The Prince of Peace

“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.” — Isaiah 9:6-7

Thank God for this tremendous promise. We have not seen the entire fulfillment of it. Jesus has indeed been given to us. To all who know him, he is indeed a Wonderful Counselor, this son revealed as Mighty God and Everlasting Father. And how we need a Prince of Peace.

Saying so does not imply that Jesus is not the Prince of Peace, but we certainly do not yet see the government on  his shoulder. I lose track of how many wars are active in our world at this very moment.

When my dogs are out in the yard and I call them by name come in, they look up to acknowledge their names (at least more often than not) and then go back to whatever they were doing. One in particular specializes in finding weakness in the barriers I have set up to keep her out of the rose bushes and other places they shouldn’t go. The whole human race responds to Jesus pretty much the same way.

During my college days, some people wanted peace in Vietnam so intensely that they through bricks through windows, set fire to cars and buildings, and even rioted in the streets. That’s not how Jesus wants to establish peace!

Today, I see bumper stickers that proclaim, “War is not the answer.” We don’t have peace riots against our current wars, but we certainly do say nasty things about whomever happens to be the President. That’s not how Jesus wants to establish peace, either.

In fact, Ecclesiastes 3:8 tells us there is a time for war and a time for peace. As much as we’d like to, we can’t get peace by demanding that our human leadership provide it. We will not achieve freedom from war until the nations rally to Jesus’ banner. It will happen eventually. In the mean time, what kind of peace can we expect, if Jesus is truly Prince of Peace to us?

As we prepare to celebrate Christmas–doesn’t it feel about a week earlier this year than usual?–lots of us are getting worked up into a stew of frustration about all the preparations we need to make, or think we do. On top of the usual daily routines, which do not stop for holidays, we have shopping, mailing, decorating, and food preparation. We also contend with traffic jams, full parking lots, bad weather, and a worse economy that keep (or at least delay) us from getting it al accomplished.

When we give Jesus our frustrations and trust in him that his kingdom and his righteousness are more desirable than finishing our ever-expanding to-do list, we can find peace in the midst of the bustle. For now and the foreseeable future, peace does not mean an absence of pressure or conflict. It means the ability to stay calm under pressure while conflict swirls around us. Fortunately, that’s as close as a deep breath and a prayer of thanks.

Reclaiming the remnant, the next time around

The time leading up to Christmas, Advent,  prepares worshipers to receive the coming of the Lord in at least two senses. Christ has come once as a baby and will return as a conquering king. Scripture often contains multiple meanings and multiple layers of fulfillment. A familiar passage in Isaiah, delivered probably in the days of King Ahaz, refers to both arrivals.

The “stump of Jesse” in verse 1 indicates that David’s line will be cut down, which it was about 120 years after Isaiah delivered the prophecy. Just as a tree, having been chopped down, can grow again from the stump, so will a shoot arise from the destruction of the Jewish kingdom. Later prophets Jeremiah and Zechariah copied Isaiah’s use of “Branch” to refer to the coming Messiah.

Verse 10 says “in that day” the nations will rally to this “Root of Jesse” and that the Lord will  reclaim the remnant of his people from Assyria, Egypt, and other places a second time!. In what day? It must be whatever day is described in verses 1-9. And what is the first time? I know of no general return of exiles to the land before the return from Babylonian captivity more than 200 years after Isaiah first preached these words. Could the second time refer to the recreation of a Jewish state in 1948? Certainly no event any earlier qualifies, but it depends on the “day” described in earlier verses.

We can easily see Jesus’ lineage and character in verses 1-5, and therefore see the gospels as a fulfillment of this prophecy. We cannot recognize in verses 6-9 anything ever observed on the earth. This chapter therefore beautifully illustrates the image of two mountains, which from a far enough distance looks like one mountain. From where we stand, Jesus has come once. At no time since have herbivores been safe from carnivores or babies from poisonous snakes. At  no time since  have the nations rallied to him to find rest. What to Isaiah looked like one mountain looks to us like at least two. If the events of 1948 are a second fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, then there must be a third yet to come.

