Thursday, December 24, 2015

A Glorious Name (Matthew 1:21)

“She [Mary] will bear a son, and you [Joseph] shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
Joseph was bothered by the news that his betrothed Mary was pregnant with a baby that was not his. He was a just man, however. Deuteronomy 22:21 required that a woman caught in adultery be stoned to death. That law, however, was seldom carried out. (The incident in John 8:1–11 may offer us a reason for that reluctance.) The Jews opted for public humiliation; however, Joseph did not want even this lesser penalty, just a quiet end to the betrothal. He knew that she would be subject to scorn and ridicule anyway.
An angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and encouraged him to follow through with the marriage. Mary’s condition was the work of the Holy Spirit. She would bear a Son and Joseph, as acting father, was to name the child. Names held great significance to the Jews, either reflecting character or signifying purpose and calling. In this case both aspects are evident. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew Yahushua (from Yeho, the abbreviated form of the Divine name, Yahweh, and shuasaviorYahweh Saves). Jesus was indeed Yahweh, the only Savior (Isa. 43:3; 45:21; Acts 4:12).
The angel also revealed the purpose and calling of Jesus: “He will save his people from their sins.” To reinforce the significance of that statement, Matthew adds that all this was to fulfill Isaiah 7:11. Isaiah also records another name, Immanuel (God with us), which also signifies God’s purpose to dwell among His people as their God and Savior (Ex. 29:45; 2 Cor. 6:16).
Book Two of the Psalms (42–72) is filled with lament and distress at Israel’s condition due to sin and rebellion, discipline and exile to Babylon. It was designed to raise expectation and hope that Yahweh would save His people (44:1–7). This collection ends with a psalm attributed to Solomon that is regarded as the epitome of royal theology. It expresses the purpose of God to fulfill the promise to Abraham that his Seed would one day bless the whole earth. “May he have dominion from sea to sea, and from the River to the ends of the earth! . . May all kings fall down before him, all nations serve him!” (vv. 8, 11).
Isaiah 62 expresses this longing for restoration. The nations shall see your righteousness, and all the kings your glory, and you shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the Lord will give” (v. 2). That new name is Jesus and Joseph was commanded to call Him that. Psalm 72 joins this desire for God’s glory and His fame (name) in a unique phrase used only twice (Neh. 9:5; Psa. 72:19). “May his name endure forever, hisfame continue as long as the sun! May people be blessed in him, all nations call him blessed! Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be his glorious name forever; may the whole earth be filled with his glory!”

Monday, December 14, 2015

Fear No Evil (1 Peter 3:18–22)

The passage before us has raised some interesting questions. Why does Peter bring up “spirits in prison” (v. 19)? Who are they? Why was it important that Jesus preached to them? What does this fact have to do with our suffering (v. 14)? How does this event relate to baptism (v. 21)? What does Peter mean when he declares that baptism saves us? How does baptism save us? Why does Peter bring in angels, authorities, and powers (v. 22)? One thing is clear; those to whom Peter wrote understood what he was saying.
Context is extremely important to proper interpretation. Also, we must keep an open mind and let Scripture interpret Scripture. The overall emphasis is to encourage the elect saints in their struggles to live holy lives in the midst of an evil world. Compromise is always a temptation when one is threatened for standing for what is unseen and tangibly uncertain. We are truly “strangers and pilgrims” as we live among the Gentiles (2:11). We must never retaliate with evil for the evil inflicted upon us (3:9). We are to turn away from the evil and pursue peace because the unseen Lord sees and hears the righteous (3:11–13).
Ordinarily, no harm should come to those who always do what is good (3:13). However, righteous people will suffer for righteousness’ sake (because of God’s standard of right). That is, the evil doer hates God and His righteousness as seen in His character and in His law. Thus, he will hate the godly also, and the godly will likely suffer in some way for it. So, since the Lord sees and hears all, the godly must have no fear of evil doers or be troubled by their threats and persecution (3:14). Instead, through deliberately setting the Lord Christ apart in the heart as holy, His people are to prepare to defend their steadfast (but seemingly futile) hope (that God will reward them for doing His will) in a reasonable way (v. 15). In this, one keeps a good conscience while he suffers for doing what is right.
That is the way Jesus acted (v. 18). In doing what was good in the will of God, He, the righteous One, suffered once for all in the stead of the unrighteous ones in order to bring them back to God. In His death and before His resurrection, in the spirit, He went and proclaimed (announced) something to “spirits” in prison (v. 19). These spirits are not human souls in hades, waiting for the resurrection and judgment. The Bible never uses spirit to refer to a human soul, especially those who are dead in their sins (Eph. 2:1; 1 Cor. 2:14).

