Series Theme: "Focus on Christ" Meditations
|Return to Contents||
PART ONE: THE MYSTERY OF CHRIST
Focus on Christ Meditations: 1. The Mystery – the Seed
Eph 3:4 In reading this, then, you will be able to understand my insight into the mystery of Christ.
I am aware, as I look back, that I have written in the past, meditations on Jesus in Matthew and Jesus in John and twice before have gone to do additional meditations on Jesus but never quite got there. However my feeling is that this is the next pasture in which we are to graze and so my intention is to range over the entire Bible as it seems appropriate in my search for just who the Bible says Jesus is. Some studies will be obvious to anyone who has been a Christian even a short while, others may be revelation. Time will tell.
The person of Jesus is what makes Christianity stand out as a unique religion and once anyone starts looking at the claims about Jesus in the Bible there is no question whatsoever that Christianity makes claims that are way above and beyond anything any other world religion makes. Some of those claims are very obvious in the Scriptures but some of the things we will look at are less obvious and will need some thinking about – but they are there and just need seeing in context.
One of our difficulties from the viewpoint of the twenty-first century is that we have the entire Bible before us and culturally we focus on Christmas and Easter and on the basic facts pertaining to Jesus' role in our salvation. As good as that is, it is only a partial picture that we are left with. If we start in the Old Testament it is difficult to imagine what it was like for anyone examining the writings that were available, but that will be our starting place. Having said that, we need to put it in context and for that we will first need to go to the New Testament.
The apostle Paul in New Testament times spoke of a ‘mystery'. Now that may be for two reasons. First, there were in existence in the Roman Empire what were referred to as ‘mystery religions' and these focused on secret wisdom that was only imparted to the initiates of that religion. Indeed sometimes they had a secret fellowship, a cultic meal, fellowship secrets, water baptism and rites and miracles. From our perspective today we might say they were a counterfeit of what was on God's heart for the coming church. Because they existed in the Mediterranean lands already, they had a hold on the minds of many people there, and so the battle was between this institutional, counterfeit occult religion versus the power of Christ through the truth of the Gospel and demonstrated by the apostles. That was the background and so Paul is presenting an alternative ‘mystery' to challenge belief.
But when Paul spoke of the mystery of Christ (Eph 3:4, Col 4:3) or the mystery of the Gospel (Eph 6:19) or this mystery more generally, (e.g. Rom 16:25, Eph 1:9, 3:3,6,9, Col 1:26,27), it was a mystery that had been there for centuries but was now being made known: “the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past, but now revealed and made known through the prophetic writings by the command of the eternal God, so that all nations might believe and obey him.” (Rom 15:25,26)
When we bear this in mind, it will help us to understand what those Israelites of earlier ages struggled with and with what the prophets of old struggled with: “Concerning this salvation, the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come to you, searched intently and with the greatest care, trying to find out the time and circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves but you, when they spoke of the things that have now been told you by those who have preached the gospel to you by the Holy Spirit sent from heaven.” (1 Pet 1:10-12) This is important to say because I believe so often we approach some of the Old Testament prophecies with an air of complacency that is born out of familiarity, and that in turn blinds us to the struggles that must have gone on in the minds of the readers of those prophecies. It is to those that we will turn now, and into the next few studies.
How easily we hear preachers speak the words they have heard or read from others. For instance, right at the beginning, in God's condemnation of the snake (Satan) in the Garden of Eden: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel,” (Gen 3:15) or as the Message version puts it, “I'm declaring war between you and the woman, between your offspring and hers. He'll wound your head, you'll wound his heel.” How easily today we say, “Of course that refers to the work of Jesus, Jesus who is Abraham's ‘seed' (Gal 3:16), yet her seed, a human being born of this first true human mother, and he will do this in respect of Satan, he being a man, he being Jesus we see now.” But the Message version plays down what the NIV plays up when the NIV says “he will crush your head” (implying destruction and loss of power) against ‘wound' which doesn't have the same impact. When the Message version says “you'll wound his heel” it is almost as if it puts both strikes on a level footing, but it doesn't. The heel of the ‘seed' will be struck – temporarily it will look as if Satan has made a life-threatening blow but it turns out not to be so, whereas the work of the ‘seed' will be to completely destroy the power of Satan over all who come to the seed.
Oh yes, it is easy for us to see it now and see how that description worked out in the life and work of Jesus Christ but anyone who, centuries earlier, would have read the words of Genesis written down by Moses, would have been completely mystified – as many still remain today. There is a mysterious reference here in this third chapter of the Bible to a conflict that will come to a head at some future time, a conflict that is critical to the future of the world and, yes, for centuries, a millennia and a half, it would remain a mystery. As the years passed further words would be spoken by the ‘prophets', those purporting to be the mouthpieces of God, words that would not clarify the mystery but deepen it, as we shall see as we progress.
In the meantime, be grateful that we have the fuller revelation and that the mystery has now been uncovered, and praise the Lord for the wonder of it. Marvel at the way God seemed to drip-feed the revelation into the hearts and minds of Israel, a revelation that remained a mystery until the One came and was seen to be who he was. This is our starting place in this investigation into the person and work of Jesus Christ.
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 2. The Mystery – a light in the Darkness
Isa 9:2 The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.
We are, I suggested in the first study, seeking the big picture in respect of Jesus, instead, as we have done in the past, seeing him through the eyes of just one of the Gospel writers. I suggested that the word of his coming was there again and again in the Old Testament writings and yet as a mystery yet to be revealed. Again I suggested from our vantage point in history we tend to take for granted these prophecies and yet for the people of their day, they were indeed mysterious.
A rich source of such prophecies is the book of Isaiah from which our verse above comes, speaking of a great light yet to come to the earth, but to see it in context we also have to look at the previous verse: “Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan.” (Isa 9:1)
It is only when we see the full historical context of this prophecy does the wonder of it shine out. The ‘Nevertheless' that starts off that verse refers to the prophecy in the previous chapter, a word against Israel but more specifically a word against Samaria (8:4) that said it would be carried off by the Assyrians within a very short while (v.4), who would also come on down into the southern kingdom. This occurred in 732BC when the child was two years old, and then the work completed in 722BC when the boy is twelve or thirteen (see Isa 7:16).
The big point in that prophecy is that Samaria (and by implication the whole of the north of what was originally the whole kingdom of Israel) would be utterly decimated. Zebulun and Naphtali were two of the tribal areas in the north, what would become Galilee in the future, were an area that would be virtually eradicated, a land of darkness, a land of distress. When, down through the centuries Israel was restored after the Exile, they spread and settled in the three areas that became known more informally as Judah (in the south), Samaria, and Galilee (in the north).
In the New Testament we read of Jesus when he was grown up and is in the early time of his ministry, “Leaving Nazareth , he went and lived in Capernaum , which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali-- to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah.” (Mt 4:13,14) and Matthew then in v.13 to 16 quotes the Isaiah prophecy: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles-- the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.” (Mt 4:13-16) There is no doubt that he sees Jesus as the fulfillment of this Isaiah prophecy.
Now let's go back to the time of Isaiah. What, I wonder, would the people have made of this prophecy? The emphasis for them that would stick in their minds was the prophecy of chapter 8 that the north would be judged and destroyed. When that happened within a decade or so, the awfulness of it would gradually filter down to those living in the far south who might have been spared the awfulness of the Assyrian onslaught and with the realization of what had happened would come this picture of a land denuded of all life, a land of desolation. But then they might remember the prophecy of chapter 9, a prophecy that had gone on to speak of restoration as they had known before, like that after the Midianites had been removed (Isa 9:4).
The prophet has possibly had his son (see 8:3,4), they might have thought, the fulfillment of the word about a child being born (see 7:14-16) but the Isa 9 prophecy about war is followed immediately by, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” (9:6) with even more amazing words that we'll look at in another study. Yet it seems that there is therefore a link between this ‘great light' and the coming of yet another child. Who that will be remained a mystery for centuries.
Yet this idea of a coming light kept emerging in Isaiah: “Here is my servant …... I will keep you and will make you to be a covenant for the people and a light for the Gentiles” (Isa 42:1,6 - also 49:6) Clearly the light is God's servant, but who is that?
What is so startling here is that from a situation of utter darkness, God brings light, and thus we see the transforming power of God. It should not surprise us for it is there at the beginning, “And God said, "Let there be light," and there was light.” (Gen 1:3) and when we come into the New Testament, the apostle Paul uses the analogy to describe what happens through salvation: “For God, who said, "Let light shine out of darkness," made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” (2 Cor 4:6)
The big thing, and it is almost certainly taken for granted by all of us who have known the Lord any length of time, is that God's answer to the spiritual darkness – seen in the prophetic analogy of the north's devastation in Isaiah's day – is a child, a human being born of a woman. Somehow this child will bring light into this awful area of darkness, this area with such a dreadful history, this area that was always first to know death when invaders from the north came. This area is going to be transformed by light and that light will come from a human being.
