The Gospel in Jesus’ Birth

And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favor with God. And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Most High: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Luke 1:30-33).

This is the day that many in the world set aside to consider the birth of Jesus of Nazareth. It is important for us to take note that God never commands us to observe the birth of His Son, and we have no example from the New Testament of such an observance. We do not even know the day of His birth– December 25 was fixed hundreds of years later, and more because of the pagan festivals that surround that date than anything from the Scriptures. Since the shepherds were out at night with the flocks (Luke 2:8), it is most likely that He was born in spring or fall.

Nevertheless, the birth of Jesus is an important event. It is the moment at which the Word becomes flesh and dwells among mankind (John 1:1, 14). It is the occasion of the miracle of the virgin birth (Matthew 1:22-23). It is also the beginning of the fulfillment of the hope of Israel– and it is the feeling of hope that is about to come to pass that makes the story of Jesus’ birth so memorable. Isaiah spoke of the one who would prepare the way of the Lord (Isaiah 40:3-5) and Malachi speaks of the Elijah to come (Malachi 4:5-6): the angel Gabriel told Zechariah that his son would fulfill these things (Luke 1:13-17).

As a good Jewish girl, Mary would know all the predictions that were made about the Messiah– born to be the King, the One favored by God (cf. Isaiah 9:1-5, 11:1-10, etc.). And then the angel Gabriel comes to her and tells her that the child she will bear by the Holy Spirit will fulfill these things. He will be called great, the Son of the Most High. He would receive the throne of David. His Kingdom would never end.

These promises were no longer in the distant future. They were here in the flesh. God’s great plan was being realized in the flesh (Ephesians 3:11)!

The Good News of Jesus of Nazareth begins here. In the messages of the angel Gabriel and the Holy Spirit through Zechariah, Mary, Simeon, and Anna, we learn how Jesus will overturn the way the world works (Luke 1:47-55), suffer and die (Luke 2:35), but would rule over a Kingdom without end (Luke 1:30-33), and would be light of revelation to both Jew and Gentile (Luke 2:31-32, 38). Redemption was here!

Jesus of Nazareth was not born on December 25, but we can take advantage of the focus on Jesus’ birth to proclaim the message of His birth, life, death, resurrection, and lordship, just as Gabriel and the Holy Spirit did in those days of pregnant expectation so long ago. Let us find our hope in God’s redemption through Jesus Christ, and proclaim the wonder of Jesus in our lives!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Gospel in Jesus’ Birth

The Incorruptible Seed

Having been begotten again, not of corruptible seed, but of incorruptible, through the word of God, which liveth and abideth. For,
“All flesh is as grass, And all the glory thereof as the flower of grass. The grass withereth, and the flower falleth: But the word of the Lord abideth for ever.”
And this is the word of good tidings which was preached unto you (1 Peter 1:23-25).

God has always found the imagery of plant life fruitful for comparison with spiritual things. Many of Jesus’ parables feature agricultural images. Since most people are at least somewhat familiar with plants, the value of this imagery is quite understandable.

When Isaiah wanted to encourage the Jewish exiles of the sixth century he turned to the frailty of grass and flowering plants (cf. Isaiah 40:6-8). They grow for a season and look beautiful and impressive for that season– but it does not take long for them to die when exposed to hot winds or freezing cold.

Isaiah compares people and their ideology to those plants. Sure, for the time being, the Babylonians who had conquered the Jews seemed impressive. Babylon was a large city with a great empire. The people boasted of their gods. The Jews were an oddity, believing firmly in their one God even though He had not saved them from Babylon’s hand. It would be very easy for the Jews to “fall in line” and believe just as the rest of the people believed.

But Isaiah knew that the day of the Babylonians would be short. The time of all flesh is short– humans live for a short period of time, in the grand scheme of things, and pass away. Another generation then arises, and it too shall soon pass. The ideologies of men tend to live a bit longer than an individual generation, but they also pass. The one constant, Isaiah notes, is the word of the LORD.

Peter writes to encourage his fellow Christians six hundred years after the height of Babylonian power. Rome is the new Babylon. Their empire was even more impressive than the Babylonian empire. Their military might was unequaled. The Emperor was hailed as a god, and even if the traditional gods of the Greeks and Romans were doubted, pretty much everyone else fell down before the Power of Rome. The Christians were very much the odd ones since they claimed that it was really Jesus who was Lord, not Caesar, even though Jesus was crucified in the days of Tiberius. As before, it would be very easy to “fall in line” and accede to Roman power.

