God has landed! Right in a manger. Right on top of cow spit and barnyard bacteria. Jesus came a long way to save us. Two thousand years ago, the eternal Son of God stepped across the stars of the universe to become a zygote in the womb of the Virgin Mary. And then he was born as one of us. “Manhood and deity in perfect harmony—the Man who is God,” wrote Graham Kendrick.
Christmas, then, is the ultimate display of meekness and majesty in one person. “Glory to God in the highest,” was the angelic response. They easily could have said, “Glory to God in lowest,” too. God is with us now in the person of Jesus Christ. On earth. Magi from the east were among the first to welcome him. Following the natal star, they set out on a journey to find the newborn king.
It was more than curiosity that drew this caravan of dignitaries and polymaths to Jesus. It was God himself. They saw him at work in the sky—speaking their language—and they wanted to go meet with him. Indeed, this passage shows us that God speaks in a variety of ways because he has something important to say. Matthew 2:1-11 reminds us that God makes himself known to us:
generally through creation. (1-2)
specifically through revelation. (3-6)
graciously through intervention. (7-10)
supremely through incarnation. (11a)
Are we listening? The Magi were listening, and that’s why they traveled hundreds of miles across the desert to go see the Christ. They were men of wisdom and learning. They were into math, medicine, astronomy, and human nature. Some of them were superstitious. We get our word “magic” from their title. Call them “wizards” if you like. It was basically the cast of Harry Potter who came to see Jesus. Mark it well: Gentiles (non-Jews) were among the first to welcome and worship the Christ, indicating that God means for Jesus to be the Savior for the whole world!
If the Magi teach us anything, it’s that it’s never enough for us to just be amazed at the wonders of God; we have to set out on the journey and follow him. Our calling is not just to stand in awe of creation but to get to know the Creator. That’s why God’s revelation of himself in Christ demands a response of faith in Christ.He is worthy of our treasure and our trust. Indeed, he wants everyone to come and worship his Son. He wants you to worship his Son. Even if you’re a wizard.
This interactive Christmas Day devotional is followed by a reading of The Tale of Three Trees, a wonderful story for children of all ages.
Headlines are notoriously difficult to write. Even news editors who’ve been in the business for decades can struggle with the task. When you write a headline, you have to summarize the story in a few words, and do so in a way that hooks people and makes them want to keep reading. You have to be clear, concise, and captivating. You have to be journalistically accurate and grammatically correct. You have to be somewhat clever without being overly cute or trite. Above all, you have to be careful that you never communicate an unintended meaning—an oversight that, in the end, can make you look silly as a writer.
After looking at a few bad (and humorous!) headlines, this Christmas Eve message looks at a headline God doesn’t want anybody in the world to miss: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s the message of Christmas, and it’s front-page stuff. It’s a banner story. It’s the best headline ever. It’s clear, concise, and captivating. It’s theologically accurate and doctrinally correct. And it’s still as exciting and relevant as when it was first hot off the press. It certainly was for Paul, who gives us an abbreviated testimony here. He gives us the scoop on himself.
Paul used to be a terrorist. He was the Osama bin Laden of his day. But the headline of Christmas radically changed his life. He writes in sheer wonder at the grace of God that was lavished on him despite his past: “I was shown mercy so that in me, the worst of sinners, Christ Jesus might display his unlimited patience as an example for those who would believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16). He’s saying, “Folks, I’m Exhibit A of the grace of God. I deserved judgment; but in Christ I received mercy. I deserved punishment; but in Christ I received pardon. I deserved condemnation; but in Christ I received salvation. Essentially, Paul is saying, “If Christ can save someone like me, then he can save anyone!”
That’s the best headline ever. It doesn’t matter who you are. It doesn’t matter where you’ve been. It doesn’t matter what you’ve done. Christmas is for you, too—as long as you recognize you need a Savior. Indeed, Paul reminds us here that Jesus came to save us and show us that no one is beyond the grace of God. No wonder he ends his brief testimony with a doxology, a burst of praise: “Now to the King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory for ever and ever. Amen” (1 Timothy 1:17). Christmas made him thankful.
How about you? Are you grateful for Christmas—the birth of the Savior? The old Christmas carol puts it so well: “Where meek souls will receive him still the dear Christ enters in.” So, do what Paul says here in this passage: “Believe on him and receive eternal life” (1 Timothy 1:16).
Even the apostles came across passages of Scripture once in a while that confounded them. Peter wrote of Paul’s writings, “His letters contain some things that are hard to understand” (2 Peter 3:16). That’s a comfort to those of us who have ever been perplexed by something we’ve read in the Bible!
Peter also wrote, “The prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Peter 1:10-11). In other words, the Old Testament prophets also had difficulty understanding some aspects of Scripture—including their own prophecies! The good news is, they kept pursuing greater understanding despite their own confusion. They faithfully wrote down what God had led them to write, even when they couldn’t piece it all together.
