God’s Purposes at Christmas

Matthew 1:18-25

She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins (1:21 NIV).

Christmas is a time for wish lists, whether others give you theirs or you ask what they would like, or others request them from you, or you happily volunteer yours lists to them. We all have items on our lists that we would like to have. Yes, that includes you! We all have plans and purposes that we would like to see happen. By the way, how did your plans turn out this year? Truthfully, this year was nothing like I had hoped for last December. I praise the Lord for the many gracious blessings that he poured out through Christ. But there were many items that I never put on my yearly planner—but God did.

God is the Greatest Planner. The Sovereign, Holy, and Wise God always plans what is best for his glory and for the good of his chosen people. But we do not always see life the way that the Lord of all views it. The history of the first Christmas is a clear example of this difference in evaluation. While a long acquaintance with the story of the birth of Jesus Christ might produce a kind of sentimental charm, it is not the way we would have written the story. A quick reading of the first seventeen verses of Matthew one might leave us with the impression that we have been set up for a glitzy, exciting dramatic account. For in these verses we read of great men, like Abraham and David, and of great events like the exile to Babylon and how God stuck with his people in the long years after that event, since there was still a long line of people who were heirs of the promises made to Abraham and David. Now certainly, God will send the Messiah in regal splendor to crush the oppressors of his people, in order that they might live happily ever after. But if we listen to the story written in God’s word, we can learn much about God’s purposes.

God’s purpose was to send a Savior to save his people from sin (1:18-21). At first glance the way to God’s goal seems very strange.

Joseph, who was a descendant of Abraham and David, is overwhelmed by circumstances that seem to be contrary to God’s law. Joseph was pledged to be married to Mary, whom he esteemed as a good and godly woman. But unexpectedly, she tells him that she is with child, by the creative power of the Holy Spirit. Now Joseph, like any man would be, is rather suspicious and incredulous. After all, all humans are born through the union of a man with a woman, aren’t we? Therefore, he decides to break their engagement, which in that culture required him to divorce her, since an engagement to marry was binding. All Joseph’s dreams for a happy life seem to be crushed.

But the Lord gives Joseph a new dream. It is a dream that involves his heartache. That is often the way the Sovereign Lord of all chooses to work in us and through us. He uses our tragedies to mold his triumphs. This displays his glory and honor in a greater way. He takes what is bitter and makes it sweet. The Lord’s angel verifies the story that Mary has told him. She is expecting because of the Holy Spirit’s power working in her. The Lord tells him to replace his fears with confident action.

God’s message about Mary’s child will be the foundation of a better hope for Joseph and for all God’s people. The Lord makes Joseph a participant in the story. In faith, he is to take Mary as his wife. He must rely on the Lord’s word to do this, for he has no other way of knowing if her account of her pregnancy is true. And in faith Joseph is to name her child Jesus, which means “the Lord saves”. Joseph must replace his fears with a faith that works.

The important point lies in the significance of the name “Jesus”. The son born of the Virgin will be the Savior of his people. But this salvation is not a physical deliverance. Instead, Jesus will rescue his people from their sins—from guilt and condemnation and from the power and finally the presence of sin, which is ruinous and damning.

Here is what Jesus does: When he saves people, he meets their true and basic needs. He saves us from our past, in our present, and for a glorious and joyful future with God forever. The question is, “Has Jesus saved you?” Right now, you may have the best Christmas present that you will ever receive—salvation by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

God’s purpose was also to be with his people (1:22-25). This purpose had been declared seven hundred years earlier through Isaiah the prophet (Isaiah 7:14).

Matthew clearly teaches us that Isaiah’s words were significant far beyond the time and setting to which he originally spoke. The wicked King Ahaz had rejected the sign that the Lord offered through Isaiah. So the Lord gave a sign to all Israel. Now the time had come for its fulfillment. Here is an important idea in Matthew and the New Testament Scriptures: promise and fulfillment

Matthew by the direction of the Holy Spirit applies the words of Isaiah to what happened to Mary. A virgin gave birth to a son. How could this be? It took the power of God. Every hope we have rests on the power of God. Can God do what is otherwise impossible? Yes, God can! 

Through the virgin birth, God the Son came to be with his people. Here we encounter what is beyond human comprehension. We can know the fact that the Messiah or Anointed One is both God and man. But how can this be? The Bible never presents a full explanation, but instead presents many facts of Christ’s true deity and true humanity. The Son of Mary is also God over all. This is a mystery (1 Timothy 3:16), and the best response is to worship.