Yet Peter wants to remind the Christians of the same lesson that Isaiah did: the word of the LORD, now enshrined in the message of the Gospel of the Kingdom, endures forever.

We now live almost two thousand years after Peter wrote those words. Even in the days of Peter, Babylon was a ruin. Its glories would only be re-discovered in the nineteenth century by archaeologists looking to better understand the “word of the LORD” found in the Old Testament of those very Jews whom the Babylonians mocked. Within three hundred years of Peter’s letter, Christianity was made the official religion of the Roman Empire, and the Emperors who used to claim divinity for themselves now called Jesus of Nazareth Lord, at least in name. Today the Roman Empire is as distant of a memory as the Babylonian Empire, and their ideologies have been relegated to the interest of historians. And yet the word of the LORD, the Gospel of the Kingdom, is still preached throughout the world.

As assuredly as Babylon and the Babylonians rose and fell, and Rome and the Romans rose and fell, so too will America and Americans. The ideologies of modern society will have their day in the sun and then they too will pass away!

We would do well to heed the warning of Isaiah, Peter, and also John (cf. 1 John 2:15-17). It is very easy to trust in what contemporary society calls “common sense” and “the way things are,” just as it was easy to trust in those things 2600 and 2000 years ago. But, as John says, the world and its lusts are passing away. Only the word of the LORD will remain.

If we believe in Jesus Christ and seek to imitate Him and keep His commandments (1 John 2:3-6), we will demonstrate that we have been born again of that incorruptible or imperishable seed. Our minds, hearts, and actions will be conformed to how God would have us think, feel, and act, as was manifest in His Son (John 1:18, Romans 8:29). That way of living will not change with the winds of culture. If it is truly based in the imperishable seed, it will always endure.

But we must watch out for the corruptible or perishable seed of the world. It is easy for the “weeds” to take root and dominate in life (cf. Matthew 13:24-30). It is easy to allow worldly mindsets, attitudes, and actions to take over, either boldly in denying that which is divine, or more subtly by attempting to appear pious and holy. But its end will not be the fruit of the Spirit or anything conforming to Christ, but instead will at some point show its true worldliness (cf. 1 John 4:5-6). It will have to be cast away, either by this generation or a future one, for it cannot last!

Jesus says that we will be known by our fruits (Matthew 7:16-20). You do not get the imperishable plant from the perishable seed, nor do you get the perishable plant from the imperishable seed. If we think, feel, and act according to the ways of the world, we will pass away along with the world. But if we think, feel, and act according to the enduring, living, and abiding word of God, manifesting the Gospel of Christ in word and deed, we will obtain eternity (John 3:16). Let us cling to the incorruptible seed and reflect Christ to the perishing world!

Ethan R. Longhenry

The Incorruptible Seed

Immanuel

But when he thought on these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she shall bring forth a son; and thou shalt call his name JESUS; for it is he that shall save his people from their sins.”
Now all this is come to pass, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet, saying, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, And they shall call his name Immanuel;”
which is, being interpreted, “God with us” (Matthew 1:20-23).

The Incarnation is one of the most profound and challenging truths found in the pages of the New Testament. The One through whom all creation came forth now as a human being. God humbling Himself by taking on the form of a man (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). How amazing! How unbelievable!

For many years men pondered over the Incarnation. Many of the heresies of the first millennium came about because of such speculations: was Jesus born the Son of God, or did He become the Son of God in baptism (adoptionism)? Was He truly a man, or did He just appear to be a man (docetism)? Did Jesus have two natures or one nature, and how did those natures work together (Nestorianism, monophytism)?

The Scriptures make it clear that Jesus was God from the beginning, the Word made flesh (John 1:1, 14). In Him is the fullness of the Godhead in bodily form (Colossians 2:8-10). Matthew affirms that Jesus’ birth fulfills the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, and that Jesus is the Immanuel child– God with us. In the flesh. In a man that can be seen, felt, and heard (cf. 1 John 1:1-3).

How can this be? We cannot understand exactly how it came about, but we can be sure that it was accomplished through the power of God. The Incarnation is another reminder that the “foolishness” of God is wiser than the wisdom of men, and that in Jesus Christ God has made void the “wisdom” of the world (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). To the unbelieving world, the idea of God in the flesh is pure folly. To those of us who believe in God, His power, and His wisdom, it is part of a wonderful plan to save mankind (Ephesians 3:10-11).