To take a case in point, the prophets spoke of a glorious messiah to come. They also spoke of a suffering messiah to come. Consequently, they had trouble reconciling these two concepts, which seemed to stand in an irresolvable tension. “What kind of messiah will he be,” they wondered, “a glorious messiah or a suffering messiah? Or will he somehow be both?”
Looking at all the biblical evidence, some rabbis said there was not one messiah coming but two! They even gave them names. The first was called, “Messiah, son of David,” the one who would rule and reign in righteousness in the spirit of King David, the one who brought Israel to its zenith of power and glory in his day. The second was called, “Messiah, son of [Old Testament] Joseph,” the one who would be mistreated by his own people and suffer greatly at their hands, just like Joseph, the patriarch, who was betrayed by his brothers.
The two-messiah theory was a good theory. It sought to be comprehensive and make sense of the sum total of biblical data. It tried to leave no stone unturned and be faithful to what God had revealed in his Word. The only problem with the theory is that it was wrong! There were not two messiahs coming, but one messiah in two appearances. The first time he would come as “Messiah son of Joseph,” the suffering servant who would die for the sins of the world. The second time he would appear as “Messiah son of David,” the everlasting king whose throne would never end.
The lesson for us today is both practical and helpful: When Scripture is hard to understand, keep studying it as best you can, letting God unravel the mysteries in his own time. And, in the end, know that Jesus is the center of all of it. As the prophets learned, God’s unfolding plan requires patience and faith. Paul himself wrote, “Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12). We ought to be very careful, then, about how tightly we hold onto our pet theories—even when we can attach a bunch of Bible verses to them.
Somebody once said, “The main thing in life is to keep the main thing the main thing.” That’s true in Christian theology, too. Jesus once spoke of “weightier matters of the law” (Matthew 23:23), meaning some things in the Torah are more important than others. Likewise, the Apostle Paul spoke of “disputable matters” (Roman 14:1), meaning some things in the Christian life require no ecclesiastical positions or pronouncements. The Early Church called such things adiaphora, meaning “matters of indifference.”
The fact is, certain aspects of the Christian faith are never worth disputing (2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18a), while certain aspects of the Christian faith are always worth defending (2 Timothy 2:18b). The bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead (along with his followers at the end of the age) is in this latter category. That’s always doctrinal hill to die on—so much so that Paul devotes an entire chapter to it in 1 Corinthians 15. Without the resurrection, he says, there is no Christianity.
Paul tells us in this passage that when it comes to haggling over WORDS, cut it out (2 Timothy 2:14, 16-18). However, when it comes to handling THE WORD, cut it straight (2 Timothy 2:15, 19). He instructs young Timothy—and he instructs Bible teachers today—“Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly handles the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15).
The image is rich with practical insights for today’s teachers. Our calling is to be faithful to what God has revealed in his Word, a task that requires hard work, courage, and living primarily for the approval of the One who inspired his Word to be written down for our instruction.
Moreover, we should want the apostles and prophets of old—were they sitting in the front row of our classrooms or sanctuaries—to hear our sermons and lessons, and nod in agreement after we teach, saying, “Yes, that’s what I meant. You were faithful to the message I wrote down about God and his ways many years ago, and you demonstrated its relevance for God’s people in your day.”
In short, Paul’s message for us is: Watch out for Bible teachers who make much of what is little and little of what is much. What we need to make much of in our day is Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, and his gospel of salvation for all who believe.
Adoniram Judson was the first overseas missionary sent out from America. In the early 19th century, he and his wife went to India. A short time later, he went to Burma, where he labored in gospel work for nearly four decades. After 14 years on the field, Judson had a handful of converts and had managed to write a Burmese grammar.
During that time, he suffered a horrible imprisonment for a year and a half, and he lost his wife and children to disease. A man who had been incarcerated with Mr. Judson described their prison conditions as he re-called them:
“The only articles of furniture the place contained were these…a gigantic row of stocks, similar in its construction to that formerly used in England…[only these were stocks for the feet, not the head and hands]. It was capable of accommodating more than a dozen occupants, and like a huge crocodile opened and shut its jaws with a loud snap upon its prey…. The prison had never been washed, nor even swept, since it was built… This gave a kind of…permanency to the odors…
“As might have been expected from such a state of things, the place was teeming with creeping vermin to such an extent that…the greater portion of my dress was plundered. Surely it was enough for Mr. Judson to be shut up in the hot, stifling stench of a place like this without having his ankles and legs weighted with…irons, the scars from which he wore to his dying day.
“He could say with the Apostle Paul, ‘I bear in my body the marks of the Lord Jesus.’ When Mr. Judson was subjected to these indignities and tortures, he was in the very prime of life—36 years old.”
