The Ultimate Unexpected Gift

Thanks for reading along over these three weeks, as I reflected on some of the people who had an impact on my life. And I trust you have seen from these readings why they are dear to me. Here is a final devotional from Charles Swindoll, who was associated in prior ministry not only with Dallas Theological Seminary and was ordained at the same Dallas church as was I, but also as a pastor of an Evangelical Free Church in California …

The Ultimate Unexpected Gift

“For God loved the world so much that he gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16, NLT)

Suddenly, one raw November evening, my old tattered basketball burst. I had already patched the thing twice, which made it bounce funny, making one more patch out of the question. That’s when the hints began. I started my not-so-subtle campaign of dropping hints to my mother about my dream for a new basketball for Christmas, laced with a frenzied, painfully obvious passion for doing my chores—cheerfully!

Christmas Day never arrived so slowly. While no one was looking, I had shaken the box marked with my name enough to know that it had to contain what I had been wanting so badly—right size, right shape, right weight—everything! I tore at the wrapping and ribbon, yanked open the top, and to my disbelieving eyes there it was, A WORLD GLOBE. Looking up at me was Italy, as I recall. The exact size, shape, and weight of a basketball, but a world globe! My heart sank. Ever tried to dribble a world globe?

It was truly an unexpected gift.

What a thrill; all Christmas afternoon I had the joy of locating geographical spots my mother would call out . . . Singapore, Latvia, Montreal, New Zealand, Brazil, Moscow, Norway, and dozens of other spots around the globe. Who on earth needs a WORLD GLOBE? Little did I know back then. Little did I realize that my mother’s gift was a gift given in love—knowing it was what I needed, not what I wanted.

Just like the gift of God’s Son was to a dark and sinful world. Though they didn’t want Him, He gave His Son . . . because He knew that’s what they needed.

How things change with the passing of years. Today, my world has changed from an interest in a bouncing basketball to a needy world. What really excites me now is not a round ball but a huge globe … and the thought of people from every tongue and tribe and nation hearing about and receiving the unexpected gift of God’s love in Christ. It’s the same excitement you’ll find here at Dallas Seminary as we prepare students to offer the ultimate unexpected Gift to those who live all around this huge world globe.

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The Light of Hope

Here is one more devotional on light in the darkness, by the late Howie Hendricks …

The Light of Hope

The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it. (John 1:5, NIV)

She hurled her words from her square olive-skin face, framed in a straight, no-nonsense haircut, her large black eyes piercing each listener. A former Marxist activist, she had been a hater of Christian America, well-schooled in socialistic literature, but she wanted desperately to learn the idiomatic English which could propel her into the business world. There she intended to convert weaklings to Communism.

Her university in Mongolia employed a young, quiet-spoken American woman teaching the language she craved. Easy prey, she thought, so she sought frequent dialogues, asking numerous questions. But each answer from the teacher came back with either a quotation from the Bible or a reference to a biblical truth. At first the student tried to digest the meaning with the intent of using it against her intended adversaries, but the penetrating depth of the Bible’s take on the human condition intrigued her. One day she off-handedly asked about this special day called Christmas.

Gospel accounts, confirming prophecies about the Christ-child, not only aroused her curiosity but touched a deeply buried chord in her heart, the universal cry for hope. She had to find out more, and eventually she became a passionate disciple of Jesus Christ.

How often we blunt our versions of the Nativity: festive foods, holy masses, ritual candle ceremonies, elaborate piñatas, and Christmas trees—traditions that filter the true light shining in the darkness.

Hope born in Bethlehem must be highlighted. Let us never again exchange a gift or send a Christmas card without emphasizing that it comes because of the Light of the world. “Let your light so shine that men may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Looking at the Big Picture and Finding Hope

Here is another devotional by the incomparable Chuck Swindoll …

Looking at the Big Picture and Finding Hope

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. (Galatians 4:4–5, NASB)

That first Christmas, all eyes were on Augustus, the cynical Caesar who demanded a census so as to determine a measurement to increase taxes even further. At that time who was interested in a young couple making an eighty-mile trip south from Nazareth? What could possibly be more important than Caesar’s decisions in Rome, or his puppet Herod’s edicts in Judea? Who cared about a Jewish baby born in an obscure Bethlehem barn?

