Glorifying God the E-Z Way

“Glory, hallelujah! Praise Jesus!” This kind of talk is naturally a common part of church life, especially in the more energetic places. And that is good. When we are loved by so great a God and called into His service, for us to offer what Scripture calls a “sacrifice of praise” to Him is only fitting. To God be glory forever! Amen.

Yet sometimes this seems to be the only glory we feel the need to offer our Lord. And while this often can be sincere and heartfelt, glorifying God this way can be something else, too. Praise with our words can be all too easy and comfortable, requiring no real commitment or action. No matter how loftily we speak of God, or how much we call others to worship Him, we can do this all as merely an outward religion, either for show and glory or maybe even just to tide over our own conscience as it tells us to think beyond ourselves.

Beyond this, maybe we’ll read God’s word or pray to Him. We might even make an excellent habit of both, though most of us don’t. Even if we do, how easy is it to simply use these disciplines to fulfill the demands of religion on our conscience, so that we don’t feel guilty? Personal communion with God is rich and vital, but is also so intangible, so invisible, that we can easily just pretend or use “devotion” for our own purposes.

Really, doing piety—respect of God—is easy if we see God as a distant figure, a big and separate Deity a million light-years away, whom we can keep happy with our exalted speech, dedicated devotions, and constant prayers. Even though we usually wouldn’t admit or even realize this tendency, we often look at God this way. That can lead us to taking devotional activities—good activities that are God-blessed and right—as a kind of checklist righteousness which calms our conscience’s demand for higher living.

But our God is not that distant Deity. He is not a king who lives aloft from his kingdom, content to see his subjects give him due honor and taxes. Our God is the King who acts like a member of His own kingdom. He cares for and identifies with everyone under His rule, treating them as though they matter more than He does. This Lord is love. He’s so invested in the people beneath Him that He actually became one of them. He lived, died, and rose again as a human being for human beings. Our great God and Savior Jesus Christ calls us brothers and sisters, since He has become like us in every way, except without sin.

Because of this, there is no possible way to glorify God if you aim exclusively for His direct and immediate glory. God has bound Himself to humanity in Christ. In His covenant with us, He is happy to be “man’s God” and to share His own life for our benefit. This means that He is deeply invested in the situation of all people. As we know from the parable of the sheep and the goats, He identifies with us so closely that He counts what we do for others as what we do for Him. He counts what we do not do for others as ignoring Him. So to glorify God we have to treat the people He loves with the same great importance that He does.

Since God is so invested in love with people, and since people bear His image, we cannot glorify Him without being interested in people. Praising the Creator means nothing if we curse people He created. Prayers to our heavenly Father are insulting to Him if we refuse to speak with our earthly fathers He gave His only Son for. Dedicating ourselves to serving Christ’s church is a lie if we are too selfish to serve everyone Christ died for.

To sum it all up, God freely chose to create us, make a covenant with us, become one of us, live for us, die for us, rise for us, and delay His coming for us, all so that He could share His eternal life of love with us. If this is truly God’s passion in history, then in order to truly honor Him, worship Him, and give Him the glory He so richly deserves, we absolutely have to share that passion and devote ourselves to the same cause He champions. To glorify God, we must love human beings.

Back to my original point, though, this is a very hard task. Loving others is a radical way that actually honors the time and effort God puts into people is terrifying and exhausting. So what do we naturally do? We substitute what God say fulfills His whole law—to love your neighbor—with just the basic stuff that is easy to do to an invisible God. We skip caring for other people—which James says is the heart of pure religion—and substitute inexpensive sacrifices of praise, Scripture, Facebook shares, and prayer. But Jesus said to go and learn what this means: “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.”

So we should continue to rightly worship our glorious God. We should never stop praising and communing with Him in song, prayer, and devotion. But we also have to radically and completely love our neighbor. That is what fulfills the law. We must insist on doing the latter despite its difficulty, without neglecting the former. For this is what Jesus taught us Himself. Amen.

Glorifying God the E-Z Way

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

In the first part of this post, I tried to Biblically ground a concept of “holy love” which integrates what we know of God’s love with the revelation that He is also a consuming fire and has sometimes enacted terribly violent judgments. Now I move on to apply that to the problems we see in the Old Testament.

When Holy Love Elects a Beloved

All of the problems we will be looking at deeply involve Israel, so to make a strong foundation I’ll need to examine who and what Israel was in God’s plan. What was the point of Israel as God’s chosen people? I think God’s concluding line in His promise to Abraham holds the key: “All the peoples on earth will be blessed through you”1. God elected Israel because He had already freely chosen to love all humankind2. He did not choose them for their own sake, as though they deserved anything more than the rest of us3, but so that they could be a kingdom of priests4.

See, if God only chose humanity in general, loving everyone in some abstract equality, then His love could not be completely real for each individual person in their concrete existence. But by placing His electing love in a particular way on a specific human family in Abraham, He gave His love a real form in the human world of space, time, and matter. Therefore Israel was born as God’s chosen people, a microcosm of all humanity before God, and priests of God before all humanity.

