A Bible Lesson on Luke 2:1-21

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a slight variant of a lesson taught September 16, 2018 at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa.

Brothers and sisters, we have this morning the great privilege and responsibility to look with reverence at one of the central accounts of all Scripture.  We’ve heard it many times.  Many of our families have memorized it.  I personally clearly recall reciting it with the entire 7th grade student body of McKinley Junior High in 1963 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.  These days it is annually published even in newspapers hostile to the Christian faith.  Almost all of us in some sense “know” what it says.  So our responsibility this morning is not light.  As we look together at Luke 2:1-21 we must apply ourselves and rely upon God’s Spirit to open our eyes and ears to the wonder of this text, lest we be complacent about it because of its familiarity.  Let’s pray to that end.

Our Father, help us we ask.  We love You, but are frail.  We give You thanks for the wonder of the incarnation, and confess our dullness as we come to it this morning in Luke’s gospel.  Please work by Your gracious Holy Spirit and Word to quicken and change us as we see Christ.  Save me from wrong speaking and all of us from wrong hearing we ask.  Honor Yourself in our midst we pray, in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

I have only one main (and quite obvious) point this morning.  But to be plain, let me state it clearly here at the outset.  The point of the sermon is that:

The baby in the manger in Bethlehem was the eternal God made incarnate, and the implications of that should produce unceasing praise to the triune God of the Bible from all people.

As we attempt to grasp this point afresh, we will organize our time together into 4 waves or 4 views of the text, that might be called or outlined as:

  1. The facts,
  2. Some things about some of the participants,
  3. The significance of the events and reactions of participants, and
  4. Our response.

First, consider the more or less unvarnished facts of the account.  Let’s take the text a verse or two at a time.

Luke 2:1  In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 

Caesar Augustus was the first and greatest of the Caesars.  His reign saw the Roman Empire expand to the entire Mediterranean world.  It brought with it the famous Pax Romana (Roman Peace) and the flowering of the Roman arts and literature.  We would today judge him to be vain and ruthless, but by standards of the ancient world, Augustus was a benevolent and good ruler and these were relatively decent times.

Augustus decreed that registrations were to be made across the Roman Empire.  The were made for both taxation and military conscription purposes.  But since the Jews were exempt from Roman military service, the purpose in Judea was only to assess taxes.

2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 

3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 

Quirinius was in charge in “Syria” (including Judea) twice, once about 10-7 BC and later after 6 AD, at which time he was officially governor.  This is a reference to the earlier period, when he seems to have not had the title officially.  Luke is naming times, places, and people.  This is eyes-open history, not some fairy story or cultural myth he’s recounting.  Luke intends for “Theophilus” and others to check his real facts about real events.

4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 

Nazareth is 80 miles and at least a 3-day journey away from Bethlehem.  Joseph, as a descendant of King David, goes to be enrolled in the town of David.  He is no rebel.  He is a descendant of a great king, but goes obediently to register to pay tax to the current ruling authority.  He acts in a way consistent with Jesus’s answer 30 plus years later to the question He’s asked about the morality of paying tax to Caesar.  And in Joseph’s submission to the God-ordained civil authority, the decree of this pagan emperor is used to bring about God’s redemption purposes and fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy that Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 

In Syria, women of age 12 or more were subject to a poll tax and had to register.  It is thus likely that Mary needs to go to Bethlehem as well.  But even if she isn’t absolutely required to go with Joseph, her condition and circumstances are such that Joseph is not going to leave her to fend for herself while he is gone.  Mary travels with Joseph, and except for sexual relations they are living together as man and wife.  Luke says they are “betrothed.”  Jewish betrothal was a serious binding matter, which could only be broken by death or divorce.  And verse 5 tells us that Mary is still pregnant in keeping with Gabriel’s announcement.

6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 

How long have they been in Bethlehem?  We’re not told and don’t know.  We have our mental images of Mary just making it to town on the back of a donkey before going into labor.  Maybe it was that way.  Maybe they have been there for some time visiting relatives, but having been the last to arrive or being the least prestigious travelers, there is no room to stay in crowded homes of relatives.  We don’t know.  What we do know is that at an inconvenient time, in inconvenient circumstances, the baby Jesus is born.  “the time came”  The King James Version reads “the days were accomplished.”  The fullness of time has come, not only for Mary’s pregnancy to be over, but for God’s promise of a Messiah to be fulfilled.

7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

We don’t have much detail here.  Scholars are not even agreed on the intent of the word “inn” in this verse.  Whether it is a commercial establishment or a large private home is not sure.  It’s not even obvious how much shelter they have for the birth.  Many commentators see here a large circle of stalls for poor travelers, each with 3 walls and each open to a common courtyard and central fire provided by the inn-keeper.  What is clear is that there’s no comfortable place for the baby to be born, the circumstances are humble, and the child is greeted by devout and modest parents who will love Him and raise Him in the fear of the LORD.  He is wrapped up like any poor child of the time and placed in the feeding trough of domestic animals.  That this takes place at an inn guarantees it is not something that could be dismissed as a fairy story in a few years’ time.  It takes place with many witnesses.

So, in 7 short verses, with remarkable economy, Luke has told us the story of the birth.  But the birth, without what God reveals about the One who is born, would mean little.  So Luke immediately goes on to show us what the Father and the witnesses have to say about the event.

8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 

Tradition says these are flocks kept for the temple sacrifices.  The shepherds who watch the flock are chosen by God to be the first outside the family to see the single newborn Lamb of God, the Savior of the World.  They are the first to see the One who will Himself be the final and complete sacrifice for sin.

It is notable and fitting that these are ordinary and humble men, ones that careful Jews might well look down on for their rough ways and lack of careful adherence to ceremonial law.  It is to such common people (and thus you and me as well) that the announcement comes.  These men are busy doing what they have been given to do.  They are at work, taking shifts staying awake caring for the sheep.

9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 

An angel/a messenger of the Lord appears and the visible awesome presence of God shines around them.  These fellows are common folk, but they are not dull.  They recognize their vulnerability in the presence of the powerful messenger of God.  Literally the text is “they feared a great fear.”  Think about this: one second they are camped out on the hills on a dark night, and the next, it’s bright as day and there is a magnificent heavenly being from God having business with them.

10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 

“Fear not” is more literally “Don’t keep on fearing.”  They are terrified as well they should be.  But the angel announces that rather than bringing terror, there is “good news of great joy.”  The word translated “good news” has the same root as our word “evangelism” and the proclamation that the angel brings is “good news” to a world under the curse of sin.  It is good news that will be for “all the people.”  To the shepherds’ ears “all people” probably means “all Jews.”  But we know that in fact, something far more glorious is meant.  All is all!  This is news for both Jews and gentiles.

11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

A Savior is born.  It is “Jesus,” literally “God saves,” who has been born.  He is Christ, God’s anointed one, Messiah.  And He is the Lord, God Himself in human flesh, the rightful King of the universe.

12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 

A more literal rendering of this verse is “And this will be ‘the’ sign for you.”  There are probably other babies in Bethlehem wrapped this way on this night.  But there is only one in a manger, Jesus.  While this might seem like a most unremarkable pointer, it marks one of the 2 or 3 most remarkable and important events of all time.  And this humble signpost is all that the shepherds are given or will need.

13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”

If Mary and Joseph were at home, local musicians and relatives would have gathered and greeted the birth of the baby with music of joy and congratulation.  Here near Bethlehem, there is instead the sound of angels praising God.  It is a multitude of the heavenly army of created beings praising God and giving glory to the Holy One.

These angels declare “on earth peace/shalom/well-being among those with whom He is pleased.”  This is not “hold-hands-and-sing-kum-bah-ya” about world peace.  It’s announcement of eternal well-being and wholeness, everything that makes for a sound existence and peace with God.  This is now available to humanity, to those who greet it with true faith and repentance and are pleasing to God. The curse of sin is about to be eternally broken.

15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 

16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.

The shepherds don’t need to be coaxed into the trip to town.  They recognize that there is nothing more significant than the news they’ve been given.  They don’t delay, they don’t worry about who is going to see that the sheep don’t wander off, or who will keep the wolf away.  Instead they leave those matters in God’s hand, act on the news, and find things just as God promised.  And in so doing, they are the first after Mary and Joseph to behold God’s Savior come to earth.

17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child.

18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 

This is a wild story that these men have to tell: God’s Messiah, prophesied since the Garden of Eden, born to poor parents in humble circumstances in Bethlehem, announced first to rough shepherds.  But there is no hint that these guys are reluctant to share the story or that people are inclined to dismiss their testimony.  It’s wild and wonderful indeed, but it’s just not the kind of thing one makes up and then persists in broadcasting.  The story simply rings true, with a beauty unmatched by that of any other in all of history.  And all who hear it are amazed.

19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 

Consider all that must have raced around in Mary’s mind in these early years.  What indeed was in store for her and Joseph and this baby?  Mary continually shows a characteristic remarkable modesty.  In this little verse Luke conveys to us the gentleness of a young woman to whom amazing things have been promised and in whose experience amazing things have come to pass, who rather than blabbing all over town, quietly ponders them in private.

20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

The proper reaction to all this is indeed to give glory and praise to God.  What else could they or should they do?

Jumping ahead a bit over a week

21 And at the end of eight days, when he was circumcised, he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb. 

The central matter here is that this is indeed Jesus/”God Saves” born in Bethlehem and welcomed into this humble devout Jewish home, circumcised at eight days, and soon after presented at the Jerusalem temple in accordance with God’s law.

These are the facts.  Let’s now consider a bit more slowly some points about participants in this account.

Consider first, the persons of Augustus Caesar, Joseph, and Mary.  Augustus Caesar (or Octavian) is the nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, who simply seized power as the Roman republic was coming unglued following the assassination of Julius.  He is arguably the most powerful man in the world at this time, but was hardly one to be personally admired.  In contrast, Joseph and Mary are both devout and honorable descendants of King David and thus qualified by prophecy to stand in Messiah’s genealogy.  But they are without any public notoriety or position.  They are modest and gentle people, who show only obedience and love for God.  And God, in His characteristic reversal of human expectations and perceptions, sends Christ not into a power family in Rome, but to this modest faithful godly family in Bethlehem.

Consider next the angels who appear to first announce and then celebrate the birth.  These are ancient beings of great power and love for God.  Consider that they have long known this person in the manger.  They knew Him before the creation of this world!  He created them and they have seen the glory that He has shared with the Father and Spirit from eternity past.  They are not at this moment privy to all details of God’s redemptive plan, but Peter says that these are “things into which angels long to look.” (1Peter 1:12)  As they see this eternal God they have long known, clothed in flesh in a manger, they are surely awestruck.  Whether they can see the cross from where they stand on this night we don’t know, but the incarnation is already enough to evoke great praise from heaven.

Consider then the shepherds on this night and over the following days.  Humanity’s fundamental problem from Genesis 3 onward has always been lack of faith, basic failure to take God at His Word.  This account is a warm and glorious one, partly because there is none of that here.  These fellows may not live in palaces or have the advantage of much formal education, but they take God at His Word and are richly blessed in doing so.  There is no hesitation about publishing the good news.  While they cannot possibly see every coming detail of the life of Christ, they wonder without disbelief when they are told “For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord.

And finally and most importantly consider the child in the manger.  We know this is Jesus.  But think of some of the implications of this.  The angel has identified Him as the Christ, God’s anointed One.  He’s the King of the universe.  John will later tell us in John 1 that He is the real and eternal “Word” who called all into existence.

Paul will tell us that He is both Creator and Sustainer of all that has been created.

