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Saturday, January 16, 2021

Part two - Without "This" You Do Not Have The Good News

 

Introduction: 

       In the last post, I began to unpack the doctrine of justification by faith alone. I noted that without it, there is no good news of the Gospel. I thought I would begin once more with a little experiment I once did which illustrates this crucial doctrine of the Christian faith. 

An experiment that illustrates "justification by faith alone".

         I once did a little experiment. On a piece of paper I wrote, with my eyes closed, the word “righteousness” (which turned out very badly). The reason I began my experiment in this fashion is because the Bible describes me, apart from Jesus, as "spiritually blind" and "spiritual incapable" of exercising "righteousness" or what I shall call "in-line-ment" with God's will and character. Put another way, by myself, I am spiritually blind and without righteousness and thus, I am “not-in-line” with God. I then drew a solid straight line on the left side of the paper, representing “God”. 

       Next, I drew another solid red line parallel to the first line, representing “Jesus”. Jesus is Perfectly Righteousness, that is, always in-line-with-God by being God and perfect man. I then rewrote the word “righteousness” with my eyes open and near the red line. Although my writing was still not perfect, yet, because of Jesus (the red-line), what I wrote was acceptable and “lined-up” with the original solid line. Christ’s righteousness or “in-line-with God” achievement is credited as if I was always in-line-with-God. The little exercise illustrated “justification by faith alone”. In justification, the main question: how is a person made right with God? Today’s message will answer that question, which is central to the good news.

What is "Justification by faith?"

        Justification by faith refers to God’s legal declaration of the sinner “lining-up-perfectly” with God because of Jesus’ “perfect alignment” credited to them in saving faith. In the last post, we noted that the reason for justification by faith in "God's grace alone". We then observed the the means by which we receive God's declaration of justification is by "faith alone". For those desiring to review what I said in the last post, the reader can click here:  http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2021/01/part-one-without-this-you-do-not-have.html. 

       In today's post, we shall continue by considering two more important truths associated with the doctrine of justification by faith. As was the case in the last post, we shall draw from the life of Abraham in Genesis 15, since New Testament authors such as Paul and James use that chapter to expound on the Biblical doctrine of justification by faith alone.

The root of justification is Christ alone.            Genesis 15:7-21

       We saw in the last post how God's grace is the reason for justification and faith is the way we receive justification. But what about the "root" or "grounds" of justification? There is the solid ground of Christ's finished work on the cross (which, by extension, would include all He performed in perfect obedience leading up to the cross and His resurrection which validated it and makes application of the cross a reality to believers, see Romans 5:8-9; 4:25). 

*In Genesis 15:1-2, Christ’s person is the ground of justification. 

      The pre-incarnate Christ (that is, "before-the-flesh" Son of God) came to Abram as the pre-incarnate Word in Genesis 15:1-2, as noted in the words: “the Word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision”. We can connect this Old Testament designation of "The Word" to that of Christ in the New Testament by following the following cross-references (see 1 Samuel 3:21; Psalm 33:6; John 1:1,14). 

       "The Word" spoke to Abram in Genesis 15:2 “Do not fear, Abram, I am a shield to you, Your reward shall be very great.” Now what I find interesting is that there is a word-play between the word “delivered” in Genesis 14:20 and God as Abram’s “shield” in Genesis 15:2 (same Hebrew root, “megen”, shield, covering, protector). What is even more amazing about this connection is that Melchizedek spoke the words of blessing to Abram in Genesis 14:20 as a "type" or "foreshadow" of Jesus (Hebrews 7:3) and the pre-incarnate Christ Himself is speaking in Genesis 15:2! The words spoken to Abram are designed to console the troubled patriarch, and can serve to remind every believer of how much God cares for them. David writes, for example, in Psalm 119:114 “You are my hiding place and my shield; I wait for Your word.” 

*In Genesis 15:7-21, Christ’s work is illustrated as the guarantee of justification. 

       We see the pre-incarnate Word of God speaking further with Abram. Literally, the rite of passing through the animal halves is God saying He will put Himself on the line and He alone will fulfill the covenant with Abram – an expression of God’s covenant of grace stated back in Genesis 3:20-21 with Adam and Eve. There, God provided both with coverings (shedding of blood); they had expressed saving faith in His promise (faith) and a declaration of the Gospel itself (3:15). 

The result of justification is faith that is not alone.  James 2:22-25

        In as much as it is not the gospel to add to what God has done (legalism, adding works to faith). Yet, it is just as evil to say I can believe the Gospel and live as I please (license). In the last post, we had explored the doctrine of justification promoted by the Roman Catholic Church, noting that it requires the sacraments of baptism, penance and the remainder of its sacramental system to make justification a possibility in its system. When it comes to denying the need for good works following saving faith in justification, many professing Christians (whether evangelical protestants or mainline liberal denominations) commit this equally wrong error. To paraphrase Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great 19th century London Baptist preacher, we need to know the proper relationship between faith and works if we are to rightly expound Biblical doctrine. 

      The Gospel of the cross hangs between these two thieves of legalism and license. We must beware of legalism and license! Sometimes it is alleged that if we focus too much on "justification by faith alone", we will commit the error of preaching "anti-nomianism" or the error of saying: "believe what you want, live as you please". Yet, when the doctrine of justification by faith is preached rightly, the role of works as evidence to others that we are truly justified by faith is included in the overall Biblical portrayal. Let me state two thoughts on how we are to go about doing this as we head down the homestretch of today's post. by appealing to another phrase which emerged from the 16th century Protestant Reformation. 

*We are saved by grace through faith alone. 

     Let us remember, the righteousness that God sees as acceptable and declares as “in-line” with Him is received by grace alone, through faith alone in Christ alone.  

*Unto a faith that is never alone. 

