Grace is not grace if it is in any way earned or deserved (Romans 11:5-6). This is exactly what the Jews failed to understand. God chose Israel purely by grace out of all the nations of the earth (Deuteronomy 7:7-8). God preserved faithless Israel purely by grace for the sake of His holy name and the promises which He had made (Ezekiel 20; 2 Kings 8:19, etc.). Yet Israel responded either with hypocrisy (Jeremiah 7:1-4) or pride (Luke 18:9-14). Even the rich young man, whose question about eternal life in Matthew 19 forms the context for this parable, placed his trust in his keeping of the commandments.

Yet I think it would be equally problematic to see in this parable a kind of divine equality, as if God’s free grace meant that heavenly rewards are all the same. This would make Jesus’ answer to Peter in Matthew 19:28-30 difficult to comprehend. Jesus does not rebuke Peter for his question. Those who have left everything will receive a great reward in the world to come. The key in understanding grace is in Matthew 20:15: “Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me?” It is God’s freedom of action that makes grace to be grace. Anything else is an attempt to bind Him and make it an issues of wages.

The parable opens with a master seeking workers for his vineyard. The Lord refers to Israel on several occasions as His vineyard (Isaiah 5; Jeremiah 12:10; Ezekiel 19:10; Psalm 80:8-11). Like the master of this house, the Lord calls us out of the world and into that vineyard. Idleness is the way of the world. The Lord set Adam to labor in the garden before the fall into sin (Genesis 2:15). If anyone will not work, let him not eat (2 Thessalonians 3:10). The Lord calls us to holy labor and sets our hands to the task.

The different hours that the master calls workers only accentuates the difference between the first called and the last. When the evening has come, all are given the same amount: a denarius, or a normal day’s wages. The amount is instructive for us. If the master in desperation for laborers promised some extraordinary amount, we might draw the conclusion that the reward for our labors is the key. “When you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Luke 17:10). Yet the reward that is set before us, the crown of righteousness (2 Timothy 4:8), is sufficient for us. It is not worthless even if we might regard it as petty according to our standards, because grace is not grace if it is a matter of wages.

This, then, highlights the earlier point. God is free to do what He pleases with what belongs to Him. “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion” (Romans 9:15). Grace is not a birthright, a matter of the flesh. God owes no one anything, because we are all lawbreakers. The master of the vineyard would be perfectly just if he hired no one. Those who labored twelve hours didn’t deserve more for their labor, because they didn’t deserve to be in the vineyard in the first place. May our eye not be evil because God is good! Righteousness comes by faith, not by works, and the Lord’s steadfast love endures forever, because He chose us when we were yet His enemies.

The reward of righteousness, then, is also purely a matter of grace. The right hand and the left hand of Christ, indeed places of great honor, belong to those for whom the Father prepares them (Matthew 20:23). To judge the twelve tribes of Israel on twelve thrones is indeed a tremendous honor (Matthew 19:28). Yet they are not a matter of right. The last will be first and the first last, because God gives to each of us according to His pleasure, not according to our desires or imaginations. If we are in the vineyard, let us rejoice for that reason alone, for it is already a sign of God’s undeserved love for us. The crosses which God makes for us will be different from Christian to Christian, because He is working out His own purposes in us.

How can a Christian find comfort in times of trouble? When the world seeks to marginalize those who belong to Jesus, where can the Christian turn? Psalm 9 answers these questions in no uncertain terms: The Lord who has delivered His people endures forever.

The Psalm itself presents a couple of unique characteristics. First, though it is impossible to see this in translation, Psalm 9 is the first of a handful of Psalms which has an acrostic structure. Acrostic poems start each line by following a pattern, sometimes spelling out words. In the Psalms, this is always the alphabet, beginning with the first letter down to the last letter. In this case, Psalm 9 begins every other verse with the next letter of the alphabet (though it sometimes misses a letter or two). This is important, because it forms the basic structure of the thought patterns in the Psalm as well.

The other unique thing about this Psalm is that it may have originally been connected with Psalm 10 in one. In Hebrew, they are two separate psalms, and I will treat them as two, but there are good reasons for considering them as one. First, the acrostic pattern continues into Psalm 10. Second, the use of Selah at the end of Psalm 9 is highly unusual, since that word appears everywhere else somewhere in the middle of a psalm. Third, Psalm 10 has no title, which is unusual in the first book of the Psalms, which range from Psalm 1 to Psalm 41. Indeed, the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, combines them into one, which explains why the numbering for many Psalms in Greek is different (and also for Roman Catholic Bibles based on the Latin Vulgate, which does the same thing).

To the choirmaster. According to Muth Labben. A Psalm of David.

“Muth Labben” can be rendered as “Death of a Son,” which has led some to speculate that it could refer to an event. However, it is most likely the name of a song.

I will praise the LORD with all my heart. I will make known all your miracles.

I will rejoice and I will exult in you. I will praise your name, Most High.

The main concern of the psalm is presented at the very end. Before David brings that petition, however, he begins with declaring why he can bring it at all. Even though the nations seem to threaten Israel, the Lord has proven Himself to be faithful in the past. While it is impossible for us to remember all the mercies of God, since they are infinite (Job 5:8-9), recalling as many as possible will lead to joy (Lamentations 3:22-24).

