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Epiphany: Ephesians 3:1-12

Ephesus, like so many of the newly formed congregations in the days of the apostles, struggled with the question of how the Gentiles and Jews, now both Christians, related to one another.  Peter himself received a vision before going to Cornelius that confirmed to him the will of God.  Seeing the Holy Spirit descend on the Gentiles, how could those  who heard his report say anything else other than “Then to the Gentiles also God has granted repentance that leads to life” (Acts 11:18)?  But though God had clearly revealed his will, old rivalries still remained.

Paul addresses this question by pointing to the Gospel of Christ.  The Lord “predestined us for adoption to Himself as sons through Jesus Christ” (Ephesians 1:5).  Being sons, He also chose us from the foundation of the world to be holy in His sight, not divided according to the fruits of sin, but as one in Christ.  He poured out the Holy Spirit as a “guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it” (Ephesians 1:14), so that we await the fullness of our redemption.  However, we are no longer divided in the way of the world, but alive and united in Christ.  “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).  Predestination, therefore, is as much about being chosen to believe as it is being chosen to be holy in His sight.

Paul points to his ministry as a proof of all of this.  He is a steward of God’s grace to the Gentiles, that through Christ all who believe have access to the Father.  Jew and Gentile are no longer two, but one in Christ, so that the new man is neither Jew nor Gentile, but Christian.  Yet Paul did not know this “mystery of Christ” except through revelation, much like Peter.  This mystery “was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit” (Ephesians 3:5), a clear testimony that the Lord moves progressively throughout the history of salvation, to His glory.  “For truly, I say to you, many prophets and righteous people longed to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it” (Matthew 13:17).

His ministry, therefore, is not a matter of right, but of grace.  Only through the “working of His power” could Paul, or any man whom the Lord chooses to be a minister, proclaim this great mystery.  “Therefore, having this ministry by the mercy of God, we do not lose heart” (2 Corinthians 4:1).  Paul regarded himself as the “very least of all the saints” since he had once persecuted the Church (1 Corinthians 15:9), yet the ministry of the Lord is not a matter of right, but of grace.  No man deserves to proclaim the Gospel.  Paul’s sin does not make him uniquely qualified or anything similar, as if greater sins made for greater preachers.  Paul’s sin magnifies his own inadequacy to make the grace of God all the clearer.

All of this “was according to the eternal purpose that He has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11).  God chose Paul from before the foundation of the world, not only to believe and to be holy in His sight, but also to be one who “turns many to righteousness” (Daniel 12:3).  If faith is through God’s mercy, and the ministry is a matter of mercy, then, as Paul says, those who fulfill this ministry do so according to the will of God (2 Timothy 4:5).  Pastors therefore may be encouraged, knowing the Lord’s will for their lives.

That God places men into the ministry through His own will is not an opportunity for laziness.  The call to preach the Word in season and out of season is not a call to pride.  Such proud and lazy men are “enemies of the cross of Christ,” who “do not serve our Lord Christ, but their own appetites” (Philippians 3:18-19; Romans 16:18).  It also follows that occupying the office of the ministry is no proof that it is the Lord’s will.  “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat, so do and observe whatever they tell you, but not the works they do” (Matthew 23:2-3).  “But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their sensuality, and because of them the way of truth will be blasphemed. And in their greed they will exploit you with false words. Their condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep” (2 Peter 2:1-3).  False prophets and false teachers, though they have all the outward appearance of the office of the ministry, are waterless clouds, swept along by winds (Jude 12-13).  You shall know them by their fruits!

But for the one whom the Lord has chosen and placed into the ministry by grace, Paul calls for him to struggle mightily for the sake of God.  The ministry is not a matter of words, but of power, the transformative power of the Holy Spirit which raises from death to life and sin to holiness.  “Remind them of these things, and charge them before God not to quarrel about words, which does no good, but only ruins the hearers. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:14-15).

First Sunday after Christmas: Luke 2:33-40

Leviticus 12 outlines the ritual of purification, which differs between a male and a female child, as well as making provisions for poverty. Immediately following the birth is a period of ritual impurity, identical in length to her regular menstrual impurity (Leviticus 15:19). Since childbirth is therefore connected to a general emission of blood, the purpose of such purification is to “keep the people of Israel separate from their uncleanness, lest they die in their uncleanness by defiling my tabernacle that is in their midst” (Leviticus 15:31). A woman could not approach the holy things of God “nor come into the sanctuary” (Leviticus 12:4). The Lord’s blessing of fruitfulness in the original creation (Genesis 1:28) as well as the promised blessings of fruitfulness (as in Deuteronomy 28:11) show that childbirth itself was not sinful. Rather, the shedding of blood involved in bearing a child made her ritually impure, as Leviticus 12:7 implies: “then she shall be clean from the flow of her blood.”