Yet, let’s not forget, our justification is proved before others because true saving faith is never alone without good works following (James 2:17). James expresses this in James 2:22-23, 

"You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” 

    

       Many astute readers will notice that in verse 24, James says: "a person is justified by works and not by faith alone". Is James contradicting Paul in Romans and Galatians (and really, everything we have wrote in these last two posts, as well as the entire Protestant Reformation)? As always, we need to consider the context of James. The context of James 2 is not about how we receive justification (which is Paul's concern). Instead, James is concerned with "how do you prove to others that your are justified by faith?" Since fellow Christians cannot know for certain another's salvation, all we can discern when someone professes to be a Christian is by what sort of life follows from that profession. In short, James' point is that saving faith is demonstrated to people as true by what works follows from it (“walk the talk”). So as we can see, justification by faith does not promote some sort of "believing what I must and living what I please" theology or "easy-believism". In the final analysis, true saving faith before God is that which has received Christ and which has depended on His works. Both truths go together!                                 


Part One - Without "This", You Do Not Have The Good News

Introduction: 

       I once did a little experiment. On a piece of paper I wrote, with my eyes closed, the word “righteousness” (which turned out very badly). The reason I began my experiment in this fashion is because the Bible describes me, apart from Jesus, as "spiritually blind" and "spiritual incapable" of exercising "righteousness" or what I shall call "in-line-ment" with God's will and character. Put another way, by myself, I am spiritually blind and without righteousness and thus, I am “not-in-line” with God. I then drew a solid straight line on the left side of the paper, representing “God”. 

       Next, I drew another solid red line parallel to the first line, representing “Jesus”. Jesus is Perfectly Righteousness, that is, always in-line-with-God by being God and perfect man. I then rewrote the word “righteousness” with my eyes open and near the red line. Although my writing was still not perfect, yet, because of Jesus (the red-line), what I wrote was acceptable and “lined-up” with the original solid line. Christ’s righteousness or “in-line-with God” achievement is credited as if I was always in-line-with-God. The little exercise illustrated “justification by faith alone”. In justification, the main question: how is a person made right with God? Today’s message will answer that question, which is central to the good news.

What is "Justification by faith?"

        Justification by faith refers to God’s legal declaration of the sinner “lining-up-perfectly” with God because of Jesus’ “perfect alignment” credited to them in saving faith. How does this take place? God "credits" the righteousness of Jesus (His perfect active obedience to the will of God the Father in His earthly life and ministry followed by His "passive" or "surrendered" obedience by His work on the cross) to myself at saving faith (see 2 Corinthians 5:21). In the Biblical teaching on justification, faith is both the necessary and sufficient condition for receiving God's legal pronouncement that I am "righteous" or "in-line" with Him. Furthermore, as Paul notes in Romans 4:25, Jesus' resurrection from the dead guaranteed that what Jesus achieved in His active and passive obedience was not only "good-enough", but more than good enough to be credited to any sinner that places their trust in Him (see Galatians 3:6-7). Without justification by faith, there is no good news.

       What follows in this post and the next is a summary of this crucial doctrine of "justification by faith". I shall cover two related truths today and two related truths in the next post. My desire is that these posts would remind everyone of how wonderful the Biblical Gospel is, and that to "add-to" or "subtract from it" is to "eliminate the good news".

1. The reason for justification is grace alone.       Genesis 14:17-24

         Readers may note that I am drawing from an episode in the life of the Old Testament patriarch Abraham. Why? Because in three New Testament books (Romans, Galatians and James), the statement: "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to Him as righteousness" is cited to express the doctrine of justification by faith. Let us note first the reason for justification - that justification is by God's grace by itself or "alone".

*God’s grace is God coming to us on the basis of the saving work He did. 

      In Genesis 14, we see the encounter between Abraham and a king by the name of "Melchizedek". Melchizedek, whom is described in Hebrews 7:1 “For this Melchizedek, king of Salem, priest of the Most High God, who met Abraham as he was returning from the slaughter of the kings and blessed him.” Melchizedek functions as a “type” or “picture of Christ”, coming to Abram, elsewhere pictured as a “type” or “picture” of the believer justified by faith alone. Romans 4:16 “For this reason it is by faith, in order that it may be in accordance with grace, so that the promise will be guaranteed to all the descendants, not only to those who are of the Law, but also to those who are of the faith of Abraham, who is the father of us all .” Romans 9:16 reminds us "So then it does not depend on the man who wills or the man who runs, but on God who has mercy."

*We cannot be declared righteous by God by adding to what He did.

         In Genesis 14:21-23, the king of Sodom is also present to meet Abram with an offer which sounds lucrative and generous. Abram, already a believer, recognizes that the offer would result in either Abram himself or the king of Sodom taking credit for a victory which God alone had brought about. Romans 4:4-5 Now to the one who works, his wage is not credited as a favor, but as what is due. 5 But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness. Ephesians 2:8-9 underscores the reason for justification as being that of “grace alone, apart from works”.

2. The reception of justification is faith alone.      Genesis 15:1-6

        You may have noticed I put “alone” in the first heading ("grace alone") and this one ("faith alone"). Why faith alone?

*First, Why emphasize “faith alone”? it is Biblical. 

        As we read in Genesis 15:1-6, verse 6 brings to light why God would declare Abram as “perfectly-in-line” with Him. Even in the conversation of Genesis 15:1-5, God’s response to Abram’s question in verse 2: “What will you give me, since I am childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?” , God’s response in verse 4 removes anything contribution by Abram, “this man shall not be your heir.” Romans 4:2-3 “For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something to boast about, but not before God. 3 For what does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.”  Galatians 3:6-7 Even so Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness. 7 Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith who are sons of Abraham.

*Second, Why emphasize “faith alone”? it is historical. 

