Anticipating the Lord of History

It’s been several years since I posted anything in this space, and even longer since a regular posting has been in the offing. But today I was encouraged by the thought that, after receiving some feedback in the past few weeks, that these posts are occasionally helpful to folks interested in studying the scriptures and even other matters of a political or theological nature. So in light of that, I’m going to post below a sermon I preached this morning on Luke chapter 1. I hope its enjoyable and enlightening for anyone stumbling across it online.

PJ Wenzel

Welcome to the advent season!  Advent season – the celebration of the arrival of Jesus.

During this advent season, we’re going to be looking at several key figures in the birth narrative of our Lord, with the purpose of walking in their sandals a bit. To see that they were not only narrative furniture in the story of Jesus, but men and women whose lives furnish us with examples of how Jesus’ advent changed them, and how the Gospel transformed their lives and hearts.

Zechariah was one such man.  We’re going to walk through the first part of Luke 1 together, I’m going to read some of the story with you, and because it’s a longer passage, I’m going to make some contextual comments along the way, and then we’ll examine the story from a few different angles. 

So…Luke 1 beginning in verse 5, please follow along with me…

[5] In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. [6] And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. [7] But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Zechariah was a priest from the line of Aaron. Aaron was the brother of Moses, and in the Bible it is through Aaron’s line that the priesthood would be maintained. But not only is Zechariah from this tribe, so is his wife, Elizabeth. It was said in those days that a woman of excellent character was “fit to marry a priest.” But here we learn she is not only righteous in character but is also of the lineage of Aaron, and this would have been thought a double blessing for Zechariah.

Note also that these are older folks. Just like Abraham and Sarah, they are old and unable to have children. From Sarah to Hannah to Elizabeth, again and again in Scripture there is a theme that the Lord delights to show his power and grace in the barren womb. God being glorified in the midst of suffering is also a major Biblical theme, and in the stories of women like Elizabeth, the two themes are beautifully and powerfully woven together. Now, verse 8…

[8] Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, [9] according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

By this time there were so many priests that the line of Aaron was divided up into 24 different divisions, and even those divisions were so populated that if you were chosen for the honor of offering prayers in the temple like this, it’s the only time you’d be able to do it in your lifetime. One and done. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Zachariah – so he is thinking that this is the apex of his ministry on earth.

[10] And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense. [11] And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. [12] And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. [13] But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. [14] And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, [15] for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. [16] And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

[18] And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” [19] And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. [20] And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.”

[21] And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. [22] And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. [23] And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

Now it was expected that when Zachariah came out of the Temple, he was to stand in front of the people on the steps of the temple and offer to them a blessing. He was to bless them verbally before the Lord. So when he came out and couldn’t speak, he also couldn’t perform this blessing.  Finally we read…

[24] After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, [25] “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

This is the word of the lord. You may be seated. 

There are three different angles to this story we’ll examine:

  1. The first is the art of waiting on God’s timing
  2. The second is ultimate reality belongs to God
  3. The third is restoration for the glory of God

(waiting, reality, restoration)

The art of waiting on God’s timing

I’ve read in so many devotions and so many greeting cards now that the theme of “anticipation” has become a permanent part of my Christmas vocabulary. Growing up we even celebrated Christmas by doing an advent devotional as a family and putting ornaments on a “waiting tree.” 

To be perfectly candid, I didn’t really care for all the waiting and anticipation in the lead up to Christmas. As a kid it wasn’t the decorating and the devotional evenings that I anticipated, it was Christmas morning! Just in case my parents weren’t sure of my feelings, I’m sure I conveyed my righteous anticipation by asking a million questions about presents and refusing to sit still for any length of time.

Despite my mom’s noble efforts, it wasn’t until later that I began to appreciate the themes of “anticipation” and “waiting” and how they reflect the longing of Israel for their Messiah.

Here at the beginning of our advent season together is the perfect time to reflect on those themes, especially as we look at the lives of Zechariah and of Elizabeth. Focusing in a bit more on Zechariah this morning.  

Luke tells us a few important things about this couple: They were righteous, they were old, they were barren, and they were serving the Lord.

When you are young, there are certain dreams you have, which, being young, you assume will just fall into place as life goes on. There is a certain naiveté, ignorance, and maybe even a touch of arrogance about how we start out our lives as adults. But as time wears on, we begin to see that what we assumed about life, what we took for granted would just happen, doesn’t always fall into place the way we thought it might. Am I right?

Francis Schaeffer once said in the context of an essay on art, that for the Christian, our entire life is our greatest work of art, more than anything we ever do with our hands or produce with our minds.  I’m certain that many of you would agree with Samuel Rutherford that we owe a great deal to the file and the hammer of our Lord, but that process of refinement is painful. And perhaps no struggle is more personal and more painful for a married couple than the struggle of infertility.

Now it is not my purpose or intent to open fresh wounds this morning. But here at Veritas while we’ve praised God on many occasions for the great blessing of children in the church, we’ve also wanted to acknowledge and love on those in our church family here who haven’t yet been blessed with a child, or have walked a long and faith-testing road to parenthood. I can attest, with many others I’m certain, how encouraged and built up in the faith I have been by the godly example of the men and women of Veritas who have walked through the difficult seasons – not only of infertility, but of the loss of children. I praise God for your tenderhearted and steadfast example which brings glory to God.

So church we know a little about what these two people have gone through. But when we meet Zechariah and Elizabeth here they are older, and seemingly they have reached a point where giving birth to a child was a distant dream, one that has long since disappeared like a mirage in the desert of Judea.

Now Luke, our author, is a physician by trade, and a very meticulous author. And when he conveys a thing under the superintendence of the Holy Spirit, I believe we should take careful note.  He says that this couple was righteous. That they were following all the laws of the Lord.

As they waited. As they anticipated. As they dreamed, as they lived day in and day out – what did they do?  They obeyed.

Friends, this is the first thing our souls need to take away from this account: waiting on the Lord is active. It is not stultifying, it is not siloed, it is not paralyzed.

The Bible is replete with story after story of Godly men and women who waited for the Lord. David practically made it the theme of his life. As in Psalm 27:

Wait for the LORD;

                        be strong, and let your heart take courage;

                        wait for the LORD! Psalm 27:14

or in Psalm 25:

                        May integrity and uprightness preserve me,

                        for I wait for you. Psalm 25:21

Waiting is abiding. Abiding is obeying. Obeying is glorifying the Lord in our lives through word, heart, and deed.

If we want to know what it means to wait I can think of no better passage than John 15 where our Lord told us… “I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” John 15:5

Notice that there is a “doing” here. Waiting on the Lord requires us to abide in His power while doing His work until He brings about His will for our lives in His own timing, by His own power for His own glory.

