Month: December 2014

Joy in a Less Than Merry Christmas

This is an impromptu blog post, in response to some recent familial events. Yesterday I learned some friends of ours were unable to visit their family for Christmas due to sickness. Also this week I learned that my parents and sister and nephews would be unable to visit for Christmas due to sickness. And so there is the juxtaposition of the ideal American Christmas holiday, where families are supposed to gather together in merriment, with the reality of sickness and disease disrupting the plans.

It is at this crossroads, where a joyful holiday intersects with sickness, where the real meaning of Christmas can be understood perhaps even better than if families gather together in glee. For the Christmas behind Christmas – the real meaning of Christmas behind the Christmas of Santa and eggnog and parties – is that we live in a sick and diseased world and need God to save us. The physical sickness we experience on an individual level is a symptom of the spiritual sickness we as humanity experience collectively – we have all fallen short of the glory of God, and all the problems of this world are proof of that statement.

If we focus on the real Christmas, that God Himself decided to dramatically intervene in human affairs by taking on human flesh and choosing to be born of a woman as a baby, we will be comforted even as holiday plans go awry. Christmas should always point us ahead to Resurrection Sunday (Easter). We should always remember that this Baby born at Christmas would grow up with one purpose – to offer Himself on a Roman crucifix, that He might be a sacrifice for sins to God. Only through His perfect sacrifice, where He offered Himself up to God and bore the penalty for our transgressions, can we be made right with God and receive the promises of a better life to come – a life without sickness and disease and sin.

And so to anyone who can relate to a less than ideal Christmas holiday, take comfort in Christ. Be reminded that He has not promised earthly satisfaction but eternal satisfaction to all who repent and believe in Him. May these words of God’s apostle Peter, which by divine providence I happened to read this morning, be of comfort to any Christian in a less than merry time:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to His great mercy has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to obtain an inheritance which is imperishable and undefiled and will not fade away, reserved in heaven for you, who are protected by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. In this you greatly rejoice, even though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been distressed by various trials, so that the proof of your faith, being more precious than gold which is perishable, even though tested by fire, may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ; and though you have not seen Him, you love Him, and though you do not see Him now, but believe in Him, you greatly rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, obtaining as the outcome of your faith the salvation of your souls. (1 Peter 1: 3 – 9)

Advent 2014: Week 4

When the Fullness of the Time Came

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote a line quoted often around Christmastime.

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Galatians 4: 4 – 5

Regarding the phrase “the fullness of the time”, there is both a general and specific way to understand it. Generally speaking, the commentary of John Calvin is helpful.

That season is the most fit, and that mode of acting is the most proper, which the providence of God directs. At what time it was expedient that the Son of God should be revealed to the world, it belonged to God alone to judge and determine.1

John is essentially saying “If God says it is the fullness of the time, then it is”. Now this is true – God is sovereign over all things and He directs the times and epochs of man. But there is perhaps a more specific understanding one can take from Paul’s words to Galatia. In addition to understanding Paul’s words as a general declaration of God’s sovereignty, we can specifically define “the fullness of the time” as the convergence of two Old Testament prophecies. In the ninth chapter of the book of Daniel, the angel Gabriel gives Daniel the rubric for calculating the time of the Messiah. In the fifth chapter of the book of Micah, God has the prophet declare where the Messiah would be born. We can in this way understand the fullness of the time to mean that Christ was born when His mother was in the right place at the right time.

To be a little more precise with Gabriel’s words, his prophecy is thought not to relate to the birth year of Christ but the year when He presented Himself as Messiah. Volumes have been written on this prophecy and how to perform the calculation, but the point for us now is to understand that this prophecy creates a window of time in which Jesus had to be born. Logically, if it can be precisely calculated when the Messiah presents Himself as King, we can then go backwards in time to estimate the year of His birth.

Returning to the aforementioned sovereignty of God, it is noteworthy that He brought about the fulfillment of Gabriel’s and Micah’s prophecies using the decrees of pagan rulers. Gabriel told Daniel that the start of the Messianic countdown was “from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”. This decree occurred during the days of the Jewish exile, when they were subjected to foreign powers. First, God moved Cyrus to order a rebuild.

