Was Jesus Birth Good Or Bad News?

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Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him.

And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born.

And they said unto him, In Bethlehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet,

Matthew 2:2-5

God has a long, established record of upending men’s prejudices by using those who have been rejected and despised by the world to accomplish His purposes and bring Him glory. Jacob and Joseph were used by God even though they were younger brothers in a culture the eldest son had all of the advantages. The Lord called Jeremiah to be His prophet even though he was just a child. He used women such as Deborah, Jael, Esther, and Ruth. In the story of Jesus’ birth we also see unusual reactions from unlikely sources.

Those pagan idolaters we know as the magi were the ones who understood the significance of the event and the true identity of Jesus. More importantly, their desire to worship Him confirms their understanding and proper response. I’d also say it was quite bold of them to ask to see the king of the Jews knowing that Herod was on the throne. Are they denying his legitimacy? Did they realize how insulting this was, and possible threatening to their own safety?

The chief priests and scribes were familiar with the messianic prophecies but they lack the wise men’s faithful response. They were like the prodigal son’s elder brother, so close to the father and yet so far away. They handled the revelation of God but they were blinded by their ignorant zeal.

And then we have Herod, whose sole concern seems to be self-preservation. Politics is a zero-sum game and as long as your enemy is losing you’re winning. He doesn’t care whether it’s true that Jesus is the messiah. I think he saw Jesus as a threat more than a hope for deliverance.

The gospel elicits the strangest responses from unexpected sources. Like a piece of equipment it detects the true nature of men. This story proves Jesus’ own words true in John 9:39 when He said:

For judgment I am come into this world, that they which see not might see; and that they which see might be made blind.

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When God Does Not Hear Your Prayers

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But your iniquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid his face from you, that he will not hear.

For your hands are defiled with blood, and your fingers with iniquity; your lips have spoken lies, your tongue hath muttered perverseness.

Isaiah 59:2,3

As I read through the chapters of Isaiah I am increasingly impressed with the development of this multi-layered prophecy. In chapter 54 the Lord reveals the future glory of Zion. In chapter 55 He invites the thirsty to taste the waters of eternal life. In chapter 56 He foretells the salvation of the gentiles. In chapter 57 He indicts the wicked and identifies with the contrite in spirit. In chapter 58 He calls His people to abandon their false worship and to draw near with their hearts. Now He tells them that their false worship does them no good.

More often than not you will hear people emphasize the importance of praying because God does hear your prayers, and that is true. But we want to be clear that it is not unconditional and absolute. The exception here is that the people were given over to all sorts of evil amongst themselves and so God withholds His protection and blessing.

The word “justice” is used in this chapter in two senses: one has to do with men doing the right thing and the other has to do with God’s judgment of Israel’s oppressors. The people neglected the former and thus God withheld the latter.

I believe this passage in verses 1-15 shows that the main challenge to approaching the Lord is our own evil nature. People are not battering the gates of heaven with passion. They are running to evil at full speed. We are the obstacles to our own reconciliation with God and He has to overcome our sinful natures in order to restore fellowship.

If you want to have your sinful cake and eat it too then do not be surprised when the Lord does not answer because He will not. In 1:15-17 of this book God warns the people that they are lifting up blood-stained hands in worship to Him and He will not even look at them. In Micah 3:4 God again says that He will not hear prayers from those who do ill. James also tells us that a double-minded man who prays will not receive anything from God.

This is a good time to mention that the problem is not so much what the people did not do but what they did do. Their prayers were not answered because they did evil, not because they did not do amazing things. God was not turning away because He was not impressed but because He was repulsed by their wickedness. These are the conditions under which you should not pray. The solution is simple: confess and repent and you will see the Lord reveal His power.

What is holding you back?  

 

God Seeks After Broken Hearts

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For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.

For I will not contend for ever, neither will I be always wroth: for the spirit should fail before me, and the souls which I have made.

For the iniquity of his covetousness was I wroth, and smote him: I hid me, and was wroth, and he went on frowardly in the way of his heart.

