God with us

Mt 1:23    they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.”
 
Before we conclude this set of meditations from the Gospels and move into considering Easter, we step right back to the beginning of Matthew to consider this prophetic verse that reminds us just who Jesus is. The thought contained in this verse is either the most scary thing ever known or the most wonderful. Isaiah first prophesied these words (Isa 7:14), almost as a rebuke to king Ahaz, but Matthew now takes them and applies them to Jesus. It is an amazing thought. Religions throughout the world seek to reach God by a variety of means, but now, here, God says He will come and be with us in the form of this one human figure, Jesus.
  
Throughout the Old Testament period God had spoken to His chosen people again and again and again. Sometimes it was face to face (e.g. Ex 33:11), often through prophets and largely through the Law. Now He is saying He will come and actually live in the midst of His people. This is God close up and personal! The writer to the Hebrews summed this up: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… The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being (Heb 1:1-3) The apostle Paul spoke of Jesus, saying he,made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness,” (Phil 2:7) hinting at Jesus somehow putting off his glory as God’s Son in heaven to live in a human form on earth. How else could we cope with him? Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, prayed, And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began,” (Jn 17:5) indicating this same thing: back in heaven he was the all-glorious Son of God clearly seen. Here on earth he was God with his glory hidden.
     
Yet was it hidden or was it revealed in a different way? The staggering truth, which many balk at, is that Jesus Christ was God in the flesh. We’ve seen it before in these meditations but our minds cannot really cope with it. The fact that the all-powerful, all-knowing, ever-present God can somehow limit Himself in a human being, defies our imagination. Did this mean He stopped being God in heaven while He was on earth in human form? No, of course not! It was simply that while He was still God in eternity, still all-powerful, still all-knowing, still ever present, He was also expressing Himself as His Son, the human figure.
   
It’s a poor analogy but imagine a man who is a director of a company but also a father to small children. In the company environment he is seen in the all-powerful role of head of the company, and hundreds of people do his bidding. But then he goes home and plays on the floor with his small children. He is the same man but his children have no comprehension whatsoever of the enormity of his power and influence in the other world; he is just simply an ordinary figure in their limited world. He is not exercising his power or authority because that is not needed with his children. As we said, it’s a poor analogy but it may help us grab something of the idea of God who is all-powerful who comes to us in a human form, limiting Himself for our benefit.
    
Just in case you haven’t heard the old illustration, there was a little boy who had an ant farm but couldn’t get the ants to understand him. He expressed his frustration to his father who replied, “The only way you’ll be able to properly communicate with them is if you become an ant yourself.” That, in a sense, is exactly what God did. He became a human being like us and shared in our experiences so that He could show us, in ways we would understand, something of His love for us. Wow!

    

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The Great Light

Mt 4:13-16   Leaving Nazareth, he went and lived in Capernaum, which was by the lake in the area of Zebulun and Naphtali–to fulfill what was said through the prophet Isaiah: “Land of Zebulun and land of Naphtali, the way to the sea, along the Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles–the people living in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned.”
   
In the previous meditation we saw John refer to Jesus as ‘the light of men’. We step aside now into Matthew’s Gospel to see Matthew picking up the same idea but through an Old Testament prophecy. So let’s consider the same thing again, but from a slightly different angle. There will be some repetition but that will only clarify the point.
    

 Imagine a world with no Sun. Obviously it would be very cold but it would filled with blind people, for they say if you live in pitch blackness you go blind. But imagine this sunless world, not being a freezing wasteland and the people on it not blind but just not seeing. Then imagine someone arriving from another planet who has the same human form but who emanates light. If you’ve grown used to the dark you might not appreciate him coming for he reveals the world all around you as you’ve never seen it before. You start to see yourself and realize what you’re like. You see other people and realize what they’re like. Suddenly you appreciate the world in a way you’d never appreciated it before because now you can ‘see’.
   