In the case of a male child, her normal period of uncleanness, seven days, preceded the circumcision on the eighth day. She would then persist thirty-three days until she could present her offering. (The doubling of this period for a female child is outside the scope of this study, though it is worth noting that such distinctions between male and female exist elsewhere in Scripture.) Once the period of her cleansing ended, she presented a lamb and a bird as a sin offering in order to make atonement. The Law also mercifully allows for the substitution of two birds in the case of poverty, which was the case for Mary when she presented Jesus at the temple. Given the seven day period, if the eighth day is part of the thirty-three, this event occurs forty days after the birth of Christ.

Because Jesus was Mary’s firstborn son, Luke also includes a note regarding the unique character of such a child. During the original Passover, the Lord struck down the firstborn of Egypt (Exodus 12:29-30). In so doing, He redeemed the firstborn of Israel, giving Egypt as their ransom (Isaiah 43:3; Numbers 3:13; 8:17). Therefore, from that point forward, the firstborn was uniquely consecrated to the Lord (Exodus 13:2, 12, 15). However, because of the sin of Israel with the golden calf and the faithfulness of Levi on that day (Exodus 32:26), the Levites were substituted for the firstborn in general (Numbers 3:40-51). It may be, therefore, that Luke means to identify Jesus not only as the firstborn of Israel in this way, but also as the Levite par excellance, being our great High Priest.

During the purification of Mary, Simeon sees the Lord’s Christ and blesses the Lord with a unique song of thanksgiving. Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 finds some parallels with the song of Hannah in 1 Samuel 2:1-10, and Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:68-79, emphasizing the Lord’s faithfulness and redemption, finds many parallels in the Old Testament (such as Exodus 15). However, since Simeon saw with his own eyes the promised consolation of Israel, his song has no real parallel. Here was the promised salvation! Here was the light of revelation to the Gentiles! Here was the glory of Israel! How many eyes longed to see what he saw, yet did not see it (Matthew 13:17)!

But Simeon also recognizes that this Christ will also be a stumbling block to Israel. Since Israel according to the flesh sought a righteousness based on works (Romans 9:32), the coming of Christ would reveal their distortion of the Law for what it was. Simeon therefore not only anticipates the continual struggle between hard hearted Israel and Christ, but also that they would crucify the Lord of Glory, even to the point of denying the plain reality of the resurrection with the least ridiculous lie they could get away with (Matthew 28:13).

Anna here seems to appear as a second witness to Christ, suggesting the twofold testimony required for establishing a claim (though usually stated negatively as a charge for a crime, such as Deuteronomy 17:6, 19:15). Her descent from Asher is unique, since Asher never usually features prominently in the Old Testament. The second son of Zilpah, Asher means something like “happy” (Genesis 30:13). Jacob and Moses both bless Asher with richness and favor (Genesis 49:20; Deuteronomy 33:24). However, Asher failed to fulfill the conquest of Canaan (Judges 1:31-32), leading them to be grouped into the Northern Kingdom with Ephraim and exposing them to all kinds of idolatry and apostasy. However, in the days of Hezekiah, some of the tribe of Asher “humbled themselves and came to Jerusalem” (2 Chronicles 30:11), because there were still some who held to the Lord. Thus, happy indeed this faithful daughter of Asher who saw the redemption of Jerusalem!

Finally, Luke’s purpose in relating this event is to emphasize that Christ fulfilled the Law of the Lord, even when He had to rely on His mother and Joseph to do so! For “when they had performed everything according to the Law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee” (Luke 2:39). After this event, Jesus would begin to fulfill the Law Himself, but Mary feared the Lord and kept the Law regarding her purification. It was, of course, Christ’s own righteousness at work, even in the purification of Mary, for the uncircumcised child was guilty of breaking the covenant (Genesis 17:14). Infancy was not a valid defense in this case, even if it happened because of the negligence, willful or otherwise, of someone else. However, Christ, in the hands of Mary and Joseph, kept the Law even from birth, so as to be the perfect substitute.

First Sunday after Christmas: Galatians 4:1-7

Sneaking in behind Paul, certain men troubled the churches of Galatia by asserting that one had to abide by the observances of the old covenant in order to be a Christian. Most noteworthy was the argument that one had to be circumcised, to which Paul alludes in Galatians 5. Such men were persuasive, at least according to human standards, and attacked Paul’s message for being seemingly weak and foolish by comparison (1 Corinthians 2:1-5; Galatians 4:12-16). Had not the Lord Himself commanded circumcision? Why would we not want to obey the Word of the Lord?

However, as Paul argues, they wanted to be “under the law,” so that they would be considered righteous according to the Law. But seeking after a law that would lead to righteousness, they did not attain it, “because they did not pursue it by faith, but as if it were based on works” (Romans 9:31-32). Christ becomes a stumbling stone for them, because they have fundamentally misunderstood why God gave the Law to them in the first place.