At this time in Israel’s history, there were thousands of people waiting for a savior. Para-military uprisings among the Jews were becoming more and more frequent, and the people longed for freedom as a nation once more.

This was a national anxiety felt in the hearts and realized in the daily lives of every Israelite.  Zechariah and Elizabeth were serving the Lord as they waited on Him, and as they prayed for a son and for freedom from Roman oppression.

Now…one of the tremendous marks of a life that waits upon the Lord is that of prayer. A life of waiting on Jesus is a life marked by prayer for the Father’s will to be done.

And in our passage today, we read that it was the angel Gabriel who visited Zechariah in the temple. Gabriel shows up at other points in redemptive history. In Daniel chapter 9 we read of how Daniel was praying to God on behalf of his people.  He was confessing the sins of Israel and appealing to God to rescue them from hands of their enemies and to restore them back to the land – because they were in exile in Babylon at this time. He ends his prayer like this:

Now therefore, O our God, listen to the prayer of your servant and to his pleas for mercy, and for your own sake, O Lord, make your face to shine upon your sanctuary, which is desolate. [18] O my God, incline your ear and hear. Open your eyes and see our desolations, and the city that is called by your name. For we do not present our pleas before you because of our righteousness, but because of your great mercy. [19] O Lord, hear; O Lord, forgive. O Lord, pay attention and act. Delay not, for your own sake, O my God, because your city and your people are called by your name.” Daniel 9:7–19

And after this Gabriel comes to him with a remarkable message. He says this:

“O Daniel, I have now come out to give you insight and understanding. [23] At the beginning of your pleas for mercy a word went out, and I have come to tell it to you, for you are greatly loved. Therefore consider the word and understand the vision.” Daniel 9:22b–23

I love this passage! As Daniel waits in exile he is praying, he is obeying the Lord, and the Lord wants him to know that he is “greatly loved.”  As you wait upon the Lord, as you pray to heaven for help in your distress, in your anxiety, in your pain, you, too, are greatly loved.

Waiting involved faithful and active obedience and prayer.

One of the most significant things about our passage today is that it exemplifies how God’s timing often brings us blessings that we could never have imagined. We pray for something over and over for years, but only later realize that in God’s mercy and timing, he withheld that gift in order for something more amazing.

While we may not understand – even in this lifetime – the full extent of what his timing means, we can realize that this is how he works in our waiting.  

Daniel was praying for the restoration of Israel and asking forgiveness for the sins of the people.  Gabriel gave Daniel the vision of 70 weeks – a vision even more amazing and of a higher magnitude than his mind could have asked for. A vision which anticipates not only the restoration of God’s people to their homeland, but how events would culminate in the arrival of a Prince. A prince who would be “cut off” in a sacrificial death for the sins of his people.

God delayed the birth of a son for Zechariah and Elizabeth because he had something special planned.

Daniel asked for a lot but got much more than he bargained for, and timing that he probably wasn’t expecting. So it was with Zechariah. And that is what we’ll see next…

The next thing we’ll consider is the nature of ultimate reality. Ultimate reality belongs to God.

As the priest on duty that day, Zechariah was to be offering prayers on behalf of the nation. So he is in the temple, in the outer area of the holy of holies – only the high priest went in the holy of holies and he did that only once a year – so he’s in this outer area praying. 

Gabriel arrives and tells Zechariah that his prayers have been heard. 

What prayers?

Our minds immediately go to the prayers he and Elizabeth must have prayed a thousand times over the years: prayers for a child.

But his prayers in the temple were more likely prayers for the salvation and redemption of Israel. As I mentioned before this is likely the most important day of Zechariah’s life until now, and he has been training for this, and would want to fulfill his priestly responsibility to the letter, and that meant offering prayers on behalf of the nation.

But the beautiful thing about the answer from the Lord is that it fulfills both the prayers of Zechariah and Elizabeth for a son, and the prayers of the nation for deliverance. In sending this couple a baby, God is sending the forerunner of the great Savior of Israel, and of the world!

John is to be the herald of heaven’s great King who would visit this world on a mission of salvation.

Only God can weave such amazing answers together. We read this and marvel at all God is doing in this story.  But was that the reaction of Zechariah?  No…

How does he react?

In verse 18 he questions Gabriel saying “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

From his words alone you cannot detect all of what is in this man’s heart. But apparently Gabriel knew enough to know that Zechariah had an unbelieving heart because he says “because you did not believe my words” (vs 20).

What seems strange about this reaction is that here is a man who had been praying for years and years for a son. Here is a man whose wife had longed for a child. How many conversations, how many knowing glances shared over the breakfast table? How many shared moments of pain and frustration?  And here – here is the answer to all his prayers. Decades worth of desires!  And he doesn’t believe. He sees the glory and power of the angel – there can be no doubt about the authenticity of this messenger’s identity. We read earlier, in fact, that Zechariah practically wet himself when the angel appeared! He knows this is a messenger from God!

It can’t be a proximity problem. He is not isolated from the faith community or the outward reminders of his heritage. In fact, he is surrounded by the trappings of his faith. He has the priestly garments on. He’s inside the temple. He’s only steps away from the holy of holies! 

Why the unbelief?  How is it possible that he can doubt!?

(PAUSE)

Let me tell you what I think is going on here. 

Zechariah’s “worlds are colliding”, to quote George Costanza.

His perception of reality, his construction of what is possible, is bound up in the plans, desires, and perspectives of his heart.

What a message for us today. Awash in post-modernism, we hear and read again and again that truth is what you make it. Reality is defined by your own perspective.  So important is this worldview that technologists are in a rush to give us power to create our own AI worlds accessible by simply strapping on a headset.

But ultimate reality belongs to God. You cannot make your own truth. You cannot create your own reality.

Live in your fairy land all you want, eventually that bubble will burst on the rocks of God’s sovereign truth, either in this life or the next.

Zechariah wasn’t a post-modernist by any stretch of the imagination. Yet his reality, his expectations, and the norms which he has set as the lens through which he saw how life works, how God works, were being brought into contact with the plans of the Lord of life and history.

I’ve found that the nature of my own perspective, when not governed by faith based in the Word of God, reveals itself as extraordinarily brittle in times of testing. This is what Zechariah was learning. He had set limits on what God could do; laws by which he expected God to act. And the weight of God’s plans were snapping the feeble bridge of his expectations.

Look at Gabriel’s reaction, he says “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news.”  He proclaims this gospel, this good news, and hears the words from Zechariah and he’s like “Wait. Wait…what!?” 

