The Incarnation

who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary

 

Our journey through the Apostles’ Creed brings us now into a multipart study of the life and work of Jesus, which, of course, begins at His birth. The virgin birth, which Lewis called the Grand Miracle, has long been given the rightful attention of theologians. As we will see, without this opening act of God, the gospel is undone. The incarnation of Christ and His virgin birth is not a belief to be negotiated; it is the wonder of all wonders. It is our hope and our redemption.

THE DOCTRINE

Far more can be said about Christ’s birth than what we have time for here; we will, therefore, paint with broad strokes, attempting to cover the basics of this doctrine. In doing so, let us begin with the title given for this event by which we still divide all of human history: the incarnation. Incarnation means the taking on of flesh, of a body. A central text from which we can center this study is John 1:14, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” This Word was both distinct from God, while also being God (1:1). This Word was the means by which God created all things, such that nothing created was created without Him (which can only mean that He, like God, was not created). This Word is Jesus, as is made clear in verse 17. He has brought life to men, shining light into our darkness. God the Son, the eternal Word, has displayed His glory to the world that He made, such glory that could only radiate from the Son as He comes from the Father. How did He reveal to us His gracious and true glory? He became flesh and dwelt among us. God the Son became human. This is the incarnation of Christ.

The Apostles’ Creed summarizes the incarnation with two phrases: who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. The two are inseparably linked to one another. Without the conception by the Holy Spirit, the virgin birth is impossible. Without the virgin birth, the conception by the Holy Spirit rendered false. We cannot affirm one without the other; we must accept or reject them together.

But why were such things necessary? Let us begin with why a virgin birth was necessary. The virgin birth is not simply a silly myth for describing Jesus’ origin as a great teacher. It is a historical reality that is also a crucial component to the message of the gospel. In fact, the first promise of the gospel also prophesies the virgin birth. In Genesis 3:15, after humanity fell into sin, God pronounced this curse upon the Serpent: “I will put an enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The curse must have given comfort to Eve. She was deceived and led into sin by the Serpent, but one of her offspring would destroy the Serpent. Through a woman, Adam plunged humanity into sin, but through a woman would also come humanity’s Savior. The incarnation of Jesus only deepens this symmetry by revealing that the Serpent-Crusher was not just born of woman, but He was exclusively born of a woman since she was impregnated by no man.

Many theologians have pointed to the virgin birth, therefore, as the catalyst for Jesus coming into the world as the second Adam (that is, without inheriting sin). Being conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin, Jesus was born free from the cycle of sin, which, of course, made it possible for Him to live a sinless life. Without the virgin birth, Jesus could not rightly be called the second Adam, and He could not give His life as payment for our sins. The virgin birth, therefore, is necessary for the gospel.

Furthermore, the two statements also point us toward the two natures of Christ. As being conceived by the Holy Spirit, we affirm that Jesus was sent by the Father to earth. He did not begin existing with His conception because He was eternally existing as God the Son. He is, therefore, divine. He is God the Son sent by God the Father.

But He was also born of Mary the virgin. He was born. Think about it. He was born. Nine months of developing in the womb and the whole shebang. He came into the world like we all came into the world: by the body of our mother. Jesus, therefore, is human. While His birth was not the beginning of His existence, it was His incarnation, His becoming flesh, a human.

This stands beside the Trinity as one of the great mysteries of Christianity. Jesus is one person, yet He bears two natures, God and man. He is fully human and fully God. He is not a glorified man who looks kind of divine, as the Arians believe. Neither is He God who only appeared to look like a man, as Docetism teaches. He is not a demigod, who is part God and part man, nor is He sometimes God and sometimes man. The Chalcedonian Creed (or the Definition of Chalcedon) gives us very specific language for affirming this reality:

Therefore, following the holy fathers, we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us.

APPLICATION

Having now addressed some of the basics for understanding the incarnation, we now will look at how this doctrine applies to us. While the applications for the incarnation are numerous, I will discuss three: 1) by becoming human while retaining His deity, Jesus is able to mediate between God and man, 2) since Jesus became flesh, our bodies are not evil, and 3) by condescending to us, Jesus is the supreme model of humility for us.

Jesus as Mediator

Paul wrote these words to his disciple, Timothy: “For there is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:5-6). Jesus is only mediator between us and God. But why do we need a mediator at all?

Adam and Eve needed no mediator. They were free to bathe in the presence of God and to enjoy the world that He had given them to rule. But they rejected their communion with God in a feeble attempt to seize power. Their disobedience opened a chasm between them and their Creator. As a symbol of this separation, they were exiled from Eden, cast away from God’s presence. God gives the judgment, but the damage is self-inflicted. When we sin, we follow the footsteps of our ancestors and keep the path clear for our descendants to tread behind. We reject God, and there remains nothing for us except a gulf between us.

In His mercy, God repeatedly crossed the chasm to reveal Himself to His people. He spoke to them through prophets. He gave His Spirit to their kings. He established priests to pray and sacrifice on their behalf. Yet these were all messages from afar, letters to exiles to remind us that we were not forgotten nor unloved. But the abyss remained uncrossed.

Enter Jesus, who bridged the gulf. As a man, Jesus was able to be truly human, as we were designed to be. He became like us in every respect, except better, as we should have been. He became the second Adam, resisting the pull of sin that the first Adam fell into. When offered the forbidden fruit from Eve, Adam ate. He should have rejected the opportunity to sin. More than that, he should have offered himself to take the judgment of Eve’s rebellion. Instead of correcting and then dying for her, he chose to follow and then blame his wife. Jesus, however, never yielded to sin and died in our place to rescue His Bride.

Yet Jesus’ death would have been insufficient unless He was also God. How can one man’s physical death cover the eternal spiritual death that was the consequence of sin? Only the Infinite Himself could pay our infinite debt. Since God was sinned against, only God could also redeem. As God, the death of Jesus was the death of God. The Holy One died to make us holy, to bridge the chasm and restore our communion with Him.

Without both Jesus’ divinity and humanity, He could not be our mediator. Yet He, the God-man, is. He is the way that has been made across the divide, and there is no other. How could there be? To claim another path to God makes a mockery of the cross. Further, it makes a mockery of God humbling Himself to become a man. Jesus has not left other options open. We must either accept Him or reject Him, but we cannot view Him half-heartedly as one of many roads to God.

“There is one mediator between God and men, the man Jesus Christ.”

The Flesh

Gnosticism was one of the first heresies to rise up against Christianity. Gnostics primarily believed that Jesus had given to some individual a secret knowledge that was hidden from the others. Who this individual was varied between different teachers (Thomas, Judas, Peter, Philip, Mary, etc.), which is why there are so many Gnostic Gospels. Yet most Gnostics shared the idea that this secret knowledge would free them from the physical world and enable them to transcend into the spiritual world. They longed for this because they believed all things physical to be evil and all things spiritual to be good. This view led to two extreme applications. First, some Gnostics would give themselves fully to ascetism, punishing their bodies and denying themselves any earthly pleasure. Second, others would yield entirely to self-indulgence, reasoning that the body could only do evil since it was evil so why try to stop it? Both were drastic attempts to be liberated from our flesh and from the material world. Doesn’t that sound spiritual?

This swaying between extremes is still present today. While Western culture has predominately been hedonistic (as consumerism must be), society almost always fights extremes with extremes; thus, when the American dream leaves us empty, many turn to an ascetic lifestyle. The flashy steam of dopamine that is social media is only fueling this division at an even quicker pace. Social media feeds are inherently hedonistic by design. The blend of having screens as buffers between us and others, endless information novelty, personalized news feeds, and vast social connectivity has created a kind of cognitive candy. We should not be surprised then to find the disillusioned turning to Buddhism and Stoicism (often condensed into the idea of mindfulness), both of which emphasize the primary importance of disciplining our desires and impulses. Islam fits this narrative as well by requiring physical acts of daily prayer and an extended time of fasting each year. They are appealing as ascetic alternatives to the Internet-driven hedonism. They appear to give an answer for what we are to do with our bodies. Feed them relentlessly, or starve them into submission?

Christianity reaches toward both with the truth as revealed in Christ. Jesus’ resurrection blasts a hole in the Gnostic logic of asceticism. God chose to dwell in flesh; therefore, flesh itself cannot be an inherent evil. Jesus comes to redeem our bodies, not destroy them. This will occur through the death of our current bodies, but when Christ comes again, He will resurrect us into new, glorified bodies. Our flesh is not evil, just broken. This means that the life of a Christian must embrace the shades of truth that mark both hedonism and stoicism. We must recognize that God purposely made us with taste buds. He also created chocolate with a different flavor than strawberries, and He made both of those flavors wonderful to combine. As His children, God delights whenever we enjoy the gifts that He has given to us. Yet because our flesh is marred by sin, we constantly valuing God’s gifts more than God as the Giver. We must, therefore, discipline our bodies so we are not consumed by the lure of more.

