“It’s been a long December and there’s reason to believe / Maybe this year will be better than the last / I can’t remember all the times I tried to tell my myself to hold on to these moments as they pass…”
Adam Duritz, “A Long December”
Hey y’all. Quick December update.
Greetings at the end of December. For the 4thDaveFam, it’s been a doozy, full of very mundane busyness, mild frustration, and minor illness. And runny noses. LOTS and LOTS of runny noses.
Of the five elements of the “Power Five” I had talked about in my last post, the one I was most consistent with was telling my girls that I loved them every day. Even that wasn’t a home run itself, but I feel like I’m building into the rhythm of our family pretty well, which is great.
Everything else? Oof. I’ve been a mess, gang. Not sleeping much, not eating well, drinking an unhealthy amount of coffee, not exercising, not spending much time at all in the Word and in prayer. And on top of that, my immune system has been taking a beating from various colds and flus that my sweet little ones have been bringing home and sharing.
Am I hoping to turn things around this week? Of course. Hope springs eternal.
But (literally) at the moment, I’m wracked with wheezing coughs and I’m running a low-grade fever. So any major changes in my daily life may need a couple of days to get going.
Illness and exhaustion won’t stop me from posting a few items this week, I hope. You may see a post I wrote a month ago about frustrated ambition, or a little 2021 reading retrospective, or even a quick affiliate post on behalf of the good folks at Monk Manual (if you’re wanting to buy a journal, wait like 36 hours or so, I’ll hook you up with a discount!). No promises, but since I’m not working this week, I may be able to pull that much off.
In the meantime, just a note of encouragement:
This year, I really feel like I did a terrible job celebrating Christmas (my tongue-in-cheek twittering about the merits of Die Hard as a Christmas movie aside). I wasn’t feeling the comfort and joy on a spiritual level. I went through the motions. I’m bummed out about that in retrospect.
But you know what? That’s why Jesus came: to rescue the hurried, the harried, the helpless, and the hopeless from a life of striving and utterly failing to live righteously. There is nothing I can do in my own power to live the way I’m supposed to. I’m a sinner by nature and by choice, and there is nothing I can do in my own power to overcome that.
But at Christmastime, we celebrate that Jesus the eternal Son of God graciously condescended to be born in human flesh and live among us. The baby of Bethlehem grew in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man, accomplishing a life of perfect obedience to the will and law of God, in order to earn the righteousness we could never touch. Then, at the perfect time, Jesus died in the place of ruined sinners, paying the penalty for our failures and rebellion, so that all who turn away from their sin and look to Jesus as their Savior may be forgiven and set free from the guilt, the shame, the power, and the penalty of sin. Not only that, but Jesus rose from the dead 3 days later, demonstrating His authority over life and death and that His sacrifice on our behalf is acceptable to God. We who know Him as Lord and Savior have a share in that resurrection and will be raised up with Him on the last day, to life everlasting in Heaven with our God.
If you follow Jesus and, like me, your Christmas season wasn’t the worshipful, meaningful experience you wish it could have been, know that the grace of God extends to your lousy December. And you don’t even have to wait until January 1st to “resolve” to do better, because Jesus has done all the “better” for us. He calls us simply to follow Him in obedience, taking His yoke upon ourselves, for His yoke is easy and His burden is light.
On the other hand, if you only know of Christmas as a baby in a manger and a choir of angels serenading frightened shepherds, there is so much more to the story. And the so-much-more-ness is what matters the most to you and me, right now, in the shadow of another Christmas season come and gone.
Comment below or email me if you want to talk about that further.
Merry Christmas, friends. God bless you in Christ Jesus. Talk to you soon.
“C’mon, do you actually know anyone who has died from COVID?”
For me, the answer is now yes.
A family member who had lived for years with a chronic health condition got COVID, got quickly worse, and died this morning. This was someone who I haven’t gotten to spend a lot of time with but for whom I still have a good deal of fondness. My heart breaks for her husband, a brilliant and funny man with a big heart who is now a widower after 40 years of marriage, and her son, a young man who loves his family dearly.
I don’t want to say much more than that, at the risk of violating their privacy. But this stings in a way I didn’t expect.
What is my only hope in life and death? That I am not my own, but belong with body and soul, both in life and in death, to my faithful Saviour Jesus Christ. He has fully paid for all my sins with his precious blood, and has set me free from all the power of the devil. He also preserves me in such a way that without the will of my heavenly Father not a hair can fall from my head; indeed, all things must work together for my salvation. Therefore, by his Holy Spirit he also assures me of eternal life and makes me heartily willing and ready from now on to live for him.
I learned something about hibiscus flowers yesterday.
My folks have a braided hibiscus bush in their yard. I noticed yesterday when I stopped by to visit my mom that there were multiple vibrant blooms on the bush. She said, “You know those blooms only last a day, right? They bloom once, close, and fall off. There are some old ones there on the ground.”
For some reason, that struck me as lovely. I know it’s a commonplace thing, and there will be several blooms on the bush each season. But knowing that these blooms I was admiring would only be there for a few more hours made the moment special to me.
I felt privileged, honored to bear witness to these blooms.
It’s so easy to take for granted how beautiful the world can be. We glide right past a thousand daily glories, distracted and dulled, blind to the wonder of creation.
I believe God made this world by the word of His power, by speaking this delightful globe into existence. Let it be. And it was. And He made it good. Not only good, but He made it better than it really even needed to be.
Have you considered the fact that all these delights are unnecessary? Vivid color, enticing flavor, delicious smells. All superfluous. Not that they don’t all serve a purpose—but they don’t have to be so enjoyable, so vibrant.
The tiny delights of daily life are gifts from a generous and creative God who has shown kindness to all His creatures—even the senseless, stubborn people who should recognize His grace and so often refuse to do so.
The next time you experience God’s superlative daily kindnesses—your child’s laughter, the smell of flowers, the sweetness of sugar or delicious aroma of coffee—take a moment and give thanks for His boundless grace, shown to humanity in these countless temporary gifts.
I’m wiped out. It’s been a long day of family time and household obligations, and I have nothing in the tank. So no blog post tonight.
Instead, an invitation: in the comments, let me know how I can pray for you. My promise to you is that I actually will.
If you don’t believe in God or in the effectiveness of prayer, that’s too bad but I won’t fuss at ya. Just know that my prayer for you doubters is that you will one day come to know Jesus as Savior and Lord, that you will find forgiveness of sin and receive a new heart and will in Him, and that He will upend and transform your life. That’s honestly the greatest and best thing I can pray for you.
We Christians sometimes struggle to use social media well.
Rather than going out of our way to be clear, we choose to aim for “pithy and incisive” and instead land squarely in “muddled and misunderstood.”
