Tempted, But Without Sin

Genesis 39

There was once an old pastor who ministry was mostly among sailors. One day, he met a man in public life who had got himself involved in a corrupt entanglement. The pastor rebuked him. The man responded, “But, pastor, you don’t know what the outside pressure was.” “Outside pressure,” came the indignant response, “outside pressure! Where were your inside braces?” Alexander Maclaren said “People read us a good deal more than they read the Bible.” If people read that we have inside braces that can resist temptation when it comes our way, they will want to know why it is that we have those inner braces. However, if we look just like the world, then the world will not bother to read us at all. Joseph is an example to us of how to resist temptation, even though he is also more than that. A CAT scan of Joseph’s soul revealed no spiritual malignancies anywhere. Joseph shows us that our Savior must be one who resisted temptation, and succeeded against temptation, such that He was a perfect Lamb for us.

Joseph had been sold as a slave to Potiphar, an Egyptian officer. The NIV says that Potiphar was a captain of the guard. More likely Potiphar was a leader of the cooks, or butchers. He was an important man, with servants of his own besides Joseph. This shows Potiphar to be a man of substance and standing in the court of Egypt.
The text says in verse 2 that the Lord was with Joseph, and made everything that he did prosper. This reminds us of Psalm 1, where the righteous is like a tree planted by streams of water, and everything he does the Lord will prosper, and make him succeed. Joseph succeeded so much that Potiphar saw the value of this man very clearly. In fact, Potiphar promoted him to be the ruler of his entire household. Joseph was so good at what he did, that Potiphar had no concern in his household, but what he should eat (vs. 6).

However, Joseph perhaps had one endowment too many. He was extremely handsome in appearance. The words used to describe Joseph’s appearance are only used in one other place in Scripture: in the description of Rachel, Joseph’s mother. Plainly then, Joseph had received his good looks from his mother.

But this one endowment too many had a downside: it made him a target for Potiphar’s wife. Verse 6 probably indicates that Potiphar didn’t spend much time with his wife. And so she was looking for something better.
She found it in Joseph. Her command is very short and to the point. She commands, and expects instant obedience. But in this case, she is mistaken, for Joseph must obey God rather than man, or woman, in this case. But her tempting of Joseph was by no means easy to resist.

Hughes says this: “What an insidious temptation. Joseph was 17 or 18 years old (cf. 37:2), and his hormones were at full force; so he brimmed with sexual curiosity and drive. The rationalizations were so easy and logical. No one would ever know. His family would certainly never find out. They were on the other side of the Sinai and beyond. Moreover, Joseph was a slave. His life was not his own. Sexual promiscuity was a daily part of all slave holding households. Besides, by giving in to Mrs. Potiphar’s wishes, he could enhance his career. This is a time-honored political strategy. What is so wrong with a little “strategic adultery” if it furthers the cause? And face it, old Potiphar was gone all the time and was not meeting his wife’s needs. She was entitled to a little caring affection. This would actually be the loving thing to do. In today’s terms, the situation demanded this ethic. Even more, who could blame him? It was in his blood. Just look at his brothers Reuben and Judah! And again, not a soul would ever know.” How tempting it would be to let go just this once! And yet, Joseph gives her a very reasonable response. Joseph does not preach to her, actually, but tells her why he cannot do these things. Notice that he starts with what he considers to be her best interests, and then moves on to those considerations which are his highest goals. First he starts with the fact that Potiphar has nothing to worry about. Then he mentions that Potiphar has put everything under his control. Then finally, he mentions the number one reason why he cannot do this thing: it would be a great wickedness against God. He says, “how could I commit such a great sin against God?” A weak man here would have said, “how can I not sin when the temptation is so strong?”

She was not convinced by this argumentation, since she was literally hell-bent on getting Joseph. She continually tempted Joseph. The text says “day by day.” She continually faced Joseph with this temptation. It is no small credit to Joseph’s holiness that he was able to resist for so long. It is true, however, that Joseph knew that even if he gave in, he could still wind up in prison, only if that were the case, he would also have forfeited God’s god opinion of him.

However, the day came when she had the perfect opportunity to try something a little more drastic. She risked an all or nothing assault on Joseph. Interestingly, this incident shows that it was Potiphar’s wife who was really the one enslaved, not Joseph. Joseph was free, and in command of everything that belonged to Potiphar. However, she was a slave to her own lust. But Joseph did the admirable thing: he fled from her presence. This is what we all should do when the temptations become violent: we should flee them. As Paul told Timothy: flee youthful lusts. Flee temptation. We are not to stand and fight against such strong temptations as this. There are other temptations that God will enable us to withstand. However, there are some that we are not capable of withstanding. In those cases, God is looking for a few good cowards! That’s right: a few good cowards. We are not to stand and fight a superior foe, but to fall back to our mighty fortress, Jesus Christ, and let Him do the heavy lifting.

Of course, when something like that happens, the Christian will often be accused of something that they did not commit. Satan is the great accuser. He accused Jesus of blasphemy, when Jesus was innocent. Satan accused Joseph, through Potiphar’s wife, of molesting Potiphar’s wife. Potiphar’s wife cleverly gets the servants to side with her, though it is clear that they could not have known anything. She uses the tactic of hating the foreigner, mentioning his Hebrew nationality, so that they would be angry that an outsider had such privilege, and had abused it. But when she tells Potiphar about Joseph, she puts some of the blame on him. She says that it was Potiphar, after all, who had brought this man into the house.

Potiphar becomes very angry. However, the usual assumption that he is angry at Joseph is probably a bit premature. If Potiphar was really and truly angry at Joseph, he would have executed him on the spot, and been perfectly within his rights to do so. Rather, he puts Joseph in prison, and not just any prison, but the prison where the king’s prisoners were kept. This was a much better place than where the other prisoners were kept. In fact, he gives Joseph the lightest possible sentence. So Potiphar was actually angry at the whole situation: angry that he would lose Joseph, one of the best servants he had ever had; angry that he cannot prove his wife wrong, since he probably knows her tendency to lie; and angry at his wife for creating this situation. At any rate, he is not especially angry at Joseph. But since he could not prove his wife wrong, he had Joseph locked up. He had to save face for his wife, even if he believed that she was lying.

However, even with Joseph in the pit of prison, God was with him. As Corrie Ten Boom says, “There is no pit, but that God is deeper still.” In the humiliation of the prison, however, Joseph is seasoned so that he is later able to endure being placed in an exalted position without danger of falling into conceit. So we see there the reason why God put Joseph through all of these trials. He is forging a savior for the world.

In the same, God forged Jesus Christ in the heat of trial, in order to be the Savior of the world. Jesus had to be tempted, so that He would be without sin. That means that Jesus Christ is our great high priest. He is perfect.
So, do you want inner braces? Then look to Jesus Christ. He will supply you with all you need.


Christ’s Temptation

Matthew 4:1-11

Oscar Wilde, the famous playwright of the late nineteenth century once said, “I can resist everything except temptation.” Don’t we feel that way sometimes? We think that temptation is the only irresistible force left in the world. At the very least, we think that Satan can overcome all obstacles in us to get us to sin. We love to blame Satan for our sin, don’t we? We are going to learn tonight that Satan the tempter is a defeated tempter, and that it is possible for us to resist him by using the sword of the Spirit, God’s Word.

The passage before us is the beginning of the ultimate contest between the seed of the woman and the seed of the serpent. The tempter won round one, but he will not win round two. You can bet that Satan will attack Jesus.

It is true that pirates will attack the ship with the greatest amount of treasure on board. All our treasures of salvation belong to Jesus. Therefore, Satan the pirate will attack Him the fiercest. Hebrews tells us that Jesus was tempted in all ways like us, except that he was without sin. Does this mean that Jesus could have fallen into sin? The answer is yes, Jesus could have, because He had a human nature like us. However, Jesus did not have a sin nature like us. Therefore, Jesus never sinned.

The sinlessness of Christ might make us think that, in reality, he cannot sympathize with us, since He has not actually sinned. By way of answer, we need to see several things here: one is that Jesus resisted to the uttermost. He drained Satan’s skills to the very last dregs. You know, it is only the one who resists to the last who really knows how strong Satan’s temptations really are. Satan does not use any more skill than he needs to in order to tempt someone to fall. If we resist to the end, not falling, it is only then that Satan will unleash his most violent assaults. That is exactly what happened to Jesus. So Jesus is actually able to sympathize with us very well indeed.

