1 I must go on boasting. Though there is nothing to be gained by it, I will go on to visions and revelations of the Lord. 2 I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows. 3 And I know that this man was caught up into paradise—whether in the body or out of the body I do not know, God knows— 4 and he heard things that cannot be told, which man may not utter. 5 On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses— 6 though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth; but I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.
This week’s devotion is for me. I have been looking at this passage for a couple of weeks now and am so thankful that it exists! I need this.
But it is for you, too! We all need to be reminded of Jesus’ words here.
And there’s even better news: I aim to be brief in this week’s Bible study! The spring semester of school is well underway, and my classes at William Carey are back in full swing. So, I have several irons in the fire at the moment. This is important, though – too important to go unsaid, too necessary for me to say.
I hope it helps you as much as it has me.
A Thorn in the Flesh (vv. 1-7)
The content of verses 1-7 are widely debated, and I do not intend to wade into that debate today. When it comes to Bible interpretation, I tend to take the Alistair Begg approach: in Scripture, the main things are the plain things. Chas Rowland puts it a little clearer: in Scripture, the important things are clear, and the clear things are important. There are parts of this passage that are clear and parts that are purposefully unclear.
When I say purposefully unclear, I mean that the Holy Spirit obviously did not decide to give us the specific details regarding the content of the “visions and revelations of the Lord” (v. 1), what it means to be “caught up to the third heaven” (v. 2 – and which Paul himself did not know whether it was “in the body or out of the body”), what it means to be “caught up into paradise” (v. 3 – which Paul states only “God knows”). If I were to give my best and most theologically sound interpretation of these things, it would be two-fold: 1) I don’t know, and 2) it cannot be (fully) known.
It is okay to say “I don’t know” when it comes to Bible interpretation. That does not mean we do not need to study or that it is not okay to dig into God’s Word to search for answers. Those are good and valuable things. But it is important to be able to be honest about what we do not know or understand, especially if the alternative is to teach or proclaim things that may be untrue or dangerously heretical.
Some might balk at my saying that it cannot be fully known, but we are limited to what God has given us in His Word – and rightly so! The Bible contains everything that can be known about God. There are commentaries galore, but they are written by men. Peter’s second letter deals with this at length in a section that immediately precedes a section on how dangerous false teachers are. Look at this passage from 2 Peter talking about the importance of the revelation of God found in His Word versus the direction men (or women) may take it:
And we have the prophetic word more fully confirmed, to which you will do well to pay attention as to a lamp shining in a dark place, until the day dawns and the morning star rises in your hearts, knowing first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation. For no prophecy was ever produced by the will of man, but men spoke from God as they were carried along by the Holy Spirit.
2 Peter 1:19-21
Peter is talking about the illuminating value of God’s revelation through Scripture. Man’s interpretation can be helpful, but it is the Word that is a lamp for our feet and light to guide our path (Psalm 119:105)!
So, here is what is plain or clear in verses 1-7 and therefore main or important.
Paul was given visions of “surpassing greatness” (v. 7). Based on the context (“third heaven” and “paradise)”, he was given some sort of glimpses into heaven.
These visions were so great that Paul wished to boast about and that took great pains to keep him from boasting. Paul had written earlier to the church at Corinth about the dangers of such boasting, explaining that is why God chooses “what is low and despised in the world…so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:28-29) and reminding them – and apparently himself – of the Lord’s words in Jeremiah 9:23-24: “Let not the wise man boast in his wisdom, let not the mighty man boast in his might, let not the rich man boast in his riches, but let him who boasts boast in this, that he understands and knows me, that I am the Lord who practices steadfast love, justice, and righteousness in the earth.”
Paul was given “a thorn in the flesh” to “keep [him] from becoming conceited”. There are three main categories that interpretations of this “thorn” fall into: “(1) spiritual or psychological anxiety (such as anguish over Israel’s stubborn unbelief); (2) opposition to his ministry or message; and (3) a recurring and tormenting physical malady”. Scholars and theologians find reasons in the text for all three. I have speculations but find no value in sharing those with you here. What is clear is that God allowed this “messenger of Satan to harass” Paul just as He allowed similar with Job – just for different reasons. It is the same God who decided not to give us more information in this section of Scripture. I trust Him and His wisdom.
If you are uncomfortable with not knowing more about this, let me give you a little guidance on how to proceed. First, I would tell you to dig into the biblical cross-references (those little letters that point you to other places in the Bible that talk about similar things/topics). Limit yourself to what can be known in the Bible. Second, be careful about letting your favorite Bible guy or gal tell you fully what the Bible limits. Our Father knows best, and if He has not fully revealed something, be wary of a “preacher” who touts full revelation. That means what has been revealed to him (or her) did not come from the Bible. I am scared of those people. I would rather be a Bible-guy, satisfied with what is in it, than a popular preacher spreading my own words.
The good news, especially for us in this Bible study is that what comes after verses 1-7 is clear and plain and, therefore, important and main!
Sufficient Grace (vv. 8-10)
Whatever the “thorn in the flesh” was, it was so bad that Paul says that he “pleaded with the Lord” about it three times that it would “leave” him (v. 8). The word translated “plead” means to “call for or upon someone as for aid, to invoke God, to beseech, entreat”. Paul was literally begging God to make this “thorn”, this “messenger of Satan” that was harassing him to go away – because God was the only one who could make it go away! Apparently, Jesus’ answer was a different one than Paul was looking for: no.
I know something of struggling and begging God to take the struggle away. I also know a little bit about the answer being no. Thankfully, Paul’s “no” carried with it an explanation. Paul’s “no” got a verbal answer from Jesus (notice the red letters). Rather than taking away this thorn (which again was allowed by God) was: “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Rather than immediate – or eventual since we do not know if this thorn was ever removed – relief, Jesus told Paul that He would supply the strength to endure the thorn, that sufficient grace would be provided in his moments of need.