The implications of the Incarnation are astounding. It is easy to look at Jesus and think about Him as God the Son, as the great and powerful Lord who quiets the sea and casts out demons (cf. Matthew 12, 14, etc.). Yet He is also human, learning obedience through the things He suffered (Hebrews 5:7-10). This is the profound reality of the Incarnation: God the Son needing a diaper change. The Word made flesh babbling as an infant, crying and needing the tender care of His mother Mary. The Lord learning how to walk and move about.

The Bible does not reveal a whole lot about Jesus’ early life and upbringing, but the very fact that He is both God the Son, the Word made flesh, and a growing child is quite amazing. It ought to remind us how Jesus is not so removed from us as to not be able to understand our difficulties (cf. Hebrews 4:15-16)!

To think that God the Son took on the form of flesh in order to live, suffer, die, and be raised again so that we could have eternal life is beyond humbling (cf. Philippians 2:5-11). When we think about all that Jesus would go through as Immanuel, God with us, it should lead us to greater appreciation of the Incarnation and His life and a renewed zeal to serve Him and His purposes. Let us praise God that Jesus is our Immanuel and obey Him!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Immanuel

Mercy, not Sacrifice

“But if ye had known what this meaneth, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice,’ ye would not have condemned the guiltless” (Matthew 12:7).

The Pharisees have come out again and have attempted to condemn Jesus and His disciples for violating their strictures regarding the Sabbath. Jesus stands against them because they have entirely missed the purpose of the Sabbath on account of their legalistic perspective.

He charges them with not understanding Samuel’s utterance to Saul in 1 Samuel 15:22, a message also seen in Hosea 6:6, Isaiah 1:11-20, and Jeremiah 6:19-20. This message strikes at the heart of what it means to be a true servant of God versus just going through the motions.

In all of those Old Testament contexts, the people of God were providing the sacrifices which God commanded for them to provide in the Law (cf. Leviticus). Yet God would not accept them. It was not a matter of the technical requirements, as if the sacrifices were themselves offered improperly. God rejected them because the sacrifices were not consistent with the rest of their lives. Sure, they would sacrifice to God, but they were not obeying God otherwise! Saul had brought all kinds of animals to sacrifice for God when God told him to devote Amalek to the ban. The Israelites in the days of Hosea, Isaiah, and Jeremiah brought their requisite offerings yet were also serving idols, committing oppressions and violence in the land, and not following the LORD as commanded.

These Pharisees were doing the same thing. They went to great lengths to understand the Book yet did not actually practice much of what was in it. They devised a series of all kinds of guidelines to keep people from violating the Law– a veritable “fence around the Torah”– and in the process missed its most essential commands (cf. Matthew 23:23-24). Even though they did not commit the exact same sins as their forebears, they fell under the same condemnation!

These are strong warnings for us today. It is good to know what the Bible teaches and to do all one can in order to avoid sin (cf. 2 Peter 3:18, Romans 12:9). On the other hand, Christianity is more than just an intellectual exercise, and its core message discourages any attempt at self-righteousness or sanctimony (James 1:22-25, Luke 18:9-14).

We cannot pride ourselves in having all the details of certain elements of our service to God entirely figured out and then miss the whole of the message. If we assemble with the saints and do all things according to God’s purposes, well and good (Hebrews 10:24-25). But we are to show love, mercy, and compassion to all men at all times, and to serve God as fervently outside of the assembly as we do among the saints (Romans 12:1-2, Galatians 5:22-24). Even if we have great knowledge of the Book, we have no reason to be high on ourselves: we remain profitless servants doing only what is our duty when we learn God’s will and apply it (Luke 17:7-10). In the end, no matter how “righteous” we are, no matter how “mature” in the faith, we must remain humble servants of our Lord, encouraging all men to come to the knowledge of the truth in love, confessing that we are not the judges but our Lord will judge everyone on the last day (Romans 14:1-12, Matthew 7:1-5, James 4:12, Ephesians 2:1-10, 4:11-16).

Let none be deceived: if you assemble with the saints but do not otherwise accomplish God’s will, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you strive diligently to obey God in the areas of life in which it is convenient, but refuse to repent in the more challenging aspects of the faith, God will reject your “sacrifice.” If you understand God’s Word well and seek to apply it in your life yet you look down on your fellow man and consider yourself better than they, God will reject your “sacrifice.” It is only when we remember our place and completely give ourselves over to the Lord Jesus Christ that our sacrifices will be pleasing to God (Romans 12:1, Hebrews 13:15)! Let us both show mercy and provide sacrifice, and be pleasing to our Lord!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Mercy, not Sacrifice