The Time Was Right

Luke 2:1-8
I wonder if you have ever experienced a time in your life when absolutely everything just seemed to click. Everything happened in the right timing. Nothing ever seemed to happen but that it came at the right time. It seemed practically miraculous. That is exactly what we see here in the birth narrative of Jesus here in the Gospel of Luke.

This was a time period characterized by three major factors in world history. The first major factor was Roman peace. The Roman empire at this time ruled the known world. They ruled all the way from Great Britain to India, and everyone in-between. The only major powers at that time which were not under Roman rule were China and Japan, as well as the peoples living in what is now known as North and South America. Roman peace, or pax Romana in Latin, was quite remarkable. When Romans conquered people, they allowed the conquered peoples to practice whatever religion they had always practiced, just as long as they added a new god, namely, the Roman emperor. All you had to do was acknowledge lip service to the Roman Emperor as a “god,” and then that people would be left pretty much alone. New religions were not tolerated, since they were deemed to be conducive to rebellion. Now, when the Romans conquered the Jews, there was almost always trouble, since the Jews would not acknowledge the Roman Emperor to be divine. Nevertheless, for the most part, the Romans treated the Jews fairly, and let them practice their own religion. That is the nature of the first major factor.

The second major factor in the world at this time is that of a unified language. Several times in world history, there has been one language that everyone uses for trading. The technical term for such a language is lingua franca. At one time it was Aramaic. When the Greeks conquered everything, it became Greek. When the Romans conquered everyone, they let the Greek language have complete sway. Romans used Latin, of course, for anything official. But the language that almost everyone knew at the time was Greek. Even in Palestine, Greek was the language anyone knew, if they knew more than their own dialect of Hebrew or Arabic. Jesus and all the disciples most likely knew Greek. The entire New Testament is in Greek.

The third major factor in this time period was Roman roads. Romans were famous builders. They built not only great buildings, coliseums, palaces, temples, and public baths, but they also built extremely durable roads. Whatever the Romans built, they built to last, since they thought that their empire was going to last forever. So they used the best materials available to them, as well as the best engineers. The result was a road system that was monitored by the Roman army, and was therefore extremely safe. If you were a Roman citizen at that time, then you were pretty well assured of safe travel just about anywhere in the empire.

These three factors, Roman peace, Greek language, and Roman roads, combined to make it possible that Christianity would spread like wildfire. The news of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection from the dead would be like a spark in a dry forest, where all the trees are connected with fuses! Christianity would take the world by storm. In short, the time was right for Jesus to be born.

It says in Luke 2:1 that Caesar Augustus issued a decree that the world was to be taxed or registered such that they could be taxed. The interesting thing about this decree is that Caesar intended to exercise his rule more forcibly by giving this decree. The irony is that God used this decree to send Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, so that prophecy would be fulfilled. Instead of resulting in what Caesar hoped it would, the actual result, and the only one that mattered for Luke, was that Jesus, the true Emperor of the world, was born. God the Father orchestrates all world events so that God’s purposes will be carried out.

This is an instance of God turning evil into good. God is in the business of doing that. There is nothing that God does better. What Caesar meant for his own self-aggrandizement, God turned into the instrument for bringing His Son into the world for mankind’s salvation. Now, salvation means much, much more than that Jesus is the world’s true Lord. That is true, but that is no good news at all for sinners. In fact, it is bad news for sinners. The good news is that Jesus came to be born in human flesh at all. God could have let us stew in our own sinful juices, as it were. But God sent His Son, to be born of a woman, to be born in our flesh and blood, to experience what we experience, to obey the law perfectly, both in the positive commands of the law, and in the negative judgment given by the law on sin. I think that we often dwell on the fact that Christ’s birth is a thing of joy. We sing “Joy to the World,” for instance. This is vitally true. We should be joyful. However, that is not the whole story. Why did Christ come to earth? It was because of our sin. It involved great humiliation on Jesus’ part. In a sense, our joy must be tempered with the realization that Jesus would not have needed to come to earth, if we had not sinned, and possessed a sinful nature.

