Friday, January 31, 2014

The Pernicious Power of Prejudice

Life of Christ 14

          Following the death of Herod the Great, Joseph and Mary and Jesus, still in Egypt, receive a message from God to return to Palestine. (Matthew 2.19-23). They had originally planned to return to Judea, but they discovered that Herod's worst son had taken control. Indeed, Archelaus had most of Herod's faults and few of his virtues as illustrated by the fact that shortly after taking control he slaughtered 3000 Jews in the Temple during Passover. Common sense, as well as another dream, would lead Joseph to return, instead, to Nazareth in Galilee.
          This decision, while sound in reasoning and necessary for the fulfillment of Scripture, would cause Jesus a great deal of heartache later. Very simply, because Jesus would grow up in Nazareth of Galilee He would find himself at an automatic disadvantage in dealing with the Judean Jews and the religious leadership of Israel based in Jerusalem.
          John Cunningham Geikie, a 19th century Scottish Presbyterian preacher, said it this way:

The Jew of the south, wrapped in self-importance, as living in or near the holy city, amidst the schools of the Rabbis, and under the shadow of the Temple, and full of religious pride in his assumed superior knowledge of the Law, and greater purity as a member of a community nearly wholly Jewish, looked down on his Galilean brethren. The very ground he trod was more holy than the soil of Galilee, and the repugnance of the North to adopt the prescriptions of the Rabbis was, itself, a ground of estrangement and self-exaltation. He could not believe that the Messiah would come from a part so inferior, for “the Law was to go forth from Zion, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.” Jesus found willing hearers and many disciples in the cities and towns of Galilee, but He made little impression on Judaea.

          It has well been said that Galilee gave Jesus a home while Judea gave Him a cross. We laugh at the ridiculous geographical prejudice of the Pharisees yet is such baseless prejudice not active in our own day? If someone from a trailer park attends church are they not often viewed differently than someone from one of the finer suburbs? If someone shows up whose home is an obscure Latin American country to the south are they not often treated differently than those who have no other claim to fame but to be accidentally born within our borders?

          The religious leadership of Israel in Jesus' day fatally misjudged Jesus in almost every way it was possible to do so, and their geographic prejudice didn't help matters any.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Greater Is He That Is In You

Life of Christ 13

          The life of Christ, when you look at it in depth, is by turns convicting, comforting, motivating, heartbreaking, frustrating, and enlightening, and sometimes all of that happens in just one story. So it is, to me, with the visit of the Magi recorded in Matthew 2. There are so many precious truths conveyed here, and I want to give you just one more before we move on to the next story.
          What Herod the Great launched at the baby Jesus in Bethlehem was nothing less than a satanic attack, a salvo in the spiritual war that began in Eden and will culminate at the Great White Throne. As I said the other day, the fact that there is a spiritual war should drive our caution. The fact that there are innocent casualties should drive our compassion. But the fact that, as God's people, we have protection from that spiritual attack should drive our boldness and our gratitude.
          Jesus, at the tender age of two, was completely defenseless against a tyrant like Herod, and Joseph and Mary weren't in much better shape. Yet they were not left alone to face the music for their Heavenly Father had prepared for them an escape (I Corinthians 10.13). Illustrations of the providential watch care of El Shaddai, the Almighty God, are found from one end of the Scripture to another, and this is one of the sweetest.
          A couple of years ago I was walking between our church building here in the inner city of Chicago and our parking lot. They are separated by a block and a half, and I make the trek often. As I passed one of the houses in between a man came out who can only be described charitably as exceedingly strange. He was shorter than me, thinner, covered in tattoos, and completely shaved bald except for two spikes of hair stylized as horns on either side of his head. I am not a charismatic prone to seeing demons behind every corner, but as he looked in my eyes and I looked in his, I must admit a feeling of evil came over me such as I have never experienced in my life. All day long his image stayed with me, and not only did I see him in my mind, but I continued to see him in the neighborhood over the succeeding months. My family and I live right next door to our church, and although I had already often prayed for the Lord to protect them I must admit I became a bit more fervent in that prayer during this period.
          One day, months later, in my car this time, I saw him yet again. He seemed to stare straight at me through the window of my car, and our eyes held briefly. At that moment the Lord spoke a word of comfort to my heart that I have never forgotten, namely this: 'Greater is he that is in you than he that is in the world' (I John 4.4). What a comfort it was to me to know from that moment on that I and my family were under the providential watch care of a gracious, omnipotent God!

        This picture was kindly given to me by a church member years ago, and I had it framed. It hangs now in my sons' bedroom. I love to go in and look at it. It speaks to me of the terror and power of the storm, of the solidity of the lighthouse, and of the complete lack of fear in the man who is sheltered by the lighthouse from the storm. I genuinely believe that, when I am in His will, then, like Job, what comes to me must come through Him. There is great peace and comfort in contemplating the tender watch care of a sovereign God.

          Two thousand years ago the devil saw a defenseless baby and ordered up a haymaker punch of a massacre. That punch missed because that child was under the protection of God. Someday that devil will kneel before that baby and listen as that baby sentences that devil to hell for eternity. We are on the winning side no matter how it looks at the moment. Believe that, child of God, and be comforted by it.

            If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog post you may find it here on our church website. Press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 5, 'Rachel Weeping for Her Children.'

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

A King? Yawn...

Life of Christ 12

          When the Magi appeared in Jerusalem they were searching for a king (Matthew 2.1-2). They were drawn on this search spiritually by their hunger to worship God, intellectually by their knowledge of the Old Testament prophecies regarding Christ, and visually by the star that shone so brightly over Palestine. In spite of their knowledge of the Old Testament they were not sure of the specific location so they came to Jerusalem to make enquiry. Of course, they had no idea of the horror they would unleash by their innocent inquiries at Herod the Great's court, and they bear no fault for the succeeding bloodshed. Soon enough the chief priests and scribes return with the information which the Magi sought for regarding where this prophesied king was to be born (Matthew 2.3-6 quoting Micah 5.2), namely Bethlehem.
         We know how the rest of the story goes, but the question that haunts me about it is this: Why didn't the Jews go? We know the learned religious leaders in Jerusalem knew of Micah's prophecy for they were the ones that informed the Magi of it. Further, they had an even more complete access to and knowledge of the rest of the Old Testament prophecies that drove the Magi in the first place. In addition, and this is mind boggling to me, if the Magi saw His star all the way in the east for at least several months, if not years, why didn't anybody in Jerusalem notice? What's more, if somehow all of this had escaped their attention, when the Magi visited obviously it remedied that problem, for their attention was fixated on Bethlehem like a laser at that point. And it's only a few hour walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem; surely even the busy schedules of the Jewish luminaries in Jerusalem could be cleared, at least for an afternoon, to investigate these phenomenal events, couldn't they?
          Well, apparently not, and there is only one reason that can explain this sequential failure to even notice Christ's birth – they just didn't care. I can think of no other rational explanation for the complete absence of Judaism's religious leaders to even acknowledge the birth of Christ. As Paul would later say to Festus, 'this thing was not done in a corner' (Acts 26.26). The shepherds would have spoken of it. Simeon and Anna would have spoken of it. But beyond those human aspects, there was an incredibly array of Old Testament prophecy that pointed toward it, and there was a star the size of small New England state screaming about it for months in the night sky over Palestine. No, it wasn't that they were ignorant; it was that they were apathetic.
          El Elyon, the Most High God, sends His Son from the ivory palaces of Glory to Earth entrusted to the custody of a people whose sole national purpose was to be ready for His arrival – and they didn't care.
          A King? Yawn...