This may not seem like good news since we live in an era where immediate gratification is what many people are seeking, but it is truly good news. I am not saying this out of some sense of religious hocus pocus. When I cry out for God to rescue me from a struggle that has plagued and harassed me, I want immediate deliverance, too! I begged Him for relief earlier today and earnestly hoped that the malady would leave me right then and there. But it didn’t. It didn’t immediately go away, and it will be back. Paul’s “thorn” would not go away, but neither would Jesus! Jesus – Emmanuel (“God with us”) – would meet Paul’s weakness and provide sufficient – enough to overcome and get through – grace and strength to carry Paul through! Jesus meets me in my struggle and stays with me. He provides the same sufficient grace for you and me today.
Paul pleaded and begged and received more than a response from Jesus; he received the presence of Jesus and the full strength of God Himself to overcome the struggle! I hate my struggles. I hate being weak. More often than not, I find myself feeling hopeless when the struggles linger and return. But I am so thankful that in the midst of struggle, I find the presence of God. I find His strength. I find grace sufficient to do more than survive but to live and thrive in Christ. I find new mercies (Lamentations 3:22-23). I, like Paul, find Jesus.
The good thing for us is that we do not have to wait for a word from the Lord to intervene. The words – those red letters – in today’s passage are spoken to us as well. We don’t have to wait for God to speak because He has spoken!
Paul just thought that the visions he had were of surpassing greatness, but through the sufficient and continual grace of Jesus he grew to understand that there was something better than even the best visions. Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi came at the end of his life, shortly before his death (by martyrdom). He did not talk to them of a thorn or visions. He spoke to them of the “surpassing worth of knowing Christ [his] Lord” (Philippians 3:7). He explained to the church at Philippi and to us that everything he had previously boasted in – his Hebrew heritage, his Pharisaical pedigree, his exorbitant education, and even his most-valued visions – was equivalent now and counted by him as “rubbish” (Philippians 3:8). For context, the word translated “rubbish” was the word used to describe “refuse of grain, chaff, or of a table, of slaughtered animals, of dung, and figuratively of the filth of the mind”.
I want you to think about what these visions likely showed Paul and what this statement means. Paul’s vision was one of heaven – of paradise! But it paled in comparison to the “surpassing worth” of Jesus! Heaven, without Jesus, (pardon the crass language here) is crap. Read that again. Heaven without Jesus is nothing. A Jesus-less heaven is worthless – as the kids say, “straight trash”. Does that seem odd to you? If it does, you are boasting in the wrong things!
Paul was at risk of boasting in the wrong things in our passage today, but by the grace of God, he received a thorn. The Lord allowed something bad to bring about the grace to help Paul boast only in Christ. What did not seem like a blessing – and definitely would not have been had it not been for Christ – was a blessing because of the grace given to Paul to withstand. The question for us, and honestly the question I have to ask myself often, is whether or not I can be satisfied with the grace and presence of Christ in the face of continued difficulty.
I am thankful that Jesus is better than my struggles. His power is enough to withstand. His Spirit never leaves me nor forsakes me. And, just as He promised, He is with me always, “even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). But I need constant reminding.
If I am not careful, I can be so boastful. God’s power becomes eclipsed in my mind by my pride. His grace gets masked by my desire to be my own man and get through in my own steam. Thankfully, I have the Word of God and passages like ours today to remind me of the gift of God’s sufficient grace!
What about you?
Are you satisfied with the idea of heaven apart from Jesus? Would you rather have a mansion and immediate release from your earthly troubles rather than be in the presence of God and experience His sufficient grace?
These are difficult questions, but they are necessary ones. They are questions that I struggle with as I plead for relief. But God is big enough and strong enough for our questions. His loving-kindness can withstand and carry us through our doubts. His mercies and sufficient grace are enough to get us through whatever thorns tear at us.
I pray that I can boast like Paul did at the end of today’s passage that he was able to be “content” – to “be well–pleased” – in “weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities” because when he was weak, he was strong because of Jesus’ sufficient grace. I am not there yet, but there is sufficient grace to get me there eventually. That’s good news! And I needed to hear it today. I hope it helps you as well.
1 Oh sing to the Lord a new song; sing to the Lord, all the earth! 2 Sing to the Lord, bless his name; tell of his salvation from day to day. 3 Declare his glory among the nations, his marvelous works among all the peoples! 4 For great is the Lord, and greatly to be praised; he is to be feared above all gods. 5 For all the gods of the peoples are worthless idols, but the Lord made the heavens. 6 Splendor and majesty are before him; strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
7 Ascribe to the Lord, O families of the peoples, ascribe to the Lord glory and strength! 8 Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name; bring an offering, and come into his courts! 9 Worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness; tremble before him, all the earth!
10 Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns! Yes, the world is established; it shall never be moved; he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy 13 before the Lord, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in his faithfulness.
17 And if you call on him as Father who judges impartially according to each one’s deeds, conduct yourselves with fear throughout the time of your exile, 18 knowing that you were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, 19 but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. 20 He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 21 who through him are believers in God, who raised him from the dead and gave him glory, so that your faith and hope are in God.
17 Your eyes will behold the king in his beauty; they will see a land that stretches afar. 18 Your heart will muse on the terror: “Where is he who counted, where is he who weighed the tribute? Where is he who counted the towers?” 19 You will see no more the insolent people, the people of an obscure speech that you cannot comprehend, stammering in a tongue that you cannot understand. 20 Behold Zion, the city of our appointed feasts! Your eyes will see Jerusalem, an untroubled habitation, an immovable tent, whose stakes will never be plucked up, nor will any of its cords be broken. 21 But there the Lord in majesty will be for us a place of broad rivers and streams, where no galley with oars can go, nor majestic ship can pass. 22 For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our king; he will save us.
It’s that time of year again. Lord willing, a new year approaches. We have just moved out of a time of eating and gathering, and now, we move on to a time of resolutions and restarts.
For some, this is a time of regret, looking back over a year that just did not seem to go their way. For others, it is a time of remembering loss. And for some, although this seems to be the smallest group, this is a time of looking back at achievement and growth while looking forward to whatever challenges and victories await them on the horizons of 2023.
