Solid Joys – Daily Devotionals by John Piper
Resources from the ministry of John Piper.
Rendering service with a good will as to the Lord and not to man, knowing that whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord, whether he is a bondservant or is free. (Ephesians 6:7–8)
Consider these five things from Ephesians 6:7–8 in connection to your job.
1) A call to radically Lord-centered living.
This is astonishing compared to the way we usually live. Paul says that all our work should be done as work for Christ, not for any human supervisor. With good will render service “as to the Lord and not to man.”
This means that we will think of the Lord in what we are doing at work. We will ask, Why would the Lord like this done? How would the Lord like this done? When would the Lord like this done? Will the Lord help me to do this? What effect will this have for the Lord’s honor? In other words, being a Christian means radically Lord-centered living and working.
2) A call to be a good person.
Lord-centered living means being a good person and doing good things. Paul says, “With a good will [render service] . . . whatever good anyone does.” Jesus said that when we let our light shine, men will see our “good works” and give glory to our Father in heaven (Matthew 5:16).
3) Power to do a good job for inconsiderate earthly employers.
Paul’s aim is to empower Christians, with Lord-centered motives, to go on doing good for supervisors who are not considerate. How do you keep on doing good in a job when your boss ignores you or even criticizes you? Paul’s answer is: stop thinking about your boss as your main supervisor, and start working for the Lord. Do this in the very duties given to you by your earthly supervisor.
4) Encouragement that nothing good is done in vain.
Perhaps the most amazing sentence of all is this: “Whatever good anyone does, this he will receive back from the Lord.” This is amazing. Everything! “Whatever good anyone does.” Every little thing you do that is good is seen and valued and rewarded by the Lord.
And he will pay you back for it. Not in the sense that you have earned anything — as if you could put him in your debt. He owns you, and everything in the universe. He owes us nothing. But he freely, graciously chooses to reward us for all the good things done in faith.
5) Encouragement that insignificant status on earth is no hindrance to great reward in heaven.
The Lord will reward every good thing you do — “whether he is a bondservant or is free.” Your supervisor may think you are a nobody — a mere bondservant, so to speak. Or he may not even know you exist. That doesn’t matter. The Lord knows you exist. And in the end no faithful service will be in vain.
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit” — yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. (James 4:13–16)
James is talking about pride and arrogance and how they show up in subtle ways. “You boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil.”
When you take three categories of temptation to self-reliance — wisdom, power, and riches — they form a powerful inducement toward the ultimate form of pride; namely, atheism. The safest way for us to stay supreme in our own estimation is to deny anything above us.
This is why the proud preoccupy themselves with looking down on others. C.S. Lewis said, “A proud man is always looking down on things and people: and, of course, as long as you are looking down, you cannot see something that is above you” (Mere Christianity).
But to preserve pride, it may be simpler to just proclaim that there is nothing above to look at. “In the pride of his face the wicked does not seek him; all his thoughts are, ‘There is no God’” (Psalm 10:4). Ultimately, the proud must persuade themselves that there is no God.
One reason for this is that God’s reality is overwhelmingly intrusive in all the details of life. Pride cannot tolerate the intimate involvement of God in running the universe, let alone the detailed, ordinary affairs of life.
Pride does not like the sovereignty of God. Therefore, pride does not like the existence of God, because God is sovereign. It might express this by saying, “There is no God.” Or it might express it by saying, “I am driving to Atlanta for Christmas.”
James says, “Don’t be so sure.” Instead, you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live, and we will get to Atlanta for Christmas.”
James’s point is that God rules over whether you get to Atlanta, and whether you live to the end of this devotional. This is extremely offensive to the self-sufficiency of pride — not even to have control over whether you get to the end of the devotional without having a stroke!
James says that not believing in the sovereign rights of God to manage the details of your future is arrogance.
The way to battle this arrogance is to yield to the sovereignty of God in all the details of life, and rest in his infallible promises to show himself mighty on our behalf (2 Chronicles 16:9), to pursue us with goodness and mercy every day (Psalm 23:6), to work for those who wait for him (Isaiah 64:4), and to equip us with all we need to live for his glory (Hebrews 13:21).
In other words, the remedy for pride is unwavering faith in God’s sovereign future grace.
Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:28)
What must you do so that you may know that your sins are taken away by the blood of Christ, and that, when he comes, he will shield you from the wrath of God and bring you into eternal life? The answer is this: Trust Christ in a way that makes you eager for him to come.
The text says he is coming to save those who are “eagerly waiting for him.” So how do you get ready? How do you experience the forgiveness of God in Christ and prepare to meet him? By trusting him in a way that makes you eager for him to come.
This eager expectation for Christ is simply a sign that we love him and believe in him — really believe in him, authentically.
There is a phony faith that wants only escape from hell, but has no desire for Christ. That kind of faith does not save. It does not produce an eager expectation for Christ to come. In fact, it would rather that Christ not come for as long as possible, so that it can have as much of this world as possible.
But the faith that really holds on to Christ as Savior and Lord and Treasure and hope and joy is the faith that makes us long for Christ to come. And that is the faith that saves.
So I urge you, turn from the world, and from sin. Turn to Christ. Receive him, welcome him, embrace Christ not just as your fire insurance policy, but as your eagerly awaited Treasure and Friend and Lord.
“Do you think that you can reprove words, when the speech of a despairing man is wind?” (Job 6:26)
In grief and pain and despair, people often say things they otherwise would not say. They paint reality with darker strokes than they will paint it tomorrow, when the sun comes up. They sing in minor keys, and talk as though that is the only music. They see clouds only, and speak as if there were no sky.
They say, “Where is God?” Or: “There is no use to go on.” Or: “Nothing makes any sense.” Or: “There’s no hope for me.” Or: “If God were good, this couldn’t have happened.”
What shall we do with these words?
Job says that we do not need to reprove them. These words are wind, or literally “for the wind.” They will be quickly blown away. There will come a turn in circumstances, and the despairing person will waken from the dark night, and regret hasty words.
Therefore, the point is, let us not spend our time and energy reproving such words. They will be blown away of themselves on the wind. One need not clip the leaves in autumn. It is a wasted effort. They will soon blow off of themselves.
Oh, how quickly we are given to defending God, or sometimes the truth, from words that are only for the wind. If we had discernment, we could tell the difference between the words with roots and the words blowing in the wind.
There are words with roots in deep error and deep evil. But not all grey words get their color from a black heart. Some are colored mainly by the pain, the despair. What you hear is not the deepest thing within. There is something real and dark within where they come from. But it is temporary — like a passing infection — real, painful, but not the true person.
So, let us learn to discern whether the words spoken against us, or against God, or against the truth, are merely for the wind — spoken not from the soul, but from the sore. If they are for the wind, let us wait in silence and not reprove. Restoring the soul, not reproving the sore, is the aim of our love.
But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus. (Ephesians 2:4–6)
The decisive act of God in conversion is that he “made us alive together with Christ” even when “we were dead in our trespasses.” In other words, we were dead to God. We were unresponsive; we had no true spiritual taste or interest; we had no spiritual eyes for the beauties of Christ; we were simply dead to all that ultimately matters.
Then God acted — unconditionally — before we could do anything to be fit vessels of his presence. He made us alive. He sovereignly awakened us from the sleep of spiritual death, to see the glory of Christ (2 Corinthians 4:4). The spiritual senses that were dead, miraculously came to life.
Ephesians 2:4 says that this was an act of “mercy.” That is, God saw us in our deadness and pitied us. God saw the terrible wages of sin leading to eternal death and misery. “God, being rich in mercy . . . made us alive.” And the riches of his mercy overflowed to us in our need. But what is so remarkable about this text is that Paul breaks the flow of his own sentence in order to insert, “by grace you have been saved.” “God . . . made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — and raised us up with him.”
Paul is going to say this again in verse 8. So why does he break the flow of his own sentence in order to add it here? What’s more, the focus is on God’s mercy responding to our miserable plight of deadness; so why does Paul go out of his way to say that it is also by grace that we are saved?
I think the answer is that Paul recognizes that here is a perfect opportunity to emphasize the freeness of grace. As he describes our dead condition before conversion, he realizes that dead people can’t meet conditions. If they are to live, there must be a totally unconditional and utterly free act of God to save them. This freedom is the very heart of grace.
What act could be more one-sidedly free and non-negotiated than one person raising another from the dead! This is the meaning of grace.
Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted. (Hebrews 12:3)
One of the most remarkable capacities of the human mind is the capacity to direct its own attention to something it chooses. We can pause and say to our minds, “Think about this, and not that.” We can focus our attention on an idea or a picture or a problem or a hope.
It is an amazing power. I doubt that animals have it. They are probably not self-reflective, but rather governed by impulse and instinct.
Have you been neglecting this great weapon in the arsenal of your war against sin? The Bible calls us again and again to use this remarkable gift. Let’s take this gift off the shelf, and dust it off, and put it to use.
For example, Paul says in Romans 8:5–6, “Those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, set their minds on the things of the Spirit. For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace” (my translation).
This is stunning. What you set your mind on determines whether the issue is life or death.
Many of us have become far too passive in our pursuit of change and wholeness and peace. I have the feeling that in our therapeutic age we have fallen into the passive mindset of simply “talking through our problems” or “dealing with our issues” or “discovering the roots of our brokenness in our family of origin.”
But I see a much more aggressive, non-passive approach to change in the New Testament. Namely, set your mind. “Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2).
Our emotions are governed in large measure by what we consider — what we dwell on with our minds. For example, Jesus told us to overcome the emotion of anxiety by what we consider: “Consider the ravens. . . . Consider the lilies” (Luke 12:24, 27).
The mind is the window of the heart. If we let our minds constantly dwell on the dark, the heart will feel dark. But if we open the window of our mind to the light, the heart will feel the light.
