The Real Meaning of Christmas

Originally posted on My Lord Katie:

Mary and Joseph Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. And everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him and was with child. While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:1-7)

christmas-nativity-wallpapers-1920x1200God bless you all this Christmas! In…

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Hugh Mackenzie and the Hard-Won Assurance of His Struggling Faith

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Mr. Hugh Mackenzie was born in Kilmuir, on Easter, in 1728…

An eminent minister, who had often met him, was struck with his habitual assurance, and, that he might know the foundation of it, he went to visit him, a distance of thirty miles. To draw him out, he said to him:

“Mr. Mackenzie, you are a man to be envied; you know nothing of doubts and fears; you always enjoy the full assurance of hope.” The old man replied at once, “–Yes, yes, I understand you. Many a man speaks of my strong faith that does not know all that it has to struggle with. But I shall tell you what my faith is, I am the emptiest, vilest, poorest sinner I know on the face of the earth. I feel myself to be so. But I read in His own word that he hears the cry of the poor, and I believe Him, and I cry to Him, and He always hears me, and that is all the faith or assurance I have got.” The venerable minister on telling me the incident, made the remark, “–If I know anything of true faith, Mr. Mackenzie’s faith is a most scriptural and a most rational one.”

Some years before his death, I happened to be at his son’s house when the Lord’s Supper was dispensed in the parish. On Monday, Mr. Mackenzie went to the tent to hear another old minister with whom he had been long intimate, and the text was, “He will speak peace to His people, and to His saints.” The wind happened to be high, and when the sermon was over, the minister said to him, “–I fear Mr. Mackenzie, you were not hearing well,” “Yes,” was the answer, “I was hearing all day, and believing too.”

In the evening I accompanied his sons to call upon the old man. When the question was put, ” How do you feel, tonight? ” His answer was, “My case is more easily felt than described. You read that there is a ‘peace of God which passeth all understanding,’ and a ‘joy unspeakable and full of glory,’ and that is just my case tonight.” When further questioned, he remarked: “I got into this state of mind while I was hearing that precious sermon, today;” and then, addressing his sons, he said, “Don’t think that I despise your preaching. You preach the gospel, and I bless God for it; but you have not the experience of the old minister. The preaching we had to-day about the ‘peace,’ is what suits my soul.”

In 1829 he began to sink, and his son was sent for. On being asked by his son what his views were now as to the things of eternity, he answered, with beautiful simplicity, “I leave it all in His own hands. I am not able to think much, but I know He won’t send me to hell.”

When his end was evidently near, and when asked how he felt, he was able to whisper, “–He has been entertaining me with a promise,” and, soon after, he breathed his last in the one hundred and first year of his age.

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Taken from, “The Religious Anecdote of Scotland”
Written by, William Adamson

WHAT IS THE GOSPEL MESSAGE?

Written by, J. I. Packer

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IN a word, the evangelistic message is the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified…

…the message of man’s sin and God’s grace, of human guilt and divine forgiveness, of new birth and new life through the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is a message made up of four essential ingredients.

1. The Gospel is a message about God.

It tells us who He is, what His character is, what His standards are, and what He requires of us, His creatures. It tells us that we owe our very existence to Him; that for good or ill, we are always in His hands and under His eye; and that He made us to worship and serve Him, to show forth His praise and to live for His glory. These truths are the foundation of theistic religion; and until they are grasped, the rest of the Gospel message will seem neither cogent nor relevant. It is here with the assertion of man’s complete and constant dependence on his Creator that the Christian story starts.

We can learn again from Paul at this point. When preaching to Jews, as at Pisidian Antioch, he did not need to mention the fact that men were God’s creatures. He could take this knowledge for granted, for his hearers had the Old Testament faith behind them. He could begin at once to declare Christ to them as the fulfillment of Old Testament hopes. But when preaching to Gentiles, who knew nothing of the Old Testament, Paul had to go further back and start from the beginning. And the beginning from which Paul started in such cases was the doctrine of God’s Creatorship and man’s creaturehood. So, when the Athenians asked him to explain what his talk of Jesus and the resurrection was all about, he spoke to them first of God the Creator and what He made man for. “God…made the world…seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things; And hath made…all nations… that they should seek the Lord” (Act 17:24-27). This was not, as some have supposed, a piece of philosophical apologetic of a kind that Paul afterwards renounced, but the first and basic lesson in theistic faith.

The Gospel starts by teaching us that we, as creatures, are absolutely dependent on God…

…and that He, as Creator, has an absolute claim on us. Only when we have learned this can we see what sin is, and only when we see what sin is can we understand the good news of salvation from sin. We must know what it means to call God Creator before we can grasp what it means to speak of Him as Redeemer. Nothing can be achieved by talking about sin and salvation where this preliminary lesson has not in some measure been learned.