God did.

Without realizing it, mighty Augustus was only an errand boy for the commencement of “the fullness of time” (Galatians 4:4). He was a pawn in the hand of God, a mere piece of lint on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God arrived. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby.

It still does.

As they were in Jesus’ day, so our times are desperate. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economical, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for “the fullness of time” to occur, so today, in our own savage times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed, but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne.

Feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand. Times were no different when Jesus was born. Because so many lives have been turned upside down this year for one reason or another, we need to reflect on what God is doing in our lives. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves, will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face?

Political corruption, religious compromise, economic crises—these will always be on the front page. But we must remember that our God is on the throne.

He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes all around our world and deep within our lives.

A Minor Prophet with a Major Message

Here is another devotional by DTS President Mark Bailey that fits well with our current series …

A Minor Prophet with a Major Message

“AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL.” (Matt. 2:6, NASB)

Imbedded in the memory of many of us who regularly celebrate Christmas is Matthew’s quotation of Micah 5:2. “AND YOU, BETHLEHEM, LAND OF JUDAH, ARE BY NO MEANS LEAST AMONG THE LEADERS OF JUDAH; FOR OUT OF YOU SHALL COME FORTH A RULER WHO WILL SHEPHERD MY PEOPLE ISRAEL” (Matt. 2:6). What is forgotten by most is the fact that there is a second half of the verse from Micah 5:2 that was not quoted by Matthew but would have been in the minds of most Jews familiar with this minor prophet who made such a major prophecy. The second half of the verse, in fact, is what makes the first half so significant.

The second half reads: “His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Jesus did not begin with His birth in Bethlehem. While His earthly life began by means of the incarnation in Bethlehem, Jesus was the eternal Son of God who existed from all eternity. As the God-Man Jesus alone can fulfill the prophetic expectation. Only an eternal being could ever be an eternal king over an eternal kingdom as the Bible predicts will be the case. Only an absolutely righteous One could reign in righteousness, justice, and peace as both Savior and Judge. Only Jesus could fulfill the prophetic expectations to be both the Son of David and the Son of God.

Micah continues in that same chapter to state, “And He will arise and shepherd His flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD His God. And they will remain, because at that time He will be great to the ends of the earth.” Micah 5:2–4 is a directly messianic prophecy that the future King who would be born in Bethlehem and will ultimately reign as King in Jerusalem was none other than Jesus—the Son of God who became the Son of Man.

My Lord and My God

Possibly the most famous graduate of Dallas Theological Seminary is the famous radio preacher Charles “Chuck” Swindoll.  As I wrote earlier, my exposure to him was more from having served in the same Dallas church. He was president of the seminary, beginning his service officially on the day I graduated with my doctoral degree. I can tell you that he is in real life exactly the same person you hear on the radio; it is no show. Here is his devotional for today …

My Lord and My God

Thomas said to him, ‘My Lord and my God!’” (John 20:28, NIV).

This season is not joyful for everyone. Some dread it. Their melancholy memories make it hard to sing. “Joy to the World!”—not really. “How Great Our Joy!”—well, maybe for you.

Before you label me “Scrooge,” come with me to meet a first-century disciple who fits this label. When Jesus planned to raise Lazarus, He invited the Twelve to accompany Him, but this downcast soul said, “Let us go, that we may die with him” (John 11:14–16). Later, as Jesus revealed His plan to leave earth, “prepare a place,” and return to His followers, that same, sad individual sneered, “We do not know where You are going. How do we know the way?” (John 14:5).

His name was Thomas. As his colleagues leaned forward, Thomas leaned back, frowning. And wouldn’t you know it? The evening after Jesus rose and brought words of assurance, Thomas missed the meeting! When the other disciples exclaimed, “We have seen the Lord!” he blurted out, “Unless I see, I will not believe” (John 20:25).

