Thursday, December 22, 2016

The Angels' Song

Part 3 of The Original Christmas Playlist

Text: Luke 2:8-14





“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is well pleased” (v. 14). 


What Is Christmas All About?

My favourite Christmas special is A Charlie Brown Christmas. It begins with Charlie Brown depressed about Christmas. He says to Linus, “I think there must be something wrong with me. I just don’t understand Christmas, I guess. I might be getting presents and sending Christmas cards decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel.” Finally, as Charlie Brown is trying to direct a Christmas play, he asks, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” His friend Linus responds by reciting Luke 2:8-14. [1]

Unlike Charlie Brown, the majority of people in North America know that Christmas is a celebration of Christ’s birth. But I think most people miss the significance of his birth. Why does the birth of Jesus matter?


Good News! 

There are many surprising parts to the Christmas story. One surprise is that the first people to be told about Jesus’ birth is a group of lowly shepherds. God cares about ordinary people. These shepherds are “keeping watch over their flock by night” (v. 8). Imagine the shepherds’ surprise when “an angel of the Lord appear[s] to them, and the glory of the Lord [shines] around them” (v. 9). As we would expect, “They [are] filled with fear” (v. 9). The angel says to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news” (v. 10). The good news that the angel brings to the shepherds is news “of great joy” (v. 10). [2]

The good news is that a baby has been born in Bethlehem. The angel announces, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (v. 11). The good news of Christmas is that a Saviour has been born!


Praise in Heaven, Peace on Earth

After the angel tells the shepherds the good news, “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host” (v. 13). All of the angels are “praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased” (vv. 13-14). [3] “In the highest” refers to heaven. God in heaven is given glory, and people on earth are given peace. “Those with whom [God] is pleased” are those who have put their trust in Christ as their Savior. Peace “is essentially a synonym for salvation.” [4] We need peace with God.

When we understand what Christmas is all about, we should be filled with praise! The angel had given to the shepherds a “sign”: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (v. 12). “What is amazing is not that the child is wrapped up, but who the child is and where he is. One hardly expects to find Messiah in an animal room. One would expect a palace…. Messiah’s life will contain an unusual bookend for a king, since he was born in an animal room and will die with robbers.” [5]

____________________

[1] Network executives didn’t want Linus to recite Scripture, thinking that viewers wouldn’t like it. But Charles Schulz was determined to keep the scene in, saying, “If we don’t tell the true meaning of Christmas, who will?”
[2] We could contrast the lasting joy of this good news with the temporary joy that most Christmas presents bring.
[3] This is the third Christmas song in the Gospel of Luke—though it does say that the angels said these words (“saying”). This song is often called the Gloria because Gloria is the first word of the song in the Latin Vulgate.
[4] R. H. Stein, Luke, 109.
[5] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, 219.

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Zechariah's Song

Part 2 of The Original Christmas Playlist

Text: Luke 1:67-79




“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” (vv. 68-69). 


Leaving Home for Christmas

People like to go home for Christmas. Many popular Christmas songs talking about going home for Christmas. “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” was originally written to honour soldiers who longed to be home at Christmastime. The BBC actually banned the song in the UK because they feared that the lyrics might lower morale among British troops. [1]

I’ll be home for Christmas 
You can count on me 
Please have snow and mistletoe 
And presents on the tree 

I’ll be home for Christmas 
If only in my dreams 

But Christmas is really about leaving home. That’s what Jesus did. Jesus left home for Christmas. He came to this world to visit us. [2] Jesus traded his throne in heaven for a manger in Bethlehem. He exchanged the praise of angels for the mocking of his enemies. He gave up the glory of heaven for the suffering and shame of the cross.


The Birth of John Foretold

Zechariah is a priest, married to a woman named Elizabeth (v. 5). They have no children. Elizabeth is “barren” and both she and Zechariah are “advanced in years” (v. 6). [3] As Zechariah is serving in the temple, the angel Gabriel appears to him. He announces to Zechariah, “Your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son, and you shall call his name John” (v. 13). He will prepare people for the coming of the Christ (v. 17).

Zechariah doesn’t believe the angel’s news. It’s just too amazing to be true. He says, “I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years” (v. 18). The angel tells him, “You will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time” (v. 20).


Salvation!

Zechariah has been unable to speak for at least nine months! When he’s finally able to speak, he praises God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel” (v. 68). [4] Zechariah praises God for three things God will do through the Christ (i.e., Jesus). He uses the past tense because he’s certain that God will do these things: “He has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us” (vv. 68-69). [5]

How would God visit us? Later in the song, Zechariah declares that “the sunrise shall visit us from on high” (v. 78). “The sunrise” refers to Jesus who would “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (v. 79). “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them a light shone” (Isa. 9:2; cf. 60:1-2; Mal. 4:2). God would visit us through the coming of Jesus to earth! [6]

How would God redeem us? When the Jews would think of redemption, they would think of their deliverance from Egypt. They has been slaves, and God freed them. In Zechariah’s day, the Jews were looking for a new exodus. They were looking for freedom from the Romans. But Zechariah was looking for more than political redemption. He was also looking for spiritual redemption because he says that his son would “give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins” (v. 77). Freedom from sin is our greatest need, though most people don’t understand this. God would redeem us through the death and resurrection of Jesus!

How would God raise up “a horn of salvation” for us? A horn is a symbol of power (e.g., the horn of a wild ox as mentioned in Deuteronomy 33:17). “The LORD is…the horn of my salvation” (Ps. 18:2). The phrase “raised up” is often used in the OT of God putting a person in a special position (e.g., a king). In Hannah’s prayer, she says God will “give strength to his king and exalt the horn of his anointed” (1 Sam. 2:10). Jesus is the King of kings. God would raise up “a horn of salvation” through the salvation achieved by Jesus!


Saved to Serve

Salvation has come to us because of God’s remembrance, his faithfulness to his covenant, and his mercy (v. 72). The main characters in Luke 1:57-80 are Zechariah, Elizabeth, John, and Jesus. Zechariah means “Yahweh has remembered.” Elizabeth means “My God has sworn.” John means “Yahweh is merciful.” Jesus means “Yahweh saves.” The truth of verse 72 is summed up in the names. Coincidence? I think not!

“The essence of worship is responsiveness to God’s demands.” [7] If we, like Zechariah, are praising God, we should be willing to serve him. (What if I praise my wife for how great she is but refuse to help her out?)

God saves us to serve. God wants us to serve him “all our days” (v. 75; cf. Eph. 2:8-10). God saved us by serving us! [8] As God chose to save us because he loves us, we should choose to serve him because we love him.

____________________
[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I'll_Be_Home_for_Christmas
[2] See Luke 1:68, 78.
[3] I don’t know how old you need to be in order to be considered “advanced in years,” but I’m sure Zechariah and Elizabeth are well past the age of thinking about having children.
[4] Zechariah’s song is known as the Benedictus because Benedictus (“Blessed”) is the first word of the song in the Latin Vulgate.
[5] These words are prophetic: “Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied,” v. 67). The prophecy of Scripture is certain to be fulfilled.
[6] Darrell L. Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, 178.
[7] Ibid., 186.
[8] See Phil. 2:7.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

Mary's Song

Part 1 of The Original Christmas Playlist

Text: Luke 1:46-55




And Mary said, “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 be blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name” (vv. 46-49).


Christmas Is a Time for Music

A few years ago while jogging in my neighbourhood, I found a record collection on the side of the road. I took the records home and kept the ones I liked best. I actually didn’t own a record player at the time, but two years ago Marsha gave me one for Christmas. My favourite Christmas albums are Elvis’ Christmas Album, Nat King Cole’s The Christmas Song, Bing Crosby’s Merry Christmas, and A Charlie Brown Christmas. They say that there’s nothing like the sound of music on a record player.

 
In the Gospel of Luke, there are four Christmas songs: Mary’s song (1:46-55), Zechariah’s song (1:68-79), the angels’ song (2:14), and Simeon’s song (2:29-32). [1] Mary’s song is known as the Magnificat. [2] In our current sermon series “The Original Christmas Playlist,” we’re going to take a look at each of these four songs.


