Is the same message in all the world’s religions?

My seven “Conspiracy Theories about Christianity” posts provided an opportunity for an interesting conversation which included the question above. Are all the religions of the world essentially saying the same thing, or is there a difference among them?

I suppose to answer that question, one must first define religion. Is religion worship of a God or gods? Is religion a collection of moral guidelines? Is religion an attempt to understand the surrounding world and its history? Is religion a way of life?

If the core of religion is morality, then most of the world’s religions have almost the same message. Indeed, many secular philosophies agree on a moral code. Nearly every religion has some version of the Golden Rule (“Do unto others the way you would have them do unto you”). With the exception of Friedrich Nietzsche and Ayn Rand, people all over the world believe that kindness to others is essential for a moral life. This includes respecting the lives, families, property, and reputations of others. Caring for the world in general is often a religious principle. Not being obsessed with worldly things such as wealth and political power is generally recommended by religions and by philosophies. Most religions would also add reverence toward holy things, including God or the gods.

How do people explain a common moral code throughout humanity? A secular thinker might claim that this moral sense evolved to protect the survival of the human species. A religious thinker might respond that the Creator embedded these morals in all people, giving us a conscience to guide us, to condemn us when we do wrong, and to defend us when we do right and are accused of doing wrong.

Religious practices are very diverse, but they can be diverse within religions as well as between religions. The four services of an Eastern Orthodox congregation, a high-church Anglican congregation, a rural Baptist congregation, and an inner-city Pentecostal congregation might each seem foreign to visitors from the other three congregations, even as they honor the same God and proclaim the same faith in Jesus Christ while reading from the same Bible. One truth can be stated and celebrated in a variety of ways.

For Christians, however, the core truth of their religion is neither moral codes nor worship practices. The core truth is Jesus Christ, crucified to atone for sin and risen to proclaim victory over evil. The core truth is salvation by grace through faith in Jesus. True, some Christian groups veer from the core truth into distractions: works righteousness, political activity (whether right-wing or left-wing), help for the poor and afflicted, or making the worship experience just right. These distractions—some from bad things and others from good things—may make people inside the Church and people outside the Church confused about the purpose of the Church. The Church does one thing that no one else in the world can do. That one thing is not to teach morality or to help the poor or to provide an inspiring and uplifting experience. The one thing that happens only among Christians is forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ.

Other religions offer ways to become connected to God or to the gods. These ways generally include various human acts: prayers, incantations, sacrifices, self-harm, and others. Christianity teaches that reconciliation with God is accomplished by God as he enters the world as Jesus of Nazareth, keeping God’s promise of a Savior, living a sinless life in the place of every sinful life, paying a ransom on the cross—giving his own life to purchase sinners for the kingdom of God, and defeating every form of evil—including death—by his death and resurrection.

Imagine a group of people gathered from the various religions of the world. Imagine each of them being asked to list what is wrong in the world. Compare the lists. They would probably be very similar. They would include such problems as war, crimes, violence, hatred, disrespect for authority, pollution of the environment, loss of awe toward the holy, and the like. Now ask them what should be done to improve the world. One Hindu might say, “Accept it and learn from it—it’s karma.” Another Hindu might say, “But my karma is to be a good person and make the world better.” A Buddhist might say, “Do the right things—the Eight-Fold Path—without becoming attached to the things of the world.” A Daoist might say, “Just go with the flow.” A Confucianist might say, “Learn the rules and do what is right.” A Shintoist might say, “Be in harmony with all the spirits and living things that surround you.” A Jew might say, “Obey the commandments and honor the Holy One.” A Muslim might say, “Praise Allah and live according to his instruction.” But a Christian would say, “All those things are well and good, but we cannot fix the world. Evil is too big for us to fight it alone. Jesus has already come to fix what is broken. He has forgiven sinners. He has rescued victims. He will make the world new. He is waiting now for more to learn what he has done and come to faith in him before he reappears to make everything new.”