Above all, this great capacity of our minds to focus and consider is meant for considering Jesus (Hebrews 12:3). So, let’s do this: “Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.”
Anything that becomes visible is light. Therefore it says, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” (Ephesians 5:14)
When Jesus commanded Lazarus to rise from the dead, how did he obey that command? John 11:43 says, “He [Jesus] cried out with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out.’” That was a command to a dead man. The next verse says, “The man who had died came out, his hands and feet bound with linen strips” (John 11:44).
How did Lazarus do that? How does a dead man obey a command to live again? The answer seems to be: The command carries the power to create new life. Obedience to the command means doing what living people do.
This is extremely important. The command of God, “Rise from the dead!” carries in it the power we need to obey it. We do not obey it by creating that life. We obey it by doing what living people do — Lazarus came forth. He rose. He walked out to Jesus. The call of God creates life. We respond in the power of what the call creates.
In Ephesians 5:14, Paul says, “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will shine on you.” How do you obey a command to wake up from sleep? If your house has poisonous carbon monoxide in it, and someone cries out, “Wake up! Save yourself! Get out!” you don’t obey by waking yourself up. The loud, powerful command itself wakes you up. You obey by doing what wakeful people do in the face of danger. You get up and leave the house. The call creates the waking. You respond in the power of what the call created — wakefulness.
I believe this is the explanation for why the Bible says paradoxical things about new birth; namely, that we must get ourselves new hearts, but that it is God who creates the new heart. For example:
Deuteronomy 10:16: “Circumcise your heart!”
Deuteronomy 30:6: “The Lord will circumcise your heart.”
Ezekiel 18:31: “Make yourselves a new heart and a new spirit!”
Ezekiel 36:26: “I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit within you.”
John 3:7: “You must be born again.”
1 Peter 1:3: “God caused us to be born again.”
The way to obey the command to be born is to first experience the divine gift of life and breath, and then to do what living, breathing people do: cry out to God in faith and gratitude and love. When the command of God comes with the creating, converting power of the Holy Spirit, it gives life. And we believe and rejoice and obey.
God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work. (2 Corinthians 9:8)
We know that faith in God’s future grace is the experiential key to generosity, because in 2 Corinthians, Paul holds out this wonderful promise: “God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that having all sufficiency in all things at all times, you may abound in every good work” (2 Corinthians 9:8).
In other words, if you want to be free from the need to stash away your money, if you want to overflow with an abundance (of grace!) for every good work, then put your faith in future grace. Trust the promise that “God is able to make all grace abound to you” in every future moment for this very purpose.
I just called faith in future grace the “experiential key” to generosity, so as not to deny that there is a historical key as well. There is a key of experience, and a key of history. When talking about the grace they received, Paul reminds the Corinthians of the historical key of grace, “You know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
Without this historical work of grace, the door of Christ-exalting generosity would remain closed. That past grace is an indispensable key to love.
But notice how the past grace in this verse functions. It is made the foundation (Christ became poor) of future grace (that we might become rich). Thus the historical key to our generosity operates by putting a foundation under the experiential key of faith in future grace.
Thus, the experiential key to love and generosity is this: Put your faith firmly in future grace — namely, that “God is able (in the future) to make all (future) grace abound to you” — so that your needs are met, and so that you will be able to overflow with the love of generosity.
Freedom from greed comes from the deeply satisfying faith in God’s future grace.
What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar, as it is written, “That you may be justified in your words, and prevail when you are judged.” (Romans 3:3–4)
Our concern with truth is an inevitable expression of our concern with God. If God exists, then he is the measure of all things, and what he thinks about all things is the measure of what we should think.
Not to care about truth is not to care about God. To love God passionately is to love truth passionately. Being God-centered in life means being truth-driven in ministry. What is not true is not of God.
Ponder these four sets of texts on God and truth:
1) God Is the Truth
Romans 3:3–4 (God the Father): “What if some were unfaithful? Does their faithlessness nullify the faithfulness of God? By no means! Let God be true though every one were a liar.”
John 14:6 (God the Son): Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
John 15:26 (God the Spirit): “When the Helper comes, whom I will send to you from the Father, the Spirit of truth, who proceeds from the Father, he will bear witness about me.”
2) Not Loving the Truth Is Eternally Ruinous
Second Thessalonians 2:10: The wicked will perish “because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.”
3) Christian Living Is Based on Knowledge of the Truth
First Corinthians 6:15–16: “Do you not know that your bodies are members of Christ? Shall I then take the members of Christ and make them members of a prostitute? Never! Or do you not know that he who is joined to a prostitute becomes one body with her?”
4) The Body of Christ Is Built with Truth in Love
Colossians 1:28: “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”
May God make us passionate for him and for truth.
I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Then another book was opened, which is the book of life. And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done. (Revelation 20:12)
What about the last judgment? Will our sins be remembered? Will they be revealed? Anthony Hoekema puts it wisely like this: “The failures and shortcomings of . . . believers . . . will enter into the picture on the Day of Judgment. But — and this is the important point — the sins and shortcomings of believers will be revealed in the judgment as forgiven sins, whose guilt has been totally covered by the blood of Jesus Christ.”
Picture it like this. God has a file on every person (the “books” of Revelation 20:12). All you’ve ever done or said (Matthew 12:36) is recorded there with a grade (from “A” to “F”). When you stand before “the judgment seat of Christ” (2 Corinthians 5:10) to be judged “for what [you have] done in the body, whether good or evil,” God will open the file and lay out the tests with their grades. He will pull out all the “F’s” and put them in a pile. Then he will take all the “D’s” and “C’s” and pull the good parts of the test out and place them with the “A’s”, then put the bad with the “F’s.” Then he will take all the “B’s” and “A’s” and pull the bad parts out of them and put them in the “F” pile, and put all the good parts in the “A” pile.
Then he will open another file (“the book of life”) and find your name, because you are in Christ through faith. Behind your name will be a wood-stick match made from the cross of Jesus. He will take the match, light it, and set the “F” pile, with all your failures and deficiencies, on fire and burn them up. They will not condemn you, and they will not reward you.
Then he will take from your “book of life” file a sealed envelope marked “free and gracious bonus: life!” and put it on the “A” pile (see Mark 4:24 and Luke 6:38). Then he will hold up the entire pile and declare, “By this your life bears witness to the grace of my Father, the worth of my blood, and the fruit of my Spirit. These bear witness that your life is eternal. And according to these you will have your rewards. Enter into the everlasting joy of your Master.”
After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. (1 Peter 5:10)
Sometimes in the midst of the afflictions and ordinary stresses of daily life, we may cry out, “How long, O Lord? I can’t see beyond today’s pain. What will tomorrow bring? Will you be there for that affliction too?”
This question is utterly urgent, because Jesus said, “The one who endures to the end will be saved” (Mark 13:13). We tremble at the thought of being among “those who shrink back and are destroyed” (Hebrews 10:39). We are not playing games. Suffering is a horrible threat to faith in God’s future grace.
Therefore, it is a wonderful thing to hear Peter promise the afflicted and weary Christians, “After you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you” (1 Peter 5:10).
The assurance that he will not delay beyond what we can endure, and that he will abolish the flaws we bemoan, and that he will establish forever what has tottered so long — that assurance comes from the God of “all grace.”
God is not the God of some grace — like bygone grace. He is “the God of all grace” — including the infinite, inexhaustible stores of future grace, that we need to endure to the end.
Faith in that future grace, strengthened by the memory of past grace, is the key to enduring on the narrow and hard road that leads to life.
Jesus looked at them and said, “With man it is impossible, but not with God. For all things are possible with God.” (Mark 10:27)
Here are two great incentives from Jesus to become a World Christian and to dedicate yourself to the cause of Frontier Missions. As a goer or a sender.
1. Every impossibility with men is possible with God (Mark 10:27). The conversion of hardened sinners will be the work of God and will accord with his sovereign plan. We need not fear or fret over our weakness. The battle is the Lord’s, and he will give the victory.
2. Christ promises to work for us, and to be for us so much that, when our missionary life is over, we will not be able to say we’ve sacrificed anything (Mark 10:29–30).
When we follow his missionary prescription, we discover that even the painful side effects work to improve our condition. Our spiritual health, our joy, improves a hundredfold. And when we die, we do not die. We gain eternal life.
I do not appeal to you to screw up your courage and sacrifice for Christ. I appeal to you to renounce all you have, to obtain life that satisfies your deepest longings. I appeal to you to count all things as rubbish for the surpassing value of standing in the service of the King of kings. I appeal to you to take off your store-bought rags and put on the garments of God’s ambassadors.
I promise you persecutions and privations — but remember the joy! “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:10).
On January 8, 1956, five Waorani Indians of Ecuador killed Jim Elliot and his four missionary companions as they were trying to bring the gospel to the Waorani tribe of sixty people.
Four young wives lost husbands and nine children lost their fathers. Elisabeth Elliot wrote that the world called it a nightmare of tragedy. Then she added, “The world did not recognize the truth of the second clause in Jim Elliot’s credo: ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.’”
Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God. (Acts 14:22)
The need for inner strength arises not just from the depletions of everyday stress, but from the suffering and afflictions that come from time to time. And they do come.
Suffering is inevitably added to heart-weariness on the way to heaven. When it comes, the heart may waver and the narrow way that leads to life may look impossibly hard. It’s hard enough to have a narrow road and steep hills that test the old jalopy’s strength to the limit. But what shall we do when the car breaks down?
Paul cried out three times with this question because of some affliction in his life. He asked for relief from his thorn in the flesh. But God’s grace did not come in the form he asked. It came in another form. Christ answered, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Here we see grace given in the form of Christ’s sustaining power in unrelieved affliction — one grace given, we could say, within the circle of another grace denied. And Paul responded with faith in the sufficiency of this future grace: “Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
God often blesses us with a “grace given” in the circle of “grace denied.”