So do we worship God for His great mercy? The main application for us today is that we must worship God truly. We must worship God only as God has told us to worship. We must not add anything. We must worship the Triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We must worship Jesus Christ as the world’s true Lord, who came to earth to save sinners from their sin. It is with great gratitude that we must worship God.

We worship a God that knows exactly what the right time is. He knew the right time to send a Savior to the world. He knows the right time to call anyone to Himself. He knows the right time for Jesus to be crucified, and the right for Him to be resurrected from the dead.

It is absolutely shameful that many churches decided not to open their doors on this Sunday for worship. We are commanded by the example of Christ to worship on every Sunday. And what more appropriate day to celebrate Communion than today? Far from closing our doors, we should celebrate Christmas all the more when it falls on Sunday!

Star Power

Numbers 24:15-19

If you are a star in this world, you can get just about anything you desire. Worldly possessions, fame, power, pleasure. It can all be yours, if you are a star. Of course, very few people are stars. Even fewer people take their responsibility seriously when they have the eyes and ears of the public so completely under their control. But what is true star power? I would submit that what the world calls a “star” and what the Bible calls a “star” are worlds apart. In fact, they are diametrically opposed, the one to the other.

In the book of Numbers, the king of Moab, named Balak, has hired a prophet to curse Israel, so that Israel will become an easy prey to him. The prophet that he found to do this was Balaam. However, Balaam could do nothing except what the Lord had commanded him to do. Balaam was not exactly a willing prophet. He was compelled by God to do only what God commanded him. You will remember that God had to use somewhat unusual means to do so. God enabled a donkey to talk to Balaam, and rebuke the prophet, since Balaam had failed to see the angel of the Lord. What he failed to see, the donkey saw very well. It was in this way that the Lord overruled Balak’s intentions of evil toward God’s people Israel. What Balak intended for evil, namely, that Balaam should curse Israel, God turned to blessing, that Israel should be blessed. Three times Balaam blesses Israel instead of cursing, much to the consternation of Balak, who had hired Balaam to curse Israel. In verse 10, we see that Balak was really incensed. He says that the Lord will hold back honor from Balaam. Balaam replies with verse 14: “And now, behold, I am going to my people. Come, I will let you know what this people will do to your people in the latter days.” This verse controls everything that follows, since he is talking about the latter days. That phrase “latter days” means a whole different age in world history. This is a prophecy about the future.
Balaam starts by saying that his spiritual eyes are open. That is, they have been opened by God. He hears also what God says to him. These are his spiritual ears.

Then follows a vision of a star. From the beginning we know that this star is a person, for Balaam says, “I see him.” Of course, Balaam must be referring to his spiritual eyesight, especially since he adds “not now.” This time indication says two things: this is a prophecy about the future, and secondly, that God controls the future, not Balak. You see, Balak wanted to control the future of his relationship with Israel. He wanted to be able to beat Israel in battle. There was no possibility of doing that unless Barak could call on the power of the gods to curse Israel. And that is why he hired Balaam to do his cursing for him. He must have thought that a prophet with Balaam’s reputation would have little difficulty in cursing Israel. But that is because he assumed something about Balaam. He assumed that Balaam would be able to say anything that Balak wanted him to say. What he didn’t know about prophets is that true prophets can only speak what God has given them to say.

What Balaam sees is a star. Now, in the Ancient Near East, various gods used stars as weapons to shoot at their enemies, according to the mythology. Balaam started here on a theme that Balak might have liked. But then, we hear the rest of the story. It says that the star will come out of Jacob, not out of Moab. He says further that it will crush the head of Moab. Now here we have real irony. Barak is the king of Moab! And here we have a star coming out of Jacob that will not only spare Israel, but will crush all her enemies, including the one who wanted Israel out of the way. What we have here is the continuing struggle between the seed of the serpent and the seed of Eve. Here we see that Eve’s seed will succeed in crushing the head of the serpent, Moab in this case. Literally, it says that the star will crush the temples of Moab’s head.

