Christmas Eve

(If this day happens to be the fourth Sunday in Advent, read the latter devotion in the morning and this one in the evening.)

Isaiah 52:1-12; Luke 2:1-20

O Holy Night

It’s the most special night of the year, is it not?  Yes, I’m aware that in our culture that might have more to do with Santa Claus and gifts under the tree.  I’m not opposed to such; my family does the same things.  But for the Christian who reflects on this night, it is the most holy of all.

This chapter from Isaiah anticipates a similar account from the Book of Revelation 21:25-26: “There will be no night there … Nothing unclean will ever enter it, nor anyone who does what is detestable or false, but only those who are written in the Lamb’s book of life.”  It is the beauty of heaven where God makes all things new and wipes away every tear from our eyes (21:4-5).  Isaiah 52 marks the time when all is accomplished and God will have finally redeemed His people.

And this brings us to that passage that we have been waiting for all of Advent season: Luke 2.  This was the night the world had been waiting for since that first sin in the Garden.  This was the seed of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head (Genesis 3:15).  But he is also the Son of God wrapped in human flesh, taking upon himself our body, our mind, our will, our affections, and joining everything of our humanity to his divinity, and all for our salvation.  And what is so striking is the humility of it all: a poor man and woman who have to find shelter in a stable (actually, a cave), a baby lying in an animal’s feeding trough, outcast shepherds as their first houseguests – if this happened today, someone would call the county’s welfare agency.  But this was God’s will: the Son of God became a son of man, that sons of men might become sons of God.  And so majesty wrapped itself in humility, and divinity in humanity.  The first Adam is recapitulated in the Last Adam, and Eve in Mary.  The story will be relived, not in a perfect garden, but in a sinful world.  The Last Adam will have greater trials than the first ever had, greater temptations, greater struggles.  But the Last Adam will conquer, for he has the Spirit without measure (John 3:34).  His divine nature will give infinite worth to his human actions, especially thirty years later on a cross.

This is how our God defines glory: a baby, poor parents, a manger, shepherds, and later, scourging, a crown of thorns, and a cross.  This is the humility of our God.  Indeed, it’s quite humbling of God to let us live with Him for all eternity.  But it does not stop there.  One day we shall see Him in all His glory: the display of His divine attributes in the beauty of His holiness.

December 23 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 51:1-23

Look to the Rock

Here is a chapter for the ages, one of hope and salvation.  It is fitting that these closing chapters of Advent should close with shouts of joy over our God and His Servant, for He is the God who saves.

The beginning of the chapter tells us to “look to the rock from which you were hewn, and to the quarry from which you were dug.”  Then Isaiah speaks of Abraham and Sarah and how the Lord multiplied their number into a great nation (Israel).  As Christians we should also look to the rock from which we were hewn. Certainly we too are children of Abraham according to the promise (Galatians 3:29).  But we look to a better Rock, Jesus Christ (Romans 9:33, 1 Corinthians 10:4).  He, himself, is the Word of God (John 1:1), and it is upon this word that the Church is founded.  Isaiah declares, “The heavens vanish like smoke, the earth will wear out like a garment … but my salvation will be forever, and my righteousness will never be dismayed.”  Thus, it is the Lord to whom the Christian looks.  He is our peace, our righteousness, our word, our hope.  Men may do terrible things to us, but we are reminded that the Lord “cut Rahab [ancient Egypt] in pieces,” “pierced the dragon,” and “dried up the sea.”  As Christians, we would say that he is the Lord who came down from heaven, was made man, lived our life yet without sin, gave himself for us on the cross, and was raised for our justification that we too may rise one day, and who will one day come again to judge the living and the dead.  This is our “Rock from which we were hewn,” and we will never trade this Rock for another.

Verse twelve and following turns to comfort.  Yes, God’s people are often bowed down and despised.  Those in Muslim and Communist lands especially know this.  There are times when we stagger and faint.  Trials have a way of breaking us sometimes – and that’s not always a bad thing.  But the Lord promises to change such misfortunes: The Lord “pleads the cause of his people: ‘Behold I have taken from your hand the cup of staggering; the bowl of my wrath you shall drink no more; and I will put it into the hand of your tormentors.’”  In his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul commends the church which “turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come” (1:9-10, emphases added). This is the task of the believer – to wait for his Son from heaven, who delivers us from the wrath to come.  Allow this waiting for his coming (his second advent) to encourage you during trial and prepare you for heaven.