Gabriel is trying to reconcile what he lives day in and day out with this man’s reaction, and it just…doesn’t compute.  “Do you know who I am – I see your knees knocking, so you must have an idea.  I mean…I just came from the heavenly throne room…”

There is some discontinuity between what Gabriel knows as true and what Zechariah is willing to believe is true.

Of course, to us, in hindsight, Zechariah’s unbelief looks nonsensical against the backdrop of God’s revealed plans. But…

…we have to ask ourselves…What happens when our prayers aren’t answered in a way we expected? What happens when (in his mercy) God withholds the answer for years? How do we react when circumstances in our lives unfold in unexpected ways?

Do we look for the hand of Providence in the details of life?  Or do we recoil in bitterness and unbelief? 

We may be surrounded by the trappings of faith, and in this season that’s even more the case, and yet have such a contracted and minimized view of the power of God that we look at our lives and say “no…its hopeless. I’m a mess and there’s nothing that can fix this.”  Are we allowing our own narrow view of life’s road to hem in our perspective on God’s capabilities?

Friends, God does not simply stitch together the mess of our lives in order to salvage some kind of decent ending to the narrative.  He is busy in the details.  He is superintending all of reality. Upholding the world by the word of his power, he supervises and intercedes for those who he “greatly loves.”

It’s a wonderful blessing – a good thing – to be surrounded by the people of God and to regularly find ourselves here in this building. But let’s not let our surroundings, our culture, and our doubts construct an artificial view of God. A small view of God. A proud view of God that’s based on our own plans and objectives, rather than faith in his providence, timing, and power.

God’s word calls us to deeper waters: trust in the Lord with all your heart and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will make straight your paths. (Prov 3:5)

Now let’s look past the reaction and to the heart of the message from Gabriel, and how it is “good news” – not only Zechariah, but the whole world.

Restoration for the glory of God

Remember how I said that after the priest would finish their prayers in the temple it was their job to go out and bless the people? Well, the Lord’s messenger puts the kibosh on that. It is as if God is saying “I will not have an unbelieving man speak to my people this day. Not today. Today is the beginning of a special new work.”

For years the people of Israel had been led by shepherds who Jesus would later describe as serpents and sons of Satan. But light is breaking through the darkness, and in a sign of things to come, every tongue will be stopped, and every eye will behold the majesty of Jesus.

Zechariah was a righteous man who stumbled into unbelief.

But this wasn’t to be the end for Zechariah. 

The message that Gabriel brought was “good news” – good news that went beyond the hopes and dreams of this righteous couple. Their son was born for a very specific mission.  Listen to the hints dropped by Gabriel.  Look again at verse 16…

And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, [17] and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared

That last line may be the most important. It echoes the words of the prophet Malachi, and indicates that their son John will prepare the people of Israel for someone – and that someone is their Messiah! 

Now as the story continues. Turn with me to verse 57 and we’ll read this together…

Luke 1:57–80

[57] Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. [58] And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. [59] And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, [60] but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.” [61] And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.” [62] And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called. [63] And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered. [64] And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God. [65] And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea, [66] and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

Zechariah was restored to speaking once again.

The long months which held him in mute frustration had also humbled him, and increased his faith, so that when the time came to declare before his friends and nearest relations what the will of the Lord would be for his son, his lips found themselves equal to the restored tenderness of his heart.

And in such a small village, this would have been a major event – especially given the circumstances surrounding John’s birth. Before the New Covenant, before Pentecost, God’s people did not have the gift of the Spirit permanently indwelling them. But this child had been filled by the Holy Spirit from before birth! He even leapt in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary came to visit.

Gabriel had said that all of this would happen according to God’s timing.

And I wonder how many moments in the intervening months Zechariah had pondered the timing of God in the events of his life and the life of his people.

His life has been blessed with a baby boy – one who Jesus would later call the greatest man ever born of a woman (Luke 7). Now able to speak, we read that, full of the Holy Spirit, the first thing that Zechariah did was sing out with the following words:

Look at verse 68…

[67] And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

            [68] “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel,

                        for he has visited and redeemed his people

            [69] and has raised up a horn of salvation for us

                        in the house of his servant David,

            [70] as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

            [71] that we should be saved from our enemies

                        and from the hand of all who hate us;

            [72] to show the mercy promised to our fathers

                        and to remember his holy covenant,

            [73] the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

            [74]     that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies,

            might serve him without fear,

            [75]     in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

            [76] And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;

                        for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

            [77] to give knowledge of salvation to his people

                        in the forgiveness of their sins,

            [78] because of the tender mercy of our God,

                        whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

            [79] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death,

                        to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Luke adds his own narrative note, so that we are prepared for what will come in the next part of this amazing story…

            [80] And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Now, throughout church history we’ve called Zechariah’s song of praise and prophesy the Benedictus, which is simply the Latin translation for the first word he speaks: “blessed.”

Zechariah has been restored and his faith strengthened and he wants to give God glory. But more than that, God has filled him to deliver a message.  The good news that Gabriel announced 9 months prior was not simply that he and Elizabeth would have a son, but that God was sending his own Son, and that John’s role is to proclaim the coming of Israel’s Messiah! 

The day is almost at hand.  The wait is almost over. The promises made to David, Abraham, and the prophets of old would be kept.

Zechariah declares that God will be faithful to the promises he made to Abraham. Nations will be blessed. The seed of Abraham will continue in the adoption of people from every tribe, tongue, and nation into the family of God. And God will begin his work of re-creation and renewal by making men and women – his image bearers – into new creations in the model of his son Jesus Christ.

9 months prior in the temple Zechariah would have prayed for the salvation of Israel.

Here, inspired by the Spirit, he declares a salvation not linked to earthly political redemption or military conquest, but of spiritual redemption from sin. Verse 77 is key “to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins.” 

Zechariah says that without the light of life we are walking in the darkness and on the precipice of death’s door. He links light and life and peace directly with the forgiveness of sins and relational restoration with God.

For the people of Israel, certainly for Zechariah, the promises of God were coming into tighter focus, even as their own perspectives on God’s plans were widening.  

You might say that while the occupation of Rome was uppermost on the minds of Jews in his day, what Zechariah’s people really needed was a political solution of another magnitude. They had bigger problems. Diplomatic relations between themselves and the King of kings needed restoration. Zechariah says here that the solution was going to be provided in a “knowledge of salvation” by a “horn of salvation” – more specifically, in the strength of the unbreakable life of the embodied Word of knowledge: God’s own Son. (Acts 2:24 and John 1)

For those of us who have been in a season of waiting, a season where it seemed like our lives are in limbo, the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth offers not only comfort, but also a reorientation of our expectations, a reminder of who holds history in His hands, and an opportunity to repent.   

