Lincoln Park UBF

Lincoln Park UBF is a non-denominational Christian church ministry comprised of college students and young adults from the Lincoln Park neighborhood in Chicago. We are a local chapter of University Bible Fellowship (UBF), which is an international ministry at college campuses throughout the world. 

We welcome students and young adults from all faiths and backgrounds to come and learn with us what Christian spirituality is and what it means to follow Jesus.

FATHER, FORGIVE THEM

Luke 23:26–56

Key Verse: 23:34a

“Jesus said, ‘Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’”

          Have you ever felt ignored? Despised? Used? When someone said or did something that hurt you, how did you respond? Did you just keep quiet? Did you boil with anger? Did you lash out? Some people actually dream of getting revenge. Without God, we human beings all tend to treat each other badly. So in life, all of us will be hurt in one way or another. How we respond is crucial. Luke tells us that the death of Jesus on the cross was for us to receive forgiveness. It was the light of God in this dark world. When we’re forgiven, we’re also supposed to forgive. When we show such forgiveness, we spread God’s light. But how can we experience God’s forgiveness? And how can we pray for people who hurt us? May God open our hearts to hear Jesus’ prayer. When we do, may it change us.

Look at verse 26. At first Jesus was carrying his own cross. But after the flogging and loss of blood, he fell under its load. At that moment there was an innocent bystander, Simon from Cyrene, who was on his way in from the country for Passover. Cyrene was a prosperous port city in modern-day Libya, North Africa. It had a Jewish immigrant population. Simon may have been a God-fearing Gentile who’d learned from the Jewish immigrants and now was seeking God himself. Because he was from North Africa, many believe he was a black man. The Roman soldiers in their blind racial prejudice treated Simon like a slave. It says they “seized” him. Simon had no choice. He suddenly had to turn around and go back outside the city, carrying someone else’s cross. It was so unfair. But through this experience he and his family became Christians (cf. Mk15:21; Ro16:13). Simon identified with innocent, suffering Jesus. The Roman soldiers’ forcing him to carry the cross was an evil act of oppression. But God used it for good. It points to so many suffering, oppressed people in the Gentile world who’d also see the light in suffering Jesus (2:32). Simon shows us how to live as true Christians: deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow Jesus (9:23).

Look at verse 27. These were not the women who followed Jesus from Galilee caring for his needs; they were women of Jerusalem. They couldn’t bear to see any Jewish man publicly humiliated by Gentiles. They were mourning and wailing in the streets as an act of protest. Since Simon was carrying his cross, Jesus was no longer struggling with it. Read verse 28. Jesus didn’t accept these women’s weeping. It means his crucifixion is not just a sorrowful event; it’s the good news to all who believe. But why should these women instead weep for themselves and for their children? Read verse 29. When he said, “…for the time will come” he was predicting the future destruction of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. Jesus’ prediction came true. During the Roman siege, all food was cut off, and people resorted to eating their own children. At that time women wished they had never even borne children. Read verse 30. The suffering would be so intense that people would ask the mountains and hills to fall on them to annihilate them quickly. Jesus is quoting the prophecy of Hosea 10:8 and applying it to the future destruction of Jerusalem. It also describes the time when he will come again (Rev6:16). Read verse 31. Jesus is saying that if people could be so evil to him during good times, imagine how evil they’d be during a time of great suffering.

          Earlier, Luke tells us that Jesus had wept over Jerusalem, seeing its horrible future (19:41–44). Jesus knew God would do this to them because they were rejecting God’s Messiah. He also warned his disciples about it (21:20–24). He said that at that time they should flee the city instead of trying to defend it. What should we learn from Jesus’ words to these women? Rejecting Jesus seems to be no big deal. But that’s not true. There’s a future reality coming: those who reject Jesus one day will experience the full fury of God’s wrath.

Look at verse 32. In addition to Simon, there were two criminals in the procession also carrying crosses. It’s not likely that there were plans to have any executions that morning. But when they decided to execute Jesus, they suddenly brought these two men out also. Read verse 33. It wasn’t enough for them to crucify Jesus; they also put him in between two criminals, to make him look as guilty and shameful as possible. Even this fulfilled prophecy; Jesus himself had mentioned it a few hours earlier (22:37; Isa53:12). Jesus bore the guilt and shame of being crucified in between criminals not just to fulfill prophecy but to take away all our shame and guilt. People seem to be happy and free, but underneath, so many are suffering from deep shame and guilt. It all started when Adam and Eve sinned in the Garden and hid themselves. Only Jesus who was crucified in our places can take away our deeply rooted shame and guilt. When we believe in him, we may suffer many things in this life, but in the end, the Bible says we’ll never be put to shame, because Jesus took it away for us (Ro10:11).

          Crucifying Jesus in between criminals also reveals the evilness in humanity. It was widely known that Jesus was someone who had gone around doing good and healing all who were suffering under the power of the devil (Ac10:38). It was widely known Jesus was merciful and tender toward those who were sick and hurting. But in response, people did as much evil to Jesus as they could. People still can be unbelievably evil and ungrateful (cf. Isa52:14–53:1).

          While they were crucifying him, what did Jesus do? Read verse 34. We’ve heard it so many times that we’ve become numb to it. But his prayer is actually shocking. How could Jesus pray for such evil people like this? While copying the Scriptures, some scribes got so upset that they scratched these words out of the earliest manuscripts. But Jesus had taught us to pray like this. In 6:27,28 he said: “But I tell you who hear me: Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” He also said: “Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (6:37). Now, while they’re driving the nails into him, Jesus is practicing his own teaching to forgive those who mistreat us.

It’s so hard to forgive. Sometimes it takes us a long time to do it. But Jesus forgave immediately. How could he? He said, “...for they do not know what they are doing” (cf. Ac3:17). Of course these people knew they were crucifying him. But they didn’t know who he was, that he was the Son of God. They didn’t know what a great crime they were committing against God. Sin makes us blind like that. We can’t see that all our sins are actually sins against our Creator God (15:21; cf. Ps51:4a).  When we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re foolish and confused. When we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re hurting those who are so good to us. When we don’t know what we’re doing, we’re lost. Jesus saw sinful people not with critical, judgmental eyes, that we deserve hell, but with a broken heart, that we don’t know what we are doing. Jesus wasn’t forcing himself to pray; it came from his heart: he really wanted these people, and us, to be forgiven. He had the heart of the father for his prodigal son (15:20). Jesus wants us to learn to see people like he did, so that we can sincerely pray for them.

          What does it mean to forgive? In Greek it means to release or let go. It’s like letting a criminal go free, or cancelling a debt. Jeremiah 31:34b says, “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.” It’s like wiping a slate clean. Forgiveness is that radical. We wish God could just forgive, without Jesus having to go to the cross and suffering so much. But the Bible tells us that while God is so forgiving, he’s also just. For God to forgive, there had to be a just payment for sin. Jesus, the sinless Son of God, while being crucified, was taking the punishment for our sin, so God can freely forgive us by his grace (Ro3:23–26). Isaiah 53:5 says, “But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.” Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross is like a salve to our wounds. We’re wounded by others, but mostly we’re wounded by our own sins. Our sins against God make us spiritually sick and paralyzed. But Jesus’ forgiveness has the power to bring us true healing. His forgiveness opens our eyes to see God as our loving heavenly Father. His forgiveness takes the hatred and bitterness out of our hearts and fills us with love. His forgiveness gives us hope for ourselves, hope for others, hope for this world. Luke strongly emphasizes that the good news of Jesus is mainly that he came to bring all people God’s forgiveness (1:77; 3:3; 24:47; cf. Ac2:38; 10:43; 13:38; 26:18).

How can we experience Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross personally? Some people don’t realize how sinful they are; they’re self-righteous. To such people, Jesus’ forgiveness isn’t so meaningful. But when we realize that Jesus had to be crucified because of my sins, we can come to see how sinful we really are. Other people think they’re too sinful, that they’ve committed too many sins for God to ever forgive them. But when we realize that Jesus took all our punishment on the cross in our places, we can come to see that his forgiveness is even for me. We each need to hear Jesus on the cross praying for us, “Father, forgive them.”

          Some people may think forgiveness is too basic, even weak. But actually, forgiveness is as essential to spiritual life as food is to physical life. To be spiritually healthy, each day we need to remember how Jesus personally forgave all my sins through his death on the cross. To be spiritually healthy, each day we also need to be showing his forgiveness to others. Ephesians 4:32 says “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” If there’s anyone who has hurt us, no matter how unfair or painful, we should not suppress or ignore it; we should forgive.

In verses 35–56 Luke describes how the rulers, soldiers, criminals, nature and a centurion reacted to witnessing Jesus crucified. Their responses were varied. It tells us that not everybody responds well to his crucifixion. The rulers sneered at him. They made fun of his ministry of saving others. The soldiers offered him wine vinegar to spite him and said, “If you are the king of the Jews, save yourself.” Even one of the selfish criminals joined in and said, “Aren’t you the Christ? Save yourself and us!” Most rulers are really good at saving themselves at the expense of others. But Jesus, our true King, saved others at the expense of himself. If we want to help save others today, we’ve got to imitate Jesus who didn’t save himself.

