Double meanings at Christmas time

Scripture means so much on so many different levels. As one example of a scripture with multiple meanings, Isaiah’s rebuke to a weak and fearful king turned out to foreshadow the coming of a new King who would have the power to defeat the devil  himself.

Ahaz, King of Judah, was frighted when the kings of Syria and Israel invaded his territory. God sent Isaiah to  him with a message of hope. Isaiah told Ahaz to remain calm and have faith in God. Instead, he asked the King of Assyria to help him out.

And so in a second confrontation, Isaiah told Ahaz to ask for a sign. Ahaz piously refused, so Isaiah gave him a sign anyway: a young woman would bear a son and call his name Immanuel. Before the child was old enough to know right from wrong, the two kings Ahaz feared would be gone.

Here, the name “Immanuel” was more important than the manner of his conception. Within nine months, it appears, the threat from Israel and Syria ended so dramatically that “Immanuel” might have even become a common name for baby boys in Jerusalem.

When Ahaz heard that name, he would have to understand that before Immanuel was  old enough to know right from wrong, Assyria would be a greater threat than those two petty kings could have ever been. Because he had been faithless, the sign pointed to the greatest national disaster since the kingdom split in two after Solomon died.

When Matthew quoted from this passage, the sign took on a dramatically different significance. Our Savior had to be born of a virgin; it is his conception, not the name “Immanuel” that matters in the gospels. The sign of a virgin birth pointed not to disaster, but salvation. The child of the virgin came into the world for one reason: to die in order to redeem the whole world from sin.

This one verse of Scripture has had two meanings and two applications. We can read in the Bible about the results of Ahaz’ faithlessness and apostasy, but scholars with the right language skills can also read about it in the boasts of the kings of Assyria and Babylon. Judah ceased to exist as an independent kingdom and instead became a tributary to greater powers for the rest of its existence.

We can also read in the Bible about how the baby Jesus grew up to be a man unlike any other, a man who was also God, the Lord of the universe. We can read of his death, resurrection, and ascension. We can read of his promise to return and put an end to sin and death.

People of faith can also look at how God’s grace has brought them through trials in their own lives, so once again, ample evidence of the fulfillment of the second meaning and application of this verse exists outside the pages of Scripture. Anyone else, if they only will, can read of Jesus’ redemptive power in the lives of his saints.

Let us, in this season of Advent, make the time to take our attention off the  hustle and bustle of shopping, parties and family get-togethers in order to ponder the significance of this holy birth–and more than that, his holy life and death. The baby grew up and demonstrated his Lordship. Let us worship and obey.

Sin and grace in the Book of Ruth

In Saturday’s blogpost, I examined the four women mentioned in the genealogy that opens Matthew’s gospel. In order to stick to one point, the necessity of the virgin birth of Jesus, I had to pass over some important lessons on grace in the Book of Ruth.

The law of Moses forbade intermarriage with Canaanites and Moabites. Yet we see in the genealogy that Salmon married the Canaanite Rahab and Boaz, apparently his son, married the Moabite Ruth. The law further mandates that the offspring of forbidden marriages be barred from the assembly of the Lord down to ten generations. That is, all of Salmon’s children, grandchildren, etc. to the tenth generation were legally outcasts.

In the book of Ruth, we first meet a Hebrew widow named Naomi. She, her husband, and two sons had fled from a famine in Bethlehem and moved to Moab. There, both sons married Moabite women, then all three of the men died, leaving Naomi without support.

Her bitterness aptly demonstrates that she was not a woman of faith. She announced to her daughters in law that she would return to Bethlehem and they might as well stay behind and try to find husbands among their own people. Ruth loved her so much that she refused to stay behind, renouncing her family, her people, her heritage, and her gods. She swore in the Lord’s name that nothing but death could ever part them.