 Colossians 1:15  He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 

16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 

 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 

He is Creator/King/ Christ, and He is the only Savior of the world.  He is the One who will bear the just wrath of God toward us and our sin.  He is the One who will be accursed/suffer God’s malediction in our places.  R.C. Sproul used a helpful device for describing what Christ bore on our behalf.  That is to take the familiar Aaronic blessing of Numbers 6 and replace its elements with their polar opposites.  In place of

Numbers 6:24  The LORD bless you and keep you; 

25 the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; 

26 the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. 

reverse every phrase and turn the benediction into a malediction.  That is, on Calvary, Christ on our behalf received not the blessing, but rather bore the curse of God.  He was wasn’t kept by God, but rather sent away from the Father’s presence.  He didn’t enjoy the shining face of His Father but rather had the Father’s back turned on Him.  He didn’t receive God’s grace, but rather the Father’s complete rejection without any mercy or grace.  He didn’t enjoy the Father’s smile and what makes for good and joyous life, the favor of God, God’s peace, but rather in infinite torment felt the Father’s utter displeasure.  This is the saving work of the One in the manger, that You and I might enjoy the Aaronic blessing.

This is the person born into our world in Luke 2, and it ought to take our breath away.  That this person, God’s King and Savior, is the baby in Bethlehem is simply mind-blowing.  Christian people are sometimes silly on this point, worrying about the biology of conception and how it is that a virgin could conceive and bear a son.  My goodness, that’s not a fraction of it!  That the finite can hold the infinite!!!???  That is a far greater mystery and miracle!  That this baby in Bethlehem can be the Creator of all is what should make us speechless.  Brothers and sisters, the scandal here is not that the second person of the Trinity is wrapped in the cloths of the poor and has been laid in a manger, but that He has condescended to wrap Himself in humanity, to join us, and to soon stand condemned in our places!  Do we Christians believe things the world holds to be fantastic/impossible?  Of course we do, we believe in the incarnation!

The facts, the participants … now consider with me the significance of the Bethlehem scene and the reactions it evokes from participants.

The angels and then the shepherds recognize that at long last, the corner has been turned and Messiah is here.  Redemption is near.  The exact nature of that is not completely revealed nor well-understood (and won’t be clear even for the disciples after three years of watching the adult Jesus in action).  But the long wait for the crushing of the serpent’s head promised in Genesis 3 is nearly over.  The Kingdom of God is near and the angels and shepherds know it.  The great fulfillment of all Old Testament prophecy is in motion and at various levels the characters in this account understand this.  And that evokes joy, exuberant praise, and reverence.

The angels, faithful messengers of God, see the significance of the night relatively clearly and break out in “Glory to God in the highest!”  Speaking of “glory,” they know that in one sense, the person in manger is Himself the glory of God.  The writer of Hebrews says about Jesus

Hebrews 1:3a  He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature …

And the Apostle John says of Jesus in Revelation

Revelation 21:23  And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb.

Further, the angels know that what God has promised as the work of His Messiah will bring great glory to God.  They know what Isaiah said

Isaiah 53:11  Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities. 

and they declare with loud praise that the God of the Bible deserves great renown, great glory, for this stunning exchange of our guilt for Christ’s righteousness that He will soon bring to pass.

The shepherds hear this proclamation and react in simple faith.  They surely don’t fully grasp what is happening here.  But to the extent that they understand, they believe and put feet to their belief.  They hear the Word of God delivered by the angels, and run to Christ.  They rejoice in Him.  They give praise to God and tell everyone in town what has happened.  These honest souls, though they have only limited revelation, become the first human evangelists, announcing to all Bethlehem what they do know about this event.  They sow good seed and they give glory and praise to God for all that they have been shown.  There is little doubt these guys have real God-given faith and are even now presently in heaven giving glory and praise to Christ.

But as always, not all good seed bears fruit.  The people of Bethlehem “wonder at” what the shepherds tell them.  They have an interest in it, but there is no record that any of them pursue the details or implications of it.  Perhaps some of them 30 years later become Christ’s disciples, but surely most do not.  There is no group at Bethlehem during the ministry of Jesus there ready to remember His birth and repent and believe.  This is a passing event that doesn’t fundamentally change them.  It’s novel and maybe even raises their religious zeal for a few days, but in the main, the Bethlehem townspeople are ultimately hard soil.  They wonder but they do not believe in the Biblical sense of staking their lives on what they hear.

And finally consider Mary’s reaction to the events in Bethlehem.  Verse 19 says that “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart.”  Of course, Mary has the advantage of being 9 months into this amazing nativity experience that began with Gabriel’s visit and announcement to her.  But even accounting for this, her response is most humble, devout, and wonderful.  She meditates literally for years on the wonder of the reality that the baby in her womb was the promised Savior of mankind, the Son of Man referred to in Daniel, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, Savior.  There is great reverence and wonderful pure undivided faith in God in her.

So we have the facts, the participants, and the significance and reactions in this glorious account.  What then must be our response?

Brothers and sisters, I submit that there is only one reasonable response to all this.  Every human being who has the privilege of hearing what happened on this night in Judea 2000 years ago should believe this Gospel, this amazing Good News, repent/drop his or her self-will, and throw himself or herself on the mercy of this Savior in the manger for forgiveness of sin, and forever give glory to the triune God.

Christian, let us continue to believe and repent.  Let us believe the testimony of the shepherds.  Like Mary, let us constantly treasure the things of Christ and ponder the profound mystery of God incarnate, born to stand in our places under the Father’s just curse for sin.  Let us join the angels and give unceasing thanks and glory to God for the undeserved mercy we receive in the work of this Jesus Christ.  We know far more about this Jesus than did the shepherds.  Let us have their zeal and joy, and like them declare to all what God has done on behalf of sinful people like us.

Non-Christian, as you ponder this account, believe, repent, and be saved.  This Jesus, born in Bethlehem Christmas night is both God and King.  Believe the testimony of the shepherds.  Believe the testimony of Luke and the Apostles, that Jesus Christ lived on this earth perfectly doing His Father’s will, died bearing your sin on a Roman cross, rose again to life, presently sits at the right hand of the Father in heaven, and will ultimately judge all people.  Take this message to heart.  Don’t just look in wonder or sentimentality on the manger scene and then forget, as if you heard it in town at Bethlehem a few days after the event.  This announcement of peace with God is for you, if you will run to the Savior and throw yourself at His feet.  Jesus is present with you and ready to save, if you will give yourself up wholly to Him.  Know this precious account for what it is, not a fairy story or nice warm fable, but the very difference between eternal life and eternal death, between eternal heaven and eternal hell.  There is salvation in no other.  Yield all that you are, and give Him glory and thanksgiving.

Brothers and sisters, every human being is commanded to repent and believe this Good News.  That includes me and every one of you under the sound of my voice.  Every one of us owes unceasing thanks and praise to God for His great mercy in the Christ, born in Bethlehem on Christmas night.  Thanks be to God!

Let’s pray and then sing in praise and adoration of this Jesus.

Father, with the saints of all time, with the hosts of heaven, we give you thanks and praise for the baby born in Bethlehem, Jesus, Messiah, King and Lord, God in human flesh, our only Savior.  We wonder at His condescension to us and the great grace lavished on us through His work on earth.  We gladly cast ourselves on His mercy.  We ask for humble, simple, and true hearts and tongues like those of the shepherds, quick to spread abroad the Gospel, the Good News of the way of Peace opened through Christ.  All glory in heaven and earth is Yours, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  This we confess and pray in the name of Jesus. Amen.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Luke 1:57-80

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Luke 1:57  Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son.

58 And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her.

“the Lord had shown great mercy to her”  Indeed.  The child is well, this old woman comes through pregnancy and birth well, and that doesn’t begin to tell the whole story.  This little boy is going to be herald of God’s Messiah, the One that was promised in Genesis and the Jews have longed for and prayed for hundreds of years.

59 And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father,

There is a real neighborhood party going on here, complete with musicians and punch and cake and ceremonial circumcision.  The birth of any male child was an occasion for celebration.  All the more so in these amazing circumstances.  The neighbors assume that (perhaps in keeping with the default practice of the day) the baby will be named for his father.  The phrase rendered “they would have called him Zechariah” by the ESV might be translated “they were calling the child Zechariah.”  But Elizabeth corrects them.  The neighbors won’t name this kid, his father won’t name this kid … God has already named him!

60 but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”

61 And they said to her, “None of your relatives is called by this name.”

This is a legitimate puzzle to the people in the crowd.  They know the families and have no idea where this name is coming from.  It seems that Zechariah and Elizabeth have been private about what happened in the temple.  They’ve not been on the talk show circuit blabbing about their spiritual experiences, but rather waiting with joy to see what God will do.

62 And they made signs to his father, inquiring what he wanted him to be called.

It’s either that Zechariah was not only dumb, but also deaf from his encounter with Gabriel in the temple, or these folks have forgotten that inability to speak doesn’t imply inability to hear and understand.

63 And he asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they all wondered.

This statement is emphatic.  This is not a matter that is yet to be decided.  It is not still up for grabs.  The kid is John.  Though the neighbors don’t know it, that’s the name the boy had from before his conception.

64 And immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he spoke, blessing God.

The last thing that had come out of Zechariah’s mouth before this was expression of doubt.  Now, in wonderful contrast, there is expression of praise to God who has wonderfully blessed him and his wife and is going to bless the nation and all humanity through their son.  Zechariah has had 9 months to think about this, and he gets it right with his first words.

65 And fear came on all their neighbors. And all these things were talked about through all the hill country of Judea,

66 and all who heard them laid them up in their hearts, saying, “What then will this child be?” For the hand of the Lord was with him.

The neighbors are awe-struck.  They have sense enough to see in these quiet events the hand of the sovereign God of the universe.  By human standards these events are subtle.  There’s been no war or political revolution, no economic failure, no plague, not even a big evangelistic campaign with lots of people walking the aisles or any such thing.  This has been quiet, but stunningly profound, absolutely earth-shaking.  The whole of the Christmas account has this character.  The whole of the Gospel has this character.  If we judge the work of God by our human standards of what must matter, we will consistently have it wrong regarding what is important.

67 And his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied, saying,

It has been over 400 years since there’s been a prophet in Israel.  But now Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesies.  As with the Magnificat, virtually every single phrase of this is Old Testament language/quote.  There’s again a lesson here.  Zechariah is not making it up as he goes along.  He’s speaking Bible words about Bible themes.  Just a few of the OT echoes in “the Benedictus”/”Zechariah’s song” are indicated below.  Again, these are the first words out of the mouth of this saint since his foolish words of doubt over 9 months before.  This is better!  Much, much better!

68 “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people

Psalm 41:13 Blessed be the LORD, the God of Israel, from everlasting to everlasting! Amen and Amen.

Exodus 4:31 And the people believed; and when they heard that the LORD had visited the people of Israel and that he had seen their affliction, they bowed their heads and worshiped.

Psalm 111:9 He sent redemption to his people; he has commanded his covenant forever. Holy and awesome is his name!

Luke 1:69 and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David,

Psalm 18:2 The LORD is my rock and my fortress and my deliverer, my God, my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield, and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

See 2 Samuel 7 regarding the “house of David.”

Zechariah sees pretty clearly that John is going to herald Messiah’s coming.  The Messiah, son of David is on the way.

70 as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old,

71 that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us;

Psalm 18:17 He rescued me from my strong enemy and from those who hated me, for they were too mighty for me.

Luke 1:72 to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant,

Ruth 1:8 But Naomi said to her two daughters-in-law, “Go, return each of you to her mother’s house. May the LORD deal kindly with you, as you have dealt with the dead and with me.

Micah 7:20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.

Psalm 105:8 He remembers his covenant forever, the word that he commanded, for a thousand generations,

9 the covenant that he made with Abraham, his sworn promise to Isaac,

Zechariah has spent 9 months meditating on the reliability of the promises of God, and now rejoices in the most basic promise of deliverance announced already in Genesis 3 and given detail in the Old Testament covenants.

Luke 1:73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us

Micah 7:20 You will show faithfulness to Jacob and steadfast love to Abraham, as you have sworn to our fathers from the days of old.

Luke 1:74 that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear,

Psalm 97:10 O you who love the LORD, hate evil! He preserves the lives of his saints; he delivers them from the hand of the wicked.

Joshua 24:14 “Now therefore fear the LORD and serve him in sincerity and in faithfulness. Put away the gods that your fathers served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD.