Zechariah was told that everything he had desired for both himself and his people was about to be fulfilled, and though he was found in unbelief, though his entire world was turned upside-down, God in His mercy restored Zechariah for His own glory.

Praise God that His plans for our lives do not stop at the door of our heart’s natural capacity to believe. Praise God that His mercy and providence does not wax and wane on the ebb tide of our emotions, and the short-sidedness of even our best-intentioned plans.

The beautiful thing that we see in the life of Zechariah is that he didn’t get everything he wanted the way he wanted in the time he wanted it. Praise God for that! Praise God for his withholding of the blessings we think we want now – even good things which we know are good things, God sometimes withholds in order to bring us into an even greater plan for our good and his Glory.

Let me mention to you a final word friends.

If you are finding yourself without hope in a season which is supposed to be all about hope, you’re in the right place. This is a message for you.

Anticipation is a theme running throughout the Christmas season, and this seasonal slogan finds its origin in Zechariah’s day (and before) when the people of Israel were anticipating a Messiah, a leader, a savior.

But God being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us did not rescue us from political oppression or social unrest. He rescued us from ourselves. He rescued us from His wrath. He rescued us from our sins so that we may be brought into his kingdom, into his family.  He did this in his own time. And it looked nothing like what was expected.

Friends we no longer have to wait for salvation. The wait is over.  The great message of Christmas is that salvation has arrived! The Sunrise from on high came to live amongst us. He made himself the lowest of low in order to raise up those who were sitting in darkness. As Isaiah says, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone” (Is. 9:2).

That light, that sunrise from on high, is Jesus. Jesus Christ, the son of God, came to rescue a fallen race – you and I no longer wait for salvation – we can receive that now.

I love the gospel of John. He begins his gospel by declaring that the Word of God, the light of the world has come to save men. This is what he says:

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. [10] He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. [11] He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. [12] But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, [13] who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God. John 1:9–13

Christmas is the celebration that our waiting is over, we can have full forgiveness of sins, by believing that Jesus is who he says he is. That celebration, which begins with our reconciliation to God through faith in Jesus, will be consummated when the great King returns in his time with glory and splendor.

It’s my prayer that you are encouraged by the story of Zechariah, and how God overcame his unbelief, to use him as an instrument of praise and glory. He desires to do the same thing in your life and mine.

How to Come to God

These are notes I wrote today for the passage Luke 18:15-30. I hope you profit by them!

Luke 18:15-30

There are two sections here that I’m going to examine, and even though they hold much of the same teaching from the last section, I’m going to look at them together on their own for the time being.

The first section we see Jesus responding to the disciples reaction of these parents who are bringing their little children to be blessed by Him. His reaction is what we’ll look closely at in a moment.

The second section has to do with a wealthy young man who presents himself before Jesus, and has a question concerning eternal life.

In both instances, we’ll examine Jesus’ reaction to them, what he says specifically, of course, as well as the mindset of how each type of person (the children and the rich man) presents themselves before Jesus.

I believe that from these passages we’re going to learn the following:

  1. Who, or more appropriately, how, can a person enter the kingdom of God. There will be two component parts to this – what God does on our behalf, and what our response to His doing looks like in our lives.
  2. In light of this, what ought our attitudes and mindset about life be? And I mean this for both for Christians and those seeking the kingdom still.

18:15-17 Now they were bringing even infants to him that he might touch them. And when the disciples saw it, they rebuked them. [16] But Jesus called them to him, saying, “Let the children come to me, and do not hinder them, for to such belongs the kingdom of God. [17] Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

It wasn’t an uncommon practice for local Rabbis to lay their hands upon children and bless them. There’s nothing magical about the laying on of hands, rather it is a way to show love for the child, and bring them before God in humility and gratitude.

During my trip to Israel last summer, we spent our Friday evening enjoying Shabbat with a Jewish family. Eventually we came to a place in the evening when the father was supposed to bless their child. It was really neat to see the father’s hold their children close – even the teens – and speak a blessing over them. It was done with hugs and kisses and much love.

This is the scene here – it is very intimate, and very special.

Therefore when the disciples callously attempted to shoo away these parents, Jesus reacted with a rebuke. No doubt the disciples were thinking of their master, and his own well being. They didn’t want him crowded every moment of every day. But Jesus loved his children – especially the youngest of them, and he used this as a teaching moment, as he had so many other times previously.

The principle here that Jesus wants to get through is that the kingdom of heaven is populated by children. There are two parts of this. First, there is the literal part – where he says, “to such belongs the kingdom of God.” Heaven, God’s kingdom, will be populated with MANY an infant, many a child who never reached an older age in this life.

For parents who have lost children through miscarriage or abortion, or even through tragedy that comes later, this truth is extremely reassuring.

But as reassuring as this is, this is not the primary theological point that Jesus wants to make. For he continues on saying, “Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.”

You can tell he’s about to teach an important principle when he interjects the word “truly.”

Note two things. First He says, “receiving” the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t something you can earn on your own merit. It is not something that enter by your own merit, as we’ll examine here shortly.

Now secondly, what he says about receiving the kingdom is that one must be “like” a child.

What are some of the ways in which a child approaches the topic God that might differ from an adult?

Mainly, a child comes to God with very little in the way of presuppositions or assumptions. They come with the expectation of acceptance, and they come in humility. They aren’t thinking, “I deserve to be here” or “I’m going to be an extra good so I can come to God” – in fact, just saying those things aloud as if they come from a child’s mouth sounds preposterous!

They come in response to a prompting of love – with hearts that are humble and not haughty. Their faith is simple in that there are minimal outside influences vying for their affections.

They don’t overcomplicate things by adding their own ideas of the terms of this relationship into the mix, nor do they cloud their minds with priorities that would inhibit their faith.

This issue of priorities, of affections, is what gets addressed next…

18:18-19 And a ruler asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” [19] And Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone.

This account is also in Mark and Matthew, so from their accounts we divine that this is a man with wealth, and that he is young. So when we put all that together, we tend to call him, “the rich young ruler.”

Some have speculated that he is the ruler of a synagogue. But whatever his specific status, he is the exact opposite of the children that were previously the subject of our reading.

His question is tending toward eternal life, but he begins by calling Jesus “good”, and it is that adjective that Jesus latches onto as a way of answering His question.