For example, on a beastly hot day in July, the water pump on our car stopped working, and twenty miles from any town we were stranded on the interstate in Tennessee.
I had prayed that morning that the car would work well and that we would come to our destination safely. Now the car had died. The grace of trouble-free travel had been denied. No one was stopping as we stood around our car. Then my son Abraham (about eleven at the time) said, “Daddy, we should pray.” So we bowed behind the car and asked God for some future grace — a help in time of need. When we looked up, a pickup truck had pulled over.
The driver was a mechanic who worked about twenty miles away. He said he would be willing to go get the parts and come back and fix the car. I rode with him to town and was able to share the gospel with him. We were on our way in about five hours.
Now the remarkable thing about that answer to our prayer is that it came inside the circle of a prayer denied. We asked for a trouble-free trip. God gave us trouble. But in the midst of a grace denied, we got a grace supplied. And I am learning to trust God’s wisdom in giving the grace that is best for me and for unbelieving mechanics and for the watching faith of eleven-year-old boys.
We should not be surprised that God gives us wonderful graces in the midst of suffering that we had asked him to spare us. He knows best how to apportion his grace for our good and for his glory.
Let us draw near with a true heart. (Hebrews 10:22)
The command we are given in this passage is to draw near to God. The great aim of the writer of the book of Hebrews is that we get near God, that we have fellowship with him, that we not settle for a Christian life at a distance from God.
This drawing near is not a physical act. It’s not building a tower of Babel by your achievements to get to heaven. It’s not necessarily going to a church building. Or walking to an altar at the front. It is an invisible act of the heart. You can do it while standing absolutely still, or while lying in a hospital bed, or on the train as you commute to work.
This is the center of the gospel — this is what the garden of Gethsemane and Good Friday are all about — that God has done astonishing and costly things to draw us near to himself. He has sent his Son to suffer and to die so that through him we might draw near. Everything that he has done in the great plan of redemption is so that we might draw near. And that nearness is for our joy and for his glory.
He does not need us. If we stay away, he is not impoverished. He does not need us in order to be happy in the fellowship of the Trinity. But he magnifies his mercy by giving us free access through his Son, in spite of our sin, to the one Reality that can satisfy our souls completely and forever, namely, himself. “In your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
This is God’s will for you, even as you read this. This is why Christ died: that you would draw near to God.
You, who were dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made alive together with him, having forgiven us all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13–15)
The reason that union with Christ makes a great difference for the believer is that Christ achieved a decisive triumph over the devil at Calvary. He did not remove Satan from the world, but he disarmed him to the extent that the weapon of damnation was stripped from his hand.
He cannot accuse believers of unforgiven sin. Which is the only accusation that can destroy us. And therefore, he cannot bring us to utter ruin. He can hurt us physically and emotionally — even kill us. He can tempt us and incite others against us. But he cannot destroy us.
The decisive triumph of Colossians 2:13–15 is owing to the fact that “the record of debt that stood against us” was nailed to the cross. The devil made that record his chief accusation against us. Now he has no accusation that can hold in the court of heaven. He is helpless to do the one thing he wants to do most: damn us. He can’t. Christ bore our damnation. The devil is disarmed.
Another way to say it is in Hebrews 2:14–15: “[Christ became human] that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
Death is still our enemy. But it is defanged. The viper’s poison has been drained away. The deadly sting is gone. The sting of death was sin. And the damning power of sin was in the demand of the law. But thanks be to Christ who satisfied the law’s demand. “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:55).
By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified. (Hebrews 10:14)
This verse is full of encouragement for imperfect sinners like us, and full of motivation for holiness.
It means that you can have assurance that you stand perfected and completed in the eyes of your heavenly Father not because you are perfect now, but precisely because you are not perfect now but are “being sanctified,” “being made holy” — that, by faith in God’s promises, you are moving away from your lingering imperfection toward more and more holiness. That’s the point of Hebrews 10:14.
Does your faith make you eager to forsake sin and make progress in holiness? That’s the kind of faith that in the midst of imperfection can look to Christ and say, “You have already perfected me in your sight.”
This faith says, “Christ, today I have sinned. But I hate my sin. For you have written the law on my heart, and I long to do it. And you are working in me what is pleasing in your sight (Hebrews 13:21). And so, I hate the sin that I still do; and I hate the sinful thoughts that I contemplate.”
This is the true and realistic faith that saves. This is the faith that can savor the words, “By a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
This is not the boast of the strong. It is the cry of the weak in need of a Savior.
I invite you, I urge you, to be weak enough to trust Christ in this way.
It depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. (Romans 9:16)
Let us make crystal clear at the beginning of the year that all we will get from God this year, as believers in Jesus, is mercy. Whatever pleasures or pains come our way will all be mercy.
This is why Christ came into the world: “in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy” (Romans 15:9). We were born again “according to his great mercy” (1 Peter 1:3). We pray daily “that we may receive mercy” (Hebrews 4:16); and we are now “waiting for the mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ that leads to eternal life” (Jude 1:21). If any Christian proves trustworthy, it is “by the Lord’s mercy [he] is trustworthy” (1 Corinthians 7:25).
In Luke 17:5–6, the apostles plead with the Lord, “Increase our faith!” And Jesus says, “If you had faith like a grain of mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” In other words, the issue in our Christian life and ministry is not the strength or quantity of our faith, because that is not what uproots trees. God does. Therefore, the smallest faith that truly connects us with Christ will engage enough of his power for all you need.
But what about the times that you successfully obey the Lord? Does your obedience move you out of the category of supplicant of mercy? Jesus gives the answer in the following verses of Luke 17:7–10.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’? Does he thank the servant because he did what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were commanded, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’”
Therefore, I conclude, the fullest obedience and the smallest faith obtain the same thing from God: mercy. A mere mustard seed of faith taps into the mercy of God’s tree-moving power. And flawless obedience leaves us utterly dependent on mercy.
The point is this: Whatever the timing or form of God’s mercy, we never rise above the status of beneficiaries of mercy. We are always utterly dependent on what we do not deserve.
Therefore let us humble ourselves and rejoice and “glorify God for his mercy!”
Just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27–28)
The death of Jesus bears sins. This is the very heart of Christianity, and the heart of the gospel, and the heart of God’s great work of redemption in the world. When Christ died he bore sins. He took sins not his own. He suffered for sins that others had done, so that they could be free from sins.
This is the answer to the greatest problem in your life, whether you feel it as the main problem or not. There is an answer to how we can get right with God in spite of being sinners. The answer is that Christ’s death is an offering “to bear the sins of many.” He lifted our sins and carried them to the cross and died there the death that we deserved to die.
Now what does this mean for my dying? “It is appointed [to me] to die once.” It means that my death is no longer punitive. My death is no longer a punishment for sin. My sin has been borne away. My sin is “put away” by the death of Christ. Christ took the punishment.
Why then do I die at all? Because God wills that death remain in the world for now, even among his own children, as an abiding testimony to the extreme horror of sin. In our dying we still manifest the external effects of sin in the world.
But death for God’s children is no longer his wrath against them. It has become our entrance into salvation not condemnation.
By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me. (1 Corinthians 15:10)
Grace is not only God’s disposition to do good for us when we don’t deserve it. It is an actual power from God that acts and makes good things happen in us and for us.
God’s grace was God’s acting in Paul to make Paul work hard: “By the grace of God . . . I worked harder than any of them.” So when Paul says, “Work out your own salvation,” he adds, “for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13). Grace is power from God to do good things in us and for us.
This grace is past and it is future. It is ever-cascading over the infinitesimal waterfall of the present, from the inexhaustible river of grace coming to us from the future, into the ever-increasing reservoir of grace in the past.
In the next five minutes, you will receive sustaining grace flowing to you from the future, and you will accumulate another five minutes’ worth of grace in the reservoir of the past. The proper response to the grace you experienced in the past is thankfulness, and the proper response to grace promised to you in the future is faith. We are thankful for the past grace of the last year, and we are confident in the future grace for the new year.
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. . . . So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:5–6, 12)
For me, the end of a year is like the end of my life. And 11:59 pm on December 31 is like the moment of my death.
The 365 days of the year are like a miniature lifetime. And these final hours are like the last days in the hospital after the doctor has told me that the end is very near. And in these last hours, the lifetime of this year passes before my eyes, and I face the inevitable question: Did I live it well? Will Jesus Christ, the righteous Judge, say “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21)?
I feel very fortunate that this is the way my year ends. And I pray that the year’s end might have the same significance for you.
The reason I feel fortunate is that it is a great advantage to have a trial run at my own dying. It is a great benefit to rehearse once a year in preparation for the last scene of your life. It is a great benefit because the morning of January 1 will find most of us still alive, at the brink of a whole new lifetime, able to start fresh all over again.
The great thing about rehearsals is that they show you where your weaknesses are, where your preparation was faulty; and they leave you time to change before the real play in front of a real audience.
I suppose for some of you the thought of dying is so morbid, so gloomy, so fraught with grief and pain that you do your best to keep it out of your minds, especially during holidays. I think that is unwise and that you do yourself a great disservice. I have found that there are few things more revolutionizing for my life than a periodic pondering of my own death.
How do you get a heart of wisdom so as to know how best to live? The psalmist answers:
You sweep them away as with a flood; they are like a dream, like grass that is renewed in the morning: in the morning it flourishes and is renewed; in the evening it fades and withers. . . . So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom. (Psalm 90:5–6, 12)
Numbering your days simply means remembering that your life is short and your dying will be soon. Great wisdom — great, life-revolutionizing wisdom — comes from periodically pondering these things.