What we must notice and lay hold of is that God did this to be present with his people. This is a great idea of Christmas: God with us. God has a purpose to be with his people forever (Revelation 21:3). God is not far away; he has come near through Jesus the Messiah. The Lord the Son took the form of a servant to save his people and in the process to have an earned lordship over all humanity, because of his obedience to the Father’s will (Philippians 2:5-11). In doing this he makes us citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, where we will be with him forever (Philippians 3:20-21).

As we look forward to being with the Lord forever, free from sin and rejoicing in the glory of God Almighty, we can know that the Lord is still with us, as Jesus the Messiah promised (Matthew 28:18-20). Here is something for you and me as we journey through this world. Life might not work out according to our plans. But all will work out according to God’s plan, because he has planned to be with you and me forever. Believer in Christ, remember this in the days ahead. Everything is all right when the Lord of Glory is with you!

Grace and peace,

Building a Supernatural Focus

Recently, in our local assembly, we heard a message from 2 Kings 6 about the presence of God with his people. The idea was to live with an awareness of the supernatural during this year. God is with us, and we ought to act consistent with that reality. A couple days later, I was asked to lead our small group study. Usually, there are questions connected with the Sunday message. But since there were none, I developed what followers. Look at each of the points below as “feeder streams” into the large stream of our comprehension of the presence of Almighty God with us.

Since we have faith in the true and living God, the people of God ought to look at life from the perspective of living in the presence of the Almighty, Sovereign Lord. Christ with us by the Spirit is one of the core realities of being a member of the new covenant people. Teach these new disciples to obey all the commands I have given you. And be sure of this: I am with you always, even to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20). God is with us (Hebrews 13:5)!

How can we build a supernatural outlook more consistently into our way of life?

  • Set our minds on heavenly matters. This is the idea of Paul’s “heavenly thesis statement”. Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory (Colossians 3:1-4 NIV). Add to this the spiritual investment advice that Jesus gave us (Matthew 6:19-21).
  • Invest time in prayer with our Father in heaven. Unlike the worldly-minded person that “spends time”, children of the heavenly Father ought to invest time. We should be in a continual conversation with our God. Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful (Colossians 4:2)
  • Live in the awareness that true Christianity is supernatural. It only happens as God is at work in us. Every part of the walk of faith requires God’s all-powerful activity in us. God made us alive when we were totally helpless, spiritually dead.  But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved (Ephesians 2:4-5 NIV). To experience God’s love in Christ requires the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit. For this reason I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:14-19 ESV). Since we encounter spiritual opposition, we must rely on the Lord’s amazing power. Finally, be strong in the Lord and in the strength of His might (Ephesians 6:10 NASB)
  • Develop a walk in Christ by the Holy Spirit. Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving (Colossians 2:6-7 ESV; cf. Galatians 5:15-26; John 15:5). Our way of life is joined to an ongoing experience of Jesus Christ as Lord. He is the one who rules over everything for our benefit. We live in his kingdom (Colossians 1:13). As we connect with him, his presence and power change us. If we lose connection, we lose the ability to grow and flourish.
  • Read the Bible as it is, a book through which God acts powerfully. And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men, but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers (1 Thessalonians 2:13 ESV). When we read the Bible, we must remember that it is the very word of God, the voice of the Lord God speaking to us. This word is used by the Spirit to change and to transform us (Romans 1:16; Hebrews 4:12; 1 Peter 1:23).
  • Remember that we live in relationship with God, who is supernatural. Our fellowship or sharing of life is a vital connection with the living God. What we have seen and heard we also declare to you, so that you may also have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3 CSB; cf. 1 Corinthians 1:9; 2 Corinthians 13:14).
  • Expect God to work in our lives and in our local assemblies. Listen to the apostle Paul describe his way of ministry. To this end I strenuously contend with all the energy Christ so powerfully works in me (Colossians 1:29 NIV). It all happened as Christ worked in and through him. This is the way ahead for our churches (Acts 2:47; 4:31; 9:31; Romans 15:13; 2 Timothy 2:10; 1 Peter 5:5-7). We don’t need more or better programs, buildings, and church staff. We do need the presence and power of the Lord Christ acting in us.

So then, let’s take each of these and build them into our daily outlook and way of life. Taken together, they will help us build a supernatural focus this year.

Grace and peace, David

The Birth of John the Baptist


Luke 1:57-66

All who heard about him took it to heart, saying, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the Lord’s hand was with him (Luke 1:66 CSB).

