheroes and sci-fi movies are fiction. But this hope for deliverance from the human condition and even death is found in the real world. Some people think that if only we get the right medicine or the right technology, or perhaps the right political leaders or public policies, we will make real progress. Consider the example of Ray Kurzweil. I first heard his name because he invented a high-end synthesizer, a musical keyboard. But he has also invented the flatbed scanner, among other things. He’s been likened to a modern-day Thomas Edison. He believes that immortality is possible, that by 2028, we will be able to add one year to our lives per year, effectively keeping death at arm’s length forever.[3] He also believes that by 2045, artificial intelligence and human intelligence will merge, so that we won’t be able to tell the difference between humans and computers. We’ll have little robots—nanobots—in our bodies, fighting infections, and in our brains, connecting our minds to cloud computing. And some people think the concept of God is far-fetched!

All of this shows that we know we need help, and we all put our hope in something, whether it’s a hero, or science, or God. I would say that this hope is religious, whether the object of faith is humanity, science, or a divine being. The makers of Interstellar and Ray Kurzweil cross the line from science to scientism, more of a philosophical position. We all put our trust in something. However, the human experience has been remarkably consistent for thousands of years: We live, we love, we fight, we die. In order to transcend our situation, we need something brand new—a brand new start, a brand new creation.

That is what the virgin birth of Jesus is all about. The Christian claim is a bold one: the human condition is in such bad shape that nothing short of God becoming man to rescue us will work. So, in the fullness of time (Gal. 4:4), God the Father sent his Son, Jesus, to become man. He didn’t cease being God, but he added a human nature, so he could identify with us in every way. Yet, unlike us, he remained morally perfect, never disobeying God. He lived life the way that we should. And here’s the crazy thing: the only perfect person died on the cross, to bear the penalty for our disobedience. He did this so that everyone who is united to him by faith will be spared the penalty for sin: eternal death in hell. That’s the Christian claim.

Recently, I read this wonderful quote from a theologian, Don Carson:

If God had perceived that our greatest need was economic, he would have sent an economist. If he had perceived that our greatest need was entertainment, he would have sent us a comedian or an artist. If God had perceived that our greatest need was political stability, he would have sent us a politician. If he had perceived that our greatest need was health, he would have sent us a doctor. But he perceived that our greatest need involved our sin, our alienation from him, our profound rebellion, our death; and he sent us a Savior.[4]

And that is exactly what we see in the passage that was just read. In Matthew 1:18, we see that the Holy Spirit—the third Person of the Trinity—causes Mary, a virgin, to become pregnant. Joseph, who was in the process of becoming her husband, assumed that she had an affair with another man. He was ready to divorce Mary. But an angel told him that what had happened: this was no normal pregnancy, but a supernatural one. What was the purpose of this miraculous conception? That Jesus would save his people from sin. That’s what his name means. In Hebrew, his name would be Yeshua, which means “Yahweh is salvation,” or, “The Lord saves.” Matthew also tells us (in verses 22-23) that this pregnancy fulfills something that was predicted roughly seven hundred years earlier (in Isaiah 7:14), that a virgin would conceive, and the child would be called “Immanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” In other words, Jesus is God in the flesh.

The other biblical account of Jesus’ birth is found in Luke 1. In that passage, the angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will become the mother of Jesus, who “will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High.” He will be the Son of God (v. 32, also v. 35). Then Gabriel continues, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (vv. 32-33). Jesus is God the Father’s Son, which means he perfectly represents and obeys God. And he is the heir of David’s throne. That means he is the promised King who will reign over his people forever. This was something God promised to David a thousand years earlier.

So Jesus is a new type of man, a man completely unlike any other. Because he is God, he can be perfect in every way, and he is eternal and consistent: there never was a time, nor will there ever be a time, when Jesus didn’t or will not exist. And he will remain perfect and faithful in every way, for God does not change. But because he’s man, he can be our substitute. In a sense, he’s the one who comes in to the world and cleans up the mess that we’ve made. He fills in for us. Imagine you’ve committed a horrible crime and are going to go to jail for the rest of our life. Then picture the most successful person you can imagine—whoever that is for you— taking on that sentence for you, going to jail so you can remain free. But not only that, he gives you all his success: his money, his fame, his social standing, his family—everything. That’s what Jesus does for his people, those who have a relationship with him marked by trust, love, and obedience.

We see in this episode with Mary that God takes the initiative. Just as God takes the initiative in creating the universe, he does the same in saving his people. Mary wasn’t looking for this special role that God gave her. No one was expecting that God would become a man to save his people. But God did it all. This is how he works.

Now, there is quite a bit of confusion about the virgin birth and there are many objections. Let me deal with the confusion first. Let’s clear up a couple of obvious things first. The Gospel writers—Matthew and Luke—knew that this was not how people normally became pregnant. They knew this was a miracle. Luke was a doctor. He may not have known, with great specificity, how women became pregnant, but he knew that a human father was needed. The other obvious thing in this passage is that, as opposed various legends concerning mythical gods, God did not have sex with Mary. We don’t know exactly, scientifically speaking, Mary became pregnant. The Bible doesn’t speak in scientific language, because it was written roughly two thousand to thirty-five hundred years ago. But it’s clear that any sexual intercourse was not involved.

There are other confusions, however. The Catholic Church has taught at least two errors regarding Mary that are related to the conception of Jesus. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was sinless. Catholic theologians thought that because she was the “Mother of God,” she would need to be without sin, for how else could Jesus be sinless? So they taught that she was sinless and that her own conception was “immaculate.” But this is not a teaching found in the Bible or in the earliest years of the church. It only became official Catholic doctrine fairly recently, in 1854.[5] The clear teaching of the Bible is that every human being—everyone outside of Jesus—has sinned (Rom. 3:23). What makes Jesus so unique is that he alone is sinless (2 Cor. 5:21; Heb. 4:15; 1 Pet. 2:22; 1 John 3:5). Even Mary realized that she needed a Savior, as she says in her famous song:

“My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (Luke 1:46-47).

Put quite simply, the Bible does not teach that Mary was sinless. Rather, it teaches that all humans are sinful and in need of a Savior. If Mary was sinless, she wouldn’t need salvation and she wouldn’t call God her Savior.

The Catholic Church also teaches that Mary remained a virgin for the rest of her life.[6] Yet this claim is also unbiblical. First, Matthew 1:25 says, “But he [Joseph] had no union with her until she gave birth to a son.” That means they had normal sexual relations after Jesus was born. That’s important because the Bible does not teach that sex, within the context of marriage, is sinful. Sex is a good gift to be enjoyed. Second, the Bible refers to Jesus’ brothers (Matt. 6:3; 13:55; John 2:12; 7:3, 5, 10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). The Catholic Church tries to say that the term “brothers” can mean something besides literal, biological brothers.[7] That’s really a stretch, and against the clear meaning of the text. Furthermore, Luke 2:7 says Jesus was Mary’s “firstborn” son, not “only” son.

Nothing in the Bible elevates Mary to a status above the rest of humanity. She is special because God chose her for a special, unique role. And she is a great example of faith and submission to God’s will. But if we elevate Mary to a higher status, we take away from Jesus’ unique standing as the only sinless human being.

Those are the confusions. Next, let’s consider the objections. Some people say that the accounts of Jesus’ conception and birth in Matthew and Luke can’t be trusted. They say there are contradictions or inconsistencies between these accounts. I have written about some of these issues, and you can find those articles on our website. (If you missed last week’s sermon, I would encourage you to go back and listen to that message, too.) The two accounts are not contradictory. Rather, they’re complementary: together, they give us a fuller picture of what happened at Jesus’ birth.[8]

Some people think that because the rest of the New Testament is silent about Jesus’ conception and birth, these accounts must have been made up. Well, the only two birth narratives of Jesus are in Matthew and Luke, and nothing in the rest of the New Testament contradicts these accounts. Mark doesn’t deal with Jesus’ birth at all, and John starts off with something greater: Jesus is the preexistent “Word” of God who is God (John 1:1). So, this is a very weak objection.

Another objection, one that is far more common, is the claim that the story of Jesus is based on myths. This claim is becoming more popular, particularly on the Internet, but it’s been around for a while. Consider what Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1823 about Jesus’ birth:

The truth is that the greatest enemies to the doctrines of Jesus are those calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them for the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.[9]

Minerva is the Roman goddess of wisdom who was born out of her father Jupiter’s head. So, Jefferson considered the virgin birth of Jesus just as mythical. By the way, Jefferson, when he was president, created his own version of the Gospels. He stripped away all the supernatural elements of the Jesus story, so there were no miracles and no resurrection. That’s the kind of Jesus he wanted: a moral reformer, not God.

Bertrand Russell, an atheist, wrote this: “I do not think the evidence for the Virgin Birth is such as would convince any impartial inquirer if it were presented outside the circle of theological beliefs he was accustomed to. There are innumerable such stories in pagan mythology, but no one dreams of taking them seriously.”[10] More recently, the argument that the story of Jesus’ birth is based on myths was advanced in a 2007 “documentary” that has been popular on Netflix, called Zeitgeist: The Movie. This film has includes a lot of false information.[11] Just to give you an idea of what I mean: one part of the film states that 9/11 was an “inside job,” orchestrated by the U.S. government. But this is the kind of stuff that circulates in the world.

It’s true that there are many stories of gods and goddesses who were conceived in odd ways. But these stories don’t really parallel the story of Jesus being conceived by a virgin through the mysterious work of the Holy Spirit. These other stories are very different. Consider Mithra, a Persian god. (The Greek name is Mithras.) He was supposedly born out of a rock. That’s hardly like the story of Jesus. If you actually look at the stories of gods and their births, you see that usually, a god (often Zeus) impregnates a woman who had been, up to that point, a virgin. But this is not the story of Jesus. I already said that the Bible does not depict God as having sex with Mary. That’s what Zeus does, but it’s not what God does.[12]

These stories are also clearly myths, not rooted in history the way the Gospels are. This part of one of those stories, found in Hesiod’s Theogony:

Now Zeus, king of the gods, made Metis his wife first, and she was wisest among gods and mortal men. But when she was about to bring forth the goddess bright-eyed Athene, Zeus craftily deceived her with cunning words and put her in his own belly, as Earth and starry Heaven advised. For they advised him so, to the end that no other should hold royal sway over the eternal gods in place of Zeus; for very wise children were destined to be born of her, first the maiden bright-eyed Tritogeneia, equal to her father in strength and in wise understanding; but afterwards she was to bear a son of overbearing spirit, king of gods and men. But Zeus put her into his own belly first, that the goddess might devise for him both good and evil.[13]

This is clearly not an historical account. Mary Jo Sharp observes, “In Hesiod’s story, there are no clues as to whether these events took place in a physical location that could be found on a map, or somewhere otherworldly. There aren’t any recognizable landmarks or historical names that might be cross-referenced with historical records of the time period.”[14] But Matthew and Luke do provide physical locations, as well as the names of political rulers and events, so that we have some knowledge of where and when Jesus was born.

So, the argument that the Jesus story is based on myths is false. There are no true parallels to Jesus’ miraculous conception in Mary’s womb. And the Gospels are historical documents, corroborated by other historians and archaeology.

Perhaps the biggest objection to this story is simply that it’s so miraculous. Anyone who believes that God doesn’t exist, or that miracles are impossible, simply can’t believe this story, regardless of the evidence. But what if there’s good reason to believe that God exists, and that he can do amazing things? Then what?

There are several arguments for the existence of God. One of them is called the cosmological argument. You can read all about it online at the church website: wbcommunity.org. Go to the “Media” tab and then click on “Articles” and you can read it there. The cosmological argument is about the universe, the cosmos. The basic argument is this:

1. Everything that begins to exist has a cause.

2. The universe began to exist.

3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

The first point is simple. You and I came into existence at one point, and we had causes: our parents. And they had causes: their parents. And so on. In other words, nothing comes from nothing. If something had a beginning, another person or thing caused that something to come into being.

The second point has been proven by science. The universe, at one point in time, came into existence. At the beginning of the twentieth century, many scientists assumed that the universe was eternal, that it had no beginning. But a few discoveries quickly challenged that assumption. In 1916, Albert Einstein published his theory of general relativity. This theory was mostly concerned with gravity. Einstein was actually trying to prove that the universe was static, not expanding or contracting, but his equations actually showed that the universe was expanding. He didn’t like that finding, because it suggested that at some point, the universe had a beginning, so he fudged the numbers. (A few years later, a Russian mathematician, Alexander Friedmann, and a Belgian astronomer, George Lemaitre, both recognized that Einstein had made a mistake.)

Meanwhile, another astronomer, Edwin Hubble, was using the most powerful telescope of his day, and he noticed that galaxies were receding farther away. The farther away the galaxy, the faster it moved. All of this suggested that the universe was expanding. From this knowledge, scientists were able to create a model of the expansion of the universe. They suggested that at one point, long ago, the universe was extremely dense, and that a cosmic explosion resulted in the universe that is expanding today. In fact, at one point in time, all the mass, energy, and space of the universe came into existence.

Some physicists suggested that if this cosmic explosion actually happened, we would find some cosmic radiation on the edge of the universe. In 1965, a couple of physicists named Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson discovered this cosmic background radiation. They later won the Nobel Prize for their discovery. Penzias said, “The best data we have concerning the big bang are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms, the Bible as a whole.”[15]

This is what Robert Jastrow, an astronomer and an agnostic, writes about this theory of the origin of the world:

It is not a matter of another year, another decade of work, another measurement, or another theory; at this moment it seems as though science will never be able to raise the curtain on the mystery of creation. For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.[16]

So, the universe came into existence at some point. Therefore, it had a cause. Yet some scientists believe the universe created itself. But that’s not a scientific position. It’s a faith position. Personally, I think it takes a lot more faith to believe the universe created itself than to believe that God created.

