December 23, 2016
Scripture and Commentary, December 25-31
December 25, Christmas Day
At last the Day arrives. Only, it’s not “day,” it is “night.” Nor is the King of Kings born in a palace, but in an animal shed. The Good News of His birth is not announced to Caesar, or even to Herod. It is announced to shepherds and Gentiles. Thanks be to God that the Good News has come to us. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour which is Christ the Lord.”
Collect Prayer for Christmas Morning
“Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon Him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.”
~ 1928 Book of Common Prayer, page 96
Collect Prayer for Christmas Evening
“O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thine only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive Him for our Redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold Him when He shall come to be our Judge, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.”
~1928 Book of Common Prayer, page 98
December 26, St. Stephen
Our attention is immediately drawn from the birth of the Saviour to the cost of following Him. Stephen is the first Christian martyr, whose death reminds us that being a Christian is not just about going to Heaven or having a wonderful life. It is an absolute and life-long commitment to observing all the commandments of God, and being faithful unto death. The murder of Stephen begins the persecution of the Church, which continues unto this day. Acts 8:1-4 tells us the persecution in Jerusalem became so severe that all Christians, except the Apostles, fled from the city. But the persecution followed them, with governmental blessings. Saul was probably only one of many sent to capture Christians and bring them to Jerusalem to die (Acts 9:1).
From the martyrdom of Stephen, and countless other Christians, we see that becoming a Christian is not something we do to improve our self esteem, or to enhance our quality of life. We become Christians because we owe God absolute love and obedience. We become Christians because Christianity is true. We become Christians because we have been made to understand we were living in rebellion and sin against God, and because we want to turn away from sin and begin to do what is right. We become Christians because it is the right thing to do. All other considerations are secondary, at best.
Stephen’s martyrdom makes us think we spend too much time and energy today inviting people to become Christians so they can go to Heaven, or to come to church to have a good time and make new friends, or telling people God is going to bless them with the comforts and luxuries of the world. Perhaps we talk about these things because we don’t like to think about the cost of following Christ, and people don’t want to hear about persecution, and service, and being faithful unto death. Stephen’s short time as a Christian was spent in prayer, worship, and service to God’s people. He was faithful in these things, even as his enemies murdered him. Perhaps the Church should talk, and think, more about Stephen and less about feeling good about ourselves.
Collect Prayer for St. Stephen’s Day
“Grant, O Lord, that in all our sufferings here upon earth for the testimony of thy truth, we may steadfastly look up to Heaven, and by faith behold thy glory that shall be revealed; and being filled with the Holy Ghost, may learn to love and bless our persecutors by the example of thy first Martyr Saint Stephen, who prayed for his murderers to thee, O blessed Jesus, who standest at the right hand of God to succour all those who suffer for thee, our only Mediator and Advocate. Amen.
~1928 Book of Common Prayer, page 99
December 27, Saint John, Apostle and Evangelist
1 John 1:1-10
John was one of the inner circle of disciples, and is thought to be the one whom Jesus loved in John 20:2. He was with Christ in many of His most important moments, including the crucifixion, where he was given the charge of caring for Mary. The stoning of Stephen began a deadly persecution of Christians in Jerusalem, causing most to flee to safer places, but John, and the other Apostles remained in Jerusalem. As the Church grew, the Apostles realised they needed to move out of Jerusalem and oversee the churches in specific areas. John moved to Ephesus to aid the Church in Asia (modern Turkey). He wrote the book of Revelation to warn the churches of the growing persecution, and to encourage them to be faithful to Christ during it. He also wrote the Gospel of John, and the books of First, Second, and Third John.
His influence extended far beyond Asia, through men mentored and ordained to the ministry by him. He taught Polycarp, the influential Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp mentored and ordained Irenaeus, who traveled to Gaul (modern France), where he became the area’s most influential bishop. Ignatius, Bishop of Antioch, who was martyred in Rome, and who left several epistles which describe the situation and organisation of the Church during the time of the Apostles, was also taught and ordained by John.