          At this scene of Jesus’ crucifixion there was an unusual person. He was one of the criminals next to Jesus. It’s one of the most beautiful parts of today’s passage. Read verses 40,41. As he witnessed what was happening this condemned man heard Jesus’ prayer to forgive his enemies. Surprisingly, his spiritual eyes began to open. When he heard his fellow criminal insulting Jesus, he rebuked him and stood on Jesus’ side. Read verse 42. What he’s asking is amazing! How can this condemned man ask such a thing? Somehow, witnessing what was happening he had gained even a little bit of faith in Jesus. By faith he asked Jesus to remember him, meaning to somehow let him into his kingdom. Honestly, asking dying Jesus for this after living a life of many crimes and sins seems a bit too much. But this man dying on a cross for his own crimes is a great example of a sinner reaching out only to the mercy of Jesus by faith. How did Jesus respond to him? Read verse 43. This is even more amazing! How could Jesus say that such a man would be with him in paradise “today,” just as he was? It’s simple: it’s because of his amazing grace of forgiveness, and because this man had faith. Jesus always welcomes repentant sinners who have simple faith. This dialogue between this criminal and Jesus is a classic illustration of the gospel. There’s nothing good we ever could do to deserve to enter God’s kingdom—no ritual, no good work. All we need is faith in Jesus and his mercy.

          In verses 44,45 the sun stopped shining on account of the injustice of Jesus’ execution. The temple curtain also was torn in two. Hebrews 10:19,20 reads, “Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body…” Through Jesus’ death on the cross, we now can have confidence to come into the presence of the Most Holy God. Read verse 46. Jesus died victoriously, trusting in God. He died committing his life into God's hands. Many people responded so poorly, even though they saw and heard all these things. But look at verse 47. Even a hardened Roman centurion was moved, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” Regardless of who we may seem to be, we need a pure heart like this man had, to truly appreciate Jesus crucified. In verses 50–53 we see how Joseph of Arimathea responded to Jesus' execution. Joseph was a man of faith. He didn’t give in to peer pressure. He risked his position and even his security to ask Pilate for Jesus’ body. He served Jesus in his death, caring tenderly for his crucified body with his own hands, and honored him with a decent burial. What a beautiful faith! Other eyewitnesses there could also testify to the truth of Jesus’ death.

Let’s read verse 34a again. May God help us to deeply experience Jesus’ forgiveness on the cross and be healed. May God also help us learn to see people the way Jesus did and pray for them from our hearts.

THE TRIAL OF JESUS

Luke 22:63–23:25

Key Verse: 22:70

Trial of Jesus

“They all asked, ‘Are you then the Son of God?’ He replied, ‘You say that I am.’”

Today’s passage is about the trial of Jesus. Most of us have never been on trial for anything. We’ve probably not been taken into police custody, questioned and had to stand before a judge—especially not for our faith. In the Bill of Rights, the American Constitution protects each individual’s free expression of his or her beliefs. But whenever we let people know we’re believers in Jesus, in a sense we’re all still put on trial. People start scrutinizing our every move and our every word. When the story of Jesus’ trial was first being circulated, Christians everywhere were being persecuted for their faith. Some would be put on trial and even executed simply because they said they believed in Jesus. For many, how Jesus acted during his trial became an inspiration and a role model. Just before his arrest Jesus prepared himself to resist the devil’s temptations through an anguished struggle in prayer (22:39–46). Now, as he encounters humiliation, physical abuse and intense accusations Jesus stands with strength, dignity and silence. In this study we want to think about what his silence and, especially, what his testimony mean to us. May God open our hearts and speak to us through his living word today.

Read verse 63. When he was arrested, all his disciples, including Peter, deserted him. Now Jesus looked like any other ordinary man: alone and poor—no followers, no trappings of authority, no power. In this vulnerable condition the guards were free to do anything to him. Sinful people love to abuse whatever power they may be given over others. So these soldiers began mocking and beating Jesus. Luke repeats the word “mock” twice (22:63; 23:11). Jesus was mocked. Jesus was so pure, so innocent, so good, so kind and compassionate, so giving. But these loud-mouthed and drunk, thoughtless and violent guards began mocking and beating him. To such brutish people, nothing is sacred.

Read verses 64,65. The guards especially mocked his reputation for being a prophet. Jesus was a prophet: everything he predicted came true. But he endured this mocking with total silence. When these things happened, it must have seemed like too much injustice. In fact, Jesus had predicted it would happen (18:31–33). His mocking fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah 50:6: “I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; I did not hide my face from mocking and spitting.” Jesus quietly surrendered to the mocking. Why? It was for us. It was to take away our shame caused by our sins. On the other hand, it was also to show us how to live in a godless world. 1 Peter 4:3,4 says, “For you have spent enough time in the past doing what pagans choose to do—living in debauchery, lust, drunkenness, orgies, carousing and detestable idolatry. They are surprised that you do not join them in their reckless, wild living, and they heap abuse on you.” When we choose to follow Jesus, we too will be mocked. Whenever we’re mocked for our faith, we need to remember what our Lord Jesus went through and be silent.

Read verse 66. Ever since he had cleared the temple and predicted God would strip them of their spiritual privileges, the religious leaders had been trying to kill Jesus. But because Jesus was so popular, they couldn’t (19:47; 20:19; 22:2). Now, however, with the help of Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him, they could arrest Jesus in the middle of the light while he was praying. Then the religious leaders spread the word, waking up all the other council members in the wee hours of the morning, to come to an instant trial at daybreak, so that they could move quickly and have Jesus executed on Friday before the Sabbath.

What were the charges? Read verse 67a. Who was the Messiah? God had promised King David that one day, one of his descendants would come to truly save his people and establish an eternal kingdom (2Sa7:13,14). This promise of a Savior King gave the people hope in the midst of their suffering and oppression. But the people were thinking of this promised Savior King as a political leader. They wanted a strong and humanly glorious messiah who could kick out the Romans and re-establish the independence and power of Israel. There were a number of men who took advantage of this, claiming to be the Messiah and trying to lead a political revolution. But not Jesus. Throughout his ministry Jesus never went around claiming to be the Messiah. Once he asked his disciples who he was, and when Peter said he was God’s Messiah, Jesus strictly warned them not to tell this to anyone (9:20,21). Instead of talking about it, Jesus did the things the prophets predicted God’s Messiah would do. Once, when John the Baptist was in prison, he sent messengers to ask Jesus if he were the Messiah. Jesus replied, “Go back and report to John what you have seen and heard: The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor” (7:22). Jesus let the facts of his ministry speak for themselves about who he was. Instead of claiming to be the Messiah, he often would refer to himself with a humble expression, “the Son of Man” (5:24; 6:5,22; 7:34; 9:22,26,44,58; 11:30; 12:8,10,40; 17:22,24,30; 18:8,31; 19:10; 21:27,36; 22:22,48). This title “Son of Man” meant a suffering servant. Jesus wasn’t afraid of saying he was the Messiah; he just didn’t want people’s wrong notions of the Messiah to hinder him from what he came to do. Now, when put on the spot, how did he answer? Read verses 67,68. Why did he answer like this, instead of just simply saying “yes” or “no”? It was because he wouldn’t reveal himself to those not really interested. Instead, he rebuked them for their cowardice. They would never take a stand on who he was, because it was too controversial (20:5–7).

Read verse 69. This shows Jesus' faith. He’d been arrested, mocked and beaten. He was these people’s prisoner, standing there like a criminal. Soon he’d be executed in between two criminals. It was total humiliation. But he didn’t think these things would be the end. He had his sights set on the final end. He believed that after obeying his will, God would raise him from the dead and exalt him to the highest place (Php2:9). At the right hand of the mighty God, Jesus is the one who gives the Holy Spirit; at the right hand of the mighty God, Jesus is Prince and Savior; at the right hand of the mighty God, Jesus is the Judge of the living and the dead (Ac2:33; 5:31; 10:42; 17:31). He’s on trial now, but he’s looking ahead to his ultimate end: glory and victory in the kingdom of God. Again, Jesus’ faith is the perfect model for us. Apostle Paul learned this faith and wrote: “Here is a trustworthy saying: If we died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him” (2Ti2:11,12a). Whatever we may be suffering now, Jesus wants us to be sure of his promise that as we’ll share his glory and victory in God’s kingdom (Ro8:17,18; Rev3:21).

Read verse 70. They all understood Jesus’ hope to be sitting at God’s right hand as an admittance that he was God’s Son. To them, this was blasphemy. They thought that anyone who claimed to be God’s Son was making themselves equal with God, and thus, they should die (Jn5:18; 19:7). Jesus knew very well that this was what they were after. But how did he reply? Read verse 70 again. Again, Jesus wasn’t claiming anything; he let them say it. But by not saying "no," he was, in a sense, signing his own death sentence. Read verse 71. When he answered like this, they were sure they had what they wanted to execute him.

Earlier, when Peter was trying to follow Jesus at a distance and was asked if he were a follower of Jesus, he denied it three times (22:54–62). But when Jesus was asked if he were the Son of God, he did not deny it, even though it cost him his life. It’s still costly to admit that we believe in Jesus. It can ruin friendships; we can lose family members and our reputation; in rare cases it might even cost us our lives. But Jesus wants us not to be ashamed of him or of his words (9:26). How easy it is to give in to peer pressure! How easy to hide our Christian identity, relax, and not have to struggle to explain our faith. How easy to identify ourselves based not on our faith but on a career path or job. May God help us tell people first of all that we’re a Christian. 1 Peter 3:15 says, “But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…”

It’s the core of our Christian faith: Jesus was not just a man; he is the Son of God. The angel announced to his mother Mary that Jesus would be born as the Son of God (1:35). When he was twelve years old at the temple, he told the teachers that he had to be in his Father’s house (2:49). At his baptism, God’s voice said, “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased” (3:22). Faith that Jesus is the Son of God was the core of the early Christian message. Apostle Paul after his conversion mainly proclaimed that Jesus is the Son of God (Ac9:20). Hebrews 1:3 says, “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.” When we confess our faith, we are rescued from the dominion of darkness and brought into the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col1:13). Today people have many opinions about Jesus. Some say he was a great teacher, a man of compassion, a humanitarian, a revolutionary, or one of the great prophets. Partly all these things are true. Jesus was a servant, a shepherd and a friend of sinners. But on trial he didn’t deny he was the Son of God. Why is his identity important? When we realize he is God’s Son, we can see that it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him (Ac2:24). More than that, when we confess our faith that Jesus is the Son of God, he becomes our Lord (Ro1:4).

