I am going to revisit some of the Christmas articles I have written in previous years in the coming weeks, starting with this one. I may freshen them up a bit as I do so. This was one of the first articles I wrote on this blog, and I think the message still resonates today: A Message in a Manger.
The Word of God Is Living and Active
Unlike the other sacred texts I read, the Bible was hard-edged, and it confronted me with me! It penetrated my heart, and I wanted to look away!
I have made the statement in a previous article that the truth of God is not hidden from those who truly seek Him and desire to know Him. The truth is only hidden to those who don’t really desire to know God for who He is.
The following statement was made in the sermon I heard today: “Holiness and wholeness are hidden where only the humble can find them”.
I recognize that it’s easy for someone who believes in God to say these things. A person might even say these things in an arrogant and elitist sort of way, but that attitude would be 180 degrees wrong.
God is not an elitist. Elitism is antithetical to God and the fruit of the Spirit that should characterize those who believe and know Him.
Jesus, who claims to have been God in the flesh, came not to be served, but to serve and give his life. God “emptied Himself, by taking the form of a servant, being made in human likeness….” (Philippians 2:7) These are not the actions of an elitist God.
The Gospel story of God descending from His place of privilege and power as creator of the world to enter His creation is not the story of an elitist God. He didn’t come as the greatest of all men with power and might. He came as a child, and He embraced the life of a servant, washing his disciples feet, healing lepers by touch, embracing prostitutes, and loving vulnerable people on the edges of society.
We also read that God created all humans in His image. Therefore, all human beings have intrinsic value. Since our value is given by God, it has nothing to do with our station in life. That value is not connected to how gifted or smart we are. It is not dependent on who our human ancestors were, or anything other than the image of God that we bear in ourselves by virtue of being born.
The flip side of that is the statement that God is “no respecter of persons” (He doesn’t show favoritism according to our standards). (Romans 2:11-16) If God is hidden to some people, His hiddenness is more a reflection of what people are looking for than who God is.
As a case in point, His own people, the nation to whom He spent hundreds of years revealing Himself, didn’t even recognize Him when He entered their world in real time and encountered them stripped down to human form:
“He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God….”
Jesus confronted the elite, religious leaders. He called them blind guides. They, of all people, should have been able to recognize Him, but they didn’t.
We see in those interactions that they were looking for a savior that would overthrow the Roman Empire and ascent to the throne of Israel. They wanted an earthly savior. They were jealous of his popularity. They didn’t expect God to come to them humbly as He did. They didn’t remember their own Scriptures that say,
“though the Lord is exalted, yet he regards the lowly”.
They didn’t remember or perhaps understand that the long-awaited Messiah would not fit a worldly model of power and strength. They should have known that he would have “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him” and “nothing in his appearance that we should desire him”. (Isaiah 53:2) They should have known that he would be “despised and rejected by mankind”, “a man of suffering, and familiar with pain” who would be “held in low esteem”. (Is. 53:3)
At the same time, we can understand why they missed these details or didn’t understand them. God is the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords! Why would He stoop so low? The kings, lords and rulers of the world did not stoop.
God called the nation of Israel to separate from the nations around them and to be different, but they continually failed to do that. God’s revelation from the beginning was an exercise in demonstrating that He is different, and not like the other gods, but they like the familiarity of those gods.
God’s people demanded a king to be like all the other nations. In doing that, they were rejecting God as their King who was distinctly different. They embraced the other nations’ gods; and Israel became indistinguishable from the character of the other nations.
They were meant to be a city on hill, a light to show the uniquely different character of God to the nations around them. They were continually urged to welcome strangers, to care for widows and orphans, and to do justice. (See 25 passages, including 19 Old Testament passages, with these instructions.) God desired them to be different from the world around them, as He is different from the gods of the other nations, but they failed to be different.
It’s no wonder that the Jewish leaders in the days of Jesus failed to recognize him. The Pharisees were so focused on the minutia of of their religious observances they neglected the “weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness”. (Matthew 23:23) They failed in their religiosity to appreciate and embrace God’s character that is embedded in the concepts of righteousness and justice. (Psalm 89:14)
They didn’t recognize God in the flesh because they lost sight of His real character. They were religious, but they lacked a real understanding of God.