How can that be? Is that all he will be? Can a human being (and that is all he is in the minds of many) bring such a transformation as is being portrayed here? It is only as we see the wonder of the things that went on in Galilee throughout the three years of Jesus' ministry, that we start to understand even a part of this mysterious prophecy. In Isaiah's day they could never have dreamt of it. It would be the equivalent of time traveling and trying to communicate to someone living three hundred years ago, the wonder of this scientific and technological age. They would not be able to comprehend one per cent of what we could share. THAT is how dramatic this is.
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 3. The Mystery – a small town
Matt 2:4-6 he asked them where the Christ was to be born. "In Bethlehem in Judea," they replied, "for this is what the prophet has written: "But you, Bethlehem , in the land of Judah , are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”
The circumstances surrounding the coming of the Son of God to his earth are indeed mysterious, complex, many and varied. On the one hand there will be, as we shall see in coming studies, matters of immense importance and on the other, there appear detail that leave the learned scratching their heads. The detail we focus on now, is one of those latter details. We run across it every year in the Nativity story and I wonder how many thousands of children (and teachers as well, for that matter) have heard these words with little understanding.
The verses above come in the story of the coming of the Magi or Wise Men and occur probably several months after Jesus was born, but they focus us very sharply on something very significant – the place of God's choosing for the ‘birth' of His Son. Now I place the word ‘birth' in inverted commas because the physical birth which is spoken of in the early chapters of Matthew and Luke is just that, a physical birth in the human dimension, and yet the Scriptural record, as we will see in a later study no doubt, is that Jesus Christ, the unique Son of God existed from before the Creation of the world and was, in fact, involved in the very beginning, bringing Creation into being. He was, as various Creeds put it “begotten of the Father” and ‘begotten' simply means ‘out of' so thus Jesus who was and is God came out of the Father, an expression of the Father, before anything material existed. More of that at a later date.
Back to Bethlehem. It was the prophet Micah who prophesied, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times” (or ‘from days of eternity') (Mic 5:2) Ephrathah was a region in which Bethlehem was located (see Ruth 1:2; 4:11; 1Sam 17:12). Both Ephrathah (or its shorter version, Ephrath) and Bethlehem are identified as early as Gen 35:15 and are referred to a number of times before we find it is the home of Jesse and his sons, including David (1 Sam 16:1).
Now Isaiah was to prophesy of the Coming One, “He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.” (Isa 9:7) and it is no surprise that Jesus was often identified (and his human family tree did have this link) with David (e.g. Mt 9:27). The fact is that Jesus was taken, two years after his birth, back to Nazareth where his parents came from, and lived there until the start of his ministry in Galilee. This brought confusion to the religious authorities of his day: “Still others asked, "How can the Christ come from Galilee? Does not the Scripture say that the Christ will come from David's family and from Bethlehem, the town where David lived?" Thus the people were divided because of Jesus.” (Jn 7:41-43)
So we have to ask, in this somewhat convoluted story of the birth and early years of Jesus, why did God go to the trouble of having Jesus born in Bethlehem when his parents came from Nazareth? Well first we have to see what happened: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria .) And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David , because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.” (Lk 2:1-7) Again it is a story read at every Nativity play in schools and churches at Christmas, and again, perhaps familiarity has taken away something of the wonder of what took place.
So Joseph, Jesus' human father, comes from the family line of David and his ancestral home, therefore, is Bethlehem. All well and good and we might never have noticed that if it hadn't been for the ungodly Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, having a fit of pride (or perhaps of insecurity), perhaps prompted by God (no, surely prompted by God), and who decided to have every single person in his empire recorded and so Israel, being part of that empire, was included. It is that simple and that astounding, this reason for Jesus ending up being born in Bethlehem . We might also notice the timing – it came at the end of Mary's confinement so that her baby was born (most inconveniently) while they were in Bethlehem When the Wise Men came later looking for the baby, they assumed that royalty would be born in Jerusalem and therefore went there first. King Herod is clueless as to this sort of thing and so send for the experts who clearly know all about the Micah prophecy.
So back to our original verses above. The Micah prophecy was clearly known to the Jews AND was seen to identify the place where the coming Messiah would be born, a Messiah who would be a ruler of God's people, Israel . It is no wonder that self-centred and godless Herod is upset at the news of a competitor for the throne. The place and the time are exact. The place is identified in the Scriptures and the timing is a combination of Mary conceiving and the emperor setting in motion a census that made sure Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem when Jesus was born. What is interesting about this story is that neither Mary nor Joseph appear to have been given any warning by God that the birth would end up being in Bethlehem ; He left it to the circumstances to unroll for them to find out! But why so much emphasis on Bethlehem ? Because it was David's city and this child is going to be closely identified with David. This is God, as we might say today, dotting all the I's and crossing all the T's. Nothing to do with the coming of the Son of God was left to chance.
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 4. The Mystery – of a Child
Isa 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel
In searching out the ‘pre-history' of Jesus we need to note the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah (Ch.7 & 8) and there is mystery shrouding both of them. We have seen previously how the apostle Paul spoke of the ‘mystery of Christ' and it is only when we come to examine the prophecies that are applied to Jesus that we see they are shrouded in whole areas of confusion or uncertainty. In the previous study the mystery was why such a small town such as Bethlehem should be chosen over the greater city, Jerusalem, confusing for the wise men, and confusing for those who sought to understand the prophecies.
To understand this and understand something of the mystery (or confusion), we need to see the historical context. It is a time of turmoil and when Isaiah first went to him with his son (7:3) it was to encourage Ahaz. The kings of Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) had already come against Jerusalem and failed. Let's see what follows:
The Historical context: First see Isaiah's family : “the LORD said to Isaiah, "Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub.” (7:3) and that name means ‘a remnant will return'. See also the role of Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom). The Lord tells Isaiah to encourage him, (see 7:3-9) and at the end of it says, ask for a sign of confirmation (7:10) but Ahaz refuses (7:11). It's almost like he says, I don't need any sign, I can handle it, they failed to take Jerusalem once, I can deal with them.
It is into this unbelieving context that the Lord speaks, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (7:14) Well that sounds good, God being with us, especially when it continues, “He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa 7:15,16) That is even better, these present two antagonists will be destroyed.
If it stopped there that would be fine but instead it goes on to warn that the King of Assyria will be the one who deals with them but he will also come and deal with you! (7:17-25) The confusion here? You haven't spotted it yet? This child is somehow going to be an indication that God is with them, but the end result of God being with them is that they are (after the initial worries about the first two kings are removed) going to be judged and the land destroyed.
The Second son: Now when we move on into chapter 8 we find the Lord telling Isaiah to name his next son, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to the spoil' which would speak of destruction and he adds the same words we saw in 7:16 “Before the boy knows how to say `My father' or `My mother,' the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria,” (Isa 8:4) which explains the name. This is followed by a long prophecy against Judah , so twice has this word come – a double sided word, one side removing the present threat and the other side bringing an even bigger judgment. So is ‘Immanuel' (God with us) good news or bad? It depends were you stand before God.
The ‘Virgin problem': But there is another problem. We find Isaiah a) has one son, b) brings a prophecy about another but born of a virgin (a young girl, previously unmarried), and then c) has another son by ‘the prophetess'. I have split these things out to remind us that there are three events here. The vagueness of this situation has led scholars to wonder if his first wife died and then he took anther wife, a prophetess, who then bears the second child; how else could the second child be born from a virgin, a young girl, previously unmarried? The two prophecies (7:14-16 and then 8:1-4 on) clearly link the two sons but we are still left with confusion about ‘a virgin' because Isaiah's family life is not spelled out in more detail. Isaiah is quite clear about it, however: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isa 8:18)
The Immanuel aspect: So, was this prophecy about ‘Immanuel' something to do with the Messiah? Looking at the context it is purely historical, applying to Isaiah's day, but then we come to the New Testament and Matthew is quite specific. Joseph is serious stressed that his betrothed appears to be pregnant and it is only a God-given dream that allays his fears. As a commentary to this Matthew writes, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"--which means, "God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) Huh? Where did that come from? The Isaiah ‘Immanuel prophecy' was all to do with judgment and Matthew now applies it to the coming of the Son of God because Mary IS a virgin in the full sense. Does Matthew see that that which appeared almost bizarre in Isaiah's day, a warning of judgment, is now a message of mercy and grace? Or is there more?