A Song of Praise

Mary’s song is a song of praise. [3] Mary’s praise comes from her “soul” (v. 46) and her “spirit” (v. 47). It comes from deep inside her. “Bless the LORD, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name!” (Ps. 103:1). God isn’t interested in praise that doesn’t come from our hearts. God said that the people of the prophet Isaiah’s day “draw near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13).

Mary “magnifies the Lord” (v. 46). To magnify means to enlarge (like a magnifying glass enlarges an object). Mary wanted an enlarged vision of God. We should regularly stop to think about how big God is. He is “mighty” (v. 49) beyond description!

Mary calls God her “Savior.” She might have been thinking that the birth of the Messiah would result in the deliverance of Israel from the Romans. But Mary’s son would bring a different kind of deliverance. The angel Gabriel had told Mary to name her baby “Jesus” (v. 31). Why the name Jesus? “Jesus” means “Yahweh saves.” Jesus would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).


A Gracious God

Mary praises God because “he has looked on the humble estate [i.e., the low status] of his servant” (v. 48). This implies that he has shown her grace. Isn’t it amazing that God looks on us? (We think it amazing if some celebrity notices us.)

Mary is a nobody from nowhere. She isn’t yet married, so she’s probably a young teenager—maybe 15. And she lives in Nazareth—a small town with a population of no more than 2,000 people. Luke states that Nazareth is a “city of Galilee” (v.26) perhaps because no one would know what it was otherwise. Years later, when Nathanael is told that Jesus is from Nazareth, he asks, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46).

Mary acknowledges that she is blessed because of God’s grace. “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (James 4:6). “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will exalt you” (James 4:10). God has “exalted those of humble estate” (v. 52). Reversal of fortunes is one of the themes of the Gospel of Luke (e.g., the thief on the cross). Jesus “humbled himself” (Phil. 2:8) by dying on a cross for us. But then was “exalted” (Phil. 2:9).

Mary says, “Behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed” (v. 48). Why will people call her blessed? Mary declares, “For he who is mighty has done great things for me” (v. 49). Mary would not be remembered today unless God had shown her grace. What would life be like without God’s grace?


God Has Done Great Things for Us!

“He who is mighty has done great things for me.” We need to be careful because “sometimes even our worship of God can be somewhat self-centered, as if the really important thing is what God has done for us. We need to look beyond this to see God as he is in himself, and to praise him for being God. Then, when we speak about what God has done for us—as we should—it will be more about him and less about us.” [4]

Each one of us should sing our own Magnificat because the mighty God has done great things for us!

In the book of Isaiah, the child to be born (i.e., the Messiah) would be called “Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6). The mighty God became a man to die for us! In an amazing act of grace, Jesus came to serve us—nobodies!

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[1] The opening two chapters of the Gospel of Luke are sort of like a Christmas musical.
[2] In Latin, the first word of the song is Magnificat (“magnifies”).
[3] Mary’s song is similar to Hannah’s prayer (1 Sam. 2:1-10).
[4] Philip Graham Ryken, Luke, vol.1, 47.

Saturday, December 3, 2016

How Long Until the End?

Part 8 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 12




“How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (v. 6). 


How Long?

This time of year, children often ask the question, “How many days until Christmas?” We are often like impatient children, asking God, “How long?” “How long?” is actually a common question in the Bible.

  • “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” (Ps. 13:1). 
  • “How long, O Lord, will you look on? Rescue me from [my enemies’] destruction, my precious life from lions” (Ps. 35:17). 
  • “O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?” (Hab. 1:2). 
  • “[The martyrs in heaven] cried out with a loud voice, “O Sovereign Lord, holy and true, how long before you will judge and avenge our blood on those who dwell on the earth?” (Rev. 6:10). 

At the conclusion of Daniel’s visions, the question is asked, “How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (v. 6). We believe that God is sovereign. The end will come when God decides it will happen. In Daniel 12, we see how God answers the question, “How long until the end?”


The End Will Come 

When people are experiencing suffering, they naturally ask “How long?” How much longer until this is over? Daniel is told that there is be “a time of trouble, such as never has been since there was a nation till that time” (v. 1). Many Christians believe this refers (at least in part) to a time of great tribulation prior to the second coming of Jesus. [1] Though the suffering will be great, Daniel is promised that “[his] people will be delivered, everyone whose name shall be found written in the book” (v. 1). 

The end will come. And when it comes, “many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (v. 2). This is “the first and only Old Testament reference to double resurrection.” [2] This is our hope! God’s people will live happily ever after!

Daniel is told that up until the time of the end, “Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall increase” (v. 4). [3] Knowledge will be abundant, but wisdom will be scarce. “Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above” (v. 3). If we desire to be raised “to everlasting life” we must believe “the word of the cross” which is “folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Cor. 1:18). Before the end comes (either to our lives or this age), we must put our trust in Christ. This is true wisdom.


Go Your Way

Daniel is told, “But you, Daniel, shut up the words and seal the book until the time of the end” (v. 4). In ancient times, scribes would make two copies of a document: one would be sealed for posterity, and the other would be open for the public. [4]

Then the question is asked, “How long shall it be till the end of these wonders?” (v. 6). This is a question we all ask. Daniel is given a time period of “1,290 days” (v. 11). And then he is told, “Go your way till the end. And you shall rest and shall stand in your allotted place at the end of the days” (v. 13). We might not know exactly what the period of 1,290 days means, [5] but it indicates that God has determined an exact time when the end will come. Like Daniel we are to “go [our] own way till the end” (v. 13), trusting that God is in control. Until the end, I need to do the good that God’s word tells me to do.


How Much Longer, Dad? 

My kids often ask, “How much longer, Dad?” Sometimes I try to get creative when I answer them. (“It’s going to be about three episodes of [their favourite TV show].”) But sometimes I don’t know how long it’s going to be.

I don’t know how long until the end, but I do know that God is in control. It’s not my job to worry when the end might come. God has decided when the end will come. I need to trust that he will do what is right according to his perfect wisdom.

____________________


[1] This “time of trouble” probably refers both to the past time of trouble (during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes) and a future time of trouble (before the second coming).
[2] Tremper Longman III, Daniel, 272.
[3] “‘Behold, the days are coming,’ declares the Lord God, ‘when I will send a famine in the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord’” (Amos 8:12).
[4] See Jeremiah 32:9-12.
[5] A period of 1,290 days is about three and a half years (“a time, times, and half a time,” v. 7), perhaps referring to half of a seven-year tribulation. Seven years might be symbolic of a complete time of tribulation.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

The Son of Man

Part 7 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 7




“I saw in the night visions, and behold, with the clouds of heaven there came one like a son of man, and he came to the Ancient of Days and was presented before him” (v. 13). 


The End Is Coming

Some people have said that Donald Trump becoming President is a sign of the apocalypse. People have all sorts of ideas about how the world might end (nuclear war, zombies, aliens). It’s true that one day this world as we know it will come to an end. But it won’t be zombies that will bring the world to an end. God is in control, and he will be the one who will put an end to this world as we know it. The book of Daniel can be broken into two parts.

The first half of the book (chapters 1-6) contains stories. The second half of the book (chapters 7-12) contains visions. [1]


Daniel's Nightmare

In Daniel’s vision, he sees “four great beasts [coming] up out of the sea” (v. 3). What is the meaning of these four beasts? Daniel is told that the “four great beasts are four kings who shall arise out of the earth” (v. 17). [2] People often try to identify the four kingdoms, [3] but perhaps it’s best to see the kingdoms as simply four kingdoms that will succeed one another.

Daniel is especially curious about the four beast and the little horn. Out of the head of the fourth beast grows “a little [horn],” which has “eyes like the eyes of man, and a mouth speaking great things” (v. 9). Many scholars believe that the little horn is the antichrist. “He shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High” (v. 25). But his kingdom, like the other kingdoms of man, will be destroyed.