This covenant relationship, though, is a relationship not of soft love but of holy love. An utterly sinful people filled with rebellion5 was called to draw near to a God who is holy love. He gave and revealed Himself to them as who He is6, and that meant danger. For if God’s holy love, as we mentioned before, opposes and condemns all self-love, then sinful people are in for disaster when drawn near. God made this clear when He appeared at Sinai, in the burning bush, and in a pillar with the form of a consuming fire7. If they lived with the holy love which God possesses, they would experience His life and blessing8. But if they continued resisting God’s love by wronging their neighbor and forsaking God’s redemptive purpose for their election, then His holy love would bear down on them with painful pressure and cause curse upon curse9.

The God of Love vs. The People of Hard Hearts

Having given Biblical grounds for these ideas of holy love and Israel’s election, I propose that God drawing near to a people in His holy love is exactly how we must understand the frequent application of violence in Israel’s history. God in His holy love is a consuming fire, yet He brought Israel close to Himself10. In doing so their sin and rebellion found opposition in the Lord’s presence. Yahweh’s relentless love became painful and torturous when they dashed their hard heads and hearts against Him. Capital punishment and spectacular judgments were not the result of an irritable God losing His temper11, but in fact were the historical actualizations of God giving Himself to a people who couldn’t and wouldn’t open to Him.

We must remember that for God to really be anything in relation to flesh-and-blood people, He must be Himself in a tangible way12. The God of people who exist in space, time, and matter can only reveal Himself in ways particular to space, time, and matter. This means that the conflict between God’s holy love and Israel’s sinful resistance had to take physical form. So when God’s wrath was kindled against His beloved by their own self-destructive self-love, He chastised them with tangible consequences of death, plague, and exile. What else could He do if He wanted to make real changes on human existence?

This concept reaches the sharpest expression in worship. The system of worship God gave Israel was His own design. Apart from Him, the Israelites had nothing good to offer, so God provided them within His covenant with sacrifices and rituals by which they could approach Him13. This was to be a constant reminder to them: they were sinful, but God was gracious enough to provide a way to Himself. So important was this truth, so necessary for Israel to know, that the most severe punishments were reserved for violating right worship. If God in His holy love is a consuming fire, then sinners who approach Him on their own terms cannot avoid being consumed. Thus the fate of Aaron’s sons who offered unauthorized fire on the altar, high priests who came unclean into the Holy of holies, and the Korah’s rebels. Only in Christ is there a safe way to the Father (on this, see the end of my post on law and evil), and the only way for a pre-incarnation people to approach God through Christ is by faith which uses the types and shadows of Him which God provided in the OT priestly system. All other ways brought death as the sinner approached the fire of God’s holy love in their sinfully flammable state.

Mediation and Holy War

Now that we’ve looked at the harsh penalties of the law, what about holy war? Why did God order such extreme destruction against the peoples of Canaan? I do not expect there to be one straightforward answer. I do, however, believe that the concept of Israel’s election and God’s holy love might be able to shed some light on this question. Yet I tread lightly, because holy war really is a minefield, with wrong and destructive answers hidden under every other step.

If I was right to say that Israel was elected to be a kingdom of priests to the nations, what would that involve? Priests must mediate; they bring people to God and God to people. So I suspect that this is precisely what happened in holy war. Israel brought God Himself to the nations.

Unfortunately for the nations, they were in even worse shape than Israel to meet God. Israel could approach God despite their sinfulness because of the safe way He provided in the covenant, but the nations had no such covenant. Unless they repented of their sins, God’s coming to them could only mean judgment14. As long as they were steeped in the flammable sins which oppose all that holy love is (such as sacrificing children to idols), an encounter with God, mediated through Israel, had to mean they were burned up. And as I’ve been saying, all that God is and does to humanity must be done in a tangible, flesh-and-blood way if humanity is to be affected or care. So God commanded the Israelites to kill them all.

Of course, the most difficult part of all this is the children. I’ve personally been able to cope more or less with the adults deserving their execution by Israel, but what about the babies? Why did God even have them kill the babies? I definitely can’t say much about this, because clearly the horror is deep and complex, but as present I mainly think this: as Israel brought the adults of the nations to God, which led to judgment, they also brought the children to God. They ushered them into God’s immediate presence by the only way possible before the end—namely death—and in that presence I do believe God saved them. Instead of these children growing up among immoral people to become even more immoral and be judged, God rescued them while they were yet ignorant.

Naturally, any answer I can provide on this last point can’t be completely satisfactory. I am only somewhat okay with this conception. But thinking this way does help me, and I do hope I am not the only one. But God is God, after all. While my application of holy love, mediation, and election might be able to help get my mind around OT violence, ultimately He did what He did and I can only pray that I’ve honored Him for who He is in my theology. And with that said, I’m left with nothing but Paul’s praise to handle my ignorance:

Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God! How unsearchable His judgments and untraceable His ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been His counselor? Or who has ever first given to Him, and has to be repaid? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever. Amen.