Luke 1:75 in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.

Isaiah 38:20 The LORD will save me, and we will play my music on stringed instruments all the days of our lives, at the house of the LORD.

Verses 74 and 75 are the crux of the matter of deliverance from the hand of the enemies of Israel. God’s intervention on behalf of His people is to the end that they are free to serve Him properly.  Always and always, in the history of Israel and of the New Testament church, God has been at work to call and preserve a people who will serve Him and show forth His glory, to call and preserve a people who will worship Him rightly.

Zechariah next turns and addresses the infant.

Luke 1:76 And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,

Malachi 4:5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the LORD comes.

Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger, and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the LORD of hosts.

Luke 1:77 to give knowledge of salvation to his people in the forgiveness of their sins,

Jeremiah 31:34 And no longer shall each one teach his neighbor and each his brother, saying, ‘Know the LORD,’ for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, declares the LORD. For I will forgive their iniquity, and I will remember their sin no more.”

Luke 1:78 because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high

Malachi 4:2 But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall.

Luke 1:79  to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.”

Psalm 107:10 Some sat in darkness and in the shadow of death, prisoners in affliction and in irons,

Isaiah 9:2 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.

Isaiah 42:7 to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.

Isaiah 58:8 Then shall your light break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up speedily; your righteousness shall go before you; the glory of the LORD shall be your rear guard.

To the Hebrew mind, peace is more than just freedom from trouble.  It is all that makes for man’s highest good.  It is all things set right and in order under the rule and benevolent reign of God.

Luke 1:80 And the child grew and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Luke 1:39-56

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Luke 1:39 In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah,

After the visit from Gabriel, Mary immediately makes what is probably a 60-70 mile journey to the south to see Elizabeth.  This is no easy trip, and this young woman is not one of any great means or advantage.  But Gabriel’s announcement was practically an invitation to her to go and see what God was doing, and she went.

40 and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth.

41 And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit,

What comes pouring out of Elizabeth is at the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  The picture that Gabriel had given Zechariah wasn’t complete enough that she could have otherwise known that Mary was to be mother to the Savior.  And she shouts out an excited blessing.  What she says is what should have come pouring out of Zechariah, except for the small problem that he was dumb because of his unbelief on the smaller matter of Elizabeth being with child.

42 and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb!

This is really a precious picture.  Here is this pious wise old saint, beyond natural child-bearing years, yet with child, seeing her young cousin, quite likely in her early teens and knowing by the grace of God that this simple young Jewish peasant woman is going to be mother to Messiah, the One Israel has been longing for from the first days, the One who is going to fulfill the merciful promises of God dating back all the way to Genesis and the fall of humanity.  And she can’t contain her joy!

43 And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?

Humility is a family characteristic of all those genuinely saved.  We have seen it in Mary last week.  Here it is in Elizabeth.  “But why am I so blessed?”  That’s the right question for any of us.

Elizabeth surely doesn’t grasp the full implications of what she’s just said.  With the advantage of the full New Testament revelation, we seem to be able to keep it in focus only for short brilliant glimpses.  But by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit she nails it.  Indeed this is the mother of her Lord!

44 For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy.

45 And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”

This is a truly beautiful picture of real humility.  Elizabeth knows and absolutely doesn’t buck the fact that it’s Mary who is carrying Messiah.  She and her son aren’t the main show, and that’s fine.  What matters is God’s gracious provision.

How does Elizabeth know what Mary has been told?  We’re not given that information.  What we are shown is that Elizabeth knows that to take God at His word is essential.  Blessed/happy and to be envied/ (Amplified) is she who has taken God at His word.

J.C. Ryle wrote concerning this picture, “We need not wonder that this holy woman should thus commend faith.  No doubt she was well acquainted with the Old Testament Scriptures.  She knew the great things that faith had done.  What is the whole history of God’s saints in every age but a record of men and women who obtained a good report by faith?  What is the simple story of all from Abel downwards but a narrative of redeemed sinners who believed, and so were blessed?  By faith they embraced promises.  By faith they lived.  By faith they walked.  By faith they endured hardships.  By faith they looked to an unseen savior, and good things yet to come.  By faith they battled with the world, the flesh, and the devil.  By faith they overcame, and got safe home.  Of this goodly company the virgin Mary was proving herself one.  No wonder that Elizabeth said ‘Blessed is she that believed.'”

It’s the story of the Book from one cover to the other.  God’s people take Him at His word and obey.  The first temptation was “Did God really say?” and “You need not obey.”  Ever since, that has been humanity’s characteristic problem.  In the other side, it is the great privilege and mark of God’s redeemed people to believe and to obey.

46 And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord,

“My soul glorifies/magnifies the Lord.”  This song is called “The Magnificat” because of the first word of it in the Latin translation.  What comes from her is stunning in its depth and simple honesty.  This young woman delivers a response that shows her entire frame of reference to be the Scriptures and her heart to be right before her Maker.

It’s important to see that the terms/language she responds in are those of the Biblical revelation.  She’s clearly got the Word in her heart and now it comes pouring out of her.  (At the end of this lesson there are Old Testament references for essnetially everything she utters here.)  There is a lesson in this for us.  We fool ourselves if we think that we can improve on the language and categories that God has provided for us in the Scriptures.

47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

Mary says “God my Savior.”  Gabriel has promised that He will be “the Son of the Most High” and that He will sit on David’s throne and reign forever.  She recognizes that she has been chosen to do what all Jewish women had long prayed to do, to give birth to Messiah.

48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.  For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

Again there is humility of this young woman.  That’s Mary’s attitude, and ours as well, if we have any sense.

She will be called “blessed.”  Indeed.  The Jews had been waiting and longing for the promised deliverer and Mary will be the one to give him birth.

49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.

Note how quickly Mary’s thoughts turn from the grace that God has shown her in particular, to reflection on the character and nature of God.  He is holy, apart, separate, in His own class.

 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.

And yet there is the understanding that God’s grace/protection/mercy extends particularly to His own people, to those who fear or have a reverent awe and respect for him.

51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;

God is active in the affairs of men, and He simply will not brook arrogance/rebellion.  That is as fundamental as the fact that humility is a family characteristic of His people.

52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;

53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away.

God sovereignly, in His own time and for His own purposes, causes whatever reversals of human fortune that He wills.  There is in this a special concern for the weak and downtrodden.  God will act on their behalf.

54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,

55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”

This is in general true, but in the context that Mary speaks it, it is especially pointed.  God is in the process of fulfilling His most solemn promise to Israel, that of sending a Redeemer.  This is His ultimate act of mercy!

56 And Mary remained with her about three months and returned to her home.

 

Old Testament Language in Mary’s Song

1:46/ My soul Magnifies the LORD: 1 Sam 2:1, Ps 69:30, 34:3, 35:9

1:47/ my spirit rejoices in God my Savior: Hab 3:18, Ps 25:5 (LXX)

1:48/ for he has looked on the humble state of his servant: 1 Sam 1:11, 9:16 c.f. Gen 16:11, 29:32; Ps 113:5-6

From now on all generations will call me blessed: Gen 30:13

1:49/ for the Mighty One: Ps 89:8 (LXX), Zeph 3:17 (LXX)

has done great things for me: Deut 10:21

holy is his name: Ps 111 :9

1:50/ His mercy is for those who fear him: Ps 103:13, 17

from generation to generation: Ps 89:2

1:51/ He has acted mightily with His arm. Ps 89:10

1:52/ He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of humble estate: 1 Sam 2:4,7; Job 12:19; Ezek 21 :31

1:53/ He has filled the hungry with good things: 1 Sam 2:5; Ps 107:9

and has sent the rich away empty: Job22:9

1:54/ He has helped his servant Israel: Isa 41 :8-9

In remembrance of His mercy: Ps 98:3

1:55/ and his offspring forever: 2 Sam 22:51

our fathers: Mic 7:20

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

 

A Bible Lesson on Luke 1:5-38

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

Luke 1:5 In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth.

Zechariah was a priest, a direct descendant of Aaron.  The Jewish priests were organized into 24 divisions, at this time consisting of around 22,000 men total.  Each of these divisions served in Jerusalem for 2 weeks each year.  Priests were to marry only pure-blooded Israelites.  Zechariah had married not only within Israel, but within the family of Aaron.  Zechariah means “God has remembered.”  Elizabeth means “God is my oath” (God keeps His promises).

6 And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.

These people weren’t morally perfect, but they were genuinely devout, pious people, serious Jews loving God and following the Scriptures with all their hearts.

7 But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.

Barrenness was considered a tragedy.  Often it was associated with God’s judgment.  And it is sure that Zechariah and Elizabeth had endured a life of seemingly unanswered prayer as they agonized over having no children.  As Ryle puts it, this is “one of the bitterest of sorrows” that is mentioned here.  The phrase rendered “advanced in years” has been interpreted by most commentators to mean that they were in their 70’s or 80’s, way past child bearing age.  The grace of God exempts no one from trouble, and it is ultimately for God’s glory and the good of these devout people that they have endured these long years with hope unfulfilled.

8 Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty,

9 according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense.

As a practical matter, there were more priests than there were duties in the temple.  So they drew lots to see who would perform them.  This offering of incense brought an ordinary priest as close as he would ever come to the Holy of Holies.  Since choice of who was to serve was done by lot, some priests never had the honor of making this offering.  And if one did get to make the offering, it was only once in a lifetime.  (It seems that no repeats were allowed.)  The point is that for an ordinary priest, the opportunity to serve in this way was likely the high point of his career.

10 And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense.

11 And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. 

12 And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 

Zechariah “was troubled, and fear fell upon him.”  This was a place where no other mortal would dare to be.  Zechariah wasn’t expecting anyone else, and when the angel appears, there could be no doubt that is someone from the very presence of God.  Zechariah had to know this immediately.  And if this is a powerful messenger from the very throne of God, Zechariah cannot help but be reminded of his own frailty, unholiness, and lack of personal right to stand in the presence of that God.  He fears both because of the awesome appearance of this being, and because of the holiness of the God he represents.  Thanks be to God for the work of Christ our mediator, who gives us a place to stand before God!

13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. 

“Your prayer has been answered.”  This surely has a double meaning.  For their entire lives, Zechariah and Elizabeth have been praying for a child.  But Zechariah has just as surely just now been praying for the consolation/redemption of Israel.  Being pious people, that has been a life-long longing for him and for Elizabeth’s as well.  They longed that God would intervene and set all things right, that Messiah would finally come.  Apparently, the tense here indicates that the prayer to be answered is one that he had just now been praying.  That is surely this prayer for the coming of Messiah.  But now, both the payer for the fulfilment of God’s promise of a Messiah and the lifetime of payers for a child are going to be answered.  Elizabeth and Zechariah will have a son, and that son will announce the appearance of the Christ!

Zechariah is told he is to be given the name “John” or “Yahweh is gracious.”  The naming of a son was the responsibility of a Jewish father.  That God steps in and prescribes the name indicates God’s special calling of John.

14 And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth,

15 for he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. 

John is to live a life set apart to God.  He will be great in God’s sight.  That is what matters.  He will not be great in the sight of men.  Indeed his last days will be spent in Herod’s dungeon and he will lose his head at the whim of a teenage girl and her evil mother.  But he will be great in the sight of God.  That will be evident in the way he lives, including his total abstinence from alcohol.  In contrast to one out of his mind under the influence of alcohol, he’ll be filled with the Holy Spirit from birth.

These things will be true “even from his mother’s womb.”  That’s really a beautiful and wonderful truth.  God has His hand on our kids from before their births.  His Holy Spirit can and does work in the lives of little ones.  We ought never think of children as just beings on hold until they are grown up and can truest  Christ.  J.C. Ryle said, “We should always deal with them as responsible to God.  We should never allow ourselves to suppose that they are too young to have any religion.  Of course we must be reasonable in our expectations.  We must not look for evidences of grace, unsuitable to their age and capacities.  But we must never forget that the heart that is not too young to sin, is also not too young to be filled with the grace of God.”

