Living the Wonder: The Breathtaking Destiny of Christ’s Love

(Randy writing)  This final of four Christmas devotionals is by our dear church friend Bill Kesecker. We thank him for these deep insights upon Scripture that dig into our souls. It is such a blessing for a church to have such wonderful servants as Bill — a guy who would be your top draft pick on your Bible trivia team, but who also humbly serves well with children and teens. Do thank him when you see him.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

You probably noticed that I switched “deep” with “high.”  I have followed John Stott’s reflections on what these four words mean in the context of Paul’s prayer, or considered whether they simply express the sweeping vastness of the love of Christ by building noun upon noun.  I think both are true; either/or just doesn’t really account for the big Gospel that Paul sees in Jesus Christ.  I think that Stott saw the flow of deep and high fitting his reasoning and sensibilities, for, if the love of Christ reaches the depths for a degraded sinner, so also the love of Christ exalts to the heights that sinner who is declared righteous in Jesus and who will be glorified for all eternity.  Well, let’s dive once more into the wonder of the love of Christ.

That’s an interesting word, glorify!  Glorification is “the final step in the application of redemption” (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology:  An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, p. 829).  What’s particularly interesting is the grammar of Romans 8:29-30:  “For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.”  Every one of the verbs bolded is in the aorist, or past, tense in the Greek New Testament.  But clearly, if “glorified” is the FINAL step in the application of redemption, is it not yet future?  And, the answer is “Yes.”  So, how can Paul speak of a future event as past completed?!  Paul did not fail Greek class.  He knew what he was asserting.

Paul was affirming to the believers at Rome and to us that the salvation we have in Jesus Christ rests on God’s plan and work, not ours.  God can guarantee that the work that he has accomplished in Jesus could be completed, would be completed, was completed, has been completed, and will be completed.  Paul can speak of that work of salvation in us who trust in Jesus as totally completed.  Salvation rests one hundred percent on the finished, sufficient, and accomplished work of Jesus Christ!  God does go deep to find a sinner and will go high to exalt him to his very presence now and forever.

I would like to make an observation here about sinners.  I know that I have referred to the degraded sinner in these devotions.  I want to take care to note that the Gospel of Jesus puts me in every list of sins in the Bible.  It doesn’t make any difference what your or my perceptions may be about how good I am.  Bill Kesecker is not good enough to be accepted by God as righteous.  My hope is in Jesus Christ alone.  My heavenly welcome will be the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ whom I trust as my Savior and only Righteousness.  If you are measuring your life by me or by some other man or woman, STOP IT!  The comparison is empty, futile, and worthless.  Find your hope in Jesus Christ!  And, he’s looking for you right now, “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10 NIV).

Frederick M. Lehman penned “The Love of God” in 1917, capturing something of Paul’s vision of the love of Christ Jesus.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell.
It goes beyond the highest star
And reaches to the lowest hell.
The guilty pair, bowed down with care,
God gave His Son to win;
His erring child He reconciled
And pardoned from his sin.

O love of God, how rich and pure! How measureless and strong!

It shall forevermore endure—The saints’ and angels’ song.

Let me give William Cowper one more word.  Scriptures tell us, “It is written:  ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God’” (Matthew 4:4 NIV).  In his terrible struggles in life, Cowper learned the fragility and unfaithfulness of human needs, senses, and emotions.  Hear his advice:

God moves in a mysterious way, his wonders to perform; he plants his footsteps in the sea, and rides upon the storm.

Deep in unfathomable mines, of never-failing skill; he fashions up his bright designs, and works his sovereign will.

Ye fearful saints fresh courage take, the clouds that you much dread, are big with mercy and will break in blessings on your head.

Judge not the Lord by feeble sense, but trust him for his grace; behind a frowning providence, he hides a smiling face.

His purposes will ripen fast, unfolding every hour; the bud may have a bitter taste, but sweet will be the flower.

Blind unbelief is sure to err, and scan his work in vain; God is his own interpreter, and he will make it plain.

–“God Moves in a Mysterious Way,” by William Cowper

Well, Friends, we’re on a journey if we are following Jesus.  It’s long, sometimes hard.  We need prayer, and this week we have looked at one of the most extraordinary prayers ever:  “that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.”

Remarkable!

“Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”

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Living the Wonder: The Deep Dive of Christ’s Love

This devotional today is the third of four written by Bill Kesecker for this Christmas season …

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

Well, the plans for going to the Grand Canyon are taking shape.  A reservation is in.  Fees have been paid.  No guarantees that I’ll be accepted for the trip, but I’m moving ahead!  God willing, I’m going down deep into the Grand Canyon!

Last summer I broke my left kneecap, after a very aggressive and tough fought round of miniature golf with two other fierce competitors.  How in the world do you break your kneecap playing miniature golf?!  You wouldn’t even make that up!  It felt embarrassing to explain!  On my next to the last visit, after the doctor had finished looking at the X-rays, I told him about my plans and asked, “Will I be able still to go to the Grand Canyon, and hike in and out?”  His words were polite; his look told more, like, “You’re OLD, you’re CRAZY.”   His eyes spoke expressively and LOUDLY!  But, his voice replied, “Yes, you should be able to do this.”  Then, he said something to the effect, “But, did you know there are 3000’ drop offs?”  I don’t know exactly why he threw that in.  I mean as long as I am not what is “dropping off” it shouldn’t really matter, should it?

But we’re talking about “deep,” aren’t we?  To grasp the depths of God’s love in Christ?  To dive in the experience a wonder, Yes?  Paul is praying for us to have power to grasp the depth of the love of Christ.  The love of Christ has a wide embrace of all kinds of people, and the love of Christ is as long as eternity to be expressed and experienced by his beloved.  The late John Stott suggested that the depth of the love of Christ would reach the most degraded sinner.  Paul would have understood that.  He had been a religious fanatic and a great sinner in the words of Don Samdahl (1 Corinthians 15:9; 1 Timothy 1:12-17), but the apostle did not revel in his degradation, but rather in the grace and calling that God placed on his life to serve him in the love of Christ, in which he did revel.