          In 23:1–25 Luke records Jesus’ trial before Pilate and Herod. Under Roman rule the Jews lost the right to execute people, so they had to get Pilate to execute Jesus (Jn18:31,32). When they brought Jesus to him and accused him of many things, Pilate immediately could tell there was no basis for a charge against him (23:4). When the chief priests insisted, Pilate found out that Jesus was from Galilee. So he sent Jesus to Herod, who also was in Jerusalem for the Passover. Jesus’ trial before Herod is unique to Luke’s Gospel. We see in verses 8–12 what a corrupt man Herod was. He was the one who had had John the Baptist beheaded because of his drunken birthday party and lusting after his stepdaughter (9:7–9; cf. Mt14:1–12; Mk6:17–29). Due to his guilty conscience, for a long time Herod wanted to see Jesus (23:8). Now Pilate sent Jesus to him in chains. Herod finally had his opportunity. He hoped to see Jesus perform a sign of some sort. He treated Jesus like a clown in a circus. When he plied him with many questions, Jesus gave him no answer (23:9). At that time Jesus was being vehemently accused by the chief priests and teachers of the law (23:10). But he was silent before his accusers. Finally, Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked Jesus’ kingship, dressing him in an elegant robe. Herod was so flattered that Pilate sent Jesus to him that he decided to be Pilate’s friend.

          In the rest of the passage Luke shows the injustice of Jesus’ trial. He repeats three times that there was no basis for a charge against Jesus (23:4,14,22). But the crowd wanted Barabbas, the well-known criminal, rather than Jesus, the holy One. People are still just like that. They would much prefer a corrupt rebel to a godly person. Pilate knew Jesus was innocent, but he gave in to the crowd. It’s still easy to give in to people instead of holding firm to the truth.

          Today we thought about Jesus’ faith and hope while on trial. May God help us believe that Jesus is at the right hand of the mighty God, and believe our final victory and glory in him. We also thought about Jesus’ true identity as the Son of God. May God help us meditate on who Jesus is until we can confess in faith that he’s the Son of God. Finally, we saw how Jesus endured mocking, ridicule and great injustice, silently, like a lamb led to the slaughter. May God help us experience his love and grow in his image.

MAN SHALL NOT LIVE ON BREAD ALONE

Matthew 4:1–11

Key Verse: 4:4

man shall not live on bread alone.jpg

 

          We’ve been looking at the preparations for Jesus’ ministry. Last week we saw how John the Baptist prepared the way through his challenging people to repent, and through his baptizing Jesus. Today Jesus prepares the way through his being tempted in the wilderness. What are temptations? Generally, they’re inducements to do something wrong, and thereby, to turn away from God. In this passage Jesus is tempted three times, and each temptation seems to be different in nature from the others. We should be asking: What do each of these three temptations mean? Why did Jesus have to be tempted in these ways before beginning his ministry? And how was he able to resist these temptations? May God open our hearts and speak to us through his living word today.

Look at verse 1. The first thing we notice here is that it’s “the Spirit” leading Jesus to be tempted. When he was baptized by John, the Spirit of God alighted on Jesus like a dove. God sent the Spirit to empower him for his ministry and to guide and lead him. But it’s surprising that the Spirit led him into temptation. Our Lord taught us to pray, “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one” (6:13). But the Spirit led Jesus into temptation. Why? Jesus was on a mission to rescue us from the dominion of darkness and bring us to the kingdom of the Son he loves (Col1:13). God’s will for Jesus was to face the temptations of the devil first and defeat them, so that he might be our Savior (cf. 1:21b).

The next thing we notice in verse 1 is the place: “the wilderness.” Ancient people thought of such a place as the haunt of demons. Jesus’ going to the wilderness fulfills what is described in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 8:2 reads: “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the wilderness these forty years, to humble and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands.” Just as God did this to Israel his child, so he did it to Jesus, his Son. Israel failed God’s test, but Jesus came to pass it, to truly keep God’s commands. Next, we notice the word “tempted.” In Greek, it can also be translated as “tested.” To be clear, God tests; the devil tempts. James 1:13 says, “When tempted, no one should say, ‘God is tempting me.’ For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone.” God doesn’t tempt us; but he does allow us to experience temptations as a spiritual test. The devil is an expert at tempting us, especially through all kinds of rationalizations and excuses. His temptations are so powerful they can make us feel helpless, like giving up. We even can become afraid of his temptations. But 1 Corinthians 10:13 says, “No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful; he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.” Finally, we notice at the end of verse 1 the word “the devil.” “Devil” is a Greek word and “Satan” is a Hebrew word; they both mean the same thing: “the Accuser.” The devil’s essential nature is to accuse. He accuses God; he also accuses God's people. He constantly accuses us of our sins so that we might live in guilt and torment and try to destroy ourselves. As followers of Jesus we should not be known for accusing people, but for leading people to the saving grace of Jesus. Jesus referred to the devil as “a liar and a murderer from the beginning” (Jn8:44). And Jesus said the devil's purpose is to “steal and kill and destroy” (Jn10:10a). So he called the devil our “enemy” (13:25,28,39). We should not be naïve or unaware, like Pinocchio; our enemy the devil is out to destroy us. He’s way smarter than we are, and he knows exactly how to entice us, knock us down, drag us away from God and ruin our lives.

Look at verse 2. Here we see that Jesus took these temptations very seriously; he prepared to meet them by fasting forty days and forty nights. Fasting is not just for losing weight to feed our vanity; fasting is a means to focus on prayer so as to get closer to God. Jesus also said it’s a means for driving demons out of people (Mk9:29; see footnote). Fasting teaches us to totally depend on God, not on our human strength. The forty days and forty nights remind us of how Moses and Elijah both fasted that long. Jesus came to do what Moses and Elijah couldn’t do. After the long forty days and forty nights of fasting, verse 2b says simply, “…he was hungry.” It was a moment of great weakness and vulnerability for Jesus. Sometimes, when people are hungry, they’ll do anything, even throw away all their ethics and morals for a meal.

What was the devil’s first temptation? Read verse 3. The first thing the devil talked about was whether or not Jesus was the Son of God. He asks about it again, in his second temptation in verse 6. At Jesus' baptism, a voice came from heaven, saying, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (3:17). The devil tried to tempt Jesus by attacking this. He tried to get Jesus to doubt the Father’s love, and doubt his identity as God’s Son. In a sense, he’s saying, “If God really loves you as his own Son, why are you suffering so much hunger here out in the wilderness?” The devil still tempts us in this same way. He tries to get us to think that the hardships and suffering in our lives are evidence that God doesn’t really love us, or even, that God isn't really there, he’s not real. The devil also tries to get us to lose our identity as God’s children.

In this case, the devil is especially tempting Jesus to use his power as the Son of God for his own gratification. It seemed harmless enough; turning stones into bread didn’t seem to be hurting anyone, not even himself. It might even seem to be a good thing. Underneath, it was a temptation to do anything in order to survive. Just as the temptation to give in to our physical desires can be overpowering, so the temptation get money also can be overpowering. It may not be a temptation to grab millions of dollars illegally; it may be as subtle as to say, “My job needs to be my first priority; otherwise, how will I live?” Most people succumb to this temptation and live under the cursed struggle to survive.

What did Jesus say to this temptation? Read verse 4. Here Jesus is quoting from Deuteronomy 8:3. God was training the Israelites in the wilderness through humiliating poverty and hunger to learn an important life lesson: “Man shall not live on bread alone.” The devil deceives people into thinking that if only they have enough bread, they’ll be happy. Our media is full of deception that if only we have lots of money, a nice house, a fancy car, a well-toned body and an endless supply of food and drink, we’ll be satisfied. But it’s never enough. People who gain these things always want more. Actually, worldwide the most affluent people are actually the unhappiest. Wealthy people have the highest suicide, depression and divorce rates. Why can’t lots of bread and lots of money make us happy? It’s because God made each of us with a soul. Our souls can never be satisfied with physical, material things. Our souls can be satisfied only in God.

In verse 4, the expression “live on” has deep meaning. So many people are physically alive, but spiritually they’re dead. They’ve lived throughout their lives as if they have no soul. Many have virtually killed their souls through sinful living, trying to numb their consciences. Outwardly they may look good and laugh a lot, but inwardly their souls feel restless and meaningless. Read verse 4 again. Here Jesus tells us how our souls can come alive: “…on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” What does it mean to “live on” every word of God? And where can we find such words? We find these most precious words in the Bible. The psalmist wrote: “The law of the LORD is perfect, refreshing the soul. The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy, making wise the simple. The precepts of the LORD are right, giving joy to the heart. The commands of the LORD are radiant, giving light to the eyes…They are more precious than gold, than much pure gold; they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the honeycomb” (Ps19:7,8,10). Job 23:12 says, “I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread.” The verses in the Bible are not mere empty words. Jesus once said, “The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you—they are full of the Spirit and life” (Jn6:63). Just as we eat food every day, we need to learn to feed on God’s word every day. Colossians 3:16a says, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly…” How can we do that? It can’t be through just listening to a sermon on Sunday; we have to learn to feed ourselves through morning devotions and personal Bible reading. The word of God can grow in us through answering Bible study questions, writing Bible reflections and teaching the Bible to others. To be filled with the Spirit and life, we can’t be superficial; we need to be thinking about God's word deeply. The psalmist wrote: “Blessed is the one who does not walk in step with the wicked or stand in the way that sinners take or sit in the company of mockers, but whose delight is in the law of the LORD, and who meditates on his law day and night. That person is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields its fruit in season and whose leaf does not wither—whatever they do prospers” (Ps1:1–3). Jesus emphasized the expression “every word.” We can’t pick and choose which parts of the Bible we want to know; we have to read it all, and listen to it all carefully, as if we’re reading the very words of God. When we feed on his word, we grow in love for God and gain spiritual strength to resist the devil’s temptations.

