In the Christmas carol, “Joy to the world”, “heaven and nature sing” at the coming of the King (Jesus Christ). But how can nature sing?
The final five psalms in the book of psalms (146-150) have a theme of praise. Each of them begin and end with “Praise the Lord”. In this post on Psalm 148 we see that all creation (nature) praises God.
Psalm 148 has been categorized as a nature psalm. These psalms praise the Lord as the creator and sustainer of the physical universe. God is separate from nature because He created it. This made Jewish beliefs different to the common beliefs of ancient times that various objects in nature are divine. Just think about the gods of Egypt, Canaan, Greece and Rome. The theological description is that God is “transcendent”, which means He is independent of the creation. But the creation (nature) is also sustained by His mighty power; He sustains “all things by His powerful word” (Heb. 1:3NIV). And the creation (nature) declares (shows) God’s greatness (Ps. 19:1). Psalm 148 says,
“1 Praise the Lord.
Praise the Lord from the heavens;
praise Him in the heights above.
2 Praise Him, all His angels;
praise Him, all His heavenly hosts [angels].
3 Praise Him, sun and moon;
praise Him, all you shining stars.
4 Praise Him, you highest heavens
and you waters above the skies [clouds].
5 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for at His command they were created,
6 and He established them for ever and ever—
He issued a decree that will never pass away.
7 Praise the Lord from the earth,
you great sea creatures and all ocean depths,
8 lightning and hail, snow and clouds,
stormy winds that do His bidding,
9 you mountains and all hills,
fruit trees and all cedars,
10 wild animals and all cattle,
small creatures and flying birds,
11 kings of the earth and all nations,
you princes and all rulers on earth,
12 young men and women,
old men and children.
13 Let them praise the name of the Lord,
for His name alone is exalted;
His splendor is above the earth and the heavens.
14 And He has raised up for His people [Israel] a horn [king?],
the praise of all His faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to His heart.
Praise the Lord.”
The psalm is framed with “Praise the Lord”, which is like a refrain (chorus). The key words in the psalm are “praise” (13 times) and “all” (10 times). It’s an inclusive song of praise as it includes everyone.
The key feature of Hebrew poetry is parallelism. The first section gives examples of praise “from the heavens” (v.1-4). While another section gives examples of praise “from the earth” (v.7-12). These verses say who is praising God.
The other verses (v.5-6, 13-14) give the reasons for the praising. Who are they praising? The Lord who created everything at His command (Ps. 148:5).
The psalm was probably written when there was a king in Judah (Appendix). It seems to be a time when the Israelites were a distinct nation and not in disarray. It’s written to Jews who were probably living in Judah.
Praise from the heavens – v.1-4
The heavens are described as “the heights above” the earth. From this section we see that the psalmist uses the term “heaven” to describe the atmosphere, the universe, and the abode of angels. This is consistent with the rest of scripture.
Who is praising God from the heavens? The angels (v.2). The universe of the sun, moon and stars (probably including the planets) (v.3). And the clouds (v.4).
Angels are God’s invisible agents. They praised God at Christ’s birth (Lk. 2:13-14). They continually praise God’s holiness and eternity (Rev. 4:6-8). And after they have finished their earthly ministry, numerous angels will encircle God’s throne and sing in a loud voice, “Worthy is the Lamb [Christ], who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and strength and honor and glory and praise!” (Rev. 5:11-12).
The universe of sun, moon and stars can praise God because He made it immensely huge to demonstrate His massive power. From the Bible we know that the cosmic world didn’t begin very small and simple and grow to be more complex like in the idea of the big-bang. God “stretched it out” when He created it. So it was created to be mature and well-developed from the beginning, and not primitive.
Praise from the earth – v.7-12
In ancient times, the other part of the universe was called the “earth” or the “land” – either English translation of the Hebrew word erets (Strongs #776) is appropriate depending on the context. In this passage it includes the ocean, the atmosphere, the landscape, vegetation, animals and people. It seems unusual to include the atmosphere as part of the earth as elsewhere in the Bible, the sky (atmosphere) is included as part of the heavens. But of course events in the atmosphere can have a significant impact on the earth and its inhabitants.
Who is praising God from the earth? The marine life and the ocean depths (v.7), lightning, hail, clouds, and strong winds (v.8), mountains, hills and trees (v.9), animals (v.10), rulers (v.11), and people (v.12).
The landscape can praise God because He sculpted it during the flood in Noah’s day, rearranging the surface of the earth by laying down thick layers of sedimentary rock, and then displacing, distorting and eroding them by lifting up parts to form mountains and causing other parts to descend to form the floor of oceans. And there was also horizon movement that formed continents (continental drift). Then volcanoes formed more mountains. After this, ice carved out glaciers in the ice age.
The atmosphere of clouds and storms can praise God because in the beginning He made the gases that comprise it. And He made the laws that govern it’s motion across the earth (the winds) and the laws that control the water cycle (clouds, lighting, hail, and snow).
The plants, animals and ecosystems of the earth can praise God because He created them to be mature and well-developed from the beginning, and not primitive. From the Bible we know that the biological world didn’t begin very small and simple and grow to be more complex like in the idea of evolution.
Together the heavens and the earth describe everything in the universe. Every created thing is invited to praise the Lord. Nature is to praise God.
