Joy to the world? But there are viruses, fighting, work challenges, illness, and death. Can you really sing “Joy to the World”? When you look at Psalm 98 on which it is based, the answer is, “Yes!”
Sing! Look back at God’s marvelous deeds. The first part of the Psalm looks back to what God had done. “Marvelous things” are not just any actions, but focus on the Exodus and the related miracles that the Lord performed as he led his people through the wilderness into the promised land. He emphasizes that it was not the might or wisdom of his people that delivered them, but his own right hand and holy arm. He has made his salvation known. Salvation is a broad enough term to include, positively, deliverance for his people, and, in contrast, victory over an oppressive enemy. However difficult your present situation, the Lord assures you that he was with you, his covenant people, in the past. He is the unchanging God, and thus you are assured that he is and will be with you.
Sing a new song! When the Lord performs new acts of salvation, his people respond with new songs of praise, Psalm 33:3; 96:1; 98:1; 144:9; 149:1; Isaiah 42:10; Revelation 5. The new work of salvation has its culmination in the coming of the One whom the angel told Joseph to name Jesus—for he will save his people from their sins. When John sees the Lion-Lamb in heaven, with his saving work accomplished, the Lord is praised with a new song. Notice how the work of delivering his people Israel broadens into a display of his work to the ends of the earth. “There are certain phrases and figures in the Psalter, which are connected with the idea of plan and continuity in the work of God and of its destination to arrive at a final goal. Most characteristic of these, because most Psalm-like, is the phrase ‘a new song.’ occurring five times.” (335–336) “The Psalmists know that the end is not flung upon the world out of the lap of chance, but that it proceeds with stately, unhastened, unretarded step from the council-chamber of God.” (337) “When the Psalmists make eschatology the anchor of salvation, this is not done in a self-centered spirit…. the Psalmist succeeds in forgetting his own woes for the woes of for the hopes of the people as a whole., But it is even more important to notice that he is able to forget them for the overwhelming thought of the glory of Jehovah. The gloria in excelsis which the Psalter sings arise not seldom from a veritable de profundis and, leaving behind the storm-clouds of its own distress, mounts before Jehovah in the serenity of a perfect praise.” (339) (Geerhardus Vos, Eschatology of the Psalter)
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We sing “O little town of Bethlehem.” Little is not just a sentimental description. Bethlehem was an insignificant town. But Micah’s prophesy (5:2) echoed through the years to be recalled by the priests almost seven centuries later.
Trust the humble Messiah. Bethlehem was insignificant. The town was ancient. Both “Bethlehem” and “Ephrathah” were associated with it (Genesis 35:19) but it was a small, unimportant town. It was the boyhood home of David, but that alone didn’t give it lasting importance. We may be proud of Newberg as the boyhood home of President Hoover, but that doesn’t put the town on the map. Perhaps the insignificance of Bethlehem was one of the reasons the priests and leaders of Israel, although able to cite this prophecy in response to Herod’s question, failed to follow the Magi to Bethlehem. The Magi must have been surprised. After following the star to the land of the Jews (where people responded, “What newborn king?”) they are directed out of Jerusalem to little Bethlehem. Today the kingdom of God still often appears insignificant to men. The church seems (and is) weak. Often it is unnoticed.
In the context of humility God does great things. God picks Bethlehem as the setting where the incarnation comes to light. As far as the leaders of Israel in Herod’s day are concerned, the problem is not only the insignificance of Bethlehem. More serious still is their assumption that any king worth knowing would have made his presence known to them. The chief priests were in charge of the Temple. If the Messiah had indeed come, the Temple would have been the place to which he would have come. The experts in the law just knew that the Messiah had not arrived—or they would have known. Yes, they will answer Herod’s demand. They will quote the prophecy to the Magi—and let them go off on their wild goose chase. They are not going to waste their time on wild rumors. Humble Bethlehem is a fitting birthplace, for this Ruler will grow up, not in a palace, but in a carpenter’s home. His retinue will be, not well-bred courtiers, but 12 former fishermen, tax collectors, etc. His mouth will utter, not royal proclamations, but the good news of the kingdom of heaven. And his work will not be imperial domination but suffering and death. But through his unlikely appearing work God would bring about the salvation of his people. Precisely because he was born in Bethlehem in this humble condition, he is equipped to be your perfect Savior. He comes “for me,” on God’s behalf. His birth in Bethlehem calls you to trust, not the power structures of men, but the Savior God provides, Micah 5:10 ff. Remember how that Ruler, now seated at the right hand of the Father, is building his kingdom—not with the tools of political power, but through the ordinary means of grace. Yes, Christians can and should be involved in the affairs of government, but don’t fall into the trap of putting your trust in them. Without the force of arms, without an earthly political structure, his kingdom would expand throughout the world.
