In theology, there is this thing called the “already-not yet.” We have already had our sinful nature given its mortal blow, but it has not yet kicked the bucket. We are already part of the new creation, but the new creation has not yet fully come. The kingdom has come, but it has not yet fully come. The kingdom has been inaugurated, but it has not yet been consummated. We are caught in the “in-between” times.

In Paul, this era was described as the mixture of the old age and the new age (and by using the term “new age,” I am not referring to New Age philosophy and religion, but simply to what the Bible calls “new creation.”). The Jews thought that the old age would come to a complete end with the coming of the Messiah, and the new age would start. It looked a bit like this: _______\_______, with the slash mark being the Messiah, and the first part being the old age, and the second part being the new age.

Paul modified this scheme of eschatology. He argues that the new creation dawned with the resurrection of Christ. However, the old age is still going on. There is an overlap between the two ages in Paul’s theology. This is absolutely central to his theology. Christ’s first coming marks the beginning of the new age; Christ’s second coming marks the end of the old age.

However, what that means for the church is that the church is caught up in this in-between time. There is a war on between the old age and the new age. This battle is reflected in the war that goes on in the person. Understanding this overall scheme of eschatology is essential for making sense of passages such as Romans 7. The person in Romans 7 is caught up in the already-not yet. The person is clearly a Christian, for otherwise he would never delight in the law in his inner nature. However, the sin nature still has a hold on him with regard to his sinful nature (not with regard to the whole person).

In Romans 7, the word “I” is used in three different senses: the “I” as a whole person, the “I” as the inner man, the new nature, the Christian, and the “I” as sinner. That is the only way to make sense of all the different senses in which “I” is used in Romans 7.

The point of all this is that sanctification is a war between these two ages. they are duking it out in the believer’s life. It is vitally important to realize that the struggle in the Christian’s life is a reflection (and part of) the larger war between the two ages. That is why sanctification is never complete in this life (against what the Wesleyans say), and yet it does progress (against what some defeatists might say).

Sanctification is a work of the Holy Spirit in a believer’s life that makes the person more holy. It is a life-long process that makes use of the means of grace (prayer, Scripture reading, the Sacraments, fellowship with other believers, discipleship: I am defining “means of grace” just a bit loosely here). The believer is by no means passive in this whole process. Otherwise, Paul’s injunctions to run the race, to mortify the flesh, and other phrases mean nothing. However, sanctification cannot be done in a believer’s own strength. It must be done in the Spirit. That is why Paul says “Walk by the Spirit” in Galatians 5.

God’s Amazing Grace

Genesis 38

When Billy Graham was driving through a small southern town, he was stopped by a policeman and charged with speeding. Graham admitted his quilt, but was told by the officer that he would have to appear in court. The judge asked, “Guilty, or not guilty?” When Graham pleaded guilty, the judge replied, “That’ll be ten dollars — a dollar for every mile you went over the limit.” Suddenly the judge recognized the famous minister. “You have violated the law,” he said. “The fine must be paid–but I am going to pay it for you.” He took a ten dollar bill from his own wallet, attached it to the ticket, and then took Graham out and bought him a steak dinner! “That,” said Billy Graham, “is how God treats repentant sinners!” That is how God treats you and me, and it is how God treats Judah and Tamar.

We have to ask a couple of preliminary questions before diving in to this remarkable story. First question: why is this story in the Bible? It is not a very savory story. It is rather embarrassing. In fact, in the 19th century translation of Calvin’s commentary on this chapter, several sentences of the commentary are omitted, since the translators were too embarrassed at Calvin’s use of certain words. To put it in a nutshell, this story is here to tell us about grace that is greater than all our sin. We must remember that Tamar is one of the ancestresses of Jesus Christ. She is mentioned in Matthew’s genealogy. It is Judah’s son Perez that is part of the genealogy of Jesus Christ. The principle here is that Jesus Christ is not polluted by coming into this sinful world. In fact, Jesus Christ, by taking on the sin of the world, purifies the world, rather than becoming polluted.