The prophets, like Jeremiah, warned the nation of Israel many years earlier that they were going astray. The human heart is deceitful. (Jeremiah 17:9) We fool ourselves too easily.
Our fears, insecurities, pride, desires to be like the Joneses (other nations) and many things that get in the way of knowing God for who He is take priority in our thoughts and attitudes. We buy into narratives of ourselves, others and God that are warped.
Religious people are not immune to self-deception, and Christians are no less susceptible to self-deception than others. This is the lesson of the Pharisees, the leaders of God’s people in the days that Jesus walked the earth. In fact, religious people may be even more susceptible to self-deception because we use religion to legitimatize and justify our deception!
“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy, your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy, your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness!”
What is the cure for this human malady?
There is one thing that is specifically designed by God to reveal (expose) the hearts of people. It may not work exactly as we might want it to work. It isn’t a magic device, and it doesn’t work unless we submit to it. Rather, it’s the tool God uses to do His surgery in our hearts if we allow it in to our hearts to do its work. That tool is the inspired word of God.
“[T]he word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account.”
Continue reading “The Word of God Is Living and Active”
The Dilemma of God Demanding Justice from Beings Incapable of Meeting God’s Standard
There is one critique of the Christian notion of sin and the justice of God that is troubling on its face. That key critique for anyone who claims that God demands justice for sin is that God is seemingly unjust to require justice of beings who can’t measure up.
Many modern people bristle at the Christian idea of sin, and they bristle even more at the idea that God would punish sinners. Frankly, I think many modern people simply don’t understand what sin is and who God is.
But, that aside, there is one critique of the Christian notion of sin and the justice of God that is troubling on its face. That key critique for anyone who claims that God demands justice for sin is that God is seemingly unjust to require justice of beings who can’t measure up.
Alongside the notion that the God of the Bible and demands judgment for not measuring up to God’s just standard is the notion that all people are sinners who don’t measure up. In fact, the New Testament is fairly read to say that people are incapable of living up to God’s standard.
The doctrine of original sin says that we are all corrupted because the sin of Adam and Eve has been passed down generation after generation. Even if we don’t believe in the doctrine of original sin, however, the Bible is clear from the Old Testament to the New Testament that human beings don’t measure up to God’s standard:
They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
They have all fallen away;
together they have become corrupt;
there is none who does good,
not even one.
as it is written:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
Jesus said, “No one is good except God alone.” (Mark 10:18 (NIV)) Yet, he says, “Be perfect … as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (Matthew 5:48)
This is the dilemma: How can we be perfect?! “To err is human” the bard once said, and so it seems we are imperfect by our very nature.
Many people reject the idea that God can be just and demand justice from people incapable of measuring up to the standards God’s justice demands. They say it would be unjust for God to demand justice from beings who have no ability to act other than they do, and so fail to meet God’s standards.
God seems to be acting unfairly to demand that we meet His standards when we are 1) created beings, 2) born into sin, and 3) incapable of living up to the perfection God requires.
Other questions tumble after these thoughts: Why didn’t God create us perfect? If we are born sinful, how can God blame us for being sinful? If we are incapable of being perfect, how can God punish us for our imperfection?Continue reading “The Dilemma of God Demanding Justice from Beings Incapable of Meeting God’s Standard”
How Did Jesus, the Exact Representation of God, Describe Himself and Demonstrate Who He Is?
I find myself contemplating often the words Jesus used to describe his purpose. Jesus gave us description immediately before he launched into his public ministry. This is the way it went down, and this is what he said:
“And he came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up. And as was his custom, he went to the synagogue on the Sabbath day, and he stood up to read. And the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written,
“’The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
because he has anointed me
to proclaim good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives
and recovering of sight to the blind,
to set at liberty those who are oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’
‘And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them, ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”Luke 4:16-21
The famous announcement of his purpose came after John the Baptist piqued the interest of the local people, proclaiming, “Prepare the way for the Lord”. It came after John the Baptist challenged people to repent and be baptized.