There’s nothing like a good missionary biography to illustrate how small our sacrifice for Christ often is by comparison. Adoniram Judson suffered greatly for his Christian commitment. But, like the Apostle Paul, Judson considered his work for Christ to be infinitely more important than his own personal comfort.
Where does that kind of inner strength come from? It comes from the grace standing behind what Paul writes to Timothy: “Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David. This is my gospel, for which I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained” (2 Timothy 2:8-9). In other words, you can endure anything when you remember the gospel is everything.
Looking back on his life, Judson wrote these words: “If I had not felt certain that every trial was ordered by infinite love and mercy, I could not have survived my accumulated sufferings.” Like Paul, Judson believed that no suffering is too great if it brings about the salvation of those who place their trust in Jesus Christ—a trust that leads to “eternal glory” (2 Timothy 2:10). Or, as Martin Luther put it:
Let goods and kindred go This mortal life also The body they may kill God’s truth abideth still His Kingdom is forever
Life is filled with riddles and illusions. We’re often surrounded by mysteries and conundrums. We can’t always figure out what’s going on around us or why things happen the way they do. Sometimes our minds get confused and we need help to determine what we’re really seeing. Certainly, it’s the case that “we all see from where we stand.” We all have different backgrounds, experiences, families of origin issues, and traumas—and that can affect how we see the world.
Psychologists tell us that sometimes what we’re looking for determines what we see. It’s an interesting observation considering Jeremiah 29:13, where God says, “You will…find me when you seek me with all your heart.” If we honestly look for God, we’ll find him. That’s especially true in the Christmas story. God is all over the story of Christmas. He’s on every page of it. And if we look for him there, we’ll find him. Most of the people who were part of the original story certainly did, although a few did not.
In this holiday message, we ask the question, “What did the original characters see in Christmas?” What was their perspective? How did they see it? And what will we see as we join them around the manger this year? It’s an important question because what we see in Christmas reveals what God sees in us. That’s what Simeon was getting at in his prophecy, “This child is destined…to reveal the thoughts of many hearts” (Luke 2:35). In other words, there’s a mirror in the manger, not just a baby. And that mirror tells us something about what’s inside our own hearts.
It’s easy to overlook the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves. Every slave who has ever lived, then—whether in physical shackles or some other kind of bondage—has a friend in Jesus. He can identify with the struggle, which is a tremendous source of encouragement to the oppressed of this world.
Chains shall He break for the slave is our brother And in His Name all oppression shall cease.
Cappeau’s reference in verse 3 of “O Holy Night” to the equality of all persons, whether slave or free, got the song banned by the church hierarchy in the early years of its popularity. Congregations all over Europe, however, sang it anyway. Such was the French revolutionary spirit. In a qualified sense, St. Paul may have agreed with that sentiment, having written to the Corinthians, “Were you a slave when you were called? Don’t let it trouble you—although if you can gain your freedom, do so” (1 Cor 7:21).
Once again, Sullivan Dwight’s theology—not Cappeau’s lyrics—drives the English translation. Dwight elevates an important biblical ethic (viz., loving others and standing against oppression), but he eliminates part of the gospel in the process. Lost in Dwight’s translation in v. 3 is:
The concept that Christ, the Redeemer, has already broken all shackles
The concept that Christ has already freed earth and opened heaven
The concept that Christ was born, suffered, and died for all humanity
The concept that gratitude is a proper response to this good news
Dwight really did a hack job on Cappeau’s lyrics. And yet what remains is true and beautiful. In this particular message, we focus on two admonitions to two groups of people: (1) to those under authority—remember the contentment of Christ; and (2) to those wielding authority—remember the kindness of Christ. Indeed, we can begin to conquer our own sense of oppression by adjusting our attitudes even before adjusting our circumstances.
In the end, we celebrate the fact that God entered the human race through a descendant of slaves to set us free. Consequently, no one who knows Jesus can ever live perpetually with a victim mentality.
Verse 2 of “O Holy Night” contains these two lines: “In all our trials born to be our Friend! / He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” These concepts are biblically true and spiritually encouraging. Once again, however, the translator’s theology, not the original lyrics, are driving the carol’s rendering into English.
Lost in translation is the sinful pride of humanity for which Christ came to die as an atoning sacrifice. But by eliminating the reference to human brokenness, the good news is not as good as it could be. For example, it’s certainly amazing that a holy God would befriend sinful people, but that’s amazing precisely because in our natural state, we were first his enemies (cf. Rom 5:8).
What the translator did is what so many people try to do today—keep the good news of the gospel while eliminating the bad news that it answers. But if there’s no bad news, what is it that makes the good news good? The lack of a contrast renders the word “good” almost meaningless in such a context. It’s like the medical community announcing a great cure for some disease nobody has. So what?
Christmas is the announcement that God has a great cure for the spiritual disease everyone suffers from—the disease called sin. It’s a condition that manifests itself preeminently in human pride, as the author originally wrote. And pride needs to be confronted by the preaching of the gospel. So, yes, God knows our need, and let’s not minimize that need. By properly understanding it, we better appreciate God’s solution for it, and the lengths to which he went to deliver it to us on that first Christmas.
