Can We Pray Differently?

20120605_095529Ephesians 1:16-19

I do not cease to give thanks for you, remembering you in my prayers, that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and of revelation in the knowledge of him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might (ESV).

Prayer ought to be a joyful experience for every follower of Jesus Christ. When we pray, we have the awesome privilege of communicating with God our Father through Jesus the Son of God with the help of the Spirit of God. Prayer is a time of fellowship with the living, eternal, holy Maker and Sustainer of all things! Yet, do we experience the holy joy of this fellowship? Are we willing to confess our lack of this fellowship? It seems that most do have this lack. From numerous years of experience as a pastor and teacher, I have observed the following.

  • Many churches no longer have a regular prayer meeting. Prayer meetings used to be the hallmark of gospel teaching churches.
  • Churches that do have prayer meetings have less than ten percent of their morning service in attendance.
  • People in prayer meetings look bored, act bored, talk bored, pray boring prayers, and some fall asleep.
  • Prayer times in Bible studies and morning services are perfunctory, people-focused, and usually powerless. When I was young, the pastoral prayer in morning services used to be at least five to ten minutes in length. Through pressure from the unspiritual or to please the unspiritual, such prayers are timed to about one to three minutes.
  • Prayer requests are about ninety-nine percent focused on the physical or material needs of people. This does not count the spiritual requests for the local church, its missionaries, and mission that are printed on a weekly prayer sheet. At a prayer meeting, such spiritual requests are neglected or prayed for in a ho-hum manner.
  • People in local congregations are unaware of the spiritual needs of one another and so never pray for one another as they ought.

I could add more, but to present our problem is not to solve it. At the core is a fundamental disconnect with the Lord. People also pray for the wrong things (for example, James 4:3), do not receive answers to such requests, which then produces little faith and discouragement about prayer. Another difficulty is that we need to pray differently. In articles to come, I want to explore this idea. I dream of seeing believers committed to communicating with God again. I want to see them open their hearts to the Lord, and to one another. I long to join with other saints (people that are set apart to the Lord) in fervent prayer, to hear something like “Can we pray soon? I’ve been bursting at the seams out of a holy desire to pray with you all!” Or, “Can we get together so that we can pray?”

Let’s pray.

Grace and peace, David

Where Do You Want to Walk?

img_4274Ephesians 4:1

Therefore I, the prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk worthy of the calling you have received… (HCSB)

Almost every time Sharon and I go for a walk, one of us asks, “Where do you want to walk?” It is a valuable question for friendship. It is good to listen the other’s ideas, moods, and desires. To teach the Christian way of life to his readers, Paul often used the metaphor “walk”. As we live in friendship with the Lord, we ought to listen to his preferences about the places where he wants to walk with us. Every follower of Christ knows that we make rather poor choices about where to walk. Because of his greatness, holiness, and wisdom and our deficiencies in these qualities, we need to listen to his good choices about where we should walk.

As we approach the year 2017, it is worthwhile to ponder where we must walk to please the Lord. In the letter to the Ephesians, the apostle presents much of his ethical teaching through this illustration. Let’s glance at the “trail map” to find out where the Lord wants us to walk in him and through him and by him.

  • Walk worthy of your calling (4:1). The first trail leads up to a lofty place, the calling to hope (confident expectation) of our glorious inheritance (1:18). Our Lord wants us to walk near to heaven, confident and our eyes set on the prize. We should aspire for eternal glory. When you read the Gospels attentively, you will discover the importance of this idea in the teachings of our Lord.
  • Walk no longer as the nations walk (4:17). The second trail leads away from where the peoples of the nations of this world like to walk. It seems a poor choice to them, but those in the Messiah know that their trails are destructive and futile (4:17-19). To walk with the Lord Jesus requires that we deliberately turn from the paths of the nations.
  • Walk in love (5:2). The third trail leads to the imitation of God. It is the trail of love, of setting your affections on God and others, so that you give yourself sacrificially for their good. To walk this trail is costly to self-love; for that reason, it is despised. Think and feel the description of love’s actions (1 Corinthians 13:1-7 HCSB): Love is patient, love is kind. Love does not envy, is not boastful, is not conceited, does not act improperly, is not selfish, is not provoked, and does not keep a record of wrongs. Love finds no joy in unrighteousness but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. The only way to love this way is to pick up your cross and follow Him (Mark 8:34).
  • Walk as children of light (5:8). Light involves knowing the truth and acting the truth. As we genuinely shine for the Lord, we will expose the evil in others. Yet, we will also produce the pleasant-to-the-Lord fruit of goodness, righteousness, and truth. There is also the pleasant by-product of being unashamed.
  • Walk as wise, not as unwise (5:15). Wisdom is skill in godly wisdom. It is knowing how to practice the truth in fellowship with the truth. This necessitates being filled with the Spirit.

