At a recent wedding the bridal party arrived at the church in a Lamborghini and stretch limousine. And they arrived at the Reception to fireworks and frenetic music and drumming. It was a grand entry. In contrast, although Jesus was announced by angels, His was a humble entry.
At Christmas we remember the coming of Jesus Christ into the world. This was announced when an angel told some shepherds that the Jewish Messiah had been born in Bethlehem. That’s amazing because shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder. And Bethlehem was only a small town. But how would the shepherds find him? And how would they recognize him? So they were given a sign from God to help them.
What’s a sign?
The Greek word semeion (Strongs #4592) means a “sign”. In this context it’s the means by which a person is distinguished from someone else. For example, Judas Iscariot identified Jesus by kissing him (Mt. 26:48). And circumcision was a sign of the covenant between God and the Israelites (Rom. 4:11). Miracles signified an apostle (2 Cor. 12:12). And Paul’s handwriting showed that his letters were authentic (2 Th. 3:17).
They were given an unusual sign to identify the Messiah. Important people like royalty, and a President or Prime Minister are usually characterized by pomp, ceremony, security and publicity. That’s the kind of sign we would expect for the Messiah.
But the angel said, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk. 2:12NIV). So the sign was a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough! What a humble birth.
So the shepherds were to look for a baby lying in a cattle feeding-trough. Although there would have been other babies in Bethlehem, it would be unusual for one to be lying in a cattle feeding-trough. It was a strange sign.
Jesus was born into the world just like all of us. It was a normal birth (following a supernatural conception). He was a tiny helpless baby. Nothing would have seemed supernatural. Why did God choose to enter the human race like this? So that He could provide for our salvation. Jesus had to be fully human so He could die for our sins (Heb. 2:14-17). He had to become like us in order to save us.
A baby lying in a cattle feed trough
The reason that baby Jesus was lying in a manger was “because there was no guest room available for them” (Lk. 2:7). The last supper was held in the guest room of a house in Jerusalem (Mk. 14:14; Lk. 22:11). According to scholars, the most likely place for a manger in Bethlehem was in a one-roomed peasant house with two levels. People occupied the upper level (Arab. mastaba) and animals the lower one (ka’ al-bet). The animals are housed overnight and fed from mangers built into the floor of the upper terrace or mounted to the walls near the lower level. Presumably there was no cradle in the house, but a manger could perform the same function.
The shepherds were told that they would find the baby in a manger. Shepherds were near the bottom of the social ladder and in many homes they would feel their poverty and be ashamed of their low position in society. But in this case, they faced no humiliation because it was probably a simple peasant house like their own with mangers for the animals. That’s why they said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Lk. 2:15). And they hurried off to find Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus.
What a strange way for a Messiah and Savior to enter the world. Even the poorest child would not be found in a manger.
Lessons for us
The Bible says that Jesus gave up His divine glory when He came to earth “by taking the very nature of a servant (slave), being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:7). And “that though He was rich (in heaven), yet for your sake He became poor (on earth)” (2 Cor. 8:9). He did this (was born, lived, died and rose again) in order to die the death that we deserve. Through what Jesus has done, we “might become rich”. The promise is not for physical earthly riches, but spiritual heavenly riches. It’s forgiveness of our sins, reconciliation with God, and eternal life. What Jesus did was like an “indescribable gift” (2 Cor. 9:15). As a gift, it has not benefit to us unless we accept it. That’s why the Bible says. “might become rich”, not “will become rich”. Have you accepted God’s gift? Not many Jews recognized that Jesus was the Messiah. Why not recognize Him as your Savior?
Those who follow Jesus are to imitate His humility (Phil. 2:1-8). Our attitude is to be one of unity. mutual love, harmony, humility, sacrifice, and service, rather than being self-centered. Saul was recognized for being tall, Zacchaeus for being short and Jesus for being humble (1 Sam. 9:2; Lk. 19:1-4). But what is our characteristic attitude?
What a precious thing is a baby! The news that a little tiny human has safely made its way into the world is such a miracle, such a cause for celebration. Even when there is mourning or hardship, a new baby can bring hope.
On the first Christmas when baby Jesus arrived there was the usual joy and celebration. But there was so much more than that. Angels sang in the sky, shepherds dropped everything and came, wise men followed a star… all to honor and worship this new baby.
