Immanuel – part 2

201912151030 Immanuel - part 2 (Matthew 1 18-25)

201912151030

Immanuel – part 2

Matthew 1:18-25 (CSB)

18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit.

19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.

20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”

24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her

25 but did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus.

I want to begin with a recap of what we saw in Isaiah 7, the story of Ahaz.

That story contains the prophecy that God gave king Ahaz – the prophecy of an unmarried woman who would give birth to a child whom she would nickname Immanuel.

God had given Ahaz a choice. Ahaz could have obeyed God by refusing to seek help from Assyria, and trusted God to rescue the nation of Judah himself. Ahaz chose to ignore God’s offer of help, and disobey him. God still gave the sign. That sign was the nickname that this young woman gave to her child. The sign – the name Immanuel – became a symbol of God’s plan to rescue his people another way, at a different time.

Now let me restate this. God gave Ahaz a choice to make, and he made his choice, but it was the wrong choice. Then, God intervened again and offered to prove that Ahaz could trust him by granting him a supernatural sign. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, but God gave the sign anyway, not specifically to Ahaz, but to his dynasty – the house of David. So, we have three elements to the story of Isaiah 7: a human choice, divine intervention, and a supernatural sign.

It just so happens that those same three elements are part of today’s story, which takes place seven centuries later.

JOSEPH MAKES THE WRONG CHOICE

Matthew 1:18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 1:19 So her husband Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.

The Christmas story begins with the discovery of an unwanted pregnancy. In this culture today, if someone discovers an unwanted pregnancy, the choice seems to be between letting the child be born, or terminating the pregnancy.

But Joseph’s choice was not to abort the child. He knew that he had been responsible toward Mary, so he concluded that Mary must not have been faithful to him. But since he did not want to shame her, he decided divorce was his only option. In his culture, engagement was legally binding, so he decided to divorce her secretly.

The reason Joseph felt this was his only option was that he did not know the whole story.

Many times in our lives, we are going to be faced with decisions that are crucial and significant, but we will not have all the pertinent information we need to make the right choice. That is why we need to regularly seek God’s guidance through prayer. We also should be careful not to make judgments based on mere appearance.

Now, I am highlighting the fact that there are some major similarities between the stories in Isaiah 7 and Matthew 1, but there are also some glaring differences. Ahaz and Joseph are both prepared to make wrong choices, but that is where there is a change.

GOD INTERVENES, SO THAT HIS WILL IS ACCOMPLISHED.

Matthew 1:20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.

Matthew 1:21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her

Matthew 1:25 but did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus.

God had sent a prophet to Ahaz, and Ahaz chose to ignore Isaiah, and make the wrong choice anyway. But God himself appears as an angel to Joseph in a dream. It is vitally important for the history and salvation of humanity that Joseph not make the wrong choice.

This is divine intervention. I find it interesting that the message God gives to Joseph starts out the same way his message to Ahaz did. God had told Isaiah to tell Ahaz:

Calm down and be quiet. Don’t be afraid or cowardly because of these two smoldering sticks, the fierce anger of Rezin and Aram, and the son of Remaliah” (Isaiah 7:4 CSB).

The Lord tells Joseph in the dream “don’t be afraid.” This is something that God has to keep saying to us when he intervenes in our lives because when stuff happens to us, anxiety is our first response.

God chose to send his Son into a family that was this close to disintegrating before it even began. There was an unwanted pregnancy, a difficult trip to Bethlehem at the worst possible time. There was no place to stay. There was an evil king who wanted to kill the child. All of these things had to weigh heavily on the hearts of Mary and Joseph. They would have been tempted to give up on their marriage, on their faith, and write themselves off as hopeless.

But what I see in this story is that it is just at that point when the anxiety level was the highest that God intervened. He didn’t fix all their problems but he did remind them that they were in his will and encouraged them not to be afraid but to trust in him.

If you have lived any time at all, you have experienced times like that. Some of you are probably going through such times right now. What does it take to get through times like that? We are stronger than we think we are, so it really doesn’t take a miracle to get us through our tough times.

But it does take a message from God, assuring us that he’s got this. God told Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy is not in conflict with his plan; Mary’s pregnancy is God’s plan. Of course, we can understand that today. We have the advantage of 2000 years of hindsight. But for Mary and Joseph, they had to trust God and not give in to fear.

JESUS HIMSELF BECAME THE SUPERNATURAL SIGN TO ISRAEL AND TO US.

Matthew 1:22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

Matthew 1:23 See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us.”

There are some similarities and differences between this part of the story and Isaiah 7 as well. I want to draw attention to one of the differences.

In Isaiah’s story, the supernatural sign was the name Immanuel. It was apparently a nickname that this young woman would give her baby boy. It was a sign given not to Ahaz alone, but to his dynasty, the house of David. That sign basically said that Ahaz gave up on his God, but his God has not given upon his family. One day, God was going to rescue Judah, and he’s going to do it through another descendant of David.

We know today that the descendant of David who would rescue his people was Jesus. In fact, in the Matthew passage, it is Jesus himself who is the supernatural sign, not his name.

Matthew declares that Jesus’ virginal conception was the ultimate fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy. In Isaiah’s prediction, the birth of the child was to be natural, but the name the mother gave him was the supernatural sign.

When Matthew records the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy, he changes the pronoun.

  • a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14 NASB).

  • the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” (Matthew 1:23 NASB).

Immanuel was not going to be his parents’ nickname for Jesus. It was going to be his nation’s title.