Isaiah began his ministry in about 740 BC. Ahaz began his faithless and disastrous reign five years later. The final stage of the Babylonian captivity, a direct outgrowth of Ahaz’ policies, took place in 581 BC. Isaiah saw that, as well as the first restoration 70 years later. Then he saw the earthly life and ministry of Jesus 500 or so years after that. We are now living about 2000 years later and have not yet seen in history the rallying to Jesus that Isaiah also saw.

There are only two kinds of  prophecy in the Bible: those that have been fulfilled and those that haven’t–yet. As we prepare to celebrate Jesus’ birth, we ought also be prepared all times for his return. It will happen.

Joseph: the forgotten man at Christmas

Nativity / Blake

Illustration to Milton’s On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity / William Blake, 1809

I just heard a speaker say she had searched the web for contemporary Christmas songs about Joseph and found only three.

I know of a few more than that from the Middle Ages and Renaissance. Most of them are secular pieces that mock him for being a cuckold. Poor Joseph deserves so much better than that.

We can learn a lot about him by juxtaposing Matthew’s account and Luke’s account of Mary’s pregnancy. When Mary told the angel, “May it be to me as you have said,” the Holy Spirit probably came upon her immediately. In the very next verse, she was on her way to visit Elizabeth.

We can only imagine what might have gone through Mary’s mind or what conversations she may have had after she realized she was indeed pregnant. It does seem almost certain, though, that she was not showing when she left for Elizabeth’s village. When she returned to Nazareth three months later it must have been obvious to everyone. Did she dare tell anyone about angel visitations and the power of the Most High? If she did, why would anyone believe her?

Joseph’s heartbreak

Pity Joseph. He was betrothed to this obviously pregnant woman and knew he could not be the father. By rights, he could have denounced her as an adulteress, and as a result, she would have been stoned to death. For whatever reason, Joseph rejected that course of action. He decided to divorce her quietly–perhaps send her out of town to have her baby and live as well as she could manage.

By the way, ignorant people who fancy themselves intellectuals sometimes explain away the “myth” of the virgin birth by saying that people two thousand years ago did not know as much science as we do now, so of course they would believe all kinds of impossible things. Joseph knew enough science to understand that he had not had sex with Mary, and that therefore she was not bearing his child. He and everyone else knew enough science to know that someone had to be the father, and not a one of them jumped to the conclusion that she became pregnant without having a sexual experience.

Matthew tells us that Joseph accepted this conclusion, preposterous on the face of it, after having a dream in which the Lord of the Universe spoke to him and told him to go through with the marriage. The two of them must have had a miserable time dealing with all the gossips in Nazareth. It is from Luke that we learn of the decree from Caesar Augustus that sent them to Bethlehem. What was probably a headache and inconvenience for most people forced to travel to an ancestral home must have seemed like gift from God to Joseph and Mary.

Joseph’s humility

According to Luke, Jesus’ birth took place in a stable, where shepherds paid a visit after hearing a choir of angels singing. Probably the majority of creches show both the shepherds and wiremen gathered around the manger, but Matthew 2:11 clearly says that the wise men visited the holy family in a house. That Herod ordered the slaughter of all baby boys in Bethlehem up to two years of age indicates that Joseph had decided to settle there to be safe from the unpleasantness they had known in Nazareth. Another dream warned him that it was not safe from Herod, so he took his family to Egypt.

After learning that Herod had died, Joseph intended to return to Bethlehem until he learned that Herod’s son ruled in his place. Another dream sent them back to Nazareth, where whispers and looks of disapproval for Mary and pity for Joseph probably made life continually uncomfortable.

God chose his human parents with great care. It is not enough that both were descendants of David. Both had personal characteristics of obedience and faith that made them ideally trustworthy to care for the God/Man during his childhood and youth.

Joseph exhibited great love and tenderness when, believing Mary to have been unfaithful to him, declined to take steps to have her executed. He exhibited great courage as he chose to marry her, accept her shame as his own, and stand between her and the gossips. When God himself thwarted his evident hope to settle permanently in Bethlehem, Joseph exhibited great humility as he meekly and without hesitation moved back to Nazareth.