Romans 11:33-36

Election, Israel, and Yahweh’s Consuming Fire: Part 2

Why Did Jesus Come “In the Flesh?”

This past Sunday I received the opportunity to preach, which I haven’t done in some time. I greatly enjoyed it, and thank God that my message was well-received. In my preparations, I wrote a manuscript, and I decided I would upload that as a post. It’s long, mind you, since it’s an entire sermon, but I hope someone can be blessed by it.

Why “In the Flesh?”

Tonight I’ll be starting in 2 John 1:7. I won’t be spending much time there, but I’m using this verse to bring up a particular question. After that, don’t worry, I’ll still be using the Bible, but will focus on a couple other passages to answer that question. So let’s look at it.

“Many deceivers have gone out into the world; they do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. This is the deceiver and the antichrist.”

There’s another verse, 1 John 4:2, which likewise says “Every spirit who confesses that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God.”

So here’s what I would like to ask. This is question of the entire message. Why is it so important that Jesus came “in the flesh?” Why is this such a big deal that John commands in 2 John 1:9-10 not even to greet or welcome someone teaching otherwise?

Most of you have probably never wondered this, just taking it as a given that Jesus is 100% God and 100% man. You probably take his flesh for granted. If someone disagrees, though you’d seriously condemn their error I doubt you would be able to explain why this is so important, except for “That’s what the Bible says.”

My goal in this sermon is to fix that. I want to, straight from the Bible, answer why it is so vital that Jesus came “in the flesh,” both for our beliefs and for our practical lives.

But before I get into all this, I should quickly explain what “in the flesh” means. When John uses the word “flesh,” he definitely doesn’t mean it at all the way Paul usually does. For Paul, “flesh” usually refers to the sinful and corrupt aspect of human existence. The “flesh” is the part of human life that causes the “works of the flesh” in Galatians 5:19-21, which include stuff like sexual immorality, idolatry, hatred, ambition, arguments, envy, and promiscuity. This obviously isn’t equal to “the body,” because for example hatred is not something you do with your body but your heart.

When John says Jesus came “in the flesh,” he is saying that Jesus came in a real, physical, human nature with a tangible body. He could be seen, heard, and touched like he said in 1 John 1, and His body wasn’t an illusion or mask like some people were teaching at the time. This is the doctrine of Incarnation. Incarnation means that God become a human being in Jesus Christ. So again, why does it matter so much? Why is it so important that Jesus came in a real human body?

As a good Baptist, I want to address this with three points. The first is why Jesus coming in the flesh is necessary for salvation, and it might not be just the reason you immediately think. The second is why Jesus had to come in the flesh to do anything at all meaningful for us, people who live in flesh. Finally, the third is what practical implications Jesus’ coming in the flesh has for us now.

Flesh and Salvation

So onto the first point. What does Christ coming in the flesh, in real human nature and body, do for our salvation? How did God becoming a baby who needed diapers changed work towards our rescue from sin and death? The first obvious answer is that He came so He could die on the cross. That is part of the answer. But there is more to it. To answer this first question, then, I’ll use Hebrews 2:5-18. If you all want to turn there, I’ll be in it for several minutes. In this passage, the author of Hebrews has just been speaking of how and why Jesus is superior to the angels, due to His divine nature as the Son of God. But at this point he moves into Jesus’ humanity. Even as a human, He an exalted place over the angels. Here’s what it says:

And furthermore, it is not angels who will control the future world we are talking about. For in one place the Scriptures say,

“What are people that you should think of them, or a son of man that you should care for him? Yet you made them only a little lower than the angels and crowned them with glory and honor. You gave them authority over all things.”

Now when it says “all things,” it means nothing is left out. But we have not yet seen all things put under their authority. What we do see is Jesus, who was given a position “a little lower than the angels”; and because he suffered death for us, he is now “crowned with glory and honor.” Yes, by God’s grace, Jesus tasted death for everyone.

God, for whom and through whom everything was made, chose to bring many children into glory. And it was only right that he should make Jesus, through his suffering, a perfect leader, fit to bring them into their salvation. So now Jesus and the ones he makes holy have the same Father. That is why Jesus is not ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters.

For he said to God, “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people.” He also said, “I will put my trust in him,” that is, “I and the children God has given me.”

Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood—the Son also became flesh and blood. For only as a human being could he die, and only by dying could he break the power of the devil, who had the power of death. Only in this way could he set free all who have lived their lives as slaves to the fear of dying. We also know that the Son did not come to help angels; he came to help the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, it was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested.

This text is, in my opinion, probably the most important text about Jesus’ Incarnation, which, remember, means His coming in human flesh. So I want to go through it and draw out the logic it uses to explain why Jesus’ flesh is so vital to our salvation. But before I get too far, I should point out potential translation confusion. In some Bible versions like the one I’m using, verses 5-8 speak in the plural of “them” or “human beings” or “people”, while many others speak in the singular, saying “him” and “the son of man.” Here the literal words are singular, but they are speaking in a collective sense. The human race is being represented by a singular “man” or “him.” Even the phrase “son of man” in this verse only means a child of humankind, not specifically Jesus.