A person went to a restaurant. They sat down and admired the décor, including the lighting and the paintings on the wall. They were pleased with the table settings; the delicious smell of the food; the well-dressed waiters; and how efficiently the restaurant was being run. But they didn’t have a meal, which is the main reason to visit the restaurant! Many enjoy the décor of the universe, but they don’t enjoy the God who made it. Our purpose is to offer thanks and praise to God (v.11-12). To miss out on this it to miss everything.
Why praise God? – v.5-6, 13-14
There is praise from the heavens because God created them (v.5) and their existence is secure (v.6). Verse 6 probably refers to the boundaries or limits God placed on all creation. The laws of nature are constant and reliable. (God’s moral laws are also constant and reliable.) It’s predictable (rather than chaotic) and science is possible.
There is praise from the earth because God’s splendor is above the splendor of the universe (v.13). He is greater than His creation. He is unique. And God is praised because “He has raised up for His people [Israel] a horn [king?]”. This figure of speech can mean that Israel was strong or that it was ruled by a king (Appendix). It also shows God’s saving power (He saved faithful Israelites) and could be a prophecy pointing to Jesus Christ.
Personification is a figure of speech in which a non-human thing is given human attributes.
In this psalm animals (great sea creatures, wild animals, cattle, small creatures, birds), topographical features (ocean depths, mountains, hills), meteorological parameters (clouds, lightning, hail, snow, stormy winds), celestial bodies (sun, moon, stars), and trees (fruit trees, cedars) praise God. This is an example of personification that covers all the main spheres of God’s creation. Of course, angels and people also praise God (v.2, 12).
Personification of nature occurs in 15 psalms (19, 50, 65, 66, 69, 76, 96, 97, 98, 100, 104, 121, 145, 148, and 150). This includes four nature psalms (19, 65, 104, and 148). Two other nature psalms don’t have personification (8, 29).
The Bible says that the heavens (sun, moon and stars) show God’s glory to us by fulfilling their God-given roles (Ps. 19:1-4a). Extending this principle to the rest of creation – each part of God’s creation shows God’s glory to us by fulfilling its God-given role (Job 26:14). By their order, complexity (intricacy), fine-tuning, power and splendor, each part of creation (nature) alludes to the far greater intelligence, power and splendor of their Creator.
When will they praise?
Obviously not all nations and peoples praised God when this psalm was written. And not all nations and peoples praise God today. Maybe this psalm looks ahead to Christ’s return to establish His millennial kingdom on earth. Certainly in a coming day everyone will praise the Lord when, “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Phil. 2:10-11).
Meanwhile, all creation praises God by being what He’s made them to be. Similarly we can praise God by being who He’s made us to be, where He’s put us and by doing what He’s given us to do.
What has changed since Psalm 148 was written? Since then Jesus has come and fulfilled the promises in the Old Testament of a Messiah. And we have the New Testament. So believers have some new reasons to praise God.
And at the end of the psalm it alludes to God’s care for His people (v.14). At that time it was Hebrews living in the kingdom of Israel or Judea. Today it’s salvation of believers through Jesus Christ.
But in future God will still be praised in heaven because He created all things at the beginning of time (Rev. 4:11). And at the end of time, “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and on the sea, and all that is in them” will praise God (Rev. 5:13).
Why not join the rest of creation and choose to praise God while you can? Don’t be shown-up by the rest of creation!
What else can we learn from Psalm 148? The folly of worshipping nature instead of the true God by attributing creative powers to nature. That’s worshipping creatures instead of the Creator (Rom. 1:25). The psalmist says that nature praises and worships God! So we should do likewise (v.11-12).
In Psalm 148 everything in the cosmic world, the atmospheric world, the oceanographic world, the topographic world, and the biological world praises God. This means that all creation praises the Creator. They can do this by expressing their order, complexity, fine-tuning, power and splendor, which alludes to the far greater intelligence, power and splendor of their Creator.
Let’s do this voluntarily now before it’s compelling.
Appendix: What does “horn” mean in Psalm 148:14?
The Hebrew word qeren (Strongs #7161) is translated “horn”. It occurs 13 times in the book of Psalms. The 12 occurrences of this word outside Psalm 148 mean:
– the physical horns of the altar (118:27)
– A symbol of a Davidic king (132:17)
– A symbol of strength (18:2; 22:21; 75:4, 5, 10twice; 89:17, 24; 92:10; 112:9). In ancient times the horn of the wild ox was frequently a metaphor for military strength. If an ox is charging, you want to stay away from its horns!
Psalm 148:14 says, “And He [God] has raised up for His people [Israel] a horn [king?],
the praise of all His faithful servants,
of Israel, the people close to His heart.” (NIV)
In this context, “horn” couldn’t mean the horns of the altar.
Could “horn” symbolize a Davidic king? Yes, because the horn is established by God as in 132:17.
Could “horn” symbolize strength? Yes, because the NIV text note says, “Horn here symbolizes strength”. And the NET translation notes say:
Hebrew: “and He lifted up a horn for His people.” The horn of an ox underlies the metaphor (see Dt. 33:17; 1 Ki. 22:11; Ps. 92:10). The horn of the wild ox is frequently a metaphor for military strength; the idiom “exalt/lift up the horn” signifies military victory (see 1 Sam. 2:10; Ps. 75:10; 89:17, 24; 92:10; Lam. 2:17). Another option is to take the “horn” as a symbol for the Davidic king, through whom the Lord gives His people military victory.