Paul’s dichotomy between law and faith must not be distorted. “Law” as Paul uses it here cannot mean the Law in general, for that would run against passages like Psalm 1:1-2, Psalm 19:7, or even Deuteronomy 30:11. Paul contrasts the “law”—being perfected by the flesh, desiring to be righteous according to works—with “faith”—being perfected by the Spirit, being righteous through Christ. The Law in general, the will of God, is not at variance with faith (Romans 3:31). It is the distortion of the Law, made into something apart from Christ, that Paul condemns in the strongest terms throughout his letters.

But these Judaizers have misunderstood the purpose of the ceremonies attached to the Law. They insisted on the observance of circumcision, because they regarded it as identical with the substance of the Law. Why, then, would it pass away, if God’s will does not change? But “these are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:17; Hebrews 10:1-4). Circumcision was a part of the guardianship of Sinai, not the means of righteousness. The ceremonies attached to the Law pointed toward the coming righteousness by faith, and therefore, properly understood, are expressions of the Gospel. Once Christ came, their purpose came to an end, and the school of Moses was no longer in session (Galatians 3:24). Paul’s opponents, distorting their purpose and mistaking their substance, regarded them as part and parcel of righteousness, which not incidentally left no room for Christ.

In the reading for the First Sunday after Christmas, Paul is therefore using the imagery of an inheritance. The Lord had made a promise of an inheritance to Abraham, something that could not be annulled by Moses 430 years later (Galatians 3:15-18). Moses had not meant to annul it, of course, but regarding the shadow as the light, as the Judaizers had done, makes one forget about the earlier promise. According to that promise made to Abraham, to which the ceremonies of Moses pointed, “in Christ Jesus, you are all sons of God, through faith” (Galatians 3:26).

Therefore, Israel is likened to a child, the heir of the promised inheritance. Moses served as the guardian of this child, teaching him through the ceremonies attached to the Law, until the time appointed by the Father. In other words, the Church has matured into adulthood with the coming of Christ. Such an image of Israel maturing from infancy into adulthood finds parallels in other passages, especially Ezekiel 16, where the Lord compares her to an exposed child on whom He took pity. “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son” (Hosea 11:1). This not only shows that God frequently treats a people as one man (or in this case, woman, His bride), but it also shows that there is a progression in God’s revelation and God’s manner of interacting with His people. The ceremonies of the Old Testament belonged to the childhood of the Church, but now with the coming of Christ, she has reached maturity and has put away childish ways (1 Corinthians 13:11).

This is not to disparage the ceremonies of the old covenant! The pedagogy of childhood is not useless by any means. Through such discipline, the son becomes a man. But the one who seeks to remain in childhood, so to speak, is not praiseworthy, but missing the point of his guardianship. The Judaizers sought to hold on to the discipline of infancy, mistaking it for the substance of manhood. Circumcision pointed to the coming promise, the maturity of faith in Christ, and with the coming of Christ, the guardianship came to an end.

But what of those who were not under the guardianship, the Gentiles? What of those who did not have Moses in their infancy, so to speak? We too had a childhood as a people, enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. The child under guardianship is akin to a slave, in that he must serve the will of another, despite being the master of the estate. But God sent Christ into the world as one of us, “born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5). The Gentiles have been made to be sons, even though our guardianship was not under Moses, through Christ by faith. The adopted son and the natural son are not two, but one (Ephesians 2:11-22), and therefore both are heirs through faith in Christ.

Therefore, as Paul continues to say in the remainder of Galatians, there is no need for the adopted son to become as a child again, even though his guardianship was not under Moses. Such a reversion would be tantamount to crucifying the Lord of Glory all over again. Requiring the Gentile adopted son to be circumcised makes the ceremony itself into righteousness, and thus makes righteousness a matter of the flesh. Only by becoming a Jew could a Gentile be saved in such a way. However, as Paul says: “No one is a Jew who is merely one outwardly, nor is circumcision outward and physical. But a Jew is one inwardly, and circumcision is a matter of the heart, by the Spirit, not by the letter. His praise is not from man but from God” (Romans 2:28-29).

Fourth Sunday in Advent: John 1:19-28

The Apostle John does not hesitate to identify John as a “man sent from God,” “a witness, to bear witness about the light” (John 1:6-8).  John the Baptist always points away from himself toward the coming Christ, and he is fully aware of the nature of his calling.

The priests and Levites are not on a generic mission from Jerusalem.  They want an answer to a very specific question, even if it seems vague:  “Who are you?”  John’s immediate reply, “I am not the Christ,” and their follow up “What then?  Are you Elijah?” demonstrates that they, with the Pharisees, are wondering whether John is the promised Messiah.  They know that Christ is coming, though they mistake the signs and wonder whether John might be the promised one.  Only with John’s repeated denials do they finally ask him directly about his mission.  That the Pharisees know that Christ is coming, however, only highlights their hardness of heart:  “He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him” (John 1:11).  They knew and expected Him, yet rejected Him when He appeared.

