Merry Christmas! May the Lord richly bless you and yours this day, as we celebrate the incarnation of His precious Son – our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Originally published December 9, 2016
But Mary treasured up all these things,
pondering them in her heart. Luke 2:19
Ponder. It isn’t a word we use very often, is it? It means to spend some time in reflection, considering, thinking deeply about things. Christmas is a time for pondering, and no one knew that better than Mary.
Luke 2:19 finds Mary, Joseph, and Jesus alone in the stable, at the culmination of a whirlwind of mind-boggling events.
Think about all Mary had been through in the last few months…
- After 400 years of silence from God, between the close of the Old Testament and, now, the opening of the New, an angel showed up – a staggering event in and of itself – and brought her a nearly incomprehensible message. Mary was going to be the mother of God’s promised Messiah. And that’s not all. She would be the only woman ever to conceive by the Holy Spirit.
- At some point Mary had to break the news to her parents that she was pregnant. Were they godly people of faith, as quick to believe as Mary had been? Or, did Mary fear they might be skeptical and shocked?
- Next to hear the news was her betrothed, Joseph. Incredulous, his first thought was to obtain a quiet divorce. But God sent another angel and reassured him personally.
- How did Mary’s friends, loved ones, and community react to her pregnancy? Did she have to endure long months of whispers, stares, and gossip? Was she in danger of stoning or other punishment as prescribed by Levitical law?
- A visit to Elizabeth’s house yielded even more amazement as Mary’s cousin related her own incredible pregnancy story.
- Next on the agenda was a long, uncomfortable trip to Bethlehem and the pain and danger that came with first century childbirth.
- Before she was anywhere near ready for visitors, the shepherds arrived and regaled the little family with their fantastic story of a sky full of angels proclaiming the birth of the Savior to them.
- And to top it all off, lying in her arms was a brand new, precious baby- her first. All of us who are moms remember the weightiness, and sometimes, panic, of holding our first baby. “What do I do first? How will I take care of this child? What if I mess it all up?” And Mary’s first child was God incarnate. King of the universe. Savior of the world. Think she felt a tad inadequate?
Mary’s had quite a year, to put it mildly. And now the shepherds have left and she has a moment to catch her breath and reflect on all these events that led up to God fulfilling His promises to her, to Israel, and to the whole world. The promise of the Messiah- Jesus.
And just as Mary pondered the fulfillment of God’s promises in Christ, Christmas time is an oh-so-appropriate time for us to ponder the promises He has made to us in Christ.
Sometimes, it can be difficult to know exactly what God has promised us. If you peruse the books at your local Christian retailer or flip on your TV or radio to many of the “Christian” stations, you’ll hear all sorts of things that God has supposedly promised us, things like: a bigger house, a better job, healing from every disease, that you’ll be able to hear God’s voice speaking to you, miracles, restored relationships, a better life…
But does God really promise us all these things?
How do we find out what God has really promised us? We go straight to the source- God’s word. It is the only truly trustworthy source for knowing what God has promised us.
But there are a lot of promises in the Bible. Some of them are for us today and some of them aren’t. For example, did God promise you that you would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Messiah? No. That promise was only for Mary. Did God promise the United States Army that if they would go march around an enemy city and blow some horns that the city walls would fall down and they would conquer that city? No. That was for only for Joshua and Israel, and only that one time.
We learn which promises are for us by being good students of God’s word. By picking up our Bibles (and I would urge you, the best way to learn God’s word is to study God’s word, not somebody else’s book). We pick up our Bibles and study them in context, in a systematic way, rightly dividing the Word of truth, paying attention to who God is talking to in each passage.
So, as it’s Christmas time and we reflect back on the Christmas story – maybe even pondering some of the same things that Mary did – what are some of the things God has promised us in Christ?
God has promised us forgiveness from our sin in Christ
When the angel came to visit Joseph and told him to go ahead and take Mary as his wife, the angel said:
Romans 5:8 says:
but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.