Jesus comes as light to a dark land. It is Galilee in the north of Israel. It is ‘dark’ for two reasons. First, because it is in the north, it had been prey many times to invaders from the north. Syria, Assyria, Babylon, had all at various times invaded from the north. It was a land that historically had known much bloodshed. Indeed it was a land of the shadow of death.” But then it was also a land far from the religious life of Jerusalem. Historically, when the nation had been divided into ‘Judah’ in the south and ‘Israel’ in the north, after Solomon’s reign, ‘Israel’ had a terrible history of apostasy, being led astray from the outset by Jeroboam who set up idols north and south of the land and led the northern nation into idolatry throughout their history until they were eventually deported. It had a spiritually dark history and it is to this land that God sends His Son. The light from heaven comes to a dark spot of the earth and shines.
    
Spiritually Galilee was a no-go area, separated from their religious southern cousins by Samaria in the middle, a hybrid people, blocking the south off. There is a form of religion here, as we’ll see, that was powerless and where Satan had free reign (see Mk 1:21 -24). The darkness was real and, from the numbers of sick that were soon brought to Jesus, the people were in a bad way. Into their midst comes one who speaks a different religious language, a language of love and reality. He appears to show no concern for class or creed but ministers God’s love to whoever would come to him. It was a practical love that transformed lives. It accepted them as they were, and blessed them with the power of God so demons fled, and healing flowed. Health and life followed him wherever he went.
  
Suddenly in this dark land, laughter was heard again and lives were released and hope returned. Suddenly it is clear that God is in their midst and the goodness of God is being poured out in very real, very practical ways. Suddenly the darkness is falling back before the light that is shining forth through this itinerant preacher-cum-miracle worker. It’s not just a glimmer in the darkness, it is a ‘great light’ and the word spreads like wildfire and crowds come flocking to it like moths to a candle on a dark evening. Never in the history of the earth has such a thing been known. The occasional miracles of some of the prophets from the past are put in the shade by the brilliance of what is happening. This is God on the loose. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness falls back.
   

Jesus the Nazarene

Mt 2:22,23   Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets: “He will be called a Nazarene.”
  
People have different and sometimes extreme ideas about Scripture. One extreme is that it is full of mistakes and contradictions. It isn’t, it was inspired by God (2 Tim 3:16). The other extreme is that it should be perfectly understandable with no questions arising. It isn’t; it came through the channel of men. Now we say this today because our two verses produce a question. Where in the Old Testament does it say Jesus will be a Nazarene? The answer is that it doesn’t. Some commentators scuffle around this by saying that Nazareth sounds like ‘branch’ of Isa 11:1 but if it is Matthew would be using a word play and there seems no other indication of that. So somewhere in Jewish history some prophets, unknown to us, spoke of the Messiah coming from Nazareth.
     
Now the main thing we know of Nazareth is that it was a small town of no significance. It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. Place names were important to the Jews because they were very conscious of their history, but Nazareth has no historical context. Even more, Nazareth is in Galilee in the north, far from Jerusalem. The fact of this being his home town was obviously well known (Mt 21:11, 26,71). Luke more than Matthew establishes Nazareth as Jesus’ home town (Lk 1:26, 2;4,39,51, 4:16). In choosing this as Jesus’ home location it is almost as if God is choosing the most obscure and isolated location in the land that He can for His Son’s earliest years.   
   
If this is so, what does it say? First of all it confirms the whole tenor of the prophecies about the Messiah, that he would be of low estate and not highly esteemed (Psa 22:6, 69:8, Isa 49:7, 53:2,3 etc.). In no way does the Lord use the ways of the world – important image, advertising, big publicity – in bringing His Son to this world. Starting his life in a stable was clearly a pointer to this same thing. No big palace for the Son of God. In fact later on he would declare that he had no home (Mt 8:20).
    
Second, and flowing from this, is the clear indication that Jesus came to associate himself with the poor and needy. Perhaps a modern day equivalent of this would be Jesus being born in the slums of, say, India, because he wants to reach the beggars there. Everything we see of Jesus, as we read through the Gospels says he came to, and associated, with the poor, those so often referred to be the religious elite as ‘the sinners’. Tax collectors and prostitutes (Mt 21:31,32) knew that here was a man they could identify with. Can we identify with the big religious leaders of our day? Neither could the poor of Jesus’ day associate or identify with the Chief Priests, the Scribes or the Pharisees of the time. Religiosity has no meaning for such people; life is too hard. No, the place of God’s choosing for His Son to live in obscurity for nearly thirty years was a place that came to actually be despised (see Jn 1:45,46), just as Jesus himself so often associated with those in society who were despised.
   