The criterion of success, that Paul used to measure his life, was whether he had kept the faith. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Henceforth there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award to me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have loved his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:7–8). Let this be our test at year’s end.
And if we discover that we did not keep the faith this past year, then we can be glad, as I am, that this year-end death is (probably) only a rehearsal, and a whole life of potential faith-keeping lies before us in the next year.
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen. (Hebrews 13:20–21)
Christ shed the blood of the eternal covenant. By this successful redemption, he obtained the blessing of his own resurrection from the dead. That is even clearer in Greek than it is in English, and here it’s clear enough: “God . . . brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus . . . by the blood of the eternal covenant.” This Jesus — raised by the blood of the covenant — is now our living Lord and Shepherd.
And because of all that, God does two things:
- he equips us with everything good that we may do his will, and
- he works in us that which is pleasing in his sight.
The “eternal covenant,” secured by the blood of Christ, is the new covenant. And the new covenant promise is this: “I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts” (Jeremiah 31:33). Therefore, the blood of this covenant not only secures God’s equipping us to do his will, but also secures God working in us to make that equipping successful.
The will of God is not just written on stone or paper as a means of grace. It is worked in us. And the effect is: We feel and think and act in ways more pleasing to God.
We are still commanded to use the equipment he gives: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” But more importantly we are told why: “For it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:12–13).
If we are able to please God — if we do his good pleasure — it is because the blood-bought grace of God has moved from mere equipping to omnipotent transforming.
. . . Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come. (1 Thessalonians 1:10)
Do you remember the time you were lost as a child, or slipping over a precipice, or about to drown? Then suddenly you were rescued. You held on for “dear life.” You trembled for what you almost lost. You were happy. Oh, so happy, and thankful. And you trembled with joy.
That’s the way I feel at the end of the year about my rescue from God’s wrath. All day Christmas we had a fire in the fireplace. Sometimes the coals were so hot that when I stoked it my hand hurt. I pulled back and shuddered at the horrendous thought of the wrath of God against sin in hell. Oh, how unspeakably horrible that will be!
Christmas afternoon I visited a woman who had been burned over 87 percent of her body. She has been in the hospital since August. My heart broke for her. How wonderful it was to hold out hope to her from God’s word for a new body in the age to come! But I came away not only thinking about her pain in this life, but also about the everlasting pain I have been saved from through Jesus.
Test my experience with me. Is this trembling joy a fitting way to end the year? Paul was glad that “Jesus . . . delivers us from the wrath to come” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). He warned that “for those who . . . do not obey the truth . . . there will be wrath and fury” (Romans 2:8). And “because of [sexual immorality, impurity, and covetousness] the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience” (Ephesians 5:6).
Here at the end of the year, I am finishing my trek through the Bible and reading the last book, Revelation. It is a glorious prophecy of the triumph of God, and the everlasting joy of all who “take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17). No more tears, no more pain, no more depression, no more sorrow, no more death, no more sin (Revelation 21:4).
But oh, the horror of not repenting and not holding fast to the testimony of Jesus! The description of the wrath of God by the “apostle of love” (John) is terrifying. Those who spurn God’s love will “drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured full strength into the cup of his anger, and he will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever, and they have no rest, day or night” (Revelation 14:10–11).
“And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:15). Jesus will “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15). And blood will flow “from the winepress, as high as a horse’s bridle, for 184 miles” (Revelation 14:20). Whatever that vision signifies, it is meant to communicate something unspeakably terrible.
I tremble with joy that I am saved! But oh, the holy wrath of God is a horrible destiny. Flee this, brothers and sisters. Flee this with all your might. And let us save as many as we can! No wonder there is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous (Luke 15:7)!
Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. (Romans 5:2)
Seeing the glory of God is our ultimate hope. “We rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). God will “present you blameless before the presence of his glory with great joy” (Jude 24).
He will “make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Romans 9:23). He “calls you into his own kingdom and glory” (1 Thessalonians 2:12). “Our blessed hope [is] the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).
Jesus, in all his person and work, is the incarnation and ultimate revelation of the glory of God. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3). “Father, I desire that they . . . may be with me where I am, to see my glory” Jesus prays in John 17:24.
“So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1). “The creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21).
“We impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7). “This light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison” (2 Corinthians 4:17). “Those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30).
Seeing and sharing in God’s glory is our ultimate hope through the gospel of Christ.
Such a hope, that is really known and treasured, has a huge and decisive effect on our present values and choices and actions.
Get to know the glory of God. Study the glory of God and the glory of Christ. Study the glory of the world that reveals the glory of God, and the glory of the gospel that reveals the glory of Christ.
Treasure the glory of God in all things and above all things.
Study your soul. Know the glory you are seduced by, and know why you treasure glories that are not God’s glory.
Study your own soul to know how to make the glories of the world collapse like the pagan idol Dagon in 1 Samuel 5:4. Let all glories that distract you from the glory of God shatter in pitiful pieces on the floor of the world’s temples. Treasure the glory of God above all this world.
Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. . . . And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him. (1 Corinthians 10:31; Colossians 3:17)
When you get up in the morning and you face the day, what do you say to yourself about your hopes for the day? When you look from the beginning of the day to the end of the day, what do you want to happen because you have lived?
If you say, “I don’t even think like that. I just get up and do what I’ve got to do,” then you are cutting yourself off from a basic means of grace and a source of guidance and strength and fruitfulness and joy. It is crystal clear in the Bible, including these texts, that God means for us to aim consciously at something significant in our days.
God’s revealed will for you is that when you get up in the morning, you don’t drift aimlessly through the day letting mere circumstances alone dictate what you do, but that you aim at something — that you focus on a certain kind of purpose. I’m talking about children here, and teenagers, and adults — single, married, widowed, moms, and every trade and every profession.
Aimlessness is akin to lifelessness. Dead leaves in the back yard may move around more than anything else — more than the dog, more than the children. The wind blows this way, they go this way. The wind blows that way, they go that way. They tumble, they bounce, they skip, they press against a fence, but they have no aim whatsoever. They are full of motion and empty of life.
God did not create humans in his image to be aimless, like lifeless leaves blown around in the backyard of life. He created us to be purposeful — to have a focus and an aim for all our days. What is yours today? What is yours for the new year? A good place to start is 1 Corinthians 10:31, “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God.”
“The waves of death encompassed me, the torrents of destruction assailed me. . . . This God — his way is perfect.” (2 Samuel 22:5, 31)
After the loss of his ten children owing to a natural disaster (Job 1:19), Job said, “The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; blessed be the name of the Lord” (Job 1:21). At the end of the book, the inspired writer confirms Job’s understanding of what happened. He says Job’s brothers and sisters “comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11).
This has several crucial implications for us — lessons for us here at the dawn of a new year — as we think about calamities in the world and in our lives — like the massive disaster that occurred December 26, 2004, in the Indian Ocean — one of the deadliest natural disasters on record with 1.7 million people made homeless, half a million injured, and over 230,000 killed.
Lesson #1. Satan is not ultimate; God is.
Satan had a hand in Job’s misery, but not the decisive hand. God gave Satan permission to afflict Job (Job 1:12; 2:6). But Job and the writer of this book treat God as the decisive cause. When Satan afflicts Job with sores, Job says to his wife, “Shall we receive good from God, and shall we not receive evil?” (Job 2:10), and the writer calls these satanic sores “the evil that the Lord had brought upon him” (Job 42:11). So, Satan is real. Satan brings misery. But Satan is not ultimate or decisive. He is on a leash. He goes no farther than God decisively permits.
Lesson #2. Even if Satan caused that tsunami in the Indian Ocean the day after Christmas, 2004, he is not the decisive cause of over 200,000 deaths; God is.
God claims power over tsunamis in Job 38:8 and 11 when he asks Job rhetorically, “Who shut in the sea with doors when it burst out from the womb . . . and said, ‘Thus far shall you come, and no farther, and here shall your proud waves be stayed’?” Psalm 89:8–9 says, “O Lord . . . you rule the raging of the sea; when its waves rise, you still them.” And Jesus himself has the same control today as he once did over the deadly threats of waves: “He . . . rebuked the wind and the raging waves, and they ceased, and there was a calm” (Luke 8:24). In other words, even if Satan caused the earthquake, God could have stopped the waves. But he didn’t.
Lesson #3. Destructive calamities in this world mingle judgment and mercy.
God’s purposes are not simple. Job was a godly man and his miseries were not God’s punishment (Job 1:1, 8). Their design was purifying, not punishment (Job 42:6). James 5:11 says, “You have heard of the steadfastness of Job, and you have seen the purpose of the Lord, how the Lord is compassionate and merciful.”
But we do not know the spiritual condition of Job’s children who died. Job was certainly concerned about them (Job 1:5). God may have taken their life in judgment. We don’t know.
If that is true, then the same calamity proved in the end to be mercy for Job and judgment on his children. This double purpose is true of all calamities. They mingle judgment and mercy. They are both punishment and purification. Suffering, and even death, can be both judgment and mercy at the same time.
The clearest illustration of this is the death of Jesus. It was both judgment and mercy. It was judgment on Jesus because he bore our sins (not his own), and it was mercy toward us who trust him to bear our punishment (Galatians 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24) and be our righteousness (2 Corinthians 5:21).
Another example is the curse and miseries that have come on this earth because of the fall of Adam and Eve. Those who never believe in Christ experience it as judgment, but believers experience it as merciful, though painful — a preparation for glory. “The creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope” (Romans 8:20). This is God’s subjection. This is why there are tsunamis. But this subjection to futility is “in hope.”
Lesson #4. The heart that Christ gives to his people feels compassion for those who suffer, no matter what their faith is.