In him we see quiet strength sufficient to enable him to follow through with decisions that make no human sense at all and to live with the consequences without complaint or hesitation. After one more incident that happened thirteen years later, Joseph disappears from Scripture.

God apparently determined that we do not need to know anything more about Joseph in order to discern a character of monumental and heroic faith. Among other things, the Christmas season gives us an annual opportunity to marvel that such a man ever walked the earth and played such a critical role in preparing for the salvation of the whole world.

Photo credit for nativity set: Some rights reserved by a.drian

1 Corinthians 13: The Christmas Version

A retired preacher friend of mine shared this with me, from an old Christmas card he found. It’s good enough to share some more.

If I decorate my house perfectly with plaid bows, strands of twinkling lights, and shining balls, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another decorator.

If I slave away in the kitchen, baking dozens of Christmas cookies, preparing gourmet meals, and arranging a beautifully adorned table at mealtime, but do not show love to my family, I’m just another cook.

If I work at the soup kitchen, carol in the nursing home, and give all that I have to charity, but do not show love to my family, it profits me nothing.

If I trim the spruce with shimmering angels and crystal snowflakes, attend a myriad of holiday parties, and sing in the choir’s cantata, but do not focus on Christ, I have missed the point.

Love stops cooking to hug the child.

Love sets aside the decorating to kiss the husband.

Love is kind, though harried and tired.

Love doesn’t envy another’s home that has coordinated Christmas china and table linens.

Love doesn’t yell at the kids to get out of the way, but is thankful they are there to be in the way.

Love doesn’t give only to those who are able to give in return, but rejoices in giving to those who can’t.

Love bears all things, believes all things, endures all things.

Love never fails.

Video games will break, pearl necklaces will be lost, golf clubs will rust, but giving the gift of love will outlast everything.

Mary’s commitment

There is an old Medieval carol that speaks of Adam’s sin in eating the forbidden fruit, but it ends by saying, “Blessed be the time the apple was taken. Otherwise, our lady would never have been heavenly queen”–basically giving thanks for sin so that people could worship Mary. Protestants look askance at Catholics for praying to Mary and honoring her as queen of heaven. Unfortunately, we have made up for it by virtually ignoring her, a worse mistake than honoring her wrongly. At least at Advent we pay some attention.

God deliberately passes over the great and prominent in order to do his work through the lowly and ordinary. He chose Mary to be his mother, not despite the fact that she was a peasant girl, someone of no special status, but because of it.

Gabriel announced God’s blessing and told her that she would give birth to a son named Jesus, who would be called Son of the Most High. Betrothed, but not yet married, Mary was troubled and puzzled at the announcement. She missed the fact that Jesus would be Son of the Most High, not the son of Joseph and wondered how she could become pregnant when she was still a virgin. Gabriel explained that she would become pregnant by the power of God. Mary committed herself to God’s will, perhaps not realizing until later the emotional turmoil that being an unwed mother would cause her and those she loved.

Luke says that Mary went quickly to visit Elizabeth, an older relative who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist. She might have already been reviled by her family and townspeople, but Elizabeth pronounced a blessing on her and her unborn child. Mary chose to ignore her shame and respond to the blessing. Her next recorded words are one of the great prayers of the Bible.

Being a poor girl from a hick town did not make Mary stupid or ignorant. The passage shows great familiarity with other prayers of the Old Testament, especially Hannah’s prayer before the birth of Samuel. Mary’s prayer, known as the Magnificat from the first word of the Latin translation, starts, “My soul glorifies the Lord” (NIV).

Older translations, closer to Latin, use the word “magnify,” which entails making something appear larger and closer by focusing attention on it by eliminating other things from view. Another key word, soul, has become a rather vague religious word to us, but we get our word “psychology” from the original Greek word, psyche.  So we can think of the soul as what psychologists study: personality, intelligence, will, emotion, etc. Therefore, Mary praised God with her whole heart from the very depths of her being.