So God sends His Son to start off his human life, born in a stable, on the run to Egypt, and then back to years of isolation while he grew up in Nazareth.   It is an obscure verse with a questionable background, but that is exactly how God set up His Son.  Like the disciples (Mt 24:1), we get impressed by big buildings, big organisations, and important people, but God isn’t!   Nazareth is like a signpost to the nature of the Son and his work.  It’s like God is warning us, don’t make human standards the standard by which you measure my Son and his work. Those values are false; you need to think again, for this is foundational in understanding God and His Son.

     

Jesus, object of Worship

Mt 2:11    On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him.
    
The thought of worshipping a person is quite an alien one to most of us. There may have been Roman emperors and the like in the past, who claimed divinity, but we write them off as egomaniacal characters who are worthy of little consideration. Worship of individuals was rejected by the apostles (Acts 14:11-18), as was worship of angelic beings (e.g. Rev 19:10). Worship requires a divine object. Worship means bowing down before a supreme being, to acknowledge their greatness and our smallness. God, surely, can only be the object of any worship we may offer. Offering worship to anything or anyone else, is foolish, so when the wise men fall down and worship this baby we find they get our attention in a big way.
     
If we had been modern-day reporters on the scene, we would want to know why these men of riches and wisdom had come so far and now, having arrived, why they bow before a baby. What is it about this baby that we can’t see that they obviously can? Somehow these men have knowledge that we don’t have. To all intents and purposes this baby looks the same as any other baby, so why worship it? It’s only a baby!
    
And it is at this point that our credulity is stretched. Oh no, they tell us, this is God. Pardon? But I thought God was Almighty, all-powerful, all wise? Surely this baby is none of those things? Again it is perhaps a poor analogy as we struggle with these things that the Gospels tell us about Jesus, but imagine a container before you that appears sealed. Yet there is one tiny pin-prick hole in it and through the hole there seems almost the indication that inside this container is light. Suppose that hole get fractionally bigger as the years pass until it is clear that there is light coming through the hole in ever bigger measure. It has always been light; it’s just that the hole needed to grow to reveal the contents. Perhaps that’s how it was with Jesus. The baby is too small a ‘hole’ for us to realize the container is full of light. As the baby grows up, there are more indications and then, as he moves out in ministry, the ‘hole’ is enlarged more and more and the glory that is there is revealed. The only trouble is that some of us are so polluted by self and sin that our eyes are dim and we can’t see even the brightness that shines from the One who came in the form of a baby.
   
When individuals in the Bible saw the glory of God they fell down in abject worship (see Ezek 1:28, Rev 1:17). At various times in Jesus’ ministry various individuals ‘saw’ who he was: Nathaniel (Jn 1:50), Peter (Lk 5:8, Mt 16:16), and Thomas (Jn 20:28). Each of these men suddenly realized that the one before them was more than a mere man. Each one acclaimed Jesus as he was, and thus worshipped him. This is the point: Jesus is the Son of God but because we have so many preconceived ideas about him, or because we are so tainted with unbelief, those are just words to us. 
      
Perhaps we need to come to the Lord and ask him to open our eyes so that we can see the truth about him. How many of us, even if we’ve been Christians for many years, truly worship Jesus? How many of us truly bow before him and acknowledge him in all reality in our understanding as the all-glorious one who came from heaven, remained perfect (sinless) on earth, died in our place and rose from the dead and ascended back to the glory he had had previously? Maybe we need to ask for sight.
    

