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Monday, December 20, 2010

Bible Passages Foretell the Saviors' Birth

Bible Passages Foretell the Saviors’ Birth

God sent the mighty angel Gabriel to the little town of Nazareth to give a message to Mary. When the angel appeared before the astonished Mary, He announced that she would become pregnant and have a baby who would be the Son of God. “…the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.” (Luke 1:26-27) Mary was startled and bowed before the angel. “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34) she asked.

“The angel answered and said to her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore; also the Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.’” (Luke 1:35)

The angel Gabriel is telling Mary that her baby would have no biological father but would be conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit. Jesus would be the Son of God. Mary is the only virgin to ever become pregnant. Jesus could not have saved us from our sins if He had been just an ordinary man. He is the sinless Son of God and Son of man.

We took a trip to Israel recently and visited the town of Nazareth where the angel gave Gods’ message to Mary so many centuries ago. A large Catholic church, the Church of the Annunciation, stands in the center of town, in honor and memory of the event that took place there. Thousands of Christians from around the world visit Nazareth each year to see the town where Mary was visited by the angel Gabriel and given the message that she would be the mother of the Son of God.

Can you imagine how difficult it might have been for Mary to explain her pregnancy to her fiancé, Joseph? As you might imagine, Joseph didn’t believe Mary when she told him that the mighty angel Gabriel had announced that she would become pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit. He decided to put her away quietly. But while Joseph was thinking about it an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said; “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. And she will bring forth a Son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1: 20b-21)

There were hundreds of ancient prophecies in the Old Testament foretelling the future life and reign of Jesus, the Son of God. The whole 53rd chapter of Isaiah graphically told of Jesus’ suffering and death hundreds of years before it came to pass. Many other scriptures foretold of His coming glory and His victory over sin. And still others just spoke about the details of His future birth. One of them, Isaiah 7:14 reads: “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” The name ‘Immanuel’ means ‘God with us’. This prophetic sign was given to King Ahaz in around 700 B.C. to encourage him and his people during a difficult time in their history. King Ahaz and the Jewish people could look forward to a Son that would be given for them. We can also be comforted and hopeful in our times of trouble when we remember that God gave His Son for us: this is the Christmas message.

Old Testament scriptures foretold where Jesus would be born. “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” (Micah 5:1-2) We all know that that prophecy was fulfilled since Jesus indeed was born in Bethlehem.

A passage in Jeremiah written around 620 B.C. foretells that the Lord of Righteousness will come from the line of David. “Behold, the days are coming, says the Lord, that I will raise to David a Branch of righteousness, a King shall reign and prosper, and execute judgment and righteousness in the earth. In His days Judah will be saved, and Israel will dwell safely; now this is His name by which He will be called, The Lord our Righteousness.” (Jeremiah 23:5) Jesus did come from the line of David as Scripture foretold. Matthew chapters 1 and 2 record His lineage.

When Jesus was born in Bethlehem the angels announced His birth to the frightened shepherds in the fields. The wise men followed the bright star that led them to His cradle. Along with the many Old Testament prophecies, there also were many signs and wonders surrounding Christ’s birth as well as healings and miracles accompanying His ministry. The proofs that Jesus had been sent from God were there for all to see. But some people didn’t want to see. Some didn’t want to believe the evidence.

The Bible tells us that when Jesus came to Nazareth, many of the citizens there didn’t want to believe in Him. The sad part is that most of these folks were Jesus’ family and relatives. In speaking about His experiences in Nazareth Jesus said; “…A prophet is not without honor except in his own country, among his own relatives, and in his own house.” (Mark 6:4) Even though Mary must have described the angel Gabriel’s visit many times to her family, they must not have taken her seriously. And even when both she and Joseph told the story of the angels’ visit again and again, the relatives must not have been listening. Maybe they didn’t want to believe.

Mary and Joseph and their family lived in Nazareth when Jesus was a boy. After Jesus grew up and began His ministry, He tried to visit Nazareth twice and twice His relatives and neighbors threw Him out of the town. Once the townspeople got so agitated that a group, wanting to kill Him, surrounded Jesus and drug Him to the top of a nearby cliff. They were planning to throw Him over the edge, but since it wasn’t His time to die, Jesus was able to get away.

The town of Nazareth is nestled in a bowl with hills and steep cliffs surrounding it.

When we visited Nazareth, our bus passed by the steep cliffs that were just outside the town. These cliffs were about a hundred feet high and it was humbling to remember that those cliffs were probably the place where Jesus’ relatives and neighbors tried to kill Him.