Skipping to the end of the book, we find that Boaz was touched that Ruth wanted to marry as old a man as she was. She named him kinsman-redeemer, an appeal to his blood relationship with her late husband. One man in town had a closer relationship and therefore a stronger legal right to the dead man’s estate.

Boaz approached that man, who expressed an interest in redeeming the estate, but backed out when he found marrying a Moabite was  part of the deal. He did not want to jeopardize his own estate or the legal standing of his offspring.

According to the letter of the law, that man is the hero of the book. He is the only man mentioned who refused to sin by contracting a forbidden marriage. But in fact, the Bible does not even preserve his name. Some New Testament scholars regard Boaz, who sinned in marrying a Moabite, a Christ figure in the way he honored and protected Ruth.

Actually, according to the letter of the law, David should have been an outcast, too. He was less than ten generations from Salomon’s forbidden marriage to a Canaanite. The letter kills; life comes through grace. The lesson is not so much that God does not care about the details of the law, but that he bestows favor when he sees love and faith in operation.

When Joshua sent spies to Jericho, Rahab protected them and helped them get out of town safely. Such was her faith not only in God’s power but also in his goodness that she asked the spies for protection in his name. By grace Salmon could marry her without making outcasts of his descendants.

By faith and love, Ruth repudiated everything Moabite so she could permanently ally herself not only with Naomi, but also Naomi’s God. Boaz had ample opportunity to take unfair advantage of this young foreign woman, but he saw the love she had for her  mother-in-law. His response to that love moved him to his own most  honorable behavior. God’s grace blessed that forbidden marriage as well and gave Boaz a good reputation that will live forever.

Even baby Obed displays God’s grace. He carried on the family line of Ruth’s late husband. He gave Ruth and Naomi access to his grandfather’s estate so that they could live comfortably. He restored Naomi’s faith and hope, being a grandson she could dote on.

God takes sin very seriously and punishes it vigorously, but his ultimate intention is always redemption. His judgment passes in a  moment so that he can bestow mercy and grace eternally.

The sin in Jesus’ family tree: why his mother had to be a virgin.

Most readers of Matthew’s gospel, I suppose, skip the first chapter entirely. After all, it is only a boring genealogy. But at least look at the first six verses. Genealogies in the Bible do not often mention a man’s mother, but Matthew took time to identify four mothers, and each mother reminds us of a particular sin.

The disgusting story of Judah and Tamar, told in Genesis 38, reads like the story line of the edgiest of soap operas. God took the life of Tamar’s husband, Judah’s oldest son Er, for unspecified wickedness. It then became the responsibility of the second son, Onan, to provide his brother with an heir by having sex with his widow. He did not want to, but instead of refusing outright, he repeatedly withdrew from Tamar so that his semen fell on the ground. Finally, God killed him, too. Judah withheld his youngest son Shelah. He told Tamar he was too young, but secretly feared that he would meet the same fate.

Years later, Judah’s wife died. Tamar, living out her widowhood at her father’s house, realized Judah never intended to give her to Shelah, but she was still determined to have children. Legally, it could only happen through Judah’s family, so she disguised herself as a shrine prostitute, seduced Judah, and bore him twins.

Rahab was a prostitute in Jericho. When Joshua sent two spies to Jericho, Rahab hid them and helped get them out of town safely. As a reward, they promised her protection. After the fall of Jericho, she married Salmon. While that story is certainly not so disgusting as the story of Tamar, Moses had strictly forbidden Hebrew men from marrying Canaanite women, saying they would be a snare and a temptation to the entire society. New Testament authors praise Rahab, but Salmon had no business marrying her, for Moses also declared that no one born of a forbidden marriage could ever join God’s assembly, nor could his descendants down to ten generations.

Forbidden marriages included Moabites, Ruth, for example. In this well-known story, Naomi, along with her husband and two sons, went to Moab to escape a famine. The Bible records nothing of the three men besides their names, but both sons took Moabite wives, and Naomi does not appear to have been an especially godly woman.