And the NET version of Psalm 148:14 is:
“He has made His people victorious,
and given all His loyal followers reason to praise – the Israelites, the people who are close to Him.”
So “horn” can mean that Israel was strong or that it was ruled by a monarch. In each case, God was protecting the nation of Israel. As the Jews were weak after going into exile in 586BC, this implies that this psalm was probably written before this date. So I disagree with the academic view that Psalm 148 is postexilic because of its location near the end of the book of Psalms.
This figure of speech also shows God’s saving power for His people – He provided leadership and strength to the nation of Israel. And, with hindsight, it could be a prophecy pointing to Jesus Christ, a descendant of king David (Lk. 1:69). Today God’s saving power is shown when someone is forgiven from their sin, rebellion and indifference toward God by trusting in what Jesus has done for them. They then have a special relationship with God.
Written, June 2019
The Islamic call to prayer begins with “Allahu akbar”, which means “God is great” or “God is greater”. This phrase is recited by Muslims in many different situations.
There are lots of ideas about God. Some think God’s like a harsh judge or policeman. Others think God’s like an indulgent grandfather. Is God close or distant? Is God involved in our world or disinterested? Is God separate from creation (nature) or a part of it? Is God fixed or changeable?
Job’s friends were rebuked for misrepresenting God (Job. 42:7). And the Israelites were commanded not to worship false gods (Ex. 20:3-5). God has revealed Himself to humanity in creation, the Bible and Jesus Christ. As all we know about Jesus is from the Bible, the Bible is the best way to know what God is like and what He is not like.
What does the Bible reveal about God’s attributes, characteristics, nature or qualities? In this case we are looking at who God is, not what He does. Erickson (2013) divides these attributes into two categories: God’s greatness, and God’s goodness. This blogpost summarizes eleven aspects of God’s greatness.
God is Spiritual
Jesus said, “God is spirit, and His worshipers must worship in the Spirit and in truth” (Jn. 4:24NIV). This means that God’s not part of our physical world. It’s like He is in a different dimension or realm of reality. He is not composed of physical matter and is not restricted by the limitations of our physical universe. So God is invisible (1 Tim. 1:17; 6:15-16). But Jesus did reveal some of God’s attributes when He took on a human form (Jn. 1:18; Col. 1:15). So, let’s study the Bible to find out more about the unseen God and how He wants us to live.
God is Alive
Jesus said, “as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son (Jesus) also to have life in Himself” (Jn. 5:26). God is self-existent and the source of all life (Acts 17:25). In contrast to dead idols, He is a living God (Jer.10:10; 1 Th. 1:9). Because God is alive, He can think, act, communicate, and answer our prayers. And He can give spiritual life to those who seek Him. So, let’s bring our cares and needs to the living God in prayer.
God is Personal
The Bible teaches that God is personal, with self-consciousness, intelligence to reason and design, a will, capable of feeling, and choosing and having a relationship with people. Personal names and pronouns are applied to God. In the beginning, God communicated with Adam and Eve. And later, Jesus visited earth as a human being. God is not an impersonal force. So, let’s interact with the personal God as we read the Bible.
God is Triune
It is evident from Scripture that there is one true God who is in the form of three persons. When dismissing idols as gods, Paul said that “There is no God but one” (1 Cor. 8:4). And in a discussion on faith and deeds James said “You believe that there is one God. Good!” (Jas. 2:19). So Christianity is monotheistic. But it is a different monotheism to that of Islam.
Jesus told His disciples, “go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son (Jesus Christ) and of the Holy Spirit” (Mt. 28:19). Here the singular name of God is said to be “the Father … the Son and … the Holy Spirit”, which is three persons. Jesus was God (Jn. 1:1). He was “in very nature God” and equal with God (Phil. 2:6). Jesus was also “the exact representation of His (God’s) being” and called “God” and “Lord” (Heb. 1: 3, 8, 10). Also, the Bible uses the “Holy Spirit” and “God” as interchangeable expressions” (Acts. 5:3-4; 1 Cor. 3:16-17; 6:19). So let’s praise God for sending Jesus as part of His plan of salvation. And pray to Him in Jesus name because Jesus is our mediator (Jn. 16:23). And realize that the Holy Spirit is always available to help us because He lives within us.
God is Infinite
As God created everything, He can’t be limited by anything. This includes: time, space, knowledge, power, and anything else we can think of. He is outside time and space (or in a different dimension or realm of being). So He can’t be limited by any of the constraints in the universe. God’s greatness can’t be measured. So, let’s respond with awe to the infinite God. As this attribute is beyond our understanding, it is considered in more detail in the next four attributes.
God is Eternal
Because God existed before there was time, He isn’t limited in time. He’s not located at a particular time in history because He created time. This means that He doesn’t have a time clock like us. He always is, always was and always will be. God is eternal – He is “the eternal God” (Gen. 21:33; Dt., 33:27; Rom. 16:26). As God existed before anything else came into being (Gen. 1:1), He can continue to exist independently of everything else. Because He had no beginning (or cause), God has no birthday or age. He also has no end – He is immortal. Moses prayed, “from everlasting to everlasting you are God” (Ps. 90:2). This means that God is always present. He has access to creation at all times. Although God isn’t bound by time, He is aware of the succession of events within the history of the universe. And because God is eternal, He doesn’t get taken by surprise. So, let’s appreciate the eternal life we have though the eternal God.