“He knows our need—to our weakness is no stranger.” Our passages from Hebrews 2 and Hebrews 4 bear that out. God cares about our physical needs, our emotional needs, and our spiritual needs. Indeed, Christmas shows that God cares about our every need. He is attentive to our condition because he loves us. And his love for us is why he sent us his Son (John 3:16).
That’s why Jesus came. He would go on to suffer and die in our place on the cross. He made our hell his so that he could make his heaven ours. Our response of faith to such amazing grace is to “walk as Jesus walked” in this regard. God’s people cannot be indifferent toward other people’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We serve humanity because the ultimate human served us. To our weakness that ultimate human—Jesus—is no stranger. So let us not be a stranger to him.
Ever since Genesis 3, it has been hard for people to get along. We’re all so different, and, because of our fallenness, those differences can annoy us, threaten us, and make us suspicious of one another. In jealousy, envy, and pride, we tend to think, say, and do nasty things to each other, making life unpleasant at times.
In the first century, there were two groups of people who didn’t get along very well—Jews and Gentiles. The Jews were descendants of Abraham through Isaac and Jacob. The Gentiles were everybody else. Both latent and overt hostility marked their relationship over the centuries. Paul addresses that enmity in Ephesians 2, and he talks about what God has done to rectify it. The solution he offers is still relevant today because the world is more polarized now than ever. In recent years we have witnessed a growing hostility between races, classes, genders, and political parties. The tension is exhausting and disillusioning.
How can God take widely diverse and disparate people and put them successfully into one new group? Paul’s answer is Jesus. Why? Because “he himself is our peace, who has made the two one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by abolishing in his flesh the law with its commandments and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new man out of the two, thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).
Paul argues that the source of alienation between Jew and Gentile—God’s law—was put on the shelf (2:15a) because the source of reconciliation—God’s Son—was put on the cross (2:13b, 16b). Human beings may be hostile to each other, but God treated his perfect Son as if he were all the world’s hostility rolled into one. And when Christ died on the cross, the Father regarded the hostility itself as having died, too. God’s purpose was to create one new humanity out of the two—a horizontal hostility replaced with horizontal peace (2:15b).
The result is that irreligious people (like the Gentiles, who thought they are “far off”) can now hear and believe the gospel of peace (2:17a). Religious people (like the Jews, who thought they are already near) can hear and believe that same gospel (2:17b). All are “far off” because of sin, but all can “draw near” now because of Jesus. God is wise in this regard. All who draw near to him wind up drawing near to each other, too. Indeed, the only way to fully experience the God who is community is to participate fully in his new community—the church.
That’s not always easy because we’re all different. But believers who draw near to God bear the marks of unity in diversity. That’s why Paul cites the Trinity two times in this passage (2:18, 22). God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit are the ultimate model for the church—a community of truth, love, and unity in diversity.
What on earth is the church, and why are we here? All authoritative answers to these questions must begin with Jesus, who said, “I will build my church” (Matt 16:18). Since the church is his church, and he is building it, there’s no better place to begin our inquiry than Christ himself. Therefore, in part 1 of this series, we focus on Jesus’ two uses of the word “church” in the Gospel of Matthew, along with its Old Testament background. His first reference speaks of “the Church Universal,” and his second reference speaks of “the Church Local.” What do these expressions mean, and how do they relate?
Quite significantly, the Hebrew word qahal denotes an assembly of Israelites, especially when gathered before the Lord as a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people. When the Greek Old Testament (called the Septuagint) translates qahal, it uses the word ekklesia, which means “group,” “assembly,” “community,” or “congregation.” In secular usage, it meant the gathering of people at a town hall meeting. In sacred usage, it meant the gathering of believers for worship, prayer, and mission.
In our day, the word ekklesia comes into English as “church,” which always refers in Scripture to a “saved” or “rescued” covenant people, never to a building. Let that sink in for a moment. The church of Jesus Christ, according to the New Testament, is a people, not a building. It is people that Christ is building.
As suggested by Jesus’ two uses of the word ekklesia, “the Church Universal” refers to the community of all true believers in every age and in every place. By contrast, “the Church Local” is a community of professing believers at a certain time and in a certain place. The rest of the New Testament bears out this important distinction.
At its most basic level, then, the church of Jesus Christ is a community of believers rescued from sin and released for service. It’s God’s new society. And it’s still very much alive around the world today. No, it’s not yet perfect, but it is perfectible, and it will be perfect when Christ has finished his building.