Next, we need to see that Jesus was tempted in the very worst conditions imaginable. Compare Jesus’ situation with Adam and Eve’s situation: Adam and Eve were probably not hungry, given the fact that they could eat from any tree of the garden. Jesus, on the other hand, has just finishing a 40 day fast. Adam and Eve were in a beautiful garden. Jesus was in the wilderness. Adam and Eve had each other. Jesus was alone. And yet, Adam and Eve, for all they had going for them, fell into sin and temptation, whereas Jesus, having entered the most difficult situation imaginable, conquered temptation to remain sinless. Jesus can sympathize with our temptations.

Jesus was tempted in three ways: the lust of the flesh (the first temptation to eat), the lust of the eyes (all the kingdoms of the world), and the pride of life (using his miraculous powers for show). But we can see that Jesus, our prophet, priest and king, overcame all these temptations in order to give us the strength to do the same. Jesus was a prophet in using God’s Word properly, a priest in being a sacrifice for us, and representing us against Satan, and a king by coming into His kingdom the right way, through the cross. Let’s look at these three temptations.

First we need to notice that the Holy Spirit leads Jesus into the wilderness in order to be tempted by Satan. In Mark, the language is more forceful: the Holy Spirit drives Jesus into the wilderness. The Holy Spirit does not do the tempting however. The way the Holy Spirit is testing Jesus is by putting Him in the fire to see how pure the metal is. Is the baptism that Jesus just received really genuine? The Holy Spirit tests Jesus. Satan is God’s instrument of testing. The Holy Spirit is not tempting Jesus to sin, but rather testing Him to prove His genuineness. We are not to suppose that God tempts us to sin. God puts trials in our way to test us. That is why we pray “Do not lead us into temptation,” since Jesus was already led into temptation and conquered sin for us. Rather, we pray to be delivered from evil, since we know how frail we are.

The first temptation is perhaps the most obvious one to us. Jesus was hungry. Satan tells Him to take care of the problem. Notice that Satan, as it were, has listened in on Jesus baptism. God the Father says, “This is my beloved Son.” So Satan says, “Has God really said that you are His Son?” Satan is trying to make Jesus doubt God’s provision. Doubt is the lever of temptation. Specifically, it is doubt of God’s Word that is the lever of temptation.

By way of background here is the Jewish expectation that a second Moses would come and repeat the miracle of the manna in the wilderness. Satan prods Jesus to do just that for selfish purposes. So Satan gives Jesus two options: die from hunger, or turn these stones into bread. Jesus does neither. Instead He quotes God’s word, from Deuteronomy. All of these quotations in Jesus’ temptation are from Deuteronomy, by the way. What Jesus means is this: the power of sustaining life is not ultimately to be found in bread. Bread could not sustain a person for one second unless God says it will. Food will not keep a man alive, unless God says that that man will live; and if God says that that man is going to live, then that man will live, whether he has food or not. Again, Jesus is going to where Adam and Eve were sent. God sent them into the wilderness outside the garden. Jesus went to where they were so as to bring humanity back into the garden. Jesus conquered Satan’s temptation of the lust of the flesh. Notice how Jesus defeats this temptation: by quoting God’s Word. Jesus knows God’s Word. He knows that God has promised him bread, and will not therefore give him stones, to quote a later passage. The Word of God is even more necessary for the soul, than bread is for the body.

But Satan has studied God’s Word as well. Satan takes Jesus up to the highest part of the temple, probably overlooking the Kidron Valley, which was a drop so long that Josephus says you could not see the bottom from this highest point. We are not talking about a twenty foot drop here. It is more like two hundred feet. And here Satan twists God’s Word. First Satan tried to attack Jesus where He was weak, namely, the area of hunger. Now Satan tries to catch Jesus the Word in the area of Jesus’ greatest strength, His knowledge of God’s Word. This is often how Satan works. If we guard ourselves in the weak areas of our lives, then Satan will attack our strength, hoping that we will not have cared too much about defended our strongest points. Satan likes to take us up to a great height, in order that our fall will be greater. This is Satan’s attack of jiu-jitsu. But Satan here wants Jesus to fall in exactly the same way as he himself fell. By taking Jesus to the top of the temple, it is as if Satan is taking him up to heaven, and showing Jesus how to fall just like himself. Satan fell, and so he wants all others to fall as well. But notice here that Satan cannot force Jesus to fall. The same is true with us. Satan can only tempt us. He cannot force us to fall. The difference between Jesus and us lies in the fact that we still have a sin nature. Satan works with our sinful nature, knowing exactly where our weak points are. However, the encouraging news is that Jesus has conquered sin. He shows that right here in our text.

Jesus conquers by using correctly the sword of the Spirit, God’s Word. Satan misuses God’s word here. Satan leaves out a phrase from Psalm 91. The text should read, “He will command His angels concerning you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you strike your foot against a stone.” “In all your ways” then would mean “In all your righteous ways,” for we cannot expect God to guard us in our sinful ways. Satan ignores the context, and picks and chooses what he wants out of Scripture. This is in stark contrast to how Jesus uses Scripture.

Jesus knows that he is in a wilderness condition. He is being tempted in exactly the same way that Adam and Eve were tempted, and in exactly the same way as Israel was being tempted in the wilderness. Jesus is the new Israel. That is why this quotation from Deuteronomy is absolutely perfect for this situation. Instead of testing God, as the Israelites did by grumbling about food and water, Jesus is the obedient Israelite who will not put God to the test. So Jesus quotes correctly the OT.

This leads us into a very important point of application. We must use Scripture. And we must use it correctly. We must use Scripture because it is our weapon. Satan has no weapons of defense. The only thing he can do is to attack. However, our sword of the Spirit, God’s Word, is a weapon of offense and defense. We can attack as Jesus did here. But to be able to use this sword we need to know it. We need to study God’s Word. Studying God’s Word means more than reading the passage, and reading a one page devotional. Studying God’s Word means to ask the text questions: who, what, where, when , why, how? It means to look up parallel passages. Most of us have Bibles that have cross-references. It is very helpful to look those up. Buy a Bible dictionary, so that you can look up unfamiliar places and names. In our passage tonight, for instance, it would be helpful to know that bread was something without which you died in that culture. That gives us a deeper knowledge of what Jesus means when He says, “You shall not live by bread alone.” You could find information like that in a dictionary. You might look up angels, stones, testing, temptation, wilderness, and fasting, to get more information. Next, we need to read what comes before and what comes after. It is not enough to merely read the passage by itself. Tonight, in our passage, for instance, it is important that Jesus has just been baptized. We need to ask ourselves the question, “Why is Jesus’ baptism followed immediately by His temptation?” Notice the key words t the end of chapter 3: “my beloved Son.” Chapter four then answers the question, “Is Jesus the beloved Son?” The single most important key to understanding the Bible is the context. Context means the immediately preceding passage, as well as the immediately following passage. It means also the historical context. For instance, in tonight’s passage, it helps to know that the Jews were expecting a second Messiah who would repeat the manna miracle in the wilderness. That gives more edge to our understanding of Satan’s temptation about the bread. Some tools you might consider purchasing are a good concordance, a good dictionary, and a good commentary, such as Matthew Henry. With just these three tools, you can go far indeed. If you want to dig deeper, then ask your pastor what would be good tools for a particular book or topic. Some of you have done so. This is partly what it means to have a sharp sword ready at hand. But it also means that we need to memorize Scripture. David said, “Your Word have I hid in my heart,” Why? So that he might not sin against God.” That is exactly what Jesus does, and it is exactly what we need to do. Having the Bible in your heart is important. If Satan wants to burgle your soul, then you need a weapon that is not locked away in your weapons chest, unavailable for use. You need it ready to hand! And, we need to use Scripture correctly. If we don’t, we will cut ourselves, rather than the enemy. We cannot do as some do, called “lucky dipping.” That is the practice of opening Scripture at random and finding guidance for your life. If you do that, you might find this interesting guidance: “Judas went out and hanged himself; go thou and do likewise; and what you do, do quickly.” That is a travesty of a sword. That is not even a pen-knife. That is a little needle which winds up stabbing the person who is trying to use it. We must use Scripture correctly. This is something we are all called to do. It is not jut the pastor who must read and handle Scripture correctly. It is all of us.