When God sent His Son into the world, in the form of a baby boy, He did it for us. In John’s gospel it says,
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life“.
This is one of the most famous verses in the Bible, perhaps because it states so simply the most important things. God loves us so much that He sent His only Son to help us. This is why Christmas is special! It’s a time to celebrate the gift God gave to us long ago that shows how much He wants us to join His family. What we need to do is believe in Him.
There is a beautiful Christmas poem by Christina Rossetti that was put to music and became the carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter”. It tells of the unlikely and difficult place where the baby Jesus was born, of angels singing praises to welcome the new King, and of shepherds visiting and bowing down and of wise men who traveled a great distance to honor Him.
The author wonders what she could give to Him as a tribute.
“What can I give Him,
Poor as I am?
If I were a Shepherd
I would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man
I would do my part,
Yet what can I give Him,
Give my heart.”
The Wise Men brought gifts fit for a King to honor the newborn Jesus, but there is nothing that we can give that is enough. All Jesus wants for Christmas is YOU!
Bible Verse: John 3:16 “For this is how God loved the world: He gave His one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life”.
Prayer: Dear God, thank you for loving me so much. Thank you for the precious gift of your Son. Please forgive me and help me to worship and honor you all year long. Amen.
Images and text © Outreach Media 2017
Posted, December 2017
Joy to the world
All the boys and girls
Joy to the fishes in the deep blue sea
Joy to you and me
“Joy to the world” was a silly singalong song with a catchy melody released by Three Dog Night in 1971. It’s silly because some of the words are nonsensical. In her 1994 Christmas album Mariah Carey changed the third line of the chorus to “Joy to the people everywhere you see”. Although this song sounds joyful, the only sources of joy and happiness it mentions are drinking and sex, which are fleeting. But at Christmas we remember a source of “great joy”, which is enduring. A hymn writer expressed it as: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” According to the Bible, the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
On the first Christmas night, an angel told the shepherds, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). The Greek word translated “joy” chara (Strongs #5479) means joy, gladness, delight, and a source of joy. So the baby Jesus would bring great joy to humanity as the Jewish Messiah who would enable people to have their sins forgiven so that they could be reconciled with God.
This feeling of joy is conveyed in the Christmas carol that’s not a Christmas carol! The words of “Joy to the World” were written in 1719 by Isaac Watts (1674-1748). And the melody was derived from portions of Handel’s (1685-1759) Messiah. It’s based on the Psalm 98:4-9, which celebrates Christ’s triumphant second coming, not His humble first coming. Watts published it under the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom”.
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven and nature sing,
And Heaven, and Heaven, and nature sing.
Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat, the sounding joy.
No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.
He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.
In verses 1 and 2 Watts writes of heaven and earth rejoicing at the coming of the King. In Psalm 98 and Psalm 96:11-13, all of creation is called upon to make a joyful noise before God, for the Lord has come to “judge the earth,” and restore His creation. Verse 3 of the song speaks of Christ’s blessings extending victoriously over the realm of sin. In Genesis 3, a great tragedy occurs when Adam and Eve sin against God, and are banished from the garden as God puts a curse upon the ground (Gen. 3:17-18). Verse 4 of the song celebrates Christ’s rule over the nations.
Psalm 98:4-9 says:
4Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth,
burst into jubilant song with music;
5 make music to the Lord with the harp,
with the harp and the sound of singing,
6 with trumpets and the blast of the ram’s horn—
shout for joy before the Lord, the King.
7 Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
the world, and all who live in it.
8 Let the rivers clap their hands,
let the mountains sing together for joy;
9 let them sing before the Lord,
for He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples with equity.
Psalm 96:11-13 is similar:
11Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
12 Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
13 Let all creation rejoice before the Lord, for He comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
and the peoples in His faithfulness.
So the Bible associates true joy with both the first and second advents of Christ. True joy comes from God, and not from our circumstances. That’s why the joy of Christmas is Jesus.
