18. From Nazareth?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 18.  From Nazareth?

Jn 1:45,46  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote–Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”  “Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.

From the dizzy heights of the Logos, ‘the reason behind all things’, John drops us right down to earth as he recounts an incident the other Gospels either knew nothing about or simply missed. Some of John the Baptist’s followers now follow Jesus and one of them, Philip, finds his friend Nathaniel and tells him about Jesus who they have just met for the first time. Somehow or other Philip, perhaps asking directly or getting it from John the Baptist, has found out who Jesus is and in those days a person was identified with by his father or by his home location or both.

Thus we now find this description of Jesus as ‘Jesus of Nazareth.” Now we have to admit that in John’s Gospel the next time this designation is used is not until chapter 18 at Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane: Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “I am he,” Jesus said.” (Jn 18:4,5) This is how the arresting crowd designates him.   In Luke’s Gospel (and Mark’s), intriguingly, the first person to identify him as such is a demoniac in a synagogue:  “What do you want with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are–the Holy One of God.” (Lk 4:34)   The fact that Jesus silences him probably is more about not yet wanting to be heralded as the Son of God or the Messiah, rather than about his home town.

It is clear that later in his ministry he is still known with this designation, by some at least: “As Jesus approached Jericho, a blind man was sitting by the roadside begging. When he heard the crowd going by, he asked what was happening. They told him, “Jesus of Nazareth is passing by.” (Lk 18:35-37) At the end of Luke’s Gospel in the Emmaus Road incident, the two mourning disciples designate him thus and to ensure there is not mistake recount all that has happened: “Are you only a visitor to Jerusalem and do not know the things that have happened there in these days?”   “What things?” he asked. “About Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied. “He was a prophet, powerful in word and deed before God and all the people. The chief priests and our rulers handed him over to be sentenced to death, and they crucified him; but we had hoped that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.” (Lk 24:18-21)

So in this search for the Christ in Scripture, as we have passed through the events surrounding his birth, we have now moved on to the time of his ministry, some thirty years later. From years after that ministry has concluded John had described him (with years of reflection behind him) as the Logos, the Word, the ultimate reason behind all things.  But now, turning to his actual ministry we see the Gospel writers recognising this particular designation – from Nazareth and the son of Joseph.

What is significant about this? Well in any history book that covers the lives of great people, they always cover their origins and here is no difference. Yes, but what is significant about this?  Well, remember the early Isaiah prophecies spoke both about Galilee and about the greatness of this Coming One and yet later Isaiah was to say of him, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isa 53:2b) i.e. he appeared as just an ordinary person. This is the significance of the “of Nazareth”. Yes, on one hand we are going to see the designation, “Son of God” and on the other, “Son of Man” and we will examine them both separately. On one hand there is divinity and on the other humanity and, to the surrounding world at least, it started with the humanity. He is merely the son of a carpenter and for some that was a problem: “Coming to his hometown, he began teaching the people in their synagogue, and they were amazed. “Where did this man get this wisdom and these miraculous powers?” they asked. “Isn’t this the carpenter’s son? Isn’t his mother’s name Mary, and aren’t his brothers James, Joseph, Simon and Judas? Aren’t all his sisters with us? Where then did this man get all these things?” (Mt 13:54:54-56)

We didn’t pick it up earlier, but why was Nathaniel so disparaging about Nazareth? Well, it was a rather obscure town, nowhere mentioned in the Old Testament. Yes, Matthew declared, “He will be called a Nazarene,”  (Mt 2:23) but that probably refers to Isaiah’s words that the Messiah would be despised for in Jesus’ day “Nazarene” was virtually a synonym for “despised”. However, the greater reality was that Nazareth was not named in the Messianic prophecies. Here, indeed, is another mystery.

Why? We aren’t told and so we must just speculate. In an earlier study I referred to all this “cloak and dagger stuff” indicating that although God clearly was declaring the arrival of His Son, He still largely kept it a secret, only revealing it to those whose hearts He knew would be open to Him. So, from the glory of the Logos we descend to the obscurity of Nazareth. Thirty years before Herod had gone searching for him in the area around Bethlehem. Now God has located him in the north, well away from the hotbed of religion in Jerusalem. It is almost as if the Father wants his Son to be raised in a ‘safe house’ away from prying eyes. Yes, he is still the Son of God, the same as he had been in heaven, in many respects, but for the moment he is hidden away. Again, Isaiah had prophesied, “He grew up before him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of dry ground.” (Isa 53;2a) A tender shoot coming up in dry ground; what a description of Galilee in those days.