Numbers 24:17 I shall see him, but not now: I shall behold him, but not nigh: there shall come a Star out of Jacob, and a Sceptre shall rise out of Israel, and shall smite the corners of Moab, and destroy all the children of Sheth.

Isaiah 53:2-3  For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him. He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Rachel Weeping for Her Children

Life of Christ 11

          Everybody in America knows there were three wise men. Everybody in America knows those wise men were with the shepherds, and Joseph and Mary at the manger when Jesus was born. And everybody in America is wrong.
          Yes, the Magi did bring three gifts but we don't know how many of them there were. The Scripture says (Matthew 2.1-23) they came from the East, meaning probably the Babylon area. Of course, Daniel and Ezekiel, prophets of the first order, had preached in Babylon for years, and there still remained a substantial number of Jews in the East whose forefathers had chosen not to return to Israel with Ezra, so much so that there is a version of the Talmud called the Babylonian Talmud. Additionally, three contemporary Roman historians, Tacitus, Seutonias, and Josephus report there was a common belief in the East at this time that a great king would be born in Judea, and that he would eventually rule the entire world. In such an environment we can easily understand how some wealthy, intellectual astronomers came to believe in the birth of a King in Israel.
          Naturally, on their arrival in Palestine, they head to Jerusalem, where their search
for the king brings them to Herod's attention. Herod the Great was one of the great tyrants of ancient history, and the fact that he was also one of the great builders of the Roman Empire (he built the Temple, the Antonia Fortress, Masada, Herodium, Ceasarea Maritima, etc.) doesn't mitigate that fact. He brutally murdered thousands and thousands of people. Knowing how much he was disliked in Israel he hatched a scheme to make sure the Jews mourned at his death instead of rejoiced. As he lay dying he instructed the major Jewish leaders in Jerusalem to be rounded up, and executed in one of the stadiums he had built simply so people would weep when he died. Just prior to our story in Matthew 2 he had murdered three of his own children out of a paranoid fear that they would seek his throne. Caesar Augusts, the first emperor of Rome, reportedly said he would rather be one of Herod's hogs than one of his children for his hogs had a better chance at life. 
          With this kind of a man in charge as a Roman under-king, and with these beliefs going on, it shouldn't surprise us at all with what evil Herod the Great reacts to the news that the wise men are seeking a newborn king. Calling in the Jewish scribes, Herod learns that this king is supposed to be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5.2). Deceitfully, he sends the wise men on ahead and asks them to return with news so he too may go and worship this new king.
          Why were Joseph and Mary still in Bethlehem? The Bible doesn't say. I suspect it was because Mary's reputation was so trashed in Nazareth by her early pregnancy that the two of them simply chose to start life over again far away from home in Bethlehem of Judea, and thus we find them in their own home two years after the birth of Christ in the stable yard of the inn. The wise men, the first Gentiles to worship Jesus, solemnly come to worship, and generously give of their wealth to this new king. Immediately following, being warned by God through a dream not to carry the news back to Herod, they depart for home. Joseph, likewise being warned in a dream, runs with his family from Bethlehem down to Egypt, probably financing his sudden transition with the unexpected wealth bestowed upon them by the Magi.
          Back in Jerusalem, an unreasonably suspicious Herod realizes the wise men are not going to return, and in a fit of foul paranoia, demands the death of every boy in Bethlehem three years of age or less. My father was an independent Baptist pastor for 38 years. One of the things he always did spectacularly well was the annual Christmas play. To this day, when I read this story, I can still see the Roman soldier standing in the front of our church auditorium, the spotlight menacingly reflecting off of his blade, as screams of horror rose all around us from mothers suddenly bereft of their sons, 'Rachel weeping for her children' (Matthew 1.18 quoting Jeremiah 31.15).
          On that black night in Bethlehem screams did erupt, driven not just by the menace of a Roman cohort, or the fury of a mad king, but by the spawn of hell. I do not for one minute believe that Herod's actions sprang solely from his own feverish brain. The devil knew the Old Testament better than anyone, and he knew exactly where Jesus would be born. He saw that star, and I'm absolutely convinced he thought to himself, 'There is no better time to win a war then when your opponent is a defenseless baby.' This was not just a tyrant seeking to kill a rival. It was the first of many attempts by the devil to kill the Messiah before He could become the King.
          Beloved, we are in a spiritual war. The things that happen on this earth are often simply reflections of the ongoing war between Heaven and hell. In Daniel 10 we see that a demonic prince ruled Persia, and fought a spiritual battle with the archangel Michael. Paul tells us in the classic passage of Ephesians 6.10-18 that it is demonic principalities that actually rule in this world. We know from Scripture that the devil is called 'the prince of this world' (John 12.31, 14.30, and 16.11). Understanding this vital truth, that we are engaged not in a political or cultural fight on this earth, but in a spiritual one, is a worldview that is absolutely necessary for the child of God living in a 21st century world. It helps you to discern things that other people totally miss, and informs your decision making, priorities, and prayer life as a Christian and as a church. The social gospel of the emerging church movement in our generation is as theologically bankrupt and spiritually misguided as the Moral Majority movement of our parent's generation. In joining up with Catholics and Mormons to win cultural and political battles, and dig wells in Africa, American Christians are shooting at the wrong king. Our aim must be to win men and women and boys and girls to Jesus Christ (Mark 16.15), disciple them in the faith (Matthew 28.20), live holy and unspotted in the world (James 1.27), and pray for God to graciously send either a revival or a Rapture (Titus 2.13).
          This war we are in, this spiritual war, inevitably produces casualties as all wars do. In a theological sense, there are no innocent bystanders as we are all guilty before God, but in practical sense my heart breaks for the innocent children in my city who endure great suffering caused by the sin of their parents. Addicted, abusive, absent, selfish, violent parents have produced a generation of wounded young people. According to a 2012 Chicago Police Department study there are 600 gangs in this city with a minimum combined membership of over 70,000 people. In my experience, the vast majority of those gang members initially joined at a very young age because they were looking for the security and acceptance that their own home had so failed to provide. The breakdown of the America inner city is a direct reflection of the breakdown of the American home, and the breakdown of the American home is a direct result of an extended satanic attack on that most essential of institutions. In the war between the devil and God a whole lot of bystanders get hit in the crossfire. The problem in this city is not racism, economic exploitation, food deserts, educational inequality, or environmental pollution The problem is sin, and Jesus is the solution.
          The fact that there is a spiritual war should drive our caution. The fact that there are innocent casualties should drive our compassion. Where are the Rachel's weeping for this generation's children? The Psalmist instructed us to weep as we bear the precious seed (Psalm 126.5-6). This thought challenges my own heart, for so often on my corner of this sin-sick city I find myself getting angry at the thuggish gangs that complicate life so much for ordinary people here, but do I weep for them? George Whitefield, that fiery 18th century English preacher, proclaimed while preaching out doors on Boston Common, 'If you will not weep for your sins and your crimes against a Holy God, George Whitefield will weep for you!' It is easy for me to become emotional when I think of the spiritual future of my own children, but have I wept for anybody else's children lately? The snow of mid-winter is strewn with the bloody casualties of the spiritual war going on around us in this city.