Joseph was not told to name the child Immanuel. He was to be named Jesus, because he was God’s chosen savior. But his nation would come to recognize him as the sign of Immanuel – the sign that their God had not deserted them. God was still with them in the person of his Son.

The gospel message to you and me today is that Jesus can also be our Immanuel. This same Jesus who was born supernaturally came to die a death he didn’t deserve so that we can have a chance to live an eternal life that we do not deserve.

Jesus’ resurrection proves that God accepted that substitutionary death. And Jesus promises to come again and give us eternal life. Until then, Jesus being our Immanuel means this:

  • Jesus is with us “always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20 NASB).

This message was preached by Jeff on Sunday, December 15th, at Lone Star Advent Christian Church in Clifton Forge, Virginia.

The video stream of the service can be watched here.

Immanuel – part 1

immanuel - part 1 - 01

Isaiah 7:10-17 (CSB)

10 Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz:

11 “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God—it can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.”

12 But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord.”

13 Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men? Will you also try the patience of my God?

14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.

15 By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey.

16 For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.

17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.”

This time of year lots of people are thinking about the Christmas traditions. It gives us an opportunity to meditate on the gospel story behind those traditions. This year, I want us to think about one of the prophesied nicknames of Jesus: Immanuel. This passage is the first time in the Bible that name is mentioned, but the idea can be traced throughout the Bible. What does it mean for God to be with someone?

Adam & Eve’s Immanuel

“Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden at the time of the evening breeze, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. So the Lord God called out to the man and said to him, “Where are you?”” (Genesis 3:8-9). Imagine what it was like for God to personally visit you every evening! But as soon as they sinned, they could not bear that presence!

Noah & his family’s Immanuel

Gen 6:3 And the Lord said, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt. Their days will be 120 years.” (Genesis 6:3).

Imagine what it was like for this family to be singled out for preservation of all the families of the earth! God was with everyone up to a point, but he would stay with Noah and his family.

Joseph’s Immanuel

“The Lord was with Joseph, and he became a successful man, serving in the household of his Egyptian master. (Genesis 39:2). “But the Lord was with Joseph and extended kindness to him. He granted him favor with the prison warden. ” (Genesis 39:21).

Imagine the horror of being betrayed and abandoned by your family, and your employer, and losing your freedom and hope. But Joseph had a secret that kept him from despairing in the midst of that trial. The Lord was with him.

Moses and Joshua’s Immanuel

“the Lord your God will be with you, as he was with Moses” (Joshua 1:17). “And the Lord was with Joshua, and his fame spread throughout the land” (Joshua 6:27).

Image the tremendous responsibility of leading an entire nation. But Moses and Joshua had a secret that kept them strong. The Lord was with them.

the judges’ Immanuel

“Whenever the Lord raised up a judge for the Israelites, the Lord was with him and saved the people from the power of their enemies while the judge was still alive.” (Judges 2:18)

Imagine having the responsibility not just to lead a nation, but to rescue it from the consequences of its failures and wrong choices! But the judges had a secret that gave them all the strength they needed – even the strength of Samson! It wasn’t their hair. That secret was that the Lord was with them.

David’s Immanuel

Even when I go through the darkest valley, I fear no danger, for you are with me…” (Psalm 23:4) “Saul was afraid of David, because the Lord was with David but had left Saul.” (1 Samuel 18:12)

For David, having God with him was a mixed blessing. It meant fellowship with God, and God’s presence when he went through the darkest valley. But it also meant that king Saul would be jealous of him and hate him. But God’s presence helped him through all the ordeals he would face as God’s chosen king.

AHAZ could have had an Immanuel!

Isaiah 7:10 Then the Lord spoke again to Ahaz:

The first time God spoke to Ahaz, he tried to get him to calm down and not to fear getting invaded by Syria and Israel, because he said it ain’t going to happen. He tried to get Ahaz to stand firm in his faith and trust God to deliver him and his nation. But Ahaz did not trust God. He had already decided that he could be rescued by an alliance with Assyria instead.

Isaiah 7:11 “Ask for a sign from the Lord your God – it can be as deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” The prophet said, Hey Ahaz, this is your lucky day. God wants to give you a sign, and you get to choose what it is. You want God to raise someone from the dead, just ask. You want God to send an angel down from the sky, just ask.

Isaiah 7:12 But Ahaz replied, “I will not ask. I will not test the Lord.”

This makes Ahaz sound so humble and pious, but he was not. Ahaz was not a righteous king. He was an idolater. In fact, he had even sacrificed his own sons to Moloch. The reason Ahaz didn’t want to ask God is that Ahaz had rebelled against God. He wanted to be a success without God’s help.

Isaiah 7:13 Isaiah said, “Listen, house of David! Is it not enough for you to try the patience of men? Will you also try the patience of my God?

Isaiah had previously gone to Ahaz and assured him that his immediate neighbors to the north would not be able to overthrow him. But Ahaz ignored that assurance from Isaiah, so he tried the patience of the man – Isaiah. But Now Isaiah is speaking for God himself, and Ahaz still refuses. He is trying the patience of God.

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign: See, the virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.

We Christians are used to taking this verse out of this context. We tend to only think about it as Christmastime, and only in the context of the birth of Jesus. I want to talk about Immanuel in its Christmas context next week. This week, I want us to think about it in its Ahaz context. Who is the virgin that Isaiah mentioned to Ahaz? She had to be a young woman of marriageable age, and someone who is known by both Ahaz and Isaiah. The two most possible options are a young woman in Ahaz’s harem who will bear Ahaz a son, or a new bride for Isaiah. I think the second option has the most scriptural support. If you go on and read chapters 8 and 9 of Isaiah, it seems like those chapters continue the Immanuel prophecy, and that the son that Isaiah predicts in chapter 7 is Maher-shalal-hash-baz. That’s the name his father gives him, and Immanuel was probably a nickname that his mother gave him.