The two sons died without heir, and Naomi returned home to Bethlehem with Ruth. There, Ruth met Boaz and found favor in his eyes because of her devotion to Naomi. To shorten the story, they married, even though Moses had forbade marrying Moabites. Boaz was a godly man, even regarded by at least one commentator as a Christ figure, but as Salmon and Rahab’s son, and therefore son of a forbidden marriage himself, legally he should not have been regarded as part of the assembly of the Israelites. For that matter, since the prohibition lasted past ten generations, David himself was likewise ineligible. There are some powerful lessons about grace here that I will write about later.

Matthew does not even name the fourth woman, who had been Uriah’s wife. I suppose David’s inexcusable dalliance with Bathsheba is familiar enough that I don’t have to say anything more about it. Four women, four stories of sin, Most of us today would not criticize Salmon for marrying Rahab or Boaz for marrying Ruth,  but Judah’s relationship with Tamar and David’s with Bathsehba would probably be regarded as totally immoral in any society at any time in history.

Since all have sinned, surely everyone else Matthew mentions in his genealogy could have provided similar stories, although not necessarily involving sexual relations. Jesus could redeem the world only being both fully human and fully God. How could this combination possibly happen without a fatal contamination on the human side by sin? How could sinless God unite  himself with sinful humanity to redeem the world?

The only correct answer to the second question it that even omnipotent God cannot accomplish that. God’s omnipotence means that he can do anything that can be accomplished by power. Power cannot accomplish uniting his sinlessness with sin without polluting the sinlessness. So God used his power to create a sinless  humanity by means of the virgin birth.

Explanations of the virgin birth I have heard all seem to imply that somehow sex would introduce sin and that the man’s semen would have to be removed from the equation. That is correct as far as it goes, but there always seems to be the tacit assumption that any birth requires a woman’t egg cell. The Catholics even have a doctrine of the immaculate conception to make Mary sinless. That tacit assumption is incorrect, which makes the doctrine of immaculate conception quite unnecessary.

Jesus later said that anyone who does not enter the sheepfold by the door is a thief. The legitimate door into this world as a human is through a mother’s womb. The normal conception consists of the union of sperm and egg implanted in the uterus, where it grows and develops until the time of birth. Jesus’ supernatural conception consisted of the creation of a special embryo, not owing anything to either human parent, implanted in the uterus.

God could unite his Spirit with this newly created  human embryo. The supernatural conception, proceeding in an entirely natural pregnancy and birth guarantees a legitimate human being. God did not require a virgin birth because sex (which, after all he invented and ordained) is somehow immoral. He required it as evidence that Jesus’ conception was as supernatural as his birth, life and death as a  human were natural.

The Spirit of God united himself to this newly created sinless humanity without polluting himself. That is how Jesus became both fully God and fully human. From that unity, God’s power could and did accomplish his redemptive purpose.

Proverbs: the lamps of wisdom

The book of Proverbs is like a set of lamps. The purpose of a lamp is to chase away darkness. Without the light from a lamp, we cannot see well. In particular, without light in an unfamiliar place, we cannot see to avoid obstacles. Many times, we need to turn on more than one lamp in order to do whatever it is we need to do. The lamps of Proverbs illuminate numerous dark corners. If we’re having trouble with anxiety, we need the lamp of trust. If we’re having trouble with frustration, we need the lamp of patience. If we’re having trouble with greed, we need the lamp of prudence. If we’re having trouble with foolishness, we need the lamp of wisdom.

It does no good to have a lamp unless we turn it on. In Solomon’s day, lamps needed oil, a wick, and a spark to light it. Today’s electric lamps have light bulbs that must be turned on with a switch. They will not work unless they are plugged into a source of power. How do we turn on the lamps of Proverbs?