The last temptation of Jesus is also fairly obvious. Satan offers Jesus a short-cut. Jesus will receive all this power and honor and glory. That is what Jesus says at the end of Matthew: “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” But the way that Jesus has to choose is the way of the cross, or the easy way out. Satan is offering Jesus a short-cut to the kingdom. All Jesus has to do is one little bitty bow to Satan, which is much easier than going to the cross. But Satan hides the poison. This is how Satan often works: he fishes for us by presenting the bait in front of our greedy eyes, while hiding the hook. Here, the hook is that Satan would be the real master of the universe if Jesus bowed to him. In our temptations, Satan does the same thing: he offers to us money, while hiding the fact that it will not ever make us happy, and that is true of any addiction. That is giving us the bait, while hiding the hook. The hook is always soul-damning. The example here is that of a famous character in literature, Faust. Faust wanted the girl, but the girl didn’t want him. So he made a bargain with Satan in order to become irresistible to the girl. In the end, Faust did not gain the girl the way he wanted to, and he lost his own soul into the “bargain.”

Jesus replies with a stern, peremptory command, “Begone!” That is often what temptation requires, isn’t it? If we allow sin time to tempt us, then we are really giving in. Giving sin a foothold is the same as giving in, because sin is quite the mountain goat. One foothold is all it needs, and then it is all over the mountain, completely unrestrained. No, give sin a stern, immediate, rough rebuke, “Begone!” But it is then important to put something in its place. Think of Jesus seated on His throne in the heavenly realms, having conquered sin and death. Think of your Savior when you are tempted, for that is exactly what Scripture is all about! It is God alone whom we must worship, and not ourselves, or Satan, or anything else.

When we resist Satan, then he flees from us. That is exactly what happens with Satan here. Instead of resisting everything except temptation, as Oscar Wilde says, we will then be able to resist temptation. Our hope is that Jesus conquered temptation for us. We must believe and trust in Him.


Repentance is, I believe, one of the most misunderstood doctrines of the Christian life. People will say that they have repented from their sin, and yet they see no inconsistency with going on being enslaved to that sin. This cannot be. Repentance means a turning away from sin. This is quite evident from the OT Hebrew word for repentance “shub” (pronounced “shoove”). This word means a change in direction. That is what repentance is: a change in direction from sin to God. It is important to recognize also that repentance is a gracious gift from God. We, on our own, cannot turn away from sin. We, in our sinful natures, are dead in sin, unable to turn away from it.

The relationship of repentance to faith is often a hot topic. Obviously, there can only be a repentant faith, as well, conversely, as a faithful repentance. You cannot have one without the other.

Repentance involves a recognition of sin as sin. The way this happens is through recognition of what the law demands. This is one of the big reasons why OT law needs more than ever to be preached in our churches today: people simply do not recognize their sin, because they are ignorant of the law. Therefore, they are ignorant of their need of a Savior.

Repentance is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for pardon from God.

The WCF has this marvelously comforting thought about repentance: “As there is no sin so small, but it deserves damnation, so there is no sin so great, that it can bring damnation upon those who truly repent.”

Repentance is also a daily thing, though, in addition to being a once for all turning. This is part of that already/not yet condition in which the believer finds himself, being in-between the two comings of Christ. We need to repent of specific sins, not just our general sins.

Christ’s Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17

Baptism is a contentious issue in the Christian world. Some say that only believers should be baptized. Some say that children of believers should also be baptized. Some say that immersion is the only way to do it. Other see immersion, sprinkling, and pouring all to be legitimate. But one of the major problems we have is that often we do not understand what baptism does. Some say that baptism saves us. Others say that it does not, and that it is no more than a token. Still others, and the Reformed community fits in here, say that baptism is a sign and seal of being included in the visible church, and that baptism points to spiritual cleansing, much like a sign points the way to a city. What does Jesus’ baptism have to do with us, specifically our baptism? As we go through this passage, we need to be thinking about our own baptism.

Jesus knew that the time had come for His ministry to begin. He knew that from the ministry of John the Baptist. That is why he came on purpose to be baptized by John. The words at the end of verse 13 indicate a sense of purpose on Jesus’ part.

Now immediately, we are faced with a problem. How can the Holy One of Israel participate in John’s baptism which existed for the repentance of sin? In the first part of chapter three, John preached about repentance, and the baptism was a baptism of repentance. Jesus was sinless. So how could Jesus undergo this baptism? We can see why John was upset, and wanted to oppose what Jesus wanted. John says that he needs to be baptized by Jesus. Probably, John is thinking of that baptism by the Holy Spirit and by fire that he was talking about in the immediately preceding passage. That is what John needs. John knows that the baptism that he does is only a temporary measure that comes to an end when the Holy Spirit-baptism comes that Jesus will bring.

So Jesus starts to allay John’s scruples. Jesus says that this baptism needs to happen because it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness. Notice that word “us.” it is not merely important for Jesus to fulfill all righteousness, but it is also important for John. John’s ministry would be incomplete without doing this one last thing for Jesus. That is what Jesus is saying here. But then, we come to a puzzle. What does Jesus mean by the words, “all righteousness?” I don’t ever recall reading a law anywhere in the Old Testament that said that Jesus had to be baptized in order for Scripture to be fulfilled. But that is precisely the point. Again, it is the Scriptures as a whole that Jesus is fulfilling. The whole direction of the Old Testament points to Jesus’ ministry, of which his baptism was the beginning. That kind of reasoning convinced John the Baptist. But we need to know more. What was Jesus doing by being baptized?

The first thing Jesus was doing was joining himself to Israel. Baptism means a joining to a people. There is a solidarity expressed in baptism. Specifically, Jesus was identifying Himself with sinners. He was not personally repenting of sin. Rather, He was saying that sinners were the people to whom He was sent.

The second thing Jesus was doing was starting His ministry. When Jesus came to earth, he became human, taking on our humanity, though without sin. That started Christ’s humiliation. In the same way, Christ’s baptism identified Christ with sinful humanity, thus starting Christ’s redemptive mission, his mission to seek and to save those who were lost.

The third thing that Jesus was doing was receiving the anointing of God for His ministry. Who better to do that than the one who prepared the way, John the Baptist? We can see that anointing is part of the picture here by seeing that God the Father set his seal of approval on Jesus with the words that came down from heaven. Jesus received an anointing. The word is Messiah. Messiah means “the anointed one.” Here it is: Christ’s anointing in Christ’s baptism. He was anointed with the Holy Spirit, which came out of heaven like a dove. More on that later.

Verse 16 is sometimes used to justify baptism by immersion to the exclusion of all other forms of baptism. The reasoning goes like this: Jesus went under the water, such that He came out of the water. That means immersion. The problem with that is the geography of the Jordan river. In most places of the Jordan, the banks are non-existent: there is no gradual descent to the water-line. Instead, there is a steep bank. In order to use the water at all, one would have to either stoop down very low, or actually get into the river, which was very shallow at most points. The text here does not say that Jesus went under the water, and then came up out from under the water. It merely says that Jesus was standing in the river, and came up out of the river. Jesus could have been immersed. However, the text does not say that Jesus was immersed.

What is more important to realize here is the connection with Israel going through the Red Sea. Just as Israel goes down into the water, and was baptized into Moses, as Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10, so also Christ goes into the Jordan river, and comes up out of the river. This symbolizes new life, a new people of God. In order now to be baptized into God’s family, we now have to be baptized into Christ Jesus. Jesus is the new Israel. Instead of being the disobedient son Israel, Jesus is the obedient son, with whom God is well-pleased.