We see this balance imaged in marriage. Proverbs commends us to delight ourselves physically with our spouse. Properly understood, enjoying the body of one’s spouse is taking pleasure in a gift that they have given exclusively to you. Delight is statement of love, a declaration that their body and their self is satisfying and sufficient for you. Failing to enjoy your spouse can, therefore, rightfully be seen as being unsatisfied with them and their gift, while an obsession with your spouse’s body makes them into an object to used. Both extremes are unloving and ultimately destroy the pleasure itself.

The same can be said of every gift that the Father gives to us. To reject His gifts is a rejection of His gracious love toward us, but to be consumed by His gifts is an idolatrous rejection of Him. May we, therefore, as followers of One who is both God and man be the most satisfied in our enjoyment in our enjoyment of the earthly pleasures that the Father as given us, while also being the most disciplined against letting our desires and longings consume us.

Humility

Finally, the incarnation of Jesus teaches us by example what true humility looks like. Simply stated, Jesus becoming a human is only rivaled by His crucifixion as the greatest act of humility ever committed. Consider the reality of it. God became one of His creations, like a potter choosing to become a jar. The Infinite One became finite. He clothed Himself in the limitations of a body. He willing submitted Himself to hunger, thirst, and pain. He became like us in every respect yet without sin.

Indeed, Jesus was more human than us because of His freedom from sin. As Chesterton argues, sin deadens the senses, leading to a kind of spiritual and emotional paralysis or vegetation. Yet Jesus’ heart was not dulled by sin. His spirit was not deadened to the brokenness around Him. We flinch and distract ourselves from thinking too long or hard about the present reality of atrocities like the child trafficking for organ-harvesting or systemic rape in countries like Myanmar or Libya. Yet Jesus saw every single sin as the act of cosmic treason that it is. We, therefore, cannot even begin to fathom the depth of suffering that even viewing our “small” sins would have caused Him. Yet Jesus chose this life. He willingly descended from heaven to take on flesh and blood and to ultimately have that flesh and blood broken and spilled in our place for our sins.

We must follow His example of humility in at least two ways.

First, since Jesus humbled Himself to become flesh and came not to be served but to serve us, no one is too lowly for us to serve. As our Lord, Jesus modeled how we must live by serving. If we are not greater than Him, how then can we do anything but serve as He served?

But it’s not just the act of serving that Jesus has modeled for us, but also the heart of serving. If we are not guarded, too often serving others can actually build up our pride. We can subtly develop a pharisaical mentality where we believe ourselves to be superior to others precisely because of how selfless we believe ourselves to be. Indeed, this can also limit how we serve others. By believing that we are doing others a favor by serving them, we can view our acts of service with a kind of take-it-or-leave-it mindset, which is not an act of genuinely seeking their good. Therefore, we must be constantly vigilant to conform our hearts to the likeness of Jesus, who served out of selfless and humble love for others.

Second, as we studied last week, a failure to embrace Jesus as Lord is an obstinate declaration of our own supremacy, while bowing to Jesus as Lord is a humble act of submission to Him. Embracing Jesus as our Savior and Lord means dying to self and killing our pride. Yet this act of humility pales in comparison to Jesus’ descension into the flesh. When Jesus commands us to follow Him, He is not making a demand of us that He has not exceeded Himself. He humbled Himself to rescue us; therefore, we must also humble ourselves to receive Him.

Indeed, John Flavel writes a warning in vein of the author of Hebrews about pridefully neglecting “such a great salvation”:

Does he [Jesus] veil his insupportable glory under flesh, that he may treat the more familiarly and yet do you refuse him, and shut your heart against him? Then hear one word, and let thine ears tingle at the sound of it: thy sin is thereby aggravated beyond the sin of devils, who never sinned against a mediator in their own nature; who never despised, or refused, because, indeed, they were never offered terms of mercy, as you are. And I doubt not but the devils themselves who now tempt you to reject, will, to all eternity, upbraid your folly for rejecting this great salvation, which in this excellent way is brought down even to your own doors. (59)

Do you, therefore, embrace the incarnation of Jesus? Do you believe in the virgin birth? Do you believe that Jesus is fully human and fully divine? Do you believe that Jesus is the only mediator between God and men? Do you believe that He is your mediator? Are you caring for your body in reflection of the good gifts that God has given? Are you following Jesus’ example of humility? Have you humbled yourself to receive salvation from His hand?

We believe in Jesus, the eternal Son of God, who, by the Holy Spirit, was born of a virgin, becoming a fully human, while still retaining His divinity, so that He could stand as the only mediator between God and us. To embrace these things is to take hold joy unspeakable and full of glory.

Do you believe?

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The Light of the Glory of God | Revelation 21:22-27

And I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. They will bring into it the glory and the honor of the nations. But nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.

Revelation 21:22-27 ESV

 

Having now studied and celebrated Christ’s first advent, we shift our focus toward His second advent. Jesus defeated sin and formed His church through His first coming. Upon His return, Jesus will establish His physical and visible reign as King over the new heavens and earth that He will create. In Revelation 21, the Apostle John describes his vision of the new creation by focusing upon the New Jerusalem that becomes God’s dwelling place on earth. Within our text of study, we find, therefore, the conclusion of our theme of light and darkness as well as the climax of the Bible’s story.

NO MORE NIGHT // VERSES 22-23

Revelation can be a scary book to read. Composed of visions given to the Apostle John while exiled onto the island of Patmos, it contains copious amounts of apocalyptic imagery, which can be quite intimidating to read. Yet the message of Revelation is meant to be one of joyful hope since it foretells how God will right the wrongs of sin, evil, and death once and for all. Revelation is all about reminding us that God ultimately wins and Jesus will return and reign supreme.

The final chapters of Revelation drive home that message by providing the mirror image of Genesis 1-3. The symmetry of these bookends of the Bible is astounding.

Consider Genesis first.

Chapter one, as we studied in week one, gives us the account of creation, particularly emphasizing the means by which the world was created: God’s words. Chapter two (along with the ending of chapter one) gives us our only glimpse of pre-sin life in the Garden of Eden. Chapter three, of course, is where everything unravels, explaining how our sin broke both creation and ourselves.

The final three chapters of Revelation mirror this layout. Chapter twenty foretells the final defeat of Satan and the great day of God’s judgment. It is the final undoing of Genesis 3, the permanent defeat of evil. Chapter twenty-one (along with the beginning of chapter twenty-two) provides our only glimpse of post-sin life on the new earth. Finally, chapter twenty-two turns our attention to the means by which all things will be recreated: Jesus Christ, the incarnate Word of God.

Our present text closes out chapter twenty-one. The beginning of the chapter describes the new earth and, particularly, the New Jerusalem, which descends from heaven onto earth. Within this heavenly city, God Himself chooses to dwell with His people.

Revelation 21:3–4 | And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

There are two primary views concerning New Jerusalem. The first is that it is a literal city that will essentially serve as the New Eden upon the remade paradise. The second is that it is symbolic for God’s people, the church. I tend to lean toward the second, but both are plausible and biblical, and on that day, I will not be disappointed in the slightest if I am incorrect. Here is my (brief) reasoning.

First, the angel who guides John’s vision of the city begins by saying this: “Come, I will show you the Bride, the wife of the Lamb” (21:9), which is a title used of Christ’s church. The descriptions are then highly symbolic for the church, such as the twelve gates containing the names of Israel’s patriarchs and the twelve foundations listing the names of the apostles. It also fits with Babylon in chapter seventeen representing those who reject Christ. Therefore, as our text describes the city of New Jerusalem, I believe that this description is of God’s people in our glorified and eternal state.

The first description that we will note is the absence of darkness in the heavenly city. Once again, this is mirroring the original creation from Genesis. In that text, God brought matter into existence without light or order. He then brought light into the darkness. The opposite happens here. In the new creation, God permanently dispels all darkness, so that the cosmos is forever basking in eternal light.

And notice the source of that light. Just as God created light on the first day but created the objects of light (sun, moon, and stars) on the fourth day, God Himself provides the light once more. To be more specific, God’s glory will be the light of all creation.