So here’s the flow of the passage. In seeking to show Jesus’ superiority to the angels on the side of his human nature, the author quotes Psalm 8, where the psalmist is baffled at the dignity God has given the human race even though we are so puny and less beautiful than His other works. He asks how mere men can be important enough to warrant God’s care or attention.

Then he celebrates the high place God has given humanity. He set us up only a little less than the angels for a while, and He gave us glory and honor. He put us in charge of the whole world like we see in Genesis 1:28-30. How could we deserve this? We’re so small.

But what the author of Hebrews points out is that not everything seems to be in our control even though God gave it all to us. There is suffering, sin, and death wreaking havoc on our world. So what’s wrong? Have we completely lost the high position given to us by God?

The answer is kind of like Paul’s “By no means!” See, even though we don’t see humanity in control of the world God gave us, we do see Jesus. He became a human like us in the flesh, and was made lower than the angels for a while. The rest of us may not be in control of the world God gave us, since we were under Satan’s rule, but Jesus was crowned Lord and is forever exalted. He is reigning in glory and honor. But how did He get there? He died for us all, all of the weak humanity. Because He obeyed the Father even to the point of death, He has been crowned king of everything, which means that He has regained control of creation for us all. A human being is on the thone of the world standing in for God, just like God originally intended.

So at this point the author of Hebrews goes a little further in what Jesus did to restore us to this place. He says that it only fitting that God should make Jesus, the source of our salvation, perfect through suffering. Now this doesn’t mean Jesus was sinful and then became perfect, obviously. He says elsewhere in Hebrews that Jesus was without sin. In this case perfect means mature or complete. Jesus wasn’t completely in place to restore fallen people until He Himself had endured the same sufferings that we do, and He had to learn the experience of rejecting sin and living in faith. He became a man, one of us, and had to live by faith like one of us and deal with what we deal with. The only way to heal man’s problems was for the Creator and Sustainer of all life to become a man Himself and fight them back.

Finally, this text tells us that Jesus as a human being had to share our fleshy nature to become our High Priest. A priest stands before God in place of his people, and offers God the sacrifice required. So only a man of flesh-and-blood can represent us, flesh-and-blood people. He had to be like us in every way to minister to the Father on our behalf. For us to be near to God, we need a pure human priest to lead the way. This is the same point behind Paul specifying in 1 Timothy 2:5 that there is only one Mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ. So in last—but not least!—place, Jesus had to become a human being to be our High Priest before God, a work essential to our salvation which continues forever. In fact, this is the key reason we know that Jesus is still human, though that’s definitely a topic for another day.

Anyway, to recap, this is why Jesus became flesh and blood for our salvation. We were supposed to be the rulers of God’s creation, but when we sinned we became subject to death. And when we became subject to death, Satan–who wields death as his power–became a ruler over us. So when Jesus became one of us, when He came in our dying flesh, He started fighting back. He cast out demons and went to war against Satan’s kingdom. He forgave sins and removed Satan’s ground for accusing us before God. Finally, He died. It looked like Satan had beaten Jesus, beaten God, with his weapon of death, but then Jesus rose from the dead. Now Satan has nothing left. No sickness, sin, or death can defeat the Christ who healed, forgave, and rose again. So Jesus, having ascended to heaven, stands now in glory and honor, the conquering human King who has won back humanity’s God-given place as the rulers of this world and defeated Satan who stole that place, and our eternal High Priest representing and substituting for us all in God’s presence.

At this point, we see just how important Jesus’ human flesh was to our salvation. If Jesus had no human body, then none of this chain would have worked. There would be no truly human person to represent and substitute on our behalf, healing sickness, forgiving sin, and beating bodily death. No human being would take the throne of creation to restore humanity to their proper place in the world. Satan would still hold the power of death, since without a physical body Christ could have no physical resurrection to remove the sting of physical death. Jesus had to be like us in every way if He was to suffer for us, forgive us, and empathize with us a High Priest before the Father. And without His flesh, He could do not a single one of these things. We’d still be doomed.

Flesh and Human Existence

This brings me to my next point. A creative and curious person could ask, “Why did Christ need a body for all this? Couldn’t He have accomplished all these things in a spiritual way without coming in the flesh?” And of course, when dealing with God, the answer would have to be “Sure He could.” But, to do that He would have had to make us simply spiritual beings without physical bodies. Or He could have made us with bodies that don’t matter, with only the spirit counting for anything, like the ancient Gnostics believed. But that’s not how He chose to create us. He already had the angels who were purely spirit. When God chose to create man, He chose to create a kind of person with a real, physical nature. He made people defined by having bodies.

Some of you may think this is strange. After all, don’t we believe, to supposedly quote C. S. Lewis, “You don’t have a soul. You are a soul; you have a body?” Well, no, and Lewis never said this, either. The truth is that God made us equally body and soul, physical and spiritual. The entire Bible shows the importance of this, starting with creation. When God created mankind, He made them from the dust of the earth first, and only then added spiritual life. The physical was an integral part. Then He blessed the first humans in a physical way, giving them rule over the physical world and telling to make babies. He created mankind in His own image, and this actually means something very physical which most people don’t realize.