The temptation of bread was just the beginning. What was the devil’s second temptation? Read verses 5,6. It seems weirdly suicidal. What was the point of this temptation? It was to get Jesus to take a quick and easy way for his ministry. If he jumped off the Jerusalem temple in front of a crowd and God rescued him, such a great miracle would immediately prove to everybody that he really was the Son of God. Then there would be no need for struggle or suffering or patience. Just like the temptation of bread, it’s a very powerful temptation. The devil still tempts us to take the quick and easy way. This time, the devil was even quoting Scripture, tempting Jesus to use God’s word for his own purpose. The devil still tempts us to use God’s word to justify what we want. How did Jesus answer? Read verse 7. He’s again quoting Deuteronomy, from 6:16. Jesus' answer helps us understand better the nature of this temptation. It was a temptation to test God. What does it mean to “test” God? It’s not just asking God to prove that he exists; it’s demanding God to prove that he loves us and will protect and care for us. In fact, some people enjoy living on the edge; they call it life in the fast lane, or living dangerously. They get an adrenaline rush from taking risks. It may seem fun or cool, but according to Jesus, it’s testing God. We should never test God; we should humbly trust God and obey him.

The devil had one more temptation. Read verses 8,9. It was yet another powerful temptation: the temptation of glory. Jesus enjoyed glory with the Father before the world began (Jn17:5). In fact, we human beings all have in our souls a longing for eternal glory, to share the glory of God, because we were made for glory (Ro2:7; 8:17,18,21; 9:23; 1Co2:7; 4:17; 2Th2:14; 1Pe5:10). In this case, the devil is telling Jesus he could have all the glory he deserved, if only he would bow down just once and worship him. It was a temptation to get out of being despised and rejected, a temptation to get out of all the suffering and humiliation, to compromise with the devil just once in order to gain personal glory. Just as in the German legend of Faust, many ambitious people give up their moral integrity in order to gain power and success in this world. They’re so hungry for power and glory they’ll do anything to grab it. These people have the philosophy, “The ends justify the means.” But whatever the purpose, it’s never good to compromise with the devil, not even a little bit, not even just once.

How did Jesus respond? Read verse 10. Jesus was not intrigued in the least; he said, “Away from me, Satan!” "Get lost!" And he quoted from Deuteronomy yet again, from 6:13. To Jesus, a love relationship with God the Father was more valuable than all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. We should never listen to the devil’s subtle rationalizations to compromise our worship of God. Do we value personal glory and success in the world, or do we value God? Where, honestly speaking, is our heart? We may be offered this temptation only once in our lifetime, and at that moment we have to make a choice. Will we choose following the world, or will we choose following Jesus?

Verse 11 shows us that when Jesus repeatedly resisted the devil and his temptations, giving him the clear word of God, the devil gave up and left him. If we’re ready to play around and compromise, the devil won’t leave us alone. We need to be crystal clear about temptation.

We also notice that in all three temptations Jesus quoted Scripture. He didn’t depend on his own willpower or strength; he humbly depended on the power of God’s word to resist the devil. Apostle Paul who fought against many temptations in his own life called God's word “the sword of the Spirit” (Eph6:17). We may be very weak spiritually and even humanly. But if we hold firmly to the word of God we received, we have the most powerful spiritual weapon, and we can gain the victory over the devil and all his temptations.

But why did Jesus have to defeat temptations beforehand? It was so that his ministry would be powerful and effective. But it was especially for us. The Bible says he was tempted in every way, just as we are, so he can empathize with our weaknesses (Heb4:15). And he suffered when he was tempted, so he can help those who are being tempted (Heb2:18). We may have given in so much that we feel like total failures. But whatever we’ve done, we can still come to Jesus, who defeated all the devil’s temptations in our places. Hebrews 4:16 says, “Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.” We may be losers, but if we depend on Jesus, we become more than conquerors (Ro8:37).

Praise Jesus who defeated all the devil’s temptations in order to save us. May God help us learn how to humbly depend on Jesus, and learn, like him, how to live on his every word so that we can resist the devil’s temptations in our lives.

REPENT, FOR THE KINGDOM OF HEAVEN HAS COME NEAR

Matthew 3:1–17

Key Verse: 3:2

 

“…and saying, ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’”

 

          Preparations are a necessary part of life. Couples prepare for their wedding day. Parents prepare for when their new baby comes home. Students prepare for an upcoming test. Musicians prepare for a concert. Chefs prepare to cook a meal. The preparations are always crucial to success. Matthew 3:1–4:16 is a case in point. Before Jesus begins his ministry, preparations need to be made. John the Baptist prepares the way (3:1–12). Jesus himself also prepares by being baptized by John (3:13–17), resisting the devil’s temptations (4:1–11) and going to the place where God wanted him to be (4:12–16). Just as spiritual preparations were necessary for Jesus, so they are for all of us who want to follow and serve him. But what are “spiritual preparations”? What does it mean to be “prepared spiritually”? In this study we mainly want to think about John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” It’s the key to spiritual preparation. May God speak to us through his living word today.

 

          Look at verse 1. Here Matthew introduces us to John the Baptist. In fact, throughout this Gospel Matthew draws parallels between John the Baptist and Jesus. Just as John the Baptist “came” (1a), so in verse 13 Matthew writes, “Then Jesus came…” The repeated verb “came” strongly suggests that God sent them both (cf. Jn1:6,14). Both John the Baptist and Jesus came with the same authority of heaven (21:23–32). Both men were recognized by the people as prophets (11:9; 14:5; 21:11,26,46). Both men proclaimed the same message (3:2; 4:17). Both challenged the people to repent. Both were opposed by the religious leaders. In the end, both of them were executed (14:1–12; 26–27). Matthew especially tells us that John the Baptist began the days of the kingdom of heaven (11:11–15), ushering in a new era of God’s salvation history.

 

And though he parallels both men, Matthew characterizes John the Baptist as quite different from Jesus. John’s point was not himself, but to get people ready for Jesus, to turn people’s attention to Jesus (11). In fact, Matthew depicts John the Baptist as “under” Jesus, totally subordinate to Jesus (11,14).

 

John the Baptist is called the forerunner of Jesus. What did it mean to be his forerunner? Read verse 3. As we’ve seen, Matthew repeatedly shows us how Old Testament prophecies were being fulfilled. It was true not only of Jesus but also of John. But Isaiah 40:3 also sheds light on what it meant to be a forerunner of Jesus. It says, “Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.” How did John do this? First of all, verses 1 and 3 both mention the wilderness. John began by preaching in the wilderness of Judea. That’s kind of a weird place to start. One would think he would go to where people were. But John went where there were no people, the wilderness. Obviously, he expected people to come out to him. Why did he start preaching in the wilderness? Partly, it was to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah. But by staying in the wilderness John was making a statement. He was taking a stance against a comfortable, self-absorbed lifestyle. The wilderness was a place to get serious about seeking God. It was a place where there were no distractions, where a person could focus on listening to the voice of God. John chose the wilderness, to call people to come out from being absorbed by the world. It might seem that nobody would bother to go see a seemingly crazy man out in the wilderness. But verse 5 tells us that people went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. God was using John in the wilderness to call people back to himself. In a sense, ministry always begins in a spiritual “wilderness”—a place where there’s no awareness of God, no spiritual life. To begin in such a place always takes faith.

 

          What exactly was John telling people? Read verse 2. Why didn’t he just say, “The Messiah is coming”? Why is he using the expression, “The kingdom of heaven has come near”? For a long time, to most people God seemed far away. God didn’t seem very real. Many probably thought that if God did exist, he had totally checked out and abandoned this world. He had even allowed a crazy man like Herod to rule and terrorize his people. Honestly, the world didn’t look like the kingdom of heaven, but kind of like a living hell. But now, John is saying, God has intervened in human history. God has started bringing his kingdom, his rule, into the realm of where human beings live. God has been doing it quietly, right in their midst, though they were unaware of it. God was bringing his kingdom near through the coming of Jesus. People need the eyes of faith to see it.

 

In this one person, Jesus, God’s kingdom has come near. But how so? Jesus came to give people real access to God. Jesus offers us all God’s grace of forgiveness of sins. This grace of God brings us spiritual healing. Through Jesus, no matter now sinful we are, we can draw near to God and experience his amazing grace. Fundamentally, living in the kingdom of heaven means living in his grace. His grace becomes our hope. His grace enables us to see the world, ourselves, and others with hope. His grace enables us to live differently, not as negative, cruel, vicious people, using and hurting each other, but as transformed people, gracious members of his kingdom, people full of God’s love, peace and forgiveness. Ultimately, his grace is an invitation to come back home to be with him forever. Jesus not only would die for our sins but also would be raised from the dead to give us a living hope in heaven (1Pe1:3,4). One day he’ll come back to this world and bring his kingdom fully (25:34). In light of this hope, we should live wisely, waiting for his kingdom (25:1–13).