The distinction between the two advents of Christ was unknown until the New Testament era. For example, Isaiah 9:6a described the first advent, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given” and it’s followed by a description of the second advent, “and the government will be on his shoulders …” (Is. 9: 6b-7). And when Jesus read in the synagogue from Isaiah 61 (Lk. 4:16-21), He only read about His first advent (v.1-2a) and not the second advent (v.2b-3). That’s why many Jews failed to recognize their Messiah when He came as a humble servant instead of a powerful king. It’s interesting that the Magi (Wise men) recognized that Jesus was a king (Mt. 2:2). And Matthew, Mark, Luke and John record that the notice on His cross was “The king of the Jews” (Mt. 27:37; Mk. 15:25; Lk. 23:38; Jn. 19:19).
The first advent is when the Savior came to die sacrificially, and the second one is when He comes to reign on earth. The first is the precursor (predecessor; something that happens before something else) of the second. And the second is the consequence of the first. We live in the period in between the two advents when people have the opportunity to have their sins forgiven.
We can have true joy by looking back at the first advent and looking ahead to the second one. Jesus is the joy of Christmas and the joy of the future peace on earth during Christ’s reign.
I have just seen The “Lights of Christmas 2016” screened on St Mary’s cathedral in Sydney. This was a spectacular lightshow to “Celebrate the magic of Christmas”. It was advertised as follows:
“The theme we have chosen this year is Joy to the World and it is revealed through nature. The audience will be taken on a dream-like journey of enchantment and imagined worlds. Fireflies lead us on our expedition through underground caverns, then rising up to the skies and returning to the ocean. Along the way we meet a family of animals, all bringing colour and joy to the world!”
So this show, screened on a gothic church, depicts animals and nature as bringing “joy to the world”! What a comparison! The temporary joy from animals compared to the eternal joy available through Jesus! Secular joy compared to true joy. A person’s idea of joy, compared to God’s idea of joy. But the true joy of Christmas is Jesus, not animals or any other part of the celebration.
God’s Christmas gift
Jesus is God’s gift to humanity. God sacrificed His own Son so that we could have eternal life and be spared from judgment. The coming of the Savior, which we remember at Christmas, brings “great joy” because:
– It’s “good news” for sinners like us – He came to save people from their sins through His death and resurrection. That’s why He was named Jesus (Mt. 1:21).
– It’s true news – fact not fiction, legend, myth or a fairy tale. It was a normal birth in an unusual location.
– It’s about the unique Lord Jesus Christ who reconciled sinful people to God. He was Savior, Messiah and Lord (Lk. 2:11). Messiah (or Christ) means “chosen one” and “Lord” is a synonym for God.
– It was for everyone – “a Savior has been born to you” was initially addressed to the poor uneducated shepherds.
– It has eternal value.
But a gift only brings joy if it is received. Have you received God’s Christmas gift? Do you believe that Jesus came for you?
We can seek happiness in many ways. But the Bible reveals the source of true lasting joy. At the first Christmas an angel announced that Jesus would bring “Joy to the world”. And the song by Isaac Watts describes the joy associated with Christ’s second advent. The joy of Christmas is Jesus. He came so that we could experience joy. Not always happiness, but an inner contentment of joy. The true joy of Christmas lasts all year long and for a lifetime. Do you know the joy that only Jesus can bring? May you have a joyful Christmas.
Written, December 2016
Andy, our new grandson, arrived recently. Here are a few things that I am reminded of at a time like this.
Just like you and I, Andy is unique. There is no one else on earth (past, present and future) who is exactly like him. He has a unique genome, which is comprised of about 3 billion DNA base pairs in each cell of his body. He grew from a single cell itself.
God designed and created our world so that, over a period of nine months, the genetic information in a single cell can develop into a child that is ready to be born. It takes a lot of design to build a genome; it’s amazingly complex.
The Bible says that the development of a baby in the womb is an example of God’s power (omnipotence) and skill. King David wrote, “You made all the delicate, inner parts of my body and knit me together in my mother’s womb. Thank you for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous—how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born” (Ps. 139:13-16NLT). And another psalm says of God the Creator, “You made me; you created me” (Ps. 119:73). Of course God knows all about a baby as it’s growing in the womb (Jer. 1:5; Gal. 1:15).
I think another example of God’s power and skill is life itself. Can anyone explain the origin of life, without referring to God? We see that life always comes from life. Andy’s family tree goes back to Adam and Eve. How did Adam and Eve become alive? The Bible says their life came from God (Gen. 2:7, 22). Only God can create life; scientists can’t manufacture it, they just use it.