It’s predictable on some level. Social media readers (and here, I’m thinking mainly of platforms like Twitter or Gab) tend to reward those whose posts are punchy, snarky, and meme-able. Everyone loves a good pile-on; there’s a certain warm camaraderie in adding your voice to the chorus of “Look at that guy—what a doofus!” As a result, when we post our own comments and memes, we instinctively revert to middle-school “gotcha” mode, chasing after our mutuals’ “oh snap” replies and GIFs and those precious “shares” and “likes” that affirm our rhetorical prowess. (Please, Mr. Dorsey, just plug all that ephemeral affirmation directly into my veins!)
Sometimes, however, the slings and arrows we are so quick to let fly at our online ideological foes can be based on less-than-complete information or may communicate with all the subtle finesse of a rusted claw hammer.
If we are indeed disciples of He Who Is The Truth and obedient servants of the God Who Does Not Lie, then it seems redundant to say that we should be truthful in all of our interactions, including those online. I’ve talked about this in the past, with regard to the stories and articles we share online. But I would also venture to propose the following three bits of advice for our daily digital dialogues:
Part of love “believing all things” may just be assuming the best when someone who is otherwise demonstrably orthodox says or posts something that may be unclear/confusing. When that happens, walking in love could mean starting by asking questions to gain clarity, rather than assuming heterodoxy of a brother. If the issue is minor, it could even mean letting a post go without saying anything. (I know, that’s crazy-talk when someone is wrong on the internet.) And if the issue really does need to be addressed (and you actually can gain a hearing from that person, rather than just being another stranger shouting online), walking in love means addressing it publicly but in a way that is not self-aggrandizing or belittling of the other person. If the person is a Christian, entreat them directly as a brother or sister. Don’t play to the audience.
The flipside of that is, when wepost things online, we should be willing to rework our pithy, “retweetable” construction if we realize our readers find it unclear or confusing, especially when (for example) we’re dealing with weighty matters like theology or sensitive issues related to sin or suffering. Zingers get buzz, but they don’t often build up. If you come to realize that you should have said something more clearly in order for it to be of benefit to others, don’t be too proud of your turns of phrase not to “kill your darlings” and try again in order to communicate something important in a way that is direct and digestible.
If you do tweet something that you later realize was ill-informed, poorly communicated, or insufficiently considered, don’t double-down. Just acknowledge it and move on. Seriously. Don’t employ tortured logic to contort your original post to mean something entirely different (or at a minimum, tangential) from its plain original reading. If you goofed, say you goofed. If you missed the mark or overstated something, admit it. If you want to add more context to explain things more clearly, or remove/repost with a correction/explanation, go ahead and do that. But don’t insult the rest of us by asking us to disbelieve our “lying eyes” as if the fault lies entirely with us. If you find that a dozen people are all “misinterpreting you” or “taking you out of context” the same way, it’s more likely a “you” problem than a “them” problem.
Am I now seeking to be the social media police because I’ve raised this issue?Yes. You’ve caught me; that’s exactly my desire. All online traffic needs my approval, with proper forms filled out and stamped in triplicate. You’re exactly right.
OR… perhaps I’m just a Christian who gets frustrated that so much of the sturm und drang of my Twitter feed could be avoided if (presumptive) brothers and sisters in Christ would stop trying to be social media influencers for a minute and just seek to be honest, clear, and edifying with their (online) speech. You know, the waywe’re toldto be. (In other words, I think we should seek to be salty rather than spicy.)
I’m far from perfect in this area–my Twitter “drafts” folder is a barren boneyard of half-baked takes and snarky responses–but I sincerely want to grow in wisdom with how I use social media. At the end of the day, it would be better for me to lose the miniscule “platform” I’ve built and shut down all my accounts for good, rather than become a known and influential online figure who profanes the Name by my sinful speech, conducting myself as little more than a banging gong or clanging cymbal.
I’m still thinking through all this, so if you have ideas/disagreements, or if I’ve missed something obvious that should factor into my thinking, I welcome your pushback and am happy to discuss further. Hit me up in the com-box below.
For the follower of Jesus, it can be a great encouragement to hear and read stories of past saints who have finished the race well. We see that in the Scriptures, as God gives us what has been called by many the famous “Hall of Faith” chapter in Hebrews 11, detailing how the saints of the Old Testament stood firm on their faith in God and His Word.
In my experience, reading the stories of past believers who have followed Jesus even to the point of death can be a convicting and riveting practice. Whether it’s Foxe’s Book of Martyrs or biographies of past theologians and missionaries, these stories have fueled the fire of devotion and perseverance for generations of Christians seeking to walk the same faithful path, myself included.
I recently finished reading a fine example of this type of spiritual biography that I was pleased to add to my bookshelf: Don Karns’ She Did What She Could. This is a collection of historical accounts, Scripture passages, and biographical tracts from past eras that tell the stories of little-known women of the faith. The title references Mark 14, in which a woman (whom John identifies as Mary, sister of Lazarus) anoints Jesus’ feet with a sweet-smelling ointment. When the disciples complained, Jesus defended her and said she has done all she could to honor him.
Through this collection of historical accounts that Karns has gathered across the centuries of church history, the pleasing aroma of these saints’ devotion is still powerful and praiseworthy.
I was delighted to receive Don Karns’ slim volume in the mail from my friend Michael Coughlin, with a request to share my thoughts. I’m more than happy to satisfy that request now.
The Evangelist with a Pastor’s Heart
The first things about this book that struck me were the notes from Karns himself. In his “Preface,” “Words of Encouragement,” and “Conclusion,” Karns labors to proclaim the Gospel clearly and urgently, in the hope that unsaved readers will understand why these stories are being told and what would drive people throughout the centuries to give up their lives and suffer hardship and martyrdom. The tone of Karns’ writing is winsome and pleading, seeking to make his appeal instead of shout down any expected critics.
I did a little internet research on the author and learned that he is a long-time evangelist and open-air preacher who seems to be respected by many who are familiar with his ministry. When critical or nasty comments are posted on his ministry website’s homepage, the responses from the site account are nothing but pleasant, earnest, and humble as they refute the accusations of the pagans and respond with Scripture.
Just as the testimonies of the inconspicuous women being highlighted in this work draw out the sweet aroma of Christ, I was touched by that same sweetness in the language Karns uses. Without knowing anything about him specifically, I can tell what kind of man he might be, making me all the more willing to read his compilation of testimonies.
In Memory of Her
The bulk of the volume consists of various historical accounts of women of faith. A few notable names are included in the group (such as Ann Judson and Joni Erickson-Tada), but most of them are all but unknown to most readers. This accounts of “the young cottager” or “the dairyman’s daughter” provide portraits of humble folk (often the very young or those facing the shadow of death) who are transformed by the Gospel. In many ways, these accounts remind me of The Pilgrim’s Progress, not because they are in any way fictional but because the lofty speech and conversation are full of allusions to Scripture.