What happens next is a remarkable occurrence. The heavens open, and the Holy Spirit comes down in the form of a dove. Why a dove? Remember that it was a dove that went out from the ark to find dry ground. The dove there symbolized the Holy Spirit hovering over the water during the creation. Now, in Jesus’ baptism, the Holy Spirit hovers again over Jesus, only this time, the Holy Spirit has found a place to rest on Jesus Himself. The Holy Spirit no longer needed an olive branch. Instead, the Holy Spirit comes to rest on the Branch from the stump of Jesse. Doves were also the animal that a poor person could purchase for sacrifices. The Holy Spirit indeed comes to poor people to make Jesus a perfect sacrifice for them. The dove also symbolizes gentleness. This is important for us. In Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ baptism, the context indicates that baptism is a purifying agent. We saw a little of this last time. Baptism means that a person comes under the judgment of the covenant: blessing for obedience, and cursing for disobedience. We sinned, and therefore deserved the cursing. However, Jesus took on Himself the curse, and instead gave us His righteousness in order that we might have blessing. The dove coming to rest on Jesus indicates that blessing comes to all those who believe in Him. The covenant blessings come to all who are obedient to the Gospel call to believe in Jesus Christ. Lastly, the dove also represents Israel itself in several passages in the Old Testament, notably Hosea 7:11, “Ephraim is like a dove, silly and without sense, calling to Egypt, going to Assyria.” We might say that Jesus is the non-silly dove of Ephraim. Ephraim is another way of saying Israel.

We need to notice that the entire Trinity is involved in the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, just as the entire Trinity is involved in missions, as in the Great Commission. Jesus is here, the Holy Spirit comes down out of heaven, and the voice of the Father comes to rest on Jesus. J.C. Ryle says this, “It was the whole Trinity, which at the beginning of creation said, ’Let us make man;’ it was the whole Trinity again, which at the beginning of the Gospel seemed to say, ’Let us save man.’” The whole Trinity is involved in saving mankind. This is very important. There are those who say that Jesus came to placate the wrath of God against sinners, and that is all they say. This is true, as far as it goes. However, it was the Father who sent the Son to die for sinners. God the Father loves us, just as He loves His beloved Son.

What the Father says here is a quotation from Psalm 2, and from Isaiah 42. Both indicate that Jesus is the royal king that Psalm 2 talks about, and that Jesus is the suffering servant that Isaiah talks about. Here is yet another fulfillment of the Old Testament.

The question for us is, “Are we well satisfied with Jesus? Do we know how much we have in Him?” The temptation is to think that we need Jesus plus something else. That we need Jesus plus a huge farm, or Jesus plus a huge bank account, or Jesus plus a new truck, or Jesus plus that special relationship, or Jesus plus health. The truth is, that we have all we need in Jesus. Jesus is the King of the universe. He owns it all. The only way to have true riches is to belong to Christ. If God is satisfied with Jesus, how come we often are not? We despise the benefits that we have in Christ Jesus, in order to praise to the skies all the benefits we have that we have gotten on our own. We think that we are rich, but we are really poor.

When we are baptized, we come into the circle of God’s people. That is where true riches are. When we think of our baptism, (do we think of our baptism?) do we remember that all our riches are to be found in Christ Jesus? Baptism means that we must come to faith in Christ in order to be saved, and that, as part of God’s covenant, we are placed in the very best position to see that. Being part of God’s community means that we have the Word of God and the Sacraments. We have the fellowship of believers. We have these many blessings. Baptism is a sign and seal. It is like an engagement ring. If you were to ask an engaged woman whether the ring meant anything, she would probably say “yes.” Does it make a difference whether a young man proposes with a ring or without a ring? You bet it does! It means that the man is putting his money where his mouth is. The same thing is true of baptism. God says, “You are mine, and I give you this sign, that of baptism, to prove it.” However, engagements can be broken, can they not? God will never break His engagement with us. So, let us not break our engagement, but rather come to the wedding feast of the Lamb. Come to trust in Jesus.

On Pain

Here is a great quotation from Richard Sibbes, volume 7, pg 239:

“As apothecaries and surgeons use to deal with us, so many times God deals with me; when the plaster smarts, men cry to take it off, when in the meantime, by holding it on, the cure is done; and so it is with us, we cry out unto God to take away this pain, that he would pull away such a plaster, such a corrosive from us. Why? Oh, say they, that we may serve him better, and yield him more obedience, when indeed, with holding thee to it, and by binding, as it were, this cross fast upon thee, the very same thing God worketh in thee.”

On Faith

Faith is a gift of God. Many people think that faith comes from within yourself. “Believe in yourself,” people say. Well, I happen to think that I am a very poor object in which to have faith. If it depends on me to be saved, then woe to me.

However, true faith is faith in someone else, namely, Jesus Christ. Faith is an accepting, receiving, and resting on Him alone for our salvation. Faith is an empty hand that simply receives. Furthermore, we cannot even stretch out that hand without God’s help.

Faith is an instrument. In justification, for instance, it is not faith itself that is imputed for righteousness, but rather the object of faith that is imputed, namely, the righteousness of Jesus Christ. Those who say otherwise are not understanding the nature of faith. Faith does not have a substance of its own, or a righteousness of its own. Rather, faith lays hold of something outside itself, making the believer united to Jesus Christ.

There are degrees of saving faith. That is, all saving faith has some inviolable characteristics. However, the degree of faith varies in different Christians. Some Christians, such as George Muller, had (or have) extraordinarily powerful and strong faith. Other Christians have weak faith. Let not the strong look down on the weak, but rather let them seek to help the weak grow.

Faith reacts appropriately to the Word of God. If there is one thing that is mostly lacking in churches these days, it is a desire to lead biblical lives. Most church-goers will say that they have faith, some more, some less. But how many actually make their day-to-day decisions based on Scripture? It is not too difficult to make large decisions based on Scripture, because we see the need of it more. But in the little decisions, all too often we are stricken with a lack of faith, and think that God doesn’t have anything to say to us about such matters. But the faithful person will look at God’s Word, and react according to how each passage should affect them. Faithful people react with wariness when warned, with joy when encouraged, belief when promised, etc. And faithful people love the study of God’s Word. How many Christians are there who absolutely love to dig into God’s Word? Precious few. Most of them think it is above them, and is only to be for the professionals. Or, they just don’t care. Faith believes that every word of God is precious, and is to be mulled over, and digested, and gnawed; in short, seen from every legitimate angle possible, so as to produce a harvest of righteousness. Glory be to God!

John the Baptist

Matthew 3:1-12

Dale Carnegie once wrote a book entitled “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” It was quite a book, selling millions of copies. The point of the book was how to ingratiate yourself along with other people, building bridges to them, considering their point of view, rather than being a bully trying to get your own way. It is quite a useful book, I might add. However, the book has its limitations. It cannot do what John the Baptist needs to do. John the Baptist has obviously never read this book. This kind of a book would be the furthest thing from his mind. What is John the Baptist all about, anyway?

Well, first we have to notice just how important he is. All four gospels have an account of him as being the one who comes before Jesus. He is a forerunner, someone who prepares the way for the one coming after him. So we need to get a grip on what exactly his ministry means, if we are to have a clear idea of what Jesus came to do.

The words “in those days” indicate that a particular era has come. These are important words. They mean that a new age has come. Matthew emphasizes John’s preaching. In fact, in Matthew, the fact that John preaches is more important than the fact that he baptizes.

Notice where John preaches. “In the wilderness.” The wilderness was a very important place in the thinking of Jews. That was where the people of God had done much wandering. It was a place of trial and temptation. Jesus will also go into the wilderness to be tempted by Satan. People also thought that there would be a new Exodus of the land of Egypt, and that a new wilderness people would re-enter the land. We saw that chapter one of Matthew describes a new Genesis, and chapter two describes a new Exodus. Right here, we have the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams. So the wilderness was a perfect place to preach about repentance, and that a new kingdom was coming out of the wilderness back into the promised land. Of course, the promised land that Jesus entered would be a better promised land: heaven itself. The wilderness would also be a perfect place to preach about repentance, since Sodom and Gomorrah were probably near, giving John a perfect visual aid.
What is repentance? The prophets talked again and again about repentance. The word in Hebrew meant to “turn one’s way around,” or “to return to God.” But the Hebrew prophets talked about a repentance that needed to be repeated again and again, because the people kept turning away from God. Therefore, they needed to be turned back to God. However, this type of repentance happens only once. It is a turning away from sin once and for all, and entering the kingdom of heaven, “for it is at hand.” That is why John offered a once-for-all baptism of repentance. So, someone who has truly repented would be someone who, when faced with the same temptation in the same circumstances, does not do the same sin. Someone else has said that repentance means being sorry enough to quit. Repentance does not mean being sorry for sin’s consequences. Often, though, that is exactly what we feel. We say that we are sorry, but what we really want is to avoid sin’s consequences. It is like a little child, whose hand has been caught in the cookie jar. The mother comes to spank the child, and the child says, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” frantically, in order to try to placate the wrath of the mother. The child is often anything but sorry for trying to take the cookie, but is only trying to avoid punishment. We are just the same way with our sin. We should be sorry for the sin more than for sin’s consequences.