Scripture tells us that most of the citizens of Nazareth did not believe in Jesus. “And He (Jesus) marveled because of their unbelief. …” (Mark 6:6) The Bible says that Jesus came to the people in Nazareth to bring them life, but because of their unbelief He couldn’t do very much. “Now He could do no mighty work there, except that He laid His hands on a few sick people and healed them.” (Mark 6:6)

He had so much to give to His loved ones in Nazareth but their unbelief stopped all of that. They missed out on so much. Jesus comes to us too with His hands open and much to give. If we harbor unbelief we can stop His gifts and His mighty works in our lives. We have to do our part and believing is our part. Believing in Him makes it all happen. Let’s believe in Jesus.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Jesus Raises Lazarus From the Dead and the Pharisees are Furious

Jesus Raises Lazarus From the Dead and the High Priest and Pharisees are Furious

Journeying through John (John 10-11)

By the time we get to the tenth chapter of John we find that Jesus has infuriated a large influential group of Jewish religious leaders with His teachings, healings and miracles. This powerful mob has taken up stones to kill Him. They won’t rest until He is dead. But wait, this is the very group that should have accepted Jesus! These are the priests and Pharisees who have spent their lives studying the Scriptures, the very Scriptures that foretell the coming of their Messiah and Savior. Shouldn’t they have been waiting and looking for Jesus? What is happening here?

Even though Jesus knows that these prestigious men of God are out to get Him, He continues on with His ministry. In chapter 10 Jesus has dodged several attempts by the religious leaders to stone Him and He is off teaching the people that He is our Shepherd and the Door of the sheepfold. “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep.” (John 10:11) “Most assuredly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before Me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not hear them. I am the door. If anyone enters by Me, he will be saved, and will go in and out and find pasture.” (John 10:7-9) And, “…, he who does not enter the sheepfold by the door, but climbs up some other way, the same is a thief and a robber.” (John 10:1) “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish: neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand.” (John 10:27-28)

Jesus is telling us here that there is just one Door into the fold and just one Way to salvation. Jesus is the only Door and the only Way. Other ways to eternal life are fake and invalid. Christians down through the ages have been comforted by Jesus’ words here telling us that He is our Shepherd and that He will lead us and keep us. We are able to hear His voice in our lives because He gives us His Holy Spirit when we believe. Isn’t it wonderful that He speaks to each of us today just as He spoke to His followers so long ago? Isn’t it amazing that He knows each of us intimately and we can hear His words spoken just for us, giving us directions and comfort for our own personal journey? I try to hear His voice, but sometimes unfortunately I don’t hear the same voice that some of my fellow Christians hear.

During this Christmas season a church in our area has started a war against local businesses that aren’t displaying Christmas decorations that honor Jesus. The good church members have been patrolling the streets of the city checking for businesses that aren’t displaying either a manger scene or a religious message as part of their

Christmas outdoor lighting displays. One little store nearby our house has a lighted “Happy Holidays” sign out this year. “How dare they put up a secular greeting?” Our good church members reported the business in the newspaper with a photo of the offending “Happy Holidays” sign. The name of this store along with a list of other unlucky businesses that didn’t measure up to their “Jesus-centered” Christmas standards were written up in the newspaper for all to see. They labeled it their “naughty” list. Good Christians were encouraged to boycott these “naughty” businesses. Maybe if we all stop buying from these stores, the owners will start putting “Jesus” into their Christmas displays!

Jesus tells us that we will hear His voice. Maybe I’m deaf but somehow I can’t hear Jesus’ voice or sense His spirit in this boycott by my fellow Christians of stores that don’t display “Christ centered” decorations. Jesus said; “Take My yoke upon you and learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart, ...” (Matthew 11:29) I can’t picture my humble Jesus putting people on a “naughty” list and boycotting them for not using His Name at Christmas. He will never force anyone to choose Him. And we shouldn’t either. Jesus calls us to freedom and we are free to choose Him or not. This proud political brand of Christianity scares me. It doesn’t represent the Jesus I know and love. I almost feel like going out and buying a “Happy Holidays” sign for our front yard this year!

As we continue reading in John we find that Jesus is called to the home of Mary and Martha and Lazarus, his beloved friends. Lazarus is very sick and Mary and Martha send Jesus an urgent message asking that He come quickly. But by the time Jesus gets to their house, Lazarus has been dead for four days. Martha comes running to meet Jesus and she says, “Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. But even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give you.” (John 11:21-22) Jesus assures Martha, “…Your brother will rise again.” ((John 11:23) And Martha answers: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.” (John 11:22)

And then Jesus proclaimed: “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me, though he may die, he shall live. And whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26) And Martha says yes, she believes that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God.