Christians sing it every Christmas season, even though it’s not primarily a carol about the birth of Jesus. It’s much broader than that. The words are familiar to believers in English-speaking countries:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come Let earth receive her King Let every heart prepare Him room And heaven and nature sing
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns Let men their songs employ While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains Repeat the sounding joy
He rules the world with truth and grace And makes the nations prove The glories of His righteousness And wonders of His love
So wrote Isaac Watts, who lived from 1674 to 1748. Significantly, his inspiration for “Joy to the World” was not Luke 2 but Psalm 98. In fact, Watts himself said, “I have formed out of the 98th Psalm…what I esteem to be the first and chief sense of the Holy Scriptures.” In other words, it’s all here—the whole gospel, the overarching message of Scripture, and it leads to jubilant worship. Historically, the church has called Psalm 98 the Cantate Domino (“O Sing to the Lord”). Similar to Psalm 96, it calls for jubilant praise to God, and it provides a compelling rationale.
Psalm 98 divides nicely into three stanzas. In the first stanza, the author instructs the people of God to worship the Lord because he has been a GREAT SAVIOR (vv. 1-3). “Sing to the Lord a new song,” he writes, “for he has done marvelous things; his right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” Over the centuries, Yahweh has been to Israel “the God of rescue,” most prominently in the great exodus from Egypt and the great return from exile in Babylon.
In the second stanza, he tells the covenant people to worship the Lord because he is the REIGNING KING (vv. 4-6). He writes, “Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth, burst into jubilant song with music…shout for joy before the Lord, the King” (v. 4, 6). Moreover, all kinds of instruments are to be used to supplement the music and shouts in order to celebrate the King (vv. 5-6).
In the third stanza, the author says to worship the Lord because he is the COMING JUDGE (vv. 7-9). As the Apostles Creed says, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” Specifically, the psalmist calls for all of humanity and all of nature to celebrate this Judge and his coming judgment. But that’s what makes this composition seem a bit odd to us in our day. We don’t usually think of divine judgment as an event to be celebrated. Rather, we think of it as an event to be dreaded. Consequently, some people have dismissed the idea of an end-time judgment altogether. But that only leads to other problems we don’t like.
On the one hand, if there is no future judgment, what hope is there for the world? Evil stands, the scales of justice remain unbalanced, and all the horrors, abuse, and trauma inflicted on us during this life go unanswered. It is helpful to remember, however, that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and we are the plaintiff. He hears our case. He rights the wrongs done to us. He satisfies our deep desire to have all things properly settled in the end.
On the other hand, if there is a future judgment, what hope is there for me? Haven’t I committed certain acts of evil during my life? Haven’t I transgressed God’s law at some point in time? Haven’t I committed sins against God and other people who are made in his image? If so, how can I escape the punishment due me? It is sobering to remember that one biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge, and I am the defendant. The prospect of a cosmic trial, then, can be frightening.
But great relief can be found woven into the psalm itself, not to mention the trajectory it creates. There is hope for the world collectively and hope for me personally precisely because the coming Judge is also the historical Savior. In fact, the ultimate biblical image of the future judgment is that God is the Judge who has taken his people’s judgment himself. It’s the picture of a judge pronouncing the sentence, and then coming down off the bench to take the sentence he just imposed so the guilty party doesn’t have to. As Psalm 98 indicates, the Judge and the Savior are the same God.
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, learns that she will bear the Savior of the world, she hearkens back to portions of Psalm 98 (along with other sections of the Hebrew Bible).
Cantate Domino (Psalm 98)
Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1)
“Sing to the Lord a new song.” (1a)
“My soul glorifies the Lord.” (46)
“For he has done marvelous things.” (1b)
“The Mighty One has done great things for me.” (49)
“His right hand and his holy arm have worked salvation for him.” (1c)
“He has performed mighty deeds with his arm.” (51)
“The Lord has made his salvation known and revealed his righteousness to the nations.” (2)
“His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation.” (50)
“He has remembered his love and his faithfulness to the house of Israel.” (3a)
“He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful.” (54)
In doing so, Mary alerts us to the intended fulfillment of Psalm 98 in her own Son, Jesus Christ—the Savior of the world to whom all final judgment has been committed (cf. John 5:22). The only way to celebrate the God of future judgment is to know him as the God of past salvation.Have you trusted Jesus Christ as your Savior—the one who has taken your judgment on the cross? If so, you have every reason to celebrate.
Jesus’ empty tomb sends people running on that first Easter Sunday. Everyone is dashing through the cemetery, but why? They’re running to find answers to their questions and help with their confusion. They don’t know why Jesus’ body is not where they had put it the day before. The confusion is understandable. If I were to go to the gravesite of my parents, and I saw nothing but a big hole in the ground with no vaults or caskets, I’d be asking questions, too.
So, the disciples are running around confused. Most of them are slow to believe in the resurrection—despite the fact that Jesus had said repeatedly it would happen. But here is the good news for them (and us): every time the risen Christ meets people after the resurrection, he helps them to believe in him. That’s amazing because the last time Jesus saw these guys in action, they were blowing it big time. They were denying and deserting him. But when Jesus finally appears to them face-to-face, there’s not a word of rebuke on his lips. Correction, yes, but not rebuke. Quite the opposite. He helps them believe.