One Like a Son of Man

When God finally puts an end to the kingdoms of man and establishes his eternal kingdom, he will give authority of that kingdom to someone whom Daniel describes as “one like a son of man” (v. 13). Who is this person? Those of us who are familiar with the Gospels know that Jesus often referred to himself as “the Son of Man.” What does this title mean?

When Daniel describes the person in his vision as “one like a son of man,” he means that the person looks like a man. “Son of man” and “man” are synonymous. For example, Psalm 8:3 says, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” But the “one like a son of man” is obviously more than just a man. In Daniel’s vision, the “one like a son of man” comes “with the clouds of heaven.” In the OT, God is the one who rides on the clouds. “[The LORD] makes the clouds his chariot” (Ps. 104:3). “Behold, the LORD is riding on a swift cloud” (Isa. 19:1). “The clouds are the dust of [the LORD’s] feet” (Nah. 1:3).

When Jesus was questioned by Caiaphas the high priest regarding his true identity, Jesus finally declared, “From now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64). Jesus was saying, “I am the Son of Man in Daniel’s vision!” [4] What was the high priest’s reaction? He accused Jesus of blasphemy (v. 65). By calling himself the Son of Man, Jesus was claiming to be both human (“one like a son of man”) and divine (“with the clouds of heaven”). 

In the Old Testament prophecies, we often only see the mountain peeks. We see the mountain peek of the Messiah's coming into the world. And we see the mountain peek of the Messiah's reign. What we often don't see is the valley into between those two mountain peeks of prophecy. Jesus' followers were shocked when he was crucified. Before Jesus would come “with great power and glory” (Mark 13:26), he would come as a humble servant. He declared, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45).


Remain Faithful

The book of Daniel encourages God’s people to remain faithful. We are sometimes tempted to give up. Why should we remain faithful?
  1. God is in control. 
  2. God loves us. The Son of Man died for us! 
  3. God will have the final victory. The Son of Man will come again!
Before this year, the Chicago Cubs had not won the World Series since 1908 (108 years ago!). But people remained faithful to the Cubs, hoping that each year would be the year the Cubs finally would win. Faithful Cubs fans (including 108 year-old Cubs fan Mabel Ball) were finally rewarded this year with a World Series victory.

We should remain faithful because God has promised (Cubs fans had no guarantee of victory) that one day he will have the final victory. The chaos and evil of this world will come to an end. Jesus will reign. And we will reign with him!

____________________

[1] The genre of Daniel 7-12 (like Revelation) is apocalyptic. Apocalyptic writings are filled with symbols and often difficult to interpret.
[2] The vision of the four beasts is similar to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream of the great image (Dan. 2).
[3] One popular interpretation is that the four beasts represent Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece, and Rome.
[4] “Then I looked, and behold, a white cloud, and seated on the cloud one like a son of man” (Rev. 14:14; cf. 1:13).nbsp;

Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Faith in the Lions' Den

Part 6 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 6:1-28




Then the king commanded, and Daniel was brought and cast into the den of lions. The king declared to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” (v. 16). 


God to the Rescue

The theme of the book of Daniel is the sovereignty of God. “In spite of present appearances, God is in control.” [1] If God is in control, do that mean that God always will rescue his people? No, God doesn't always rescue us. Sometimes we feel like the psalmist when he wrote, “Why, O Lord, do you stand far away? Why do you hide yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1).

But sometimes God does rescue his people. Daniel 6 tells the story—a very famous story—of a man who was rescued by God.


Daniel Gets into Trouble

At the end of chapter 5, Babylon was defeated by the Persians (with the help of the Medes). Now “Darius the Mede” (5:31) rules over Babylon. [2] And Daniel—who is now over 80 years old—becomes one of Darius’s favourite people. Darius likes Daniel so much that he plans to “set [Daniel] over the whole kingdom” (v. 3). This causes the other government leaders to become jealous of Daniel—so jealous that they want to get rid of him somehow.

Daniel’s enemies try to dig up some dirt on Daniel. But they (unlike the enemies of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton) can’t find any dirt on Daniel. Finally they say, “We shall not find any ground for complaint against Daniel unless we find it in connection with the law of his God” (v. 5). What an incredible testimony to have!

So Daniel’s enemies trick the king into making a law that they think Daniel won’t obey: “Whoever makes petition to any god or man for thirty days, except to you, O king, shall be cast into the den of lions” (v. 7). What does Daniel do? Does he stop praying to God? No, he continued to pray like he had prayed before—three times a day. [3] After his enemies spy him praying, they report Daniel’s disobedience to the king. Darius realizes that he’s been tricked, but the law can’t be changed. [4] So Daniel is cast into the lions’ den (v. 16).


The Den Was Not the End

If you rearrange the letters of “den,” you can spell “end.” But the den of lions was not the end for Daniel. The king yells to Daniel, “May your God, whom you serve continually, deliver you!” (v. 16). And that’s what God did. After a sleepless night, Darius rushes to the lions’ den to see if he’s still alive. [5] He calls to Daniel, “O Daniel, servant of the living God, has your God, whom you serve continually, been able to deliver you from the lions?” (v. 20). Daniel answers, “My God sent his angel and shut the lions’ mouths, and they have not harmed me” (v. 22).

The story of Daniel and the lions’ den is very similar to the story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and the fiery furnace. God is able to rescue us from any danger, but he isn’t obligated to rescue us (“But if not,” 3:18). Biblical faith is not confidence in what I think should happen; it’s confidence in God. We are to trust God and do what is right no matter what the outcome might be.


A Rescue for All of Us! 

“For every Daniel, whom God delivers from the lions’ den, there are hundreds of nameless martyrs whom God did not deliver.” [6] When a rescue doesn’t come for us, we can identify with Jesus. He prayed to be rescued from the cross: “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me” (Luke 22:42). But he still died.

There are many similarities between Daniel and Jesus. Both Daniel and Jesus had jealous enemies who conspired to have them killed. Both Daniel and Jesus were arrested while at prayer in a private location. Pilate, like Darius did for Daniel, worked for the release of Jesus. But in the end, both Daniel and Jesus were turned over to be executed. Both Daniel and Jesus were put inside a sealed pit. The big difference between the two is that Daniel emerged from the lions’ den without a scratch, while Jesus was dead when his body went into the tomb. The superiority of Jesus over Daniel is that, though Jesus died, he emerged from the tomb alive!

Daniel’s rescue foreshadowed a greater rescue to come—a rescue from the consequences of our sins through faith in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Jesus was not rescued so that you and I could be rescued!

____________________

[1] Tremper Longman III, Daniel, 19.
[2] Skeptics try to discredit the Bible by saying that there is no historical record of “Darius the Mede.” But remember that for many years people said the same thing about Belshazzar.
[3] Does this mean that people who live in a place where it’s illegal to practice Christianity should pray in public? No, description is not necessarily prescription.
[4] According to “the law of the Medes and the Persians” the injunction could not be revoked (v. 8). 
[5] It’s ironic that Darius was the one who had trouble sleeping that night.
[6] Iain M. Duguid, Daniel, 102.
[7] The Jesus Storybook Bible says, “God would keep on rescuing his people. And the time was coming when God would send another brave Hero, like Daniel, who would love God and do what God said—whatever it cost him, even if it meant he would die. And together they would pull off the Greatest Rescue the world has ever known” (159).

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

The Handwriting on the Wall

Part 5 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 5:1-31




“This is the interpretation of the matter: MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (vv. 26-28). 