John Newton was a “degraded sinner.”  Newton, born to a Puritan mother, was a former slave trader and author of “Amazing Grace.”  An article in Christianity Today states, “Newton had been reading Thomas a Kempis’s The Imitation of Christ, and was struck by a line about the “uncertain continuance of life.”  He also recalled the passage in Proverbs, “Because I have called and ye have refused, … I also will laugh at your calamity.”  He converted during [a] storm, though he admitted later, “I cannot consider myself to have been a believer, in the full sense of the word.”

Nevertheless, Newton’s faith in Christ grew.  He led Bible studies in his Liverpool home after he left the sea in 1755, was ordained in the Anglican ministry, and took a parish in Olney, Buckinghamshire, England in 1764.  At the Olney parish Newton partnered with William Cowper who together collected three volumes that became known as the Olney Hymns.  “The Hidden Life” demonstrates Newton’s growth as the grace of God sought him, filled him, and enveloped him in the love of Christ.

To tell the Saviour all my wants, / How pleasing is the task!

Nor less to praise him when he grants / Beyond what I can ask.

My lab’ring spirit vainly seeks / To tell but half the joy;

With how much tenderness he speaks, / And helps me to reply.

Now were it wise, nor should I choose, / Such secrets to declare;

Like precious wines, their taste they lose, / Expos’d to open air.

But this, with boldness, I proclaim, / Nor care if thousands hear,

Sweet is the ointment of his name, / Not life is half so dear.

And can you frown, my former friends, / Who know what once I was,

And blame the song that thus commends / The Man who bore the cross?

Trust me, I draw the likeness true, / And not as fancy paints;

Such honour may he give to you, / For such have all his saints.

–“The Hidden Life,” by John Newton

“In 1787 Newton wrote Thoughts Upon the African Slave Trade to help William Wilberforce’s campaign to end the practice—‘a business at which my heart now shudders,’ he wrote. Recollection of that chapter in his life never left him, and in his old age, when it was suggested that the increasingly feeble Newton retire, he replied, ‘I cannot stop.  What?  Shall the old African blasphemer stop while he can speak (Christianity Today)?’”

John Newton knew who he was in himself.  But, John learned who he was becoming in the love of Christ.  It was not an easy journey.  It was not a clean journey of steady upward progress.  Christ doesn’t change a man as a programmer writes a code.  The walk with Christ in his love covers rough terrain with often slow and laborious progress.  We are sinners indeed, but we also hear the winsome call of Jesus, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30 NIV).

I am coming to see the Holy Spirit in messy lives.  Mine for one!  Yes, all of us!  I see Him working, empowering, rooting, establishing, making sense out of a love that escapes words, that knocks the air out of me and brings me to my knees.  I see Him more in a friend of mine.  I am a fixer, a compulsive, fallible, foolish fixer.  It’s so hard to stop!  But I must.  Being God isn’t my job in life!  Needing Jesus, though, is and must be my air and heartbeat.

I hurt my friend with all my “fixing” advice.  But I still see the Holy Spirit in him.  When you see love and patience during crushing trial and searing disappointment, and painful frustration, you know God is present.  I need to be reverent and see and often be silent.  I need to weep and mourn when he does.  To laugh and take joy when he does.  To think about and mull over the uncertainties when he does.  To pray for Light and Truth when we both need a love beyond what we have.  I need the love of Christ because he does.  So,

Amidst the roaring of the sea, / My soul still hangs her hope on thee,

Thy constant love, thy faithful care, / Is all that saves me from despair.

–“Temptation,” by William Cowper

“Dear Father of the Christ Jesus of Christmas, the depths of your love plunge deeper than our need.  You are there, though sometimes we are not certain.  I look inward too far at the emotions that seem far unlike your Son, and outward too much at the waves and turmoil of doubt and uncertainty.  Please send your Spirit to sound Jesus’ Name to me, to salve me with Jesus’ love and grace.  Empower me to grasp who I am in truth and by grace.  By faith I praise you that I am not what I was, and I trust you for what you are creating me to be through your Son Jesus.  I pray in His name, Amen.”

Living the Wonder: The Grace Base of Christ’s Love

This devotional today is the second of four written by Bill Kesecker…

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

Paul’s vision of the love of Christ is massive, compared to that of which we are accustomed.  I mean he prays that God will strengthen believers with power through God’s Spirit so that Christ may dwell in believers by faith.  He prays that we may grow and be founded in love and have enough power even to grasp the nature of the love of Christ and to know his love that surpasses the accumulation of knowledge that would help us to see its shape and dimensions.  Paul doesn’t want us to “think” it, but to know intimately and personally the love of Christ and be filled full forever with Jesus and his love!

Jesus showed his disciples and the Syro-Phoenician woman that love was wide enough to bring Jew and Gentile together as one people under the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus.  John’s Gospel gives us one of, if not, the best definition of God’s love when he declares, “For God loved the world in this way:  he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (3:16, modified to reflect the Greek text).  John doesn’t present the love of God in terms of emotion, but of action: “he gave his one and only Son.”  This kind of love surpasses knowledge.  It is something more that what you think or reason about.  We can massively mount up vocabulary and polysyllables to capture the essence.  But, bottom line, God gave his Son for sinners.  You and me kind of sinners.  Nice ones, polite ones, likeable ones, pretty ones, lying ones, profane ones, multiple offender ones, hypocrite ones, religious ones, pagan ones, pious ones, humble ones, disturbed ones.  The list of descriptors could never end!  And God loves us in Jesus.  And we don’t even get any credit for being appealing enough to capture his attention.

“He has saved us and called us to a holy life—not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.  This grace was given us in Christ Jesus before the beginning of time, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior, Christ Jesus, who has destroyed death and has brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Timothy 1:9-10 NIV).

“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this:  While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8 NIV).

If the love of Christ is wide enough to embrace Jew and Gentile and make them one holy people, fellow citizens, and members of his household (Ephesians 2:14-22 NIV), the Gospel of Jesus declares the love of Christ long enough to reach back into eternity past to purpose to treat us graciously and to stretch out completely for all eternity present and future to fill us to the measure of all the fullness of God.