 

John the Baptist’s brief message “the kingdom of heaven has come near” describes so well why Jesus came. This kingdom coming is exciting. John said it “has come near.” Hearing about it is actually the chance of a lifetime. It’s like a train pulling into the station opening its doors: We shouldn’t just stand there, but walk through the doors and get on before the doors close and the train leaves. Paul describes it like this: “As God’s co-workers we urge you not to receive God’s grace in vain. For he says, ‘In the time of my favor I heard you, and in the day of salvation I helped you.’ I tell you, now is the time of God’s favor, now is the day of salvation” (2Co6:1,2). Though it’s simple, it’s a very urgent message.

 

How should we respond? John gave one clear, simple word: “Repent.” Don’t just think about it; repent! What does it mean? For some, repentance conjures up images of self-torture or of getting really emotional. But it’s not about just getting emotional or torturing ourselves. In this context, to repent means to stop being engrossed in the things of this world, to stop ignoring God. The word “repent” literally means to “change your mind.” It especially means to come to God personally, asking him to forgive us, asking him to be in a real relationship with him. And it means to get rid of whatever in our lives may be hindering us from having that relationship. Later in verse 6 it mentions that people were “confessing their sins.” They were admitting the wrongs they’d done and asking God’s forgiveness. To repent means to have a godly sorrow over our sins (2Co7:10). In a sense, it means to apologize to God. It means stop rationalizing, making excuses, blaming our situation or others, stop living in denial, humble ourselves, own our sin and take responsibility for it. To repent isn’t a mind game or intellectual exercise; it means taking drastic action. James 4:8 says, “Come near to God, and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded.” When we repent, we start seeing sin the way God does. Instead of loving it, we start to hate it. It’s not a once-in-a-lifetime thing; it's a lifestyle. To repent means to keep struggling against our sins and coming to God for forgiveness, no matter how often we may fail (18:21ff.).

 

John’s message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near” means this good news is available and accessible to anyone. It’s a message of great hope, even for the most sinful people. John prepared people for Jesus by giving them this message. As John prepared the way for Jesus, we’re called to do the same (Mk6:12).

 

Read verse 4. It tells us he was just like the prophet Elijah (2Ki1:8). He used whatever was available to him out in the wilderness. But he wore such humble clothes and ate such humble food not to make himself more righteous than others, but to focus on God’s mission for him, to prepare the way for Jesus. In our self-absorbed culture John the Baptist is such a breath of fresh air.

 

How did people respond to him? Read verses 5,6. John was out in the wilderness. He was living poorly. His message was simple and very challenging. But people loved it. They responded in droves. It’s because John’s lifestyle gave his message spiritual power. If we want to influence people, it can’t be just through our words; it's got to be through how we live in our daily lives. How we live has to match what we teach.

 

          John had a very different message for the religious leaders. Read verses 7–10. With great courage John severely rebuked them. He was mainly rebuking them for their pride. They thought they were already good with God because of their heritage. They were badly mistaken. Because of their unrepentant hearts they were actually under God’s wrath and judgment. These religious leaders knew the Scriptures and were faithful to rituals, but it was all a bunch of hypocrisy; it was actually all for their own glory and honor (23:1ff.). We learn here that real repentance produces fruit. What is this fruit? First of all, in light of John’s rebuke it’s got to be the fruit of humility. It’s also the fruit of real love for God, expressed in real love for our fellow human beings (Isa58:6,7). Read verses 11,12. Here John turns the attention away from himself to Jesus. He is serving Jesus not as if he’s doing everyone a great favor, but with a deep awareness of his own unworthiness. And he really wants people to experience the permanent change Jesus brings. Water washes away dirt temporarily. But the Holy Spirit brings about real inner change. Jesus baptizes us with the Holy Spirit, to burn away our sinful desires and make our love for God real. Jesus is the judge who one day will sort the repentant from the unrepentant.

 

          In the last part of chapter 3 we see Jesus coming to John to be baptized. It shows his humility to co-work with John the Baptist. He didn’t need John’s baptism, because he was without sin. But he did so to acknowledge God’s work through John’s ministry. Jesus didn’t start his ministry as a one-man show, but with humble co-working. It also shows his obedience to God. Going to John to be baptized meant accepting God’s mission for him. When Jesus submitted himself to God like this, God was so pleased. Read verse 17. This became the key verse of Jesus. Jesus would face such harsh criticism and rejection. He needed this personal word from God assuring him of the Father’s love for him. Being sure of God’s personal love may be the best spiritual preparation for ministry.

 

          Today we mainly thought about Johns message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” May God bless each of us to really accept this message and produce the spiritual fruit in our lives that God is looking for

LET US FIX OUR EYES ON JESUS

Hebrews 12:1-29

Key Verses: 1b-2

Fix our Eyes on Jesus

                       

“And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”

So 2015 has ended and 2016 is upon us.  Are we ready for 2016? (I’m going to say 2016 a few times because it still doesn’t sound real).  Time flies when we’re having fun, right?

Speaking of fun, in today’s fast-paced and connected world, many things pull our hearts to satisfy our desires.  We are bombarded by so many choices, such as instant access on our smartphones to find a restaurant that fits our mood or be able buy instantly from the couch what we want through Amazon’s 1-Click.  There’s instant entertainment through YouTube videos and Netflix.  The world has so many things to offer! 

The Christians in the first century faced many challenges from the world as well.  The author of Hebrew told them to fix their eyes on Jesus because Jesus is the solution to their challenges.  Likewise, we want to think about why we should fix our eyes on Jesus as we run the race marked out for us.   We want to also think about how we can run this race through God’s discipline in our lives.

Part I. We are Running a Race Marked Out for Us (1)

Verse 1b reads, “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  The purpose of Hebrews was to strongly encourage the early Jewish Christians to persevere and the author continues to do so in this chapter.  The Jewish Christians started strong in their faith.  Due to hardships they faced as time passed, however, they lost heart and grew weary.  So the author reminds them that their life of faith is like a race. Not only is living a life of faith like a race, but it is marked out for us.  This means that God gives Christians a calling and purpose for our lives.

When we think about a race, my first thought is the Olympics.  It’s a grand spectacle of racing – to run as fast as possible, dive as straight as possible, jump as high as possible, and curl as carefully as possible.  The purpose of it all is to stand on the pedestal with a gold medal hanging around the neck and singing the national anthem.  It is truly a glorious moment for an Olympic athlete.  But what about for us regular people?  Are we in a race?  I certainly believe so.  We are racing every day to meet due dates for our homework, to get the best possible grades, to get that dream job, to meet deadlines at our jobs, to do the best work as possible so that we get that promotion instead of that other person, to get our children into the best schools ahead of others, and so on.  Then what’s our glorious moment?  Is it being able to buy that dream house, dream car, luxury vacation, children going to Harvard University, or retire at 40 years old?

For God’s chosen people though, we should deeply accept that we are called to run the race marked out for us.  All who finish this race are winners far greater than the gold medalists in the Olympics.  Our destination is the heavenly kingdom with God our Father and our Lord Jesus. 

In this glorious and heavenly race, we are in different stages.  Our senior missionaries in our ministry have run the race of faith for over 40 years or even 50 years after receiving and accepting Jesus during their college days.  Because of their lives of faith, many of us are here today and they have helped us to come to know Jesus deeply and personally.  Brandon is like a young stallion of faith.  He started bible study less than 10 years ago and now he is continuing to grow in faith and serves in so many ways. 

How would you rate your own race?  Are you tired? Discouraged? Exhausted? Complacent? Or are you fully of energy? Full of Joy?

Look at Verse 1 again.  In this race, we are not alone.   Chapter 12 begins with the word “Therefore” because the previous chapter provides beautiful examples of many different men and women of great faith.  The author reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses. For example, Moses raced all his life leading over 600,000 people for 40 years looking forward to a heavenly reward.  Hebrews 11:26 says, “He regarded disgrace for the sake of Christ as of greater value than the treasures of Egypt, because he was looking ahead to his reward.”  We can be encouraged by the witnesses, so that we too can finish our race by God’s power.

Look at Verse 1b. “Let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles.”  Here “everything that hinders” means “weight.” Just as a runner wears a very light-weight shirt and shorts, it’s very difficult to run the race of faith with heavy clothing.   In other words, our faith will be greatly hindered when we carry and hold onto baggage.  The baggage can be many things, like attachment to worldly hopes, human recognition, or human love.  Also, worries of life, broken relationships, trying to live up to people’s expectations, and many other worldly reasons, hinder our life of faith.  We should strive to throw these off continually.

Look at Verse 1c. “And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”  Perseverance is defined as steadfastness in doing something despite difficulty or delay in achieving success.  Living a life of faith requires perseverance because we can get discouraged when we don’t see any visible fruit.  Many of the heroes and heroines of faith in chapter 11 experienced victories and successes by God’s power. On the other hand, many of them also boldly faced sufferings and loss by God’s power. The author points out that “they did not receive the things promised” (11:13,39).  The best things promised that they looked forward to were not earthly but heavenly. Whether they were successful or not in the world, they lived by faith in the invisible God. 

There has been a lot of changes in our ministry this past year, but how should view what has happened?  In God’s point of view, or human point of view?  Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”  The object of our faith is not visible blessings or successes, but the invisible God who is our very great Reward (Ge 15:1).  We must believe that God will fulfill his purpose in our lives in His time and in His way when we continue to seek and serve him wholeheartedly.