In the excitement of Christmas we tend to think of Emmanuel or Immanuel as a lovely picture of God coming, but after Jesus was born an elderly prophet who met them at the Temple declared, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Lk 2:34,35) In other words the ministry of this child will be two edged. For those with hearts open to God, he will lift them, but for those who remain hard-hearted, stubborn and rebellious, he will be the means by which God will judge them and bring them down.
Isaiah's Immanuel was all about judgment and yet (and here we go back to 7:3 and his first son's name) the ultimate end would be salvation for the faithful remnant. Suddenly we get a bigger picture: the mystery of Immanuel and the virgin is that the Messiah will come to bring both blessing and judgment. At Christmas, we tend to focus only on the former but the bigger picture says, no, it is both! There is both hope and warning here and we would be wise to heed them both.
To reflect upon: in thinking about the coming of Jesus, do we hold this balance of blessing versus judgment, which all depends on those who receive or reject him? How might that affect the way we think of others?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 5. The Mystery – of Greatness
Isa 9:6,7 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.
When I first sat down to start this series – focusing on Jesus – I had in mind descriptions of him from the Gospels and from other New Testament places, but as I started I found the initial focus was upon what the Old Testament said about him. Then I was hit with this concept of ‘the mystery of Christ' that Paul speaks about and I came to see afresh how so many of the prophetic verses about the Messiah were confusing to the human mind and presented a mystery that remained a mystery until ‘after the event', which was the coming of Jesus. My feeling has become that so many of us, myself included, have been taught about many of these verses but the significance of them as being a ‘mystery' has evaded us, and no more true is this than in the two verses we have above, which will have been read out loud countless times every Christmas.
I almost fear to proceed with this study because I feel we are on holy ground, and the thing with holiness is that most of us have little comprehension of what that means; it's just not what we the modern church have been most of the time and it's not something we think a lot about. Put most simply, holy means to be utterly different in a God-like way. We will have read these verses countless times and yet I have a horrible suspicion that Isaiah's words ring true here: “Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving.” (Isa 6:9) I am not being unkind when I say this but if we read those two verses and our hearts do not leap and we instantly praise and worship God, then Isaiah's word is true for us – and it is true for me. I read the words and I say they are wonderful but my heart is not leaping. May that change before we finish this study.
Look again at what these two verses say: i) a child is going to be born, ii) he will become a ruler, iii) he will rule in the likeness of David, iv) his reign will continue to increase for ever and v) (and I hesitate to write these words) he will be identified as the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
A child? No problem. A ruler? No problem. A reign that never ends? Hold on, what does that mean? Who can possibly reign for ever except God. God? This is God, this child? But yes, that is exactly what Isaiah said “he will be called Mighty God” !!! Well, yes, only God could be called “Everlasting Father”. But “Wonderful Counselor”?
Where else in Scripture do we find references to a ‘Counselor'? “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever.” (Jn 14:16) and “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit , whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things.” (Jn 14:26) and “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” (Jn 15:26) and “Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you.” (Jn 16:7) Four times John speaks of Him as if to make sure we take it in. This child will be called, or at the very least very closely associated with God, the Holy Spirit?
But what about ‘Prince of Peace'? How can this child be all these things together – associated closely with God the Holy Spirit, Almighty God, and God who is Father? Is this child to be one who brings and establishes peace upon the earth? How can he possibly do that? Is this divine figure, because that is what we seem to have here in so many ways, is this divine figure going to come and bring such a strong and heavy rule that he will subdue every enemy of God? (For yes, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” (1 Cor 15:24) Surely that is it, for many of the Old Testament prophecies seem to indicate an End where God brings down all His enemies: “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10,11) Yes, this Coming One is surely going to be a conquering king and somehow this king is going to be God Himself. He is coming to subdue the earth.
But wait, this is something that doesn't feel quite right about this. This is about a child, a son; this has the feeling of weakness and vulnerability about it. Why would almighty and all-powerful God who is coming to subdue the world, come in the form of a baby? I am missing something here. This is impossible anyway, how can God come in human form, in a baby????? “The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” Zeal doesn't ring bells with me here What are the synonyms for ‘zeal'? Enthusiasm, eagerness, passion. A God who is passionate enough, enthusiastic enough, and eager enough to want to relate to mankind that He comes in the form of a baby? Incredible! Surely He isn't going to come as a conquering king to subdue all mankind? There must be something more; this is a mystery!
You know where I am going. Join me on my knees because whether we ‘feel' it or not, these words DEMAND just one response: “We saw …. and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2:2)
To reflect upon: how can we read these words every Christmas and remain unchanged? Surely they demand we worship the King of Kings, turning Christmas into a time of worship?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 6. The Mystery – of the broken servant
Isa 52:13-15 See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted. Just as there were many who were appalled at him - his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness - so will he sprinkle many nations, and kings will shut their mouths because of him. For what they were not told, they will see, and what they have not heard, they will understand.
We pursue our quest to see Jesus Christ revealed throughout the word of God, and specifically here to consider ‘the mystery of Christ', as we see it through “the prophets, who spoke of the grace that was to come… to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing when he predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow.” (1 Pet 1:10,11) In the previous study we considered the almost unbelievable words of Isa 9. Now imagine a scribe of the day before Christ, reading what we now call Isaiah 52 and 53. “The servant” of the Lord had been the subject of a number of prophecies earlier in Isaiah, again clearly referring to the Coming One.
In verse 13 of chapter 52 he reads, “See, my servant will act wisely; he will be raised and lifted up and highly exalted.” OK, that seems to fit with the glory that was there in the Isa 9 prophecy. He reads on: “Just as there were many who were appalled at him-- his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any man and his form marred beyond human likeness.” (v.14) What? How can he one minute be exalted and the next moment be described as one who is so ‘disfigured' and ‘marred' that there were many who were appalled at him?
Verse 15 seems more confusing, so quickly run on into the next chapter to see if it makes more sense: “Who has believed our message and to whom has the arm of the LORD been revealed?” (53:1) This seems to have a sense of “Who could have believed it would be like this, that God's means of coming in power would appear in this way?” Dead right! What are you saying Isaiah? How does this fit with your glorious words of the earlier chapter 9? We need to read on.
“He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.” (v.2a) This must refer to that child again. Ok. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (v.2b) What? This doesn't sound like a great leader, a mighty ruler like David who, when younger, had been described as “a boy, ruddy and handsome.” (1 Sam 17:42) or as the king that Solomon portrayed in his epic poem: “My lover is radiant and ruddy, outstanding among ten thousand.” (Song 5:10) This one would be characterized by his ordinariness; he is not going to get a following because he looks good, like King Saul had done and been described as, “an impressive young man without equal among the Israelites--a head taller than any of the others.” (1 Sam 9:2) So how is this one going to be that mighty ruler?
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering. Like one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not.” (v.3) What is this all about? Despised, rejected, one we did not esteem, one whose life seems associated with sorrows and suffering? What sort of great ruler is this? Clearly not like any ‘great ruler' the world has known previously! Read on.
“Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted.” (v.4) Hang on! We, the onlookers, thought that what we saw was God striking him, dealing harshly with him and yet he was taking OUR weaknesses, our sorrows? How could that be? How can this servant do such a thing? Read on verses 5 to 7 and it is equally bad. This is seriously confusing, this is indeed a mystery!
And the teachers tell us that this is Jesus? Well, the apostle John wrote, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.” (Jn 1:10,11) That fits. When Matthew records Jesus' healing ministry, he writes by way of commentary, “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: "He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases.” (Mt 8:17) The apostle Peter, speaking of all that happened to Jesus summarized it, “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” (1 Pet 2:23,24)
But what about the mighty ruler prophecy of Isa 9? It was only as the incredible account of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ was rolled out that the apostles and prophets saw the mystery, saw how apparently irreconcilable prophecies were in fact true, opposites – ruler and wreck – fulfilled in the same person: “being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death-- even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:8-11 – Paul writing) and “The God of our fathers raised Jesus from the dead--whom you had killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel .” (Acts 5:30,31 Peter preaching) and “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” (Heb 1:3 the unknown writer)
It will be as Isaiah said it in those verses we jumped over at the end of chapter 52: "Yet many shall be amazed when they see him—yes, even far-off foreign nations and their kings; they shall stand dumbfounded, speechless in his presence. For they shall see and understand what they had not been told before. They shall see my Servant beaten and bloodied, so disfigured one would scarcely know it was a person standing there. So shall he cleanse many nations." (v.14,15 Living Bible) When the mystery is revealed to those with eyes to see, their first reaction is to stand dumbfounded that such a thing could be. Amazing! Incredible! Wonderful! Thank you Lord!