Now in the first year of Cyrus king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the LORD by the mouth of Jeremiah, the LORD stirred up the spirit of Cyrus king of Persia, so that he sent a proclamation throughout all his kingdom, and also put it in writing, saying: “Thus says Cyrus king of Persia, ‘The LORD, the God of heaven, has given me all the kingdoms of the earth and He has appointed me to build Him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah.’” Ezra 1: 1 – 2

When the people returned under Cyrus’ decree, they began to rebuild the temple, but their work ceased for a time in the midst of opposition. Then, God caused another pagan ruler to make another decree.

Now this is the copy of the decree which King Artaxerxes gave to Ezra the priest, the scribe, learned in the words of the commandments of the LORD and His statutes to Israel: “Artaxerxes, king of kings, to Ezra the priest, the scribe of the law of the God of heaven, perfect peace. And now I have issued a decree that any of the people of Israel and their priests and the Levites in my kingdom who are willing to go to Jerusalem, may go with you. Ezra 7: 11 – 13

This decree in Ezra is one of the leading candidates of the start of the Messianic timeline. There is another decree from the same king that is also a candidate, found in Nehemiah.

And it came about in the month Nisan, in the twentieth year of King Artaxerxes, that wine was before him, and I took up the wine and gave it to the king. Now I had not been sad in his presence. So the king said to me, “Why is your face sad though you are not sick? This is nothing but sadness of heart.” Then I was very much afraid. I said to the king, “Let the king live forever. Why should my face not be sad when the city, the place of my fathers’ tombs, lies desolate and its gates have been consumed by fire?” Then the king said to me, “What would you request?” So I prayed to the God of heaven. I said to the king, “If it please the king, and if your servant has found favor before you, send me to Judah, to the city of my fathers’ tombs, that I may rebuild it.” Then the king said to me, the queen sitting beside him, “How long will your journey be, and when will you return?” So it pleased the king to send me, and I gave him a definite time. And I said to the king, “If it please the king, let letters be given me for the governors of the provinces beyond the River, that they may allow me to pass through until I come to Judah, and a letter to Asaph the keeper of the king’s forest, that he may give me timber to make beams for the gates of the fortress which is by the temple, for the wall of the city and for the house to which I will go.” And the king granted them to me because the good hand of my God was on me. Nehemiah 2: 1 – 8

As earlier stated, there has been much written over the years about the calculation and which decree it is based on. But for us now we need to realize that it created a window of time for the Messiah to be born. Regarding that window, when it had arrived, the virgin Mary lived in Nazareth, which is not the town Micah spoke of. In order to fulfill Micah’s words, God caused Caesar to decree that a census should be taken, thus causing Mary to travel with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. Luke 2: 1 – 6

“While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth.” These words of Luke echo Paul’s words “when the fullness of the time came”. What a beautifully understated way to convey the birth of Christ. The simplicity of the statement ought not to be taken for granted – for the birth of Christ was not a simple event. It was highly orchestrated, developing over thousands of years, announced beforehand through the mouths of the Jewish prophets, and advanced by God through the decrees of Gentile kings.

What has been looked at here is but the tip of the tip of the tip of the iceberg. There is so much more contained within the annals of history regarding God’s ordering of history to bring about the birth (and death and resurrection) of Christ. For the Christian, to wonder and delight in such things is not merely a once-a-year event in December, but a life-long endeavor of joy, as we ponder the God who came into human history to love a people who hated Him and to save a people who rejected Him. Paul’s words to the Galatians are worth repeating.

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Galatians 4: 4 – 5

1John Calvin, “Commentaries on the Epistle to the Galatians”, Calvin’s Commentaries Volume XXI (Michigan: Baker Books, 2005), 118.

Advent 2014: Week 3

Mary Was Protected By the Law

Never in the history of Israel was there a more opportune time for a husband to request his wife to undergo the “adultery test”, then when Mary confessed to Joseph that she was pregnant. Although the Scripture does not say what Mary said, it is reasonable to assume that she told Joseph exactly what had happened – she was visited by an angel, the angel told her she would conceive the Messiah, and the conception would occur by the power of the Holy Spirit. Whatever Mary said, it was not enough to convince Joseph to stay with her.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. Matthew 1: 18 – 19

Joseph wanted to send Mary away, meaning he did not accept what she said. From his perspective, he was cheated on and lied to (if Mary told him about the angel’s visitation). Despite that, he obviously cared for Mary. Rather than charging her with adultery and risking the possibility of her being stoned to death, he kept the matter private and tried to end the engagement in secrecy. But if Joseph had charged Mary with adultery, and if he had sought a formal judgment of her actions, Mary would have been vindicated by the law, because of the aforementioned adultery test.