God is Everywhere (omnipresent)
Because God existed before there was space, He isn’t limited in space. He’s not located at a particular point because He created space. This means that He doesn’t have any GPS coordinates like us. Conversely, there is no point in space where it can be said that God isn’t present. David wrote, “Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens (up), you are there; if I make my bed in the depths (down), you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn (east), if I settle on the far side of the sea (west), even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast” (Ps. 139:7-10). David couldn’t hide from God’s presence. This means that God is accessible at any point in His creation. And God can access all the universe. So God is omnipresent. But this doesn’t mean that He is everything. So, let’s be aware of God’s presence at all times.
God is All-knowing (omniscient)
Because God existed before knowledge came into being, He knows everything. David wrote, “You know when I sit and when I rise; you perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down; you are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue you, Lord, know it completely. You hem me in behind and before, and you lay your hand upon me. Such knowledge is too wonderful for me, too lofty for me to attain” (Ps. 139:2-6). And the writer of Hebrews says, “Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of Him (God) to whom we must give account” (Heb. 4:13). God sees and knows everything! Nothing is hidden from Him. Nothing is a mystery to Him. So God is omniscient. Since He knows everything, His justice will always be administered fairly. So, let’s trust the all-knowing God to know what is best for us.
God is All-powerful (omnipotent)
Because God created and sustains everything, He has unlimited power. From Genesis to Revelation, He is referred to as “God Almighty”. God told Abram, “I am God Almighty” (Gen. 17:1). And John saw “the Lord God Almighty” in his vison of the heavenly city (Rev. 21:22). God’s power over nature is illustrated in the Bible by many miracles such as the birth of Isaac, the plagues in Egypt, the crossing of the Red Sea, and Christ’s miracles including the stilling of the storm. Of course God cannot act contrary to His nature or fail to fulfil His promises. So, let’s trust the all-powerful God to keep His promises.
God is Constant (unchanging)
God’s attributes don’t change with time. Although the Jews repeatedly broke their covenant with God, God kept His part of the covenant in accordance with the statement that “I the Lord do not change” (Mal. 3:6). And James says that God “does not change like shifting shadows” (Jas. 1:17). There is no reason for God to change because He is perfect. So He is constant, consistent, reliable and trustworthy. He’s perpetually the same. That’s why God is said to be like a rock (Dt. 32:4). This means that God is dependable and will fulfil His promises. So, let’s rely on the constant God.
God is All-sufficient (sustainer)
When Jacob blessed his son Joseph, he said that God Almighty blesses “with blessings of the skies above, blessings of the deep springs below, blessings of the breast and womb” (Gen. 49:25). So God nourishes and sustains His people like a mother breastfeeds her infant. Because God is self-sufficient, He needs nothing from anyone. He is able to supply all the needs of His people; “my God will meet all your needs according to the riches of His glory in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:19). God has addressed all our problems, doubts and difficulties, in the gospel of His Son, Jesus Christ. So, let’s rely on the all-sufficient God to get through the trials of life.
God’s greatness in Scripture
The Bible refers repeatedly to God’s greatness. He is “the great God” (Dt. 10:17; Ezra 5:8; Neh. 8:6; 9:32; Ps. 95:3; Dan. 2:45) and “great and awesome” (Dt. 7:21; Dan. 9:4). Also, Jesus is said to be “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13). The Hebrew word is gadol (Strongs #1419), which in this context means great in importance (Brown-Driver-Briggs). The Greek word is megas (Strongs #3173), which in this context means a person of great rank because of their ability, virtue and power (Thayer’s Greek Lexion). In these passages, this greatness relates to the triune God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The magnitude of His greatness is described as:
– “God is greater than any mortal” (Job 33:12)
– “How great is God—beyond our understanding!” (Job 36:26)
– God is “very great” (Ps. 96:4)
– God is “greater than all” (Jn. 10:29)
God’s greatness demands a response:
– “praise the greatness of our God!” (Dt. 32:3)
– “great is the Lord and most worthy of praise” (1 Chron. 16:25; Ps. 104:1)
– “And they were all amazed at the greatness of God” (Lk. 9:43)
God and humanity
The only attributes listed above that are shared by humanity are spirit, life and personality. But there are also differences. While on earth, our spirits are linked with our bodies, whereas God the Father and the Holy Spirit are spirits without bodies and Jesus Christ is a spirit linked to a resurrected (heavenly) body. Although we are alive, we are not self-existent or the source of all life. And although we can know, feel, will and act, we can’t do this as three persons! But because we are both personal, we can have a relationship with God.
Lessons for us
Our God is great because He is an infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, living and personal triune spirit, who is reliable (constant) and all-sufficient. God is mega! He is unique, being far above humanity and any other deity. He’s greater than Allah and all other gods. So He deserves our praise and worship!
Millard J. Erickson (2013) “Christian theology”. Third edition. Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, MI, USA.
Written, April 2017
At a birthday party we celebrate a person’s life. But what if a person isn’t mentioned at their birthday party? That would be embarrassing! Christmas can be like that, because Christmas is when our culture chooses to remember the birth of Jesus Christ, but not everyone does this.