John denies being Elijah, the fulfillment of Malachi 4:5-6, which is intriguing, since Christ Himself makes this identification (Matthew 11:14).  It may be that John, since he is rejecting the false notions of the Pharisees, speaks against their misunderstandings.  The bystanders at the cross purposely distort Jesus’ words, saying “Behold, he is calling Elijah” (Matthew 27:47; Mark 15:35), which suggests that they are expecting Elijah in the flesh to come in a miraculous way.  Jesus, however, connects John the Baptist to his office, and therefore gives us the correct understanding of Malachi’s prophecy.

John also denies being “the Prophet,” a reference to the prophecy of Moses in Deuteronomy 18:15-22.  Moses says that the Lord “will raise up for you a prophet like me,” a qualification that no other Old Testament prophet met, since Moses knew the Lord “face to face” (Deuteronomy 34:10-12).  Jesus says of John that “among those born of women none is greater” (Matthew 11:11; Luke 7:28), which implies that John is a greater prophet than Moses.  However, John’s denial here suggests that “the Prophet” is a reference to Christ as the greatest of all the prophets.  If John stands in the office of Elijah, then Christ is the greater Elisha, who worked more miracles than his predecessor and indeed bore a double portion of the Spirit (2 Kings 2:9).

After rejecting their false notions, John identifies himself as “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness,” a plain reference to Isaiah 40:3.  There, the voice is told to cry out the good news:  “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2).  It is a preparation to the Lord’s declaration in the following chapters that He is the living God, the Help of Israel.  He will not share his glory with empty idols, but He will act when He sends His servant, “my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isaiah 42:1).  John’s call for repentance, therefore, includes this positive affirmation by extension:  Turn away from your sins, your false notions, and your idols, and return to the living God, the Fear of Jacob, the Fortress of Israel!  He will not share His glory with another, but He will act when He sends the one whose sandals I am not worthy to untie.

The messengers of the Pharisees again demonstrate the hardness of their hearts by showing that they understand the purpose of Baptism, at least dimly.  If John is not the Christ, Elijah, or the Prophet, then why is he baptizing, since this practice belongs to them (John 1:25)?  This is also shown by some of the Pharisees and Sadducees who tried to be baptized (Matthew 3:7; Luke 3:7).  They recognize that this practice belongs to the coming of Christ, but they have come for the wrong reasons, not by faith, but as if it were based on works (Romans 9:30-33).

John answers them by pointing again to his office and rebuking them for their unbelief.  His baptism, because it would give way to the Sacrament of Baptism (Acts 18:25; 19:1-7), was preparatory and temporary.  It, like John, pointed ahead to the coming of Christ, and it ceased with John’s office when Christ appeared.  However, John’s rebuke that “among you stands one you do not know” shows that the Pharisees, despite knowing the prophecies and knowing that Christ was near, stumbled over the rock of offense.  They knew that Christ was near, and yet seeing, they did not see.  “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Corinthians 2:6-8).

Fourth Sunday in Advent: Philippians 4:4-7

Paul encourages the congregation at Philippi to push onward “toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 3:14).  Through such an exhortation, he points them toward Christ and shows them a manner of life “worthy of the Gospel of Christ” (Philippians 1:27).  The call toward holiness is never abstract, as if it was empty or formulaic.  Rather, holiness expresses itself in particulars and demonstrates its genuineness through its actions.

This is why Paul also calls for them to imitate his example (Philippians 3:17).  Like a father with his children, Paul shows them the way of Christ through his actions as well, something which his opponents did not do.  “Their end is destruction, their god is their belly, and they glory in their shame, with minds set on earthly things” (Philippians 3:19).  “For the kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).  The one who seeks his own glory does not preach a living holiness, but merely empty, earthly words.  You shall know them by their fruits.

The epistle reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent comes in the midst of Paul’s final exhortations.  The command to “rejoice in the Lord” is not empty, as if Paul was telling someone to “be happy.”  Joy in the Lord stems from the knowledge that His redemption is at hand.  “For his anger is but for a moment, and his favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning” (Psalm 30:5).  “For the Lord will not cast off forever, but, though he cause grief, he will have compassion according to the abundance of his steadfast love; for he does not afflict from his heart or grieve the children of men” (Lamentations 3:31-33).

The word translated “reasonableness” in Philippians 4:5 is the same word as 1 Timothy 3:3, Titus 3:2, James 3:17, and 1 Peter 2:18, translated “gentle.”  It seems to be rooted in a kind of moderation, not given to extremes on either end.  While the word could also mean “gentleness” in Philippians, the underlying notion is plainly a fruit of the Spirit and not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:16-24).