The only cause that could create a universe like ours is God: an omnipotent, omniscient, intelligent being who is eternal.[17] God never came into existence. He has always been. That’s part of what makes him so unique. And if God can create a universe out of nothing—no matter or energy or anything else—why can’t he create a baby out of a virgin’s womb? The creation of the universe out of nothing, and the creation of a baby out of a virgin are unique acts, done for special purposes: to create the world, and to save the world.

I think the connection between the creation of the universe and the creation of baby Jesus is very important. In Matthew and Luke, there is a strong suggestion that when Jesus came into the world, he was a new creation. In the Genesis account of creation, the Holy Spirit hovered over the waters of the earth. The Holy Spirit “hovered” over Mary, coming upon her to create a baby. And when the baby grew up, he was baptized, to identify with sinful humans even though he never sinned. When he was baptized, the Holy Spirit came upon him, too, and God called him good, just as he called the universe he made good.[18]

The reason why Jesus became a baby was because that initial creation became spoiled through sin. Sin is disobedience, lawlessness. It’s a rejection of God. But it’s not just breaking individual laws and commands. Sin is a power. It’s a force. It’s what twists our desires and perverts our thoughts. And part of God’s punishment for sin is death and disease and everything else that’s wrong with the world.

So when Jesus became a baby, it was the start of a new creation. God was starting something brand new. Salvation couldn’t come from us. Fixing the world couldn’t happen just by improving our education, or our government, or our technology, or anything else. The solution had to come from God. He had to create something brand new. He had to create a man completely unlike any other man—or woman—who had ever been born. That’s who Jesus is—the new man, the perfect man.

When he entered into the universe, the creator entered into his own creation. That’s like William Shakespeare entering into one of his own plays so that he could die in place of, say, Hamlet. It’s an amazing thought. That shows the extent that God will go to rescue his people.

There’s much more to say about all of this. If you want to learn more about who Jesus is, keep coming. Keep listening to these sermons and reading some of the resources I’ve put on our website.

But I want you to think about this: If God can create the universe out of nothing, and if he can create a baby out of a virgin’s womb, he can do anything. There is nothing he can’t fix, and there’s no one he can’t save. That’s why the Bible uses the language of creation when it talks about salvation. Consider 2 Corinthians 4:6: “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” The God who can make the universe out of nothing can take spiritually dead people—which is how all of us start out—and make them into new creations. He can do that with anyone.

No matter what issue you are facing today, it is not too big for God. No problem is too big for him to solve. That doesn’t mean that he will solve everything in this life. Unless Jesus returns, we will all die. But that’s not the end of the story. The Bible ends with a recreation of the universe. The new creation won’t have death, disease, decay, pain, hunger, thirst, or any other bad thing. It will just be God and his people in a perfect world.

This universe is broken. Sometimes, it feels cracked, distorted, without hope and without sense. But God didn’t give up on his creation. God came down to us. He came into filth of this world, in the midst of animals. He lowered himself in order to lift us up. With such a God, there is always hope. That’s what Christmas is about: the promised hope of rescue came to earth in the form of a special baby.

If you don’t know God, call on him today. Ask him to make you into something new, a new creation. Ask him to transform your life. Ask him to give you faith so you can trust him.

If you’re already a Christian, what are some of the impossible issues you’re facing today? Bring them to God. Ask him to solve your problems. Ask him for strength. Ask him for wisdom. Ask him to create something new in your life.

Consider what the angel Gabriel said to Mary: “For nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37).

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  2. Jordan Hoffman, “‘Man of Steel’ No Longer Man of Shtetl?” Times of Israel, June 13, 2013, http://www.timesofisrael.com/man-of-steel-no-longer-man-of-shtetl/ (accessed December 20, 2014). For other parallels between Superman and Jesus, see Austin Gentry, “Superman Parallels Jesus in 11 Ways,” Gospel Focus 289, https://gospelfocus289.wordpress.com/2013/06/15/superman-parallels-jesus-in-11-ways/ (accessed December 20, 2014).
  3. Holman W. Jenkins, Jr., “Will Google’s Ray Kurzweil Live Forever?” The Wall Street Journal, April 12, 2013, http://www.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510?mg=reno64-wsj&url=http%3A%2F%2Fonline.wsj.com%2Farticle%2FSB10001424127887324504704578412581386515510.html (accessed December 19, 2014).
  4. D. A. Carson, A Call to Spiritual Reformation: Priorities from Paul and His Prayers (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1992), 109.
  5. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. In part, it says, “The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.” The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491-93 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 123–124.
  6. This doctrine can be found in the Catechism of the Catholic Church §499-500, 126. Even stranger, they claim that the birth of Jesus was supernatural. So Ludwig Ott, a Catholic theologian, claims, “Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to her hymen, and consequently without pain” (Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, ed. James Canon Bastible, trans. Patrick Lynch [Rockford, IL: Tan, 1960], 205, quoted in Gregg R. Allison, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014], 133 n. 52).
  7. Catechism of the Catholic Church §500, 126.
  8. Regarding the historical reliability of Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, many biblical scholars have noted the Semitic character of Luke 1:5-2:52. Luke was a Gentile who wrote elegant Greek. After beginning his Gospel account, the language reflects a Hebraic background. Many scholars think that this reflects Luke’s sources. According to I. Howard Marshall (The Gospel of Luke, The New International Greek Testament Commentary [Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1978], 46), “the narratives [of Luke 1-2] betray a Semitic background to a degree unparalleled elsewhere in Lk.-Acts. The whole atmosphere of the story is Palestinian. The language too is strongly Semitic.” Regarding the poems, or songs, he writes, “the case for postulating Hebrew originals for the canticles is very strong” (47). He concludes, “It appears most probable that Luke had sources at his disposal, and that these came from Palestinian Jewish Christian circles which had links with the family of Jesus” (48-49). Therefore, it would appear that Luke used early, original, eyewitness sources in constructing his history of Jesus’ birth.
  9. Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823, http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html (accessed December 18, 2014).
  10. Bertrand Russell, “ Can Religion Cure Our Troubles?” in Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays on Religion and Related Subjects (New York: Touchstone, 1957), 200.
  11. For a thorough refutation of the claims of Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason: New Essays in Christian Apologetics, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2012). By presenting false information about Horus, an Egyptian god, and other mythological gods such as Mithra(s), the movie tries to show that Jesus is but a myth. Here’s an example of the poor reasoning of the film: other gods were son gods. They were associated with the son. Jesus is known as the Son of God. Now, that sun/son wordplay works nicely in English, but in Greek, the language of the New Testament, the term for sun is helios and the term for son is huios. These don’t sound the same. Jesus is referred to as light in the Bible (most prominently in John 8:12), but his being Son has nothing to do with the sun. His sonship represents the perfect relationship he has with the Father: he perfectly represents God, and obeys him. The fact that Jesus is light metaphorically refers to the way he exposes and drives away darkness. It has to do with the revelation of truth and righteousness. These are not mutually exclusive ideas, but they are not identical either.
  12. Mary Jo Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed from Pagan Myths?” in In Defense of the Bible: A Comprehensive Apologetic for the Authority of Scripture, edited by Steven B. Cowan and Terry L. Wilder (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2013) 193-94: “Here are the so-called virgin births of five of the gods who are frequently compared to Christ: Mithras is born out of a rock on the banks of a river under a sacred fig tree. Adonis is born out of a myrrh tree. Dionysius is produced from an incestuous relationship between the god Zeus and his daughter Persephone. Osiris is the product of an affair between an earth god and a sky goddess. And while Osiris and Isis are fetuses within the womb of the sky goddess, they have intercourse and produce Horus.”
  13. Hesiod, Theogony, translated by Hugh G. Evelyn-White, http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/hesiod/theogony.htm (accessed December 17, 2014).
  14. Sharp, “Is the Story of Jesus Borrowed,” 188.
  15. This was reported in The New York Times, March 12, 1978; quoted in Edgar Andrews, Who Made God? (Carlisle, PA: EP Books, 2009), 94.
  16. Robert Jastrow, God and the Astronomers, 2nd ed. (New York: Norton & Company, 1992), 106-107.
  17. It should be noted that many atheistic scientists and philosophers deny that God exists. They try to find other ways of explaining the universe. The Oxford-educated atheistic philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett writes, “What does need its origin explained is the concrete Universe itself. . . . It . . . does perform a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.” (Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon [New York: Viking, 2006], 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 151.) This claim is not scientific, and it expresses a faith position, one that excludes the existence of God.
  18. There are also connections between Jesus and Adam, who was formed out of dust through the “breath of life” (most likely the Holy Spirit). See Genesis 2:7. It is no accident that Jesus is called the “last Adam” (1 Cor. 15:45).

 

He Who Is Mighty Has Done Great Things

This sermon was preached by Brian Watson on December 10, 2017.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance (see also below).

 

Our lives can change in a moment. A single phone call, email, or text message could give us news that would alter our lives forever. A chance encounter with someone could do the same thing.

Have you ever noticed that many movies begin with an average person who gets caught up in some kind of intrigue? Perhaps the person witnesses a murder and then becomes a target for the bad guys. Or maybe the person meets a superhero or an alien. That’s what happened when Elliott met E.T., or when Jonathan and Martha Kent found the infant Kal-El, otherwise known as Superman.

Today, we’re going to look at a story of a very average young woman, perhaps a teenage girl, who is visited by an extraordinary being. She is given news that not only changes her life, but also changes the whole world. Of course, I’m talking about the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus.

Last week, we began reading the Gospel of Luke together. We saw that Luke begins his history by saying that while others had compiled narratives regarding Jesus, he saw fit to write an “orderly account” of what God had done. He says that his account is based on eyewitness testimony (Luke 1:1–4).

Luke begins his story with an old priest and his wife, who was barren. While Zechariah is serving in the temple in Jerusalem, the angel Gabriel tells him that his wife will have a child named John, who will turn people to God. John the Baptist will tell people to get ready for the coming King of Israel, the Messiah.

This week, we learn that Elizabeth’s relative, Mary, also receives news from the angel Gabriel. But her news is even more unbelievable. In Elizabeth’s case, her pregnancy was a miracle because she was past child-bearing age and had previously been unable to have children. But Elizabeth still conceived in the usual way. However, Mary’s pregnancy is more miraculous, because she had never “known” a man before.

Let’s find out what happens to Mary and how she reacts. We’ll do that by reading Luke 1:26–33:

26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”[1]

In last week’s passage, we found out that Mary’s relative, Elizbeth, had become pregnant and had hidden her pregnancy for five months. It is now the sixth month of her pregnancy. The same angel, Gabriel, comes to Mary, who lived in a small city called Nazareth, which was at least 65 miles north of Jerusalem, where Gabriel had appeared to Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah. Put it this way: if Jerusalem was Boston, Nazareth was Oakham. What, you’ve never heard of Oakham? I had never heard of it until yesterday, when I looked on a map and found that it’s about 65 miles west of Boston. The point is that Nazareth was Nowheresville.

And Mary wasn’t anyone particularly special. She was a virgin, probably still a teenager, and betrothed to a man named Joseph, who just happened to be of the tribe of Judah and the house of David. Being betrothed to someone was similar to being engaged, but much more serious. When a man was betrothed to a woman, he would pay the father of the woman a bride price, there would be witnesses, and the man would be known as the woman’s husband. Yet the marriage ceremony and the consummation of the marriage would come about a year later. In order to break off a betrothal, there needed to be a divorce. The point is that Mary was betrothed to Joseph but they were not married and had not consummated their relationship.

One day, this ordinary young woman was visited by an extraordinary being, an archangel. I say that Mary is “ordinary” because there is no indication in this passage or in the whole Bible that she is anything other than a normal person. This is one place where Roman Catholics and Protestants part ways. The Roman Catholic Church teaches that Mary had an “Immaculate Conception” that made her free from all sin. Strangely, this didn’t become official Catholic doctrine until 1854, when Pope Pius IX declared:

The most Blessed Virgin Mary was, from the first moment of her conception, by a singular grace and privilege of almighty God and by virtue of the merits of
Jesus Christ, Savior of the human race, preserved immune from all stain of original sin.[2]

The Catholic Church also teaches, “By the grace of God Mary remained free of every personal sin her whole life long.”[3] However, there isn’t even a hint of this in the Bible. Instead, Gabriel says that Mary is “favored” or “graced.” She has been a recipient of God’s grace, but that doesn’t mean she was sinless. In fact, the Bible is quite clear that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). All, except for Jesus. What makes Jesus so special is that he alone didn’t sin.

I said this last week, but it bears repeating: God made a good world that became corrupted by sin when the first human beings turned away from him. When that happened, sin entered into the world. Sin is more than just bad choices. Sin is a power that has deep roots within each one of us. It distorts our desires. We were made to know, love, and worship God. But our sinful nature causes us to love everything but God. Instead of making God the center of lives, we make something else—something inferior—our objects of worship. We find our comfort, safety, pleasure security, meaning, and hope in something other than God. That is why God sent a Savior, his Son, to rescue us. There is no indication in the Bible that Mary was any different than you and me in that regard. She needed a Savior just as much as we do.