December 22 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 50:1-11

The Faithfulness of the Servant

Isaiah 50 continues the theme of the Servant of the Lord and contrasts the faithful servant with faithless Israel.  The chapter begins with the Lord asking rhetorical questions: “Where is your mother’s certificate of divorce, with which I sent her away?  Or which of my creditors is it to whom I have sold you?”  But it was not really the Lord who divorced or sold Israel: “Behold, for your iniquities you were sold, and for your transgressions your mother was sent away.”  In other words, Israel’s divorce from her husband (the Lord) was her own doing.  We cannot hope to remain in our sins and serve the Lord.  He intends to save us from our sins, not in them.  And even yet, the Lord still calls.  The problem is that no one answers.  His arm is not too short to save, and the Lord rehearses his mighty power over rivers, the seas, and the heavens to prove it.

Then enters the Servant in 50:4ff.  He begins: “The Lord God has given me the tongue of those who are taught, that I may know how to sustain with a word him who is weary.  Morning by morning he awakens; he awakens my ear to hear as those who are taught.”  We are reminded of what they said of Jesus when he walked among us: “And all spoke well of him and marveled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Luke 4:22).  And in John 8:28, we read where Jesus himself says, “I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me.”  So our Lord in the New Testament fulfills what Isaiah prophesied more than six hundred years before.  What we see here is the marvelous work of the Triune God – the Father sending the Son who speaks the words and does the work of the Father, the Father and the Son then sending the Holy Spirit to confirm the word that the Father has spoken through the Son.

And then there is the comparison of the faithful Servant with faithless Israel: “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious; I turned not backward … I have set my face like a flint.”  Then is the description of the Servant that so corresponds with what our Lord Jesus endured: stripes on his back, spitting in his face, even pulling out of his beard (though the latter is not recorded in the gospels).  Yet, he says that it is the Lord (the Father) who sustains him, helps him, and vindicates him.  Those who stand against the Servant and seek their own light without him will finally lie down in their own torment.  But this need not be.  The Father sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but to save it (John 3:17).  The divorce need not be final; the debt can be paid – and it was, by the Servant, on the cross.

December 21 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 49:1-26

Enter the Servant of the Lord

We are in the season of Advent, but I think I have often become so absorbed in the passage I was working with that I forgot to make application to the season.  Forgive me.  But I am now reminded why these passages were chosen for this season as we now come upon the “Servant of the Lord” chapters in Isaiah.  These are extremely important as they refer to the Coming One, which is what Advent is all about.

Who is the Servant of the Lord?  It has been suggested that it is the nation of Israel, or at least a remnant thereof.  There is truth in this assertion.  Certainly the passage indicates as much as it speaks of gathering many children after a time of bereavement, a prophecy of the nation’s redemption, as her people return after the long exile so many Jews experienced.  There is also the prophecy of the nations coming to Israel willingly, though as conquered foes.  Thus, there is much to commend such an interpretation, and it seems certain that the original hearers of Isaiah’s message would have understood it in such a way.

I am one who believes that a passage of Scripture can have more than one reference, however.  There is no doubt that in the light of the New Testament and the gospel that the “Servant of the Lord” is also our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.  The entire chapter encompasses not only the nation of Israel but the gentiles as well.  The Servant was to be “a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth.”  The Servant is also “deeply despised, abhorred by the nations.”  And then we have the beautiful, “I have engraved you on the palms of my hands.”  Does this not anticipate Isaiah 53 where the Servant is “wounded for our transgressions?”

Speaking theologically, let us illustrate the truth of what I am saying with an hourglass.  At the top of the hourglass is the whole nation of Israel, perhaps under David.  But the kingdom was divided such that in time all that was left was Judah.  Then Judah was carried off into captivity so that all that was left was a remnant of Judah.  We see the hourglass getting narrower as it moves down.  Finally, the glass reaches the middle where all that is left of Israel is the Chosen One, that is, Christ, himself.  But since his death and resurrection, now the hourglass begins to widen again: first the gospel is received in Jerusalem, then Judea and Samaria, then the uttermost parts of the earth (Acts 1:8).  Christ is the Servant of the Lord and the Church gathers in the nations coming to him.  This is the hope of Advent.

December 20 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 48:1-22

God Forgives for the Sake of His Glory

This whole chapter reminds us of the Lord’s mercy for a faithless people, people who “from birth … were called a rebel.”  God does everything for His people.  He even declares things “of old” so that when the event prophesied comes to pass the people won’t be able to say that it was their idol that did it.  God even suggests that the purpose of prophecy (announcing things ahead of time) is to convict people who are obstinate, with necks of iron.  That is, God’s people are so obstinate that God has to proclaim his miraculous deeds ahead of time and then do them or else they will never believe.  It’s a chapter that tells us who we are as sinful people – born in sin and living in sin and unbelief.