That Christian is not going to despise obedience to the moral code. That Christian is going to try his or her best to honor God, help his or her neighbors, improve the world, and fight evil. But that Christian does not count his or her works as the real answer to evil. The real answer is that the good and holy God has already defeated evil, not as a warrior, but as a victim. His love and his forgiveness are for all people. God does not want to punish any sinners; he wants the entire world to be reconciled to him.

When evil first entered the world, God promised our ancestors a rescue mission. The serpent’s head would be crushed. God would prevail over evil. This promise was for all people. C.S. Lewis has proposed that the theme of a hero who dies and returns to life, found in so many cultures all over the world, is a dim memory of that promise. I suggested last week that the same theme might come from the natural cycle of planting and harvesting, but that God placed that cycle into our world as a picture of the death and resurrection of Jesus, who said, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

Again, God does not want to judge and condemn sinners. He wants to rescue sinners. He promises that the citizens of his kingdom will come from all the nations and tribes and languages of the world. But they cannot come from all the religions of the world. All those in the new creation will be reconciled to God through Jesus Christ. Those who say, “There is no God” or “there are many gods” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Those who say “God has no Son” or “I am my own savior” cannot be reconciled until they learn the truth. Jesus wants all people to know the truth. He sent his apostles to preach the Gospel to the entire world. The Church continues today to reach out to the entire world. We do not say “only Christians will be saved” because we want to close heaven to others. We say “only Christians will be saved” because we want others to come to know Jesus and to trust in him. We look forward to the beautiful harmonious diversity of the new creation, in which people from every culture gather together, united by our Savior, Jesus Christ. J.

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Conspiracy theories about Christianity: #7: Did the Council of Nicaea invent the Trinity in the year 325?”

A great amount of information about the Council of Nicaea (325) is easily available on the Internet and in many books. Given that fact, it is surprising that conspiracy theories about the Council continue to be shared and believed. Dan Brown’s character Teabing manages to make more false statements in one page of The Da Vinci Code than I have included in entire true-false quizzes used in my college history classes.

The Roman Emperor Constantine had a vision which led him to become a Christian. He delayed his baptism until the day of his death, not because he was insincere in his faith, but because he wrongly thought that Baptism would remove only past sins and was therefore best delayed to the end of life. Constantine made many public confessions of his Christian faith. He was well-informed about the doctrines of Christianity, and he supported all the teachings of the Church.

Constantine was appalled to learn of a controversy among Christians in Egypt over the divinity of Christ. Arius held that Jesus was created by God the Father and therefore a lesser being to the Father. Athanasius held that the Father and the Son were equally God with the Holy Spirit, all three eternal and unchanging and divine, equal in power and authority and glory. Arius had a pleasant personality and good rapport with other Christians; Athanasius was a bit more unlikeable, but he happened to be right. To clear the air of this controversy, Constantine summoned a council to meet in the town of Nicaea. He invited all the bishops of Christianity to attend. At least 250 arrived. (The traditional number is 318, but 250 is the lowest estimate.) The Emperor, the bishops, and their assistants prayed, studied the Bible, and discussed what it says about the Father and the Son. The Council wrote a document, the Nicene Creed, which was approved by all but two of the bishops in attendance.

The Council did coin new words to summarize what the Bible says about God, but it was determined to stick to what the Bible teaches and not to create new doctrine. The most controversial word at the time was not Trinity (meaning three in one), but homoousios, translated into English as “being of one substance.” The entire phrase that contains that word identifies Jesus as “God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father.”

Was this idea new? Even the Torah identifies the Trinity, consisting of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord. In passages such as Genesis 22 and Exodus 3, the Angel of the Lord speaks of God in both the third person (he, him) and the first person (I, me). In the creation account at the beginning of Genesis, God speaks to himself in the plural (“Let us make man in our image”). Many messianic passages in the Hebrew Bible identify the Messiah as God or as the Son of God. (Psalm 2 is a good example of this.)