Jesus didn’t rush back to convince Thomas. For eight full days He waited. Then suddenly Jesus returned, walked through the closed door (!), and stood directly in front of him. Without rebuke, He showed His palms and side and invited the struggler to touch scars left by spikes and a spear. That did it! Bowing, Thomas exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” (John 20:27–28).

The story doesn’t end there. It continues in this season. Consider how Jesus answered the man who finally believed: “Because you have seen Me, have you believed? Blessed are they who did not see, and believed” (John 20:28).

Are you among those who find it next to impossible to believe? Do you identify with Thomas, though you’re surrounded by Jesus’ followers? Take heart! Consider with eyes of faith the evidence. Read again the story of the Savior’s birth. Join the ranks of those who have not seen, and yet declare, “My Lord and my God!”

The Prince of Peace

I remember today’s devotional writer as a really great, practical guy. Tom Constable would oversee Christian ministry assignments we were all required to do, especially internships. My pastoral internship over the summer of 1980 involved working with a notoriously cranky pastor. And I also needed to involve a lay-leader of the church as an advisor. The pastor wrote a rather negative review of my summer ministry (true to his character), whereas the lay-leader (who later became the pastor of that church) wrote a glowing report. Back in Dallas, Constable called me into his office for a final review and told me he had never seen such contradictory reports. Describing the situation on the ground at my internship church (very complicated after the tragic death of the former senior pastor), he just said, “Very good, let’s spend some time praying for this man and this church.”  Such a good guy … and here’s his devotional from 2011, still practical for today …

The Prince of Peace

“For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called … Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, NASB).

2011 has been unusually chaotic—earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, tornadoes, wars, revolutions, skyrocketing national debt, economic hard times, and widespread unemployment.

At the end of such a year, it’s especially comforting to remember that God promised to provide us with a Prince of Peace, a ruler who would epitomize peace and bring peace to our troubled world. Isaiah described this One as a Prince, a ruler under the authority of another, even God the Father. An outstanding mark of His rule would be peace. The Hebrew word translated “peace” is “shalom,” which means the fullness of well-being, freedom from anxiety, goodwill, and harmony in relationships—not just the absence of hostility. “Shalom” comes from a root meaning “to be whole or complete.” The Prince of Peace would Himself possess a perfectly integrated, well‑rounded personality, and be at peace with God and man.

When Jesus Christ came to this earth, He provided peace with God by bearing the sins of humankind and dying in our place (Romans 5:1). He made peace through the blood of His cross, and His self‑sacrifice reconciled all things to God—all creation, including people (Colossians 1:20).  When Christ returns to the earth, He will bring global peace, having done the work necessary to establish it when He died. Then the nations “will hammer their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not lift up sword against nation, and never again will they learn war” (Isaiah 2:4). Having removed the cause of war—sin and enmity between God and man (Romans 5:11)—people will live in peace with God and with one another forever (Isaiah 9:7).

Peace has come and will come to us because a Child was born. We must go to Him to find peace. Come, Lord Jesus!

Light out of Darkness

Perhaps the best-known of all Dallas teachers is the famous Howie Hendricks. He was a character!  Being from the northeast, he could be a bit frontal in conversation, though in a most humorous fashion. Early in the time of my service as worship pastor at Grace Bible Church, a young woman in the church with a similar vocal training background as my own was insistent that we needed to perform a particular duet. We rehearsed it right before church, and I was not sure it sounded that great. I was concerned. The guest speaker that morning was Howie. So I ran into the pastor’s office for a final prayer before the service began (a weekly event), and was quickly introduced personally to “Prof.”  Still distracted by my musical concerns, I must have had a vacuous look on my face, because he squeezed my hand tightly and looked closely into my eyes and said, “So, are you with it today, or not!!??”  It was an embarrassing moment. “Oh, yes… yes… I’m fine… just concerned about a potentially stinky special song today.”  We all laughed. But I have no memory about how the song turned out.