Anxiety stems from uncertainty, quite at odds with knowing that the Lord is at hand.  A Christian being anxious about the future suggests that the Lord is not in control of all things!  This is why Christ also tells us to not be anxious.  “Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matthew 6:31-33).  “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).  However, it is worth noting that this is not the same as “don’t worry, be happy,” or however the expression may be worded.  Too often that worldly exhortation includes the implicit or explicit lasses faire:  let it go and don’t sweat the small stuff.  A Christian is not exhorted to ignore life’s little troubles for the sake of mental health.  Rather, the future belongs to God, and therefore the end is certain.  Don’t worry, be happy falls flat in the face of real trouble; rejoicing in the Lord means real contentment in whatever situation.  “I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:12-13).

Third Sunday in Advent: Matthew 11:2-10

John the Baptist began his work of proclaiming the coming of Christ shortly before he baptized Jesus in the Jordan River.  Matthew relates that Herod imprisoned John shortly after this Baptism (Matthew 4:12) over the matter of Herodias (Matthew 14:3).  That a prophet should suffer for bringing an unpopular message to a ruler is nothing new.  Micaiah had done the same hundreds of years beforehand (1 Kings 22).  That a prophet should suffer at the hands of a vindictive woman is also nothing new.  Elijah and the prophets whom Obadiah saved suffered the same fate (1 Kings 18).  That a prophet should die for his message is also nothing new.  From Abel to Zechariah, many of the prophets perished for the sake of the Word (Luke 11:49-51; Matthew 23:34-35).

Much ado is frequently made about whether John sent his disciples to Jesus to ask this question for their sakes or for his own.  Whether John had personal doubts or whether he sought to quell his disciples’ doubts is, frankly, a minor question.  Jesus’ point in His answer is the same either way.  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  Jesus answers with a general reference to passages like Isaiah 35.  In the day of the judgment upon the nations who had oppressed Israel (Isaiah 34), then the Lord will bring back the captives (Isaiah 35).  Jesus applies this prophecy to Himself, thereby demonstrating that He is the promised one, the servant of the Lord who suffers on our behalf.

The signs themselves also demonstrate the purpose of the Lord’s miracles.  He is not attempting to work wonders for the sake of making men marvel.  Satan himself can work such “miracles” (Revelation 13:13-14; also the magicians working by his power in Exodus 7-8).  Rather, miracles bear witness about His identity.  As John says regarding the miracle at Cana, “This, the first of His signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested His glory.  And His disciples believed in Him” (John 2:11).  Miracles build up faith and confirm Jesus’ divine identity.  The apostles also worked miracles, such as Peter’s shadow healing the sick (Acts 5:12-16), and the prophets, especially Elijah and Elisha performed many signs (1 Kings 17:17-24, for example).  But in those cases, the miracles also built up faith and demonstrated, not that the apostles and prophets were divine, but that the One who sent them was trustworthy and true.  “Now I know that you are a man of God, and that the word of the Lord in your mouth is truth.”

Offense at Christ working miracles can be understood somewhat generically, which is offense at Christ’s mercy toward those whom we regard as not deserving mercy.  But Christ, judging by similar statements throughout the Gospels, seems to mean something rather more pointed than this.  Jesus is a rock of offense and a stone of stumbling specifically for Israel.  “And he will become a sanctuary and a stone of offense and a rock of stumbling to both houses of Israel, a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem” (Isaiah 8:14).  Paul cites this very verse in Romans 9:33, as proof that Israel, despite the promises to their forefathers, have been rejected because of unbelief, and the Gentiles, despite having no such promises, have been accepted because of faith.  Therefore, the offense is seeing the promises fulfilled and seeing that righteousness is truly by faith and not by works, something that His own people had failed to grasp (John 1:11-13).  The signs of healing, bearing witness that Christ has come, only emphasize this, because Jesus continually says to those He heals, “Your faith has saved you” (Luke 7:50).

After John’s disciples leave with His message, Jesus begins to speak to the crowds regarding John.  His first two questions seem to be essentially rhetorical.  The crowd did not go out seeking a reed shaking in the wind, nor a richly dressed man.  John is not one to be blown about, nor soft and effeminate.  But John is a prophet, or as Jesus says, more than a prophet.  Referring to the majestic prophecy of Malachi, Jesus identifies John as the messenger who prepares the way before the coming of the Lord.  Who can endure the day of the coming of the Lord?  “He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord” (Malachi 3:1-4).  Because John is Elijah who is to come (Matthew 11:14), he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers (Malachi 4:5-6).  John prepares the way for the coming of God’s mercy upon His people, a mercy shown in His Son.  John’s call to repentance, therefore, is not empty or merely rhetorical.  The one who refuses will find God’s wrath stored up for him on the day of wrath (Colossians 3:5-6; Matthew 3:7-10).  But the one who repents will be spared as a man spares his son (Malachi 3:17).