The New Testament is not shy about declaring Jesus to be the Son of God. Paul uses that phrase about Jesus many times (Romans 1:4, for example). John beings his Gospel by writing, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Later he quotes Jesus as saying, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father… I am in the Father and the Father is in me…” (John 14:9-10) Much of the letter to the Hebrews was written to assert the equality of Jesus with his Father.

Why, then, does Jesus say, “the Father is greater than I”?(John 14:28)? The most succinct explanation comes from another document, written well after the Council of Nicaea. Jesus is equal to the Father in regard to his divinity and less than the Father in regard to his humanity. It took several Church Councils to sort through the language needed to talk about Jesus. He is one Person but has two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. The human nature is part of creation and subject to the will of the Father, but the divine nature is equal to the Father in every way. Because Jesus is without sin, his two natures are in complete agreement with each other.

“God is love” (I John 4:16). A Unitarian God can only possess love; He/She/It could never be love. But the Trinitarian God has love as the very basis of his being. The Father loves the Son and the Spirit. The Son loves the Father and the Spirit. The Spirit loves the Father and the Son. This God who is love created the universe as a gift of love. Into this universe he placed individuals whom he could love; individuals who could love him and could love each other. True love makes one vulnerable. By giving humans the freedom to love, God also allowed the freedom not to love. Humans have taken that path. But the love of God has not failed. God the Son entered creation to be a Ransom; to pay the price that frees humans from their failure to love. The Son became human—the Father and the Spirit did not. The Son was required to obey the commands of his Father, and he did so. The Son exchanged places with each human, clothing sinful humans in his perfection while taking the punishment sinful humans deserve on himself. The Son died on a Roman cross—the Father and the Spirit did not die. Human death separates the spirit from the body. The body of Jesus was buried; his spirit was in the hands of his Father in Paradise. But that spirit returned to his body on Easter, promising a resurrection to eternal life for all who trust in him.

The Council of Nicaea invented none of these teachings. They found all of them in the Bible and they summarized them in the Nicene Creed. Eighteen centuries later, Christians still use that Creed to summarize what we believe. We believe it because God said it through his prophets and apostles. The message has never changed. It will never change. The Word of God stands forever. J.

Advent thoughts: December 19

“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—read Jeremiah 31:31-34).

God’s love is more important to him than his justice. God has justice and righteousness, but God is love. His grace is greater than his law. He prefers rescuing sinners rather than punishing them.

Therefore, God’s new covenant is older than his old covenant. The old covenant comes first to diagnose our need for a Savior, but the new covenant was in God’s mind when he began to create the world. God knew that his people would sin. He knew they would need a Savior, because they would not be able to rescue themselves from sin and evil. He knew that he would have to pay the full price to redeem sinners. Knowing these things, God chose to create the world and chose to continue his plan of redemption.

So, God gave the old covenant to his chosen people. He said, “I will be your God, and you will be my people.” He told them what it meant to be his people: to have no other gods; to honor his name and his time and the earthly authorities that represent his authority; to love their neighbors and respect their neighbors’ lives, marriages, property, and reputations; and to be content with what God provided them, not coveting what belonged to their neighbors. He said that if they kept their side of the covenant, he would provide them with safety and prosperity. If they broke the terms of the old covenant, he would cause famine and drought and poverty, and he would allow them to fall into the hands of their enemies.

The old covenant is conditional. The new covenant is unconditional. Because his people broke the terms of the old covenant, he allowed them to be afflicted by drought and famine. He allowed them to be afflicted by Midianites and Philistines and Assyrians and Babylonians. He allowed them to be captured and carried off into captivity. Even the holy city Jerusalem and the Temple of the Lord were destroyed under the terms of the old covenant because his chosen people were unfaithful to the Lord.

At the same time that they preached about the old covenant and the consequences of breaking God’s commands, Moses and the prophets also spoke of a new covenant. Moses prepared the people for a king and priest and prophet. Isaiah repeatedly told of the coming servant who would be Immanuel, God with us. Jeremiah specifically promised a new covenant that would be different from the old covenant, because it would be based on God’s faithfulness and not on the faithfulness of the people.