When the Bible says, “Weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15), it does not add, “unless God caused the weeping.” Job’s comforters would have done better to weep with Job than talk so much. That does not change when we discover that Job’s suffering was ultimately from God. No, it is right to weep with those who suffer. Pain is pain, no matter who causes it. We are all sinners. Empathy flows not from the causes of pain, but from the company of pain. And we are all in it together.
Lesson #5. Finally, Christ calls us to show mercy to those who suffer, even if they do not deserve it.
That is the meaning of mercy — undeserved help. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you” (Luke 6:27). This is how Christ treated us (Romans 5:10), dying for us when we were his enemies. By that power, and with that example, we do the same.
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. . . . My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world. (1 John 3:7–8; 2:1–2)
Ponder this remarkable situation with me. If the Son of God came to help you stop sinning — to destroy the works of the devil — and if he also came to die so that, when you do sin, there is a propitiation, a removal of God’s wrath, then what does this imply for living your life?
Three things. And they are wonderful to have. I give them to you briefly as Christmas presents.
Gift #1. A Clear Purpose for Living
It implies that you have a clear purpose for living. Negatively, it is simply this: don’t sin — don’t do what dishonors God. “I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin” (1 John 2:1). “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).
If you ask, “Can you give us that positively, instead of negatively?” the answer is: Yes, it’s all summed up in 1 John 3:23. It’s a great summary of what John’s whole letter requires. Notice the singular “commandment” — “And this is his commandment, that we believe in the name of his Son Jesus Christ and love one another, just as he has commanded us.” These two things are so closely connected for John he calls them one commandment: believe Jesus and love others. That is your purpose. That is the sum of the Christian life. Trusting Jesus, loving people the way Jesus and his apostles taught us to love. Trust Jesus, love people. There’s the first gift: a purpose to live.
Gift #2. Hope That Our Failures Will Be Forgiven
The second implication of the twofold truth that Christ came to destroy our sinning and to forgive our sins is this: We make progress in overcoming our sin when we have hope that our failures will be forgiven. If you don’t have hope that God will forgive your failures, when you start fighting sin, you give up.
Many of you are pondering some changes in the new year, because you have fallen into sinful patterns and want out. You want some new patterns of eating. New patterns for entertainment. New patterns of giving. New patterns of relating to your spouse. New patterns of family devotions. New patterns of sleep and exercise. New patterns of courage in witness. But you are struggling, wondering whether it’s any use. Well, here’s your second Christmas present: Christ not only came to destroy the works of the devil — our sinning — he also came to be an advocate for us because of experiences of failure in our fight.
So, I plead with you, let the fact that failure will not have the last word give you the hope to fight. But beware! If you turn the grace of God into license, and say, “Well, if I can fail, and it doesn’t matter, then why bother fighting sin?” — if you say that, and mean it, and go on acting on it, you are probably not born again and should tremble.
But that is not where most of you are. Most of you want to fight sinful patterns in your life. And what God is saying to you is this: Let Christ’s covering of your failure give hope to fight. “I write this to you that you might not sin, but if you sin you have an advocate, Jesus Christ.”
Gift #3. Christ Will Help Us
Finally, the third implication of the double truth that Christ came to destroy our sinning and to forgive our sins is this: Christ will really help us in our fight. He really will help you. He is on your side. He didn’t come to destroy sin because sin is fun. He came to destroy sin because sin is fatal. It is a deceptive work of the devil, and it will destroy us if we don’t fight it. He came to help us, not hurt us.
So here’s your third Christmas present: Christ will help overcome sin in you. First John 4:4 says, “He who is in you is greater than he who is in the world.” Jesus is alive, Jesus is almighty, Jesus lives in us by faith. And Jesus is for us, not against us. He will help you in your fight with sin in the new year. Trust him.
Little children, let no one deceive you. Whoever practices righteousness is righteous, as he is righteous. Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:7–8)
When 1 John 3:8 says, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil,” what are “the works of the devil” that he has in mind? The answer is clear from the context.
First, 1 John 3:5 is a clear parallel: “You know that he appeared in order to take away sins.” The phrase he appeared to occurs in verse 5 and verse 8. So most likely the “works of the devil” that Jesus came to destroy are sins. The first part of verse 8 makes this virtually certain: “Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning.”
The issue in this context is sinning, not sickness or broken cars or messed up schedules. Jesus came into the world to enable us to stop sinning.
We see this even more clearly if we put this truth alongside the truth of 1 John 2:1: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.” This is one of the great purposes of Christmas — one of the great purposes of the incarnation (1 John 3:8).
But there is another purpose which John adds in 1 John 2:1–2, “But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”
But now look what this means: It means that Jesus appeared in the world for two reasons. He came that we might not go on sinning — that is, he came to destroy the works of the devil (1 John 3:8); and he came so that there would be a propitiation for our sins, if we do sin. He came to be a substitutionary sacrifice that takes away the wrath of God for our sins.
The upshot of this second purpose is not to defeat the first purpose. Forgiveness is not for the purpose of permitting sin. The aim of the death of Christ for our sins is not that we relax our battle against sin. The upshot of these two purposes of Christmas, rather, is that the payment once made for all our sins is the freedom and power that enables us to fight sin not as legalists, earning our salvation, and not as fearful of losing our salvation, but as victors who throw ourselves into the battle against sin with confidence and joy, even if it costs us our lives.
If while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation. (Romans 5:10–11)
How do we practically receive reconciliation and exult in God? We do it through Jesus Christ. Which means, at least, that we make the portrait of Jesus in the Bible — that is, the work and the words of Jesus portrayed in the New Testament — we make that portrait the essential content of our exultation over God. Exulting in God without the content of Christ does not honor Christ. And where Christ is not honored, God is not honored.
In 2 Corinthians 4:4–6, Paul describes conversion in two ways. In verse 4, he says it is seeing “the glory of Christ, who is the image of God.” And in verse 6, he says it is seeing “the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” In either case you see the point. We have Christ, the image of God, and we have God in the face of Christ.
To exult in God, we exult in what we see and know of God in the portrait of Jesus Christ. And this comes to its fullest experience when the love of God is poured out in our hearts by the Holy Spirit, as Romans 5:5 says. And that sweet, Spirit-given experience of the love of God is mediated to us as we ponder the historical reality of verse 6, “For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.”
So here’s the Christmas point. Not only did God purchase our reconciliation through the death of the Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:10), and not only did God enable us to receive that reconciliation through the Lord Jesus Christ, but even now we exult in God himself, by the Spirit, through our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 5:11).
Jesus purchased our reconciliation. Jesus enabled us to receive reconciliation and open the gift. And Jesus himself shines forth as himself the indescribable gift — God in the flesh — and stirs up all our exultation in God.
Look to Jesus this Christmas. Receive the reconciliation that he purchased. Don’t put the gift on the shelf unopened. And when you open it, remember God himself is the gift of reconciliation with God.
Exult in him. Experience him as your pleasure. Know him as your treasure.
Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (John 20:30–31)
I feel so strongly that among those of us who have grown up in church and who can recite the great doctrines of our faith in our sleep, and yet who can yawn through the Apostles’ Creed — that among us something must be done to help us once more feel the awe, the fear, the astonishment, the wonder of the Son of God, begotten by the Father from all eternity, reflecting all the glory of God, being the very image of his person, through whom all things were created, upholding the universe by the word of his power.
You can read every fairy tale that was ever written, every mystery thriller, every ghost story, and you will never find anything so shocking, so strange, so weird and spellbinding as the story of the incarnation of the Son of God.
How dead we are! How callous and unfeeling to your glory and your story, O God! How often have I had to repent and say, “God, I am sorry that the stories men have made up stir my emotions, my awe and wonder and admiration and joy, more than your own true story.”
Perhaps the galactic movie thrillers of our day can do at least this good for us: they can humble us and bring us to repentance, by showing us that we really are capable of some of the wonder and awe and amazement that we so seldom feel when we contemplate the eternal God and the cosmic glory of Christ and a real living contact between them and us in Jesus of Nazareth.
When Jesus said, “For this purpose I have come into the world” (John 18:37), he said something as crazy and weird and strange and eerie as any statement in science fiction that you have ever read.
Oh, how I pray for a breaking forth of the Spirit of God upon me and upon you; for the Holy Spirit to break into my experience in a frightening way, to wake me up to the unimaginable reality of God.
One of these days lightning is going to fill the sky from the rising of the sun to its setting, and there is going to appear in the clouds the Son of Man with his mighty angels in flaming fire. And we will see him clearly. And whether from terror or sheer excitement, we will tremble and we will wonder how we ever lived so long with such a domesticated, harmless Christ.
These things are written — the whole Bible is written — that we might believe — that we might be stunned and awakened to the wonder — that Jesus Christ is the Son of God who came into the world.
Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.” (John 18:37)
This is a great Christmas text even though it comes from the very end of Jesus’s life on earth, not the beginning.
Notice: Jesus says not only that he was born, but that he “came into the world.” The uniqueness of his birth is that he did not originate at his birth. He existed before he was born in a manger. The personhood, the character, the personality of Jesus of Nazareth existed before the man Jesus of Nazareth was born.
The theological word to describe this mystery is not creation, but incarnation. The person, not the body, but the essential personhood of Jesus existed before he was born as man. His birth was not a coming into being of a new person, but a coming into the world of an infinitely old person.
Micah 5:2 puts it like this, 700 years before Jesus was born:
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.
The mystery of the birth of Jesus is not merely that he was born of a virgin. That miracle was intended by God to witness to an even greater one; namely, that the child born at Christmas was a person who existed “from of old, from ancient days.”
And, therefore, his birth was purposeful. Before he was born he thought about being born. Together with his Father there was a plan. And part of that great plan he spoke in the last hours of his life on earth: “For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice” (John 18:37).
He was the eternal Truth. He spoke only the truth. He acted out the greatest truth of love. And he is gathering into his eternal family all those who are born of the truth. This was the plan from ancient days.