We usually celebrate Christmas with family and friends. But I was reminded recently that Christmas is not only a time of celebration. It also involves a lot of sacrifice; because it took sacrifices to get Christ here into this world. A sacrifice is something that’s given up (forfeited or surrendered) for the sake of a better cause. This blogpost is a summary of a presentation on this topic by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan.
Christmas is not just holidays, or food, or drinks, or decorations, or Santa Claus or gifts, or greetings. That’s the celebrative part of Christmas, which is an outcome of the real Christmas. But celebrating without recognizing the birthday person (Jesus Christ) is embarrassing and tragic.
The first Christmas
There was a great celebration that first Christmas. When the shepherds were told the good news about the baby Jesus, the angels praised God, “Glory to God in the highest heaven” (Lk. 2:14-18NIV). And the shepherds were very excited when they saw the baby Jesus.
But what about Mary’s family? Because of their shame, they probably weren’t celebrating. Her pregnancy would have been known in their local community. But no-one would have believed that she was carrying a holy baby. Like everyone else, her family would have thought she was carrying an illegitimate child, which brought shame and disgrace on the family and into the community. Even her fiancé (Joseph) planned to divorce her quietly (Mt. 1:18-25). But he changed his mind when an angel told him that Jesus was indeed a holy baby.
Did God celebrate at the first Christmas? Probably not. That was when God lost His Son, giving Him to the world as a human being to stand forever with people who were sinners. So behind the scenes there is a sacrificial aspect to the first Christmas.
Christmas was God’s idea
Jesus taught Nicodemus, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life” (Jn. 3:16). There are four things in this verse: God’s love, God giving, an invitation to believe, and an invitation to live. The first two and the last two are linked together. God so loved that He gave. For God, to love means to give. And He gave the best He could give. That is Himself. And then He says “whoever believes”. Nicodemus is urged to believe that Jesus is the Son of God in order to have eternal life instead perishing. Giving is always sacrificial, while receiving (in this case, believing to receive eternal life) is a reason to celebrate.
At Christmas we remember that God gave Himself, which is a sacrifice. Sending Jesus to earth was God’s idea. In this sense, God invented Christmas. And when we receive God’s gift (of forgiveness, love, joy, peace, and eternal life through Jesus), that’s a reason for celebration. Let’s look at four things that God sacrificed on the first Christmas so that we can celebrate.
The sacrifice of God’s glory
On the night before He was executed, Jesus prayed to God the Father, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (Jn. 17:5). Before Christ came into the world, He lived in heaven with God the Father. He had the glory and splendor of deity. But on the first Christmas Jesus sacrificed (gave up) His glory. Instead of being visible, it was hidden (or veiled). In John 17 Jesus is praying that His visible glory might be restored in heaven.
Paul explains why Jesus sacrificed His glory, “What if He did this to make the riches of His glory known to the objects of His mercy, whom He prepared in advance for glory – even us, whom He also called, not only from the Jews but also from the Gentiles?” (Rom. 9:23-24). God is preparing some people for glory. Jesus had to sacrifice His glory at the first Christmas so that we can regain our glory (which was lost by Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden) by trusting in Jesus Christ.
On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory; He also sacrificed His riches.
The sacrifice of God’s riches
Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of generosity: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus was enormously rich because He was God. But at the first Christmas, He became poor. So He went from wealth to poverty. Jesus gave up everything so poor sinners like us who were under God’s judgment can become rich in Him. We are rich “in Christ”. This has been expressed in verse as:
Let the weak say “I am strong”,
Let the poor say “I am rich”,
Let the blind say “I can see”,
Because of what the Lord has done in me.
We can’t understand Christmas without reference to the crucifixion and the resurrection, because the incarnation (Christ’s birth) became a saving event through the crucifixion.
On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches; He also sacrificed His nature.
The sacrifice of God’s nature
Paul said that Jesus was the greatest example of humility: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to His own advantage; rather, He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Phil. 2:6-8)
God is a spirit who is immortal, eternal, and beyond our world of time, space, mass, and energy. But on the first Christmas, God shattered Himself and became a human being. The Creator of the universe transformed into a servant. A dependent baby. In this way, His divinity was hidden (or veiled).
Paul said that Christians had “put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness” (Eph. 4:24). God had to shatter Himself at the first Christmas so that sinners like us can be recreated. When we trust in Christ as Savior, we put on a new self, which is created in the image of God (just like God).
On the first Christmas, God not only sacrificed His glory and His riches and His nature; He also sacrificed His life.
The sacrifice of God’s life
Jesus said, “I lay down my life for the sheep” (Jn. 10:15) and “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mk. 10:45).
When Jesus came as a baby the first Christmas, He came to sacrifice His life. So Christmas cost God’s life. Why? So that we may have His life. Jesus said “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full” (Jn. 10:10). The “life” referred to here is spiritual life. This life is given by God upon trust in Jesus Christ (Jn. 5:39-40; 1 Jn. 5:11-12). Because we have spiritual life, we can celebrate at Christmas by celebrating Jesus who is the source of spiritual life. Christmas is a time to encounter this life in Christ Jesus. As we saw in John 3:16, He loved to give, and we believe to live (spiritually). But if we are spiritually dead, our Christmas is meaningless.
