And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night

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Luke 2:8-20

In science fiction, alien life forms are always showing up from another world.  Most often they come to destroy and dominate.  In Luke chapter 2, there is a very different kind of alien invasion:

“8 And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”

These creatures from another world are terrifying.  But they do not come to terrify, they come saying “Fear not.”  They do not wage war.  They wage peace.

Their announcement is good tidings of great joy to all people.

Where science fiction aliens say “Take me to your leader” these angels say the opposite:  “Here, have our Leader – He’s wonderful!”  What an astonishing invasion.

The King of the angels is born as a man and for man.  For all men (v10). And, as if to underline the point, the announcement comes, not to the great and good, but to shepherds who lack even a roof over their heads. Here are the meek souls for whom Christ is given.

Therefore, what is God’s attitude towards His world (and therefore what is His attitude towards me)?  Well we have it on good authority from the heavenly host: God’s heart for His creation is, “Peace, goodwill towards men.”

And if we doubt that we ought to make the journey the shepherds make. We ought to go to Bethlehem and see the babe lying in the manger.  If we’ve seen the Judge of mankind wriggling in a feeding trough, how can we ever doubt that God’s will towards us is “Peace”?  If we’ve seen the lengths to which Christ the LORD has gone to be God-with-us, how could we ever deny His stunning good will towards men?

If, by faith, we see what the shepherds saw, we too will “make known abroad” the good tidings.  We too will praise and glorify God.

The truth is “out there.”  But the truth is not dark and disturbing.  It’s glad tidings!  There is life from another world, it is intelligent and very powerful.  But this life is for us.  In incarnation, this life has embraced us in full and wills peace and eternal joy for all mankind.  Look to the manger and rejoice.  God has moved heaven to earth to bring you peace.  He has emptied Himself to the depths of crib and cross to give you His very Self. The deepest of all truths is good news of great joy.

She wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn

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Luke 1:57-2:7

You didn’t choose to be born and neither did I.  Only Jesus has ever chosen to be born.  But if such powers were at our disposal, would we have decided upon the path that Jesus took?

Surely not.  Surely we would have opted for powerful parents, fabulous wealth, plush surroundings, an easy life.

And it’s all the more justifiable in Jesus’ case.  After all, He arrives as King.  He is taking the throne of His father David (Luke 1:32).  Doesn’t that demand a certain level of pomp and ceremony?  Or at least dignity?  Or publicity?

But no, Jesus chose penniless teenagers in an oppressed backwater under the thumb of mighty Rome.  He chose to be born in the land of the shadow of death (Isaiah 9:2, 6).  He entered our world at its darkest depths.  And so His Kingly nature is revealed, not in His high standing but in His lowly stooping.

When the time came, He was not delivered in comfort or safety.  In a day when many women died in childbirth:

“[Mary] brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”  (Luke 2:7)

What John said theologically, Bethlehem’s innkeepers said practically:

“He came unto his own, and his own received him not.”  (John 1:11)

It’s horribly ironic.  Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”  Yet when the true Bread of life appears, no-one wants Him.

Nonetheless, Mary puts Him in a feeding trough (i.e. a manger).  There He lies as this world’s true Food.  And thus,

“Where meek souls will receive Him still,
The dear Christ enters in.”

More on those ‘meek souls’ tomorrow.  But for now, marvel at the stooping Saviour.  To see the nature of God, we naturally look to the heavens.  Christmas tells us to look down into the manger.  There is true deity.

As Luther has said:

“Reason and will would ascend and seek above, but if you would have joy, bend yourself down to this place.  There you will find that boy given for you who is your Creator lying in a manger.  I will stay with that boy as He sucks, is washed, and dies . . . There is no joy but in this boy.  Take Him away and you face the Majesty which terrifies . . . I know of no God but this one in the manger.”

My soul doth magnify the Lord

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Luke 1:39-56

How do you feel about musicals?  Many people dislike them because ‘in real life, ordinary folk don’t burst into song.’  Well, hopefully Luke chapter 1 will win over the doubters because here we read, not one, but two examples of spontaneous lyricism!

At the end of the chapter (Luke 1:68-80), Zechariah – the father of John the Baptist – waxes lyrical over the coming of Messiah.  But first it’s Mary who overflows with praise.