Here is Howie Hendricks’ devotional …

Light out of Darkness

“In him was life, and that life was the light of men” (John 1:4, NIV).

DARKNESS. Deep below the earth’s surface, lights went out as the tour guide in Carlsbad Caverns reminded us: this is total blackout. With no speck of light anywhere, all sense of direction was lost. It echoed the opening words of the Bible, “… darkness was over the surface of the deep.” No life, no growth could be sustained. Then “God said, ‘Let there be light’ and there was light” (Genesis 1:3).

No scientist can adequately explain the origin of light; we know only that we have it and it leads the thinker to ask: How? Who? What does it mean for me? Yes, I can see physically, but how do I know intuitively what is my next best move? My eyes see, but I struggle with private doubts. Is there a way to do life right, and what about the hereafter?

CHRISTMAS. The light shines in the darkness. Jesus, the babe of Bethlehem, the true eye opener, declared, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Just as God provided light for the physical creation, He revealed His solution for spiritual blindness. John’s Gospel illuminates the core truth: this same Person who first brought physical light into the world is the same One who came to offer spiritual sight.

SOLUTION. Our spiritually dark world, groping for stability, stumbles into repeated disaster. Through His written word we see inner light. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path” (Psalm 119:105). No one need flounder in our world’s present insecurity. “For God, who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ” (2 Corinthians 4:6).

King of Kings and Lord of Lords

Today’s devotional was written by New Testament Literature and Exegesis (i.e. “Greek”) professor David Lowery. Professors have a reputation of being a bit austere and detached. But not David; he was an immensely personable and approachable fellow. I especially appreciated him as he was my primary advisor for my master’s program and thesis.

King of Kings and Lord of Lords

“And on His robe and on His thigh He has a name written, ‘KING OF KINGS, AND LORD OF LORDS’” (Revelation 19:16, NASB)

Adorning the stairway wall of the main academic building on campus is a large etched glass print with these words: “All hail the power of Jesus’ name! Let angels prostrate fall; Bring forth the royal diadem, And crown Him Lord of all.”  We usually sing this hymn at the opening and closing of the school year. In fact, the 2011 commencement program refers to it as “the seminary hymn.” The inspiration for this hymn comes in part from this passage in Revelation that portrays Jesus crowned with “many crowns” (19:12).

The theme of Jesus as King is a particular feature of the first and last book of the New Testament. Matthew records the visit of the magi from the East, seeking “the one who has been born king of the Jews. We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him” (Matthew 2:2). They found him in Bethlehem and presented their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh (2:11). They were surely right to recognize him as the king of the Jews, the long-awaited Son of David, the fulfillment of Israel’s promised Messiah. He was that, but He was much more. As the voices in heaven declare in the last book of the New Testament: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign for ever and ever” (Revelation 11:15).

These words have become a special part of the Christmas season as the choral refrain in Handel’s wonderful oratorio, “Messiah.” In addition to the words of Revelation 11:15, the “Hallelujah Chorus” uses the words of Revelation 19:16, “King of kings, and Lord of lords,” to great effect. The pitch rises as the choir sings the fourfold refrain, “King of kings! And Lord of lords!” and culminates in a fivefold “Hallelujah!” It is little wonder that for over 250 years audiences have risen to stand as the chorus is sung. It is the anticipation of a coming day when “a great multitude that no one can count, from every nation, tribe, people and language” will stand before the throne in celebration of God’s salvation (Revelation 7:9–10). How blessed to be a part of that company on that wonderful day. Hallelujah!

Call His Name Jesus

Today’s devotional was written by beloved professor Dwight Pentecost (why could nor I have had a cool name like that?).  Dr. P. – as he was called by everyone – was a biblical scholar extraordinaire, particularly on the gospels and on the subject of eschatology (last times teachings). He was also a long-time pastor of the church where I was on staff and was ordained (though he was not the lead pastor at the time of my service there).  Dr. P. was a major influence on Chuck Swindoll – who was on the staff of the church with him a decade or so before I arrived there.

Call His Name Jesus

“And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name JESUS” (Luke 1:31, NKJV).

