Good News for the New Year

What are the barriers that stand between you and God? Luke’s account of the Ethiopian official in Acts 8:26–40 shows you God breaking down barriers with resulting joy at the good news about Jesus. That is news you need for 2023.

God brings the ends of the earth to himself. The Holy Spirit is at work. An angel of the Lord sent Philip to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza. Acts describes barriers falling. Acts 8 begins with scattered Christians fleeing persecution bringing the good news to the Samaritans, who had corrupted the worship of the true God. Philip’s initial preaching there is confirmed by an apostolic visit. Now God sends Philip to the south of the land of God’s people, on the road to Gaza, one of the five cities of the Philistines. A bigger barrier is about to fall as Philip is instructed by the Spirit to approach the chariot of an Ethiopian official traveling home from a visit to Jerusalem. The Spirit’s work in this incident will prepare for Peter’s preaching to the Roman centurion, Cornelius, and before that, Saul’s conversion and call to be an apostle to the gentiles.

“Philip explains to the Ethiopian eunuch that the servant song of Isaiah 53:7–8 is indeed fulfilled in the person of Jesus (Acts 8:30–35). The seemingly odd inclusion of this event in Luke’s narrative illustrates the arrival of the gospel even to nations of Africa.”

G. K. Beale & Benjamin L. Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-Theological Introduction to the New Testament, page 165

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The Woman, the Children, and the Dragon

How would you design a Christmas card to reflect the biblical account of the incarnation and birth of Christ? You might read Matthew’s Gospel and picture an angel speaking to Joseph or Magi coming to worship. Read Luke, and you might picture Gabriel addressing Mary or the joyful, intimate conversation between Mary and Elizabeth. Based on the second chapter, you could paint shepherds. An account of a magnificent woman and a terrible red dragon may sound like a fairy tale. Not only is it a true story, found in Revelation 12, but it is a story in which you are involved. You are among the children mentioned in that chapter.

See the woman and her Son. The woman is the church, the faithful people of God. The woman, a majestic looking lady, is identified as a sign. John is not talking about one individual, but about the people of God, the church in the Old Testament, from whom the Messiah would come. Mother Israel will have her house filled with children by her divine Redeemer-Husband, Isaiah 54:1–8. The 12 stars take you back to the 12 sons of Israel, and Joseph’s dream, Genesis 37:9. The woman is not Mary as an individual, but she is present as part of the covenant people from whom the Messiah comes.

“Though the mother of Jesus may be secondarily in mind, the primary focus here [Revelation 12:2] is not on an individual but on the community of faith within which the messianic line ultimately yielded a kingly offspring.” “Now [Revelation 12:5] a snapshot of Christ’s entire life — his birth, his destiny of kingship, and his incipient fulfillment of that destiny in his ascent to God’s heavenly throne after his postresurrection ministry — is given in one line.”

G. K. Beale, The Book of Revelation pages 628, 639

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The Spirit of Christmas

Without attributing more to Charles Dickens than we should, his 1843 A Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas has helped our culture to shift its focus on Christmas away from what happened objectively when God became man to a time when people (hopefully) turn from Scrooge type attitudes and have warm feelings towards the Tiny Tims of this world. Philippians 2:5–11, possibly an ancient hymn, is perhaps the richest Christological passage in the New Testament. It focuses, not on your feelings, but on what God has done in the incarnation.

Marvel at the incarnation! Christ Jesus was in very nature God. He was in very nature (KJV & NKJ “form of”) God. Form makes wood a pulpit, rather than a table or chair. All that God is, Jesus Christ is. He is eternal. He is Creator. Paul’s use of “form” here (similar to “image” in Colossians 1:15 and elsewhere), begins to point you in the direction of the creation account, where God’s final creative activity was to make man in his image and likeness. Paul is suggesting that Christ is the second Adam, the true image and form of God. All the glory of heaven belongs to him. Equality with God is not blasphemy or something to be grasped — it is the truth. Remember how Herod was punished when he accepted the praise that his was the voice of a god, Acts 12:19–23. Adam’s temptation was to become like God. But being like God was not something that the second Adam held onto. Christ continues to be God, even in the incarnation. That is the term which describes God becoming man, the Word becoming flesh. While he left the glory of heaven and accepted certain limitations as the God-man, he is still God. He did not empty himself of his deity, verse 7. In his incarnation he did not cease to be God. Rather, he “made himself nothing” (or KJV “made himself of no reputation”). Although the literal meaning is “empty” the term is often used in a sense other than literal. The context explains the verb in terms of addition, not subtraction. The kenotic theory of the incarnation is wrong.