The Shepherd-Ruler

Mt 2:6    But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be the shepherd of my people Israel
   
We have spoken previously in these meditations of the expectations of the Jews about the coming One, and today’s verse is another of those that the Jewish scholars had in mind when they thought of the Messiah. The Magi have come looking for Jesus in Jerusalem and the scholars there point them to Bethlehem, for it’s there according to the prophecy of Micah (Mic 5:2) that the ruler, the king of the Jews, will be found. But, you will have noted, this prophecy extends the description of the ruler to say what he will do: he will ‘shepherd’ Israel. We said yesterday that the point of having a king was to put you on equal footing with other nations and to provide a leader who will stand against the enemies of the nation, but this description adds a further dimension to the role of a ruler, to care for, provide for and protect the nation.
   
Jacob, in his last years, referred to God as his shepherd (Gen 48:15, 49:24). David the shepherd, famously in Psa 23 referred to the Lord as his shepherd. Asaph similarly later referred to God as their shepherd (Psa 80:1), so it was a familiar picture, this one of a God who looked after them, cared for them, guided them and guarded them. The picture of Israel coming out of Egypt is easily seen as a big flock with God being their shepherd. As the centuries passed the Lord continued to be this to this people. It is likely to be no surprise therefore to see that the coming Messiah, this figure from God, will similarly perform this same role. Later on Jesus would identify himself as the Shepherd (Jn 10:11). Right at the end, the lamb that is Jesus will be the shepherd of his people (Rev 7:17) who will lead his people to springs of living (eternal) water.
     
The analogy of shepherd and sheep is a very powerful one, although an uncomfortable one for self-centred, self-concerned people, because it places us human beings in the role of sheep who, we know, tend to be foolish and stupid creatures who get themselves into difficulties. Even worse it declares that there is One who is so much greater than us who knows far more about our welfare than we do. For the self-centred and self-concerned, this is a distinct challenge to our sovereignty. If Jesus being a ruler over us wasn’t bad enough, the picture of us being sheep who need a shepherd to look after them is really insulting to ‘self’.
    
However, for the millions of us who feel small and inadequate, the thought that the Lord is there to look after us and care for us and protect us, is really reassuring. It is a dangerous world we live in and if we know ourselves, we know that left to ourselves we are not up to it. We do need help. Then we have the picture of Jesus who comes to us from heaven, shares in our humanity, has all power and authority, but uses it to care for us. This isn’t a God coming from heaven to beat us up, straighten us out, discipline us and kick us into line! No, this is a God who identifies with us and comes with care, concern and compassionate understanding. He’s come to look after us and that in very practical ways. He came bringing healing; he came bringing teaching, wisdom and counsel to help us. He modelled a way to live; he showed us an alternative to self-centred, materialistic living. This picture shows us God who is so concerned for our well-being that He comes down alongside us to help us. That is good news!

King of the Jews

Mt 2:1,2    Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?
   
Having followed the Nativity story through Luke, we now need to step across to Matthew to pick up on some of the things that happened which Luke did not cover. The young family are still at Bethlehem and possibly, as we’ll see later, as much as six months have passed. Here in these verses we have the first reference in Matthew’s Gospel to this idea of Jesus actually being their king. In case we might think this is just some figurative description, we need to realize that Jesus considered it a real and practical description: Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied (Mt 27:11).
    
Although for us today the idea of a king appears to be a rather shadowy idea, because kings in the twenty-first century tend to have little power, for the Jews it was a very real thing. The word ‘king’ appears in the Bible 2314 times! In their time a king was not merely a figurehead (unless the king was a vassal to a more powerful king); he was the supreme figurehead of the nation and the supreme power over the people. What he said went! More often than not he made the laws and directed that they be enforced – and they were! This was power!
    
Kings, for the Jews, were of real significance. They were first a sign that they were as good as any other nation. There was a sense of this in their first call for a king (1 Sam 8:5). Their thoughts of nationhood would have so often gone back to the golden days of King David who led them to victory against their enemies (2 Sam 8:1-6). A strong godly king was an instrument to bring peace and blessing to the nation.
     