Is Andy perfect?
Although Andy is perfect in the eyes of his parents, in two ways he isn’t perfect.
Firstly, just like you and I, Andy’s genome contains mutations inherited from his parents. When parents reproduce, they make a copy of their genome and pass this to their child. From time to time, mistakes occur (called “mutations”), and the next generation does not have a perfect copy of the original genome. Each new generation carries all the mutations of previous generations plus their own. So the mutations accumulate from generation to generation. This means that the human genome is degenerating genetically with time due to the accumulation of mutations. In order to minimize the risk of deformed offspring that can result from shared mutations between genetically close parents, marriage is usually prohibited between close relatives. In fact, such limitations needed to be imposed after about 26 copies of the human genome, which was in the times of Moses’ children (Lev. 18:6-16; 20:11, 17, Dt. 27:22).
Secondly, just like you and I, Andy has a sinful nature. This means that he will have a natural tendency to misbehave. The Bible says that we are all sinners by nature (Rom. 3:23; Eph. 2:1-3). Even when Andy tries to do the right thing, it will be elusive (Rom. 7:14-20). This attitude affects our mind, will and emotions in particular (Jer. 17:9). But according to Andy’s “Beginner’s Bible”, “Jesus knew that he had to die for the sins of all people. It was part of God’s plan. When it was time, Jesus died on the cross for our sins.”
Now we can look forward to seeing Andy grow and develop from a baby to a child, to an adolescent, and then to a man, the way God has planned.
Written, February 2015
I went to a funeral yesterday, which had been postponed until after the birth of a baby. The safe arrival of a baby can bring joy amidst despair. It is good news. This was particularly true in the days before modern medicine when some mothers and babies didn’t survive child birth. It’s a significant event that is anticipated by the parents and their family and friends. But the birth we remember at Christmas was unique in bringing joy to both earth and heaven. We see that God changes despair into joy.
Joy on earth
At Christ’s birth the shepherds were told, “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; He is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11NIV). This was good news for a nation that despaired for at least 500 years when they were ruled by foreign powers and lacked a proper king (Herod was not a Jew). They were looking for the promised Messiah to lead a rebellion against the Romans and bring them lasting peace and prosperity (Is. 9:6-7; Lk. 23:2-5). They also knew that their Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2, 4; Jn. 7:42).
God revealed to two elderly people that baby Jesus was the promised Messiah. Simeon could now die in peace (Lk. 2:29). Anna thanked God and told others who were looking forward to being freed from foreign domination (Lk. 2:38).
But the good news was not restricted to Jews in Israel. Gentile astrologers from east of Israel came to worship “the one who has been born king of the Jews” (Mt. 2:1-2).
On 22 July 2013 a son was born to Prince William and Kate Middleton The birth of an heir to the throne, such as Prince George, brings joy to a nation. Because Christ’s was a royal birth, there was joy in Israel. But what made this event different to the birth of Prince George?
Joy in heaven
Prince George was given a family name. Jesus was also given a family name (the same as Joshua: “Jesus” is from Greek, while “Joshua” is from Hebrew), but it was “because He will save His people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21). The Jews wanted to be delivered from Roman rule. But instead they are promised to be saved from their sins!
There was also joy in heaven at Christ’s birth – the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests” (Lk. 2:14). They also declare that Christ is the source of peace on earth. This peace is available to those who repent of their sins and receive Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. That’s how people are saved from their sins. This joy continues today because there is rejoicing in heaven when a sinner repents and turns to God (Lk. 15:7, 10).
From despair to joy
Through the birth of a baby, God changed the Jewish despair into joy. However, Jesus wasn’t only a Savior for the Jews, but for all the people of the world (Jn. 3:16; 4:42). Through Jesus joy is available to those who accept His gift of salvation and this joy extends to heaven.
Do you realise the significance of Christ’s birth? The significance of His life, death, resurrection and ascension? Have you caused rejoicing in heaven? Let’s remember these things at Christmas (Lk. 2:19).
Remember God can change despair into joy.