In the nearby time, this prophecy would have been fulfilled by David, who crushed Moab, Edom, and Seir. This is what the Jews say about the passage. But this is all they say about this passage. Some in the time of the Jewish wars thought that a particular man was going to be the Messiah. They called him “Bar-Kochba,” which means “Son of the star.” That Messianic hopeful was killed, however. There is no such thing as a killed Messiah. That is one of the reasons why it is so hard for the Jews to believe that Jesus is their Messiah. There was no such thing as a successful crucified Messiah. However, this does indeed a further fulfillment in the birth of out Lord Jesus Christ. It says in Matthew 2 that the wise men came because of a star that had guided them from the East into the land of promise. In Revelation 22:16, Jesus Himself is called the Bright, Morning Star. And, to answer the problem mentioned earlier, Jesus was vindicated by being raised from the dead. That is how come there can be such a thing as a successful crucified Messiah: if that Messiah is Jesus, risen from the dead.

Notice something else that must be true of this star: he must be a representative of Israel. It says in verse 14 that Balaam is going to let Balak know what “this people will do to your people.” “This people” obviously means Israel. What is happening here is poetic justice. The king of Moab thought to break down the defenses of Israel, when what will really happen is that Israel will crush Moab. Indeed, it will be more than Moab that will be crushed, since these countries that are listed here are representative of all the enemies of God’s people. In summary, this prophecy tells us about Jesus Christ, his coming to earth, and His victory over death at the cross and resurrection. The seed of Eve, who is Christ the Lord, will triumph over the seed of the serpent.

In verse 19, we see the end result: Christ will destroy the survivors of the cities, because He exercises dominion over all. This has begun in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But since not all of Christ’s enemies are destroyed, it will happen gradually through God’s people. That is what Jesus says in Matthew 16, when He says that the gates of Hell will not prevail against the church. The church will be triumphant against all her enemies.
So who is the star in our lives? Has the day-star Jesus Christ risen in our hearts, as Peter says? Or is our heart a heart of darkness? Just as the sun in the heavens is actually a star, so also Jesus Christ the Star becomes a Sun in our lives when He approaches us in our hearts. Will we trust in Jesus as the One who takes away the darkness of sin? Or will we shut Him out?

Or will we behave as if we are still in the dark? Jesus Christ has arisen! He brought light into the darkness, just as at the creation. Why do so often behave as if we are still in the dark? That should not be the case. We are the ones who are to shine the light of Jesus Christ to all people. And how can we do that if we are still dark? Do we lie, for instance? That is a deed of darkness. That is meant to keep the truth in the dark. Balaam could not help but bring the truth to light. That is the way of all true Christians. John says in his letters that we must dwell in the light. That means that our lives should be able to be an open book. Anyone ought to be able to come into our lives and see that light dwells there. How many of us would appreciate someone auditing the balance sheet of our lives? Aren’t there so many things in our lives that we would rather keep in the dark? But the Holy Spirit is constantly telling us that we need to bring those things to light. It is painful. But we must realize that the pain is only in the sinful part of our being. The reality which Satan wants to keep in the dark is that if we actually confess our sin, that part of us which is influenced by the Holy Spirit will rejoice. It is quite a relief to have someone know about our struggles. I think that the two sins in particular that like to be kept in the dark is the sin of lust for men, and the sin of gossip for women. Both of these sins thrive on secrecy. They are like mold, which likes the darkness. They are like cancer, which cannot survive in the presence of oxygen. I would submit that these sins above all others need to be kept in the open in order to be defeated. Satan would like nothing better than to keep these sins in the dark. Satan wants us to try to keep up appearances, and we think that that impulse to keep up appearances comes from our conscience. But deep down, we know that that is nothing more nor less than hypocrisy. So, instead, we need to have someone whom we trust, to whom we tell everything. And that person needs to know about our inmost struggles. That person needs to care, and not be too judgmental. That person needs to understand that sin still plagues the Christian, and that the best way is an open way, not a closed way. So I am not advocating telling everyone about our particular sins. But someone needs to know. So, let us not be children of darkness. But let us have the day-star rise in our hearts: the star of Jesus Christ. Then, and only then, will we be dwelling in the light of day. It’s worth it, my friends.

Commentaries on Kings

Again, 1&2 Kings together.

The most important are Brueggemann, Cogan/Tadmor, Devries/Braun, Fritz, Gray, Wiseman, Montgomery/Gehman, Seow (NIB), Provan, House, Mulder, Walsh/Cohn.