See, in the ancient cultures surrounding early Israel, a six day building project would represent the construction of a temple to a god. At the end of the six days, an image of the god would be placed in the temple to represent its presence and authority. An visible, material idol was placed there to stand in for the invisible, immaterial deity. So in Genesis 1 we can see that same concept being used by Moses under the inspiration of the Spirit to show all creation as the massive and glorious temple of the one true God. At the end of the construction, He places an image in the temple to carry out His authority on the earth. Just like the idols of the other ancient temples, in this case a physical image–humanity–is created specifically to exercise His authority and care in creation. So even part of what defines our being made in the image of God is precisely the fact that we are physical!

The theme of man’s physical existence goes on and on from that point. In the Law, God chose to set Israel apart by all sorts of physical signs that affected their day to day bodily life. He wanted to them even conform their flesh to His purposes, as proved by food laws, purity and cleanliness laws, laws about property and land, and even laws about going to the bathroom! The primary sign of His covenant was the intimate and very physical cut of circumcision. All through the Law is this theme: God cares about the physical aspect of being human, and even that part is essential to being who He made us to be.

The pattern continues explicitly in the New Testament, for example in Paul’s teaching on sexual immorality. He strongly condemns all fornication, adultery, prostitution, etc because why? Because the body is irrelevant to our life? By no means! He says that the body is for the Lord, and the Lord for the body. According to Paul our flesh counts a lot.

This all culminates in the Christian hope of resurrection. This is the final hope of Christianity as opposed to others. Unlike the Buddhists and Hindus, today’s New Age spiritualities, the Platonists and Gnostics of yesteryear, we do not hope to escape the body to spend eternity in some pure spiritual existence, but God has promised us the resurrection of our bodies, the transformation of corruptible flesh to incorruptible, mortal bodies to immortal ones. He proved this when He raised Jesus from the dead in a body that is still solid to the touch and capable even of eating. And if this resurrection is so important and lies behind our future resurrection, then clearly our bodies matter so much that they were included in God’s salvation for us..

This means Jesus had to become flesh. If Jesus didn’t become flesh, then we poor humans who God designed in such a fleshy way would be hopeless. When bodies are in trouble, what can they gain from pure spirit? It would be all over our heads and irrelevant to this bodily life God created for us. At best we could only be half saved, with our souls rescued and our bodies abandoned, leaving us incomplete for eternity. So Hebrews is right. Since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus had to become like His brothers in every way. He had to save bodies, not just souls.

Flesh and Loving Thy Neighbor

But this brings me to my third point. We should rejoice that God Himself, the Creator of all who is who He is and dwells in heaven, loved us so much that He was willing to become a real, fleshy human being to save us. I mean, it’s ridiculous when you really think about it. This glorious and unfathomable God became a helpless baby. He cried for food. He pooped and needed diaper changes. He got confused and scared when His mommy left the room. He tumbled around learning to walk. He made silly sound while learning to talk. He did chores, got hot, got cold, got hungry, and experienced hardship. In fact, since Joseph kind of disappears from the Bible by Jesus’ adulthood and on the cross Jesus gave care of Mary to John, Joseph probably died. If so Jesus suffered the pain of losing His stepfather. He grew up and went through puberty, probably getting embarrassing acne and for all we know maybe even crushing on some pretty Jewish girl. He learned to be a handyman and worked with tools in the hot sun to make a living. Then He got baptized, a sign of repenting from sin, in front of a bunch of people even though He was sinless. He gave up food for 40 whole days, being tempted by His growling stomach to cheat and poof up something to eat. From that point on He spent over three years meeting people of all kinds, with every disease and injury known to man, to have mercy on them. He witnessed bruised and broken bodies, disgusting to sight and smell. He associated with the worst of sinners and people of the lowest situation. He helped the poor and the needy in their distress. Finally He suffered and died with criminals and was buried like any other dead man. All of this, He did for us and for our salvation, out of gratuitous love. We ought to be completely grateful, humbled, and worshipful that He submitted to all this so that we could be rescued from it.

But that, praise be to God for it, is still not my third point. My third point can be found in Philippians 2:4-11. My third point, the real life application, is that we should do the same thing that Jesus did. We should suffer all of this to rescue others. Here’s what those verses say:

Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.

Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.

Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.

When he appeared in human form,
he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.

Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,

that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,

and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.

This is what we learn from the Incarnation, from the fact that Jesus Christ came in the flesh. He humbled Himself and lived among those in the depths of sin and death. So go thou and do likewise. Jesus descended to a stable, so can we not enter the slums? Jesus got up close and personal with people who had leprosy, a disease that leads to bruising and loss of body parts. So should we.