Isaiah 7:15 By the time he learns to reject what is bad and choose what is good, he will be eating curds and honey. Isaiah 7:16 For before the boy knows to reject what is bad and choose what is good, the land of the two kings you dread will be abandoned.

God’s word to Ahaz was that in the few years it takes for a young boy to grow to his age of accountability, Israel and Syria are not going to be the immediate threat that they are now. Something is going to change.

Isaiah 7:17 The Lord will bring on you, your people, and your father’s house such a time as has never been since Ephraim separated from Judah: He will bring the king of Assyria.”

What is going to happen instead is the superpower of Assyria is going to lay waste those lands to the north, and lay siege to Judah itself. Things are going to get so bad that the only things left to eat will be curds and honey – because all the crops will be gone. By the time mommy’s little Immanuel was ready for his Bar-Mitzvah, that had happened. God wanted to be Immanuel to Ahaz, but Ahaz refused to ask.

Is God with you? Have you invited the Lord into your heart? Let’s sing O Little Town of Bethlehem, and let’s make its final verse our prayer. O holy Child of Bethlehem Descend to us, we pray Cast out our sin and enter in Be born to us today We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell O come to us, abide with us Our Lord Emmanuel.

This message was preached by Jeff on Sunday, December 8th, at Lone Star Advent Christian Church in Clifton Forge, Virginia.

The video stream of the service is available here.

perspective on permanence

lonestar

perspective on permanence

Luke 12:27-34 (CSB)

Luke 12:27 “Consider how the wildflowers grow: They don’t labor or spin thread. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was adorned like one of these. Luke 12:28 If that’s how God clothes the grass, which is in the field today and is thrown into the furnace tomorrow, how much more will he do for you – you of little faith? Luke 12:29 Don’t strive for what you should eat and what you should drink, and don’t be anxious. Luke 12:30 For the Gentile world eagerly seeks all these things, and your Father knows that you need them. Luke 12:31 “But seek his kingdom, and these things will be provided for you. Luke 12:32 Don’t be afraid, little flock, because your Father delights to give you the kingdom. Luke 12:33 Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Make money-bags for yourselves that won’t grow old, an inexhaustible treasure in heaven, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. Luke 12:34 For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.

 

I can’t read a passage like this without thinking of last year’s hiking trip on the Appalachian Trail. It was awesome, and one of the things that made it awesome is that we would encounter fields of wild grass that were just beautiful. I remember thinking that this is what God can do with just one crayon out of the box. But then, he could also fill those fields with colorful flowers and just overwhelm us with beauty. And, Jesus is pointing out that nobody plants or maintains them. God just puts them there.

Jesus also mentions Solomon here, and there’s lots more that story.

Solomon is interesting as a biblical author because we have three books attributed to him, and each of the three books appears to have been written at a different time in his life.

The Song of Songs tells the story of a young, passionate man, in love with life and in love with the love of his life, and his bride returning that passionate love.

The Proverbs reveal a different Solomon, a middle-aged man whose zeal is spent on enjoying and understanding the world around him, and bringing control to its chaos. For Solomon, everything he touched had to be the very best. That is why Jesus mentioned “Solomon in all his glory” in today’s text. Solomon spent a lifetime getting the best clothes, building the best buildings, and amassing the best fortune.

Ecclesiastes reflects a yet different perspective. As an elderly man, Solomon reflects back on the pursuits of his life and concludes that he has wasted much of it on pursuits that were merely temporary, ultimately not as fulfilling as he had thought they would be.

Solomon’s big lesson was not that everything is meaningless. I think that text is mistranslated. I think what Solomon concluded is that after all is said and done, none of it will last.

The things we enjoy are not going to last.

The wisdom we pursue is not going to last.

Youth is not going to last.

Wealth is not going to last.

Power and influence are not going to last.

Human life is not going to last.

We have to understand life from that perspective to see what Jesus is saying to us in today’s text.

He said “Think about how the flowers grow; they do not work or produce clothing. Yet not even Solomon in all his glory was clothed like one of these! And if this is how God clothes the wild grass, which is here today and tomorrow is tossed into the fire to heat the oven, how much more will he clothe you, you people of little faith!”

For many in Jesus’ day, clothing was the symbol of success and status. So people went out of their way to dress well, because it affected how they were treated. Have you ever noticed that when you dress well, people tend to pay more attention to you? But pursuit of better, more expensive clothing can steal time and effort from pursuing true maturity, so Jesus warns us all not to let concern over the wardrobe consume us.

Instead, we need to choose to trust God to give us all we need, and not be so focused on the externals.

Jesus said, that we should not be overly concerned about what we will eat and what we will drink, and we should not worry about such things, because all the nations of the world spend their time pursuing these things, and our Father knows that we need them. Instead, we should pursue his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

Much of the world is obsessed with consuming and acquiring. The Lord says we should not follow that path. Instead, our obsession should be the things that our Father has provided for us. His kingdom is his plan for our future, and we pursue it today by taking advantage of the grace he has given us now.

We need to choose to focus our pursuit on God’s coming kingdom of grace.

