December 16, 2012

Scripture and Commentary, Week of Third Sunday in Advent


Monday after the Third Sunday in Advent

Lectionary

Morning - Ps.84, Is. 29:1-14, Mk. 5:1-20
Evening - Ps. 75, 76, Is. 29:15, Rev. 18:11-24

Commentary
Revelation 18:11-24

Tonight let us pause to retrace the sequence of events in this portion of the book of Revelation, which began with chapter 12.  The primary message is the fall of Rome and the end of its persecution of the Church.  In chapter 12 the beast with seven heads and ten horns is shown persecuting the Church of God.  Chapter 13 shows the beast receiving a commission from Satan (the dragon) to persecute the Church, yet chapter 14 shows the people of God still holding to the faith and singing the song of the redeemed.  14 also gives a stern warning that all who follow the beast will suffer its fate.  Chapter 15 shows the wrath of God on the beast, while the saints who have come through the persecution worship God in Heaven.  16 continues the judgment of God on the beast, and 17 finally reveals the beast's identity.  It is the city that sits on seven hills, rules over many nations, and murders the people of God.  This can be none other than the empire of Rome, which was beginning an empire wide persecution of the Church that would continue for generations.  Nero, the Roman emperors, the city of Rome, and the Roman Empire are all included in the symbolism of the beast.

Chapter 18 pronounces the fall of Rome, calling it "Babylon" as Peter also called it in 1 Peter 5:13.  In verses 9-19 the wicked lament her fall, but in verses 20-24 the Church rejoices.  Her joy is not that people will suffer and die in the calamities that will befall Rome.  It is that the persecution will end and the faith and perseverance of the Christians will be vindicated. The blood of prophets and saints will no longer run in the streets of Rome.

Tuesday after the Third Sunday in Advent
Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 90, Is. 30:8-17, Mk. 5:21
Evening - Ps. 91, Is. 30:18-26, Rev. 19

Commentary
Revelation 19

Rev. 6:9-11 shows the souls of the martyrs crying out to God to avenge their blood and punish their oppressors.  Chapter 19:1-6 shows multitudes of people, the twenty-four elders, and the four beasts worshiping God and giving thanks to Him, "for he hath judged the great whore," and has "avenged the blood of his servants at her hand" (19:2).  God has answered the prayers of His people and has poured out His wrath on those who persecute them.  Therefore, they praise Him, "Alleluia: for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth" (19:6).  It was very important for the Christians to "see" the fall of Rome in these chapters of Revelation, for they were being asked to endure persecution and death for the Gospel of Christ.  They needed to know two things.  First, they needed to know God has a place for them in paradise.  Second, the persecutors cannot conquer God.  He is omnipotent, and He will cast His enemies down forever.  Thus, whether they live through the persecution, or give up their lives for Christ, the Christians are assured of victory, for their enemies are also God's enemies, and when God wins, they win.

Verses 7-9 contrast the sins of Rome with the purity of the Church using the images of the great whore and the virgin bride.  The Church is both the bride of Christ, and those who are invited to the marriage feast (19:7 and 9).  It is not unusual for Revelation to give more than one meaning to a symbol, as we saw in chapter 17, where the seven heads of the beast represent seven hills and seven kings (17:9-10).

Verses 10-19 show the Church, led by Christ Himself marching victoriously across the pages of human history.  Christ goes forth to war on a white horse, followed by the armies of Heaven.  He smites the nations with the sharp sword that comes out of His mouth.  He rules the rebellious with a rod of iron and treads them in the winepress of His wrath.  This symbolises His victory over His enemies.  Again in verse 16 a title of Caesar is applied to Christ the true King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

The final stand of the beast and its prophet is shown in verses 19-21.  These, who have deceived many, forced many to worship Caesar instead of God, and poured out the blood of God's people, are conquered and cast into the lake of fire, along with all who followed them.

