Advent thoughts: December 12

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive a bear a son and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14—read Isaiah 7:10-20).

King Ahaz of Judah feared the alliance the kings of Israel and Syria had made against him. Ahaz did not turn to the Lord, but the Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to speak to Ahaz. God already had a plan to rescue the people of Judah and to overthrow their enemies. Ahaz clearly did not believe the prophet’s news, so Isaiah invited the king to ask for any sign, any miracle from God to show that his promise was true. Ahaz, with false modesty and phony religion, refused the offer of a sign from the Lord. He perhaps remembered that one was not to demand a sign from God (Deuteronomy 6:16). If that is the case, he failed to see the difference between demanding a sign from God and accepting God’s offer of a sign.

When the Lord makes an offer, we should never refuse it. When he offers to forgive our sins, free of charge, we should accept. When he makes an offer to claim us as his children, we should accept. When he makes an offer to defeat our enemies, pay all our debts, and grant us eternal life, we should accept. There is no power in our acceptance of God’s offer: the power is in God’s Word, given to us. At the same time, refusal of the Lord’s offer has bad consequences that are eternal.

Because Ahaz would ask for no sign, God chose the sign. “A virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” The Hebrew word “alma” can be translated “young unmarried woman, “but young unmarried women who became pregnant were called other names—either victims or sinners. They were not called “alma.”

Who is this virgin who conceives? Matthew indicates that this prophecy was fulfilled when Mary conceived and bore Jesus (Matthew 1:23). That should be enough for us. But some people point out that the conception and birth of Jesus, hundreds of years in the future, could hardly be relevant to Ahaz with his problem. They wonder if some other virgin, or at least some young woman, conceived and gave birth in the months following Isaiah’s prophecy. If so, there might be two fulfillments, one immediate and a more important one later. Others say that there can be only one fulfillment to a prophecy, and that if Matthew says Mary is the virgin, then Mary is the virgin; no more can be said.

On the other hand, it might be even more complicated than that. For the book of Revelation—surely the most complicated book of the Bible—describes a woman who is clothed in heavenly glory, is about to give birth, and is threatened by a dragon. The dragon is later identified as Satan. The woman gives birth to “a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Revelation 12:5). That can only be Jesus. After he is born, the woman is hidden and protected in the wilderness, the dragon is thrown out of heaven, and he seeks to destroy the woman. Bu the woman is preserved as the earth swallows that which comes from the mouth of the dragon. This woman is later revealed to be the Queen of Heaven.

Who is this Queen of Heaven? Not Mary the mother of Jesus, but God’s people the Bride of Jesus. In the Old Testament God’s people are called Israel. In the New Testament God’s people are called the Church. They are one and the same. Israel trusted God’s promise that a Savior would come, and the Church trusts God’s promise that a Savior has come, but they have the same promise and the same Savior. Before Christ came, Israel was a virgin bride awaiting the bridegroom; the Church is still waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Yet it was God’s people who produced the Savior, as Matthew and Luke reveal with their genealogies.

Matthew was not wrong to say that the prophecy was fulfilled in Mary. Mary was all of God’s people condensed into one historic individual. Her submission to the will of the Lord is shown in our faith. Nothing is impossible for the Lord—not the virgin birth, and not our salvation. The sign given to Ahaz is a sign for all people, past, present, and future. It is a sign of the defeat of God’s people and the victory of God’s chosen Savior.

Ahaz was worried about Israel and Syria. God answered his problem with a bigger problem: the Assyrian Empire. The Egyptian empire was like a swarm of flies, but the Assyrian empire was like a swarm of bees. They came with great power, bringing destruction in their wake. Yet they too were repulsed when they took their stand against Judah and Jerusalem, the people and the city of God. They were defeated by the Babylonians, who were defeated by the Persians, who were defeated by Alexander the Great, who died young, leaving his generals as his heirs, and the descendants of those generals were defeated by the Romans. And so it goes.

But a power stands greater than the power of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Alexander, and Rome combined. That greater power is Immanuel. God is with us. God became one of us as Jesus Christ, and he defeated greater enemies even than the Assyrians or the Romans, those who made the power of Israel and Syria seem puny by comparison. Whenever we worry about the things that seem big and fearsome to us, God responds with promises that are far bigger and grander. He responds with redemption, the grandest promise and victory of all. Thanks be to God!

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Advent thoughts: December 4

“I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17—read Numbers 24:15-19).