In the turning back of my enemies, they will stumble and they will be destroyed before your face.

For you have established my judgment and my claim. You sat down on the throne, judging righteousness.

Remembering the mercies of the Lord in general means remembering them in particular. In the past, the Lord destroyed the enemies of Israel. This is a cause for rejoicing, because it teaches us that God has not forgotten us (Isaiah 49:14-18), that God will bring justice (Luke 18:7), and that our righteousness is not in vain (Psalm 58:10-11). It is indeed good news, because the reign of Christ will be over His enemies, who will be crushed under His feet (1 Corinthians 15:24-26). If death, for example, is not destroyed, where is our victory?

You rebuked the nations. You destroyed the wicked. Their name you wiped out forever and ever.

The enemy came to an end in enduring ruins. The cities you pulled up. The memory of them has perished.

The name and the memory of the wicked has perished and will perish in the earth. This may seem odd to us, because we may assume that mentioning their name even in writing perpetuates their memory. Do we not have the ruins of those ancient civilizations and on occasion some of their writings? Yet their name has perished from the earth, because their generations no longer continue. If a man died in Israel, his brother was to take his wife, so “that his name may not be blotted out of Israel” (Deuteronomy 25:6). Ruined cities and archaeological scraps do not perpetuate a name. There are no longer any children to bear their name. The wicked will come to an end, because their generations will cease when the Lord judges the earth, but the righteous will go on forever.

And the LORD sits forever. He has firmly established His throne for judgment.

And He will judge the world in righteousness. He will judge the peoples in uprightness.

While the wicked perish and the world knows them no more, the Lord sits enthroned as king forever. Heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of the Lord will never pass away (Matthew 24:35). From everlasting to everlasting, He is God (Psalm 90:2). God’s enemies will be defeated. God will judge the world and bring justice to His elect.

And the LORD is a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge for times of distress.

And the knowers of your name trust in you, for you do not abandon your seekers, LORD.

Having declared that the wicked will perish and that God will remain, David makes a natural application to his situation. Those who trust in the Lord will find a sure refuge in Him. In the midst of all of life’s troubles, especially when the enemies of God seem to be ready to destroy us, God will not leave us or forsake us. The name of Jesus is our salvation (Acts 4:12). The works of God in the past teach us that He will not abandon us, even when it meant delivering his faithless people only for the sake of His good name (Isaiah 48:9-11; Ezekiel 20).

Sing to the LORD who dwells in Zion. Make known among the peoples his deeds.

For he who seeks bloods remembers them. He does not forget the cry of the wretched ones.

The Lord declared to Noah that He would seek vengeance for the shedding of blood (Genesis 9:5-6). “Vengeance is mine, and recompense” declares the Lord (Deuteronomy 32:35). Those who are oppressed by evil in this life will find a certain deliverance in the Lord, whether that comes now or in the life to come. It will come to an end.

Show favor, LORD. Look on our affliction from those who hate us, our lifter from the gates of death.

So that I may recount all your praises/praiseworthy deeds. In the gates of the house of Zion I rejoice in your salvation.

Having laid the groundwork for his petition, David now calls on God to look upon his situation. God has delivered from evil in the past, so therefore God will also deliver from evil in the future. Like so many of the psalms, David promises to give thanks to God as a result. God’s action leads to man’s reaction, so to speak, when the elect will tell others about what God has done. To be in the “gates of the house of Zion” is to be in God’s house, declaring to the congregation all the mighty works of God. Thus, while praising God is important for our own faith, it is equally important for building up the faith of others. This is not merely a personal favor or an individual deliverance that David has in mind.

The nations have sunk in the pit they made. In the net which they hid their foot has been caught.

The LORD makes himself known. He has made judgment. In the work of his hand the wicked is trapped. Higgaion. Selah.

The Lord rules over all things and shows His power by using the very evil planned against His people for the destruction of the wicked. Haman was hung on the gallows built for Mordecai (Esther 7:10). The dogs licked up the blood of Ahab in the place where Naboth had been slain (1 Kings 21:19). The wicked lay their own trap, and the Lord brings justice to His people in that way. Higgaion is an uncertain term, but it is related to the word translated “meditate” in other places. This is the muttering or reading in a low voice that Psalm 1 connects to a godly man, and the muttering or plotting in Psalm 2 of the wicked. I am of the opinion that its use here, connected with Selah, is a call for us to especially meditate on these two lines. “The Lord is on my side; I will not fear. What can man do to me” (Psalm 118:6)?

The wicked will return to Sheol, all the nations who forget God.

For not forever shall the needy be forgotten. The hope of the afflicted shall not perish forever.

Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning (Psalm 30:5). The wicked will come to an end, and their name will perish from the earth. The afflicted saints of the Lord may suffer for a time, but they will persist in the Lord. Even if evil seems overwhelming, it will crumble into nothing.

Get up, LORD. Do not let man defy/be strong. Let the nations be judged before your face.

Set fear on them, LORD. Let the nations know they are men. Selah.

