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?


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!!!!

10. Anticipation – the Magi

Focus on Christ Meditations: 10.  Anticipation – the Magi

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? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”

As I have started into this series, and slightly to my surprise, I have found my focus being directed to the mystery of the coming of Jesus Christ. We saw just a few examples of that in the prophecies of the Old Testament and as we come into the New, the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are major question marks, or even an air of mystery, over some of the things we so often take for granted in this story. And that is my biggest concern: that because the Nativity story has become so familiar to many of us, we lose the significance or mystery of what was going on.

To recap a little bit, if you had been around Jerusalem at the time of Jesus’ birth (and of course you would probably know nothing of his birth) you might have noticed this old man, probably thought of as a bit of an eccentric by many, who saw him hobble in (he’s an old man!!) each day and just sit around the temple courts. We would probably have written him off as an old man with nothing better to do than just sit and watch the crowds. Yes, there had also been that freaky prophetess, Anna, a long-term widow who was also there daily, praying and prophesying and obviously fasting most of the time (no doubt, thin as a rake, we might say today).

Oh yes, the temple attracted the weirdoes, but that is all they are. And then we had the story of the shepherds. Well that was a bit farfetched, we might have thought if we had heard it third hand, a bit weird to say the least. But nothing has changed; life carries on as normal. If these characters were God’s PR people, there to spread the word, He might have chosen more credible people, and a lot more people for all that. So this couple with a baby came to the temple and went again and rumour has it that they have settled temporarily down there in Bethlehem. Life carries on in the Temple and in the local synagogues, focusing on Israel’s past, with the scrolls being brought out and read every Saturday. Life carries on as normal.

And then a camel train turns up in Jerusalem. Traders it might appear from the east. But no, these aren’t just ordinary traders, they appear philosophers, or astronomers or even astrologers; they are a bit weird. And they start asking around, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”  What? This is odd on various levels. A child-king has been born? Has Herod being keeping something to himself? But no, he seems as surprised as the rest of us. But then everyone jumps to a major conclusion: “King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Christ was to be born.” (v.3,4) If there is an unheralded ‘Coming One’ is this the one our teachers have been identifying in the scrolls all these years, the Messiah or Christ?

The second strange thing about this is that claim to have been led here by a star in the sky? What? A star or a meteorite? Did they use other things to confirm this because they certainly believe what they are saying because they wouldn’t have clearly traveled hundreds of miles to get here if they didn’t!  But then there is a third strange thing about this. They are talking about wanting to worship this child. Look, we don’t worship Herod and as good Jews we don’t ‘worship’ anyone other than God, the I AM of Moses’ day. So what are you saying? In the eyes of these strange men, is this child a ‘god’ like the Romans have or the Greeks had? Surely not in Jerusalem of all places???? This is the city on the heart of the ’I AM’ and He wouldn’t tolerate anything like that. So when you come to worship a child, who or what are you saying this child is? But no one wants to speak out loud the logical answer to that because even though we have the Immanuel prophecy, the thought of divinity being in our midst is too much.

I have written on this before and every time I struggle as I write because I believe to those living at the time, this was mysterious, and we lose the mystery in familiarity. But everything about the coming of this child is strange, but then if he is God (somehow?) then perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that God communicated this by His Holy Spirit, by Angels and now by strange (scientific?) seekers from the east.

But why all this ‘cloak and dagger’ stuff, this half hidden playing with us? Why not have a seriously scary meeting with Herod or the Chief Priest and scare them into submission as He tells them what He is doing? I was going to say that God doesn’t do scary but the angel scared the shepherds and we’ll see some more fear before we are finished with this Part. But mostly God doesn’t do scary, most of the time He wants to win our hearts with His love and He looks for honest responses, responses of the individual will, responses that are simple and open, responding to the wonder of His love, not His might. Relationships are built on love and that is what God wants.

These ‘wise men’, like Simeon, are those who have caught something in their spirits. God is up to something and they need to be in on the ground floor, that’s what their gut says, “I need to be there!”  In the case of both Simeon and the Magi, there is no letter from heaven to be read by the eyes and understood by the mind; no, this is down-in-my-spirit stuff that scares many of us. For some of us anything to do with the Spirit is scary because it sometimes challenges the intellect (As when Jesus said to Peter on the lake in the night, “Come”.)  If Simeon hadn’t responded to the Spirit, he would have missed seeing the baby. If the wise men had looked at their star and possibly other portents and said, “Yes, but it’s a long way,” they too would have missed seeing the baby. Would that have mattered? Not to the baby, maybe, but in their spirits, both Simeon and the Magi went away utterly satisfied, knowing who it as they had seen, and all around them were thousands of other people who couldn’t say that! There are some serious challenges here. Dare we face them?