Commonly her words from v46-55 are called ‘Mary’s song’ or ‘The Magnificat’, since that is the first word of its Latin translation.  In many churches it’s said or sung on a weekly basis.  (In Anglican churches it’s most likely to be used at Evening Prayer / Evensong).

Read Luke 1:46-55 and notice two themes – Fulfilment of promise and Reversal of fortunes:

Fulfilment of Promise

Mary’s song is very much like Hannah’s song (1 Samuel 2:1-10) in which she too was given a miraculous child, she sang of great reversals from the LORD and ended by hoping in Messiah.  But Mary’s song is not simply a recapitulation of Hannah’s – it’s the fulfilment of all Old Testament promise.  The birth of Christ is “in remembrance of God’s mercy.”  It is what He “spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed forever.”  What is the sum and substance of Yahweh’s mercy?  It is the sending of Christ.  What is the essence of the LORD’s covenant love to Abraham and the Patriarchs?  It is the LORD’s enfleshment, born of a virgin.

The Magnificat sounds like it could have been lifted straight from the Psalms.  And, in a deep sense, it could have.  Both Mary and David were singing of the same mercy, the same covenant love, the same Messiah.  The Old Testament is Christian, through and through.  And Mary is a Hebrew, through and through.  The events of the New Testament are not a departure from the Old Testament narrative – they are its intended destination.

Secondly, let’s consider…

Reversal of Fortunes

This song is the battle hymn of a gospel revolution.  All our expectations are upended.

Those who are high are brought low:

The proud are scattered

The mighty are put down

The rich are sent away empty

Meanwhile the meek are lifted up:

The lowly are exalted

The hungry are filled

This is not so much a political manifesto (though it will have implications for all of life).  It is, first and foremost, a profound theology of incarnation.  Here is what Mary is contemplating: the eternal Christ has emptied Himself.  The Word of the Cosmos, has made Himself small.  So small in fact that He rests within this penniless teenager.  But if that is the trajectory of this world’s Judge, then all worldly trajectories come under judgement.

While the world attempts to lift itself up, the LORD of all comes down.  Therefore the high and mighty find themselves dangerously out of step with their Maker.  All who seek their own interests find themselves on a collision course with Mary’s child. Jesus redefines majesty as meekness, greatness as service, glory as sacrifice.

For those full of themselves, Christ’s coming will turn out to be their judgement.  For those who know they have nothing, it will be exaltation for the lowly and feasting for the hungry.

“Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.”  (2 Corinthians 8:9)

As you meditate on the LORD’s humility, how will you consider money, power and status today?

Most importantly, as you think on Christ’s self-emptying, won’t you sing with Mary:  “My soul doth magnify the Lord!”

Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women

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Luke 1:1-38

Gabriel says to Mary:  “have gratia plena!”  Or at least, that was Jerome’s Latin translation from around 400AD.  In English it would read “Hail Mary, full of grace.”  But that’s not a good translation of Luke 1:28.

Jerome’s version sounds as though Mary is a repository of some spiritual substance called grace.  And if we believed that then we might seek deposits of “grace” from the blessed virgin.  Yet that is not right.

It is right to call her “The Blessed Virgin Mary”.  After all, Gabriel does:

“Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee:  blessed art thou among women.”  (Luke 1:28)

It is right to call her “Mary, the mother of God.”  She does indeed bear the Son who is “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”  (Isaiah 9:6).

But it’s not right to call on her as some storehouse of heavenly blessing. Mary is not full of grace, she is graced by God – “highly favoured” as the KJV has it.  If we’re looking for a Storehouse of divine blessing we should look to the Child who she carries.  He is Grace Himself – the One in Whom is all heavenly blessing (Ephesians 1:3).

But the reason Christ can offer this grace to the world has everything to do with the virgin Mary.  You see Mary’s virginity is vital to Christ being full of grace for the world.

Mary’s virginity is triply underlined in Luke 1.  She is twice called a virgin before she is even named (Luke 1:27).  And when she’s told she is to carry the Christ-child she exclaims:  “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”  (Luke 1:34)

The virgin birth is a non-negotiable of the Christian faith.  And this is not simply the assertion of a biblicist.  The logic of the gospel demands this supernatural conception.