I am not quite sure which group I fall into regarding 2023, but I do know that my outlook regarding the future is changing.
When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I had big plans. I was with the love of my life, and anything seemed possible. We were setting out to achieve our goals. She was going to be a pharmacist. I was going to be a teacher. We would get married and use her (much higher) income to pay off whatever student loans we incurred in pursuit of our goals while living off my salary. Once the loans were paid off, we would buy a nice house, fill it with kiddos, and I would head towards my Ph.D. and becoming a principal. From there, the sky, and my ambition, would be the limit.
Out of that list, I am blessed to get to still be with the love of my life, and we have filled a much smaller and less nice house with two kiddos. I cannot fathom what my life would be like with out them. I did eventually become a teacher, but neither a Ph.D. nor becoming a principal are ambitions anymore.
There was a time when these changes were regrets, like ghosts of Christmas future. But God’s plan has been much better than mine. My wife did not become a pharmacist because she got to realize she was a gifted teacher. Her impact on children (with math, no less) is incalculable. I became (and quit and became again) a pastor. My time in the classroom, although it took a decade to get there, meant and means more to me than any of the hypotheticals or the draw of being wealthier ever had. The allure of such things is no longer there.
I get to be a husband. I get to be a daddy. I get to serve the Lord as a teacher, pastor, and even a writer. If the Lord tarries His return, I look forward to whatever He lets me do, and I am excited to follow Him – an excitement that was missing in my earlier ambitions. But more than all those things, I look forward to His return. I look forward to that day when the clouds will part and Jesus will return for His bride, the Church. I anxiously await the return of the King!
The King is Coming (vv. 17-20)
In Isaiah 33, God was using His prophet to deliver the promise of some woes against Israel’s foes and peace to His people. Assyria was and had been waylaying Israel, but God was coming to their rescue. It is important to note that this rescue is not because of the righteous way in which Israel worshipped and followed the Lord. No, this rescue is in spite of their unrighteous rebellion against Him. Much of Isaiah is written prophesying the eventual downfall of Israel and Judah and their eventual capture by and captivity in Babylon. Even with that future coming, this rescue is a picture of the love that God had for His people – and has – despite their rebellion and idolatry.
Isaiah 33:1-2 set the stage and give context for our passage for today:
1 Ah, you destroyer, who yourself have not been destroyed, you traitor, whom none has betrayed! When you have ceased to destroy, you will be destroyed; and when you have finished betraying, they will betray you. 2 O Lord, be gracious to us; we wait for you. Be our arm every morning, our salvation in the time of trouble.
Isaiah was declaring this on behalf of the Lord over Assyria, but He was also praying on behalf of the people to the Lord that they would receive grace in their time of need.
The problem is that Israel did not take the words of God’s prophet warning them of their own future seriously. God had told them through Isaiah what was coming. They knew what the Lord said about sin and what His Law said about it. Isaiah’s ministry telling people “Thus saith the word of the Lord” lasted thirty-nine years and was filled with calls to repentance and pleading with God’s people to listen to what God was saying and look to Him. All that got Isaiah was a martyr’s death (Hebrews 11:32, 37) at the hands of His people, at the hands of God’s people. Yet here, he asked God to give them grace. He asked God to be their strength “every morning” and to be their “salvation in the time of trouble”. And, consistent to who He is, God was “gracious and merciful” to Israel while pouring out His strength on Assyria; He was “slow to anger” toward His people despite their idolatry because He is always “abounding in steadfast love” (Psalm 145:8).
Isaiah’s prophecy here stretches beyond the conflict with and rescue from Assyria. It even stretches beyond Babylon, which was only a few decades away on the horizon. He told them what their eyes “will behold” despite what their heart will “muse” on and their eyes could currently see. Their hearts were musing – meaning their thoughts were absorbed – on terror because that is what they were currently experiencing. They failed to look toward what Isaiah was telling them because their eyes currently beheld the “insolent people” who rained “terror” down on them. Isaiah wanted them to “set their minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth” (Colossians 3:2) and see what came beyond their field of vision. He wanted them to “behold the King in His beauty”!
Isaiah was not talking about any earthly king of Israel or Judah. The people would have long since been over the allure of their earthly kings because they had suffered – and would suffer again – because of their foolish and idolatrous pursuits. The best of their kings was plagued by the same sin and faults as the people. David, Solomon, and Josiah all suffered injuries and loss at the hands of their enemies, too, with no ability within themselves to turn the tide of battle. And David, “a man after [God’s] own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14), was still a sinner who fell “short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) just as all men do. Isaiah was talking about the King!
While Isaiah did not know fully what He was talking about, we can now. He was talking about the “Child” who would come to shine a “great light” on “the people who dwelt in a land of deep darkness” (Isaiah 9:2, 6). He was talking about the “man of sorrows” who would bear “our griefs”, carry our “sorrows”, get “pierced for our transgressions”, and be “crushed for our iniquities” – the one whose “wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53:3-5). He was talking about the Savior who was coming in their future, Him who would be “gentle and lowly” (Matthew 11:29) and “give His life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:28). He was talking about the King who would enter Jerusalem, greeted by palm branches and cries of “Hosanna!” and “King of Israel!” (John 12:13) a week before He “died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures”, who “was buried”, who “was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4). In fact, it was because God’s Holy Spirit spoke through Isaiah that Paul spoke of when He said, “in accordance with the Scriptures” (Isaiah 53)!
Neither Israel nor Isaiah could understand then, but God used Isaiah to point them to a greater hope in Jesus than they could imagine – greater than the threat the Assyrians were that day or than Nebuchadnezzar would be in their near future. The eyes of God’s people will eventually see “the King in His beauty”. Their eyes will a new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:9-11) that will be “untroubled” (v. 20) and truly a city of peace because it will be graced with the presence of the “Prince of peace” and because of whom “the increase of His government and of peace there will be no end” (Isaiah 9:7).