The second line of the poem restates the first: “my spirit rejoices in God my savior.” “Savior” implies protection and deliverance. If God is our savior, the military, the government, a spouse or parent, comfort foods, all the stuff we accumulate, etc. are not. Mary turned to the real source of salvation, but something troubled and puzzled her. Through Gabriel, God, the savior, told her to name her baby Jesus, which means savior. What did that mean? She must have thought about that for a long time.

Mary’s neighbors and relatives may have persecuted her for getting pregnant before getting married, but she was about to become the mother of God himself. The praise and honor she would receive from every subsequent generation of people more than made up for the pain she would experience from her acquaintances. All generations, she says, will call her blessed. Because of great things she did? No. Because God did great things for her in his power, holiness, and mercy.

The next several verses refer to what God has done. “He has shown strength with his arm. He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel.”

The Greek verb tense, more complicated than anything in English, can indeed refer to past actions, as the English perfect tense does in our translations. Indeed, without the mighty deeds God has already accomplished, there is no good news to tell. But God’s works are not all in the past. What he has done promises what he will do in the future.

And so the Greek verbs also refer to acts that are still in the future, but which have begun to be realized. In that sense, Mary’s prayer is prophetic. Like the Old Testament prophets, she speaks of God’s intentions as if they have already happened, revolutionary intentions that represent a complete reversal of normal human expectations.

Proud people are usually proud because other people have told them all their lives that they are somehow special, whether they are naturally superior by accident of birth or whether they are every bit as good as those rich folks and ought to stand up for themselves. God will have none of it. He puts down those who exalt themselves.

Kings and rulers have always pretended to be a class apart from everyone else and a better sort of people. God cares greatly about the downtrodden and lowly, which explains why he chose a poor peasant girl to be the mother of God.

Remember, God exalted David from obscure shepherd boy to king and promised that his offspring would rule forever. But then the kings of his dynasty became proud and corrupt. They turned away from God and began to oppress the people.

God cast them down, and by the time Jesus was born, descendants of those kings had again become poor and powerless—just the right circumstances for them to be exalted again and produce the promised king who will rule forever.

Society’ expects that the rich will always be well off and the poor will always be hungry. So God feeds the poor and lets the rich fend for themselves. God is not bound by what human society thinks normal. He does not exist to live up to human expectations—except for one thing: when he makes a promise, we can expect him to keep it. God made a covenant with Abraham, intended eventually to bless all mankind. Through Mary’s unborn child, the Messiah, God fulfills the covenant promises.

I called this post “Mary’s Commitment,” not “Mary’s Prayer.” The prayer shows strongly that she chose to believe what Gabriel told her, regardless of the shame and opposition she received from her family and neighbors. She continued to believe in the face of that opposition. She prayed not in fear, but in bold hope.

We can join her prayer. If God is for us, who can be against us? If we have God’s favor, and we do, why should we get bent out of shape if we don’t have someone else’s? Let it drop. Focus attention on God’s favor.

We can also join her commitment. God still sides with the lowly against the proud. We need to be more concerned about the needs of the poor and outcast than with our own respectability and privileges.

Unbelief stops God, usually: a pre-Christmas miracle

Luke begins his gospel by introducing Zechariah, a very minor priest. Politically important priests lived in Jerusalem. Zechariah, on the other hand, lived in the countryside and visited Jerusalem only when his team was on duty, twice a year for a week at a time. Luke tells us that he and his wife Elizabeth were upright, and blameless in the sight of God and observed all of the Lord’s commandments and regulations. And that is despite the very real possibility that they did not realize that God loved them so much.

They were old for their time and had no children. Zechariah’s name had never been drawn by lot to burn incense in the temple. God, it seemed, had withheld the ultimate fulfillment of a married couple, children, and of a minor priest, the opportunity for that special service. And yet they continued to live a blameless life in God’s sight. They were two of the very best people in their society.

One day, the lot fell to Zechariah to burn incense, the most important moment of his entire life. Five priests entered the temple, but Zechariah alone entered the holy place. A crowd of worshipers gathered outside the temple to wait for him to complete his ritual duties and come back out to pronounce a blessing. But this day was different from all others. An angel appeared to Zechariah and told him his prayers had been answered.