The Handwriting Is on the Wall

Did you know that there are about 250 phrases in the King James Bible that are used today in the English language. Here are a few examples:

  • “By the skin of your teeth” (“I am escaped with the skin of my teeth,” Job 19:20 KJV) 
  • “Drop in a bucket” (“the nations are as a drop of a bucket,” Isa. 40:15 KJV) 
  • “Go the extra mile” (“whosoever shall compel thee to go a mile, go with him twain,” Matt. 5:41 KJV) 
  • “How the mighty have fallen” (“how are the mighty fallen,” 2 Sam. 1:19 KJV)
  • “Wit’s end” (“They reel to and fro, and stagger like a drunken man, and are at their wit’s end,” Ps. 107:27 KJV) 
  • “Sour grapes” (“The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on edge,” Jer. 31:29 KJV) 
  • “Feet of clay” (“his feet part of iron and part of clay,” Dan. 2:33 KJV) 
  • “The handwriting is on the wall” (“In the same hour came forth fingers of a man’s hand, and wrote over against the candlestick upon the plaister of the wall of the king’s palace,” (Dan. 5:5 KJV) 

When we say, “The handwriting is on the wall,” we mean that it looks certain that something bad is about to happen for someone. In Daniel 5, the handwriting on the wall foretold that something bad would happen to a man filled with pride. His name was Belshazzar. [1]


Party Crasher

Belshazzar throws a huge party. History tells us that while Belshazzar was partying, the Persian army was outside the walls of Babylon. Belshazzar realizes that his life could suddenly come to an end. What happens when people realize that their lives will soon come to an end? They feel the need to do something that will make their lives significant. People try to gain significance in three things.

People try to gain significance in achievement. “If I could do something great….” At Belshazzar’s party were symbols of Babylon’s power: “the vessels of gold and silver… taken from the temple in Jerusalem” (v. 2). People try to gain significance in romance. “If I could find someone who would love me….” At Belshazzar’s party were his wives and concubines. People try to gain significance in religion. “If I could gain acceptance with God….” At Belshazzar’s party, he “praised the gods of gold and silver, bronze, iron, wood, and stone” (v. 4).

God crashes Belshazzar’s party! “The fingers of a human hand” appear and write on the wall of the king’s palace (v. 5)! And Belshazzar is filled with fear (v. 6).


Found Wanting

Belshazzar was a man filled with pride. He had not learned from the example of Nebuchadnezzar. Daniel says to him, “And you his son, Belshazzar, have not humbled your heart, though you knew all this, but you have lifted up yourself against the Lord of heaven” (vv. 22-23).

Daniel interprets God’s handwriting on the wall: “MENE, God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end; TEKEL, you have been weighed in the balances and found wanting; PERES, your kingdom is divided and given to the Medes and Persians” (vv. 26-28). God’s message to Belshazzar: “You’re not a man of significance.” God had “weighed” (i.e., judged) him and Belshazzar was “found wanting.”

For all of us, the handwriting is on the wall. Our days are “numbered.” When we are “weighed” by God, our sin causes us to be “found wanting.” And our “kingdom” (i.e., all of our possessions) will one day be divided and given to others. How can we gain significance?

Our lives gain significance when we humbly confess our need for God’s grace. The only man who was never “found wanting” was Jesus. And He died for me—I’m significant to God! God loves me! When we put our trust in Jesus, we are given his righteousness—we are no longer “found wanting”! We become a children of God—that’s significance!

____________________

[1] For many years, skeptics didn’t believe that Belshazzar was a real person. “Today we have abundant textual witness [e.g., the Nabonidus cylinder] to the fact that he was the son of Nabonidus. More than that, Belshazzar was coregent and actually in charge of Babylon during his father’s ten-year absence from the capital city, thus explaining the reference to him as king” (Tremper Longman III, Daniel, 135).

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Humbled

Part 4 of Our God Reigns 

Text: Daniel 4:1-37




Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven, for all his works are right and his ways are just; and those who walk in pride he is able to humble (v. 37). 


You're Not in Control

How many things do you have control over each day? You could say that you’re in control over what time you wake up in the morning. But what if your house loses power in the night, and you’re alarm doesn’t go off to wake you up? The truth is, we really do have as much control as we think.

The theme of the book of Daniel is God’s sovereignty. Unlike us, God is in control of all things.


God Rules

For the second time in the book of Daniel, Nebuchadnezzar has a dream—a dream that “made [him] afraid” (v. 5). In the dream, he sees a tree (v. 10). The tree grows and grows. It grows so tall that “its top reached to heaven” (v. 11). The tree provides shade for the animals, shelter for the birds, and food for all the people of the earth (v. 12). But then an angel (“a watcher,” v. 13) comes down from heaven and orders the tree to be chopped down (v. 14). So the tree is chopped down and all that’s left is the stump (v. 15). Then it’s announced that the stump—now a man—will live like an animal until “seven periods of time pass over him” (v. 16).

What does the dream mean? Nebuchadnezzar summons Daniel to give him the dream’s interpretation. Daniel reveals that the tree symbolizes the king (v. 22). There will come a time when Nebuchadnezzar will be “chopped down.” He will lose his sanity and act like an animal until he realizes that “the Most High rules the kingdom of men and gives it to whom he will” (v. 25).

One year later, Nebuchadnezzar is walking on the roof of his palace, admiring the city of Babylon. Babylon contained two of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world, the hanging gardens and the city walls. [1] The king says to himself, “Is not this great Babylon, which I have built by my mighty power as a royal residence and for the glory of my majesty?” (v. 30). Immediately (“While the words were still in the king’s mouth,” v. 31), what the dream foretold came to pass. He loses his mind and is removed as king and lives like an animal. Finally, Nebuchadnezzar “lift[s] [his] eyes to heaven, and his reason return[s] to [him]” (v. 34).

Nebuchadnezzar learned the hard way that God is sovereign. He is “the Most High” God (vv. 2, 24, 25, 34). The story of this chapter is an example of the truth stated in 2:21: “he removes kings and sets up kings.” “Heaven rules” (v. 26). In the end, Nebuchadnezzar confessed, “All [God’s] works are right and his ways are just” (v. 37). He declared, “None can…say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (v. 35). The king was humbled.


God, What Have You Done?

Many people use the sovereignty of God to argue against the existence of God. They say, “If God is both sovereign and good, why do bad things happen in this world?” [2] Nebuchadnezzar declared, “None can…say to him, ‘What have you done?’” (v. 35). “All [God’s] works are right and his ways are just” (v. 37). But sometimes we might have doubts about God’s works and ways being right and just. Sometimes we might even get angry at God and say, “God, what have you done?”

But we must stop to consider the cross. The Most High God died on a cross for us! He humbled himself (Phil. 2:8)! [3] In amazement, we cry out, “God, what have you done?”


Humbling Truths

Two truths should cause us to be humble.

1. How small we are in comparison to the Most High God. Nebuchadnezzar, the most powerful man on earth, was nothing in comparison to God. The psalmist writes, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Ps. 8:3-4). [4]

2. How small the Most High God made himself so that he could save us. To receive salvation, we must humbly acknowledge our sin and our need of a Saviour.


The Cure for Pride

People get angry about all sorts of things—many of them relatively minor things: (1) having to watch a 30 second ad on YouTube, (2) stepping in something wet after you’ve just put on clean socks, (3) hearing someone chew their food loudly, (4) having to wait five minutes in a grocery store checkout line, (5) slow internet.

Do you ever get angry about your pride? The hymn “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” says,

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

To “pour contempt” on our pride is to despise our pride. When we “survey” (i.e., think about) the cross, we should hate our pride. The Most High God died for us! The cross is the cure for pride.
____________________

[1] The walls were wide enough for chariots driven by four horses to pass each other on the top of them (ESV Study Bible, 1594).
[2] All of the arguments against God used by people today (e.g., atheists) can be found in the Bible. The Bible doesn’t shy away from the tough questions. The prophet Habakkuk complained to God, “Why do you idly look at wrong?” (Hab. 1:3).
[3] “He humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
[4] “Brand new research suggests that the universe is actually a lot more crowded than previously thought. There are up 2 trillion galaxies in the visible universe, more than 10 times previously estimated” (source).

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Faith in the Furnace

Part 3 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 3:1-30




“If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (vv. 17-18).


If

One of my favourite October traditions is watching It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown. In the Halloween special, Linus desperately wants a visit from the Great Pumpkin. According to Linus, “The Great Pumpkin rises out of his pumpkin patch and flies through the air with his bag of toys for children.”