And 1 John 1:9 says:
If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
The Bible says that all of us are dirty, rotten, wretched sinners. None is righteous, no not one. And since all of our good deeds – never mind the bad ones – are like filthy rags, there’s no way we could ever hope to make up for our sin by being a good person or doing good things.
And God, in His beautiful mercy and grace, doesn’t even require us to try. He reached down into our filth and sent His own Son to take the death penalty you and I deserve for our sin. He absorbed God’s wrath toward us, so that we can stand before God clean if we’ll just repent and trust what Christ did for us on the cross. God promises to remove our sins as far as the east is from the west, to drop them in the depths of the sea, and to remember them no more. God promises us forgiveness in Christ.
God promises us trials and persecution
Doesn’t sound very Christmasy, does it? But perhaps we’ve forgotten the part of the Christmas story in which Mary and Joseph had to take Jesus and flee to Egypt because Herod wanted to kill Him.
And just as Jesus faced persecution and hardship, we can expect to face it too. Second Timothy 3:12 tells us:
Indeed, all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,
And John 16:33 says:
In this world you will have tribulation.
Just as Herod hated Christ, the world will hate us because of Christ. Just as Christ suffered because He was born into a broken and sinful world, so, we will suffer various trials and tribulations. In this world, you will have tribulation. But is that the end of that verse? No – praise God! – it is not.
The remainder of John 16:33 says “But take heart; I have overcome the world.” The trials and tribulations and persecutions we face are all just light and momentary afflictions, because Christ has overcome the world- and our hope is not in this world.
One day, we will shuffle off this mortal coil and see Christ Jesus face to face. And when we look upon the beautiful face of Christ, if we even remember the troubles of this world, we won’t complain or whine or ask, “Why did You allow me to go through those things?” or “Why didn’t you give me my best life now?”
It was worth it.
And in the meantime, God promises to walk through that suffering with us. “I will never leave you nor forsake you,” He says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the ends of the age.” God promises us trials and persecution, but He promises to walk through them with us.
God promises us joy
When the angel appeared to the shepherds to announce the birth of Christ, he said:
“All the people.” That’s us, too! When we think about the good news of the gospel, it should bring us great joy.
Galatians 5:22 tells us that joy is part of the fruit that comes from the Holy Spirit indwelling us:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy…
First Peter 1:8 says:
Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory.
And why is that joy “inexpressible and filled with glory”? Why is it joy that will never fade away? Because our joy is found in Christ: who He is and what He has done for us. Joy isn’t found in temporary circumstances- when you’re healthy, when you have a lot of money in the bank, when your kids are all successful, when your job is going well. Those things can all be taken away in the blink of an eye.
But if your heart, your mind, and your life have been transformed by the good news of the gospel, you can have joy even in the midst of devastation and heartbreak, because Christ isn’t going anywhere. He will always hold you and keep you and comfort you. He hears you when you pray and does what’s best for you. He takes care of you. He allows you to draw close to Him and discover more and more about Him through the study of His word. He gives you fellowship with your brothers and sisters in Christ.
That is the kind of joy God promises us in Christ.
God promises to provide for us
I wonder if Mary, while she was pondering all of these amazing things, reflected on the many ways God had provided for her. He provided a husband to take care of her, a cousin to encourage her, protection throughout her pregnancy, and a place to stay in Bethlehem.
God promises to provide for us, too. Philippians 4:19 says:
And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus.
And Jesus said in Matthew 6:31-33:
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.
God is a good and loving Father. He knows all of our needs even better than we do. He wants us to work hard and ethically, make wise financial decisions, and be good stewards of the resources He has given us, but He wants us to trust Him and depend on Him – not a paycheck or a job or insurance or a savings account – to take care of us.
Those are just a few of the wonderful things God has promised us. One of the great things about His promises is that there are so many of them. I could go on and on about God’s promises of peace, contentment, hope, love, Heaven, justice…
But I’d like to close with my favorite promise. It’s the promise that is foundational to all of God’s other promises:
All of God’s promises from Genesis to Revelation are fulfilled in Christ. God keeps His promises, and He keeps them in Christ.