I remember once when I was a pretty young that I told my dad I couldn’t possibly work with people so diseased or injured that they looked really gross. I just didn’t think I could handle it. As a good father should have, he rebuked me and asked how I was supposed to follow Jesus’ example. I never forgot that, and in working on this sermon I remembered it and realized how profound that rebuke was. This is the same lesson we learn in Jesus’ coming in the flesh for us. He got down in the dirt to help us, so we should get down in the dirt to help others. Jesus, as I mentioned earlier, went through puberty for us. As someone only 20 years old myself, I remember well that process and think that alone was enough of a sacrifice to teach us that God means business.

I don’t want this to stay abstract, either. I want to cut right to the real life implications of what I’m saying. If Jesus was willing to come so far down for us, we ought to really be working that kind of humble love into our lives. So think for a moment. When was the last time you visited someone who was sick, someone outside of your close family? When have you visited someone in prison, someone who however evil he may be would still be as sympathetic as any villain on Once Upon a Time if you knew his story?

Of course, for many of us the answer to both of this might be “Never.” Because we don’t do what Jesus did. Instead of humbling ourselves in obedience and stepping down from our comfort, we build up walls and separate ourselves from the lowest parts of this world. We try to protect our families from that bad world out there by not associating too much with prostitutes, drug users, homeless bums, and just rude poor people who smoke too much, even though this is precisely the kind of person Jesus sought out. We have all sorts of excuses, and I want you all to think for a moment if you do this at all.

The call of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is to get away from this secluded, protected world of our own making. We are told to have the same attitude as Jesus, who left the eternal glory of His Father to help slimy rich guys who cheat the commoner along with poor women who sell their bodies for extra cash. So we ought to be doing the same kinds of things, going to hospitals, prisons, orphanages, ghettos, slums, and poverty-stricken communities in landfills. We have to become part of these groups, these peoples, not sharing in any of their sins but sharing completely in their relationships. Just like Jesus made His home among our miserable race, we should be willing even to make our home within the worst nations, regions, or neighborhoods. And why? To love them and show them Christ, who humbled Himself to an even greater extent.

Naturally, we do not all have the same precise call in fulfilling this mission. Some of you parents may simply need to interact with the marginalized parents and their children at school. Some of you might need to get into prison ministry, or to start a ministry for visiting hospitalized people without families or friends. Perhaps you should get involved with one of the food pantries around, or if you know where to find one a rehab group or organization. I suspect at least a couple of you may be required to move, maybe to a third world tribe, a persecuted land, or even a crime-infested inner city. After all, people in all these places I’ve mentioned need to be helped, both body and soul, by Spirit-led believers who can share with them not only blessings for the moment but blessings for eternity in Christ.

I know, though, that these are serious callings. I also know that it is bold of me to say what I am saying, that every single one of you has some way that you are obligated in the Lord to radically humble yourselves into the depths of our broken world to bless others. And it’s a scary demand. If we do these things, Jesus promises we run the risk of being hurt physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. In some cases–if we’re doing it right–our lives may end up at stake. But where God’s call is high, His grace is even higher. See, if we are following the example of our Lord Jesus in His Incarnation, when He came in the flesh for us, then we can know for certain that God will do the same thing for us in the end that He did for Jesus. And what did He do? He vindicated Him. He raised Him from the dead and highly exalted Him, proving that He was in the right the whole time and giving Him power and authority. And God has promised to do the same thing for us. The same Spirit who raised Jesus will raise us, and if we humble ourselves we will be exalted in due time. In the end, God will publicly declare our righteousness and prove it by our good works, and He will give us authority in His kingdom. So we don’t have to be afraid. We don’t have to worry. The worst that could possibly happen if we follow Jesus in this way is that we could die, which we know will be undone in our physical bodies at the end. Because Jesus came in the flesh.

The Call to Believe

But of course, if you don’t have that same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, you won’t be raised. In that case there would be no hope and there is good reason for you to fear. If you are not united to Jesus Christ in the likeness of His dead and resurrection, then you are still under the one who holds the power of death, that is, the Devil. And if you merely say, “Lord, Lord,” but don’t actually do the Father’s will in imitating the love of Jesus in His coming in the flesh, listen to what Jesus says in Matthew 25:31-46,

“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left.

“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’

“Then these righteous ones will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry and feed you? Or thirsty and give you something to drink? Or a stranger and show you hospitality? Or naked and give you clothing? When did we ever see you sick or in prison and visit you?’

“And the King will say, ‘I tell you the truth, when you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me!’

“Then the King will turn to those on the left and say, ‘Away with you, you cursed ones, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his demons. For I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me.’

“Then they will reply, ‘Lord, when did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and not help you?’

“And he will answer, ‘I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.’

“And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous will go into eternal life.”

So if you are one of these goats who claims to follow Jesus but really doesn’t, or if you don’t even acknowledge Jesus as Lord at all, then you have no other choice. I’ve told you how much God loved you that He went through the whole course of human life, from dirty diapers to acne to death itself, to free you and bring you to Himself. And as we saw in Hebrews 2, He did everything that was needed to save you, since we humans were all trapped by death and couldn’t save ourselves. Now it is finished, like Jesus said on the cross. He’s done it all and by tasting death for everyone He reconciled everyone to God. So as I step down, I assume they’ll move into invitation. Which means you should repent and believe in Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord. You will be saved. Then just like Jesus came down from heaven, come down to this altar and arrange to be baptized, so that by experiencing this sign of Jesus’ death and resurrection you can start your own journey to follow after His life of humble love.