Jesus’ reaction is that no one is good except for God. Some have stated that Jesus is either implying that he is a sinner, and therefore doesn’t deserve the title of “good.” Others say that Jesus is implying here that he is God because only God is good, and he’s using this as a way of drawing out that truth. Others still say that Jesus is just rebuffing the young man’s flattery.

But I agree with Bock that what Jesus is doing here has to be kept in context of everything else he’s stating. He’s basically pointing the man to God, and God’s incomparable character. God is holy – He alone is perfect, He alone is truly “good.” All other men have variable or subjective definitions of what exactly “good” is, but God is the ultimate definite standard for what good really is.

We see this as Jesus continues on…

18:20-22 You know the commandments: ‘Do not commit adultery, Do not murder, Do not steal, Do not bear false witness, Honor your father and mother.’” [21] And he said, “All these I have kept from my youth.” [22] When Jesus heard this, he said to him, “One thing you still lack. Sell all that you have and distribute to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me.”

When the young man says, “all these I have kept from my youth” he is basically saying that HE is “good”! He is stating that he’s perfectly kept the law.

Have you ever run into someone who believes they are basically a good person, and that they really haven’t sinned recently – some say they have NEVER sinned!

This is the attitude and the mindset of this young man. And Jesus blows it up. He hits him in the heart. When he tells him to sell all that he has, what he’s doing is exposing the man as an idolater – as someone whose priorities aren’t right.

At face value this guy seemed pretty holy – he seemed like a “good” guy, right? I mean, here he is seeking out a local rabbi asking about eternal life. His head is in the game, he’s asking the right questions, he’s crossing the right boxes off, right?

No – wrong answer! What was the problem here? Let’s see…

18:23-25 But when he heard these things, he became very sad, for he was extremely rich. [24] Jesus, seeing that he had become sad, said, “How difficult it is for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God! [25] For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

Now here we see what’s going on, if we didn’t already pick up on it.

What is the difference between this man, and the children who were coming to Jesus?

The main difference was faith and priorities. Put another way, it can all be boiled down to affections.

As I mentioned before, a young child has no affections for this world that inhibit them from hmbly coming before God and asking for eternal life. They represent one end of the life-experience scale.

On the other end of the scale is this rich man – not just rich though, he’s also a “ruler” – heck, he even had youth going for him! He had it all – he was young, and he had both power and wealth. And that’s really it, right? I mean that’s what we want out of life. Sure some might have a difference ratio on the affections meter. They might want 80% wealth and only a little power, or they might be satisfied if they could just control their circumstances and live a moderately good life, so long as they were in control and had the freedom they longed for and the power to make it happen.

Most of us probably fall somewhere in between the children and this rich ruler, with finances and freedom or power (I regard the American middle class idea of Freedom sometimes as equivalent to that of power when it comes to affections).

With that in mind, look at how the man reacts. He has so much to loose, so he walks away. The kids have nothing to loose, so they have no problem coming to God.

Right about now the dilemma might be hitting you just as it hit the disciples: anyone who has lived in this life for a decent number of years will have affections that crowd out eternal truth.

Jesus acknowledges this issue – he says its super difficult to get into heaven if you have riches – hence the saying about shoving a camel through the eye of a needle. There are some who’ve said that this is talking about how camels had to stoop to crawl on their belly to get into the “needle” entranceway of a city. But that’s erroneous. It’s not that Jesus just wants humility, when we approach God, he wants an open hand of faith – as goes the old hymn:

“Nothing in my hand I bring, simply to thy cross I cling” (Rock of Ages)

This prompts the disciples to say the following…

18:26-27 Those who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” [27] But he said, “What is impossible with man is possible with God.”

In other words, no merit of your own, no fake humility, no false courage, no amount of good works is going to get you into heaven. What has to happen is a change in your affections. And this only happens by the grace of God. In other words, this kind of faith is the gift of God.

Look at what Paul says in Ephesians 2:

And you were dead in the trespasses and sins [2] in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience—[3] among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind. [4] But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, [5] even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—[6] and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, [7] so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. [8] For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, [9] not a result of works, so that no one may boast. [10] For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. (Ephesians 2:1-10 ESV)

Therefore salvation – entry into the kingdom – is made possible by the power of God. And this is really evident in that most of us prize things that are not heavenly things until God brings us to Himself. Our lives are characterized by a love of anything and everything but God. We love football, golf, cars, shopping, and even our iPhones more than we love God!

But all of that changed for those who have been saved.

What happens next in this passage is that Peter realizes, “hey, this is me! This is our group! We have done this!”

And again, Jesus uses this as a teaching moment.

[28] And Peter said, “See, we have left our homes and followed you.” [29] And he said to them, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, [30] who will not receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

The natural man’s objection to all of this is, “hey, I like my life! Don’t take my fun away from me. I may not have much, but I have XYZ. So things are pretty good. What’s so great about God that I need to reorient all my priorities and affections anyway?”

This is the difference between the children and the rich man – it’s all about affections. What we care most about. And we make the (wrongful) assumption that the stuff we are aiming for, or have obtained here in our lives isn’t worth giving up.

Jesus blows this out of the water as well.

He says that when you leave all the world behind – even the things that are worthwhile like family – when you put me first in your heart, you will “receive many times more in this time, and in the age to come eternal life.”

He is saying that not only is this a matter of eternal life, it’s a matter of living a great live NOW.

Having the right affections will bring about a life that is so much more fulfilling, so much richer, so much better. In other words – you are clinging onto a miserable existence compared to what I am prepared to give you.

For the Christian these words ought to just remind us to re-orient our minds around the truth of the Gospel. It’s so easy in the rush of life to let other priorities crowd into our heart. The way I think of this is that what your mind is occupied with, will eventually occupy your heart. Obviously from here there are physical, day-to-day implications. What you love most you’ll do most.

Jesus redeems the activities of our lives and gives them both a purpose and a perspective.

He helps us see here that by prioritizing Him first in your mind and heart, you can keep perspective over both the good and the bad in life. That’s how Paul was able to say:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. [12] I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. [13] I can do all things through him who strengthens me. (Philippians 4:11-13 ESV)

Note who is supplying the power here – it is God. Today, be reminded and refreshed in these truths and don’t let other priorities crowd out the eternal promise that Jesus has for us here.

For those of you who are not Christians, perhaps the message of these passages has really set in sharp relief the contrast between your life and what you value most, and how Jesus has taught us to approach God.

At issue here are your priorities, and what you value most in this life. What do you think most about? What do you spend most of your time on? Do not fool yourself into thinking that you can live your life by your own dictums, your own measure of what “good” is, and then show that measuring rod to God when you die.