William Cowper (pronounced “Cooper”), a contemporary of John Newton of “Amazing Grace” fame, would have despaired of those words, however, being consumed with paralyzing bouts of depression throughout his lifetime.  Reflecting on Isaiah 57:15, Cowper penned,

The Lord will happiness divine / On contrite hearts bestow;

Then tell me, gracious God, is mine / A contrite heart or no?

I hear, but seem to hear in vain, / Insensible as steel;

If aught is felt, ’tis only pain, / To find I cannot feel.

I sometimes think myself inclined / To love Thee if I could;

But often feel another mind, / Averse to all that’s good.

My best desires are faint and few, / I fain would strive for more;

But when I cry, “My strength renew!” / Seem weaker than before.

–“The Contrite Heart”

Cowper’s despair derived from the mountainous burden to generate such a love and to silence the loud fears of enough.  Is my heart contrite enough?  Is my spirit lowly enough?  How can we factor such intangibles that even the Lord will not lay on his sons and daughters?

Not all of us despair, however, but we may just back off a few or more steps from Christ, when we think of such love as a commitment we should, or must, or have to keep.  But, is Paul’s love of Christ the effort of a super Christian?  How in the world can I love with an eternity-spanning love that has only once been seen manifested in the whole of human history, and that in Jesus Christ himself?  Where do I, by myself, come up with that mammoth perfection of loving actions, every time, every moment, every day, all my life?  I’m exhausted!  Flat out exhausted by the thought!

“Give me some help, Paul!  Come on!  Are they just words, Paul?!  Just beautiful, calligraphic words with scrolls and flourishes, beautiful to behold; death-giving to attempt!”

“Wait, Bill!  Look at Ephesians again!  ‘For this reason I kneel’ (3:1, thought interrupted and picked up again at 3:14a NIV).”

“Bill, relax, rest in Jesus, son!  Ask, ask gently and humbly, ask in faith, ask your Father, knowing he loves that prayer for you, even ask for the strength and will to ask, and ask again!  God didn’t save you because you had potential to live the Christian life all by yourself.  Remember?  “While. . .still sinners. . . .”

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith (Ephesians 3:16-17a NIV, emphasis added).

I believe Mary, mother of Jesus, gives us a sense of the balance here:  not my intense exertion, Lord, but “I am the Lord’s servant. . . .  May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38 NIV).

“Dear Father, for your mercy and forgiveness I come by faith in the righteousness of the Lord Jesus Christ.  You see, Lord, how I fall short of the love of your Son Jesus in my actions and thoughts and words and attitudes.  I am not worthy of your love, and I fail to live out the  love of Christ.  I don’t even know how to try sometimes.  And at other times I don’t even want to try.  But, Lord God, I trust you!  I bow my knees to you like Paul did.  I ask you to supply what I don’t have and can never give.  I offer myself to you.  I love you, though I feel ashamed to say it.  I love you by faith, Father.  May you make true in me what you are as my Father.  By your Son’s intercession and your Spirit’s power may Christ’s life and love dwell in me now and forevermore.  In Jesus’ name, I come to you.  Amen.”

Living the Wonder: The Broad Embrace of Christ’s Love

This devotional today and for the next three days are especially given for us by our dear TSF friend Bill Kesecker.

“I pray that out of his glorious riches he may strengthen you with power through his Spirit in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith. And I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the Lord’s holy people, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.  “Now to him who is able to do immeasurably more than  all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus throughout all generations, for ever and ever!  Amen.”  –Ephesians 3:16-21 (New International Version)

I’m making plans to go to the Grand Canyon in 2019.  The Canyon is a chasm 277 miles long and 18 miles wide.  Its depth plunges over a mile (6,000 feet), and the Grand Canyon is home to 70 species of mammals, 250 species of birds, 25 types of reptiles (Oh, my!), and 5 species of amphibians (not really planning to meet any of these “friendly” critters!).  The stats are impressive, but kind of meaningless!  I mean, we’re talking numbers!  But, that’s NOT the Grand Canyon.

Just a view of some of the photographs I’ve seen is the breathtaking story (just the way a friend described to me when she and her husband saw the Grand Canyon for the first time on their tenth wedding anniversary!).  The vast, stretching, plunging vistas, the gorgeous red-bronze rock faces bathed in the setting sun, the golden river slicing its way through mountains of rock, lighting strikes piercing the atmosphere over and into the Canyon, and millions of sparkling, starry globes piercing the black velvet sky.  That’s the Grand Canyon.  That’s what I want to see!  That’s what moves me to adventure.  I can stay home to peruse statistics.  However, I must dive in to experience a wonder!

In his letter to the Ephesians the apostle Paul is on his knees, begging God to equip the young Christians at Ephesus to dive in to experience the most miraculous, multi-dimensional wonders the world has ever known!  Paul pleads with him that they may know the love of Christ!  Not know about it!  Not facts, not statistics, not theological statements and definitions, not creeds and catechisms!

Know the love of Christ!  Better, know the Christ who loves!  Know the man, know what He said, know how he said it, know his rebukes to the proud and religious, know his tender pursuit of the scorned and the unrighteous who knew full well they didn’t belong, had never belonged, and couldn’t even figure out how to belong to anyone like this man.

Mark’s Gospel tells a great story of a conversation Jesus had that, frankly, he didn’t want to have.  He was in the area of Tyre, just outside where the Jews lived.  Jesus was tired, desperately tired.  He didn’t want one more conversation, not one more request, nothing but silence, prayer, sleep.  But here she comes!  A woman rushes in.  Greek-speaking.  Born in Syrian Phoenicia.  A woman.

She pushes into the room and falls onto her knees before him.  She blurts out her plea as only a desperate mother could, begging Jesus to drive the demon out of her daughter.  The woman had heard of what Jesus was doing in the region.  She had heard countless stories.  Her passion grew with each as his fame spread, “Jesus, please, I beg you, help us, Jesus!”