Those who trust in Christ today need to keep in mind that our “eyes will behold the King in His beauty”. We “will see a land that stretches afar”.
The King Will Save Us (vv. 20-22)
Verse 21 starts with the phrase “But there”, speaking of the Jerusalem of the future. The conjunction “but” carries in it everything that comes before and cancels it out in favor of what comes after it. In this case, the before is different than the descriptions of this new Jerusalem found in vv. 20-21. What it says would be “there” will cancel out what is there at the time Isaiah was written.
Israel, namely Judah, during the time of Isaiah 33, could celebrate all the “appointed feasts” in Jerusalem, but there would be a time coming after Nebuchadnezzar sacked Jerusalem that no feasts – not Passover, the feast of tabernacles, etc. – would be observed. For a few centuries after they returned from Babylonian exile, they could observe the appointed feasts, but they would gradually morph into celebrations that are pale imitations of what is laid out in the Bible. Even today, there is much turmoil in Jerusalem and many who claim to be children of Abraham but who have denied His Christ, His Messiah. But there will come a day when a greater feast will be celebrated – the “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9)!
Isaiah speaks of the future Jerusalem as being “an immovable tent”. In the wilderness, God’s people did not have a temple but a tabernacle. It was portable and crude compared to Solomon’s temple – even the temple after Babylonian captivity or Herod’s temple. When God moved His people around in the wilderness, they would take up its stakes and cords and move it, too. Later, Israel rejoiced greatly when the tabernacle was replaced with the temple. The temple was not meant to be portable and did not need cords or stakes to hold it down.
Both the tabernacle and temple represented the presence of the Lord. Both held the holy of holies hidden behind a veil where the ark of the covenant – and the Mercy Seat – was kept. This was the representation of the throne of God where atonement was made for the sins of Israel. Yet the temple turned out to be as movable as the tabernacle. It was destroyed by the Babylonians, rebuilt after the return from exile, and destroyed again in 70AD. There is currently no temple. Well, a temple does reside on the temple mount, but it is the Dome of the Rock and devoted to Allah instead of Yahweh.
That is the sad reality of those looking to the current Jerusalem to be their hope. There is no hope in Jerusalem today nor has there been in nearly two millennia.
What Isaiah was talking about here in Isaiah 33 was better than the tabernacle or temple because he is pointing to what the holy of holies pointed to: the presence of God in Jesus! In Jesus, God “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). That phrase “dwelt” (Gr. eskenosen) can be translated “to have one’s tent” or to tabernacle. God left His throne on high and came to tabernacle with His people! Look at the significance of this in Matthew 27:50-51:
50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split.
When Jesus – God become flesh – died on the cross, the curtain (veil) separating the holy of holies from the rest of the temple was ripped “from top to bottom” (see footnote  for some cool word-nerdiness). Man had access to God as never before because God came to them! That’s good news! Jesus tabernacling with His people means that He is the “immovable tent”!
But there’s greater news yet! Look at the way Revelation 21:1-5 describes the Day we will “behold the King in His beauty”:
1 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. 2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. 4 He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”
5 And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.”
That is the place Isaiah spoke of where “there the Lord in His majesty will be for us”. It is a land where none of the troubles of the earth can reach us – even the most advanced and dangerous “galley with oars” or “majestic ship” of the most terrible enemy – because the King will have already struck down the nations and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (Revelation 19:15)! This is the Day when all of the sad things of this earth come untrue because God will be dwelling with His people. The eyes that were once blurry with tears will be able to look upon the King face to face!
I do not know if these words were a comfort for Israel during this time. I know the Assyrians were sent packing and were unable to overtake Israel. By Isaiah’s day (which was also Jeremiah’s, Amos’, etc.), their idolatry had already reached a point of no return. The Father had promised punishment for their sake and was to fulfill His word to them. They, just like our children, had a penchant for ignoring warnings of punishment until it is too late or forgetting former punishments after their sting has faded. What about us?
There is no shortage of troubles. And no matter our plans or hopes for 2023, the only sure hope is that there will be a day when we “behold the King in His beauty”. But we have yet to deal with v. 22: “For the Lord is our judge; the Lord is our lawgiver; the Lord is our King; He will save us.” If we belong to Him – if we have been saved by grace through faith in Jesus, that is good news for us.
When Jesus returns as King of kings and Lord of lords on that glorious future Day (Revelation 19:11-16), His enemies will fall, but those who have been redeemed – purchased – and reconciled by the death of Christ will no longer be enemies but part of His Kingdom (Romans 5:9-10)!
“I know I shall see in His beauty / The King in whose Law I delight / Who lovingly guards my footsteps / And gives me songs in the night // Redeemed, redeemed / Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb / Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it / His child and forever I am!”
So, today’s Bible study can either be good news for you or bad – not both. Just as there will be days in 2023 that are good or bad, the Day of the Lord will only be good if you can look forward to the coming of the King. If you have been redeemed, then you can look forward to seeing “the King in His beauty”, but if you do not know Him, you get the rider on the white horse – the full wrath of God in His might and strength. A few decades after today’s passage, there were people who understood this more than they had hoped. They stopped receiving grace and mercy and experienced wrath. The saving and powerful hand of God was lifted, and Nebuchadnezzar was allowed into Israel. What will it be for you?
But for those whose boast is in being redeemed by the King…. Their entire life is altered changed because of what He has done for them and in them. His Spirit dwells within them, and He is on the throne interceding on their behalf. And His return is promised.
But just because He has not yet returned does not mean He is distant. Just as God became flesh and tore the veil that separated us from Him, He is still approachable today! No other king on the face of the earth gives access to all his subjects. Even the prime minister of England cannot waltz into Buckingham Palace, roll into King Charles’ private quarters, and merely ask him for whatever he needs. There are protocols. He is the king of England, after all. But the King gives His people access.
In Hebrews 4:16, we are told: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We can fix our eyes upward where He is and look forward to His return, but in the meantime, He gives us access to Him on His throne! The grace Isaiah prayed for is available to us today. All we must do is approach.