But Mary “found favor,” or grace, with God. The same is said of Noah (Gen. 6:8), and we have no reason to believe Noah was sinless. But Mary, like Noah, was chosen for a special purpose. Gabriel says she will conceive and bear a son named Jesus. We’re not absolutely sure, but the name Jesus may mean “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is salvation.”[4] At any rate, Gabriel says he will be great and will be called “son of the Most High.” In other words, this child Jesus is the Son of God.

Gabriel also says that Jesus will inherit the throne of David, the premiere King of Israel, who lived about a thousand years earlier. God told David that he would have a son who would reign forever (2 Sam. 7:12–13). The prophets promised that this offspring of David would be the perfect king, reigning with “peace . . . justice and . . . righteousness.” But not only that, he would be called “Mighty God” and “Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6–7).

For those of us who are familiar with the Bible, we get so used to this message that we tend to forget how truly awesome it is. Imagine that you live in Nowheresville and you’re a Miss Nobody, and you’re told that your child will be the Son of God and a king who reigns forever. Forever is a long time. How can a mere human being reign forever? How can a mere human being also be called the Son of God? How could anyone believe such news?

Mary didn’t seem to doubt that this could be true. She might not have fully realized that this child would also be God, that, somehow, the eternal Son of God could be joined to a human nature. But she had a question. She wondered how she could have a child when she was just a virgin. So, Gabriel tells her. Let’s read verses 34–38:

34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”

35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” 38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.

Mary literally says, “How will this be, since I don’t know a man?” She knows that in order to have children, a woman has to “know” a man sexually. Since she hasn’t known a man to this point, she’s wondering how she can have this special child. Will this child come from Joseph?

Gabriel gives her the answer. The Holy Spirit will “come upon” her. The Holy Spirit is the third Person of the Trinity, along with the Father and the Son. I hate to say this, but in our sex-obsessed culture, I must: There is no hint here of the Holy Spirit having sex with Mary, though there are myths in the ancient world of gods having those kinds of relationships with women. There is no hint of such strange things in the Bible, and the Holy Spirit is immaterial, having no body. However, the idea of the power of God “overshadowing” is present in Scripture. That Greek verb is used in the translation of the Old Testament when the glory cloud “settled” on the tabernacle (Exod. 40:35). The idea also reminds us of the beginning of the Bible. The Bible famously begins with these words: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Gen. 1:1). Then there is the second verse: “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” Mary’s womb, we might say, was “void,” until the Spirit of God “hovered” over it and caused life to emerge. Jesus is a new creation. The first creation was spoiled by sin, but Jesus will be unspoiled by sin. He will be holy, not because Mary was first unstained by sin. No, the reason why Jesus is holy is because he has a supernatural conception. This breaks the power of sin that has been passed on from generation to generation. This is the true miraculous conception. Without having sex, Mary became pregnant because of the power of the Holy Spirit.

People find this hard to believe. Are we really supposed to believe that a virgin could become pregnant? I gave a more thorough defense of the virgin birth three years ago in a sermon called “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin.” You can find that on our website under the sermon series, “Who Is Jesus?”[5] I would encourage you to listen to that sermon or read it to find out more. But if you’re wondering why something like this should be believed, let me ask you, how did the universe get here? The best mainstream science suggests that the universe began at one point in time. All matter, energy, space, and even time itself have a beginning. How did this come about? Many atheists try to dodge the question of the origin of the universe by suggesting that this universe is part of an endless cycle of universes being born and dying, but that just pushes the question further back. If that were true—and we have no evidence that it is—who or what sustains that cycle? Others posit the so-called “multiverse theory,” that our universe just happens to be one of countless parallel universes. But who created them? At least Tufts University professor Daniel Dennett was honest enough to make the claim that the universe “perform[s] a version of the ultimate bootstrapping trick; it creates itself ex nihilo [out of nothing]. Or at any rate out of something that is well-nigh indistinguishable from nothing at all.”[6]

So, which claim is more reasonable, that the impersonal, material universe created itself, or that a personal, all-powerful, eternal, immaterial God created a material universe out of nothing? And if God can create a whole universe out of nothing, what is creating a baby out of a virgin?

Let’s just say we believe the universe did create itself out of nothing, or that it’s always been around in some form or another, and that’s just the way it is. What about the origin of life? We now know that even simple life forms are incredibly complex. The simple single-celled organism, with its DNA and molecular machines, is spectacularly complex. What accounts for this?

In the movie Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed, Ben Stein interviews two atheists. One is Michael Ruse, a philosopher of science and a former professor at Florida State University. Stein (perhaps best known as the teacher who keeps saying “Bueller? Bueller?” in the movie Ferris Bueller’s Day Off) asks Ruse how life emerged from an inorganic world. Ruse says one popular theory is that life emerged “on the backs of crystals.”[7] Richard Dawkins, another atheist and an evolutionary biologist, believes that life on earth could have been “seeded” by a “higher intelligence” from somewhere else in the universe. In other words, aliens could have planted life here.[8] Seriously. He doesn’t say how alien life started, so this again pushes the question back further. What is more believable? That a highly intelligent, all-powerful God designed life, that life emerged by chance “on the backs of crystals,” or that aliens—whom we have never seen and whose existence requires its own explanation—planted life on earth?

Yes, it may be hard to believe that a virgin could conceive, but I think it’s harder to believe that this universe could come from nothing or that life, with all its rich complexity, could emerge from some unintelligent, unguided process, or through the actions of ALF or E.T. If God can create a universe out of nothing and life where there was none, he can cause a virgin to become pregnant.

Perhaps the virgin birth isn’t the biggest miracle. Just yesterday I happened to read some of Martin Luther’s words on Mary. According to Luther, Bernard of Clairvaux said that there were three miracles in this passage. Luther writes, “Saint Bernard declared there are here three miracles: that God and man should be joined in this child; that a mother should remain a virgin; that Mary should have such faith as to believe that this mystery would be accomplished in her.” Then, Luther adds, “The last is not the least of the three. The virgin birth is a mere trifle for God; that God should become man is a greater miracle; but most amazing of all is that this maiden should credit the announcement that she, rather than some other virgin, had been chosen to be the mother of God.”[9]

What’s amazing about Mary is that not that she was sinless or remained a virgin for her whole life. Neither of these things are true. What is amazing is that she believes. After she hears this news, she says the famous words that would inspire the Beatles: “let it be.” She says, “let it be to me according to your word.” Mary is a model of faith, a model of submitting to God’s plans for her life.

After the angel speaks to her, Mary goes to her relative, Elizabeth. Gabriel had told Mary that Elizabeth was pregnant; perhaps Mary wanted to see that this was true. Elizabeth and Zechariah lived somewhere south of Jerusalem, some 80–100 miles away from Nazareth. This was no small trip for someone who would have to walk. Let’s read verses 39–45:

39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, 40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. 41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, 42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. 45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

Elizabeth is pregnant, with John the Baptist in her womb. And when Elizabeth greets Mary, John leaps. John’s role is to point to Jesus, and he even does this before he is born. The Bible consistently shows that the unborn are human beings.

Elizabeth, like John, was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she says that Mary is blessed. Elizabeth also says that Mary’s child is blessed, and she wonders why “the mother of my Lord should come to” her. Elizabeth calls Mary’s baby “my Lord.” What a strange thing to say of an unborn baby! By my count, the word “Lord” is used twenty-seven times in the first two chapters of Luke. In the other twenty-six times, the word clearly refers to God. I think this is a hint that Elizabeth somehow knew this unborn child was not just the Messiah, an anointed king, but also God. Elizabeth also says that Mary is blessed because she “believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.” Mary is blessed to be chosen as the mother of Jesus, and she is blessed that she believed.

I have to add the following as evidence that Mary is not a sinless superwoman. Later in the Gospel of Luke, a woman in a crowd says to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you, and the breasts at which you nursed!” (Luke 11:27). Now, this would be the perfect time for Jesus to say, “Yes, my mother is blessed because she is full of grace, immaculately conceived, without sin, and still a virgin!” But does he say that, or anything like it? No. He says, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep” (Luke 11:28). Elsewhere in Luke, Jesus is told his mother and brothers are waiting to see him (Luke 8:19–20). Jesus says, “My mother and my brothers are those who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21).

The point is that Mary believed God’s word and responded in faith, and that is what makes her blessed. And those who respond today to God’s word are blessed. We would do well to follow Mary’s lead.

Mary’s responds to Elizabeth’s blessing with a song, often called the Magnificat, after the Latin translation of the first word in Greek, “magnifies.” Mary probably didn’t break out into singing, but somewhere along the line her words were put into a poem. This happens often in the Bible. Truth can be expressed in verbatim reporting, but the essence of truth can often be captured in artistic form, in a poem, a song, a painting.

Let’s read verses 46–56:

46 And Mary said,

“My soul magnifies the Lord,
47  and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48  for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.
For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49  for he who is mighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
50  And his mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
51  He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
52  he has brought down the mighty from their thrones
and exalted those of humble estate;
53  he has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
54  He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
55  as he spoke to our fathers,
to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

We can break Mary’s song down into three parts. First, she praises God for what he has done for her. She says she “rejoices in God my Savior,” which shows that she, too, needed salvation. She realizes that she is of “humble estate.” God has a way of choosing the unlikely, the nobodies, to do his will. He who is mighty has done great things for Mary, just as he has done great things for all who put their trust in him.

Second, Mary praised God more broadly for how he turns the tables. He scatters the proud and brings down the mighty from their positions of power. Yet he exalts the humble and fills the hungry with good things.

Third, Mary praises God for helping Israel. God keeps his promises. He had promised Abraham, the father of all the Israelites, that he would bless the world through his offspring. Mary realizes that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the promises to Israel. Jesus is the true offspring of Abraham. Jesus is the only one who kept the law given to Israel at Mount Sinai. Jesus is the true King, the Son of David who will reign forever.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we need to ask ourselves what it teaches us and how we can live in light of it.

First, this passage teaches us that salvation cannot be achieved except through supernatural intervention. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from a miracle. Salvation cannot be achieved apart from God coming to us. I realize that some people mock the idea of miracles. Some people think God doesn’t answer prayers. Some people think there is no God at all. But if there is no God who can intervene in our lives, there is no hope. There is no life after death. There is no hope that the world will be restored so that the curse of death is reversed. There is no hope that the brokenness of this world, including the brokenness in our bodies, minds, and hearts, can be healed and made whole.

Salvation from a world of death, from our own sin, and from God’s just and right judgment of that sin can only be found in Jesus. When Jesus was conceived in Mary’s womb, he was the beginning of a new creation. As the Son of God, he has always existed, but when he became Jesus, he added a human nature and became the God-man. He is the bridge between heaven and earth, between God and us.

This message humbles us, because it says we can’t save ourselves. The only way to be made right with God is for God to come to us. Pastor Tim Keller says this:

Christmas is the end of thinking you are better than someone else, because Christmas is telling you that you could never get to heaven on your own. God had to come to you. It is telling you that people who are saved are not those who have arisen through their own ability to be what God wants them to be. Salvation comes to those who are willing to admit how weak they are.[10]

The second thing this passage teaches us is that God humbles the proud and exalts the humble. Those who exalt themselves, who try to make themselves look great, will fall. Think of those atheists who reject the evidence that points to a Creator. They end up looking foolish, talking about crystals and aliens. But those who humble themselves and accept God’s offer of salvation will be made great. Jesus is the perfect example of that. Though he was and is God, he humbled himself to become a lowly human being, born to a very humble woman. He was raised a carpenter’s son in Nowheresville and lived a humble life. And he died a humiliating death when he was crucified. He was viewed as the scum of the earth. But after he died, he rose from the grave and is now exalted in heaven. Even though the world doesn’t see it, Jesus is King. He reigns forever. Will you humble yourself and come under his reign? Does Jesus rule over your life?

God still causes the proud to stumble. God still cares about the humble and the weak. Many people who have been power and powerless have found great hope in this message. They trust that one day they will be exalted because they have believed.

The third thing this teaches is the nature of faith. Mary is a wonderful example. We shouldn’t make too much of Mary. The story really isn’t about her. But she is a model of faith. She hears God’s message and she believes it. She says, “Do what you will. I am your humble servant. Let it be your will, not mine.” That is what true faith looks like. Faith trusts. Faith submits. Faith acts. If we have the faith of Mary, we are just as blessed as Mary. Mary realized that God had come to hijack her life, to take it over, and she agreed. Do we have that attitude? If we do, we are blessed. Jonathan Edwards, the famous Massachusetts pastor and theologian, once said, “’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the heart than in the womb. ’Tis more blessed to have Christ in the arms of faith and love than in the arms or at the breast as the virgin Mary had.”[11] You can have Jesus living in you through faith.

The fourth thing this passage teaches is that God doesn’t always act in flashy ways. Think about the differences between how God spoke to Zechariah and Mary. Zechariah was an old man, a man of status. Mary was a young woman. Zechariah was a priest. Mary had no position. Zechariah was in the big city of Jerusalem. Mary was in the small town of Nazareth. Zechariah’s son, John, was filled with the Holy Spirit even in the womb. But Jesus, Mary’s son, was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Zechariah and Elizabeth were said to be righteous, obeying the law. Yet Mary is a recipient of God’s grace. By the standards of Jewish people, Zechariah had greater standing, and there was nowhere that God was more present than in the temple in Jerusalem. But God is not limited. He doesn’t act only in big cities and in impressive cathedrals.