“First let the children eat all they want.”  Probably a common saying known to all in the countryside, “for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”  His eyes fixed on her, staring intently.  Looking for a twitch, a wince, a flash of anger, some kind of response.  How had she taken his words?  What opinion of her did he hold?  Silent, Jesus watched and waited.

“Lord,” she said in even, measured, determined, sustained tones, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”  The woman was not prepared to go anywhere until Jesus heard her plea.

The parable showed that Jesus’ mission was first to the covenant people of God, the Jews.  The woman had no place in that assembly.  She was a Gentile, she didn’t belong, she couldn’t make herself belong.  But her daughter needed a miracle, she had to have a word from Jesus.  There was no other place to go.  None whatsoever.  And still on her knees, she wondered, “Was he Lord of the Jews only?  Or could the unworthy, unprepared, irreligious partake of the crumbs tumbling from the table of those feasting?”

The silence screamed like a horrifying storm for what seemed forever.

Was that a twitch at the corners of his mouth?  Was a knowing smile breaking on his lips?  No, not sure?  “For such a reply, you may go.”

“No, Lord, please, don’t send me away, please, No. . .,” trembling, she thought.

“The demon has left your daughter.”

She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon had gone (see Mark 7:24-30 NIV).

Is this the love that Paul knew and wanted these young Gentile believers to know, too?  Is this what he wanted them to grasp, to take hold of, and to cling to for dear life?  How wide, and long, and high, and deep is the love of Christ?  He wanted them to know it so fervently that he was on his knees begging God to root them in this love as seeds sprouting deep into the soil, not letting go, reaching downward and outward, and possessing and owning the ground that fed them and growing more and more fruitful in that exhaustless love.  As a foundation, level, firm, stable, and sturdy that will take the full weight and expanse of a magnificent structure of glorious and enduring purpose that will not ever fail to fulfill its mission.  Christians, come on; dive in to experience a wonder!

Merry Christmas, dear ones!  We celebrate today the coming of Jesus, the love of God on display!  “O, Come, let us adore Him!”

“Dear Father, please answer Paul’s ancient prayer for us today, that we will not only grasp, but be possessed by the love of Christ, which surpasses knowledge, but not grace!  Grant that we may know Jesus today and experience his love forevermore and be granted the grace to give His love to others, without distinction in full measure.  In the name of your Son Jesus, Amen.”

John the Baptist: Wild Thing!

If you missed church yesterday, you really blew it!  Instead of a video to precede the message, the worship team went into a riff session on the old rock and roll song “Wild Thing.”  But, I started by saying that, no, I’m not the Wild Thing. In fact, I’m rather domesticated. I often say that I’m the most boring person I know or that you know. I often go many consecutive months at a time without ever leaving the Washington/Franklin Counties area.

No, the song was an introduction to our character of the day, John the Baptist. He really was a “wild thing.”

In the most recent edition of Christianity Today magazine, there was a very good article by a writer named Fleming Rutledge. She writes:

It would be hard to say which is more alien to our contemporary ideas of getting ready for Christmas, the season of Advent or the figure of John the Baptist—the man who greeted the Pharisees and Sadducees by calling them a “brood of vipers.” How would you like to get that on a Christmas card?

This unlovable figure is very much out of sync with our times, yet he is one of the foremost figures of Advent … Like John the Baptist, Advent is out of phase with its time, with our time. It encroaches upon us in an uncomfortable way, making us feel somewhat uneasy with its stubborn resistance to Christmas cheer. To be sure, we have done a pretty good job of domesticating Advent, and I am by no means above this sort of thing myself. Every year, I used to buy Advent calendars for my children with cute little doors that open and show cute little pictures. I have yet to find an Advent calendar that has a picture of John the Baptist. We really don’t know exactly what to do with him; he doesn’t fit into anything.

So what are we to make of this eccentric character?  Why is the guy so weird? Why is he such a Wild Thing?

We should first review his background and birth story. As with our other characters of this seasonal series, it is a bit unusual. He was born to godly parents Zachariah and Elizabeth who were at an advanced age, having had no children. Zachariah was a priest, and upon the once-in-a-lifetime occasion of his duty to light the incense in the Temple, he is confronted there by the angel Gabriel. There he receives news of the coming birth of a son to be named John, who will serve God in the spirit of Elijah. Struggling to believe this, Zachariah is stricken with an inability to talk until the child comes. Upon exiting the Holy Place, the people immediately see that something unusual has happened. He likely was not only not able to talk, but also not able to hear (as people were making signs TO him). Ultimately, John was born.

This incredible birth to these folks was more than just a … “Wow, I guess they weren’t too old for children after all.”  No, that a baby boy came into this home was nothing less than a miracle that was recognized by everyone in a tight-knit community.

The tradition of that time was for a son to be named after the father, so it was a great surprise to the people in the community that Elizabeth said the baby’s name was to be John. The people did not believe her, likely because she was a mere woman in that time and culture. But Zechariah affirmed the name in obedience to God. Immediately he was able to talk, and he breaks out in praise of God.

In our central text today in Matthew’s gospel, we recall that this gospel account was written primarily for a Jewish audience, proving to them that Jesus was the promised messianic king. Thus, we immediately see a list of genealogies that affirm his rights to this position. It is followed by the story of Joseph, the wise men, the anger of Herod, and the escape to Egypt for a season.

And then, turning from chapter 2 to chapter 3, a period of 25 years or more has elapsed. And Matthew dives into the preaching of John the Baptist. In fact, though only two of the gospels give details of the story of the incarnation, all four gospels give great detail and prominence to the coming and the ministry of John …

MT 3:1-3 … In those days John the Baptist came, preaching in the Desert of Judea 2 and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.” 3 This is he who was spoken of through the prophet Isaiah: “A voice of one calling in the desert, `Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for him.’ “

This is a quote from Isaiah 40:1-3 … a passage that would be familiar to scripturally-attuned Jews of that time… Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. A voice of one calling: “In the desert prepare the way for the LORD; make straight in the wilderness a highway for our God…”

The preaching of John the Baptist should also have aroused in their thinking another prophetic passage from some four centuries before their time. Malachi 3:1 … “See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the LORD Almighty.