Wednesday after the Third Sunday in Advent, Ember Day

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 1, 15, Jeremiah 23:9-15, Luke 12:35-48
Evening - Ps. 92, Jeremiah 23:16-22, Matthew 28:16-20
Heading into the change of seasons, we come to the time of fasting and prayer known as Ember Days.  Historically, Ember Days have been a time when men were ordained to the ministry, and our Scripture readings for today reflect that tradition.  Matthew 28:16-20 is known across denominations as the "Great Commission," for these verses record Christ commissioning the Apostles to take the Gospel to all nations.

Looking at the Apostles, eleven men of modest means with little or no contacts or networks outside of their own tiny country, this may seem an impossible task.  Yet it is clearly the intention of Christ, go, teach, and baptize all nations.  Even in this time of instant news and internet, making disciples of all nations seems an impossible task, yet Christ's charge to the Apostles quite obviously continues to the ministers and Church of today.

"Teach" (28:19) means to make disciples.  It is to enlist people as students in the school of Christ.  He Himself is the Teacher, the Headmaster, and He is the curriculum.  The subject of each course is: "God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself."  As Christ stated it, we are to teach people to "observe all things whatsover I have commanded you."  It is not our ideas of what things ought to be like, or what we would do if we were God that we teach.  It is not ours to add to or detract from the message.  It is not our task to make it more attractive by adapting the ideas and practices of the world.  That has all been tried before, and it attracts large crowds and nets large offerings.  The road to destruction is broad and well traveled, and we are not to point people to it.  But the means by which this commission is fulfilled is the preaching of the Word.  We preach Christ, and all things He has commanded.  Entertainment draws those who want entertainment.  Gimmicks draw people who want gimmicks.  Shows draw people who want shows.  The Gospel draws people who want Christ.

The messengers, the message, and the means of accomplishing the enormous task of teaching all nations may seem impossibly small and weak, until we remember we are Christ's messengers, it is Christ's message, and they are Christ's means.  The commission comes from God in flesh, who rose from the grave, and possesses all authority and power in Heaven and earth.  As it is His commission, it is naturally to be accomplished by His means.  And it is as His messengers carry out His commission in His way that we have His promise, "I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world."

As you observe this time of fasting and prayer, please remember those charged with leading the Church in the ministry of pastors and teachers.  Ask God to keep the faithful ones faithful, and to return the erring ones to the faith.  Ask God to be with them in their work, that they would do God's work the way God has appointed it to be done.  And ask God to make the people willing to hear and learn the word of God.

Thursday after the Third Sunday in Advent

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 96, Is. 32, Mk. 6:1-6
Evening - Ps.93, 98, Is. 33, Rev. 20:1-6

Commentary
Revelation 20:1-6

Tonight's reading takes us from the era of the Roman Empire to the distant future of the Millennial Reign.  Here the persecuted Christians are allowed to see that Rome has passed away under the judgment of God, and even the devil, their greatest enemy, will be defeated by God.  The world of strife and sin, in which they dwell, will be put under the complete rule of Christ.  His ways will be the dominant ones, evil will be cast to the outer fringes, and the era written of in Micah 4:1-8 and Isaiah 11:6-10 will become reality.  This era begins when God, by His angel, imprisons the devil in the bottomless pit for a thousand years.

It is important to note the progression in Revelation.  It begins by warning the Church of the intensifying of the persecution that has already begun.  It continues by warning them to put aside all distractions and sins because only those who are fully dedicated to Christ will be able to stand firm in the face of such tribulation.  Revelation then moves to the fate of those who cause the death and suffering of the Christians.  They will not go unpunished.  God will vanquish them with His power, and the Church will continue by His power.  First to fall under the wrath of God are the unbelievers of Israel, where prophets were murdered, Christ was crucified, and the Church is persecuted. Their fate is shown in chapters 4-11, concluding with the fall of Jerusalem.  Next God deals with the Roman Empire, the great whore, drunk with the blood of the saints.  Rome's judgment is accomplished in chapters 12-19.  Yet the one who is behind the persecutions is still at large.  What will happen to him whom the book of Revelation calls the dragon and the devil?  Will he go on forever raising up new enemies of the Church?  Will Christians always suffer under his hand? 