Part II. Fix Our Eyes On Jesus (2-3)

How do we run with perseverance the race marked for us?  When I was studying for my final exam for my last class ever for my graduate degree, I couldn’t wait to be done.  I visualized handing the final exam to the professor and walking out of the graduate school building for the final time.  After three and half years of juggling school, work, church, parent, and long commutes – I had almost finished the race and was close to reaching my goal. My eyes were fixed on finishing school.

Likewise, the author says in verse 2 to fix our eyes on Jesus.  Fixing our eyes on Jesus means that when Jesus is the goal in our race of faith, we can persevere and be able to stay focused on the goal Jesus had.  How can we do so and why should we fix our eyes on Jesus?

Looking at verse 2 again, we need to remember that Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.  Jesus is the eternal Word, almighty creator of heaven and earth (John 1:1,14).  He humbled Himself and became a human being born in a lowly manager.  He came as a regular person, so that he could be a friend to all people around the around. 

Because Jesus is God incarnate, he is the pioneer of our faith. This means that he is the author and founder of faith.  Jesus is the perfecter of our faith because he suffered and died on the cross to save us from our sins.  He finished his mission of faith and gave us a new living hope when we live by faith. Again, Hebrews 11:6 says, “And without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.”

Verse 2b reads, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.”  The race of Jesus is the race of the cross.  Jesus endured the cross for the joy set before him. During his earthly ministry, his joy was carrying out the Father’s will by giving his life to serving people. What was the joy Jesus looked forward to? He looked forward to drawing all of his people including you and me to God through his sacrifice (Jn 12:32). Jesus also looked forward to his resurrection, ascension, and his reunion with the Father in glory (Jn 17:5). Jesus knew that the Father would exalt him to the highest place and give him the name that is above every name (Php 2:9). He prayed to the Father in John 17:13, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that those who believe may have the full measure of my joy within them.”  

We can have the joy of Jesus now, yet our greatest joy is the hope of the heavenly kingdom. Jesus said, “Look, I am coming soon. My reward is with me, and I will give each person according to what they have done” (Rev 22:12). With this joy set before us, we can run the race of the cross.

Look at verse 3. “Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.”  When we look to Jesus in running the race of faith and have our hope in heaven and eternal life, we are going to face many difficulties in this life.  When we are tired and weary, we should fix our eyes on Jesus and we can win the fight of faith.  Paul says in 1 Timothy 6:12, “Fight the good fight of the faith. Take hold of the eternal life to which you were called when you made your good confession in the presence of many witnesses.” Paul also says in 2 Timothy 4:7-8, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.  Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing.”

Charles T. Studd (1860-1931) was a well-known missionary, who gave his life to Jesus at the age of 24 and went to China in the late 1800s.  He gave up his future as a nationally renowned cricket player and heir of great wealth.  When his brother George became seriously ill, Charles said, "I know that cricket would not last, and honour would not last, and nothing in this world would last, but it was worthwhile living for the world to come."  When asked if he had made too great a sacrifice, he answered, “If Jesus Christ be God and died for me, then no sacrifice can be too great for me to make for him.”  As the years went by, his love of Christ did not weaken, but rather grew stronger. Seeing an advertisement that read; “Cannibals want missionaries,” he went to central Congo at the age of 50. He dedicated the remaining 21 years of his life for people in Africa. He left a famous poem, a part of which reads,

Only one life, yes only one,

Now let me say,”Thy will be done”;

And when at last I’ll hear the call,

I know I’ll say “’twas worth it all”;

Only one life,’ twill soon be past,

Only what’s done for Christ will last.

When he finished his race on earth, however, he was full of thanks. In a letter he wrote, “As I am nearing my departure from this world, I have but a few things to rejoice: God called me to China and I went; I joyfully acted as Christ told the rich young man to act. My only joys therefore are that when God has given me a work to do, I have not refused it.” We know that he had the full measure of Jesus’ joy.

Part III. Endure Hardships as Discipline from Our Loving Father (4-29)

Look at Verses 4-17. A main component of our race of faith is how we react to God’s discipline in our lives.  All hardships are part of God’s discipline, but how do we view hardships in our lives?   Do we try to run away from it as far as possible? Do we accept it as part of God’s discipline?  I always found it fascinating how God applies his words so practically.  For instance, for a body builder, a disciplined workout schedule is required to build muscles and it takes many months.  Every time a body builder lifts weights, he or she is literally causing tiny rips (or tears) in the muscle fibers.  Then the body repairs and adapts the muscles to be stronger and bigger.  Lifting weights is so hard because it takes so much discipline, hard work, and it is also painful.  But after all the hard work, it does pay off with bigger and stronger muscles.

Similarly, if we don’t accept God’s discipline, it will be very difficult to run the race of faith or fix our eyes on Jesus.  Verse 7 reads, “Endure hardship as discipline; God is treating you as his children.”  As God’s dear children, we all undergo discipline from our loving Father God.  Jesus had many disciples, but his core group consisted of only 12 and he spent 3 intensive years with them day and night training them and disciplining them in God’s word in grace and truth.  He performed many miraculous sign of God’s power.  Jesus changed water to wine, He calmed the storm, and even raised a man from the dead.  He challenged them continuously by telling them: “You Give Them Something to Eat!” and “Whoever wants to be my disciple, must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”  Those 3 years were critical in laying the foundation of faith in them. 

Verse 10b reads, “…but God disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share in his holiness.”  We need to also remember that God disciplines us so that we can grow in his holiness. This holiness is not outward, but inner holiness.  Through God’s discipline and all our hardships, God is sanctifying us to be holy in our spiritual lives so that we can have a close personal relationship with Jesus.  1 Peter 1:13-16 says, “Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

In Verse 18-28, the author shares where all people of God will go.   The city of the living God is the final destination after finishing our race on earth. After this life and after living a life of faith, we will receive a kingdom that cannot be shaken.  Therefore, we must be thankful and worship God with reverence and awe.

In recent months, I have been consumed with the uncertainty of my professional future because it would impact the future of my family so significantly.  My mind was on how I can plan properly the next steps after completing graduate school and the unlikeliness of advancing in my current role and the unlikeliness of receiving a significant pay raise.  I was fixing my eyes on myself as if I was in a tunnel.  I need to do this. I need to do that. I must update my resume. I must start contacting people that I have met at school and at other companies.  My mind said seek God’s kingdom first and God will provide, but my heart firmly believed that I must depend on my abilities to be successful.  I might as well ask myself, ‘Jesus who?’   Fixing my eyes on Jesus was so far away from my mind that I would need a telescope. I repent of my selfishness, self-righteousness, and pride.  I know the hopes and dreams of this world are temporary, but I want to live comfortably and luxuriously.  As I look ahead to 2016, I pray that I can fix my eyes on Jesus and persevere in faith and seek first God’s kingdom no matter what because living for God’s glory takes away worldly worries and gives eternal hope.

Based on today’s passage, how did we run the race of faith this past year in 2015?  What will the race look like in 2016?  Are we fixing our eyes on Jesus and living by faith?  Are we living for the heavenly kingdom?  Living a life of faith is hard, but it fills us with heavenly joy of sharing in God’s glory.  Fixing our eyes on Jesus can start simply from 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18.  It says, “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

May God guide us to run the race of faith with perseverance by fixing our eyes on Jesus, so that we may have the full measure of his joy.

 

THEY WILL CALL HIM IMMANUEL

Matthew 1:18–25
Key Verse: 1:23

Immanuel

“‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means, ‘God with us’).”

    Today’s passage is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. Luke writes the story from Mary’s point of view; but Matthew tells it from Joseph’s. Matthew stresses the importance of his names: “Jesus” and “Immanuel.” He also mentions how his birth fulfilled prophecy. So what does it mean that Jesus was born to be “Immanuel”—“God with us”? And what can we learn from Joseph’s example? May God open our hearts to the true meaning of Christmas through this study.

    Matthew has just shown us through the genealogy that Jesus was the son of David and the son of Abraham; he was the Messiah God had promised. But the way Jesus the Messiah was born was really unusual. Read verses 18–19. What a hard thing to have to live through! When two people are pledged to be married it should be a really happy time. But God had a special plan for Mary and Joseph. This engagement suddenly faced a huge storm. Mary was found to be pregnant without her fiancé Joseph. But it wasn’t because Mary had cheated on him; it happened, Matthew says, “through the Holy Spirit.” It was a highly unusual, unique act of God. We’ll think more about it later. Verse 19 tells that the way they thought about being engaged was different from us. To them, it was like being married already. Though they were just engaged, Joseph is called “her husband,” and to break off the engagement is called “divorce.” 

Verse 19 also tells us some things about Joseph. He was an unusual man. When he got news that Mary was pregnant, Joseph faced a dilemma. Most men would have felt hurt. Many would have lost their temper. Many, if they were deeply in love, would have just accepted the woman and covered everything up. But verse 19 says describes Joseph as “faithful to the law.” Here, “the law” is God’s law in the Bible. That sounds so outdated, so uptight, so uncool. There are so many laws in the Bible, we think it’s all just a bunch of legalism and excuse ourselves from knowing or living by them. We don’t take it so seriously. But Joseph took God’s words seriously. You might think the Bible doesn’t talk about a woman getting pregnant without her fiancé during their engagement. But the Bible actually describes such a situation. God gave a law: If it was rape, only the man should be put to death; if it was by mutual consent, both of them should be put to death (Dt22:23–27). God gave such a serious law because he wanted his people to be dead serious about infidelity and betrayal, and grow as his holy people. Being faithful to the law, Joseph probably knew even this obscure law. To be faithful to God’s law, for years he’d had to train himself in real life situations to think based not on his feelings or calculations but on what God’s word teaches. Why did he live that way? He wasn’t legalistic or self-righteous; he made his life about God and about pleasing him. He was faithful to God’s law basically because he loved God. More than anything else, he sincerely wanted to please God. So, even in this crisis he didn’t get emotional; he was carefully considering everything. When he thought about it, if it had been rape, Mary likely would have spoken up and sought to catch the guy. But her silence gave the impression she’d consented. If that were true, he couldn’t marry her and pretend the baby was his—that would displease God. 