When God comes to us, it might be in small ways. It might start by hearing a sermon, or reading a passage in the Bible. It might start through a prayer. We might not feel anything. But God works through humble people and God often begins something big by starting with something small. Salvation is a miracle. Faith is a miracle. Faith often starts with a small realization that this message about God is true. Faith starts with small acts of trust. And if you want that miracle of salvation, ask God for it. No matter who you are, not matter what you’ve done, you can be forgiven of your sins against God. Jesus came to seek and save lost rebels against God like you and me. He died to pay for the sins of the worst criminals, if they would turn to him in faith. Do you want to start anew, to be a new creation? Ask God for it. “For nothing will be impossible with God.”

Notes

  1. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  2. Pope Pius IX taught this doctrine in his encyclical, Ineffabilis Deus, dated December 8, 1854. The entire encyclical can be read at http://www.papalencyclicals.net/Pius09/p9ineff.htm (accessed December 18, 2014). See also Catholic Church, Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2nd Ed., §491 (Washington, DC: United States Catholic Conference, 2000), 124.
  3. Catechism of the Catholic Church, §493, p. 124.
  4. Darrell L. Bock, Luke: 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 129–130.
  5. “Jesus Was Born of a Virgin,” December 21, 2014, https://wbcommunity.org/jesus.
  6. Daniel Dennett, Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon (New York: Viking, 2006), 244, quoted in William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 151.
  7. You can view this exchange at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  8. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AOPkXFTd5Rs.
  9. Martin Luther, “The Maiden Mary,” in Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 26.
  10. Tim Keller, “The Gifts of Christmas,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 42.
  11. Jonathan Edwards, “To Be More Blessed Than Mary,” in Come Thou Long-Expected Jesus, ed. Nancy Guthrie (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008), 59.

 

An Orderly Account

This sermon was preached on December 3, 2017 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance. (See also text below.)

Is anyone here into history? Do you read biographies and watch documentaries? If you do, you probably want to make sure that the author or documentarian knows what he or she is talking about. You want to make sure that this person has studied the relevant data and interviewed key sources. That’s one of the reasons I like reading. I like to see what resources the author used. So, I read every footnote or endnote, just to check that author’s work. The historian who uses early, reliable sources is more trustworthy than the one who uses late, legendary sources.

If you’re a history buff, you will know that historians frame their stories of the past in certain ways. Every historian is trying to achieve something by telling a story. There is no such thing as an objective, unbiased history. Every historian chooses a subject, and he or she also chooses which facts to include and which to exclude. And every historian presents their history in different ways. Some present their stories in strict chronological order. Some of those historians may begin with a lot of background information. So, a biographer might write about a person’s life by first writing about that person’s parents. Or, an historian might begin right in the thick of an event, and then later incorporate background information. So, a documentary on D-Day might begin with Allied Forces storming the beaches of Normandy, and then later recount the events that led to that crusade. How an historian frames his or her history matters.

Today, we’re going to begin studying a book of history, the Gospel of Luke. This is a story primarily about Jesus. Like any history, this story is intended to achieve some purpose. The word “gospel” literally means “good news.” This lets us know that this story isn’t just an interesting read about some trivial events. No, this is history that is meant to be good news for us, if we allow it to shape our lives.

We’re going to study the book of Luke for a few reasons. One, Christianity is quite obviously centered on Jesus Christ. We need to keep coming back to the stories about Jesus to be reminded of who he is, what he taught, and what he has accomplished for us. And we can’t just pick and choose the stories of Jesus that we like. We need to look at Gospels in their entirety. We’re a church committed to the Bible because we believe it is the written Word of God. Therefore, we often go through entire books of the Bible.

Two, we’re looking at Luke and not Matthew, Mark, and Luke because its opening chapters tell the story of Jesus’ birth, and that’s fitting as we approach Christmas.

Three, we’re looking at Luke because in 2016, I preached through the book of Acts. Acts is a sequel to Luke. Yes, I’m taking things out of order. So, think of Luke as a prequel to Acts, and we’ll be just fine.

Four, I’m preaching through Luke because it contains some hard teachings of Jesus. It would be easy to avoid these teachings. But if we did that, we would be creating a Jesus of our own desires and not looking at the Jesus of history. If we want to be Christians with integrity, we can’t do that.

So, we’re going to study Luke’s Gospel. Since we’ll spend a good amount of time in this book, I want to give us some background information. We know that this Gospel was written by a man named Luke because the earliest manuscript that we have of Luke (Ì75) says, “according to Luke.” Many early Christians also attributed this Gospel to Luke.[1] In fact, there was no doubt that Luke wrote this book until the middle of the nineteenth century, when biblical scholars became increasingly skeptical of the Bible’s authority. Their skepticism isn’t supported by the evidence, however. I think their skepticism is simply due to their lack of faith. Some people don’t want the Bible to be historically reliable and true because they don’t want the God of the Bible to be Lord over their lives.

So, who is Luke? According to the letters of the apostle Paul, one of Jesus’ early messengers, Luke was one of his faithful coworkers (2 Tim. 4:11) and a doctor (Col. 4:14). He may have been a Gentile or a Greek Jew. He may have been from Antioch, which is in Syria, north of Palestine, where the action in Luke’s Gospel takes place. That means he didn’t witness the events of Jesus’ life. But he seems to have been a sometime traveling companion to Paul on his missionary journeys, so he knew Paul. (In Acts, there are several “we” passages that indicate that the author was among Paul’s companions. See Acts 16:10–17; 20:5–8, 13–15; 21:1–18; 27:1–28:16). As we’ll see, he claimed to have interviewed eyewitnesses, so I’m sure he met other apostles, such as Peter and possibly James.

That’s enough background. Let’s start reading. We’ll begin by reading the first four verses of Luke.

1 Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.[2]

Luke begins by noting that others have compiled narratives about the things that God accomplished. These events were relayed to Luke and people like him by “eyewitnesses and ministers of the word.” There were many people who witnessed the events of Jesus’ life. There were the twelve disciples, of course. Two of them, Matthew and John, wrote Gospels, and Peter wrote two letters that are in the Bible. But others besides the disciples witnessed events like Jesus’ birth, his life, his teaching and preaching, his miracles, his death, and his life after he was resurrected from the grave. Some of these eyewitnesses were also “ministers of the word,” that is, they preached the message about Jesus, and they passed on such details to people like Luke, who we might call a second-generation Christian.

Luke says that he thought it would be good to write his own “orderly account” of these events, since he followed them closely for some time. He writes this book, and his sequel, the book of Acts, to someone named Theophilus. We don’t know who this is. He seems to be a person of some standing, perhaps a rich person who was a patron of Luke. We don’t know. But his name means “friend of God” or “lover of God,” and Luke writes to him so that he “may have certainty concerning the things [he has] been taught.” Luke wants Theophilus, and all the readers of this book, to know for certain the truth about what God has done through Jesus.

I’ve given a bit of background information at the beginning because I want us to see the claim that Luke is making. He says he is writing a careful account of the things he has learned from eyewitnesses. We should take that claim seriously. The New Testament documents were written by eyewitnesses or people who knew eyewitnesses. They are meant to be taken as historical documents. If the author of this book says that he interviewed eyewitnesses and wrote his history based on what they said, then we should take him at his word unless we have compelling reasons to believe otherwise.

That means that unless we have evidence to the contrary, we should accept the historicity of this book. We should accept that this book was written within a few decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, when eyewitnesses were still alive. There’s a good reason to think that Luke completed Acts shortly after the year 62, which is when Paul was released from prison in Rome. He must have written his Gospel right before writing Acts. And Luke probably did much of his research while he accompanied Paul on his journeys. Paul, Luke, and others traveled to Jerusalem, where Paul was arrested. He was transferred to Caesarea Philippi, a city further north. Paul was there for two years, probably between the years 57 and 59, and during that time Luke surely was able to gather sources for this book. It seems that he used the Gospel of Mark as one source, but about 40 percent of Luke is unique and not shared with the other Gospels. This material might have come from other eyewitnesses, possibly people like Mary.

The point is that Luke claims to have written a book of history based on eyewitness testimony. From what we know of Luke and Acts, Luke was a careful historian. He places the events of these books within the broader history of the Roman Empire, and the details he recounts are accurate.

There’s a lot more that can be said about the historical trustworthiness of this book and the whole New Testament. If you want to know more, you can read that insert in the bulletin, “How We Can Know Jesus?” or listen to a sermon I gave three years ago by that same name.[3] But I want to highlight how import it is to know that the events in this book actually happened in the past. This is not a legend or a myth or some kind of fairy tale designed to make us feel good. Many skeptics believe this Gospel was written later in time. If someone fabricated it, why would they choose Luke as the author? Luke is relatively unknown. He wasn’t an apostle. If you were going to make up a Gospel, you’d name it after Peter or Judas or Mary. That’s what we see in false Gospels written late in the second century. No, this book is earth-shattering reality. It’s good news. If it weren’t real, it wouldn’t be good news at all. Entertainment, perhaps, but not good news.

Now, how does Luke begin his story? Does he start with Jesus? Actually, he starts with some lesser-known individuals. He begins with the story of a priest named Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. Let’s read verses 5–7:

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Luke tells us this story begins during the time when Herod the Great was king of Judea. He reigned from 37–4 B.C. And during the latter part of that time, there was a priest named Zechariah. There were perhaps as many as 18,000 priests in Israel at that time, so Zechariah was just one of many. His wife, Elizabeth, was related to Aaron, the first high priest. Notice that there are already a couple of Old Testament names given to us: Abijah and Aaron. There are many references and allusions to the Old Testament at the beginning of Luke. This reminds us that this is part of the continuing story we find in the whole Bible, which is a story of how God relates to people.

We’re told that both Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous. They obeyed God’s commands. We’re also told that they were incapable of having children, because they were old and Elizbeth was infertile.

Now, before we move on with the story, we have to see that this couple was obedient to God. The reason they didn’t have children wasn’t because they were being punished by God. Why then is anyone barren? And I don’t just mean incapable of having children. Why is life like this at times? Why are we frustrated. We do things not go the way we hoped they would go?

To understand, we have to know something of the whole story of the Bible. I only have time this morning to paint that story in the broadest strokes. But the story begins with God. He is perfect in every way, the greatest being who has ever existed. He is complete in himself. He had no need to create the universe or this planet or people, but he chose to for his own purposes. He made us to have a special relationship with him. He made us to be like him, to reflect what he’s like, to represent him, to worship, love, and obey him. But from the beginning, human beings have ignored God, turned away from him, rebelled against him, disobeyed him, and failed to love him. When that first happened, something we call “sin” entered into the world. Sin isn’t just a wrong action. It’s a power, an evil force that takes up residence within us. It distorts our desires, so we don’t love the things that are good for us and, instead, we love the things that are harmful. We are selfish and proud. We covet and are greedy. We fight.

Since God is perfect and pure, he cannot allow dwell with sin and sinful people, and he cannot allow sin to destroy his creation. As a partial punishment for sin, he cursed his creation. This does not mean that things are as bad as they could be. But things aren’t perfect. The world that was a paradise was lost. In its place, there is a world that has natural disasters, diseases, and death. And, worst of all, there is a separation between God and human beings. We don’t see God. We don’t always sense his presence.

So, the reason that things are barren is because of sin. But God is not only a holy God who judges and punishes sin. He is also a good God. Actually, the Bible says that God is love (1 John 4:8, 16). And because God is loving and merciful and gracious, he had a plan to save people from sin and the condemnation that comes with sin. It’s a long story, but it began with an old man named Abraham and his wife, Sarah. (At first, they’re called Abram and Sarai.) They, too, were unable to have children because they were old and because Sarah was barren (Gen. 11:30). Like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Abraham was obedient to God, keeping his commandments, statutes, and laws (Gen. 26:5).

God told Abraham that he would bless the whole earth through Abraham and his offspring, that his offspring would be a multitude of people, and that kings and nations would come from him (Gen. 12:1–3; 15:4–6; 17:5–6; 22:17–18). In other words, God would reverse the curse of sin through Abraham and his offspring, and that his descendants would populate the earth. When you stop and think about that, it sounds too good to be true. But if you’re Abraham, it sounds impossible. He’s an old man with an old wife who couldn’t have children when she was younger. And now he’s supposed to have children? This sounds like a bad joke. But Abraham has Isaac, and Isaac has Jacob, and Jacob has twelve sons who become the twelve tribes of Israel.

And Israel became a nation. God brought them out of slavery in Egypt. He performed miracles in their presence and gave them his law. He led them into their own land, where they settled and became a kingdom. Yet the Israelites still had the power of sin in them. They often disobeyed God and they started to worship other, false gods. Because of their disobedience and idol worship, God punished them through their enemies. God led the superpowers of their day, Assyria and Babylon, to attack Israel and bring people into exile. Jerusalem, the capital city, was destroyed, as was the temple.

Later, the people came back from exile in Babylon and settled back in the land of Judah. They built a new (and less glorious) temple and rebuilt the city. But they were still slaves (Ezra 9:9; Neh. 9:36). They were under the power of foreign kingdoms (ranging from Persia to Greece to the Roman Empire) and they were slaves to the power of sin. Even during the reign of Herod the Great, they were under the power of the Roman Empire. They were waiting for a promised Messiah, an anointed King, a descendant of Abraham and King David, who would defeat their enemies and usher in a reign of peace, justice, and righteousness that would last forever (Isa. 9:6–7; 11”1–16). In other words, the people were waiting for another exodus, for deliverance from exile.