What is the significance of this? Why does John specify that the glory of God is the light? First, we should arrive at some level of understanding what glory means. Glory, when used in human terms within the Bible, is often linked to boasting. For me to glory in something means that I boast and celebrate its value and worth. Glory, therefore, seems to be related to the outward manifestation and celebration of an object. God’s glory (and His zeal for it throughout the Scriptures) is the visible display of God’s holiness.

The term holy is a description of God’s very Godhood. To be holy is to be distinct and different. We saw this distinction last week with John displaying the divinity of Christ by emphasizing that Jesus was never created. God alone is the Creator, and all other things are created. God alone is, thus, truly holy. Our holiness is secondhand, a marker of God reserving us exclusively for His purposes.

“God’s glory is the radiance of His holiness, the radiance of his manifold, infinitely worthy and valuable perfections” (Piper). His glory is the visible display of Himself and His presence. To say, therefore, that God’s glory will be our light means that God’s manifest presence is our light. The very light by which we behold all things will be the rays of beauty emanating from God being in our midst, which means that heaven, our eternal paradise, is not a gift from God; it is the very presence of God.

The significance of this eternal daylight is found in verses 3-4. The casting away of all darkness is symbolic for the removal of evil, sin, and all their effects. “And death shall be no more.” Pain will be vanquished because its use will have expired. Violence, disease, and mishaps will no longer be existent. Tears and mourning will be things of the past, distant memories lingering vaguely upon the horizon of eternity. “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Corinthians 5:17).

THE LIGHT OF THE NATIONS // VERSES 24-26

Although the description of the new world clothed with the light of God’s presence would be sufficient enough to arouse our longings for that day, John’s vision continues still. In verses 24-26, John beholds the nations bringing their glory into the New Jerusalem. What does this mean?

This is God pledging to fulfill His promises. Which promises, you might ask? For the sake of time, we will only focus on the Great Commission (although God’s promise to Abraham practically begs to be remembered as well). The mission and goal of Jesus’ church, the people of God, is to make disciples of all nations.

Recall that God’s purpose for the nation of Israel was to be a light for the other nations, a kingdom of priests. Yet Israel repeatedly failed at that job. Instead of influencing the world, they were constantly influenced by the world. This mission continues today through the church, the collective number of Jews and Gentiles who worship God through His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s people, therefore, is no longer a physical nation; rather, we are a spiritual nation within all the nations of the earth. And our goal is to keep expanding, to have disciples of Jesus within every single nation (or ethnicity).

This task is daunting. According to the Joshua Project, 41.5% of the world’s population remains unreached, which means that they “lack enough followers of Christ and resources to evangelize their own people.” With currently 7.6 billion people alive, this means that 3.14 billion have not heard the gospel and probably still do not even have a means of hearing it. Of the 17,014 people groups (or ethnicities) in the world, 7,063 remain unreached.

The Great Commission is far from complete. We have much work left to do. Jesus told us, “And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come” (Matthew 24:14), so that our wait for His return would not be a passive action. Instead, we reveal our longing for Christ’s second advent by proclaiming His good news to those who have yet to hear it.

This is Revelation’s message as well. Twice in the middle of the book are we called to endurance in our mission. “Here is a call for the endurance and faith of the saints” (13:10). “Hear is a call for the endurance of the saints, those who keep the commandments of God and their faith in Jesus” (14:21). This endurance of God’s people is found in the continued expansion of Christ’s kingdom, His church, despite the oppositions that come.

The nations bringing their glory into New Jerusalem is an assurance that the Great Commission will one day be complete. God’s plan will ultimately triumph, so we can have hope as we live through the process of their fulfillment now, a hope that springs us into confident action rather than comforting our sitting on the sidelines.

THE LAMB’S BOOK OF LIFE // VERSE 27

The chapter and our passage end by informing us of who is able to enter the New Jerusalem and partake in all of its glories: only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life. What is the Lamb’s book of life, and how can we know if we are written in it?

First, we must point out that Jesus is repeatedly referenced throughout Revelation as the Lamb, which is pointing to the Passover. As we’ve noted previously, the tenth plague upon the Egyptians in Exodus was the death of the firstborns. God once again differentiated between His people and the Egyptians by sparing the Israelites as long as they painted the doorposts of their homes with the blood of a lamb. This imagery was continued by God commanding the Israelites to sacrifice two lambs each day, one in the morning and the other in the evening (Exodus 29:38). The sacrificed lambs were meant to remind God’s people that they were only spared from God’s justified wrath at their sin because God willingly accepted innocent blood instead.

Of course, the blood of lambs was never sufficient to cover sin. A greater sacrifice needed to be made, and Jesus was that sacrifice. Freely suffering an unjust death on the cross, Christ’s divine and innocent blood now perfectly cleanses our sins. Jesus, therefore, is the Lamb that was slain, the One who rescued His people by His own blood.

The people saved by Christ’s sacrifice have their names written in the Lamb’s book of life. Whether that book is literal or symbolic, it is essentially the full listing of the universal church. It contains the name of every follower of Christ who ever lived. And access to New Jerusalem is their exclusive right. They are able to enter because in Christ, they are no longer unclean, detestable, and false. They are clothed in the righteousness of Jesus Himself, which offers them unfettered entrance into the presence of God’s glory.

Does that describe you?

Make no mistake, even though those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life are never blotted out, the assurance of that inheritance is only found through daily walking with Christ. Do not place your hope in a decision made or a prayer prayed once upon a time. The Lamb’s book is a book of the living, and the evidence of life is a heartbeat, not a birth certificate.

Place your hope in your walk with Christ today, and do the same thing for as long as breath still fills your lungs. Then when you breathe that last breath, commit it in faith to Lord’s steadfast love that endures forever.

Revelation 22:17 | The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price.

Jesus Christ, the water of life, is free for the taking, but doing so means admitting our neediness and insufficiency. It means losing your life in order to find it. Bring your own glory and honor and lay them down at the feet of Christ. God’s glory is infinitely better.

THE STORY CONCLUDED

At Christ’s second coming, we will watch the final chapters of the Bible unfold into reality before our very eyes. Toward this destination, our brothers and sisters in the faith have looked for two thousand years in the midst of triumphs and failures, crowns and swords, laughter and tears, joy and sorrow. We stand upon their shoulders with faces likewise set toward our Lord’s return. Let us, therefore, work as they worked, repent as they repented, and die as they died. May we wait upon the return of Jesus with hands set to the plow.

Throughout Advent, we’ve been tracing the storyline of the Bible and of humanity, but this is where our story will end. But that ending is also a new beginning, the beginning of a story beyond what can be captured in our tiny thoughts and words. Yet Lewis seems to come the closest with his final paragraph of the Narnia series:

And as He spoke, He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before. (The Last Battle, 228)

Revelation 22:20 says, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’” And we shout with alongside John and all of our brothers and sisters throughout time: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

The True Light | John 1:1-18

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, the gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.

John 1:1-18 ESV

 

After spending three weeks in the Old Testament studying the hints and promises of Christ’s coming, we now focus our attention upon the incarnation of Jesus. Although the life of Jesus is told four times in the Gospels, each brings a unique and complementary perspective on the long-awaited Savior. John’s Gospel is particularly interested in the glorious truth of Christ’s eternal divinity becoming human. Our text, John’s prologue, turns our attention toward this wondrous mystery.

THE STORY CONTINUED…

In our previous study, we briefly explained the timeline of events between Isaiah’s lifetime and the coming of Jesus; however, it can’t hurt to rehearse them again.

After being used to foretell Israel’s destruction by the Assyrian Empire, Isaiah most likely lived long enough to see the LORD’s promise fulfilled. Known for their terror tactics, the Assyrians left the northern kingdom in ruins with much of the population either slaughtered or forced into slavery. While Judah manages to postpone such a defeat for a few more generations, the Babylonian Empire eventually leaves Jerusalem as little more than rubble.

But just as the Babylonians replaced the Assyrians, so the Persians conquered the Babylonians. Providentially Cyrus the Great issued an edict authorizing many exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem for the purpose of rebuilding the city and the temple.

Soon Persia fell to the military brilliance of the young Alexander the Great. After conquering the known world, Alexander died suddenly without leaving a successor to his throne; his empire, therefore, was divided into four kingdoms led by four of his generals (the Kingdoms of Ptolemy, Cassander, Lysimachus, and Seleucus).

For nearly three hundred years, Jerusalem is captured and recaptured by Seleucids (basically Persia) and the Ptolemies (Egypt). This tug-o-war ended when Rome began its lengthy time as king of the hill. Despite appointing Herod the Great as king of the Jews (although raised under Judaism, his Jewish lineage is pretty questionable), the Hebrews repeatedly revolted against the vastly superior might of Rome.

