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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Purposeful Humility of the Manger Scene

How many of us are willing to become poor to help the poor?  How many of us would become despised to reach the despised?  There are many charities out there with the admirable intent to help “the less fortunate,” but none go so far as to advocate becoming the less fortunate in order to help them.  We want to assist them, while holding on to our position, our comfort, and our reputation. 
Aren’t you thankful that Jesus didn’t feel the same way (Phil 2:5-7).  He came not merely to provide help, or to feed, or to heal, but ultimately to save men from sin, and in doing so He took the form of the lowest among them.  From His birth to His death, He was numbered with the less fortunate.  Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on such things.
There are numerous references in the Gospels, the Lukan account in particular, that point to the humility of the Baby King, as well as indications about why He came the way He did.
1. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”  So said Nathaniel in John 1:46 upon hearing Philip’s claim that he had found the Messiah.  A variation of that sentiment is uttered by the Pharisees in John 7:52, “Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.  In the first century there was a popular bias among the religious elites in Judea against Galileans.  It is peculiar then that this is the precise locale from which the Messiah would hail.  Luke records in 1:26-27 that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was from Nazareth of Galilee, and all four Gospels note that Jesus was raised there.
2. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The virgin birth, which today we rightly regard as miraculous, at the time was nothing if not scandalous.  (For a more detailed discussion of the shame that would have been heaped upon Mary and Joseph, read this.)  Before Joseph was read in on the Holy Spirit conception, he sought to quietly divorce Mary.  (They were only betrothed, but betrothal was so serious in that culture, that to break it required a legal divorce.)  Why would Joseph want to divorce her?  Because he, like everyone else, assumed that Mary had engaged in immorality – virgins don’t have babies.  Women who conceived out of wedlock were considered whores.  And there is no indication that Mary did anything to correct the predictable assumption that she was just such an immoral woman.  We also know that the stigma did not wear off over time, since we find the Jews in John 8:41 making the not-so-veiled implication that Jesus had been “born of sexual immorality.”
This baby was born assumed to be the illegitimate child of an immoral woman, a prostitute.  It would be difficult to conceive of a more lowly, discreditable beginning than this. 
3. “And she…laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).  On countless occasions when I was a kid, I would run outside to play, forgetting to shut the door behind me.  The common rebuke from my mom came in the form of a question, “Were you born in a barn?”  Of course, she didn’t coin the phrase – I’m sure many of us have heard the same thing.  And what is the implication of the question?  Are you an animal? Are you so uncouth and unrefined that you would leave the door open? 
The Creator of the universe is reported in the Gospel of Luke to have been born in a barn.  And actually, the barn is simply an assumption.  The text doesn’t mention it specifically, but only that the baby was laid in a manger.  It could be that there was not a barn at all, and that He was literally born outdoors.  It could be that all of our Nativity scenes are giving the child an inaccurate upgrade in accommodations.  Whatever the details, this paints the picture of a birth so humble as to be almost degrading.  His first bed was a trough.  He had the birth of an animal, both in terms of location and company (more about the shepherds next).  The only thing notable about the situation, from a human perspective, was the humiliating circumstances.
4. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8).  When a child born to kings and queens, the wealthy and powerful, who in society takes note?  The whole world.  But only those in the upper echelon are given the privilege of greeting the child in person.  This is true no matter what era of history is being discussed. 
But what about the baby in Luke 2?  Who were the first to know of His birth?  Who were the first to come to greet Him?  It wasn’t just happenstance that the first to hear were shepherds – an angel of the Lord went to them specifically.  Shepherds were not high-class individuals.  Because of their trade – caring for sheep 24 hours a day – they were considered unclean peasants.  Sheep are dirty and smell bad.  Therefore, shepherds are dirty and smell bad.  And yet, shepherds were the first to hear of the baby’s birth, and were in fact told, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”  And they were the first invited to come and see Him. 
5. “…and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’” (Luke 2:24).  Leviticus 12 describes the procedure for an Israelite woman to follow for her purification after childbirth.  She was to be considered unclean for a period of seven or fourteen days, depending on whether or not the baby was a boy or girl, after which she was to be purified for 33 days or 66 days.  After the days of her purifying were complete, she was to take to the priest a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, “and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her” (v7).  But v8 says, “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons…”
The baby in Luke 2 wasn’t born with a silver spoon in His mouth.  He was born poor.  His parents could not afford a lamb, so they offered a pair of birds.  They were, as we might call them today, “the less fortunate.” 
Isaiah wrote, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men” (53:2).  By all earthly accounts, this baby was not even average.  Those who were average would have regarded Him as a poor, smelly animal born to a whore from the wrong side of the tracks and adored only by the lowest element of society. 