The reason why John preaches about repentance is that the kingdom of heaven is at hand. The kingdom of heaven refers to everything over which Jesus will rule. It is a kingdom not of this world. That is, it is a spiritual kingdom. John says that it is at hand. That means that it is very close, but not quite there yet. It is as close as Jesus is close to John in time. It is that close. In terms of judgment, it is very much like verse 10 (“the ax is laid to the root of the tree”). The ax has not cut the tree down yet, but is waiting for signs of fruit.

Again we have another fulfillment passage: from Isaiah 40 we learn that someone is going to be a voice in the wilderness preparing the way of the Lord. Now, the background is important. Roads in those days were not kept in very good repair. They did not take their tractors and drag the gravel roads, such that cars can go reasonably quickly down them. No, roads were horrible in those days. The only time they were repaired was when the king decided to use that road. A messenger would be sent ahead of the king, telling the people to repair the road, such that the king could travel in reasonable comfort. But this was only done for kings. John therefore is the messenger of the king. John was preparing for the true king.

Next we see some seemingly insignificant details about what John wore. These details are not trivial, however, because these clothes are exactly the same clothes that Elijah wore. We can read about that in 2 Kings 1:8: Some men were asking about Elijah, and the reply was that he was a man who wore a garment of hair, with a belt of leather about his waist. The belt was worn when one was going on a journey. John’s journey was to prepare the way for the Messiah. Matthew is telling us in no uncertain terms that John the Baptist was the new Elijah. Jesus confirms that later in the Gospels. Jesus says that John was the Elijah who was to come.

John had a very interesting diet. He ate locusts and wild honey. A very spare diet. Locusts are allowed by Jewish food law, being a clean animal. They are high in protein. He would have needed protein for all the preaching he did! Honey gives lots of energy. All in all, it was a fairly balanced diet, though extremely plain. Locusts are the only edible clean animal that can be found in plentiful supply anywhere in the desert. What this tells us is that John staked everything on the kingdom of heaven. He did not look after worldly things, but regarded the kingdom of heaven as that pearl of great price, which he sold everything in order to possess.

John’s ministry was successful. He made some converts. This is undoubtedly the reason why the Pharisees and Sadducees came to pay him a visit. Now the Pharisees were a group of Jews who were devoted to studying the law. They loved the Scriptures. They made fences around the law, meaning that they were so afraid of breaking the law, that they made rules such that one could not even approach the law to break it, at least according to their thinking. They wanted purity of life. The name means “those who separate themselves.” They were more pure than the rest of the people. This is probably some of the sting in the originally slanderous epithet “Puritan.” The name “Puritan” was not originally meant as a term of respect. It was a term of ridicule. Of course, the Puritans knew about the doctrines of grace, whereas the Pharisees did not. But the idea is somewhat parallel. The Sadducees were very different from the Pharisees. They were all about the temple. They were aristocrats. They were high society. They wanted only to do sacrifice and ritual. They did not read their bibles much. In many ways, they were opposed to the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in resurrection, whereas the Sadducees did not. However, in one thing they were agreed: they came to criticize John, and they were both opposed to Jesus.

John knows what they are about. That is why he gives us this remarkably harsh statement. This statement is not calculated to win friends and influence people! He calls them a brood of vipers. This is a really loaded insult. Of course, the term vipers connotes that they are crafty (rather like another serpent that we know of), they are dangerous to other people. Furthermore, by calling them a BROOD of vipers, John heaps insult on injury. When the young of vipers are born, according to the historian Herodotus, the young eat their way out of the mother’s womb, killing the mother in the process. What John is saying is that their practices make them mother-killers. John asks them a very rhetorical and sarcastic question. John is not curious about who warned them. He is saying that he knows that the Pharisees and Sadducees did not come to be baptized and receive repentance and forgiveness of sins. However, the Pharisees and Sadducees should have known that now was the time. Thus John ridicules them for their lack of wisdom. There is further background to this question of John’s , however. When a fire swept across the brushlands of Israel, all the animals would scurry to get out of the way, including snakes. So John is really saying that they should know that judgment is coming, but they don’t, and they come to John’s baptism for the completely wrong reason. He is saying that they are hypocrites.

Then John gives us a statement about fruit and repentance. Trees are judged by their fruit, not by their root. That is why John is comparing repentance to the root, and good works are compared with the fruit.

Verse 9 is a parenthesis. He interrupts the metaphor of fruit tree to address a concern that they might have had. John anticipates their thinking. John’s statement is based on pun. The Hebrew word for “sons” is banim. The Hebrew word for stones is ebanim. The Jews will not escape by their nationality. In God’s economy, there will no longer be a favored nation clause. God does not have grandchildren, only children. The Jews thought of Abraham as having stored up merits for his children. All one had to be was a child of Abraham, and all the benefits of Abraham would be theirs. But the Jews needed to be reminded that Abraham himself, as well as Sarah were physically barren. God need to work in their lives to produce children. But the barrenness of Abraham and Sarah is as nothing compared to the barrenness of the Pharisees and Sadducees. God would again bring children for Abraham out of the most unlikely source: Gentiles! To raise up children for Abraham from the Gentiles was just as difficult and miraculous as bringing up children for Abraham out of stones. Indeed, we need to have our hearts of stone changed into hearts of flesh. That is exactly what happens in conversion.

Notice that the trees that do not bear good fruit will not be pruned. Rather, they will be cut down and thrown into the fire. It is not a question of pruning, but of judgment. Ultimate judgment. Only if the tree bears fruit will it be spared, and even then it will be pruned so that it will bear more fruit. That is what Jesus says in John 15:1-2.
This baptism of John’s is a baptism that prepares the way for a greater baptism; one of judgment. Jesus is coming. Jesus is someone whose sandals John is not worthy to carry. Now rabbinical law said that the disciple should do absolutely anything for his master except carry the sandals. Carrying the sandals was a menial job for slaves to do. Therefore, disciples were not to do that. Only slaves were to do that. John is saying that he is not even worthy to do what a slave would do. That is how much greater Jesus is than John the Baptist. And Jesus said that of those who have arisen among men, none has been greater than John the Baptist.

Now what Jesus brings is a baptism. This is a greater baptism of the Holy Spirit. There is only one baptism of the Holy Spirit. Baptism is not simply some delightful confirmation that a child is worth it. We should not get excessively sentimental about baptism. Baptism puts obligations upon the parent and upon the child. If the child grows up to know God, then blessing will result, great blessing. That is why we should baptize our infants. However, if the child does not grow up to know God, but throws away the faith, then curse will come upon him. Baptism means that there are only two possibilities for the child: faith or apostasy. There is no middle ground between those options. You are either wheat or chaff.

So do we repent? Are we really repentant? Are we so sorry for our sin that we don’t do it anymore? We have to have the Holy Spirit in us in order to do that. It is not something that we can do ourselves. We cannot be a Christian because our parents were. That kind of thinking is exactly the same kind of thinking that the Jews did. God does not have grand-children, only children. Each one of us has to come to believe in Jesus Christ. That is when we will be gathered.

We should not delay to come to Christ. The ax is already laid at the root of the tree. If you are debating in your mind whether or not Christianity is a good thing, remember that your life hangs by a slender thread always. There is no guarantee that you will live out the rest of the day. Come to Christ now. Don’t wait until the judgment comes, and it is too late. When you come to Christ, you will find out that God has changed you from being chaff to being wheat, of the finest grade.

Do we have those sins that continually bog us down? Maybe we have some sins that we cannot seem to master. That is exactly the point. We cannot, in and of ourselves. We need the power of the Holy Spirit. We all have the Holy Spirit, if we belong to Jesus Christ. But sometimes we think that if only we can win a victory in this one area, then we will be perfect. Wrong. We have to strive in the power of the Holy Spirit. Only with his help do we have any chance of victory. But it must be stressed that if we have the Holy Spirit, then we have something far more powerful than any sin. So let us confess our sin, and trust that Christ will cleanse us from all our sin. He has promised it.