Yet empires don’t stand for hundreds of years by being nice, and Rome was no exception. To the Romans we owe much of our Western heritage, yet their brutality should not be quickly ignored. Many historians argue that Rome’s endurance was largely the result of two implementations: roads and crucifixions. The cross was as much a warning as it was an instrument of torture, an easily arranged punishment for any dissent against Roman security.

But the massive construction of highways also proved threatening to the Jews. As travel became easier so did the spreading of ideas. Religious pluralism was the sign of the times, one which the Israelites repeatedly rejected to their sorrow.

This was the setting of the birth of Christ. As the Son of God came into the world, Augustus sat upon a global throne proclaiming himself the son of god. Physical and spiritual oppressors circled about them. They were shrouded in darkness. Where was the light God promised, the Savior-King, David’s son? No prophet had uttered even a word in four hundred years. Perhaps God had forgotten them altogether. Maybe the light would never come.

IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD (WHO IS JESUS?)

John’s Gospel is unique to say the least. Matthew, Mark, and Luke bear so many similarities that they are often called the Synoptic Gospels. John is the odd duck of the bunch, and the evidence for this can been seen from its opening words. The Synoptics begin by grounding Jesus in reality. Matthew opens with Jesus’ Davidic lineage. Mark dives straight into the ministries of Jesus and John the Baptist. Luke cites his journalistic intensions for composing a biography of Christ.

John, however, doesn’t so much ground Jesus in reality as ground reality in Jesus. Verse 1 makes this clear by pointedly tying the story of Jesus to the first verse of Genesis. The words in the beginning should ring through our ears with awe at the God who formed all of existence out of nothing. He who made the heavens and the earth must rightfully be worshipped as the Creator of all things.

But that’s the end of that story, right?

Didn’t we, after all, already tell that story?

What more is there to say about creation?

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. We could spend an entire sermon (and may one day) attempting to mine the depths of this verse, but let us attempt to be brief at the present.

As John’s Gospel continues, it becomes quite clear that Jesus is the Word being described in this verse. This designation is important in several ways. First, the Greek word for Word is logos, which was an essential concept for many Hellenistic philosophies. Gregory Hays attempts to explain logos as such:

The term (from which English “logic” and the suffix “-logy” derive) has a semantic range so broad as to be almost untranslatable. At a basic level it designates rational, connected thought—whether envisioned as a characteristic (rationality, the ability to reason) or as the product of that characteristic (an intelligible utterance or a connected discourse). Logos operates both in individuals and in the universe as a whole. In individuals it is the faculty of reason. On a cosmic level it is the rational principle that governs the organization of the universe. (Meditations, xx)

Such a belief would be impossible for John to be ignorant of, so there seems to be a sense in which he is pointing to Jesus as the true logos, not a passionless principle but a person.

Second, Jesus as the Word provides greater revelation (although, crucially, not a different one) of how God created all things. In Genesis 1:3, God formed light by speaking it into existence. The pattern continues through day six. Creation is created by the words of God or, as John now reveals, by the Word of God. God the Father ordained an item of creation, which then came into being through Jesus.

What then does this tell us about who Jesus is?

Jesus is both the same as and distinct from the God the Father. That is the paradox of the second and third phrases of verse 1. Jesus was both with God and was God. Before the universe was formed, Jesus existed alongside God as a distinct person, yet He was eternally God as well. Jesus is not the same person as the God the Father, yet He is also not a second God. Only one God exists (Deuteronomy 6:4), and Jesus and Father (and the Holy Spirit) are that singular God. Welcome to the mystery of the Trinity, ladies and gentlemen.

In no uncertain terms, John is magnifying the divinity of Christ. Jesus is God. Period. Any attempt to grasp the significance of Jesus’ life must begin with this fundamental truth. Jesus is the Word through Whom the world was made. He is the Creator, with all its rights and privileges. Jesus is the God we described in Genesis 1.

THE TRUE LIGHT (WHAT DID JESUS COME TO DO?)

Yet John is not content to simply tell us who Jesus is; he also reveals why Jesus came to earth: to pierce the darkness as the true light. Like the Egyptians and the Israelites, humanity has long been under the darkness of God’s judgment because of sin. This darkness can easily be felt, a darkness so thick that it seems to overcome light. We see such darkness in people being left to their own devices. We see it in systematic pillaging and raping of villages and villagers. We see it in the abduction of toddlers for organ harvesting or sex slavery. We see it in the crushed skulls and dismembered bodies of late-term abortions. It’s visible in parents who abandon their families or abuse their children. It floods the Internet with the defilement and slander of God’s images. It cries out of every heart for more, more gossip, more things, more money, more sex, more food, more drink. The world is dark. If you don’t think so, it’s probably because you haven’t glimpsed the light in order to know the difference.

Sin is self-destruction, and God often judges sin by simply not interfering. After all, the fruit of sin is death, and we each deserve it. We constantly reject God in order to follow our own desires. We exalt ourselves as supreme, relegating God to being our sidekick at best and our enemy at worst. We attempt to force the Creator to submit to our will instead of submitting to His. This prideful arrogance is the human condition; no one is the exception. We deserve to be abandoned by God. We deserve death. We deserve the darkness of His judgment.

Yet God did not abandon us. Jesus, the eternal Word and the true light, came to pierce the darkness of sin. He came to give life in the midst of death’s reign. Like God saved the Israelites from the Egyptians, Jesus came to rescue His people. He came to break the rod of their oppressors, to bring joy and peace, to dispel the darkness with His light. Jesus came to save those who committed treason against His throne.

THE WORD BECAME FLESH (HOW DID JESUS DO IT?)

Jesus is God Himself, who came to save those who repeatedly rejected and rebelled against Him. That is gloriously good news, but we must still ask the question of how. How did Jesus save His people from their sins?

He did it by becoming flesh and dwelling among us. The eternal Holy One became human. Divinity became (literally) personified. God became man. Consider the anew the wonder of the incarnation. At His conception, Jesus did not cease to be God. The fullness of His deity was maintained, which is good for us since the unraveling of the cosmos is not exactly ideal. And yet Jesus was also entirely human, flesh, blood, neurotransmitters, and all.

This incarnation was absolutely necessary for solving the problem of sin. Since our sins were against the eternal God, they necessitate an eternal judgment. Physical death does not wipe our slate clean, only an eternal, spiritual death can achieve that. Our doom, therefore, is everlasting, an infinite debt to which we must continue making payments. The glory of the God-man enters this bad news. As man, Jesus was able to do what we could not: live in perfect obedience to God. As God, when Jesus was crucified in our place, His infinite worth paid entirely our infinite debt. This substitutionary atonement pulls us from the darkness of God’s judgment into the marvelous light of His grace. Indeed, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Verse 12 gives us the unbelievable application of that grace: those who believe in Christ’s name have the right to be become children of God. Because of Jesus, the only Son of God dying in our place, we are now adopted as God’s sons and daughters. We who attempted to usurp His throne are now welcomed into His family, the family of the Creator! The overwhelming terror of being the sovereign God’s enemy is now transformed into the incomprehensible joy of being His beloved child.

Notice also the emphasis of verse 13. God alone accomplish our transformation, our new birth. No flesh, no blood, and no will of man can save sinners from the righteous wrath of God. Only the broken flesh, spilled blood, and gracious will of Jesus Christ is sufficient. No amount of effort, good works, or good intentions can save us. We contribute nothing; Jesus did everything. This is good news. This is the good news.

But if Jesus did everything for us, why is the gospel so hard to believe?

Why does the world continue to reject the Word through Whom it was made?

One reason is that people love darkness instead of the light. Jesus told Nicodemus this very fact in John 3:19-21:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God.

The sad reality is that we are not forced to sin. We sin because we love sin. We love darkness, not the light. The human heart will often gladly live in hell so long as it bows to no one. We each chose hell, and we continue to do so whenever we sin. We willful reject God’s light in favor of the darkness of our own desires. Many, therefore, reject the light of the gospel of Christ because they will not be parted from their sin.

Another reason is that we want the glory of saving ourselves. Michael Lawrence identifies three ideas that actually form a false gospel: “an optimistic view of human beings, a domesticated view of God, and a view of religion as a means of moral self-reform” (Conversion, 19). Or to say it another way: “I can be good. God will be impressed. Religion will help” (20). Deep down, we desire self-help of religion because we want to save ourselves. Any honest person knows that they are sinful and broken, but even still, we often fail to see the utter hopelessness of our situation. With a little more discipline and control, we can change ourselves. We can grit our teeth and make ourselves good. Of course, we then get the glory of being the self-saved man. It’s the classic story of rags-to-riches only on an eternal scale.