In some of these accounts, I have to confess that I struggled to follow the dialogue sometimes. That might be blamed on my “reading muscles” becoming a bit too flabby as of late. At times, I did wonder if these conversations were a bit too lofty to be realistic, but that also may be due to the low expectations of a modern mind! Even if some of the wording of these accounts might have been “polished up” a bit to make clearer points, I have no reason to doubt they are truthful in the main.
My favorite section by far was the one titled “Women of the Covenant,” recounting the martyrdom of several women who were part of the Scottish “covenanters.” While the stories are just as challenging and encouraging as the other sections, the writing of this particular passage was poetic and vivid, and I found myself stopping to re-read several sentences that were perfectly crafted.
Karns closes the book by throwing the reader a curve ball. After regaling us with story after story of women of faith, he closes with a sermon excerpt from the Prince of Preachers, Charles Spurgeon, and a brief account of Luther’s prayer on the night before his “Here I Stand” speech at the Diet of Worms. However out-of-theme these inclusions were, they were fully in-step with the spirit of the book as a whole, calling unbelievers to trust in Jesus for salvation and challenging believers to live lives of faith and sacrifice for His glory.
A Treasure in a Rough-Hewn Case
As lovely as the contents of this volume are, I would be remiss not to address the problems I have with its presentation and production. It’s clear as soon as you pick the book up that it was self-published. On the whole, there’s nothing wrong with self-publishing a book. I’ve read more than a few self-published works in my time (I may even write a few someday), and they can be edited and produced to meet or even surpass the industry standard. However, I should note certain issues with this one, if for no other reason than the off-chance the author or his ministry partners are considering an additional print run and would be willing to make corrections.
The formatting of the work is inconsistent throughout, changing font types and sizes. Sometimes, the formatting is oppressively dense, including several sections of block text without visual breaks that go on for pages at a time. While I recognize that the source material was likely written and typeset in the same manner, I would ask the author (or others producing similar works) to take the liberty of reformatting these entries for better readability and acknowledging the changes with an editor’s note of some kind. There are also a handful of typos that should have been caught during the proofreading process; those sorts of things happen in even the big publishing houses, but that means it’s all the more important for the small team working on a book like this to be extra careful, as fewer eyes will see it before its release.
These may be considered nit-pick criticisms, but if one’s goal is to bring these stories to a new audience, or even (as the author seems to indicate) to share them with non-believers, part of the ministry work is taking the time to put out an excellent product free of the editorial distractions that could undercut or cheapen the overall presentation.
To Don Karns and anyone else who may be working on a self-published book like this, I urge you not to skip out on this vital step in the process. (By the way, if you are looking to hire a manuscript editor / proofreader for a bit of contract work, I’m available!)
She Did What She Could is a worthwhile read that presents a collection of mostly-unknown Gospel conversion and martyrdom stories from church history. From a publishing standpoint, the book needs some polish and updates, but that doesn’t detract from the message. If you love Jesus, this volume will help you to treasure and trust him all the more, as you walk through these short histories of women of whom the world was not worthy.
[Background/Disclaimer: The following sermon was delivered at Cornerstone Community Church in Montgomery, TX, on 07/11/2021. I adapted the section covering verses 3-4 from an earlier sermon I preached on 6/20/2021 at my home church, University Park Baptist Church, in Houston, TX.
In preparing for that first sermon, I relied mainly on the ESV Exegetical Commentary covering the epistle of Jude, Matthew Henry’s commentary on Jude, and various available study Bible notes. While I try to cite any direct quotations, I also want to acknowledge the background assistance of these study helps, in case there are any turns of phrase or linguistic connections that I may have appropriated without realizing and acknowledging it.
I’m sharing this sermon manuscript solely as a blessing to my readers in their personal spiritual walk, and I hope it is edifying in that regard.]
I’d like to open this morning with a lengthy, but I think beneficial, quote:
“The purpose of this book is not to decide the religious issue of the present day, but merely to present the issue as sharply and clearly as possible, in order that the reader may be aided in deciding it for himself. Presenting an issue sharply is indeed by no means a popular business at the present time; there are many who prefer to fight their intellectual battles in what Dr. Francis L. Patton has aptly called a “condition of low visibility.” Clear-cut definition of terms in religious matters, bold facing of the logical implications of religious views, is by many persons regarded as an impious proceeding. May it not discourage contribution to mission boards? May it not hinder the progress of consolidation, and produce a poor showing in the columns of church statistics? But with such persons we cannot possibly bring ourselves to agree. Light may seem at times to be an impertinent intruder, but it is always beneficial in the end. The type of religion which rejoices in the pious sound of traditional phrases, regardless of their meanings, or shrinks from “controversial” matters, will never stand amid the shocks of life. In the sphere of religion, as in other spheres, the things about which men are agreed are apt to be the things that are least worth holding; the really important things are the things about which men will fight.”
J. Greshem Machen, Christianity and Liberalism
Machen wrote this opening paragraph to Christianity and Liberalism in 1923. It seems that not much has changed in the last 100 years. At this moment in the life of the Evangelical church, we are hard pressed on all sides to be very broad-minded and tolerant when it comes to doctrine and practice, urged from both without and within to focus on what we agree about instead of what we disagree about, when it comes to the world around us. Machen disagrees, suggesting that what matters most is what we’re willing to fight for.
Over the next few weeks, we will be looking at the epistle of Jude and thinking about why we as Christians are called to “contend for the faith.” This morning, we’ll look at the first four verses, which encompass the introduction and main thesis statement of this powerful letter.
For those taking notes, the outline has 3 points: 1) A Chosen People (v.1-2); 2) A Change of Plans (v.3); and 4) A Church in Peril (v.4).
Let’s take a look at the full text:
Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James,
To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for Jesus Christ:
May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.
Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation, I found it necessary to write appealing to you to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints. For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
Jude 1-4 ESV
A Chosen People (v.1-2)
This letter begins the way many of the other epistles do, typical of first-century correspondence: we have a statement of whom the letter is from and to whom the letter is written. In verse 1, we see “Jude, a servant of Jesus Christ and brother of James.” Well, who’s Jude? For that matter, who’s James? What we know from the writings of the early church is that this James is James the half-brother of Jesus, the writer of the epistle of James in the New Testament and the apostle who eventually became one of the elders of the Jerusalem church, taking over for the more famous disciple and apostle James (Son of Thunder, brother of John) after that James was martyred in Acts 12.