The birth of a child is an amazing event. With one great final push by the mother, a new little person enters the world. The tiny one announces their arrival in the only way they know, with a loud cry! As soon as they can, the new parents privately count the fingers and toes of their baby to assure themselves that he or she is normal. Meanwhile, the tiny infant tries to adjust their eyes to the wonderfully, horribly, unexpected brightness of their new world. The child’s eyes look upon the parent’s faces for the first time. Do you wonder what our children think when they see us for the first time? Then the baby reaches out a hand to touch, to discover, to explore! It will be many months until the little feet can do more than kick, but one day those feet will take their first steps.

In like manner, John, the forerunner of the Messiah, entered the world. Thirty years would pass before his rich voice would announce, “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29 NIV) On the eighth day of his life, he would make another cry, when he was circumcised according to the covenant. Up to this point, John’s life was very normal. But suddenly, God stirs things up to show that the baby boy will be an extraordinary servant of the Lord.

It happened quite innocently. A simple decision on the part of the family to name him Zechariah after his deaf and mute father. It seems that even two thousand years ago everyone had their two cents to put in about the naming of a baby! (Go ahead; make your suggestion; then tell the parents how wise a choice they made.) Elizabeth knew the word of the Lord that her husband had received, and she shut down their suggestion with an emphatic “No! He is to be called John” (1:60 NIV).

The family obviously didn’t care much for Elizabeth’s decision, and told their “in-law” that she could not wreak havoc with what the family wanted. (Uh, family controversies have been going on for a long time. You can imagine the looks of horror that Elizabeth received. These were real people, like you and me.) Wanting to put Elizabeth in her place, they appealed to the good son to give him the right name. To everyone’s astonishment, Zechariah wrote that his son was to be called John. There might have been repercussions in the family for Zechariah, too, except another promise of God to Zechariah was suddenly fulfilled. He could talk! After nine to ten months of silence, he could praise God for his healing and tell everyone what the Lord had told him.

In this way, God stepped into John’s young life to point out that God would do something special through his life. Dr. Luke provides additional information for his readers. The Lord’s hand was with him. God’s presence. God’s power. What John would need to do what God called him to do. We should also know that God shapes our lives according to his purposes in the gospel. He shows up in our lives that we may live with him for his glory. Walk in this confidence.

Grace and peace, David

The Holy Spirit (Part 17)

Psalm 104:29-30

When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground (NIV).

On our previous stop on our “tour” in the “dimly lit chamber” of the Old Testament Scriptures, we saw the Holy Spirit’s care in creation and his power to bring God’s plan in creation to full realization. When the Spirit completed the work, everything was “very good” (Genesis 1:31).

Next, we see the Spirit of God as Perfecting Presence of God.

The Spirit discloses the presence of God. Please do not confuse God’s “presence” with God’s “omnipresence”. The second is the teaching that God is everywhere throughout the universe, and indeed, beyond it. But the presence of the Lord is “God being present with his people… acting in particular situations to bless faithful folk and thus make them know his love and help and draw forth their worship” (Packer, Keep in Step with the Spirit, p. 48). See Ex 3:12; 33:14-16; Josh 1:5,9; Is 43:2,5.

In the Old Testament Scriptures, we find that the Spirit makes God’s face or presence known. Where can I go from your Spirit? Where can I flee from your presence? If I go up to the heavens, you are there; if I make my bed in the depths, you are there. If I rise on the wings of the dawn, if I settle on the far side of the sea, even there your hand will guide me, your right hand will hold me fast. (Ps 139:7-10 NIV; cf. Psalm104:29-30; Ezekiel 39:25-29). When we’re in the presence of a person, we can see their face. If they hide their face from us, they don’t want to be known by us. God’s Spirit reveals God’s face to us. God wants us to know him personally.

In agreement with this, the Spirit of God rested on people to empower them for important tasks.

  • Moses and the elders of Israel (Numbers 11:24-30)
  • Joseph (Genesis 41:38)
  • Daniel (Daniel 4:8-9; 5:11-14)
  • Bezalel (Exodus 31:1-11; 35:30-35)
  • Saul (1 Samuel 11:6-7)

The Old Testament Scriptures prophesied that the Spirit would rest on the Messiah to help him in his work (Isaiah 11:1-5; 61:1-3). When God is at work to fulfill his will for his glory, there you will find the Spirit of God (Zechariah 4:6). Therefore, we must seek the gracious presence of the Lord in the Person of the Holy Spirit of God.

With this in mind, we can begin to grasp something of the Spirit’s relationship to the people of God in the old covenant. The Spirit was the Guiding Person. By this phrase, we mean the Spirit was the executive in charge of carrying out God’s purpose of grace.