Verse 19 adds, “…and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace.” When we’re hurt, even slightly, most of us get vindictive. We want to see the person who hurt us suffer. We want to prosecute to the full extent of the law. Joseph was a real human being, just like any of us. He must have felt so hurt by the news of his fiancée’s pregnancy. He could have made it all about his pride and honor and sought to have her punished. But it says he didn’t want to expose her to public disgrace, though if she’d cheated on him she deserved it. Joseph was being not only just but also merciful. How could he be like that? His faithfulness to the law had brought him close to the heart of God, who doesn’t treat us as our sins deserve (Ps103:10). In deciding to divorce Mary yet not expose her to public disgrace Joseph was thinking first of God, then of Mary, and wasn’t even thinking of himself. In short, he was a godly person. In our self-absorbed culture there are not many people living as godly examples. Let’s pray that we can grow as godly persons like Joseph. They say a crisis reveals our true colors. In this crisis Joseph’s solution was the best one humanly possible. 

But God had other plans. Look at verses 20–21. The first thing we notice here is that the angel calls Joseph “son of David.” It reminds us that Joseph’s name was listed in the genealogy (16). Legally, Joseph was born in the line of King David. So his marrying Mary and accepting her baby would give the child the legal status of a descendant of David. But Joseph was a spiritual “son of David” as well; he’d learned David’s faith and mercy, and this was shown in the way he reacted to the news of Mary’s pregnancy. Next, in these verses the angel cleared up for Joseph that the baby had been conceived not out of sin, but through the Holy Spirit. God did that for a special reason. Let’s read verse 21. Mary would have a son, and God wanted Joseph to name the baby, legally making the baby his. And the name itself is also very important. God chose the name “Jesus,” meaning, “the Lord saves.” They say it was a common name at the time. Many couples named their son “Jesus” in the hope that God would send the Messiah to save them. This time, the name came from God himself. In Greek, the emphasis in verse 21 is on the word “he.” It was Mary’s baby who really would “save his people from their sins.” And God’s purpose for this baby is the main reason why he had to be conceived by the Holy Spirit. If he were conceived in the ordinary way, he would have inherited a sinful nature just like the rest of us. If he were just another sinful human being, he wouldn’t be able to help us, because he would have had the same problem. But because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus uniquely was born without sin. And even more than that, because he was conceived by the Holy Spirit, Jesus was the divine Son of God (Lk1:35). Through the Holy Spirit, God the Holy, Eternal Son took on human form. At the same time, because he was born of a virgin, Mary, Jesus was also fully human. He was made like us in every way. He’s not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters. He shared in our humanity so that he might destroy the power of the devil in our lives. He was tempted and suffered just like us, so that he might become our merciful and faithful high priest (Heb2:10–18). He became fully human so that he might empathize with our weaknesses, and so that through him we could approach God’s throne of grace with confidence (Heb4:15–16). Jesus, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a virgin Mary, fully God and fully human, became the mediator between God and mankind (1Ti2:5); he truly can save us from our sins. 

Read verse 21 again. As we saw in the genealogy, the history of the Jews shows that despite their best intentions they couldn’t be faithful to God; they failed again and again. Even their best king, David, fell into temptation. Because of their sins their nation was ruined. They really needed a Savior to save them from their sins. The same is true for us. We could never save ourselves from our sins by our decisions, our willpower, hard work or sincerity. If we’re honest, we have to admit that we’re totally enslaved by our sins. But it’s God’s promise that he sent Jesus his Son to save us from our sins. We can’t do it, but if we repent and accept God’s promise by faith, he does it. We all need to learn to depend on Jesus, not on ourselves, so that he can save us from our sins.

Finally, Matthew gets at the heart of what he really wants to say. Let’s read verses 22–23. Matthew alone among the Gospel writers highlights the prophetic sign of Isaiah 7:14 and applies it to the birth of Jesus. This prophecy took place when God’s people were under a threat from foreign enemies. King Ahaz their leader was so scared, and he made everybody else scared, too. The Bible says their hearts were shaking, “as the trees of the forest are shaken by the wind” (Isa7:2b). God sent the prophet Isaiah to help Ahaz overcome his fear by asking for a sign from God. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, because he already had his own plans. But God himself gave his people the sign of a virgin giving birth to a son and calling him Immanuel. In the next chapter this Hebrew name “Immanuel” is repeated two more times (Isa8:8,10). Finally, the child “Immanuel” is described fully in Isaiah 9:6. It reads: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” According to this verse, the child “Immanuel” would be the “Messiah” in the line of David (Isa9:7). In verse 23 Matthew says this child born of a virgin, “Immanuel,” the Messiah, is Jesus. In his Gospel, written primarily for the Jews, Matthew often explains how the life and ministry of Jesus fulfilled Old Testament prophecies. Especially in chapter 2 we see four other prophecies being fulfilled in the events surrounding Jesus’ birth (2:5–6,15,17–18,23). But Matthew’s quoting from Isaiah is way more than just the fulfillment of prophecy; it gets at the heart of what the birth of Jesus means to us. Let’s read verse 23 again. Here Matthew explains what Jesus’ other Hebrew name, “Immanuel,” means to us: it means “God with us.” The expression “God with us” at first doesn’t sound so spectacular. “God be with you” has been repeated so much over the years. It’s abbreviated in our English saying, “Good-bye.” But Jesus being God with us has profound meaning.

First, “God with us” means God never gives up on us. Israel had totally failed God. He stopped sending prophets to them for the past 400 years, because they never listened anyway. But it didn’t mean God had totally abandoned them. God was still with them in preserving the line of David and sending the Messiah Jesus through them. God was always with them, even in their darkest times. So Jesus’ birth means that, no matter how much we may have failed, no matter how much we may have sinned and rebelled against him, God never gives up on us.

Second, “God with us” means God sent Jesus to forgive our sins. Our sins make us treacherous, and really ugly, like spiritual monsters. But it was God’s plan all along to send the Messiah to forgive our sins. God had predicted his coming in Jeremiah 31, when he would come and make a new covenant with his people so that he would “forgive their wickedness” and “remember their sins no more” (Jer31:34b). This is exactly what Jesus came to do. He came to forgive our sins (Mt9:2,6). The new covenant is in his blood, which he poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt26:28). Matthew the author had experienced this personally. He’d been one of Jesus’ twelve disciples. But before Jesus called him he’d lived as a tax collector. His job had made him greedy for money and abusive to people. In modern terms, he’d sold his soul for money. Nobody could trust him. Nobody wanted to be with him. But Jesus called him to be one of his twelve disciples. It made the religious people mad, but Jesus did it anyway. In Jesus’ calling Matthew experienced “God with us” in his amazing grace of forgiveness of sin. Matthew is saying here that no matter who we are or how much we have sinned, Jesus was born to be “God with us,” to forgive all our sins.

Third, “God with us” means God sent Jesus to heal us. The Bible describes our sin like a disease. When we sin, we may not feel anything, but it makes our souls sick. We become sicker and sicker not only with guilt and more and more sinful desire, but also with an increasing incapacity to do anything good for God. In Matthew’s Gospel there are many teachings of Jesus. But Matthew especially emphasizes Jesus’ healings, especially his spiritual healings. Only Matthew quotes from Isaiah that Jesus “took up our infirmities and bore our diseases” (8:17; Isa53:4). Matthew says that when the Pharisees questioned why he ate with tax collectors and sinners, Jesus responded, “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. But go and learn what this means: ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (9:11–13). He repeated it later in defending his ministry to his disciples (12:7). Jesus didn’t mind being with Matthew, even though he was really sick with sins of selfishness and greed. Because Jesus was always with Matthew, he could be healed of all the diseases of his sin. This was actually how Jesus forgave his sins practically. It wasn’t through just saying some words or preaching a message, but by actually living with Matthew in all his weaknesses and sins, quietly bearing with him, nursing him back to health with his mercy, until he could be healed.

And it wasn’t just for him alone. Matthew tells us that whenever crowds came to Jesus, he healed all that were ill. Then Matthew uniquely quotes the prophecy of Isaiah again and applies it to Jesus: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out…” (Mt12:15, 20; Isa42:3). Our sins make us like bruised reeds and like smoldering wicks—just about to go out. But Jesus, though he is as mighty as God himself, doesn’t crush us with his power. Instead, with his power he tenderly nurtures us until our souls are healed. Our souls become sick not only with sinful desires, but also with anxieties, fears and meaninglessness. Matthew alone describes the healing of our souls Jesus gives us in his invitation: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Mt11:28–29). Jesus was born to be “God with us” to heal our sin-sick souls. The ugliness and chronic sicknesses in our souls are something we’d rather just not think about. At Christmas, we all tend to get obsessed with getting the latest gadgets or new clothes or toys or with decorations and cooking amazing food, and it’s all supposed to make us happy. But the best gift of all is the birth of Jesus to be God with us, to actually heal the deepest sicknesses in our souls.