So what do we know about this James? He was the son of Mary and Joseph, and at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he didn’t seem to believe Jesus was the Messiah. In Matthew 13, we see that Jesus goes back home to Nazareth to teach, and the response of the crowd is, “Don’t we know this guy? Isn’t he the carpenter’s son, Mary’s boy?” In verse 55, it continues, “And are not his brothers James and Joseph and Simon and Judas?” So James (and by extension, Judas or “Jude”) are half-brothers of Jesus, sons of Mary and Joseph.
Jude identifies himself as the brother of James, so that the readers know who is speaking—but notice that he didn’t call himself the brother of Jesus. Instead, he calls himself Jesus’s servant (or, in the Greek, bondservant or slave), just as James does in James 1:1. And notice also that Jude calls Jesus “Christ”—Messiah, Anointed One. What would have caused such a change in Jude, and in James?
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles.
I Corinthians 15:3-7 ESV (emphasis mine)
Seeing your older brother working miracles, teaching with wisdom and authority, and then coming back to life after being brutally crucified would probably do the trick! Now, Jude isn’t just the brother of “Jesus of Nazareth, the carpenter’s son”; he’s the bondservant and slave of Jesus the Risen Messiah!
Who is Jude writing to? He doesn’t indicate a specific church or region. Some commentators point to context clues to suggest it may be specific churches in Israel or nearby regions—churches with lots of Jewish believers who would recognize the references to the Old Testament and other Jewish works throughout the letter. However, I would suggest that while Jude certainly had a specific audience in mind, his greeting and message to all of us who are in Christ, because they are universally applicable to the church in every age: “To those who are called, beloved in God the Father, and kept for [or by] Jesus Christ.” We could spend all day on this one verse, because there is such richness in it. But I want to take just a few moments to help you see why it’s so important that we know who we are when we make our stand. If you are a born-again disciple of Jesus Christ, this is who you are:
You are called. The God of the Universe chose to reveal Himself to you and to draw you to Himself through the effectual call of the Holy Spirit. Jesus says in John 10 that His sheep hear His voice. Because you have been called by God, you are now His, you are in His hand, and nothing and no one can take you out of it. You have been adopted by God and have all the rights and privileges that come with that adoption.
You are beloved of the Father. You are loved by God—all 3 persons of God, the Father, the Son, the Spirit. Our position in Christ gives us security and confidence that we can approach the throne of grace boldly, not only because we are cleansed from our unrighteousness and given the righteousness of Jesus, but because we are truly and completely loved by God.
You are kept for Jesus Christ. Those whom God calls, God keeps. Those who are born again to new life are secure in their salvation. We’ll spend some more time at the end of the series talking about this, but let’s just revel in this reality for a moment.
And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose. For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified.
What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword?
As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.”
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Romans 8:28-39 ESV
What beautiful promises we have in just this one verse—a verse that, let’s admit it, we’re tempted to gloss over.
Then Jude gives an initial blessing in his greeting in Verse 2: “May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” As if his previous comment weren’t enough, Jude prays that God would not just grant his readers mercy, peace, and love, but that they would have these graces in abundance—that they’d be multiplied to them! Throughout the New Testament, we see prayers and promises to this effect: the gracious generosity of God toward His people, granting them mercy, peace, and love in Himself, which they then extend and display to the world!
After this beautiful introduction, we move on to the main message of Jude’s letter in verse 3.
A Change of Plans (v.3)
In the first phrase of verse 3, we see a change in plans. “Beloved, although I was very eager to write to you about our common salvation…” Jude tells us that his original intent for writing was pastoral and didactic—his desire was to write about theology. He tells his brothers and sisters, beloved of the Father, that he was very eager to expound on “our common salvation.” He wished to establish the faith of the believers by reminding them of the truths of the Gospel taught by the apostles—the very faith he describes as being “once for all delivered to the saints.” We don’t know what that epistle would have looked like. Perhaps, like Paul, he would have talked about how there is no distinction or favoritism when it comes to who has access to God in Christ Jesus, or how all believers have the same Father and the same Lord and the same Spirit and the same baptism. Maybe Jude would have reminded the churches what his brother Jesus taught about the narrow way of salvation and the call to all who were willing to come and drink from Him the water of life. Perhaps Jude might have commented on Peter’s letters that reminded the church of the rich blessings of salvation and the calling to live as holy exiles.
We have no indication what his specific focus might have been, because as he considered taking up the pen (or, possibly, dictating to his personal scribe) to write to the scattered churches, he was moved by the Holy Spirit to address a different matter. He says that he “found it necessary to write, appealing to you to contend for the faith…” Rather than focusing on the more uplifting topic of our salvation, Jude is compelled to sound a warning bell for the churches. This was his duty as a servant of the Lord, a responsibility that Paul writes in Titus 1:9 is laid upon every minister of the Gospel: “He must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught, so that he may be able to give instruction in sound doctrine and also to rebuke those who contradict it.” Don’t miss that two-part requirement: a faithful elder/pastor must hold firm to the trustworthy word as taught—the “faith once delivered to all the saints”—AND be able to rebuke those who try to subvert it. In this passage, Jude is calling out not just to church leaders but to all believers to contend for the faith.
Commentators indicate that the word contend here has a grammatical root from which we derive the English word “agonize.” This is a word from the athletic arena, as wrestlers and combatants grapple and strain and struggle and fight for ground. This word “contend” is not a word with a clean and wrinkle-free jersey; “contend” here is a sweat-soaked and blood-stained word. It’s similar to the phrasing in Paul’s instructions in I Corinthians 9 to run the race to win, and his declaration in II Timothy 4 that he has fought the good fight and finished the race, in keeping the faith. Jude is pleading with the believers to fight, to wrestle, to struggle for the sake of the unadulterated and undiluted faith, the true word that was handed down to them from Jesus and His apostles.
What is this precious word? It’s the word of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the good news that begins with bad news: All people are sinners by nature and choice, and all of us deserve the just wrath of a holy God for our rebellion and sin. But Jesus, the son of God, came to us, born of a virgin, born under the law, lived a perfect life of holy obedience and complete righteousness before God, and then died in the place of sinners as a sacrifice for sin, taking on the guilt of our sin and the wrath of God against it, satisfying justice, dying and then rising again 3 days later, in victory over death and as a sign that the penalty for our sin has been paid. Now, we who turn away from our sins and believe on Jesus as Savior AND Lord, trusting in His death and resurrection in our place, are credited with Jesus’ perfect righteousness and have peace with God in Him. When we are born again from death to life, we receive the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our future inheritance, we are sanctified bit by bit, remade day by day into the image of Jesus, and looking forward to the last day, when we will be raised up with Him, freed of all trace and effect of sin, to live forever in perfect communion with God and His people!