Jesus said that he is the shepherd, and we are his little flock. We should not be afraid because what pleases our Father most is giving us that coming kingdom. We can sell your possessions and give to the poor. That will provide wallets that do not wear out “a treasure in the sky that never decreases, where no thief attacks and no moth destroys. Because where our treasure is, there our heart will be also. If our treasure is these temporary things, our heart will be so focused on the temporary that we do not have time for the permanent.

The permanent thing that the Lord tells us to pursue just happens to be the very thing that he says God is delighted to give us out of the riches of his grace. So, that is why we can afford to be so generous with the other things we have. We see those things (present possessions) as temporary, and we have already been promised an eternal inheritance to replace them. If our hearts were tied to this present stuff, it would indicate that we are not seeking Jesus.

Let us pray: LORD, today we want to take a lesson from Solomon. He discovered that a life focused on getting temporary things is a wasted life. Instead we want to focus our pursuit on your coming kingdom and being grateful for your present grace. Give us your perspective on this present stuff, and make us generous with it, because we know it’s not going to last. But your kingdom will.

the goal of Christian faith

goal - 01

Fight the good fight of faith; take hold of the eternal life to which you were called, and you made the good confession in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12 NASB).

Compete well for the faith and lay hold of that eternal life you were called for and made your good confession for in the presence of many witnesses” (1 Timothy 6:12 NET).

We leave traces of our hopes and dreams to the generations that come after us. We place markers that let the future world know what our aspirations were. One marker is our literature.

Suppose you walk with me through the library of modern books about the goal of the Christian faith. What kind of markers are we placing, describing our hope? Let’s look at this shelf:

goal - 03

There are a lot more books on the shelf, but the titles of these give us the idea. Lots of people think the goal of the Christian life is to get to a place called heaven when you die.

In fact, chances are, some of you may be scratching your heads as you read this. After all, doesn’t the very verse I just quoted say that Timothy’s goal was to get to heaven when he died? I know, it says to take hold of eternal life, but isn’t that the same thing?

I don’t think it is the same thing. I know, to many that might sound heretical, so let me explain:

goal - 04

Before Jesus died, he told the Jewish leaders that he was going somewhere, and where he was going they would not be able to come.1 They wondered what he meant by that. They thought he was going to go on a missionary tour and preach to the diaspora Jews scattered throughout the Roman Empire.2 Jesus repeated the same statement later to the same audience.3 By then, they had guessed that he was planning to commit suicide.4 He told them that he was not from this world; he was from above.5 John, when he wrote his Gospel, explained what Jesus meant. He said that Jesus was going “to depart from this world to the Father.”6 He quotes Jesus as saying “I am going to the Father,”7 But he promised to come back and take the disciples to be with him, so that they could be together from then on.8 He was not promising the disciples that they would go see God when they die. He was talking about the second coming.

In fact, later, when Paul talked about God here in his letter to Timothy, he said that “no human has ever seen” him, or is even “able to see” him.9 This was after some of those disciples had already died. They didn’t go to heaven. You cannot get to heaven – with or without roller skates!10

Now, obviously there are a lot of Christians who disagree with my interpretation of these passages. Even if we were to suppose that the Bible did teach that Christians go to heaven when they die, that still does not mean that going to heaven is the same thing as having eternal life.

goal - 05

Everybody knows that the heaven where God lives is eternal, right? But what about those Bible passages that say the present heaven is going to pass away?11 That’s right, the present heaven is going to pass away. It’s not eternal. In fact, when the apostle Paul had a vision of the future life, he saw that future in another place besides the present heaven. He called it the “third heaven.”12

Where is this third heaven? Wrong question. The right question is “When is the third heaven?” Listen to Dr. Glenn Peoples’ comments on 2 Peter 3:

  • Look at what is said here about the heavens and the earth: The “heavens and the earth” once perished. There now exists the “heavens and earth” that will one day pass away as well, and there will be a new heavens and earth. For those who are counting, how many is that? Which one is the eternal state? By my count, it’s the third.”13

I am not saying, or course, that God is not forever. I’m simply saying that what we now refer to as heaven may not be as eternal as God is. There’s going to be a new heaven. So, if you put your hopes on going to heaven, it is not the same thing as having eternal life.

goal - 06

I hope you see my point. Our hope should be grounded on the scriptural promises and proclamations, not human traditions. When we look at the actual texts of scripture, we see them consistently declaring that the goal of the Christian faith is eternal life.

goal - 07

So when the apostle Paul encourages Timothy to fight the good fight of faith and take hold of the eternal life to which he was called, he is encouraging Timothy to keep seeking the goal of his faith. That goal is not a place in the sky. That goal is immortality.

goal - 08

But, you see – our human religious traditions have contradicted this plain teaching of scripture by insisting that everyone is born with a soul which is already immortal. So, the goal is not becoming immortal. It is being released from the mortal body so that the immortal soul can enjoy heaven.

I see at least four problems scripturally with this doctrine when it makes dying and going to heaven the goal of the Christian faith.

goal - 09

 

goal - 10

 

What practical difference does it make if your goal is eternal life, rather than heaven when you die? I think it makes a lot of difference, and that difference can affect us in a variety of ways. But I want to focus on one fact which is implied in today’s text.

Paul told Timothy to “fight the good fight” to take hold of that eternal life which is the believer’s goal. He implied that how Timothy lived his temporary life now determined whether or not he would reach his goal of a permanent life in the future.

  • When Timothy came to Christ, someone prophesied that he would fight the good fight, keeping his faith and his conscience clear.29
  • In his final letter to Timothy, Paul says:

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith; in the future there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day; and not only to me, but also to all who have loved His appearing.”30

Paul says he is looking forward to “the crown of righteousness.” What is that crown? It is what Jesus called “the resurrection of the righteous!”31 James and John called it the “crown of life.”32 Paul says we get that crown not at death, but at Christ’s second coming – the day of his appearing.