Was this all bad luck?  A series of unfortunate oversights on God’s part?  No.  Matthew 2:22-23 tells us that God intended for the baby to be a Nazarene.  His mother was not immoral – in Luke 2:30, Gabriel told her that she had found favor with God.  God, Joseph, and Mary all three knew that the birth would be regarded as illegitimate, but they went forward with the plan.  God prophesied that the baby would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Mic5:2), and He who turns the hearts of kings moved Caesar Augustus to order at exactly the right time, so that the baby would be born on cue, when there would be no place for them to stay in the inn (Prov 21:1; Gal 4:4).  He chose the shepherds.  The whole picture happened just as God wanted.
Why?  Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 is clear:
 46 "My soul magnifies the Lord,
 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
 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 away empty.
 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."
He was to be a lowly Savior for lowly sinners.  The angel told the shepherds that this good news would “be for all the people.”  No one would have to climb their way up to Him.  No one was too down and out.  No one was too far gone.  He would come to them.
We have a Savior who was willing to get His hands dirty to save sinful men.  He left the heights of heaven to become the lowest of the earth that He might save all who believe.  Let’s meditate on that and worship Him.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

More Questions About Eternal Rewards

The message on Sunday prompted some questions that I thought I would answer here since there are probably others in the congregation who may be pondering the same questions.
Does the Bible really teach that there will be degrees of rewards in heaven?  It is difficult to imagine another way to understand the passage that we looked at in 1 Corinthians 3.  We focused on vv10-15, which clearly address degrees of rewards for work done for the kingdom:
13 each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done. 14 If the work that anyone has built on the foundation survives, he will receive a reward. 15 If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire (1Cor3:13-15).
Some might desire to view the concept of rewards as always referring to eternal life or to eternity in the presence of Christ.  However, the reward in this text cannot refer to either since v15 indicates that one can lose this reward but still be saved.  Therefore, this reward must be something other than eternal life or the presence of Jesus. Further, the text indicates that some will receive this reward and others will not.
Degrees of rewards are also mentioned earlier in the chapter, which we did not look at Sunday. 1 Cor 3:8 reads, He who plants and he who waters are one, and each will receive his wages according to his labor.  Also, the parable of the ten pounds in Luke 19:11-27 depicts servants being given authority according to their level of faithfulness: “Well done, good servant! Because you have been faithful in a very little, you shall have authority over ten cities” (Luke 19:17).  The parable is preceded with the explanation that the Lord told the parable “because they supposed that the kingdom of God was to appear immediately.”  The parable is a call to serve faithfully until the Lord comes. Why should we serve faithfully until He comes? Faithfulness will be rewarded in the end. (Consider also the parable of the talents in Matt 25:14-30.)
The passage that we will look at shortly in Matt 20 regarding the mother of James and John requesting that they be appointed to places of honor in the kingdom assumes that there will be positions of distinction in the kingdom (Matt 20:20-28).  The Lord’s words in the passage confirm this truth rather than denying it.  Likewise, the passage in 19:23-30 also assumes this to be true – the 12 apostles will occupy 12 thrones and will judge the 12 tribes of Israel.  That is, they will occupy places of distinction in the kingdom. Similarly, Luke 16 portrays Abraham as having more prominence and authority in the kingdom than Lazarus.  Other passages that assume degrees of rewards include: Matt 6:2-4, 6:16-18,10:41-42,16:27; Luke 6:35; 1 Cor 15:41-42; 2 Cor 5:10; Eph 6:5-8; 1 Tim6:18-19; Rev 2:23, 22:12.
Wouldn’t the loss of rewards mentioned in 1 Cor 3:15 lead to sorrow?  How can there be sorrow in heaven?  Certainly, there will be no sorrow in heaven – 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…(Rev 21:4).  But it is an unwarranted assumption that degrees of reward will lead to degrees of happiness.  Consider this quote from Wayne Grudem:
“Even though there will be degrees of reward in heaven, the joy of each person will be full and complete for eternity. If we ask how this can be when there are different degrees of reward, it simply shows that our perception of happiness is based on the assumption that happiness depends on what we possess or the status or power that we have. In actuality, however, our true happiness consists in delighting in God and rejoicing in the status and recognition that he has given us. The foolishness of thinking that only those who have been highly rewarded and given great status will be fully happy in heaven is seen when we realize that no matter how great a reward we are given, there will always be those with greater rewards, or who have higher status and authority, including the apostles, the heavenly creatures, and Jesus Christ and God himself. Therefore if highest status were essential for people to be fully happy, no one but God would be fully happy in heaven, which is certainly an incorrect idea. Moreover, those with greater rewards and honor in heaven, those nearest the throne of God, delight not in their status but only in the privilege of falling down before God’s throne to worship him (see Rev 4:10-11)” [Systematic Theology, 1144-1145].