What is the primary verb you hear in these passages?  It is “prepare.”  Let me tell give you an illustration from where I grew up in northwest New Jersey and in the Lehigh Valley.

We are very familiar with speed strips / rumble strips, as they are common now on many highways—often on the edges and center lines, if not completely crossing the roadway. I remember the first place I ever experienced them as a youngster.

As you would go east through the Lehigh Valley on Route 22, going from Allentown and through Bethlehem and approaching Easton, just before getting to the Delaware River there was a very sharp turn in the highway. It went a complete 180 degrees and was called by locals “Cemetery Curve.”  (This was a dual meaning. It curled around a cemetery and through a series of hills, though named also for the many accidents that occurred there.) After miles of high-speed straight-aways, this curve would catch people by surprise – especially truckers whose loads would shift – and there were regular accidents not unlike what we see about every 15 minutes now on 81.

Multitudinous warning signs prior to the curve proved to be insufficient. Finally, to provide a warning, rumble strips of grooved pavement were used. I remember the first time going over them. It made a terribly frightening sound, causing you to ease up immediately. They were there as a preparation for what was to come – to educate you that there was an appropriate way to negotiate that turn.

Likewise, the Old Testament was full of signs and information that a coming Messiah would be arriving upon the scene someday. Preceding this momentous time would be someone, who, in the spirit of Elijah, would prepare the way for the coming of Israel’s king. This person was John the Baptist.

The idea of “preparation” is a major teaching point of Matthew chapter 3. But, prepared in what way?

The message of John was of repentance and baptism (identification) – it was a message of spiritual preparation. It was a message saying – “You’re not okay with God simply because of who you are (the Jewish people – the Sons of Abraham). To be okay with God, there needs to be a repentance from sin and an identification with God’s truth and God’s program (an identification evidenced by baptism).

What is repentance? By definition, it means to agree with God about the nature of sin (to see it from the same perspective He sees it) and a commitment to walk in the opposite direction (which is the proof, or fruit of a genuine repentance).

You know of the most famous Peanuts comic strip, the ongoing saga of Lucy and Charlie Brown practicing football. Lucy would hold the ball for Charlie’s placekicking and then Charlie would attempt to kick the ball. But every time Lucy had ever held the ball for Charlie, he would approach the ball and kick with all his might. At the precise moment of the point of no return, Lucy would pick up the ball and Charlie’s momentum would send him through the air and land him on his back.

One of these comic stories had Lucy holding the ball, but Charlie Brown would not run up and kick it. Lucy begged him to kick the ball. But Charlie Brown said, “Every time I try to kick the ball you remove it and I fall on my back.” They went back and forth for the longest time and finally Lucy broke down in tears and admitted, “Charlie Brown, I have been so terrible to you over the years, picking up the football like I have. I have played so many cruel tricks on you, but I’ve seen the error of my ways! I’ve seen the hurt look in your eyes when I’ve deceived you. I’ve been wrong, so wrong. Won’t you give a poor, penitent girl another chance?”

Charlie Brown was moved by her display of grief and responded to her, “Of course, I’ll give you another chance.” He stepped back as she held the ball, and he ran. At the last moment, Lucy picked up the ball and Charlie Brown fell flat on his back. Lucy’s last words were, “Recognizing your faults and actually changing your ways are two different things, Charlie Brown!”

The change part is the hard part, but the necessary part. Saying you are sorry is one thing, but living a different way is another. My favorite college professor Dr. McGahey always said, “Nobody was ever saved being just sorry for their sins.”

Repentance leads to change because of a new heart condition.

And John’s message was one of repentance AND baptism.

As always, when we talk about baptism, the key word is “identification.”

We choose identification all the time. Perhaps in our culture it is an identification with a sports team, a school, a club or organization. Sometimes, the things we identify with may be counter-cultural. In fact, identifying with Christ is exactly that. In a world that is going the wrong way and is under the control of the kingdom of darkness, identifying with God – with Jesus Christ – is always going to be counter-cultural.

It was that way for the Jewish people before the coming of Christ. It is that way for Vice President Pence, or Tim Tebow. It is true where you work out in the world … or go to school. It has always been this way, and always will be, until the day God makes all things new upon the return of Jesus Christ.

Going back to our primary text in Matthew 3, look at verse 4 … John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.

My question for the title today: Why is this guy so weird and such a wild thing?  Along with the power of his words, it is because even his appearance was a “rumble strip” pointer to Christ. For anyone who had a heart to know the truth, and who knew the Scriptures of the O.T., they would be led to understand that this man was the prophesied forerunner – the one who would point to the Messiah. For example, look at this passage that begins the book of 2 Kings …

2KI 1:1 – After Ahab’s death, Moab rebelled against Israel. 2 Now Ahaziah had fallen through the lattice of his upper room in Samaria and injured himself. So he sent messengers, saying to them, “Go and consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron, to see if I will recover from this injury.”

2KI 1:3 – But the angel of the LORD said to Elijah the Tishbite, “Go up and meet the messengers of the king of Samaria and ask them, `Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are going off to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron?’ 4 Therefore this is what the LORD says: `You will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!’ ” So Elijah went.

2KI 1:5 – When the messengers returned to the king, he asked them, “Why have you come back?”

2KI 1:6 – “A man came to meet us,” they replied. “And he said to us, `Go back to the king who sent you and tell him, “This is what the LORD says: Is it because there is no God in Israel that you are sending men to consult Baal-Zebub, the god of Ekron? Therefore you will not leave the bed you are lying on. You will certainly die!” ‘ “

2KI 1:7 – The king asked them, “What kind of man was it who came to meet you and told you this?”

2KI 1:8 – They replied, “He was a man with a garment of hair and with a leather belt around his waist.”  The king said, “That was Elijah the Tishbite.”