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem, wise men came from the east, following a star. From the appearance of that star, they knew that a king had been born in Israel. The wise men came to worship him and to offer him gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Why would wise men associate the appearance of a star with the birth of a king in Israel? And why would they wish to worship such a king? The answer appears to lie in the prophecy of Balaam as recorded in Numbers 24. Balaam was a prophet of the true God, even though he was not an Israelite. He was not descended from Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Even though God had chosen that family to be a holy nation, God’s grace was not exclusively for that one family or that one nation. There were always believers among the other nations of the world, even kings and prophets who honored the true God. Balaam was one of those prophets.

The Israelites were on their way to the Promised Land. God directed them around the countries of Edom, Moab, and Ammon, because those nations were kindred to the Israelites. However, Balak king of Moab feared the Israelites and their might. Therefore, he tried to hire Balaam, prophet of the true God, to curse the Israelites.

Balaam did not curse them; instead, he blessed the Israelites. Three times he blessed them. The third time the blessing turned to prophecy, and Balaam spoke of the blessing for the entire world that would come from Abraham’s family while they lived in the Promised Land. Balaam spoke of the coming King as a star and as a scepter. These words were preserved by Moses in the book of Numbers. They quite likely were written and remembered in other places as well.

Therefore, when Jesus was born, wise men were led by a star to come and honor him. These wise men, or Magi, were scholars, advisors to a government. They could be compared to Cabinet officers in the American government. The first group called Magi arose in the Persian Empire, but Egyptian kings and Babylonian kings had also had advisors. Their job was to know as much as could be known about everything: history, languages, literature, religions, science, and any other subject that might influence or affect the government they served. If anyone outside of Israel would have known Balaam’s prophecy, it would be a group of Magi.

From where did they come? Some say Babylon, and some say Persia. There is a significant clue, though, in the gifts they brought. Since ancient times, when representatives of different governments have met, they have exchanged products of their homeland with one another. Presidents still do this today. Only one place in the world produces gold and frankincense and myrrh in any abundance. That place is Arabia.

This would not be the last time that a group of Arabs caused consternation to the government in Jerusalem. That was not their intention, though. They came to honor a King. And the gifts they brought, products of Arabia, were also highly symbolic of the nature of that King. Gold recognized his kingship. Frankincense recognized that he is also a Priest, for incense is used in the worship of God. Myrrh recognized that he would be not only Priest but also Sacrifice. In fact, when Jesus was buried after offering the sacrifice that defeated his enemies, his burial was accomplished with strips of linen, with aloes, and with myrrh.

Balaam is remembered largely for the fact that his donkey once spoke to him (Numbers 22:28-30). Far more important is that he foretold the star that would signal the birth of a King. That King would be honored by foreigners even though he was rejected by his own people. From this we see the growth of the Church which contains people from every nation, language, tribe, and culture, all honoring the same Savior and citizens of the same Kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.

Prophecy and fulfillment

We people move one direction in time, from past to present and from present to future. Sometimes we forget that God sees all history at a glance and that he can jump into any time as he chooses. When we speak of prophecy, our descriptions sometimes miss the mark because we have forgotten that God is timeless.

We say that God knows everything, including the future. Of course God knows everything, but the future is not something he foreknows as much as something he already sees. Worse, sometimes people picture God fulfilling prophecy as if he was checking items off a list: “Let’s see—born of a virgin? check. Born in Bethlehem? check. Honored by Gentiles? check. Called out of Egypt? Let’s see how I can get him into Egypt so I can bring him home again.”

When God spoke to the prophets about future events, God was describing things he had already experienced. He never had to figure out how to fulfill a prophecy. As far as God was concerned, he was talking about things that had already happened. When God described Judas’ betrayal of Christ, he was not foreordaining that Christ would be betrayed by a certain man. He was telling what had already happened, the betrayal that Judas chose freely to perform. David and Isaiah wrote about the crucifixion of Jesus, and Jesus predicted his own crucifixion, but the priests and elders did not think of sending Jesus to the cross until Governor Pilate offered them a choice—to free Jesus or to free a terrorist named Barabbas. When the crowd chose Barabbas, they then began demanding that Jesus be sent to the cross, which was to have been the execution of Barabbas.

The focus of the Old Testament prophecies was always the rescue mission performed by Jesus. Trying to predict our future based on Biblical prophecies is pointless, not because the prophecies are unreliable, but because they have already been fulfilled. What of Judgment Day? That Day will come, as hurricanes and earthquakes remind us, but the propheciesabout that Day were met nearly two thousand years ago. As the Son of God was hanging on a cross, the sun went dark and the earth shook, even as the prophets had described. The Father’s judgment was poured on Jesus that day, which is why Christians need not fear the coming Judgment Day. Our judgment and our rescue have already been accomplished.