Jesus is God’s Son

I remember when I was about five or six years old, my father reading stories to me. He used to read all the great children’s stories: Jack and the Bean-stalk, Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty. However, the one I will always remember the best is his reading of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Only, in Dad’s version it was called something different: Goldilocks and the Three Aardvarks. What Dad would do, and this would send us screaming in laughter all over the room, is that he would read the story with many details changed. We knew the story very well indeed, such that any details that were changed would be sure to be noticed. In the story Cinderella, when the prince asks Cinderella if she will dance with him, she says, “No.” But in Goldilocks, the bears would say things like, “Who’s been eating my…golf ball,” or “Who’s been sleeping on my…sofa?” Of course, the meaning of the new words had nothing to do with the old correct words. But if someone were to say things like that, the immediate reaction would be to correct the change into the original. This was one way my father had fun with us.

Matthew does a similar thing in our passage tonight. Matthew’s readers were Jews. They knew the Old Testament backwards, forwards, upside-down, diagonal, any way you like. So when Matthew retells the story, with certain details changed, the Jews reading this story would instantly know what Matthew was talking about. That happens three times in our story tonight.

The first time is when Joseph is forced to flee to Egypt with the child and his mother. Now, the background to this story is that an early Jewish writer Celsus, was saying that Jesus went down to Egypt to learn magical arts like star-gazing, palm-reading, and sorcery. So Matthew has to correct that impression by saying that, yes, Jesus did go down into Egypt, but it was as a baby, not an adult. There is some background.

An angel tells Joseph to flee the country, because Herod is going to try to kill the child. This happens in a dream (my, what a lot of dreams there are in these chapters!). Joseph’s response is of instant, complete faith. He takes the child and his mother and goes. The early church father Chrysostom says this, “Joseph, when he had heard (these order to flee), was not offended, neither did he say, ‘The thing is hard to understand: did you not say just now that He would “save his people?” and now He saves not even Himself, but we must fly, and go far from home, and be a long time away: the facts are contrary to the promise…’” That is what Joseph did not say.

Joseph responded in faith. Now, the application will come later. But we are not to get out of this that God will reveal to us in a dream what we are to do, and therefore we are to do it. God does not reveal anything to us these days apart from what is in the Bible and the Holy Spirit working through the Bible. We do not receive special revelation anymore. The Bible is a finished work.

But Joseph is not the first Joseph to go down to Egypt because of the hate of one of his brothers. Joseph in the Old Testament also had to go down to Egypt. But the situation is a little different this time. Matthew uses irony. Instead of saying that the Exodus was going to happen from Egypt again (Israel coming out of Egypt again), instead Matthew says that the Exodus happens out of Judea. You see, there is a new Pharaoh who wants to kill the baby Jesus. In the old Exodus, the Pharaoh of Egypt had been warned by some of his underlings (according to Jewish writers), that a child would be born to the Israelites who would be a threat to his kingdom. That is why pharaoh has all the male children killed, or tries to have the male children killed. The tactic does not work. God thwarts Pharaoh’s plan, just like He thwarts Herod’s plan. Joseph has already escaped from his clutches, just like Israel escapes the clutches of Pharaoh in the Exodus from Egypt. Herod is a new Pharaoh, who is just as powerless against God as the old Pharaoh was. That is why Matthew quotes Hosea 11:1 here. Jews who know the Old Testament story would immediately know that Hosea was talking about Israel. How in the world, then, can Matthew all of a sudden, bring up Israel’s Exodus at this time? What relevance does it have to Matthew’s story? It has everything to do with Matthew’s story. The fact is that Jesus is the new Israel. We could say that the old Israel was called out of Egypt by God, but then turned disobedient. Now, the new Israel, Jesus Christ, will again be called out of Egypt, only this time, the Son will be obedient.

This brings us to an important point in our study of Scripture. The Old Testament is often a mystery to us. Especially those bothersome laws in Leviticus, and all the genealogies in Genesis and Chronicles. What does that have to do with my every-day life? Well, the Old Testament is all about Jesus Christ. It points to Jesus Christ in so many ways. The way that Matthew sees here is called the “type.” A type is a story, an idea, or a person, or an object that is a shadow of something more real to come later on. The word comes from the Greek “tupos.” In Romans 5, Adam is said to be a type of the one who is to come, namely, Jesu Christ. In Hebrews 11, Paul is talking about the sacrifice of Isaac. Abraham received him back from the dead, as it were. Isaac was as good as dead, when the angel stopped Abraham from killing his son. When Abraham received Isaac back from the dead, that was a type of Jesus’ resurrection. The New Testament sees many things in the Old Testament as “types” or “shadows” of the reality that is now here in Christ Jesus. The New Testament doesn’t always spell it out for us like it did in those two examples. We should look for them all over the Old Testament. We are not reading out Bibles properly, if we are not seeing Christ all over the place. In creation we should see Christ there along with the Father; in the Flood we should see Christ coming to judge the world; in Noah we should see Christ bringing rest to the world, peace with the Father; in the Exodus, we should see a greater Exodus that brings us out of our Egypt of sin; in the manna we should see Christ’s body; in the water that comes from the rock we should see the water that comes from Christ’s body on the cross; in the Rock that followed the people Israel we should see Christ Himself, and the list goes on and on. This is what I preach from the Old Testament. I preach Christ. I preach Christ in all the types which look forward to Christ. But all of us, when we read the Old Testament, we should look for Christ in the Old Testament as if it were a treasure hunt. Now, not everything will point directly to Christ. Sometimes, something will merely contribute to the story that eventually ends up at the story of Christ.

But the entire Old Testament has a direction arrow. That arrow points to Christ. It is like a road sign directing us how to get to our destination. The destination is Christ. That is what is happening here in Matthew. He sees the Old Testament as being fulfilled in Jesus Christ. That is why he says all the time, “This took place to fulfill what the prophet said…” Matthew sees in the Exodus a type of Jesus Christ coming back out of Egypt. Jesus relives Israel’s story. He does what Israel did, except this time, there was no sin. That is the first time Matthew changes the story that the Israelites already know. So the Old Testament is relevant to us because it points to Christ. And if we believe in Christ, then we are in Christ. Therefore, the Old Testament is telling us our story through Christ. That is how Leviticus and Chronicles is relevant to us. It is our story.

The second time is when Herod kills all the male children of Bethlehem, hoping to kill Jesus in the process. Herod does not know that the child has already fled the country. Herod was still waiting for the wise men to return. After a few days, expecting them to find the child immediately and then report back (a matter of a week at most, since Bethlehem was so close to Jerusalem), Herod finds out the wise men outfoxed him. Really, of course, God outfoxed him. Herod therefore reacts in the exact opposite way to the wise men. The wise men were overcome with great joy when they found Jesus. Herod reacts with great anger when he does not discover Jesus. So, he sends a decree saying that all the male children two and under in Bethlehem and the surrounding area will be killed. He gives himself some geographical and temporal assurance that Jesus will be one of those children killed. It says that Bethlehem and the surrounding area are Herod’s target. That is just in case Joseph does not live within the city limits of Bethlehem. Two years and under gives Herod plenty of leeway with regard to Jesus’ age as well. But Herod did not take into account God’s providence. God knew the enemy very well. In fact, God knew Herod’s every thought. So Herod’s precautions come to nothing. Herod does exactly what the Pharaoh had done before him. The Pharaoh tried to have all the male children born to Israel killed lest the people become too great and numerous. Probably Pharaoh killed only males, because it was the males who would wind up wielding swords. Pharaoh is then a type of Herod. But this is all coming from the seed of the serpent and the seed of the woman. Pharaoh and Herod are the seed of the serpent. The seed of the serpent has always tried to kill of the seed of the woman. But God has always prevented that from happening. There is still a price to be paid, however. All the male children of Bethlehem die. We might ask why God allowed this to happen? Why does God allow evil things to happen? Well, these are the first martyrs for the Christian faith. Matthew Henry says that these children lost nothing on earth that they have regained in full in heaven. God is very merciful. Now, the number of children here could not have been large. Bethlehem at this time had between 600 and 1000 people in it. So, the number of infant boys is not usually estimated to be more than 30. Certainly it cannot have been 144,000, a number that some people have picked out of context in the book of Revelation. Those people in Revelation are those who have not defiled themselves with women. As one author wrote, “That is a safe attribute indeed to ascribe to children who are only two years old.” So the number could not have been 144,000.