There are some clues here to identify these spirits. First, they are in “prison” (literally, “to be kept under watch”). They are being kept because “they did not obey,” but we are not told the nature of their disobedience. We are told when they were imprisoned—when “God’s patience waited in the days of Noah” (v. 20). What does this mean? The obvious reference is something that occurred in Noah’s time and in connection with the flood.
More on this to follow.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

Proving the Worth of God (1 Peter 3:18–22)

Peter concludes his summary of the argument that we, as followers in Jesus Christ, have been called by God to suffer, even wrongfully (1 Peter 3:8-17). “For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil” (v. 17).
Why would it be God’s will to suffer wrongfully? The simple broad answer is the cosmic conflict between God and Satan. God’s soldiers are His people on earth, living out the gospel in the grace and power of God. Satan and his minions will do everything that they can to defeat God’s army through compromise, deception, discouragement, and persecution.
Yet, there is an even greater purpose for suffering than warfare. John Newton, the famous slave-trader-turned-preacher and author of the hymn, “Amazing Grace,” had a profound understanding of suffering and its purpose. He saw trials as heavy weights on a grandfather clock, necessary for the Christian life to operate properly. We are sinners, but heaven is our home. We are as ships on the open sea, navigating to our destination. Everything we encounter has been appointed by God and made subservient to our sanctification and happiness.
Tony Reinke* has gleaned ten specific things from Newton’s letters about God’s sovereign design in our trials. I offer three. First, trials reveal the hidden idols of our hearts that we tend to overlook and think less vile than they really are. Trials smoke out these vile and evil vipers. Reinke writes, “Trials make us feel the power of the sins residing in our hearts, and such awareness is essential to the cure.”
Second, suffering drives us to prayer. We have a natural aversion to prayer, and we make every excuse to avoid it. We find it a chore to commune with the Almighty. Our praying is often mindless and remote. As Newton saw it, “We are dragged before God like slaves, and we run away from prayer like a thieves.” Suffering breathes necessity and desperation into our praying, bringing new energy to our seeking after God.
Third (number 8 in Reinke’s list), trials reveal God’s grace in our lives. Suffering reduces life to the bare essentials. It drives us to Christ and His Word, and we see just how much we need Him and how tightly we cling to His promises. In that hour, when all the artificial supports are gone, we begin to understand that our lives are anchored in His grace. We could not survive without it. That realization is massive to our faith and confidence. We see that He never fails us, and that is strong medicine in our most painful hours.
One of Newton’s favorite metaphors was to compare the suffering saint to Moses’ burning bush (Ex. 3:2). Christians are called to a disproportionate amount of suffering so that they might be a spectacle of grace to the world. Those outside the church will see them as burning, yet unconsumed. Only God’s amazing grace enables this miracle. It is this perseverance of faith by which Christians prove the worth of God in this sinful world.
*Newton on the Christian Life, by Tony Reinke © 2015, Crossway, from chapter 9, “Discipline in Trials.”

Ready to Shame Revilers (1 Peter 3:8–17)

In Acts 16, leaving Phrygia and Galatia, Paul and Silas were forbidden by the Holy Spirit to go into Asia Minor. They turned to go north into Bithynia but were stopped there also. In Troas, Paul had the vision urging him to cross the Aegean Sea into Macedonia and Greece. Arriving at Philippi, they found no synagogue of Jews but spoke to a few women gathered at the riverside for prayer and worship on the Sabbath. A stranger, Lydia, from Thyatira, a city in the forbidden Asia Minor, was the first convert to Christ.
Returning to the place of prayer, the company was met by a slave girl possessed by a demon of divination. Her supernatural skills brought great profits to her owners. For some reason, this girl began to follow the apostle, loudly proclaiming that he and his helpers were servants of the Most High God. After many days, Paul, greatly annoyed, commanded the spirit to leave the girl, which, of course, meant that the girl was useless to her owners’ fortune-telling enterprise. They seized Paul and Silas, had them arrested on trumped up-charges, beat them with rods, and turned them over to the Roman jailor to imprison them. Bruised, bloodied, and bound, they sat in the darkness of the inner prison, no doubt, confused and questioning God’s purpose. However, instead of complaining, protesting their ill treatment, and demanding that their rights be upheld, they worshiped the Lord in prayer and song for all to hear.
The Lord wanted a Roman jailor for His kingdom. The means He used to secure him was the odd behavior of two strange prisoners and an earthquake at midnight. All of this illustrates Peter’s instructions in 1 Peter 3:8–17.
Summarizing his argument developed from verse 3 in the first chapter, Peter reiterates the point made in 2:20 and 21. We have been called to suffer wrongfully, and as we respond in a godly way, God uses our testimony against sinners. Thus, Peter repeats his command that his readers to be unified, sympathetic, loving, tender-hearted, and humble (v. 8). With this state of mind, we are to face persecution and tribulation. When wrongfully treated, we are to bless, just as Jesus instructed (Luke 6:28; Rom. 12:14).
Peter quotes Psalm 34:12–16 for support because this kind of response is not natural. Even those who are guilty of the crimes for which they are being punished will loudly protest their treatment as unfair and excessive. On the other hand, what harm comes to those who are good and do good?” (v. 13). The natural law of fairness demands that those who do good be rewarded in kind. However, what are we to do when we suffer for righteousness’ sake? We are to honor Christ the Lord, ready and able to make a defense to any who would ask a reason for the hope in us—that living hope unto which we were born again (1:3). We must do so for the sake of our good conscience and as a testimony to shame those who would revile our good behavior.