That is my prayer for you and yours, me and mine, in 2023. I want every day that the Lord tarries to be one of anticipating His return. I want my actions, hopes, and desires to be dripping with longing for Him and obedience to His great commandment and commission. I want my life to exude gospel at every opportunity. But I am so thankful that the King is available in my waiting.
I know there will be days when I will fail and be filled with doubts and fears, but I also know that I can approach His throne with confidence because I know it is not empty.
The King who sits there cares for me. He is approachable. He has the grace and mercy I need and will give it to me when I need it.
The King redeemed me, loves me, and is coming again. Hallelujah! And amen!
 But wait, there’s more! In case you like interesting tidbits (or are nerdy like me), there is another layer to this. In Hebrews 9, the writer of Hebrews is describing the elements of the tabernacle/temple in order to show how Jesus is the substance to their shadow. The mercy seat was on the lid of the ark of the covenant and was representative of the throne of God. It is where the priest would sprinkle the blood each year on Yom Kippur (the day of atonement). The word translated “mercy seat” in Hebrews 9:5 (hilasterion) is only used in that form one other place in the NT. In Romans 3:25, it is translated “propiatiation” – the sacrifice made to trade our sins for Jesus’ righteousness! Written right into the fabric of Scripture by God’s Holy Spirit is the beautiful truth of Emmanuel – God with us – showing us that Jesus is the mercy seat and He is the sacrifice!
8 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.
Song | Go Tell It on the Mountain —
Song | Hark the Herald Angels Sing —
Scripture | 2 Corinthians 5:16-6:2 —
5:16 From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer. 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. 18 All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; 19 that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation. 20 Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. 21 For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
6:1 Working together with him, then, we appeal to you not to receive the grace of God in vain. 2 For he says,
“In a favorable time I listened to you, and in a day of salvation I have helped you.”
Behold, now is the favorable time; behold, now is the day of salvation.
Throughout this Advent season, we have continually discussed the “good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10) that the angels spoke of to the shepherds. That good news – that gospel – is as sweet and good for us today as it was two millennia ago.
Paul gives a succinct picture of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:3-4:
For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures….
That is going to be our focus. This Christmas, we are going to look at what is “of first importance”, just as it was “received”. We are going to read the accounts of the birth of Jesus from the gospels – Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and we will read through them chronologically. You can find a link to the audio below, but it will not contain verse references. Those can be found below.
The Beginning of the Good News
Mark 1:1a The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
Luke 1:1 Many have undertaken to compile a narrative about the events that have been fulfilled among us, 2 just as the original eyewitnesses and servants of the word handed them down to us. 3 So it also seemed good to me, since I have carefully investigated everything from the very first, to write to you in an orderly sequence, most honorable Theophilus, 4 so that you may know the certainty of the things about which you have been instructed.
John 1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was with God in the beginning. 3 All things were created through him, and apart from him not one thing was created that has been created. 4 In him was life,, and that life was the light of men. 5 That light shines in the darkness, and yet the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify about the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He was not the light, but he came to testify about the light.
9 The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world was created through him, and yet the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, he gave them the right to be children of God, to those who believe in his name, 13 who were born, not of natural descent, or of the will of the flesh, or of the will of man, but of God.
14 The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. We observed his glory, the glory as the one and only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. 15 (John testified concerning him and exclaimed, “This was the one of whom I said, ‘The one coming after me ranks ahead of me, because he existed before me.’ ”) 16 Indeed, we have all received grace upon grace from his fullness, 17 for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. The one and only Son, who is himself God and is at the Father’s side—he has revealed him.
The Record of Jesus’ Ancestors
Matthew 1:1 An account of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham:
2 Abraham fathered Isaac, Isaac fathered Jacob, Jacob fathered Judah and his brothers, 3 Judah fathered Perez and Zerah by Tamar, Perez fathered Hezron, Hezron fathered Aram, 4 Aram fathered Amminadab, Amminadab fathered Nahshon, Nahshon fathered Salmon, 5 Salmon fathered Boaz by Rahab, Boaz fathered Obed by Ruth, Obed fathered Jesse, 6 and Jesse fathered King David. David fathered Solomon by Uriah’s wife, 7 Solomon fathered Rehoboam, Rehoboam fathered Abijah, Abijah fathered Asa, 8 Asa fathered Jehoshaphat, Jehoshaphat fathered Joram, Joram fathered Uzziah, 9 Uzziah fathered Jotham, Jotham fathered Ahaz, Ahaz fathered Hezekiah, 10 Hezekiah fathered Manasseh, Manasseh fathered Amon, Amon fathered Josiah, 11 and Josiah fathered Jeconiah and his brothers at the time of the exile to Babylon. 12 After the exile to Babylon Jeconiah fathered Shealtiel, Shealtiel fathered Zerubbabel, 13 Zerubbabel fathered Abiud, Abiud fathered Eliakim, Eliakim fathered Azor, 14 Azor fathered Zadok, Zadok fathered Achim, Achim fathered Eliud, 15 Eliud fathered Eleazar, Eleazar fathered Matthan, Matthan fathered Jacob, 16 and Jacob fathered Joseph the husband of Mary, who gave birth to Jesus who is called the Messiah.
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations; and from David until the exile to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the exile to Babylon until the Messiah, fourteen generations.
The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
Luke 1:5 In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest of Abijah’s division named Zechariah. His wife was from the daughters of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. 6 Both were righteous in God’s sight, living without blame according to all the commands and requirements of the Lord. 7 But they had no children because Elizabeth could not conceive, and both of them were well along in years.
8 When his division was on duty and he was serving as priest before God, 9 it happened that he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and burn incense. 10 At the hour of incense the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. 11 An angel of the Lord appeared to him, standing to the right of the altar of incense. 12 When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified and overcome with fear. 13 But the angel said to him, “Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. 14 There will be joy and delight for you, and many will rejoice at his birth. 15 For he will be great in the sight of the Lord and will never drink wine or beer. He will be filled with the Holy Spirit while still in his mother’s womb. 16 He will turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. 17 And he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers to their children, and the disobedient to the understanding of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a prepared people.”