16 And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 

17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.”

This hearkens back to Malachi’s prophecies.

Malachi 2:6 True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was found on his lips. He walked with me in peace and uprightness, and he turned many from iniquity. 

Malachi 3:1 “Behold, I send my messenger and he will prepare the way before me. And the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; and the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. 

Malachi 4:5 “Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.  6And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”

John “will turn hearts.”  Ryle: ” – turn them from ignorance to knowledge, from carelessness to thoughtfulness, from sin to God.”  This is the work of a true minister of God.  It is not to say what they want to hear or will gather a large audience and big finances or will leave them singing the praises of the messenger.  It is to turn heart hearts and prepare a people for God.

Now comes a completely realistic testimony to the frailness of human beings.  Zechariah is a genuinely devout person, who is standing here conversing with an angel sent from the God of the universe, and yet he must ask …

18 And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.”

Sure he and his wife are old, but exactly what more could he figure he ought to have in the way of confirmation?  He’s got the Old Testament accounts of the births of Isaac, Samuel, and Samson to learn from.  Before him stands an angel from the very presence of God.  This unbelief is at once really quite outrageous, and also completely true to the way we are.  At the core of our problems are two: refusal to 1) obey and 2) take God at His word.  That was the case in Genesis 3 and it’s the case with Zechariah. Apparently the “I” am an old man is emphatic.  And so too is the “I” in Gabriel’s reply:

19 And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news. 

Gabriel most or less says “you may be old, but I come from the very presence of God, … and was sent to you to bring you this good news”!  (“This is good news for the whole world and good news for you personally.”)  This being is the same angel that 490 years before had spoken to Daniel about how the Messiah would be mistreated.

Daniel 9:26a And after the sixty-two weeks, an anointed one shall be cut off and shall have nothing.

And this Gabriel, great being that he is, counts it primary that he stands in the presence of God, that he is a servant of the LORD.  His name is Gabriel/”God is my strength”/”mighty man of God”/”strength of God”/”God my hero.”

20 And behold, 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.” 

There’s no mistaking it, this is a sharp rebuke.  God has spoken good news through what is clearly His specially appointed messenger, and Zechariah hasn’t believed what he’s heard.  If we’ll think about it clearly, we’ll recognize that he’s thus denied God’s ability or intention to follow through with what He’s plainly said He will do.  That’s an attack on the very nature of the Almighty.  He gets 9 months of silence to think about it.  This is a punishment that fits the crime.  If we will not agree with the Word of God, we have nothing useful to say.

21 And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. 

22 And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute.  

Zechariah is mute, and it seems from the latter part of the chapter that he may well also be deaf.

It’s worth thinking about the life circumstances under which this wonderful revelation comes to Zechariah.  Zechariah is putting one foot in front of the other in the service of God.  That is true faith. He’s doing the next thing that comes to him from the hand of God.  He’s playing his appointed part in the community of faith.  He’s been a faithful part of the priesthood and devout Jewish worship his whole life, treating his duties seriously, and as part of a living reality.  This is not just going through the motions he’s engaged in here.  But he also is completely surprised by this visitation.  He could not have predicted nor has any place to expect this to happen.  That too is the nature of true faith.  There is “ordinary” wonderful grace that is part of living consistently, taking God at His Word, and putting one foot in front of the other.  Extraordinary stuff that is real like this comes completely unexpectedly.  As the kids in the Narnia Chronicles learn, “Aslan is not a tame lion” … we don’t wrest from the hand of God His extraordinary goodness.

23 And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home.

24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, 

25 “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.”

This, like the birth of Abraham’s son Isaac, is a wild one.  This very old woman by the direct work of God is going to have a child … a child that will be a blessing to her and to all people.  Now we cut away to Nazareth.

26 In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee

The sixth month is the sixth month after Gabriel had appeared to Zechariah, announcing the conception of John the Baptist, 3 months before the birth of John the Baptist.

God again sends the archangel Gabriel, the most glorious and powerful of the created beings, as a messenger to Nazareth, a town in Galilee.  The Jews of the time had little regard for Galilee.  It was considered a backwater province tainted by gentile influence.  Nazareth is, even by the standards of Galilee, an obscure town.  There is no mention of the town in the Old Testament.  This is an obscure town in an obscure province.  It’s roughly like God sending the angel Gabriel to Radcliffe, Iowa, to announce the conception of His son.  Mary is, by outward appearances, a completely ordinary person.  She is a member of the working class, a person of no means or power, living out in the hinterlands.  God has purposely chosen the obscure and humble to bring about His purposes.  What distinguishes her is not her position or wealth or even intelligence or physical appearance.  It is her heart for God and His sovereign choosing.

27 to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.

Mary is “a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph.”  Jewish girls were betrothed early and expected to be virgins at the time of marriage.  It is completely unremarkable that Mary was a virgin.  It would only be remarkable if she were not.  But Luke, the careful historian that he is, knows what kinds of false rumors the enemies of Christ will want to start, and thus leaves nothing to chance.  He states clearly, on the record, that Mary had not had sexual intercourse.

Mary was “pledged to be married.”  This is something stronger than modern engagement.  A betrothal lasted for around a year, could be broken only with a formal divorce.  Should one of the people die during that period, the other was considered to be widowed, in spite of the fact that they apparently lived separately and did not have sexual relations.

The fact that Joseph is a descendant of David is important because this is Messiah, God’s anointed One.  And the Old Testament prophecy is that Messiah would be a descendant of David, a member of the Jewish royal family.

28 The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”

It might have been possible to hear this greeting as not terribly unusual.  After all, even if she was only from Nazareth, Mary was a Jew, and indeed the Jews were highly favored and blessed by the presence of God.  But Mary understands the greeting for what it is, something quite out of the ordinary.  She doesn’t think “Of course, this is only right, I’m after all, a Jew and a pretty righteous person on top of it.”  She responds with characteristic humility.  The word translated “favored” is, in fact, the Greek word usually translated “grace” or “gift.”  The emphasis of the Gospel always comes back to the kindness of God.  On any sort of an absolute scale, this is God’s great unmerited kindness and Mary knows that.

29 Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.

30 But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God.

Mary was greatly “troubled.”  Apparently, this is a very strong and intensive word, used nowhere else in the New Testament.  She is to not be afraid.  Afraid of what?  For one thing, this is a very powerful, awesome being that’s speaking to her.  Afraid, too, in the right kind of way, in respect/reverence of God.  It’s God who’s speaking to her here through Gabriel.  Afraid perhaps as well that she’s now standing out from the crowd.  She’s not just a person the community of Faith.  She’s a person that’s been singled out for God’s attention.  She is a person of genuine humility, and such people never are comfortable with being singled out.  And the record is that those who are appointed to special tasks rarely find them to be without hardship.  God promises the strength necessary to do what He calls us to do, but He does not promise that doing His work will be easy or always pleasant.

31 You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.

Mary recognizes this as something more than a statement that she and Joseph will have children.  It may be that at this point the words of Isaiah the prophet come rushing into her mind.

Isaiah 7:14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.

She is to give him the name “Jesus,” the name of Joshua of the Old Testament,  the name meaning “Yahweh saves.”

32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David,

Now these statements to Mary become unmistakably Messianic.  At this point, she cannot help but understand that Gabriel is speaking to her about the long awaited Messiah.  There are Old Testament passages like Psalm 2 and Psalm 89.

Psalm 2:6 “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.”

7 I will proclaim the decree of the LORD: He said to me, “You are my Son; today I have become your Father.

Psalm 89:26 He will call out to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, the Rock my Savior.’

27 I will also appoint him my firstborn, the most exalted of the kings of the earth.

Luke 1:33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”

And there are Old Testament passages like 2 Samuel 7, Psalm 45, Isaiah 9, and Daniel 7.

2 Samuel 7:13 He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.

 2 Samuel 7:16 Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.'”

Psalm 45:6 Your throne, O God, will last for ever and ever; a scepter of justice will be the scepter of your kingdom.

Isaiah 9:6 For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.

Daniel 7:13 “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence.

14 He was given authority, glory and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshiped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.

Passages such as these must by now have been ringing in Mary’s head.  After all these years and all the praying and waiting for Messiah, He’s coming, and she’s to be the mother.  It’s too much for her to take in without gasping for air.

34 “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”

This is not the voice of doubt, but rather the voice overwhelming wonder.  Zechariah, when told that he and Elizabeth were to have a child in their old age, answered Gabriel in a doubting way, and was rebuked for the answer.  But this is something else.  Mary is just having a hard time taking it all in.  This is an honest inquiry about the details.

35 The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

If we have any sense, we look at every conception as a miracle.  But this is beyond the ordinary.  The child is going to have no natural father and in fact is going to be God incarnate, the Son of God.  People have rightly said that this is the hinge on which all the rest of the NT miracles turn.  If this be true, there is no problem understanding the miracles of Jesus.  If He is God incarnate, of course He could feed the 5000 or calm the sea.

36 Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month.

It is God who makes the barren fertile and gives children as He chooses.  Mary hasn’t asked for a confirmation of the promise to her, but she is nevertheless given one.  Gabriel now lets her in on the news that by the grace of God, her aged relative Elizabeth is carrying John the Baptist.  Is all of this possible? IS it possible that the old and infertile Elizabeth is with child?  Is it possible that she Mary will, in a completely miraculous way carry in her own womb, the Son of God?  Of course it is.  God is God.

37 For nothing is impossible with God.”

This reminds of God’s reply to Abraham when Sarah laughs at the thought of having a child in her old age.

Genesis 18:14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? I will return to you at the appointed time next year and Sarah will have a son.”

It is God who has established the “laws of nature.”  He is not bound by the laws He has established.  The One who called into existence the entire universe is not subject to the rules that He established for that creation.  Nothing is too hard for God.

Mary’s reply to Gabriel is one of the simplest and yet most profound and appropriate statements by a human being recorded in Scripture.

Luke 1:38  “I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.

Think about this reply.  What does she know about what’s to come?  She knows that there’s great blessing, to be sure.  But she doesn’t know the details.  And she surely understands that with the blessings are going to come real hardships.  In the immediate future is going to come the awkward situation of being pregnant before the consummation of her marriage to Joseph, and then a lifetime of off-color remarks from rough people with no appreciation of who the baby is.  But her response is one of humble and beautiful submission to the will of God, and confidence in His goodness and His ability to strengthen and bring her through what He gives her to do.  One can hear in the words of Mary here the words of her son years later in the garden.

Luke 22:42 “Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done.”

It is no wonder that Mary was chosen by God for this task.  Her heart is right.  Her reply is one we ought to admire and determine to imitate.  J C Ryle said, “Let us seek in our daily practical Christianity to exercise the same blessed spirit of faith that we see here in the Virgin Mary.  Let us be willing to go anywhere, to do anything and be anything, whatever be the present and immediate inconvenience, so long as God’s will is clear and the path of duty is plain.” … Ryle goes on to quote from Hall: “All disputations with God after His will is known arise from infidelity.  There is not a more noble proof of faith than to captivate the powers of all our understanding and will to our Creator, and without all questionings to go blindfold wither He will lead us.”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

 

Sola Scriptura

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is an expository lesson on the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura.  Ii is a slight variant of a lesson taught at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa on October 1, 2017.

 

This is a lesson on the first of the “Solas” (“Soli“) of the Protestant Reformation.  These phrases summarize 5 essential emphases of historical orthodox Christianity that were central to the Reformation: Sola Scriptura (or Scripture Alone), Sola Fide (or Faith Alone), Sola Gratia (or Grace Alone), Solus Christus (or Christ Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (or Glory be to God Alone).