Then comes the second of Matthew’s fulfillment passages, this time coming from Jeremiah. Ramah was the place where Rachel was buried. This is a passage of remarkable power, since the Rachel that was dead, the matriarch of Israel who married Jacob is said to weep for her descendents who are in exile. Matthew sees Rachel’s tears as the type of the tears that the mothers in Bethlehem shed for their lost sons. In Jeremiah, the sons are no more because they are in exile. Here in Matthew, they are no more because they are dead. But when Matthew quoted this passage, Jewish readers who knew their Bibles would also know that this verse comes immediately before the promise of the new covenant and the promise that Israel will return from exile. Matthew then is saying here that Israel has now returned from exile. In Christ’s fulfillment of the Exodus in being the new Israel coming out of Egypt, Jesus will also bring his people back from exile. That is the second way that Matthew retells Israel’s story.

The third example comes when Joseph, Mary, and Jesus go back to Israel. The angel of the Lord appears again to Joseph in a dream, telling him the danger is over and that they can go back. The angel says that “those who sought the child’s life are dead.” This echoes the Exodus story yet again. Moses is in Midian with his father-in-law Jethro. Moses asks Jethro permission to go back to Egypt. Jethro gives it, and the Lord tells Moses that all those who sought to kill Moses (because Moses killed the Egyptian) are dead. Even in this angel’s statement in Matthew, we have fulfillment of the Old Testament type: Jesus is the new Moses, the new law-giver. We will see that especially clearly when Jesus gives a second Sermon on the Mount (Moses got the first one on Mount Sinai). But when Joseph gets to Israel, he finds out that Archelaus, Herod’s reckless and murderous son, is on the throne. So Joseph goes to Galilee instead of going back to Bethlehem. Joseph feared that Archelaus would continue the search for the child’s life. Joseph is warned yet again in a dream, and so goes to Galilee. Galilee is a place where Gentiles live. Matthew might be trying to tell us something about how the Jews rejected Christ, and so Christ went to the Gentiles. Joseph winds up in Nazareth. Nazareth is a nothing-town. We could translate it “Podunk-town.” Remember what Nathanael says about Nazareth: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” What is doing is answering the question, “ How can Jesus be the Messiah, if He comes form the town Nazareth?” It is not even mentioned in the Old Testament. That is why Matthew’s last quotation here has always been something of a puzzle. Nowhere in the Old Testament do we find the statement, “He shall be called a Nazarene.” Notice first of all that Matthew says that this is what the prophets plural say. This indicates that we are not look for one particular quotation, but rather that what the prophets say in general goes in this direction. Second, we need to know that Matthew is executing a very elaborate word-play. First, take the consonants n-z-r. In Hebrew (remember that Matthew’s readers were Jews who knew their Old Testaments), the word nazir means “holy.” We might point to a passage like in 1 Samuel talking about Samson that he would be a Nazirite. Now, Jesus was not Nazirite, because a Nazirite had to abstain from drink and from touching dead bodies, both of which Jesus did not do. However, the point of the Nazirite was that he was holy to the Lord. The next part of the pun is that the vowels that Matthew chose to put in this word “nazarene” are actually the vowels of the word “qadosh,” a Hebrew word meaning “holy.” The third part of the pun is that “nezer” means “branch” in Hebrew. So, in Isaiah 11:1, when a righteous “branch” is promised, that refers to Jesus. So that is what Matthew is doing: a very elaborate word-play.

In all these ways, then, Matthew tells us that Jesus fulfills Israel’s story. If in chapter one, Jesus is the culmination of Israel’s history, in chapter two Jesus repeats Israel’s history. In chapter one, Jesus is portrayed as God to his people, and in chapter two, Jesus is the representative people of God. In chapter one, Matthew writes the story of the new Genesis, and in chapter two, writes the story of the new Exodus. Matthew is saying, “Look! The New Israel!” Of course, Jesus is also reliving the story of Adam of Eve, and therefore of humanity as a whole. Adam is exiled from the garden, and Jesus goes into exile in order to bring His people back from exile. Notice that the three place names in chapter two invoke the major events of Israel’s history: Bethlehem is David’s city, and tells us of when Israel got a king after God’s own heart; Egypt invokes the Exodus, of course; and Ramah invokes the Exile. Jesus is the new Israel.

So how are we going to react to Jesus? Will it be with joy unspeakable, like the magi? Or will we react with anger, like Herod? These are the two extremes, of course. Most of us will react somewhere in the middle between these two. But Matthew calls us to the reaction of the wise men, that of extreme joy. You see, this is Israel’s story told the right way, not like Goldilocks and the Three Aardvarks, but like Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Jesus is the anti-type, to which Israel is the type. Israel points to Christ. Christ is the true story. Matthew is telling us here that the Israel story is the one that got garbled. Israel sinned, and so did we. Jesus’ story is also Adam’s story told the right way. We sinned in Adam. Israel sinned. But Christ did not sin. He is Israel’s story as it should have been. He is Adam’s story as it should have been. If we want to be part of that story, then we need to believe that Jesus is telling it properly through Matthew, and through the rest of the New Testament. That will bring us the joy of the wise men. We need to read our Bibles properly, seeing Christ as the whole point of the story.

Sometimes, though, we react poorly to Christ. “Do I have to hear the Gospel again? I want to hear something different. I want to go deeper.” The problem with this is that the truly deep things in the Bible are the same Gospel. The deep things are understanding the Gospel better, not going deeper than the Gospel. So we need to be careful in our reading of the Scripture that we do not lose sight of Jesus Christ. It is Jesus to whom all the Scripture point. In Him the Bible has its meaning.

Who is King?

Matthew 2:1-12

I am sure that many of us have played the game “king of the hill” before. One person gets at the top of the hill and everyone tries to get him off so that a new person sits on the top. It can get quite animated. Children can be very cruel at this game, if they let themselves. But none of them were as cruel at this game as Herod the Great.

Herod the Great was truly a great king. He had magnificent building projects, including the great temple at Jerusalem. He could be diplomatic when it suited him. Building such a temple was one of those times. He tried to please everyone, and generally succeeded. He pleased the Romans, because he could actually control the Jews without resorting to rebellion against the Roman Empire. Herod did all the Roman things correctly, even having Olympic-style games in Jerusalem, which did not please the Jews so well. However, Herod was a paranoid king, and it got worse as he got older. He even had his wife Mariamne executed, along with her two sons, because they were of the Hasmonean dynasty, which claimed the rightful rule of the throne. Herod could not bear the thought of a successor to his throne. That is why he does what he does. He is sitting on top of the pile, and he will kill anyone who even thinks of taking him off that throne. He has the throne, and will suffer no rival. This sounds a lot like Cain, which we heard about this morning. In fact, Herod is described as a murderous brother to Israel (Herod is an Edomite, and is therefore a descendent of Esau), and winds up killing a lot of children because God has favored them over him. We may think of Herod as the new Cain.

The time at which these wise men come is later than the shepherd story related in Luke. There they are at the stable. Here the wise men come into the house of Mary and Joseph (verse 11). Another reason for believing that this incident is later than the shepherds is that Herod kills all the children two years and younger. Of course, this would give Herod some margin of error in his calculations. However, if the wise men had come at the same time as the shepherds, then one year and under would have been sufficient for Herod’s purposes. Therefore, much as we like the picture, it simply is not true that the wise men visited Mary and Joseph in the stable. The stories do not happen at the same time at all.

These wise men are interesting folk. They probably came from Babylon, since Babylon had a Jewish community who would know about such things as the birth of the Messiah, and the star that would accompany it (Numbers 24:17-18), which also explains Herod’s anxiety. The wise men were astrologers. Now, we have to realize that astronomy and astrology were not separate studies in that time period. People thought that the stars proved that the universe had an order to it, and that any remarkable happening in the stars indicated a remarkable happening on earth. We now know that that is not how God operates. However, God used the belief of the time to direct the wise men to Jesus. God can hit straight with a crooked stick. Matthew makes a special point about this: astrologers from Babylon, probably for the Jews the most despised people on earth except for the Romans, have come to Jesus to worship Him. Moreover, they travel about a thousand miles to see him. This is in amazingly strong contrast with the Jews in Jerusalem, who will not travel the mere 6 miles to Bethlehem to see if the prophecy is true. Gentiles believe, and the Jews do not. Gentiles will come from far away for their salvation, but the Jews reject the salvation that is in their very midst. This will become a major theme in Matthew.