Now, before we go in with the story, I understand that some of what I’ve said may sound very foreign. It may sound like something very distant and ancient. But wouldn’t you agree that we live in a world that seems cursed? No, it’s not all bad. But we have natural disasters, diseases, wars, fighting, and death. We have the internal curses of loneliness, depression, anxiety, and confusion. Don’t we all want deliverance from something? And what is able to deliver us? Do you think it’s the government? Your family and friends? Your job? Your money? Someone else’s money? People have tried all the things of the world and they haven’t worked. We’re waiting for deliverance that only someone from outside this world can give us.

That’s what the Jews were waiting for. They were waiting for God to act. They wanted him to get rid of the occupying forces of the Roman Empire. But what they really needed was a Savior.

Now, let’s get back to the story of Zechariah and his wife. Let’s read verses 8–17:

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. 10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. 11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

Zechariah belonged to one of twenty-four divisions of priests. Each division served at the temple for one week, twice a year. The temple was the place were God’s special presence was believed to dwell. It was where the people worshiped God, where they offered up sacrifices for sin and prayers. Sacrifices and offerings were presented twice a day at the temple. This included incense, which represented the prayers of the people (Ps. 141:2; Rev. 5:8; 8:3–4). Priests were the Israelites who mediated between God and other Israelites. They were the ones who made the sacrifices and presented the offerings. Priests were chosen to enter the temple by lot, which was sort of like flipping a coin or rolling dice. And it so happened that Zechariah was chosen to burn incense inside the Holy Place of the temple. This was a great honor and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.

When Zechariah was in the temple, he saw something unusual: the angel Gabriel. Angels are servants of God and they are usually unseen. The Bible actually doesn’t make as much of angels as some people might imagine. It’s rare that they appear to someone. So, when this happens, you know something special is about to take place.

When Zechariah sees Gabriel, he is afraid. This is what happens when people see angels. They’re not cuddly little cherubs. But Gabriel tells John not to fear. Gabriel tells him that he has good news. God has heard Zechariah’s prayer. We don’t know what prayer he’s referring to, but it was probably a prayer in the past for a child. Gabriel says, against all odds, that Elizabeth will have a son who will be named John. John, or Ἰωάννης in Greek, is related to a Hebrew name that means “God is gracious.” God will graciously give this elderly couple a child. This child will bring joy and gladness not only to Zechariah and Elizabeth, but also to many, because he will be “great before the Lord.” This means that he will be great in God’s eyes, but it also hints at John’s role: he will be the forerunner of his cousin, Jesus. He will announce the Lord’s coming.

John will take a special vow. He won’t drink “wine or strong drink” because he is specially consecrated to God. Drinking wine and strong drink in the Bible is not inherently wrong.[4] But the Bible does condemn drunkenness (Prov. 20:1; 23:20–21, 29–32; Eccl. 10:17; Eph. 5:18). At any rate, John lived an ascetic lifestyle, refusing all comforts. His calling was unique.[5] He seems to be the only one in the Bible who was filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb. The God of the Bible is unique, for he is one Being in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When people have a relationship with the Son, Jesus, the Holy Spirit changes them and he lives inside of them. But John was filled with the Holy Spirit from the moment he existed. This shows that God’s hand was upon him in a special way.

John would perform a very special task. He would turn the hearts of Israelites back to God. He would do this the way the prophet Elijah had done hundreds of years earlier, when he also called people to turn away from sin and idolatry and back to God. One of the Old Testament prophets, Malachi, said that Elijah would return “to turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers” (Mal. 4:6). There, the idea seems to be that as people turn toward God, they start to be reconciled to each other. Peace with God leads to peace with others.[6] It seems that John fulfills the role of Elijah, but in Luke it says that he will “turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just.” There’s no mention of the children turning to the fathers. Rather, the fathers, the older generation, have been disobedient and need to turn to the younger generation. This points to John’s role: he calls people to get ready for something new, when Jesus, the Messiah, comes. John tells the people to be prepared.

Let’s finish reading today’s passage to see what happens next. I’ll read verses 18–25.

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” 19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 20 And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” 21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. 23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

Zechariah seems to have some doubt. He wonders how he and his wife could possibly have a child. Because of his doubt, he is made mute. It also seems that he might have been deaf, as we’ll see in a couple of weeks (Luke 1:62). This might have given John some proof that Gabriel’s news would come true. It was also a mild punishment for Zechariah’s doubt. God expects people to trust him, even if his message seems impossible. The reason is that God is trustworthy, and he has a habit of doing the impossible.

Sure enough, John goes home to his wife and Elizabeth conceives. For some reason, she hides herself for months. It’s not clear why. Perhaps she did this as a way of consecrating herself to God’s service. It’s not clear, but it parallels the way her relative, Mary, remained hidden from her hometown for the early months of her pregnancy.

Now that we’ve gone through this passage, we should ask ourselves what it means for us. There are two main things I want us to get out of this morning’s passage. The first is that Luke says he wrote an historical account based on eyewitness testimony. These events really happened. A number of people simply can’t believe that a story containing supernatural elements, like angels and miracles, can be true. I understand why some people might doubt. I have never seen an angel or a miracle. But other people have. At any rate, I think we should ask ourselves this question: If nothing in the natural world can fix this broken world, shouldn’t we hope for supernatural help? If God exists, shouldn’t we expect a story about God’s acts in history to contain supernatural elements? I think the Bible would be rather odd without those elements. Should we expect God, who made the universe out of nothing, to give us a story about a man praying for money and then finding spare change under the couch cushions? Much more could be said about the reality of the existence of God and things like miracles. If you have doubts, I would ask you to suspend your disbelief and continue to learn more about Jesus by coming back next week.

The other thing I want us to see is that God brings life out of nothing, hope out of despair, fullness and joy out of barrenness. He causes people to turn to one another and be reconciled. And he does this through Jesus. In the case of Zechariah and Elizabeth, they couldn’t have children. They were literally barren. In the case of Israel, they had often been spiritually barren. The same is true of us. God doesn’t promise to give us children or wonderful relationships or health and wealth in this life. But he does bring spiritual life out of spiritual death. And, though we aren’t there yet, the end of the grand story of the universe is that God will one day recreate the world to be a paradise, where there is no more barrenness of any kind. There will be more diseases, no more natural disasters, no more fighting and wars, no more sin, and no more death. It will only be God and the people he has prepared for himself.

How does God bring fullness out of barrenness? How can he do that? He does that because Jesus, the eternal Son of God who was full of glory, became barren by becoming a man. He lived a perfect life of righteousness, always loving and obeying God the Father. And yet he died in our place when he was crucified. His death pays for all the sin of those who turn to him in faith. Jesus turns people to God, and when people truly turn to God, they are transformed. Lives are changed, relationships are healed. This doesn’t mean life is easy or that Christians are perfect. But it means that Christians have hope.

Come back to learn more about Jesus next week. For now, let’s pray.

Notes

  1. For a list of reasons why we can trust that Luke is the author of this Gospel, see Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Croswn: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 258–261.
  2. Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture quotations are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV).
  3. That sermon and others can be found at https://wbcommunity.org/jesus. It can also be found at https://wbcommunity.org/how-can-we-know-jesus.
  4. Psalm 104:15 says that God gives “wine to gladden the heart of man.” According to Deuteronomy 14, Israelites could consume the “tithe of your grain, of your wine, and of your oil” that they brought to Jerusalem when they worshiped there (verse 23). Or, they could bring money instead and “spend the money for whatever you desire—oxen or sheep or wine or strong drink, whatever your appetite craves” (verse 26).
  5. Samson and Samuel, two other “miracle babies,” had similar vows (Judg. 13:4–5; 1 Sam. 1:11).
  6. There also may be a hint that the Israelites would return to the ways of the Patriarchs, like Abraham. Isaiah 63:16 says, “Abraham does not know us,” because of their sin. When the Israelites return to God, they return to the faith of their fathers.

 

An Orderly Account (Luke 1:1-25)

Pastor Brian Watson begins preaching through the Gospel of Luke by showing that it is a book of history. This history begins with an old couple, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who were unable to have children. God’s plan to restore the world began with another old couple unable to have children, Abraham and Sarah. Luke shows us that God’s plan was coming to fruition.

How Can We Know Jesus?

This sermon was preached on December 14, 2014 by Brian Watson.
MP3 recording of the sermon.
PDF of the written sermon, prepared in advance. The text of the written sermon also appears below.

Well, it’s Christmas time. And that means we are going to hear a lot about Jesus. It seems that every year, someone makes a new claim about him. Every year, about this time, a new article in Time magazine or in National Geographic or a television program on the History channel or the Smithsonian Channel tells us about the “real Jesus.” This year, a new book called The Lost Gospel claims that a “lost” text states that Jesus was married to Mary Magdalene.[1] Never mind that this text was written in the sixth century—five hundred years after Jesus died—and that it doesn’t actually have the names of Jesus and Mary in it, but refers to Joseph and Aseneth (mentioned in Gen. 41:45), and that it wasn’t actually lost and that it isn’t actually a gospel. No, those are just inconvenient little details. Really, now we’ve found the real Jesus. You just have to learn how to decode the text.[2]

This claim is nothing new. In 2012, Karen King, a professor at Harvard, claimed that she found a document that referred to Jesus’ wife. It turns out this document dates to the eighth century. It barely amounts to anything, given that it’s a scrap that’s three inches wide, with some broken text that apparently has Jesus saying, “My wife . . .”[3] Could he be referring to the church, the bride of Christ? Is this another fabrication about Jesus? Or was he really married? How can we know?

Last year, the news was not that Jesus was married, but that he was only a Jewish revolutionary, certainly not God, who wanted to overthrow the Roman Empire, or so Reza Aslan told us in his book, Zealot.[4] According to Aslan, the New Testament of the Bible does not consist of historically reliable documents. He simply asserts, “The New Testament is not a historical document.”[5] In his book, he claims that “the Bible is replete with the most blatant and obvious errors and contradictions.”[6] Many others make similar claims. Are they right?

Jesus is surely the most written-about figure in history. And since Jesus is so compelling, and such a perennial subject of interest, it’s no surprise that everyone tries to get Jesus on their team. For example, New Age spiritual teachers like to write about Jesus, reducing him to—you guessed it—a New Age spiritual teacher.[7] And many of the claims about Jesus are irreconcilable—they are completely different. It seems that everyone wants a Jesus who is just like them, who reflects their interests and values, who champions their causes. But perhaps the real Jesus is someone who is so unlike us that we have to stop and take notice. Perhaps Jesus is someone we could never make up, someone who demands our attention, and even our worship.

Today, I begin a sermon series called, “Who Is Jesus?” My goal is to try to show what the Bible teaches about Jesus, why it is historically accurate, and why we should believe it. Some of us believe that the message of Jesus we find in the Bible is true. Some of us may not. Some of us may want to believe it, but have doubts. Wherever you stand on this issue today, I want you to consider what the Bible says and, before rejecting it, consider whether it’s true. You can’t reject that which you don’t know. That’s like a child saying, “I don’t like broccoli,” when he’s never tasted it. In the case of Jesus, you have to look at the actual evidence before deciding what you believe and why you believe it. Make a decision about Jesus, yes, but don’t make a poorly-informed, ignorant decision.

So, the question today is: How can we know Jesus? The Christian claim is that Jesus was born around 5 B.C. and died in either A.D. 30 or 33.[8] That means Jesus lived about two thousand years ago. So, in order to know who Jesus is, we have to consider how we can know anything from two thousand years ago.

In order to understand ancient history, we have to keep a few things in mind, things that should be very obvious. The first thing we need to consider is that we don’t have direct access to the past. We’re like detectives who come upon a crime scene. We can’t see what happened directly, but we can do our best to make sense of all the clues that we see around us.[9]

The second thing we need to keep in mind is that the time of Jesus was long before the time of photographs and videos. It was before the time of the Internet, typewriters, electricity, and even the movable-type printing press, which was developed in the fifteen century. It was a time before television and radio and anything that resembles the modern newspaper.

If you want to know what happened in ancient history, you have to look at two things: artifacts and writings.[10] Artifacts are the type of things that archaeologists typically deal with: the lost Ark, the Holy Grail, Nazis–you know, Indiana Jones-type stuff. To be serious, archaeologists often deal with the remains of ancient cities and towns. They find buildings, pottery, coins, inscriptions, and so forth. Another type of evidence is writing. We can look at histories and letters to figure out what happened in earlier times.

With Jesus, we don’t have much in the way of artifacts. We don’t have his personal items, or the cross he was crucified on, or the tomb he was buried in. We shouldn’t expect to find his possessions, because he was an itinerant teacher without his own home. Also, early Christians didn’t have the means—the power or the money—to secure the cross or the tomb or other objects that might be physical proof of Jesus’ life and deeds.[11] In fact, it seems like they weren’t interested in that sort of thing at all. Early Christians were much more interested in telling others what they had witnessed. Therefore, we must turn to writings to learn more the real Jesus.

Let’s consider some aspects of ancient writing. As I said, this was before computers, typewriters, and the printing press. Everything that was written had to be written by hand, and if you wanted copies, well, those had to be written by hand, too. And it’s not like you could go to Staples and by a ream of paper and some pens. People wrote on a primitive form of paper called papyrus, which was made from slices of reeds, which were cross-hatched and dried. Or they wrote on leather scrolls. Either way, writing materials were scarce and expensive. It was usually better for people to spread news orally—by memorizing it and speaking it to others.