In the Messianic prophecies there were often references to the Messiah being a ruler (Psa 110:1,2, Isa 9:7, Jer 23:5). Indeed the Lord said to Solomon,As for you, if you walk before me as David your father did, and do all I command, and observe my decrees and laws, I will establish your royal throne, as I covenanted with David your father when I said, `You shall never fail to have a man to rule over Israel. (2 Chron 7:17,18). Thus Israel were looking and hoping for one who would come as their God-sent ruler, to free them from the oppressor.
      
John writing his Gospel years after the others, had had time to ponder some of these things and as he looked back he began to realize the significance of some of the things that had happened: “Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.” (Jn 1:49). After the feeding of the five thousand, Jesus, knowing that they intended to come and make him king by force, withdrew again to a mountain by himself (Jn 6:15 ). When Jesus came to enter Jerusalem on that last week, They took palm branches and went out to meet him, shouting, “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel!” Jesus found a young donkey and sat upon it, as it is written, ‘Do not be afraid, O Daughter of Zion; see, your king is coming, seated on a donkey’s colt. (Jn 12:13-15).
      
Thus, there was high anticipation that this was the expected coming King of the Jews. So it was that Pilate questioned him (see first paragraph above) and Jesus acknowledged that it was so. But was a he a defeated king or was there something else happening here that was not understood at the time? We’ll see as we go on, that there was. This is God’s king on the earth, but his rule was very different from that which had been expected.

     

History

Matt 1:1     A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham
   
We all have history; it’s what makes us what we are. If we’re seventy years old we’ve got seventy years of history plus the family life that went before that made our parents what they were. In the past decade or so, finding out your genealogy has become a big thing for many people. History has become, not merely what we learnt in ‘History’ at school or college, but it’s the flow of what went in the life of my family – my parents, my grand parents, my great grand parents and so on.
     
Matthew, when he starts writing his Gospel, has a real sense about Jesus: he is linked to history. John records Jesus as saying he had come from his Father in heaven (Jn 6:32 -58 – read it and see how many times Jesus said it!), but Matthew wanted to touch base with his fellow Jews, and Jews were very conscious that they had history. Matthew is seriously into working out genealogies and he’s worked out that if Jesus was Joseph’s son, then you could trace him right back to Abraham, so the sixteen verses following this one do just that (possibly they don’t include every single father going back, but simply show the line with key figures). This first verse is a summary verse. Jesus, he says, is part of the royal family of King David, and of course he went back to Abraham, who the Jews considered to be the father of their race. That’s how Matthew sees it.
   
But how did God see it? Why did God inspire Matthew to dig out this genealogy? What was God wanting to say to us through it? Well, a variety of things, but as far as this first opening verse is concerned, God is saying that His Son is not ashamed to be identified with this people.
  
Now that is amazing really, because when you carefully read the Old Testament, the thing that stands out most about this people, is the way they kept on getting it wrong! The Old Testament is almost like looking through a microscope. When you do that you focus on one tiny thing and see it in detail. The whole human race is too big to observe so God gives us the nation of Israel to look at. What’s more they have had the benefit of God’s blessing and God’s help, and still they get it wrong. Oh no, if we had any high ideas about the human race, looking at this special nation would have shattered that illusion.
  
Now here’s the wonderful thing: this nation epitomizes the sinfulness and folly of human nature, but Jesus is not ashamed of identifying himself with them. There is a sense that because he was born into this nation at that particular point of history that, humanly speaking at least, he is very closely associated with them, but that’s not the key issue here.
   
When you get to know people from all walks of life, you increasingly see people who do not feel they are good enough for God. God wouldn’t want to know me because I’m not religious, I’m not good. Exactly! That is the point of this verse. We see it later in Jesus’ ministry again and again, Jesus coming across a group of people who, the religious people describe as ‘sinners’, and he settles down with them, loves them and accepts them as they are, and shares his Father’s love with them. That’s what this verse is all about! It’s saying Jesus came and associated himself completely with the human race. God in human form, yes, but this verse is like Jesus saying, ‘Hey, I’m with you guys. I’m part of your family. Abraham was a man of faith, but he often blew it! David was a man after God’s own heart, but he often blew it. This is my family. I’m not ashamed of them. I’ve come to be part of this family and love you. That’s what this is all about!