What will He say? What will He do? He will respond that only HE is good, and that your works are nothing comparatively. Your priorities were not His. Your heart was not His. He’ll tell you to get lost – and you’ll walk away like this young man did – only you will be walking away for eternity. Thus, you will have squandered a life of joy now, and an eternity of happiness hereafter.

What is required is a heart that recognizes your sinfulness and your low stature before God, and desires (I use that word purposefully) to be made right with Him. The way this can be done is by believing in the Gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ.

By calling upon Jesus, by believing that He is who He says He is, and by repenting of your sins, you will receive this gift of eternal life that alluded the rich young ruler. It’s really simple, but its really hard, nigh on impossible to do without the help of God. Ask Him for that help.

Study Notes 9-8-13: A New Commandement

This passage of our study on John covers 13:31-35

13:31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.

First, its probably worth nothing that Jesus says, “now”, and that this seems to give us a demarcation between Judas’ presence among them, and this time afterwards when He would give His last instructions and teaching to His disciples.  It is often thought that from verse 31 onward the ‘farewell discourses’ of Christ begin since Judas has now finally left, and only His chosen ones are left.

And as we get into the meat of the text, we see that Jesus is pointing toward an impending event – one that is imminent. R.C. Sproul’s study notes point us to Pauline theology which hangs so much on the shame that Christ was about to suffer in just a few hours from now, and the contrast Sproul notes is how John sees this as an hour of shame, yes, but mostly of glory. Jesus saw His imminent death as a source for His greatest glorification. As John MacArthur writes, “His entire ministry pointed to the cross (Mark 10:45), making it the glorious climax of the life He lived perfectly in keeping with His Father’s will.”

All of this is simply hard to imagine logically. But J.C. Ryle helps frame the problematic contrast between the way we think of “glory” typically, and the way that Christ and the Father had in mind:

This was a dark and mysterious saying, and we may well believe that the eleven did not understand it. And no wonder! In all the agony of the death on the cross, in all the ignominy and humiliation which they saw afar off, or heard of next day, in hanging naked for six hours between two thieves, – in all this there was no appearance of glory! On the contrary, it was an event calculated to fill the minds of the Apostles with shame, disappointment, and dismay. And yet our lord’s saying was true.

The idea that the chosen one, the Christ of God would be glorified was not an unfamiliar one, for as Isaiah said:

And he said to me, “You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will be glorified (Isaiah 49:3).

Yet at the same time we see Jesus use the name “Son of Man” to describe himself.  And so we see that there are two themes colliding that the Jewish audience of the day could not have seen coming together: the Christ will be a man who will bring glory to Him own name, who will usher in a glorious kingdom, but will do so by suffering in humiliation and agony. More than just a martyr, Jesus was actually accomplishing something for His people – freedom and eternal life.

In light of this, I really love Carson’s comments on the nature of Christ’s glorification:

Even in the Prologue, the glorification of the incarnate Word occurs not in a spectacular display of blinding light but in the matrix of human existence (1:14). Now, bringing to a climax a theme developed throughout this Gospel, the Evangelist makes it clear that the supreme moment of divine self-disclosure, the greatest moment of displayed glory, was in the shame of the cross. That is the primary reason why the title Son of Man is employed here.

Pastor John MacArthur says that Christ was glorified in three ways by the cross: “by satisfying the demands of God’s justice for all who would believe in Him”, by destroying “the power of sin”, and by destroying “the power of Satan, ending the reign of terror of ‘him who had the power of death.’”

The Father Receives Glory as well

But not only did Jesus receive glory from the cross, but as He says, “God is glorified in him.”  This means that the Father would also receive glory in the cross-work of Christ. I see this happening in primarily two ways: In the righteous obedience and character of Christ, and in the knowledge of what Jesus was accomplishing for those whom He loved.

You see, God’s character was put on full display as Christ showed that God was holy, faithful, and loved His people. His law had consequences, and yet He was willing to pay the price for our breaking of His law. I hear recently that it’s a habit of Christians to talk as if we need to be guilty for the death of Jesus – that He died for us, and that this deep sense of shame pervades them for their sin. Well this is only a half-correct way to think about it.  Yes we should feel shame for our sins, but Christ did what He did not out of compunction, and not out of duty.  And as Pastor Tony Romano was so keen to remind us recently, God did what He did in sending His Son not out of some cosmic law that says He has to behave this way, but because He finds pleasure in doing so.  God loves to save sinners, and when His Son hung on that tree it magnified who He is! It screams for all the world to see that God is love; and it shouts from the mountaintops that He is just and righteous and holy. For He is God, and there is none like Him.

In Sum…

We often have a difficult time at first glance with some of these ideas. For what has “glory” to do with something so painful and horrific and hanging from a tree all bloody and bruised? What God does is expand our way of thinking. He is offering us a look at Himself.  He is inviting us to behold His character, His majesty there at the cross. The cross confounds our fleshly sensibilities and offers to us another paradigm of thinking: heavenly thinking.

I imagine that for the disciples it would have been difficult to comprehend how these two concepts (glory and shame) fit together apart from the help of the Spirit (which would come later).  We live on this side of the cross, and on this side of the cross we have the privilege of the Spirit’s abiding work within us. This work of His is helping change our thinking to be more like Christ’s thinking (1 Cor. 2:16).”

The same thing eventually happened with the disciples, you know. The suspended disbelief of this group of me will soon turn to faith in action, empowered by the Holy Spirit, that would prove to be of such a deep nature that most everyone in that room would suffer and die for their Lord many years later.

13:32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once

The Logical Progression of Glorious Events

Jesus also saw that not only would the Father be glorified, and not only would He be glorified by His actions on Earth, but that soon (“at once”) He would join His Father in Heaven once again and enjoy the glory He had with Him from the beginning. And so this comment “will also glorify him in himself” is an anticipation of His glorification. Jesus trusted and knew that His death would result in ultimate victory.  Jesus was not a fatalist; He did not march to death with no hope for future life. And so we too can face physical death knowing that those chains will never hold us back from the bosom of the Father.

This statement from Jesus therefore shows us that He was looking beyond the cross toward the joy that awaited Him:

Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:2 ESV)

The way D.A. Carson explains it may be helpful:

Instead of focusing on the glorification of the Son of Man and the correlative glorification of the Father in the Son’s voluntary sacrifice, one may reverse the order. If God is glorified in the Son, it is no less true to say that God will glorify the Son in himself…the entire clause has much the same force as 17:5. Christ’s glorified humanity is taken up to have fellowship with the Father…in the eternal presence and essence of his heavenly Father, partly because by this event he re-enters the glory he had with the Gather before the Word became incarnate (1:14), before the world began (17:5). The entire event displays the saving sovereignty of God, God’s dawning kingdom.