The second question is this: why is this passage right here in the book of Genesis? Chapter 37 was all about Joseph, and chapter 39 is all about Joseph. What is chapter 38 doing in between these two chapters about Joseph, when this chapter doesn’t even mention Joseph? Many liberal scholars have answered this by saying that the chapter has nothing to do with the surrounding context, and that it was just added in later. But this is false for many reasons. First of all, the whole “Joseph” story is actually called the story of Jacob. That means that the story is about all of Jacob’s sons, not just Joseph. So this chapter very appropriately belongs in this section of Genesis. Secondly, the events of this chapter occur at the same time as Joseph is down in Egypt. So this chapter belongs here chronologically, especially since the Judah story wasn’t as important to Moses as the Joseph story. So the shorter story comes first, so as to get it out of the way, so that we can proceed with the rest of the Joseph story. Thirdly, there are many literary reasons why this story is right here. Judah’s being seduced by Tamar is parallel to Joseph’s resistance to the same temptation by Potiphar’s wife in chapter 39. There is therefore a contrast between Judah and Joseph. Furthermore, this incident will forever change Judah. It would be hard to explain why Judah is so self-sacrificing later on in the Joseph story, if we didn’t know that Judah lost two of his own sons, and that Judah had become much less selfish, and that Judah wanted to preserve Jacob’s youngest son, just as he here wanted to preserve his own youngest son. So that is why this chapter is placed here. The main point of the chapter is that God’s grace is greater than all our sin.

Judah’s sin started when he married a Canaanite wife. Judah married outside the faith. That has always spelled trouble in the past for Esau and Ishmael, for instance. However, Judah is not one to learn from other people’s mistakes. He has to make them all himself. And so, he winds up with unfaithful children who displease the Lord so much that the Lord puts them to death.

Tamar enters the scene as the wife that Judah chooses for his first-born son Er. We don’t know why it was that Er was wicked. But it must have been quite serious, since the Lord put him to death. Interestingly, if you spell Er’s name backwards, you get the word for “evil.” To bring this pun over into English, you could say that Er erred.

What happens next needs a little explanation. It was the custom in those times (not just for Israel, but also for the surrounding nations), that if the first-born son failed to produce any offspring, the next son would take the wife of the first-born son, and raise up offspring for him. This custom is called “levirate marriage,” named because the Latin word for “brother-in-law” is the word “levir.” so the second son would marry the wife of the first-born, and raise up offspring for the dead firstborn son. However, and this is the catch, the son of the levirate marriage would be treated as the first-born. In other words, the son of Tamar and Onan would inherit the same estate that Er would have inherited. That is the main reason why Onan refused to do his duty by Tamar. As long as there was no son for Er, Onan would inherit the rights of the first-born, including the double portion of the estate. But if a son was born to Tamar for Er, then that son would inherit the right of the firstborn. This is why Onan spills his seed on the ground. He practices a primitive form of birth-control, because he is greedy for gain, as well as being very hypocritical. He went through the motions of obedience. By the way, he didn’t have to go through with this marriage at all. He could have refused. Deuteronomy 25:5-10 lays out the rules for this kind of thing: “If brothers dwell together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the dead man shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her and take her as his wife and perform the duty of a husband’s brother to her. And the first son whom she bears shall succeed to the name of his dead brother, that his name may not be blotted out of Israel. And if the man does not wish to take his brother’s wife, then his brother’s wife shall go up to the gate to the elders and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’ Then the elders of his city shall call him and speak to him, and if he persists, saying, ‘I do not wish to take her,’ then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders and pull his sandal off his foot and spit in his face. And she shall answer and say, ‘So shall it be done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ And the name of his house shall be called in Israel, ‘The house of him who had his sandal pulled off.’” There was a way out for Onan, though it involved humiliation. Onan wasn’t willing to undergo that humiliation, and so he gave off the appearance of doing his duty, but he didn’t do it. He thought he could conceal his stratagem from the world. But he could not conceal his strategy from God, who sees all things. God saw and judged Onan, killing him for his sin.

At this point, Judah is thinking that this woman has a curse on her. Judah thinks superstitious thoughts about her. He thinks that if he gives his youngest son to her, then he will be destroyed as well. What Judah fails to see here, of course, is that his sons were killed because of their own sin, not because of Tamar. Because Judah fails to see this crucial fact, he sends her off back to her father’s house. This puts Tamar in rather a bind. She can’t marry anyone else, because she hasn’t been released. She can’t be given to Shelah, the youngest of Judah’s sons, because he isn’t of age. And yet she is a widow. She is in no man’s land with regard to her status. But she stays at her father’s house until the time when Shelah is grown up, and yet she is not given to him as his wife. By this time she knows that Judah never intended to give her to Shelah.

And so Tamar devises a stratagem to raise up children for Er. Now, we are usually too quick to judge Tamar. In fact, she is the heroine of this story. As a matter of fact, before the law was written down in Deuteronomy, it would have been lawful for Judah himself to take Tamar as his wife, since the propagation of his family ultimately depended on him. Many things were permitted in that time period that were later not permitted. Abraham married his half-sister, for instance. Adam and Eve’s children married one another. And here, there is significant evidence that Judah could have married Tamar legally himself. That is why what Tamar does here cannot be called incest. So she is not really to blame here. Judah is to blame, since he put her in this extremely awkward and debilitating position. Another important point to remember is that Tamar waits until Judah’s wife dies. She does not try to intrude on Judah’s turf until the time is right.