        The Roman Catholic Church, throughout its history, has always taught that justification is received by “faith + baptism” and is kept by “faith + participation in the sacraments”. The Reformation of the 16th century attempted to recover the Biblical truth of “justification by faith” by emphasizing “alone”. In response, Rome convened the Council of Trent, beginning in 1525, to cover a total of 25 sessions that would serve to enunciate it's doctrinal positions and to "anathema" or "pronounce as cursed" those it deemed as heretical. It was in Trent's sixth session of 1547 that the Roman Catholic Church pronounced heretical the Reformation teaching and reaffirmed it’s position: “the instrumental cause of justification is baptism”. (It is instructive to read through the records of all the councils of Trent, which are available here: https://www.papalencyclicals.net/councils/trent/sixth-session.htm). 

        Even today, the Catholic Catechism of the Catholic Church (released in 1995 and available online here - https://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0015/_INDEX.HTM) in Part 3, chapter 3, article 2, on “grace and justification”, paragraph 1987, mirrors the council of Trent: 

“The grace of the Holy Spirit has the power to justify, that is, to cleanse us from our sins and to communicate to us the righteousness of God through faith in Christ Jesus and through baptism.”  

       It is not that the Roman Catholic Church denies the necessity of faith in in receiving salvation. Instead, Rome does not believe that faith, by itself, is sufficient to receive God's declaration of the sinner's "righteousness". Furthermore, they would deny that Christ's righteousness is "credited" to the sinner in saving faith. Instead, Rome advocates that His righteousness is "infused" or "poured into" the recipient over the course of their life by participation in the church's sacraments or "means of justifying grace", such as baptism and penance. 

       This is what Christian leaders such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox and others were opposing in the sixteenth century. Beginning with Martin Luther's reformation movement in Germany, his opponents described efforts to oppose the Roman Catholic view on justification as undue protest, thus calling him and his followers "protestants". What was meant as a slur turned into a rally cry to get back to the Biblical Gospel itself. For over 500 years, most churches have found union around the doctrine of justification by faith alone - rightly protesting what is a departure from the Biblical position. Sadly, though, this union is rapidly evaporating. Contrary to many today, it is still correct to "protest" the Roman Catholic view of justification, since the very Gospel itself is at stake. I am reminded of a line from Shakespeare's "Hamlet", that many may think applies to those (like myself) that would classify themselves in the protestant camp expressed in the Reformation, which was rooted in the Biblical record itself: "The lady protests too much, methinks". I would counter that since the Roman Catholic Church has not abandoned its view on justification, if for anything, evangelical churches must persist in their "protest" by preaching the Biblical and historical Christian doctrine of justification by faith alone.

Closing thoughts: Justification by grace alone through faith alone is what makes the "good news" of the Gospel "the good news". 

       If faith is not sufficient by itself to receive God’s declaration of forgiveness of sins and Christ’s righteousness, then what of Abram himself, who was justified by faith before circumcision? Or, the thief on the cross in Luke 23:43 “And He said to him, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise.” The doctrine of justification answers the question: "How are we made right with God?" Since confusion over justification by faith attempts to import human efforts or other “add-ons” to Christ’s finished work, this is why we emphasize “alone”. Without this, there is no good news.


Monday, December 21, 2020

Advent Reflections On How Jesus Grants Access To Three Sorts Of Life

Introduction:

      Life. What exactly is it? We can distinguish, in general, life from non-life by what something can do or not do. "Living" is an act. "Life", though, is wrapped in mystery. In the Bible, we are introduced to three sorts of life: God's Divine life; biological life and spiritual life. God's life is without beginning, without end and eternal. Biological life, as I already mentioned, is identified by what we see it do. Spiritual life is described in terms of "new birth" (John 3:3), "new creation" (2 Corinthians 5:17) and "imperishable seed" (1 Peter 1:23). 

        When we describe the very life of God Himself, we use the language of attributes and the names of God, since the very life of God - though incomprehensible to finite minds - yet is knowable in saving faith (see 1 Corinthians 2:9). 

        Biological life, if defined outside the framework of God the Creator and His creation, remains undefined. With God, life is described by extra qualities which gets closer to defining it. Meaningful. Significant. Valuable. Spiritual life, at first imperceptible, sprouts into faith, followed by good works and a God-ward orientation. In this post I want us to consider how Jesus Christ grants access to God's life, physical life and spiritual life.

Jesus Christ grants access to God's life

      Now that we understand the three sorts of life that the Biblical text reveals, how is it that Jesus Christ grants us access to all three? John 1:1-18 lays out the answers for us. First, the Son of God is credited with granting access to the Divine life of God Himself, since He Himself has pre-existed as God alongside the Father and the Spirit. John 1:1-2 explains:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God."

Before there was a "beginning", there was God alone. Before there was "Genesis 1:1", there was Isaiah 46:9-10 - 

“Remember the former things long past,
For I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is no one like Me,
10 Declaring the end from the beginning,
And from ancient times things which have not been done, Saying, ‘My purpose will be established, And I will accomplish all My good pleasure’."

        God was not lonely before the creation of the world. Part of the Athanasian Creed states: 

"Nothing in this Trinity is before or after, nothing is greater or smaller; in their entirety the three persons  are coeternal and coequal with each other."

God did not create out of need. Rather, creation came about by God simply wanting it to be. The Son of God is that Person of the Trinity which makes accessible the very life of God. John 1:18 reminds us: 

"No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him."

     Never before Jesus was it thought possible to access the very life of God. God always communicated to His people "via media" (by means or methods). Hebrews 1:1-2 states about God's self-disclosure of Himself in the Old Testament: "God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways."          

        Something transpired following the incarnation of the Son that made access to God a reality. Consider Jesus' words in John 14:8 "if you have seen me, you have seen the Father." The God who revealed Himself on top of the mountain (Exodus 19-20) and through a burning bush (Exodus 3) and by the symbolism of the Tabernacle (Hebrews 9:1-14) made Himself accessible through the frail frame of infancy. Even when the Son of God appeared as the "Angel of the Lord" or some other manifestation known as "theophany", such revelations were "dress-rehersal" for what would be the permanency of incarnation. Because of Jesus' incarnation, followers of Him have access to Divine life as Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:3-4,

"seeing that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness, through the true knowledge of Him who called us by His own glory and excellence. 4 For by these He has granted to us His precious and magnificent promises, so that by them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped the corruption that is in the world by lust."