The practical question for each of us is “This coming year, do I want to walk where the Lord wants me to walk?” There really is no value, in fact, it is harmful, to continue to make our poor choices where we are not walking with the Lord. Sit down with the “trail map”, alone and with some friends, and think through the places that the Lord wants to go with us. Choose his paths in 2017.

Grace and peace, David

Thoughts on Leviticus (Part One)

dscn4087Leviticus 1-8

Each year about this time, I think about how Christians (those who truly follow Jesus Christ) read the Bible. I think about their strategy for listening to God in his word. On January one, many will start on a program of reading through the Bible in one year. It is a cause for spiritual concern about how many of those will still be following their chosen program on March first. I have written previously about the challenges of such programs and will not repeat them here, except to say that any program must be doable for you. In order to read through the Bible in one year, you must commit to reading three to four chapters a day. Can you sustain that pace? Can you read that number of chapters and really listen to God speak? Or will you be reading with a lack of attention?

As I have also said many times, every follower of Jesus ought to read through the Bible. It might be better to do that over two or three years. As you do, you will read familiar books, such as Genesis, Exodus, Psalms, Proverbs, the Four Gospels, Acts, and a few others. Most are unfamiliar with books like Ezekiel, Obadiah, Ezra, and Zechariah… and Leviticus. Many get “bogged down” in its opening section about sacrifices, and then are perplexed about “all those laws” in chapters eleven through twenty-five. Their minds wander as they wonder about their significance, especially to the believer in our time. In this article, I suggest a few thoughts on the opening chapters of Leviticus that will hopefully stimulate you to read them attentively.

  • The first seven chapters present five offerings for the law covenant worshiper to bring to the Lord. The offerings are called (according to the ESV translation) burnt, grain, peace, sin, and guilt offerings. As you read about them, a few ideas are repeated. Much is written about sin, blood, and the exact manner in which the offerings were to be offered. “Sin” points to our basic problem before God. We have rejected him, refused to love him, and rebelled against him. We need an offering that he will accept in order to be received by him. “Blood” is significant, because as the writer of Hebrews says, According to the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness (Hebrews 9:22 ESV).
  • A few times we read the phrase a pleasing aroma to the Lord (or something similar). The Holy Spirit tells us God’s acceptance of the offerings that he required from the old covenant people. When his people came to him by faith with those offerings, they could know that God welcomed their worship. We no longer bring the sacrifices of the law, because we have a better sacrifice than the blood of bulls and goats. But here, we want to focus on the concept that the Lord wills to be pleased in the worship of his people. God invites us to draw near to him, as we keep the covenant during which time we live. (New covenant people keep the covenant through faith in Jesus Christ.)
  • In these chapters, we encounter the concept of “holy”. Most believers use “holy” and related words like “sanctify” with little idea of what they mean. It is too easy to like the “religious tingle” of using religious words like “holiness” or “sanctification” to impress other believers or to feel like you are worshiping. But God wants us to love him with all our minds. There should be understanding. To be “holy” is to be “set apart” to God or “consecrated” to him. Who we are and how we live are to be set apart unto the Lord. In this we see a personal relationship. Holiness is not a matter of devotion to rules or rituals, but consecration to the Lord of glory.

I hope this will help you as you start to read Leviticus. If you have questions regarding other books, please contact me at our email address.

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Six)

20120605_1038432 Peter 1:20-21

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (NIV).