As Mary pondered all the things God had promised her about Jesus, she didn’t have to wonder if they were true or not. She had seen them come true with her own eyes.
How can we know that God keeps His promises to us in Christ? Because He proved it to us. He backed up His word with action:
Jesus Christ- the second Person of the Trinity, creator and ruler of the universe, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, the prince of Heaven, worshiped by angels, all powerful, all mighty, all knowing, worthy of all glory, honor, and praise – did not consider these things as things to be grasped or held tightly to.
But He emptied Himself and took on the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. Born, not into wealth, power, prestige, or position; not into a mansion or a palace, but born to plain, simple, anonymous people. And in humility, for most of His years, He lived a plain, simple, anonymous life. Resisting every temptation in thought, word, and deed, that He might become the perfect sacrifice for our sin.
And in the fullness of time, He was despised and rejected by men. Subjected to a kangaroo court, he was tried and convicted for crimes he did not commit, and sentenced to death- even death on a cross.
Harsh, sinful men took Jesus out and smashed a crown of thorns down on His head. They mocked and scorned Him. They pulled His beard out. They pummeled Him with their fists. And then they whipped Him nearly to death.
They laid the rough, splintery cross beam across Jesus’ bruised and bloodied shoulders and led Him in humiliation through the streets of His beloved Jerusalem, outside the city gates, to be executed like a common criminal.
Those evil men used the very hands Jesus Himself had knit together in their mothers’ wombs to reach down, pick up hammers, and drive spikes through wrists and feet of their Creator.
And Jesus hung there on that cross for hours in excruciating pain to to endure the holy, just, and righteous wrath of God toward our sin, to take the punishment that we deserve- and He did not.
Later that day, while Mary mourned, and the disciples scattered, and Satan thought he had finally conquered the God he hated, they took Jesus’ bloody, broken body down off the cross, laid him in a cold, dark, lonely cave, and rolled a stone across the opening.
But Jesus didn’t stay there, did He?
On that bright, beautiful, first Easter Sunday, Jesus left behind the sting of the grave and the bonds of death, and He walked out of that tomb conquering sin, death, hell, and the grave FOREVER.
And He did it for you, and He did it for me. And any God who goes to those lengths for you and for me can be trusted to keep His promises. ALL of His promises.
God’s word is true, ladies- all of it. God can be trusted- He proved it in Christ. You can stake your life on His promises. You can stake your eternity on His promises.
Sometimes I think that if Elizabeth’s story had happened back in the Old Testament, we’d spend much more time on it than we do and be much more amazed by it than we are. Instead, we kind of tend to regard her as a footnote in the Christmas story, overshadowed by the story of Jesus’ incarnation.
And I’m sure Elizabeth is totally fine with that. Like her own son said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.”
But Elizabeth’s story is a rich gift to Christ’s birth narrative, adding wonder and awe to the divine beauty of the tale. It is also God’s gift to us as Christian women, giving us a sister in Christ to look up to and learn from.
In the days of Herod, king of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, of the division of Abijah. And he had a wife from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. And they were both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. But they had no child, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were advanced in years.Luke 1:5-7
Elizabeth was righteous before God. She walked blamelessly in all the commandments and statutes of the Lord. Like you and me, she wasn’t perfect. She still fell into sin. But because she loved the Lord, she repented, and strove to live her life to please Him.
But Elizabeth also knew sorrow. She and Zechariah had no child. She had been barren for all of her childbearing years, and now she was elderly – some scholars estimate at least 60 years old – and long past menopause.
If you or someone you know has ever experienced the heartbreak of infertility, you know just how painful that is. And in biblical times, culture added insult to injury in a lot of ways. It was assumed any infertility was a problem with the woman, when today we know that men can also be infertile.
Because children are a blessing from the Lord and the fruit of the womb is a reward, and because God sometimes closed the wombs of certain women in Scripture as a result of sin – it was often assumed that if you weren’t having children you were cursed by God, or your barrenness was some sort of punishment for sin.