It is mere tradition that says that there were three wise men. That number comes from the number of gifts presented to Christ, but it is not proven that there were three of them. It is never said, either, that the wise men were kings. So the famous line “We Three Kings” is not based on Scripture. There could have been three wise kings, for all we know. But let us separate biblical fact from tradition that grows up around the text.

What is more important is that they have come to worship the Davidic king. A similar situation happened in the Old Testament. A foreign queen came to see what Solomon was all about, and to see if his wisdom was truly as great as everyone said it was. The account is in 1 Kings 10:1-13. Notice what the queen gives Solomon: gold and spices. Solomon’s name means peace. Matthew, then , is telling us that Jesus is the better Solomon, who brings us true peace with God. Interestingly, Matthew draws the connection explicitly in 12:42 with his reference to the queen of the south.

So, given Herod’s paranoia and the prophecy from Numbers, one could understand that Herod would be afraid. Verse 3 indicates fright, not just a sleepless night. When it says “all Jerusalem,” that indicates that the Jews knew how bloody Herod could be, and thus they were afraid at what Herod might do to them in his efforts to keep the throne. We can see just how alarmed Herod was by the fact that he immediately called an emergency session of the Sanhedrin, which was a collection of scribes and Pharisees who knew the law, and who ruled in the country. These were the country’s leaders, subservient, of course, to the king.

He asks the Sanhedrin where the Messiah was to be born. They told him that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Next, he asks the wise men the time of the star’s rising. Notice that he does not ask them how old the child would be by now. That would be too obvious. Herod is crafty, just like Satan in Genesis, and just like Cain. He wants to find out as much as he can from the wise men without arousing their suspicions. Then he asks them to do his dirty work for him. He asks them to find the child and bring back word, so that “he too may go and worship him.” We know that Herod was lying here, but the wise men did not know this. They had to be warned in a dream not to go back to Herod.

God led them again. The star reappeared. There is no way to account for this except by a supernatural occurrence of a star that revealed to the wise men where the Christ was to be born. Notice, however, that God’s revelation in nature was not enough to take them all the way. They needed the light of Scripture as revealed in Micah 5 in order to know where Christ was to be born. They traveled to Jerusalem at first, thinking (logically) that the Christ would be born in the capital city amidst great pomp and circumstance. That is not what they found, of course. But they rejoiced when they saw the star again. This joy was exceedingly great. The Greek is about as emphatic as it gets: They rejoiced with a great joy exceedingly. They were overcome with a sense of God’s leading them. They knew that God had led them. It was obvious to them. They found Jesus and worshipped. Notice that they did not fall down and worship Herod when they were with him. Instead, they bowed in front of this child, and gave him truly royal gifts.

They gave him three very important gifts. Some scholars do not think that there is any significance to these particular gifts, except that they were worthy of a king. I disagree. I believe that every detail in Matthew is important. Gold is obviously a kingly gift. Many kings would accept nothing else for a gift during this time period. It was indeed customary for kings to give other kings gold. Any visitor could gain the king’s audience by means of a hefty gift of gold. Frankincense was used for the temple’s special incense recipe that only the priests were allowed to make. Frankincense was involved with priestly functions. Myrrh is a precious fragrant liquid used in embalming corpses, but it was also used in the anointing of prophets. I believe that we have here gifts that are fit for Jesus’ three-fold office of prophet, priest and king.

After another dream in Matthew’s gospel (God seems to direct people quite a bit with the use of dreams), the wise men go back to their own country another way. Herod, for all his cunning, is not cunning enough to thwart God’s purpose.

Herod and Jesus were rivals to the throne of David. Matthew says that Herod was the usurper to the throne. Only Jesus can sit on David’s royal throne. But Herod’s reaction is exactly how all people react to the good news of Jesus. Our sinful nature would just as soon see Jesus killed. That is what many scholars would like to see today, when they argue that Jesus was merely a great moral teacher (though he would have lied when he claimed to be God, but that is seldom remembered), or when they argue that Scripture has lots of errors in it, or when they say that Christ’s active obedience is not given to us in justification. In a way, that is trying to kill Jesus by trying to put the church of Christ to death, for the church is Christ’s body.

We are just like Herod: we want to rule our own life, even though we are usurpers to that throne. Only Christ is the lawful king of our hearts. The call for us is to surrender the throne of our hearts and lives to the proper king, Jesus Christ. We need to have the bright morning star rise in our hearts. When it does, we will have joy unbounded, just like the wise men. Where is our joy? Oftentimes I wonder whether our Christianity has lost its first love. Maybe our Christianity has gotten too much “reality” into it, such that we have lost that joy that is supposed to be there. Maybe it has gotten so hum-drum every-day, that we live life in a sort of waking dream. We go through the motions. I am not an advocate of finding ecstatic spiritual experiences, and that if we are not experiencing those, then our Christianity is inferior. However, there is a joy that comes with Christianity. We really need to ask ourselves if we are optimists or pessimists? If we are pessimistic about this world, then how much room have we left for God? Where will we go to find our joy again? We will not find it in work, or in pleasure, or in money, or in doing it our way. That is just what leads to despair. Joy can be ours again, if we surrender to Jesus. Instead of trying to kill him, like Cain killed Abel, and like Herod tried to kill Jesus, let us rather offer our gold, frankincense, and myrrh. When we do that, we will find out that we cannot go back to our own country in the same way. We will be on a different track, just like the wise men. Let us offer our gold, which is our time, talents, resources, and our treasure to Christ. We have to realize that it rightfully belongs to Him anyway. We are merely stewards, keeping it in trust. Let us offer our frankincense. Romans says that we must offer our bodies as living sacrifices, which is our reasonable act of worship. Our bodies are the temples of the Holy Spirit. Do we treat our bodies that way? What about habits that hurt the body? Maybe our eating habits are not healthy, or maybe we don’t give them enough rest. Maybe we abuse our bodies, putting them through more than is needful, just to get that extra dollar. Let us offer our bodies as living sacrifices, for this is pleasing to God. Let us offer our myrrh, our words. We are to be prophets, of a sort. We are all prophet, priest, and king, now that our Great Brother has gone into the heavenly realms. We are to be prophetic, crying out against injustice and oppression. We are to help the poor and needy. We are to cry out against the taking of life, especially these days with regard to abortion and euthanasia. Our country is headed for more murder. We must cry out against it. We are to be prophetic in sharing the Gospel above all. This means so many things. It means being a friend to a person who is not friendly, knowing that that is how Christ treated us. It is sharing the good news of Christ to someone. This might seem hard to many of us. How does one do it? A good place to start is by telling that person how God has changed you. The reason this is such a good place to start is that no one can argue with it. We might be afraid, because the person to whom we are sharing the Gospel might be a skeptic who doubts God. But your own personal testimony is irrefutable. No one can say, “no, that’s not how it happened.” They don’t know, and that is why it is such a good starting place. Oftentimes, the unbeliever is really asking the question, “Why are you different from everyone else around? Why are you different from the world?” Your personal testimony is the best answer to that question. What a testimony the wise men must have had when they went home to Babylon! They could have told how God led them by a star. They could have said how God thwarted the powerful king Herod. They could have talked about the immense joy that they felt. These are things that are regular parts of the Christian testimony.

Are we king of the hill? Or is Christ Jesus? Who is the true king… of our lives? Herod thought he was the king of Israel, and we think that we are king of our lives, but we are all only usurpers. Only Christ is king. Only Christ is the rightful ruler. When we put our trust in Him, we will find out that we are richer by far than we were before. By giving Him all that we have, we will find out that we are no longer usurpers. Instead we are fellow heirs to the Kingdom of God. We will rule with Christ. This world is ours, because it is Christ’s. Let us rejoice, for the world belongs to Christ.


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.

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