More to the point, the writer of Hebrews states in Hebrews 10:19-20 

"Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh."

         This is big news! Why? To have access to God means He has already made the way of access to me! By His grace He calls me to Himself through Christ. As the old preachers put it: "His hand of grace reaches down to me, and I with a hand of faith reach up to Him." I take that quote to mean that in His grace, God grants me spiritual life wherewith I reach up and grab hold of Him through Christ (see Ephesians 2:8-9; James 1:17-18). Only Christianity claims such open access - minus ritual; minus performance; minus a priesthood. Jesus grants access to the life of God.

Jesus granted access to physical life

       John 1:3-5 describes the work of Christ at creation:

"All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."

         We understand that God is the Creator. As the Trinity, each Person of the God-head plays a role in the entirety of the creative drama. The Father is the One "from whom all things are made" (1 Corinthians 8:6) - The "Author" of all things. The Spirit is the One from which life itself manifests in all things that are alive (see Psalm 104:30) - "The Agent of life" in all things. The Son, however, is the Architect through which all things consist (see Colossians 1:16-17; Hebrews 1:3). 

         In as much as we clearly see Jesus depicted as being truly God - Creator, Redeemer, LORD - the truth of His incarnation brings a more direct level of access to "physical life". Put another way, He Who is the Architect behind the creation of physical life came to live as a physical man! John 1:14 still astonishes me when I read it,

"And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."

          The Baptist Faith and Message 2000 expounds on the significance of the incarnation of the Son of God:

"Christ is the eternal Son of God. In His incarnation as Jesus Christ He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. Jesus perfectly revealed and did the will of God, taking upon Himself human nature with its demands and necessities and identifying Himself completely with mankind yet without sin."

           In granting access to a physical human life by becoming one of us, the Son of God provides the basis for how redeemed men and women can live the Christian life. In Jesus, I not only have access to participating in the Divine life of God (2 Peter 1:3-4), but also to His perfect humanity which is the basis for Christian growth and daily living (see 1 Corinthians 1:30; Colossians 1:27). This truth of access to Jesus humanity, made possible by the Holy Spirit, is called "union with Christ". Such a union is at the heart of our final thought in this post: Jesus grants access to Christian spiritual life.

Jesus grants access to spiritual life

            In this post we have observed how Jesus Christ grants access to God's life (since He by His divine nature ever remains God). We also noted how Jesus grants access to physical life - particularly redeemed humanity as the incarnate Redeemer by means of His human nature. The believer in Jesus has access to everything necessary for Godly living through Jesus. John 1:12-13 states concerning how Jesus is the source of spiritual life:

"But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name, 13 who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God."

        We then read later on in John 1:15-17 further truths about the spiritual life provided by Jesus:

"John testified about Him and cried out, saying, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me has a higher rank than I, for He existed before me.’” 16 For of His fullness we have all received, and grace upon grace. 17 For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ."

             I find it interesting that John 1:12-13 and John 1:15-17 pivot on John 1:14. Why? In order for anyone to have access to the the spiritual life provided by Jesus Christ, they must be "born-again" (see John 3:3-5; 2 Corinthians 5:17; James 1:18; 1 Peter 1:23). In other words, a "miracle birth" called "regeneration" is necessary to the beginning of the Christian life. Any Christian's "miracle new birth" is made possible by the Holy Spirit's working. When you think about it, the unique "miracle conception" of Jesus in His humanity brought forth the most significant man in all of history. This miraculous conception of the humanity of Jesus provides, by analogy, a parallel to why the Christian life requires a "miraculous conception" in the believer brought about by the Spirit and the Scripture. 

       The Apostle John's inclusion of Jesus' incarnation (John 1:14) in the middle of reference to the "new birth" of Christians to spiritual life (John 1:12-13 and 1:15-17) is intentional. Truly, Jesus is central to everything in the Christian life and, whether people acknowledge it or not, is central to the meaning of life itself. Without Jesus' "miracle-birth", the Christian could never had experienced their own "miracle birth" to new life in Him. This connection is a Biblical one, as seen in what Paul writes in Galatians 4:19 - "My children, with whom I am again in labor until Christ is formed in you."

Closing thoughts

           We have observed how Jesus Christ grants access to three sorts of life that we find in John 1:1-18 and other passages:

1. Jesus Christ grants access to God's life.

2. Jesus Christ grants access to physical life.

3. Jesus Christ grants access to spiritual life.

Truly this is what makes Advent season so significant - true life, in its fullest, accessible because of Jesus!


Saturday, December 19, 2020

The Peace Of God - A Fourth Sunday Of Advent Devotion

John 1:1-5 "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through Him, and apart from Him nothing came into being that has come into being. 4 In Him was life, and the life was the Light of men. 5 The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it."

Introduction:

        I have devoted these last few posts to reflecting upon this current season, known on the Christian calendar as "Advent". Advent is a word which means "coming" or "arrival". For the reader's convenience, I have included links to the last three Advent Sunday related posts:

1. http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2020/11/advent-2020-only-hope-that-can-pierce.html

2. http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2020/12/lighting-candle-of-faith-meditation.html

3. http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2020/12/reflections-upon-third-sunday-in-advent.html

      Each Sunday of Advent prepares people to reflect on Christ's first "advent" or "coming". 

The Song of Peace sung by the angels, and how early Christians recognized the only source of true peace

      The first Sunday of Advent emphasized the theme of "hope"; the second, "faith"; the third, "joy". This fourth Sunday of Advent centers around the theme of "peace". The word most often translated "peace" in the New Testament indicates the result of reconciliation accomplished by the incarnation of the Son of God. Jesus came the first-time to live, die, rise and ascend (see John 1:14-18; Philippians 2:5-11; 1 Timothy 3:15-16; 1 Peter 1:18; 2:21-22; Revelation 1:8, 17-18). He, as God, became the babe in the cradle; to be the Savior on the cross; to rise victoriously from the grave; to ascend in majesty. 