The Spirit acted in a way that made sure that the content was God’s word: “as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.” The process of the Spirit breathing out the word is full of mystery. This brief phrase is as close as the Spirit comes to explaining his communication of God’s message through human writers. He carried them along, is a forceful expression. Compare the use of the Greek word phero in Mark 2:3; 4:8; 12:15-16; Acts 27:15, 17. But how did he carry them along? “We take the historic fact; but we decline every attempt to explain the inscrutable mode… no finite mind can venture, without presumption, to say how the human faculties concurred and acted with the Spirit’s activity in the expression of a divine oracle” (Smeaton, The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit, p. 166).

As God the Holy Spirit carried along the apostles and prophets, he “did not destroy the author’s individuality and talents, making the whole Bible stereotyped, with one style from Genesis to Revelation—the style of the Holy Spirit—with all the human differences of the writers overridden and ignored” (Palmer, The Holy Spirit, p. 50). Instead, the Holy Spirit acted differently. He used “the experiences of the authors to govern their writing, their different emotions to color their thinking, their individual tastes to be expressed in the Bible” (Ibid.)

Let’s think of some examples. What would the Bible be like without the strong faith of Abraham in Genesis 22, or the repentant prayer of David in Psalm 51, or Paul’s holy passion to know Christ in Philippians 3 or John’s tender exhortation to his dear friends to love one another in 1 John 4? In the Scriptures you see our holy Maker getting down in the muck of human lives to draw forth gems for his glory and our good. You ought to worship a God like that!

The process of the Spirit breathing out the word is full of God’s sovereignty. This is seen in the various ways that he gave the Scriptures (Hebrews 1:1): “dreams, visions, individual illumination and research, as well as ordinary and extraordinary divine providences, are involved in the process” (Ferguson, The Holy Spirit, p. 27).

The Spirit carried along the men who spoke in many ways:

  • By directing their heredity, family upbringing, education and personal history
  • By his continual work in the history of redemption; all stood at a point of history for his selected purpose
  • By his influence on their hearts through previous revelation
  • By applying Christ’s redemptive work to their hearts
  • By in some way revealing God’s mind to them so that they had to speak it, consider Jeremiah (Jeremiah 1:4-10; 15:16; 20:9)
  • By leading them to produce a unified message: the story of God’s glory in Jesus Christ

The Scriptures themselves are one of the brightest witnesses to the sovereign grace of God. The Lord the Spirit reached down among people in conformity with the Father’s choice, molded a life, drew that person to salvation, and worked through them in such a way, so that when they wrote the Scriptures, it was the Spirit of God speaking (2 Samuel 23:2; Matthew 22:43; Acts 4:25; 28:25). Now is the time to worship the Sovereign God, who can so powerfully work in human hearts! And here is hope. The same God still speaks through his word today! He can change your life and the lives of people you love!

Grace and peace, David

He Will Be Great

dscn0446Luke 1:29-33

But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. Then the angel told her: Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will call His name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end (HCSB).

Mary was afraid. She was afraid because of the sudden appearance of one of God’s angels to her and greatly troubled at his message. We easily picture Mary confident and serene after the birth of Jesus. It is difficult for us to see Mary, the very young woman, in an unexpected meeting with a mighty angel from the spiritual realm that we humans cannot presently see. If we think about why she was troubled by his greeting, we might be more perplexed, since it was a greeting of joy and hope. Perhaps, it was because Mary was a very humble person, not looking or longing for greatness. In an instant, God had boldly entered her life, and it would never be the same. That would bring a modest young woman many troubled thoughts.

Observe how Gabriel spoke to calm her. He repeated the truth that God had shown favor to her. This was good news, not something to trouble her. Many a pastor has experienced how tender hearts are troubled about things that ought to make them rejoice. We seem to have a way of imagining difficulties for ourselves. A calm repetition of the truth is the best remedy. We need time to process God’s words to us.

Gabriel moved on with the message God had sent him to deliver. Now listen. He directed Mary to pay attention to God’s word to her. God’s people are to be self-controlled, in charge of our hearts, ready to listen to what the Lord tells us. When you open your Bible, whether privately, with your family, or in public worship, are you prepared to listen? Banish lesser thoughts, rise above your troubles, and listen. To listen is one of the hardest things to do in our time, because we have heard much advertising and stories presented in high-tech bright, flashing array. It is very difficult to listen attentively to God’s word. Mary needed to listen, and so do we.