There is another practical application in all this. It doesn’t matter what your origins are when it comes to being a child of God. You and I came from dry, ungodly beginnings. In one sense it doesn’t matter what those beginnings were. It doesn’t matter whether our parents were poor or rich, single or married. We are what we are today because we have been born again and are children of God. What you rise to do in the kingdom of God has nothing to do with how famous your parents are, or where you were born, or how clever or smart you are, or how handsome or beautiful you are (or aren’t); it is all to do with being God’s child and how open to your Father you are.

Jesus came as a carpenter’s son, not the son of a ruler, not the son of a priest, not the son of a rabbi. It was almost as if God was making a point: this is my Son, hidden away so all those who ‘measure’ people will miss him – until he comes and does My works. Then you can start adjusting your thinking!

To reflect upon: do we, in fact, measure ourselves by our background or upbringing or simply by being children of God and all that that means?

 

(Apologies, until the end of the week we will probably be out of Internet contact)

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17. The Word (2)

Focus on Christ Meditations: 17.  The Word (2)

Jn 1:1,14   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth

We have said in this third Part that we will observe a variety of names or descriptions given to the Christ and we have commenced with John’s cultural icon to satisfy the Greeks, the Word. I also said I want to consider two things about this ‘Word’ and we started by looking at the Greek meaning and its incredible implication.  Now I want to ponder a much more simple idea about this term, the Word that can help all people, not merely the Greek culture,.

The most simple approach is to just ask, what is a word?  Yes, we’ve seen the Logos idea but more generally than that, what is a word? It is a communication. We only have to say, “Yes.” or “No.” or “Right,” or “Go!” and we are communicating. Words are the way we communicate mainly. Yes, we have much talk about body language but words are the primary means of communication. And so John says Jesus is God’s means of communication.

Now the writer to the Hebrews has this exact same idea in mind when he started his writing: In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.” (Heb 1:1,2) There it is. In the past the whole Old Testament is just that, a testimony to God communicating, but now, says the writer, “he has spoken to us by his Son.” Now that may mean that the words Jesus spoke were God’s words, or it may mean that by his very being Jesus communicated what his Father was like, and that latter meaning is the path we are going to follow here.

Again we have to thank John for his years of recollecting the finer points of his experience of those three years with Jesus, for within his accounts we find the following: “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” (Jn 14:7) Now I suspect that is one of those verses we skim over without giving it the thought that is due to it, so let’s have a closer look at it.

“If you really knew me.” What does that imply? It’s not that you have been with me throughout these three years, but have you come to realise who I really am? Therefore IF you have come to realise who I am (God!) “you would know my Father as well.”  God is God wherever He is – in heaven Supreme, or here on earth in single bodily form. THAT is what is implied here, and if that wasn’t enough, “From now on, you do know him and have seen him.” Have seen Him? You have seen the Father? How? By seeing me.

The disciples struggled: “Philip said, “Lord, show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” (v.8) Jesus’ answer? “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, `Show us the Father’? Don’t you believe that I am in the Father, and that the Father is in me?” (v.9,10) No wonder Paul was to write, as we saw before, “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Col 1:15) and then almost even more remarkably, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him.” (v.19)

Now why is this so significant? It is because throughout history mankind has reached out to touch the divine – and failed – and yet now this New Testament declares over and above any other claim any human being has made, this Jesus is God. See Jesus and you see God. If you want to know what God is really like, look at Jesus Christ. Jesus, the Word, communicates to us what his Father is like, what God is like. Now whatever I say here is going to be inadequate but we have to ask the question, if we come to the Gospels, for the first time, say, with childlike, open hearts, and we’ve been told this person is God in the flesh, what do we learn God is like?

Well first, simply because He has come, He is interested in mankind. By that we don’t just mean He wants to know about us, because He already does, He designed us and originally created us, but that that ‘knowing’ means interacting with. His coming was a sign of His desire to interact with us, form relationships with us.