When all of the children abandon Linus in the pumpkin patch on Halloween night, he tells them, “If the Great Pumpkin comes, I’ll still put in a good word for you.” Then he catches himself. “Good grief! I said ‘if.’ I meant ‘when he comes’! I’m doomed. One little slip like that can cause the Great Pumpkin to pass you by.” Linus believed that the sincerity of his faith could cause the Great Pumpkin to visit him. [1] Like Linus, many Christians think that the quality of their faith can cause God to do what they desire. [2]

In Daniel 3, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego aren’t afraid to say the word “if.” [3] They want God to save them from death in the fiery furnace, but they concede that it’s possible that God might not do for them what they desire. Biblical faith is not confidence in what I think should happen; it’s confidence in God. [4]


No Compromise

King Nebuchadnezzar sets up a golden image [5] and commands that everyone bow down to it. [6] Whoever does not bow down to the image will be thrown into a fiery furnace. When the music plays, everyone bows down, except three young Jews: Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s disobedience doesn’t not go unnoticed. They are brought before Nebuchadnezzar who gives them one last chance to obey. He warns them that if they once again refuse to bow down to the image, they will be thrown into the fiery furnace. And then he adds, “Who is the god who will deliver you out of my hand?” (v. 15).

Bowing down to the image would be a violation of the second commandment: “You shall not bow down to [an image]” (Exod. 20:5). When we are faced with the decision of obeying God or obeying man, we must choose to obey God. [7] Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refuse to back down. To the most powerful man on earth, they reply,
“O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If this be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and he will deliver us out of your hand. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image you have set up” (vv. 17-18). 
They believe that God is “able to deliver [them],” but they also acknowledge that God might not choose to do so (“But if not”). They will obey God even if the outcome is death.


God Is with Us

Nebuchadnezzar, “filled with fury” (v. 19), orders the furnace to be heated seven times hotter than usual. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego are bound and thrown into the fire. The king looks into the furnace. He looks again. He stands up and walks closer to the furnace. Maybe his eyes are playing tricks on him. Finally, he asks, “Did we not cast three men bound into the fire?” (v. 24). His counselors answer, “Yes.” “But,” Nebuchadnezzar says, “I see four men unbound, walking in the midst of the fire, and they are not hurt; and the appearance of the fourth is like a son of the gods” (v. 25). The king shouts into the furnace, “Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, servants of the Most High God, come out, and come here!” (v. 26). The three walk out, unharmed.

Who was the fourth figure in the furnace? It was either a Christophany (i.e., a physical appearance of Jesus before his incarnation ) [8] or an angel. Either way, the fourth figure was a demonstration that God is always with his people. [9]


Sometimes God's People Aren't Delivered

Hebrews 11 is often called “The Hall of Faith.” The chapter mentions Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego (and also Daniel): “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouth of lions, quenched the power of fire” (Heb. 11:33-34).

If we have faith in God, do we always get the outcome we desire? No. Hebrews 11 goes on to say, “Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life. Others suffered mocking and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were stoned, they were sawn in two, they were killed with the sword” (Heb. 11:35-37). When we don’t get the outcome we desire, does that mean our faith is defective? No.


Who Is This God Who Is with Us?

The God who is always with us is a God who is sovereign (i.e., in control of all things). He is “the Most High God” (v. 26). He is a God who is able to deliver people from a fiery furnace, if he so chooses. We can have confidence in God because he is not only a sovereign God; he is also a good God. God’s sovereignty must be paired with his goodness. Unless God is also good, his sovereignty isn’t a comfort to us.

We see both God’s sovereignty and goodness in the cross. Jesus came into this word as Immanuel, which means, “God with us.” Like Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jesus was condemned to die. But unlike Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, Jesus was not delivered from death. He was crucified because God is sovereign; it was God’s plan that he die. [10] He was crucified because God is good; he died for our sins.

Biblical faith is not confidence in what I think should happen; it’s confidence in God—a God who is both sovereign and good, a God who is always with us.

____________________

[1] Linus says to himself, “He’s gotta pick this one. He’s got to. I don’t see how a pumpkin patch could be more sincere than this one.”
[2] For example, “If I pray hard enough, God will heal me.”
[3] See verse 18.
[4] This is a paraphrase of a point made by Bryan Chapell: “Biblical faith is not confidence in particular outcomes; it is confidence in a sovereign God” (The Gospel According to Daniel, Kindle location 918).
[5] In verses 1-18, we’re told nine times that Nebuchadnezzar “set up” the golden image. Nebuchadnezzar probably builds the golden image because of his dream of a great image in Daniel 2: “you are the head of gold” (v. 38).
[6] This account is similar to the story of the Tower of Babel, which was built so that the builders could “make a name for [themselves]” (Gen. 11:4).
[7] See Acts 5:29.
[8] ESV Study Bible, 1592.
[9] Cf. Isaiah 43:2.
[10] “This Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23).

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

God Does What Man Can't Do

Part 2 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 2:1-49




Daniel answered the king and said, “No wise men, enchanters, magicians, or astrologers can show to the king the mystery that the king has asked, but there is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries, and he has made known to King Nebuchadnezzar what will be in the latter days” (vv. 27-28).


To Whom Do You Give Thanks?

To whom do you give thanks on Thanksgiving Day? When we give thanks to God for our blessings, we are acknowledging that God is sovereign (i.e., in control).

Thanksgiving Day was originally based on the belief that God is sovereign. On January 31, 1957, the Canadian Parliament proclaimed: “A Day of General Thanksgiving to Almighty God for the bountiful harvest with which Canada has been blessed…is to be observed on the second Monday in October.” When we give thanks to God for the harvest, we are acknowledging that God is sovereign over the harvest.

The theme of the book of Daniel is the sovereignty of God. In spite of how things might look, God is in control.


A Troubling Dream and an Impossible Demand

One night, King Nebuchadnezzar has a dream—a troubling dream. And he’s desperate to known the meaning of the dream. So he summons some of his wise men and demands that they not only tell him the meaning of his dream but also the content of his dream (v. 5). And if they can’t fulfill his demand, they will be “torn limb from limb” (v. 5). The wise men reply as you and I would: “That’s impossible!” They say, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand” (v. 10).

The king is furious and commands that all the wise men of Babylon be executed (v. 12). By this time, Daniel has graduated from the three-year training program in Babylon. He is now one of the wise men. And his is to be killed along with the others. Not wanting to torn limb from limb (obviously!), Daniel asks to speak to the king. He requests that he be given some time. At the end of the appointed time, he will return to the king and interpret the dream (v. 16). Though the king’s demand is an impossible one, Daniel knows that God can do what man can’t do. We have a God who does what man can’t do.


The Revealer of Mysteries

The wise men had told the king, “There is not a man on earth who can meet the king’s demand” (v. 10). But Daniel declares, “There is a God in heaven who reveals mysteries” (v. 28). “God in heaven” can do what “man on earth” can’t do.

God has revealed to us what was previously a mystery (i.e., once hidden truth): his plan for the world will be accomplished through Jesus Christ. In Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, a “stone” destroys the great image, which represented the kingdoms of man (including Babylon represented by the head of gold). The stone is Jesus. Compared to the image, the stone seems insignificant. And when Jesus lived on this earth, most people didn’t see him as anyone special. But when Christ returns, the kingdoms of man will be turned to dust and he will reign forever.

Jesus came to earth to do what we couldn’t do: bring us salvation. The wise men of Babylon stated that the gods don’t dwell with flesh (v. 11). But the apostle John writes, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). Why did God the Son become a man? To die for our salvation. Or, in other words, to do for us what we couldn’t do. Jesus will return to earth to do what we can’t do: build an eternal and perfect kingdom.


Give Thanks!

When God revealed to Daniel the interpretation of the king’s dream, what was Daniel’s response? Thankfulness: “I give thanks and praise” (v. 23). Our response to God doing for us what we can't do should be thankfulness--a thankfulness not only in word but also in deed.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Life as an Exile

Part 1 of Our God Reigns

Text: Daniel 1




But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank (Dan. 1:8). 