          God, give us some Rachels to weep for the children!

Monday, January 27, 2014

And Simeon Blessed Them

Life of Christ 10

          According to Simeon (Luke 2.25-35) Jesus was salvation. We've seen this already in His name, specifically mandated by two different angelic messages. Now we see it clearly and emphatically again, when He is just six weeks old, pronounced by a saintly, Holy Spirit filled prophet of God. We must never lose sight of this. Being our redeemer is not all that Jesus is, but it is how we first come to know Him, and it is an aspect of His life that is both enormous and exceedingly precious to all of God's people.
          According to Simeon Jesus was prepared. Another very old man, John, would later say that Jesus was the Lamb (there it is again) slain before the world was ever created (Revelation 13.8). Every little detail of Jesus' life was planned and thought out ahead of time. Matthew reveals this so wonderfully in his gospel as he again and again points the Jew to the myriad of prophecies that Jesus' life fulfilled. Jesus Christ was not an accidental coincidence. His life and work was long prepared by His Heavenly Father.
          According to Simeon Jesus was specifically aimed at the Gentiles. When you learn to grasp an understanding of how deeply racist the Jews were in the time of Christ you begin to appreciate how amazing this aspect of Simeon's blessing is. Rabbinism was not monolithic, but in regards to its attitude toward the Gentiles it was. Even Hillel and Shammai, two great teachers and leaders of rival rabbinic  schools, agreed on eighteen specific decrees intended to separate the Jew from all contact with the unclean Gentiles. For instance, an orthodox Jew must take a bath on returning home from the public market in case his clothes had touched a Gentile in the crowd. To the Sadducees, these customs so bordered on the inane that 'soon they would think it necessary to wash the sun' because its rays shone as well upon the Gentiles.
          By Jesus’ time, the Jews had suffered grievously, in turn, under the hands of Babylon, Greece, Egypt, and Syria. Their current oppressor, Rome, was the mightiest empire the world had ever seen. This was especially galling for an ethnicity which claimed supremacy over every other people group in the world (Gentiles). Their concept of the Messiah included nothing of Him reaching out to offer the mercy and forgiveness of God to the Gentiles. They had in mind more of a calling down of fire and brimstone kind of thing, as the Gentiles finally and permanently accepted their place as inferiors in a world ruled by the Jews from Jerusalem.
          Yet, in spite of all this, we have a prophecy given by Simeon that Jesus' ministry would 'lighten the Gentiles' (Luke 2.32). I, for one, am deeply glad, for as an American of the Heinz 57 variety with an extra dash of Irish, it is a great blessing to me that I can come to Christ without having to jump through the hoops of orthodox Judaism. I cannot imagine how bleak the mathematical probability statistics would be that the largest religion in the world in our day would be one established by an assassinated Jewish carpenter that lived 2000 years ago. But it is. Simeon was right.
          Additionally, according to Simeon, Jesus was Israel's glory. No, they certainly do not glory in Him as yet, but only twenty centuries have passed. Before time stops Israel will come to the place of willingly accepting that her chief glory is to be found in her son, Jesus Christ. This speaks, of course, to the yet future Second Coming, the blessed hope of every true Christian, and the sure and certain wonderful end to which we are looking. If you think His first coming was amazing just wait until you see what He will do in the second.
          Simeon also said that Jesus would bring both destruction and rebuilding. He has done and will do that to Israel nationally. Her rejection of Jesus as the Christ, completed in Matthew 12 and rubber stamped at the Crucifixion, resulted in her complete and utter destruction at the hands of Rome between AD 70 and AD 130. For almost 2000 years she ceased to exist as a national entity as a result of that rejection. But just as her rejection of Christ destroyed her so her acceptance of Him as Messiah during the Tribulation period will restore her, and restore her to a greater fullness and glory than she has ever seen in her history.
          This is also true personally as well. Every person who comes to Christ for salvation must come humbly, with his concept of himself and his own goodness absolutely destroyed. That destruction of our sin nature continues until we finally rise again in moral perfection. 'This child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel' (Luke 2.34).
          Simeon also foretold that Jesus would be greatly criticized, 'a sign which shall be spoken against.' No one person in human history has been more mocked, derided, scorned, abhorred, defied, despised, disdained, hated, rejected, repudiated, ridiculed, shunned, spurned, and taunted. Again, this is something that the prevailing wisdom of the day regarding the Messiah would never have dreamed up, yet it was completely accurate.
          Further, Simeon told Mary, not unkindly I think, that this baby boy would bring her great pain. Over the next thirty years she would watch her son live a perfect life. She would watch Him help so many, many people. She would also have to watch Him gradually become universally scorned by the powers that be. She would experience and hear of constant attempts on His life. Finally, she would stand in heartbroken horror, and watch Him die the vicious death of a hoodlum, nailed to a tree (John 19.25). Mary gets a great deal of justified commendation, but she paid a terrible price.
          Lastly, Simeon presciently stated that our reaction to Jesus Christ reveals our hearts. As you read this blog I obviously have no idea of your name, your age, your educational level, your bank account totals, your hobbies, or your dog's name, but I can tell you exactly who you are – because who you are is completely revealed by what you think of Jesus Christ. Do you reject Him? You are a proud sinner, secure in a conceited sense of your own invulnerability, destined for a fall from which you cannot recover. Do you accept Him? You are a humble sinner, contrite and heartbroken over that sin, one who has cast himself for his only hope on the mercy of God through the shed blood of Jesus Christ.
          You aren't what your business cards says you are. You aren't what your friends think you are. You aren't what your neighbors are afraid you are. You aren't what your mirror tells you that you are. You aren't what your bank account says. You aren't your praise me wall. You aren't a sum of your past disasters. You aren't a collection of multitudes. You aren't an ethnicity. You aren't a gender. You aren't an age. You aren't a jock or a nerd or a pretty boy or a stoner. You are your reaction to the claims of Jesus Christ.