True Christmas is not just a time of celebration. It involves much more than celebration. Christmas is a time to:
– Reflect on God’s sacrifice (what He has done for us),
– Recognize Jesus our Savior,
– Reconnect with Christ (God’s Christmas gift to us), and
Let’s celebrate Christmas meaningfully by remembering God’s sacrifices. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s glory. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s riches. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s nature. Christmas is a sacrifice and celebration of God’s life. And let’s be willing to sacrifice for others just as God sacrificed for us.
Acknowledgement: This blogpost was sourced from a presentation by Dr. Xavier Lakshmanan on “True Christmas: Sacrifice and Celebration”. Dr. Lakshmanan is Head of Theology in the Australian College of Christian Studies.
Written, December 2016
As there will be people “from every tribe and language and people and nation” in heaven, it seems that some of these would not have heard about Jesus before they died (Rev. 5:9-10). I believe that infants go to heaven when they die because they are not accountable for their sin. We will look at other people in two categories, those who lived before and after Christ.
The Bible says that those who trusted God in Old Testament times go to heaven. Although most of the promises they were given were physical, they also had a heavenly hope. They realised that this earth was not their final home: “admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth” (Heb. 11:13NIV). Instead they were looking towards heaven: “they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one” (Heb. 11:16a). We are told that God “has prepared a city for them” (Heb. 11:16b). In particular, Abraham “was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Heb. 11:10).
These people are commended in Hebrews as those who lived by faith. The Bible says, “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to Him must believe that He exists and that He rewards those who earnestly seek Him” (Heb. 11:6). The Jews were told, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). This faith was based on a revelation from God.
“Enoch walked faithfully with God” (Gen. 5:22, 24). So did Noah (Gen. 6:9). This means they obeyed God. “Noah did everything just as God commanded him” (Gen. 6:22). “By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going” (Heb. 11:8). Job repented after God revealed His power through nature (Job 38-41; 42:6).
So those who trusted in God’s revelation to them before the formation of the Israelite nation go to heaven. In their case, God usually spoke directly to them.
God spoke to the Israelites “at many times and in various ways” (Heb. 1:1). It is stated that Moses accepted “disgrace for the sake of Christ” (Heb. 11:26). But as Moses lived about 1,450 years before Christ, this seems to be a figure of speech. It means that Moses choose to be loyal to God and to associate with his fellow Israelites. The reason given is that “he was looking ahead to his reward”. As Hebrews was probably written about 65AD, the writer knew that the Messiah was the one through whom God guaranteed their promised future.
So the Israelites who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. In their case, the revelation was usually miracles and the law given through Moses.
We know God revealed Himself to the Israelites as they were His people during this period of time. But what about the Gentiles? The Israelites were told to follow the laws that God gave them through Moses so that other nations would come to know God: “Observe them carefully, for this will show your wisdom and understanding to the nations, who will hear about all these decrees and say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ What other nation is so great as to have their gods near them the way the Lord our God is near us whenever we pray to him? And what other nation is so great as to have such righteous decrees and laws as this body of laws I am setting before you today?” (Dt. 4:6-8).
Rahab is a Gentile who trusted God (Heb. 11:31). She told the Israelite spies, “I know that the Lord has given you this land … for the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below” (Josh. 2:9-11). Because of what she had heard of the Exodus and the defeat of the Amorites, she realised that the God of the Israelites was greater than the Canaanite gods. So she rejected the Canaanite gods to follow the God of the Israelites.
Also Ruth the Moabite told her Israelite mother-in-law, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:16). Likewise, she rejected the gods of the Moabites to follow the God of the Israelites. God’s interest in the Gentiles is shown in the book of Jonah where Jonah was sent to Nineveh with a message of God’s judgment and the people repented of their sin (Jon. 3:1-10).
So the Gentiles who trusted in God’s revelation to them in Old Testament times go to heaven. God revealed Himself to them through the Israelites when they heard about their law and the miraculous preservation of their nation.
All the above are examples of people who go to heaven without hearing about Jesus. But the Bible says the following about Jesus, “There is salvation in no one else! God has given no other name under heaven by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12NLT). And Jesus said, “No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). This means that the only way to get into heaven is through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Before Christ’s death people were saved according to their acceptance of God’s revelation to them. It was based on the future work of Christ. So those who trusted in God’s revelation in Old Testament times go to heaven because their faith in God was equivalent to faith in Jesus Christ. They were saved on credit. “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of His blood—to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate His righteousness, because in His forbearance He had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). In this way God overlooked the sins of those who trusted in Him before Christ’s death and resurrection.
In Romans, God reveals that we are all sinners (Rom. 3:23) and we can only get to heaven through trusting in Christ’s sacrifice for us (Rom. 3:22-26). But it also says that people are judged according to God’s revelation to them: “All who sin apart from the law (Gentiles) will also perish apart from the law, and all who sin under the law (Jews) will be judged by the law” (Rom 2:12). The two main ways that God reveals himself to people who haven’t heard about Jesus are creation and conscience.
Firstly, the physical world demands a Creator. Its design requires a Designer. The laws of nature require a Lawmaker. By looking at our universe, anyone can know that there is a creator God. “The truth about God is known instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts. From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see His invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God” (Rom. 1:19-20NLT). Enough of God is revealed in His creation that there is no excuse for not believing in Him. Those who reject this revelation follow idols and practice sinful behavior and suffer God’s judgment (Rom. 1:18-32).