18 “How can I know this?” Zechariah asked the angel. “For I am an old man, and my wife is well along in years.”
19 The angel answered him, “I am Gabriel, who stands in the presence of God, and I was sent to speak to you and tell you this good news. 20 Now listen. You will become silent and unable to speak until the day these things take place, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their proper time.”
21 Meanwhile, the people were waiting for Zechariah, amazed that he stayed so long in the sanctuary. 22 When he did come out, he could not speak to them. Then they realized that he had seen a vision in the sanctuary. He was making signs to them and remained speechless. 23 When the days of his ministry were completed, he went back home.
24 After these days his wife Elizabeth conceived and kept herself in seclusion for five months. She said, 25 “The Lord has done this for me. He has looked with favor in these days to take away my disgrace among the people.”
The Birth of Jesus Foretold
Luke 1:26 In the sixth month, the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, 27 to a virgin engaged, to a man named Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And the angel came to her and said, “Greetings, favored woman! The Lord is with you.” 29 But she was deeply troubled by this statement, wondering what kind of greeting this could be. 30 Then the angel told her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 Now listen: You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. 33 He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and his kingdom will have no end.”
34 Mary asked the angel, “How can this be, since I have not had sexual relations with a man?”
35 The angel replied to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36 And consider your relative Elizabeth—even she has conceived a son in her old age, and this is the sixth month for her who was called childless. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.”
38 “See, I am the Lord’s servant,” said Mary. “May it happen to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
Mary Visits Elizabeth
Luke 1:39 In those days Mary set out and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judah 40 where she entered Zechariah’s house and greeted Elizabeth. 41 When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped inside her, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. 42 Then she exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and your child will be blessed! 43 How could this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? 44 For you see, when the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby leaped for joy inside me. 45 Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill what he has spoken to her!”
The Magnificat: Mary’s Song of Praise
Luke 1:46 And Mary said:
My soul magnifies the Lord, 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, 48 because he has looked with favor on the humble condition of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed, 49 because the Mighty One has done great things for me, and his name is holy. 50 His mercy is from generation to generation on those who fear him. 51 He has done a mighty deed with his arm; he has scattered the proud because of the thoughts of their hearts; 52 he has toppled the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly. 53 He has satisfied the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. 54 He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy 55 to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he spoke to our ancestors.
56 And Mary stayed with her about three months; then she returned to her home.
The Birth of John the Baptist
Luke 1:57 Now the time had come for Elizabeth to give birth, and she had a son. 58 Then her neighbors and relatives heard that the Lord had shown her his great mercy, and they rejoiced with her.
59 When they came to circumcise the child on the eighth day, they were going to name him Zechariah, after his father. 60 But his mother responded, “No. He will be called John.”
61 Then they said to her, “None of your relatives has that name.” 62 So they motioned to his father to find out what he wanted him to be called. 63 He asked for a writing tablet and wrote, “His name is John.” And they were all amazed. 64 Immediately his mouth was opened and his tongue set free, and he began to speak, praising God. 65 Fear came on all those who lived around them, and all these things were being talked about throughout the hill country of Judea. 66 All who heard about him took it to heart, saying, “What then will this child become?” For, indeed, the Lord’s hand was with him.
Luke 1:67 Then his father Zechariah was filled with the Holy Spirit and prophesied:
68 Blessed is the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has visited and provided redemption for his people. 69 He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, 70 just as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets in ancient times; 71 salvation from our enemies and from the hand of those who hate us. 72 He has dealt mercifully with our ancestors and remembered his holy covenant— 73 the oath that he swore to our father Abraham. He has given us the privilege, 74 since we have been rescued from the hand of our enemies, to serve him without fear 75 in holiness and righteousness in his presence all our days. 76 And you, child, will be called a prophet of the Most High, for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, 77 to give his people knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins. 78 Because of our God’s merciful compassion, the dawn from on high will visit us 79 to shine on those who live in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
80 The child grew up and became strong in spirit, and he was in the wilderness until the day of his public appearance to Israel.
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
Matthew 1:18 The birth of Jesus Christ came about this way: After his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, it was discovered before they came together that she was pregnant from the Holy Spirit. 19 So her husband, Joseph, being a righteous man, and not wanting to disgrace her publicly, decided to divorce her secretly.
20 But after he had considered these things, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because what has been conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,
which is translated “God is with us.”
24 When Joseph woke up, he did as the Lord’s angel had commanded him. He married her 25 but did not have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. And he named him Jesus.
Luke 2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that the whole empire should be registered. 2 This first registration took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. 3 So everyone went to be registered, each to his own town.
4 Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family line of David, 5 to be registered along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was pregnant. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 Then she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him tightly in cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
The Shepherds and Angels
Luke 2:8 In the same region, shepherds were staying out in the fields and keeping watch at night over their flock. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people: 11 Today in the city of David a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be the sign for you: You will find a baby wrapped tightly in cloth and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel, praising God and saying:
14 Glory to God in the highest heaven, and peace on earth to people he favors!,,
15 When the angels had left them and returned to heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go straight to Bethlehem and see what has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16 They hurried off and found both Mary and Joseph, and the baby who was lying in the manger. 17 After seeing them, they reported the message they were told about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary was treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had seen and heard, which were just as they had been told.
Jesus is Presented in the Temple
Luke 2:21 When the eight days were completed for his circumcision, he was named Jesus—the name given by the angel before he was conceived. 22 And when the days of their purification according to the law of Moses were finished, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord 23 (just as it is written in the law of the Lord, Every firstborn male will be dedicated to the Lord,) 24 and to offer a sacrifice (according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,).
The Prophecy of Simeon
Luke 2:25 There was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and the Holy Spirit was on him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he saw the Lord’s Messiah. 27 Guided by the Spirit, he entered the temple. When the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform for him what was customary under the law, 28 Simeon took him up in his arms, praised God, and said,
29 Now, Master, you can dismiss your servant in peace, as you promised. 30 For my eyes have seen your salvation. 31 You have prepared it in the presence of all peoples— 32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and glory to your people Israel.