Jesus goes to the tomb and Martha warns Him that Lazarus’s dead body has started to decompose and stink. Jesus doesn’t listen but He prays and then calls Lazarus out. Immediately Lazarus walks out of the grave with his hands and feet bound with grave clothes and with his face wrapped up like a mummy. After his excited sisters and friends pull his grave clothes off, Lazarus goes home excited and amazed that Jesus has given him back his life. The word gets around that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead and many people believe in Jesus as Lord. But, as usual word gets back to the Pharisees that Jesus had raised Lazarus from the dead.

Again, instead of rejoicing in this good news, the religious leaders are freaked out and try to do a cover up. These miracles of Jesus’ were more than they could handle! The high priest, chief priests and the Pharisees call for a council meeting and put out a command that if anyone knows where Jesus is that they must report it so that they might seize Him. Caiaphas, the high priest insists that killing Jesus would be for the good of the whole nation. They needed to get rid of Him quickly for political reasons, he decides. The clock has started ticking and it’s just a matter of time before these so called men of God will catch Jesus and put Him to death.

We ask again, why did this happen? Why were Jesus’ murderers the very religious ones who claimed to know the ways of God? Did this phenomenon just happen in Jesus time or has it happened in other generations? Can people who call themselves Christian today still not recognize Jesus? Can religious legalism triumph over love today like it did back then? Can religious groups today still pit their power against our Lord and His kingdom of love like they did back then? Has Christianity today become a political power that has idolized the very wealthy and put down the disenfranchised and the sick, all in the Name of Jesus?

It was so easy for the Pharisees in Jesus’ day to reject Him. They were so dedicated to their religious institutions and to their traditions. They quoted Scriptures against Him and tried to catch Him up in their legalistic traps. They found fault because He healed on the Sabbath and because He claimed to be one with God.

If Jesus had come in all of His power and glory and impressed them, they would have acknowledged Him! If He had come the way they had expected their Messiah would come- with riches and might and shock and awe- then they would have recognized Him. But Jesus came as a simple man without status or education and he hung around with plain ordinary folk. He wasn’t impressed by the wealthy and He was even seen talking to women and sinners. They overlooked Him because they were expecting their Messiah to play their game and He didn’t.

These men of God had given their lives to their religious institutions and to the wealth and status they had gained from them. They would have had to change some of their ways of doing things if they had acknowledged Jesus. And perhaps the bottom line was that they didn’t want to change! They didn’t want to pay the price. They didn’t want Jesus to shake up their system. And when Jesus comes in He most often shakes things up!

Could we make the same mistake they did? Have we dedicated our whole lives and reputations to our institutions and our ways of doing things? So much so that if Jesus were asking us to change around some things would we block out His Voice? If Jesus doesn’t play our game, will we still listen for His Call ? If He comes to us in the guise of the poor or afflicted, would we still recognize Him? Can we let Him shake up our way of doing things? Let’s pray and ask Him if we are missing something? Let’s not let anything get in the way. Let’s not allow our most beloved project block us from hearing what He is trying to tell us? Let’s not be so set in our ways that we won’t allow Him to change us around. Let’s be willing to pay the price to follow Him. It is the most important thing that we can ever do.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Jesus Proclaims that He is Lord and Savior and is Rejected by the Religious Leaders

Jesus Proclaims that He is Lord and Savior and is Rejected by the Religious Leaders

Journeying Through John (John 8-9)

Last week we ran into a friend who was talking about the fact that Jesus is Lord. This truth is the very cornerstone of our Christian faith. Our friend said that Thomas Jefferson, (who was a Universalist and not a Christian) insisted that Jesus never said that He was God incarnate, or the Son of God. Was Thomas Jefferson correct that the Bible didn’t record Jesus declaring that He was Lord? Our friend seemed bothered and confused by this. But of course this is a lie. Thomas Jefferson was wrong.

This lie – that Jesus never claimed to be the Son of God or God in the flesh - is just one of many lies against the faith and a lie that keeps reappearing. All one needs to do is open the Bible and read it to see that Jesus indeed proclaimed Himself Lord and Savior and Son of God over and over again. We need to be on guard and know what the Bible says in order to be able to stand against the many deceptions that will be used to try to undermine our faith. Satan has an arsenal of weapons to use against us and against our precious faith. Lying and twisting the truth about Jesus being the Son of God and Savior is tops on satans’ list. He will use any distortion to keep us from believing that Jesus is Lord. And satan will sink to any depth to keep us from believing in Jesus as Savior God and receiving His new life.