“I will be their God, and they will be my people,” God said. Those words belong to both the old covenant and the new covenant. Under the terms of the old covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of the people determined whether they remained God’s people. Under the terms of the new covenant, the thoughts and words and actions of God determine whether we remain God’s people.

Old Testament believers were saved by faith through grace under the terms of the new covenant. They believed the promise of a coming Savior. New Testament believers are saved by grace through faith under the terms of the new covenant. We believe that the Savior has come—he is Christ, the Lord—and he has kept all the promises upon which the new covenant depends. He has lived a life of perfect righteousness, earning rewards which he shares with his people. He has offered that life as a sacrifice, removing the sins of his people. He has risen from the dead, victorious over all enemies, sharing that victory with his people.

“For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.” God knows everything, but he is able to forget. Between his birth and his resurrection, Jesus forgot the date of his glorious appearing on the Day of the Lord. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because Jesus paid in full for those sins. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because our sins were killed with him on the cross, buried with him, and left dead and buried when Jesus rose from the dead. God has forgotten the iniquity of his people because he has removed our sins from us “as far as the east is from the west.” We belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 15

“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins” (Isaiah 40:1-2—read Isaiah 40:1-11).

As a prophet of the Lord, Isaiah frequently had to deliver bad news to Israel and to Judah. In Deuteronomy, Moses’ farewell message, God had spoken about the covenant he made with Israel. If they were faithful to him and kept his commandments, he would bless them with peace and prosperity. If they turned away from him and worshiped other gods and broke his commandments, he would bring judgment on them and punishment. Throughout the time of the judges and the kings of Israel, the terms of this covenant remained in effect. The people fluctuated between unfaithfulness, which brought punishment, and repentance and faith, which brought relief. Eventually, the sins of the nation piled up so high that, under the terms of the covenant, God had to bring the Assyrians and Babylonians to the Promised Land to punish his people for their sins.

When Isaiah preached about the covenant, he could only offer bad news to the Lord’s people. But something bigger than the covenant also existed: the love and mercy and grace of God. Along with warnings of God’s punishment, the prophet could also share God’s comfort. The people had declared war upon God by worshiping false gods, but God in his grace declared the warfare ended. The people had acquired a debt to God by their sins, but God in his mercy pardoned their debt. In his love, God sent his Son to pay that debt—not only to pay it in full by his sacrifice, but to pay more than the full cost, to pay double for their sins, so no debt would remain outstanding.

Isaiah contrasted the covenant’s demands with the Lord’s grace. Under the covenant, the Promised Land became a wilderness; but under grace, a highway was built through the wilderness to bring God’s people home. Under the covenant, the people were like grass withering in the heat of the sun; but under grace they were sustained by the Word of the Lord, which stands forever. Under the covenant, the people received bad news from the Lord’s prophets; but under grace they heard good news of rescue and redemption. The good news was so good that they were to shout it from a high mountain—to “Go, tell it on the mountain, over the hills and everywhere.” God would come with might, not to punish sinners but to rescue his people from sin, to redeem them and to comfort them with his mercy and love and grace.

The glory of the Lord was revealed as a baby was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in cloths, and placed in a manger. The glory of the Lord was revealed as angels shared the good news with shepherds watching their flocks by night. The glory of the Lord was revealed as wise men came bearing gifts for the King. The glory of the Lord was revealed as the Son of God was sentenced to die on a Roman cross, paying double for the sins of his people so they could be ransomed.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the Word of our God will stand forever.” This Word is his promise of peace, of forgiveness, and of new life. No power in all creation can take away this promise, for God has spoken, and his promises cannot be revoked. Even as sinners living in a sinful world, we have this comfort that God has made us saints. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 13

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined… For to us a child is born, to us a son is given….” (Isaiah 9:2, 6—read Isaiah 9:1-7).