Second, by what we see the way He went about these three years of public ministry, drawing twelve close followers to be trained up, He is concerned to communicate to us His heart and His will so that we will catch it, be changed by it, and pass it on to others so that they will also be changed. Those are the two bigger and wider issues about His intentions, but what else is there?

OK, third, observing the low-key way He approaches mankind, we can see that it is not His intention to dominate us. He comes to earth, draws alongside us, gives us sufficient cause to believe who He is, and acts as an example for us. It is as we observe that example that we see love in action, for we cannot describe it in any other way. He uses the power that He obviously has, not to subjugate people, not to elevate Himself, but to do good to people – to heal them, deliver them and even on rare occasion to raise them from the dead. He seeks to win hearts with love, not by demands.

Yes, fourth, He does reiterate that He has designed mankind to work in particular ways, as the Law showed, and in so doing He did make us face the truth that we had a problem, but that His love was the way He wanted to win men and women back to Himself, so that they might be restored, as far as it was possible, to their state before the Fall. But that love wasn’t just doing good.

Fifth, and this they really struggled to take in, just as many today so struggle, He communicated that His answer to the Sin of mankind and the guilt of sins would be to sacrifice Himself by allowing this same sinful mankind to arrest him, falsely try and convict him and then crucify him. In other words, as God He would take the Sin of mankind upon Himself and, satisfy the demands of justice that such wrongs be dealt with ‘legally’ so that those sinners who availed themselves of that act, could be declared free and under no further demand for punishment, but be free to fully enter into a loving relationship with Him.

Sixth, he spoke of the possibility of a life after death, not a mere ‘place of the dead’ as ‘Hades’ communicated, but an eternal home in heaven (in which there may yet exist another new heaven and new earth). To confirm that he had the power over death and to confirm a life after death, He rose from the dead.

Seventh, and finally, to further confirm all He said about Himself was true and that there was this other dimension, heaven, waiting for both him and us, he ascended to heaven in the sight of the apostles.

These are the things that Jesus came to communicate, both with his words and with his deeds. These are the things that God came to communicate, both with His words and with His deeds. This Word communicated all this to us. Hallelujah!

To reflect upon: have we take in all these wonderful truths that that Word came to communicate, and is love and worship our natural response? If not, are we even alive?

16. The Word (1)

PART THREE: DESCRIPTION

Focus on Christ Meditations: 16.  The Word (1)

Jn 1:1,14   In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth

In Part One we focused on the mystery that was there in the Old Testament yet to be revealed. In Part Two we started focusing on the coming of the one about who those mysterious prophecies had spoken, coming as a baby, and our focus was on the people involved with him at that time. Within that part it was inevitable that descriptions of this child would start to predominate but we left those descriptions within the context of the people involved. Now however, in this third Part, the sun is rising more clearly and we focus on the wider means of identifying this One who has come as a fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies and we will observe a variety of names or descriptions given to the Christ.

Although written many decades later, our starting point is with the description that the apostle John uniquely gave Jesus – the Word. Now I want to consider two things about this ‘Word’ but we’ll have to wait until the following study to see the second thing.

The first is about the Greek meaning of the Word – Logos – which essentially means ‘the logic behind an argument’ or, more generally, the ‘reason behind everything’. To the Greeks of his day, the popular culture of what we today call the Middle East, John was saying, this Jesus you have heard about is the cause or reason that everything exists. John expands this for both the Greeks of his day who would understand this, and for us who may not know about that meaning, in the following verses: Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men.” (v.3,4) i.e. he is the source of all of existence.

In verse 1 he picked up that staggering declaration that we found in early Isaiah which also echoed around the various other pronouncements around the Nativity story, that this child was somehow God in the flesh. This ‘Word’ was actually “with God” (which seems to indicate a distinct entity from God) and yet “was God”. The God of the Bible is the unique, single Creator of all things, and now John, backing up Isaiah, says this child is that One.   I like ‘the reason behind everything’ definition for Logos.

The writer to the Hebrews echoed this exact same thing for, speaking about God and then Jesus, he wrote: “his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.” (Heb 1:2,3) There are the same elements: distinction, unity, creator activity and indeed the power to sustain and maintain this world.