And indeed, many people in Israel did find John to be an interesting character, with characteristics that were a throwback to Elijah. They would not have understood precisely who he was and what his mission entailed, but it says in Matthew 3:5-6 … People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. 6 Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan River.

There absolutely was a messianic hope and expectation at this time of history. With Roman rule, many in Israel longed for a messiah, and varied characters claimed to be such. But John’s message was unique in that it was a spiritual one, rather than mere political zealotry or governmentally subversive rants. His message was popular with the common folk, and he drew the attention of the religious leadership who also went out to check out this wilderness eccentric, not that they had any interest in a spiritual message …

Matthew 3:7 – But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. 9 And do not think you can say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 10 The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.

You can imagine that this preaching did not make him popular with the leadership. And again, though we see the advent season as a time of joy and peace, the work of Christ – though bringing peace and restoration of a lost race back to the heavenly Father – was a work that would cause great upset to the systems of the world.

Matthew 3:11 – “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. 12 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”

But the ministry of John was not to draw attention to himself. He was the rumble strip to point away to another to come after him, and that is Jesus, who comes to be baptized by John …

MT 3:13 – Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. 14 But John tried to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”

MT 3:15 – Jesus replied, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” Then John consented.

MT 3:16 – As soon as Jesus was baptized, he went up out of the water. At that moment heaven was opened, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and lighting on him. 17 And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

So what do we take away from this story of the Wild Thing – John the Baptist?

First, we see the primacy of the story of the coming of Christ and the centrality of the incarnation in the larger context of Scripture. It reminds us of the great plan of God, and of the great blessing we have to be a part of this grace – coming to us in a second-hand fashion through the ultimate rejection of Christ by the Jewish nation, the postponement of the earthly kingdom, and the subsequent spread of the Gospel to all peoples and nations.

And most importantly, we also take away these same timeless truths: of preparation by repentance / identification … being mindful of another coming of the same Lord Jesus Christ.

There is a tendency to not be prepared, to be impressed with the wrong things – the busy things of this material world. And there is no other season where this is more fully evident than the advent season.

In the midst of our abundance, it is easy to be distracted by the pursuits of joy and happiness in the material world. We embrace our comforts. We have “First-World Problems” … like complaining this Christmas (seen all over the news) that the tips on Hershey Kisses are missing!  And in the busy distraction of this sort of abundance, we might fail to look back at the coming of an infant Savior. And even more, in our comforts, we might fail to look forward to the next coming of that risen Savior.

It is incredibly easy to forget Christ’s next coming and the need for his arrival to set straight a terribly fallen world. Even with a partial government shut-down and crashing equities markets, we have comfortable lives in the big picture of things.

It is not so comforting in many other places. China, this last week, has cracked down on churches in that country in a big way. One of our own partner ministries in Central Asia is facing the hostilities of governmental intervention and ridiculous demands. Around the world, Christians are persecuted, some even enslaved by the most evil people on the planet. I suspect that these brothers and sisters in the Lord are more anxiously anticipating a coming of Christ than are we in America.

Indeed, the New Testament has “rumble strips” that foretell another coming and encourage preparation and identification. For example, to a persecuted and oppressed people of the first century, Peter wrote his first letter … 1PE 1:3 – Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 and into an inheritance that can never perish, spoil or fade–kept in heaven for you, 5 who through faith are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. 7 These have come so that your faith–of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire–may be proved genuine and may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed.  

1PE 1:13 – Therefore, prepare your minds for action; be self-controlled; set your hope fully on the grace to be given you when Jesus Christ is revealed. 14 As obedient children, do not conform to the evil desires you had when you lived in ignorance. 15 But just as he who called you is holy, so be holy in all you do; 16 for it is written: “Be holy, because I am holy.”

Do you see the big ideas there in Peter’s exhortation?  He is speaking of repentance through holy living, enduring in faith through identification with Christ. And this remains our need in the same church age as Peter, though 2,000 years later. We demonstrate our preparation through repentance and identification …

REPENTANCE – seeing our sin, our human condition, as God sees it … and doing what the Scriptures say to do … to confess our sins and be right with God and with others.

IDENTIFICATION – We wear our team uniform, even in the context of rejection and being despised. This Christmas thing / Jesus thing / faith thing / church thing, it is not just an accoutrement of life – something that is an add-on for a Sunday here and there, or even once per week, every Sunday. It is rather the 24/7 defining thing about who we are – our identification.

And when we are identified with Christ, we might have a bit of an “eccentric John the Baptist, weird, wild thing” look to the world around us. Well, so be it!  And I call you to it!  There is nothing more significant that you can do with your life and your family’s lives than to be fully invested in the work of Jesus Christ through His body, the Church. It is why Jesus came, and why he will come again. This is the essence of life and light. This is the application of the Christmas season!

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.

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.

Samuel and David: Only Child, Youngest Child

I admit it; I’m totally screwed up!  You should just call me “Pastor Syndrome.”  But, how could I not be messed up? Through adoption by older parents, I am at the same time both the youngest child (with three older sisters I never remember living at home), and an only child (which is how I grew up experientially).

It was in 1927 that psychologist Alfred Adler first wrote about birth order and what it predicted for behavior. This groundwork study has been the foundation for much additional writing and analysis in the psychological field ever since.

First-born, middle-child, last-born, and only-born children all have a “syndrome” attached to them of strengths and (more often) inherent weaknesses.

And I certainly groove with some only-child characteristics …

  • This child generally talks to an imaginary friend and talks to himself. (I did this as a kid big-time and still carry on an inner conversation at all times. It even happens while I’m speaking publically.)
  • He is very comfortable being alone and not mingling with others.
  • He is not quick to share problems and tends to be introspective.
  • He likes to solve problems by himself and is slow to seek outside assistance. (And I thought that was just a male problem!)

BUT, freeing me from “exhibit A” status within this syndrome was this identifier: “There is a lack of competitive attitude, and the child may be hostile or jealous.”  What??  You’ve got to be kidding!  Yes, I’m hostile and jealous, but only when I’m not bludgeoning an opponent, or I have to reluctantly admit that someone else has the better team and higher score!