I have seen his ways, and will heal him: I will lead him also, and restore comforts unto him and to his mourners.

Isaiah 57:15-18

In this chapter the Lord is continuing this theme of mercy that goes back to at least chapter 55. He invites the thirsty to come and drink and then, in chapter 56, shows us that His mercy is not just for the Jews but also for men of all nations, peoples, and tongues. Here we see that He is the God of the contrite.

As Jesus said, He came not for the healthy but for the sick. But until a sick person is willing to admit that they need help they will not listen to doctors nor seek their aid. The Lord cannot do anything for, or with, a person who is not humble enough to realize that they need God’s healing. We will not experience the power of God in our lives as long as we believe we are healthy, as the Pharisees believed.

There is a lie from the Devil that is quite pervasive and it leads us to believe that God is harsh and oppressive, if not apathetic about our plight. When we believe the lie we think that the Lord is uncaring and has no interest in helping us. He is like a instructor in basic training who is always yelling at us and telling us we are doing it all wrong. Nothing could be further from the truth and we can thank God the revelation of His compassion and mercy throughout the scriptures.

David understood that God was after those who were broken and contrite. We read in Psalm 51:17:

The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit: a broken and a contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.

In Psalm 34:18 we read:

The Lord is nigh unto them that are of a broken heart; and saveth such as be of a contrite spirit.

In Isaiah 66:1,2 we read:

Thus saith the Lord, The heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool: where is the house that ye build unto me? and where is the place of my rest?

For all those things hath mine hand made, and all those things have been, saith the Lord: but to this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at my word.

Going to the gospels, in Luke 7:47-48, we read:

Wherefore I say unto thee, Her sins, which are many, are forgiven; for she loved much: but to whom little is forgiven, the same loveth little.

And he said unto her, Thy sins are forgiven.

The woman who was a sinner had brought her alabaster box full of perfume to anoint Jesus and to wash His feet with her tears. Our Lord perfectly explains that such a heart is so pleasing to God because it draws us to Him in gratitude, appreciation, and love. We are no good to God and His kingdom if we have not been forgiven much because then there is not much love in us. The greatest servants in the kingdom know that God has freed them from a tremendous burden. It is for that reason that they have so much love for the Lord and His people.

If you want to do great things for God then never forget the work of redemption He did in your life. God can do great things through you when you are broken because that is when your heart is soft and malleable. When you are soft then He will mold you into the image of Christ, and that is the beginning of a powerful ministry.

His Ways Are Higher Than Our Ways

Illustration - your way my way street signs

For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, saith the Lord.

For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.

Isaiah 55:8,9

One of the most insightful and motivational elements of studying scripture is when learn the meaning of a popular scripture, like the one above, in its context. Sometimes you realize that the way it is often repeated, or the way you always understood it, is either inaccurate or truncated. This is the difference between studying the meaning of scripture versus using it to come up with life applications.

I have never read this verse in light of the prior verses which provide the context. This chapter has God’s invitation for sinners to come and seek His mercy and enter into an everlasting covenant.

Ho, every one that thirsteth, come ye to the waters, and he that hath no money; come ye, buy, and eat; yea, come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.

Wherefore do ye spend money for that which is not bread? and your labour for that which satisfieth not? hearken diligently unto me, and eat ye that which is good, and let your soul delight itself in fatness.

Incline your ear, and come unto me: hear, and your soul shall live; and I will make an everlasting covenant with you, even the sure mercies of David.

Behold, I have given him for a witness to the people, a leader and commander to the people.

Behold, thou shalt call a nation that thou knowest not, and nations that knew not thee shall run unto thee because of the Lord thy God, and for the Holy One of Israel; for he hath glorified thee.

Seek ye the Lord while he may be found, call ye upon him while he is near:

Let the wicked forsake his way, and the unrighteous man his thoughts: and let him return unto the Lord, and he will have mercy upon him; and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon.