We begin with Sola Scriptura.  This has been called the “formal principle” of the Reformation.  It is the basis upon which the other Solas, the so-called “material principles” of the Reformation, are established.  At a most general level, Sola Scriptura answers a fundamental question of human thought “How do we know?”  “How do we know anything?”  And most centrally, “How do we know about life and death, righteousness and guilt, forgiveness and eternal life?”  What we can know about these central matters is that eternal life, comes through faith alone, by grace alone, in Christ alone, to the glory of the triune God alone.  These latter 4 Solas together are what saves us and gives us life.  They are the material principles of the Reformation.  How we know them to be true is through the self-revelation of God, through God speaking to humanity.  And God has spoken both through His Son, and by His Spirit through the human authors of the 66 books of the Bible.   

Sola Scriptura asserts that our bedrock basis for knowing and believing is what the living God has said in the Holy Scriptures, and that there is no other equally authoritative source of knowledge.  Luther used the Latin phrase norma normans non normata to describe the Bible.  That is, Scripture is the “norming (or supreme) norm that cannot be normed.”  Other sources of godly wisdom exist, but Scripture rules.  Reason, tradition, and experience are inescapable, and when devout and subject to the Bible, are a great blessing.  But they do not rule.  Scripture alone rules.

Most specifically or narrowly, the Reformation doctrine of Sola Scriptura was a rejection of creeping Roman assertion of primacy and authority during the middle ages, that by the time of the Reformation was explicitly claiming that her non-Scriptural/extra-Biblical traditions were a second ruling source of authority and binding on anyone who would be Christian.  Roman Catholicism further asserted that only its hierarchy was qualified to read or interpret Scripture, surely not ordinary people.  The Reformers completely rejected the validity of any such claims.

It is important to be clear about what Sola Scriptura is and is not, and perspective on the history of the Bible will help us in that.  God very directly gave His Law to Israel, His Spirit enabled the Old Testament prophets to speak for Him and write down His very words, and Hebrew history was recorded under the superintending of His Spirit.  God’s chosen people, led by the Holy Spirit, recognized those writings as God’s Word, and humanity was given the Old Testament canon.  At exactly the right time in history and consistent with the Old Testament revelation, Jesus Christ, God’s Son, the second person of the Trinity, the Word of God in flesh, came and accomplished salvation for us at Calvary.  When He returned to the Father, He left us His Holy Spirit and His Apostles to preach and teach and evangelize.  He told the Apostles:

John 14:26  But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 

For a period of roughly 30 years, those Apostles and their close associates then taught a common basic Christian Gospel, relying upon this promise of Jesus, using only the Old Testament as Scripture.  It was what they had for a written Word of God.  But as time passed, the Spirit inspired New Testament writers to write, and the collective churches led by the Spirit and having been taught by the Apostles, recognized the books of the New Testament as God-breathed and consistent with what they had been taught orally.  They acted consistent with

John 10:27  My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 

and the full canon of Scripture, Old and New Testaments, was then recognized for what it is, God’s Word.

This unbroken line of God speaking and God’s people corporately recognizing the already-existing Word of God is important, since Rome’s claim became that she gave the world the Bible, and that in some ways it is her creature, subject to her authority.  This, the Reformers flatly rejected.  They insisted that the church is bound by the Scriptures, not the Scriptures by Roman interpretation and its extra-Biblical traditions.

It is vital to understand that in this, the Reformers were not innovators nor rebels nor individualists.  Their intent was to return to the view of Scriptural authority held for at least the first 300 years of church history, to roll back Roman encroachment on that understanding.  They did NOT believe in a “Solo” (personalized “just me and the Bible”) Scriptura nor in a nuda (“no creed but the Bible”) Scriptura.  They had a high view of the true church and its legitimate authority (derived from Scripture) and agreed with early church councils (like Nicaea and Chalcedon) that had worked out from Scripture important Christian doctrines and refuted heresy, identifying the bounds of Christian orthodoxy.  The Reformers simply insisted, in agreement with the early Christian church, that Scripture alone rules and is binding on the hearts and minds of all Christian believers.

So then, what are we going to do with this Reformation history concerning the central ruling place of the Bible, today 500 years later?  How can we bring honor to Christ as 2017 Protestant Christian believers in matters related to the place of the Holy Bible in life and faith?

My plan here is to look at some of what the Bible says about itself and to then consider with you some implications of those Scriptures for life in our time and place.

So, hear the first 3 verses of Genesis:

Genesis 1:1  In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. 

2  The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. 

3  And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. 

From the very beginning, God has been speaking.  He spoke everything into existence.  His speech has always been both creative and absolutely authoritative.  Brothers and sisters, as we consider the Word of God, we must always remind ourselves that it is the expression of the great I AM, the Alpha and Omega, the One who was, and is, and is to come.  God’s Word is authoritative exactly because it is His Word, and He is Creator and Sustainer of all that is, and its rightful King and Judge.

This great God, the One who is the center of all things, spoke graciously to our first parents, Adam and Eve:

Genesis 2:16  And the LORD God commanded the man, saying, “You may surely eat of every tree of the garden, 

17  but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.

But there was another voice, and humanity in great tragedy chose to doubt the good Word of God, chose to believe Satan’s slander, and chose to disobey.

Genesis 3:1  Now the serpent was more crafty than any other beast of the field that the LORD God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” 

Every bit of human misery traces back to this and what followed … it traces to failure to take God at His Word, and to then go our own human way, to do our own thing, and to act as if we know best.  Brothers and sisters, we humans are suckers and rebels.  Genesis 3 ought to not only makes us grieve and mourn the dishonoring of God and the breaking of His good creation, it should make us cringe and wonder that God wasn’t done with our race right then.  But in grace He continued to speak, and made merciful promises of a Redeemer for fallen humanity.  And He began to give us a written Word.  Listen to a bit of what Deuteronomy says about the event of God’s writing of the 10 Commandments on stone tablets:

Deueronomy 4:32  “For ask now of the days that are past, which were before you, since the day that God created man on the earth, and ask from one end of heaven to the other, whether such a great thing as this has ever happened or was ever heard of. 

33  Did any people ever hear the voice of a god speaking out of the midst of the fire, as you have heard, and still live? 

God’s initial giving of a written Word was accompanied by cataclysmic thunder and lightning on Mount Horeb.  As Al Mohler has pointed out, there are two enormous miracles referred to in Deuteronomy 4:33.  First, God spoke to unworthy humans who deserved His silence.  Second, the hearers were not consumed upon hearing God’s Word and receiving the tablets.  God’s Word is holy and sacred.  It is not something to treat lightly or as if it were just another voice in our world full of competing voices and options.  It is absolutely unique, in that it reads us and infallibly tells us the way things are.  It exposes us and our real motives in ways nothing else can.  We simply must come to it in humility and reverence.  Hebrews puts it this way:

Hebrews 4:12  For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. 

13  And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account. 

The people of Israel were taught about the nature of the Word of God in their wilderness journeys.  They learned that is it life-giving.  It is real food for our souls.  A few Chapters after the Deuteronomy account of the giving of God’s law we hear this:

Deuteronomy 8:3  And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the LORD. 

The Word of God is no optional add-on to already-full lives.  It’s not a multi-vitamin taken once a day to keep the doctor away.  It tells us that it’s the difference between starvation and health.  Really.  That’s what God says.  It’s the difference between starvation and health.  God’s Word is gracious and blessed and life-giving, and has the capacity to get inside us, and by the Spirit to sustain and perfect us.  The Spirit uses it to change our minds and hearts.  And that we desperately need.  The prophet Isaiah eloquently says it this way:

Isaiah 55:8  For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD. 

9  For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts. 

10  “For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, 

11  so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it. 

Christian, there is hope and comfort here for those who love God.  God’s Word cannot fail.  This Book is infinitely more than some textbook on philosophy or morality.  God has not simply given a technical manual for living or for operation of planet earth.  The Spirit of God applies the Word of God to hearts and minds and it is living and effective and accomplishes what God intends.  There is this in 1st Corinthians:

1Corinthians 2:12  Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. 

13  And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual. 

The Apostle Paul understood that the very words the Spirit gave through him are God’s words, exactly the right words, words that uniquely convey God’s intent and holy will.  They are the words God’s Spirit uses to give us understanding of God’s mind.  They are precisely the correct words to give us life, to save our souls, to conform us to the image of Christ.  The first letter to the Thessalonians speaks of the ongoing work of the Word of God in sanctifying Christian believers:

1Thessalonians 2:13  And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers. 

Ultimately and most fundamentally, the Bible, God’s written Word, reveals the person of Christ to us, and teaches us the Gospel.  Sola Scriptura serves Solus ChristusHebrews opens with this:

Hebrews 1:1  Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, 

2  but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. 

John’s Gospel opens with this:

John 1:1  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 

2  He was in the beginning with God. 

3  All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. 

4  In him was life, and the life was the light of men. 

Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, is made known to You and me by His Spirit through the written Word of God.  We know who Jesus is and what He has done because God has told us in the Bible.  Because the Bible is authoritative we are not left guessing or in doubt about Him, and are not free to make up an imagined Jesus to suit our personal preferences or the current whims of society.  What it tells us about Christ is binding on all people.  What the Bible says about Christ, God says about Him.[1]  Because the Bible is both necessary and sufficient, we need not, and absolutely should not, look anywhere else for new revelation about Christ.  God in His mercy and providence has told us exactly what we need to know about Christ for salvation and real eternal life that begins in the here and now.  Because Scripture is literally the Word of God, we need not and should not be in the place of Adam and Eve, susceptible to the questions “Did God really say … ?” “Is it really true?”  What the Bible says about all things, and in particular what it says about our Savior, is completely reliable, completely without error.  Because the Bible is clear, it is not beyond ordinary people to humbly open it, hear what it says, believe and repent, and inherit eternal life that Christ opened for His people on Calvary.  Because God is immutable and the Bible is His Word, we know that what it tells us about Jesus is unchanging, always and forever relevant.  Because the omnipotent God of the Bible is the very definition of truth, His Word it is invincible and final.  What it says about the future is absolutely sure.  What it says about the return of Christ and His eternal rule and reign is as good as done.  Praise be to the I AM!

Brothers and sisters, there has been a lot of water over the dam since October 31, 1517.  Since 1517 Rome has drifted even far beyond its medieval position on Scriptural authority, specifically repudiating Sola Scriptura, adopting official doctrines declaring the pope infallible (and effectively a law unto himself), and officially taking positions like the immaculate conception of Mary and her bodily assumption into heaven, on the basis of supposed tradition over and against Scripture.  Since 1517 western evangelicals of most stripes have drifted to only a vague and highly personalistic doctrine of the Bible that really doesn’t much resemble that of the Reformers and instead more reflects the enlightenment movement’s promotion of individual autonomy and a fascination with self-interested democracy.  Since 1517 theological liberals have given up any pretense of viewing the Bible as anything but a bunch of quaint ancient writings riddled with errors and lacking any authority.  And what is probably most germane this morning is the nearly complete post-modern secularization of western society since 1517, a reality that has been incredibly accelerated by the absolutely suffocating digital presence of the voice of this world, represented in those awful smart phones we’re slaves to.

SO, we must face the question of “What then?”  To borrow a phrase from Francis Schaeffer of 35 years ago, in the light of what is true about Scripture and the time and place in which we live, “How should we then live?”  We’ll frame some answers in line with three more short New Testament passages:

1Peter 1:23you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God; 

24  for “All flesh is like grass and all its glory like the flower of grass. The grass withers, and the flower falls, 

25  but the word of the Lord remains forever.” And this word is the good news that was preached to you. 

 

2Timothy 3:14  But as for you, continue in what you have learned and have firmly believed, knowing from whom you learned it 

15  and how from childhood you have been acquainted with the sacred writings, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. 

16  All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, 

17  that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work. 

 

Colossians 3:1  If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. 

2  Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. 

