Saturday, December 20, 2014

The Early and Latter Rains

Therefore be patient, brethren, until the coming of the Lord. See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, waiting patiently for it until it receives the early and latter rain. You also be patient. Establish your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is at hand. (James 5:7-8)
The early rains James speaks of are the autumn rains that soften and prepare the ground for sowing seed. The latter rains are the spring rains that mature and prepare the crops for harvest. The farmer knows how to wait because he has an expectation that there will be fruit and that the harvest will be well worth it.

For us, the “early rain” has come, two thousand years ago in a manger in Bethlehem. And the seed has been sown: the gospel of Jesus the Messiah and the kingdom of God has been preached to the nations. Now we wait for the “latter rain,” when King Jesus will return to gather in the harvest and set things right in the world.

James writes to scattered Jews who have embraced Jesus as Messiah and are following Him. They have faced many trials and have been mistreated. He encourages them to persevere through these difficulties (1:2-4) but also to endure them without grumbling or holding grudges, for Messiah is coming to judge and set everything in order (5:9). The patience James enjoins is not an idle waiting through long, dull periods but bearing through suffering and persecution with wisdom and maturity (see James 3:13-18) and without taking matters into their own hands, for the Lord Jesus will reveal to them the fullness of His mercy and compassion.
Brothers and sisters, as an example of patience in the face of suffering, take the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:10-11 NIV)
“Be patient,” James says, just as the farmer is who waits for the early and latter rains — there will be a joyful harvest at the end of it all when the Lord Jesus returns and the kingdom of God is in full fruit. “Establish your hearts,” he says, “for the coming of the Lord is at hand.” To be established in heart is to stand firm without wavering, not put off by difficulties. This requires a focused faith on the Lord Jesus, because faith creates a positive expectation for the final outcome, and with that we can bear patiently and endure.

We live between the early and latter rains in this Advent season of the world, waiting for the fulfillment of what was begun at Christmas. Though there are many difficulties and persecutions the innocent and the righteous are presently suffering, the Lord will come and the harvest He brings will be exceedingly abundantly beyond all we can ask or imagine.

Friday, December 19, 2014

The Darkness is Passing Away

The darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. (1 John 2:8)
The letter First John is about walking in light and walking in love and how these reveal eternal life. Light answers to darkness, love answers to hate and fear, and life answers to death and destruction. All three — light, love and life — are found in the Lord Jesus Christ. The Gospel of John tells us, “In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5 NIV). Indeed, Jesus is “the true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:9 NIV). At the beginning of the epistle of John, he identifies Jesus as “that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 John 1:2).

The true light is already shining in the world because Jesus the Messiah has come. And where there is light, darkness can no longer endure but must pass away. Darkness cannot overcome the light because darkness is nothing more than the absence of light.

The true light is still shining in the world because the Lord Jesus has gathered for Himself a people of His own. Paul reminds all those who believe in the Lord Jesus that God, who has “rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, qualified you to share in the inheritance of his holy people in the kingdom of light” (Colossians 1:12 NIV). And, “You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness” (1 Thessalonians 5:5 NIV). So the darkness is passing away because the true light is already shining through Christ and His body, which is the Church. But now let us look at how that light shines:
Again, a new commandment I write to you, which thing is true in Him and in you, because the darkness is passing away, and the true light is already shining. He who says he is in the light, and hates his brother, is in darkness until now. He who loves his brother abides in the light, and there is no cause for stumbling in him. (1 John 2:8-10)
The light that conquers the darkness of evil triumphs by love. The “new commandment” John writes about is the one Jesus gave to the disciples: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). If we are full of hate, we are living in darkness. But when we overcome hate by love, the light of Christ shines brightly through us and the darkness must pass away. Paul speaks similarly, in his letter to the Jesus followers at Rome, about how the light of love overcomes the darkness of the world:
Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. And do this, knowing the time, that now it is high time to awake out of sleep; for now our salvation is nearer than when we first believed. The night is far spent, the day is at hand. Therefore let us cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly, as in the day, not in revelry and drunkenness, not in lewdness and lust, not in strife and envy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to fulfill its lusts. (Romans 13:10-14)
John says that the darkness is passing away. It has certainly not yet all gone, and we are often painfully reminded of its presence. Yet the assurance of the gospel is that it is being put to flight by the light of Christ, revealed through His Church. Wherever that light shines brightly through works of faith and love — faith working through love — the darkness begins to fade. That light is already shining, John tells us, and the darkness is passing away. And Paul reminds us that “the day is at hand” and “our salvation” is drawing ever nearer.