"No."  He, too, will be struck down by the power of God.  He will be cast into the pit for a thousand years, during which the world will see great advances in evangelism and Godliness, and the Church will enjoy peace and holiness.  The souls of the martyrs (20:4) will rejoice in Heaven as the Church on earth rejoices here.  The details are not made clear to us.  We see the outlines of this event through a glass darkly.  But even if we see these things vaguely (and I think God intended vagueness here) we do see them.  We know that they will come about.  Satan will be bound and God's Kingdom will reign upon earth. This is the meaning of the verses we read tonight. Grasp this, and you have made great progress in understanding the book of Revelation and God's plan for this world.

Friday after the Third Sunday in Advent

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 40, Jer. 23:23-32, 2 Cor. 5:5
Evening - Ps. 51, Jer. 26:1-15, 2 Tim. 3:14-4:8

Commentary
Jeremiah 23:23-32

Today, the second of the seasonal Ember Days, leads us into a reading from Jeremiah that should arrest our attention.  The passage concerns people who took it upon themselves to speak for God, but, rather than speaking the truth, they spoke their own ideas.  They claimed to have the inspiration of God.  "I have dreamed" they said, meaning to have received a vision from God with a message for His people.  But they spoke lies (26) because their dreams were false (32).  They may have truly believed what they were saying, but it was not from God.  No minister in any church, no person in any church has any right to teach anything but that which is in agreement with the revelation of God in Scripture.  This is so evident in the Bible that it is apparent to even the most casual reader.

But something in this passage expresses why such people have this problem.  It is a single word found in Jeremiah 23:32, "lightness."  They have counted the truth of God, and God Himself, as lightness.  Living for Him is not something they take seriously.  Understanding His revelation is not something they take seriously.  Preaching and teaching and shepherding the flock are not things they take seriously.  They have a casualness about the things of God. 

This is just as true of people in our own time as it was in Jeremiah's day, and it is just as great a sin now as it was them.  The things of God are weighty matters.  There are no trivialities in God, everything about Him and His word to us is of eternal significance.  Let those who minister in His name do so in the realisation that they deal in weighty matters, and the let the people attend to the words of faithful teachers as though they are hearing things of weighty importance.

Saturday after the Third Sunday in Advent, Ember Day

Lectionary

Morning - Ps. 42, 43, Mal. 2:1-9, Mt. 9:35-10:15
Evening - Ps. 103, Mal. 3:1-6, Heb. 4:14-5:10

Commentary
Mt.9:38

The commentary on Mathew 9:38 is adapted from Bishop J. C. Ryle's Expository Thoughts on the Gospels.

"[T]here is a solemn duty incumbent on all Christians, who would do good to the unconverted part of the world.  They are to pray for more men to be raised up to the work of conversion of souls."

"If we know anything of prayer, let us make it a point of conscience never to forget this solemn charge of our Lord's.  Let us settle it in our minds, that it is one of the surest ways of doing good, and stemming evil.  Personal working for souls is good.  Giving money is good.  But praying is best of all.  By prayer we reach Him without whom work and money are alike in vain.  We obtain the aid of the Holy Ghost."

"The Holy Ghost alone can make ministers of the Gospel, and raise up lay workmen in the spiritual harvest, who need not to be ashamed.  Never, never may we forget that if we would do good to the world, our first duty is to pray" 

Sermon, Third Sunday in Advent


God Is Faithful
Psalm 99, Jeremiah 1:4-19, Luke 1:57-80
Third Sunday in Advent
December 16, 2012

On the first Sunday in Advent we looked at verses in Luke's Gospel that tell of Zechariah in the Temple.  Confronted with the message of God through the angel Gabriel, he was told a son would be born to Elizabeth; a miraculous child who would do wonderful things in the service of God.  I said that we miss the point of the story when we focus on the people, for it is what God is doing that is the point of the story.  I also said one of the things we see in the passage is that God has a plan.  Today's reading in Luke takes us to the birth of Elizabeth's son; the fulfillment of God's promise to Zechariah. I want to draw two points from the passage.
                                                             
First, God's plan comes to pass.  In more theological language we would say there is an unseen hand that guides events and people, such that history is actually the unfolding of the plan of God.  Isaiah, the prophet of Advent, shows the truth of this.  In the fourteenth chapter he writes of the coming destruction of Assyria.  His words make it clear that Assyria's fall is not just something God knows about because He knows the future; it is something that will happen because God has purposed it.  It will happen according to God's plan.  Isaiah 14:24 says, "The Lord of hosts hath sworn saying, Surely as I have thought, so shall it come to pass; and as I have purposed, so shall it stand."  Again He says in Isaiah 46:9-10, "I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning, and from ancient times the things that are not yet done, saying, My counsel shall stand, and I will do all my pleasure."