Of second importance are Long and Nelson.

Forthcoming are Howard, Konkel, Wilson, Roux, and Cathcart.

Liberal are Brueggemann (moderate), Cogan/Tadmor, Devries, Fritz, Gray, Montgomery/Gehman (moderate), Seow (moderate), Walsh/Cohn, Long, Nelson, Wilson. More evangelicals need to comment on Kings!

Commentaries on Samuel

I will group 1&2 Samuel together here.

The most important are Arnold, Baldwin, Bergen, Cartledge, Brueggemann, Klein/Anderson, and McCarter.

Second-tier commentaries are Hertzberg, Jobling, Mauchline, Smith, Gordon, Campbell, and Birch (NIB). Calvin’s sermons on the first part of 2 Samuel have been published. KD and Henry go without saying.

Forthcoming are Tsumura, Viberg, and Kim.

Commentaries on Ruth

Lots of good stuff on Ruth.

Of first importance are Hubbard, Bush, Block, Morris, Younger, Lacocque, Sasson, Matthews, Nielson, Sakenfeld, and Campbell.

Of secondary importance are Farmer, Jackman, Murphy, and Atkinson.

Forthcoming is Korpel.

These are bound with Judges: Block, Morris, Younger, Jackman.

These are liberal: Lacocque, Sasson, Nielson, Sakenfeld, Campbell, Farmer, Murphy. There are no particularly good Jewish commentaries on this book.

Commentaries on Judges

Not very many for this book.

The best by far is Block. Not too far behind is Younger. Other first-tier commentaries include Fausset, Webb, Matthews, Cundall, and Boling.

Of second importance are Soggin, Moore, Schneider, Brown, Olson (NIB). Calvin did not write on Judges (alas). KD is solid as usual, as is Henry.

Forthcoming are Butler, Mayes, and Spronk.

The liberal ones are Boling, Soggin, Moore, and Olson (moderate).

The Righteous Shoot

Isaiah 11:1-9
A forest fire is a terrible thing to witness. It destroys everything in its path. Nothing remains alive. The devastation is so intense that you might wonder how in the world anything could ever grow there again. However, as you look at that place a year later, and then another year later, you will see that the forest is coming back. It is the most amazing thing. Sometimes, a tree that topples over can have a shoot come out from it, a new growth. If the root system is not completely destroyed, then that can happen, even from seemingly the most dead trees, this could happen.

Now change the image just slightly. Imagine a forester coming through a forest, chopping down trees, because the trees were dead. The trees had been dead for many years. They had no good root system in them at all. But now, something different is about to happen. The root will be changed. The root will take in nutrients from the soil again. It is nothing short of a resurrection. In a way, that is what we see in Isaiah 11. We see this all happening by means of one who is anointed. “The anointed one,” is what the word “Messiah” means. He can bring this renewal because of three things: His qualifications, His performance, and the results of that performance.

First, we see His qualifications. They are laid out for us in verses 1-2. We see from verse 1 that the Messiah is a fruit-bearing branch. You might remember in chapter 5, where Isaiah sings (on God’s behalf) the song of the vineyard. That song tells of how the farmer planted the vineyard, and cultivated it, and cleared the area of stones. He guarded it by putting a watchtower there. And then he looked to see fruit, good fruit. But the only fruit that the vines produced was bad fruit, wild grapes. There was nothing more that He could have done for it than what He had actually done. The end of that vineyard then is to be destroyed. This is a metaphor for Israel, of course. It is Israel about whom the prophet is speaking. But now in chapter 11, we see a shoot. A new growth that will produce fruit. That is the Messiah’s first qualification, that He is a fruit-bearing branch.

The second qualification is that He has the Spirit of the Lord. There are seven ways in which He has the Spirit of the Lord. They are listed in verse 2: the Spirit rests on Him, is a Spirit of Wisdom, is a Spirit of understanding, a Spirit of counsel, a Spirit of might, a Spirit of knowledge, and a Spirit inspiring the Fear of the Lord. Seven, of course, is the number of completion and perfection. So the Messiah has the Spirit of the Lord to perfection. That is His second qualification.