Why Did Jesus Come “In the Flesh?”

Immanuel Means Love Your Neighbor

Now all this happened in order to make come true what the Lord had said through the prophet, “A virgin will become pregnant and have a son, and he will be called Immanuel” (which means, “God is with us”).

Matthew 1:22-23

If we needed a word to summarize the Christian faith, the Gospel of our salvation, we could perhaps choose Immanuel, “God with us.” In the beginning, God walked with the man He had created in the Garden. He continued to speak to Cain and Abel, Enoch, and Noah, despite the world’s increasing sinfulness. He made a solemn covenant to Abraham and his descendants, spending over 400 years working to give them a land, an identity, and a system of worship. He came to them in fire, in cloud, in the Ark, in the Tabernacle, and eventually in the Temple. Finally, He did the unthinkable and became Himself a human being, one of us. He lived among us, and we saw His glory. He died, rose, and ascended on behalf of us all, and poured our His Spirit to live in our hearts. The day is still coming when He will usher in the final fulfillment of His covenant with humanity—“I will be your God and you will be my people”—when God’s heaven and man’s earth will become one. Truly this is the story of God with us. This is the history of Immanuel.

If this is true, if Immanuel is really the theme of our faith, then naturally we should want to follow its logic and implications in our lives. Our theology and our practices should reflect how, in Jesus Christ, God is with us. But how that works for us isn’t always obvious. I personally believe there is a big principle of Immanuel which we don’t often reckon with. What is it?

Immanuel means love your neighbor.

How is this? What does “God with us” have to do with loving your neighbor, except maybe in the remote sense that both are taught in Scripture? Much in every way! In fact, there is perhaps no better reason to love your neighbor than the fact that in Jesus Christ, God Himself is with humankind.

See, Immanuel creates startling new ground for our relationship with other people. If people were just people, all tiny creatures sitting far beneath the creator God who holds Himself high above them, then there would be little reason to treat or see others with dignity, respect, or compassion. After all, “what is mankind that you are mindful of them?” Yet God does not hold Himself apart from mankind. Instead, God created a covenant with His created people so that He would be our God, not just God. Because of this we are valuable. Moreover, in due time, He climaxed that covenant by turning Immanuel into Incarnation, for it is written: “The Word was God…The Word became flesh and took up residence among us.”

This is the core of Christianity, and also the biggest reason to love our neighbor. God does not only come to us from outside of us to show us love. Instead, He became one of us. The Father sent His only Son to become a person like us. The Word of God became “like His brothers in every way,” and “since the children have flesh and blood in common, Jesus also shared in these.” And if God Himself has become a human being, if the Father’s own beloved Son is one of us, then we know that humans seriously matter.

Remember this, for this is key. If God Himself has become one of our race, if the Father’s only Son is a human just like us, then there is no more important source of value for people. If we are going to love God, we have no choice but to love the race He became part of. If we are going to honor the Father, we must also honor His Son’s own people who share flesh and blood with Him.

Because of this, love is an inescapable imperative of Immanuel. Because God became human, we must love humans. Whoever doesn’t love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. Since in Christ “God with us” is fulfilled, and since Christ is a human being, how can we love Him without loving both God and people? We must obey the second commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in order to obey the first, “Love the Lord your God,” because with Jesus’ birth God Himself became our neighbor. And there is no greater way God could have given our neighbors worth than to become one of them.

All of this is why people matter, why we have to love them, and why not loving your neighbor is a sin against God Himself. Anything you do against people you do against the Father whose Son is one of them. Isn’t this the meaning of the parable of the sheep and the goats? In fact, I think I’ll conclude by providing this parable from the Lord’s own mouth:

When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate them one from another, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on the left. Then the King will say to those on His right, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

For I was hungry
and you gave Me something to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me something to drink;
I was a stranger
and you took Me in;
I was naked
and you clothed Me;
I was sick
and you took care of Me;
I was in prison
and you visited Me.”

Then the righteous will answer Him, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or without clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick, or in prison, and visit You?”

And the King will answer them, “I assure you: Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.” Then He will also say to those on the left, “Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the Devil and his angels!

For I was hungry
and you gave Me nothing to eat;
I was thirsty
and you gave Me nothing to drink;
I was a stranger
and you didn’t take Me in;
I was naked
and you didn’t clothe Me,
sick and in prison
and you didn’t take care of Me.”

Then they too will answer, “Lord, when did we see You hungry, or thirsty, or a stranger, or without clothes, or sick, or in prison, and not help You?”

Then He will answer them, “I assure you: Whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for Me either.” And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.