Earlier in this series I wrote, ‘The person of Jesus is what makes Christianity stand out as a unique religion and once anyone starts looking at the claims about Jesus in the Bible there is no question whatsoever that Christianity makes claims that are way above and beyond anything any other world religion makes.’  The verses we have been considering so far in these studies are many and varied and they all say the same thing – this Christ IS God – divinity that was the Creator, divinity that upholds all of existence.

Why do so many people struggle with this? Because they fail to consider these verses and they focus only on what they see in the human being that was Jesus of Nazareth. John doesn’t allow that. Note in the opening verse a hint of what will be made very clear in a subsequent chapter of his Gospel, “the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father.”  That is the amazing claim of this Gospel that the Son of God, who is now manifested in the form of the body and life of Jesus of Nazareth, existed in heaven from before time began with all the glory of the Godhead and so what we see in the Gospels  is the life of the Son on earth, having come from heaven. You won’t find that in any other world religion. This is unique revelation.

Do you see how all the threads we’ve seen before in the earlier studies come together here – a child who IS God comes as our saviour. But I have only partly answered my question above, why do so many people struggle with this?  Not only do they only focus on the human aspect, they fail to take in the big picture that is stated so clearly in scripture: “He is the image of the invisible God.” (Col 1:15 – also 2 Cor 4:4) Or see Paul’s amazing song, perhaps echoing one of the early church sayings, “Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:5-8) There it all is: although God, he submitted himself to the will of the Father and came from heaven in human likeness to die on the Cross.

The Word – the reason behind everything – came from heaven from which he, with his Father, had created all things, came here to reveal the Father, and that is the second aspect of this that we will consider in the next study.

To reflect upon: do we understand the greatness and the glory of the Son of God and do we thus worship him for who he is, seated there at his Father’s right hand today?

15. A Most Remarkable Description

Focus on Christ Meditations: 15.  A Most Remarkable Description

Jn 1:29    The next day John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!

Hindsight is a deceiving thing; it makes us think we would have understood the circumstances we read throughout the Bible, whereas the truth would more likely have been that we heard the words and our reply might well have been, “er….yes?” This truth has been there in the back of my mind constantly throughout this series. We read the words in our completed Bibles, or we hear them expounded so easily by a preacher on a Sunday and so we give so little thought as to the way that message would have come over to the original listeners. Bear that in mind with today’s verse.

We have examined some (not all) of the accounts of what happened surrounding the coming of the Christ in the form of a baby. We saw an angel tell Mary the child’s name will be Jesus which, we noted means, ‘the Lord saves’. Then there was the angel in Joseph’s dream who told him to name the child Jesus because he will save his people from their sins. Then there was the angel coming to the shepherds to tell them that Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ.  Again and again this idea that he will be a saviour comes through. Yes, we saw in the early Isaiah prophecies that he will be mighty, a great and lasting ruler, and so those early people could be forgiven for thinking that, apart from that unclear reference to ‘sins’, this ‘saviour’ will be a mighty ruler who will overthrow all of Israel’s enemies.

And now we jump forward thirty years and John the Baptist comes with further confusing and apparently contradictory messages. You’ve never noticed them?  First of all we have, John testifies concerning him. He cries out, saying, “This was he of whom I said, `He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.” (Jn 1:15) Then, “but among you stands one you do not know. He is the one who comes after me, the thongs of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.” (Jn 1:26,27) And from Matthew we have, “after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Mt 3:11,12) Each of these verses speak of power, authority and greatness. Well that fits with the early Isaiah prophecies.

But then, “John saw Jesus coming toward him and said, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” There’s that sin reference again, but what makes it more confusing, especially in the light of all that has just gone before, is John identifying Jesus as “the lamb of God.”  Sorry, I think this is another of those “er…yes?” moments. And John says it twice (Jn 1:29 AND 1:36) as if to make the point quite clear, no, he wasn’t speaking out of turn the first time, he was speaking prophetically.

Now you are struggling not to be all-knowing-it at this point because we know Revelation 5 where Jesus is enigmatically described standing before the throne in heaven and then described as a Lamb, looking as if it had been slain,” (Rev 5:6)  so yes, today, post-Crucifixion, and with all the teaching of the New Testament, we are comfortable with the idea of Jesus being God’s sacrifice for our sins, but what if you had been back there, standing next to John, what might you be thinking?