If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog post you may find it here on our church website. Press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 4, 'And Simeon Blessed Them.'

Friday, January 24, 2014

The Presentation in the Temple

Life of Christ 9

  For decades, a bent and graying elderly man known as Simeon had virtually haunted the Temple precincts. He loved Jehovah with all his heart, and in turn he had been gifted with the constant presence of the Holy Spirit. What he wanted, more than anything else in the world, was to see the Messiah, 'the consolation of Israel' (Luke 2.25). It was that hope and expectation that kept him going year after year, and that gave his life its entire meaning and purpose.
          Eight days after the birth of Christ in the stable yard of the inn, His parents, as the custom was, circumcised him and officially gave Him the name Jesus. Almost five weeks later, Joseph and Mary traveled with their infant baby boy to Jerusalem for His presentation.
          Moses had instructed Israel that the first child, if male, was supposed to be dedicated to the Lord as a priest. Later, when God chose the tribe of Levi and the descendants of Aaron to fill these positions, the first male child was to be brought to the Temple and redeemed (bought back from God's use) with five shekels. At the same time, Mary was considered unclean as a result of her pregnancy and delivery. Thus, for the double purpose of cleansing her impurity and redeeming their first born son, they walked six miles to the Temple forty days after Jesus' birth in order to pay the redemption money and to give a sacrifice for Mary's cleansing.
          That morning the Holy Spirit led Simeon to the Temple, as He had countless times before, only this time to meet by divine appointment the Messiah he had awaited for decades. As Joseph and Mary walked in they were startled to find an elderly man practically grabbing the babe from Mary's arms. With tears of gratitude streaming down his cheeks, Simeon gently cradled the baby's head in his arms, as his heart and voice whispered praise to Jehovah that He had lived to see this day. Then, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit and to the astonishment of His parents, Simeon pronounced a blessing over the life of that precious little baby boy.
          The Apostle John would later say, in discussing the life of Christ, that the world couldn’t contain the books that could be written about His life (John 21.25). About thirty of those books sit on the shelves in my office, and I haven't read close to a tithe of the books written about Jesus Christ. Yet Simeon managed to sum up the entire arc of Jesus' life, including both His first and second comings, in just a few short sentences, and Simeon did it before the baby boy could even walk or talk. Additionally, in so doing, Simeon predicted a life that was totally at odds with the accepted Jewish wisdom of the day regarding what the Messiah would do and be.
          If I haven't piqued your interest by this time you might as well go watch funny cat videos on YouTube. But I find here (Luke 2.21-38) a wonderful summation, predicted beforehand, of the life of Jesus Christ, and that is worth investigating, if you ask me. Next time we shall dive into it, and see just exactly what wonderful blessings Simeon saw as he cradled the infant child Jesus in his arms. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The Lamb and the Shepherds

Life of Christ 8 

          Why did God choose to have shepherds be the very first to kneel in worship before His Son (Luke 2.8-20)? After all, He could have chosen to send the heavenly angelic announcement and choir to anyone in the vicinity of Bethlehem that night. Why did He choose the shepherds?
          I believe the answer is simple: God wanted to point toward the redemptive work of Jesus Christ via His sacrificial atoning death on the cross from the very beginning.
          One of the clearest pictures in all of the Old Testament of the atoning death of Christ is found in the Passover. We find its genesis in Exodus 12 as Moses comes to the final round of his match with Pharaoh and the demon gods of Egypt. God expressed through Moses that the firstborn in each home would die when the death angel passed over unless they applied the blood of a perfect sacrificial lamb on their doorposts. To quote the Lord, 'When I see the blood I will pass over you.'
          The centrality of the shed blood of a sacrificed lamb to cover sin was reinforced in almost every aspect of the Old Testament religion that Moses set up in Leviticus, and continued alive and well into the time of Christ. Josephus tells us that at Passover alone in Jesus' time 200,000 lambs were slaughtered on the Temple Mount.
          Wherever did the Temple get access to all those lambs each April? Well, the Mishnah (the largest section of the Talmud) tells us Temple raised them – watch this now – on pastures around Bethlehem. That's right, the very shepherds who came to see the Christ child at the instigation of the angelic choir were responsible for delivering thousands of lambs each April to the Temple to be sacrificed on Passover. That night they left those flocks of sacrificial lambs to kneel in worshipful adoration in the muck of that stable courtyard in the inn of Bethlehem at the feet of the Lamb of God Himself.
          It is no coincidence that Jesus, our Paschal Lamb, was born in the city that raised them, and that His first visitors were the shepherds who watched them – just as it was no coincidence that at the exact time of His death on Mt. Calvary, thirty three years later, the Passover lambs were being slaughtered by the thousands in the Temple.

John 1:29 The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.
1Corinthians 5:7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us:

  If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog post you may find it here on our church website. Press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 3, 'The Babe Lying in a Manger'. 

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Babe Lying in a Manger

Life of Christ 7

          Humility. That is the word that hangs like a signboard over the advent of Jesus Christ.
          His parents were humble. By this I mean that they were not famous or wealthy; their station in life was humble. There are those who would assert this is not the case since both Joseph and Mary were descended from the line of David. That is certainly true, but David lived nearly a thousand years before the time of Christ, and he must have had many descendants in Israel after a millennia.
          One of the evidences of Joseph and Mary's humble station in life is the very facts surrounding the famous Christmas story that takes place in Luke 2.1-7. The taxation and census that called them from Nazareth to Bethlehem was a property tax. You may recall that the Old Testament instructs landed property to always remain in the family line, and, if sold, it had to be returned at the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). As a family's descendants multiplied over time the title deed to these properties became rather involved, with many distantly related people all having a small percentage of ownership in the land in question. Thus, when the Romans wanted to tax property they had to first identify how many people owned what percentage in order to fairly assess the tax. Joseph and Mary, both being descended from David, would have owned some small percentages of properties in the Bethlehem area, and thus they both had to make the journey there from Nazareth. This, of course, also explains why it was so crowded when they arrived, as many other people were required to travel there for the same reasons. If Joseph and Mary had been one of the primary descendants of David they would have owned more percentage of the property. They probably would have been living in Bethlehem already, or barring that, they would have had much nicer accommodations available to them when they got there. They obviously didn't, however. They were not royalty; they were just common, ordinary, everyday kind of people.
          The location of Jesus' birth was humble. The inns of Jesus day were not rambling buildings with a hot fire burning in the cozy common room, rather they were square, one story structures that were not even enclosed. Along the two side walls and the back wall of this structure open rooms were available, completely unfurnished, with only a roof and two side walls for protection from the elements. The fourth side of each room was entirely open facing a common courtyard in the middle. Travelers would pay a small price for the privilege of staking their animals in the courtyard directly in front of their room, and would furnish their rooms with whatever they brought with them. It was actually kind of like camping with the addition of a touch of privacy and sturdy wall between you and whatever lurked outside.