Jesus thus identifies Himself as the coming Christ by testifying that John is the messenger of God.  But His reason for doing so is not a generic “Here I am!”  Those who should have received Him did not need generic identifiers.  They knew that He had come, and yet they suppressed that knowledge in unrighteousness.  They maligned John and slandered the Son of Man, “yet wisdom is justified by her deeds” (Matthew 11:19).  Therefore, it will be more bearable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon and Sodom, whose wickedness was done in ignorance, than for those who reject the One whom they recognized (Matthew 11:20-24).  Jesus identifies John as Elijah who is to come, and Himself as the One who is to come, not merely to make this truth clear, but to highlight the guilt of those who sin knowing the Law.

Third Sunday in Advent: 1 Corinthians 4:1-5

Factionalism was one of the primary problems within the Corinthian congregation, and Paul addresses this issue first within his letter.  This division, however, stemmed at least in part from the influence of those who questioned the authority of Paul (1 Corinthians 9:1-7).  Such false teachers attempted to undermine Paul to make their own authority appear all the greater.  Therefore, Paul addresses the problem of division by carefully clarifying the nature of his authority as an apostle, from which we may also learn the nature of authority within the Church in general.

Paul’s authority does not center in his rhetorical ability.  “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom” (1 Corinthians 2:2).  If anything, like Moses (Exodus 4:10), Paul was not particularly impressive in terms of speaking (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 10:10).  However, this is for their benefit, “so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God” (1 Corinthians 2:5).  Such wisdom was not worldly, but from the Spirit, and as such belongs to those who are of Christ, apart from all worldly considerations.

Nor does Paul’s authority center in his own person.  The Corinthians had forgotten this, and their factionalism arose from considering the man too highly.  “What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” (1 Corinthians 3:5-7).  Paul’s work in laying the foundation is of much value, to be sure, but it is ultimately God working through Paul that makes this work what it is.  Paul is a skilled master builder, laying the foundation which is Jesus Christ, and the Judgment will reveal the nature of that work (1 Corinthians 3:10-15).

Therefore, one must regard Paul and those who bear authority in the Church as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.”  A high calling, but one that bears high responsibility, since the value of stewards depends on how faithfully their exercise their office.  Joseph rose to prominence in his master’s house because the Lord was with him (Genesis 39).  The dishonest steward lost his position from squandering his master’s possessions (Luke 16:1-13).  Stewards of Christ demonstrate their faithfulness by rightly handling the word of truth (2 Timothy 2:15), bringing out of their treasure what is new and what is old (Matthew 13:52).  They continue in what they have been taught, being equipped for every good work through the power of the living Scriptures (2 Timothy 3:10-17).

But the judgment of faithfulness is not a matter of the world, either.  “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).  And if the faithful are incompetent to judge such cases, as it were, why would the world be any better (1 Corinthians 6)?  Not that Paul must answer to the Church regarding his faithfulness, but to his own master, the Lord.  But when the Lord comes to judge the world, then the nature of what he has build will be revealed.  Paul has labored for a time in darkness, but the light of Christ will make all things plain.

As with Paul, so also with those entrusted with smaller responsibilities.  The guardian of the remote post is not thereby relieved of his duty or relaxed in its rigor.  The value of his labor in the Lord too will be judged by fire.  Will it be flammable, built upon the wisdom of men?  The appearance of such wisdom is always impressive, but ultimately devoid of power.  It is self-serving and desires only to be noticed.  Or will it endure the test, built upon the mind of Christ?  While such wisdom may come with rhetorical ability, it will prove itself by its fruits.  It builds up those who hear it, even at the cost of making those who bear it a “spectacle to the world,” fools for Christ (1 Corinthians 4:8-13).  But it is ultimately worthy of imitation.  The arrogant fool who delights in worldly wisdom has only talk, but “the kingdom of God does not consist in talk, but in power” (1 Corinthians 4:20).

Second Sunday in Advent: Luke 21:25-36

How beautiful were the stones of the mighty temple!  The work of forty-six years, the product of the rich offerings of so many (Luke 21:1)!  Yet all this, spectacular as it was, would be thrown down.  “The days will come when there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down” (Luke 21:6).  Jesus’ words struck a nerve.  When will these things happen?

Jesus, in true prophetic fashion, points to several things at once.  The closest, of course, was the destruction of the temple at the hands of the Romans in 70 A.D., and so thorough was their work that this temple no longer stands.  This judgment fell upon the Jews, who were partially hardened through faithlessness (Romans 11:25) and also for crucifying the Lord of glory (Acts 2:36; 1 Corinthians 2:8).  This hardening can also be seen here in Jesus’ own words, since those who faithfully persevered would be delivered up also to “synagogues” (Luke 21:12), Israel according to the spirit persecuted by Israel according to the flesh.