The announcement took place after Jesus spent 40 days out in the wilderness being tempted by the devil. Jesus had not yet begun his “public ministry”, when he stood up to read in his home town synagogue from the words of Isaiah, the Prophet – words spoken about Jesus over 500 years before that day.
This was the announcement of what Jesus came to do. The Spirit was on him to proclaim good news to the poor, to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, and to proclaim the year of our Lord’s favor.
It wasn’t just a prophecy to be fulfilled. It was the very purpose for which God emptied Himself and became a man incarnate. God came to reveal Himself in the material world, to reveal His very heart and His love for mankind.
This was the message that He was trying to convey over the many centuries through the one people who inclined an ear toward Him. But, they didn’t completely get it. They wandered and strayed in their devotion to God, and they mistook His law for nothing but a code of conduct that might earn them the favor of God.
They didn’t understand the relationship He desired to form with them. They didn’t understand His love for them or the singularity of His own devotion to them and the purposes He established for them before the foundation of the heavens and the earth.
They didn’t even recognize Him when He came to them, albeit emptied of all that would not fit into human form (Phil. 2:5-7) They didn’t recognize Him stripped of all His power, holiness and glory.
He did not come with pomp and circumstance. He came humbly in the form of a man just like them. His coming was barely a whisper. is arrival went all but unnoticed. Born in a humble setting to poor, common parents, he grew up in an area of Judea that was off the beaten path and not a little “backwards”.
His first 30 years of life were so unremarkable we know next to nothing about them. The first public stir that is recorded is the day he stood up and read from the Isaiah scroll, sat down, and announced, “Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”
People were so unready for anything extraordinary from Jesus that they marveled and asked each other, “Isn’t this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22) Then, he seemed to provoke them (Luke 4:23-28), and they burned with anger at his audacity. (Luke 4:28)
It was an inauspicious start to his “public ministry”. He bombed in his hometown synagogue.
What he said of himself, however, is preserved for eternity. It is the key to understanding the heart and character of God revealed through Jesus, “the exact representation of His nature”. (Heb. 1:3) What Jesus said that day and what Jesus did is the best demonstration of God’s heart and character that we, as finite beings, might understand.Continue reading “How Did Jesus, the Exact Representation of God, Describe Himself and Demonstrate Who He Is?”
Exchanging Death for the Gift of Life
From dust to dust is our natural end, but God offers us life.
“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 6:23 ESV
We have earned death. The “wages” we receive is what we have earned, God desires to give us the gift of life. He desires to exchange what we have earned for the gift of life.
We are from the dust, and to the dust we return. That is our natural lot in life. Death is our natural end, but God desires to give us life.
This is not unfair. Death is all we can expect as finite creatures. We cannot expect more, but God offers life. He offers us His life.
We did not create the world. We are not the captains of our own destiny. We are aliens in this place. From dust to dust we is our natural condition.
Yet, God inexplicably and unbelievingly offers us His life.
How do we know this? We know it because of Jesus. Jesus sad no greater love has anyone for another than to lay down his life for that person. (John 15:13) Then Jesus laid down his life. He laid down his life for us.
We know we can trust God because He became one of us. He emptied Himself of His power, glory, and privilege to experience the life we have. (Phil. 2:7-8 ESV) He didn’t have to do it. He did it willingly for us.
Then, he rose from the dead. He showed us that death has no hold on him. His life, the life that triumphs over death, is what He offers us.
It is not an automatic thing, though. We have to want it. We have to receive it. We have to accept it.
Some of us would rather accept only what we have earned. He came to the people with whom He long established a relationship, through whom He would reveal Himself to the world, but many did not receive Him. (1 John 1:11)
He chose to give us a choice. That choice He came to offer in person to the first century Hebrews with whom He cultivated a relationship over the centuries. Now He offers that choice to everyone, even us.
“Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.” (john 1:12-13)