You see, Mary’s child is not the result of human reproduction.  We did not produce the Messiah.  He was a pure gift:

“Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given.”  (Isaiah 9:6)

And this Gift from on high is something completely new.  This child is not the son of men – He is the Son of God!  He takes a full and perfect humanity from Mary.  But He is the true and eternal Son of God, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary (as the creeds say).

This is so important, because this world is full of the sons of men.  And that, really, is our problem.

Luke chapter 3 ends by running us through a potted history of humanity. From Christ back to Adam, Luke charts our family tree as a succession of men who give rise to more men.  But at the top of the tree we find something curious:

“Enos, which was the son of Seth, which was the son of Adam, which was the son of God.”  (Luke 3:38)

Everyone else has been described as the son of a man.  But in the history of the world there are two exceptions – one is Jesus, the other is Adam. When Adam was brought into existence, his family tree was just him and the Lord God who formed him.  He could be described as a son of God.

Think of him, standing alone in the garden of Eden:  All of humanity was in him.  Even Eve herself was in Adam and came out of Adam.  And between them came the whole world.

Therefore, when Adam fell, he took the human race with him.  And ever since, humanity has been born in Adam – born into his estrangement and sin.

So the last thing we need is a Messiah who simply belongs to that slow-march towards the grave.  What we really need is something new.  We need the original Son of God.  We need Him to come as the Second Adam, the Man from heaven.  We need Him to be born of a virgin to restart the human race in Himself.

And just as we were born into Adam’s old humanity, so through Christ we are born again into His new humanity.

As the carol says:  “Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.” (Hark the Herald!)

That’s the meaning of Christmas, and it’s the virgin birth that guarantees it.  So don’t Hail Mary as full of grace.  But thank God for her.  Through her came the Second Adam, who invites the whole world into His new humanity.  This is the fullness of grace that we all need.  And it’s the fullness of grace which Christmas brings.

Thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins

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Matthew 1:18-25

Both Joseph and Mary were given strict instructions regarding the name of the Christ-child (Matthew 1:21; Luke 1:31).  Angels had to come – they moved heaven to earth! – just to tell them the vital importance of being “Jesus.” Think of all the advice these first-time parents might have received… “You’re bearing the Son of God, don’t drop Him!”  But nothing like that. The one thing they need to know is how to call Him, that is, how to think of Him, speak of Him, identify Him.

And what is His name?  Joseph is told:

“Thou shalt call his name JESUS:  for he shall save his people from their sins.”  (Matthew 1:21)

The name “Jesus” is the same as the name “Joshua”.  (It’s from the same Hebrew word, but translated into Greek and then Anglicized).  And just as Joshua led the people out of the wilderness and into the promised land, so Jesus would lead His people out of sin and into God’s presence.  The name “Joshua” (or “Jesus”) means “the LORD is salvation.”

So we learn three things from the naming of Jesus:

First, we learn what kind of LORD we worship.

Jesus reveals God Most High.  He is the way and the truth and the life, we only come to the Father through Him (John 14:6).  So we don’t simply learn about Christ’s nature when we study His name.  His name reveals the depths of the divine life.

Therefore, what does it mean to say that the LORD is salvation.   It means that His very nature is a saving movement towards us.  To know the LORD is to know Him in His gracious approach to sinners.  The heart-beat of God is rescue:  the LORD is salvation.

And who could deny this when we look to the baby Jesus.  From heaven to earth, from a throne to a manger, from King of the angels to man of sorrows.  Why?  Only to save.  His infinite riches are poured out in incarnation and crucifixion.  He becomes poor, just to make us paupers rich (2 Corinthians 8:9).  What is our God like?  The LORD is salvation.

Second, we learn what salvation is.  You see, the LORD is salvation.

Salvation is not a package of spiritual benefits which Jesus bestows.  It’s not the accumulation of heavenly things: forgiveness, a righteous status before God, eternal life, feelings of peace and purpose.  Jesus is not like a Prince riding along in his carriage and tossing bread to a pauper.  Jesus is far more like the Prince who gets out of his carriage, sets his love on the pauper and pledges himself to marry her.  He Himself is our redemption.