Written, December 2013
Infant death is agonizing and raises many questions. The Bible teaches that we are sinful from childhood: “Every inclination of the human heart is evil from childhood” (Gen. 8:21), “Folly is bound up in the heart of a child” (Prov. 22:15) and “from our youth till this day we have not obeyed the Lord our God” (Jer. 3:25). We are all sinners (Rom. 3:10, 23). So children are never innocent in the sense of being sinless. This is serious because spiritual death is a bigger issue than physical death. It leads to eternal separation from God, which is the opposite of eternal life (Jn. 3:16; Rom 6:23).
Three Bible verses teach that infants are not accountable for their sin. Firstly, when the Israelites rebelled and refused to enter Canaan, they were punished with all their army except Joshua and Caleb dying while they wandered 38 years in the desert. At this time God promised that their young children would enter Canaan, “And the little ones that you said would be taken captive, your children who do not yet know good from bad—they will enter the land. I will give it to them and they will take possession of it” (Dt. 1:39, Num. 14:31). Because they did not yet know good from bad, they were not responsible or accountable for the Israelites’ disobedience.
Secondly, when the king of Judah was being attacked by the kings of Syria and Israel, he was given a sign that his enemies would be defeated by Assyria. Isaiah was to have a son and before he “knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” the land of the two kings will be laid waste (Isa. 7:14-16). Children who are not accountable do not know the difference between right and wrong or good and evil. They are not yet aware of their sinful condition or God’s cure.
Thirdly, when God rebuked Jonah, He similarly distinguished between young children and adults,“And should I not have concern for the great city of Nineveh, in which there are more than a 120,000 people who cannot tell their right hand from their left—and also many animals?” (Jon. 4:11).
God judges people who haven’t heard the gospel message according to their response to the revelation of His eternal power and divine nature in the universe He created (Rom. 1:19-21). If they can discern what God has made, they have no excuse. However, if they are unable to discern what God has made (which is true for infants), then they have an excuse and will be saved instead of judged.
At what age can a child respond to God’s revelation in creation (Dt. 1:39; Isa. 7:15-16)? It is the age at which they can understand the issue and respond to the work of the Holy Spirit in their life (Jn. 16:8-9). It is when they can recognize His works of creation and choose to accept, honor and thank Him (Rom. 1:21). Those who die at a younger age go to heaven rather than be condemned to spiritual death.
Jesus “is the atoning sacrifice for … the sins of the whole world’ (1 Jn. 2:2). As a loving and merciful God, it is reasonable to assume that He accepts Christ’s payment for the sin of those who are unable to understand God’s revelation and their sinful state such as babies and young children. After all, Abraham said, “Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?” (Gen. 18:25). But once children reach the age of God-consciousness, they are accountable for their sin.
We will now look at some other Scriptures that are sometimes used to answer this question.
Age of accountability
As all the Israelites over the age of 20 died in the desert before they reached Canaan, except for Joshua and Caleb, some think this is the age of accountability for one’s sins (Num. 14:29). However, this was the age above which men served in the army (Num. 1:3; 26:2; Josh. 5:4, 6). They were punished, not because 20 was the age of accountability, but because instead of serving the Lord by taking possession of Canaan, they grumbled against the Lord.
When Bathsheba’s baby died, David stopped fasting and said “Can I bring him back again? I will go to him, but he will not return to me” (2 Sam. 12:23). Some believe that David believed that when he died he would go to heaven where his son would be. However, it is more likely that David was referring to death or the grave, not to heaven. There is little in the Old Testament about life after death. Job may have believed in a future resurrection (Job. 14:13-15) and the psalmists allude to an after-life (Ps. 16:10-11; 17:15; 49:14-15). The clearest passage is Daniel 12:2-3.
Some believe that when Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these”, He was saying that the little children belong to the kingdom of heaven and so would go to heaven if they died (Mt. 19:14; Mk. 10:14; Lk. 18:16). However, the verse seems to be explained in the following verse as “anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it” (Mk. 10:15; Lk. 18:17). In the case of Matthew this thought is given in Mt. 18:3. The emphasis is that child-like faith is required to enter the kingdom of God, not that young children belong to the kingdom of heaven.
So infants go to heaven when they die, but what about us? We can join them in future by realizing our sinfulness and believing that Jesus Christ has taken the penalty for our sin (Acts 16:31).
Written, November 2012