5. The Mystery – of Greatness

Focus on Christ Meditations: 5.  The Mystery – of Greatness

Isa 9:6,7    For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

When I first sat down to start this series – focusing on Jesus – I had in mind descriptions of him from the Gospels and from other New Testament places, but as I started I found the initial focus was upon what the Old Testament said about him. Then I was hit with this concept of ‘the mystery of Christ’ that Paul speaks about and I came to see afresh how so many of the prophetic verses about the Messiah were confusing to the human mind and presented a mystery that remained a mystery until ‘after the event’, which was the coming of Jesus. My feeling has become that so many of us, myself included, have been taught about many of these verses but the significance of them as being a ‘mystery’ has evaded us, and no more true is this than in the two verses we have above, which will have been read out loud countless times every Christmas.

I almost fear to proceed with this study because I feel we are on holy ground, and the thing with holiness is that most of us have little comprehension of what that means; it’s just not what we the modern church have been most of the time and it’s not something we think a lot about. Put most simply, holy means to be utterly different in a God-like way. We will have read these verses countless times and yet I have a horrible suspicion that Isaiah’s words ring true here: Be ever hearing, but never understanding; be ever seeing, but never perceiving” (Isa 6:9) I am not being unkind when I say this but if we read those two verses and our hearts do not leap and we instantly praise and worship God, then Isaiah’s word is true for us – and it is true for me. I read the words and I say they are wonderful but my heart is not leaping. May that change before we finish this study.

Look again at what these two verses say: i) a child is going to be born, ii) he will become a ruler, iii) he will rule in the likeness of David, iv) his reign will continue to increase for ever and v) (and I hesitate to write these words) he will be identified as the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

A child? No problem.  A ruler? No problem. A reign that never ends? Hold on, what does that mean? Who can possibly reign for ever except God. God? This is God, this child? But yes, that is exactly what Isaiah said “he will be called Mighty God”!!! Well, yes, only God could be called “Everlasting Father”. But “Wonderful Counselor”?

Where else in Scripture do we find references to a ‘Counselor’?  “I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever.” (Jn 14:16) and “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things.” (Jn 14:26) and “When the Counselor comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth who goes out from the Father, he will testify about me.” (Jn 15:26) and “Unless I go away, the Counselor will not come to you.” (Jn 16:7) Four times John speaks of Him as if to make sure we take it in.  This child will be called, or at the very least very closely associated with God, the Holy Spirit?

But what about ‘Prince of Peace’? How can this child be all these things together – associated closely with God the Holy Spirit, Almighty God, and God who is Father? Is this child to be one who brings and establishes peace upon the earth?  How can he possibly do that? Is this divine figure, because that is what we seem to have here in so many ways, is this divine figure going to come and bring such a strong and heavy rule that he will subdue every enemy of God?  (For yes, “Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power.” (1 Cor 15:24) Surely that is it, for many of the Old Testament prophecies seem to indicate an End where God brings down all His enemies (“At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Phil 2:10,11) Yes, this Coming One is surely going to be a conquering king and somehow this king is going to be God Himself. He is coming to subdue the earth.

But wait, this is something that doesn’t feel quite right about this. This is about a child, a son; this has the feeling of weakness and vulnerability about it. Why would almighty and all-powerful God who is coming to subdue the world, come in the form of a baby? I am missing something here. This is impossible anyway, how can God come in human form, in a baby?????  “The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” Zeal doesn’t ring bells with me here What are the synonyms for ‘zeal’? Enthusiasm, eagerness, passion. A God who is passionate enough, enthusiastic enough, and eager enough to want to relate to mankind that He comes in the form of a baby? Incredible! Surely He isn’t going to come as a conquering king to subdue all mankind? There must be something more; this is a mystery!

You know where I am going. Join me on my knees because whether we ‘feel’ it or not, these words DEMAND just one response: “We saw …. and have come to worship him.” (Mt 2:2)

To reflect upon: how can we read these words every Christmas and remain unchanged? Surely they demand we worship the King of Kings. Turning Christmas into a time of worship?

4. The Mystery – of a child

Focus on Christ Meditations: 4.  The Mystery – of a child

Isa 7:14     Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel

In searching out the ‘pre-history’ of Jesus we need to note that the prophecies in the early chapters of Isaiah (Ch.7 & 8) and there is mystery shrouding both of them. We have seen previously how the apostle Paul spoke of the ‘mystery of Christ’ and it is only when we come to examine the prophecies that are applied to Jesus that we see they are shrouded in whole areas of confusion or uncertainty.  In the previous study the mystery was why such a small town such as Bethlehem should be chosen over the greater city, Jerusalem. Confusing for the wise men, and confusing for those who sought to understand the prophecies.