 

Christian people are saved by believing in the atoning work of Christ presented in the eternal Scriptures and repenting.  Those Scriptures are “breathed out” by God.  They are exactly what He says.  Having been raised from Spiritual death in and with Christ, we are then to seek and set our minds on things above.  Brothers and sisters, the same Word that saves us enables us to obey the Colossians 3:1-2 instruction regarding what we are to seek and value.  Therefore:

In our time and place in light of what is true about the Bible, let us trust the triune God of the Bible and those through whom He has spoken.  Let us be thankful for the prophets and Apostles who lead us to Christ.  Let us know that they speak for God and speak truly and let us be grateful.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us love it and live in it.  Let us read and study, read and study, read and study, and repeat.  Hear what 19th century English Baptist pastor Charles Spurgeon said in this regard. “It is blessed to eat into the very soul of the Bible until at last, you come to talk in scriptural language, and your spirit is flavored with the words of the Lord, so your blood is Bibline and the very essence of the Bible flows from you.”

Spurgeon’s phrase “eat into the very soul of the Bible” is startling.  But it’s consistent with the understanding given by Deuteronomy 8:3 and Jesus’s quotation of it at the temptation in the wilderness.  It’s consistent with a sense of desperate need and recognition that God’s Word is the difference between life and death.  It is far from a casual or polite nibbling at the Word.

Consider a bit of math.  There are slightly fewer than 1200 chapters in the Bible.  That means that at a pace of 25 chapters a week, a person can read the Bible through once per year.  It also means that at a pace of about 40 chapters a day, a person can read the Bible through in a month, or 12 times in a year.  I do not presume to prescribe here, but offer brief descriptions of two cases I have personally known.  I know a wonderful couple who for about 30 years took church youth groups through the Bible every year, giving wonderful Bible knowledge quizzes every Wednesday evening.  I can testify that that exercise was good for many young souls.  I also know a young international woman who believed and repented the first time she heard the Gospel preached in the US.  By the time I first met her, she had been saved for about 3 years.  By then, despite having had little access to good preaching, this young woman had a comprehensive Biblical knowledge, a deep love for Christ, the heart of an evangelist, and a sound orthodox Christian theology.  How?  Well, for her entire Christian life (while a graduate student) she was reading the Bible through monthly, and in Spurgeon’s words, the very essence of the Bible was flowing from her.  That should be our desire as well.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us use the inspired categories and words of the Bible.  They are exactly the right ones.  The categories of post-modern society do not rule.  Scripture rules.  Good is what God says is good and evil is what He calls evil.  Bible words are the ones God uses to tell us the truth.  They ought to increasingly be on our lips.  As Spurgeon said, we should “come to talk in Biblical language.”

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us subject every thought and attitude to Christ as revealed in the Scriptures.  We ought to continually ask ourselves “Where did that thought come from?”  “Is that Biblical?”  “Can I imagine the Apostle Paul saying that?”  “Is that the Spirit of Christ?”  Reformer John Calvin wrote: “We ought surely seek from Scripture a rule for thinking and speaking.  To this yardstick all thoughts of the mind and words of the mouth must be conformed.”  Our environment is one where society says every person is the judge of all and that all is relative, nothing is “true” except “for me.”  The great evil in our time is to suggest that there is any absolute that rules outside my whims. Those are the thoughts of the world, not of Christianity.  Christian thoughts are ones that Spurgeon described as “flavored with the words of the Lord.”

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us be genuinely humble as we approach the Scriptures and orthodox Christian doctrine derived from them.  The Scriptures are not obscure and individuals have the right to interpret them.  But we do not have the right to misinterpret them.  In this, the church present and through ages past is our check against our own arrogant foolishness.  R. C. Sproul put it this way: “Although tradition does not rule our interpretation, it does guide it. If upon reading a particular passage you have come up with an interpretation that has escaped the notice of every other Christian for two-thousand years, or has been championed by universally recognized heretics, chances are pretty good that you had better abandon your interpretation.”

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us allow Scripture to dictate our priorities and concerns.  This is the basic philosophical question of “value.”  The Scripture tells us what matters, what deserves our attention.  The world says otherwise, but let us love the LORD our God with all our hearts souls minds and strength, and love our neighbors as ourselves, and use our Master’s resources, including our time and mental and physical energy, accordingly.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us measure the world we live in by Scripture and not vice versa.  Christ called us His people to be salt and light, a city set on a hill, not to blend into the cultural landscape by giving Biblical truth a facelift or accommodating the spirit of the time.

In our time and place and in light of what is true about the Bible, let us glory in the Gospel message preserved for us in the Bible and love and obey the Savior it shows us.  We have been given a wonderful true reliable message of redemption.  We have been given real food for the soul.  Let us constantly rejoice in that.  Thanks be to the one true God who speaks.

Let me pray for us in closing.

Father, we give You thanks for Your Word.  We agree with the Psalmist that Your law is perfect, reviving the soul; Your testimony is sure making wise the simple; Your precepts are right, rejoicing the heart; Your commandment is pure, enlightening the eyes; the fear of You is clean, enduring forever; Your rules are true and righteous altogether.  May we walk before You carefully and gratefully in the light of these.

In Christ we pray, Amen.

 

[1] B.B. Warfield is often quoted as saying “The Bible is the Word of God in such a way — that when the Bible speaks, God speaks.”  St. Augustine long before him said much the same thing.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

 

Some Suggested Reading and Listening (in no particular order)

Barrett, Mathew.  God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture.  Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2016.

Sproul, R. C.  Scripture Alone: The Evangelical Doctrine. Phillipsburg, New Jersey: P&R Publishing, 2005.

Mathison, Keith.  The Shape of Sola Scriptura. Moscow, Idaho: Canon Press, 2001.

Kistler, Don, ed.  Sola Scriptura: The Protestant Position on the Bible.  Sanford, Florida: Reformation Trust Publishing, 1995.

Grudem, Wayne.  Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine.  Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994.  (See Chapters 2-8)

The Cambridge Declaration (on the website of The Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)

http://www.alliancenet.org/cambridge-declaration

The Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (on the website of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals)

http://www.alliancenet.org/the-chicago-statement-on-biblical-inerrancy

Paul Washer 2017 G3 Conference Sermon

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z-NDLxlsmOY

Al Mohler Sermon/Conference Talk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTIU2MjNJhI

Another Al Mohler Sermon/Conference Talk

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MZ83kRLvdBE

R. C. Sproul Lecture

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JfRAjJav06s

Steven Lawson Lecture

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kTIU2MjNJhI

A Bible Lesson on Romans 1

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

October 31, 1517 is traditionally celebrated as the date of Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses on the church door at Wittenberg.  In some sense, this October might thus be thought of as the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation.  Luther’s study of the letter to the Romans was instrumental in him coming to understand the doctrine of justification by faith.  It thus seems appropriate to begin a series of lessons on the book of Romans.

Paul wrote Romans to a church that he didn’t know personally and had no part in founding.  Who took the Gospel to Rome we don’t know.  The best guess is that it was the Jewish pilgrims mentioned in Acts 2:15 on the Day of Pentecost.  The letter was probably written in about 55-57 AD, likely from Corinth at the end of Paul’s 3rd missionary journey, as he wants the Gentile churches of Asia to prepare an offering to be taken to the impoverished Jewish brethren in Jerusalem.  At the time of writing, the church is thought to be mixed Gentile/ Jewish with probably more Gentiles than Jews.

Romans is the most theological of Paul’s letters.  It was perhaps written to introduce Paul and his ministry to the Romans.  Paul says in the letter that he intends to visit (and perhaps use Rome as a jumping off place to carry the Gospel into Spain).  Some speculate that it is a kind of “last will and testament” of the Apostle’s theology.  To some degree it may have been addressed to a mixed Jewish/Gentile congregation to help them sort out how the Jewish law fits with the Christian Gospel and how the 2 groups are to get along in the church.  The discussion of the “strong and weak” in the letter may indicate frictions between the two groups.

The first 7 verses of the book follow the standard form of a salutation for letters of the time.  There are 1) the author, 2) the addressee, and 3) a greeting.  Paul makes this into a single 7-verse sentence, loaded with his characteristic digressions and asides.

Romans 1:1 Paul, a servant of Christ Jesus, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 

Paul calls himself a bond-servant or slave completely at his master’s disposal.  Jesus is Lord/owner/the one who calls the shots for Paul.  In some ways this is a low position, but most truly it is the highest honor to be a servant of God.  This is what the Old Testament prophets called themselves.

Paul was “called.”  This whole thing wasn’t Paul’s choosing or idea.  It wasn’t something that he applied for or chose, it’s what God assigned to him.  That, in truth, is the way it is for all of us.  We may not be called as apostles, but it’s God who ordains us to be what He makes us to be.

Paul was “an apostle.”  The Jewish idea of an apostle was one legally authorized to act the representative with the full authority of the one who commissioned him.

Paul was “set apart.”  That’s interesting word choice.  The word “Pharisee” meant to be “set apart” from Gentiles and their evil ways.  By God’s doing, Paul, former Pharisee, is now set apart to work for the salvation of those self-same Gentiles.

Paul was set apart “for the Gospel ‘of God’.”  The origin of the Gospel is God Himself.

 2 which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy Scriptures, 

 God “promised beforehand.”  This is not “plan B” or some afterthought on God’s part.  This is God’s plan from eternity past.  This is in continuity with the entirety of the Biblical record.  The Old Testament Scriptures attest to the Gospel of Christ.

3 concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh

This is the good news concerning God’s Son.  The substance of the Gospel is Jesus, who had a human lineage from King David.

4 and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 

This is in no sense a statement that before the resurrection Jesus was less than the Son of God.  Rather, it’s a statement that His identity was made public and evident to all through the resurrection.  Jesus, who was meek and lowly during His earthly ministry, was given God’s powerful affirmation in the resurrection.  Jesus Christ/Messiah/Anointed One is “our Lord.”

5 through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith for the sake of his name among all the nations, 

“through Him” and “for the sake of His name” Paul received grace and was commissioned as an Apostle.  Paul’s consistent focus is Jesus and His honor and His will.  The focus is not Paul’s honor or desires, or even what we would call Paul’s “needs.”  The goal of the Gospel is the honor of Christ.

Paul received “grace.”  Often this word has the meaning “God’s undeserved favor given to sinful men.”  It is also a synonym for power/ability from God.  Here it is power from God to carry out the commission from God to be an Apostle, to call people from among the Gentiles to Faith in Jesus.

The apostleship Paul has is to bring about “the obedience of faith.”  For Paul, true faith always produces obedience to God and His rule.  There is no separation in Paul’s mind between faith and obedience.

This obedience is “among all the nations.”  The scope of the Gospel is all nations.  It’s not just for Jews, but Gentiles as well.

6 including you who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

This “all nations” is “including you” (Romans) “who are called.”  Paul’s emphasis here is upon God’s sovereignty and initiative in salvation.  Stott sums up the first 6 verses by saying the good news is “the Gospel of God, about Christ, according to Scripture, for the nations, unto the obedience of faith, and for the sake of the Name.”

7 To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

The Romans are “called to be saints.”  “saint” comes from Hebrew and Greek roots meaning to be set apart or Holy.  A saint is a saint not because of personal merit but because of God’s love and call.  Paul is applying this Old Testament term to the mixed Gentile/Jewish congregation, and in the process emphasizing that a world-wide church has been ordained to have the kind of place in God’s workings that  was formerly only Israel’s.  God’s amazing kindness to us is that rebellious fallen people are called by God to be in relationship with Him.”

Paul wishes them “grace and peace.”  grace/”charis” is New Testament/Christian language/thought.  It summarizes the Gospel in a word.  peace/”shalom” is Old Testament/Hebrew language/thought.  It’s wholeness and well-being.  Both grace and peace come only from God through Jesus.

Verses 8-15 now provide Paul’s readers some more background on himself and his occasion for writing. They describe his attitude towards this church that he’s never visited, and speak of his longing to visit.

8 First, I thank my God through Jesus Christ for all of you, because your faith is proclaimed in all the world. 

This faith of the Roman Christians is reported over the all the world.  It must therefore be something that is tangible, with concrete visible consequences.

Matthew 5:14 You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.

When Paul says “your faith is proclaimed” he’s probably saying “the Christian Faith as you hold it.”  Their zeal for Christ and love for each other was evident to all.