Doesn’t the concept of heavenly rewards negate or harm the doctrine of grace? No – God is understood to be the source of motivation and power for the works that are rewarded.  Just prior to the statement in 1 Cor 3:8 that believers will be rewarded according to their labor, Paul writes, So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth (1 Cor 3:7).  Likewise, Paul prefaces his comments regarding the reception and loss of reward with the acknowledgement that his work was “according to the grace of God given to me.”
Here is a link to an article by John Piper explaining three ways that our deeds relate to our salvation.  It is so well written and helpful that to paraphrase it here would be to risk muddying up what he has made so clear.  It is not very long; I highly recommend that you take a minute to look at it.  It explains very well how these rewards should be understood as gifts of God’s grace.
If you missed my post last week regarding eternal rewards as a motivation for obedience, you may find that helpful as well.
If these questions have prompted still more questions, feel free to email me or leave comments below. If you have other theological questions that you'd like to see answered on the blog, I'm happy to receive those as well.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Should eternal rewards motivate us?

On Sunday, we finished considering the Lord’s interaction with the rich young man and Jesus’ subsequent conversation with His disciples.  In response to the Lord’s comments about how difficult it is for the rich to enter the kingdom, Peter asks Jesus in Matthew 19:27, “See, we have left everything and followed you. What then will we have?” 
Some commentators think that Peter is asking a self-centered question, that he’s just interested in what he’s going to get.  They suppose that his mind has strayed from the mission and he’s focused only on personal gain.  And they say that his mind should only be on serving Jesus strictly for the pleasure of serving Jesus and not for the eternal rewards that come with it.   
Is this the best way to understand Peter’s question?  This is an important issue to consider.  If it is self-centered for Peter to ask this question or to wonder about his eternal reward then it must be self-centered for us to do the same.  If Peter shouldn’t think about such things, neither should we.  The big question is, is it inappropriate for Christians to ponder and to be motivated by their eternal rewards?
There are several reasons to disagree with the view described above.  First, it makes more sense to just understand Peter to be clarifying what Jesus said earlier.  As I mentioned Sunday, the disciples, like most others in the 1st century, believed that the rich were especially favored by God.  When Jesus said that it was extremely difficult for the rich to enter the kingdom of heaven, the disciples wondered, “if the rich, who are especially favored by God, cannot be saved, who can?”  The implied concern is, “can we even be saved?”  The Lord responds, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”  It is most likely the case that Peter asked his question to clarify that the Lord was leaving open hope that the disciples would be saved even though the rich may not.
Second, Jesus gives no sign of displeasure at Peter’s question, but even affirms that the disciples are those "who have followed me.”  Jesus recognizes here that the disciples did indeed leave all in order to follow Him.  He recognizes that they did what the rich young fool refused to do. 
Third, the apostles writings don’t seem to align with the idea that eternal rewards are not supposed to motivate us.  The Gospel of Matthew mentions the concept of eternal rewards more than any other book in the NT.  The word “reward” is used 26 times in the NT and almost half of them are in Matthew.  And each time it is used, it is intended to motivate obedience.  It is used both positively and negatively.  “If you do this, great is your reward.”  “If you don’t do this, you will have no reward.”  That’s Matthew.  Mark and Luke do the same thing in their Gospels, just not as frequently.
Then there is Peter.  In his first epistle, he spends half of the first chapter describing the inheritance waiting in heaven for believers, using that to motivate them to persevere through the testing of their faith (1Peter 1:3-12). 
Then there is Paul, who describes in 1 Cor 3 the eternal rewards that await those who serve well (1Cor 3:5-15).  In Colossians 3, he writes, Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men, knowing that from the Lord you will receive the inheritance as your reward. You are serving the Lord Christ.
Then the writer of Hebrews, in 11:6, writes, And without faith it is impossible to please him, for whoever would draw near to God must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him.  Then in v26, describing Moses’ faithfulness, he writes, He considered the reproach of Christ greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, for he was looking to the reward.  What reward?  His heavenly reward – that’s the only thing that makes sense.
Then there is John, who writes in 2 John 8, Watch yourselves, so that you may not lose what we have worked for, but may win a full reward.  Even Jude, in his tiny little epistle, references the eternal life that is given to those who remain in the love of God.  Every writer in the NT then appeals to the rewards of heaven to motivate believers to remain faithful.  Why would the Holy Spirit move these men to speak so often about the inheritance waiting for us if He did not intend for it to be a motivator for us?
So should we believe that Peter is just being self-centered and focusing completely on the reward and not on serving Jesus?  No, first of all, it makes more sense to believe that Peter is simply clarifying Jesus’ earlier statement.  But even if he is merely inquiring about the reward the disciples will receive, he is only asking about something the Holy Spirit intends to be a valid motivation to faithfulness.   Due to the prevalence of exhortations to look forward to our eternal rewards, we must not think that meditating on these things is self-centered.  The Lord has revealed them to us to help to us persevere until He comes again.