In John chapter eight, Jesus is being attacked by the Pharisees. They want to kill Him because He had said that He and the Father are One. The Pharisees believed that Jesus had committed the sin of blasphemy. The Jewish law taught that the punishment for blasphemy was stoning. (Lev.24:16) So Jesus had gotten Himself into serious trouble with the very priests who instructed the people into the ways of God. The very reason that these “men of God” eventually put Jesus to death was because He was telling the crowds that He was Lord and Savior and thousands were believing and following Him.

Jesus tells the Pharisees : “…if you do not believe that I am He, you will die in your sins.” (John 8:21) During this same time period Jesus announces to the crowds, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows Me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12) And He repeats to His followers: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death.” ( John 8:51) How could the Pharisees and Sadducees tolerate all of this? Jesus was threatening their legalism and their religious status and power. He must have a demon, they reasoned. They began to plot and plan His death.

But these religious leaders didn’t wait, but picked up stones to stone Him on the spot when Jesus mentioned that Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing His day. The Jewish leaders were outraged that Jesus spoke as if Abraham had looked forward to seeing Him, since Abraham had lived in 2,000 B.C. When they chided Jesus that he wasn’t fifty years old yet so he couldn’t have known Abraham, Jesus replied: “I tell you the truth, Before Abraham was born, I Am!” (John 8:58) Jesus is expressing the eternity of His being, His own unchanging timelessness. Jesus didn’t just live 2,000 years ago, but He lives today and forever and His Spirit lives through those of us who believe in Him. Jesus is the great “I Am” and He is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He is Son of God, Savior. The Jewish leaders were livid with rage at this statement but they were also furious that Jesus called Himself “I Am”. God had instructed Moses many centuries earlier that the Israelites could call Him, “I Am”. (Exodus 3:14) So now the Jewish religious leaders immediately recognized that Jesus was calling Himself by God’s Name, “I Am”. They shouted their accusations of blasphemy at Jesus while picking up stones and trying to stone Him!

As we move on to chapter 9 in John, we read that Jesus heals a man who had been blind since birth. And wouldn’t you know, Jesus meets and heals this blind man on the Sabbath! Instead of rejoicing that this man in their congregation was healed and could see, the religious leaders excommunicated the man who had been healed from their synagogue. The synagogue was the center of Jewish community life, so excommunication cut a person off from many social relationships. The religious leaders refused to learn from Jesus’ healing and instead responded with judgment and criticism because the healing had been done on the Sabbath. They tried to discredit the miracle and doubled their efforts to trap Jesus and put Him to death. And all the while hundreds of people were following Jesus and listening to His teachings and believing on Him.

Jesus found the man that He had healed from blindness and told him that He was the Son of Man. The man who had been blind believed in Jesus and worshiped Him. (John 9:38) Then Jesus told him: “For judgment I have come into this world, so that the blind will see and those who see will become blind.” (John 9:39) It would seem that Jesus is saying that those of us who are proud and think we can see on our own and refuse help are really spiritually blind. We have allowed our pride and reputations and status to keep us from spiritual sight. But if we can acknowledge our spiritual blindness and that we need help, and that we need the Savior, then He gives us spiritual sight.

We read in John that wherever Jesus went teaching and loving and healing, the crowds were divided by His message. People were either for Him or against Him. They either accepted His message or rejected it. But the people who rejected Him the most were the very ones that we would have thought would have accepted Him! By far, the religious leaders, the men who knew the Scriptures by heart, the ones who had given their lives to lead Israel to God; these were the ones who hated Jesus the most and the ones who were responsible for putting Him to death. “He came unto His own and His own received Him not”. (John 1:11)

Why did this happen? Why were Jesus’ murderers the very leaders who claimed to know the ways of God? What can we learn from this? Did this phenomenon just happen in Jesus’ time or is it still happening today? Can religious legalism triumph over love today like it did back then? Can religious groups today still pit their power against our Lord and His kingdom of love like they did back then? If we follow Jesus and live humbly, can we also be persecuted by the church that we think we belonged to? Are churches now becoming political in nature and leaving behind a concern for the poor and the alien, the very ones that Jesus spoke so much about? What can we do about it? I don’t have the answers. Do you?