If what God plans comes to pass, we need to know what His plan is, and how we fit into it.  I think there is probably no passage in Scripture that expresses this as well and succinctly as Ephesians 1:3-12.  The heart of the passage is verses 9 and 10, which, after stating that God made known to us the mystery of His will, "according to his good pleasure which He hath purposed in Himself," says, "That in the dispensation of the fullness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ."  God's plan is, and has always been, to gather all things together in Christ.   This is the purpose for which God created all things.  This is the plan laid before the foundation of the world.  This is the purpose for which the Lamb of God was slain.

We see God's plan unfolding in the Old Testament.  He announced it in the Garden.  The Saviour will come.  The devil will bruise His heel, but He will bruise the devil's head.  From the Garden God moved toward calling and separating to Himself a people through whom the Saviour will be born.  We see God's plan unfolding in the call Abraham; "in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed" (Gen. 12:2).  We see God's plan unfolding in the rise of Israel, the Temple, the Law, and the prophets, all looking and pointing ahead to "the Lamb of God which taketh away the sins of the world."  Isaiah gives some of the best known Old Testament pictures of it;  "a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel" (Is. 7:14).  "All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way;and the Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Is. 53:6).  One of the fullest Old Testament statements is found in Isaiah 2:1-4:

"And it shall come to pass in the last days, that the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established in the top of the mountains, and shall be exalted above the hills; and all nations shall flow into it.  And many people shall go and say, Come ye, and let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; and he will teach us his ways, and we will walk in his paths; for out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.  And he shall judge among the nations, and shall rebuke many people: and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks: nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more."

In the New Testament we see the birth and ministry of the Saviour.   He is the One whose day Abraham saw and rejoiced; the One of whom Moses wrote.  He is the One whose sacrifice accomplishes the redemption and purification of His people.  He is the One who ascended into Heaven, and will come again to judge the quick and the dead, to bring into completion the new heaven and new earth.  When God is ready, He will bring to completion His plan.  All who oppose Him will be cast into the lake of fire.  All the redeemed will be finally and fully gathered together under Christ and in Christ forever.  You and I fit into this plan in one of two ways.  We are either among those who oppose God, and whose end is the lake of fire; or we are among those who are with God through faith, whose end is to be in Him forever.  Here is what makes the difference.  Those in Christ have trusted Christ to save them.  They have seen their sin and their unworthiness, yet believe Christ died to pay for their sins and to give them forgiveness and peace with God forever.

The second point I want to draw from our reading in Luke is simply this; God keeps His promises.  Looking back at Luke 1:13 we see a promise, Elizabeth will bear a son.  In verses 15-17 we read that he, will be great in the eyes of the Lord, filled with the Holy Spirit from the womb, will go before the Lord in the spirit of Elijah, and will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord.

What do we find in Luke 1:57?  "Now Elizabeth's full time came that she should be delivered; and she brought forth a son."  In verses 60 and 63 his parents are emphatic, "he shall be called John."  In verse 76 we read that he is the prophet of the Highest, who prepares the way of the Lord.  In verse 80 we see, "the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, and was in the deserts til the day of his showing unto Israel."  God keeps His promises.

Yet, as important as it is to see God keeping His promise to Zechariah, it is even more important to see the birth of John as part of the fulfillment of a far greater Promise; a Promise which fulfills all the promises of God in the Bible. God promised a Saviour.  God promised One would come who would save His people from their sins, and who would complete the plan of bringing all things together in God.  The message of John is this; the Saviour is Coming.  God keeps His promises.