The book of Revelation describes a battle at a place called Armageddon. That name, Armageddon, means the heights of Megiddo. Megiddo is an ancient city built upon a plain. Several key battles were fought upon that plain, including the battle in which King Josiah was killed. The picture of all the nations of the world gathering to fight on the heights of Megiddo (which do not exist) is an image of the world-wide rebellion of sinners. That rebellion began in Eden when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. It still rages today. It will end when Jesus appears in glory, and it will end without a bomb exploding or a shot being fired. That is the case, not because of some future event, but because of the victory Jesus won over sin and evil while nailed to the cross.

All the prophecies of the Bible are fulfilled in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. If he should appear in glory this afternoon to raise the dead and call all people to judgment, no one could say to him, “But wait! You can’t do this yet! Something else has to happen first!” For this reason, Christians prepare themselves for the glorious appearance of Christ every day, even while we make plans for tomorrow and next year and the more distant future. We have one foot in each world—we live in this world and deal with it, while we also are citizens of the kingdom of heaven.

We read the New Testament to learn about Jesus. We also read the Old Testament to learn about Jesus. The sacrifices and holidays of the Old Testament were lessons about Jesus. Moses and the prophets wrote about Jesus. Even the commandments of God are descriptions of the perfect, sinless life Jesus lived for our redemption. It’s all about Jesus, and for us, all the news is good news. J.

Christ in Genesis: the Lion of the Tribe of Judah

Before he died, Jacob gathered his sons and prophesied about their future. Beginning with the oldest, he worked his way through each son, speaking of what would happen to their families. His longest blessing was reserved for Judah, the son through whom the messianic promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob would be fulfilled.

Jacob began by saying that Judah’s brothers would praise him and that his father’s sons would bow down before him. At this time, such statements would have been more appropriate to describe Joseph, who was running Egypt and was using his authority to take care of his family. When the children of Israel returned to the Promised Land and defeated the Canaanites, the tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh (descended from Joseph) dominated northern Israel while the tribe of Judah dominated in the south. The first king, Saul, came from the tribe of Benjamin, but the most successful dynasty of Israel was that of David, who came from the tribe of Judah.

Jacob spoke of that dynasty and of the messianic King who would come from David’s family. “Judah is a lion’s cub,” Jacob said. “From the prey, my son, you have gone up. He stooped down; he crouched as a lion and as a lioness; who dares rouse him?” Revelation 5:5 associates Jesus with this verse, saying, “Behold: the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Satan is also called a lion in the Bible, though he is more often connected with a serpent, the form he chose to use to deceive Eve. Yet Jesus is also represented by a serpent in Numbers 21, as Jesus himself affirms in John 3:14-15.

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes,” Jacob said. Commentaries on Genesis devote pages to deciphering the identity of Shiloh. A city of this name was built and for a time was home to the Tabernacle, but the city was probably named for the promise, rather than the promise predicting the city. “Shiloh” appears related to “Shalom,” which means peace, and some interpreters have suggested that the promise was fulfilled with Solomon, the son of David. Yet the best interpretation of this verse is that Shiloh is another name for the Messiah, the Prince of Peace. Solomon was only another picture of Jesus, but Jesus himself is the fulfillment of this promise. When Roman authority placed Herod, the Idumean, over the Jews, then it was time for the true King of the Jews to be born.

“To him shall be the obedience of the peoples. Binding his foal to the vine and his donkey’s colt to the choice vine, he has washed his garments in wine and his vesture in the blood of grapes. His eyes are darker than wine, and his teeth whiter than milk.” All these images are fulfilled in Jesus. He rode a colt, the foal of a donkey, into Jerusalem. He declared to his followers, “I am the Vine, and you are the branches.” He shed his blood on the cross to rescue sinners, but a few hours earlier he held a cup of wine in his hands and said, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new testament in my blood” (Luke 22:20). Before he died, his own clothing was taken away by the soldiers; but through his death, Jesus has clothed his people in his righteousness. As Adam and Eve were clothed by God, and as Jacob was accepted by Isaac because of Esau’s clothing, and as the brothers of Joseph brought the blood-stained robe of Joseph to their father, so we are clothed in Christ, washed clean in his blood, and made acceptable to our Father.

By his prophecy, Jacob prepared his family for the coming of the Messiah. Jesus is the Son of David, the Prince of Peace, the Redeemer of the world. He is the Lion of the tribe of Judah, set to rule all nations under his scepter and to bring peace to the entire world.