To reflect upon: Conquering king and beaten servant. Majesty and meekness. Strength and weakness. Power and powerlessness. Honour and shame. Do we see that our faith is a combination of all these things?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 7. The Mystery – of the Anointed Preacher
Isa 61:1,2 The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, .
As we briefly browse some of Isaiah prophecies in our search for hints of the Coming One in the Old Testament, to focus the ‘mystery' that the apostle Paul spoke about, especially in respect of Christ himself, we cannot move on into the New Testament without first observing this most truly remarkable prophecy, not as remarkable as the Isa 9 word perhaps, but remarkable nevertheless.
Imagine you were a Jew living in Israel , say twenty years before the birth of Christ. You go along to the local synagogue on a Saturday morning to hear the scrolls read, and the rabbi expound the week's reading before conducting prayers. This morning the scrolls of Isaiah are brought out and the above ‘chapter' is read. I wonder what you would have thought about it?
Perhaps you hear these words and hear them as Isaiah explaining his own ministry. As a prophet, the Spirit of God is on him and by the Spirit's enabling he brings God's word, a word that can bring healing to those with broken hearts who are anguished by the hurts of life. For those who feel prisoners to dark thoughts, to feelings of inadequacy, and to failure, he sometimes had words of comfort and encouragement for those whose hearts were inclined towards the Lord. He proclaims that today is the day of God's blessing for those same ones who seek the Lord, a day when God comes to judge all the negative things that inhibit our relationship with Him and comfort those who mourn, not only for the loss of loved ones, but for their own state perhaps.
Oh yes, God's word does all these things but it seems it is limited to the spiritual world. You think of others in your community, the sick, the infirm, the disabled, yes even those troubled by evil spirits (and there do seem to be a lot of them) and you dare to wonder why God's word, read and expounded every Saturday, seems unable to touch them – but you keep those thoughts to yourself for it seems unworthy of God.
You allow your mind to wander back to those earlier chapters of Isaiah. First there was that tantalising suggestion of a child who would come to bring the presence of God to the land in chapter 7, and yet there was linked with him the thought of judgment, but it was unclear and somewhat of a mystery. And then in chapter 9 there had been those almost unbelievable words about this child being God Himself, an even greater mystery. And then in chapter 11 there were words about a ‘branch' of the house of David who would come (v.1) with the Spirit of God upon him (v.2,3) and as he rules he will bring justice (v.3-5) and the end result will be a life of incredible peace where, “The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them.” (v.6) This was all going to be the work of one who was coming with the powerful presence of God upon him to achieve these things. Surely that must be what is being referred to here, now, in Isaiah 61, surely this must be more than just what Isaiah achieved through his ministry?
And so the questions would have hung in the air and fifty years on from this imaginary moment, in the synagogue of Capernaum in the north of Israel, in Galilee, a demon possessed man would cry out in response to the presence of God that had come (see Mk 1:23) and would be delivered by the Coming One. The word of God had been read week by week and expounded week by week and the man had been able to remain there untouched. But now…. A while later, presumably in the same synagogue, a man with a shriveled hand (see Mk 3:1), quite probably a regular attendee of the synagogue who had heard the word being read many times but who had remained unchanged, this man found the presence of God so obviously there that he walked out healed.
The truth was that weeks before, not in Capernaum but in Nazareth, Jesus walked into the synagogue as was his regular custom (Lk 4:16), it being his local synagogue, and whether it was because he volunteered to read the scrolls or whether they had heard of his preaching already (Lk 4:14,15) and they wanted to honour him, he was handed the scroll of the day which just happened to be the Isa 61 prophecy and, after he had read it out loud for all to hear, he declared, “Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk 4:21) The response to him was one of challenge, not a good start one might think, and anyway what did that actually mean? Was he saying that he has like Isaiah, a prophet-preacher whose words would heal and release – or what?
The ‘what' we have already seen in the previous paragraph. This child – now grown man – did indeed come with the powerfully presence of God upon him for when he spoke demons were cast out and sick and disabled people were healed. This was not merely a ministry of words, but a ministry of power and authority. No wonder the initial response in the Capernaum synagogue had been, “The people were all so amazed that they asked each other, "What is this? A new teaching--and with authority! He even gives orders to evil spirits and they obey him." News about him spread quickly over the whole region of Galilee.” (Mk 1;27,28)
Up until now, the ministry of the local synagogue had merely been to read and proclaim the word of God; now Jesus brought a new possibility, it could be (see Jn 14:12) a ministry that changed more than intellects, it changed whole lives – but they weren't ready for that, for ‘religion' then and now, wasn't and so often isn't open to let Jesus be Jesus, the Messiah, the Anointed One.
If there was any doubt about it, Jesus himself spelled it out: “Go back and report to John what you hear and see: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.” (Mt 11:4,5) or, as Peter summarized it on the Day of Pentecost, “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs, which God did among you through him, as you yourselves know.” (Acts 2:22)
But back in the days before Jesus came, the Isaiah 61 prophecy hung there, so to speak, like a wanted poster; yes, this is what we want, if only it can be, but how can such a thing be? The words only version is pretty good, but is there something more? How can ‘something more' come about? The mystery tantalizingly hung there, words declared by God, words that stirred questions, words that brought the possibility of hope, words just waiting to be fulfilled. Does that sound familiar?
To reflect upon: Jesus said anyone who believed in him would do the things he had been doing (Jn 14:12). Does our church do that?
|Return to Contents||
PART TWO: COMING
Focus on Christ Meditations: 8. Anticipation - Simeon
Lk 2:25,26 Now there was a man in Jerusalem called Simeon, who was righteous and devout. He was waiting for the consolation of Israel , and the Holy Spirit was upon him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ.
We have been considering some of the prophetic ‘hints' (and some of them are considerable stronger than just ‘hints') about the coming Messiah in the Old Testament. If we have been Christians any length of time, we may take these prophecies for granted, but in fact they raise questions about the way God communicates. To circumvent a long discussion, I will simply suggest that I think He mostly communicates in small portions so that it will only be those who truly seek after Him who will find the answers – which is basically what Jesus said when he was explaining his use of parables (Mt 13:10-17). So we have had prophecies that leave us wondering and now as we approach the actual time of Jesus' coming as a baby we ask the question again, ‘How does God communicate?' In this and the next two studies we'll see three approaches.
I don't know if you have ever got up early in the morning and gone outside while it is still just dark, but there are glimmers of lightness appearing. You wait and watch and gradually the sky lightens and then eventually on one horizon the sky starts taking on a red glow and then there is a glint of brilliant yellow right on the horizon and as you continue watching the sun fully rises so brightly that it is impossible to look directly at it.
Having spoken a number of times in our previous studies about the Coming One being a mystery, we might be led into believing that no one on the earth now had any anticipation of his coming, simply because it was too confusing and they had all given up, but that is not true. Old man Simeon – and he clearly is old otherwise he would not have been worrying about not having enough years left to see the Messiah – was at least one ‘dawn-watcher'.
He is quite remarkable. In thirty years time when Jesus' ministry starts, it is going to become patently obvious that this is a nation with much sickness and many people oppressed and possessed by evil spirits. The way people also flocked to John the Baptist is an indication of a spiritual hunger in a spiritually dry time. For four hundred years there has not been a voice from heaven and the nation is now under the domination of Rome and its religion is highly institutionalised. As we have already noted, life carried on in the synagogues, but nothing and no one changed week on week. Overall, the signs are not good. And then comes Simeon. Observe the descriptions of him.
First of all he was “righteous and devout”. He is a good man, a godly man. If you want revelation from God, that is a good place to start. We are also told that he “ was waiting for the consolation of Israel ,” which the Living Bible puts most simply “constantly expecting the Messiah to come soon.” Another way to put it perhaps is that he was looking for the comfort the Messiah would bring to his people at his coming. Now that clearly speaks of expectation, that the scribes' and teachers' work of unpacking the Old Testament scrolls had done a reasonable job for those with a heart after God, to see and expect one who would come in accordance with these prophecies, one who, at the very least, would help Israel in their low spiritual state and, maybe, their state under the control of the Romans.
So that was what Simeon was doing, but why? First of all because, “the Holy Spirit was upon him .” Wow! A Spirit-led, Spirit-aware, Spirit-directed man. But there is more: “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not die before he had seen the Lord's Christ.” Even more, Wow! This elderly man was open to God and heard from the Lord – the Messiah is coming! So, number one method of God communicating with those around at this time – by His own Holy Spirit, but the reality is that there were clearly not many open to hear.