13:33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’

“Little children” is a beautiful saying of Christ, and (as Ryle notes) is the only time Jesus referred to them in this way. It reminds us of our adoption into the family of Christ.  In J.I. Packer’s classic book ‘Knowing God’ he devotes an entire chapter on the subject of our adoption.  Packer says that, “Our first point about adoption is that it is the highest privilege that the gospel offers: higher even than justification…Adoption is higher, because of the richer relationship with God that it involves” (pg. 206-207).

That Jesus would offer the disciples this title after just speaking of His impending cross-work seems to me a special and wonderful revelation; a small peak into the blessings to come.

13:34-35 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. [35] By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

Introduction

A few introductory thoughts to this important passage. First, this “new commandment” is not new in the sense that God had not called His people to love one another in the OT (Lev. 19:18), but rather that this will be a new covenant. In the OT God’s people were never able to keep the commandments. Jesus is saying that this is an entirely new paradigm, a new covenant enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6-13).  He is going to change not simply the way (or what) we obey, but the fact that we will be able to obey, and will actually desire to obey, and that when we fail we will not need to make sacrifices for our sin – for He is our sacrifice.

Secondly, by issuing the command to love, He is anticipating the coming of the Spirit, which will enable them to actually keep the covenant – in other words, He’s making new creations that will be covenant keepers rather than covenant breakers.

Lastly, this obedience will be so radical (love for enemies etc.) that it could only come from God – it has to be supernaturally motivated. The people called by the name of Christ (“Christians”) will behave in such a way that marks them as something completely “other” (“called out” and “holy”). People will ask, “Why do these people march to their deaths, love their enemies, and speak kindness and love in the face of hate, persecution and scorn?” There will be only one answer: They are Christians.

Not “New”, Yet “New”

This “new command” is not a new “rule” but rather a new covenant, a new way that God is dealing with His children.  As far back as the time of Moses we read that the Israelites were called to “love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18).” Yet even the new covenant Jesus is ushering in isn’t something that ought to be totally foreign to these disciples sitting around the room that evening with Jesus. For we read in several places that this new covenant was going to come one day – a brand new covenant with better promises, namely eternal life and righteousness earned by Christ plus sanctification worked out by the power of God’s own Spirit.

Look, for instance at what both Ezekiel and Jeremiah had to say about this great impending day:

 “Therefore say to the house of Israel, Thus says the Lord GOD: It is not for your sake, O house of Israel, that I am about to act, but for the sake of my holy name, which you have profaned among the nations to which you came. [23] And I will vindicate the holiness of my great name, which has been profaned among the nations, and which you have profaned among them. And the nations will know that I am the LORD, declares the Lord GOD, when through you I vindicate my holiness before their eyes. [24] I will take you from the nations and gather you from all the countries and bring you into your own land. [25] I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you shall be clean from all your uncleannesses, and from all your idols I will cleanse you. [26] And I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. [27] And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules. [28] You shall dwell in the land that I gave to your fathers, and you shall be my people, and I will be your God. (Ezekiel 36:22-28)

And…

So I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived and stood on their feet, an exceedingly great army. [11] Then he said to me, “Son of man, these bones are the whole house of Israel. Behold, they say, ‘Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are indeed cut off.’ [12] Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I will open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people. And I will bring you into the land of Israel. [13] And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people. [14] And I will put my Spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you in your own land. Then you shall know that I am the LORD; I have spoken, and I will do it, declares the LORD.” (Ezekiel 37:10-14)

And…

 “Behold, the days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah, [32] not like the covenant that I made with their fathers on the day when I took them by the hand to bring them out of the land of Egypt, my covenant that they broke, though I was their husband, declares the LORD. [33] For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, declares the LORD: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts. And I will be their God, and they shall be my people. [34] And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” (Jeremiah 31:31-34)

Covenant Keepers

This leads us to the next logical step, which is that in giving us His Spirit, and issuing a new covenant with His people, He has a goal in mind.  He will shortly break the power of death and sin by His atoning work on the cross, but He hasn’t stopped there.  God not only sent His only Son to die in our places, and to give us His own righteousness (2 Cor. 5:21 – double imputation), but He wants to have an intimate relationship with His people.  He has promised to dwell among us.  How is this going to happen?  By sending His Spirit to live within us.

The consequence of this is that He is transforming us from covenant breakers into covenant keepers. Listen to what Paul says:

You yourselves are our letter of recommendation, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all. [3] And you show that you are a letter from Christ delivered by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts.[4] Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. [5] Not that we are sufficient in ourselves to claim anything as coming from us, but our sufficiency is from God, [6] who has made us sufficient to be ministers of a new covenant, not of the letter but of the Spirit. For the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life. (2 Corinthians 3:2-6)

Baptist scholar Stephen Wellum outlines the importance of Christ’s obedience in reconciling us to God in the context of the inauguration of this command and the New Covenant, “…this is precisely the problem: God remains faithful to his promises, but we do not. It is only if God himself provides an obedient son – his Son – that the covenant relationship will be what it was intended to be from the beginning.”

Wellum continues:

What is needed is such heart transformation tied to the forgiveness of our sin, literally being born of God’s Spirit, so that human being will fulfill the purpose of their creation, namely, obediently living in relation to their covenant Lord and to each other (KTC, pg. 629)

In the New Testament, the Spirit is presented as the agent who not only gives us life but also enables us to follow God’s decrees and keep God’s laws, thus making us covenant keepers and not breakers (KTC, pg. 648).

Previously we were unable to keep the commands of God, yet we are told by Paul that they were a schoolmaster to bring us to Christ (Galatians 3:24). This new command will be possible because the law will be written on our hearts (Jer. 31:33). This is the great fulfilling of the promise of a time when God would dwell within us and help us to obey. What we could not do in the flesh, God has done for us in the person and work of Jesus Christ (Romans 8:3).

The Coming of the Spirit

It is important to understand that this commandment comes from Christ by was of introducing the rest of what He is going to say to the disciples. The remainder of His conversation (and prayer) in chapters 14-17 is saturated by the promise that when He leaves He will send the Spirit. It is only because of this promised coming of the Spirit that this command, this new covenant, can be taken with joy and not complete consternation and (if they were being honest with themselves) the anticipation of utter failure.

This “new commandment” is the great “royal law” (James 2:8) which Christ has given us, a law which we could not keep if it were not for the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. There is more going on here than we might realize, because as I’ve labored to show, Jesus is saying that he is going to transform us from covenant breakers to covenant keepers, with the goal that we might enter into a relationship with Him, and fulfill the reason for our creation in the first place – what was originally meant for us in the garden, and has been won for us by the work of the ‘Last Adam’, the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5).