We all began in darkness. We all started as enemies of God, blind to his truth, unable to comprehend the things God was saying to us. Our nature was to be selfish, to demand what we wanted when we wanted it, to be unconcerned about the inconvenience we caused anyone else. We were at the center of the world. We were our own gods, and we demanded that everyone worship us and serve us.

It is one thing to teach people to be polite, to say “please” and “thank you,” to have good manners both in public and at home. But good manners do not dispel the darkness. They may hide our selfishness from others, but they do not cause our selfishness to disappear. Only the light can dispel the darkness. Only the light can clear away sin and cause people to be truly loving, true servants to God and to their neighbors.

That light has come. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome the light. Whenever light and darkness battle, light wins. It is the nature of light to shine and to remove darkness. It is the nature of darkness to be beaten whenever it confronts the light.

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given. He is not born only to Mary and Joseph; he is not given only to the two of them. He is born to all of us. The angel told the shepherds, “A Savior has been born to you.” As Mary represents all the believers of Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church in declaring herself to be the handmaiden of the Lord, so she is in the place of all believers when she gives birth to her first-born Son. For the timeless Son of God was born once in time to redeem people from every time, beginning with Adam and Eve and continuing to the last child conceived before Christ appears in glory to make everything new.

When Handel wrote music for these words of Isaiah, he put a musical pause between Wonderful and Counselor. They belong together as one name: Jesus is the Wonderful Counselor who tells us the truth we need to know because he is the Truth. He deserves our wonder, our awe, our amazement at who he is and at what he has done for us. Because he has redeemed us, we now receive his counsel to guide our lives and to grant us eternal life.

He is also the Mighty God. The child lying in the manger is running the universe at the very same time. All things are possible for him, but he only does the things that are right, that match his Law, that benefit the people around him. When Jesus began to work miracles, he only worked them for other people in need. He fed thousands in the wilderness; but when he was hungry, he did not feed himself. He healed others, but he allowed himself to be arrested and beaten and killed. He stopped storms, but he did not stop the crowd from arresting him or the Roman solders from mocking him.

He is the Everlasting Father. In the timelessness of God, relations are changeable, so the Bride of Christ can also give birth to him. We are all children of God through the work of Jesus, making Christ our Father as well as our Brother. Because he is the Son of God, God calls us sons—we are adopted into his family through Christ’s work. Because we are children of the Church, Christ’s Bride, Jesus is our Father just as his Father has become our Father.

He is the Prince of Peace. His entry into this world meant war with the devil and with the sinful world and with sin in general, but Jesus won that war. We started out in darkness as enemies of God, but through redemption God has made peace with us. That peace is Shalom—not merely an absence of conflict, but the presence of goodness: a place for everything and everything in its place. Peace is not boring: it is harmony like a symphony orchestra; it is a blend of colors like a painting or like a flower garden.

All this Jesus has done for us. He is all these things to us. Because of what he has done, Jesus has claimed us for his kingdom, and we belong to him forever. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 10

“The Lord said to me, ‘You are my Son; today I have begotten you’” (Psalm 2:7—read Psalm 2:1-12).

The doctrine of the Trinity was not invented in fourth-century church conferences, as some conspiracy-minded historians claim. Nor was the doctrine of the Trinity first revealed in the New Testament. The Old Testament is filled with Trinitarian language. Moses writes of the Lord, the Angel of the Lord, and the Spirit of the Lord in a way that shows that they are one God but three Persons. Psalm 2 also speaks of the Father-Son relationship in the Holy Trinity. As John describes Jesus as the only-begotten Son of the Father, so this Psalm also pictures the Messiah ruling on his throne while also being eternally begotten of the Father.

Among humans and in the animal kingdom, sons are born as babies and must grow up into adults to become the equals of their fathers. God is eternal and timeless. Jesus is always being begotten of his Father; but, as the Son of God, he is always fully mature, always equal to his Father. As a man he experienced moving through time, growing from a helpless baby into a boy, a teen-ager, and then a man. As the Son of God had had authority over the universe, yes, even as he lay swaddled in a manger in Bethlehem.