This psalm closes with another call to God. Do not let the nations imagine themselves to be strong, when in fact they are mortal. The word for “man” in these two verses carries the extra suggestion of mortality. They are but “mortal men.” Though they imagine themselves to be strong, they will perish. “Man in his pomp yet without understanding is like the beasts that perish” (Psalm 49:20). The word translated here as “fear” is unique and a little uncertain. Most translators translate it as “fear,” which would then mean something like “bring them to realize their weakness, Lord, for they are but men.” The Septuagint, however, rendered this word as “law-giver.” The Vulgate, Luther in his German Bible, and even some English translations, also translated it this way. The sense in that case would be something like “teach them to fear you, Lord, so that they recognize their weakness.” I think “fear” is the most likely, since it fits well with the rest of the psalm. God certainly sets fear and dread upon the enemies of Israel, because He fights for His people (Deuteronomy 2:25).

Christians certainly have no fewer enemies than Israel did. Jesus reminds us that if they hate us, they hated Him first (John 15:18). This psalm is a wonderful prayer in the midst of that turmoil, because it reminds us to remember all the mercies of God. If God has preserved you until now in so many ways, He will not forget you in the new day of trouble. Let the enemies of the world rage against us. God remains our fortress forever.

Jesus began to tell His disciples that He must suffer and die at the hands of men. Christ must walk the way of self-denial, and to be in Christ is to be like Christ, taking up the cross after Him (Matthew 16:24). But now, as Christ begins the way toward Golgotha, He takes Peter and James and John with Him up on a mountain, as He did frequently to pray (Matthew 14:23, for example). Three would be a satisfactory number of witnesses to testify afterwards (Deuteronomy 17:6).

Yet while He is on the mountain, Jesus is transfigured, or transformed, before them. Used of Christ, it refers to His appearance. In His incarnation, He had emptied Himself, taking on the form of a servant (Philippians 2:7-8). Christians also reflect this complete change, though in a spiritual sense, since we are called to be transformed in our minds (Romans 12:2) and transformed into the same image of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). As Jesus now shows Himself to be God to His disciples, so are we called to become like Him. Thus, the Transfiguration is not merely a light show, but a glimpse of the glory that is to come.

The imagery of shining like the sun is a sign of Christ’s deity. John’s vision of the ascended Christ in Revelation 1 includes the same detail. Ezekiel’s vision of God describes the one seated on the throne as having the appearance of fire (Ezekiel 1:26-28). God is, after all, light (1 John 1:5), dwelling in unapproachable light (1 Timothy 6:16), and clothed with light (Psalm 104:2). Daniel describes God the Father as being dressed in clothing white as snow (Daniel 7:9). Everything about Christ’s appearance in this moment points to His divine nature, now uncovered before the eyes of His three witnesses.

Moses’ face shone with the borrowed glory of God, whom he knew face to face (Exodus 34:29-35). To be in the gracious presence of God is to be transformed. Yet as Moses brought the ministry of death, which could be concealed with a piece of fabric, Christ brings the greater ministry of righteousness, far exceeding it in glory (2 Corinthians 3). Even the clothes on Christ’s body are transformed with Him, shining brightly with the glory of God.

Moses and Elijah appear with Christ, talking with Him. Moses knew the Lord face to face, and his body was not found after his death (Deuteronomy 34). Elijah was taken up into heaven in a whirlwind (2 Kings 2:1-14). Jesus also frequently referred to “Moses and the Prophets” as a poetic way of speaking about the Old Testament (such as in Luke 16:29). These two chief prophets, then, point toward Christ now as they had in their writings. Here is the One that the prophets of old longed to see, but did not see (Matthew 13:17). Yet now we, with the three disciples, see Him in all His majesty. The fullness of God’s revelation has come in His Son.

Peter, out of a mixture of fear and piety, proposes that three tents be set up in this place. As the tabernacle of old had covered the glory of God, so now it was only fitting that the divine glory receive a new dwelling place. His desire to give the Lord a fitting place for His glory is a noble one. As David says: “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple” (Psalm 27:4). Likewise the Sons of Korah: “how lovely is Your dwelling place, O Lord of hosts” (Psalm 84:1)!

Peter misunderstands the purpose of this transfiguration, just as he had misunderstood the purpose of Christ’s suffering about a week earlier. However, the Lord leaves no room for further misunderstandings. As Peter is speaking, a cloud descends upon the scene. Clouds like this are a sign of God’s presence among His people. God descended upon Sinai in a cloud (Exodus 19:9). He went before His people in a cloud by day (Exodus 13:17-22). The cloud of His glory filled the tabernacle (Exodus 40:34-35). He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind (Psalm 104:3). Now, just as He once spoke to His people in the wilderness in a pillar of cloud (Psalm 99:7), the great voice of the Father speaks again: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Obey him” (Matthew 17:5).

The usage of Psalm 2 here points toward two things. First, as Peter would later recall in 2 Peter 1:17, God the Father honors and glorifies Christ in this moment. Psalm 2 is, after all, about the coronation of the king. The Lord’s anointed King reigns on Zion, and the kings of the earth should tremble before Him who holds all authority in heaven and earth.

However, the time of Christ’s full glorification has not yet come. Only after His resurrection would He be vindicated by the Spirit (1 Timothy 3:16). Yet He is God’s chosen, sent into the world to redeem it. The Father testifies the truth about Christ, just as He testified using the same words at His Baptism (Matthew 3:13-17). Just as Christ then went into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan through much suffering, so also Christ now descends from the mountain to enter a greater wilderness, forsaken by men and the Father on the cross. The ministry of Jesus is thus bracketed by suffering, being tempted in every way as we are, yet without sin. This transfiguration, therefore, is not a sidetrack in the Gospel. God repeats Himself to show His determination (Genesis 41:32).