And then there is “Youngest Child Syndrome.”  According to research, “Last-borns generally aren’t the strongest or the smartest in the room, so they develop their own ways of winning attention. They’re natural charmers with an outgoing, social personality; no surprise then that many famous actors and comedians are the baby of their family, or that they score higher in ‘agreeableness’ on personality tests than firstborns.”  It is also said that youngest children are more open to unconventional experiences and taking physical risks than their siblings. I guess this is because everyone was always looking out for them to prevent them from harm when they were little.

Youngest kids are also known to have the feeling that “nothing I do is important.”  Their accomplishments don’t seem terribly original. After all, their older siblings had already learned to talk, read, and ride a bike. So, parents react less euphorically and may even speculate as to why this final child didn’t get up to speed even faster.

In our holiday series that looks at the lives of a variety of biblical characters as babies and children (ending with the birth of Christ), we consider now both an only child – Samuel – and a youngest child – David. Each accomplished great things, foreshadowing the coming of the ultimate child – Jesus. And neither of these Old Testament characters was bound by any sort of “syndrome” or low expectations. Though imperfect, they gave the bulk of their lives and service to be God’s people in their place and time.

  • Samuel was known as one who would hear and obey the voice of God (even when he did not always find it to be personally pleasing to do this).
  • David would be known, in spite of multiple personal failures, as having a core-level heart that was for God and His sovereign plans.

And these are lessons for us to take away, as we review some of the elements of their lives.

Samuel was born later in life to his parents of Levite heritage, Elkanah and Hannah. His mother had prayed to have a son, vowing to dedicate him to the Lord as a Nazarite. And after he was weaned, she brought him to Shiloh (the center of worship at that time) and to the high priest, Eli. And there in the tabernacle Samuel grew up, his parents visiting him annually from the hill country of Ephraim, bringing supplies of clothing, etc. (Though Hannah would have other children, I’m speaking of Samuel as an “only child” in terms of the way he grew up without siblings.)

You might think this was a godly environment for the boy, but it was not. It was corrupt, and in today’s language we might even call it a “swamp that needed to be drained.”  Eli, personally not a bad guy, had failed to raise his sons to honor God. Their sins were numerous, as well as very public. This ultimately brought down God’s wrath and judgment upon the nation.

1 Samuel 3:1-5 – The boy Samuel ministered before the Lord under Eli. In those days the word of the Lord was rare; there were not many visions.

2 One night Eli, whose eyes were becoming so weak that he could barely see, was lying down in his usual place. 3 The lamp of God had not yet gone out, and Samuel was lying down in the house of the Lord, where the ark of God was.  4 Then the Lord called Samuel.

Samuel answered, “Here I am.” 5 And he ran to Eli and said, “Here I am; you called me.”

But Eli said, “I did not call; go back and lie down.” So he went and lay down.

This happened a total of 3 times. And recognizing the divine nature of it, Eli tells Samuel to say, “Speak, for your servant is listening.”

Samuel does this, and God gives him a revelation of the disaster that is to come upon Eli’s family and the nation for their disobedience.  Eli asked. “Do not hide it from me. May God deal with you, be it ever so severely, if you hide from me anything he told you.” 18 So Samuel told him everything, hiding nothing from him. Then Eli said, “He is the Lord; let him do what is good in his eyes.”

This then is the calling of Samuel, and a summary paragraph immediately follows …

19 – The Lord was with Samuel as he grew up, and he let none of Samuel’s words fall to the ground. 20 And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba recognized that Samuel was attested as a prophet of the Lord. 21 The Lord continued to appear at Shiloh, and there he revealed himself to Samuel through his word.

After a time, there is war between the Philistines and Israel. The people take the Ark of the Covenant out to the battlefield as if it is a good-luck charm, but they are defeated and the Ark is captured. Eli’s two sons – Hophni and Phineas – die in the battle. And when a messenger comes to Shiloh bearing the bad news, Eli hears of the disasters (especially of the Ark) and being age 98 and very heavy, he falls over, breaking his neck and dies. Shiloh was likely also pillaged.

The Ark brings disasters to the Philistines; twice their God named Dagon is found to have fallen down face-first before it. Moving it from town to town, it causes disease and distress everywhere. Finally, after seven months, the Philistines ship it back to Israel.

After 20 years, there is a revival in Israel under Samuel. They remove their foreign gods and assemble together in unity. The Philistines hear of this and decide to make an attack, and they are wiped out in battle miraculously.  1 Sam. 7:13-15 – So the Philistines were subdued and they stopped invading Israel’s territory. Throughout Samuel’s lifetime, the hand of the Lord was against the Philistines … Samuel continued as Israel’s leader all the days of his life.

The way to always think of the life of Samuel is that he was the last of the Judges, and the first of the Prophets … ushering in the many years of kings in Israel – the United Kingdom under Saul / David / Solomon for the first 120 years.

Let’s think about three kings. Israel’s first king was chosen because of his outward appearance – that is Saul.  This morphed into failure.  David—though the unlucky 8th son of Jesse, a mere shepherd boy—becomes Israel’s true king, a man judged not by outward appearance, but by being a man after God’s own heart.  And then we’ll look forward in this season to the great king – and that is Jesus.

As time went by, the elders of Israel saw Samuel aging, and they did not see a worthy successor. His sons did not honor God, took bribes, and acted like politicians inside the beltway.

The people also looked around at the other nearby nations and saw that everyone had a king. Israel was now moving from theocracy to monarchy. Israel was unique in not having a king; all the neighboring nations had kings. The elders were probably thinking: “If our neighbors have a king, and they’re achieving victories and prosperity, couldn’t we also get a king?”

In 1 Sam. 8:6ff. – But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord. And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”

So Samuel tells them, “This king stuff ain’t all what you think it’s gonna be.” He said to them, “Don’t you know what British historian Lord Acton famously said… “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” ??……  They said, “never heard of the guy!”

19 But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said. “We want a king over us.20 Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”

21 When Samuel heard all that the people said, he repeated it before the Lord. 22 The Lord answered, “Listen to them and give them a king.”