In fact, the risen Christ deals with all of his followers personally and uniquely—according to their own needs, experiences, weaknesses, and hard-wiring. The attentiveness of Jesus to everyone in this story is remarkable. And what was true 2,000 years ago is still true today: Jesus gives people time and space to wrestle with—and then plenty of reasons to rest in—his resurrection from the dead. Consider the figures mentioned in John 20, and how Jesus interacts with them—both before and after his resurrection:
JOHN is the portrait of an EASY-COMING faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need significance in my life.” And John discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new identity and purpose. PETER is the portrait of a GUILT-RIDDEN faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need forgiveness for my sins.” And Peter discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new freedom and power.
MARY MAGDALENE is the portrait of a GRIEF-STRICKEN faith. Her personal struggle seems to be, “I need comfort for my despair.” And Mary discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new intimacy and hope. THOMAS is the portrait of a SHOW-ME faith. His personal struggle seems to be, “I need irrefutable evidence to believe.” And Thomas discovers that the risen Christ gives his people a new assurance and confidence.
Because of his humility, Jesus does not coerce faith, but because of his authority, he deserves it. The risen Christ still gives open-minded and tender-hearted people what they need to believe in him. What is it that you still need to believe?
A light snow has dusted southcentral Pennsylvania today, and it looks like shoveling will not be necessary. (I’m o.k. with that!) Is there anything more beautiful than nature’s white blanket covering our dead and dying trees and foliage? Isaiah’s image comes to mind whenever the white stuff falls from the sky:
“Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” Isaiah 1:18b
Seven hundred years later, it all came to pass. “Call his name Jesus, for he shall save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21). Christmas, then, deals a death blow to both moralism and relativism.
Moralism says we can save ourselves through our own good works. That makes Christmas unnecessary. Why would God the Son go to all the trouble of becoming a human being to live and die in our place if we could fulfill the requirements of divine righteousness ourselves? His sacrifical death on our behalf would have been totally wasted and therefore totally ridiculous.
Relativism, on the other hand, says no one is really “lost,” so we can all live by our own light and determine for ourselves what is right and wrong. Sins are self-defined, so salvation can be self-achieved. Consequently, any higher power that might exist out there never would have bothered to be incarnated. Christmas is totally unnecessary in this scenario, too.
But Christmas is a thing because we need it to be a thing. God the Son did put skin on two thousand years ago. Indeed, God ignored our silly notions of moralism and relativism and came anyway. Thank God for that! I’m looking forward to the kind of weather that allows for sleigh rides—not because I have the equipment to go dashing though the snow in such a manner. I just like to contemplate Isaiah’s image when the snow extends as far as the eye can see.
Speaking of sleigh rides, the first Christian album I ever bought after coming to faith in Christ back in college was Amy Grant’s Age to Age. Many of us went on to collect the rest of her albums, too, including her Christmas albums. Here’s a little gem of hers that gets me thinking about the joy of Christmas snow.
“But whatever was to my profit I now consider loss for the sake of Christ. What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which is through faith in Christ—the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Philippians 3:7-9).
The dictionary definition of self-righteousness usually goes something like this: “Confidence in one’s own goodness or virtue, especially while being smugly moralistic and intolerant of the opinions and behavior of others.” That’s not a bad place to start, but it’s more descriptive of the symptoms of self-righteousness than the underlying disease. The deeper problem is legalism—the notion that we could somehow generate enough righteousness on our own to make ourselves acceptable to God for salvation. The idea is ridiculous on its face because it makes us partially our own saviors.
Jesus told the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector specifically to “those who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everybody else” (Luke 18:9). The pious leader in Jesus’ story assumed his acceptance with God was based on his own actions, while the tax collector recognized there was nothing in him by which he could commend himself to God; he was totally dependent on divine grace for his salvation. Quite significantly, it was the despised tax collectorwho “went home justified before God,” according to Jesus, not the religious leader (Luke 18:14). Repeatedly in the Gospels, Jesus warns his followers about the dangers of self-righteousness, emphasizing that without him, they could do nothing (cf. John 15:5).
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness. Most of the time it feels like something God should be pleased with—something that should make him smile. To do our good works, and catalog our achievements, and then present them all to God—that feels like something the Almighty should appreciate. After all, God is holy, and he demands holiness from his people, right?
Yet everywhere in Scripture, that kind of a self-righteous approach to God is sharply condemned. It’s sharply condemned not only in Luke 18, but also in Philippians 3. In fact, not only is it condemned in that chapter, it’s severely ridiculed. Paul calls it “garbage” in verse 9. Other versions say “rubbish.” Those are awfully polite translations.
The problem with self-righteousness is that it doesn’t feel like sin. Most of the time it feels like holiness.