“Merciful Lord, we beseech thee to cast thy bright beams of light upon thy Church, that it, being illuminated by the doctrine of thy blessed Apostle and Evangelist Saint John, may so walk in the light of thy truth, that it may at length attain to life everlasting; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
~ 1928 Book of Common Prayer, page 101
December 28, Holy Innocents
1 John 5
This day remembers the children who died in the world’s first attempt to end the life and Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Herod, moved by fear that the “King of the Jews” would attempt to free Israel from Roman rule, and establish Himself as a worldly king in Jerusalem, attempted to kill the Messiah by killing all the children in and around Bethlehem under the age of two. The horror of this event must have been immense, and is an example of not only the world’s opposition to Christ and Christianity, but also governmental abuse.
Many wonder why God allowed the death of so many children. Why didn’t He let Herod die? Why didn’t the soldiers refuse to carry out their orders? The answer is, we don’t know. But let us not forget that, while there is no peace for the wicked (Is. 57:21), the death of the righteous brings peace (Is. 57:1, 2).
1 John 5
The Bible recognises the reality of our natural appetites and desires. From sexuality to the need for food to the desire for comfortable surroundings, the Bible affirms the goodness of these desires, if they are controlled and fulfilled in ways that are in accord with God’s will and righteousness. The Bible also understands that, because our natures have been changed by sin, our appetites often become the major driving force of our lives, and that we often are more concerned about satisfying our lusts than we are about fulfilling them according to Godliness. This is what John means in 1 John 2:14-16. 2:16 summarises his thought, saying, “For all that is in the world, the lust of the flesh, and the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life, is not of the Father, but is of the world.” The false teachers say such lusts are to be openly indulged; the Apostles, following the teachings of Jesus, say such lusts are to be controlled and overcome. In controlling them, we are overcoming the world, and those who are truly born of God overcome the world (4). Perhaps the following summary will help us understand John’s point.
First, real Christians are born of God. This is the new birth John writes of in John 3:3. It is accomplished by God awakening your spirit and re-orienting your life toward God and Godliness.
Second, your spiritual re-birth enables you to trust Christ’s sacrifice to make you right with God. It also enables you to begin to understand and believe the essential elements of orthodox Bible doctrine. Your understanding will be very elementary at first, but it will grow and mature as you mature in Christ.
Third, your spiritual re-birth enables you to begin a life of Godliness. You begin to keep God’s commandments, the essence of which is to love God, believe Biblical doctrine, and love your fellow Christians. You will not be perfect, but your life orientation will be toward Godliness.
Fourth, the one who does the things enumerated above, is the one who overcomes the world. Overcoming the world leads to greater faith and a greater sense of assurance that you are in Christ.
Fifth, reaching point four, above, shows that you have Biblical faith, have been born of God, are a true Christian, are “saved” and are going to Heaven.
Thus, John begins chapter five by reiterating these major points of his epistle, which also happen to be foundational to being a true Christian. This is how faith is the victory that overcomes the world (4).
The water and blood of verse 6 refer to the baptism and death of Christ. The water of His baptism, and the blood He shed at His death, bear witness to His true identity. It was Jesus, the Christ, the Son of God, the Word of God who became flesh, who was identified at baptism, and who died in our place on the cross. Others also bear record of the identity of Christ. The Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit are one, and their oneness is proof of the identity of Christ (7). This refutes the ideas of the false teachers that the Father, Son/Word/Christ, and Holy Spirit are three separate and individual Gods. Since they are One God, and since Jesus of Nazareth is the Son/Word/Christ of God, then Jesus of Nazareth is God. He is also Man, but John’s point here is that He is God, as fully and completely as the Father and the Spirit. And these three Persons are One God.
John closes this epistle with the clear statement that it is those who believe in Christ, as He is presented in the Apostolic Teaching, who have eternal life. Those who reject the Apostolic Teaching reject Christ, reject God, and reject eternal life (1, 12). John has written to believers to assure them that they believe the truth, and can have confidence that they have eternal life through Christ (13).