When it comes to Jesus, all people must take a side. You are for him or you are against him; there is no neutrality. You cannot say, “He is the Jewish Messiah, but I have my own religion.” Jesus rules over all the nations; the entire earth is his possession. Those who oppose him are rebels who will be crushed. Those who serve the Lord and kiss the Son are safe and secure; he is their refuge forever.

Yet all have sinned and have fallen short of the glory of God. Christ alone is righteous; the rest of us are polluted by sin. We are rebels against the King, for we have not done all the things he commanded, and we have done many of the things he prohibited. His Law judges us and condemns us as sinners. We deserve to be told to depart from him and to spend eternity in the outer darkness, in Satan’s prison, in the place where rebels belong.

Jesus has the right to break us with a rod of iron and dash us in pieces like pottery. He would rather be our refuge. Because we could not come to him, he came to us. The Shepherd went into the wilderness, seeking his lost sheep. More than that, he became the Lamb of God to redeem his lost sheep. He offered his life as a sacrifice to take away our sins and to cleanse us from the pollution of sin. He defeated all our enemies. Now that he has found us, he carries us home with great joy, where our Father will welcome us with equal joy. A celebration of victory and reunion is planned, a celebration that will last forever in the new creation, the kingdom of God.

Even kings are warned to be wise. The fear of the Lord is the beginning of all wisdom. When Jesus makes himself our refuge, we take our shelter in him. Then we need to fear nothing. We are always safe in his loving care. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 6

“And when he [the king of Israel] sits on the throne of his kingdom, he shall write for himself in a book a copy of this law, approved by the Levitical priests. And it shall be with him, and he shall read in it all the days of his life, that he may learn to fear the Lord his God by keeping all the words of this law and these statues, and doing them” (Deuteronomy 17:18-19—read Deuteronomy 17:14-20).

When the people of Israel wanted a king, Samuel told them that having a king was a bad idea. He told them that God was supposed to be their only king, and he threatened them with the cost of a king—both in terms of money and in terms of freedom. God told Samuel to listen to the people, and God guided Samuel in choosing and anointing Saul as the first king of Israel. God had already anticipated that his people would one day have a king. In Deuteronomy 17 God gave directions for the king of Israel, requiring him to be an Israelite rather than a foreigner, telling him not to acquire many horses or many wives, and instructing him to keep a copy of God’s Law with him at all times, keeping the Lord’s Word and doing what the Lord commanded.

The name “Deuteronomy” means “second law.” It contains, not a new set of laws from God, but a restatement of God’s laws and promises. Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell message to Israel. He spoke the words of Deuteronomy shortly before he died and was succeeded by Joshua. The book of Deuteronomy includes a succinct history of Israel leaving Egypt and traveling through the wilderness. It also provides instructions for their life in the Promised Land. Deuteronomy is famous for its covenant language, promising blessings to the nation when they obeyed God’s Word and threatening curses when they disobeyed. Yet, like every book of the Bible, Deuteronomy is also about Jesus. The commandments in Deuteronomy are commandments he obeyed in the place of sinners. Because Jesus obeyed these commands, he can bestow the blessings he earned on his people while he takes away the curses they earned and endures them himself upon the cross.

Every priest is a picture of Jesus. Every king is also a picture of Jesus, for he is King of kings and Lord of lords. All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to him. He rules the universe, and with his royal authority he takes care of his people, those who trust his promises, the members of the Holy Christian Church.

Therefore, as King of God’s people, Jesus was required to know what is written in Deuteronomy and to be guided by its teachings. We see this clearly in Matthew 4:1-11, when Satan tempted Jesus in the wilderness. Three times Satan tried to steer Jesus into sin, and three times Jesus resisted by quoting from Deuteronomy. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Deuteronomy 8:3); “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Deuteronomy 6:16); “You shall worship the Lord your God and him only shall you serve” (Deuteronomy 6:13).