The original word is skubalon, which means “dung,” “manure,” “excrement,” and a few other words that preachers aren’t supposed to say. Why such colorful language? Why such a linguistic jolt in holy writ? Because there’s an important distinction to be made between presenting our good works to God as a gift and presenting our good works to God as currency. The gift says, “Thank you, God. I obey you because I love you.” The currency says, “Pay up, God. I’ve been good; you owe me.” The two approaches are light years apart.
But what’s so terribly wrong with that second view? It sounds logical, doesn’t it? I do this, and God gives me that. Quid pro quo. Makes sense. But here’s the problem: Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do. Just take an honest look at your motives and attitudes some time. Have you ever done anything with completely perfect attitudes or motives? Chances are slim. No one bats a thousand all the time, so without God’s mercy, we’re toast.
When one of my swim coaches was in college, he used to walk past the President’s house every day on the way home from practice. The university President had a horse, and my coach would stop by and pet it every day, feeding it apples and other treats. After doing this for several years, my coach developed a good relationship with the horse, so one day he just took it home with him. He stole the President’s horse!
Word went out over campus radio that someone had stolen the President’s prize possession. It was a major scandal since the man loved his horse. After several hours of not being able to locate the animal, the college began offering a sizeable cash reward for its safe return. When my coach heard about the monetary reward, he returned the horse…and collected the cash!
Now, we can probably all agree that it was a good thing that my coach returned the President’s horse. It was a good work. But I’m sure we can also agree that there was something very wrong with that good work. Here was the thief now cashing in on his own criminality! And so it is with fallen people before a holy God. Even the good things we do are tainted to a certain extent.
Self-righteousness is offensive to God because it fails to take into account that—as fallen human beings tainted by sin—there’s something inherently deficient with even the good things we do.
So, when we do our good works and present them to God, it must always be with the understanding that we’ve already stolen something from him. We already have a criminal record against him. And trusting Christ alone is the only way to get rid of our rap sheet against heaven. That’s what Paul argues in Philippians 3. Consider the “good things” he could point to in his own life that contribute nothing to our standing with God:
Religious ceremony cannot make us right with God. “…circumcised on the eighth day” (5a)
Ethnic identity cannot make us right with God. “…of the people of Israel” (5b)
Social status cannot make us right with God. “…of the tribe of Benjamin” (5c)
Orthodox tradition cannot make us right with God. “…a Hebrew of Hebrews” (5d)
Theological conservatism cannot make us right with God. “…in regard to the law, a Pharisee” (5e)
Spiritual enthusiasm cannot make us right with God. “…as for zeal, persecuting the church” (6a)
Impeccable morality cannot make us right with God. “…as for legalistic righteousness, faultless” (6b)
It’s all skubalon, says Paul. Having seen Jesus for who he is and what he’s done for the entire human race on the cross, Paul abandons all reliance on a good resume to make himself right with God. Indeed, he fires a silver bullet into the heart of self-righteousness by telling us to reject all sources of self-righteousness, and trust in Christ alone for salvation. Or, to put it simply, Paul tells us to take out the garbage of self-righteousness. It stinks to high heaven, and it needs to be removed.
Why? As human beings created in the image of a good God, we were made to do good works—but there’s nothing meritorious about those good works. We don’t congratulate water for being wet. It’s supposed to be wet. Nor do we congratulate human beings for doing good things. We’re supposed to do good things. It’s how we’re made. As a result, we can never put God in our debt by doing good works. As Edward Mote put it:
My hope is built on nothing less Than Jesus’ blood and righteousness I dare not trust the sweetest frame But wholly lean on Jesus’ name
Paul’s desire was to be found in Christ, not having a righteousness of his own that comes from keeping the law, but that which comes from trusting in Christ alone for salvation—“the righteousness that comes from God and is by faith” (Phil 3:9). He took out the garbage of self-righteousness. We must do the same.
Today we conclude our reflection on Grace Remington’s “Mary Comforts Eve,” a simple sketch with profound theological messaging. In Part 1 we looked at the picture without comment, scanning the piece and letting it have its impact on us. In Part 2 we looked at the encounter in general, noting the significance of these two women meeting in the presence of Christ. In Part 3 we looked at the three types of fruit presented in the sketch, two of which are visible and one of which is not. In Part 4 we looked at the artist’s strategic use of color and how each one telegraphs important spiritual truths. In this last part, we look briefly at the hands, feet, and faces of the two women. They, too, tell a story.
Garrett Johnson has noted, “We find Eve; that is, we find ourselves, walking along our path, tripping upon the serpent’s scales, dolefully latching onto our symbols of self-satisfaction and divine pretensions.” Johnson is perceptive in his assessment of the fallen matriarch. A similar and contrasting observation can be made of Mary. She clings to nothing; instead, her hands are free to gently caress the one who desperately needs her Son, whom she will soon share with the world. Indeed, all of Eve’s children need her Son, and God brings him to us as promised though this young obedient servant of his.