Judah is going up to the sheep-shearing at Timnah. Sheep-shearing was traditionally a time of celebration. Tamara realizes that this is her chance to get a son by Judah. It is extremely risky, as we will find out later. That is why everything depends on her being able to procure the identification marks of Judah. In modern terms, she gets Judah’s driver’s licence and social security number. All this for getting Judah to think of her as a prostitute. After she is successful in her venture, she immediately goes back to being a widow. What she really wanted was not the kid from Judah’s flock, since that wouldn’t prove who the father was. No, Tamar needed something to protect her. That is why she is more interested in the pledge than in the gift that Judah promises. She immediately vanishes once she has the pledge. So that Judah will not be able to redeem the pledge.

This all comes to a head three months later when Judah finds out that Tamar is pregnant. He thinks (rightly) that if Tamar is still bound to his household, then she must have committed adultery in order to get pregnant. However, Judah doesn’t know the all-important fact that he is the father. Tamar saved the seal and staff for just the right moment when she would have the opportunity to completely vindicate herself. And vindicate herself she does. Judah (notice his hypocrisy here) orders her to be burned, the most severe penalty that adultery could command. As she is being brought out to be burned, she sends word to Judah about the seal, cord, and staff.

What Judah says next is extremely important to understand. Judah says that Tamar is more righteous than he is. Judah is not necessarily saying that Tamar was without sin. However, he does recognize that he is to blame for putting her into such a position. We need not say that Tamar was completely sinless in all of this. She did cause Judah to sin. However, her action does spring from faith. She believed in raising up godly offspring. And in her case, it was especially important, since the Messiah would ultimately come from her line. And that is the punch line of the whole business: Jesus Christ comes from such stock as this. If this isn’t proof enough that God’s grace overcomes our sin, then I don’t what would be proof enough.

What is amazing here is that God changes Judah from being a self-centered selfish man into a compassionate, self-sacrificing man through this incident. God often uses our sin to bring about some transformation like this. If God did it with Judah, then God can do it with you also. You may look just as bad as Judah, on the inside, even if you don’t look quite as bad as Judah on the outside. On the inside we are all sinners, and full of rottenness in our very bones. And yet God changes us through the blood of Jesus Christ to be more like Jesus. This is proof of God’s amazing love for sinners. If we shy away from this chapter, we might miss this great evidence of God’s grace at work in human lives.

God does not treat us as our sins deserve. If we got a great cosmic speeding ticket, God pays for the ticket with the blood of His own Son, and we are free. And then God invites us to the marriage supper of the Lamb! One great big steak dinner! We don’t deserve such attention.

If that is how God treats us, then we have a clear picture also of how we should treat one another. If someone has offended you, even in a big way, your grace should be overwhelming that other person. God is persistent with us in doing this. Therefore we should be persistent as well. It doesn’t matter how long we have been doing it, or trying it, God calls us to a higher mark at which we must aim: perfection itself. We do not forgive our brother only seven times, but seventy-times seven, the clear implication being that we start counting all over again when we reach seventy-times seven. If God’s grace is that great in our lives, shouldn’t we be more gracious to those who hurt us? What they have done to us is nothing in comparison to what we have done to offend the Almighty God. And yet, His grace is marvelous, and is greater than all our sin.

The Virgin Conception of Jesus

Matthew 1:18-25

Is there any point to human birth? Have you ever wondered why human beings keep on being born? They are just going to die anyway. What is the point? Matthew might have had a few readers wonder that after he begins his monumental Gospel with a long genealogy. But eventually we see that there is a point to all this, isn’t there? There is a point to human life. Life has meaning.

Matthew has brought us to an interesting point in his genealogy. Joseph is not the human father of Jesus. He is the husband of Mary of whom was born Jesus. What we are about to study tonight is in a large part a commentary on verse 16. Matthew wants us to have the answer to this question: How is it possible that Jesus could still be the heir to David’s throne if he had no human father? How can Jesus be David’s Lord, if He is also David’s son? That is what Matthew is about to explain to us.

We have seen that mankind has not been able to solve the sin problem. No matter how many generations are born, each new generation is still as sinful as the one that came before. None of the names before Jesus that Matthew mentions were able to solve the problem. Since all the genealogical possibilities have been exhausted, it is now time for God to step in.