Salvation is not our receiving of heavenly stuff – it’s receiving the LORD Himself.  And in Him, we receive forgiveness, righteousness, eternal life, etc, etc.  What is salvation?  The question is who?  And the answer is:  The LORD Jesus!

Third, we learn about ourselves.  If the LORD is salvation then we must be lost.  And that is certainly what our verse describes.  The Christ-Child is called JESUS:  “for he shall save his people from their sins.”

Jesus does not come to save us from loneliness, or lack of purpose, or material poverty.  He comes in a very specific salvation – to save us from our sins.  Therefore this is our greatest need – a remedy for sin.

As Max Lucado has said:

“If our greatest need had been information,
God would have sent us an educator.
If our greatest need had been technology,
God would have sent us a scientist.
If our greatest need had been money,
God would have sent us an economist.
If our greatest need had been pleasure,
God would have sent us an entertainer.
But our greatest need was forgiveness,
so God sent us a Savior.”

Allow Jesus to define your greatest need.  It’s not your health, your finances, your job, your family, your relationship breakdowns.  There is a much bigger problem:  your sin.

But now, let Jesus “say unto your soul, ‘I am thy salvation.’” (Psalm 35:3). You are delivered from your real problem, and empowered to face all others.

Take a minute and allow Jesus to define for you…

… God

… salvation

… your sense of proportion in life.

This is “the life”

1 John 1:1-2:2

Last year I went strolling along a Mauritian beach with my wife.  We bought tropical fruit from a roadside vendor, went for a swim and then lay down on a deckchair sipping a cold beer.  I said to Emma, “This is the life.”

When have you said that phrase?  “This is the life”?  You might not like hot holidays.  Maybe you’d rather go skiing with friends and then sit down by a roaring fire with a big hot chocolate, extra cream.  “This is the life.”

Or you go out and celebrate some success at your favourite restaurant with your favourite people. “This is the life” we say.

It’s funny how rarely we use that saying isn’t it?  We live for awfully long stretches of time without saying “this is the life”.  Apparently most of life isn’t “the life”.  Only very rarely is life the life.  We have to stop doing everything we’ve been doing and fly halfway around the world before our life starts to be the life.

Can that be right?  Is it the case that most of our lives aren’t really “the life”?  That would be a real shame wouldn’t it?

36 hours after I said:  “this is the life”, we were locked outside our house in the freezing rain, rummaging through our suitcases and concluding that our house-keys were somewhere on the continent of Australia. Was this still “the life?”  “The life” seemed far away at that point.

I think for most of us “the life” seems out of reach.

But the Apostle John wrote a letter (1 John) in which he spoke very differently about “the life.”  For John “the life” is not a time or a place.  “The life” is a person – a person who was there in the beginning.  A person with whom we now have fellowship.  Here are the first few verses of the letter:

“That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life;  (For the life was manifested, and we have seen it, and bear witness, and shew unto you that eternal life, which was with the Father, and was manifested unto us;)”  (1 John 1:1-2)

This is the life.  Not a time or a place.  A person.  This is the life:  Jesus.  He was there in the beginning.  There with the Father.  He came in the middle, to live out “the life”.  And John had seen the life.  He had walked the dusty roads of Israel with the life.  And when John saw Jesus he said to Himself “this is the life.”  Jesus is the life.

Therefore John wants to tell the whole world about ‘the life’:

“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us:  and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full.”  (1 John 1:3-4)

John’s greatest joy is to pass on the life to us.  Therefore we can enjoy the life, not just when we’re sunbathing by the pool or having drinks with friends, but when we’re locked out of the house in the freezing rain, when we lose our jobs and our health and our friends, our family, even our own lives.  We can lose everything in life and still have the life.  Because we have Jesus:  the Author of Life, the Word of Life, the Meaning of Life.

What do you normally think of as ‘the life’?

The life we seek is usually self-indulgent.  The life of Jesus is self-giving.  The life we pursue is about sitting back and relaxing.  The life of Jesus is an outgoing life – from the Father to the disciples and out to the world.  Our kind of life is directed towards comfort, ease, distraction, entertainment.  Jesus’ kind of life is so much better – it’s a life of fellowship (with God and His people) and of joy.