That’s the message that Jude urges his hearers to fight for. Not a social program, not a political strategy, not an ideological agenda: a declaration that Jesus is Lord of all and an invitation to all who have ears to hear to repent and believe this good news.
My friend, if you don’t know this Jesus or believe this message, I’m thrilled to get to tell you: Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners. Are you a sinner? Turn from your sin and rebellion and run to Jesus! There is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved. He is your only hope. Don’t put this off another day, even another hour, because you truly don’t know for sure how much life you have ahead of you. I’m begging you—come talk to me after the service, for the sake of your very soul.
So, why was Jude compelled by the Holy Spirit to sound the alarm and call the churches to stand firm and fight for the faith? Because Jude recognized they were in danger. That’s our third point.
A Church in Peril (v.4)
Look at the beginning of Verse 4: “For certain people have crept in unnoticed…” Jude knows that there are false teachers who have worked their way into the churches. These spiritual saboteurs didn’t kick open the front door, announcing their apostasy openly. As John MacArthur puts it, the phrasing here describes someone who slides in through the side door, making his way among the flock, before his works become plain.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to believers; throughout the New Testament, we have been warned about it by Jesus and the apostles. Four examples:
Jesus warns of wolves in sheep’s clothing and false teachers (Matthew 7:15-23)
Paul warned the Ephesian elders as he was leaving that they would eventually be infiltrated (Acts 20:25-31)
Paul tells Timothy in II Timothy 3 and 4 that apostates will arise even within the church, and that in the last days, false converts will be drawn to false teachers that please their appetites (II Tim. 4:1-4)
In Peter’s second letter (which covers many of the same themes as Jude), he warns of false teachers who infiltrate the church in much the same way (II Peter 2:1-10).
Are we surprised that the sons of the Serpent have the same methods as their slithering father, who smoothly approached Adam and Eve and hissed, “Has God really said…?”
I was reading recently some of Charles Spurgeon’s articles in which he described the Downgrade of evangelicalism in his day. In one piece describing the slide of certain churches into error (often by name!), he noted how it usually wasn’t the lead pastor who would fall into theological error directly; instead, these men erred by not being vigilant in whom they welcomed as guest speakers or whom they hired as assistant ministers. They welcomed false brothers to come alongside them in ministry, excusing or ignoring the occasional red flag in that person’s teaching, until finally the older minister would retire and be succeeded by these younger men who were steeped in theological liberalism and humanism. The lack of watchfulness on the part of the shepherd and the flock allowed the wolves to enter the sheep pen.
This is a danger we should be on guard against, even among “conservative” denominations and associations, as some people, even some influential voices, decry calls for doctrinal clarity and accountability as “the leaven of the Pharisees” and a rising tide of “fundamentalism.” But we must not let fear of being called “legalists” cause us to run into the opposite ditch of becoming complacent about what we affirm together as believers. By all means, let us strive to be kind, winsome, and humble in what we proclaim and how we communicate, but our efforts to be gentle or welcoming must NEVER come at the expense of compromising or downplaying what the Scriptures clearly state.
In our text, Jude is sounding the alarm that the churches should be on the alert against these false teachers, and it would benefit us, as it has every generation before us, to mark these characteristics in our minds. In verse 4, Jude describes the false teachers in 4 ways:
They were long ago designated for destruction:
They are ungodly people;
They pervert the grace of God into sensuality
They deny their Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.
First, these false teachers were designated for destruction; the wording here is that their doom was written out beforehand, warned about in the past. Jude is pointing to the various Scriptural warnings (including the ones we’ve looked at already) about the destiny of all those who corrupt the truth of God’s word for selfish gain. Beyond that, these false teachers were designated for destruction in that their fruits showed they were themselves “vessels of wrath prepared for destruction” as Paul describes in Romans 9—doomed by their rebellion against the truth to face the wrath of God for their wickedness.
Second, the false teachers are ungodly people: Their lives and lifestyles were oriented away from God and toward selfish gain. They are irreverent, impious, disregarding or even mocking what is holy. Later, in verse 18, Jude describes them as “scoffers, following their ungodly passions.” It should always put us on alert when a professing teacher of the Gospel is happy to make light of the things of God or mock what is holy.
Next, Jude writes that they pervert (or twist/replace) the grace of our God into sensuality: Even while they pretend to be spiritual leaders and faithful teachers, their actions reveal their true desires. These false teachers abuse the very concept of grace by using it as an excuse to indulge in sensuality—a shameless flaunting of immoral behavior, usually in regards to sexual sin. These people push the boundaries of what is appropriate or acceptable, under the guise of “spiritual freedom.” They are driven by their passions and lusts and often struggle (and fail) to hide their sinful hungers—all the while claiming “grace” as a cover for sin. Consider how Paul rebukes this thinking in Romans 6. Throughout the Scriptures, the people of God are called to live holy lives—and the standard of holiness is set by God, not by the culture around them. Yet these false teachers abuse the grace of God for their own selfish ends and teach their followers to do the same.
Finally, they deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ: The rebellious nature of their false doctrine ultimately leads to a denial of the lordship of Jesus (either directly or indirectly) over the life of the believer. Jesus said in Luke 6:46, “Why do you call me ‘lord, lord’ and not do what I tell you?” False teachers pay lip-service to the lordship of Jesus but deny it by their lives because they refuse to obey the commands of Jesus. In some cases, they may even deny their Lord and Master by creating a false version of Jesus to worship and serve in His place: a counterfeit Jesus who excuses sin and perversion, who feeds their ego and looks the other way when it comes to their greed and selfish desires. Like the Israelites bowing before the Golden Calf and calling it “Yahweh,” false teachers present a false Jesus that promises everything and demands nothing, a pseudo-Christ who just so happens to look like HE was made in OUR image.
Jude goes on in his letter to describe these false teachers in greater detail, before closing out the letter with exhortations to the churches to stand firm and build themselves up in the faith, but for now, we will stop here and spend the rest of our time considering how these warnings apply to the church in our day. Because we should make no mistake: this is a warning bell that should be ringing in the ears of every generation of Christians until Jesus returns. Our enemy hasn’t taken a vacation; he is still seeking to steal, kill, and destroy. He is still sowing weeds among the wheat field. And he’s still sending out false teachers to try to ensnare true and false converts in a web of deception.