Note again that the text has the word “genesis.” The word translated “birth” is again our word for “genesis.” The word could actually just as easily refer to Christ’s conception in the womb of Mary as to His actual birth. That is why I titled this sermon “the virgin conception of Christ” rather than “the virgin birth of Christ.” In our entire passage, the birth of Christ is not mentioned. What is being talked about is how Jesus came to be in the womb of Mary.

The text says that Mary was betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal in that time period meant a lot more than engagement does in our culture. In our culture, engagement merely means a promise. But that promise could be broken off at any time without any legal repercussions. Not so with ancient betrothal. Usually the children were promised to someone, often at birth. When the girl reached the age of 12 or 13, she was betrothed to the man she would marry. That period of betrothal lasted one year. During that time, if either party was unfaithful to the other, then the full punishment of the law against adultery could be enforced. To break off a betrothal required a certificate of divorce. Betrothal meant that the couple was spoken for, and that no one could come between them. The only difference between betrothal and actual marriage was that during betrothal, the couple were not allowed to be physically intimate.

That helps to explain why Joseph is in such a quandary in verse 19. The text says that Joseph was a just man. Mary was beginning to be obviously pregnant. For Joseph, who knew that he was not the father, the only conclusion that he could reach was that Mary had been unfaithful to him. The righteous thing to do then would be to divorce her. In fact, ancient law all over the Mediterranean world required that if the woman had been unfaithful during betrothal, then the husband was required to divorce her. This would be expected of Joseph. The NIV gives us the impression that Joseph’s righteousness is the reason for his mercy. This is not accurate. Joseph’s righteousness is the reason for the fact that he is about to divorce Mary. It should not be translated, “Because Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her…” Rather it should be translated, “Joseph was a righteous man, but he did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” Joseph’s options are limited: if he continues the marriage, then he will be censured by the people and by the law. He rules that option out. The second option is to bring Mary to a public trial. That will completely exonerate him, but it will put her to everlasting disgrace. She would never be able to get married after that kind of a disgrace. So the third option is to combine justice and mercy by getting a certificate of divorce, but by involving as few people as possible. This kind of behavior is truly worthy of David’s heir. The king was to be just and merciful. That is exactly what Matthew wants us to think about Joseph. Joseph is a king in Matthew’s eyes. That is why Matthew spends so much time going through Joseph’s decision-making process in the first two chapters.

As Joseph was considering these things, God revealed something to him in a dream. God revealed the real cause of Mary’s pregnancy. Notice that it does not even occur to Joseph to doubt the dream. It reminds us of another Joseph who was a master of dreams. We will see in later studies that Joseph goes into Egypt just like the other Joseph.

Notice carefully that the angel calls Joseph “Son of David.” We should not just pass over that. It is the only place in the entire Gospel where someone other than Jesus is called “Son of David.” That proves that Joseph was in the line of the throne. When the angel says “do not fear,” he means that Joseph should not fear the scandal that will arise on account of Joseph’s adoption of Jesus as his own son. For scandal will arise. In John’s Gospel we read about the Jews who cast doubt on Jesus’ legitimacy by saying, “We were not born of fornication,” implying that Jesus was. The angel was asking Joseph to take upon himself the shame of having everyone around them think that Joseph had gotten Mary pregnant. This is scandalous. In this, Joseph is a fore-runner to Jesus. Joseph endures the reproach of the world, just as Jesus will on the cross. It is humiliation that Joseph is being asked to bear, just as Jesus will bear humiliation.

The angel removes all doubt about Mary’s faithfulness by telling him that a new creation has dawned. The Holy Spirit has come, and is hovering over new waters in Mary’s womb, and is bringing about a new creation. The Holy Spirit is really bringing new life to the world through Jesus.

In the next verse, the angel tells Joseph to adopt the child. That is what naming the child would imply. If Joseph decides to keep Mary as his wife, and actually take part in the naming ceremony, then Joseph would be the legal father of Jesus by adoption. That is how Jesus can be David’s Lord, while still being David’s Son.