What did Mary need to hear?

  • She needed to listen to her part in the story of God’s glory. She, though a virgin, would conceive and give birth to a son. Mary grasped that part of the message right away, as her follow-up question shows (Luke 1:34). To have God with her would not mean that she would become a mighty leader, but a mother. God would have to enable that outcome. She would also name her son, but she must give him the name that God had chosen: Jesus, the Lord is salvation.
  • She needed to hear the identity of her son. He would not simply be “the son of Mary”, though that would be true. He would also be the Son of the Most High. It took Jesus three years of careful teaching to explain this to the apostles; therefore, it is very unlikely that Mary grasped its significance right away. Here is the mystery of the incarnate Christ. He is truly God and truly human at the same time. Let us worship when we cannot understand.
  • She needed to listen to the destiny of her Son. And the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end. Jesus was destined to sit on David’s throne. A prophecy made to David over a thousand years before Mary was about to happen. The promised King of God’s people was about to arrive. A reading of the Four Gospels will show that Jesus talked about the kingdom, which was God’s kingdom and his kingdom, throughout his earthly ministry. He would receive the throne by a grant from the Sovereign Lord himself. God’s word had not failed, though the people had been kingless for nearly six hundred years.

Today, we look for the second coming of the King. This Christmas, as you look at lights, sing songs, open presents, and enjoy your family and friends, remember to fix your thoughts on King Jesus. We are celebrating the birthday of the King, and we must bow in worship before him.

Grace and peace, David

Something Special Will Happen!

dscn3808Luke 1:26-28

In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And the angel came to her and said, “Rejoice, favored woman! The Lord is with you” (HCSB).

Luke wrote “an orderly account” (Luke 1:3) about our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The next scene in the Third Gospel opens with a connecting phrase: “In the sixth month….” The time refers to Elizabeth’s pregnancy. The forerunner of the Messiah was on his way. Next, wrote about the first step in the coming of Messiah the Lord himself. It started with a private conversation between Gabriel, God’s messenger, and a young woman named Mary.

Luke tells us a couple of facts about Mary. First, Mary was a virgin. She was sexually inexperienced and hardly a candidate for an angel to tell her that she was going to have a baby. This has always been a stumbling-block to antisupernaturalists, but their world and life view is indefensible, unable to account for many facts of human experience. However, even to those who believe in God and supernatural power, the announcement of a virgin birth is unique. From what we know of the culture of Mary’s time, she was probably about twelve to fifteen years old. So then, a very young woman was about to hear the greatest announcement in history in a private encounter with the angel of the Lord.

Second, Mary lived in Nazareth, a town in Galilee. Nazareth is about seventy miles northeast of Jerusalem, and it is surrounded on all sides by hills, except on its southern side. The village was unremarkable; no notable events occurred there up to Mary’s time. Since the prophet Micah had announced that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), there was nothing in Mary’s situation to prepare her for Gabriel’s message. She was simply an ordinary teenage girl.

Third, Mary was legally engaged to Joseph, one of many descendants of King David. We later find out that he was a carpenter. The line of David, almost six hundred years after the Babylonian Captivity of Israel, had been reduced to obscurity and poverty. One of my ancestors was one of the founders of what is now the University of Pittsburgh, about two hundred years ago. They have never called me to invite me to a special event. I never expect them to. The point is that after six hundred years, though Joseph was in David’s royal line, he and Mary were not expecting the kingdom to come to their family. They were poor peasants. They would live and die in obscurity, and maybe someday God might do something with David’s house.

However, one day God stepped into Mary’s life! God’s messenger angel went to Mary with a great announcement. Listen to his opening words, “Rejoice, favored woman!” In Luke’s Gospel, the message begins with the typical ancient Greek greeting, “Rejoice!” Gabriel urges her to be glad. True happiness was on the horizon. The joyful God had a happy task for her. We should not pass by this word. Joy is one of the great words and ideas of the new covenant age. God’s people are to be joyful people (Philippians 4:4). Joy is our portion, because in Jesus the Messiah, we are right with God (Romans 5:1-11). In Mary’s Son, the kingdom of God was about to happen, and his kingdom is a kingdom of joy! For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (Romans 14:17 HCSB, my emphasis).