So what does God do in this situation?  Surely, He executes judgment.  And He does.  Yet, it is never a complete judgment in which His people are annihilated.  The Lord says in verse nine: “For my name’s sake I defer my anger, for the sake of my praise I restrain it for you, that I may not cut you off.”  And then, “Behold, I have refined you, but not as silver; I have tried you in the furnace of affliction.  For my own sake, for my own sake, I do it, for how should my name be profaned?  My glory I will not give to another.”  In these verses the Lord tells us why He is merciful, why He refines His people, why He never makes a complete end of them – for His own sake, for His own glory!  Lest some think this narcissistic of God, they should bear in mind that when God considers His glory it seems to lead to our acquittal.  This is why Jesus called his passion his glory (John 12:20-36).

And then there is what seems a cryptic remark in 48:14-16.  The Lord calls His people to assemble.  He speaks of someone He loves who will fulfill His purpose for Babylon, which is judgment.  Some believe the text refers to the Persian king, Cyrus, who defeated Babylon.  But the passage goes on about this “loved one.”  Then, Isaiah 48:16: “Draw near to me, hear this: from the beginning I have not spoken in secret, from the time it came to be I have been there.  And now the Lord has sent me and his Spirit.”  Does not, “From the time it came to be I have been there,” remind one of “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God” (John 1:1-2)?  And the sending of the Spirit is explicitly spoken of in the same gospel in 16:5-15, primarily of the sending of the Spirit.  Is not this passage in Isaiah a reference to our Triune God who reveals this to us here in the Old Testament? Indeed, He speaks nothing in secret but declares mysterious things from of old.

December 19 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 47:1-15

The Not-Sovereign Babylon

Yes, I know the title of today’s devotion hardly rolls off the tongue, but it expresses the contrast to the theme of the last two days which was God’s sovereignty or rule/dominion over the world.  The miraculous thing here is that Isaiah is prophesying the fall of Babylon even before its rise which was still one-hundred fifty plus years from Isaiah’s time.  At any rate, the Lord reveals to Isaiah the pride of ancient Babylon and the judgment He would pour out upon her.  We have seen this prophesied numerous times before in other passages of Scripture – a dominant world power is to be ground to the dust – and history reveals that ancient Babylon eventually was.

But in this passage, it seems that Babylon’s pride and claim to be God is what is highlighted and judged.  Isaiah prophesies: “Now therefore hear this, you lover of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children.’”  But then comes the word, “These two things shall come to you in a moment, in one day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure.”  Again, “You felt secure in your wickedness, you said, ‘No one sees me’: your wisdom and your knowledge led you astray, and you said in your heart, ‘I am, and there is no one besides me.’ But evil shall come upon you, which you will not know how to charm away.”  Then the Lord taunts Babylon, “Stand fast in your enchantments and your many sorceries … perhaps you may be able to succeed … You are wearied with your many counsels; let them stand forth and save you.”

Ecclesiastes 7:29 tells us “See, this alone I found, that God made man upright, but they have sought out many schemes.”  Earthly knowledge and wisdom, power, enchantments – they all come to naught before Almighty God.  Babylon was merely a tool in God’s hands to chasten his people.  And naturally as power-hungry and vicious men, they showed no mercy, even on the aged.  They conquered and destroyed as the empires of this world are ever doing.  But they do not know that God, Himself, has “determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God” (Acts 17:26-27; emphasis added).  But they don’t.  Nevertheless, the hardness of men’s hearts and blindness of men’s eyes do not nullify God’s sovereign will.  Babylon was not sovereign; Rome was not sovereign; the United States is not sovereign; and, most important, I am not sovereign.  For that, I am grateful.  Let us rejoice this Advent season that we wait for the coming of the King of kings and Lord of lords.

December 18 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 46:1-13

Only He Is God

“I am God, and there is no other; I am God and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, ‘my counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose,’ … I have spoken, and I will bring it to pass; I have purposed, and I will do it.”