But this destruction of Jerusalem is a sign of the far greater judgment.  Israel is judged for a time, until the fullness of the Gentiles comes in, at which point her partial hardness will be healed.  But the judgment coming upon the world is like the days of Noah (Luke 17:26-27).  They were hardened for a judgment they could not escape, and only through the mercy of the Lord were Noah and his immediate family delivered.  It is worth noting that, in Genesis, (1) out of all of the sons and daughters of the line of Adam to Noah, only Noah and his family were spared.  So many descendants of the great patriarchs, and yet so few were saved.  When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith in the earth (Luke 18:8)?  (2) God’s mercy is further emphasized by the wickedness of Ham toward his father Noah (Genesis 9:18-29).  There will be no such mercy in the coming judgment, for then wickedness will have no place to run.  God’s patience, shown even to Ham in the flood, will finally come to an end.

The signs Christ gives for the coming of the end are somewhat and intentionally vague, which only emphasizes His primary message of watchfulness.  A call to watch for one specific sign ironically leads to laxity, because then all else is excluded.  But a call to watch for a specific event preceded by a wide range of signs increases vigilance.  The fig tree puts out its leaves as a sign of the approaching heat.  It is one sign among many, and not the only sign.

Even so, the signs to which Christ points are unique enough that they are likely closer to the end rather than a continual series throughout history.  It is true that wars and rumors of wars are continual and signs of the end.  But the “distress of nations in perplexity” here seems to be a distress brought about by the intensity and the unmistakable character of these signs.  The shaking of the heavens, the roaring of the seas, the signs in heaven and earth–all of these things point to the “Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27).  Further, this distress among sinners arises from their being unprepared.  There will be no “last minute conversions” when Christ descends in majesty to judge the living and the dead.  The sight of Christ returning is the final proof that the time of grace is at an end.

Those who are vigilant, not weighed down with drunkenness and debauchery, will find that day to be an everlasting joy.  For while the sight of Christ’s majesty is the first glimpse of the everlasting judgment for the reprobate, Christ Himself will be the herald of the coming joy for the faithful.  They, like the faithless, must stand before the judgment seat, and Christ commands us to pray for the strength to stand before Him on that day (Luke 21:36).  But it is the same strength which bears them up in the midst of persecution.  “You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16-19).  Our endurance in the face of persecution is Christ, and our defense before the judgment seat is also Christ.

As a final note, Christ says quite clearly that “this generation will not pass away until all has taken place” (Luke 21:32).  The following verse that “heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away” serve as a confirmation of this.  But they also, I think, clarify what He means.  Heaven and earth passing away, a clear reference to the end, seem to suggest that it will happen within the bounds of “this generation.”  Generation, therefore, here seems to be broader than how we might typically use it.  In an earlier passage of Luke, Christ says that the queen of Sheba and the men of Ninevah will rise up at the judgment “with this generation” and condemn it for its faithlessness (Luke 11:29-32).  Perhaps, then, as the faithless “generation” died in the wilderness, this faithless generation will also perish in the wilderness.  But as the children of the old generation entered the promised land, so also will the next generation, one man out of two, be healed and enter into the great Sabbath rest.

Second Sunday in Advent: Romans 15:4-13

Paul addresses the divided Roman congregation and exhorts the strong to bear with the weak.  The temptation in conflict is to seek vindication, especially at the expense of the other.  Note, however, that Paul does not say that each is equally right or valid.  “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2).  We bear with the weaker brother with the aim of building him up, so that he will no longer be weak.  Knowing who is in the right is a matter of knowing the mind of Christ through the Holy Spirit, of course, but even being in the right is not a license for arrogance, which was the whole problem.

Christ Himself, the strongest of all because of His sinlessness, bore with our weaknesses, even to the point of taking our guilt upon Himself.  Imitating Christ, therefore, calls for us to welcome the weaker brother with the aim of raising him toward a still more excellent way, just as the Holy Spirit raises us up out of darkness into light.  Arrogance gets this relationship exactly backwards, as if Christ would have nothing to do with us because of our weakness, when in fact we needed Him the most for that very reason.

Paul points here to the Scriptures as a means of building us up.  As he said also to the Corinthians, “Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11).  The judgments of old, in this case upon those in the wilderness, served as a disciplinary example for them, but we in these last days learn from them.  The unbreakable Scriptures, as the living voice of the Holy Spirit, strengthen us and build us up, making us one people.  In the Lord is unity and harmony, something which the Romans were sorely lacking.  Heeding the voice of God in the Holy Scriptures and learning from them is the way out of this sinful impasse.