When Jesus defeated Satan, he won a victory which he shares with all the members of his kingdom. Ruling faithfully as God’s anointed King, Jesus provides peace and comfort to his people. He has forgiven us all our sins, washing us and making us pure and acceptable for eternal life in his kingdom. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 3

“The scepter shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, until Shiloh comes” (Genesis 49:10—read Genesis 49:8-12).

The book of Genesis is filled with pictures and promises about the Messiah. God’s Old Testament people knew they were waiting for a deliverer, one who would defeat their enemies and set them free from their sins. The enemies to be faced are sin and evil and death. Jesus won against these enemies by his sinless life, his sacrificial death, and his triumphant resurrection. These themes are illustrated by the obedience of Noah in building an ark, Abraham’s willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac, and Joseph’s rescue from death from the hand of his brothers, only to later forgive and rescue them, as well as many other depictions of the work of Jesus.

One repeated theme in Abraham’s family is that of the younger son receiving what belongs to his older brother. Isaac receives the inheritance and blessing that, by law, should have been given to Ishmael. Jacob robs his brother Esau of his birthright and his blessing. Reuben was the first-born son of Jacob, but Joseph receives the double-portion belonging to the eldest son—he has two tribes in Israel, Ephraim and Mannaseh. Judah, not Reuben, carries on the family blessing that will produce the Messiah. Even Ephraim is placed by Jacob ahead of Joseph’s older son, Manasseh. Each time the oldest son is cheated, we see a picture of God’s only-begotten Son being cheated of justice and of life itself so sinners like us can receive the rewards Jesus earned by his obedience.

Therefore, Jacob prophecies the royal family that will come from the tribe of Judah. This family began to rule in the person of David, but David was only a forerunner of the coming Messiah. Matthew opens his Gospel by tracing the family tree of Jesus from Abraham through Isaac, Jacob, and Judah, and on to David and his royal descendants. Thus, Jesus is both the son of Abraham and the son of David, with all the promise and all the authority those titles suggest.

“Until Shiloh comes” is a phrase that has puzzled translators and interpreters for centuries. “Until tribute comes to him” is found in one translation; “until it comes to whom it belongs” is another. Within the Hebrew word Shiloh is a suggestion not only of tribute, but also of rest and peace. This prophecy anticipates the coming of Jesus, the One to whom all tribute should be given, but also the Prince of Peace. Inheriting the throne of David, Jesus also says that “all authority in heaven and earth has been given to” him (Matthew 28:18). He rules, not just the nation Israel, but also the entire universe. God the Father “put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the Church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 2

“…in you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3—read Genesis 12:1-9).

Several times in the book of Genesis God speaks a blessing upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The details change from occasion to occasion, but three parts of the blessing remain constant: God will make their family into a great nation, that nation will live on the land God showed to Abraham, and from that family on that land will arise a blessing for all people.

Already by the time of the exodus the Israelites have become numerous. However, the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt to Mount Sinai doubted God’s promise to give them the land. As a consequence, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to take the land under Joshua. When the land had been captured (for the most part), it was divided among the tribes and clans and families of Israel. Part of the Law of Moses stipulated that a family could not lose its inheritance. Even if they needed to raise money by selling land, that land would be returned to them at the next Jubilee year. (Those happened every fifty years.) The connection of the people to the land is a running theme in Moses and the prophets. The chief punishment that falls upon the Israelites is invasion from foreigners, the Assyrians and Babylonians who remove God’s people from the land and replace them with other people.

Under the Persians, the faithful remnant was allowed to return to the land and rebuild what had been destroyed. They no longer had political control over the land; they were part of Empires—first the Persian Empire, then Alexander the Great, then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and finally the Romans. For a few years the Jews received a form of independence from the Seleucids in a series of events still celebrated as Hanukah. But when Herod the Great came to power, he ruled over the Jews because the power of Rome backed his government.