Nature is a testimony of God. “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of His hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world” (Ps. 19:1-4). Also, Paul said “We are bringing you good news, telling you to turn from these worthless things to the living God, who made the heavens and the earth and the sea and everything in them. In the past, He let all nations go their own way. Yet He has not left himself without testimony: He has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; He provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy.” (Acts 14:15-17).
So if people haven’t heard about Jesus, they can be judged according to their response to the revelation of God in creation. If they turn from idolatry and seek the true God, then God may give them additional revelation. For example, Cornelius was a Gentile who sought God. So God sent Peter to tell him about Jesus and salvation (Acts 11:14). God can appear to people in many ways throughout their lives. He can send people to inform them (Rom. 10:14-15). Because God doesn’t want anyone to perish in hell and wants everyone to repent of their sin, we must trust that He has made a way for those people (2 Pt. 3:9).
Secondly, everyone is born with a conscience. We all have an instinctive knowledge of right and wrong. For example, most people know it is wrong to lie, steal, and commit adultery and murder. The Bible gives God’s standards for humanity. But for those who are ignorant of this it says: “They demonstrate that God’s law is written in their hearts, for their own conscience and thoughts either accuse them or tell them they are doing right” (Rom. 2:15NLT). Anyone who has not heard about what the Bible says will be judged according to their conscience. God will say, “What did you think was right and wrong?” The next question is, “Did you always do the right and not the wrong?” By that standard, of course, everyone fails. The conscience proves that we are sinners like the law does for the Jew.
The issue is their response to a guilty conscience. If they were sorry for their behavior and would repent then they would probably go to heaven. This reasoning is based on the fact that God is just and wants all to be saved. He has made a way for all, but few accept it.
Like those who lived before Christ, the issue is whether they responded to God’s revelation to them. So through the creation and our conscience, God gives everyone the opportunity to turn to Him and be saved from the penalty of their sinfulness and go to heaven.
Lessons for us
Like the Israelites, a Christian’s behavior can influence an unbeliever to repent and follow God and go to heaven. “Live such good lives among the pagans (your unbelieving neighbors, NLT) that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pt. 2:12).
Although people can to be saved without hearing about Jesus, it isn’t likely to occur in very many instances. The usual way to go to heaven is to respond to hearing about Jesus. “How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can anyone preach unless they are sent?” (Rom. 10:14). That’s why it’s important to tell people about Jesus as much as possible and support others in this work.
Are animals smarter than people?
Sometimes in movies or children’s stories there are talking animals. This is an example of anthropomorphism where something is given human attributes. The word comes from the Greek word for human (anthropos) and form (morphos). A recent television show titled “Making stuff smarter” described how nature inspired scientists to develop new inventions. For example:
- As sharkskin seems to prevent the growth of algae, material with a similar micro structure may inhibit the spread of bacteria.
- As geckos adhere to a vertical wall by microscopic hairs on their toes, material can mimic this to enable other things to adhere to walls.
- As birds use a flexible, shape-changing wing, this may be mimicked in future aircraft.
These abilities of nature were explained in the television show as follows:
- “In each case, nature has come up with something new just by manipulating the surface of a material on a very small scale”.
- “For billions of years, Mother Nature’s been experimenting, and that’s given living things amazing abilities, like healing, flight and camouflage. What can we learn from nature’s ingenuity?”
- “With all our technology and materials, it’s easy to think we’re the planet’s best inventors, but life has been experimenting with the raw materials of earth for far longer. Billions of years of evolution have created a vast array of plants and animals with amazing abilities of their own. As our understanding of biology and our materials deepens, a new world has opened up, one where nature’s ingenuity and human ingenuity can combine.”
So animals amazing abilities are attributed to: “nature”, “Mother Nature”, and “evolution”. This creative ability is assumed to be an inherent characteristic of animals. Does the fact that scientists are imitating these abilities mean that animals are smarter than people? The answer to this question depends on how the animals were created. If they created themselves, then they developed these characteristics first and so in this aspect they are smarter than the scientists who are investigating them! On the other hand, if the animals didn’t create themselves, then they are not necessarily smarter than people.
Why is “Mother Mature” capitalised? This looks like theomorphism, where something is given the attributes of God or a deity. The word comes from the Greek word for god (theos) and form (morphos). In this case the idea of evolution replaces the need for a creative God. It is theomorphic.
God says …
What does God say about this topic in the Bible?
- God made the original animals and people (Gen. 1:20-27). This means that He invented the amazing abilities of animals and people. So nature is ingenious because God is ingenious, not because of the idea of evolution. Also, scientists are ingenious because God is ingenious. So animals didn’t create themselves, but they do reproduce themselves, as God planned.
- God made people to “rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground” (Gen. 1:26). In this sense, people are smarter than animals and not vice-versa.
So, don’t believe everything you hear and read. Instead test it against what God says.
Written, April 2012
The phrase “according to their/its kinds” occurs ten times in Genesis 1. God created plants to produce seed “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1: 11, 12) and animals to reproduce “according to their kinds” (Gen. 1:21, 24, 25). In this context, the Hebrew word that is translated “kinds” means a category of creatures. The same word is used seven times to describe the creatures taken on the ark (Gen. 6:20; 7:14). The equivalent Greek word “genos” was used in the Septuagint (a translation of the Old Testament into Koine Greek in about 300-100 BC) to describe the black kite, raven, hawk, heron, locust, katydid, cricket, grasshopper, and great lizard (Lev: 11:14-16, 19, 22, 29) and the falcon, raven, hawk, and heron (Dt. 14:13-15,18). So, the Biblical usage of the word “kinds” seems to correspond to a “genus”, which is a Latin word meaning sort, kind or class.