33 His father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. 34 Then Simeon blessed them and told his mother Mary, “Indeed, this child is destined to cause the fall and rise of many in Israel and to be a sign that will be opposed—35 and a sword will pierce your own soul—that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.”
The Prophecy of Anna
Luke 2:36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, a daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was well along in years, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage,,37 and was a widow for eighty-four years. She did not leave the temple, serving God night and day with fasting and prayers. 38 At that very moment, she came up and began to thank God and to speak about him to all who were looking forward to the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Visit of the Wise Men
Matthew 2:1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of King Herod, wise men from the east arrived in Jerusalem, 2 saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star at its rising and have come to worship him.”
3 When King Herod heard this, he was deeply disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. 4 So he assembled all the chief priests and scribes of the people and asked them where the Messiah would be born.
5 “In Bethlehem of Judea,” they told him, “because this is what was written by the prophet:
6 And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah: Because out of you will come a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel.”,
7 Then Herod secretly summoned the wise men and asked them the exact time the star appeared. 8 He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. When you find him, report back to me so that I too can go and worship him.”,
9 After hearing the king, they went on their way. And there it was—the star they had seen at its rising. It led them until it came and stopped above the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 Entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and falling to their knees, they worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their own country by another route.
“He’s Here!” The story of the Nativity as told in Sally Lloyd-Jones’ Jesus Storybook Bible
Everything was ready. The moment God had been waiting for was here at last! God was coming to help His people, just as He promised in the beginning.
But how would He come? What would He be like? What would He do?
Mountains would have bowed down. Seas would have roared. Trees would have clapped their hands. But the earth held its breath. As silent as snow falling, He came in. And when no one was looking, in the darkness, He came.
There was a young girl who was engaged to a man named Joseph. (Joseph was the great-great-great-great-great grandson of King David.)
One morning, this girl was minding her own business when, suddenly, a great warrior of light appeared – right there in her bedroom. He was Gabriel, and he was an angel, a special messenger from Heaven.
When she saw the tall shining man standing there, Mary was frightened.
“You don’t need to be scared,” Gabriel said. “God is very happy with you!”
Mary looked around to see if perhaps he was talking to someone else.
“Mary, you’re going to have a baby. A little boy. You will call Him Jesus. He is God’s own Son. He’s the One! He’s the Rescuer!”
The God who flung planets into space and kept them whirling around and around, the God who made the universe with just a word, the one who could do anything at all – was making Himself small. And coming down…as a baby.
Wait. God was sending a baby to rescue the world?
“But it’s too wonderful!” Mary said and felt her heart beating hard. “How can it be true?”
“Is anything too wonderful for God?” Gabriel asked.
So Mary trusted God more than what her eyes could see. And she believed. “I am God’s servant,” she said. “Whatever God says, I will do.”
Sure enough, it was just as the angel had said. Nine months later, Mary was almost ready to have her baby.
Now, Mary and Joseph had to take a trip to Bethlehem, the town King David was from. But when they reached the little town, they found every room was full. Every bed was taken.
“Go away!” the innkeepers told them. “There isn’t any place for you.”
Where would they stay? Soon Mary’s baby would come.
They couldn’t find anywhere except an old, tumbledown stable. So they stayed where the cows and the donkeys and the horses stayed.
And there, in the stable, amongst the chickens and the donkeys and the cows, in the quiet of the night, God gave the world His wonderful gift. The baby that would change the world was born. His baby Son.
Mary and Joseph wrapped Him up to keep Him warm. They made a soft bed of straw and used the animals’ feeding trough as His cradle. And they gazed in wonder at God’s Great Gift, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.
Mary and Joseph named Him Jesus, “Emmanuel” – which means “God has come to live with us.”
Because, of course, He had.
 Yes, this is from a children’s “bible”. We’ve spent a lot of time reading the Scriptures verbatim from the Word of God, and we absolutely should give priority to Scripture in our devotional life. But, maybe – just maybe – we could all benefit from looking at the Scriptures from the mindset of a child. Could it be that there is no perspective with more substantial faith at Christmas than a child’s? May we see Christmas in that way.
16 For in this way God loved the world, so that he gave his one and only Son, in order that everyone who believes in him will not perish, but will have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world in order that he should judge the world, but in order that the world should be saved through him. 18 The one who believes in him is not judged, but the one who does not believe has already been judged, because he has not believed in the name of the one and only Son of God. 19 And this is the judgment: that the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light, because their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who practices evil hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his deeds be exposed. 21 But the one who practices the truth comes to the light, in order that his deeds may be revealed, that they are done in God.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God sent his one and only Son into the world in order that we may live through him. 10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
It was not to the throne room of a king, where he would have been received in solemn majesty, that he came that night. It was not to the banqueting hall of a governor with its flickering torches, its loaded tables, and its throng of revelers, nor to the packed inn where frantic serving maids ran in and out, answering the surly cries of hungry travelers. It was to starlit fields, where in silence broken only by the soft sounds of sleeping sheep the shepherds were doing what they were supposed to be doing, that he came—the angel of the Lord, in the terrifying glory of the Lord, bringing with him the good news of a great joy for all people, even for them, the shepherds.
We are told that they went as fast as they could to Bethlehem to see what had happened. They found the Savior of the world with Mary and Joseph, though how they found him we are not told, nor how they recognized him as Christ the Lord there in the dark cave, in the animals’ manger. We are told that they reported what the angel had said to them and then went back to their fields. That is all that we know they did, but we imagine more. We see them kneeling in the straw, offering to the baby their worship and, perhaps, some simple gift. We imagine everyone who came kneeling down in adoration, humble and glad in the steamy darkness, laying before the Child some present. A twelfth-century Christian pictured even the animals bringing their gifts:
I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown, I carried His mother uphill and down. I carried His mother to Bethlehem town. I, said the donkey, all shaggy and brown. I, said the cow, all white and red, I gave Him my manger for a bed. I gave Him my hay to pillow His head. I, said the cow, all white and red. I, said the sheep, with curly horn, I gave Him my wool for a blanket warm. He wore my coat on Christmas morn. I, said the sheep, with curly horn. So every beast, by some good spell, In the stable rude was glad to tell Of the gift he gave Immanuel, The gift he gave Immanuel.