Isaiah 46 is a chapter of comfort as it follows chapter 45 and the theme of God’s sovereignty, even adding irony to the mix.  It begins with a picture of Bel and Nebo, two of the chief gods of the Babylonians, being carried on beasts of burden.  If the beast stoops or stumbles, the idols fall.  Together, beast and idol go into captivity.  In contrast, the Lord of Israel has carried Israel from before birth, from the womb, even to old age: “I have made, and I will bear; I will carry, and will save.”  So the Lord of Israel, Maker of heaven and earth, has carried His people, while Bel and Nebo must be carried aloft and even fall into the dust.  Then the sheer stupidity of idolatry is shown: a rich man buys gold and silver that a goldsmith may fashion for him an idol.  He falls down and worships it, though it must be carried, though it must be set in its place, though it cannot move, though it cannot answer, though it cannot save.

And here is the essence of sin, even the primal sin.  Sin is ultimately idolatry.  It is the placing of myself in God’s stead and my saying to God, “I will have matters my way.”  God said, “You may partake of any tree in the garden, but not of that one.”  But I said, “I do not want the other trees in the garden; I will have that one.  God said, “You may have this woman to love and cherish for the rest of your life.”  But I said, “No, I’ll have this man’s wife as well.”  God said, “Be content with all the blessings I have bestowed upon you.”  But I said, “No. I must have more, even if that means others must go without.”  Sin is me shaking my fist at God and demanding my own way, putting myself on the pedestal, serving myself at the expense of others.  Idolatry is always self-worship, for we fashion the idol to suit our passions; that is, the idol we worship always looks a lot like ourselves as it approves our selfish desires and misdeeds.  Thus idolatry is rooted in pride as we say with Satan, “I will be God!”  And like Bel and Nebo, we stumble and fall. But the foolishness of such thinking is plainly obvious.  Peace comes to the trembling heart when it hears that there is one true God that has revealed Himself as the sovereign God of our Lord Jesus Christ, who hears, answers, guides, and saves.  He carries us, and on Him we wait.

December 17 in Advent

(If this day is the Fourth Sunday in Advent, please refer to that day

in the list of devotions.)

Isaiah 45:1-25

Israel’s Sovereign God

“I am the LORD, and there is no other, besides me there is no God” (vss. 5, 18).  This is the theme of this chapter.  And to back up this claim, God (the God of Israel, that is, the One whose name is the LORD, or Yahweh, or just plain, I Am – who is identified in the New Testament as the God and Father of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ – that God) presents his resume: He creates light and darkness, well-being and calamity, the heavens and the earth, all the peoples and their ways.  He speaks the truth and declares what is right.  There is nothing He cannot do; indeed, there is nothing that has happened that He has not done.  The Lord asks rhetorically: “Does the clay say to him who forms it, ‘What are you making?’ or ‘Your work has no handles?’”  The Apostle Paul takes up this very verse and topic in Romans 9.

The sovereignty of God is a great mystery of the faith.  By “sovereignty,” we mean His dominion and control.  God rules over all.  He decrees what will take place ahead of time.  No, he doesn’t just know what will happen ahead of time; He wills what will happen ahead of time, which makes it certain to come to pass.  This is why there were prophets and prophecies: what point would there be in these if God did not decree what He willed to take place?  Because God is sovereign, the chapter begins with God’s calling and anointing of Cyrus, the Persian king (a pagan to be sure but God can use anyone He wishes) who would allow the Jews to return to Jerusalem.  Here, Isaiah prophesies the event almost 200 years before it happened.

This doctrine of God’s sovereignty is difficult.  Perhaps this is why Isaiah says, “You are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”  No, God does not violate our freedom of will; He uses our wills to fulfill His will by wooing or turning us this way or that, according to our natures.  God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, but Pharaoh was more than willing to be hardened; Judas must betray Jesus to fulfill the Scriptures, but he was willing to do just that.  Though some struggle with it, the purpose of this doctrine is to comfort believers.  We are not to pry too deeply into it, but accept it as given.  I, for one, cannot live in a world of chance, where we are merely billiard balls bouncing off of one another.  This teaching of Scripture lets me know that nothing happens without His will, and as Paul said centuries later: “We know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28).  And so God can say in v. 23, “To me every knee shall bow, and every tongue shall swear allegiance,” as recorded again in Phil. 2:10.

The Fourth Sunday in Advent

(Regardless if this day is after December 16, this Sunday takes precedence

over the date it falls on.)

Isaiah 7:10-14; Luke 1:26-56; Matthew 1:18-25

One of the Greatest Mysteries of Our Faith

Reading these three passages of Scripture, the teaching that jumps out at me is the miracle and mystery of the virgin birth.  This doctrine has been with the Church from the beginning, and prophesied by Isaiah more than six hundred years prior to the event.  Yes, I know there are those who would call it a myth that grew up early in the Church’s history, but if this is a myth then why not the resurrection? If so, our faith is empty, we are dead in our sins, and have no hope (1 Corinthians 15:12-19).  Our faith must rest on the word of God, not on what our eyes can see and our minds comprehend.