Romans 1:9 For God is my witness, whom I serve with my spirit in the gospel of his Son, that without ceasing I mention you 

10 always in my prayers, asking that somehow by God’s will I may now at last succeed in coming to you. 

Paul says, “God is my witness.”  This is almost an oath.  No kidding, Paul prays constantly for the Romans.  Remember that he doesn’t have a history with this particular group, but his concern for the church of Jesus Christ extends beyond the people that he can think of as “his” converts.

Paul’s description his devotion to God is to “serve with my spirit/serve with my whole heart.”  There is nothing either selfish or tentative in Paul’s Christianity.  21st century Christians almost always talk about Christianity from human perspectives, in terms of human desires, as if humans were the focus.  Paul never talks that way.  His perspective is God’s and not his situation or circumstances.

Paul hopes to “at last succeed in coming to you.”  It seems as if the Romans might have been aware that Paul had intended to visit Rome before this.  Notice how humble is Paul’s asking even to be allowed to visit Rome on behalf of the Gospel.  He’s not presuming to tell God how things should be, or even to say that he knows for certainty the will of God in the specific matter.

11 For I long to see you, that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to strengthen you—

12 that is, that we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine. 

There is real humility in Paul’s attitude toward other believers.  He IS indeed the Apostle, the missionary, God’s appointed servant and one of the most brilliant men of all history.  But he recognizes that a visit will benefit both the Romans and himself.  No Christian, not even Paul, stands above or outside the church.

13 I want you to know, brothers, that I have often intended to come to you (but thus far have been prevented), in order that I may reap some harvest among you as well as among the rest of the Gentiles. 

14 I am under obligation both to Greeks and to barbarians, both to the wise and to the foolish. 

The Apostle is “under obligation.”  He is in debt in the sense that Christ has given him something most precious and commissioned him to pass it to others.  He is in debt to others until he passes to them what Christ has put in his trust.  His preaching is not something optional, but rather a sacred duty.  Barclay’s rendering is, “… because of all it is my duty to give to them, I am under obligation to all sorts of men.” … “Greeks and barbarians” are both the cultured and the non-cultured.  Stott: “Good news is for sharing.  We are under obligation to make it known to others.”

15 So I am eager to preach the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

With verse 15 the introduction is over.  Paul comes to the statement of his theme or main thesis that is going to be developed in subsequent pages.  Verses 16 and 17 contain the heart of Paul’s understanding of the Gospel.

16 For I am not ashamed of the gospel, for it is the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes, to the Jew first and also to the Greek. 

“I am not ashamed.”  Humanly speaking, Paul has plenty of pressure to cop out.  He’s in a pagan world, writing to people in the power center of the known world about an apparently obscure Jewish carpenter/rabbi that people think is dead and gone.  He’s insisting that this Jesus is not only resurrected and alive, but is the only means of salvation, the only way to God.  But Paul is not ashamed.  May we be like him!

The Gospel is “the power of God.”  The word “dynamite” has the same root as the word rendered “power” here.  But God’s power is not of earthly origin or like earthly power.  In fact, it is in opposition to earthly power.

The Gospel is the power of God “for salvation.”  This is for salvation from the wrath and judgment of God, for salvation from sin and death, for salvation to and for the glory for which the entire created universe is longing.  It is power of God for eternal life.

This is “to everyone.”  This is not a matter that is for some and against others.  The offer is a universal offer.

It is to everyone who “believes.”  The Greek tense here means that this is an ongoing thing.  This is “believes/has faith.”  Biblical faith is absolute trust/belief /commitment/total acceptance.  It means being utterly sure of the truth and staking all in time and eternity on that truth.  It is trusting in/relying upon/abandoning oneself to God in response to the concrete acts of kindness of God.  It’s the radical choice to entrust one’s destiny to God.

This is “to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”  In what sense is “first” to be understood?  The Jews were given the first opportunity/priority but weren’t given jurisdiction.  They don’t own it.  They were chosen first in time, but it’s not limited to them.  Apparently the Greek has an untranslatable participle in this construction that implies a fundamental equality between Jews and Gentiles.

17 For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, “The righteous shall live by faith.”

“the righteousness of God” is “right standing with God.”  This carries the sense of acquitting or conferring a righteous status on someone.  It is being “in the right” with God, being properly related to God in spite of our moral imperfection.  God treats a sinner as if he or she had not been a sinner at all.  Instead of treating us as criminals to be obliterated, He treats us as children to be loved.

This is “of God.”  It’s from God.  It’s not on the basis of what man does, but on the basis of what God has done.

This “is revealed,” it “is (being) reveled.”  The righteousness from God is being revealed in the Gospel.  It has a dynamic impact.

It is “from faith.”  That is, what produces the right standing is (from the human side) reliance upon God.

It is “from faith for faith.”  It is thoroughly about faith, from first to last.  There is no other possible basis for right standing with God.

“The righteous shall live by faith” is a quote from the prophet Habakkuk.

Habakkuk 2:4 Behold, his soul is puffed up; it is not upright within him, but the righteous shall live by his faith.

Barclay said, “It is the man who is in right relationship with God as a result of his faith who will live.”  Edwards wrote, “It is the one who is justified by faith who will live.”  The idea is that God grants life to those who are first made right through faith.

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.

As it is, humanity is “in the wrong” with God, morally bankrupt and under the righteous judgment of God, deserving His wrath, desperately needing His mercy and pardon.  If the universe is going to be a moral universe and a sane place, evil must be dealt with.  That inevitable, upright, appropriate, just dealing with evil is God’s wrath.  This wrath, says Paul, is not something that is exclusively reserved for the end of time, but is daily revealed in our world.  Sin has its awful consequences, and we see them all around us.  And those consequences come to humans not by accident.  We choose them.  We choose God’s wrath against sin.  We’re not ignorant, because light is unavailable.  We’re ignorant because we actively dodge the light.  Human ignorance of the ways and law of God is a deliberate ignorance.  We stifle the truth about God because we don’t want to submit to it.  We don’t like its implications about His claims to our obedience.

19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.

Paul does not intend that we hear him say that exhaustive knowledge about God (or even knowledge adequate for salvation) is available in nature without His revelation of Himself.  But there is enough that is plain in creation to set an honest heart on the right track, seeking to know Him and His will.  And that is not the path humans typically take.

20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.

There is enough light evident in the creation to keep anyone who is honestly seeking God from worshiping anything in creation.  And so if we dodge the light, fail to embrace the truth about Him that is available to us, we are without excuse.

21 For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.

The right response of a heart that sees God is humility and thankfulness for life and breath.  The right response is worship.  Where there is none of that, there is increasing darkness.  That’s true in the large.  That’s true individually.  We are personally either moving toward the light or into darkness.  Human societies are either moving toward the light or further into darkness.  A person or society that purposely suppresses knowledge of God will experience increasing confusion, futility, chaos, and darkness.

22 Claiming to be wise, they became fools,

“they became fools” in the Biblical sense.  They were not unintelligent, but morally obtuse and unable to tell what is genuinely good from that which is genuinely bad.

23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Humans who are “too clever” to worship their Creator will, in the end, worship themselves or something (e.g. as silly as the environment or political ideology or social “progress”) of their own imagination.  Humans will replace the true and living God that they cannot control and who deserves their worship and obedience with something less demanding that they can control.  Moderns pretend to laugh at ancient idols, and then turn and make their own.

What follows here are six of the most painful-to-read verses in all of Scripture.  They describe the horrible downward spiral from man’s special place as created in God’s image for fellowship with Him to degradation to the lowest possible state.  This is what inevitably follows from failure to worship God.

24  Therefore God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity, to the dishonoring of their bodies among themselves, 

“God gave them up …”  These are bone-chilling horrifying words.  God let them have what they wanted.  We sometimes think of God’s judgment on sin as only coming in the form of fire and brimstone falling on the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah or the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians.  But the worst of it is that He draws back and lets humanity wallow in its self-chosen misery.  Individual lives come unglued, societies crack and devolve into awful places to live, as fallen depraved human nature is given free reign.

Humans assert their independence from their Creator and declare that they have the right to use their bodies as they please.  They dishonor and misuse them and deface the image of God in them.

25  because they exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever! Amen. 

God’s giving humans over to their corrupt desires is “because” of their exchange of reality for the old lie of Satan, that they can themselves be at the center of things, that they can serve their own wishes and desires.  How could it be otherwise?  What’s to be done?  Like the Father in the parable of the prodigal son, God lets humanity go down the path to misery that it chooses.

26  For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; 

27  and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. 

As Creator, God has the right to declare what is and is not proper behavior and proper use of our bodies.  He has the right to tell and has told us that some passions are “dishonorable” and some acts “shameless.”  He has the right to call some relations “natural” and some “contrary to nature.”  In our time, we have twisted the meaning of the word “natural” to be something like “what I choose to believe about myself.”  Paul isn’t at all intending such a meaning.  He is instead speaking of being consistent with obvious function.  And he plainly says that belligerent willful improper use of our bodies according to wrong passions is evidence of a refusal to worship God as Creator, and that it brings His judgment and “giving over” to corruption.

28  And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind to do what ought not to be done. 

Bad thinking about God, failure to acknowledge His lordship, dodging the light of the common grace of general revelation about His person and nature leads to a debased mind, and all manner of awful behavior.  Some has been mentioned in verses 26 and 27.  In verses 29 through 31 Paul names 21 other kinds of awful conduct that follows.

29  They were filled with all manner of unrighteousness, evil, covetousness, malice. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness. They are gossips, 

“Unrighteousness” is wickedness or unjustness and is opposed to God’s law.  “Evil” is a general term for pervasive badness.  “Covetousness” is greed or passion for more, particularly that which is another’s and a desire to promote oneself at the expense of another.  “Malice” is depravity or deliberate wickedness.  “Envy” is jealousy over the fact that others have something.  “Murder is the outward act of taking a life that springs from inner hatred for or despising of another.  “Strife” is contention, quarreling or wrangling. “Deceit” is treachery by words that tricks another for one’s own gain.  “Maliciousness” is to be habitually set against others for their harm.  A “gossip” is one who “whispers” to harm the reputation of others.

30  slanderers, haters of God, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, 

A “slanderer” does what a gossip does, but in the open.  He or she defames others in public.  If one will slander other humans, he or she is not far from slandering the God who made those humans, despising/”hating” his or her Maker.  The Greek word behind “insolent” here is hubris and intends a kind of pride that flaunts itself against God.  “Haughtiness”/arrogance is an attitude of personal superiority that puts oneself above others.  “Boasting” is the attempt to gain the admiration of others based on claims to have what one doesn’t actually possess.  “Inventors of evil” is a horrible description of ones whose creativity in doing wrong far exceeds the acts of those around them.  They do evil things that others don’t even think of.  In this list of awful sins is “disobedience to parents,” something that in our time is largely ignored if not glorified.

31  foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. 

“Foolishness” is moral foolishness, not lack of intelligence and it is a moral wrong as much as it is a state, as it has its origin in turning from the light one is given about the universe and the will of God.  “Faithlessness” here concerns “breaking faith,” i.e. in failing to follow through with one’s commitments.  God is completely faithful, never breaking His promises.  This evil is to be nothing like Him.  To be “heartless” is to be without natural affection.  “Ruthlessness” is to be without mercy.

All of this is simply horrid, and the Apostle lays out with crystal clarity that it has its origin in a refusal to honor God and give Him thanks.

32  Though they know God’s righteous decree that those who practice such things deserve to die, they not only do them but give approval to those who practice them.

The final step in this awful spiral into chaos and degradation is not even the practicing of all manner of evil, but coming to depraved assertion that evil is good.  It is the substitution of a corrupt morality for God’s morality.  This is final assault on the very character of God.  God’s will and law are consistent with His person.  To declare what is wrong is right is to declare His person to be wrong.  It’s ultimate and complete rebellion.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

A Bible Lesson on Psalm 46

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This lesson is a slight variant of one taught February 25, 2017 at Grand Avenue Baptist Church in Ames, Iowa.