In his opening words, Gabriel gave Mary a reason to rejoice. She is a “favored woman”. Mary had received favor with God. In what way? The Lord was “with her”. Since Mary clearly knew God’s word (see her words of praise, Luke 1:46-55), these words would resonate in her. When people were told that the Lord was with them, it was a statement that something special would happen to or through them. The Lord was with Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Joshua, and Gideon. All of them were great patriarchs and leaders of God’s people. The last two men were great warriors. But now, God spoke these words of promise and assurance to a woman. The Lord would be with her in a more wonderful way. She would become the mother of Immanuel, “God with us”. Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name Him Immanuel, which is translated “God is with us” (Matthew 1:23 HCSB).

Grace and peace, David

The Doctrine of the Holy Spirit (Part Five)

IMG_26382 Peter 1:20-21

Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things. For prophecy never had its origin in the human will, but prophets, though human, spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit (NIV).

The content of the Scriptures does not originate with mankind— “for prophecy never had its origin in the will of man”. The apostle clearly teaches that the prophets did not concoct the Scriptures out of their own choices. They did not have some kind of superior insight from their human nature into the human predicament. They did not invent cleverly devised tales. In many passages you can easily observe the artless words of an eyewitness to an event or those stating what they had been told by God. There is no effort to “clean up the text”. And the heroic acts of the people of God are present right alongside of their miserable failures. Think of David, Samson, Asa, and Peter, too! In addition, often the prophets wrote things that were beyond their knowledge, like Isaiah’s prediction of Cyrus. At other times they wrote what they did not even like: Jeremiah (Jeremiah 15:10; 20:7-18), Jonah (Jonah 1:3; 4:1), and Habakkuk (Habakkuk 1:2-4).

This phrase puts at least two necessary limits and clarifications on our thoughts about the Scriptures. “The Biblical writers do not conceive of the Scriptures as a human product breathed into by the Divine Spirit, and thus heightened in its qualities or endowed with new qualities; but as a Divine product produced through the instrumentality of men.” [Warfield, The Inspiration and Authority of the Bible, p. 153] So though we might call it a joint product, both parties are not contributing to the written product in the same way. Also, the apostles and prophets were not responding to cultural situations out of their own wills. Yet many argue contrary to this text in cases when the Word of God comes into direct conflict with one of the darling ideas of a godless and wicked culture, such as many kinds of sexual immorality.

It is easy to list many objections that unbelieving people have against ideas and values that the Bible presents. They suppose the Biblical writers were anti-human because they prohibited sinful practices that are spiritually and often physically destructive, yet which unbelievers are fond of, such as drunkenness.  The inspired writers did not speak from their own desires, but communicated God’s desires, which seek the peace, joy and unity of his people.

In the face of this statement, we must all submit to God’s authority and bow before it. See 2 Timothy 3:16. This is not a popular position to take in these lawless days, but it is God’s path. Let God be true, and every man a liar (Romans 3:4). The Spirit of truth (John 15:26) acted in the giving of the Bible to provide an accurate presentation of the human condition. Like medical doctors who give their patients correct though unwelcome diagnoses, the Spirit tells us the truth about ourselves. Unlike medical doctors in many situations, the Holy Spirit knows the exact remedy for us. In the Scriptures, he proclaims the only way for people to be right with God. Sadly, the truth is unwelcome, much more unwelcome than the medical doctor that tells you to lose twenty pounds. But better than medical doctors, the Spirit of God can cause us to love the message of salvation in the Lord Jesus Christ. Holy Spirit, cause many to love the truth and to be saved!