What is even more remarkable, although this elderly man is not designated a prophet, “When the parents brought in the child Jesus to do for him what the custom of the Law required, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God” (v.27,28) No, that's not the prophetic part. See what follows: “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace.” (v.29) Now he doesn't actually say the words, “I've seen your Messiah” but that is clearly what his words mean and he ratifies that as he goes on: “For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel” ( v.30-32)
This Messiah is going to bless both Jew and Gentile, but he has more: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel , and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (v.33) or as the Living Bible puts it, “ A sword shall pierce your soul, for this child shall be rejected by many in Israel , and this to their undoing. But he will be the greatest joy of many others. And the deepest thoughts of many hearts shall be revealed.” Yes, as we've considered before, this Messiah will reveal hearts and, depending on what is revealed, will mean the lifting up and blessing of those with hearts open to the Lord, or a pulling down and condemning of those whose hearts were not open to God (even though they might have tried to hide that!)
So prophecy continues. In the Old Testament it looked forward to the one who was going to come. In the early New Testament, it reveals the one who has come but who is not yet obvious. In the Old the apostle Peter, in respect of the prophets, spoke of the “ circumstances to which the Spirit of Christ in them was pointing.” (1 Pet 1:11) Now it is the Spirit of Christ or the Holy Spirit who alerts Simeon, shows him the Messiah and gives him words about the ministry of this one who is before him in the form of a tiny baby.
To reflect upon: If we were in Simeon's shoes, would we have been open to the Spirit's leading, would we have caught His revelation and word?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 9. Anticipation – the Shepherds
Lk 2:8,9 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
We have moved from the Old Testament into the New and are observing the different ways that God communicates in His revealing the coming of His Christ. In the previous study we saw how He communicated with Simeon via the Holy Spirit. Two of these three studies focus on those who were anticipating the ‘Coming One' but this study focuses on a most unlikely group who God came to – you've guessed it, the shepherds who turn up in every Christmas Nativity with little children with towels around their heads clutching their favourite toy sheep. Now there are two emphases to their story but they, the shepherds, are only one. They are very undramatic, in stark contrast to the angels who form the second and even stronger element to their story.
Most of us are not very good with angels because we've never encountered them, but I have heard enough plausible testimonies from very credible people to believe that there is no question but that they exist. I would love to start telling stories here but if I do that we'll never have enough space or time to write the accounts. But angels appear over the Bible. The first reference to an angel coming to someone is in Gen 16:7 when an angel comes to Hagar in the desert to encourage and reassure her. After her child is born another angel comes to her son in the desert (Gen 21:17). Further we find angels turning up in Gen 22:11,15, 24:7,40, 31:11, 48:16, Ex 3:2, 14:19 etc. etc. etc. Very often it is clear that the angel comes to convey the will of God and in the text it is often almost impossible to distinguish between God and His angel as far as the communication is concerned.
Scripture describes them as ‘ministering spirits' (Heb 1:14) sent to serve God's people, usually in human form and who exercise power (2 Pet 2:11) and they come to convey God's will. They appear a number of times in the early parts of the ‘Jesus story' on earth, for example it was an angel who came to Zechariah (Lk 1:11-), to Mary (Lk 1:26-), to Joseph in three dreams (Mt 1:20, 2:13,19) as well as to the shepherds in today's verses.
Not unsurprisingly the shepherds were terrified, no doubt more from the bright light that appeared to shine from and around this individual. Now although these shepherds are quite possibly outcasts from society because they lived in the hills, day and night, seven days a week, it is probable that at least when they were children they would have been told Israel 's history, complete with angelic accounts. However it is a very different thing to be told about such a divine encounter and to have such an encounter.
The angel seeks to allay their fears by telling them he was the bringer of ‘good news' Now watch this carefully! See what he says: “ Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (v.10,11) He tells them where to find this child (v.12) and then just to make it more dramatic, “Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests." (v.13,14)
Now to shatter the complacency that so often accompanies the familiarity of this story, can I say I find this whole episode utterly mystifying! You don't? Stop and think about it. Suppose you are God and you want to announce the arrival of your Son on the earth. Presumably you want to tell people who will be credible and who will respond well and no doubt go and tell others as well. So you look around the community, not very impressive, so you look wider afield and you come to Jerusalem . Herod is bad news, so he's out. The chief priest is not known for his political and spiritual integrity so he's questionable. Is there a local mayor or someone of that ilk who could spread the news? The trouble is that such people so often tend to be unbelieving. An angel, good news, a baby? It's the middle of the night for goodness sake. Come back in the morning. So yes, it is a difficult job finding suitable people to tell, but shepherds, the great unwashed, the outcasts of society, who is going to believe them? At first sight at least, this is the last bunch of individuals I would choose.
So let's see what happened: “When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” (v.15) OK, good one guys, they go. They don't keep talking about what an amazing experience they have just had; they go. They don't settle by the fireside recounting their individual responses and then gradually fall asleep. No, they go. “So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.” (v.16) We tend to take this for granted but this may have needed a bit of perseverance and it is the middle of the night and the sheep are up there unattended????
And then, “When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child.” (v.17) Here we have the first childlike believers who can't keep it to themselves. Who are they telling? It's still the middle of the night isn't it, or has dawn broken or have they made so much noise they've woken up half the town? We don't know, just that they shared it. And the result? “and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them .” (v.18) Not outright rejection, amazement. Perhaps shepherd-outcasts were just the right people to tell!
But perhaps also, there is a hint here of the way that God works. Already we have noted a number of times how God only gives part of the picture, almost as if He is wanting only those with seeking hearts to find His revelation. When Jesus came thirty years later it was so often with the poor and outcast sinners that he sat and talked for they were the ones most open to him. It is as true today as it was then, that those who are affluent, those who are ‘somebody' rarely see their need and so rarely reach out to God.
What have we seen so far in this second part? An old man living on his own (probably), shepherds living on their own, and in the background, that we'll see in later studies, a young couple and a baby, far from home, with their baby in either a stable or a cave. This is God reaching out to the outsiders, the less comfortable, the not-so-affluent, those who know exactly where they are in the food chain, those who are just ‘more aware of themselves' and therefore more aware of their need. How about you and me? Are we comfortably well off? Does that make us spiritually lethargic? God reveals Himself to the hungry and thirsty and to the poor (see Mt 5:3,6) Are we hungry and thirsty for God?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 10. Anticipation – the Magi
Mt 2:1,2 Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
As I have started into this series, and slightly to my surprise, I have found my focus being directed to the mystery of the coming of Jesus Christ. We saw just a few examples of that in the prophecies of the Old Testament and as we come into the New, the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are major question marks, or even an air of mystery, over some of the things we so often take for granted in this story. And that is my biggest concern: that because the Nativity story has become so familiar to many of us, we lose the significance or mystery of what was going on.
To recap a little bit, if you had been around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus' birth (and of course you would probably know nothing of his birth) you might have noticed this old man, probably thought of as a bit of an eccentric by many, who saw him hobble in (he's an old man!!) each day and just sit around the temple courts. We would probably have written him off as an old man with nothing better to do than just sit and watch the crowds. Yes, there had also been that freaky prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who was also there daily, praying and prophesying and obviously fasting most of the time (no doubt, thin as a rake, we might say today).
Oh yes, the temple attracted the weirdoes, but that is all they are. And then we had the story of the shepherds. Well that was a bit farfetched, we might have thought if we had heard it third hand, a bit weird to say the least. But nothing has changed; life carries on as normal. If these characters were God's PR people, there to spread the word, He might have chosen more credible people, and a lot more people for all that. So this couple with a baby came to the temple and went again and rumour has it that they have settled temporarily down there in Bethlehem . Life carries on in the Temple and in the local synagogues, focusing on Israel 's past, with the scrolls being brought out and read every Saturday. Life carries on as normal.
And then a camel train turns up in Jerusalem . Traders it might appear from the east. But no, these aren't just ordinary traders, they appear philosophers, or astronomers or even astrologers; they are a bit weird. And they start asking around, “ Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.” What? This is odd on various levels. A child-king has been born? Has Herod being keeping something to himself? But no, he seems as surprised as the rest of us. But then everyone jumps to a major conclusion: “King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people's chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.” (v.3,4) If there is an unheralded ‘Coming One' is this the one our teachers have been identifying in the scrolls all these years, the Messiah or Christ?
The second strange thing about this is that claim to have been led here by a star in the sky? What? A star or a meteorite? Did they use other things to confirm this because they certainly believe what they are saying because they wouldn't have clearly traveled hundreds of miles to get here if they didn't! But then there is a third strange thing about this. They are talking about wanting to worship this child. Look, we don't worship Herod and as good Jews we don't ‘worship' anyone other than God, the I AM of Moses' day. So what are you saying? In the eyes of these strange men, is this child a ‘god' like the Romans have or the Greeks had? Surely not in Jerusalem of all places???? This is the city on the heart of the 'I AM' and He wouldn't tolerate anything like that. So when you come to worship a child, who or what are you saying this child is? But no one wants to speak out loud the logical answer to that because even though we have the Immanuel prophecy, the thought of divinity being in our midst is too much.