And in addition to all of that, in that day and time, women were “low man on the totem pole” so to speak. They were regarded as less than men in practically every way- intelligence, abilities, worth, and so on. They couldn’t testify in court because their testimony wasn’t considered credible. And, maybe you’ve even heard of the daily prayer that Jewish men still say today, thanking God for not creating them a gentile…a slave…or a woman.
So, practically the only way women of that time could achieve a modicum of respect and status in society was by marrying well and by having sons. And, though she did marry well, Elizabeth didn’t have any children.
Try to imagine being a woman of Elizabeth’s time, having all of that on your shoulders, and having virtually no power to do anything about it.
Do you think you might be a little bitter toward God?
“Lord, my husband’s a priest! We can’t go around having people think you’ve cursed us.”
“We’ve been serving You all these years, and all we’ve asked for is a baby. You owe us.”
“You’re not going to give me the one thing I want most in life? Forget it – there are plenty of other gods to worship. I’ll go serve one of them.”
But not Elizabeth. Elizabeth just kept getting up day after day, trusting the Lord, serving the Lord, obeying the Lord.
And let’s not forget, we know the rest of the story. We know God is going to miraculously open Elizabeth’s womb and she’ll be the mother of John the Baptist. We know she’s going to be one of the first people to learn the good news of the Messiah. We know she’s going to be celebrated and famous across the world once her story gets into Scripture.
Elizabeth didn’t know that. For all those years faithfully following and trusting the Lord, she didn’t know any of that. For all she knew, she was going to die childless and in obscurity, quickly to be forgotten even by those who knew her. And yet she still chose to walk faithfully with the Lord.
Elizabeth was faithful to God because of who God is, not for what she could get out of Him. She served God to get more of God, not to get the goodies.
But look what happens next…
Now while [Zechariah] was serving as priest before God when his division was on duty, according to the custom of the priesthood, he was chosen by lot to enter the temple of the Lord and burn incense…And there appeared to him an angel of the Lord standing on the right side of the altar of incense…the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you shall call his name John.Luke 1:8-9,11,13
Zechariah has the great honor of entering the temple and burning incense. Suddenly – a miracle! Gabriel, who stands in the very presence of God Himself, has brought the amazing news that Elizabeth – barren and past her time – is going to give birth to the forerunner of the Messiah.
And Zechariah doesn’t believe it.
But Elizabeth does…
Thus the Lord has done for me in the days when he looked on me, to take away my reproach among people.Luke 1:25
Elizabeth believed God.
In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.”Luke 1:39-45
The newly pregnant Mary comes for a visit. The Holy Spirit reveals to and through Elizabeth that the baby Mary is carrying is the Messiah. And, once again, in great humility, Elizabeth believes Him: “Who am I, that my Lord should come to me?” Elizabeth wondered.
Indeed – who are any of us, that our Lord should come to us?
Now the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and she bore a son. And her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown great mercy to her, and they rejoiced with her. And on the eighth day they came to circumcise the child. And they would have called him Zechariah after his father, but his mother answered, “No; he shall be called John.”Luke 1:57-60
It’s a boy! What a joy-filled day it must have been. This wasn’t just any birth. It was God’s promise fulfilled. It was God’s mercy to Elizabeth, His blameless – yet not sinless – and undeserving child. It was God’s blessing to Elizabeth, His faithful servant. The same kind of mercy and blessings He shows us, His faithful, yet undeserving sons and daughters. The same way He fulfills His promises to us.
The time quickly came to circumcise and officially name the baby. Tradition dictated that he be named after Dad: Zechariah. But Elizabeth believed all that God had revealed about this baby to the point that she put her foot down, broke with tradition and insisted, along with her husband, that the baby be named John. It wasn’t about what she wanted. It wasn’t about what others thought was best. It was all about God, and what He wanted.
All of these unbelievable things happening to Elizabeth, yet Elizabeth believes God. Obeys God. Trusts God. She trusted and obeyed God all of those years when He said no, and she believed and obeyed Him after He said yes.