A lamb? What does that imply?  A lamb conjures up a picture of meek and mild. How does that fit with the ruler-deliverer picture? So where does a lamb come in the Old Testament? That might give us clues. Well, clearly a lamb was the usual offering to God even back in Abraham’s day (see Gen 22:7) because Isaac expected there to be one, and Abraham spoke those immortal words, “God himself will provide the lamb for the burnt offering, my son.” (Gen 22:8) before he bound up Isaac and laid him on the altar, before another angel intervened and stopped him.

Lambs also appear in the sacrificial laws of Leviticus (e.g. see Lev 3:7) but it could equally have been a cow, a sheep or a goat, so a lamb wasn’t especially significant. No, the lamb gets its primary significance in the story of the Passover in Ex 12 where every family (of this mainly shepherding community) were to take and kill a lamb without blemish (i.e. one of the best ones) and take some of its blood and put it around the doorposts of the home so that when the destroying angel came he would see it, know it was a Hebrew home, and pass over it while he went on to kill every oldest son throughout Egypt. The lamb was thus the classic symbol of God’s means of salvation for His people.

So when John suddenly calls Jesus ‘the lamb of God’ is he implying that somehow Jesus is going to die as a sacrifice for our sins? How does this fit with the king-ruler-deliverer pictures? Now it is possibly so familiar to us today that the idea of this is no problem to us, but in a day when this had not been expounded, it was a mystery.

Consider how Jesus’ disciples struggled with this, especially in the light of all the miracles that showed that Jesus was completely in control of everything (water into wine, walking on water) and Jesus did such wonderful things (healings, deliverances, raising people from the dead) that surely no one would wish to harm him? When Jesus, obviously fully aware of his destiny, started talking about his death, they found it impossible to cope with.

The classic was with Peter: “From that time on Jesus began to explain to his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. “Never, Lord!” he said. “This shall never happen to you!” Jesus turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.” (Mt 16:21-23) Please, please, please, put off your twenty-first century knowledge and try and catch the mystery that confronted these followers of Jesus, a mystery which explains so clearly the struggle they had when confronted with his death.

The apostle Paul said it later: “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” (1 Cor 1:22,23) As we later go further into this study we will see why death on a cross was such an anathema to both Jew and Gentile.  This was one of the greatest and most staggering mysteries that has ever been hidden from the eyes of the world – and it’s wonder and reality is still hidden from many today.

To reflect upon: Lord, please forgive me that so often I treat your word so casually and only scratch the surface. Please give me greater understanding.

14. A Most Remarkable Message

Focus on Christ Meditations: 14.  A Most Remarkable Message

Lk 1:31-33    You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.

We have seen the dream that Joseph had in which the angel said,you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins,” and we commented then that this was shorthand for all we can find in those messianic verses at the beginning of Isa 61 (and which Jesus read in the synagogue – Lk 4:17-19) and we considered what that actually meant as it was rolled out in history. I don’t know, as a child, if you ever did painting by numbers where bit by bit you followed the colours designated by each number and the picture gradually grew. I feel this search is a bit like that.

My intent has been to build up a picture from the verses of the Bible of the mystery from the Old Testament, gradually being revealed in the New, and yet not obvious except to just a few. If each person who came to know what was happening lit up, we would have seen Zechariah light up, then Elizabeth as he communicated in writing with her, then Mary, then Joseph, then the shepherds at about the same time that Simeon was picking it up and to the east some Magi were being alerted – but they are the only ones we are told about (possibly plus Anna in the temple). Half a dozen individual and two groups, and that is it. It is a very low-key happening. But as these people share it with those closest to them – Zechariah and Elizabeth told those near them, no doubt Mary and Joseph told their close families, the shepherds certainly told whoever would listen before they went back to their sheep, and perhaps Simeon told people around in the temple, and the Magi certainly let the cat out of the bag, as we might say today, when they turned up in Jerusalem, asking questions about the Coming One who had arrived!

So yes, there were a growing number of people who were being alerted to what was happening, but whether those hearing it second hand believed it, is another thing. Even more, and this is where I want us to focus at this moment, if you were one of the first people to be told you might feel very much alone.