We are living between the times, between when the light of King Jesus first began to shine at that first Christmas and the time when He comes again and the darkness is completely dispelled. The season of Advent reminds us that it is “high time to awake out of sleep” and “put on the armor of light” — the life and love of the Lord Jesus Christ.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Preparing the Way of the Lord

And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High;
For you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for him,
To give his people the knowledge of salvation
Through the forgiveness of their sins,
Because of the tender mercy of our God,
By which the rising sun will come to us from heaven
To shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death,
To guide our feet into the path of peace."
(Luke 1:76-79 NIV)
In this final portion of Zechariah’s prayer, he prophesies over his son, John. John is not the one who brings salvation to the people of God and sets them free. Nor is he the “rising sun” who comes to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness. In short, he is not the Messiah — but he is the forerunner of Messiah. He is “A voice of one calling in the wilderness,
‘Prepare the way for the Lord,
    make straight paths for him.
Every valley shall be filled in,
    every mountain and hill made low.
The crooked roads shall become straight,
    the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’”
(Luke 3:4-6 NIV, quoting Isaiah 40:3-5)
John did not bring salvation but he brought the knowledge of salvation, and of the forgiveness of sins. When he came of age, the word of God came to him and he went out into the wilderness of Judea to began his ministry (described in Luke 3:1-18 and also in Matthew 3:1-13). He came “preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (Luke 3:3) and turned many Jews back to the way of the Lord, as the angel who first appeared to Zechariah had said he would:
And he will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, “to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,” and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. (Luke 1:16-17)
This ministry of repentance was about the kingdom of God. “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” he said (Matthew 3:2). John the Baptist did not establish the kingdom of God but he prepared the way for the King, the Messiah, whose kingdom it is:
The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. John answered them all,

“I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:15-18 NIV)
It was through the baptism of John that Jesus of Nazareth was revealed to be Messiah. When Jesus was baptized by John, the Holy Spirit descended upon Him like a dove, and the voice of the Father said, “You are My beloved Son; in You I am well pleased” (Luke 3:30). This picked up important Old Testament language and showed Jesus to be the Son of God spoken of in Psalm 2 and the divinely appointed Servant in Isaiah 42. This explicitly identified Jesus as the Messiah, and therefore as King (see Reigning King and Well Pleasing Servant).

John’s role as forerunner, then, is a very important, for he prepares the way by announcing that the kingdom of God is near and bears witness to King Jesus. Today, as followers of King Jesus, we have a similar role, declaring this good news to the nations and calling everyone to faith in Him. In this Advent season, we give witness to the first coming of Jesus into the world even as we watch for His return, when the kingdom of God is fully revealed.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Faith in the Promise Brings Expectation

Many centuries had passed since the Jews had been carried off into captivity, and although they were eventually allowed to return to their own land, they remained under foreign dominion. Even in the days of King Herod, an Idumean whose family had been converted to Judaism, the Jews were still under foreign leaders, for he was appointed by the Roman Empire and was quite tyrannical. So the Jews were in their homeland but they were not at home in their homeland — they were still in exile.

The expectation about Messiah, however, was still alive. God had spoken the promise in various ways over the centuries, and many of the various Jewish movements still looked for Him — longed for Him — though their understanding was very mixed about what it would be and how it would happen. But they knew that Messiah would come to deliver Israel and establish God’s kingdom. They had the promise of God, and to the extent they trusted Him and believed that promise, they had expectation. Because God spoke, there was hope.

And now here was Zechariah, whose faith revived very late in life, praising God for the miraculous birth of his son, John, who was somehow caught up in the fulfillment of the messianic promise (see Zechariah’s Expectation). Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah began to prophesy:
Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David.