The test is an amazing provision within the Mosaic Law that protected a faithful woman from the suspicions of her husband, and at the same time exposed an unfaithful woman who had not been caught in the act, but who was indeed guilty. The test was divinely ordered – God Himself ensured the appropriate outcome, so that the innocent would be proven innocent, and the guilty proven guilty. Here is the procedure, as recorded by Moses:

Then the LORD spoke to Moses, saying, “Speak to the sons of Israel and say to them, ‘If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, and a man has intercourse with her and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband and she is undetected, although she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her and she has not been caught in the act, if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has defiled herself, or if a spirit of jealousy comes over him and he is jealous of his wife when she has not defiled herself, the man shall then bring his wife to the priest, and shall bring as an offering for her one-tenth of an ephah of barley meal; he shall not pour oil on it nor put frankincense on it, for it is a grain offering of jealousy, a grain offering of memorial, a reminder of iniquity. Then the priest shall bring her near and have her stand before the LORD, and the priest shall take holy water in an earthenware vessel; and he shall take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. The priest shall then have the woman stand before the LORD and let the hair of the woman’s head go loose, and place the grain offering of memorial in her hands, which is the grain offering of jealousy, and in the hand of the priest is to be the water of bitterness that brings a curse. The priest shall have her take an oath and shall say to the woman, “If no man has lain with you and if you have not gone astray into uncleanness, being under the authority of your husband, be immune to this water of bitterness that brings a curse; if you, however, have gone astray, being under the authority of your husband, and if you have defiled yourself and a man other than your husband has had intercourse with you” (then the priest shall have the woman swear with the oath of the curse, and the priest shall say to the woman), “the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people by the LORD’s making your thigh waste away and your abdomen swell; and this water that brings a curse shall go into your stomach, and make your abdomen swell and your thigh waste away.” And the woman shall say, “Amen. Amen.” The priest shall then write these curses on a scroll, and he shall wash them off into the water of bitterness. Then he shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness which brings a curse, so that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness. The priest shall take the grain offering of jealousy from the woman’s hand, and he shall wave the grain offering before the LORD and bring it to the altar; and the priest shall take a handful of the grain offering as its memorial offering and offer it up in smoke on the altar, and afterward he shall make the woman drink the water. When he has made her drink the water, then it shall come about, if she has defiled herself and has been unfaithful to her husband, that the water which brings a curse will go into her and cause bitterness, and her abdomen will swell and her thigh will waste away, and the woman will become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, she will then be free and conceive children. This is the law of jealousy: when a wife, being under the authority of her husband, goes astray and defiles herself, or when a spirit of jealousy comes over a man and he is jealous of his wife, he shall then make the woman stand before the LORD, and the priest shall apply all this law to her. Moreover, the man will be free from guilt, but that woman shall bear her guilt.’” Numbers 5: 11 – 31

The summary of this test is that the woman was made to drink special water. If she was innocent then the water would not hurt her. But if she was guilty, if she cheated on her husband, the water would hurt her. The test was foolproof, since God directed the outcome. Only God knows the secrets of men and women. Only God is in a position to judge the secret sins that people commit and hide from others. In regards to whether a woman cheated on her husband, when there are no witnesses or confessions, only God is in a position to judge that situation. And He chose to judge it in Israel through the water test.

Despite this adultery test, given to the people by God and recorded by Moses, we have no reason to believe, upon reading the accounts in Matthew and in Luke, that Joseph had Mary drink the water. In fact, the evidence offered in Scripture would lead us to conclude otherwise. If Joseph wanted to send Mary away secretly, as Scripture says he did, it seems improbable that he would go to a priest with Mary and request the water test to be performed. Also, we have no way of knowing whether Joseph even knew of the test or considered it a viable option. Just because it is recorded in Scripture doesn’t mean it was known about or understood by the people in that day. All we can be sure about is that Joseph cared enough for Mary to protect her from punishment, but was hurt enough by her to end the engagement.