The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. (1 John 3:8)
The assembly line of Satan turns out millions of sins every day. He packs them into huge cargo planes and flies them to heaven and spreads them out before God and laughs and laughs and laughs.
Some people work full-time on the assembly line. Others have quit their jobs there and only now and then return.
Every minute of work on the assembly line makes God the laughingstock of Satan. Sin is Satan’s business because he hates the light and beauty and purity and glory of God. Nothing pleases him more than when creatures distrust and disobey their Maker.
Therefore, Christmas is good news for man and good news for God.
“The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). That’s good news for us.
“The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). That is also good news for God.
Christmas is good news for God because Jesus has come to lead a strike at Satan’s assembly plant. He has walked right into the plant, called for the Solidarity of the faithful, and begun a massive walkout.
Christmas is a call to go on strike at the assembly plant of sin. No negotiations with the management. No bargaining. Just single-minded, unswerving opposition to the product. We won’t be a part of making it anymore.
Christmas Solidarity aims to ground the cargo planes. It will not use force or violence, but with relentless devotion to Truth it will expose the life-destroying conditions of the devil’s industry.
Christmas Solidarity will not give up until a complete shutdown has been achieved.
When sin has been destroyed, God’s name will be wholly exonerated. No one will be laughing anymore.
If you want to give a gift to God this Christmas, walk off the assembly line of sin and don’t go back. Take up your place in the picket line of love. Join Christmas Solidarity until the majestic name of God is cleared, and he stands glorious amid the accolades of the righteous.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15)
Jesus became man because what was needed was the death of a man who was more than man. The incarnation was God’s locking himself into death row.
Christ did not risk death. He chose death. He embraced it. That is precisely why he came: “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).
No wonder Satan tried to turn Jesus from the cross — in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1–11) and in the mouth of Peter (Matthew 16:21–23)! The cross was Satan’s destruction. How did Jesus destroy him?
Hebrews 2:14 says that Satan has “the power of death.” That means Satan has the ability to make death fearful. “The power of death” is the power that holds men in bondage through fear of death. It is the power to keep men in sin so that death comes as a dreadful thing.
But Jesus stripped Satan of this power. He disarmed him. He molded a breastplate of righteousness for us that makes us immune to the devil’s condemnation. How did he do this?
By his death, Jesus wiped away all our sins. And a person without sin cannot be condemned by Satan. Forgiven, we are finally indestructible. Satan’s plan was to destroy God’s rule by condemning God’s followers in God’s own courtroom. But now, in Christ, there is no condemnation. Satan’s treason is aborted. His cosmic treachery is foiled. “His rage we can endure, for, lo, his doom is sure.” The cross has run him through. And he will gasp his last before long.
Christmas is for freedom. Freedom from the fear of death.
Jesus took our nature in Bethlehem, to die our death in Jerusalem — all that we might be fearless in our city today. Yes, fearless. Because if the biggest threat to my joy is gone, then why should I fret over the little ones? How can you say (really!), “Well, I’m not afraid to die but I’m afraid to lose my job”? No. No. Think!
If death (I said, death! — no pulse, cold, gone!) if death is no longer a fear, we’re free, really free. Free to take any risk under the sun for Christ and for love. No more enslavement to anxiety.
If the Son has set you free, you shall be free, indeed!
“As you sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:18)
Christmas is a model for missions. Missions is a mirror of Christmas. As I, so you.
For example, danger. Christ came to his own and his own received him not. So you also. They plotted against him. So you. He had no permanent home. So you. They trumped up false charges against him. So you. They whipped and mocked him. So you. He died after three years of ministry. So you.
But there is a worse danger than any of these which Jesus escaped. So you!!
In the mid-16th century the missionary Francis Xavier (1506–1552), wrote to Father Perez of Malacca (today part of Malaysia) about the perils of his mission to China. He said,
The danger of all dangers would be to lose trust and confidence in the mercy of God. . . . To distrust him would be a far more terrible thing than any physical evil which all the enemies of God put together could inflict on us, for without God’s permission neither the devils nor their human ministers could hinder us in the slightest degree.
The greatest danger a missionary faces is not death but to distrust the mercy of God. If that danger is avoided, then all other dangers lose their sting.
In the end God makes every dagger a scepter in our hand. As J.W. Alexander says, “Each instant of present labor is to be graciously repaid with a million ages of glory.”
Christ escaped this danger — the danger of distrusting God. Therefore God has highly exalted him! As he, so you.
Remember this Advent that Christmas is a model for missions. As I, so you. And that mission means danger. And the greatest danger is distrusting God’s mercy. Succumb to this and all is lost. Conquer here and nothing can harm you for a million ages.
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and the house of Judah . . . ” (Jeremiah 31:31)
God is just and holy and separated from sinners like us. This is our main problem at Christmas — and every other season. How shall we get right with a just and holy God?
Nevertheless, God is merciful and has promised in Jeremiah 31 (five hundred years before Christ) that someday he would do something new. He would replace shadows with the Reality of the Messiah. And he would powerfully move into our lives and write his will on our hearts so that we are not constrained from outside, but are willing from inside, to love him and trust him and follow him.
That would be the greatest salvation imaginable — if God should offer us the greatest Reality in the universe to enjoy and then move in us to know that Reality in such a way that we could enjoy it with the greatest freedom and the greatest pleasure possible. That would be a Christmas gift worth singing about.
That is, in fact, what he promised in the new covenant. But there was a huge obstacle. Our sin. Our separation from God because of our unrighteousness.
How shall a holy and just God treat us sinners with so much kindness as to give us the greatest Reality in the universe (his Son) to enjoy with the greatest possible joy?
The answer is that God put our sins on his Son, and judged them there, so that he could put them out of his mind, and deal with us mercifully and remain just and holy at the same time. Hebrews 9:28 says Christ was “offered once to bear the sins of many.”
Christ bore our sins in his own body when he died (1 Peter 2:24). He took our judgment (Romans 8:3). He canceled our guilt (Romans 8:1). And that means our sins are gone (Acts 10:43). They do not remain in God’s mind as a basis for condemnation. In that sense, he “forgets” them (Jeremiah 31:34). They are consumed in the death of Christ.
Which means that God is now free, in his justice, to lavish us with all the unspeakably great new covenant promises. He gives us Christ, the greatest Reality in the universe, for our enjoyment. And he writes his own will — his own heart — on our hearts so that we can love Christ and trust Christ and follow Christ from the inside out, with freedom and joy.
Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:9–11)
Christmas marked the beginning of God’s most successful setback. He has always delighted to show his power through apparent defeat. He makes tactical retreats in order to win strategic victories.
In the Old Testament, Joseph, one of the twelve sons of Jacob, was promised glory and power in his dream (Genesis 37:5–11). But to achieve that victory he had to become a slave in Egypt. And, as if that were not enough, when his conditions improved because of his integrity, he was made worse than a slave: a prisoner.
But it was all planned. Planned by God for his good and the good of his family, and eventually for the good of the whole world! For there in prison he met Pharaoh’s butler, who eventually brought him to Pharaoh, who put him over Egypt. And finally, his dream came true. His brothers bowed before him, and he saved them from starvation. What an unlikely route to glory!
But that is God’s way — even for his Son. He emptied himself and took the form of a slave. Worse than a slave — a prisoner — and was executed. But like Joseph, he kept his integrity. “Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow” (Philippians 2:9–10).
And this is God’s way for us too. We are promised glory — if we will suffer with him as it says in Romans 8:17. The way up is down. The way forward is backward. The way to success is through divinely appointed setbacks. They will always look and feel like failure.
But if Joseph and Jesus teach us anything this Christmas it is this: What Satan and sinful men meant for evil, “God meant it for good!” (Genesis 50:20).
You fearful saints fresh courage take
The clouds you so much dread
Are big with mercy and will break
In blessings on your head.
“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” (John 10:10)
As I was about to begin this devotional, I received word that Marion Newstrum had just died. Marion and her husband Elmer had been part of our church longer than most of our members had been alive at the time. She was 87. They had been married 64 years.
When I spoke to Elmer and told him I wanted him to be strong in the Lord and not give up on life, he said, “He has been a true friend.” I pray that all Christians will be able to say at the end of life, “Christ has been a true friend.”
Each Advent I mark the anniversary of my mother’s death. She was cut off in her 56th year in a bus accident in Israel. It was December 16, 1974. Those events are incredibly real to me even today. If I allow myself, I can easily come to tears — for example, thinking that my sons never knew her. We buried her the day after Christmas. What a precious Christmas it was!
Many of you will feel your loss this Christmas more pointedly than before. Don’t block it out. Let it come. Feel it. What is love for, if not to intensify our affections — both in life and death? But oh, do not be bitter. It is tragically self-destructive to be bitter.
Jesus came at Christmas that we might have eternal life. “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Elmer and Marion had discussed where they would spend their final years. Elmer said, “Marion and I agreed that our final home would be with the Lord.”
Do you feel restless for home? I have family coming home for the holidays. It feels good. I think the bottom-line reason for why it feels good is that they and I are destined in the depths of our being for an ultimate Homecoming. All other homecomings are foretastes. And foretastes are good.
Unless they become substitutes. Oh, don’t let all the sweet things of this season become substitutes of the final, great, all-satisfying Sweetness. Let every loss and every delight send your hearts a-homing after heaven.
Christmas. What is it but this: I came that they may have life? Marion Newstrum, Ruth Piper, and you and I — that we might have Life, now and forever.
Make your Now the richer and deeper this Christmas by drinking at the fountain of Forever. It is so near.
Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better, since it is enacted on better promises. (Hebrews 8:6)
Christ is the Mediator of a new covenant, according to Hebrews 8:6. What does that mean? It means that his blood — the blood of the covenant (Luke 22:20; Hebrews 13:20) — finally and decisively purchased and secured the fulfillment of God’s promises for us.
It means that God, according to the new covenant promises, brings about our inner transformation by the Spirit of Christ.
And it means that God works this transformation in us through faith — faith in all that God is for us in Christ.
The new covenant is purchased by the blood of Christ, effected by the Spirit of Christ, and appropriated by faith in Christ.
The best place to see Christ working as the Mediator of the new covenant is in Hebrews 13:20–21:
Now may the God of peace who brought again from the dead our Lord Jesus, the great shepherd of the sheep, by the blood of the eternal covenant, equip you with everything good that you may do his will, working in us that which is pleasing in his sight, through Jesus Christ, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The words “working in us that which is pleasing in his sight” describe what happens when God writes the law on our hearts in accord with the new covenant. And the words “through Jesus Christ” describe Jesus as the Mediator of this glorious work of sovereign grace.
So, the meaning of Christmas is not only that God replaces shadows with Reality, but also that he takes the Reality and makes it real to his people. He writes it on our hearts. He does not lay his Christmas gift of salvation and transformation under the tree, so to speak, for you to pick up in your own strength. He picks it up and puts it in your heart and in your mind and gives you the seal of assurance that you are a child of God.
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. . . . They serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things. For when Moses was about to erect the tent, he was instructed by God, saying, “See that you make everything according to the pattern that was shown you on the mountain.” (Hebrews 8:1–2, 5)
We’ve seen it before. But there’s more. Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing.
Hebrews 8:1–2, 5 is a kind of summary statement. The point is that the one priest who goes between us and God, and makes us right with God, and prays for us to God is not an ordinary, weak, sinful, dying priest as in the Old Testament days. He is the Son of God — strong, sinless, with an indestructible life.
Not only that, he is not ministering in an earthly tabernacle with all its limitations of place and size while getting worn out and being moth-eaten and being soaked and burned and torn and stolen. No, Hebrews 8:2 says that Christ is ministering for us in a “true tent that the Lord set up, not man.” This is not the shadow. It’s the real thing in heaven. This is the reality that cast a shadow on Mount Sinai for Moses to copy.
According to Hebrews 8:1, another great thing about the reality which is greater than the shadow is that our High Priest is seated at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. No Old Testament priest could ever say that.
Jesus deals directly with God the Father. He has a place of honor beside God. He is loved and respected infinitely by God. He is constantly with God. This is not shadow-reality like curtains and bowls and tables and candles and robes and tassels and sheep and goats and pigeons. This is final, ultimate reality: God and his Son interacting in love and holiness for our eternal salvation.
Ultimate reality is the persons of the Godhead in relationship, dealing with each other concerning how their majesty and holiness and love and justice and goodness and truth shall be manifest in a redeemed people.
Now the point in what we are saying is this: we have such a high priest, one who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven, a minister in the holy places, in the true tent that the Lord set up, not man. (Hebrews 8:1–2)
The point of the book of Hebrews is that Jesus Christ, God’s Son, has not just come to fit into the earthly system of priestly ministry as the best and final human priest, but he has come to fulfill and put an end to that system, and to orient all our attention on himself, ministering for us first on Calvary as our final Sacrifice and then in heaven as our final Priest.
The Old Testament tabernacle and priests and sacrifices were shadows. Now the reality has come, and the shadows pass away.
Here’s an Advent illustration for kids — and those of us who used to be kids and remember what it was like. Suppose you and your mom get separated in the grocery store, and you start to get scared and panic and don’t know which way to go, and you run to the end of an aisle, and just before you start to cry, you see a shadow on the floor at the end of the aisle that looks just like your mom. It makes you really hopeful. But which is better? The hopefulness of seeing the shadow, or having your mom step around the corner and it’s really her?
That’s the way it is when Jesus comes to be our High Priest. That’s what Christmas is. Christmas is the replacement of shadows with the real thing: Mom stepping around the corner of the aisle, and all the relief and joy that gives to a little child.
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14–15)
This, I think, is my favorite Advent text because I don’t know any other that expresses so clearly the connection between the beginning and the end of Jesus’s earthly life — between the incarnation and crucifixion. These two verses make clear why Jesus came; namely, to die. They would be great to use with an unbelieving friend or family member to walk them step-by-step through your Christian view of Christmas. It might go something like this, a phrase at a time:
“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood . . . ”
The term “children” is taken from the previous verse and refers to the spiritual offspring of Christ, the Messiah (see Isaiah 8:18; 53:10). These are also the “children of God” (John 1:12). In other words, in sending Christ, God has the salvation of his “children” especially in view.
It is true that “God so loved the world, that he gave [Jesus]” (John 3:16). But it is also true that God was especially gathering “the children of God who are scattered abroad” (John 11:52). God’s design was to offer Christ to the world, and to effect the salvation of his “children” (see 1 Timothy 4:10). You may experience adoption by receiving Christ (John 1:12).
“ . . . he himself likewise partook of the same things [flesh and blood] . . . ”
This means that Christ existed before the incarnation. He was spirit. He was the eternal Word. He was with God and was God (John 1:1; Colossians 2:9). But he took on flesh and blood, and clothed his deity with humanity. He became fully man and remained fully God. It is a great mystery in many ways. But it is at the heart of our faith — and what the Bible teaches.
“ . . . that through death . . . ”
The reason he became man was to die. As God pure and simple, he could not die for sinners. But as man he could. His aim was to die. Therefore he had to be born human. He was born to die. Good Friday is the purpose of Christmas. This is what most people today need to hear about the meaning of Christmas.
“ . . . he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil . . . ”
In dying, Christ de-fanged the devil. How? By covering all our sin. This means that Satan has no legitimate grounds to accuse us before God. “Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies” (Romans 8:33) — on what grounds does he justify? Through the blood of Jesus (Romans 5:9).
Satan’s ultimate weapon against us is our own sin. If the death of Jesus takes it away, the chief weapon of the devil — the one mortal weapon that he has — is taken out of his hand. He cannot make a case for our death penalty, because the Judge has acquitted us by the death of his Son!
“ . . . and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”
So, we are free from the fear of death. God has justified us. Satan cannot overturn that decree. And God means for our ultimate safety to have an immediate effect on our lives. He means for the happy ending to take away the slavery and fear of the Now.
If we do not need to fear our last and greatest enemy, death, then we do not need to fear anything. We can be free. Free for joy. Free for others.
What a great Christmas present from God to us! And from us to the world!
When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. (Matthew 2:10–11)
God is not served by human hands as though he needed anything (Acts 17:25). The gifts of the magi are not given by way of assistance or need-meeting. It would dishonor a monarch if foreign visitors came with royal care-packages.
Nor are these gifts meant to be bribes. Deuteronomy 10:17 says that God takes no bribe. Well, what then do they mean? How are they worship?
Gifts given to wealthy, self-sufficient people are echoes and intensifiers of the giver’s desire to show how wonderful the person is. In a sense, giving gifts to Christ are like fasting — going without something to show that Christ is more valuable than what you are going without.
When you give a gift to Christ like this, it’s a way of saying, “The joy that I pursue (notice Matthew 2:10! “When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy”) — the joy that I pursue is not the hope of getting rich by bartering with you or negotiating some payment. I have not come to you for your things, but for yourself. And this desire I now intensify and demonstrate by giving up things, in the hope of enjoying you more, not things. By giving to you what you do not need, and what I might enjoy, I am saying more earnestly and more authentically, ‘You are my treasure, not these things.’”
I think that’s what it means to worship God with gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh. Or whatever else we may think of giving to God.
May God awaken in us a desire for Christ himself. May we say from the heart, “Lord Jesus, you are the Messiah, the King of Israel. All nations will come and bow down before you. God wields the world to see that you are worshiped. Therefore, whatever opposition I may find, I joyfully ascribe authority and dignity to you, and bring my gifts to say that you alone can satisfy my heart, not holding on to these gifts.”
When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. (Matthew 2:3)
Jesus is troubling to people who do not want to worship him, and he arouses opposition against those who do. This is probably not a main point in the mind of Matthew, but it is an inescapable implication as the story goes on.
In this story, there are two kinds of people who do not want to worship Jesus.
The first kind is the people who simply do nothing about Jesus. He is a nonentity in their lives. This group is represented at the beginning of Jesus’s life by the chief priests and scribes. Matthew 2:4 says, “Assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, [Herod] inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.” So they told him, and that was that: back to business as usual. The sheer silence and inactivity of the leaders is overwhelming in view of the magnitude of what was happening.
And notice, Matthew 2:3 says, “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.” In other words, the rumor was going around that someone thought the Messiah was born. The inactivity on the part of the chief priests is staggering: why not go with the magi? They are not interested. They are not passionate about finding the Son of God and worshiping him.
The second kind of people who do not want to worship Jesus is the kind who are deeply threatened by him. That’s Herod in this story. He is really afraid. So much so that he schemes and lies and then commits mass murder just to get rid of Jesus.
So today, these two kinds of opposition will come against Christ and his worshipers: indifference and hostility. I surely hope that you are not in one of those groups.
And if you are a Christian, let this Christmas be the time when you ponder what it means — what it costs — to worship and follow this Messiah.
“Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” (Matthew 2:2)
Over and over the Bible baffles our curiosity about just how certain things happened. How did this “star” get the magi from the east to Jerusalem?
It does not say that it led them or went before them on the way to Jerusalem. It only says they saw a star in the east (Matthew 2:2) and came to Jerusalem. And how did that star go before them in the little five-mile walk from Jerusalem to Bethlehem as Matthew 2:9 says it did? And how did a star “rest over the place where the child was”?