Yet Jesus made himself nothing (v. 7), or ’emptied himself.’ Paul does not mean that the evacuated himself of the power of deity. He explains that his words mean that Jesus took the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Lord of glory though he was, he emptied himself, not by subtraction of his divine attributes, but by the assumption of human nature. He was Immanuel, God truly with us, fully God and yet truly man.”

Sinclair B. Ferguson, Let’s Study Ephesians, pages 43–44

And, having finished his work of redemption, the ascended Christ is still truly human as well as truly God. The incarnation is permanent.

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What Does a Sight-Impaired Prophet See?

We live in a fast food, instant gratification culture. In the strange incident of Balak, king of Moab, seeking to have Balaam curse Israel, you see in Numbers 24:17, not only the triumph of the kingdom of God over its enemies, but also a contrast between the desire for immediate victory and God’s patient outworking of his plans in the coming Messiah.

Recognize the Star out of Jacob. Balaam saw a distant figure. The setting of this prophecy is unusual. Israel is camped in the plains of Moab, preparatory to entering the promised land. The words of the prophecy are spoken from the overlooking mountain Peor, Numbers 23:28. Balaam is not one of the prophets of Israel, but is a free-lance, self-appointed prophet, from Mesopotamia, whose services are available to the highest bidder. Though he claims to be conversant with JHWH, Moses’ frequent use of the name, “God” (Elohim), may hint that this man really does not have the claimed intimate contact with Israel’s God. Balak, king of Moab, has hired him to curse the Israelites in an effort to eliminate a nation he saw as a threat. For the king, religion has its place—as a tool in accomplishing one’s goals. Balaam has come, but only after warning the king (after he was warned by the Angel of the Lord), that he could speak only what the Lord says. God will not allow his people to be harmed. After three attempts at cursing, which resulted only in pronouncements of blessing, with Balak frantically trying to get Balaam to shut up and go home, Balaam proclaims what will happen in the future, the “days to come,” verse 14. Balaam sees a figure on the horizon, too dim to recognize, except to note that he is a royal, majestic figure. His coming is future. He is neither “now” nor “near.”

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Magic or Pentecost’s Power?

“That most magical time of the year,” may be a commercialized takeoff on the song that Andy Williams popularized. You may think of good feelings — and buying things. “Magic” may bring to mind someone pulling a rabbit out of a hat or other sleight of hand. Some magic is far less amusing. It is an effort to manipulate super-human powers for one’s own advantage. Acts 8:9–25 contrasts that manipulative self-centeredness with the free, liberating gospel of God’s grace.

The gospel liberates those who believe. The free grace of God breaks the enslaving power of sin. As the good news expands in Samaria, the kingdom of God replaces the rule of magic. Magic enslaves its followers. For hundreds of years Samaritan worship had compromised the service of the true God. Note Jesus’ response to the woman in John 4. As believers in Jesus arrived in Samaria they found people deceived by Simon the Sorcerer, sometimes known as Simon Magus. People followed him and were under his authority. Some early sources link him with the rise of the Gnostic heresy, but Luke’s main focus is not on him, despite the high view his followers held, considering him divine or at least semi-divine. God had forbidden his people to use magic, Deuteronomy 18:9–13, as it inevitably turns people away from looking to God. The gospel liberates those who believe. Philip was simply preaching the good news of the kingdom and the name of Jesus Christ.

“One of the basic point I am wanting to bring out from Acts 1:6–8 is that the worldwide proclamation of the gospel by the apostles, the impending task of apostolic preaching to the nations, beginning Jerusalem is a manifestation of the kingdom of God. Reinforcing that point is the fact that all further references in Acts to the kingdom, with one exception (14:22), are in summary statements that specify the central content of preaching: 8:12; 19:8; 20:25; 28:30, 31. Each of these statements sums up the preaching taking place in fulfillment of the mandate to the apostles in Acts 1:8”

Richard B. Gaffin Jr., In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, page 93

The free grace of God breaks the enslaving power of sin. The power of the kingdom of Christ was evident in the casting out of demons miracles of healing. Significantly, the sacrament of baptism marks the entrance into the kingdom of God. Among those baptized was Simon, though his faith is questionable, Acts 8:21; and see John 6:2, 66.

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