Paul continues with a few Biblical citations in order to prove his point in another way.  Christ the Master became a “servant to the circumcised” to show that God was not lying when He made His promises to the patriarchs.  More than this, by going to the lost sheep of the house of Israel (Matthew 10:6; 15:24), He was “found by those who did not seek me” (Romans 11:20, citing Isaiah 65:1).  The Strong Man bore with the weak, so that the Gentiles too might praise Him for His mercy.

Since this passage falls within the wider section of Paul’s exhortation, beginning in Romans 12, his point is clear.  Bear with one another’s failings as Christ bore with yours.  Build up one another as Christ has built you up.  Love one another as Christ has loved you.  Turn to the Holy Scriptures and learn from the living Spirit, so that “by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Romans 15:13).  There is no room for boasting or arrogance, nor is it love to assert that there is no weakness.  But imitate Christ, so that you will have “all joy and peace in believing.”

First Sunday in Advent: Romans 13:11-14

The First Sunday in Advent marks the beginning of the church calendar, therefore it is an opportune time to change the choice of lectionary studies. Beginning with this Sunday, I will now focus on the Epistle readings, just as I had previously focused on the Old Testament.

Romans 13:11-14 falls within the wider subsection of Romans 12-15. In the previous section of Romans 9-11, Paul demonstrates that, while Israel has stumbled and is under a partial hardening, God’s purposes in election have not failed. Israel cannot boast in the flesh, just as the Gentiles cannot boast in being grafted in to the tree in place of Israel. There is no room for boasting anywhere. “For just as you were at one time disobedient to God but now have received mercy because of their disobedience, so they too have now been disobedient in order that by the mercy shown to you they also may now receive mercy” (Romans 11:30-31). The Lord has not chosen based on merit. His election is sure and done for His own purposes, and the faithful are counted among the elect purely by grace (Ephesians 2:8-9; Deuteronomy 7:6-11).

But election is not a trump card. That was Israel’s sin that brought judgment upon them until the fulness of the Gentiles comes in. One cannot be elect and lack faith, as if being part of Israel according to the flesh was enough for salvation. The Lord chooses to have mercy on whom He will have mercy (Exodus 33:19; Romans 9:15). But wherever this faith is, there are also the fruits of faith (Luke 6:45), which is Paul’s point in Romans 12-15. For those who know the Lord’s mercy walk according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh. Paul exhorts the Romans toward this living faith, a faith which does not delight in the division which plagued the Roman church, but seeks “the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

While there is much that is descriptive about this section, such as Romans 12:9-21 which in the Greek is composed primarily of sentence fragments without verbs, Paul does not hesitate speak commands as well. Romans 13:1, for example, is a clear imperative: let this be the case, and not otherwise. Exhortation is not merely descriptive, but also prescriptive, because the Christian struggling in the flesh needs to learn what the will of God means, often in rather concrete formulations. As Paul said in the beginning of this section, conforming to the Spirit rather than to the world involves testing and discernment, both of which are not automatic processes.

Thus, the reading for the First Sunday in Advent is a strong exhortation to put off what is evil and to cling to what is good. Paul highlights the urgency of this message by noting what the Christian should already recognize: the time is growing shorter and shorter with each passing moment. The Judgment of Christ is fast approaching. “Salvation,” by which Paul means the fullness of our salvation when Christ returns in glory, “is nearer to us now than when we first believed” (Romans 13:11). Wake up! Do not slumber in sin! The end is near (Luke 21:28; Matthew 25, especially Matthew 25:13). The night of God’s patience is fast coming to an end; it is the moment just before the dawn. Even now the night is beginning to brighten in the east.

Since the time is fast approaching, Paul exhorts us to cast off “the works of darkness,” which he describes briefly here and more fully elsewhere (Galatians 5:19-21; Colossians 3:5-11). There is a sense in which this call shows the reality of sin in this life. “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). But Paul is not describing the struggle here, but commanding. Will we walk as is befitting for Christians? Or will we turn again to the works of the flesh? Orgies, drunkenness, sexual immorality, sensuality, quarreling, and jealousy belong to the former way of life. The Christian must choose whether to seek after life or seek after death (Deuteronomy 30:19-20). Only those who are in Christ have such a choice, of course, but the regenerate will is real. Christ saves the whole man, and those who know the Lord also choose Him above all other things.

Romans 13:14 is therefore an important summary. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ,” just as we have put Him on as the garment of our righteousness. But at the same time, “make no provision for the flesh.” Do not even tend to the needs of the flesh and its sinful desires! But make provision for the Spirit, walking in His ways and seeking to conform to the will of God. Too often Christians get this backwards, putting ourselves in the path of temptation, knowing full well that the end can only be evil. What’s the harm of looking? But Paul commands us clearly: do not even till the soil for the seeds of sin, but let us seek the fruit of righteousness whose harvest will come when the morning dawns.