They can also have confidence that God hears their prayers (14). They do not need to have ecstatic or mystical experiences as proof that God hears them. They have the promise of God, and that is enough (20). Therefore, they can have confidence in prayer. Verse 15 does not mean they get everything they ask for in prayer. It does mean the forgiveness of sins, fellowship of the Church, understanding of Biblical teaching, help to live a Godly life, and fellowship with God, are freely given to those who ask for them in faith. Religious “experiences,” “miracles,” and emotional feelings are not necessary. Though desperately sought and prized by the false teachers, they are idols worshiped in the place of God and in which faith is placed instead of God. So John ends with the warning and plea, “Little children, keep yourselves from idols. Amen.”
Is. 61, Acts 27:21-44
Is. 62, 2 John
The Second Letter of John covers the same ideas and the same issues found in First John. But it does so in a shorter and slightly different format. We could say that First John discusses the ideas, and Second John alludes to them. Therefore, a knowledge of First John will be helpful to understanding Second John. The comments on First John, from August 24-28, may prove helpful here.
The term, “elder,” (1) refers to the ordained clergy of the Church. Pastors are elders of local congregations. Bishops, have oversight of several congregations and elders. Apostles are a special order of elders commissioned by Christ to establish His Church and teach the faith He taught to them. Except for Paul, the Apostles were with Christ during His earthly ministry. The order of Apostles ended when the last Apostle, John, died around the year 100 A.D. John identifies himself as an elder, and seems to take for granted that the recipients of his letter know and receive his Apostolic leadership.
Many have speculated about where John wrote this letter, and the identity of its intended recipients. But all we can really know is that the elect lady of verse 1 is a church to which John wrote the letter. The elect sister of verse 13 is the church where John was when he wrote the letter.
John rejoices that the members of the church, whom he calls children of the elect lady (4), remain faithful to the truth. “Truth” is the doctrinal content of the Christian faith, especially the doctrines about the being and work of Christ. They are things that must be believed, and cannot be compromised, if one is to be a Christian. Truth also refers to living like a Christian in daily life, which John summarises in verses 5 and 6 as “love.” He is especially concerned that church members love one another (5). Christian love is compassion and unity as we walk with Christ together. It is also fellowship, a sense of being part of the family of God, with good will and good deeds and hospitality toward one another. Christian love begins with love for God, which is expressed by keeping His commandments (6). It is the exact opposite of lust, and of the current idea that all love begins with self-love.
John boldly asserts that a person who does not believe the truth and live in love, which he calls “the doctrine of Christ” in verse 9, “hath not God.” In other words, no matter how nice, or how sincere he may be, and no matter how good his ideas and beliefs sound, if his beliefs and practice do not coincide with the teaching of Christ as given by the Apostles, he is not a Christian, is not saved, and is not bound for Heaven.
John refers to the false teachers, who claim to preach Christ, but whose doctrine is different from that of the Apostles. Though their doctrine is very appealing and popular, it is heresy and lies, and John warns his people to stay away from it. In verse 10 he tells the Church to refuse to allow the false teachers into her fellowship, either as members or clergy. In John’s day, the false teachers travelled from town to town, making their livings by preaching their views. They attempted to get into the churches, where they spread their views, led the congregation into errors, and divided the congregation. John is telling the church not to let such people in, not to give them money, and not even to ask God’s blessings on them (10, 11).
This letter is, of necessity, very short, but John intends to visit the church soon (12). When he does, he will explain things more fully. Meanwhile, he sends greetings from the church he is currently visiting, “The children of thy elect sister greet thee. Amen.”
Is. 64, 3 John
“The elder,” (1) is the Apostle John (see 2 Jn. 1 and comments for August 28). Gaius is a member of one of the churches in John’s jursdiction. He is well known for his fidelity to the truth, both in his orthodox doctrine and in his love for the brethren (5,6, 12), especially his kindness to visiting Christians and clergy. It is probable that John himself stays with Gaius when making his Apostolic visitations to the church.
By contrast, Diotrephes (9) “receiveth us not.” Diotrephes apparently follows at least part of the doctrine of the false teachers. He believes they know more about Christ than John, the beloved Apostle knows, and he participates in the emotional manipulation and religious experiences the false teachers call worship. Therefore, he does not receive John.