We cannot imagine adoration without gift-giving, and at Christmas we have the opportunity, by wise and honored custom, of expressing appreciation and love to others by making them presents.
We offer to God our thanksgiving for his “unspeakable gift,” that little child at whose birth angels sang, a human being, coming into the human scene for the sake of humans—all of us, the shepherds, the mysterious sages from the East, godly Jews who had looked all their lives long for the Messiah, all the rest of the teeming world. “Joy which shall be to all people.” We think of that gift, and we thank him.
We think of God’s other gifts and most of us wonder, at Christmas time, what gift we may give to him beyond our thanksgiving. Money, time, talent, possessions? We check them off impatiently. “I do tithe, I give my time, I share what I have.” Or perhaps we check off the list with diffidence, asking, “Of what use will that be for God?”
Yet we know that all we have is given to us by God. “Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of Lights.” So we give him back a portion of what was always his, trusting him to accept it and make use of it in his own way. It is not beyond our powers to imagine God’s making of our time, money, talents, and possessions instruments of good in the world.
But there is one other thing we may offer, something that seems perhaps much more our own, of much less “use” to the world at large, and a paltry present at best, one we are sometimes hesitant to surrender. Christina Rosetti’s lovely carol reminds us of it:
What can I give Him, poor as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man, I would do my part. What can I give Him—give my heart.
How am I to do this? Some measure of trust and commitment is involved in the giving of any gift. The child proffers the crushed dandelion to his mother, sure that she can be trusted to be pleased with it and—what matters far more to him—to receive him. It is not to obtain the mother’s love that the child gives her the flower, but because he knows he has already obtained it. To lay my heart before Christ the Lord would be unthinkable without the same confidence felt by the child—the assurance of acceptance, not that I may hope to receive grace but that grace has already been poured upon me. In all my giving I only appropriate God’s supreme gift.
I bring, then, my heart—all my heart—an unopened parcel. No one else knows what it contains, but I myself know there is nothing there of gold, frankincense, or myrrh. There is nothing in the parcel except the panic, the fear, the chaos of whatever storm buffets me now, and, like the disciples in a storm-tossed boat, I find, to my amazement, that I am given something in return—peace, the peace of God that passes understanding.
I bring, like the five thousand long ago, my hunger, and like them I am fed.
I bring the darkness of my heart, even that worst darkness which prefers darkness, and, simply because I have brought it, the Light that no darkness can comprehend shines in.
It may be that the heart I have to offer is a broken one. If so, I bring a broken heart. And somehow, after a time, I receive healing.
I bring whatever there may be of ashes, mourning, the spirit of heaviness, and I go away with beauty, with the oil of joy, with the garment of praise.
The story is told of a hermit who, having suffered the loss of all things in his renunciation of the world, yet found no peace. It seemed to him in his lonely cell that the Lord was asking something more.
“But I have given you everything!” cried the hermit.
“All but one thing,” answered the Lord.
“What is it, Lord?”
Like the hermit, I bring also my sins, for they, too, are contained in the parcel. And I receive in exchange forgiveness.
It is a tremendous mystery—out of this darkness, this song; out of this chaos, this peace, Christ giving to us himself. And we, in mysterious exchange for the crushed dandelion that would have been of no use to anyone at all, are granted precious things that, even more inexplicably, we may give in turn to other people. We may participate, through this transformation, in the work of the Prince of Peace in the world, giving away joy and peace, things listed in no Christmas catalogue. It may well be that some of the gifts we had sighed over in the catalogue were withheld precisely in order that we might receive instead priceless ones for the sake of others, gifts whose sharing, far from impoverishing, enriches the giver.
How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear His coming, yet in this world of sin Where meek souls will receive Him still the dear Christ enters in.
 Elisabeth Elliot, “The Wondrous Gift,” in A Light Has Dawned: Meditations on Advent and Christmas, Best of Christianity Today (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2020), 224–230.
7 Dear friends, let us love one another, because love is from God, and everyone who loves has been fathered by God and knows God. 8 The one who does not love does not know God, because God is love. 9 By this the love of God is revealed in us: that God sent his one and only Son into the world in order that we may live through him. 10 In this is love: not that we have loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.
11 Dear friends, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. 12 No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God resides in us and his love is perfected in us. 13 By this we know that we reside in him and he in us: that he has given us of his Spirit. 14 And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son to be the Savior of the world.
When the apostle John wants to point us to the love of God, he does so by highlighting the very truth that we celebrate at Christmas: “…the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world.” That simple yet profound truth should give us confidence in God’s love.
One of the primary purposes of 1 John is to give genuine believers confidence that they have eternal life (1 John 5:13), and one of the primary ways John does this is by reminding us of the character of God and His saving work in Christ. Gratefully, our assurance is not ultimately based on our own obedience or faith, which is always imperfect, but rather on God’s sacrificial love.
The fact that God has demonstrated His love reassures us that Christmas is not merely wishful thinking or a blind hope. It is grounded in the reality that God Himself has come to dwell with us. As the old Christmas hymn says:
Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see Hail the Incarnate Deity Pleased as man with men to dwell Jesus, our Emmanuel
God demonstrated His love through the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, and He did not wait for us to earn that love. He did it “while we were still sinners” (Romans 5:8). And if we received such love while we were sinners, how can we doubt that God will continue loving us now that we have been reconciled to Him (Romans 5:9-10)? Along with the apostle John, we should be able to testify with confidence that “the Father has sent His Son to be the Savior of the world” (1 John 4:14).
 David Platt, Advent (Birmingham, AL: Radical, Inc., 2019), 36.