          It was to just such an inn that Joseph and Mary arrived that cold December night. I can imagine how relieved Mary was, in her condition, to find shelter out of the wind, and on a floor up off the cold ground. I can imagine how relieved Joseph was that they had finally gotten to Bethlehem where such shelter was available – until it wasn't, for the inn was already packed full. I can imagine him finally, in desperation, pleading the mitigating circumstance of Mary's condition, and negotiating with the owner to let them stay in the middle courtyard amongst all the rest of the animals staked there. I can imagine him gathering together what straw he could to make a bed for Mary on the cold, hard ground as she did her best not to complain. And it was there, just one step above a ditch on the side of the road, that the King of Kings came into the world. I think because of this story's close association with Christmas that we have somewhat romanticized the birth of Christ. It wasn't romantic. It was cold. It was embarrassing. It was undignified. It was almost desperate. Above all, it was humble.
          When I was a young man I confess I use to get irritated at God. For instance, He instructs us not to be jealous but He is jealous. He calls for us to be humble, but He is Himself almost proud, demanding glory and praise and exaltation. Wasn't this hypocrisy? What I completely failed to grasp back then is the humility of Jesus Christ, and thus, by extension, God Himself. Jesus' entire earthly career is marked by humility. We see it in the events of His birth. We see it in His chosen approach to life, first as a blue collar laborer and then later as an itinerant, poverty stricken rabbi. We see it in the events of His death, crucified like a criminal between two thieves and then placed in a borrowed tomb. In fact, God's entire decision to offer redemption by presenting His own Son, in human flesh, to die for us, means He humbled Himself (Philippians 2.8). What did He leave? To what did He come? How did He arrive? How did He live? How was He treated? How did He die? There is humility in the answer to all of these questions. It is wrapped up in the very fabric of who Jesus is.
          If holiness is being like Jesus then humility must form a large part of my own life as well. If our very spiritual life is birthed in the humility of admitting our sin and our total inability to do anything about it as we cast ourselves on the mercy of God through belief in the claims of Jesus Christ, well then that humility must continue if our spiritual life is to thrive. Humility is necessary for faith, and without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11.6). Humility is a necessary ingredient for successfully serving the Lord, as we must come to Him for 'grace to help in time of need' (Hebrews 4.16). Humility is a necessary prerequisite for growth since you cannot grow without being teachable. Humility is necessary for prayer. Indeed, I do not go too far when I say that it is necessary for every spiritual grace.
          The simple truth is that humility is something that everyone comes to, sooner or later. Some come to it early, humbling themselves under the mighty hand of God (I Peter 5.6). Others come to it later, in chains, on their knees before the Ancient of Days on that Great White Throne (Philippians 2.10). But all, without exception, will come to it.
          My friend, there is no good reason to wait to be humble until Judgment Day. Indeed, there is every good reason to humble yourself now. Wonderful blessings come our way when we humble ourselves. Additionally, it is only reasonable for us to humble ourselves before God when He is so obviously superior and we so inferior. But, most of all, when we humble ourselves we are being like Jesus.
          Humility. That is the word that hangs like a signboard over the advent of Jesus Christ.

          Does it hang like a signboard above you?

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Two Little Words

Life of Christ 6

          What is commonly known as the Annunciation is actually two angelic announcements, made to two different people, over the course of three months, with one being made in person and the other in a dream.
          After Mary's angelic announcement she made her way to her cousin Elisabeth's home, traveling from Nazareth in Galilee down to Judea. If Zacharias literally couldn't get a word in edgewise at home before he was in even worse trouble now. Though considerably older than Mary, Elisabeth paid her great respect as 'the mother of my Lord' (Luke 1.43).
          Three months later, coming back to Nazareth, she was faced with Joseph, and the prospect of a very unpleasant conversation, the first of many. I do not know if she talked to him immediately or if she waited, but at some point, as her pregnancy began to show, she would have had no choice. Mary had no way of knowing God would send an angel to Joseph. How she must have hesitated, knowing how hurt and angry and sad he would be… How she must have stammered out the news, with her head bowed, then looking up into his face, hoping to see understanding, and seeing only the pain and anger… How they must have then gone together to see Mary's parents, with Mary again being forced to say what a pure, lovely, innocent spiritual girl would never want to say to her parents… How furious her father must have been, apologizing over and over and over again to Joseph… How her mother must have sat there, tears pouring down, as she contemplated the ruin of the wonderful life they had worked so hard to construct for their daughter… How hurt Joseph must have been, and Mary's parents must have been when Mary refused to tell them who the father was; after all, it was completely unbelievable, and she would only be labeled a liar along with being an adulteress if she had tried to explain…
          In the midst of all of this horror, a puzzled, hurting, and angry Joseph was forced to make a decision. The decision wasn't whether to marry Mary or not. What man in his right mind would willingly shackle himself to a woman who had proven so faithless and fickle? No, that wasn't even an option. The only question was just how exactly he would go about divorcing her. Remember, although they were not married yet, an espousal was a contract that demanded an actual bill of divorcement to annul. What reason could he give? After all, he was 'a just man' (Mathew 1.18), and he didn't want to do this publicly. That would only hurt himself, Mary, and her family even more than they already were hurting. At the same time, he didn't want to lie, nor to simply take a bullet and publicly blame it on his own change of mind when it was so clearly Mary who had caused the problem. Besides, soon the entire neighborhood would find out anyway. Inevitably, by gossip or by simple observation, Mary's pregnancy would become known to others.
          Into this maelstrom of emotion and familial disaster and uncertainty came the balm of Gilead in the form of an angel while Joseph was tossing and turning in a troubled sleep one night. The angel calmly informs Joseph of the true situation regarding Mary (Matthew 2.18-25), tells him just exactly how special this boy would be, relates it to prophecy (Isaiah 7.14), and tells Joseph that God would have him marry Mary.
          So which would he believe, what every bit of his human reason screamed at him to be completely untrue, or God via this angelic dream? Unhesitatingly, he placed all his eggs in God's basket, and took Mary to be his wife. I'm quite sure that decision didn't quell the gossiping tongues. It simply set them to wagging with a different story, but Joseph and Mary could handle that. They knew the truth of the matter, and that was all that was important, really.
          Perhaps I'm just one of those overly sentimental 90's kind of guys, but I get a little teary-eyed when I think of these two, and what they went through during this time. But even more, I stand in awe of them, of their simple faith and their deep obedience, laying their entire lives on the line for each other and this little unborn baby. So much of our Christian life is wrapped up in those two little words, faith and obedience, and we find them in great abundance, sweetly, at the very dawn of Christianity.
          Do you trust Him today? Oh, I know you trust Him for salvation, but do you trust Him for provision, for protection, for health, for timing, for happiness, joy, comfort, peace, strength, wisdom, grace, patience, and the desires of your heart? And don't bother telling me you trust Him if you won't obey Him. Do you trust Him with your obedience when it doesn't make sense to you? When it is hard? When it is frustrating? When you are criticized?
          If Joseph and Mary could, as a newly espoused couple placed in an almost impossible situation, respond with faith and obedience, then so can we. I can give you no better lesson from this part of the story of Christ than the words that John Sammis wrote in 1887, words that we have sung a thousand times e'er now:

Trust and obey, for there's no other way
To be happy in Jesus, but to trust and obey.

          If you would like to listen to the audio sermon that accompanies this blog you may find it here on our church website. Press 'launch media player' and choose We Preach Christ 2, 'She Shall Bring Forth a Son'.

Monday, January 20, 2014

The Handmaid of the Lord

Life of Christ 5

          Just a few short months after Gabriel appeared unto Zacharias in the Holy Place Gabriel was again commissioned by God to deliver a message to an unsuspecting human. This time he wouldn't appear in the grand surroundings of the Temple, but rather in lowly Nazareth, a small town in despised Galilee.
          Israel in Christ's day was largely divided along geographic lines. Jerusalem, in the south, was the center of the region known as Judea, a Romanized form of Judah, the Southern Kingdom of Israel we are familiar with from the Old Testament. The region of Galilee, to the north, was much larger and wealthier than her southern neighbor.
          The reason I said 'despised Galilee' was because it largely was, at least in the minds of the religious intellegentsia of Judea. Clearly, if Galilee was wealthier, it had nothing to do with the fact that since the land and climate were better in the north it produced better crops, fish, timber, and olive oil. No, it was simply because Galileans were more materialistic. Clearly, if the Galileans did not attend the  feasts in Jerusalem with the same fervor it had nothing to do with the much greater distance, no, it was because they were less spiritual. Clearly, if the Galilean speech pattern was noticeably different than the Judean it had to be because of the low priority which education was given in such a carnal place. Clearly, Judea was superior, for the Temple was located there. Clearly, Judea was superior, for the Sanhedrin met there. Clearly.
          In this despised Galilee few towns had a lower reputation than Nazareth. 'Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?' Nathanael asks Philip rhetorically in John 1.46. One of the regions primary caravan routes ran directly through Nazareth from the Mediterranean ports to Damascus. This would have brought many of the unclean Gentiles into town. To add insult to injury, a Roman garrison fort was stationed just outside of Nazareth. Every military base in history has produced a strip full of available sin just outside of its boundaries where soldiers could throw away their pay away on wine, women, and song, and Nazareth was no different. Yes, it is true that one of the 24 priest courses was based in Nazareth also but that did little to change its regional reputation as a city of sin.
          Thus it was that Gabriel's second trip to Earth with a message from God found him in much humbler surroundings than the first time. If his first message was delivered in grand surroundings to a highly respected priest on the occasion of the greatest day of his priesthood, well, his second message was completely different. It was delivered in Nazareth of Galilee to a completely unknown young woman living in an ordinary home. At that point in her history the only interesting thing about her was that she had recently formally entered into a contract of betrothal, becoming espoused to a carpenter named Joseph.
          Betrothal was a civil contract that was equivalent to marriage in many respects, but without the consummation or cohabitation. The couple were called husband and wife, and the betrothal could not be sundered without a bill of divorce. In such a situation infidelity was considered adultery. The waiting period between betrothal and marriage was designed to help the woman to adjust to the idea of leaving her home, as well as to reveal whether she had been pure, so twelve months was a typical wait time.
          It was in this environment of Nazareth and to a pure, betrothed young woman that Gabriel brings this most incredible of announcements. It is amazing how often God does the humanly impossible just to prove that it is Him doing it. Did it ever occur to you that Jesus entered this life through a door marked 'No Entrance' and left it through a door marked 'No Exit'? And in between those bookends of the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection there was lived out the most astounding life in the history of humanity.
          The arc of Jesus' life is breathtaking, and one of the things that strikes me about this story, which you find in Luke 1.26-38 is how completely Gabriel describes the breadth of Jesus' life in just a few short sentences, a life that John would later say would take more books than the world could hold to accurately discuss (John 21.25).
          'His name JESUS' speaks so sweetly to that for which we love Him first – saving us from our sins (Matthew 1.21). 'He shall be great' is perhaps the biggest understatement in the history of language. 'The Son of the Highest' refers plainly to His relationship to His Heavenly Father, not just a great man, but the very Son of God Himself. In these we see the mission of His first coming, namely redemption. We see how the world will view Him, as great. We see the fundamental doctrine of christology, His divinity. Remarkably, we also see beyond the scope of His first coming, as large as that is, all the way to the very end. 'The Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.' B. C. Jennings, the old preacher who led my Dad to Christ in 1966 always called Him 'King Jesus', and Bro. Jennings was exactly right. He is coming back. He will sit on David's throne in Jerusalem. He will rule and reign there for a thousand years, and then later in a kingdom without end in the New Heaven and Earth.
          But beyond the rich doctrinal content of the Annunciation to Mary, and the breadth of it, what also strikes me is the simple faith and obedience with which she received this stunning news. She has just been informed she is highly favored of God. She has been told she will have a son. She has been told this son would be a king. Furthermore, she has been told that this will happen without any man being involved, a virgin birth, that this boy would be God's Son. And after hearing all this she sweetly says, 'Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word.' Without a hint of a fuss she hands her entire life over to the Lord for His use in His way, and does so immediately.
          A few decades later James would pen his right strawy epistle, to quote Martin Luther, in which James would forever marry faith and works (James 2.17-26). Mary rightly married them at the very dawning of the life of our Saviour. She believed (Luke 1.45), and she obediently yielded her life to the Lord (Luke 1.38). We will see this exact same reaction in her soon to be husband.
          What a wonderful home, not yet even joined, to which God sent His Son! What a sweet spiritual environment would grace Jesus' life from His first quavering breath! Jesus wouldn't arrive in a wealthy or famous home, but He would come to a home full of faith and obedience in His Heavenly Father.
          God makes good decisions, doesn't He?