To understand this and understand something of the mystery (or confusion), we need to see the historical context. It is a time of turmoil and when Isaiah first went to him with his son (7:3) it was to encourage Ahaz. The kings of Aram and Israel (the northern kingdom) had already come against Jerusalem and failed. Let’s see what follows:

The Historical context: First see Isaiah’s family: “the LORD said to Isaiah, “Go out, you and your son Shear-Jashub.” (7:3) and that name means ‘a remnant will return’. See also the role of Ahaz, king of Judah (the southern kingdom).  The Lord tells Isaiah to encourage him, (see 7:3-9) and at the end of it says, ask for a sign of confirmation (7:10) but Ahaz refuses (7:11). It’s almost like he says, I don’t need any sign, I can handle it, they failed to take Jerusalem once, I can deal with them.

It is into this unbelieving context that the Lord speaks, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” (7:14) Well that sounds good, God being with us, especially when it continues, He will eat curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right. But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste.” (Isa 7:15,16) That is even better, these present two antagonists will be destroyed.

If it stopped there that would be fine but instead it goes on to warn that the King of Assyria will be the one who deals with them but he will also come and deal with you! (7:17-25) The confusion here? You haven’t spotted it yet? This child is somehow going to be an indication that God is with them, but the end result of God being with them is that they are (after the initial worries about the first two kings are removed) going to be judged and the land destroyed.

The Second son: Now when we move on into chapter 8 we find the Lord telling Isaiah to name his next son, ‘quick to the plunder, swift to  the spoil’ which would speak of destruction and he adds the same words we saw in 7:16 Before the boy knows how to say `My father’ or `My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria,” (Isa 8:4)  which explains the name. This is followed by a long prophecy against Judah, so twice has this word come – a double sided word, one side removing the present threat and the other side bringing an even bigger judgment. So is ‘Immanuel’ (God with us) good news or bad? It depends were you stand before God.

The ‘Virgin problem’: But there is another problem. We find Isaiah a) has one son, b) brings a prophecy about another but born of a virgin (a young girl, previously unmarried), and then c) has another son by ‘the prophetess’. I have split these things out to remind us that there are three events here. The vagueness of this situation has led scholars to wonder if his first wife died and then he took anther wife, a prophetess, who then bears the second child; how else could the second child be born from a virgin, a young girl, previously unmarried? The two prophecies (7:14-16 and then 8:1-4 on) clearly link the two sons but we are still left with confusion about ‘a virgin’ because Isaiah’s family life is not spelled out in more detail. Isaiah is quite clear about it, however: “Here am I, and the children the LORD has given me. We are signs and symbols in Israel from the LORD Almighty, who dwells on Mount Zion.” (Isa 8:18)

The Immanuel aspect: So, was this prophecy about ‘Immanuel’ something to do with the Messiah? Looking at the context it is purely historical, applying to Isaiah’s day, but then we come to the New Testament and Matthew is quite specific. Joseph is serious stressed that his betrothed appears to be pregnant and it is only a God-given dream that allays his fears. As a commentary to this Matthew writes, All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel”–which means, “God with us.” (Mt 1:22,23) Huh? Where did that come from? The Isaiah ‘Immanuel prophecy’ was all to do with judgment and Matthew now applies it to the coming of the Son of God because Mary IS a virgin in the full sense. Does Matthew see that that which appeared almost bizarre in Isaiah’s day, a warning of judgment, is now a message of mercy and grace? Or is there more?

In the excitement of Christmas we tend to think of Emmanuel or Immanuel as a lovely picture of God coming, but after Jesus was born an elderly prophet who met them at the Temple declared, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed.” (Lk 2:34,35) In other words the ministry of this child will be two edged. For those with hearts open to God, he will lift them, but for those who remain hard-hearted, stubborn and rebellious, he will be the means by which God will judge them and bring them down.

Isaiah’s Immanuel was all about judgment and yet (and here we go back to 7:3 and his first son’s name) the ultimate end would be salvation for the faithful remnant. Suddenly we get a bigger picture: the mystery of Immanuel and the virgin is that the Messiah will come to bring both blessing and judgment. At Christmas, we tend to focus only on the former but the bigger picture says, no, it is both! There is both hope and warning here and we would be wise to heed them both.

To reflect upon: in thinking about the coming of Jesus, do we hold this balance of blessing versus judgment, which all depends on those who receive or reject him? How might that affect the way we think of others?