Now, there are some basic facts of ancient writing that we must deal with. One, a lot of ancient history is lost to the sands of time. Papyrus documents were fragile and could deteriorate. Things happen over time that can destroy writings: fires, floods, wars, sunlight, humidity. Two, there was often a delay between historical events and the writing of history. This is odd for us because events that happen now are broadcast almost instantly over the Internet and on cable news stations. But that didn’t happen in the ancient world because it took so long to write and copy writings. Again, it was faster and more efficient to speak news than write it. Three, ancient historians didn’t tend to write history the way it’s written now. They were accurate, but they weren’t as concerned about being as precise as historians are today. They tended to form and shape their histories to emphasize certain themes. They wanted to get the facts right, but it was more important to capture the essence of an historical figure or event than to be concerned with precise numbers.

Let me illustrate those first two points. A lot of ancient historical documents may be lost, so we have relatively few in number. Consider this: the Roman Emperor for most of Jesus’ life, the one who reigned when Jesus died, was Tiberius (A.D. 14–37). He was the most powerful man in the world at that time. He reigned for over twenty years. And there are only four written sources about him from the first two hundred years after his death.[12] By comparison, the number of sources we have regarding Jesus is pretty stunning. We may wish we had more sources, but what we have is a lot, and we have to examine the evidence we have, not the evidence we don’t.

The second point I made regarding ancient history is that there is normally a gap in time between events in the past and historical writings that tell us about them. That’s true whether the history is about Caesars or Christ. It’s typical for a few decades to elapse before an event is captured in writing. That is true for Roman historians like Suetonius and Tacitus, and it’s true for the writers of the New Testament. The difference is that many of the writers of the New Testament were eyewitnesses to the events they write about. And if they weren’t eyewitnesses, they had access to eyewitnesses.

Now, as we turn to writings about Jesus, we can see that there are a few different categories of writings. There are early writings and late writings, and there are non-Christian writings and Christian ones. Generally, the earlier the writing, the more historically accurate it is considered. There are many later writings concerning, Jesus, but I don’t think it’s hard to see that these writings—like the scrap of papyrus about Jesus’ alleged wife—aren’t trustworthy documents. You don’t want to put much stock in them, if you put any stock in them at all. It’s best to focus on the earlier writings about Jesus, the ones that occurred within the first century or so.

First, let’s take a quick look at the early non-Christian mentions of Jesus. I want to do this for two reasons: One, to show that we have records of Jesus outside of the Bible. This is important because some people claim that Jesus didn’t even exist, which in light of all the evidence is simply absurd.[13] Two, what we see in these documents actually corroborates certain elements of the Christian claims regarding Jesus. So let’s look at them.

One source is the Jewish historian Josephus (c. A.D. 37–c.100), who lived in Palestine, was a Pharisee, and was involved in the Jewish War against Rome, which began in A.D. 66. After being captured by the Romans, he joined their side and became a Roman citizen. It was after this time that he wrote his histories of the war and of the Jewish people. Josephus mentions Jesus twice. One short reference to Jesus comes in his Jewish Antiquities. In describing the martyrdom of James, he states that this apostle was “the brother of Jesus, who was called Christ.”[14] We have no indications that Josephus became a Christian, but he acknowledged that Jesus was called Christ, or Messiah, by some people.

There is a longer reference to Jesus in the Antiquities that provides us more information. However, it seems that some Christians added to this text, in order to create a stronger witness for Jesus. One attempt to recreate Josephus’s actual words is as follows:

At this time there was a wise man called Jesus, and his conduct was good, and he was known to be virtuous. Many people among the Jews and the other nations became his disciples. Pilate condemned him to be crucified and to die. But those who had become his disciples did not abandon his discipleship. They reported that he had appeared to them three days after his crucifixion and that he was alive. Accordingly, he was perhaps the Messiah, concerning whom the prophets have reported wonders. And the tribe of the Christians, so named after him, has not disappeared to this day.[15]

At a minimum, it seems that Josephus was aware that Jesus was regarded as a virtuous wisdom teacher who had disciples, who was crucified, whose disciples did not abandon him, and who was reported to have appeared to his followers. If Jesus had been a false Messiah and he had been put to death without rising from the grave, his followers would have abandoned the cause.[16]

Roman historians also wrote about Jesus. Suetonius (c. A.D. 70–c. 160) wrote a history of the lives of many of the Roman emperors, the Caesars. He wrote about how Emperor Claudius (reigned A.D. 41–54) expelled Jews from Rome in A.D. 49., an event also referenced in Acts 18:2. “He banished from Rome all the Jews, who were continually making disturbances at the instigation of one Chrestus.”[17] We don’t know for sure, but it’s possible that Suetonius thought that Christ was a person causing a problem in Rome. What happened was that early Christians were preaching Christ in Rome, and this caused controversy among some Jewish people. We do know that Suetonius referred to Christians during the time of Emperor Nero (A.D. 54–68). He writes, “He likewise inflicted punishments on the Christians, a sort of people who held a new and impious superstition.”[18]

Another Roman historian, Cornelius Tacitus (A.D. 56–117), also wrote of Christians and Christ. After a fire broke out in Rome in A.D. 64, people were looking for someone to blame, and even the emperor, Nero, came under suspicion. Tacitus reports that Nero blamed the fire on Christians:

Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of one of our procurators, Pontius Pilatus, and a most mischievous superstition, thus checked for the moment, again broke out not only in Judæa, the first source of the evil, but even in Rome, where all things hideous and shameful from every part of the world find their centre and become popular.[19]

Tacitus traces the origins of Christianity to “Christus,” an obvious reference to Jesus Christ, who lived during the time of the Roman emperor, Tiberius, and who suffered death (“the extreme penalty”) under Pontius Pilate. Notice also that Christianity was “checked for the moment” after Jesus’ death, only to break out again. This detail harmonizes with what we know from the Bible: after Jesus’ death, the disciples were hiding. Even after his resurrection, the disciples did not do any public teaching. The disciples didn’t make much noise in Judea or beyond until after Jesus ascended to heaven and after they received the promised Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. Christian proclamation began with Peter’s speech in Acts 2, after which three thousand people came to faith in Jesus. In the final chapter of Acts (Acts 28) Paul is preaching in Rome. The Christian message spread quite quickly in the thirty years after Jesus’ death and resurrection.

One more Roman witness will suffice. Pliny the Younger (A.D. 61–c.112) was a Roman senator and the governor of Bithynia (part of modern-day Turkey). In one of his letters to Emperor Trajan (reigned A.D. 98–117), he mentions that he persecuted certain Christians, forcing them to abandon their faith. At one point, he describes their Christian worship:

They met on a stated day before it was light, and addressed a form of prayer to Christ, as to a divinity, binding themselves by a solemn oath, not for the purposes of any wicked design, but never to commit any fraud, theft, or adultery, never to falsify their word, nor deny a trust when they should be called upon to deliver it up; after which it was their custom to separate, and then reassemble, to eat in common a harmless meal.[20]

This passage, written around A.D. 111, shows that Christians worshiped Jesus “as to a divinity.”

We could also mention Mara bar Serapion, a Syrian Stoic philosopher writing shortly after A.D. 73, who makes a reference to the Jews murdering their “Wise King.”[21] And the Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 43a, apparently refers to Jesus when it says: “It was taught: On the eve of the Passover Yeshu (the Nazarene) was hanged. For forty days before the execution took place, a herald went forth and cried, ‘He is going forth to be stoned because he has practiced sorcery and enticed Israel to apostasy. Anyone who can say anything in his favor, let him come forward and plead on his behalf.’ But since nothing was brought forward in his favor he was hanged on the eve of the Passover!”[22] That is a bit of polemical writing by Jews who didn’t believe Jesus was the Messiah. They claimed he tried to lead Israel astray. That writing comes later, perhaps from the fifth century. But the charges made against Jesus are captured by the second century Christian writer, Justin Martyr (c. A.D. 100–c.165), in his Dialogues with Trypho: “For they dared to call Him a magician, and a deceiver of the people.”[23] The Talmud does not deny that Jesus performed miracles and that he was “hung” on a cross at the time of Passover—details presented also in the Bible.

That’s really all that non-Christians wrote about Jesus in the first hundred years after his life. None of those details deny what we read in the New Testament. In fact, these documents tell us that Jesus was known for doing miraculous works, that he had a following, that he died at the hands of Pontius Pilate, and that his followers continued to meet and worship him. Reza Aslan claims that the only two facts we can know about Jesus is that he had a following and was put to death by the Romans.[24] But we’ve already seen that Aslan is wrong.

However, it’s clear that these non-Christian sources give us a limited amount of information. To learn more about Jesus, we have to turn to the Bible.

Over the next few months, we’re going to spend a lot of time in the New Testament, particularly in the four Gospels: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. A lot of claims are made against the New Testament. Some people claim these are not historically reliable documents. Some claim they were written too late in time to capture accurately what Jesus did and said. Others claim that the early church edited out of the Bible certain other Gospels that told different stories about Jesus. These claims are simply false. Here are some reasons why we can trust the New Testament.

The New Testament writers claimed to write historical documents. For the sake of time, I’ll use just one example. We heard how the Gospel of Luke begins. It’s worth reading that again. Here is Luke 1:1–4:

1 Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. With this in mind, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, I too decided to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.[25]

The writer states a few things. He says that others have written accounts of Jesus’ life, the subject of the book he is writing. These accounts were passed down from eyewitnesses to others, such as the writer, who himself was not an eyewitness. He claims that he investigated everything and has now created an “orderly account” for someone named Theophilus.

Luke is the longest book in the New Testament, and it has a sequel, the book of Acts. We know this because Acts is also addressed to Theophilus, and it begins with a mention of a previous book, also about Jesus (Acts 1:1–2). Despite what some skeptics say, we are certain that Luke, a physician and an associate of the apostle Paul (see Col. 4:14; 2 Tim. 4:11; Philemon 24), wrote these books. Why? Even though the name “Luke” isn’t mentioned in the body of the text, his name has been attached to these documents from the beginning of Christian history. The earliest copy of this Gospel that we have has the title “according to Luke” attached to it.[26] Also, the earliest Christians writing after the Bible was written, the so-called “church fathers,” indicated that these books were written by Luke.[27] So, we have confidence that we know who the author is.

We also know that Luke used very elegant Greek. This is the writing of a well-educated person.[28]

We also know that Luke was accurate. The historical details recorded by Luke in his Gospel and in Acts, such as the names of political leaders and the titles used for those leaders in various places, are accurate. That may not seem impressive until we understand that in different localities, leaders had different titles, and Luke had no access to extensive reference works, much less the Internet.[29] New Testament scholar Colin Hemer has identified eighty-four facts in Acts 13–28 that have been confirmed by historical and archaeological evidence, showing that Luke was a very careful historian.[30]

The Gospels are not the stuff of legend. They are very restrained, even when they are describing very amazing events. Contrast that with other books, written in the late second century, that are not in the Bible. For example, in the Gospel of Peter (which wasn’t written by Peter, who had died a hundred years or so earlier!), at the resurrection, two men and Jesus come out of the tomb, followed by a cross. The heads of two men reach up to heaven, and the head of Jesus reaches above the heavens. And then, of course, the cross speaks![31] But the real Gospels aren’t like that at all.

That leads me to another point: The Gospels were written within a lifetime of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Let’s stay with the example of Luke. Some skeptics assume Luke was written at the end of the first century, perhaps fifty to seventy years after Jesus’ death.[32] They assume that because in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus predicts the destruction of Jerusalem by the Roman Empire, which happened in A.D. 70. Some people assume that is impossible, so they believe that Luke was writing “prophecy” after the fact.[33] But that should be a warning against relying on our presuppositions, the things we assume to be true yet are not proven. Why should we rule out evidence of prophecy of the future and miracles?

The best evidence for the date of Luke is actually two-fold. First, in 1 Timothy, Paul seems to quote Luke 10:7 and call is “Scripture” (1 Tim. 5:18). Of course, some skeptics don’t think Paul wrote 1 Timothy; they claim it was written later. But all the evidence we have says that Paul wrote 1 Timothy, and Paul died in Rome as a martyr, sometime between 64 and 67. So, Luke had to be written earlier. Second, Luke’s second volume, Acts, ends rather abruptly with Paul a prisoner in Rome. We know that Paul was imprisoned twice in Rome. The first time was between 60 and 62. Later, he was arrested again and was beheaded. The apostle Peter also died in Rome around the same time. There was also a major fire in Rome in 64, which lead to increased persecution of Christians. And the temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70. Why aren’t any of these events recorded in Acts if Luke wrote after them? The best answer is that Luke wrote before they happened.[34] So Luke probably wrote Acts around 62. He wrote Luke sometime earlier. And virtually every scholar agrees that Luke used the Gospel of Mark as one of his sources, which means Mark was written even earlier.

You may wonder why we have trouble dating books in the ancient world. The problem is that they weren’t time stamped or dated the way documents are now. As I said earlier, historians at that time didn’t write history the way we do now. That doesn’t mean they weren’t accurate, however.