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Most Amazing Day of His Life

Life of Christ 4       

          In the first blush of dawn a priest climbed the pinnacle of the Temple, a trumpet in his hand. From this lofty perch, forty five stories above the valley floor directly below him, on the highest point of the highest building on the highest hill in Jerusalem, he gazed east waiting for the first sliver of the sun to peak above the horizon. The moment it did he lifted the trumpet to his mouth and blew, and in the courtyard below him hundreds of priests swung into action around the Brazen Altar, initiating the solemn ceremony known as the daily sacrifice.
          Standing among the assembled priests that early morning two thousand years ago an old man, Zacharias, felt his heart begin to pound and his pulse to quicken. He had been waiting for this moment his entire life. There were 20,000 priests in Israel divided into twenty four different groups called courses. These courses were based all over Palestine, and were called by turns to care for the Temple services one eight day stretch at a time. Zacharias had often served in the Temple, but he had never before been offered the opportunity he was about to have for each priest was only allowed this particular service once in his whole life.
          The moment came. Carrying a lamp, he solemnly ascended the stone steps of the Temple, and all alone, entered the first room of the structure, the Holy Place. As the marble and gold plated door swung closed behind him he lifted the lamp, and its rays pierced the gloom, reflecting dimly off three pieces of ornate furniture placed strategically in the massive room before him. On his right was the Table of Shewbread with its twelve loaves. Directly in front of him, though some dozens of feet away, was the Altar of Incense. In just a moment he would arrange the fuel and kindle the fire below it, and inhale gently for the first and only time in his life the sweet savor there offered to Jehovah. But first he turned to his left, and crossing the floor, he took in the sight of the Golden Candlestick, each of its seven branches lavishly carved with almond leaves, flowers, buds, and fruit. Lifting the lamp he carefully lighted each of the branches, and as the flames caught the splendor of the Holy Place took his breath away.
          Moving solemnly now, he made his way toward the Altar of Incense. As he neared it, he bent to arrange the fuel in preparation for lighting it. Suddenly, without a warning of any kind, he was not alone anymore. Appearing from thin air, an angel had materialized on the right side of the altar. If his heart was pounding before it was positively thundering now. He had anticipated this opportunity for years. He had no idea that in the process he would be scared to death.

          The angel, for there was no other word to describe it, opened his mouth and with great gratitude Zacharias heard it say kindly, 'Fear not.' This day, the highlight of his life before the angel appeared, now took on a biblical quality as the angel described to Zacharias that they would soon have a son. Not only that, but this son would be a great and holy man, and would be instrumental in bringing many people to Jehovah. In fact, he would be a similar type of figure in Israel as the most revered of the Old Testament prophets, one of only two miracle workers in the entire Torah, Elijah.
          All this was a bit much for Zacharias, to put it mildly. In disbelief, either at the whole thing, or at the angel's message, he asked the angel for some proof, since it was practically impossible for he and his wife, Elisabeth, to have children due to their advanced age. Gabriel, for that was the angel's name, promptly gave Zacharias a sign that Zacharias probably regretted asking for in the next nine months. Gabriel informed him that he could no longer speak, even if he tried, and that this condition would remain until the promised son was born.
          Outside, the gathered priests began to mutter among themselves, wondering why he had been gone so long. Just as someone began to say that perhaps another priest should be sent in after him the heavy white and gold doors swung open, and Zacharias appeared at the top of the flight of stone steps. Slowly descending, as if in a daze, he seemed unable to speak when pressed about why he had been so long inside.
          Put yourself in his place for a moment, as I've been trying to help you do here in this Bible story (Luke 1.5-25). Your heart is filled to bursting with what just happened but you cannot express yourself. Waving your arms and pointing and facial expressions are all you have to convey that you haven't lost your mind, no, you saw something miraculous inside the Holy Place. There is no record in rabbinical literature of anyone else seeing an angel in the Holy Place. He had, in short order, received the wonderful once only privilege of lighting the incense, seeing an angel, receiving a personal message directly from God, been told he had a son on the way, informed this son would be one of the greatest men in Jewish history… and then he couldn't talk about it!

          A few days later, when he got home from his biennial trip to Jerusalem, the 'conversation' between he and his wife must have been very interesting indeed. Explaining to the neighbors why Zacharias suddenly couldn't talk and why she was pregnant at her age must have been interesting too. But most interesting of all over the next few months must have been to place his hands on his wife's growing belly, and to marvel over the rich goodness and graciousness of God in granting his family such tremendous blessing and honor.  

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Broken Cisterns

Life of Christ 3

Jeremiah 2:13 For my people have committed two evils; they have forsaken me the fountain of living waters, and hewed them out cisterns, broken cisterns, that can hold no water.

          How did they get in such a mess? I mean, look at the incredible contrast revealed just in the Sermon on the Mount between how the Pharisees viewed Moses' Law and how Jesus did. They were practically polar opposites. Say what you will about Israel's struggles with idolatry in the Old Testament the nation never incorporated a completely erroneous view of the Law. So how did they get in such a mess?

          I think to answer that you have to go back several centuries before Christ. When Alexander the Great blew like a whirlwind through the known world he had no time to construct a lasting political machine. But wherever he went the rich Greek culture followed along behind, and like kudzu in the South, it began to cover everything in its path. This process is known in history as hellenization. Even the Roman empire, much stronger and more permanent than the Grecian one, found its culture substantially hijacked by the Grecian culture. Some of these developments were certainly positive for the later spread of the Gospel such as a wide knowledge of the Greek language. Others were not.

          The Jews have always been a people substantially at odds with the cultures around them. We can see this reflected not just in the stories of the Old Testament, but also in Jewish history throughout the last two millennia down to the modern day. This is because to be Jewish is not just an ethnic identity. It is also a religious identity. Speaking humanly, Abraham birthed the world's first monotheistic religion, and Moses built on that a structure so different from the religions around them so as to be practically unrecognizable. Religion, and the detail with which it was observed, was the single most controlling factor in the life of the average Jew. Edersheim phrases it this way, 'The history of Israel and all their prospects were intertwined with their religion; so that it may be said that without their religion they had no history, and without their history no religion.'

          Much of the rise of the Pharisees in the four centuries between the Old and New Testaments can be traced directly to an attempt by the Jewish religious leaders  to beat back the hellenization of their religion based culture, and thus their very identity. In a sense, then, the Pharisees were birthed out of the noble aim of protecting intact the very idea of what it meant to be Jewish in the face of a world gone madly after the Greeks.