Our fight is not to gain a nice place to live for eternity. Our fight is to preserve something we have been promised. There is a resurrection to permanent life awaiting all those who stay true to their faith in Christ. That is the goal of Christian faith, and obtaining that goal is worth all the struggles we undergo. It is worth all the discipline and perseverance that we can muster.

1John 7:34.

2John 7:35-36.

3John 8:21.

4John 8:22.

5John 8:23.

6John 13:1.

7John 14:12.

8John 14:3.

91 Timothy 6:16 NET.

10I am referring to the Betty Johnson song “You can’t get to heaven on roller skates.”

11Matthew 5:18; 24:35; Mark 13:31; Luke 21:33; Revelation 21:1.

122 Corinthians 12:2.

13Glenn Peoples, Did Paul Have an Out of Body Experience? (Afterlife, November 20, 2013).

14Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:17; Luke 10:25; 18:18.

15Matthew 19:16.

16Matthew 19:29; Mark 10:30; Luke 18:30.

17John 3:15-16; 6:40; 1 John 5:13.

18Matthew 25:46.

19Acts 13:48.

20Romans 2:7; 6:23; 1 John 5:11.

21Galatians 6:8.

22Titus 1:2; 1 John 2:25.

23Titus 3:7.

24Jude 1:21.

251 Corinthians 15:26

26Revelation 1:18.

27Titus 2:13.

28John 6:39,40,44,54; 1 Corinthians 15:42; Philippians 3:10-11; Hebrews 11:35.

291 Timothy 1:17-18.

302 Timothy 4:7-8.

31Luke 14:4.

32James 1:12; Revelation 2:10.

Called to bless

Japan 2017 (55)

I would like to begin with some reflections on the story of God’s call of Abram in Genesis 12:1-3.

Then Yahveh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kin and your father’s household to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you an influential nation, and I will bless you and make your name important, and be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and whoever dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth will be blessed.” (Genesis 12:1-3 my translation).

I want to reflect on this text about Abram. I ask what his experience has in common with ours. This passage could accurately be called the first great commission. It can help us find our place in God’s plan for world missions.

  1. God called God set him apart from the family he came from, and the culture he was used to.
  • The New Testament tells us that the God of glory appeared to Abram in Mesopotamia (Acts 7:2). God called him away from the pagan world that he grew up in, to a life focused on the one true God. God spoke to Abram, and changed the focus of his life forever.
  • Every believer in Christ has a conversion experience where he or she encounters God, and each one of those experiences is a call from God. Paul told Timothy that God “has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace (2 Tim. 1:9 CSB17).”
  • That calling is first and foremost a calling to God himself, and away from the trappings that we are familiar with. Like Abram, our first mission is to separate ourselves unto God. If God wanted to simply “save” Abram, he would not have needed to affect his life in any way. If it was just about preserving Abram for eternity, God could have done that without Abram even knowing it. But God had a mission for Abram, and that mission required dedication and change.
  1. God changed Abram’s context. He sent him to different lands to be a blessing to different people.
  • I want to remind you of the words of today’s text: “Then Yahveh said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kin and your father’s household to the land that I will show you.” When the Lord Jesus commissioned his disciples to make disciples, they had to leave Galilee and go to Jerusalem to launch that discipling ministry. He had told those disciples “I appointed you to go and produce fruit (Jn. 15:16 CSB17).”  We had better not forget that there are two verbs in that statement.
  • Not every believer is going to have the privilege of serving as a missionary overseas, but every believer needs to consider where God wants him or her to be. Like Abram, God often uses us in a different context than the one we are born in. He takes us away from the familiar so that we can learn to trust him as we represent him.
  1. God committed himself to blessing Abram. He invested in the future of Abram and his family.
  • God did not call Abram to bless the nations without assuring him that he would be provided for and protected. Abram could bless because he had been blessed.  This is one of the secrets of successful mission work.  When we separate ourselves unto God, being willing to go where he wants us to go, he sets us apart from others by uniquely blessing us.  Abram learned that. Daniel learned that. John the Baptist learned that. Peter and Paul learned that.
  • Let’s not forget that our Lord has already pronounced a blessing upon us as his servants and representatives. Remember the beatitudes?

“”Blessed are the spiritually poor now, because theirs is the promised kingdom from the sky later. “Blessed are those who are mourning now, because they will be comforted later. “Blessed are those who are meek now, because they will inherit the land later.  “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness now, because they will be satisfied later. “Blessed are those being merciful now, because they will receive mercy later. “Blessed are the clean in heart now, because they will see God later. “Blessed are the peacemakers now, because they will be called sons of God later. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, because theirs is the promised kingdom from the sky. “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, because your future reward is great stored up in the sky, because they persecuted the prophets who were before you in the same way. “You are the salt of the land, but if salt has lost its taste, with what will the land be salted? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet. “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in the sky” (Matthew 5:3-16 my translation)

 

  • We are already blessed. That makes it possible for us to bless others as we serve Christ among them. The beatitudes are followed by the “salt and light” passages because there is a direct connection between blessing from the Lord and missions, the same way it was for Abram.
  1. God challenged Abram to be a blessing wherever he went.
  • God commanded and commissioned Abram to “be a blessing.” Of all the people on earth, God set Abram and his family to represent him and share him with others.
  • Jesus commanded and commissioned his church to make disciples among all the nations (Matthew 28:18-20). When we go where we need to go, lead people to come to Christ and be baptized in God’s name, and teach all that Christ taught, we also become a blessing wherever we go.