But the gospel rejects that notion fundamentally. We are entirely incapable of saving ourselves, which is why Ephesians describes us as being dead in sin. The challenge of the gospel is to reject self, to lose your life in order to find it, to believe in Jesus’ name and become a child of God by walking away from the darkness of sin and into His light. May we walk in the light of His glorious grace, for it pierces the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.

The Light in the Darkness | Isaiah 9:1-7

 But there will be no gloom for her who was in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he has made glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations.

The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,
on them has light shone.
You have multiplied the nation;
you have increased its joy;
they rejoice before you
as with joy at the harvest,
as they are glad when they divide the spoil.
For the yoke of his burden,
and the staff for his shoulder,
the rod of his oppressor,
you have broken as on the day of Midian.
For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult
and every garment rolled in blood
will be burned as fuel for the fire.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Isaiah 9:1-7 ESV

 

As we continue to approach Christmas, we keep moving through the overall narrative of Scripture, centering upon the themes of light and darkness. Having seen that God is the Author of light and the controller of darkness, we now study one of the most pointed promises of Christ’s coming. Seven hundred years before Jesus was born, the prophet Isaiah prophesied that Christ’s coming would be like a light shining in the darkness, a light that would defeat the chaos of sin with the peace of God’s rule and reign. These verses are some of Isaiah’s most well-known. Verse 6, at least, is a classic Christmas Scripture reading. And why wouldn’t they be? God piercing the darkness with His own Son! As we traverse these powerful promises, may God give us a renewed joy at His mighty hand of salvation.

THE STORY CONTINUED

Having previously studied one of the plagues brought upon the Egyptians during the Exodus story, we will need once again to briefly explain the history leading up to our present text.

The hardness of Pharaoh’s heart was not broken until God slew the firstborns of Egypt in the tenth plague. Yet again God distinguished His people by having them paint their doorframes with the blood of a slaughtered lamb in order to be spared from the death which God brought. The Israelites were then released from Egypt to return to Canaan, the land promised to their patriarch Abraham.

After forty years of wandering in the wilderness because of their disobedience, Israel prepared to conquer the Promised Land under the leadership of Joshua, Moses’ right-hand man. The conquest served both to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham, while also bringing God’s judgment upon the peoples of Canaan (after all, God told Abraham that the sins of those peoples did not yet fully warrant judgment in his day).

Having settled in Canaan, the Israelites were led by a series of judges who acted as governmental representatives of God their king. Unfortunately, the people repeatedly rebelled against God’s sovereign rule. They rejected God, choosing instead to worship idols. God, therefore, brought another nation upon them as judgment. The Israelites then repented of their sin, and God graciously sent a new judge to rescue them. And so the process repeated.

Soon Israel began to compare themselves to the rest of the nations, demanding that God give them a king. God consented to this request. First, He provided them with Saul, a large and imposing man who seemed to be the perfect candidate. But Saul proved to be terrible king, so God instead placed a small-statured shepherd boy upon the throne, David.

Despite David’s all-too-human wrestle with sin, he repeatedly sought God’s face and repented of his sin. God, thus, called David a man after His own heart and gave him the glorious promise that his throne would last forever. God pledged that one of David’s descendants would reign everlastingly over all the earth.

But David’s son, Solomon, failed to be that king. Nor was Solomon’s son, Rehoboam. In fact, under Rehoboam’s folly, Israel was divided into two nations, Judah (composed of the two tribes that remained loyal to David’s blood, Judah and Benjamin) and Israel (the remaining ten tribes that rebelled and made Jeroboam their king).

Generally, the next several hundred years for Judah and Israel resembled the time of the judges: sin, judgment, repent, rescue, repeat. However, God would soon disturb that well-worn cycle. The LORD began sending prophets who warned that a judgment was coming that would no longer simply oppress the Israelites but destroy them. Isaiah was one such prophet. Although he was primarily a prophet to Judah, our text comes on the heels of his prophesy of Israel’s annihilation under the hand of Assyria, a judgment Isaiah would live to see. Into this context, we see the following promises.

THE PROMISE OF LIGHT // VERSES 1-5

Our text begins with a sharp contrast to the judgment promised in chapter eight. The word “but” gently urges us to read what came immediately before. Having pledged to bring the Assyrians upon the Israelites, God ends chapter eight with this bit of encouragement: “And they will look to the earth, but behold, distress and darkness, the gloom of anguish. And they will be thrust into thick darkness” (v. 22).

Side note: despite what many people think, the Bible is not a very Instagram-friendly book.

Yet after promising darkness and gloom, God immediately foretells hope upon the horizon. After a time of anguish, God would show grace again. He would make a glorious way (a path to salvation and hope) in the land of Galilee. There, among the Gentiles, God would shine a light into the darkness.

Let us consider just two major points from these first several of verses.

First, we must keep in mind that, in the immediate context, God brought the darkness upon the Israelites. Their darkness was the judgment of God upon them. In many ways, this emphasizes the seriousness of Israel’s sin. Although their darkness was metaphorical for the invasion of the Assyrians, it symbolically reveals that Israel was becoming Egypt. As they continued to reject God, they were becoming the very people that God rescued them from.

From this reality, we can remind ourselves of the great problem of sin: God’s wrath and judgment. While death (the fruit of sin) is an enemy, we must always remember that God brought death into the world in judgment upon our sin. And it was just of Him to do so. God’s character would not be perfect if He did not judge sin. He would not be entirely good if He allowed even one act of evil to go unpunished; to do so would be tantamount to saying that some sin really isn’t that bad. Either God is good and will judge all evil, or God is not good and tolerates some evil on a whim.

Fortunately, God is good, but unfortunately, that means that each sin deserves His eternal wrath. Even the smallest of sins is a cosmic treason against the Creator, a claim that we know better than the One who made us. God’s judgment, therefore, is the great problem of sin. Our transgressions turn us into enemies of God. Israel, God’s people, were in reality no better than the Egyptians or the Assyrians. Like all of humanity, they were sinners, rebels against the King of kings. The darkness of God’s judgment was justified. It was earned in full, and if we had any question for God, it should only be, “Why not sooner?”

Second, we must note that God is promising to bring light into the darkness of their judgment. What a gracious word from the offended God! Even though by their sin, Israel chose the darkness rather than the light; God stood ready to rescue them again. Just as, through Moses, God pulled the Hebrews out of their bondage to the Egyptians, He was preparing to liberate them once more. Verses 3-5 give three descriptions of God’s rescue.

First, God promises to increase the joy of the nation. God’s people, the holy nation set aside for Himself, will rejoice before Him like the rejoicing that comes when it’s time to harvest the crops, which were grown through sweat and toil. Such joy is the exact opposite of the anguish that God’s judgment would cause.

Second, God promises to break the rod of their oppressor. Drawing back upon God’s deliverance of the Israelites from their oppression under the Midianites, God pledges to set His people free once again. Yet the scope of this deliverance will be much greater, as described in verse 5.

Third, all equipment for warfare will be burned. Of course, this means that battle gear is no longer required. Peace will be permanent. God’s people will no longer need to defend themselves. God will have defeated their enemies once and for all.

These are glorious promises. God’s light would bring to them joy and peace, following the anguish and pain of God’s judgment upon them. Israel could cling to these words in the midst of their suffering as hope that God would one day turn their sorrow into joy.

THE PRINCE OF PEACE // VERSES 6-7

While the first five verses presented God’s overall promise, these two verses give a bit more detail as to how that promise would be fulfilled. Verses 1-2 revealed that God would make a way of light in Galilee of all places, but what would that way look like? How exactly was God intending to pierce the darkness?

God’s promise of salvation was found in a person. The light in the darkness would be a child, a son, a ruler and mighty king. He would be the descendant that God promised to David. This Savior would sit upon David’s throne, ruling over all the earth with an eternal kingdom. Isaiah has already given us one other name for this king, Immanuel (meaning God with us), but now he gives us four more names. Although we do not have the time to discuss in length each name, we must remember that, to the Hebrews, names reflect a person’s character. These, therefore, are not just honorific titles. They describe the very essence of the coming Savior.

First, He is called Wonderful Counselor. A counselor is someone who gives wise advice, someone who is worth listening to. The adjective wonderful literally means something that inspires wonder. The Savior, therefore, would be a majestic sage who perfectly embodied the wisdom of God.