The second chapter starts with a set of conditions. My child, if you do certain things, then you will receive a particular outcome. If we receive revelation from our Father, if we seek the practical guidance of his commandments, if we listen for wisdom, if we work to gain understanding, if we pray diligently to obtain it, if we seek it with a whole heart, as if seeking a treasure, then we have plugged in the lamp. Then we are connected to the power source. Then the light will shine in dark places, and we can see the way through the minefield that is this life.

We will understand the fear of the Lord. In other words, we will come to understand the awesomeness of God, which makes our flesh crawl. We will be driven to worship his magnificent transcendence. But more than that, we will find knowledge of God. We will become intimately acquainted with one who loves us dearly.

Back to the conditions, I find the verbs listen, treasure, tune, concentrate, cry, ask, search, seek. That’s a lot of work. What happens if we don’t do all that? Nothing. There is no power to turn the lamp on. Do we really want what God has to offer? Are we really sure? The double-minded person has no reason to expect to receive anything from the Lord.

Why would we want to understand fear of the Lord? Because that’s the beginning of wisdom, which is insight into the true nature of things. What we find from diligently seeking, he gives out of the compassion and generosity of his Father-heart. While we stop to think about the various blessings we have received from his hand over the past year, let us especially remember that he has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ. When we seek wisdom with a whole heart, we find it, because it is what he has promised to give. We need only plug in the lamp and turn it on.

Finding joy in an unexpected place

“Though you have not seen him, you love him, and even though you do not see him now, you believe in  him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy.”–1 Peter 1:8 (NIV)

I confess that I have a naturally gloomy outlook. It’s getting better, thank God, but joy has been an elusive concept for me. Imagine my surprise, then, when I really looked at this verse in 1 Peter, one of the so-called general epistles.

Unlike Paul’s usual practice, Peter did not write either of his epistles to particular congregations. He did not address them to any local issues. He intended that they be read, believed, and applied in any congregation. I am part of a local congregation, and therefore it is addressed to me and my local church body as much as it was to any of Peter’s contemporaries.

Here is what it says: 1) I have not seen Jesus, but I love him. 2) I do not see Jesus now, but I believe that ultimately I will. 3) I am filled with joy.

Jesus had died, risen, and ascended to heaven before any of Peter’s readership ever heard of him. They had no advantage that I, living much later, lack. I have no trouble believing that I love Jesus. I have no trouble believing his promise that he will return.

How, then, can I have trouble believing that I am filled with joy? What this verse tells me is that, while my mind naturally turns to the negative, joy is nearby, within me. I can stop wondering how to find joy. I can train my mind to turn away from negativism and towards the joy that is already a part of my spirit.

Someone else’s struggles may be very different from mine. Someone else may have no questions about joy at all, but stumble over something else. Ultimately, all Christians must face one question, though: when we read a promise in Scripture, do we really believe it, or merely agree with it? Will we allow it to change our thoughts, words, and deeds?

God’s Servant Stands

“Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”  Romans 14:4 (NASB)

Why do Christians find it so easy to criticize other Christians? Perhaps because Jesus so greatly desires unity in the Church. It is not easy to build unity if everyone has cause to be on the defensive against carping criticism from everyone else. It is not easy to build unity if everyone is attuned to pointing out everyone else’s weaknesses and failures.

From time to time I like to go back through old, worn-out Bibles that I no longer carry. In one that used to be my primary study Bible, I underlined the first part of that verse, but as I read the chapter over again, “and stand he will” captured my attention. The matter has already been decided without any input from me at all.

The part I first underlined asks, who am I to get upset with, say, a store clerk who is taking too much time on things that seem unnecessary to me and keeping me from hurrying on my way? After all, he or she does not work for me, but for the manager of the store.

It asks, who am I to question why a member of my church hasn’t gotten over some habit or attitude I disapprove of? But then, that’s not really the same case. After all, that looking askance at that person makes me wonder whether he or she is serving God at all. Well, who asked me to determine that? Whether I’ve succeeded in living up to it or not, I have known and understood that concept for years.