Finally, let’s look at verses 24–25. Joseph had experienced God’s revelation through an angel. But he didn’t respond in his own way; he obeyed and took Mary home as his wife. Out of deep respect for God’s words, he controlled himself and didn’t consummate the marriage until Mary gave birth to her son. And he gave the baby the name Jesus. God used Joseph to protect Mary and her baby so that God’s will could be accomplished. May God help us learn to obey him practically in our lives so that he can use even us.

WE HAVE COME TO WORSHIP HIM

Matthew 2:1–12

Key Verse: 2:11

WeHaveCometoWorshipHim.jpg

 

“On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.”

 

This Christmas season, to think about what Jesus’ birth means to us today, we’ve been studying the first two chapters in Matthew’s Gospel. Through the genealogy in chapter 1 we found that there’s grace and hope even for sinners like us, if only we learn the faith of Abraham and David. In the second half of chapter 1 we found a special name of Jesus, “Immanuel,” God with us. This name of Jesus mainly means that God never gives up on us; Immanuel Jesus is still with us today. He wants to forgive all our sins and heal us spiritually. In today’s passage the author Matthew reveals even more about who Jesus is. For a few minutes let’s really think about who Jesus is. And let’s try to learn from the Magi how to truly worship him. May God help us come to know Jesus more personally this Christmas, worship him, and experience the joy the Magi had.

 

Verse 1a says, “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea…” Through the genealogy Matthew has already proven Jesus was a direct descendant of David. Now he adds that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. Bethlehem was the hometown of David. The prophets had predicted the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (5–6). Actually, Mary and Joseph were from Nazareth in Galilee. But Luke’s Gospel tells us that right near Mary’s due date, they were forced to go to Bethlehem because of a census decreed by the Roman Emperor. Mysteriously God was working to fulfill his own will. The next bit of information Matthew gives us is in the phrase, “…during the time of King Herod…” This was the first Herod, Herod the Great. He actually was not Jewish; he was an Idumean. But his ambition was to become king of the Jews, so he traveled to Rome, begged Caesar, and got his way. Many Jews considered Herod an illegitimate king. So he was always trying to prove himself. He ruled from 37 B.C. to 4 B.C. and married several women. He was famous for his great building projects. He built his own grand palace residence south of Jerusalem, called Herodium. He built a place called “Cave of the Patriarchs,” as well as his crowning achievement, the Jerusalem Temple, to get the Jews to like him. But his achievements couldn’t solve the inferiority complex in his heart. He became more and more paranoid about his position. He had one of his wives killed, as well as three of his sons, some in-laws, and others of whom he became suspicious. So the phrase “during the time of King Herod” points to a dark time in Israel’s history. But often it’s in the darkest times and places that God chooses to do his greatest work. The last part of verse 1 says, “…Magi from the east came to Jerusalem...” Who were these men? First of all, the word “Magi” is plural. It doesn’t actually say there were three; they could’ve been an entourage with many servants. Later they were called “three,” probably because of the three gifts mentioned later. Next, it says they were “from the east.” It’s believed the Magi originated with a people called the Medes, with a famous mystic named Zoroaster. The Magi became part of the Persian Empire and later were influential in ancient Babylonia—basically modern-day Iraq/Iran. They were also called “wise men.” They studied astrology, astronomy, math, chemistry, and various ancient religious texts. People began calling them “magicians,” and they became royal court advisors to kings. They were rivals to Daniel in Babylon. It’s likely that during the 70 years of Jewish exile there the Magi were exposed to the Old Testament. They studied the Pentateuch and found a great hope: God had promised to send the Jews a King who would be for all people. Though they were Gentiles, the Magi accepted this hope as their own.

 

So they come to Jerusalem with a burning question. Let’s read verse 2. In Greek the emphasis is on the word “born.” It’s a contrast to Herod, who grasped his position through political manipulation. Jesus, on the other hand, was “born” king of the Jews. It says they “saw his star when it rose.” In the ancient world people believed the birth of a great leader was accompanied by the appearance of a special star. In this case, there was the prophecy of Numbers 24:17a: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star will come out of Jacob, a scepter will rise out of Israel.” To the Magi this prophecy was foretelling the birth of the king of the Jews. As they observed the stars in the sky each night, they’d been looking for that star, and one day, it finally appeared! Probably some of them were skeptical. But finally they were all persuaded to make the long journey as a team. It meant traveling at least a thousand miles, spending many months, a lot of money and putting everything else in their lives on hold. They couldn’t be completely sure about it, but they were willing to take a chance on this star and go and see. Finally they said we “have come to worship him.” The word “worship” originally meant to kiss someone’s hand as an expression of honor; later it came to mean to fall prostrate before a superior. It’s surprising that these Magi publicly said they’d come to “worship” the king of the Jews. It reveals what they really thought of him—they considered him worthy of their worship, their full devotion. They were high-class, highly educated men, but they’d come to humble themselves before a newborn child and worship him as their own king.

 

What effect did they have? Look at verse 3. Unintentionally, the Magi were disturbing. How could these men from a far-off land know about the birth of the king of the Jews, when the Jews themselves didn’t? Their coming exposed the Jews’ shameful lack of interest. It particularly disturbed Herod, who thought he was king and that he could pick any of his sons to be his successor. It’s interesting that it says when Herod was disturbed all Jerusalem was disturbed with him. After living under his rule for over 30 years, the people came to know what kind of man he really was; when he was upset he was capable of doing anything with his power. Under Herod people were terrorized and traumatized.

 

What did Herod do? He realized the Magi were talking about not just any king but the Messiah, the special one God had promised and everybody had been waiting for, for so long. So Herod, who generally was not interested in the Bible, suddenly called for an official state Bible study. But he wasn’t like the Magi; he wasn’t interested in truth; he wanted to use the information he got from the Bible for his own selfish agenda. Look at verses 7–8. It was a lie; according to verses 13 and 16 what he was really doing was trying to kill the newborn child. Herod was arrogant enough to think he could stop God from accomplishing his will and sending the Messiah.

 

But what’s most important here is the answer Herod got from the chief priests and teachers of the law. Let’s read verses 4–6. Here we should note where Bethlehem was. It was about six miles south of Jerusalem, less than a two-hour walk. It’s sad that these religious experts had the perfectly correct answer but were not in the least interested in going to Bethlehem to see if what the Magi said was true. They had the prophecy of Micah, which the Magi clearly didn’t, but they weren’t motivated to do anything. In fact, they had all God’s revelation at their fingertips, and the Messiah born virtually in their backyard. But because they weren’t interested, it did them absolutely no good. It’s just like Christians today who have the whole Bible and all kinds of religious knowledge but who never really do anything with it, who never take any action. And it’s like some people whose only interest is to use what they learn from the Bible for their own purpose. In light of this, why do we go to church, why do we study the Bible?

 

In verse 6 we learn more about who Jesus is. Let’s read verse 6 again. This verse predicts that the Messiah would be a shepherd of God’s people. What a contrast! Herod was obsessed with his own vanity and power and viciously used and abused his people. But the Messiah, like a good shepherd, would sacrifice himself to care for his people. This concept of a shepherd started with David. David grew up as a shepherd boy. He risked his life to protect his father’s sheep. When he became a man, he applied those same lessons as a leader for his people. David embraced all those in Israel who were distressed or in debt or discontented and cared for them dearly. He embraced not just his own tribe but all the people of all the tribes of Israel. Because David was a real shepherd, people dearly loved him as their king. David was nothing but a flawed human being, just a shadow. But Jesus was born to be our true Shepherd.

 

How was Jesus our Shepherd? First of all, we see it during his earthly ministry in the way he treated people. He healed the sick, even late into the night. Out of his compassion he fed the hungry. He made friends with the lonely and the outcasts. He spent time with people nobody else wanted to bother with. He treated women and children with real respect. There was no one too messed up for Jesus. He truly cared for each person. Ultimately he proved he was our real shepherd when he became the Lamb of God for us on the cross (Jn10:11; 1:29). A prophet described him: “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way, and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all” (Isa53:3–6). No one else would do it, but Jesus the sinless Son of God willingly did it. He bore all our ugly, dirty sins in his own body on the cross (1Pe2:24). Because this Jesus is our Shepherd, he’s worthy of our worship, and we want to worship him as our King, we want to love and serve him with all our hearts and souls and strength.

 

Now let’s finish the story of the Magi. Look at verse 9. It’s amazing that only when they left Herod in Jerusalem did the star reappear. And not only did the star reappear—it led them to the house where Jesus was. It was nothing less than a miracle. How did they respond? Read verse 10. It literally says, “…they shouted with very great joy.” They were Magi, but they threw away their dignity and started dancing. They were so filled with joy because now they had the prophecy of Micah confirmed by the leading of the same star. It meant it all was true. Their great joy came not from money, food or pleasure, but from discovering the truth. The real joy of Christmas comes not just from spending time with family and friends, with traditions and relaxing; it comes from discovering the truth in Jesus and meeting him personally. Finally, what did the Magi do? Read verses 11–12. First of all, they did what they set out to do; though he was just a little child, they bowed down and worshiped him as their true King. Next, they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts. They gave him not cheap stuff as afterthoughts, but their costliest, most thoughtful gifts, fit for a king. Probably unbeknownst to them, their gifts predicted what Jesus would do—gold meant he was king; frankincense meant he was a priest; myrrh meant he would die. And after their worshiping and giving, protected by God, the Magi just went home. They didn’t get anything—they only gave. Matthew, the former tax collector, was especially moved. Their worship was very pure. Getting doesn’t make us joyful. Worshipping Jesus and giving him our best makes us truly joyful. Because he’s worthy of our hearts, when we worship him, we’re deeply satisfied.

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