So I want to close with some applications and exhortations for you, brothers and sisters:
Hold fast to the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
You may have heard it said before, but the way that federal agents learn how to recognize counterfeit money isn’t by spending their time looking at fake bills but by extensively studying the authentic ones. Beloved, we have been graciously given the very words of God, in a book preserved through the ages. We have no reason not to study it, to fill our minds and hearts with it, to know the truth and be able to distinguish truth from the “almost-but-not-quite-truth” or the “truth-plus-a-little-something-else.” And we don’t study the Scriptures merely to increase our knowledge (this was the error of the Pharisees in John 5, who studied the Scriptures thinking that this is what would give them eternal life); we study the Scriptures because we want to know the God who wrote them. When my wife writes me a little card or encouraging note, I don’t put it away without opening it and say, “Thank you so much. I appreciate your thinking of me.” Of course not! I read it and take in its meaning; why? Because I adore my wife, and her words reveal her heart and mind to me. How much infinitely more does the perfect, inerrant, sufficient, authoritative Word of God reveal to us who He is and what He expects of us! Christian, we are to be people of the Book. That is our first and greatest defense against the schemes of false teachers. We need to be diligent to learn these precious truths, so that they shape our thinking and speech.
Be careful whose voices you welcome as your teachers.
We live in a world that is jam-packed with messaging. All day long, we are being bombarded with ideas and suggestions from marketers, influencers, and would-be teachers. Every single piece of media we consume, from books to music to visual entertainment to social media feeds, has a specific worldview behind it. We cannot be naïve about this. We must—MUST—be on guard about which voices we are giving our attention to. Everything we take in and engage with needs to be run through the filter of “Is this true? Is this consistent with what God says in His Word?”
I want to speak a word here specifically to the men in the church, to the husbands and fathers. As a husband and father myself, I want to urge and exhort you my brothers to stand guard over the eyes and ears, the hearts and minds of your household. You are responsible as the spiritual leader of your home to guard your wife and children against those who would try to lead them astray. And I’m not saying that wives or even children are helpless or unable to discern truth from error—not at all; in fact, that should be one of our goals, to teach, train, and help them do just that. And there is a great blessing in having a godly wife who is equally vigilant over herself and her children. My wife recently encouraged me when she watched a movie before showing it to our daughters, and later told me she decided against it because she recognized the subtle worldview implications that were hidden inside the otherwise sweet and innocent-looking cartoon. She understands how media can catechize our children in ways we don’t expect.
Men, we must not follow the pattern of our first ancestor Adam, who passively stood by as his wife was lied to by a false teacher telling sweet little lies about who God is and what He has commanded. We need to be paying attention to what voices come into our homes, into our car radios, into our children’s electronic devices. I’m not calling for a locked-down, 1950’s hyper-fundamentalist “keep out the world” approach either. I spent part of my childhood in that kind of church. That well-intentioned approach doesn’t work. What I’m talking about is active participation in advising and exhorting and supporting your wife, in taking the lead with her help to train your children to engage the world as Christians, to think Christianly, to be good Bereans and measure everything against the Scriptures. We dare not check out and back off, because we’re too busy or we want to avoid conflict in our homes over certain media. Men, your family is being hunted. Our enemy is a predator who wants to ensnare and drag away the hearts and minds of you, your wife, and your children. I’m not being overdramatic. I’m telling you the truth. Let’s get serious about this.
And that even means having a discerning ear when it comes to voices that claim to be Christian. Did you pick up on this from the text? These aren’t teachers from the outside, trying to lure the believers into worshiping an obvious idol. These are false converts, using the language of Christian faith as a cover for worldly philosophy and practice. In other words, we can’t let our guard down when we turn on Pureflix or tune the car radio to the local Christian station. Some of the most damnable heresies are smuggled into our homes through the “safe for the whole family” programming we are fed under the banner of “Christian.” No matter how many times a song says the name Jesus, we need to listen carefully to make sure they’re talking about the right one!
Again, please don’t mishear me: I’m not trying to create an extrabiblical code of conduct or confuse the commands of God with the traditions or cultural preferences of men. But, brothers and sisters, we who have been called, redeemed, and kept by God, who live in this world as strangers and pilgrims, need to remind ourselves what the Scriptures say: anyone who loves this world and its system and its wicked ways does not have the love of the Father in them.
Speak up when it comes time to take your stand.
Finally, we should heed Jude’s exhortation in verse 3: our brother urges the Church then and the Church now not just to hold onto the faith, but to contend, to struggle, to wrestle for it. This means there comes a point where we must engage the people and ideas around us with what we know is true.
This contending isn’t a physical struggle; we’re not called to wage a holy war and physically destroy those who oppose us—that’s not the way of Christ. Rather, as Paul writes in II Corinthians 10:
“For though we walk in the flesh, we are not waging war according to the flesh. For the weapons of our warfare are not of the flesh but have divine power to destroy strongholds. We destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ, being ready to punish every disobedience, when your obedience is complete.”
This means that, in the arena of ideas, Christians are called to contend for the truth of God with the weapons God gives us in the way that God commands us to do so. In our generation, as in past generations, the plain truths of the Scriptures are called into question. Today, the Bible’s teaching of God’s design for human sexuality and holy marriage is denied or contradicted as being hateful and harmful. The truth about how the blood of Jesus tears down the dividing wall of racial hostility and gives us new identities in Christ is called insufficient, simplistic, or even oppressive. The insistence that Jesus is Lord of His Church and that we must in all things obey God rather than men is considered by some to be subversive and dangerous. In the marketplace of ideas, we should be ready for these doctrinal truths that we hold to be mocked, opposed, or even shouted down. This should not surprise us. Yet here we stand; we can do no other.
But in the midst of our contending, let’s not forget what we’re fighting for. We are not merely culture warriors; that’s not our true calling. We have not been given a divine mandate to save western civilization or American culture; that’s not our true kingdom. Our king has given us marching orders, based on His having all authority in heaven and on earth, to go into all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey all that King Jesus has commanded us. That’s our mandate. That’s our mission.
Saints, contend for the faith: in your hearts, in your homes, in the world. To God be the glory.
I was struck by a thought during a night of fitful, fretful worrying.
It wasn’t a new insight, or a brilliant observation–just an old truth that sometimes needs to be reapplied to my anxious mind.
As I lay in bed, tossing, turning, fretting over the tightness of my chest, the shallow breathing of my wife, the shadows obscuring my daughters across the hall through our two open doors, the creaks and groans of the house, and all the other things outside of my finite control, the question flashed like lightning in my head:
Is He good?
Of course, He is, I thought. God is good.I’d never say otherwise.
Is He kind?
Yes, He’s kind. He is the very definition of kind.
Do you trust Him to keep His promise to do good to you and your family?
I paused. He promised that He would work all things to bring about my good.He has never broken His promises, because God does not lie.
Can He keep His promises?
There’s nothing He can’t do. He does all He pleases.
Then why do you worry?