      Some have referred to the fourth candle as the "Angel's candle" due to the words we read of the angels addressing the shepherds in Luke 2:14 - 


“Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”

       There are eight songs or lyrical poems recorded in Luke's infancy narratives of Jesus' life in the first two chapters of his Gospel. Some of these songs have names derived from the 4th century Latin Vulgate translation which was used through the Middle Ages. The particular song in Luke 2:14 is called "gloria in excelsis deo" or "glory to God in the highest" or simply "gloria". I won't go too much into the incredible story of this phrase (we sing it in our modern hymn, "Angels we have Heard on High", however, there is a far older song which had liturgical use by Christians, who used an older Latin translation which predated the Vulgate). Christians from the early centuries following the Apostles recognized that the only source of peace is when we are focused on God through Jesus Christ - thus, "glory to God in the highest". 

      Whenever we think of "peace", we consider how Christ came into our world to bring about reconciliation between believing sinners and the Father (see John 16:33). Jesus came as the Mediator of peace with God (see 1 Timothy 2:5; 1 John 2:1-2). Lighting the fourth Advent candle signifies the shining forth of the peace of God into the darkened human soul in need of Him at saving faith. 2 Corinthians 4:5-6 reminds us - 

"For we do not preach ourselves but Christ Jesus as Lord, and ourselves as your bond-servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ."

       In John 1:1-5, we find reference to Christ as He was in eternity. Jesus Christ was and ever remained God. When He came into this world, He brought unto Himself a truly human nature through the virginal conception of His humanity by the Holy Spirit (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:21-23). The uniting of true humanity and true Deity in the Person of the Son signaled the essence of His mission: to make definite the meeting place of God and man within Himself.  

       Such bringing together of God and man in One Person would be the pattern for the goal of salvation - reconciliation. To reconcile sinful man and Holy God results in peace. We read in Ephesians 2:13-18 

"But now in Christ Jesus you who formerly were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For He Himself is our peace, who made both groups into one and broke down the barrier of the dividing wall, 15 by abolishing in His flesh the enmity, which is the Law of commandments contained in ordinances, so that in Himself He might make the two into one new man, thus establishing peace, 16 and might reconcile them both in one body to God through the cross, by it having put to death the enmity. 17 And He came and preached peace to you who were far away, and peace to those who were near; 18 for through Him we both have our access in one Spirit to the Father."       

         Consider Romans 5:1-5, which speaks more poignantly about this peace applied to the sinner at saving faith: 

"Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, 2 through whom also we have obtained our introduction by faith into this grace in which we stand; and we exult in hope of the glory of God. 3 And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; 4 and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; 5 and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us."

Closing thoughts

          Years ago there used to be bumper-stickers that read: "No Jesus, No Peace / Know Jesus, Know Peace". This play on words captures the heart of what this fourth Sunday in Advent is all about. Since Jesus came into our world over 2,000 years ago, hope, faith, joy and peace were made available to all who trust in Him by faith. May we look to Jesus and pray for His Second Advent. He is our hope. He is our faith. He is our joy. He is our peace.

Saturday, December 12, 2020

Reflections Upon The Third Sunday In Advent 2020 - The Theme Of Joy

Luke 1:41-45 "When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 And she cried out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! 43 And how has it happened to me, that the mother of my Lord would come to me? 44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped in my womb for joy."

Introduction: Happiness and Joy

       For some readers today, it may seem odd to read a post that claims cause for joy in a time of pandemic, fear and earthly unrest. However, we must realize there is a difference between "joy" and "happiness". Happiness is a temporary state of light emotions brought about by pleasant circumstances. Joy, on the other hand, is a settled state of the soul that may or may not have accompanying happiness. Happiness is fleeting, external and rooted in what is seen. True joy is enduring, internal and rooted in what is perceived beyond what is seen. Happiness finds it comfort in the moment. Joy discovers it's rest in true meaning beyond the moment. Happiness comes because of people. Joy's fountain-head ultimately arises because of knowing God.

        During these last two weeks, I have offered posts that reflect on this season of the year that Christians the world-over call "Advent". Four Sundays and Christmas Eve are devoted to reflection upon on the First Coming or "Advent" of the Lord Jesus Christ. For the reader's review, the first two Sundays of Advent were reflected upon and are found by clicking on the following links: 

http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2020/11/advent-2020-only-hope-that-can-pierce.html


        As I said already, some may find it difficult to see how anyone could find "joy". However, the joy that only Christ can deliver is what we so desperately need! This weekend will commemorate the third Sunday in Advent. The third Sunday of Advent and has a special theme attached to it: the theme of "joy". Many churches today utilize what is called an "Advent Wreath", which consists of three purple candles, one pink candle and a center white candle called "The Christ candle". The candle for the third Sunday of Advent is pink in color and is deemed the "candle of joy". 

      Sometimes the lighting of the pink candle is referred to as the "Shepherd's candle". Luke 2:15-17 records the Shepherds' response to the angelic announcement of the birth of the infant Christ:

"When the angels had gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds began saying to one another, “Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. 17 When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child."

       The underlined phrases convey the urgency of the Shepherds. The zeal with which the Shepherds proceeded to announce the news is taken by many as evidence of joy. We can define Biblical joy as the overflow of confidence and satisfaction in God. As Providence would have it, the shepherds knew where feeding troughs were in Bethlehem, making them appropriate to first hear the news relayed by the angels. Indeed, it was not only fitting for shepherds to announce the arrival of the "Great Shepherd", but also a fulfillment of a particular prophecy. Micah 4:8 predicted that a grand announcement of God's Kingdom would first arrive at a place called "Tower of the Flock" (Hebrew "Migdol Eder"), which was a main grazing area for sheep raised in Israel. The text of Micah 4:8 reads:

“As for you, tower of the flock,
Hill of the daughter of Zion,
To you it will come—
Even the former dominion will come,
The kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.