What is the meaning of the virgin birth?  The virgin birth testifies to an even greater mystery – that the Son of God, who is of the same substance as the Father, who was with the Father in the beginning, who was, is, and ever shall be, God (John 1:1-18) – this One came down and took upon himself human nature made available from Mary’s womb, and especially superintended and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.  In this most marvelous event, all the promises which the prophets had prophesied were set in motion – the promised Messiah was coming, but not on clouds of glory (that is yet to come), but in the form of man – God in the flesh, fully human and fully divine, one person in two natures, one with us and one with God.

But why?  What is the purpose of this?  The answer is simple – our salvation.  And how does this act of God save us?  The principle underneath this doctrine is that man has sinned his way out of God’s favor.  Sin really is a big deal.  And it is a big deal because of another principle that underlies this plan of salvation, which is that God is a holy God.  God can no more sweep our sin under the rug than a wife could her husband’s infidelity.  Sin has consequences.  The problem was (and is) that we can’t fix it.  It’s not just that we commit sin; we are born sinners with a sinful nature.  We can never not sin in this life.  We fail God’s law. Be it a command about a tree in a garden or the Ten Commandments, we shake our fist at God.  But God so loved us that He decided to do something about this problem Himself – that His Son would assume our nature, live our life without sin (Hebrews 4:15), and then take our place as the sacrificial Lamb on the cross (which is what the Old Testament sacrifices foreshadowed all along), and then rise again in victory over sin and death.  This is the fulfillment of the first prophecy after the fall in Genesis 3:15 – that the seed of the woman would crush the serpent’s head.  And the greater purpose of all of this, even greater than our salvation, is that it redounds to God’s glory, which is the purpose of everything God does.  And it begins with a virgin betrothed to a man; so earthy, so humble – God becomes man.

Friday in the Third Week of Advent

(If this day occurs after December 16, please refer to that date in the

list of devotions.)

Isaiah 34:1-35:10

A Contrast of Two Kingdoms

Isaiah 34 and 35 show a marked contrast between two kingdoms.  Isaiah 34 displays God’s judgment on the nations which shall come in the latter days.  No doubt, God judges nations even now; after all, where is the Roman Empire today, or the glory of ancient Greece, or Persia, or Babylon, or Assyria, or Egypt, and on and on?  Nations come and go; the word of the Lord abides forever (Isaiah 40:8).  Here in Isaiah 34 is a graphic depiction of our Lord’s coming judgment, which again is the theme of Advent – the coming of the Lord.  For some, it is a day of rejoicing; for others, a day of mourning as the wrath of God is finally poured out on sinful mankind.  “The Lord is enraged against all the nations, and furious against all their host; he has devoted them to destruction, has given them over for slaughter … The Lord has a sword; it is sated with blood.”  The description of desolation that follows reminds one of the judgment of “Babylon” in Revelation 18:21-24: the sounds of the harp and flute, of craftsmen, of the mill, of bride and bridegroom, of merchants – in short, the sound of anything will no longer be heard, for the Lord has come and executed his just wrath upon the nations.

But it does not end there.  Isaiah 34:8 tells us that the execution of God’s wrath on the nations is his “day of vengeance, a year of recompense for the cause of Zion,” that is, God’s people.  Isaiah 35 then spells out that wonderful new kingdom of healing and restoration: “Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then shall the lame man leap like a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy.”  We saw this in our Lord’s ministry at his first coming, when he came in humility and worked signs and wonders.  But they did not believe in him.  But next time he comes shall be the inauguration of his visible reign, in which “the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water … no lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come upon it.”  In other words, in that Messianic kingdom for which we long, all shall be made right again; even nature itself, which was subjected to futility because of our sin (Romans 8:19-22), shall slough off its curse and readily comply with our Lord’s command for our well-being.  The passage speaks of the Redeemed coming to “Zion” with singing, and “everlasting joy shall be upon their heads.”  But let us not overlook the highway that brings us to the city: “And it shall be called the Way of Holiness.”  It is holiness that gets us there – the holiness that covers us through the substitutionary death of our Lord Jesus Christ, and our growth in that holiness as we are sanctified by walking with Him (Ephesians 2:10; 2 Peter 3:18).  There is no other way.