Here’s another reason why we should trust the New Testament. We have more manuscripts and older manuscripts of the New Testament than any other document from that time. It is the best-attested document of the ancient world, by far. Here’s a general rule regarding ancient documents: The more manuscripts we have, and the closer they are in time to the original documents, the greater our confidence is that we have an accurate representation of the originals. We now have over 5,700 Greek manuscripts of parts or all of the New Testament, more than 10,000 Latin Vulgate manuscripts, and more than 9,300 other early translations. The earliest manuscript evidence we have comes thirty to fifty years after the original writing, and the earliest complete manuscript, the Codex Sinaiticus, was written around A.D. 350, less than three hundred years after the last book of the New Testament was written.[35]

Now, that may not seem very impressive, but let us compare these figures to other historical works of the same era. The Roman historian Tacitus’s two major works, the Histories and the Annals were written around A.D. 100, and they exist in incomplete form in only two manuscripts from the ninth and the eleventh centuries. We have only eight manuscripts of History of the Peloponnesian War by Thucydides, written in the fifth century B.C., and the oldest manuscript is dated around A.D. 900, some thirteen hundred years later. Julius Caesar’s Gallic War was written around 50 B.C., and we have only ten manuscripts, the oldest of which dates around nine hundred years later.[36] Yet no one doubts that these writings are historically reliable, and they certainly don’t doubt that the Peloponnesian War or the Gallic War actually happened.

There are many other reasons to trust the Gospels and the rest of the New Testament. I don’t have time to explain them all, but if you visit our website, wbcommunity.org, and go to the “Media” tab, you can read some articles I have written about the trustworthiness of the New Testament and alleged errors or contradictions in the Bible. You can also go to the “Sermons” page and read this manuscript, which has more information in it than I have time to present right now. However, here are two quick reasons: The New Testament contains too many things—some of which are potentially embarrassing—that no one would make up if they were fabricating a story. Also, the New Testament was written by several people over a fifty-year span, from different places and to different places. That means it wasn’t the product of some conspiring person or group of people. The early church didn’t have power or the ability to control their message.

But I do want to address one last issue. There’s been a lot of talk regarding other, so-called “lost gospels” that are not in the Bible. The idea is that somehow these gospels were hidden by the Church, because they were controversial. Dan Brown popularized his idea in his novel, The Da Vinci Code. One of his characters, Sir Leigh Teabing, makes this extraordinary claim: “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relative few were chosen for inclusion—Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John among them.” Furthermore, he states, “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.”[37] This is wrong on both counts. There are fewer than thirty “gospels,” or written accounts of Jesus. And Constantine certainly did not determine the content of the Bible. The Council of Nicaea in 325 did not determine which books are in the Bible. That is simply bad history.

The only accounts of Jesus’ life that were written in the first century are Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John—the Gospels of the Bible. Other “gospels” such as the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Judas and the Gospel of Peter were written at the end of the second century, over a hundred years after Jesus’ death. They weren’t written by Thomas, Judas, and Peter, who were already dead. They are clearly false.[38] I already mentioned the talking cross of the Gospel of Peter. The Gospel of Thomas is a collection of 114 alleged sayings of Jesus. Here’s the last one: “Simon Peter said to them: ‘Let Mary go away from us, for women are not worthy of life.’ Jesus said: ‘Lo, I shall lead her, so that I may make her a male, that she too may become a living spirit, resembling you males. For every woman who makes herself a male will enter the kingdom of heaven.’” Anyone who has read the New Testament knows how ridiculous that statement is. The Gospel of Judas portrays Judas as a hero. This wasn’t a “lost gospel.” In 180 Irenaeus dismissed it as a fictitious history.[39] After the Gospel of Judas was published in English translation in 2006, Adam Gopnik wrote a review of it in The New Yorker. He said that these gospels “no more challenge the basis of the Church’s faith than the discovery of a document from the nineteenth century written in Ohio and defending King George would be a challenge to the basis of American democracy.”[40]

These claims that make the news and circulate on the Internet should serve as a warning. Anyone can assert something. Anyone can make a truth claim. Usually, the more scandalous the claim, the more attention it receives. But truth claims need to be backed by evidence, and the claims that Jesus is a myth, or that these false gospels were hidden by the Church, or that people added legendary material to the Bible simply aren’t true. If you follow the evidence, you’ll find that there are excellent reasons to believe the Gospels are historical documents.

So now the question is, are you willing to read those Gospels and consider what they say? As we continue through this series on Jesus, we’ll examine key aspects of Jesus’ life and works. We won’t cover every single thing Jesus is recorded as saying and doing, but we’ll consider the key claims of Christianity and wonder if they can be true. If you are a Christian here today, please know that I want you to be confident that you can trust what the Bible says about Jesus. I want you to understand better who Jesus is. I want you to understand why he matters. If you are not a Christian, if you haven’t put your faith in Jesus yet, I want you to consider that the evidence for the Jesus of Christianity is far greater than you may have assumed. I want you to be confident that you can know who Jesus is. All I ask is that you take time to learn who he is. Please keep coming to this church throughout this series so you can learn more.

Often, the problem is not with the evidence, with the facts and how they have been traditionally interpreted. Often, the problem is with ourselves and our desires. We don’t think things are true because we simply don’t want them to be true. If you can’t believe that the Jesus of the Bible is true, examine yourself to see if there’s anything that keeps you from believing. Do you simply not want Jesus to be who the Bible says he is, the King and Lord of the universe? Perhaps you don’t want such an authority over your life. Or perhaps you don’t think there’s a God or an afterlife: when you die, you die, and that’s it. But how do you know? If you’re skeptical of the Bible, perhaps you should also be skeptical of your skepticism. When it comes to Jesus, there’s simply too much at stake. Given the claims of Christianity—that our eternal destiny lies in the hands of Jesus—we must realize that we shouldn’t come to the question of Jesus lightly. Take time. Weigh the evidence. Think it through.

Notes

  1. Simcha Jacobovici and Barrie Wilson, The Lost Gospel: Decoding the Ancient Text That Reveals Jesus’ Marriage to Mary the Magdalene (New York: Pegasus, 2014).
  2. Robert Cargill, “Review of ‘The Lost Gospel’ by Jacobovici and Wilson,” November 10, 2014, http://robertcargill.com/2014/11/10/review-of-the-lost-gospel-by-jacobovici-and-wilson/ (accessed December 11, 2014). See also the other articles about Jacobovici on Cargill’s website.
  3. The whole text can be read in Emma Green, “The ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife Is Real: What Now,” The Atlantic, April 10, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2014/04/the-gospel-of-jesuss-wife-is-real-what-now/360487/ (accessed December 11, 2014). Other articles about this discovery include: Joel Bade and Candida Moss, “The Curious Case of Jesus’s Wife,” The Atlantic, November 17, 2014, http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2014/12/the-curious-case-of-jesuss-wife/382227/ (accessed December 11, 2014); Charlotte Allen, “She’s Back: Jesus’ Wife—Again,” The Weekly Standard, December 8, 2014, Vo. 20, no. 13, http://www.weeklystandard.com/articles/she-s-back_820226.html, (accessed December 11, 2014).
  4. Reza Aslan, Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth (New York: Random House, 2013).
  5. Belinda Luscombe, “10 Questions for Reza Aslan,” Time, August 5, 2013, http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2148151,00.html (accessed December 11, 2014).
  6. Aslan, Zealot, xix. For a devastating critique of Aslan, see Allan Nadler, “What Jesus Wasn’t: Zealot,” Jewish Review of Books, August 11, 2013, http://jewishreviewofbooks.com/articles/449/reza-aslan-what-jesus-wasnt/ (accessed December 11, 2014). Scholars who reviewed the book point out Aslan’s historical errors: Craig Evans (http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2013/august-web-only/zealot-reza-aslan-tells-same-old-story-about-jesus.html?paging=off); Darrell Bock (http://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/when-scholarly-skepticism-encounters-jesus-christ/); Gary Manning (http://www.thegoodbookblog.com/2013/aug/04/a-response-to-zealot-by-reza-aslan/); John Dickson (http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2013/08/09/3822264.htm); and Joseph Loconte (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/joseph-loconte-phd/reza-aslan-zealot_b_3707276.html).
  7. Deepak Chopra, Jesus: A Story of Enlightenment (New York: HarperOne, 2009); Deepak Chopra, The Third Jesus: The Christ We Cannot Ignore (New York: Harmony, 2009).
  8. Scholars debate which year, since either year is possible.
  9. According to philosopher William Lane Craig, “while the historian does not have direct access to the past, the residue of the past, things that have really existed, is directly accessible to him” (Reasonable Faith, 3rd ed. [Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2008], 226).
  10. “The evidence which the historian uses will include texts, as well as artifacts, and here, too, his reconstruction will be limited by the data” (Ibid., 229).
  11. Craig L. Blomberg, The Historical Reliability of the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 327: “Short of some spectacular documentary find of new papyri or parchments of notes someone took on Jesus’ messages or accounts of his deeds traceable to the first half of the first century (or to something Jesus himself penned!), archaeology will never help us demonstrate that Jesus really did or did not do or say something that the New Testament Gospels claim.” However, Blomberg adds, “archaeology can demonstrate that the places mentioned in the Gospels really existed and that customs, living conditions, topography, household and workplace furniture and tools, roads, coins, buildings and numerous other ‘stage props’ corresponded to how the Gospels describe them. It can show that the names of certain characters in the Gospels are accurate, when we find inscriptional references to them elsewhere” (ibid.). Examples of place names include the synagogue in Capernaum (Mark 1:21), the pool of Bethesda (John 5:2), the pool of Siloam (John 9:7), and Jacob’s well (John 4). Individuals include Simon of Cyrene, Pontius Pilate, and Caiaphas.
  12. Edwin M. Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?” in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1995), 215: “If one wonders why there are not more Roman sources for Jesus, we need to realize that for the reign of Tiberius there are only four sources: Suetonius, Tacitus, Velleius Paterculus (a contemporary), and Dio Cassius (c. a.d. 230).”
  13. Even Bart Ehrman, who has made a career out of casting doubt on the reliability of the New Testament, argues that Jesus is indeed an historical figure. See Bart D. Ehrman, Did Jesus Exist? The Historical Argument for Jesus of Nazareth (New York: HarperOne, 2013). Still, the claim that Jesus is only a mythic figure persists, particularly on the Internet and in “documentaries” such as The God Who Wasn’t There (205) and Zeitgeist (2007). For a refutation of the claims made in Zeitgeist, see Mark W. Foreman, “Challenging the Zeitgeist Movie: Parallelomania on Steroids,” in Come Let Us Reason, edited by Paul Copan and William Lane Craig (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2012).
  14. Flavius Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews 20.200, in The Works of Josephus, trans. William Whiston (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1987).
  15. Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.63–64, quoted in Paul L. Maier, “Did Jesus Really Exist?” in Evidence for God, edited by William A. Dembski and Michael R. Licona (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 2010), 145.
  16. Gamaliel, a Pharisee, says something very similar in Acts 5:33–39.
  17. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Claudius 25, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, edited by Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  18. C. Suetonius Tranquillus, Nero 16, in Suetonius: The Lives of the Twelve Caesars; An English Translation, Augmented with the Biographies of Contemporary Statesmen, Orators, Poets, and Other Associates, ed. Alexander Thomson (Medford, MA: Gebbie & Co., 1889).
  19. Cornelius Tacitus, The Annals 15.44, edited by Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb, < http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0078%3Abook%3D15%3Achapter%3D44>.
  20. Pliny the Younger, Letter 97: To the Emperor Trajan, http://www.bartleby.com/9/4/2097.html (accessed December 12, 2014).
  21. “A Letter of Mara, Son of Serapion”, translated by B. P. Pratten, in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, Volume VIII: Fathers of the Third and Fourth Centuries: The Twelve Patriarchs, Excerpts and Epistles, the Clementina, Apocrypha, Decretals, Memoirs of Edessa and Syriac Documents, Remains of the First Ages, edited by Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1886), 737.
  22. I have combined some different translations of this passage, using what is presented by Yamauchi, “Jesus Outside the New Testament: What Is the Evidence?”, Jesus Under Fire, 214, and adding the last sentence from Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Sanhedrin, Folio 43a, http://www.come-and-hear.com/sanhedrin/sanhedrin_43.html#43a_34 (accessed December 12, 2014).
  23. Justin Martyr, “Dialogue of Justin with Trypho, a Jew,” in The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 1, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 233.
  24. Aslan, Zealot, xxviii.
  25. Unless otherwise noted, the Scripture quoted herein is taken from the New International Version (1984).
  26. Andreas Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 260. The manuscript is Ì75.
  27. Consider Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.1.1: “Matthew also issued a written Gospel among the Hebrews3 in their own dialect, while Peter and Paul were preaching at Rome, and laying the foundations of the Church. After their departure, Mark, the disciple and interpreter of Peter, did also hand down to us in writing what had been preached by Peter. Luke also, the companion of Paul, recorded in a book the Gospel preached by him. Afterwards, John, the disciple of the Lord, who also had leaned upon His breast, did himself publish a Gospel during his residence at Ephesus in Asia.”
  28. Köstenberger et al., The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 258.
  29. On the historical accuracy of Luke, see F. F. Bruce, The New Testament Documents: Are They Reliable? 6th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 1981), 80–93.
  30. Colin J. Hemer, The Book of Acts in the Setting of Hellenistic History (Winona Lake, IN: Eisenbrauns, 1990). These facts are listed in Norman L. Geisler and Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to Be an Atheist (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2004), 256–59.
  31. Gospel of Peter 10.
  32. Aslan, Zealot, xxvii: “Two decades after Mark, between 90 and 100 C.E., the authors of Matthew and Luke, working independently of each other and with Mark’s manuscript as a template, updated the gospel story by adding their own unique traditions, including two different and conflicting infancy narratives as well as a series of elaborate resurrection stories to satisfy their Christian readers.”
  33. The technical name for writing prophecy after an event has occurred is vaticinium ex eventu (Latin: “prophecy from the event”).
  34. See the argument for an early date of Luke in Köstenberger, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown, 261–64. It is very possible that part of Luke’s intention in writing Acts is to present Christianity as a religion that would not bring harm to the Roman Empire, and to show that Paul acted innocently (Paul makes a defense of his actions a few times in the book). Thus, Acts is a “trial brief” proving his innocence, written in advance of his hearing before Caesar, which is the reason why Paul went to Rome in the first place, though the trial is not mentioned in Acts (since the action of the book ends before the trial took place). See John W. Mauck, Paul on Trial: The Book of Acts as a Defense of Christianity (Nashville: Nelson, 2001).
  35. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L. Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 33.
  36. Ibid., 34; Moreland, Scaling the Secular City, 135; Paul D. Wegner, The Journey from Texts to Translations (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1999), 235.
  37. Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code (New York: Anchor Books, 2003), 251.
  38. For evidence that these “gospels” are later fictions, see Craig A. Evans, Fabricating Jesus: How Modern Scholars Distort the Gospel (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2006).
  39. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 1.31.1.
  40. Adam Gopnik, “Jesus Laughed,” The New Yorker, April 17, 2006, http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2006/04/17/jesus-laughed (accessed December 13, 2014).