The answer is: We do not know. There are numerous efforts to explain it in terms of conjunctions of planets or comets or supernovas or miraculous lights. We just don’t know. And I want to exhort you not to become preoccupied — not to become fixated — on theories that are only tentative in the end and have very little spiritual significance.
I risk a generalization to warn you: People who are exercised and preoccupied with such things, as how the star worked and how the Red Sea split and how the manna fell and how Jonah survived the fish and how the moon turns to blood, are generally people who have what I call a mentality for the marginal.
You do not see in them a deep cherishing of the great central things of the gospel: the holiness of God, the ugliness of sin, the helplessness of man, the death of Christ, justification by faith alone, the sanctifying work of the Spirit, the glory of Christ’s return, and the final judgment. They always seem to be taking you down a sidetrack with some new article or book that they’re all excited about dealing with something marginal. There is little rejoicing over the great, central realities.
But what is plain concerning this matter of the star is that it is doing something that it cannot do on its own: It is guiding magi to the Son of God to worship him.
There is only one Person in biblical thinking that can be behind that intentionality in the stars: God himself.
So, the lesson is plain: God is guiding foreigners to Christ to worship him. And he is doing it by exerting global — probably even universal — influence and power to get it done.
Luke shows God influencing the entire Roman Empire so that the census comes at the exact time to get an insignificant virgin to Bethlehem to fulfill prophecy with her delivery. Matthew shows God influencing the stars in the sky to get a little handful of foreigners to Bethlehem so that they can worship the Son.
This is God’s design. He did it then. He is still doing it now. His aim is that the nations — all the nations (Matthew 24:14) — worship his Son.
This is God’s will for everybody in your office at work, and in your classroom, and in your neighborhood, and in your home. As John 4:23 says, “The Father is seeking such people to worship him.”
At the beginning of Matthew we still have a “come-see” pattern. But at the end the pattern is “go-tell.” The magi came and saw. We are to go and tell.
But what is not different is the purpose and power of God in the ingathering of the nations to worship his Son. The magnifying of Christ in the white-hot worship of all nations is the reason the world exists.
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews?” (Matthew 2:1–2)
Unlike Luke, Matthew does not tell us about the shepherds coming to visit Jesus in the stable. His focus is immediately on foreigners — Gentiles, non-Jews — coming from the east to worship Jesus.
So, Matthew portrays Jesus at the beginning and ending of his Gospel as a universal Messiah for all the nations, not just for Jews.
Here the first worshipers are court magicians, or astrologers, or wise men not from Israel but from the East — perhaps from Babylon. They were Gentiles. Unclean, according to the Old Testament ceremonial laws.
And at the end of Matthew, the last words of Jesus are, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:18–19).
This not only opened the door for us Gentiles to rejoice in the Messiah; it added proof that he was the Messiah. Because one of the repeated prophecies was that the nations and kings would, in fact, come to him as the ruler of the world. For example, Isaiah 60:3, “Nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.”
So, Matthew adds proof to the messiahship of Jesus and shows that he is Messiah — a King, and Promise-Fulfiller — for all the nations, not just Israel.
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:12–14)
Peace for whom? There is a somber note sounded in the angels’ praise. Peace among those on whom his favor rests. Peace among those with whom he is pleased. But without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). So Christmas does not bring peace to all.
“This is the judgment,” Jesus said, “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil” (John 3:19). Or as the aged Simeon said when he saw the child Jesus, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed . . . so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34–35). Oh, how many there are who look out on a bleak and chilly Christmas day and see no more than that — a sign to be opposed.
“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, he gave the right to become children of God” (John 1:11–12). It was only to his disciples that Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27).
The people who enjoy the peace of God that surpasses all understanding are those who in everything by prayer and supplication let their requests be made known to God (Philippians 4:6–7).
The key that unlocks the treasure chest of God’s peace is faith in the promises of God. So Paul prays, “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing” (Romans 15:13). And when we do trust the promises of God and have joy and peace and love, then God is glorified.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased! Everyone — from every people, tongue, tribe, and nation — who would believe.
And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6–7)
You would think that if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, he surely could have seen to it that a room was available in the inn.
Yes, he could have. He absolutely could have! And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family. He could have turned stone into bread in the wilderness. He could have called 10,000 angels to his aid in Gethsemane. He could have come down from the cross and saved himself. The question is not what God could do, but what he willed to do.
God’s will was that though Christ was rich, yet for your sake he became poor. The “No Vacancy” signs over all the motels in Bethlehem were for your sake. “For your sake he became poor” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
God rules all things — even hotel capacities and available Airbnbs — for the sake of his children. The Calvary road begins with a “No Vacancy” sign in Bethlehem and ends with the spitting and scoffing of the cross in Jerusalem.
And we must not forget that he said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross” (Luke 9:23).
We join him on the Calvary road and hear him say, “Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you” (John 15:20).
To the one who calls out enthusiastically, “I will follow you wherever you go!” Jesus responds, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:57–58).
Yes, God could have seen to it that Jesus have a room at his birth. But that would have been a detour off the Calvary road.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. (Luke 2:1–5)
Have you ever thought what an amazing thing it is that God ordained beforehand that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem (as the prophecy in Micah 5:2 shows); and that he so ordained things that when the time came, the Messiah’s mother and legal father were living not in Bethlehem but in Nazareth; and that in order to fulfill his word and bring two unheard-of, insignificant, little people to Bethlehem that first Christmas, God put it in the heart of Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be enrolled each in his own town? A decree for the entire world in order to move two people seventy miles!
Have you ever felt, like me, little and insignificant in a world of seven billion people, where all the news is about big political and economic and social movements and outstanding people with global significance and lots of power and prestige?
If you have, don’t let that make you disheartened or unhappy. For it is implicit in Scripture that all the mammoth political forces and all the giant industrial complexes, without their even knowing it, are being guided by God, not for their own sake, but for the sake of God’s little people — the little Mary and the little Joseph who have to be got from Nazareth to Bethlehem. God wields an empire to fulfill his word and bless his children.
Do not think, because you experience adversity in your little world of experience, that the hand of the Lord is shortened. It is not our prosperity or our fame but our holiness that he seeks with all his heart. And to that end, he rules the whole world. As Proverbs 21:1 says, “The king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will.” And he is always turning it for his saving and sanctifying and eternal purposes among his people.
He is a big God for little people, and we have great cause to rejoice that, unbeknownst to them, all the kings and presidents and premiers and chancellors and chiefs of the world follow the sovereign decrees of our Father in heaven, that we, the children, might be conformed to the image of his Son, Jesus Christ — and then enter his eternal glory.
“Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Luke 1:68–71)
Notice two remarkable things from these words of Zechariah, Elizabeth’s husband, in Luke 1.
First, nine months earlier, Zechariah could not believe his wife would have a child. Now, filled with the Holy Spirit, he is so confident of God’s redeeming work in the coming Messiah that he puts it in the past tense: “he has visited and redeemed his people.” For the mind of faith, a promised act of God is as good as done. Zechariah has learned to take God at his word and so has a remarkable assurance: God “has visited and redeemed!” (Luke 1:68).
Second, the coming of Jesus the Messiah is a visitation of God to our world: The God of Israel has visited and redeemed. For centuries, the Jewish people had languished under the conviction that God had withdrawn: the spirit of prophecy had ceased; Israel had fallen into the hands of Rome. And all the godly in Israel were awaiting the visitation of God. Luke tells us that another old man, the devout Simeon, was “waiting for the consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25). Likewise, the prayerful Anna was “waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Luke 2:38).
These were days of great expectation. Now the long-awaited visitation of God was about to happen — indeed, he was about to come in a way no one expected.
“My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” (Luke 1:46–55)
Mary sees clearly a most remarkable thing about God: He is about to change the course of all human history; the most important three decades in all of time are about to begin.
And where is God? Occupying himself with two obscure, humble women — one old and barren (Elizabeth), one young and a virgin (Mary). And Mary is so moved by this vision of God, the lover of the lowly, that she breaks out in song — a song that has come to be known as “The Magnificat.”
Mary and Elizabeth are wonderful heroines in Luke’s account. He loves the faith of these women. The thing that impresses him most, it appears, and the thing he wants to impress on Theophilus, his noble reader of his Gospel, is the lowliness and cheerful humility of Elizabeth and Mary as they submit to their magnificent God.
Elizabeth says (Luke 1:43), “And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?” And Mary says (Luke 1:48), “He has looked on the humble estate of his servant.”
The only people whose soul can truly magnify the Lord are people like Elizabeth and Mary — people who acknowledge their lowly estate and are overwhelmed by the condescension of the magnificent God.
“He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.” (Luke 1:16–17)
What John the Baptist did for Israel, Advent can do for us. Don’t let Christmas find you unprepared. I mean spiritually unprepared. Its joy and impact will be so much greater if you are ready!
So, that you might be prepared . . .
First, meditate on the fact that we need a Savior. Christmas is an indictment before it becomes a delight. “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). If you don’t need a Savior, you don’t need Christmas. Christmas will not have its intended effect until we feel desperately the need for a Savior. Let these short Advent meditations help awaken in you a bittersweet sense of need for the Savior.
Second, engage in sober self-examination. Advent is to Christmas what Lent is to Easter. “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” (Psalm 139:23–24). Let every heart prepare him room . . . by cleaning house.
Third, build God-centered anticipation and expectancy and excitement into your home — especially for the children. If you are excited about Christ, they will be too. If you can only make Christmas exciting with material things, how will the children get a thirst for God? Bend the efforts of your imagination to make the wonder of the King’s arrival visible for the children.
Fourth, be much in the Scriptures, and memorize the great passages! “Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord” (Jeremiah 23:29)! Gather ’round that fire this Advent season. It is warm. It is sparkling with colors of grace. It is healing for a thousand hurts. It is light for dark nights.