The First King (Saul) became the first of what would be 23 kings of Israel. He was head and shoulders above the rest – literally! (In fact, a shampoo would be named after him!)  He would be king for 40 years.

The Christian author and theologian Richard Foster once wrote that “superficiality is the curse of our age.”  We are a society focused on outward appearance and the idolatry of performance.  Our greatest measuring stick is what we see in the mirror, what we have in the bank (or driveway), or our latest job performance review or social media status. And it was outward appearance that gave the nation Saul, whose failures were many …

Saul’s failures:

Impatient/Disrespectful of God’s authority (1 Samuel 13)—The war with the Philistines was to commence only after offering a sacrifice.  Samuel had agreed to meet Saul in Gilgal after seven days to perform the sacrifice.   When Samuel does not immediately arrive—and with the Philistine army closing in—Saul impetuously offers the sacrifice himself.  This also marks the first time that Samuel predicts the rise of Saul’s successor, David (1 Sam 13:13-14).

Self-serving (1 Samuel 14)—He was self-serving and foolish in a whole variety of ways.

Disobedient (1 Samuel 15)—Saul was commanded to wipe out the Philistine threat, but keeps some animals back “for sacrifice.”  One might suspect him of keeping these as “trophies”—not uncommon in ancient (or even modern) warfare.  He tries to deny this disobedience when confronted by Samuel, but in the narrative, this becomes the last straw before the eventual selection of David.

10 Then the word of the Lord came to Samuel: 11 “I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.” Samuel was angry, and he cried out to the Lord all that night.”

Here is where the story of Saul wrongly offering sacrifices fits in … but reading on …

35 Until the day Samuel died, he did not go to see Saul again, though Samuel mourned for him. And the Lord regretted that he had made Saul king over Israel.

And then we turn the page to the next chapter and it says …

16:1  The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you mourn for Saul, since I have rejected him as king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil and be on your way; I am sending you to Jesse of Bethlehem. I have chosen one of his sons to be king.”

2 But Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears about it, he will kill me.”

The Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ 3 Invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what to do. You are to anoint for me the one I indicate.”

So now we begin to talk about the True King (David—1 Samuel 16).

Renaissance paintings of David’s home area of Bethlehem have typically depicted him as living in a setting characterized by rolling hills and green grass. This is not accurate, as it was very dry and rocky; and it was there that shepherds would tend their sheep. Lambs from here were especially raised for sacrifice in Jerusalem, and this too looks forward pictorially to the work of Christ as the Lamb of God.

In terms of birth order, David was born to Jesse before 1000 B.C. as the youngest of eight children. In most ancient literature, the seventh son is generally looked upon as favored. As number eight, even David’s own family would not have looked upon him favorably – almost more as a hired servant than a son.

It is certainly for this reason that he was out tending sheep when Samuel arrived, and Jesse retrieved his son only when prompted by Samuel. David was not the “ideal” choice (by resume) for a King. A best estimate is that he was maybe about 12 years old when Samuel arrived.

Here is the story itself …

4 Samuel did what the Lord said. When he arrived at Bethlehem, the elders of the town trembled when they met him. They asked, “Do you come in peace?”

5 Samuel replied, “Yes, in peace; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves and come to the sacrifice with me.” Then he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

6 When they arrived, Samuel saw Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord.”

7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”

8 Then Jesse called Abinadab and had him pass in front of Samuel. But Samuel said, “The Lord has not chosen this one either.” 9 Jesse then had Shammah pass by, but Samuel said, “Nor has the Lord chosen this one.” 10 Jesse had seven of his sons pass before Samuel, but Samuel said to him, “The Lord has not chosen these.” 11 So he asked Jesse, “Are these all the sons you have?”

“There is still the youngest,” Jesse answered. “He is tending the sheep.”

Samuel said, “Send for him; we will not sit down until he arrives.”

12 So he sent for him and had him brought in. He was glowing with health and had a fine appearance and handsome features.

Then the Lord said, “Rise and anoint him; this is the one.”

13 So Samuel took the horn of oil and anointed him in the presence of his brothers, and from that day on the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David. Samuel then went to Ramah.

Comparing the to the Great King (Jesus), who is the true and better David, here are some similarities …

Both came from Bethlehem 

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” (Micah 5:2)

Both anointed with the Spirit

David—1 Samuel 16:13

Jesus—John 1:32-34 … Then John gave this testimony: “I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. 33 And I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is the one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.’ 34 I have seen and I testify that this is God’s Chosen One.”

Both despised by their brothers

1 Sam. 17:28 … When Eliab, David’s oldest brother, heard him speaking with the men, he burned with anger at him and asked, “Why have you come down here? And with whom did you leave those few sheep in the wilderness? I know how conceited you are and how wicked your heart is; you came down only to watch the battle.”

John 7:3-5—Jesus’ own brothers did not believe … Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him.

Both had a heart for God and obedience (Jesus perfectly)

Of David – in Acts 13:35 – David had served God’s purpose in his own generation

Hebrews 4:15— “…we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are—yet he did not sin.”

By way of summary and application, we can say three things …

In our natural state, we are like Saul – oriented toward self, and independent of God’s direction.

In our regenerate state, we are like David – finding success when we yield to the Holy Spirit rather than our natural desires.

In our positional state, we are like Christ – for we stand in his perfect righteousness.

  • Because Jesus obeyed God perfectly, His righteous record is imputed to our account (Romans 4).
  • Therefore, when God looks at us, He doesn’t see the tainted record of Saul and our failed human efforts, but the spotless record of the true King, Jesus.

Understanding this nature of our relationship with God helps us to not be the victim of a culture where, as was said earlier, “superficiality is the curse of our age.”  This gives perspective in a society focused on outward appearance and the idolatry of performance.

These realities help us to not be ashamed of our humble beginnings, our past failures, or even our present mistrust and struggle, because the present work of the Holy Spirit through our faith is the guarantor that we are ultimately judged not by our performance, but by the performance of Jesus.

And that is the reason to celebrate at this season of the year.