The part that stood out in my most recent encounter with that verse builds on the same point. It is the boss’s responsibility and privilege, not mine, to measure whether a member of his or her staff does a good job or not. It is God’s responsibility and privilege to measure whether one of his servants stands or falls. And he has already decided and announced that his servants, one and all, will stand.

That part of the verse also means I have no business criticizing myself or wondering if I have messed up so thoroughly that I’ll fail in God’s sight. He has already determine–and revealed for all to read and believe–that he is able to make me stand, and that he will.

Protected in the shadow of God’s wings

“Have mercy on me, O God, have mercy on me, for in you my soul takes refuge. I will take refuge in the shadow of your wings until the disaster has passed.” — Psalm 57:1 (NIV)

David, anointed king of Israel, hid in a cave from the wrath of Saul, anointed but deposed king of Israel. Through Samuel, Saul knew that God had decided to remove him as king. After a while, he recognized David as his eventual replacement. Instead of retiring gracefully, Saul sought to defy God and kill David.

Probably no one in American society is in such danger with, in human terms, so little support and so few resources. And yet every one of us goes through utterly disastrous seasons in our lives. It may be the loss or a job or even career. It may be the crumbling of an important relationship. It may be betrayal at the hands of someone we trusted. Whatever calamity befalls us, we can take the same comfort David did, if only we will.

As he hid in a cave, the cave was not his refuge. God was his refuge. The image “in the shadow of your wings,” as opposed to “under your wings”  indicates that David did not even experience really tangible support. He took refuge in a shadow, but God himself cast that shadow. David neither needed nor desired anything more.

The peace Jesus gives

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubles and do not be afraid.” — John 14:27 (NIV)

“Give peace a chance,” says one bumper sticker. “War is not the answer,” says another. The U.S. government operates a long-running Middle East peace process.  We all want peace, but there doesn’t seem to be much of it.

I remember well what too many Vietnam-era peace rallies were like; in the name of peace, people shouted angry slogans, got into fierce arguments, sometimes even threw bricks through windows or set buildings on fire.

We can avoid arguments, of course. How many relationships suffer under the strain of issues neither party dares to talk about as they seethe privately? What looks like peace is too often an illusion. That’s how the world gives peace.

If Jesus does not give peace as the world does, then doesn’t it follow that it might not look at all like peace? Doesn’t it follow that Jesus does not mean papering over differences for an uneasy truce or an absence of conflict?

The peace Jesus offers is first peace with God. Jesus took care of sin on the cross. Without the cross, everyone from the most callous mass murderer to the most generous and tenderhearted person on earth deserves hell for sin; in Adam all die. By grace, Jesus took our just punishment, and gave in its place the right to be adopted as beloved children of God.

Second, the peace of Jesus is peace within. Being troubled or not is a choice. Being afraid or not is a choice. In principle, we can all choose not to be troubled or afraid, but left to ourselves, everyone lacks the strength to stick with that choice. Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to strengthen, guide, and shield our hearts and give us the strength not to be troubled or afraid.

Third, the peace of Jesus does not promise an avoidance of outward conflict, only the ability to remain at peace within in the midst of it. Mere hours after he spoke our verse, a band of armed men arrested him. He suffered beating, illegal judicial proceedings, the anger of his adversaries, the mocking of the crowd, and finally the agony of execution by torture. He never lost his peace. His disciples panicked and fled, but later they, too, learned the secret of peace within.

Someone who knows the peace of Jesus has the ability to experience times of trouble without becoming emotionally overcome by it, to withstand abuse from others without retaliating, to respond to a crisis with prayer and calm assurance of deliverance rather than panicking and looking for shortcuts.

Who can understand the peace Jesus offers? Probably no one. He doesn’t ask us to understand it, only to receive it from him.

Visions of heaven

I’m sure we’ve all wondered what heaven will be like. It’s odd, though, how often people talk about heaven without mentioning God. Maybe that’s why there are so many glimpses of heaven in the Bible—to remind us of whose idea it was in the first place.