God Is in Control

The book of Daniel was written by Daniel the prophet during the sixth century B.C. The first half of the book (chapters 1-6) contains stories about Daniel. The second half of the book (chapters 7-12) contains visions of Daniel. But the book of Daniel is not about Daniel. It’s about God. The theme of the book is the sovereignty of God. “In spite of present appearances, God is in control.” [1]

The book of Daniel begins during a terrible time for Daniel’s people: “Nebuchadnezzar king of Babylon came to Jerusalem and besieged it” (1:1). But God was still in control: “And the Lord gave Jehoiakim king of Judah into his hand” (1:2). People are concerned about the U.S. Presidential Election. It’s Trump versus Clinton--two extremely unpopular candidates. People are worried about the outcome. But God is in control! “He changes times and seasons; he removes kings and sets up kings” (2:21).


Exiles

The book of Daniel begins with Daniel and his three friends—Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego—removed from their homeland of Judah and taken to live in Babylon. They are exiles. They are part of a training program set up by Nebuchadnezzar, the king of Babylon. The best of the best of the youth of Judah have been chosen for this program (vv. 3-4). They will be trained for three years by the Babylonians, and then at the end of their training, they will serve the king.

This training was to be a reprogramming of the beliefs of the Judean youths. Even their names were changed (v. 7). Nebuchadnezzar expects Daniel and his three friends to conform to the Babylonian culture—a culture that is hostile to the beliefs and convictions of Daniel and his three friends.

In many ways, our culture is hostile to Christian beliefs and convictions. The apostle Peter described his readers as “exiles” (1 Peter 2:11). “Our citizenship is in heaven” (Phil. 3:20). Jesus said that his followers are in the world but not of the world (“They are not of the world,” John 17:16). And the apostle Paul wrote that we are not to be “conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2). The book of Daniel “teaches us that the struggle is not to make the culture Christian, but how a Christian can live in a hostile culture.” [2]


Resolving to Glorify God

Verse 8 says, “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank.” Why did Daniel resolve to not eat the king’s food and drink the king’s wine? Was it because he would break the OT dietary laws if he ate the king’s food? Maybe, but the dietary laws didn’t forbid the drinking of wine. Was it because the food and wine would have been offered to idols? Maybe, but we’re not told that the vegetables Daniel ate weren’t offered to idols. Perhaps there was another reason. Maybe Daniel resolved not to eat the king’s food and wine to show that he owed his success to God, not the king.

Whatever the reason, Daniel’s decision was rooted in his desire to glorify God. Sometimes resolving to glorify makes our lives more difficult (e.g., Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the fiery furnace; Daniel in the lions’ den—those are uncomfortable places!). We must resolve to put God’s glory ahead of our own comfort. 


God Put Our Good Ahead of His Own Comfort

Let’s stop for a moment to think about this God whom we are called to glorify. He is a God who put our good ahead of his own comfort. Jesus—God in human flesh, the second person of the Trinity—declared, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). God—the sovereign God!—chose to endure the humiliation and suffering of the cross for us. Don’t be ashamed to be known and act as a Christian!

In the TV series The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell states, “You can tell what’s informed the society by…the tallest building in the place.” In a medieval city, the tallest building was the cathedral. In a 17th century city, the tallest building was the political palace. In a modern city, the tallest buildings are the office buildings and the condos.

The focus has shifted from God to self. When our focus is on self, we won’t put God’s glory ahead of our own comfort. But if our focus is on God—and how he put our good ahead of his own comfort—we will resolve to glorify him.

____________________

[1] Tremper Longman III, Daniel, 19. 
[2] Ibid., 61. 
[3] Verse 9 states that “God gave Daniel favor and compassion in the sight of the chief of the eunuchs.” Again, we see that God is in control.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

God Is Faithful

Part 10 of A New Hope

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:23-28



Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and my your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it (vv. 23-24). 


Reliability

We appreciate reliability (e.g., a reliable vehicle). It’s frustrating when something or someone is unreliable. (“He said he’d be here.”)

Our hope is based on God’s word (i.e., his promises). How can we be sure that Christ really will return one day? How can we be sure that God won’t let us down? The apostle Paul’s answer: because God is “faithful” (v. 24). He’s reliable. “God is completely trustworthy, not only ‘worthy’ of our ‘trust,’ but absolutely to be relied on to carry out what has been promised.” [1] Our hope would be uncertain if God was not faithful. 


The Faithful God

In the beginning of the book of Exodus, the Israelites are slaves in Egypt. “And God heard their groaning, and God remembered his covenant with Abraham, with Isaac, and with Jacob” (Exod. 2:24). God chose Moses to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, and God revealed to Moses that his name is Yahweh (Exod. 3:14). God said to him, “This is my name forever, and thus I am to be remembered throughout all generations” (Exod. 3:15).

The name Yahweh reminds us that God keeps his promises. After God had rescued the Israelites, Moses proclaimed to the people, “The LORD you God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him and keep his commandments, to a thousand generations” (Deut. 7:9). God’s name is still Yahweh, and he is still a covenant-keeping God. 


Peace and Holiness

Verse 23 is a prayer. The prayer has two parts: (1) “may the God of peace sanctify you completely”; (2) “may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.” [2] This is a prayer about holiness.

Notice that Paul calls God “the God of peace.” Peace (shalom) is wholeness (i.e., the absence of conflict—both inner conflict and conflict with others). God’s desire for us is that we be people of peace. Paul wrote in verse 13, “Be at peace among yourselves.” There’s a connection between peace and holiness. To be holy (i.e., obey God’s commands), we must love others. If there is a lack of peace with others, there is a lack of love. And if there is a lack of love, there is a lack of holiness. Hebrews 12:14 says, “Strive for peace with everyone, and for holiness without which no one will see the Lord.”


Kept Blameless

What does Paul say God will do (“he will surely do it,” v. 24)? God will make sure that we (i.e., those of us who have put our faith in Christ) will stand “blameless” (v. 23) at the final judgment (“at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ”).

Escaping condemnation is not the result of our own effort. It depends on the faithfulness of God. Paul wrote to the Philippians, “I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ [i.e., his return]” (Phil. 1:6). However, striving for holiness is expected of every Christian and provides evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence within us. 


Without a Doubt

The other day my bathroom tap wouldn't turn off. The cartridge inside was broken. It was less than two years old. That's frustrating.

Unlike the people and things of this world, God is one hundred percent reliable. With God, there should never be a doubt that he will do what he has promised to do.
____________________

[1] Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, 231.
[2] This prayer is similar to the one found in 3:13.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

The Habit of Worship

Part 9 of A New Hope

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:12-22




Habits 

All of us have good and bad habits.

In 1 Thessalonians 4:16-18, the apostle Paul tells the Thessalonians that they must develop the habit of worship.


This Is the Will of God

Verse 18 ends with the statement “for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” What is the will of God for us? “This” includes not only the exhortation [1] to “give thanks,” but also the exhortations to “rejoice” and “pray.”

Paul not only tells us what we should do, but also how often we should do it. How often are we to rejoice? “Always.” How often are we to pray? “Without ceasing.” How often are we to give thanks? “In all circumstances.” Rejoicing, praying, and giving thanks are to be habits in our lives.

Obviously it’s impossible to always being doing these things. You can’t pray while you’re sleeping! The point is that we are to develop the habit of worship.


Rejoice Always

When is it most difficult to rejoice? When life is difficult. The Thessalonians were facing adversity (“these afflictions,” 3:3). How can we rejoice when life is difficult? Paul writes in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always.” We can always rejoice “in the Lord”—in who he is and what he has done, is doing, and will do.

“This is not a sugar-coated call for putting on a happy face in the midst of difficulties.” [2] “We aren’t called to bury our feelings.” [3] Paul never told the Thessalonians not to grieve (see 4:13; cf. Rom. 12:15; 1 Peter 1:6). The author of Psalm 42 admitted to feeling “cast down” (i.e., depressed). He writes, “Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me? Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God” (Psalm 42:5-6). What can we do if our lives are difficult? “Rejoice in hope” (Rom. 12:12).


Pray Without Ceasing

In order to develop the habit of prayer, we must believe three things. First, we must believe that prayer really works. If God loves us, he would not tell us to do something that would be a waste of time. 