I have written on this before and every time I struggle as I write because I believe to those living at the time, this was mysterious, and we lose the mystery in familiarity. But everything about the coming of this child is strange, but then if he is God (somehow?) then perhaps we shouldn't be surprised that God communicated this by His Holy Spirit, by Angels and now by strange (scientific?) seekers from the east.
But why all this ‘cloak and dagger' stuff, this half hidden playing with us? Why not have a seriously scary meeting with Herod or the Chief Priest and scare them into submission as He tells them what He is doing? I was going to say that God doesn't do scary but the angel scared the shepherds and we'll see some more fear before we are finished with this Part. But mostly God doesn't do scary, most of the time He wants to win our hearts with His love and He looks for honest responses, responses of the individual will, responses that are simple and open, responding to the wonder of His love, not His might. Relationships are built on love and that is what God wants.
These ‘wise men', like Simeon, are those who have caught something in their spirits. God is up to something and they need to be in on the ground floor, that's what their gut says, “I need to be there!” In the case of both Simeon and the Magi, there is no letter from heaven to be read by the eyes and understood by the mind; no, this is down-in-my-spirit stuff that scares many of us. For some of us anything to do with the Spirit is scary because it sometimes challenges the intellect (As when Jesus said to Peter on the lake in the night, “Come”.) If Simeon hadn't responded to the Spirit, he would have missed seeing the baby. If the wise men had looked at their star and possibly other portents and said, “Yes, but it's a long way,” they too would have missed seeing the baby. Would that have mattered? Not to the baby, maybe, but in their spirits, both Simeon and the Magi went away utterly satisfied, knowing who it as they had seen, and all around them were thousands of other people who couldn't say that! There are some serious challenges here. Dare we face them?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 11. A Poor Choice?
Lk 1:5-7 In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron. Both of them were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.
I have been a Christian and part of the Christian community for fifty years, and in that time I have lost count of the times I have heard various aspects of the Nativity story, and I must have written about it more than a few times. Yet, I find myself approaching these thing with new eyes, eyes that wonder afresh as I have been seeking to go beyond the familiar and see something more of the reality of the words we find in our Bibles. The focus is to be Jesus Christ but in so doing this, there are people and prophecies surrounding him who shed light on him and who, therefore, we need to examine because they are truly part of his story.
John the Baptist is going to be one such person who acts as a magnifying glass as we gaze upon the One who is Christ but before we get to John we need to look at his parents and see that his coming into the world also had a divine dimension to it. However, as I put the above verses on the screen I am suddenly struck with a new train of thought to anything I have pondered in the past in respect of Zechariah, and this train of thought flows on as a tributary of this main river we have been following – the mystery and questions surrounding the coming of Jesus.
Now so far in this second Part we have considered three people or groups of people who were up front in being told about the One who is coming – Simeon, the shepherds and the wise men (we'll come to Mary & Joseph later) – two of whom have been wondering for some time about the Coming One and one (the shepherds) who just had the news dropped on them in the middle of the night. Now Zechariah may or may not fall into the category of the ‘expecting ones' but, even as we have commented before, there is a difference between knowing the theory of the Coming One and coping with the reality. I'm not sure how I would react in similar circumstances so I would like to try to NOT be too hard on Zechariah.
It starts, “ an angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.” (Lk 1:11,12) Surprise or being ‘startled' indicates a reaction to something not expected. Now scholars suggest that your name coming up to burn incense in the temple was a once in a lifetime event, but he would have known many of his colleagues in his division of the priesthood and so far, although they might have said how wonderful it was to be performing that rite, none had even reported an encounter with an angel, so scary, quite possibly, simply because of the surprise element.
But the angel seeks to put him at ease (v.13a) and goes on to tell him that, “your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you are to give him the name John.” (v.13b) Now because of the fact that he is now old, I would suggest that he probably stopped asking for his wife to be able to conceive long back, but the Lord knows he did pray. Now he's a good man, this Zechariah, for the record says that both he and his wife “ were upright in the sight of God, observing all the Lord's commandments and regulations blamelessly.” (v.6) Nevertheless, and this is his stumbling block, “they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren; and they were both well along in years.” (v.7) so a) he no doubt prayed a long time and b) nothing had happened so now c) they are both old people, way beyond child-bearing years.
Now I want to be honest, because those of us in this sort of situation need to be, because I suggest that you need a lot of grace if this is you, not to feel at least slightly gritty about being childless – especially when you have prayed your socks off! So why did the Lord choose this particular priest who He must have known would be a bit on the gritty side when it comes to mentioning children?
The angel goes on to explain to him that this son, John, is going to have a great and significant ministry (v.14-17) but unfortunately Zechariah isn't listening to the “this is how great your son will be” side of the news, he is just stuck with the reality of being childless in old age: “Zechariah asked the angel, "How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” (v.18) Oooops! By the angel's response, this is Zechariah basically saying, “You've got to be joking! Go away” Not a wise thing to say to an angel of God who gently reminds him just who he is: “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news.” (v.19) Reading between the lines, a translation: “You idiot, I'm one of God's top angels and this is a top-flight task I've been given, so don't mess with me!!!! Don't you realise this is wonderful news?”
Zechariah is clearly still not jumping up and down with joy and so the angel continues, “And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” (v.20) Now however you look at that, it is a word of chastisement. OK smart religious guy, you want a bit of reassurance to help you when you go back to your wife? Very well, with your mouth you uttered folly, so to make sure you don't get into any more trouble, until the child is born, you'll be dumb. End of this part of the story. The end of this bit is that John is born and Zechariah's mouth is opened to prophesy (see v.57-).
So look, here is my problem and I say again, I think familiarity has blinded us to the realities of what was going on here. So let's think wider. First, God knows all things and God knows that this childless old man is likely to be bit gritty and so might not come up with the perfect response to the good news. God knows all this before it happens. Second, God could have enabled Elizabeth to conceive years before but didn't. Third, God could have chosen a less ‘complicated' couple to have John, but didn't. Fourth, when Zechariah gives his less than perfect response the angel could have gone off to find someone else, but he didn't. Fifth after that response the angel could have said, “OK, it's going to happen anyway so go home and just get on with it,” and left Zechariah wondering and then sharing with Elizabeth and then trying for a baby, but he didn't, he made him dumb.
So what is the answer to this apparently poor choice of a father to John the Baptist. Mere speculations, simple suggestions. First, these are good people and will provide a good family upbringing for this prophet-to-be. Second, Elizabeth is related to Mary so there is going to be a family link between the two boys. Third, God isn't averse to a little ‘supernatural activity' (temporary dumbness and an amazing conception) to encourage His people on. Fourth, this is simply the start of a whole stream of supernatural activities culminating in the arrival of His Son. Fifth, the Lord knows that in the end Zechariah is going to be a true believer – see him prophesying! Poor choice? No, right choice!
There is an application here that we would do well to observe. At first sight Zechariah doesn't come out of this encounter very well. By the end, he does. What applies to Zechariah can apply to us. We may get it wrong, we may not respond well to God's words to us and faith may be slow to blossom, but the Lord does not give up on us. He knows what the end can be, with us as well as with Zechariah. Don't let temporary failure or setback mean you don't go on to get God's grace to come out good.
To reflect: are we open to the Lord still, when the years have passed with His silence? Are we open to His supernatural activity or have we accepted the lie that He stopped being God when the canon of Scripture was complete? Where does it leave us today?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 12. Why a Virgin?
Lk 1:26-28 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
We have already touched on the fact of the virgin birth twice already in our examinations of some of the Isaiah prophecies but as we move into the New Testament historical context we need to face this claim within Matthew, a claim that is really very low key in the text of the New Testament. Let's look at various aspects of this.
Historical struggles: It is interesting to note how the early church clearly struggled with this mystery, in the various Creeds. The earliest of the creeds, the so-called Apostles Creed starts out, “I believe in God almighty And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” whereas the Nicene Creed of AD 325 says, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, ……For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Another well-known ‘creed' of about 5 th /6 th centuries, the Athanasian Creed, goes to great lengths to spell out the relationships and origins of the Trinity but is utterly silent on the ‘virgin birth'.
Others in more recent centuries have also obviously struggled with this, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares quite fully but with a noticeable absence, “The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by he power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.”