Imagine you had a brother or sister who worked for the Government in biological warfare research, and one day they came to you and said, “I can’t keep this to myself any longer, I have to tell someone. We have been working on a virus, an incredibly virulent virus that sterilises anyone it meets so they can never bear children. It works. We’ve tried it on all sorts of animals and it works every time – and it has escaped!  Hardly anyone else knows about it yet but the entire population WILL become infected. The world will never be the same again, and unless we can find some antidote – which is very unlikely – within a hundred years the entire population of the world will have gone. But you mustn’t tell anyone, we don’t want there to be widespread panic.” So there you are. You are just one of a very few who know what is going on. It is a lonely place.

So now back to Mary and her encounter with the angel Gabriel. What is strange is that she doesn’t ask, “But why me?” That doesn’t seem to cross her mind. She simply asks how she can fulfil God’s will because she is not married and it’s within marriage that children are conceived. (Oh if only our unrestrained western society could get back to that place!) This particular mystery is only resolved when you consider what we are told about her: she is a virgin pledged to be married (v.27). Apparently she has found favour with God (v.30) and, I suggest, God bestows favour on those He chooses and He chooses according to subsequent availability and openness to Him. This is confirmed by her comments at the close of the conversation: I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.” (v.38)

We can’t pass this by without letting the light of this situation shine back on us. How many of us, confronted with a strange word from God in scary circumstances would have responded with such a depth of faith?

But look at what Gabriel says about her son: “you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” (v.31-33) There it is again, all the things we’ve been seeing in previous studies: Jesus or Joshua which means, ‘the Lord saves’, he will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, or ‘the Son of God’.  Now up until that point Mary might have interpreted this as meaning, he will be very godly, but see how it ends – “he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.” What?

We back in the dilemma of the Isaiah prophecies. Of whom can this be said except God? This child will be God????  Could Mary comprehend that? I doubt it, because even we today, with all the revelation we have, still struggle to understand how Almighty God can inhabit a human body – the Incarnation is still a mystery. And for us it gets worse. I have lost count of the times I have written about the ‘indwelling Holy Spirit’ the Holy Spirit who inhabits every believer. How do we handle the reality of that?

How easily we speak these things and yet the utter reality escapes us. So I have another question mark over this story that is so familiar to us every Christmas and it is this: why did God bother to tell both Mary and Joseph this about Jesus? Did they understand it? Only at a superficial level. Did it change the way they brought him up? I doubt it, they were clearly both righteous people given over to God’s will for their lives. We might ask of us in church life today, why does God give us prophecies today (why did He give to Isaiah and the other prophets?), why, when sometimes the prophecy is simply a declaration of His sovereign activity, doesn’t He just get on and do it regardless, why tell us?

The unbelievably simple answer has got to be that because He loves us, and He loves to tell us what is on His heart (after all, we’ve got an entire book full of it!) and involve us, in understanding at least, in what He is doing. Sometimes He says it so that we can cooperate with Him and play our specific part – as was the case for Joseph who changed his mind and married Mary. The mystery about The Mystery is resolved in this: God shared the intentions of the Godhead for all who would see in the following centuries and whose hearts would be lifted by what they read. It didn’t happen in their time but they would have rejoiced that it was going to happen and that in turn would have provided fuel for worship.

To reflect upon: when we have read these prophecies (and perhaps when we have received our own personal prophecies), have our hearts lifted with praise and worship and can our response be that of Mary: I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”

13. A Most Remarkable Dream

Focus on Christ Meditations: 13.  A Most Remarkable Dream

Mt 1:20-21   an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

We have been pursuing the sense of mystery that is there in Scripture about the coming, the person, the life, and the work of Christ. This started with the apostle Paul’s use of this word mystery as applied to Christ and to the Gospel and I have suggested from the outset that familiarity in many of us means we have lost the sense or awareness of this mystery, and so I have been seeking to regain it in these studies. We started with some of the prophecies from the Old Testament which was, I suggest, what Paul was mostly referring to when he spoke of the mystery. However, as we moved into the New Testament I have suggested that when we look with fresh eyes we will catch a similar sense in respect of all of the things we find there in the early accounts of his coming.

We did this with Simeon and the Magi, who were the earliest of those who were aware of his coming, and then we considered the mystery of choosing shepherds to announce the news of his coming. From that we pondered on why God should choose Zechariah knowing he was likely to respond negatively as he did, and then finally considered the subject of why a virgin birth. It is with the same approach in mind that we now consider the nature and content of Joseph’s dream.