Luke does not say what those prayers were, but verb tense Luke uses indicates that it was the answer to a specific prayer, not a habitual prayer. It probably means whatever Zechariah was praying just before the angel appeared, and therefore probably not his own personal needs. The angel promised him a son in his old age, and that son would answer whatever he had ever prayed, whether for his own needs, for Israel, or for the world beyond Israel.

Unfortunately, Zechariah chose that moment to turn from his regular character as upright and godly priest and revert to crotchety old man. He asked the angel, “How will I know you’re telling me the truth. My wife and I are old.” Zechariah knew the Scriptures. He knew that Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and others had borne children in old age after years of barrenness. He knew that God had worked many other miracles. He knew that everything ever spoken by an angel had come to pass, no matter how unlikely it seemed. And yet he chose to challenge the angel and declare his unbelief. He demanded a sign.

Unbelief is a serious obstacle to God. When Jesus went back home to Nazareth to teach in the synagogue, his friends and neighbors rejected him. The Bible says that he was unable to do any mighty works there—not unwilling, but unable—because of their unbelief. Had he been able to do every conceivable miracle on that occasion, it would have blessed the people who received them, but would probably not have had long-term significance for the development of the kingdom of God. In the long run, it didn’t matter whether these people received their miracle or not. And so it is written that their unbelief prevented miracles from happening.

But in Zechariah’s case, God had prepared the birth and ministry of Jesus for generations. Hundreds of prophecies relate to it, including one in Daniel that named the approximate time. The ministry of John the Baptist was part of the preparation. There is no way Zechariah’s unbelief could derail it. The angel identified himself as Gabriel, a name already part of the historical record. Zechariah got his sign. He would be unable to speak until the day John was born.

Usually the priest who entered the holy place fulfilled his work quickly and left. Zechariah stayed in the holy place for a long time, so long that the crowd wondered about it. When he came out, he had been struck dumb and could not finish his priestly duty to pronounce a blessing on the crowd. Somehow, they understood that he had seen a vision. When his term of service ended, he went home and spoke for the next time to name his newborn son nine months later.

The crowd wondered what was taking him so long, this priest who had not been called to this service until he was an old man. We could understand if they concluded that he was a great sinner, that God had chosen that moment to punish him. We could understand if they concluded that he had been struck dead. There must have been great relief when he finally came out and great wonderment to realize that he could not speak. But they concluded not that he had been punished, but that he had seen a vision.

Perhaps this group of ordinary people had more faith than Zechariah did. We, too, ought to be more open to the possibility that God is here, that he is moving among us, and that he wants to work wonders. That he has a plan for our welfare, not for calamity.

American society today is very skeptical. We seem to have settled for a God of the gaps. We believe whatever science has to tell us on any given day, even though that changes noticeably over the years. We seem to think that if science has spoken about something, that settles it and there is no place for God in the matter. We make a distinction between science, or what we call reality, and religion, which we call someone’s private opinion.

Even in the church, people often regard those who talk about signs and wonders as some kind of fanatic. It isn’t reasonable. It isn’t normal. Some even teach that God’s supernatural activity and the gifts of the Holy Spirit passed away with the early church. And so the church today prays too often without any expectation that God will do anything. We hope against hope, but too often we do not believe.

Now I doubt if any of us have ever prayed a prayer that, if not granted, would derail some portion of God’s cosmic plan. We more greatly resemble the citizens of Nazareth than Zechariah. If we pray for something and then go out and tell other people we don’t have much hope of it happening, that is unbelief. If we find ourselves doubting God’s love, wisdom or mercy, that is unbelief. It is not unbelief to be uncertain of what to pray for, but if we know what to pray for and it seems like too much even for God to do, that is unbelief.

Americans do not see miracles like the ones reported from Africa or Asia or South America. We do not believe those reports very much, either. We decide that the stories are exaggerated or that there must be some other, more rational explanation. In consequence of our unbelief, God cannot do many miracles here. God does not stop wanting to do miracles in our midst; as in Nazareth, he cannot. God dislikes unbelief. It does not anger him. It grieves him.

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.