Now, because Mary did not perform the test, and because Joseph was convinced he was cheated on, he had to be convinced of Mary’s innocence in another way, no less divine than the adultery test – a dream from God. In the dream he was given, Mary’s innocence was proven, just as it would have been through the test.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. Matthew 1: 18 – 25

Advent 2014: Week 2

The Angel Gabriel

The angel Gabriel delivered Messianic messages to God’s people. As discussed last week, one such message was given to Mary and recorded by Luke.

Now in the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary. And coming in, he said to her, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.” Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing will be impossible with God.” Luke 1: 26 – 37

This New Testament interaction with Mary can be compared to Gabriel’s Old Testament interaction with the prophet Daniel. That interaction occurred during the days of the exile.

Now while I was speaking and praying, and confessing my sin and the sin of my people Israel, and presenting my supplication before the LORD my God in behalf of the holy mountain of my God, while I was still speaking in prayer, then the man Gabriel, whom I had seen in the vision previously, came to me in my extreme weariness about the time of the evening offering. He gave me instruction and talked with me and said, “O Daniel, I have now come forth to give you insight with understanding. At the beginning of your supplications the command was issued, and I have come to tell you, for you are highly esteemed; so give heed to the message and gain understanding of the vision. Seventy weeks have been decreed for your people and your holy city, to finish the transgression, to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, to bring in everlasting righteousness, to seal up vision and prophecy and to anoint the most holy place. So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks; it will be built again, with plaza and moat, even in times of distress. Then after the sixty-two weeks the Messiah will be cut off and having nothing, and the people of the prince who is to come will destroy the city and the sanctuary. Daniel 9: 20 – 26

Notice the consistency in the Old and New Testament accounts, regarding Gabriel’s encouraging demeanor. He called Mary “favored one” and Daniel “highly esteemed”. Notice also how in each passage the day of the Messiah’s arrival is not explicitly stated, but indirectly referenced.

Testament Indirect Reference
Old So you are to know and discern that from the issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem until Messiah the Prince there will be seven weeks and sixty-two weeks…Daniel 9: 25
New And behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. Luke 1: 36

Gabriel told Daniel that the timeline for determining the Messiah’s arrival starts with the “issuing of a decree to restore and rebuild Jerusalem”. And obviously with Mary, she would give birth nine months after conception. Gabriel placed her conception in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. One can start with these clues and perform a study, incorporating both Biblical and extra-Biblical data, to approximate the month and year of Jesus’ birth.

More interesting than the similarities in the messages given to Mary and Daniel is a major difference noticed in the texts. When Gabriel spoke to Mary, he told her she would give birth to the Messiah, the promised King of Israel, and that He would rule forever and His kingdom would have no end. But when Gabriel spoke to Daniel, he told him that the Messiah would at some point be “cut off and have nothing”. Furthermore, he said that Jerusalem (the home of the king) and the temple (the house of God) would be destroyed. This is certainly a conundrum – would the Messiah rule forever or would He be cut off?

This riddle is resolved by the resurrection of Jesus. When Gabriel told Daniel the Messiah would be cut off and have nothing, this was a prophecy of the crucifixion of Jesus. When on the third day Jesus rose from the grave, His claim to be God’s Messiah was vindicated and His claim to be King of the Jews made certain. Thus in the resurrection of Christ, Gabriel’s words to Mary were definitively fulfilled.

Now what about Gabriel’s words regarding the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple? Historically, it is undeniably true – Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans. It is the reason for the destruction that is debated. Secularists would simply say it is another example of a nation warring against a nation. Christians would say that the city and temple were destroyed because the Jews rejected the Messiah (Jesus Himself spoke of the coming destruction of Jerusalem). A rejection of God’s Messiah is a rejection of God Himself, and there were curses in the Mosaic Covenant associated with rejecting God.

It shall come about that as the LORD delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the LORD will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it. Deuteronomy 28: 63

The Jews are hard pressed, I think, to explain the destruction of their city. The destruction and scattering of the Jewish people, Biblically, is always associated with their sin and God’s enactment of the covenant curses. What was the great sin they committed, warranting the destruction of their city, if it was not the rejection of Jesus as Messiah, and disbelieving the words Gabriel spoke to Daniel about the cutting off of Messiah?