At that time, God chose to keep the final part of his blessing to Abraham. Therefore, Joseph left Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem to be counted there by the Romans, because he was a descendant of King David. Joseph brought with him his espoused wife, who was expecting a child. That child was born in Bethlehem and was given the name Jesus, from the Hebrew Y’shua, meaning, “the Lord saves.” His mission was to rescue God’s people, not from the Romans or other worldly empires, but from sin and evil and death.

The guest room (or “inn”) on the estate of David’s descendants was already filled when Mary and Joseph arrived, so they were given shelter (or found it on their own) where animals—probably sheep—were sometimes kept. For that reason, when Jesus was born, his mother swaddled him and placed him in a manger, a feeding trough for sheep and other animals. More than thirty years later, another guest room (or “inn”) would accommodate Jesus and his apostles. On that occasion, Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal and said, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” The infant who once rested in a feeding trough—in a town whose name, Bethlehem, translates as “house of bread”—was still feeding his sheep as he made his way toward the cross to redeem the world from sin and evil.

That redemption was not only for the Jewish people; it was for all nations. In this redemption, God’s promise to Abraham was completed. From the nation that began as Abraham’s family, on the land that God promised to Abraham, all the families of the earth were blessed with the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and victory over all God’s enemies. Thanks be to God! J.

Advent thoughts: December 1

“I will put enmity between you [Satan] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring [Jesus]. He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15—read Genesis 3:1-21).

On the same day of the first sin came the first preaching of the Gospel. God had created the world and all that exists. He had planted a garden, and in that garden he put the first man and the first woman. They were to care for the garden and all it contained, both plants and animals. They were to be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth. They were to rest every seventh day. Any of these commandments they could have broken for the first sin. Instead, they ate the fruit of a tree that had been forbidden to them. This act of rebellion against God’s clear commandment caused them to know what evil is. They feared God and tried to hide from him. They looked for someone else to blame for their sin. Being separated from God, they were spiritually dead, and eventually they would physically die.

Yet when God confronted them, they did confess their sin. Adam tried to blame Eve (and also, indirectly, God—“the woman You gave me”), and Eve tried to blame the serpent. They both pointed the finger of blame elsewhere, and the poor serpent had no finger to point. But they confessed: each of them admitted, “I ate.”

Satan had taken the form of a serpent to tempt Eve—and through her, Adam—to join him in his revolt against God. God let Satan know that the shape he had taken foretold his fate. He would crawl on the ground and eat dust—in other words, Satan was going to lose. On the other hand, God already had a plan to rescue and redeem Adam and Eve and their descendants. As Satan used a tree to defeat them, so God would use a tree to defeat Satan—the tree of the cross. Satan did not gain allies in his revolt: he gained enemies. He would cause harm to humanity, and even to God when God became human. God would suffer on the cross, but his suffering was small compared to Satan’s suffering. His suffering led to victory; Satan’s head was crushed in the victory Christ won on the cross.

Christians are called to bear fruit for the Lord. His commandments tell us why he made us. They tell us how to love and honor him, and they tell us how to love and serve one another. Without God’s redemption, though, no one can bear fruit pleasing to the Lord. We are like an orchard of bare, dead trees. We are fruitless. We are worth nothing except as fuel for the fireplace.

On one dead tree, Jesus changed all that. On the dead wood of the cross, Jesus gave life to his people. Now all those who trust in Jesus have their sins forgiven and removed. All those who trust in Jesus are clothed in his righteousness. All those who trust in Jesus bear fruit pleasing to God, and, as a result, we are certain of a place in his kingdom. We will live forever in his new creation.

Adam and Eve tried to clothe themselves with fig leaves because of their shame. God provided them instead with garments of animal skins. The death of those animals pictured the death of Jesus, because by his death and through Baptism he clothes us in his righteousness.

Adam and Eve heard the promise about Jesus, believed it, and were redeemed. We also hear this promise, believe it, and are redeemed. Nothing has changed since the beginning, expect for this: Jesus has come and has kept the promise. Thanks be to God! J.