Others in the church also follow the false teachers. John has written to the church (9) but received no reply. Verse 10 seems to indicate Diotrephes as the source of the congregation’s refusal to acknowledge John’s authority. This is a frightful sin. Our Lord said to the Apostles, “He that receiveth you receiveth me, and he that receiveth me receiveth Him that sent me” (Mt. 10:40). To reject the faithful ministry of a Godly Apostle, then, is to reject God Himself. How might that apply to the contemporary church and ministers?
John makes the sobering point that those who do evil, by not receiving Godly ministers, and by following false teachers, have “not seen God” (11). This is a direct refutation of the false teachers’ claims that they see God in visions and dreams, and that He appears to them and speaks to them, and gives special knowledge to them. John does not say what or who the false teachers have seen, but it is not God.
As in 2 John, there is much more to say, but John assures Gaius he is coming to him. They will settle the matter when they are together (14).
Is. 66, Jude
The epistle of Jude addresses the same issues and problems identified in the letters of John and Peter. People claiming to follow Christ are dismissing the Apostles’ teaching in favour of an easier and more experience oriented religion. Their false doctrine has three major points.
First, they say, God never really became a man. To them, Jesus of Nazareth was a mere human man, who, at His baptism, was infused with the spirit of a God known as Christ. Christ left Jesus at the crucifixion. He returned to Heaven, where He lives with other Gods, especially the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Second, morality has no affect on your relationship with God. Instead of being offended by your wicked deeds, they believe God is completely indifferent to them. He doesn’t care what you do, “as long as you don’t hurt anyone.” He just wants to give you a way to enhance your personal peace, and find unity with Him.
Third, personal peace, and unity with God are achieved through religious experiences, not through faith. Such experiences can range from emotion-centered “worship” to speaking in tongues, healings, and prophetic utterances. Emotional/psychological manipulation is used to create and enhance these experiences, which are often supplemented with drugs and alcohol. Such “worship” may degenerate into drunken orgies. Having such experiences, they say, is the essence of being a “Christian.”
People holding these beliefs and practices have crept into the Church unawares (4), meaning the Christians have welcomed them into their fellowship without recognising the extent of error and heresy in their views. Jude recognises this, and urges the people to “ contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints” (3). The faith once delivered is from Christ, proclaimed through the Apostles, and delivered to the Church. It does not need to be updated or changed to suit the times and values of contemporary people. In fact, to change it is heresy and sin and wickedness. Therefore, cling to and contend for it alone.
Jude gives sobering examples of the results of changing or leaving the faith given by God. First is the people brought out of Egyptian slavery (5). Great numbers of them were destroyed, rather than retained in the nation of Israel. Why? Because they “believed not” (5). They did not believe what God said, nor did they obey His commandments. Therefore, God destroyed them.
Another is the fallen angels (6). Created good, and with blessings and opportunities far beyond those of people, they rebelled against God. They now dwell in chains and darkness until Judgement Day.
Sodom and Gomorrah are a third example. “[G]iving themselves over to fornication, and going after strange flesh,” they are “set forth as an example, suffering the vengeance of eternal fire.”
Each of these examples show how wrong beliefs (doctrine) leads to wrong actions (practice). They also show how God feels about such errors. Spots on your feast of charity refers to rocks in the sea that are hidden by water but will wreck a ship and drown its people. Clouds without rain are clouds that look like they will give good rain to the earth, but bring only wind and darkness. Trees with withered (rotten) fruit cause sickness and death to those who eat of them. Foaming waves on the sea bring debris to the shore. Wandering stars are meteors falling into the blackness of darkness forever, appearing bright and glorious for a moment, but quickly burning away to nothing (12, 13). Verses 14-16 tell of God’s judgement falling upon those who follow the false teachers.
Jude reminds the people that the Apostles warned them that false teachers would come (17-19). He urges the Church to continue in the things of God (20-23). He closes with one of the most beautiful benedictions in all of Scripture (24, 25). He assures us that God is able to keep us from falling into the false teachings, and to preserve us in the true faith, “faultless” before the presence of His glory. This is accomplished by the sacrifice of Christ, who took our sins upon Himself, and paid for them on the cross. To this, the true God, “the only wise God our Saviour, be glory and majesty, dominion and power, both now and ever. Amen.”