       Joy is distinguished in the Advent season from the other candles due to the fact that in the midst of winter's long, growing shadows, the light of hope kindled by Christ's incarnation lights the way for the Christian. Christians of old used a Latin verb to describe the third Sunday in Advent as, "gaudete", which means "rejoice". In the infancy narrative of Matthew, we find wise-men bringing gifts to what would had been a 2-year old Jesus. Two-years prior, the events in Luke's record have shepherds hastening back to tell everyone the joyous news of Messiah's arrival. We also note the tone of joy that pervades the song of Mary, "The Maginificat" (Latin for "Magnify" or "Make great") in Luke 1:46-55. Angels sing songs of praise over the birth of the Messiah (Luke 1:14). 

Joy in Jesus Christ can chase away the shadows of gloom

      The long, dark shadows of oppression and despair had hung over Israel for centuries. The Jews longed for the coming of Messiah. A swift survey of Jewish literature composed between Old and New Testaments tells the story of their longing. Although the so-called "Apocryphal books" composed by various Jewish authors some 200-100 years before Jesus' birth are not found in Protestant Bibles (nor were they ever part of the Hebrew Old Testament canon), they nonetheless record how badly the Jews desired the coming of Messiah. Later Jewish authors (such as Josephus of the first century, the time of Jesus) tell us that the expectation was so bad that several "wanna-be" messiahs appeared and were killed. The Jewish people had a certain conception of Messiah that included liberation from tyranny. The view of Messiah by Jesus' day looked more for freedom from human oppressors (such as Rome) than redemption from sin (as predicted by the Old Testament books). Other Jewish literature (called "Pseudepigrapha", due to  their alleged authorship by well-known Old Testament figures, composed between the end  of the Old Testament into the first century) contain "Apocalyptic literature" which emphasized the appearance of cosmic signs as heralding Messiah's arrival. Such non-inspired writings gives a peak into how desperate the Jewish people wanted "joy". To hear of cosmic signs such as a star appearing in the East, angels appearing and people mentioning the arrival of a King stirred the hearts of people in those days. 

       Just as dawn heralds the arrival of a new day, so too did the angelic announcement to the Shepherds. The lack of a "Word from God" resulted in long shadows of despair in Israel and ultimately the world. Quite literally, the arrival of the "Babe in Bethlehem" would begin the inbreaking of God's Kingdom into our world.  As mentioned, Biblical joy refers to the overflow of confidence and satisfaction in God. None expected that the "King of Israel" came to undergo "death on a cross" and "resurrection from a tomb". The joy of Advent is that what Jesus came to achieve really did happen! Nehemiah 8:10 declares how the "joy of the Lord is our strength". Whatever long shadows you are facing today, joy in Jesus is the strength required to push through the darkness.

Closing thoughts

       As time marches on for me in this 21st century world, I find the need for the joy of the Lord to be rekindled in my own heart. I find an oasis in Advent season. Such a season reminds me that life is not defined merely by the possessions one has or hopes to have. Indeed, I find my own soul grappling with shadows of sadness and the increasing groanings of this fallen world. Rather, only in Christ do I find hope for this present life and the strength to hope for the world to come. The lighting of that third candle will send a message. The shadows of despair must flee. Endless joy is available. Jesus came to offer Himself in His humanity as an atonement for sin. His glorious resurrection was a resurrection of physical, glorified humanity. His ascension means I have a human representative praying for me, who is simultaneously truly God that strengthens. Such wondrous, joyous news is the possession of all who by grace through faith respond to Him. May we celebrate the joy of Jesus this Advent season as we commemorate this Third Sunday of Advent.

Saturday, December 5, 2020

Lighting the Candle of Faith - A Meditation Upon The Second Sunday In Advent




Luke 1:35 "And Mary said, “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her."



Introduction:

       Today's post will offer some thoughts on the significance of the second Sunday of this Advent Season, which will occur tomorrow, December 6, 2020. For the reader's reference, the first Sunday of Advent (which was last week) had a post featuring it and is found at the following link:

http://www.growingchristianresources.com/2020/11/advent-2020-only-hope-that-can-pierce.html

Advent is the season of hope and faith

       The celebration of "Advent" (from a Latin noun, "adventus", meaning "come to, arrive") refers to that arrival of the Son of God into our world in His incarnation as Jesus. At the church I pastor, we will light the second Advent candle at the beginning of our morning church service. For our church at least, the second candle will represent "faith". In various Advent traditions, the second candle is deemed "The Bethlehem Candle", commemorating the culmination of Mary and Joseph's faith in God concerning the birth of the child Jesus, conceived in her womb by the Holy Spirit.

How the virginal conception of the Son of God begins and anchors faith.

        What is "faith"? Faith is that firm persuasion that who God is and what He has said is true and trustworthy. Faith fits very well in one of Advent's overall purposes in the Christian calendar: to consider entrusting oneself to Jesus Christ as Savior, Lord and Treasure. When the Son of God, being truly God, was united to a true humanity supplied by Mary, The Holy Spirit united both of those natures in His Person, in her womb. As "God-in-the-flesh", He became the object, as well as already being eternally existing Author of Biblical faith (see John 1:14; 1 Timothy 3:16; Hebrews 12:1-2). Hebrews 11:1 reminds us:

"Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen."

       In the opening verse of today's post, we find Mary receiving the news from the angel that she was the vessel through which the Son's humanity would be conceived. Properly speaking, Advent centers upon the "virginal conception" of the Son of God's humanity. Jesus' birth proceeded forward as any other birth, uniting the miraculous intervention of the Holy Spirit with the work of God in His creative handiwork (see Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; Philippians 2:5-11). The virginal conception of the Son of God represents a cardinal doctrine of Christianity which, among other things, explains how Jesus' humanity could have no taint of sin, since He had no earthly father from which to inherit the sin nature (see Romans 5:15; 1 Peter 1:18; 1 Peter 2:21-22). Unless Jesus was sinless, He could not represent sinners.