  • The Holy Spirit worked among the people of God as a whole (Isaiah 63:7-14).
  • The Spirit is linked with Moses in the working of miracles. Compare Exodus 8:19 with Luke 11:20; Matthew 12:28.
  • The Spirit guided the people into the blessings of being in covenant with the living God.
  • The Spirit carried out the redemption from Egypt, which is typical of our better redemption from sin. Notice that they “grieved his Holy Spirit” (Isaiah 63:10; cf. Ephesians 4:30). You cannot grieve an impersonal force or breath; you can only grieve a person.

The Spirit of the Lord worked with old covenant believers. David sensed the great benefit of the Holy Spirit’s ministry—to have the Spirit is to have the joy of salvation (Psalm 51:10-12). Yet what David had does not measure up to what we now have (John 14:17).

God willing, in the articles ahead we want to explore this greater blessing of the Holy Spirit in the new covenant. But for now, think about the Spirit as the One leading or guiding God’s people into the experience of God’s blessing. What do you know of this mighty Comforter and Guide? You only receive his blessings through faith in the Lord Jesus Christ (John 7:37).

Grace and peace, David

A Ray of Sunshine (Part Two)

Genesis 39:2-6a

I am usually not a “morning person”; in fact, I’m a slow starter. I usually try to explain this because I was born at 12:29 AM. When I worked third shift in years past, I usually didn’t have any trouble staying awake, except when I had to run machines with strobe lights. But that is a different story. A few years ago, Sharon and I went to Acadia National Park. One of the attractions is to get up early and drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain to watch the sunrise. It is the first place in the continental United States from which you can see the sunrise. When the sun rises, it is a gradual event. This is what happened to Joseph, who had been taken as a slave to Egypt. The first ray of sunshine was being sold to Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh’s God. In our text for today, we see the sun rise in more strength.

The explanation for this blessing is the fact that the Lord was with Joseph (cf. Acts 7:9). One of the basic facts of God’s nature is his omnipresence. God is everywhere (Psalm 139:7-10; Jeremiah 23:23-24). That is important doctrine, but this verse speaks of the presence of God with his people rather than his omnipresence. When the Bible speaks of God being present or with his people, it means that he has come to them in a special way to bless them, be merciful to them, and to act through them for the benefit of others. It signals that the covenant Lord was about to break into ordinary lives for extraordinary good. In the Scriptures, the Holy Spirit tells us that the Lord was with people like Joshua (Josh 6:27), various judges (Judges 2:18), Samuel (1 Samuel 3:19), David (1 Samuel 18:14), Hezekiah (2 Kings 18:7), and Christ himself (Acts 10:38).

This blessing came in two forms, and neither affected Joseph’s predicament. In other words, God was with Joseph, and Joseph remained a slave. This makes no sense, if you evaluate things from a worldly point of view. I can hear the grumbling, “How can God be with Joseph, while Joseph continues to be a slave?” God, the Lord of time, works gradually in time to carry out his purposes.

First, let’s track Joseph’s rise in the household (39:4). There were steps in his promotion. He became Potiphar’s personal attendant; then he was put in charge of the household; and then in charge of all Potiphar’s possessions. Undoubtedly Joseph did his work wisely and thoroughly. However, the Scripture does not emphasize Joseph’s faithfulness but God’s blessing. It is possible to be faithful in one’s employment or business and yet not advance. There are numerous stories about people that were diligent and made wise decisions, and yet went broke because of other circumstances beyond their control.

Joseph became prosperous or successful (39:2-3). He would have been asked to speak on “How to Be a Successful Servant”, by the “local and regional servant associations in Egypt”. Here we must avoid the trap of reading the Bible through our own colored glasses. A wise Christian does not read the Bible to discover the secret of worldly success, but the path of obedience. God makes certain of his servants successful in order to fulfill his plans not their dreams of pleasure.

Second, blessing accrued to Potiphar because of Joseph (39:5). Again, from Joseph’s immediate, personal predicament, this made no sense. Joseph was doing the suffering as a slave, and Potiphar was becoming rich. If you were Joseph and didn’t know where God’s story was headed, how would you have felt? “If God is with me, why is my boss reaping the benefits? Why doesn’t the Lord set me free if he is with me, rather than using me to bless my ungodly slave-master?” It probably would have been very easy for you to have thought that God wasn’t “fair”. By the way, are there events in your life that you don’t think God has been good to you? If there are, you need to get those complaints settled before the Holy God by your repentance.

There is another lesson in these opening verses of Genesis 39. They could strip Joseph of his richly ornamented robe and remove him from his family, but they could not separate him from his God. The Lord was with him!