Second, He is called Mighty God. While some have attempted to argue that Isaiah was using hyperbole to describe a person so great that they needed to be described in divine language, that line of thought is a stretch at best. As previously noted, Isaiah has already called the Savior’s name, Immanuel. Isaiah is clearly invoking the imagery of a God-King, which Israel had always rightfully rejected. Yet this Savior would be different. He would be the actual God-King, a man and yet also God.

Third, He is called Everlasting Father. The Savior, who is a son given by God, would also be named the Father Without End. Once again, this is obviously divine language. God alone is the Father of all things without end. How then can the son that He gives also be called Everlasting Father? As Jesus, the Son and Savior, would later explain, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). As the Word who was eternally with the Father, Jesus is the exact imprint of His nature (Hebrews 1:3); it is proper, therefore, to give Jesus the name Everlasting Father.

Fourth, He is called Prince of Peace. For the Hebrews, peace encompassed more than just the absence of war. Peace was the state of perfect existence, the world as it was meant to be. Peace is what we were made for, the nagging feeling in our gut that longs for something better than all of this. Peace is Eden, the garden of God. Peace is paradise, a cosmos uncorrupted by sin. The Savior’s reign as king would not only be marked by this peace; He is the Prince of Peace. Peace pours forth from the very essence of His being.

Each name reveals the character of the coming Savior. Of course, we recognize this Savior as Jesus of Nazareth, the Christ. After all, Jesus made quite similar claims about Himself, and He even performed most of His ministry in Galilee. So why didn’t the people of Israel whole-heartedly embrace Him as their long-awaited Redeemer?

Consider what would happen after Isaiah’s prophesy. The prophet probably lived to see his predicted judgment come to pass: Assyria obliterated Israel. Yet the kingdom of Judah continued for many more years, only to be crushed by the armies of Babylon. After the Persians replaced the Babylonians, a remnant rebuilt Jerusalem, but soon Alexander the Great conquered the known world, including Persia and Jerusalem. Alexander’s empire was divided into four kingdoms after his death, kingdoms that were soon swallowed up by the Roman behemoth. Thus, when Jesus was born, the Jews were still living under the yoke of their oppressors, which meant that they were looking for this conquering king who would bring peace to the earth. They gladly longed for the day when their Savior would bring all nations under His dominion.

But Jesus was different. He didn’t usurp the king, and He certainly didn’t depose Caesar. Jesus did not place the government upon His shoulders, nor did He usher in world peace. Instead, Jesus died a criminal’s death on a cross. To say that He didn’t exactly meet everyone’s expectations is kind of an understatement.

Why then do we believe that Jesus is the Savior prophesied of in this passage? As we learned in Genesis 1, God works through processes, and the work of Jesus is the greatest of all of God’s processes.

First, Jesus did break the yoke of the oppressor and bring joyful peace… just not how everyone was expecting. The Jews thought that the Savior would rescue them physically from the Roman Empire (like Moses did when they were in Egypt), but Jesus had an even greater exodus to accomplish. He targeted an enemy far deadlier than any one nation on earth. Jesus came to repair humanity’s fundamental problem: sin. He went for the root instead of focusing on limbs and branches. He treated the ailment, not just the symptoms. Jesus, as God made man, sacrificed Himself for the sins of humanity, taking the wrath of God for sin upon Himself. By His death, He broke the yoke and slavery of sin, and in Him, we can have endless joy and peace with God. And even now, Jesus is building His kingdom. Jesus’ church is a nation that runs throughout all the nations of the earth, and more are being added each day. It is multiplying, and there will be no end.

However, it is also important to remember that Jesus will one day return to complete this process physically. Soon, Jesus will come down from the heavens to make the earth His dwelling place. On that day, He will defeat eternally His enemies and complete the expansion of His kingdom. His government will be without end, and the earth’s peace will be plainly seen. Can you imagine it, a world where every single person loves and serves Jesus Christ as their physical King and Savior?

But we’re not there yet. Even as the gospel and the kingdom expand, wars and rumors of wars abound. Terrorist organizations continue to strike. Mad men continue to command nations with massive armaments. Tensions continue to rise. Pacts and treaties continue to deteriorate. Life is fragile, and people are sinful. Catastrophe will always be the result.

What hope then can we have? Pay attention to the final sentence of this prophesy: The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this. God Himself will ensure that all of this will be realized. Interestingly, the promises of verses 2-5 also show this security. While verses 6-7 clearly present the fulfillment as occurring in the future, Isaiah writes verses 2-5 in the past tense, which is a subtle way of saying that these promises are so certain that we might as well think of them as history. Just as God was faithful to send Jesus, so He will be faithful to come again. We must simply wait. We must trust in Him who will one day redeem us and the cosmos entirely. Until that day, we both pray and enact the expansion of Christ’s kingdom here and now.

By the Holy Spirit, we continue Jesus’ earthly ministry.

To those lost in the foolishness of sin, we present Jesus, the Wonderful Counselor.

To those whose life is chaos and ruin, we present Jesus, the Mighty God.

To those broken by the curse of sin, we present Jesus, the Everlasting Father.

To those with no hope, we present Jesus, the Prince of Peace.

Immanuel is still with us, even while we wait for Him to come again.

The Light of Salvation | Exodus 10:21-29

Then the Lord said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days, but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Then Pharaoh called Moses and said, “Go, serve the Lord; your little ones also may go with you; only let your flocks and your herds remain behind.” But Moses said, “You must also let us have sacrifices and burnt offerings, that we may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock also must go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind, for we must take of them to serve the Lord our God, and we do not know with what we must serve the Lord until we arrive there.” But the Lord hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he would not let them go. Then Pharaoh said to him, “Get away from me; take care never to see my face again, for on the day you see my face you shall die.” Moses said, “As you say! I will not see your face again.”

Exodus 10:21-29 ESV

 

Having witnessed the beginnings of both the biblical story and the themes of light and darkness, we now move forward in the narrative, jumping to Exodus. While the account of the Israelites’ rescue by the hand of God is well-known, we will fix our eyes upon a particular moment of that narrative: the ninth plague, darkness. Within this single moment of the battle between God and Pharaoh, we are able to further glimpse the significance of our themes of study.

THE STORY SO FAR

Before we can properly understand our present text, we need to fill in the gaps between Genesis 1:1-5 and here. After God created and ordered the cosmos, He made the first humans, Adam and Eve, making them the bearers of His own image and His stewards over the earth and its creatures. He commanded them to enjoy and cultivate the earth and to spread God’s image across the world by reproducing. A planet of pleasure was placed before them with only one prohibition: the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Wishing to become gods themselves, Adam and Eve ate the fruit, gaining experiential knowledge of what it meant to rebel against God. God’s judgment upon our fore-parents was swift but gracious. In the midst of the curses, God promised a savior, a serpent-crusher who would defeat sin, evil, and death.

And so, God’s stewards multiplied, spreading the Creator’s image that was now stained by sin. Within just a few generations, sin’s conquest of human hearts was such that God annihilated humanity from the earth with a flood. We exist today only because of God granting His grace to the family of Noah, sparing the eight of them alone from the deluge of His wrath.

But sin didn’t cease. As humanity grew strong again, they clustered together for the purpose of building a mighty tower to their greatness. This blatant disobedience to their Creator’s design was a mere recycling of the first sin, so God once again came down to bring judgment. Since they refused to fill the earth, God divided their languages to cause them to scatter, giving birth to different nations (or ethnicities).

Into this new landscape, God reached out to humanity again. God calls a man named Abraham to Himself, promising to form a great nation from his lineage, to bless all nations through him, and to give him the land of Canaan. Although Abraham and his wife were barren and beyond the years of child-bearing, he trusted God.

After Abraham’s death, his son and grandson (Isaac and Jacob) continue serving God and awaiting the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham. Jacob’s family is eventually taken down into Egypt due to the prosperity of his son, Joseph. Although he was sold into slavery by his older brothers, Joseph rose by the providence of God to Pharaoh’s right-hand man, and by the wisdom of God, he was able to rescue Egypt and his family from a severe famine.

While dwelling in Egypt, Jacob’s family grew. Generations passed by, and a new Pharaoh became threatened by these Israelites ever increasing numbers. He enslaved them, and Abraham’s descendants groaned to their God for salvation. Eventually God raised up Moses, a prophet through whom God would rescue His people. Through Moses, God challenges Pharaoh and the Egyptian gods by pouring out plagues upon their land. After enduring flies, sores, locusts, and many other horrors, God unleashes the ninth plague, a thick darkness upon the whole land. Upon the significance of this plague, we now turn our attention.