The two women make contact through look and touch, banishing the isolation and alienation that often accompany sin. Yet there is a hint of reluctance on Eve’s part, so the scene has begun, but it is not yet completely resolved—leaving us to contemplate her response to Christ. And ours.
Specifically, Eve’s right arm takes a defensive posture, as if she were trying to cover herself, even while holding onto the forbidden fruit. The bend in her arm forms a V, one of the universal symbols of women. Moreover, this V creates an arrow pointing down toward the serpent, which is entwined around her legs. Despite the entanglement, Eve is able to walk, though it is clearly difficult for her to do so. Her journey is encumbered every step of the way by the enemy, but the mother of the redeemer now stands before her. Consequently, Eve is stepping in the direction of hope—but not without assistance.
Eve’s left hand is touching Mary’s belly, but only because Mary has apparently pulled it toward the child, overcoming Eve’s hesitation. Her reluctance is no doubt rooted in her sense of shame and unworthiness. Mary knows, however, that it’s precisely for such people that Jesus has come. Confidently, then, she helps Eve touch the one who will undo the effects of her cosmic treason.
Additionally, Mary gently strokes Eve’s cheek with her right hand, giving her assurance that all will be well. The promised deliverer, “the seed of the woman,” has finally come. Jesus will take her shame and nakedness to himself on the cross, and in the process, his “heel” will be “bruised,” as the prophecy says. Crucifixion is ugly business, but no longer will Eve need to bear the weight of her own sin and all the calamity it unleashed on the world, for the world’s sin bearer is now here.
Mary, of course is stomping on the head of the serpent, rendering it impotent in the presence of the gestating Christ. This dramatic act portrays the protoeuangelion of Genesis 3:15, where God judges the serpent with these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”
Protestants need not object that Mary is the one crushing the serpent’s head in this scene because: (1) Jesus will do exactly that in his death, burial, and resurrection; and (2) Jesus will give his followers authority to do the same. As Paul wrote to the Christians in Rome, “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet” (Rom 16:20; emphasis mine). Believers will share in the crushing because Jesus did the neutralizing of satanic authority: “And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Col 2:15). Consequently, Eve is able to drop the forbidden fruit and step into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. Will she do so? Will we?
Perhaps the most striking aspect of the sketch is the contrast of expressions. Eve’s face is crestfallen, downcast, and ashamed. She blushes profusely because of the humiliation that comes from having her sin exposed to the world. It’s difficult for her to look up, although she clearly tries to do so, daring to hope that Mary’s child might offer the relief her soul so desperately needs.
Mary’s gaze is priceless. She smiles gently at Eve, knowing full well that her child is the hope of the world and the remedy for all its miseries. She conveys no sense of judgment, haughtiness, or condescension toward Eve, only love. Her eyes are wider than Eve’s because she knows from the angel exactly who this child is and what he has come to do. Eve is still in the process of discovery, so her face is not yet relieved of all its agony, nor is she yet able to look at Mary directly.
King David had a similar experience. In his prayer of confession to the Lord over his sin with Bathsheba, he pleaded to God, “Hide your face from my sins and blot out all my iniquity” (Ps 51:9). So ashamed was he of his sin that he asked God to stop noticing it, something he was unable to do himself (cf. Ps 51:3). But as soon as the king made that request of God, he virtually reversed course and cried out, “Do not cast me from your presence (literally, “your face”) or take your Holy Spirit from me” (Ps 51:11). Did he want God’s face to stay or go?
The crisis was devastating to David. In v. 9, he wanted God to hide his face from his sin, but in v. 11, he didn’t want God to hide his face from him. The dilemma was acute. If God chose to look on David’s sin, it would produce in him a deep sense of unbearable shame; if God chose not to look on him at all, it would produce in him a deep sense of awful abandonment. Neither option was pleasing to David, and his only hope was that God would somehow find a way to cut the Gordian knot of unacceptable choices. The knot is finally cut by Mary’s child, who grew up and became “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).
I, too, know the shameful blush that comes from sinning against God and wounding others—precious people made in his image who deserved better from me. Maybe you know that feeling, too. We cannot undo our own treason against God, but Jesus can. Be assured that the grace of God in Christ is greater than your failures. Humbly accept his gift and turn from what made it necessary in the first place. If your face is downcast in shame, humiliated by your own sin, dare to look at Christ by faith this Christmas. You’re why he came.
We’re why he came—sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. As the old carol says, Jesus came “to save us all from Satan’s power, when we are gone astray.” Indeed, he came to be “the glory and the lifter of [our] head” (Ps 3:3) so that we could look God in the eye again, stepping into the future with freedom, confidence, and joy. He came so the ancient blessing given to God’s people could fully and finally be true:
The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace (Num 6:24-26).