That’s the rub, isn’t it. I worry and fret over things I can’t control, because (at least momentarily) I am tempted to doubt that God is good, that God is kind, that God is omnipotent. I’m tempted to disbelieve that He will keep His promise to work all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to His purpose.
My sinful fretting is a feeble attempt to control the uncontrollable because (at least in that moment) I don’t really trust the One who is all-powerful.
The force of my will cannot heal illness or control the actions of any who would wish us harm. The strength of my worry cannot extend my life by even one hour.
But I serve a God who heals the sick, who turns the heart of man this way or that, who has the number of my days written in His book.
What’s more, this God that I serve? He loves me. He knows me. He cares for me. Because He is kind. He is good. And he is trustworthy.
Sometimes, I just need to remind myself what is true, and ask my soul why it’s so downcast.
The end of December is usually a time of reflection on the past year—and after this year, many of us are perhaps a little skittish at the prospect. I have to admit, I have enjoyed and shared several “2020 is terrible” jokes and memes over the last several months. But a few weeks back, I was reminded of a verse I had memorized as a child:
“This is the day that the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
As I meditated on this verse, I was reminded that not only did the Lord make “this day,” but He indeed made this week, and month, and even this year. The Bible teaches that the Lord is sovereign over all of human history, seeing the end from the beginning, and nothing takes place outside of His will and divine plan. What’s more, for those of us who are in Christ, all things—ALL things—work together for our good, to shape us into the image of our Savior (Rom. 8:28-30). If all of this is true, then even a year like 2020, checkered as it seems with challenges and even disappointments, has played out as our Lord ordained it to.
This certainly does not mean that it was an easy year. In no way am I minimizing the hardship that 2020 has brought with it. In the last 12 months, most of us have known loss of one sort or another. Many of us have lost family members in death, faced difficult medical diagnoses, struggled with job loss or financial hardship, and wrestled with family conflict.
However, dear friends, the fact remains: this is the year that the Lord has made. And while this year has brought its particular challenges, it has also contained particular blessings.
If you don’t mind, I’d like to share a few things I’m thankful for that happened during 2020.
My wife and I found out we are expecting our third little girl in early 2021, and couldn’t be happier.
I began working from home back in March and have been able to enjoy being with my family every day in a way I didn’t get to in previous years. As a result, my bond with my wife and daughters seems stronger than ever.
The number of readers on this little blog of mine have exploded this year, and as a result, I started my first “affiliate link” partnership with the kind folks over at Monk Manual, which has provided some extra income for our household.
God has opened other areas of provision that have come at just the right time to take care of unexpected bills.
Our church merged with a sister church a few weeks before the initial “shutdown” happened, and somehow we’ve emerged from this difficult season as a stronger body.
In addition to serving as an elder in my home church, I’ve had several opportunities to preach at other area churches while their pastors were away or had retired/relocated.
While it’s easy to be dour along with the rest of our culture at this “horrible year,” I would challenge you (and myself) to change how we think about and speak about the past year. Though the world would say there is little to consider good about 2020, that’s just not true. Despite it all, God has indeed been good to us—we just need to take the time to see it.
The Choice to Rejoice
Psalm 118:24 affirms that the Lord has made this day, and then follows with the exhortation, “Let us rejoice and be glad in it.” This is one of those reminders in Scripture that joy is not only a gift of God and a fruit of the Spirit, but it is also a choice. The psalmist calls to the faithful and encourages them to make the choice to rejoice and be glad in this day of the Lord’s making.
While this verse is written within a specific context (which we will examine shortly), it’s worthwhile to pause and consider: Are there times when I can make the decision to rejoice, in spite of my circumstances? Again, this does not imply a “Pollyanna” sort of naïve blindness to the difficulties of life. Scripture reminds us that Jesus Himself was a “man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). He is sympathetic with our weakness and our suffering.
Yet Paul also reminds us (from a Roman prison cell) in Philippians 4:4 to “rejoice in the Lord always—again, I will say, rejoice”! There don’t seem to be any exceptions in that word “always.” Rather, Paul gives—and repeats—this command. If these are commands from the Lord (and they are), then we will be enabled to obey them by the strength the Lord provides. Indeed, “the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Neh. 8:10). We can call on the Holy Spirit to help us obey this command and rejoice in what the Lord has done, no matter what circumstances we face.
Thus, when we consider this year that the Lord has made, friends, we can and should choose joy. By the grace of God, we should fight to rejoice and be glad in it. Why? Because the Lord made it, and He has used it and is using it for our good and His glory (Rom. 8:28-29).
“His Steadfast Love Endures Forever”
One of the ways we can move toward joy is by recounting how the Lord has been faithful (as we just did earlier). This is clear in the first 18 verses of Psalm 118. The psalmist calls on God’s people to confess together the steadfast love of the Lord, and then recounts specific incidents in which God has shown Himself gracious.
The Lord is a rescuer (v. 5-6), a helper (v. 7), a refuge (v. 8-9), and our victory (v. 10-12). He will keep us from stumbling (v. 13), be our salvation (v. 14), and do valiantly for us (v. 15-16). Even in His discipline of us, He does not give us over to death (v. 18).
In verse 19, the psalmist asks the Lord to “open the gates of righteousness,” and this begins not only the section in which our key verse is found, but it points us to the greatest good that the Lord bestows on His people—a good that we have been celebrating in this Christmas season.
The fact is, there is nothing coming from us that is innately righteous. “There is none righteous; no, not one” (Rom. 3:10). On our own merits, even at our best, the “gates of righteousness” should be slammed shut in our faces. And yet, God has made a way for us to enter these righteous gates, through the work of His son Jesus, our Redeemer.
Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus
Do you recognize the language of verses 22-23?
“The stone that the builders rejected has become the Cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing; it is marvelous in our eyes.” (Ps. 118:22-23)
This passage would later be quoted by Jesus in Matthew 21 and Peter in I Peter 2—both describing the ministry of Jesus the Messiah! He was the “stone of stumbling and rock of offense” for those who would not believe, but the rock of salvation for all who would call on His name!
If you keep reading in Psalm 118, you’ll also find these words in verse 26: “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” These were the very words spoken by the people during Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem at the end of His ministry.
Then, verse 27: “The Lord is God, and He made His light to shine upon us.” Or perhaps, as John would put it in his gospel: “In [Jesus] was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Psalm 118 ultimately points forward to the coming of God’s Messiah, the Deliverer who would bless His people and bring them joy and success, a living demonstration of the steadfast love of God. And the coming of that Messiah would be “the day that the Lord has made,” a day worthy of rejoicing!
And what happened when that day arrived? John again tells us: “…light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their deeds were evil…” (John 3:19). Jesus the Messiah stepped into human history, a miracle baby in a manger in a small village. He lived the perfect life of righteousness that God’s Law demands of mankind. He taught the true words of God, did miracles, healed disease, cast out demons, and brought light into our darkness. And the response of the people was to slander Him falsely and deliver Him up for torture and execution.