From verses 3-5, we see His performance. We move from His qualifications to His performance. How does He do? Well, He delights in the fear of the Lord. That is almost a prerequisite for the Messiah. Everything He does, He does because He fears the Lord. That is, He reverences the Lord, worships the Lord perfectly.

The second way in which He performs well is in the area of jurisprudence. Notice the contrast between how the Messiah judges, and how we judge. We think that we have to see something or hear something in order to be able to judge. But since the Messiah has the Spirit of the Lord, which includes knowledge, wisdom, understanding, and counsel, He can make the proper judgment, without jumping to conclusions based on what His eyes saw, or what His ears heard. Furthermore, in the area of jurisprudence, He judges with righteousness. He never makes a mistake as a judge. How often do we judge incorrectly, because we make too hasty a judgment, based on what our eyes and ears heard! How often have we discovered that our eyes were deceived, or that we heard something wrong! No such problems exist with the Messiah, because the Messiah has the Spirit of the Lord resting on Him.

Those who are righteous will be judged accordingly, and those who are guilty will be judged accordingly. In short, He is a righteous and faithful Messiah.

In verses 6-9, we see the result of the Messiah’s performance. Obviously, these results would never come about, were it not for the fact that we have a well-qualified Messiah who performed everything He was supposed to do. So, we can see the progression from qualifications to performance to results. What are the results? They comprise the complete reversal of the curse that came upon sin. It was because of sin that wolves eat sheep, leopards eat goats, lions eat cattle, bears eat cattle, and cobras bite children. Ultimately, what we see here is that death will be no more. All those meat-eating creatures will have no more need to eat meat. Eating meat, of course, implies that the animal has to kill another animal. Now, this reversal of the curse is not limited merely to animals. Some scholars say that this passage has nothing to do with animals. I disagree, since animals too came under the curse of sin. But I also think that Isaiah is talking about more than just animals. That is because of verse 9, which says this: “They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.” The first word “they”obviously refers to all the animals listed in the previous three verses. It is those animals that will not hurt or destroy because they know the Lord. At this point, it becomes fairly obvious that the animals are a figure of speech for people. Ultimately, of course, it is human beings who know the Lord. The knowledge of the Lord must that knowledge that comes by the Spirit of the Lord mentioned in the beginning of the passage. So let me clarify what I’m saying. Animals are not left out of this renewal that is going to take place. But the primary meaning of the passage is that human beings will not hurt or destroy, because they will know the Lord. And all of this happens because of who the Messiah is, and because of what He has done.

But someone (and certainly the Jews do this) might ask to whom this passage refers. We Christians say that Isaiah is talking about Jesus. But it is very interesting to observe what the Jews before Christ said about this passage, in comparison with what the Jews after Christ said about this passage. Jews before Christ had no problem saying that this passage was talking about the Messiah. The Aramaic paraphrase of the OT, called the “Targum,” says that this is talking about the Messiah. But after Jesus came to earth, the Jews would no longer say that. They changed their argument, since Jesus was not the Messiah for which the Jews were looking.
But does this passage talk about Jesus? Well, consider what we have learned so far. Firstly, the person must be a descendant of Jesse. Have you ever wondered why Isaiah wrote “Jesse” here instead of David? The reason is that one who is coming must be another David. The genealogies in Matthew and Luke prove that Jesus is a descendant of David, both through Solomon and through Nathan. We saw this especially in our sermon on Matthew 1, where Matthew takes great pains to point out that Jesus is the Davidic King.

Secondly, this person, whoever he is, must be more than human, because he must possess the Holy Spirit perfectly. He possesses the Holy Spirit seven-fold, as it were. Remember that the Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus at His baptism in the form of a dove, and rested upon Him, as it says right here in verse 2: “And the Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him.” So, this person must be more than human. The NT constantly affirms that Jesus was more than human, that He was in fact God Himself, come to dwell with us, “Immanuel.”

Thirdly, consider the performance of Jesus Christ. That is, consider what Jesus has done. On the cross and in His resurrection from the dead, Jesus judged the world. That is the beginning of the end. Jesus is the Righteous and Faithful One, in contrast to Israel.

Fourthly, consider that the knowledge of God is even now spreading over the whole earth. That is fulfilling this prophecy that the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. That has happened and is happening because of who Jesus is, and because of what He has done. Therefore, this passage is talking about Jesus.