To do this properly we need to first note the historical context, if we may put it like that, what was going on before the dream came. Basic facts. 1. Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph.” (v.18a)  2. “Before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18b)  3. “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) That’s where we have got to and we’ve already considered bits of this as we considered the ‘virgin birth’ question.

When the angel appears to Joseph in the dream it is obviously so vivid that he sees it as the message from God that it is, and follows the instructions within it. Now a dream with an angel in isn’t particularly mysterious; it is what is in the angelic communication that we so often take for granted. He first of all reassures Joseph (v.20) that, no, she hasn’t been with another man, it truly is a miracle, the fact that she is carrying a baby, it is a sovereign work of God, enabled by the Holy Spirit. OK, end of reassurance, he could have stopped there, but he doesn’t.

See the all-important v.21: “She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” Now in your Bible there will probably be a footnote after the word ‘Jesus’ that explains, ‘Jesus is the Greek form of Joshua, which means the LORD saves.’   Now we find a shorthand version of what we saw in the Isa 61 prophecy, fulfilled in Lk 4 that we saw in study 7 on the Anointed Servant. The purpose of the one we have referred to simply as ‘the Coming One’ is to save people, but now we stumble over yet another mystery. In the Isa 61 prophecy the ‘saving’ was in respect of the poor… the brokenhearted…. the captives and … the prisoners. The angel now says he will save his people from their sins. What does that actually mean?

How easily we hear it when we hear this story read at Christmas, but what does it actually mean? Were the descriptions in Isa 61 descriptions about sin? Are we captive to Sin, prisoners or Sin? Is the result that we are poor (spiritually) and brokenhearted (in the anguish that the life of sin brings with it)? Here is the mystery of the words of the dream and purpose of the Coming One.

In retrospect, with the whole canon of Scripture before us we can venture answers to this question, what does it mean that the Christ saves us from our sins? The starting point has to be that since the Fall every single human being (except Jesus) is tainted with this thing called Sin, this propensity to be self-centred and godless which leads to unrighteousness. This unrighteousness is expressed as sins, individual wrong thoughts, wrong words or wrong deeds. We were, before we came to Christ, a prisoner to this Sin, hence the apostle Paul’s words in Rom 7, leading to the conclusion that we were helpless (unable to change ourselves) and hopeless (there was no hope of a different future). That was our state from which Christ came to save us.

How did he do that? Let’s be as simple as possible and for the sake of space forgive me if I don’t justify these three declarations with lots of verses; they are there. First because of our state (in Sin) and our actions (sins) we inherently feel guilty. There is a question of our guilt and shame needing to be dealt with. Second, there is the fact of our guilt; we don’t only feel guilty deep down, we are guilty. That needs dealing with. Third, we are powerless to change; we are as we said, helpless and hopeless, and that needs dealing with. So how does Jesus death on the Cross deal with these three things?

The divine plan was that his death was to be seen as punishment satisfying justice for each and every sin we have ever and will ever commit. All God asks of us initially is to believe that. It is the means of dealing with the second of those three issues – our guilt. As far as justice is now concerned everything we have ever done or will ever do wrong, has been resolved, the punishment has been taken. When we come to God in repentance we are instantly ‘justified’, declared right in the eyes of heaven. As part of the whole process we are also adopted by God into His family, we have a new status, children of God, and as such all our shame and guilt, the first issue, are gone. As part of the whole process God puts His Holy Spirit into our lives, we become indwelt by the Spirit and He within us is the new power source (see end of Rom 7 and beginning of Rom 8), so together the new identity that we have and the new power source within, release us to live new God-directed and God-blessed lives, with an eternal future. We ARE saved! Hallelujah!

THIS is what was wrapped up in those few simple but utterly dramatic words of mystery that Joseph received in his dream – he will save his people from their sins. That was why he came, this is what he has done and this is what we are now experiencing. Hallelujah! How wonderful this mystery now revealed! Is there any point in continuing this series? Oh yes, now we will start seeing how it was all worked out in time-space history, now we will go on to see more of who this Coming One really is, and what he came to do.  Yes!!!!

12. Why a Virgin?

Focus on Christ Meditations: 12.  Why a Virgin?