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Why was a banner, a flag so important in warfare before modern means of communication were available? The flag let the soldiers know where the king or the general was. You followed the flag into battle. Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem to register, according to Luke 2, because he was of the line of David. Did he reflect on his ancestry as he did so? Why is it so important that the Messiah be identified in Isaiah 11:10 (and elsewhere) as the descendant of Jesse and David?
Trust the Root of Jesse. God has provided a Shoot from Jesse’s stump. Isaiah 10:43–44 had described God’s judgment in terms of his felling the forests of Assyria. Judah, too was cut down, but from the stump a shoot would grow, see Isaiah 11:1; 4:2; 53:2; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12. The root of Jesse was not dead. God would not forget his covenantal promise to David in 2 Samuel 7 nor his earlier promise to Abraham. A descriptive name takes on the status of Messianic title. It takes the eye of faith to recognize the righteous Branch. You see God’s sovereignty in the Servant passages of Isaiah 40-48. As Isaiah prophesies and celebrates the ending of Israel’s (yet future) exile, he describes Cyrus, by name 100 years before his time, as God’s servant, Isaiah 45:1ff. But in a deeper sense, Israel is God’s servant, Isaiah 43:1; 44:1. Yet neither the people of Israel nor the king of Persia are fully qualified to be the Servant of the Lord. Thus Isaiah sings of a greater Servant, Isaiah 42:1–9 and Isaiah 52:13–53:12. This Branch is none less than the Son of God. The eternal Son was sent by the Father. When did the Son of God begin to be? He did not begin to be at Christmas. He is Son from all eternity. He is Creator, John 1:1-3. He is fully God, Romans 9:5. He was born of a woman. God sent his own Son. The persons of the Trinity cooperate in the incarnation. His birth was like your birth, like any human birth. “The incarnation is the central fact of history and of the church’s confession: ‘Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness. He was manifested in the flesh’ (1 Tim. 3:16). Even before the the Fall, God eternally decided that the Son should assume a human nature, consisting of a body and soul. As the eternal Son who has no beginning and no end, he has always known that he would become the incarnate one (i.e. ‘the enfleshed one’).” (Mark Jones, Knowing Christ, p. 26).
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While there is no command in Scripture to celebrate the birth of Christ at a particular time of year, the event is certainly something that God’s people should celebrate. And it provides an opportunity to remind ourselves how the entire Scriptures focus on the work of Jesus Christ. What does Genesis 12:1–9 tell you about how God expects you to respond to the coming of his Son?
See God working out his promise. God prepares a people for himself. The genealogy of Shem is God preparing a line. Adam and Eve had sinned, but God promised a Redeemer. Sin continued to grow. The Flood condemned sin, while at the same time it brought deliverance for Noah and his family. Babel shows that the heart of mankind continues to be rebellious. The implication of the death of each member continues in the genealogy of Genesis 11, parallel to Genesis 5. The rest after the Flood does not mean the end of sin or its consequences. The situation is bleak and God graciously renews the promise of the coming Messiah. God is establishing a separate people. The coming Redeemer, though truly one of us (a descendant of Eve and of Abraham–born of a woman, born under law, Gal 4:4) would be unlike us, in that we are sinners and rebels, but he is perfect. Therefore God chose a separate people. Trust in the coming Redeemer would require a break with idolatry and immorality. What made Abraham different from the people around him? Similar background and language doesn’t seem to have been a barrier. The difference is that Abraham is building altars and calling on the name of the Lord. Abraham is walking in fellowship with God and in obedience to him. Although there is separation from the world, God’s blessing involves the world. As God called Abram to leave his family, Ur, etc., his concern is not just “spiritual” things in the narrow sense. God’s saving work involves and affects your daily life. As those who are God’s chosen people today, you are called to a similar separation, 1 Peter 2:9–12. God’s people expand to include the nations at Pentecost, but they still contrast with the world, particularly in the ethical sense.
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