Another year has come and gone.  Each of us is one year closer to eternity:  “salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11).  Do not mourn that you are closer to death, but instead thank God that you are now that much closer to eternal life.

A generation comes and goes, but the earth remains.  Though all streams flow into the sea, the sea is not full.  The eye is not satisfied with seeing, nor the ear filled with hearing.  Though we toil on this earth, we can take nothing with us into the next life.  Though we may indulge in the comforts and pleasures of this life, we will never be satisfied (Ecclesiastes 1:1-18).  The wise man and the fool, the rich and the poor, the king and the servant all will die (Ecclesiastes 2:1-17). 

As one year passes and another begins, let us remember that we are dust (Genesis 3:19).  Let us remember that at any moment we could be called away from this life.  Who of us knows if he will make it to the end of this year?  Be not like the rich fool who basked in his earthly blessings only to lose his life that very night (Luke 12:13-21).  God forbid that any of us should be found without the oil of faith when we awake from death at our Lord’s return (Matthew 25:1-13).  

Where your treasure is, there your heart is also (Matthew 6:21).  What are the greatest objects of your heart’s desire?  God and his word?  Free salvation through Jesus’ death?  

What is worth more than God?  What on this earth is worth more than hearing His word?  What is a better use of your time than coming to church regularly?  Everything in this world fades, rots, fails, falls apart, does not satisfy you, does not save you, does not last forever.  

Therefore, dear Christian, examine your heart.  Examine your time commitments.  Examine your loves.  This world is passing away.  Do not pass away along with it.  Do not be conformed to this world (Romans 12:2).  

Redeem the time, which passes so quickly.  Redeem it by using it to hear God’s word.  Fill your flasks with oil while there is still time (Matthew 25:8-10).  Come to church.  Come regularly.  Meditate on God’s word throughout the week and throughout your life. 

The word of God preserves you for eternal life.  Faith comes from hearing the word.  Faith in Christ’s death saves you from the eternity in Hell you deserve for sinning against God.

Christ has risen from the dead.  He has loosened the chains of the grave.  He has broken through, and risen above, the cycles of meaninglessness and death in Ecclesiastes.  He has opened eternity to all who believe in His life, death, and resurrection.  Into the toil, sadness, and vanity of this earthly life Jesus breathes joy and hope.  Joy because of reconciliation with God.  Joy because of His presence.  Joy due to humble, fearful, grateful faith.  And hope because of God’s promise that he will raise all who believe in Jesus to everlasting life.

The Pharisee priests and Levites sent from Jerusalem come to John in order to determine whether he is the promised Christ. Their mission is not simply an inquiry about a strange figure, because John answers their question “Who are you?” with a clear denial of all their expected answers. John is not the Christ, the coming Son of David (Matthew 22:42). John is not Elijah (Malachi 4:5). John is not the prophet like Moses (Deuteronomy 18:15). The Pharisees think that he is one of these, at least according to their own fancies, but John denies all of it.

John denying and Christ affirming that he is Elijah are not at odds. It is evident that the Pharisees hold mistaken notions about the coming Christ. Christ already stood among them, as John will go on to say, but they do not recognize Him. Their imagined Elijah and John standing before them do not fit together, but that is the fault of their wrong ideas. John is, after all, not literally Elijah reborn, since Elijah appears with Christ at the transfiguration (Matthew 17:3). John comes in the spirit of Elijah, carrying out the work of preparing for the greater Elisha (2 Kings 2:15). The Pharisees wanted the literal Elijah, which John properly says that he is not.

John confesses that he is none of the things which the Pharisees seek. Confession, in every sense, is agreement with the truth. John confesses that he is not the Christ, because in truth only Jesus is the Christ. If we confess that we are sinners (1 John 1:9), we are agreeing with what God has to say about our condition. We do frequently use the word confession in a wider sense to mean whatever we say about God, so that it is possible to have a false confession. Yet confessing a lie is no confession at all. One may speak a lie in ignorance, in which case like Apollos we should be corrected and taught the way of truth (Acts 18:24-28). But to speak a lie knowing full well that it is a lie is no confession, but to speak like Satan, the father of lies (John 8:44).

John does affirm that he fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 40:3. He is the voice crying in the wilderness. John points toward Christ, because John prepares the way for Christ. As Isaiah goes on to say in 40:10, the Lord God comes with might. John cries out in order to tell Zion, “Behold your God!” This confession shows that he understands the purpose of his mission from God. John is, as we read last week in Matthew 11, a prophet and more than a prophet, because he is the messenger of God.

The Pharisees, intriguingly, perceive that Baptism is tied up with the time of the Christ. When they ask John why he is baptizing if he is none of the things they thought he would be, they recognize that his activity heralds the coming of the Kingdom. Nor is this unique, since they also recognize many prophecies to refer to the coming of the Christ, such as His birth in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:5) and that He would be David’s Son (Matthew 22:42). Their hardness of heart, however, prevents them from seeing Christ literally among them, even though all of the signs are there. They literally see Jesus and all the signs and proofs that He is the Christ, yet they do not see (Matthew 13:13-15).