“The world”, to use a phrase common in First John, gives a counterfeit vision of ‘the life’.  Perhaps today we need to re-orient ourselves to John’s vision.  As we turn our thoughts to another year, let’s not seek counterfeits. Jesus Himself is the life.  We need not weary ourselves with other visions that cannot satisfy.  We have Jesus, therefore in all of life we have ‘the life’.

Filthy Lucre

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1 Peter 4:12-5:14

On the surface it’s a quaint archaism.  But it speaks of a deadly trap.  “Filthy lucre” is used four times in the King James Bible and in each case it refers to a grave temptation for gospel ministers (1 Timothy 3:3,8; Titus 1:7; 1 Peter 5:2).  Eg:

Feed the flock of God which is among you, taking the oversight thereof, not by constraint, but willingly; not for filthy lucre, but of a ready mind. (1 Peter 5:2)

The KJV follows Tyndale in leaving the Vulgate’s lucrum untranslated.  Lucrum is the Latin word from which we get “lucrative”.  It just means profit.  The underlying Greek word is a compound word meaning “unclean gain”.  So here’s what we’re being warned against: unclean gain, base profit, filthy lucre.

The repetition of this biblical warning should make us think.  But it rarely does.  Many times people have joked with me: “What attracted you to the ministry? It can’t have been the money!”  Everyone has a good laugh.  Everyone except the Apostles.  They were worried about ministering for the money in the first century.  What about in the twenty first century when Christianity is big business?

Listen to John Bunyan illustrate the dangers of lucre.

Then CHRISTIAN and HOPEFUL went till they came at a delicate plain, called Ease, where they went with much content; but that plain was but narrow, so they were quickly got over it. Now at the further side of that plain was a little hill called Lucre, and in that hill a silver mine, which some of them that had formerly gone that way, because of the rarity of it, had turned aside to see; but going too near the brink of the pit, the ground being deceitful under them, broke, and they were slain; some also had been maimed there, and could not to their dying day be their own men again.

Then I saw in my dream, that a little off the road, over against the silver mine, stood DEMAS (gentleman-like), to call to passengers to come and see; who said to CHRISTIAN and his fellow, “Ho, turn aside hither, and I will show you a thing.”

CHRISTIAN. What thing is so deserving as to turn us out of the way to see it?

DEMAS. Here is a silver mine, and some digging in it for treasure; if you will come, with a little pain you may richly provide for yourselves.

HOPEFUL. Then said HOPEFUL, “Let us go and see.”

CHRISTIAN. “Not I,” said CHRISTIAN; “I have heard of this place before now and how many have there been slain; and besides, that treasure is a snare to those that seek it, for it hinders them in their pilgrimage.”  (Pilgrim’s Progress)

It is indeed a snare and a hindrance.  So how can we avoid it?

At heart, we must recapture a vision of the Generous Father.  Our God treats nothing as a means to some other end.  It is His eternal nature to love the other.  First His Son, and then, through His Son and by the Spirit, He loves the world. “God so loved the world He gave” (John 3:16).  He is a Fountain of life and love whose glory is to pour Himself out.  His activity is not mercenary.  He’s not in the whole “creation-salvation game” for what He can get out of it.  He commits Himself to us for the sake of committing Himself to us.  Because this is the kind of God He is.  He genuinely loves to give and He gives to love.

Once we’ve grasped this, we’ve learnt the secret of life and of ministry. Immanuel Kant wasn’t so far off really.  Treating people as ends in themselves is absolutely right and good.  If even God does it, then it must be the good life.  But such living is the fruit of the gospel.  It’s the good life that comes about with this good God.

So when I’m tempted to minister for “shameful gain” (NIV) or “filthy lucre” I should not be surprised.  It’s actually a perennial temptation.  But look first to the Father, poured out in Jesus.  I have all I need in His generosity. And look, secondly, to “the flock of God which is among you.”  They are not means towards further gain.  They are my “crown” and “joy” (Philippians 4:1; 2 Thessalonians 2:19).  They are my reward – a reward far greater than that snare and hindrance: “filthy lucre.”

Once and for all

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Hebrews 10:1-18

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!”

Lady Macbeth’s line is one of Shakespeare’s most famous.  In the first act of Macbeth she helps her husband to murder the King.  By the end of the play she is in mental torment and eventually takes her own life.  In her final scene she is before a doctor and cannot cleanse her conscience.