In this Christmas season, we observe that verse 1 hints at the Incarnation of our Lord. It says “shoot.” that shoot comes from the line of David. That is, it will be born from the line of David. As we celebrate Christmas this year, we must remember that we worship a God who is not far off, but who has come near, even into our very flesh and bone, becoming a man.

For us, the applications are numerous. First, we must worship God in Spirit and in truth. Specifically, we must worship God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, one God. When we become united to Christ by faith, we acquire the Holy Spirit. We possess what Jesus possesses. Jesus possesses the Holy Spirit, and so now do we also. By being united to Christ by faith, we participate in the same qualifications that Jesus has, in a creaturely way, of course. We will never be God, but we can possess the Holy Spirit, and be part of that Branch. Indeed, we will be vines that bear fruit, because we are attached to the Root.

Secondly, by way of application, we must participate in Christ’s performance. Christ is the only truly righteous person who has ever existed. His performance with regard to the law was perfect. Christ was so strong with regard to the law, that He did not have to crush the weak in order to get His own way. So must we do. We cannot crush the weak. Rather, we must give them justice. Your brother or sister in Christ is hurting, and what do we do? We should help to bear their burdens. Mourn with those who mourn, laugh with those who laugh.
To what then can we look forward? Why should we do these things? Because the heavens and the earth will be renewed. It is not just that death has now been vanquished, such that the wolf can lie down with the lamb. It is that the purpose of God for the world will now be fulfilled. It has already begun in the spiritual realm. Hearts and lives are being saved because of the preaching of the Gospel. The knowledge of the Lord is being spread. Let me interject one thing here. It says in verse 9 that there will be no more destruction because of the knowledge of the Lord. That means that the knowledge of the Lord must be there first, before there will be any peace. It is completely fruitless to say that we can have peace in this world without the knowledge of the Lord. And since the NT has defined that knowledge of the Lord as being in Jesus Christ, it therefore follows that there is no peace without Christianity.

But can you imagine what it would be like for there to be no war, no death, no suffering, no evil in this world? That is what Isaiah asks us to imagine. That has started with Christ’s birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven. All of this has started. It has not finished yet. For that, we must wait. But we must live our lives with this vision fixed in our imagination. It is that vision which God has prepared for all eternity for His people. That is the vision that is life-changing. And it will come to pass. Therefore, be in Christ, and live for Christ. Participate in Christ’s qualifications, and in His performance, by faith alone, and you will also participate in these wonderful results. A Savior is born!

Commentaries on Joshua

There are a lot of good ones here.

Start with Woudstra, Butler, Hess, Boling, Howard, and Hawk. Get the O. Palmer Robertson lecture cd’s from WTS bookstore.

Second tier commentaries include Olson (NIB), Nelson, Soggin (well, maybe third tier here), Creach, and J. Gordon Wright.

Forthcoming are McCarter in Hermeneia, Hubbard in NIVAC (this will be an excellent commentary, most likely), and Rosel in HCOT.

Commentaries on Deuteronomy

Thanks to Nate for the vote of confidence on these commentaries on commentaries.

For Deuteronomy, the best ones are as follows: Craigie, McConville, Weinfeld (Jewish), Thompson, Miller, Ridderbos (out of print, but available used), Wright (not N.T.), and Tigay (Jewish).

The next rung down has Merrill, Clements (in the New Interpreter’s Bible), Nelson, Von Rad (op, and hard to find), Christensen, Luther, Driver. A good little book is McConville’s _Grace in the End_, for those who do not want to buy his more expensive commentary. For those with the money, get both. Calvin, KD, and Henry are a must as well.

Forthcoming are Block in NIVAC (this will be a must), and Houtman (given his pedigree on Exodus, this will also be a must), and the second volume of Weinfeld. The two Jewish commentaries mentioned are quite excellent, and of the highest academic caliber.

Liberal commentaries include Weinfeld, Miller (moderate), Tigay, Clements (moderate), Nelson, Von Rad, and Driver.

Christmas on a Sunday

I note with dismay that many churches are deciding not to worship on Sunday, since it is Christmas. This blog says it all.

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