Finally, there are at least two villages named Bethany in the New Testament. The main Bethany lay near Jerusalem (John 11:18) on the Mount of Olives (Mark 11:1), and it was the home of Lazarus and his sisters (John 11) and Simon the leper (Mark 14). This Bethany, sometimes called Bethabara as in the King James Version, lay on the river itself, no less than 15 miles from Jerusalem. However, its exact location is disputed. Some regard it as further north on the river, since John also baptized at Aenon near Salim (John 3:23). If this is the case, Bethany might be the name of a region rather than a village, since Jesus is described as going to the region where John baptized in John 10:40. Another possibility is that Bethany is further south near the river across from Jericho. The Romans, beginning at least from the reign of the emperor Anastasius I (reigned 491-518), identified this site as Bethany, even building a church in the area (which the Romans had done for major sites since the reign of Constantine two hundred years earlier). If this is the location of Bethany, it has the added advantage of potentially being the site where Israel crossed the Jordan under Joshua (Joshua 3) and where Elijah and Elisha crossed before Elijah’s translation (2 Kings 2). However, we must not choose the latter simply for sentimental reasons, but neither can we discount the possibility. If Jesus was baptized near where Israel crossed the Jordan, it only further points to His work as being Israel called out of Egypt (Hosea 11:1).

John lay bound in prison, put there by Herod Antipas over the matter of Herodias (Luke 3:19-20; Mark 6:17-20; the same Herod who examined Jesus in Luke 23:6-12). Like Micaiah of old, his bold word against the king landed him there (2 Chronicles 18:23-27). But, much to his comfort and ours, the work of the kingdom did not falter or waver, even with the forerunner of God in prison. God uses us for a season to build His Church, but when our hour is past, He will raise up still more faithful workers.

Yet John sends two of his disciples to ask Jesus an important question: “Are you the coming one, or should we look for another?” Whatever his motive for asking this question, whether for his own sake or for the sake of his disciples, it is good for a Christian to seek that assurance. Nor is it faithless to do so. Many of the Psalms cry out in the midst of distress, asking why God seems so far off in trouble (Psalm 22 is one such example). But these psalms also call out to God knowing that He will answer. It only becomes faithless when we think that God can no longer help. Christ gives that assurance to John or his disciples, because “a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench” (Isaiah 42:3).

Jesus directs them toward His own works as evidence of His identity. His miracles are proof that the promised deliverance of the Lord has come. Just as the return from exile surpassed the Exodus in glory (Jeremiah 23:7-8), so will the coming of the Lord in the flesh surpass the return. On the day when the eyes of the blind are opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped, the ransomed of the Lord shall return to Zion with singing (Isaiah 35). Jesus is the Coming One, and His works prove it beyond all doubt (John 10:38).

Scandal arises, however, when God puts to shame the wisdom of the world. Christ crucified is a scandal to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles (1 Corinthians 1:23), since it means boasting in the Lord rather than in the self. John’s question should not be understood as being scandalized, because scandal means rejection of the Lord’s message. The Jews were scandalized and therefore rejected the Lord (John 1:11). John’s question is not asked in jest.

As the disciples of John leave, Jesus points an important question to the crowd: who is John? The answer to that question is meant for their benefit, since John would not hear it, lest he might be puffed up with pride. The Lord knows His own and praises His own, but not in flattery (Job 1:8).

The crowd, however, has misunderstood the purpose of John’s ministry. Some simply wanted to spectate, to watch the show. In this mindset, they came up with wrong ideas about John. Jesus therefore gives two examples of this error and refutes them. John is not like a reed swaying in the wind. Reeds, like arundo domax which is common in that part of the world and grows up to 33 feet tall, seem firm but sway and shake in the wind. John never waffled in his confession of Christ (John 1). John is not a man dressed in soft clothing, used to luxury and hedonism. Rather, his very dress of camel hair and his diet of locusts and wild honey show that he sought a heavenly homeland (Hebrews 11:13-16).

John is, on the other hand, a prophet, indeed more than a prophet. If the prophets pointed toward the coming of Christ while still far off, John prepares the way for the Lord coming suddenly. He is the one who walks right before Christ, not one who longed to see the day of Christ. Jesus quotes the words of Malachi 3:1 as proof of this, and in so doing reaffirms the whole purpose of John’s ministry: to point to Jesus. When the messenger prepares the way, the Lord suddenly comes to His temple and purifies the sons of Levi that they may bring offerings in righteousness as in former days. Yet His coming will also bring judgment against all law-breakers. John is Christ’s herald, and the messenger of the kingdom of God.

As a final note, I find it interesting that Jesus points to John as the fulfillment of Malachi 3:1. Peter similarly points to Judas as the fulfillment of passages like Psalm 69:25 and Psalm 109:8 in Acts 1:20. While it is all connected with Jesus and His passion, prophecy may in fact point to other people. Thus, while it is true to say that the Bible is all about Jesus, one must clarify what is meant by that statement. Even when a passage points to the apostles (Psalm 19:4 in Romans 10:18; Isaiah 49:6 in Acts 13:47), to John, to Judas, or to anyone else, they still center on and point toward the long promised Christ, who is the living Word of God.