God has called you and me to bless the world around us.  He may change our context to put us where we need to be, and we need to be willing to let him do that. He has committed to blessing us and providing what we need so that we can bear fruit where he places us.  He challenges us to be a blessing wherever we go.

God blesses some people by sending them as missionaries.  But each of us is challenged by this text to follow God’s call to be a blessing. Here are three things that all of us can do to bless the nations.

  • SHARE your life and testimony with people. Perhaps the LORD will bring a stranger into your life who needs to know about Jesus.
  • SUPPORT those who are working as missionaries in other nations.
  • SEND someone to reach another nation for Christ.

May God continue to bless you as you seek to respond to his call.

{I originally shared this message in Barbourville Kentucky.  I recently adapted it and shared it in the Ayameike Advent Christian Church, Japan.  The photo is of Penny and me on one of our sightseeing excursions while in Japan, November 2017}.

 

gifts for the missionary

“Gifts for the missionary” was the title of the message I shared at three churches in Illinois September 10th and 17th, 2017.  Here is the message:

Daniel 1 (CSB17)

In the third year of the reign of King Jehoiakim of Judah, King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon came to Jerusalem and laid siege to it. 2 The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God. Nebuchadnezzar carried them to the land of Babylon, to the house of his god, and put the vessels in the treasury of his god. 3 The king ordered Ashpenaz, his chief eunuch, to bring some of the Israelites from the royal family and from the nobility– 4 young men without any physical defect, good-looking, suitable for instruction in all wisdom, knowledgeable, perceptive, and capable of serving in the king’s palace. He was to teach them the Chaldean language and literature. 5 The king assigned them daily provisions from the royal food and from the wine that he drank. They were to be trained for three years, and at the end of that time they were to attend the king. 6 Among them, from the Judahites, were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. 7 The chief eunuch gave them names; he gave the name Belteshazzar to Daniel, Shadrach to Hananiah, Meshach to Mishael, and Abednego to Azariah. 8 Daniel determined that he would not defile himself with the king’s food or with the wine he drank. So he asked permission from the chief eunuch not to defile himself. 9 God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch, 10 yet he said to Daniel, “I fear my lord the king, who assigned your food and drink. What if he sees your faces looking thinner than the other young men your age? You would endanger my life with the king.” 11 So Daniel said to the guard whom the chief eunuch had assigned to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days. Let us be given vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then examine our appearance and the appearance of the young men who are eating the king’s food, and deal with your servants based on what you see.” 14 He agreed with them about this and tested them for ten days. 15 At the end of ten days they looked better and healthier than all the young men who were eating the king’s food. 16 So the guard continued to remove their food and the wine they were to drink and gave them vegetables. 17 God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom. Daniel also understood visions and dreams of every kind. 18 At the end of the time that the king had said to present them, the chief eunuch presented them to Nebuchadnezzar. 19 The king interviewed them, and among all of them, no one was found equal to Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. So they began to attend the king. 20 In every matter of wisdom and understanding that the king consulted them about, he found them ten times better than all the magicians and mediums in his entire kingdom. 21 Daniel remained there until the first year of King Cyrus.

 

Our text begins with a tragedy, but most of us skip right past it, only stopping to notice what we already know. So, allow me to share the background to the story.  The first person listed in the text is king Jehoiakim. Jehoiakim was the puppet of two Gentile superpowers. He first surrendered the sovereignty of his nation to Egypt. Then, after Nebuchadnezzar attacked Jerusalem he switched sides and supported that superpower.

 

The author of 2 Kings tells us that all this “happened to Judah at the Lord ‘s command to remove them from his presence” (2Ki 24:3 CSB). The kings of Judah had been so rebellious and violent that they had “filled Jerusalem with innocent blood, and the Lord was not willing to forgive” (2Ki 24:4 CSB).

 

The prophets had warned Judah for years that it had no immunity from being judged by God. But they always felt that they could handle whatever happened. Maybe they thought that their former and present kings had made mistakes, but they probably thought that the next generation would be different. Surely the next crop of the best and the brightest in Judah would turn things around. But then, Nebuchadnezzar rounds up the lot of these best and brightest Judahites and takes them away to Babylon to make Babylonians out of them!

The real tragedy in all this is not just the fact that tough times have come to God’s people. The real tragedy is that it is God who is behind all this. This dark story serves as the background to the amazing book of Daniel.

The book of Daniel is best categorized as an apocalyptic prophecy. But this first chapter in the book makes no predictions and describes no events or nations in symbol. The chapter simply sets the historical backdrop for the parts of the book which do predict the future.

When I recently asked the Lord to give me a text which I could use to preach on world missions, he gave me this text. I didn’t exactly know why. I thought it probably had to do with the extensive cross-cultural training that Daniel and his three friends experienced. They were taken out of their home culture and context and forced to adjust to a new political structure, a new economic life, a new religious world, a new social environment, a new intellectual grid, and even a new artistic arena.

They were each given new Aramaic Babylonian names.

You might have noticed that two of their original Hebrew names ended in EL (DaniEL, MishaEL). EL is short for Elohim, the Hebrew word for God.

  • Daniel means “Elohim is my judge.”
  • Mishael means “Who is like Elohim?”

The other two names ended in YAH (HananiYAH, AzariYAH).  YAH is short for Yahveh, the covenant name for God.