Matthew 25:31-46

Immanuel Means Love Your Neighbor

How God is Simple, and Why That is Good News (Divine Simplicity and the Cross)

So I had this thought while I was taking a walk yesterday. I had been thinking about the term “holy love” which is occasionally used in theology. This brought me to the doctrine of divine simplicity. A few of you here probably already know that that means, but for those of you who don’t, divine simplicity takes “God is one” down to a very deep level. According to divine simplicity, God is not separately love, and holiness, and justice, and kindness. Instead, all of these so-called attributes are in fact analogies of a single reality, so that God simply is who He is. God has no parts, so to speak, but all His attributes are unified. He is not complex like a machine, but simple like a single ray of light.

With this in mind, I was thinking of how what we see as God’s attributes all appear to move in different directions. But, I thought, all lines which are not parallel intersect at some point. Sooner or later any two lines at different angles will converge. In application to God’s simplicity, I thought that if we had the capacity to trace all of God’s dealing with people back, all the apparent attributes would intersect at a single point.

Of course, when I realized there could be a single point at which every apparent attribute of God converged and became one, I quickly saw two implications:

  1. If these lines all connect in any single historical point, that point would have to be the Cross. There every different line we can trace out of God’s differing ways all seem to come together in one event. Justice, mercy, sovereignty, human accountability, love, wrath, grace, and condemnation all became one actual event at Calvary.
  2. Yet if divine simplicity is actually right about God, and all of His attributes are only one real thing in this way, then where these lines converge would also have to be where you find who God truly is. Where all these apparent attributes meet as one is where you find God as the I AM.

So confronted with these two implications, I saw the beautiful truth, not a new truth which I had never known, but one which came from the beginning: God is seen for who He really is at the Cross. When Jesus suffered and died, all the lines of all God’s apparent attributes converge and shine as the one glorious reality of the I AM. If we want to know who and what God really is, the Cross is the historical moment where He shows us. To Moses on Sinai’s mountain God revealed merely His back, but to us all on Calvary’s mountain God revealed all that He is.

Isn’t this wonderful to know? The Cross is where we see God for who God is, and of course that means Jesus Himself is the One in whom we see God for who God is! All this seems to me very exciting, and I hope it will also lead you to devotion. Amen.

How God is Simple, and Why That is Good News (Divine Simplicity and the Cross)

A Christological Argument Against Abortion

One of the greatest connections Evangelical Calvinism put together in my head is that Jesus is the image of God, and we were made in the image of God. The imago dei, that divine imprint we all bear, is grounded in our sharing of a nature with God in Christ. Jesus’ humanity makes our humanity the sacred thing that it is.

Connecting all human life to Jesus’ human life affects many issues, and abortion is no exception. Believe it or not (I know for most people in my life circles this is probably hard to believe), there are otherwise solid Christian individuals, groups, and churches who believe abortion is not necessarily sinful. This is, in my opinion, our generation of the Church’s most tragic, or at least one of the most tragic, failing. But I do not deny their genuine faith, for Christians in every age have held similarly horrid positions.

Since I do accept these brothers as members of one faith in one Christ, I would like to engage with them constructively rather than ignore them or vilify them. On many issues I hold the reservation that I might be wrong. Not so here, and I therefore think it is very important to have this conversation, and hopefully help my friends see the light on this matter.

Okay, enough with the introduction. What is my actual argument? Well, it’s fairly straightforward. Human worth, identity, and sanctity are all bound up with the image of God we were made in. This image is no other than Jesus Himself, God as a human being. By becoming a human Jesus gave humanity the image of God and our worth (not that humans lacked God’s image before Jesus’ arrival; His Incarnation is an eternal fact which affects even the dawn of time).

The significance of this for abortion is that we them humans (teens and kids, too!) have God’s image and a right to life because God was one of us. Jesus brought unity between God and humanity by being both in His earthly life. This applies to abortion because Jesus’ incarnation, His human existence, did not begin at His birth but while He was still in the womb! God did not only become a born child, but an unborn one. In fact, it seems Biblically safe to say that God became man at conception. (To say otherwise seems to me to run the risk of various Christological heresies.)

Because in Jesus even unborn humanity was united with God, it is impossible to deny them the same value, dignity, and protection that we expect as grown people. Our lives are sacred because Jesus lived as one of us, and in that life He lived as an unborn child as well, so their lives are just as sacred. We cannot just kill them, especially as innocent and helpless as they are, any more than we can just kill anyone else.

In fact, the issue is bigger than killing a created being. God in Jesus identifies with all who share the human nature of His Son, and is especially concerned with the needy, oppressed, and helpless. Violence against any human being, especially one like that, is violence against God Himself. Killing any human, including the unborn, is akin to crucifying Christ because in Christ all people are gathered up and bound to their Creator.

I know this will not immediately sway any believer who happens to be pro-choice. It’s not often people approach any issue, much less abortion, from the perspective of Jesus’ Incarnation. But it is vital that we do so, especially here where the issue is one of life and death. I do pray you will all consider this with Scripture and prayer. And if you’re pro-life but know a pro-choice believer, I encourage you to share this with them. Maybe God can use it to change some hearts if we ask.

A Christological Argument Against Abortion