The Mark of a Christian

Jesus’ words signal the announcement of a new covenant, a better covenant enacted on better promises (Heb. 8:6), and a people whose actions of love will set them apart as a clear distinction from all others in this world.

Now, this is why Jesus says that, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” This isn’t because of our own wisdom or knowledge, but because the Holy Spirit will be so markedly making a difference in our lives that we will act differently than all other people. It is both a stunning pronouncement on the evil of humanity, and the amazing promise of God’s work within us that “love” for others will be the most pronounced indicator of our inclusion in His heavenly family.

Scripture tells us that God’s people are a holy nation, not geographically, but spiritually (Gal. 6:16). We are a called people, called out of the world (ekklesia), called to be holy, live a holy life (1 Peter 1:15, 2 Tim. 1:19), and called to love each other (Matt. 22:38-40). This love is a sign of the working of the Spirit.

This is what Frances Schaeffer called ‘The Mark of a Christian’ (Sproul & MacArthur both cite Schaeffer in this way) and it is not simply an emotional reaction to His goodness, it is much more. It is an outpouring of His Spirit’s work within us. It controls us. It motivates us to action. And it is these actions that justify outwardly our identification as His children. As John Stott says, “Christian love is not the victim of our emotions but the servant of our will.”  And this “will” has been changed by Him from a will bent on sin and resulting in death, to a will inclined toward the things of God.

One need only look to church history to know that the love which Christ has given His children has driven them to do and say things they never would have otherwise. Peter, the blustering big-talking fisherman became a man who could speak before councils and kings.  He was transformed from a cowardly traitor into a bold proclaimer of the Gospel, and eventual martyr.

Only a supernatural kind of love could possibly affect this kind of change – church history is littered with case after case of this testimony. From Peter and Paul and James, to Ignatius, Polycarp and Justin. Time after time men and women gladly marched to death rather than surrender their affiliation and love for Jesus.

Lastly, but certainly not “least”, it is worth noting that if we are truly filled with the Spirit, we will know we’re never going to be lost. He will preserve us until His return, or our death. What a wonderful assurance! If we are filled with His Spirit, then surely He has adopted us into His family and ushered us into His kingdom.

John tells us in his first epistle, “We know that we have passed out of death into life, because we love the brethren” (1 John 3:14 – also 1 John 2:29, and 3:7 tell us this truth).  This love is a result of the Spirit’s work within us, and the Spirit is given to us when we are born again (John 3).

And as Wellum remarks, “In this age, Christ sends the Spirit to all believers and the Spirit becomes the previous seal, down payment, and guarantee of the promised inheritance of the last day.”  The indwelling presence of the Spirit the guarantee of our inheritance (Eph. 1:14; 2 Cor. 5:5), and the proof that one day Christ will come back and consummate the kingdom He inaugurated 2000 years ago.

A Summary of the Good News

I was reading Herman Bavinck’s ‘The Divine and Human Nature of Christ’ this morning, and was struck by how the author starts out his book with such clarity about the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Even though he is setting out to address a topic which serves as a sub-set of the entire narrative of the Gospel, he still understands the necessity to beginning with the gospel.

I hope you enjoy these few paragraphs as much as I did!

The testimony which, according to Scripture, Christ has given of Himself is developed and confirmed by the preaching of the apostles. The confession that a man, named Jesus, is the Christ, the Only-Begotten of the Father, is in such direct conflict with our experience and with all of our thinking, and especially with all the inclinations of our heart, that no one can honestly and with his whole soul appropriate it without the persuasive activity of the Holy Spirit. By nature everybody stands in enmity to this confession, for it is not a confession natural to man. No one can confess that Jesus is the Lord except through the Holy Spirit, but neither can anyone speaking by the Holy Spirit call Jesus accursed; he must recognize Him as his Savior and King, (1 Cor. 12:3).

Hence when Christ appears on earth and Himself confesses that He is the Son of God, He did not leave it at that, but He also had a care, and He continues to have a care, that this confession finds entrance into the world, and is believed by the church. He called His apostles, and He instructed them, and made them witnesses to His words and deeds, to His death and resurrection. He gave them the Holy Spirit who brought them personally to the confession that Jesus was the Christ, the Son of the living God, (Matt. 16:16), and who later caused them, from the day of Pentecost on, to minister as preachers of those things which their eyes had seen, and they beheld, and their hands had handled of the Word of life, (1 John 1:1). The apostles were really not the real witnesses. The Spirit of truth, proceeding from the Father, is the original, infallible, and almighty witness to Christ, and the apostles are that only in Him and through Him, (John 15:26; Acts 5:32). And it is that same Spirit of truth who by means of the testimony of the apostles brings the church of all ages to the confession and preserves them in it: Lord, to whom shall we go? Thou hast the words of eternal life. And we believe and are sure that Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God, (John 6:68-69).

A Summary of the Gospel

Ligonier posted this elongated quote from Jeremiah Burroughs this week and I wanted to share with you. It’s a great summary of the gospel, and an opportunity to read some of Burroughs – a man who wrote many great works, many of which people today may not have ever even heard of. So check this out and then check out some of his other stuff!

A Summary of the Gospel
Posted: 03 May 2013

The gospel of Christ is the good tidings that God has revealed concerning Christ. As all mankind was lost in Adam and became the children of wrath, put under the sentence of death, God, though He left His fallen angels and has reserved them in the chains of eternal darkness, yet He has thought upon the children of men and has provided a way of atonement to reconcile them to Himself again.

The second Person in the Trinity takes man’s nature upon Himself, and becomes the Head of a second covenant, standing charged with sin. He answers for it by suffering what the law and divine justice required, and by making satisfaction for keeping the law perfectly. This satisfaction and righteousness He tenders up to the Father as a sweet savor of rest for the souls that are given to Him.

And now this mediation of Christ is, by the appointment of the Father, preached to the children of men, of whatever nation or rank, freely offering this atonement unto sinners for atonement, requiring them to believe in Him and, upon believing, promising not only a discharge of all their former sins, but that they shall not enter into condemnation, that none of their sins or unworthiness shall ever hinder the peace of God with them, but that they shall through Him be received into the number of those who shall have the image of God again to be renewed unto them, and that they shall be kept by the power of God through faith unto salvation.

That these souls and bodies shall be raised to that height of glory that such creatures are capable of, that they shall live forever enjoying the presence of God and Christ, in the fullness of all good, is the gospel of Christ. This is the sum of the gospel that is preached unto sinners.