Jesus, with the Temple in view, speaks about the coming of the end. Those who marveled at the building regarded it as enduring and noble. They had evidently forgotten that this was no less than the third sanctuary of the Lord. The Lord rejected Shiloh, the tent of the tabernacle, and cast down the temple of Solomon (Jeremiah 7:12-15). Even the foundation of this temple met with grief, since it was the sin of the fathers which had caused the Lord to cast the first one down (Ezra 3:10-13). Putting trust in the building itself missed the point entirely. This temple also would be pulled down, so that one stone would not be left upon another.

The pericope for the Second Sunday in Advent opens in the middle of this prophecy. The world will be in turmoil and confusion on the great and terrible day of the Lord. These signs will be the breaking of the fixed order of the world at the coming of the Son of Man. The nations will be in emotional distress because they will be perplexed, seeing no way out of what is coming upon the world. They will be gripped in the indecision of fear, because of the roaring of the sea and the waves and the breaking of the world. Everything is breaking forth from its appointed boundaries and casting all into confusion. It was God who set the boundaries of the sea (Genesis 1:9-10), commanding its proud waves to stop at His command (Job 38:8-11). The Lord shut its waves in, no matter how much it rages (Jeremiah 5:22), so that it would no more cover the earth (Psalm 104:8-9). But now the old order is passing. The sea threatens to overwhelm all again, because heaven and earth are passing away.

Fear is the only possible response for the godless. They will faint away as though dead, just as the soldiers did at the tomb of Christ (Matthew 28:4) or John did at the vision of Christ (Revelation 1:17). A sense of dread will overtake them, even before the Son of Man appears, because the heavens will rot away and the skies will roll up like a scroll (Isaiah 34:4). They will try to hide, but in vain, because the great day of the wrath of the Lamb has come (Revelation 6:12-17). All the heavens, which seemed so firm and immovable, will be shaken, and nothing will be left upon anything else.

In that hour, they will see Christ, the Son of Man, returning in power and majesty. As the Son of Man, Jesus has dominion over all heaven and earth (Daniel 7:13-14). He will come on the clouds, because they are under His feet. Just as the sky is depicted under the feet of God (Exodus 24:10), so also is the earth His footstool (Isaiah 66:1). Jesus is exalted above all, and all will see Him in the fullness of His glory.

But, Jesus says, lift up your head. Lift your eyes to the hills. The Lord comes as Your Helper (Psalm 121:1-2). Though the believer is in the pit, they can look up to find their deliverance in the coming of the Lord. This is why the return of Christ is a joy for the faithful, even though it is a terror for the ungodly. The Lord sets us free from the waterless pit (Zechariah 9:11-12). In the hour that Jesus judges the living and the dead, He will give justice to His elect speedily (Luke 18:7). All the workers of lawlessness will depart, because all will be set right forever. The violent rhetoric of every imprecatory psalm looks toward this glorious hour, when God will remember every injustice done against His people and bring the due reward of the wicked on their heads. We will rejoice in that hour, because the Lord has not forgotten His people.

Jesus then uses a parable to explain His meaning further. A fig tree bears fruit once or twice a year. The first appearing of its fruit comes in late spring and early summer. When this early fruit appears, it is a sign that the heat of the summer is coming near. Likewise, the signs in sky and sea are a herald of the coming end, not the end itself. The coming winter wind will come and shake the stars from the sky like the late figs from the tree (Revelation 6:13). Thus, these early fruits are the signs of the coming wars and persecutions which Jesus said will come before the end (Luke 21:10-11).

This generation, Jesus says, will not pass away before all these things take place. Generation here does not have to refer to a single group of people in the way we typically use it today. It can also have a broader application, as it does in some of the Psalms and elsewhere (Psalm 14:5; 24:6, for example). Jesus may also be referring to the signs which herald the end, which that specific generation certainly saw before the judgment on Jerusalem in 70 A.D.

However, the key point here is that, even though heaven and earth will pass away and be found no more, the Word of the Lord will never pass away. It is the one enduring and everlasting reality, because it is the Word of the living and eternal Lord. Earth and heaven will perish, but God will remain (Psalm 102:26). The heavens will vanish, and the earth will wear out like a garment, but the salvation of our God will be forever (Isaiah 51:6). Do not put your trust in anything of this world, because they belong to God, and God will destroy them with fire (2 Peter 3:7). But put your trust in the Lord, who is our stronghold in trouble. He will never let the righteous fall (Psalm 55:22).

But watch for that day! If we become bogged down in the anxieties and cares of this world, giving into the works of the flesh, that day will catch us like a thief (1 Thessalonians 5:1-4). Drunkenness and anxiety are the works of those who fear the future, who seek refuge in the things of this world. But that day will come like a trap upon all who are alive. Stay awake! Ask the Father in holy prayer to be counted worthy (or to have strength) to escape. Only through asking, that is, only through prayer will we be found worthy, because prayer relies on God alone. We will stand before the Son of Man on that day because we rely on Him for all things. It will be a fearful day to see the fixed order of the world broken before our eyes, but it will be the last violent pangs of a world reborn through Jesus.