Second, we must believe that when we pray, we are communicating with a loving Father. We know he loves us because he “did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all” (Rom. 8:32). If an imperfect father “know[s] how to give good gifts to [his] children, how much more will [our] heavenly Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:11).

Third, we must believe that we need God. It’s in the good times that we most neglect prayer. We might think we’re doing fine on our own without God. Prayer demonstrates our dependence on our heavenly Father.


Give Thanks in All Circumstances

Should we give thanks for all circumstances? We should be thankful in all circumstances, knowing that God can do something good in every circumstance (see Rom. 8:28). The ultimate example of this is the cross.


Developing the Habit of Worship

Aristotle said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, but a habit.” Developing the habit of worship usually doesn’t happen overnight.

How can we develop the habit of worship? We must learn to focus on God and his salvation. What are some things you can do to make sure you think about God and his salvation every day?

___________________

[1] To “exhort” means to urge someone to do something.
[2] Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, 214-215.
[3] Gary S. Shogren, 1 & 2 Thessalonians, 224.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Like a Thief in the Night

Part 8 of A New Hope

Text: 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11




For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (v. 2). 


 An Unexpected Thief

One day when I was about ten years old, my grandparents traveled from Vermont to New Brunswick to visit us. They were going to arrive late at night, so my dad decided to leave the garage door open for them. The next day I discovered that my bike was gone. Apparently a thief in the night and walked through the open garage door and stolen my bike.

In order for a thief to be successful at robbing a house, his arrival has to be unexpected. Jesus declared that when he returns to earth, he will come like a thief in the night:
“Stay awake, for you do not now on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matt. 24:42-44; cf. 2 Peter 3:10; Rev. 16:15). 
When Jesus returns, most of the world will not be expecting him. He will come “like a thief in the night” (v. 2).


Could Today Be the Day? 

The apostle Paul writes, “But concerning that day and hour [i.e., the day and hour when Jesus will return] no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only” (v. 1). Jesus himself said, “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows” (Mark 13:32). None of us knows when Jesus will return. If someone gives a date for the return of Jesus, ignore that person. He or she doesn’t know when it will happen.

The apostle Peter also writes that the coming of Jesus will be “like a thief in the night” (2 Peter 3:10). He states that “scoffers will come in the last days scoffing.” They will ask, “Where is the promise of his coming?” (2 Peter 3:3-4). The promise was given 2,000 years ago, but Peter goes on to say, “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” (2 Peter 3:8). So why has Jesus returned yet? Here’s Peter’s answer: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9).

Could Jesus return today? Maybe. It’s possible. No one knows whether Jesus will return today, tomorrow, or a thousand years from now. But we should live each day thinking that today could be the day of the Lord’s return. 


The Day of the Lord

What is “the day of the Lord” (v. 2)? The day of the Lord is “that eschatological event when the Lord comes to judge the inhabitants of the earth and to pour out his wrath because of sin.” [1] “Blow a trumpet in Zion; sound an alarm on my holy mountain! Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the LORD is coming; it is near” (Joel 2:1).

For those not expecting the return of Jesus, the day of the Lord will “come like a thief in the night” (v. 2). It will be an unwelcome surprise. “While people are saying, ‘There is peace and safety,’ [2] then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape” (v. 3).

For the Christian, the day of the Lord is not a day to be feared. “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him” (vv. 9-10). For the Christians, the day of the Lord is a day of salvation, not a day of judgment. Paul ends this section by writing, “Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing” (v. 11).


Battling Complacency

Paul writes, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober” (vv. 4-6). To “sleep” is to live without expecting the Lord’s return.

One of the Christian’s greatest enemies is complacency. If you examine Paul’s letters, you’ll discover that he never promotes complacent Christianity. He always encourages his readers to keep on progressing, to keep on striving to become more like Jesus.

Paul goes on to day, “But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation” (v. 8). This is an allusion to Isaiah 59:17: “He put on righteousness as a breastplate and a helmet of salvation on his head.” The image is one of Jesus coming as a warrior.

As we wait for the Lord’s return, we are to put on “the breastplate of faith and love and “a helmet the hope of salvation.” Faith, love, and hope are the three great Christian virtues: “remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ” (1:3)

Our first concern should not be when Jesus will return but how we should live until he returns. If we lived each day as though it could be the day of the Lord’s return, we would overcome our complacency. 

____________________

[1] G. L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 232.
[2] Green comments, “With the establishment of the pax Romana under Augustus, peace and safety became the byword in the city as throughout the empire, and so the apocalyptic teaching of the apostles would have sounded decidedly strange” (233).

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

The Coming of the Lord

Part 7 of A New Hope

Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18




But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope (1 Thess. 4:13). 


Love Others...Even If They Hold a Different View on Eschatology  

The return of Jesus is mentioned in every chapter of 1 Thessalonians (1:10; 2:19; 3:13; 4:13-18; 5:1-11, 23). The promise of the Lord’s return is what gives us hope.

In an article entitled “13 End Times Errors to Avoid,” one of the thirteen is “Making a particular view of eschatology a test of orthodoxy.” (Earlier in this series, I shared one of the other thirteen errors to avoid: “Not preaching the return of Jesus for fear of controversy.”) When one Baptist theologian accused H. A. Ironside and others of being heretics for holding the pretribulational view, Ironside responded with these words:
It passes our comprehension how any man, or set of men, with an atom of genuine love for the Lord and His people, can deliberately brand as heretics fellow-believers whose lives are generally fragrant with Christian graces, who stand unflinchingly for the inspiration of the entire Bible, simply because they hold different views on prophecy. [1]
The command to love others is disobeyed when we make a particular view of eschatology a test of orthodoxy.


My View on the Coming of the Lord 

You might be wondering what my view is on “the coming of the Lord” (v. 15). My view is the posttribulational view (i.e., there is no rapture of the church before the tribulation period).

Would God really allow the church to go through this time of great tribulation? Here’s how Jesus describes what the world will be like before his second coming: “Then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been from the beginning of the world until now, no, and never will be” (Matt. 24:21). I searched for the word “tribulation” in the NT and it usually refers to the persecution of Christians. There is no biblical support for the idea that Christians are promised to avoid tribulation. Actually, the opposite is found in Scripture. Jesus said to his disciples, “In the world you will have tribulation” (John 16:33). The Thessalonians were experiencing “afflictions,” and Paul says that they were “destined for this” (4:3; cf. 1:6). [2]

But what about the promise of 1 Thessalonians 1:10: “wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (cf. 2:16). God’s wrath and tribulation are not the same thing. The church will suffer man’s wrath but not God’s wrath (like how the Israelites were afflicted by the Egyptians but were spared from the ten plagues). The apostle Peter wrote, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s suffering, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed [i.e., when Jesus returns]” (1 Peter 4:12-13). 


The Dead in Christ

Paul writes, “We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep [i.e., dead]” (v. 13). About what were the Thessalonians “uninformed”? We can’t be sure, but it had something to do with those whom Paul describes as “the dead in Christ” (v. 16). Perhaps one or more of the Thessalonian believers had died since Paul’s visit, and the church was concerned that these deceased Christians were not going to be fully experience the Lord’s coming. Paul comforts them by assuring them that “to be alive or dead is of no consequence at all regarding the coming of Christ.” [3]

Paul wants to inform the Thessalonians about the fate of the dead in Christ so “that [they] may not grieve as others do who have no hope” (v. 13). Our hope is the Lord’s return. It’s a hope that’s based on the resurrection of Jesus: “For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep” (v. 14). It’s called “our blessed hope” in Titus 2:13: “Waiting for our blessed hope, the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ.” It’s our “one hope” (Eph. 4:4). It should unite us!

When a Christian dies, we don’t need to grieve without hope. Whether we are alive or dead on the day of the Lord’s coming, we will either “rise first” (v. 16) (“we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep,” v. 15) or “caught up” (v. 17). We will all “meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (v. 17)


Encourage One Another

Paul concludes this passage with these words: “Therefore encourage one another with these words” (v. 18). One of the reasons why we gather together as a church is to encourage one another. We are not to be “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near” (Heb. 10:24-25).