“Out, damned spot! out, I say!… who would have thought the old man to have had so much blood in him?   What, will these hands ne’er be clean?…Here’s the smell of the blood still; all the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this little hand. Oh, oh, oh!”

The Doctor says “What a sigh is there! The heart is sorely charg’d. …This disease is beyond my practice.”

Shame and guilt is a disease.  And it’s a disease beyond the practice of 17thcentury doctors.  It’s beyond the practice of 21st century doctors.  Taking away our guilt and shame is beyond every power on earth, even – and perhaps especially – religion.  But in Hebrews 10 we learn about a “once for all” cleansing that contrasts starkly with the old religious ways.

In verses 1-4, we’re told that even God’s own religion did not cleanse people from sin – it only reminded them of sin.  Every day the blood of animals was shed, yet everyone knows that animals can’t pay for sin.  Every year there was a grand theatrical performance called the Day of Atonement.  The High Priest had a starring role and there was a scapegoat. You confessed your sins over the scapegoat and there were sacrifices and at the end it was pronounced that God was “at one” with Israel.  But… the next year they did it all over again.  They weren’t cleansed from their sins, they were only reminded of their sins.

This whole system was a shadow of the coming reality (v1).  The real atonement was achieved when Christ came into the world (v5-10).

There is a true and willing Sacrifice who steps forward amidst the bloodshed of the temple and says “Enough! Here I am.  I’m the Reality to which these shadows have pointed.”

Jesus, our Scapegoat, died the death of every slanderer, every pornographer, every bully, every murderer,  swindler, adulterer, terrorist… every sinner.  And now

we are sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.  (Hebrews 10:10)

That phrase “once for all” is so precious.  Understanding it will transport you from the shadow-lands of guilt and perpetual striving to the freedom of Christ’s finished work.  Therefore in the next paragraph, Hebrews lays out the stark difference between the reality of Christ’s sacrifice and the shadow of the old covenant (v11-14).

The old sacrifices were continual, Christ’s was once for all

The old sacrifices were powerless, Christ’s was completely effective.

The old priests stood for their constant work, Christ sits having finished the work.

Do you realise the wonder of Christ’s finished work?  Do you understand that, through Him, you are made holy “once for all”?

The final paragraph will help us (v15-18).  Here the writer returns to his favourite passage – Jeremiah chapter 31.  He proclaims the glorious truth that our “sins and iniquities God remembers no more.”

Imagine debts piling up.  You pay off one credit card with another.  It snowballs and suddenly you’re £90 000 in the red.   The debt collectors are after you.  You don’t answer the phone, you pretend you’re not in.

Eventually you get some financial advice.  They tell you to phone the credit card company and explain your situation.  You pluck up courage and give your details over the phone.  Then you begin to make excuses… “Now, about the £90 000, I’ll try to pay it back, I just need some time…”  The woman on the other end of the phone says “We have no record of any debts in your name.”  You ask her to double check.  She double checks, “We have no record of any debts in your name.”

If you’ve trusted Jesus your Scapegoat, those are God’s words to you today.

Their sins and iniquities will I remember no more. (Hebrews 10:17)

Don’t live in the shadows.  Don’t try to clean yourself up.  Remember you’ve been cleansed through the cross of Christ – once and for all.

A two-edged sword

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Hebrews 4:1-16

In modern speech a “double-edged sword” is a powerful weapon that “cuts both ways”.  It’s an argument or feature or technology that has a clear benefit and a clear liability.  It’s something that advances both your own cause and that of your opponent.

But the bible’s usage of the term is a little different.   God’s “two-edged sword” cuts only one way.

“The word of God is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any twoedged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.”  (Hebrews 4:12)

God’s word is a two-edged sword.  And when God wields it, it cuts in only one direction.  God’s word is not judged by us.  God’s word judges us.  We do not assess it.  It assesses us.  We do not interpret it.  It interprets us.  We do not master it.  It masters us.

Have you ever encountered the piercing quality of God’s word?