According to Gen 1:11 there were “seed-bearing plants and trees on the land that bear fruit with seed in it, according to their various kinds”. So the offspring of the plant or animal was “according to its kind”; the “kind” includes the parents and the offspring; they were the same “kind”. Creatures reproduce according to their kinds. This is the law of reproduction. One kind does not change into a different kind (Jas. 3:12). The ability to breed and produce offspring defines the original created kinds. Groups of living organisms belong in the same created “kind” if they have descended from the same ancestral gene pool. For example, all the species of finches that Darwin saw on Galapagos island were the one “kind”.
Although there are similarities between the biological kinds, they are distinctly different: “Not all flesh is the same: People have one kind of flesh, animals have another, birds another and fish another” (1 Cor. 15:39). So there are profound differences between humans and animals. With regard to plants, “to each kind of seed He (God) gives its own body” (1 Cor. 15:38). This suggests that the differences between kinds are due to differences at a cellular level; each has a unique genetic code.
So, the Bible teaches that there were distinct “kinds” of biological life from the beginning. Life on earth didn’t begin with a single cell that became more complex with time. Instead, each kind would have contained a diversity that enabled genetic variations to occur and be favored by natural selection. This means that each original “kind” was like a tree that started out as a trunk and branched out over time as its variability became evident. So the collection of the kinds is like a forest, which I call the forest of life. The forest of life is a better illustration of how life has changed over time than the tree of life. The kinds don’t change from one to another, but there is some variety within each kind.
The contrast between evolution and creation is clear. Evolutionists believe in the tree of life—that all living things are descended from one common ancestor. That is, they believe in change from one kind of creature to another. Creationists believe in the forest of life—variation within the original created kind, but not one kind changing into another.
We need to remember that life had a common Creator, not a common ancestor. From the beginning, life was made to reproduce itself according to its kinds—it’s like a forest, not a tree.
Writtten, July 2007
The basic truth about our world
When we look around each day, what do we see? We see the visible world, our natural or man-made environment. The Bible says that people can know about God from what they see: “Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—His eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse” (Rom 1:20NIV).
According to this verse, some things are visible and some are invisible and we can understand something about the invisible from what is visible. Of course, many creatures can see, but people have complex brains that can help them understand more about what they see.
Paul wrote that the physical world “has been made”; it is a creation. This means that it is not just a product of the forces of nature and it didn’t make itself. The Bible says, “the universe was formed at God’s command” (Heb. 11:3).
Nature is orderly; particularly living things. Ecosystems and the web of life have distinct patterns. From this order of the physical world, Paul says that we can understand that it is a creation. We know that people can create things like clothes, tools, toys, buildings, roads, cars, music, stories, movies, art work and craft work. These are creations. The steps involved in a creation are: it begins with a concept or idea, which is followed by a design and then production. All creations have a creator. This is very basic logic that all can understand (Rom. 1:19).
A Divine Creator
Then Paul names the creator, as “God”. A creation such as a work of art, a musical composition, a song, or a novel reveals something about its creator. What can we learn about God from what He has made?
First, the creator is always more intelligent than the creation. As people are a part of creation, the Creator is more intelligent than us. As the genetic code of living creatures is extremely complex, I think that God is much more intelligent than we can imagine.
Second, the creator controls the energy and power evident in the creation. Therefore, God controls the energy and power evident in the universe such as in an electrical thunderstorm, a tsunami, and the explosion of a star. The Creator is more powerful than we can imagine.
Third, there are supreme laws of nature that we must respect. For example, if we don’t respect the law of gravity and step off a cliff we will die. Likewise, there are laws of electricity which can be fatal if we don’t respect them. These laws rule, we can’t disregard them and live. Gravity rules objects that have no support and electricity rules the flow of electrons in conductors. As the laws of nature rule in the creation, so the Creator rules over the creation.
Fourth, as people have a personality, with a mind, a will, emotions and the ability to communicate, it’s logical that the Creator is also a personal being. That’s why the Bible refers to God as “Him”, not “it—He is more than a force or influence.
So God reigns and rules over the creation and is an extremely intelligent and powerful personality. Paul describes this as His “eternal power and divine nature”. These are some of His invisible qualities which we should understand from what has been made.
As everyone can see or sense the creation and be aware of its laws and characteristics, we can all know that it was made by a Creator. Therefore, Paul claims that there is no excuse for not knowing that God created the world. This fact should be obvious (Rom. 1:19). It doesn’t need any education, just common sense. Why don’t more people see this more clearly? It’s because the truth of the divine Creator is suppressed by the ungodly, which is wicked and foolish (Rom. 1:18, 21-23). So what was once attributed to “God” is now attributed to “Nature”, and God is only used as a swear word. They imitate God be claiming to know everything and they worship ideas and images that have been created by humanity.
As God rules over all His creation, we should respect and worship Him (Rom. 1:21). As we are part of His creation, we should thank God for all He has done for us. Surely Christians should be characterised by worship and thankfulness towards God.
Written, June 2007