The choice of Matthew 21:1-9 for the First Sunday in Advent emphasizes the royal coming of Christ. As such, it is a choice driven by the demands of the season more than the text itself. Jesus entering Jerusalem figures prominently in the upcoming passion. The Son of David, humble and lowly, comes into His own. By extension, this can also be applied to His present reign, though it is important to remember that Christ sends His Holy Spirit among us now (John 16:7).

Christ began His final journey toward Jerusalem beginning at the Jordan (Matthew 19:1). Jericho lay a short distance to the east (Matthew 20:29), and a road going uphill in a southeasterly fashion went toward Jerusalem. Perhaps not incidentally, this eastward movement away from the Jordan River by way of Jericho happens often in the Scriptures (Two examples are Joshua 3, where Israel enters the Promised Land; and 2 Kings 2, where Elijah is translated opposite Jericho and then Elisha returns.). Even in His movement, the Lord fulfills the Scriptures.

Bethphage, literally “house of unripe figs,” appears to be a small village on or near the Mount of Olives. Christ would have been following the road heading southward into Jerusalem, suggesting that Bethphage lay somewhere nearby to the north or northeast. Jesus exercises His omnipotence by telling two of His disciples how and where to find a donkey in front of them.

Matthew clearly demonstrates how Jesus fulfills prophecy through this by citing Zechariah 9:9. In its original context, Zechariah prophesies against the nations which oppressed Israel. Tyre and Sidon, Philistia, Damascus—all will suffer the judgment when the King of Zion comes. His reign will be one of peace and “his rule shall be from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth” (Zechariah 9:10). Such a prophecy connects Him closely to Solomon. Solomon was a king of peace, since the Lord gave him rest on every side during the length of his reign (1 Kings 5:3-4). Solomon also ruled over Israel at its greatest extent (1 Kings 4:21), though not the fullest promised (Exodus 23:31; the second half of Joshua). Solomon’s apostasy showed that the Lord’s purposes had not yet come to their end, but now Jesus, riding as the Son of David, comes into the City of David to claim the throne.

Everything about this scene, however, shows how far the house of David had fallen. Christ is not a king who was rich like Solomon, but poor and lowly. A donkey, found in a common village, is His mount. As Isaiah prophesied about Immanuel, the boy born of a Virgin would eat curds and honey (much like the poor diet of John the Baptist), and not the sumptuous feasts of His royal predecessors (Isaiah 7:15).

The crowd which gathers about Him on the road north of Jerusalem, however, seems to look past His lowly state. Just as people laid their garments on the ground at the proclamation of Jehu as king, whom the Lord raised up to chastise the house of Ahab (2 Kings 9:13), so they also laid their garments before Christ, who would go on to chastise the money-changers in the temple (Matthew 21:12). Then with the words of Psalm 118 in their mouths, they cried out before Him.

“Hosanna” is a Hebrew word, meaning “save us.” (This makes it, as a side note, related to the name Jesus, which in Hebrew is more like Joshua, “the Lord saves.”) Its usage here as “Hosanna to” suggests it had become a liturgical word much like “amen.” However, the crowd addresses this cry to the “Son of David” here rather than to the “Lord” as in Psalm 118:25. The substitution is not an accident. The Son of David, as Christ so frequently points out to His opponents, is the rejected stone which becomes the cornerstone (Psalm 118:22; Matthew 22:41-45).

With that being said, however, I wonder whether the crowd fully recognized the import of what it was saying. Not only would they bay for His blood not a few days later, but they also tell the bewildered people in Jerusalem itself that Jesus is a prophet (Matthew 21:11). The King of King has come to His own, and His own knew Him not (John 1:11).

After initial greetings to Timothy, warnings against false teachers, a summary of the Gospel, and admonitions to remain faithful, Paul writes “first of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all people…” (1 Tim. 2:1).  These directions are not for Timothy alone, but for the congregations and ministers under his care (1 Tim. 3:14; 1 Tim. 4:13).  Paul desires these sorts of prayers “in every place” (1 Tim. 2:8).

“Supplications” and “prayer” are paired together throughout the New Testament (Eph. 6:18; Phil 4:6; 1 Tim. 5:5; Heb. 5:7).  They are the most general terms for addressing God.  In Ephesians 6:18 and Philippians 4:6, prayer and supplication are tied to the idea that we ought not to be anxious.  Our Heavenly Father promises to hear our prayers and give us what we need (Matt. 7:7-11).  Worry accomplishes nothing (Matt. 6:25-34).

“Intercessions” are prayers to God on behalf of others.  Our Lord Jesus intercedes for us before the Father (Rom. 8:37; Heb. 7:25).  As priests, all Christians are to follow Christ in praying for “all men” with all manner of prayers (1 Peter 2:5-9).

It is only proper that in addition to requesting things from God, we also return thanks to him for his blessings.

These various prayers are to be made for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceable and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:2).  The ruler is “God’s servant for your good” who “carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.” (Rom. 13:4).  Our God is a God of law and order.  He puts food on our table through a variety of means, not the least of which is through the rule of law and a well ordered society.  Rulers—even bad rulers, even rulers we might not like—do the Lord’s work and bring us great blessings.