OF DARKNESS

While each plague upon the Egyptians was devastating, the latter ones are certainly the most horrific. Only the tenth plague, the death of the firstborns, can rival the terror of this one. Notice first God’s initial words describing the darkness that He will bring upon the Egyptians: a darkness to be felt. God apparently intended to redefine the concept of thick darkness. We tend to think of darkness as being an absence of light. Similar to coldness (which is the absence of heat), darkness is not an entity in and of itself; it is mere what is left behind whenever light is removed. While we instinctually understand this to be the norm, we also have the capacity to fear a different kind of darkness. We think of darkness as thick whenever darkness seems to have substance. Such deep darkness feels like an envelopment or swallowing of light, rather than merely its absence.

Terror is the proper response to such primordial chaos. Within it, we glimpse the horror of having the Creator’s hand of grace removed, of a disordered and rebellious cosmos. In a sense, then, God was providing the Egyptians with a tangible representation of sin, and they were right to fear. Moses says that no one rose from his place for those three days. What else could they do? Although they were all in darkness, it separated them from one another. They were all together alone. God left the entire nation to cower in the dark.

This scene is an interesting juxtaposition with God’s commanding of light in Genesis 1. There, God brought light into existence and established the division between the two elements. The darkness was a primordial chaos, an absence of light, and God was dispelling it away as He shaped His cosmos into order. His commanding of light, therefore, seems entirely natural. But here He is commanding the darkness as well. He is actively shrouding the Egyptians in un-light.

Doesn’t that seem as bit odd?

Of course, darkness itself, while symbolic of evil, is morally neutral like the rest of the plagues. Flies are often associated with death and decay, but they are not themselves wicked. God, as Creator, certainly reserves all rights to use the less than pleasant portions of creation as instruments of His judgment. Nothing strange there.

And yet we could consider the symbolic nature of darkness and ask how God relates to evil in general. How, for instance, are we to think of God’s sovereignty over all things, particularly the malevolence that exists in the world? Does God control evil like He controls the darkness here?

Such complex questions require complex answers, and so if we are not willing to entertain difficult answers then we should stop asking difficult questions. And much of the complexity revolves around the meaning of words. Do we mean by controlling evil that God is responsible for the evil actions? If so, then God is NOT in control of (or, we might say, the orchestrator of) evil. Or do we mean that God controls evil by limiting its presence and consequences and by ultimately using its effects for good? If so, then God is absolutely in control of evil.

God is sovereign over all things, even evil, yet He is not the Author of evil. He actively limits the presence and consequences of evil in the world. Without His common grace, we humans would have annihilated ourselves long ago. The mere existence of each person’s conscious severely decreases the base desires and impulses that would wreak havoc. Even Satan himself is kept on this leash. In the book of Job, Satan must ask God for permission to strike Job, and although God grants his request, He still sets the boundaries which Satan cannot cross.

We should take comfort in this truth. There is no evil in this world that God will not ultimately use for good, especially for His people (Romans 8:28). This by no means excuses evil deeds; instead, it magnifies the supremacy of God’s goodness. Yes, He continues to permit wickedness for now, but it will never have the final word. We can trust that even evil plays a role into God’s unfolding story of redemption.

A PEOPLE FOR HIS OWN POSSESSION

Verse 23 ends with a phrase that I must have always read but overlooked: but all the people of Israel had light where they lived. Throughout the plagues, God made a point of explicitly distinguishing between His people and the Egyptians, and that practice is continued here. This idea is repeated throughout the rest of the Old Testament. God’s people, Israel, are separated from the other nations, the Gentiles. In fact, nations and Gentiles are the same word in Hebrew. The division was so ingrained that much of the New Testament is concerned with how Jews and Gentiles are supposed to relate to one another in Christ.

But why did God make such a distinction?

The Israelites, as the descendants of Abraham, were the inheritors of the promises that God made to their ancestor. They were made God’s people by God’s pure grace. Think about it. The Creator could have called anyone from any place to be the patriarch of His people, but He chose Abraham. And in choosing Abraham, He also chose the nation of Israel. He is clear throughout the Scriptures that this choice was unilateral. The Israelites were not chosen for their greatness nor for their morality; instead, they repeatedly prove not to be those things. God chose them in an act of grace. He became their God by choosing to be their God, and even as they repeatedly reject Him, He continues to chase after them. God chose them; they did not choose God.

Yet does this unilateral act of God mean that He simply abandoned the other nations? Did He leave them to walk in the darkness of their ways, only granting salvation to the Israelites? Too many people (even Christians) believe that a disparity lies between the Old and New Testaments. In the Old Testament, God seems to only care for His people, while in the New Testament, God desires that all ethnicities should become followers of Christ.

Such a thought is nothing more than a misunderstanding. It is a reasonable misunderstanding, since most of the Jews failed to grasp it, but a misunderstanding, nonetheless. God’s plan was always to make the nations His people. Recall that God’s original design for humanity was to fill the earth with His image-bearers who would worship Him through stewarding His world. The Great Commission was a recommissioning of the First Commission. God’s design has never wavered, but its mode of expression has manifested differently throughout various ages.

God’s plan for making the Israelite’s into His people was for them to be a beacon of light unto the other nations. Consider God’s words to them in Exodus 19:5-6:

Now therefore, if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine; and you shall be to me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.’ These are the words that you shall speak to the people of Israel.

Israel was a holy nation, a people set apart exclusively for the glory and purposes of God. They were in all matters His people. But their status as God’s treasured possession was not so that they could develop a superiority complex over the rest of mankind. Instead, the Creator rightfully claimed the whole earth for His possession. Israel, therefore, was intended to be a kingdom of priests. Because priests acted as mediators between God and man, Israel’s responsibility was to lead the rest of the nations into loving worship of the one true God. They were to follow Israel’s example. But unfortunately, Israel repeatedly failed to offer a proper example of true worship to the nations. They constantly rejected the LORD, their God.

Through Jesus, God’s people came to be called by a new name: the church. Most in the early church also belonged to ethnic Israel, but the balance quickly shifted as the message of God’s grace spread across the globe. Today, the vast majority of the God’s people are adopted into Abraham’s family, while many of the patriarch’s biological descendants are willfully disavowing their inheritance. If the church’s fulfillment of Israel’s function was not clear enough, listen to Peter’s message to us:

1 Peter 2:9 | But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.

We are a new race of people within the overall race of humanity, a new ethnicity. We are the kingdom of royal priests, ready to lead others to the living God. We are a holy nation, a nation within the nations of the world, with a common heavenly citizenship. We are God’s treasured possess, His people. And He is our God.

Before God called him, Abraham dwelt in the darkness of sin, much more insidious than the physical plague that was brought upon the Egyptians. God brought the man of faith out of darkness so that God’s marvelous light might be displayed through him. Likewise, God’s light upon the Israelites was meant to contrast the darkness upon the Egyptians. Through His people, God revealed Himself to the Egyptians as the Most High God, the God who easily dismantled their deities, but the Egyptians continued to dwell in darkness, rejecting God’s light.

The distinction between those who belong to God and those who do not is not to be made light-heartedly. It is a deathly serious matter to claim that most people in the world are children of the darkness instead of the light. But the distinction must be made. God’s people cannot attempt clothing themselves in darkness so as not to make others uncomfortable. Light stings eyes that are accustomed to the dark. In the light, deeds are exposed, but they can be hidden under the cover of darkness. Men, therefore, love the darkness rather than the light.

The light is truly marvelous, but countless image-bearers will freely choose the dark instead. Even still, we must proclaim God’s excellencies. We must shine as lights in the world. We must reach into the darkened crevices, knowing that many will wander further still away from the light. We are God’s people, saved by the grace of the Most High; let us, therefore, fulfill our commission by filling the earth with more who will joyfully walk in His light.

 

 

Let There Be Light! | Genesis 1:1-5

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.

And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. And God saw that the light was good. And God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Genesis 1:1-5 ESV

 

We begin this season of Advent by going back to the very beginning, the creation of all things. In Genesis 1, we meet the Author of all existence, God the Creator. Because the miracle of the incarnation (the first advent of Jesus) is all about God becoming man, we must spend time gazing upon the holiness of God in order to grasp even a fraction of the significance of Christ’s birth.

Let’s be honest right from the start: these verses can be taught from an infinite number of angles. In fact, I’ve already preached through them once before. Our focus, therefore, will be far from exhaustive; instead, I desire to structure our study around three questions, from which we will derive points of application as well.