Last year I was preparing to help a friend in a court-hearing.  We were building our case, establishing our cause, marshalling evidence and feeling more and more justified.  And then I read just six words from Proverbs:

Do not bring hastily to court. (Proverbs 25:8)

It cut to the heart.  And it brought to mind other verses about the dangers of pursuing adversarial legal action (e.g. Matthew 5:25-261 Corinthians 6:1-8).  God’s word came home.  It discerned the thoughts and intents of the heart.  I could tell you many other “piercing” moments and I’m sure you could too.

So often we come to God’s word seeking “discernment” about our future, about our choices.  We seek to “discern” correct theology, or just to “discern” a little dose of spiritual inspiration.  But all of those motives are about us discerning the word.  Or us discerning truths through the word.  Do you see the problem?

God’s word discerns us.  We are in the firing line.  We might consider the word to be our object of study.  But no, we are objects of the word’s study.  We are the ones to be scrutinized.

Is that your attitude as you approach the word?

If it’s not, perhaps that’s because you’ve forgotten that God’s word is “quick” – in other words, it’s “alive.”  When Hebrews speaks of the Word – it has in mind a personal Power working through the Scriptures.  Just listen to how the verse continues:

Neither is there any creature that is not manifest in his sight: but all things are naked and opened unto the eyes of him with whom we have to do.  (Hebrews 4:13)

The “Word of God” in view is the Judge of the World.  Hebrews is speaking of the eternal Word, the Lord Jesus.

This living Word encounters His people through the Scriptures as they’re proclaimed today (Hebrews 13:7).  But because the Word is a Him, Scripture reading can never be impersonal.  To open up the Word is to be opened up by the Word, who is Judge of all.

In these verses we learn that it’s not simply judgement day that uncovers.  Whenever we encounter the Living Word of God we are judged.

“Brilliant” you respond, “Just what I need!  More judgement in my life!”

Ah, but the judging word is not the final word.  For those who belong to Jesus, judgement could never be the final word.  Christ Himself has taken the judgement on the cross.  And as our great High Priest, He has brought us sinners through the sword of judgement and into the presence of God our Father.

That’s why the verse continues:

Seeing then that we have a great high priest, that is passed into the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our profession. For we have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need.  (Hebrews 4:14-16)

What a roller-coaster!  Cut to the heart, then lifted to the throne.  This is a true experience of the Word of God.  First exposed, then covered by His blood.  First pierced, then healed.  First judged, then saved.  First brought to our knees, then raised through the heavens.

Do we ever impersonalise the Word of God?  Do we ever domesticate God’s Word?  Do we ever get stuck in the judgement and fail to appreciate the salvation?

Remember that God’s Word, Jesus, only exposes so He can cover.  He only cuts so He can cure.  He only brings low, so He can raise up.  Let us expose ourselves to His piercing.  Then let us come boldly through His priesthood.

Keep the faith

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2 Timothy 4:6-8; James 5:7-12

At the end of your days, what would you like to say?  How would you want to summarize your life?

Facing death, Paul was able to say he’s “fought the good fight”, he’s “stayed the course” and he’s “kept the faith” (2 Timothy 4:7).

We’ve seen how these three phrases parallel the images of Christian service he gave in chapter 2.  Christians are like soldiers, like athletes and like farmers.

As a soldier, he’s “fought”.  As an athlete, he’s “finished”.  As a farmer, he’s “kept”.  You see in Bible terms, farmers “keep” their land and their livestock (see for instance Genesis 2:15).  And Paul says the life of faith is like farming: an arduous, unglamorous life of perseverance.

But it’s not all hard-work.  There’s also reward along the way…

The husbandman that laboureth must be first partaker of the fruits.  (2 Timothy 2:6)

Farmers get to eat their own food and Christian workers get to enjoy the fruits of their labours too.  In the New Testament, this fruit is understood as those who come to faith (e.g. Romans 15:16; James 1:18).

This is what sustains the hard-working Christian.  In all our labours there are the encouragements of new life and fruitfulness in the gospel.  But the real goal is at the end.  When Christ returns there is a glorious harvest.  So Paul would say to us, enjoy the firstfruits and keep going: the final harvest will be glorious.

So then, as you long for Christ’s appearing, as you pass on His gospel hope, meditate on your calling:

– the soldier

– the athlete

– the farmer.

Anticipate the glory of Christ’s return

– the victory

– the crown

– the harvest.

And know that one day too, you will be able to say “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”