        Mary received the news and all of its implications by faith. Her heart was already reconciled to God in a faith that at some point had been touched by grace (see Luke 1:30). Not only did Mary evidence outward devotion, but inward trust. The miracle conception of the Son of God is, by analogy, a reminder to us of the supernatural conception in the soul that is necessary in saving faith (see John 3:3-8). True saving faith anticipates what Jesus has done, is doing and will do. In Advent Season, Christians celebrate their "Faith".

The three "senses" of faith in the Scriptures

       Faith in the Bible takes on at least three senses in the Biblical record. First, "faith" can mean one's subjective trust in God's promises, Word and Person. Second, "Faith", or what we could call "capital 'F' Faith, refers to those body of doctrines revealed by God in the scripture. The third sense of faith has to do with where our faith is directed to and embodied: Christ Himself. Christ is described for example in Hebrews 12:2 as "The Author and Finisher of faith".

How the second week of Advent captures the total Biblical emphasis of faith

         When we consider all that Advent season represents, all three of these senses are present - however, the third sense in particular is the focus: namely, "Jesus as the Author and Finisher of Faith". By finding Christian faith embodied in Christ and explained in the scriptures, our personal faith is rooted in Jesus and formed by the text of scripture.

When the Advent Candles are lit

       When the Advent candles are lit, the light they shine, though small, illuminates the eye of everyone in the room. The light of Advent illustrates faith. How? Faith is the flame from on high that kindles the small wick of the human heart. When the life and ministry of Jesus is brought to bear in our lives, we embrace it. Even in the shortening days of Advent season, Winter's chill and darkening skies cannot quench the flame of faith. Christ in the believer is light and life, shining in this dark world (see Philippians 2:15; Colossians 1:27). 

Closing thoughts

         As we carry forth into this Advent season, may we celebrate the fact that the Eternal Son came as God-incarnate. He being ever omnipotent, world-without-end arrived as a helpless infant. His mother received the news by faith. May we receive and embrace Him in faith. May Advent curb our distraction and despair. Never have hardly any of us experienced a pandemic. We must remember that the first century Jewish world into which the Son of God was born contained the darkness of tyranny, political and religious unrest and weariness. It is fitting that when Jesus began His earthly ministry in Matthew 4, the prophecy of Isaiah 9:1 would find its fulfillment in Matthew 4:16

“The people who were sitting in darkness saw a great Light, and those who were sitting in the land and shadow of death, upon them a Light dawned.”

May readers either have renewed faith or experience faith by looking to Jesus, the One who kindles faith in the heart to light the path with God when times are dark, and yet, are not hopeless.


Thursday, December 3, 2020

How Christians And Churches Will Endure This Pandemic

Introduction:

       I was reading the morning headlines the other day to see what had transpired overnight. Morning news functions the same as the evening news. One commentator once remarked about news programs: 

"They tell you 'good evening', and then proceed to spend the next 30 minutes telling you why it is not so."

      As our nation and world continues to reel under the "second wave" of COVID-19, I reflect on how this current time present challenges and opportunities for Christians and churches. As a pastor for over fifteen years and a preacher for nearly 30 years, I have found myself needing to make challenging decisions in this pandemic. In the midst of it all, I've daily asked myself the following questions: How can I remain faithful and courageous in a time where many are afraid? How can I consistently urge everyone to remain focused-on-God while reminding myself twice-as-much? 

The Christian Faith and The Church will outlast COVID-19.

        Such questions, and many others, press on my mind. I know other pastors too may raise similar queries. I have found that despite whatever is going on globally - whether politically, socially, economically or otherwise - the Christian faith and Christ's Church can thrive and will outlast COVID-19. We have a Bible that was inspired in eras fraught with famines, persecutions, wars and diseases. If for anything, the sufficiency of God's Word becomes more dear in seasons such as this. We have a risen and exalted Savior, The Lord Jesus Christ, Who is Prophet, Priest and soon-coming-King. He prays for the persisting faith of believers and His Church-at-large. A few thoughts were impressed upon my thinking while reading my Bible and the morning news which I'd like to share today about how Christians and churches can endure during this pandemic: 

1. Look to the Bible. 
2. Look to history.  
3. Look to God.

Look to the Bible: Ever-Present Truth In Times Of Turmoil.

      I'm reminded of the words of author A.W. Tozer in his book: "The Pursuit of God", wherein he equates "looking to God" to that of "trusting God". As I read Psalm 77 that day, I thought along with the Psalmist about "how much do I trust God". 

      Psalm 77 is a great passage of scripture to look through when facing worry, fear and anxiety. Worry is when I express doubt about the future. Fear is when I express doubt about the present. Anxiety is when doubt hounds me because of the past. Doubt is when we are caught between what we know we ought to trust and the temptation to abandon what we have always trusted. The Psalmist begins Psalm 77 by describing how he was dealing with life in his prayer-time to God:

"My voice rises to God, and I will cry aloud; My voice rises to God, and He will listen to me. 2 In the day of my trouble I sought the Lord; In the night my hand was stretched out and did not grow weary; My soul refused to be comforted."

What better time to seek God than now.

       Most would say that all of 2020 has been one continuous "day of trouble". Yet, what better time to seek the Lord. For anyone that is honest, such seeking of God can often conflict with our hasty refusal to take comfort of any sort in the soul. Whenever the conventional routes of comfort are cut-off (friends, financial security, health, confidence in any sort of leadership, having ready answers) the soul grows numb. All of those "conventional routes of comfort, in the words of Solomon in Ecclesiastes, "lies under the sun". They are found inadequate to sooth the troubled soul, since only He that governs "over, in and through everything under the sun" can quell our inner storm. 