The angel Gabriel was sent to announce to a virgin, “you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son” who was in truth the eternal coexistent Son of the Highest (Luke 1:32). He was coming to earth in human form as the Son of Man. To emphasize His true humanity his parents were instructed, “you shall call His name Jesus” (Luke 1:31; Matthew 1:21). He was in fact both Son of God and Son of Man, undiminished deity and true humanity, God and man, but one person, God/man. The name “Jesus” stresses His humanity and His identity with the human race. He is Jesus.

Jesus spent thirty years in His father’s carpentry shop. He experienced work. He can identify with us in our work-a-day life. He understands what we face in that world. He is Jesus.

He knew what it was to be forsaken and rejected even by His “familiar friend.” He experienced the emotional stresses that we can experience. He understands our loneliness from experience. He is Jesus.

He knows what it is to be tested. He confronted the tempter in the wilderness who employed the three means at his disposal to test Jesus: the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life (1 John 2:16). So trying was the conflict that when it was over, “angels came and ministered to Him” (Matthew 4:11). He understands our need when we are tested and tempted and is able to provide help because of what He went through. He is Jesus.

We can say with assurance that there is no need we have, no test we endure, and no experience that comes to us that He does not understand. For as truly human, He has experienced them all. “We do not have a great High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted (tested) as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). He is Jesus.

There is added significance to the name Jesus, for it is the Greek counterpart of the Hebrew Joshua, the one who succeeded Moses and led Israel out of their forty-year wilderness experience into the rich blessings of their inheritance in the Land of Promise. Jesus, as another Joshua, will bring Israel into her covenanted land to enjoy its blessings. He is Jesus.

In order to provide salvation for sinners, the accumulated debt sin incurred must be paid in full. This required that either the guilty must pay their debt, or it must be paid on their behalf by a substitute. The substitute must be identified with those for whom He is a substitute. To meet this requirement the Son of God took to Himself true humanity so as to pay sin’s debt as one of us (2 Corinthians 5:21). Had there been no Jesus, there would have been no death to pay our debt. We have a gracious salvation offered to us because the Son of the Almighty became JESUS.

EXALT THE NAME OF JESUS

The Purple Dress and a Text of Scripture

The devotional today was written by a much-beloved Church History professor named John Hannah. He is on the first handful of the smartest people I’ve ever known. We had some similar backgrounds, and he and his wife became our friends during our Dallas years. The daughter that he speaks of in this devotional was in my wife Diana’s 1st grade class when she was a teacher in a Christian school in Dallas. Hannah’s devotional reflects back to the time when he himself was a student at the seminary …

The Purple Dress and a Text of Scripture

For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (Isaiah 9:6, NASB)

The apartment on Swiss Avenue was rather bare, our plight being little different than many others pursuing graduate studies. Christmas was upon us, and we welcomed into the world our firstborn just three days before; our Rebecca came home from Baylor Hospital the day before Christmas day wrapped in a red Christmas stocking.

I thought, “This is the greatest season of the year, a day of celebration, a day of sharing.” What could a dad and mom give to a three-day-old? We bought for her a purple dress, compelled to express our thankfulness for our gift. On Christmas day we placed Rebecca under our tree, we got the decorations from a discounter down on Industrial Avenue, and laid the dress beside her.

Christmas is a time of expressing gratitude, and what a special gift we had been given. Decades have now passed and that little one is a lady with her own family. However, that purple dress, that she never wore, hangs in her closet. It is a symbol and much more.

Rejoicing over the gift of life and the dress filled us with delight, but the day was far more than that. What could we give to Him who gave us life? We had in our apartment an unusable fireplace with a little mantle over it. We found a large piece of white construction paper, inscribed a text of Scripture upon it, and hung it. The text was Isaiah 9:6.

Many Christmases have come and gone, but that one was “the best Christmas ever.” We celebrated the gift of a child to us, a daughter, and we celebrated the gift of a child for us, the Lord Jesus Christ. The One who is life gave us life, a life to share and a life to possess. It was the best Christmas ever.