Practical Exposition: Now Matthew's Gospel is very specific and he approaches it with several clear refuting arguments that whereas the meaning if ‘virgin' in the Isaiah prophecy could simply mean a young, unmarried girl, that was not what happened in history.
1. Overall picture: Then Matthew explains circumstances that deny that: “ His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18) He maintains i) she is only pledged to Joseph, ii) the couple have not come together sexually, and iii) her conception is purely a work of the Holy Spirit.
2. Joseph's response: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) Joseph, is a righteous young man, and i) is sure that the child is not his, and ii) Mary is obviously sticking to her story of the angel Gabriel and iii) there are no other young men who could be candidates for fatherhood here
3. Joseph's dream: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (v.20) This dream is so strong and clear that he is utterly convinced and so, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (v.24,25)
This complete turnabout by Joseph cannot be explained by any other way: i) There is no reason for him to change his mind, his righteous approach to life has been affronted, ii) If he had changed his mind there would have been no reason for him to make up some super-spiritual story, he could simply say, ‘I will graciously forgive here and be the father of her child.' iii) Such a false story would thus be untrue and would ever be on his conscience and we know he is a righteous young man who would not condone such an approach.
It is because Matthew has found out this information that he attaches the Isaiah prophecy to the account as if to say, “Isaiah, speaking into the future meant that the Coming One would be born of a true virgin without any male involvement.”
Why? Here is a mystery which has brought denial from skeptics and questions from church scholars through the ages. Why should it have been like this? The argument about sinlessness is slightly questionable because although Joseph's sinfulness is excluded, Mary's isn't! Unless you can say – and we can't – that Mary was sinless from birth and therefore a unique human being, we still have human genes at least from one sinful parent. So why a virgin birth?
The answer is so enormous that it passes most of us by. We have seen in the Isa 9 prophecy those incredible words that this being is going to be God incarnate, and in the earlier prophecies this is Immanuel, God with us. If God wasn't in and part of this baby when it was born, why
did Mary tell of her encounter with the angel Gabriel, including the fact that when she maintained she was a virgin, he declared, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)
did the Wise Men want to worship him? (Mt 2;2)
should Elizabeth under the anointing of the Holy Spirit speak of the baby Mary was carrying and refer to Mary as, “the mother of my Lord”? (Lk 1:43) She, by revelation, knew who he was!
No, the testimony of both Matthew's and Luke's accounts are in complete harmony. If it didn't happen at conception when did God take up residence in this male boy in such a way that was unique so there was clearly a oneness that has never been seen to occur in any other human being. In the apostolic writings of the New Testament, there is never any dichotomy of description, there is never any dividing out the physical from the spiritual when the apostles refer to Christ and there is never any record of the making of a new man-God being. Don't confuse the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus at baptism, because it is clear before that that Jesus knew exactly who he was, the unique Son of God. But why not involve Joseph? Because that was how God wanted to create this new being in which He Himself would reside from the moment of conception, and thus the conception was a miracle that involve both divine and human elements.
To reflect upon: When scripture is not clear at first sight do we find ourselves thinking negative thoughts or do we have a determination to see how it works as it says?
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 13. A Most Remarkable Dream
Mt 1:20-21 an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
We have been pursuing the sense of mystery that is there in Scripture about the coming, the person, the life, and the work of Christ. This started with the apostle Paul's use of this word mystery as applied to Christ and to the Gospel and I have suggested from the outset that familiarity in many of us means we have lost the sense or awareness of this mystery, and so I have been seeking to regain it in these studies. We started with some of the prophecies from the Old Testament which was, I suggest, what Paul was mostly referring to when he spoke of the mystery. However, as we moved into the New Testament I have suggested that when we look with fresh eyes we will catch a similar sense in respect of all of the things we find there in the early accounts of his coming.
We did this with Simeon and the Magi, who were the earliest of those who were aware of his coming, and then we considered the mystery of choosing shepherds to announce the news of his coming. From that we pondered on why God should choose Zechariah knowing he was likely to respond negatively as he did, and then finally considered the subject of why a virgin birth. It is with the same approach in mind that we now consider the nature and content of Joseph's dream.
To do this properly we need to first note the historical context, if we may put it like that, what was going on before the dream came. Basic facts. 1. “ Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” (v.18a) 2. “Before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18b) 3. “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) That's where we have got to and we've already considered bits of this as we considered the ‘virgin birth' question.
When the angel appears to Joseph in the dream it is obviously so vivid that he sees it as the message from God that it is, and follows the instructions within it. Now a dream with an angel in isn't particularly mysterious; it is what is in the angelic communication that we so often take for granted. He first of all reassures Joseph (v.20) that, no, she hasn't been with another man, it truly is a miracle, the fact that she is carrying a baby, it is a sovereign work of God, enabled by the Holy Spirit. OK, end of reassurance, he could have stopped there, but he doesn't.
See the all-important v.21: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now in your Bible there will probably be a footnote after the word ‘Jesus' that explains, ‘ Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the LORD saves.' Now we find a shorthand version of what we saw in the Isa 61 prophecy, fulfilled in Lk 4 that we saw in study 7 on the Anointed Servant. The purpose of the one we have referred to simply as ‘the Coming One' is to save people, but now we stumble over yet another mystery. In the Isa 61 prophecy the ‘saving' was in respect of the poor… the brokenhearted…. the captives and … the prisoners. The angel now says he will save his people from their sins . What does that actually mean?
How easily we hear it when we hear this story read at Christmas, but what does it actually mean? Were the descriptions in Isa 61 descriptions about sin? Are we captive to Sin, prisoners or Sin? Is the result that we are poor (spiritually) and brokenhearted (in the anguish that the life of sin brings with it)? Here is the mystery of the words of the dream and purpose of the Coming One.
In retrospect, with the whole canon of Scripture before us we can venture answers to this question, what does it mean that the Christ saves us from our sins? The starting point has to be that since the Fall every single human being (except Jesus) is tainted with this thing called Sin, this propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to unrighteousness. This unrighteousness is expressed as sins, individual wrong thoughts, wrong words or wrong deeds. We were, before we came to Christ, a prisoner to this Sin, hence the apostle Paul's words in Rom 7, leading to the conclusion that we were helpless (unable to change ourselves) and hopeless (there was no hope of a different future). That was our state from which Christ came to save us.
How did he do that? Let's be as simple as possible and for the sake of space forgive me if I don't justify these three declarations with lots of verses; they are there. First because of our state (in Sin) and our actions (sins) we inherently feel guilty. There is a question of our guilt and shame needing to be dealt with. Second, there is the fact of our guilt; we don't only feel guilty deep down, we are guilty. That needs dealing with. Third, we are powerless to change; we are as we said, helpless and hopeless, and that needs dealing with. So how does Jesus death on the Cross deal with these three things?
The divine plan was that his death was to be seen as punishment satisfying justice for each and every sin we have ever and will ever commit. All God asks of us initially is to believe that. It is the means of dealing with the second of those three issues – our guilt. As far as justice is now concerned everything we have ever done or will ever do wrong, has been resolved, the punishment has been taken. When we come to God in repentance we are instantly ‘justified', declared right in the eyes of heaven. As part of the whole process we are also adopted by God into His family, we have a new status, children of God, and as such all our shame and guilt, the first issue, are gone. As part of the whole process God puts His Holy Spirit into our lives, we become indwelt by the Spirit and He within us is the new power source (see end of Rom 7 and beginning of Rom 8), so together the new identity that we have and the new power source within, release us to live new God-directed and God-blessed lives, with an eternal future. We ARE saved! Hallelujah!
THIS is what was wrapped up in those few simple but utterly dramatic words of mystery that Joseph received in his dream – he will save his people from their sins. That was why he came, this is what he has done and this is what we are now experiencing. Hallelujah! How wonderful this mystery now revealed! Is there any point in continuing this series? Oh yes, now we will start seeing how it was all worked out in time-space history, now we will go on to see more of who this Coming One really is, and what he came to do. Yes!!!!
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 14. A Most Remarkable Message
Lk 1:31-33 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.
We have seen the dream that Joseph had in which the angel said, “ you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” and we commented then that this was shorthand for all we can find in those messianic verses at the beginning of Isa 61 (and which Jesus read in the synagogue – Lk 4 :17-19) and we considered what that actually meant as it was rolled out in history. I don't know, as a child, if you ever did painting by numbers where bit by bit you followed the colours designated by each number and the picture gradually grew. I feel this search is a bit like that.