Grace and peace, David

Because You Did Not Believe

20131221_192030Luke 1:18-25

We must remember what the Holy Spirit already said of Zechariah the priest. He was right with God and a fully committed follower of the Lord (Luke 1:6). He was a righteous man, but he was not a perfect man. Righteous people still struggle with sin in all its ugliness. Sadly, Christians have a skewed view of sin, assuming that believers commit rather petty sins. This conveniently forgets that all sins are against the Holy God. One sin we struggle against is unbelief. It was about to lead Zechariah into difficulty.

And Zechariah said to the angel, “How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years.” And the angel answered him, “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news (Luke 1:18-19 ESV).

Zechariah gave a reasonable, from his point of view, response to the angel’s good news. In many Bible studies over many years, I have heard professed Christians respond to the truth of God’s word like Zechariah did. Though the message was supernatural, which requires submissive faith, they reacted to it with natural, human-centered reasoning. Zechariah did not consider the power of God. He could only think about what he and his wife could do. When God’s word is clear, we must trust God and do what the word tells us. It might not make sense, we might raise several scenarios that indicate improbability, but we must rely on God’s ability, faithfulness, and love. Gabriel quickly pointed out what Zechariah ignored. He was sent from the presence of God in heaven to tell him good news. Why was Zechariah doubting and arguing against good news? Sadly, followers of Christ too often argue against God’s good news for them, exchanging faith in God for their supposed wisdom.

“And behold, you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time.” And the people were waiting for Zechariah, and they were wondering at his delay in the temple. And when he came out, he was unable to speak to them, and they realized that he had seen a vision in the temple. And he kept making signs to them and remained mute. And when his time of service was ended, he went to his home (Luke 1:20-23 ESV).

Zechariah received discipline from the Lord. The reason was his unbelief. God used him to teach all of us the importance of faith in God’s word. The discipline corresponded to his sin. He failed to believe God’s message, so the Lord took away his ability to speak for a time. We should realize that the Lord requires us to take his word very seriously. Though we might struggle to understand it, we are not free to debate it. God’s word is the starting point for how we look at this world and our lives. For this reason, Zechariah had to ponder the supremacy of God’s word for the full length of Elizabeth’s pregnancy.

After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived, and for five months she kept herself hidden, saying, “Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people” (Luke 1:24-25 ESV).

Elizabeth’s response was better. She believed and thanked the Lord for his mercy to her. Children are a gift from God, and we should highly treasure them. This Christmas, if you have children at your family gathering, reflect on the blessing of God to your family. Pay attention to them. Play with them. Rejoice with them. Laugh with them. Though Zechariah doubted the Lord’s promise, his doubts could not hinder their fulfillment. Praise God for this truth!

Grace and peace, David

An Unexpected Meeting


Luke 1:11-17

We are exploring the idea that the early verses of Luke provide the setting for the Christmas story and for the whole story of God’s glory in Christ that Luke publishes. In the previous article, we saw the historical setting and the old covenant setting. God worked out his message in real history and consistent with his covenant dealings with Israel. Next, we see that the narrative contains the unexpected ways of the Lord.

And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense. And Zechariah was troubled when he saw him, and fear fell upon him (Luke 1:11-12 ESV).

The angel of the Lord completely surprised Zechariah, by his appearance in the temple. Because of the relatively compact narrative on the Scriptures, we tend to think that meetings between angels and humans were common, supposing people in Bible met with angels once a month. That simply did not happen. Most people lived their lives and never met an angel. Hundreds of years might pass even in Israel without an angelic encounter. The nearest in time interaction between a human and an angel recorded in the Bible before this event was with Zechariah the prophet, who lived almost five hundred years before Zechariah the priest. When the angel of the Lord appeared in the temple, Zechariah had no previous experience with meeting and talking with an angel. This appearance prepares the stage for the unexpected appearances of angels to Mary (Luke 1:26-27) and to the shepherds (Luke 2:8-14). When you read through Luke, you will discover the Lord doing many unexpected actions. (I won’t list these in the hope that you will read them yourself. The joy of discovery is important in the learning process!) Notice also the true to life reaction to the sudden, unlooked for, appearance of the supernatural. Zechariah was troubled and afraid. Compare the like response to the angels and to the Lord in Luke’s account of Christ’s resurrection (24:4-5, 36-37).

But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John. And you will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth (Luke 1:13-14 ESV).