        The Psalmist himself pursues a line of questioning about God (Psalm 77:7-10). Yet, when we reach Psalm 77:11, the Psalmist discovered that God alone could calm his inner-anxieties by appealing to how He did it in the past. Psalm 77:11-12 expresses:

"I shall remember the deeds of the Lord;
I will certainly remember Your wonders of old. 12 I will meditate on all Your work, And on Your deeds with thanksgiving."

It is always a good thing to reflect upon God's faithfulness.

      Where then do we find the "deeds of God" done on behalf of His people? For the Psalmist, appealing to scripture itself will yield the reminders. As one reads the remainder of Psalm 77:13-20, a rehearsal of the Exodus account is brought to mind (see Exodus 3-18). Anyone who reads that section in the Book of Exodus can draw the connection between "what God did" and "what God can do again". As I peruse Old and New Testaments alike, I find out how faithful God was to His people in plague, famine, persecution and loss. Such reminders from the Scriptures prompt me to think back on how good God has been over the years. For the Christian and the church-at-large, fleeing to the scriptures to search after "all that God has done and can-still-do" gives us the anchor of truth as we ride out this pandemic.  

Look To The Past: An Ever-Present Reminder Of How We Can Respond In Times Of Testing.

      As we noted in our study of Psalm 77 above, the Psalmist had recourse to God's past deliverances of Israel as a way of  coping with his circumstances. Scripture elsewhere urges us to consider how God dealt with His people in times past and how His people responded positively (see Acts 2) or negatively (Hebrews 3-4). God's dealings and people's responses provide valuable lessons. Undoubtedly, observing how Jesus dealt with the increasing demands of life provides fuel for the Christian when their tank is nearly empty (see 1 John 2:6). Paul reminds us that the Scriptures were inspired to not only provide principles for current living, but hope for abundant living in the love of Christ (see Romans 15:4). 

Christians and churches have been down this path already, and God saw them through it all.

       Most reading this blog might recall another pandemic which afflicted our world in 1918-1919. Many in recent days have drawn parallels and lessons from how the United States and churches within it responded to the dreaded Influenza outbreak. I was reading of how churches in Mobile, Alabama and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania closed their doors during those harrowing days. Some churches decided to open their buildings for the purpose of temporary sick-wards. Others began to publish weekly newsletters with sermons and encouragements. Pastors encouraged church members to dedicate 11:00 a.m. as a time for family prayer and devotion.  A few churches, of course, remained open, believing they needed to provide ministry to those who were in need. By-and-large, whether in Ohio, or Pennsylvania or the South, the church-at-large persisted and carried-out her mission, whether or not they met. 

How God brought a greater good out of turbulent times.

      As I read some of the headlines back in 1918-1919, I was reminded of how much the United States was under the grip of not only a deadly pandemic, but also World-War I. In a "Baptist-Press" article (associated with the SBC), I learned how God used those dire circumstances to enable the church to flourish (https://www.baptistpress.com/resource-library/news/first-person-how-a-pandemic-100-years-ago-ushered-in-a-new-era-of-baptist-giving/.

        The Southern Baptist Convention urged all of its churches to raise funds for missions by setting of goal of $75 million dollars within a five-year span. Although the goal fell-short, yet, from 1918-1919, SBC churches raised more missionary support in that one-year than in the ten-years prior. Remarkably, the SBC was led to reconsider how it would support it's growing number of missionaries in North America and abroad. The launching of the "Cooperative Program" in 1925 meant that every church would contribute a portion to one large fund from whence every missionary would draw support. Would such an effort, to organize around missionary support, had emerged without the pressures of a world war and world-wide pandemic? We can speculate. However, we have the past events which tell us that prevailing circumstances of that time were used by God to bring about a much-greater-good. 

      Studying the past, whether secular history or church history, can aid us in seeing how God's Providence (that work which God does in guiding, preserving and influencing people and history towards the goal of His will) is at work. To realize that our own time is not "unprecedented" gives us a much-needed "second-reference-point" which, when submitted to the Scriptures, helps navigate the difficulties with newfound hope. 

A pastor's lessons gleaned from observing God's Providence in his life.

       John Flavel, a late 17th century Christian author, wrote a wonderful book entitled: "The Mystery of Providence". Flavel was a pastor who had experienced outbreaks during his time. He had pastored for many years and experienced the loss of three wives (each to sickness) and the loss of a child (during delivery by his second wife). Flavel knew pain. More importantly, Flavel knew His God. He wrote the following words which apply to us:

"It is here supposed to be the Christian's great duty, under the apprehensions of approaching troubles, to resign His will to God's and quietly commit the events and their outcome to Him, whatever they may prove." 

    Such recollections show us how God can "work all things together for the good, to those who love God, who are the called according to His purpose" (Romans 8:28). 

Focus on God: An Ever-Present Help In Time-Of-Need.

       Seeing God's Providential Hand at work in the past and hearing His powerful voice through His Word encourages the Christian to look to Him. Hebrews 4:14-16 gives us a word of exhortation to consider:

"Therefore, since we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let’s hold firmly to our confession. 15 For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things just as we are, yet without sin. 16 Therefore let’s approach the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace for help at the time of our need."

Closing thoughts.

       Our God never changes (Malachi 3:6). He is unvarying, and thus, there is no shifting nor turning of shadow within Him (James 1:17). To know I can, through Jesus, boldly approach Him in prayer means that I ought to run to Him at all times. When I am worried - He provides His perfect peace that surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4:6-7). When I am anxious, rather than making a hasty decision, I need to "wait on the Lord". Consequently, through "waiting on God", I learn to  trust that He will, in turn, "renew my strength" (see Isaiah 26:3; 40:31). When I am afraid, I need only to look to God, who tells me to "not be afraid" (compare John 14:1-3; Hebrews 13;5,6,8). When I look to God's Word and look to the lessons of the past, I can then look to God. He alone knows the future. God can gives a clear path to live out the Christian faith and for the church to pursue His mission for her during the pandemic and beyond.