As He spoke by the mouth of His holy prophets,
Who have been since the world began,
That we should be saved from our enemies
And from the hand of all who hate us,
To perform the mercy promised to our fathers
And to remember His holy covenant,
The oath which He swore to our father Abraham:
To grant us that we,
Being delivered from the hand of our enemies,
Might serve Him without fear,
In holiness and righteousness before Him all the days of our life.
(Luke 1:68-75)
Zechariah begins with the declaration that God has come to His people and redeemed them. Then he relates it to the promise the things spoken by the mouths of the Old Testament prophets. He recalls the covenant, the “oath” God “swore” to Abraham. He focuses on the promise of mercy and deliverance and freedom, that God’s people would be able to serve Him without fear all the days of their lives.

In short, Zechariah’s prophecy was an announcement that the time of Messiah was at hand. With his faith renewed to the promise of God, Zechariah began to understand that it was now beginning to be fulfilled — God was doing what He promised. Zechariah believed the promise and he was bursting with expectation.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Zechariah’s Expectation

Blessed is the Lord God of Israel,
For He has visited and redeemed His people,
And has raised up a horn of salvation for us
In the house of His servant David.
(Luke 1:68-69)
These are Zechariah’s first words spoken after a long silence. Nine months earlier, the angel of the Lord had appeared to him and told him that his wife Elizabeth, who was as elderly as Zechariah and well beyond child-bearing years, was going to have a baby. It was something for which Zechariah had prayed, but something for which he was not prepared. This child, the angel said, was to be called John and he would “turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. He will also go before Him in the spirit and power of Elijah, ‘to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children,’ and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord” (Luke 1:16).

“How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is well advanced in years,” Zechariah replied (v. 18). He found it hard to believe. Perhaps the prayer that was now being answered was one he had prayed many years earlier, when he was a much younger man. Perhaps a prayer he had given up on long ago and he no longer had any expectation for it. But now, suddenly, here it was finally being answered and Zechariah did not know what to say, so he said it — and spoke his unbelief.

This answer to prayer was too precious to be squandered away — it carried too great a promise — so the angel of the Lord did Zechariah a kindness and shut his mouth for him. Zechariah would be unable to speak for the duration of Elizabeth’s pregnancy. That gave him a good long while to think about his prayer for a child, the promise of the angel, and the faithfulness of God. Over those months, his faith grown cold warmed once again and a new hope began to arise within him. It was a gift from God.

Finally the child was born — a son. Friends and family thought he should be named Zechariah, after his father. But Elizabeth spoke up and said, “No, he shall be called John.” A bit of a commotion followed because there was no one among the relatives who was named John. So the friends and family made signs to Zechariah — apparently, because he was silent, they figured he must also be deaf — about what to name the child. Zechariah motioned for a tablet and wrote, “His name is John.”

Suddenly he found that he could speak again and he began praising God. Everyone now began to wonder about this child whose life had already been marked by miracles. Then Zechariah, filled with the Holy Spirit, began to prophesy: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people …”

Zechariah now realized that God was doing a mighty thing for His people, something that would change the whole world, and that somehow … somehow it had something to do with the birth of his son. And that filled him with great expectation, which came out of his mouth as prophesy. It is recorded in Luke 1:68-79 and has been prayed every morning since the early centuries of the Church. (We’ll look at more of it in the next post.)

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Advent and the Rebirth of Creation

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently. (Romans 8:22-25 NIV)
The season of Advent is a season of waiting. There is a groaning, a travailing like childbirth. There is an eagerness, an expectancy, a joyful anticipation. And there is a patience, an endurance, a perseverance, for the hope of redemption that will not be denied.

King Jesus the Messiah came two thousand years ago and changed the world, fulfilling the promises God made to His people, establishing His kingdom. The long night had come to an end and a new light was dawning for Israel and the world. One day the King will come again and bring everything to completion. Meanwhile, we live between those times, and yet also as a part of them. For we look back in celebration and we look ahead in expectation.

As in Advent, when we prepare our hearts to rejoice in the birth of Christ, so we also eagerly watch for His return. But we do not wait alone — creation itself longs for that day.
For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God. (Romans 8:21-22 NIV)
Creation longs for its liberation from bondage and decay. This liberation is related to our own redemption in Christ, the full manifestation of our own freedom and glory as the children of God. Creation groans. We groan, too, inwardly and eagerly, as we await that fullness. It will surely come, for Jesus has promised, “I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5 NIV).