Secular power, the use of force, and worldly laws are servants to peace. But peace is not an end in itself.  A peaceful and quiet life is not to be squandered on indulgence.  Rather, the pilgrimage of the Christian this side of heaven is to be “godly and dignified in every way.” (1 Tim. 2:3).  The freedom of the Christian is not the illusory “freedom” of the anarchist or the libertine.  Rather, the Christian is liberated from the dead-end of selfish indulgence in order to pursue that which is pure, lovely, commendable, excellent, and worthy of praise (Phil. 4:8).  We who believe in God are to “devote ourselves to good works” which are “profitable for people.” (Titus 3:8).

Peace and good order on this earth serve yet an even greater purpose—and eternal purpose.  Through worldly rulers, God maintain peace so that we may lead a quiet life—so that we can hear the Gospel.  “This is good, and it is pleasing in the sight of God our Savior, who desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” (1 Tim 2:3).  Just as women are to “learn quietly with all submissiveness” (1 Tim. 2:11) so the church, the Bride of Christ, humbly submits to Jesus, listening to his teaching at his feet.

On Thanksgiving Day, we remember God’s blessings, which are too many to count.  Let us strive to be content with—and even more, thankful for—our allotment in life, for “godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world.  But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content.” (1 Tim. 6:6-7).  We should continue in various types of prayer to Our Father in Heaven.  Most especially, we should remember our Mediator, “who gave himself as a ransom for all” (I Tim. 2:6), and let our gratitude overflow in thanksgiving for God’s grace.

When Yuval Noah Harari (author of best-selling books Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, 2011 and Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, 2017) thinks about artificial intelligence, he doesn’t picture robots gaining sentience and exterminating humanity. He does picture the increasing irrelevance of certain classes, growing global inequality, and a shift in authority from humanity to data-driven algorithms. The last of these is not really a prediction, but a fairly linear extrapolation of historical technological trends.

Technology develops because of the human drive to make work simpler, more efficient, or more effective. Pushing back against the curse (Gen. 3:17-19), men have managed to leverage their unique rational capacities in mitigating some consequences of sin. Or at least it seems that way. Perhaps technology has just permitted men to redistribute the effects of the curse. And that may be one of the reasons why it is difficult for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven – he does not feel the sweat of his face in bringing forth thorns and thistles. On the other hand, the insatiability of men remains as a reminder of the first sin. Efficiency should mean an opportunity to work less, but it is often used instead as a means to produce more.

By now we have moved far beyond the simple jigs that automate and optimize mechanical tasks. The questions we ask of technology are no longer simply quantitative, but also qualitative. Having mastered the realm of objectivity, technology now promises to help us deal with our subjectivity. Instead of asking, “How can I do this?” we have begun to ask, “What should I do?” Data is invaluable because it permits humanity to outsource the most difficult task of decision-making.

This already happens extensively in trivial ways. Netflix offers recommendations that match your watching history. Amazon suggests products that complement products you have already purchased. Yelp lets you tap into to the experiences and opinions of countless strangers as you choose a restaurant. But even in its infancy, information technology was promising to make much more critical decisions for us. In 1959, a couple of Stanford students used a mainframe and punch cards with survey data to match prospective romantic partners. Now by swiping left or right you can not only help build the enormous data-set but benefit from its algorithmic matchmaking output in real-time.

Harari is wary of these advances because he perceives the potential for manipulation. Every algorithm has been written by somebody, and not everybody has humanity’s best interests in mind. We are nonetheless extremely susceptible to technological suggestion because our expectations are so low. The computers just need to make somewhat better decisions than us most of the time in order for us to find them to be trustworthy. Considering how often we make bad decisions that’s a minor hurdle.

That susceptibility, however, tells us more about ourselves than Harari observes. In the first place, our interest in reliable decision-making belies our craving for authority. We learn quickly in life that people are untrustworthy and easily tempted to abuse authority. But that cannot erase our resonance with the ordered character of creation. We are meant to be under authority, and when artificial intelligence promises that authority without the vicissitudes of earthly fathers, we are happily imprinted.

Still, a more damning fact about humanity underlies that susceptibility. Unmistakably aware that “none is righteous, no, not one” (Ro. 3:10), we are always in pursuit of acquittal. That makes the promise of sound decision-making extremely attractive. By outsourcing our consciences to artificial intelligence, we have so much to gain. We gain certainty in the face of our own mixed feelings. Combined with accurate biometric sensors, technology could even correct for our changing feelings and help us to make decisions that will minimize the sensation of guilt. We also gain a scapegoat. Our love for having someone to blame should surprise no one, exhibited first in the Garden of Eden and now every time a child excuses himself by saying, “My brother told me to do it.” What could be better than the victimless blame-shifting afforded by having a computer make your decisions?

All of that is enough to warrant caution. If technology is used to numb or deflect pangs of conscience, then it has indeed become an instrument of the devil. But more fundamentally, we should know better because sound, objective decision-making could never favor humanity. Suppose you could gather all the data and crunch all the numbers. Let us say that you can measure not just actions but also motives. You would discover only one solution to all the ethical questions posed by humanity – eternal judgment. After all, a purely objective and consistent moral system must finally resemble God’s Holy Law. And by that standard, there is only one possible outcome. Artificial intelligence could not choose life in the end. For that, what we need is an authority who favors humanity against better judgment and in spite of the data.