Most of us can only imagine a place much like earth, but with no troubles. Even inspired writers had trouble envisioning much more than that. Isaiah’s vision contemplates people having children, planting fields, building houses, and living as long as trees. He tells us heaven will be a new creation. That means it doesn’t exist yet, but what will it be like?

There will be a new city. God put the first man in a garden, and the city was sinful man’s attempt to organize the world for himself without God. In the end, God will even redeem what we have invented in sin.

There will be a new society. It will be happy, secure, peaceful. The harmony will extend even to animals. No creature will kill or even hurt any other creature.

Most important, people will have an intimate relationship with God, surrounded by his blessings. Today, we pray and wait for the answer, sometimes painfully long. Not so in heaven. There, if anyone asks for anything, God will accomplish it while they are still speaking.

How do we get there from here? Jesus is the door. As we approach the Advent season, it is appropriate to remember that when God pronounced the death sentence in the garden, he promised that the seed of the woman would destroy the devil. After thousands of years of prophetic preparation, Jesus was born to a virgin. He lived as a man, died for us as a criminal, and rose again as Lord of the universe. Whenever people acknowledge him as Lord, his blood cleanses them from all unrighteousness. This utterly mind-boggling heaven becomes their heritage, our heritage, which we will possess at the appointed time.

Forgetting former things

“Forget the former things; do not dwell on the past. See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up; do you not perceive it? I am making a way in the desert and streams in the wasteland.”–Isaiah 43:18-19 (NIV)

Yesterday is gone. We can’t live there any more. Maybe yesterday I felt like a real winner and everything clicked. That was great, yesterday. If I am going to be a real winner today, I need to think about today. Maybe yesterday I made a huge mistake. That was terrible yesterday. If I’m going to avoid making another just like it, I need to think about today. That is one obvious application of Isaiah’s message, but there must be much more.

In context, Isaiah had just mentioned the exodus, when God made a path through the sea many generations earlier. That, in fact, is the former thing Isaiah told Israel to forget–a pivotal and definitive time in the nation’s history.

In a way, it was important for them to keep the memory alive. Isaiah preached during a time of national turmoil, when Israel, under the godly but politically weak King Hezekiah, was a vassal of the Assyrian empire and under constant threat of invasion.

The memory of God’s supernatural intervention kept faith alive in a way, but it stirred the hope that he would come back and do the same thing again. God wanted to do something new. The nation, under God’s judgment and wrath, faced a long decline and a succession of mostly Godless kings, ending in destruction and deportation–the desert in Isaiah’s prophecy.

Streams in a desert do not flow constantly. Sometimes  water rushes through them; the rest of the time they appear as parched as the rest of the ground. Godly people clinging to hope of a dry path through the sea as they pass through a desert will not be vigilant enough to notice and take advantage of the streams (grace) God wants to provide for them.

Promises in the Bible nearly always apply more to the community than to individual members. Therefore, today’s application of Isaiah’s promise applies more to the church as a whole than to any individual member. I have no prophetic word at the moment for the whole church, but the application I see for individuals and one former church probably applies in some way.

Whatever God did for me in the past is not the same as what he plans to do today. Whatever he did then was before my latest spiritual growth and before my latest sin. I don’t suppose he wants me literally to forget either yesterday’s victories or yesterday’s sin, but they both have consequences today. God expects to meet me where I am, not where I was. If I become so involved in what yesterday was like that I can’t seek God today, I will miss him.

I was once part of a church that had to dismiss its pastor for adultery and embezzlement. It was not a Methodist church, so it is not as if it could just see whom the bishop would appoint. The congregation had to call a new pastor, but it was still bound up in the hurt caused by the financial mismanagement of a pastor who had been forced out 17 years earlier. They turned down the candidate I thought God had in mind and have suffered two failed pastorates since then. They missed the stream in the desert.