Isaiah 55:1-7

When I read the word “for” in verses eight and nine it made me realize that this may be a reason for what God says in the beginning of the chapter. That is, the Lord calls sinners to forgiveness and repentance because it is His manner of doing things. And since His ways are not our ways (being higher) then that means that mercy and forgiveness are not our ways.

And when we look at scripture we see that whereas God is willing to forgive men are quick to do impose judgment. I think of the parable Jesus tells to explain to Peter how often we are supposed to forgive others.

But the same servant went out, and found one of his fellowservants, which owed him an hundred pence: and he laid hands on him, and took him by the throat, saying, Pay me that thou owest.

And his fellowservant fell down at his feet, and besought him, saying, Have patience with me, and I will pay thee all.

And he would not: but went and cast him into prison, till he should pay the debt.

Matthew 18:28-30

Forgiveness is a very difficult thing for us to attain and we struggle with it our whole lives. It is where the enemy can be very effective in accusing us and creating divisions within the church. We can hold a grudge for decades over the smallest offense and end up spiritually impotent. Forgiveness is a manifestation of the power of God and when we forgive others we witness to that power and use it for their benefit.

The skeptic has been successful in creating this misperception of God as a harsh, angry tyrant who is looking for an excuse to condemn us. That is nothing more than a lie that we must refute. God is the one who is compassionate and it is men are the cruel, evil seekers of destruction. We would not know what real grace and mercy was if we did not have it revealed to us in the scriptures.

We are evil and our hearts are bent towards wickedness. Retaliation, anger, and judgment are our ways. But grace, mercy, and forgiveness are the Lord’s ways and His ways are certainly higher and more righteous than ours.

You Can’t Impress God

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At the heart of the gospel is salvation by grace alone. God redeems us for His sake and not because of our own merits. It is an amazing grace that fills me with tremendous gratitude and comfort. It is reassuring to know that I do not have to perform for God. This isn’t a job with a performance review at the end of a probationary period. Yet, I often abuse that grace and try to make up for it by earning God’s favor rather than asking for forgiveness and repenting.

This people have I formed for myself; they shall shew forth my praise.

But thou hast not called upon me, O Jacob; but thou hast been weary of me, O Israel.

Thou hast not brought me the small cattle of thy burnt offerings; neither hast thou honoured me with thy sacrifices. I have not caused thee to serve with an offering, nor wearied thee with incense.

Thou hast bought me no sweet cane with money, neither hast thou filled me with the fat of thy sacrifices: but thou hast made me to serve with thy sins, thou hast wearied me with thine iniquities.

I, even I, am he that blotteth out thy transgressions for mine own sake, and will not remember thy sins.

Isaiah 43:21-25

Israel is a perfect example but we can substitute ourselves to clearly see the problem. They are God’s chosen people to be His witness to the world but they do not acknowledge Him as their king. When the Lord says that He has not burdened them with sacrifices He is referring to their 70-year exile during which they did not make such offerings. However, He says that Israel burdened Him with their iniquities. It’s a raw deal for God, always. He wants their heart but they keep Him at arm’s length and abandon Him. They continually forget that He wants to bless them. They also forget that He didn’t choose them because they were so impressive but because it pleased Him.

We can easily bring this down to a personal level. God has created me for His glory and praise and yet I often fail to remember His grace towards me. I often betray Him by going off and doing what I want to do and ignoring Him. That line in the hymn says it perfectly: “Prone to wander, Lord I feel it. Prone to leave the God I love.” I am so easily beset by sin and tempted to remove my guilt by doing something to deserve God’s grace again. But God isn’t interested because He blots out my sins for His own sake. He made that choice on His own, not because I was able to sweet-talk him.

There is a risk that people will pervert this truth by using it as a license to sin and Paul explains why that’s wrong in Romans 6. We don’t have to sin in order to experience the wonder of God’s grace. The longer you live the more humble you become as you realize how many transgressions God has forgotten. It fills you with wonder to know that the Lord is so willing and eager to forgive and move forward.