Naming was an important ceremony in the ancient world. Especially in Israel, children were given names that indicated the parents’ hopes for their children. Also, names were thought to shape the person’s life. In no case was the name more important than in this case. The name Jesus means “God saves.” It is the OT name Joshua. Just as Joshua would lead the people into the promised land, so also Jesus would lead the people in a greater Exodus into a greater promised land. But there is yet more to Jesus’ name. What Jesus’ name means is what mothers would cry out when in the midst of labor pains. They would cry out, “God help me!” And so Jesus is the answer to the pain endured in child-bearing. We have seen that in our Genesis studies that the seed of the woman would reverse the pain that the woman had to endure while bearing children. That promise is fulfilled in Mary’s giving birth to Jesus. Truly, God would help and save his people. What is something of a surprise is the last part of verse 21. By itself, Jesus’ name does not tell us what it is that we will be saved from. The Jews expected that the Savior would save them from the Romans. That is why it is something of a surprise that Jesus will actually save people from their sins. But it is the good news. We have a better salvation for us in the person of Jesus Christ than that for which the hope of the Jews would ever have prepared them. Let them be saved from the Romans! I would much rather be saved from my sins. Notice that the name means that God saves. He is the one who does it. The fact that He does it through Christ is another proof that Jesus is more than a man. God saves now through Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ is the only name under heaven and on earth by which mankind can come to a knowledge of the truth and be saved.

“All this” refers to the entire genealogy and the account of the miraculous conception of Jesus, and what Joseph did. All of that was planned by God to be the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14. Matthew actually structures his entire book around OT quotations which Jesus fulfills. There are a total of eleven fulfillment passages in Matthew. This suggests that we are to view Christ’s ministry in terms of the OT, and that we are to read the OT in the light of Jesus Christ. Now the context in Isaiah is well worth our examination. Ahaz was looking to the Assyrians for salvation from the Babylonians. God says that He will save Israel. He even commands Ahaz to seek a sign from the Lord. Ahaz refuses to do this, based on some kind of false piety. So the Lord says, “All right, you can refuse my help, but I will not abandon my promise. This is the sign, a virgin will conceive and bear a son, and she will call his name Emmanuel.” The name “Emmanuel” means “God with us,” or “God is with us.” The context indicates that God is with the people in a saving way. The prophecy was never really fulfilled in Ahaz’s time. It remained for God to fulfill it in the fullness of time when Jesus came and was born of a woman. The people though were thinking the same thoughts that Ahaz was thinking. They wanted a political deliverance. In both cases, they wanted the wrong thing. What they should have wanted was deliverance from sin. John Calvin says this, “Out of Christ, we are alienated from God, but through Christ we are not only received into God’s favor, but we are also one with Him.”

Finally, Joseph awakes from sleep and does exactly as the angel had told him. We see here that God’s grace enables human action. Joseph was somewhat paralyzed before the dream. He didn’t know what to do, until he finally came to a decision that looked like the least of all the possible evils. But then God intervened, and then Joseph was able to do what the Lord would have him to do: Joseph took Mary home as his wife. The custom was that the betrothed wife would stay at her father’s house until the time when the groom would come to take her to his home. Joseph now took her to his home. However, he did not consummate the marriage until Mary had given birth to Jesus. The final line of the chapter tells us tat in fact Joseph legally adopted Jesus as the her to the throne of David.

Let us look at several ways we can apply these truths to our lives. Just as Jesus was formed in the womb of Mary, so also is he formed in us when we come to faith in Jesus. However, that process of Jesus being formed in us takes our entire lives to perfect, just as it takes time for the body to form in the womb of Mary. We should not be discouraged at the amount of time it takes for us to become holy. That is why God gives to us our entire lives to become so. However, though we should not be discouraged at the amount of time it takes for Christ to be formed in us, there is still a sense in which we should be impatient for Christ to be formed in us. Paul was impatient until the time when Christ should be formed in his readers. We should not be discouraged, but we should be impatient. We should long for holiness with all of our being.

Next we need to realize that God is with us. God is with us even when all others have deserted us. God is with us when no one else seems to care. God is with the sick; God is with the dying, God is with the joyful; God is with the sad; God is with parents; God is with children; God is with teenagers who like to be independent; God is with the aged; God is with us. And He is with us in the person of Jesus Christ.

We need to recognize that God’s grace enables us to be holy and obedient to God’s word. We should realize two things: that it is only God who can enable us; and also that we are then enabled and should therefore do what God has commanded us to do. God tells us to mortify sin, to put it to death. That means all our secret sins that no one knows about just as much as it means those obvious sins that everyone knows about. Only God can enable us to put those sins to death. Once we are united to Christ, then we have the Holy Spirit forming Christ in us, just as He did in Mary. Therefore, we should put those sins to death. Christ has not redeemed us in sin, but out from sin. Christ has not redeemed us so that we can wallow in our sins thinking that God has forgiven us, therefore we can do whatever we want. No, Christ has redeemed us such that we no longer live to sin, but have died to sin. How can we live in it any longer? Jesus has saved us from our sins. Therefore let us live a sin-free life.