Lk 1:26-28   In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

We have already touched on the fact of the virgin birth twice already in our examinations of some of the Isaiah prophecies but as we move into the New Testament historical context we need to face this claim within Matthew, a claim that is really very low key in the text of the New Testament. Let’s look at various aspects of this.

Historical struggles: It is interesting to note how the early church clearly struggled with this mystery, in the various Creeds. The earliest of the creeds, the so-called Apostles Creed starts out, “I believe in God almighty And in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary,” whereas the Nicene Creed of AD 325 says, “We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, ……For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven; by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Another well-known ‘creed’ of about 5th/6th centuries, the Athanasian Creed, goes to great lengths to spell out the relationships and origins of the Trinity but is utterly silent on the ‘virgin birth’.

Others in more recent centuries have also obviously struggled with this, for example, the Westminster Confession of Faith declares quite fully but with a noticeable absence, “The Son of God, the second Person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance, and equal with the Father, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man’s nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof; yet without sin: being conceived by he power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, of her substance. So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.”

Practical Exposition: Now Matthew’s Gospel is very specific and he approaches it with several clear refuting arguments that whereas the meaning if ‘virgin’ in the Isaiah prophecy could simply mean a young, unmarried girl, that was not what happened in history.

Overall picture: Then Matthew explains circumstances that deny that: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit.” (v.18) He maintains i) she is only pledged to Joseph, ii) the couple have not come together sexually, and iii) her conception is purely a work of the Holy Spirit.

Joseph’s response: “Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.” (v.19) Joseph, is a righteous young man, and i) is sure that the child is not his, and ii) Mary is obviously sticking to her story of the angel Gabriel and iii) there are no other young men who could be candidates for fatherhood here

Joseph’s dream: “But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (v.20) This dream is so strong and clear that he is utterly convinced and so, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.” (v.24,25)

This complete turnabout by Joseph cannot be explained by any other way: i) There is no reason for him to change his mind, his righteous approach to life has been affronted, ii) If he had changed his mind there would have been no reason for him to make up some super-spiritual story, he could simply say, ‘I will graciously forgive here and be the father of her child.’ iii) Such a false story would thus be untrue and would ever be on his conscience and we know he is a righteous young man who would not condone such an approach.

It is because Matthew has found out this information that he attaches the Isaiah prophecy to the account as if to say, “Isaiah, speaking into the future meant that the Coming One would be born of a true virgin without any male involvement.”

Why? Here is a mystery which has brought denial from skeptics and questions from church scholars through the ages. Why should it have been like this? The argument about sinlessness is slightly questionable because although Joseph’s sinfulness is excluded, Mary’s isn’t! Unless you can say – and we can’t – that Mary was sinless from birth and therefore a unique human being, we still have human genes at least from one sinful parent. So why a virgin birth?

The answer is so enormous that it passes most of us by. We have seen in the Isa 9 prophecy those incredible words that this being is going to be God incarnate, and in the earlier prophecies this is Immanuel, God with us. If God wasn’t in and part of this baby when it was born, why

  • did Mary tell of her encounter with the angel Gabriel, including the fact that when she maintained she was a virgin, he declared, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Lk 1:35)
  • did the Wise Men want to worship him? (Mt 2;2)
  • should Elizabeth under the anointing of the Holy Spirit speak of the baby Mary was carrying and refer to Mary as, “the mother of my Lord”? (Lk 1:43) She, by revelation, knew who he was!

No, the testimony of both Matthew’s and Luke’s accounts are in complete harmony. If it didn’t happen at conception when did God take up residence in this male boy in such a way that was unique so there was clearly a oneness that has never been seen to occur in any other human being. In the apostolic writings of the New Testament, there is never any dichotomy of description, there is never any dividing out the physical from the spiritual when the apostles refer to Christ and there is never any record of the making of a new man-God being. Don’t confuse the coming down of the Spirit on Jesus at baptism, because it is clear before that that Jesus knew exactly who he was, the unique Son of God. But why not involve Joseph? Because that was how God wanted to create this new being in which He Himself would reside from the moment of conception, and thus the conception was a miracle that involve both divine and human elements.

To reflect upon: When scripture is not clear at first sight do we find ourselves thinking negative thoughts or do we have a determination to see how it works as it says?