Creation is waiting for that renewal, even as all who have come to faith in Christ have been made new. Paul said, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!” (2 Corinthians 5:17 NIV). For those who are in Christ, the renewal of creation has begun and we are part of it.

Through our new birth in Christ, we are part of the rebirth of creation itself. This rebirth began with the groaning of Mary and the birth of the Lord Jesus. It will be filled full when Christ comes again. Until then, we groan together with creation in patient longing.

Friday, December 5, 2014

Advent of the New Beginning

Advent is a time for thinking about the new beginning God has made for the world. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John each speak of this.

  • Matthew indicates the beginning of the new creation. We hear it resonate in the very first verse: “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ” (Matthew 1:1). The Greek words behind “book of the genealogy” (biblos geneseos) are uniquely identical to the words in the Septuagint (ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament) about the “book of the genealogy” of Adam, in Genesis 5:1. In this, Matthew reminds us that Jesus the Messiah is the new Adam, and with that a new creation.
  • Mark declares the beginning of the gospel. “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). The gospel is the announcement that the kingdom of God has come. And Jesus, Son of God, is the Anointed King. “Now after John was put in prison, Jesus came to Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel’” (Mark 1:14-15).
  • Luke tells us of the beginning of fulfillment. He writes to “set in order a narrative of those things which have been fulfilled among us” (Luke 1:1). What he is talking about are the promises God made to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which were already beginning to be fulfilled in Luke’s day. He opens, most extensively of the four Gospel writers, with the events of the Christmas story, where the notes of promise and fulfillment are clearly rung in the Benedictus (the song of Zechariah, in Luke 1:68-79) and the Magnificat (the song of Mary, in Luke 1:46-55).
  • John proclaims the beginning of God in the flesh. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). This is the beginning of the mystery of godliness. “Beyond all question,” Paul says, “the mystery from which true godliness springs is great: He appeared in the flesh, was vindicated by the Spirit, was seen by angels, was preached among the nations, was believed on in the world, was taken up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16 NIV). This mystery opens with the Word made flesh and proceeds all the way to King Jesus being “taken up in glory,” where He is enthroned at the right hand of the Father, with all authority given to Him in heaven and on earth.
The beginning of new creation, of the gospel, of the divine promises fulfilled and of God come in the flesh are not four different beginnings but four different ways of speaking about the ultimate new beginning God has brought into the world. In the season of Advent, we remember that beginning, and we celebrate it during the twelve days of Christmas, even as we wait for the return of King Jesus.

Saturday, November 29, 2014

Let Earth Receive Her King

Tomorrow is the beginning of the season of Advent, which lasts through December 24 and is then followed by 12 days of Christmas. For this season, I have written a new book, Let Earth Receive Her King: Advent, Christmas and the Kingdom of God.

Christmas is about the birth of a King — and the coming of a kingdom!

Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. Advent comes from the Latin word adventus, which means “coming.” In ancient Rome, the adventus was a ceremony in honor of the emperor, welcoming him into the city. The Christian season of Advent is a time of watching and welcoming that focuses on the coming of Jesus, God’s Anointed King, into the world.

At Christmas, we celebrate the first coming of King Jesus, when He established the kingdom of God. But we also keep an eye toward the second coming, when He will return once again and the kingdom of God will fill all the earth. In the meantime, we live between the comings as the kingdom of God increases and multiplies.

In Let Earth Receive Her King, we will explore some of the ancient promises God made to Abraham, David and the Old Testament prophets. We will also consider how the hope of Israel and the salvation of the world began to be realized two thousand years ago as we look at the Christmas story in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, and taste of the rich meaning of the Incarnation in the Gospel of John and the letters of Paul.

This book is now available at Amazon in paperback for $8.99 and Kindle for $2.99, and you can preview it here with Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.

Let us together prepare our hearts and increase our expectation about what God has done at Christmas, is doing now in this present time and will do next in the world through His kingdom — and His King, Jesus the Messiah.