  • Hananiah means “Yahveh is gracious.”
  • Azariah means “Yahveh is my helper.”

The chief eunuch gave these young men new, Aramaic Babylonian names that featured the names of the Babylonian gods Bel, Aku, Nebo or Nergal.

  • Belteshazzar probably meant “Bel will protect him.”
  • Shadrach probably meant “command of Aku.”
  • Meshach probably meant “who is like Aku?”
  • Abednego probably meant “servant of Nebo” or “servant of Nergal.”

This was only the first step in Nebuchadnezzar’s planned indoctrination of these young men. He would also make sure they became fluent in Aramaic, and skilled in the magic arts.

Part of the enticement for these young men to go along with the king’s plans was for them to be allowed a diet fit for the king himself – rich in meats, sweets and wine.  It was this enticement that Daniel objected to most of all.  He could treat all the other cultural immersion factors as academic. But if he got used to feasting like Nebuchadnezzar, he was sure that it would defile him.

Now, here is – I think – the theological focus of this chapter.  Daniel, as an Israelite, has a commandment that guided his life.  He had the Old Testament equivalent of the Great Commission.  His ancestor, Abraham, was commanded to bless the nations.

“And I will make of you an influential nation, and I will bless you and make your name important, and be a blessing (Gen 12:2 JDV).

Daniel felt personally responsible to be a positive influence upon the nation of Babylonia. But he knew that he could not make that influence if he entirely set aside his own identity as a Hebrew. They could take the Jew out of Jerusalem, but he would not allow them to take Jerusalem out of the Jew.

Herein is the missions challenge for all of us. We have each been called to serve God within a particular culture and ethno-linguistic people group.  How do we bless that culture without losing our Christian identity within it?  For Daniel, the question was how could he bless the Babylonians without totally becoming one. For Christians in 21st century anywhere, that is essentially the same challenge we face.

That was essentially the question I brought to this text as I stood with my Bible open a few days ago.  I was looking for a clue as to the structure of the chapter. I found that the same Hebrew word is repeated three times. The word drives the narrative. That word is the verb נתן (natan). It means “to give.”  It is translated with different words in English, but each time it appears, it categorizes the whole section it is in.

The first appearance of נתן is in verse 2:

“The Lord handed King Jehoiakim of Judah over to him, along with some of the vessels from the house of God.”

When the biblical author writes the story of this great tragedy, he is careful to maintain the complete sovereignty of God.  Jehoiakim failed, Judah failed, but God did not fail. Jerusalem was overrun by Gentiles because God allowed it. The temple was robbed because God gave its treasures up. The Israelites were taken captive because God made it happen. Yahveh was not pacing up and down in heaven, wondering what he could do.  History was still marching at his pace. The planet was still in his control.  When Daniel and his friends left Jerusalem, it was because God had a mission for them in Babylon.

The second appearance of נתן is in verse 9:

“God had granted Daniel kindness and compassion from the chief eunuch.”

The same God who orchestrated the events that brought Daniel and his friends to Babylon also orchestrated the relationships he had with others.  The key players who made it possible for the Hebrew men to restrict their diets ware the chief eunuch and the guard. It was not enough for Daniel and his friends to be in Babylon.  They had to demonstrate the difference between the Babylonian gods and their God.  They had to show their commitment to Yahveh.  God allowed the chief eunuch and the guard to show them favor so that they could see the difference.  They oversaw their training and it would be them who would decide whether they were worthy to be tested by the king.

The final appearance of נתן is in verse 17:

“God gave these four young men knowledge and understanding in every kind of literature and wisdom.”

Here again, we see God at work. Many of the Bibles and commentaries on this chapter emphasize the faithfulness of Daniel and his friends. They were found faithful.  But the author of this book is not just emphasizing human faithfulness.  He is demonstrating God’s involvement in the lives of these men.  These young men were highly skilled and proved themselves better than all the other candidates – not just because they were faithful to God – but because God gave them the knowledge and wisdom and skills they needed. God had a vested interest in putting these young men in positions of leadership in Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon.

Daniel recognized that as a child of Abraham he had the responsibility – nay, the mission to be a blessing to the nation of Babylonia.  God sovereignly orchestrated the details of world history to put him in Babylon.   God arranged the necessary relationships that enabled Daniel to remain faithful and distinctive as an Israelite despite Nebuchadnezzar’s plan to turn him into a Babylonian.  God also gave him the understanding and skills and resources he needed to succeed in his mission.

Fast forward a few thousand years. Now it is our turn. We also have a mission from God – a Great Commission from Christ. Christ has called us to make disciples of all nations.  Some of those nations might be relatively easy to reach for Christ.  But some – like Nebuchadnezzar’s Babylon – will require a tremendous cultural immersion.

The good news is that the same God who worked behind the scenes in Daniel’s life to make him successful in his mission is ready to help us too.

  • He is sovereign, and he can change the course of world history if necessary to place you where he wants you.
  • He knows just the right people who you need to befriend to open the doors for your discipling ministry.
  • He stands ready to give you the knowledge, skills, and resources you need to get the job done.

Maybe you have never considered serving the Lord as a missionary.  Lots of people don’t.  Lots of people think that God cannot use them to reach others for Christ.  The only thing you need to be successful as a missionary is the one thing Daniel had – the presence of God.  So, I want to remind you of what Jesus said to his disciples right after he gave them his Great Commission. He said, And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age (Mat 28:20 CSB17).