We shouldn’t allow our views on the timing of the Lord’s coming to divide us. Instead, we should talk about our hope and encourage one another!

____________________

[1] This quote is found in George E. Ladd’s The Blessed Hope (59).
[2] The Greek word translated “afflictions” (thlipsis) is the same word translated “tribulation” in Matthew 24:21.
[3] Gordon D. Fee, The First and Second Letters to the Thessalonians, 175.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Our Sanctification

Part 6 of A New Hope

Text: 1 Thessalonians 4:1-12




For this is the will of God, your sanctification, that you abstain from sexual immorality (v. 3). 


A Culture Resistant to Holiness 

In 1 Thessalonians 4, the apostle Paul addresses the sin of sexual immorality. Many Christians probably think that living a holy life (i.e., living the way God wants us to live) in our culture is more difficult than it was for Paul in his culture. Not true!

Paul’s world was dominated by the Greek culture. And the attitude of the Greeks toward sex can be summed up in a statement made by Greek statesman and orator Demosthenes: “Mistresses we keep for the sake of pleasure, concubines for the daily care of our persons, but wives to bear us legitimate children and to be faithful guardians of our households.” What was immoral according to God’s word was normal according to the culture.

Living a holy life has never been easy!


Being Different

Paul had received a good report from Timothy concerning the Thessalonians (“just as you are doing,” v. 1), but it appears that some in the church were disregarding Paul’s teaching on sexual ethics (“whoever disregards this,” v. 8). So Paul writes, “This is the will of God, your sanctification: that you abstain from sexual immorality” (v. 3).

Our “sanctification” is our holiness (cf. vv. 4, 7). To be holy, we must live as God commands us to live, which results in us being different [1] from the world. [2] To the nation of Israel, God commanded, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy” (Lev. 19:2). This command is repeated to us, the church: “As he who called you is holy, you also be holy in all your conduct, since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy’” (1 Peter 1:15-16). [3]

Being holy isn’t limited to abstaining from sexual sin. “Sexual immorality” is specifically mentioned by Paul because that sin was a problem in the church at Thessalonica. The Greek word (porneia) that has been translated “sexual immorality” refers to any sexual act outside of heterosexual marriage.


What Paul Says About Sanctification

In verses 3-8, Paul gives three facts about sanctification.

1. Our sanctification is the will of God. 

“This is the will of God, your sanctification” (v. 3). Paul goes on to say that it’s God will that “each one of you know how to control his own body [4] in holiness and honor, not in the passion of lust like the Gentiles who do not know God [i.e., be different]” (v. 4). “God has not called us for impurity, but in holiness” (v. 7).

2. Our sanctification is a continual process. [5]

Sanctification isn’t a one-time thing. Even though Paul had received a good report about the Thessalonians, Paul didn’t want them to become complacent (“that you do so more and more,” v. 1; cf. v. 10). 

3. Our sanctification requires Spirit-empowered self-control. 

God told the prophet Ezekiel, “I will put my Spirit within you” (Ezek. 37:14). The NT calls the Spirit the Holy Spirit. If we have the Spirit within us, we have the desire to be holy. However, that doesn’t mean that holiness is easy for us; it’s a struggle.


Not Disregarding God's Will

To those who were disregarding Paul’s teaching about sexual ethics, he warns, “Whoever disregards this, disregards not man but God” (v. 8). It’s one thing to struggle to obey God’s commands; it’s another thing to disregard God’s commands. 

Will we refuse to do the will of the God who is the all-powerful creator? Will we refuse to do the will of the God who chose to die for us?

____________________

[1] To be “sanctified” means to be “set apart.” 

[2] However, we are not to be different from the world in every way. Paul tells the Thessalonians not to take advantage of the charity of wealthy believers, “so that [they] may walk properly before outsiders” (v. 12). 
[3] In the previous verse, Peter writes, “Do not be conformed to the passions of your former ignorance” (1 Peter 1:14).
[4] A literal translation of the Greek is “how to possess his own vessel.” The three most popular interpretations of “vessel” (skeuos) are (1) a wife, (2) one’s body, and (3) the male sex organ (cf. 1 Sam. 21:5-6). 

[5] Gene L. Green writes that “sanctification” (hagiasmos) means “the process of sanctification” (The Letters to the Thessalonians, 190).

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Separated but Not Forgotten

Part 4 of A New Hope

Text: 1 Thessalonians 2:17-3:5




We were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart (1 Thess. 2:17).


The Pain of Separation 

John Fawcett (1739-1817) was born into a poor family in Yorkshire, England, and was orphaned at age 12. To survive, he accepted a lengthy apprenticeship to a tailor. Then, while still in his teens, he heard the great George Whitfield preach and became a Christian.

While serving his apprenticeship, Fawcett became active in a Baptist church and was often asked to speak. Then at age 25 (and newly married) he was invited to serve as pastor of a small church. The poor people of that little church were able to pay very little, and a lot of Fawcett’s pay came as potatoes and other produce. Once he and his wife Mary began having children, they found it difficult to survive.

Then Fawcett learned that the pastor of a large Baptist church in London was retiring, and he let the church know that he would be interested in serving them. They called him to be their pastor at a much larger salary, so John and Mary packed their belongings and prepared to move.

But then Mary told John that she didn’t think that she could leave the people whom they had both learned to love—and John told her felt the same way—so the two of them unpacked the wagon and let the London church know that they wouldn’t be coming. Fawcett served that little church for the rest of his life—54 years in all. [1]

Sometimes we don’t or can’t remain where we are, and we leave behind people we love. This is what the apostle Paul often had to do as he traveled from place to place planting churches. To the church in Thessalonica he wrote, “We were torn away from you, brothers, for a short time, in person not in heart (1 Thess. 2:17). In other words, Paul had been separated from the Thessalonians, but he had not forgotten them.


Orphaned 

Paul and his coworkers had been “torn away” from the Thessalonians (2:17). [2] The Greek word for “torn away” (aporphanisthentes) means “to be orphaned.” [3] “Unlike the modern term, the word ‘orphan’ could refer to the child who had lost his or her parents or the parents who were bereft of their child, with the pain of this loss at the forefront.” [4]

Paul had been “torn away” from the Thessalonians “in person not in heart” (2:17). He wanted to see them again (“we endeavored the more eagerly with great desire to see you face to face,” 2:17). Paul had tried several times (“again and again”) to return to Thessalonica, “but Satan hindered [them]” (2:18).


Paul's Glory and Joy

Paul tells the Thessalonians that they are his “glory and joy” (2:20). Paul was looking forward to the day of the Lord’s return when he would see the Thessalonians again (“our hope,” 2:19). On that day, the Thessalonians would be his “joy” and “crown of boasting” (2:19).

In the Macedonian games, the winning athletes were crowned with a wreath of oak leaves. The “crown” was “a recognition not only of their victory but also of their efforts and labor.” [5] For Paul, seeing the Thessalonians in heaven would show him that his labour had not been in vain (3:5). The “boasting” would not be a boasting about what he himself had done but a boasting about what God had done through him.


Sadness and Joy

This passage reminds us of two truths. First, there is sadness when circumstances cause us to be separated from one another. We can be separated by geography or by death. When a Christian we love dies, we grieve, but we shouldn’t “grieve as others do who have no hope” (4:13).

Second, there will be joy when we meet again at the coming of the Lord Jesus. We long to see Jesus when he returns, but it’s not wrong to desire to see Christians who have died. It will be a day of many joyful reunions. 


Blest Be the Tie That Binds

I began with a story from the life of John Fawcett. Fawcett was also a hymn writer. His most famous hymn might have been inspired by his experience of almost leaving his little church.

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again.

____________________

[1] Adapted from a hymn story on lectionary.org.
[2] See Acts 17:10.
[3] Paul has already described himself as a “nursing mother” (2:7) and a caring father (2:11) to the Thessalonians.
[4] Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, 150.
[5] Ibid., 154.