This morning we pause from our Colossians study and consider a glorious Old Testament text, Psalm 46.  We mediated last Sunday on Colossians 1:5 and the wonderful “hope laid up laid up for you in heaven” belonging to Christian people in the Gospel of Christ.  This Psalm provides a look at a different facet of that same core reality.  It teaches us about the guarantee of our hope.

Psalm 46 was the inspiration for Luther’s “A Mighty Fortress.”  Its occasion is not stated or known, but the tone makes clear that it was written in a time of trouble.  As such, it stands as a grand and substantial statement of faith in God, and as encouragement to us as things around us seem to be coming unglued.  Luther said “We sing this psalm to the praise of God, because God is with us and powerfully and miraculously preserves His church and His word against all fanatical spirits, against the gates of hell, against the implacable hatred of the devil, and against all assaults of the world, the flesh, and sin.”  Thank God for Psalm 46.

What we will do this morning is this.  I’m going to start by admitting together with you our context as we come to this Psalm.  Then, in response and contrast I’ll read the text aloud and offer a brief prayer.  Then we’ll meditate on Psalm 46 a phrase at a time.

So, where are our heads as you and I as we come to this text?  Well, Christian people are the most realistic people in the world.  So … we know that the world is broken and there is no hope of humans fixing it.  We know that we and ones we care about are going to experience pain and potentially know real disaster.  We know there is the possibility of withering debilitating illness, and some of us and those we love are living with it right now.  We know that there is no certainty in our national economy.  We know that our national politics are full of acrimony and profound selfishness and coarseness.  We know that the Christian heritage of western nations is fading and awful practices like the killing of unborn children are widely sanctioned.  We know that believing people around the world are suffering horrible persecution for faith in Christ.  And we know (or will know in a few years) that our bodies are decaying, and that life on earth is short and full of trouble.  All this is true, but not at all the main point.  This is the temporal bad news.

Please stand and I’ll read the eternal good news that IS the main point, and pray, and then we’ll work on the text.  Christians, hear Psalm 46.

Psalm 46:1  To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

2  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

3  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling.   Selah

4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

5  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.

6  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

7  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.   Selah

8  Come, behold the works of the Lord, how he has brought desolations on the earth.

9  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear;  he burns the chariots with fire.

10  “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

11  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

Father, we thank You for Your holy Word.  We thank You for telling us what is true about You, and Your world, and us.  We ask to have hearing ears and hearts to rejoice.  We pray that You will be honored as we meditate on Your Word.  Help me, I ask, as I speak to do so with humility and grace, that Your people would be encouraged, I pray in Jesus.  Amen.

It has been a great pleasure to prepare to teach Psalm 46.  It has done my soul good.  In some ways, Psalm 46 is completely straightforward, saying what it says.  If you want a brief summary of its message, you can take the first and last verses.  God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  …  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.  This is the guarantee of our hope.  This is the “plain facts” message of the Psalm.  But rolling it over in our minds a phrase at a time can serve to make those facts bloom into heart-felt praise.  So let’s do that.

The Psalm breaks naturally into 3 stanzas, separated by the “Selah’s.”  Derek Kidner titled 1-3 “God in the tumult,” 4-7 “God in His city,” and 8-11 “God exalted in the earth.”

First, God in the tumult:

Psalm 46:1  To the choirmaster. Of the Sons of Korah. According to Alamoth. A Song. God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.

From one perspective, God cares for His people in two ways.  He first protects His own from much trouble and harm, and second, in the trouble and difficulty that He does allow, He is there with them, being their only help and hope. He is both refuge and strength in those senses.

From a slightly different perspective, “refuge” speaks of external protection.  It alludes to a stronghold into which we can flee in a time of danger.  It is a fortress, a high tower, a shelter, or fort.  He is our refuge.

“strength” speaks of internal empowerment.  God gives courage to the weak heart.  Barnes put it this way, ” God is the source of strength to those who are weak and defenseless … we may rely on his strength ‘as if’ it were our own … we may feel as safe in his strength as though we had that strength ourselves. We may make it the basis of our confidence.”   God protects His own and is with them in trouble.  In both the external and the internal, He is their only help.

The fact that God is a “present” help speaks of His accessibility and willingness to be found, and His adequacy for all situations. He has been found to be and always continues to be “enough” in trouble.  And this is “very” much the case.  This is a superlative.  It is emphatically or exceedingly true that He aids His people.  He is a very present help in trouble.  And that being the case

2  Therefore we will not fear though the earth gives way, though the mountains be moved into the heart of the sea,

3  though its waters roar and foam, though the mountains tremble at its swelling. Selah

Therefore, because of who He is and how He acts, we will not fear.  We will not fear, no matter what, period.  Nothing will cause us to fear.  Brothers and sisters, what is described in verses 2 and 3 is the most fundamental trouble that could possibly be, the complete unhinging of the natural order, the very reversal of God’s work on the 3rd day of creation.  It is the apparent undoing of what Paul tells us about Christ’s sustaining work in Colossians 1:17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  When it seems like pre-creation chaos is coming back, we will not fear.  When the most solid things we know of in this physical world, the earth and the mountains, are rocked and the sea threatens to engulf them, we will not fear.  We will not fear, because God is our refuge and strength, an accessible and fully sufficient help.

Think about this.  If it were that there was literally no place to stand, the whole of God’s universe were seemingly to become unglued … the Psalmist says that God’s people would not fear.  Now, put our temporal concerns (the kind of things I mentioned before we read the Psalm) up against this picture.  They are nothing in comparison.  Ought these troubles come to our minds?  Sure.  We’re human.  But is there reason they should control us, that we ought to genuinely fear?  No.  Our troubles and others even more serious, times even (as Barnes put it) ” … when commotions and revolutions are occurring in the earth, and when everything sacred, true, and valuable seems to be in danger” will not cause God’s people to fear.

A mighty fortress is our God, a bulwark never failing.  Our helper He amid the flood of mortal ills prevailing.

Now, “God in His city”:

4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

In verse 3, there is chaos, and the wild sea water threatens to swallow up even the mountains.  But put up against that is this wonderful picture of a life-giving river of water in the city of God, Jerusalem.  But from the perspective of a Christian, it’s more than Jerusalem, it’s the church of the redeemed, and eventually the new Jerusalem, God’s heaven.  The river in it is from God Himself, and God is in the midst of the city.

Revelation 21:1  Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more.

2  And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.

3  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.

4  He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

 

Revelation 22:1  Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb

2  through the middle of the street of the city; also, on either side of the river, the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, yielding its fruit each month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations.

3  No longer will there be anything accursed, but the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him.

 

Psalm 46:4  There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy habitation of the Most High.

5  God is in the midst of her; she shall not be moved; God will help her when morning dawns.

How is it that Old Testament Jerusalem or the New Testament church of God is immovable/unshakable?  How can there be stability when the very foundations of the earth seem to be coming unglued?  It is that God is in the midst of her.  He is her Chief Resident.  That’s a very present and comforting reality.

In verse 2, the very mountains will be moved, and in verse 6 the word rendered “totter” is the same word as this “moved” in verse 5.  The mountains and the kingdoms will be moved, but the city of God stands immovable, because He is in her.

God will help her “right early”/”when the morning dawns.”  This is wonderful poetry and reminder of wonderful deliverances God has given His people.  In Exodus 14:27 it was at the break of day when the Red Sea rushed back in to drown Pharaoh’s army.  In 2Kings 19:35 when Hezekiah and the people of Jerusalem got up in the morning, they found 185,000 dead Assyrian soldiers outside the city walls in their siege camp.  And it was early in the morning on the first day of the week that the women went to the tomb and found it empty in Luke 24:1.

Of course, God’s working is not limited to the early morning hours, but there is something especially beautiful and moving in pictures of the misery of a dark time fading away and the dawn bringing evidence of His deliverance.

6  The nations rage, the kingdoms totter; he utters his voice, the earth melts.

From chaos in the natural world to political upheaval and war and international conflict, none of that shakes the city of God.  Worldwide economic turmoil and the dissolution of governments do not shake the city of God.

But the inherent instability of evil implies tumult/the raging of nations and the tottering of kingdoms.  And it brings the judgment of God.  Sin inevitably brings its own misery and additionally God punishes sin.  God spoke and the world came into existence.  When He speaks in judgment, the earth melts away.  But none of this touches the church of God.

7  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

The LORD of hosts is with us.  This is Jehovah Sabaoth, the I AM of armies/hosts.  He is with us. Luther: “Did we in our own strength confide, our striving would be losing.  Were not the right man on our side, the man of God’s own choosing.  Dost ask who that may be? Christ Jesus, it is He.  Lord Sabaoth, his name.  From age to age the same.  And He must win the battle.”

The God of Jacob is our “fortress.”  Some versions render this “refuge,” but it’s not the same word as in verse 1.  This one implies an inaccessible height.  It is then something like “high stronghold” down from which God’s people look unscathed by what is going on below.

It is the God of “Jacob” mentioned here.  The point of this phrase is the nature of God, not the person of Jacob.  Jacob was not the model saint.  It took him a lifetime to really learn to trust God.  But He was God’s, chosen of God and ultimately loving God.  And God was with Him as He is with us.  The covenant-keeper was God, not Jacob.

The “LORD of hosts” is God’s title of divine power, the “God of Jacob” is His title of covenant relationship, and “God with us” is His name Emmanuel.  In this verse, His immeasurable power and His Fatherly love stand next to each other and we’re reminded of the same double truth that Eric pointed out in his sermons on Ruth.  He is both powerful and full of grace and covenant affection toward His people.

Now comes “God exalted in the earth.”  This is a vision of things to come.  It pictures God’s power over the whole warring world.

8  Come, behold the works of the LORD, how he has brought desolations on the earth.

Come, behold … come perceive/behold with the eye of a prophet.  What?  Come see God’s power to destroy!!!  That jars the sensibilities of post-moderns who are wrongly sure that the fact that God is love means that if we will just all hold hands and sing Kumbaya, everything will be rosy.  But this is the truth.

Kidner put it this way: “Although the outcome is peace, the process is judgment.  The reassuring words ‘he makes wars cease …’ are set in context not of gentle persuasion, but of a world devastated and forcibly disarmed.”  There will eventually be peace on earth, but not until Jesus returns in great power and judgment.  The I AM will deal with evil, and there will be peace.

9  He makes wars cease to the end of the earth; he breaks the bow and shatters the spear; he burns the chariots with fire.

Boice says “God is not a peace negotiator, He is a conqueror.”  He imposes peace.  He breaks the bow, shatters the spear, and burns the chariots.  He disarms His foes and those who would attack His people.  There is the image here of the ruined army of Sennacherib and a siege camp in shambles becoming plunder for inhabitants of Jerusalem, protected by the LORD of hosts.  This is the image of the burning remains of an armored column decimated by superior air power as it attempts to withdraw from a city it has occupied.

10  “Be still, and know that I am God. I will be exalted among the nations, I will be exalted in the earth!”

This is a command not primarily to God’s people but to His enemies.  The “be still” is not “be quiet and contemplative,” but rather “Quiet! Leave off! Enough!” “Drop your weapons and desist!”

Again quoting Kidner: ” … (it) is not in the first place comfort for the harassed, but a rebuke to a restless and turbulent world”  It’s much like the command of Jesus to the storm and lake “Peace! Be still!”  Know that I am God.  I will be exalted among the nations.  I will be exalted in the earth.  Stop your noise and recognize your Master.  Let God be God.

The Psalmist then comes back to where he was in verse 7.

11  The LORD of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. Selah

The fundamental here, the guarantee of Christian hope, is the presence with us of the promise-making and promise-keeping all-powerful God of creation and redemption.  He is our refuge and strength, a very present help in temporal trouble.  He is with us in all things, even to the end of the created order.  From His throne springs the eternal river whose streams make glad the city of God.

We are going to end this service by singing “A Mighty Fortress.”  Let’s do this with real rejoicing and energy.  This is very good news.

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.