But even that day was the day that the Lord had made, for it was only through that dark day that our redemption would be accomplished! Because Jesus our Savior was crucified in the place of ruined sinners, He became our vicarious substitute, bearing the full weight of God’s wrath and justice against sin, so that we who believe in Him might be declared righteous before God, one day entering the righteous gates of the New Jerusalem, “dressed in His righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne” (as the hymn goes).
The deliverance of God was made manifest on the darkest of days, a day we call “Good” Friday, because that unfathomable suffering brought us cleansing. It brought us hope. It brought us joy.
The suffering of our Savior was the day of our deliverance. Let us also rejoice and be glad in that day!
Look Back in Gratitude, Look Forward In Hope
The year 2020 is coming to a close, friends. Admittedly, it did not follow any of our plans or hopes for what would transpire. But nevertheless, this was the year that the Lord has made. Let us choose to rejoice and be glad in it—glad in what the Lord has done among us, glad in what the Lord has taught us, glad in how the Lord has shown Himself always faithful, and glad in the knowledge that we have hope because the Lord ordained the darkest of days 2000 years ago as the day of our salvation, for all who repent and believe on Jesus Christ.
Happy New Year! Be blessed this day, and rejoice, my friends! Rejoice!
[I meant to get this posted last week ahead of Christmas day, but I think it still applies. So, here’s something to mull over as we enter the new year.]
The Christmas story has deep roots in the Old Testament. The “seed” of the Woman, Eve, whom God promised would crush the work of the Serpent, was promised to come through the lineage of Abraham the patriarch and David the king. The promised descendant would be Himself a King forever, with an eternal inheritance. Through the house of Abraham and the lineage of David, the glory of God would be proclaimed to all the earth, and all the peoples of the earth would be blessed. This “seed,” this king, would be God’s messiah, His anointed one.
And so, prophet after prophet, century after century, the people of God waited for this sign, this Seed, to be revealed, bringing their deliverance with Him. Curiously, the last prophecy by the last prophet of the Old Testament wasn’t about the Messiah, but about His herald, a forerunner who would prepare the way for Him. After the prophet Malachi’s last word, there was silence for 4 centuries. No new word from the Lord. No new proclamations to the people of Israel. Just waiting.
My friend Edhiel, a native Spanish-speaker, made a beautiful observation after lunch one time:
“There is something beautiful about how you describe a pregnant woman in English. You say she’s ‘expecting.’ In Spanish, we don’t use that word in this way. But I just love that idea of expecting. The husband and wife prepare a place for the child, pick out the name and the colors of the room and the toys and everything. They are looking forward to when the baby arrives…That’s how I want to be with the next year. My expectations are high that I will grow closer to God and know more of His goodness. That’s how I want to live.”
Isn’t that awesome? The idea of “expecting.” And it reminded me of the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth.
Zechariah and Elizabeth were faithful followers of Yahweh. Zechariah was a priest from the family of Aaron in the tribe of Levi, and his wife was also of the priestly tribe. Luke’s account described them as “walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord.” By all accounts, you would assume this faithful couple to be blessed and highly favored by God.
And yet, God had decided, in His purposes, not to give them children. Remember, this is a day in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, and to be childless was to bear the reproach of the community (and perhaps, some thought, the curse of God). In such a time and culture in which children were considered the greatest legacy one could have, Zechariah and Elizabeth had none. A faithful minister, a faithful wife, an empty home, a barren womb. And though this disappointment could easily become bitterness–and for a time, it may have, we don’t know–what Scripture records is that Zechariah and Elizabeth remained steadfast, even as the years passed and the idea of ever having children became a lost cause.
Even when they had passed their child-bearing years and still had no offspring, this faithful couple continued to trust God. Then, one day, as Zechariah was chosen by lot to enter the temple and burn incense, an angel of the Lord appeared to him and told him that his prayer has been answered.
Which prayer of Zechariah’s was the angel referring to? Deliverance from Rome? The coming of the Messiah? A child (which at this point was practically an impossibility)? The answer turned out to be all three.
Days of Elijah
Consider the message of Gabriel to the past-his-fathering-prime Zechariah:
And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him. 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. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, 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. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, 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.”
Gabriel’s announcement is first that Zechariah and Elizabeth will finally have a child, a son on whom God’s favor and Spirit will rest. The angel includes an allusion to Malachi 4:5-6, the last prophecy given to God’s people before the four-century silence–a prophecy of “Elijah the prophet” being sent ahead of his Lord to prepare the way for Him.
The expectations of a faithful minister and his wife–for their Savior, for their deliverance, for their own household–all bound up in this unexpected birth announcement. The announcement of the “second Elijah” meant that the promises of God for the redemption of man were finally coming to fruition, and the faithful couple with an empty crib were going to be part of that story.
Today, it’s not hard to find people making promises on God’s behalf, tossing out “prophetic words” over the coming year like so many Mardi Gras beads. We should be extremely careful not to put words in God’s mouth, or assign promises to Him that He has not made to us directly.
But I wanted to bring up this part of the Christmas story to encourage you that God is faithful to keep His promises to you. They may not come to pass in the way we expect or the timing we desire, but He is always faithful and He is always on time. The past year has been challenging in numerous ways, but through it all, God has still remained faithful. If you are a follower of Jesus, I hope you can see that and hold on to that truth.
If you do not follow Jesus, then I invite you to think about your life: what, if anything, has been sure and certain this year? In what do you have your hope? Because I’m here to tell you that trusting in anything outside of Jesus Christ is like building a house on so many fistfuls of sand that slip away with a gust of wind. If you do not “build your house” on the firm foundation of Jesus and His words, the final storm of God’s judgment will come and blow and beat upon your house, and great will be the fall of it. Your only hope, your only peace, can be found by turning away from your sin and selfish rebellion and trusting in Jesus’ sacrifice to give you peace and right standing with God.
This is a promise you can know for certain God will keep: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is the promise of Christmas! The baby in the manger one day became the Savior on the cross, dying like a criminal in the place of sinners like you and me, to rescue us from the wrath and judgment we deserve for our sin and offering us forgiveness and grace, and then rising from the dead in victory over death itself. If we turn to Jesus in humility and repentance, He will in no way cast us out. We can be redeemed, made new, born again with a living hope and the promise of eternal life in Heaven with Jesus.
For all who know Jesus, who have tasted this forgiveness and mercy, it should have been a merry Christmas indeed, and we can look forward to a happy, joyful, blessed new year!
Grace and peace to all those who love our Lord Jesus Christ! Amen!