          In conjunction with the rise of the Pharisees came the birth of the synagogue and the advent of rabbis. In the Old Testament the Tabernacle, and then the Temple, was the center of Jewish life. With Nebuchadnezzar's complete destruction of Solomon's Temple in 586 BC, and the corresponding Babylonian Captivity of the main body of the Jewish people, came a necessity for a new kind of worship. The gradual solution was the formation of localized places of worship. Like mini temples, these became the centerpiece of the community, offering schooling for young people, regular public Torah readings and sermons, etc. and thus the social and religious streams of Jewish life convened around them. This growing tradition continued to expand even after the return from Exile under Ezra, driven in part by ease of use, and by the continued adoption of synagogues amongst a plurality of Jews still living voluntarily in exile. By the time of Christ there were hundreds in Jerusalem alone. Every community had at least one, and the larger the community the more it had.

          In the Old Testament the Mosaic Law ordained the positions of priest and Levite, and God ordained the position of prophet. With the failure of Israel to produce prophets in the four centuries immediately preceding Christ, and the geneological confusion resulting from the destruction of Solomon's Temple, the position of priest and Levite became somewhat less authoritative, and the position of prophet nonexistent. This, combined with the rise of the local synagogue, produced a new position in what was to become Judaism, that of teacher or rabbi. By the time of Christ these rabbis were the movers and shakers in Judaism. They gathered to themselves disciples, established theological schools, and engaged in vigorous debates over minute points of the Law.

          The Pharisees desire to ensure a pure stream of religion and culture married well with the increasing influence of the local synagogue and rabbi in Jewish life. To them the Torah (particularly the first five books of the Bible, the Mosaic Law) was supreme. In their zealous sincerity to ensure the nation's righteous adherence to it they produced a series of ever increasingly complicated and bizarre rules. They justified the strict enforcement of these complex rules by trying to trace them back to Moses, insisting that the same time God gave Moses the Torah He also gave Moses an oral commentary on it, a commentary they had managed to refine and improve upon in the intervening centuries. Naming Moses the first rabbi, and thus borrowing his authority in the mind of the average Jew, they insisted this Oral Torah was a fence designed to protect the garden of the actual Torah. Influential rabbis taught this in synagogues all over the Middle East in the time of Christ, and although there were other serious contenders for the religious leadership of the common Jewish man, it was the Pharisees who held the upper hand.

          It shouldn't surprise any of us that a complex system of man made rules in the Oral Torah foisted upon the Scripture produced an externally oriented, highly legalistic, inwardly empty, and spiritually bankrupt religion. In the course of this year you will discover, if you continue to wade through this blog with me, an exponentially increasing clash between a Jesus bent on turning people back to the simplicity of a heart observance of God's Law, and rabbinical Pharisaism's iron-willed adherence to the spiky fence surrounding the garden of the Torah.

          Edersheim well says, ' Thus as between two – the old and the new – it may be fearlessly asserted that, as regards their substance and spirit, there is not a difference, but a total divergence, of fundamental principle between Rabbinism and the New Testament, so that comparison between them is not possible. Here there is absolute contrariety.'

          In just a few short years Jesus would declaim at a precisely timed moment, 'If any man thirst, let him come unto me and drink' (John 7.37). He was the personification of a fountain of living water. Rabbinic Pharisaism was the institutional personification of broken cisterns.

          When Jesus arrived it would be to a nation dying of thirst.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Give Us A King

Life of Christ 2  

        They wanted a king. A thousand years before Jesus came, God's people, looking with envy on the nations around them, demanded of Samuel a king (I Samuel 8.6). One king led to another over the succeeding four centuries until the last king, Zedekiah, blindly (II Kings 25.7) knelt in shackles before Nebuchadnezzar. The monarchy, the capitol city, Solomon's Temple, indeed, the very nation lay in ruins.

          An hundred years later, in the providence of God, Ezra, Nehemiah, Haggai, and Malachi lead in a rebirth of the national consciousness and a rebuilding of the Temple. For the next century and a half the Jews ruled themselves under the nominal control of the Persian empire. 

          In 336 BC, a young man followed his father on the throne of an obscure Greek principality, and within 13 years Alexander the Great had conquered the entire eastern Mediterranean basin, North Africa, the Middle East, and large portions of southern Asia. This naturally shifted the nascent Jewish nation from the control of the now dead Persian empire to the budding Grecian one.

          When Alexander the Great died his empire was divided among his four top generals. These four areas became great regional powers in their own right. With one being based in Syria and another in Egypt, Israel was midway between them. Consequently, the Jews became a small mouse caught in a fight between two large and angry cats. Sometimes they were ruled by one and sometimes by the other.

          In 164 BC the Jews rose in revolt against the severe oppression of their Syrian overlords. The Syrian ruler, Antioches Epiphanes, had murdered thousands of Jews, sacrificed a pig on the Brazen Altar, dedicated the Temple to Zeus, and outlawed Judaism. Led by Judah Maccabee, the Jews revolted against their Syrian overlords and won. They ritually cleansed the Temple, which occasion is still celebrated two millennia later each December with Hanukkah, the Feast of Lights. The Maccabees would establish the short-lived Hasmonean dynasty. Finally, again a Jewish king sat on a Jewish throne, albeit an incredibly shaky one.

          Facing continued harassment from Syria, the Hasmoneans and the religious leadership of Israel began looking for external help. They found it in the fast growing power of Rome. In these years they initiated and signed four separate treaties with Rome in an effort to keep the Syrians at bay. To put it in the modern vernacular, in so doing, they jumped out of the frying pan and into the fire.

          In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey conquered the remains of the Syrian empire. He soon moved on to Jerusalem, and ignoring the previous treaties, simply annexed Israel to the Roman empire. The Jews of the time were powerless to stop him. Under Julius Caesar, Palestine (the Roman coined term for the land the Jews traditionally had claimed) was divided into several different provinces and placed under the rule of various procurators. In 36 BC, following a power struggle, Herod the Great, an Edomite, ascended the throne in Jerusalem, and would remain firmly ensconced there, amid paranoia and carnage, until that silent and  holy night decades hence when the Consolation of Israel would draw his first breath, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.

          Give us a king, they cried. They got what they wanted but they lost what they had. They got kings, all right, kings to exploit them with heavy taxes, kings to take their sons away to battle, kings to live deliciously on the backs of the people (I Samuel 8.10-19), kings to tempt them away from Jehovah into the worship of false gods, and kings to bring wrack and ruin on the nation. At the dawn of the time of Christ the nation was cursed with a king, Herod the Great, a blood-soaked despot, and one of the great tyrants of human history. Over him, and demanding his loyalty, breathed the entire might of the greatest empire known to man, Rome, and its First Citizen, Caesar Augustus.

          We have often heard that it is darkest just before dawn. Jehovah, in His measureless mercy, would send Israel a King in the humblest of ways. But would Israel accept Him? Would they trade their selfish demands and their hollow religion for the real King?

          Give us a king, they cried. And God did.

Matthew 2:2 Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
Matthew 27:29 And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!