WHO IS GOD?

This question is easy to ignore, to bypass on our way to deeper discussions. However, God is not merely our subject; He is the very context of our discussion.

What exactly does this mean?

First, we see that God is the subject of this text. He is the only person performing actions here, and, as the rest of the Bible makes clear, He is the ultimate and primary protagonist of Scripture. People like Moses, Abraham, and David play crucial roles in the storyline of the Bible, but they remain secondary characters. God Himself is the hero of the Bible, no one else.

This, of course, should impact how we are meant to read the Bible. Scripture is not a self-help manual, a history book, nor many of the other ways people often think of it (although it does contain elements of those things). God’s Word is, rather, the revelation of Himself to us. The Bible primarily shows us God, which includes for what purpose He made us, how we rejected Him, and how He rescued us from our rebellion. Reading the Bible will certainly always apply to you, but it is not about you. It’s about God.

But God is not only the Bible’s main subject; He is also its context. Notice that in Genesis 1:1 God creates everything. The phrase the heavens and the earth is a merism (much like searching high and low for something) that means everything that exists. So if something exists, God made it. This means that God began the beginning but was never begun Himself. Side note: meditating in your bed on truths like this will probably give you that slightly dizzying sensation that kind of feels like looking out over the edge of a cliff. Existence itself is dependent upon God for its being. As people who exist, we are dependent upon God for continuing to be. The Apostle Paul rightly applies these words of a pagan poet to our relationship to the one true God: “In him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). God is the context for both our study and the Bible’s story because we can only read these words from Him, by Him, and through Him.

Of course, all of this is just a more complicated way of saying that God is the Creator. He is the Author, not only of the Bible, but of soft-shelled crabs, trees, the color spectrum, and everything else. He stands outside of time as the One who eternally is, without both beginning and end. Beside Him stand no equals. He alone is supreme, holy. He is God, and there are no others. As Creator, He began creation, and He will ultimately judge all His creatures.

Consider the reality of what this means. You are not a god. You are a creature created by God. You, therefore, do not know what is best for your life or how to be fulfilled; God does. He designed you, so He knows how you are meant to live and function. And particularly if you are inclined to reject the claims of the Bible, consider what even the possibility of this God existing would mean. If there were even the slightest chance that this Creator is real, would it not be advantageous to investigate these matters further?

WHAT IS THE SIGNIFICANCE OF LIGHT AND DARKNESS?

On the first day of creation, God brings light into creation establishing day and night. Like almost everything else in the first eleven chapters of Genesis, these two concepts are a reoccurring theme throughout the Bible. The light and darkness here are literal, yet as they continue to be used, we begin to understand their symbolic significance. Allen Ross clarifies this point:

It is natural light, physical light; but its much more. The Bible shows again and again that light and darkness signify mutually exclusive realms, especially spiritual matters of good and evil. Through Scripture light is the realm of God and the righteous; darkness is the domain of the Evil One and death. Light represents that which is holy, pure, true, life-giving, and gladdening. (108)

It is no small thing that we are more at ease in the light. By light, we are able to see whatever is around us, surveying and understanding our environment. Because of this, light is also often symbolic for knowledge, while ignorance is represented by darkness.

Yet this first act of creation also provides a further glimpse at answering our first question. In 1 John 1:5, we learn that “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all.” God brings light into the creation because He is light. His very presence chases away darkness, so it is only natural for Him to begin creation by forming light. As if to emphasize that light flows from Him, the creation of the sun, moon, and stars (objects that give light) does not occur until day four.

WHY WAS THERE DARKNESS IN GENESIS 1:2?

Our final question is certainly one of the most intriguing from the creation account. If God, who is light, makes light on the first day, why was there already darkness in verse 2? The attempted answers for what exactly is happening in verse 2 are multitude.

The gap theory is particularly popular, which posits that a large gap of time exists between verses 1 and 2. Satan’s rebellion in heaven occurred during this time period, and the ensuing heavenly battle left creation in the condition of verse 2.

Although the gap theory quite possibly might be the correct answer, I lean towards the idea that verse 2 describes the raw state of the world from when God began to create in verse 1. Indeed, verse 2 has a chaotic undertone, while the remainder of the chapter centers around God bringing order from chaos.

But why would God create the cosmos in a state of disorder and chaos just to put it into order over the span of one week? Of course, we know that God could have created everything in working order in an instant, no days of creation required. But He didn’t. He chose to create through a process, which can only mean that it is significant. It is not a stretch, therefore, to view God as creating the world disordered and primordial, so that He could shape it properly. In fact, this is God’s mode of operations throughout the rest of the Bible too (even from chapter one, He is revealing to us His character). Consider God’s promise to give Abraham the Promised Land, which was only fulfilled more than four hundred years later by his descendants under the leadership of Joshua. Or think of David’s long road to being king after being anointed by Samuel as a boy. Our own salvation is quite another process, as we struggle through the already-not-yet of both wrestling with and being freed from sin. We see this in nature as well (i.e. photosynthesis and the water cycle). The examples are endless because God works through processes.

This also explains why our obsession with instant gratification, deep down, feels so wrong. Sin corrupts our desires, making our wants prone to contradict God’s perfect design. We long to escape the systems that God designed, which is just a repackaging of the first sin.

But back to the original question: why was darkness present in verse 2? I believe it is to show that God is the dispeller of darkness. Here He forms light and establishes the division between darkness and light, but in our final sermon, we will see God dispel darkness completely. Creation begins with no light but ends with no darkness. This is the Creator’s plan. This is the good news.

Unfortunately, God’s dispelling of darkness is also a problem for us since Adam and Eve plunge the world into deeper chaos in Genesis 3. That chapter tells how our ancestors rejected God’s glorious design for creation. While God made them His stewards, exercising dominion over the earth, they wanted to be like God Himself. They attempted to usurp God’s throne, and because of that sin, we and all of creation have become corrupt and broken. We now follow the same pattern. We sin. We reject God’s design, choosing instead our own wants and desires. We elevate ourselves above the God who formed us from the dust and breathed life into our bones. This is folly defined, the rejecting of light in favor of the dark.

Fortunately, God would not leave us to grope about in the dark. He would come to rescue His people. During Advent, we celebrate the glorious coming of God in the person of Jesus Christ. By becoming human (while still retaining His divinity), Jesus walked the earth as the second Adam, the perfect human who (unlike Adam) rejected each opportunity to sin. He walked the earth, drawing some into His light, while others shrank away further into the dark. Then, at the end of His life, He willing submitted Himself over to death, suffering the righteous wrath of God in our place, and after rising from the dead, He freely grants us His righteousness.

This is the gospel, the good news and grand message of the Bible. This is the story that God has been telling from the beginning. Like the primordial chaos of creation’s beginning, God made us knowing that we would sin. Even before He said, “Let there be light”, the advent of Jesus was planned. This is His story, His process of creation and redemption, the revealing to His people His glory and splendor, His justice and wrath, His grace and mercy, His love and His compassion.

 

Why Advent?

The Bible is a story. In fact, it is the Story, the true myth, the architype that is woven into who we are as people. It is the story that we all long for, even those who have yet to hear it and those who reject it. It’s the story that we continue telling. The story of a paradise lost, of brokenness in need of repair, of betrayal and treason, of rescue and redemption. It’s our story, the story of Who made us, what went wrong, and how He fixed it and will fix it permanently.

Advent is intrinsicately about that story. Meaning coming or arrival, Advent is typically used to refer to the miracle of the incarnation of Jesus Christ, the moment when God came down to rescue His people from the plague that we wrought upon creation: sin. That infant in a manger some two thousand years ago was God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God.

God became man. Divinity and humanity mysteriously complete in person of Jesus of Nazareth.

Without this advent, the rest of the story collapses. The crucifixion, resurrection, and salvation all hinge upon Jesus being both God and man, the perfect high priest and only true mediator between the Creator and His rebellious creatures.

The season of Advent is an opportunity to immerse ourselves once again in the Story, to marvel anew at the sheer audacity of God’s plan, to be awestruck once more by the vast treasure of our redemption.

But it is also a time to refresh our anticipation for Christ’s return, the second advent. The decisive battle was won on the cross, but the war has yet to conclude. Like the Old Testament saints, we await still our coming King.

May the LORD, thus, draw you into a deepened sense of wonder over Christ’s incarnation and gospel this Advent.

May you long for Christ’s return with same confident anticipation as those who eagerly awaited His first coming.