The angel surprised Zechariah with good news. People who long for children will pray for them. God sent the angel to encourage the priest with answered prayer. We confess our dependence on the Lord when we pray. Joy happens when God answers our requests! Many times we have heard others rise to praise God for answered prayer. The angel also told the priest the gender of the child, apart from the need for an ultrasound. Their son was on the way. They would also be spared the effort of looking through lists of baby boy names, because God had named him. God also promised joy and gladness for the parents. Long years of waiting would end in joy.

“For he will be great before the Lord. And he must not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit, even from his mother’s womb. And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God, and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared” (Luke 1:15-17 ESV).

His child had an unanticipated mission. He would be the forerunner of the Messiah! While they prayed for a child, they would not have dreamed that their son would be given this important spiritual task. John would be the one foretold by Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 40:3-5). By the Holy Spirit, he would have a part in turning many to the Lord. Luke will write about how the Lord would use many men and women in the Lord’s mission. God’s call of grace and power would come to them to do what they never expected to do. For example, read the stories of Philip, Barnabas, and Paul in the Acts.

For us, are ready to do unexpected things for the Lord? Perhaps you are middle aged or even old now. Your life seems to be moving on at a slow and unspectacular pace. But God can step into your life and call you to reach others for Christ and to spread the knowledge of the glory of the Lord in unexpected places. Are you ready?

Grace and peace, David

In the Days of Herod

img_4560Luke 1:5-10

In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord (Luke 1:5-6 ESV).

Luke opened his account of Jesus, God’s Anointed One, and the good news with these words. They also begin his telling of the Christmas story, which is part of God’s great story. I do not think that most people consider this part of the Christmas story, but it provides the setting in which the story occurs. In fact, if we listen to and learn this part of the story, we gain important information to understand the whole story.

Consider the historical setting. In the days of Herod… He was a ruler noted for his cunning, cruelty, and constructions. He was called Herod the Great for the last of these, for he built many fine buildings, including the rebuilding of the Temple. He died in early 4 B.C., which means that Jesus was born sometime in 5 B.C. (Yes, the calendar is off by five years. People, not God, make calendars.) Jesus was born in the full light of human history. Luke tells us of two people, Zechariah and Elizabeth, who, although not in the line of the Messiah, had an important role in the early part of the story. Notice the details. Zechariah was in the eighth division of the priesthood that had been established by King David over a thousand years before that time. Zechariah and Elizabeth were godly people; they were fully committed followers of the Lord. However, there was an emptiness in their lives. Elizabeth was barren, and since they were advanced in years (probably their later forties), there was little human hope of having a child. One of life’s mysteries is the experience that many people who would love to have children have none, while others who do not seem to care for children easily have them. Both situations produce many tears. This is history in agony. People need a Savior for many reasons.

Now while he was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense. And the whole multitude of the people were praying outside at the hour of incense (Luke 1:8-10 ESV).

The Christmas story is connected with the old covenant and its worship. Priests and the temple are found throughout Luke 1-2. Worship of God fills both chapters. It was the time of the law covenant that pointed to the coming Messiah in all its types and shadows (cf. Hebrews 10:1). The curtain started to fall on that era when Zechariah went into it to offer incense as prescribed by the law. However, on that day no one anticipated the supernatural event about to happen. Zechariah was merely one of a long and large company of priests that had offered incense over a course of nearly fifteen hundred years. A crowd of faithful people had gathered for the event. During a time of Gentile rule over God’s covenant people, they remembered the God who had called them to be his people and who had promised the Messiah, the one who would set them free. But on that day, no one expected God to speak. He had not spoken in four hundred years, but they still had gathered to pray to wait on the Lord. Faith.

Christmas is a season of waiting, not for parties, programs, and presents. It is the time to wait on the Lord in worship. Many waited for Messiah’s first coming; we wait for his second coming. They waited in the rituals and regulations of the first covenant; we wait and watch in the Holy Spirit in the second covenant. They gathered in worship; we should also gather together to worship in love, joy, and peace. The days of Herod are long past. We live in the last days. Does an attitude of hopeful worship fill our souls this Christmas season?

Grace and peace, David