 

the big catch

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(See Matthew 4:18-22) Imagine Jesus walking on the beach of the lake called the Sea of Galilee. He sees two brothers, Simon (whom he had called Peter) and Andrew his brother, throwing a net into the sea, since they were fishermen. And at that time he commanded them, “Follow me, and I promise to make you into fishers of people.” Realizing who Jesus was, they immediately left their nets and followed him. And going on from there he saw two other brothers, James the son of Zebedee and John his brother, in the boat with Zebedee their father, repairing their nets, and he called them. Immediately they left the boat and their father and followed him too.

Our story of the big catch begins here – not in the bustling, crowded city of Jerusalem, but in a remote beach setting in Galilee. There would never have been a big catch in Jerusalem if there had not been a command and promise by Jesus that day on the beach. These four fishermen would have caught only fish if they had not obeyed Christ’s command and trusted in his promise that day.

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(See Luke 5:1-11) But something happened once while the crowd was mobbing him so they could hear the word of God, he was standing again on the beach of Lake Gennesaret (another name for the Sea of Galilee), and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had got out of them and were washing their nets. After getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And after he stopped speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep water and let down your nets for a catch.” Simon answered, “Teacher, we worked hard all night and caught nothing! But at your word I will lower the nets.“ He didn’t realize that Jesus was using this experience to teach them what he had promised to teach – how to fish for people. When they had obeyed him and put the net on the other side, they caught so many fish that their nets started to rip. So they motioned to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both boats, so that they were about to sink. But when Simon Peter saw the miracle, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Go away from me, Lord, because I am a sinful man!” Because Peter and all who were with him were stunned at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so were James and John, Zebedee’s sons, who were Simon’s work partners. Then Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching people.” So when they had brought their boats to shore, they left everything and followed him.

This is the first of two lessons that Jesus taught Peter and the other disciples about fishing for people. That day, the disciples learned that God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions.

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(See John 21:4-11) On a day after Jesus’ resurrection, just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Throw the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they threw it, and then they were not able to haul it in, because of the weight of the fish. John said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea. The other disciples came in the boat, dragging the net full of fish, for they were not far from the land, but about a hundred yards off. When they got out on land, they saw a charcoal fire in place, with fish laid out on it, and bread. Jesus said to them, “Bring some of the fish that you have just caught.” So Simon Peter went aboard and hauled the net ashore, full of large fish, 153 of them. And although there were so many, the net was not torn.

This miracle is similar to the first one, but took place three years later. Jesus used this miracle to remind the disciples that they were going to be involved in the big catch soon – the people catch. The same principles of people catching are being taught by this miracle. But this incident seems to give a powerful hint as to when the big catch would take place. Why 153 fish? The Bible does not say, so we should be careful about speculating. There is an interesting coincidence. The year was 33AD. Not too many days from this incident, these disciples would be gathered together in Jerusalem as part of a larger group, waiting for Pentecost. That larger group numbered 120. 120 + 33 = 153.

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Jesus had commanded his disciples to gather in Jerusalem and to wait for the power of the Holy Spirit to manifest. Then they would know that it was time to drop their net. He had described that event as a second baptism, and reminded them that John’s baptism was in water, but this second baptism was going to be in the Holy Spirit. The lessons that Jesus had taught his disciples to get them ready for the big catch had all taken place in water. But the real catch was not going to be in water. The whole group was going to be immersed in the Holy Spirit, and the miracle would manifest. Remember the principles of the big catch: that God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions.

To put it another way, the big catch happens because God provides the hook, and his servants provide the bait. The hook is the miracle that draws the crowd. The bait is the gospel message about who Christ is and what he has done. The book of Acts demonstrates that the hook keeps changing, but the bait remains the same. The way God manifests his power to get people’s attention changes all the time, but the gospel of Jesus Christ stays the same. The pattern that we learn about in the book of Acts is not a constant repetition of Pentecost, but a people who patiently wait for the Lord to manifest his power, then seize the opportunity to let down their nets with gospel preaching.

The Jerusalem church was literally born in a day, but it happened that way because the disciples were willing to wait on the Lord to provide the location and the power, and they provided the witness.

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Another thing that we learn in the book of Acts is that this great megachurch that went from 120 to 3000 in one day, and 5000 not long afterwards – faced disaster after disaster in the years that followed. In fact, in less than forty years, this megachurch was out of business. Famine, persecution, and church conflict kept taking their toll, and finally all the Christians fled Jerusalem for Petra just prior to the siege and war that destroyed the temple in 70AD.

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But the megachurch was not God’s ultimate plan. God’s ultimate plan was for the gospel to go with these Christians as they scattered throughout the Roman empire.

God is doing the same kind of thing today. Sometimes he brings together large churches, at other times he sends people out to plant the gospel in places where there is no church. Sometimes we have great success, at other times we do not. What matters is that we stay faithful at the task.

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The fish are still out there. We may have to wait a lot for the next big catch, but God is still able to make it happen. His power is still present. He has taught us what we need to know to be involved in the next big catch. God will provide the location and the power, but he expects his fishermen to provide the net, the patience, the effort to haul in the catch, and to follow his instructions. We don’t know what hook he is going to use next, but we do know what bait he has given us to use. That never changes. Paul said “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes.” It was God’s power to save the Jews in Jerusalem, and the Greeks in Greece, and the Romans in Rome. It is God’s power to save the Filipinos, the Kiwis, the Japanese, the Malaysians, the Burmese, the Thai, the Indians, and even the Americans.

So, if you want to be ready for the next big catch, pull out your net and make sure that your presentation of the gospel is ready. Then, when God tells you where to witness, you can pull in a pile.