Grace and peace, David

God’s Plans Not Ours

IMG_3162Genesis 26

Some people get overlooked by other people. Here, I am not referring to the great mass of common people in contrast to stars and celebrities. Instead, I am talking about ordinary people that are ignored by other people like them. It is not that they lack attractive or beneficial qualities. It is also not the case that they are necessarily trying to fade into the background. They are in our local churches, but too often unnoticed by others. They are there, and thank God they are there, or the rest of us would struggle without them. If we wished, this could develop into a long discussion about the reasons such people are disregarded by others and the need for better community. But let’s see how God’s story works through the lives of people we might unfortunately ignore.

Isaac is often overlooked, though God reveals himself in the Bible many times as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. They were the Patriarchs of God’s old covenant people, Israel. Surely, being part of this line would qualify Isaac for our attention, but his part in the story of God’s glory in Christ gets easily passed by. He is sandwiched between his very prominent father, Abraham, and his scheming son, Jacob. Much more is written about Abraham and Jacob than Isaac. Could that be the reason we overlook him?

The twenty-sixth chapter of Genesis is not the first time Isaac is in the narrative. In one sense, there is no story without Isaac, because he is the promised child. Abraham and Sarah were childless for decades, and their faith in God and their struggles in their faith are a prominent part of the outworking of God’s story. Chapter twenty-four presents how Abraham’s chief servant was sent on a long journey to find a bride for Isaac, but Isaac is not mentioned until he married Rebekah. (Ladies, how would you enjoy this “destination wedding”? You take a long camel ride far away from your family and friends only to end up in the tent that had belonged to your mother-in-law!) Isaac and Rebekah had to wait twenty years for children. The Lord answered Isaac’s prayer (Genesis 25:21) and they had twin sons, Esau and Jacob. However, the twins became a source of controversy in the family when Rebekah loved Jacob, and Isaac loved Esau (Genesis 25:28). Isaac should have paid careful attention to the revelation of God’s plan told to Rebekah (Genesis 25:23). Isaac sadly wanted the son he loved to have the preeminent place. This means he acted contrary to the revealed will of God.

Yet God graciously included imperfect Isaac in his purposes. Isaac was in God’s story and God acted through him in the pursuit of his wise plan. To keep Isaac on track before the Scriptures were given, God appeared to Isaac, as he had previously appeared to Abraham, to give him instructions. Why did God do this? He did not want Isaac to imitate his father’s course by going down to Egypt. Eventually, Israel would go to Egypt and end up in bondage, but it was not yet God’s time for that.

This is one of the ways of God that we must learn to be content with. God works out his plan in his time, not ours. We might want something to happen very much, but we might find ourselves waiting and waiting and waiting. In this case God chose to use a famine in the land (perhaps the phrase “a famine in the land” would provide someone with a beneficial Bible study) to develop the character and faith of Isaac. God lets us see Isaac’s choices so that we might profit from his experience. When Isaac was faced with the hardship of a famine in the land, what did the Lord tell him?

  • God ordered Isaac not to go to Egypt (26:2). He did not explain his reasons. Too often we want to hear “reasons” about the twists and turns in our lives. We act like three-year-old children who constantly ask, “Why?” Do we think that God simply wants us to trust him without endless explanations? In all decisions about where he lived, he would be subject to God’s word.
  • God hinted that Isaac might be making some moves, though not to Egypt (26:3a). The Lord does not tell his children everything at once. We will usually experience a gradual unfolding of God’s purposes. If we are wise, we will walk closely with the Lord to be ready for our next steps.
  • God promised to be with Isaac and bless him (26:3b). Isaac would not have to face the famine alone. He could count on God’s presence. This is God’s basic promise to his people; yes, it’s his promise to us today. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age… Be satisfied with what you have, for He Himself has said, I will never leave you or forsake you (Matthew 28:20b; Hebrews 13:5b HCSB). Although we face trials of many kinds, God is with us during them. His reality should kindle hope in our souls.
  • God included Isaac in all the promises made to Abraham (26:4-5). It was not till many years later that the apostle Paul explained that offspring or seed referred to one person, the Messiah (Galatians 3:16). This was the promise that Christ would come through Isaac’s descendants. The other blessings would also be his, because of the obedient faith of his father, Abraham.

How did Isaac respond to the word of God? He trusted and obeyed and stayed in the land (26:6). His faith did not mean that the famine ended immediately. His faith kept him where the Lord God wanted him to be, and that was the best place for Isaac to be, whether there was famine or plenty.

Grace and peace, David