 

Restorer of Life (Ruth 4)

Pastor Brian Watson preaches the conclusion to our study of the book of Ruth. Boaz marries Ruth and they have a child, who is to Naomi a redeemer and a restorer of life. This story indicates how God will restore his creation through Jesus. It reminds us of the story of Christmas.

The Light Shines in the Darkness (John 1:1-18)

Perhaps the best way to learn about Christianity is to learn about the message of Christmas. The best way to learn about that is to study one of the Gospels, the four biographies of Jesus that we find in the Bible. In John’s Gospel, Jesus is referred to as “the Word” and as light. What does this mean? Pastor Brian Watson preached a message on John 1:1-18 at the Christmas Eve service at West Bridgewater Community Church.

When Was Jesus Born?

It is Christmas, one of the most beloved holidays of all, when we celebrate the birth of Jesus. The incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), is a stunning historical event. It is amazing to think that God would become man, that he would be conceived in a virgin’s womb, born in the humblest of circumstances, all to rescue sinful human beings and join them to himself. Without Christmas, there would be no Good Friday and no Easter. Without Christmas, we wouldn’t have the hope of Jesus’ return in glory, to make all things new.

Yet for all we know about the importance of what happened at Christmas, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born. Now, if you assumed that Jesus was born exactly 2017 years ago, on the morning of December 25, that is understandable. We do celebrate Christmas every year on the same day, and the calendar says it is 2014 A.D., or Anno Domini, “the year of the Lord,” which means that even the way we reckon time reflects the reality of Jesus’ birth. The problem is that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, 1 B.C., or in the year A.D. 1 (there is no “year zero”). In fact, Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25 of any year.

Before I explain more about what we do and do not know about Jesus’ birth, let me explain why I’m writing about this issue. It has become somewhat popular to cast doubt on the Bible. A recent series on the History Channel, “Bible Secrets Revealed,” seems intended to make people doubt the historical reliability of the Bible. On another network, the Smithsonian Channel, an episode, titled “Mystery Files: Birth of Christ,” casts doubt on the birth of Jesus by focusing on chronological issues in Luke’s Gospel. The show mentions that Luke has “conflicting versions of events.”

What are we to make of all this? Is Luke’s Gospel historically reliable? When was Jesus born?

To help us understand these issues, it is worth quoting theologian Gerald Bray at length:

The fact that Jesus was born so many years before the supposedly “correct” date of A.D. 1 has nothing to do with the Bible. It is the result of a series of chronological errors made by Dionysius Exiguus, a sixth-century Roman monk, who tried to calculate the birth of Jesus by counting back through the Roman emperors, but who managed to miss some in the process. He therefore came up short and was never corrected. As for the date, December 25 was chosen as a date for celebrating Christ’s birth in order to replace the Roman festival of Saturnalia, which was held at the that time of the year. Christmas Day is the first time that it is possible to measure the return of daylight in the northern hemisphere following the winter solstice, and so it was thought to be an appropriate symbol of Christ, the light of the world. He cannot have been born on that day, however, because the shepherds who were watching their flocks would not have been out in the fields in mid-winter. Jesus must have been born sometime between March and November, but we can say no more than that. The important thing is that he was born on a particular day, and as December 25 is now the universally accepted date, there seems to be little point in trying to change it for the sake of an unattainable “accuracy.”[1]

There are two things worth noting in that passage. It explains why our calendar says 2017 even though Jesus was likely born 2020–2022 years ago (more on that later). It also explains why we celebrate Christmas on December 25, even though Jesus was likely not born on that date. Additionally, Bray correctly observes that what matters is not the date, but the fact that Jesus was born. Since we’re not certain of exactly when he was born, and since his birth is worth celebrating, we must select some date.

Bray says that December 25 was chosen because it coincided with the Roman festival of Saturnalia. This was a pagan celebration of Saturn, the Roman god, who was also identified as Cronus, father of Zeus. The feast, which began on December 17, featured sacrifices at the temple of Saturn and a public banquet.[2] Another feast, that of Sol Invictus, the “unconquerable sun,” was held on December 25. By the fourth century, worship of this sun god was combined with the worship of Mithra, a god born out of a rock who “battled first with the sun and then with a primeval bull, thought to be the first act of creation.”[3] According to Craig Blomberg, a New Testament scholar, “Christians took advantage of this ‘day off’ to protest against Mithraism by worshiping the birth of Jesus instead. After the Roman empire became officially Christian in the fourth century, this date turned into the legal holiday we know as Christmas.”[4] One Roman Calendar (the “Philocalian Calendar”), compiled in 354, states that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 in Rome in the year 336. This is the earliest record we have of a December 25 Christmas. In later years, Christmas was celebrated on this date throughout the Roman empire.

It is important to note that pagan cults like Mithraism emerged in the second century, well after the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the writing of the New Testament. The fact that Christians decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus on the day of a pagan festival had nothing to do with exactly when Jesus was born. Rather, they had the day off, and they decided that instead of participating in pagan rituals, they would worship the true God instead. This seems to have been a bit of a counter-cultural protest.

Christians also appropriated certain pagan symbols in their celebration of Christmas, giving them a new meaning. Consider the following explanation:

The church thereby offered the people a Christian alternative to the pagan festivities and eventually reinterpreted many of their symbols and actions in ways acceptable to Christian faith and practice. For example, Jesus Christ was presented as the Sun of Righteousness (Mal. 4:2), replacing the sun god, Sol Invictus. As Christianity spread throughout Europe, it assimilated into its observances many customs of the pagan winter festivals such as holly, mistletoe, the Christmas tree, and log fires. At the same time new Christmas customs such as the nativity crib and the singing of carols were introduced by Christians.[5]

In reality, Jesus was born in a part of the year when shepherds would be abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8). Clement of Alexandria (c. 150–c. 215) reported that some believed Jesus was born on the twenty-fifth day of Pachon, a month in the Egyptian calendar.[6] This date would correspond to May 20. This date is possible, but we can’t say with certainty that Jesus was born on that day.

What about the year of Jesus’ birth? Jesus must have been born, at the latest, in early 4 B.C. We know this because Herod the Great was alive at the time, and he died in that year. Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us that Herod died after an eclipse and before the Passover. The mention of the eclipse allows us to date Herod’s death quite accurately: he must have died between March 4 and April 11 of that year.[7] It is likely that Jesus was born sometime earlier, perhaps as early as 6 B.C., because Herod ordered all the male children in Bethlehem two years old and younger to be killed.

None of this is problematic. If Jesus was born in 5 B.C., it would mean that in the year 28, the fifteenth year of Tiberius Caesar (Luke 3:1; he started his reign in A.D. 14), he would be about 32 years old, which harmonizes well with Luke’s statement that Jesus was “about thirty” when he began his ministry (Luke 3:23). Only one problem remains: Luke also says that right before Jesus was born, Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be made. Most translations state that this census was conducted by Quirinius, the governor of Syria (Luke 2:1–2). As far as we know, Quirinius was the governor of Syria in A.D. 6–7 and Josephus tells us there was a census in A.D.6. (Acts 5:37 states that this census was the reason that Judas the Galilean revolted against the Roman authorities in Jerusalem. Remember this fact, because it shows that Luke was aware of this census and the impact it had on the Jewish people.) Some have used this information to claim that Luke’s Gospel is wrong. I have heard such claims on the History Channel and National Public Radio.

There are a few possible answers to the questions surrounding the census. One, we do know that there were several censuses held in the Roman empire. As far we know, Augustus decreed three censuses around this time. Some areas had periodic censuses; Egypt had one every 14 years. It is possible that an earlier census in Palestine could have been conducted, in addition to the one in A.D. 6. It is possible that the Roman census was carried out according to Jewish customs, which would require males to return to their ancestral homes. Since Joseph was betrothed to Mary and she was pregnant, perhaps he took her with him so that they could be together for the birth of Jesus. Nothing that we know from history excludes the possibility of a census ordered by Augustus for the whole Roman empire and carried out in Palestine around 6–4 B.C.

The real question concerns Quirinius. Luke 2:2 states, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius was the governor of Syria when the census of A.D. 6 was conducted, but this was about ten years after Jesus was born. We don’t have a record of him being the governor of Syria around 6–4 B.C. So, the question of Quirinius involves a second answer.

We must begin by stating that our knowledge of ancient history is not complete. We also must note that Luke says the census at the time of Jesus’ birth was the first census, which suggests it was followed by at least one more. It is possible that Quirinius had something to do with an earlier census, even if he were not technically the governor of Syria at that time. It is possible that Quirinius was an administrator who was responsible for overseeing the census. Luke could be using “governor” in an anachronistic sense, so that while Quirinius wasn’t governor at the time of the census, he became governor later. The Greek of Luke 2:2 literally reads, “This was [the] first census of Quirinius, governor of Syria.” Just as we might talk about what President Obama did in the US Senate—“This was the voting record of Obama, President of America”—Luke may be referring to the past actions of Quirinius, who was best known, from Luke’s historical vantage point, for being governor of Syria.

It is also possible that the census took many years to carry out, that it started around the time Jesus was born, and it finished under the watch of Quirinius when he was governor of Syria, in A.D. 6. If this were the case, he would have been responsible for collecting the taxes (the ones based on the census). His name would be somewhat infamous, and therefore it would be one attached to the whole multi-year process of census and taxation that began at the time of Jesus’ birth.[8]

Whatever the case, it’s clear that Luke didn’t get his history wrong. As stated earlier, Luke was aware of the A.D. 6 census, for he alludes to it in Acts 5:37. That census instigated a rebellion led by Judas the Galilean. The census he mentions in Luke 2 did not produce a rebellion, so he is clearly aware of at least two censuses. And, quite obviously, Luke knew that Herod was still alive during this time, as Luke 1:5 shows. He didn’t get the chronology of events wrong.

Another possible solution is that Josephus was wrong and Luke was right. After all, Luke proves himself to be an accurate historian elsewhere in his Gospel as well as in the book of Acts. According to Darrell Bock, “That no other source mentions such a census is not a significant problem, since many ancient sources refer to events that are not corroborated elsewhere and since Luke is found to be trustworthy in his handling of facts that one can check. Since the details of this census fit into general Roman tax policy, there is no need to question that it could have occurred in the time of Herod.”[9] Additionally, the number and quality of manuscripts of the New Testament far surpasses those of other ancient documents, including the writings of Josephus and Roman historians. We don’t know everything that happened in the ancient world, but we have no reason to doubt what the New Testament tells us.

There is yet another possible solution to this problem, one that is simpler. Luke 2:2 could be translated, “This registration was before Quirinius was governor of Syria.”[10] This is because the Greek word usually translated as “first” (πρῶτος) could be translated as “before,” as it is in John 1:15, 30; 15:18. If this is the right reading, then this census was sometime prior to Quirinius’s infamous census. It would be as if Luke were saying, “Caesar August decreed that there should be an Empire-wide census—no, not that census, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. This was an earlier one.”[11]

In the end, we may never know exactly when Jesus was born. But what we do know of history does not contradict what Luke has reported in his “orderly account” of the life of Jesus (Luke 1:3). There is no reason to doubt the historical reliability of Luke’s Gospel. So go, tell it on the mountain, “Jesus Christ is born!”

Notes

  1. Gerald Bray, God Is Love: A Biblical and Systematic Theology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 564. 
  2. S. E. Porter, “Festivals and Holy Days: Greco-Roman,” in Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship, ed. Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 370. 
  3. Ronald H. Nash, The Gospel and Greeks, 2nd ed. (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing, 2003), 134. 
  4. Craig L. Blomberg, Jesus and the Gospels, 2nd ed. (Nashville: B&H Academic, 2009), 36. 
  5. O. G. Oliver, Jr., “Christmas,” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, ed. Walter A. Elwell, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2001), 238–239. 
  6. Clement of Alexandria, “The Stromata, or Miscellanies,” in The Ante-Nicene Fathers, ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 2:333. 
  7. Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 1994), 904. 
  8. Darrell L. Bock, “Precision and Accuracy: Making Distinctions in the Cultural Context That Give Us Pause in Pitting the Gospels against Each Other,” in Do Historical Matters Matter to Faith?, ed. James K. Hoffmeier and Dennis R. Magary (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 378. 
  9. Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 906. 
  10. The English Standard Version’s footnote says, “Or This was the registration before.” 
  11. This reading is mentioned by Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart, The First Days of Jesus: The Story of the Incarnation (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 137. See also David E. Garland, Luke, Zondervan Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), 118.