My intent has been to build up a picture from the verses of the Bible of the mystery from the Old Testament, gradually being revealed in the New, and yet not obvious except to just a few. If each person who came to know what was happening lit up, we would have seen Zechariah light up, then Elizabeth as he communicated in writing with her, then Mary, then Joseph, then the shepherds at about the same time that Simeon was picking it up and to the east some Magi were being alerted – but they are the only ones we are told about (possibly plus Anna in the temple). Half a dozen individual and two groups, and that is it. It is a very low-key happening. But as these people share it with those closest to them – Zechariah and Elizabeth told those near them, no doubt Mary and Joseph told their close families, the shepherds certainly told whoever would listen before they went back to their sheep, and perhaps Simeon told people around in the temple, and the Magi certainly let the cat out of the bag, as we might say today, when they turned up in Jerusalem, asking questions about the Coming One who had arrived!
So yes, there were a growing number of people who were being alerted to what was happening, but whether those hearing it second hand believed it, is another thing. Even more, and this is where I want us to focus at this moment, if you were one of the first people to be told you might feel very much alone.
Imagine you had a brother or sister who worked for the Government in biological warfare research, and one day they came to you and said, “I can't keep this to myself any longer, I have to tell someone. We have been working on a virus, an incredibly virulent virus that sterilises anyone it meets so they can never bear children. It works. We've tried it on all sorts of animals and it works every time – and it has escaped! Hardly anyone else knows about it yet but the entire population WILL become infected. The world will never be the same again, and unless we can find some antidote – which is very unlikely – within a hundred years the entire population of the world will have gone. But you mustn't tell anyone, we don't want there to be widespread panic.” So there you are. You are just one of a very few who know what is going on. It is a lonely place.
So now back to Mary. What is strange is that she doesn't ask, “But why me?” That doesn't seem to cross her mind. She simply asks how she can fulfil God's will because she is not married and it's within marriage that children are conceived. (Oh if only our unrestrained western society could get back to that place!) This particular mystery is only resolved when you consider what we are told about her: she is a virgin pledged to be married (v.27). Apparently she has found favour with God (v.30) and, I suggest, God bestows favour on those He chooses and He chooses according to subsequent availability and openness to Him. This is confirmed by her comments at the close of the conversation: “ I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.” (v.38)
We can't pass this by without letting the light of this situation shine back on us. How many of us, confronted with a strange word from God in scary circumstances would have responded with such a depth of faith?
But look at what Gabriel says about her son: “you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.31-33) There it is again, all the things we've been seeing in previous studies: Jesus or Joshua which means, ‘the Lord saves', he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, or ‘the Son of God'. Now up until that point Mary might have interpreted this as meaning, he will be very godly, but see how it ends – “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever ; his kingdom will never end .” What?
We back in the dilemma of the Isaiah prophecies. Of whom can this be said except God? This child will be God???? Could Mary comprehend that? I doubt it, because even we today, with all the revelation we have, still struggle to understand how Almighty God can inhabit a human body – the Incarnation is still a mystery. And for us it gets worse. I have lost count of the times I have written about the ‘indwelling Holy Spirit' the Holy Spirit who inhabits every believer. How do we handle the reality of that?
How easily we speak these things and yet the utter reality escapes us. So I have another question mark over this story that is so familiar to us every Christmas and it is this: why did God bother to tell both Mary and Joseph this about Jesus? Did they understand it? Only at a superficial level. Did it change the way they brought him up? I doubt it, they were clearly both righteous people given over to God's will for their lives. We might ask of us in church life today, why does God give us prophecies today (why did He give to Isaiah and the other prophets?), why, when sometimes the prophecy is simply a declaration of His sovereign activity, doesn't He just get on and do it regardless, why tell us?
The unbelievably simple answer has got to be that because He loves us, and He loves to tell us what is on His heart (after all, we've got an entire book full of it!) and involve us, in understanding at least, in what He is doing. Sometimes He says it so that we can cooperate with Him and play our specific part – as was the case for Joseph who changed his mind and married Mary. The mystery about The Mystery is resolved in this: God shared the intentions of the Godhead for all who would see in the following centuries and whose hearts would be lifted by what they read. It didn't happen in their time but they would have rejoiced that it was going to happen and that in turn would have provided fuel for worship.
To reflect upon: when we have read these prophecies (and perhaps when we have received our own personal prophecies), have our hearts lifted with praise and worship and can our response be that of Mary: “ I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
|Return to Contents||
Focus on Christ Meditations: 15. A Most Remarkable Description
Jn 1:29 The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!
Hindsight is a deceiving thing; it makes us think we would have understood the circumstances we read throughout the Bible, whereas the truth would more likely have been that we heard the words and our reply might well have been, “er….yes?” This truth has been there in the back of my mind constantly throughout this series. We read the words in our completed Bibles, or we hear them expounded so easily by a preacher on a Sunday and so we give so little thought as to the way that message would have come over to the original listeners. Bear that in mind with today's verse.
We have examined some (not all) of the accounts of what happened surrounding the coming of the Christ in the form of a baby. We saw an angel tell Mary the child's name will be Jesus which, we noted means, ‘the Lord saves'. Then there was the angel in Joseph's dream who told him to name the child Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Then there was the angel coming to the shepherds to tell them that Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ. Again and again this idea that he will be a saviour comes through. Yes, we saw in the early Isaiah prophecies that he will be mighty, a great and lasting ruler, and so those early people could be forgiven for thinking that, apart from that unclear reference to ‘sins', this ‘saviour' will be a mighty ruler who will overthrow all of Israel's enemies.
And now we jump forward thirty years and John the Baptist comes with further confusing and apparently contradictory messages. You've never noticed them? First of all we have, “ John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, "This was he of whom I said, `He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (Jn 1:15) Then, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:26,27) And from Matthew we have, “after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:11,12) Each of these verses speak of power, authority and greatness. Well that fits with the early Isaiah prophecies.
But then, “John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, "Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” There's that sin reference again, but what makes it more confusing, especially in the light of all that has just gone before, is John identifying Jesus as “the lamb of God.” Sorry, I think this is another of those “er…yes?” moments. And John says it twice (Jn 1:29 AND 1:36) as if to make the point quite clear, no, he wasn't speaking out of turn the first time, he was speaking prophetically.
Now you are struggling not to be all-knowing-it at this point because we know Revelation 5 where Jesus is enigmatically described standing before the throne in heaven and then described as “ a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,” (Rev 5:6) so yes, today, post-Crucifixion, and with all the teaching of the New Testament, we are comfortable with the idea of Jesus being God's sacrifice for our sins, but what if you had been back there, standing next to John, what might you be thinking?
A lamb? What does that imply? A lamb conjures up a picture of meek and mild. How does that fit with the ruler-deliverer picture? So where does a lamb come in the Old Testament? That might give us clues. Well, clearly a lamb was the usual offering to God even back in Abraham's day (see Gen 22:7) because Isaac expected there to be one, and Abraham spoke those immortal words, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8) before he bound up Isaac and laid him on the altar, before another angel intervened and stopped him.
Lambs also appear in the sacrificial laws of Leviticus (e.g. see Lev 3:7) but it could equally have been a cow, a sheep or a goat, so a lamb wasn't especially significant. No, the lamb gets its primary significance in the story of the Passover in Ex 12 where every family (of this mainly shepherding community) were to take and kill a lamb without blemish (i.e. one of the best ones) and take some of its blood and put it around the doorposts of the home so that when the destroying angel came he would see it, know it was a Hebrew home, and pass over it while he went on to kill every oldest son throughout Egypt. The lamb was thus the classic symbol of God's means of salvation for His people.
So when John suddenly calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God' is he implying that somehow Jesus is going to die as a sacrifice for our sins? How does this fit with the king-ruler-deliverer pictures? Now it is possibly so familiar to us today that the idea of this is no problem to us, but in a day when this had not been expounded, it was a mystery.
Consider how Jesus' disciples struggled with this, especially in the light of all the miracles that showed that Jesus was completely in control of everything (water into wine, walking on water) and Jesus did such wonderful things (healings, deliverances, raising people from the dead) that surely no one would wish to harm him? When Jesus, obviously fully aware of his destiny, started talking about his death, they found it impossible to cope with.
The classic was with Peter: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. "Never, Lord!" he said. "This shall never happen to you!" Jesus turned and said to Peter, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mt 16:21-23) Please, please, please, put off your twenty-first century knowledge and try and catch the mystery that confronted these followers of Jesus, a mystery which explains so clearly the struggle they had when confronted with his death.
The apostle Paul said it later: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:22,23) As we later go further into this study we will see why death on a cross was such an anathema to both Jew and Gentile. This was one of the greatest and most staggering mysteries that has ever been hidden from the eyes of the world – and it's wonder and reality is still hidden from many today.
To reflect upon: Lord, please forgive me that so often I treat your word so casually and only scratch the surface. Please give me greater understanding.