May we, as godly women, be daughters of Elizabeth: Believing God through the unbelievable. Trusting Him in times of uncertainty. Obeying Him in the face of opposition.
What a legacy this dear sister has left us.
What a gift.
Originally published November 28, 2017
One third of the world celebrates Christmas. That makes this the perfect time of year to carry out the Great Commission. What could be a more natural transition from chit chat to the gospel than talking about Christmas – the birth of Christ? Watch as Ray Comfort and ordinary folks from all over the world share the good news of Jesus with those they encounter.
If you’re looking for other easy ways to share the gospel in the coming weeks, check out my article, 10 Ways to Share the Gospel During the Holidays. You can also order some awesome Christmas-themed tracts to tuck inside your Christmas cards or share as you’re shopping at Living Waters or Bezeugen.
Originally published December 22, 2015
And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
The Christmas story just wouldn’t be the same without the shepherds, would it? Just a bunch of blue collar guys out doing their jobs one night, when God stepped in and gave them a story they’d be telling for the rest of their lives. We don’t know their names or how many of them there were, but they’re more than just pieces of our nativity sets. They’re a picture of the gospel.
Called Out of Darkness Into Light
The shepherds had no idea God would reveal His Son to them that night. They were just going about their lives, day in and day out, oblivious, until God intervened and brought them the good news of Christ. In a similar way, the Bible says that we walk through life day after day, dead in our trespasses and sins, until that glorious moment when God draws us to Himself, opens our eyes to the gospel, and makes us alive in Christ.
The Clean for the Unclean
The nature of the job put shepherds frequently in contact with the remains of dead animals and insects, rendering them often, if not nearly perpetually, ceremonially unclean according to Mosaic law. While unclean, they were separated from fellowship with God. They were not allowed to enter the temple to worship until they had offered a lamb to atone for their sin. And God chose these unclean men – guilty under the law – to be the first to meet His perfectly clean and spotless Lamb who would offer Himself to make the final atoning sacrifice for their sin, and ours. Through Christ, we are no longer separated from God by our sin and guilt.
Given, Not Earned
Because the shepherds had no way of knowing Christ would suddenly be revealed to them, there was nothing they could do to prepare for His coming or make themselves worthy of Him. God met them right where they were – dirty, smelly, and lower class – and brought them to Christ. Not because they were good people or had earned this honor with commendable deeds, but for God’s own reasons and His own glory.
There’s nothing we can do to earn our salvation either. None of us are righteous, all of our so called “good deeds” are like filthy rags, and it’s impossible for us to please God in any way before coming to faith in Christ. Jesus meets us right where we are – dirty, smelly, and in the middle of our sin – and saves us. Not because we’re worthy, but for God’s own reasons and His own glory.
Faithful Messengers for God’s Glory
The angel knew God personally and faithfully declared His word to the shepherds for God’s glory. Those of us who know Christ must faithfully proclaim the gospel, from the Word of God, to others. Proclaiming the good news of Christ brings glory to God.
Hear, Believe, Respond
When the shepherds heard the message of Christ, they immediately believed it and responded by coming to Him. In the same way, when we hear the good news of the gospel, Christ calls us to repent of our sin, believe unto salvation, and follow Him.
Once the shepherds had met Christ face to face, they couldn’t keep it to themselves. With great joy, they went out and told others about Him. Some must have believed them. Others, perhaps not. But the news they spread made an impact on everyone who heard it. If only we would share the good news of Christ far and wide as the shepherds did! Some will believe. Some won’t. But God’s word always impacts people and accomplishes His purposes.
O Worship the King
How could the shepherds help but worship, praising and glorifying God, for all they had seen and heard and all God had done for them? And how can we, after all we have seen and heard from God’s Word, and all He has done for us, help but worship, praise, and glorify our King?
Just a crew of rag tag shepherds tending the sheep that would be sacrificed in the temple. But not for long. A new Shepherd had been born. The Good Shepherd who lays down His life for His sheep. The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.