2. The Gospel is a message about sin.

It tells us how we have fallen short of God’s standard, how we have become guilty, filthy, and helpless in sin, and now stand under the wrath of God. It tells us that the reason why we sin continually is that we are sinners by nature, and that nothing we do or try to do for ourselves can put us right or bring us back into God’s favor. It shows us ourselves as God sees us and teaches us to think of ourselves as God thinks of us. Thus, it leads us to self-despair. And this also is a necessary step. Not until we have learned our need to get right with God and our inability to do so by any effort of our own can we come to know the Christ Who saves from sin.

There is a pitfall here.

Everybody’s life includes things that cause dissatisfaction and shame. Everyone has a bad conscience about some things in his past, matters in which he has fallen short of the standard that he set for himself or that was expected of him by others. The danger is that in our evangelism we should content ourselves with evoking thoughts of these things and making people feel uncomfortable about them, and then depicting Christ as the One who saves us from these elements of ourselves, without even raising the question of our relationship with God. But this is just the question that has to be raised when we speak about sin. For the very idea of sin in the Bible is of an offense against God that disrupts a man’s relationship with God. Unless we see our shortcomings in the light of the Law and holiness of God, we do not see them as sin at all. For sin is not a social concept; it is a theological concept. Though sin is committed by man, and many sins are against society, sin cannot be defined in terms of either man or society. We never know what sin really is until we have learned to think of it in terms of God and to measure it, not by human standards, but by the yardstick of His total demand on our lives.

What we have to grasp, then, is that the bad conscience of the natural man is not at all the same thing as conviction of sin.

It does not, therefore, follow that a man is convicted of sin when he is distressed about his weaknesses and the wrong things he has done. It is not conviction of sin just to feel miserable about yourself, your failures, and your inadequacy to meet life’s demands. Nor would it be saving faith if a man in that condition called on the Lord Jesus Christ just to soothe him, and cheer him up, and make him feel confident again.

Nor should we be preaching the Gospel if all that we did was to present Christ in terms of a man’s felt wants: “Are you happy? Are you satisfied? Do you want peace of mind? Do you feel that you have failed? Are you fed up with yourself? Do you want a friend? Then come to Christ; He will meet your every need”—as if the Lord Jesus Christ were to be thought of as a fairy godmother or a super-psychiatrist…To be convicted of sin means not just to feel that one is an all-round flop, but to realize that one has offended God, and flouted His authority, and defied Him, and gone against Him, and put oneself in the wrong with Him. To preach Christ means to set Him forth as the One Who through His cross sets men right with God again…

It is indeed true that the real Christ, the Christ of the Bible, reveals Himself to us as a Savior from sin and an Advocate with God, does in fact give peace, and joy, and moral strength, and the privilege of His own friendship to those who trust Him. But the Christ who is depicted and desired merely to make the lot of life’s casualties easier by supplying them with aids and comforts is not the real Christ, but a misrepresented and misconceived Christ—in effect, an imaginary Christ. And if we taught people to look to an imaginary Christ, we should have no grounds for expecting that they would find a real salvation. We must be on our guard, therefore, against equating a natural bad conscience and sense of wretchedness with spiritual conviction of sin and so omitting in our evangelism to impress upon sinners the basic truth about their condition—namely, that their sin has alienated them from God and exposed them to His condemnation, and hostility, and wrath, so that their first need is for a restored relationship with Him…

3. The Gospel is a message about Christ—Christ, the Son of God incarnate;

Christ, the Lamb of God, dying for sin; Christ, the risen Lord; Christ, the perfect Savior.

Two points need to be made about the declaring of this part of the message:

(i) We must not present the Person of Christ apart from His saving work. It is sometimes said that it is the presentation of Christ’s Person, rather than of doctrines about Him, that draws sinners to His feet. It is true that it is the living Christ Who saves and that a theory of the atonement, however orthodox, is no substitute. When this remark is made, however, what is usually being suggested is that doctrinal instruction is dispensable in evangelistic preaching, and that all the evangelist need do is paint a vivid word-picture of the man of Galilee who went about doing good, and then assure his hearers that this Jesus is still alive to help them in their troubles. But such a message could hardly be called the Gospel.

It would, in reality, be a mere conundrum, serving only to mystify…the truth is that you cannot make sense of the historic figure of Jesus until you know about the Incarnation—that this Jesus was in fact God the Son, made man to save sinners according to His Father’s eternal purpose. Nor can you make sense of His life until you know about the atonement—that He lived as man so that He might die as man for men, and that His passion, His judicial murder was really His saving action of bearing away the world’s sins. Nor can you tell on what terms to approach Him now until you know about the resurrection, ascension, and heavenly session—that Jesus has been raised, and enthroned, and made King, and lives to save to the uttermost all who acknowledge His Lordship. These doctrines, to mention no others, are essential to the Gospel…In fact, without these doctrines you would have no Gospel to preach at all.

(ii) But there is a second and complementary point: we must not present the saving work of Christ apart from His Person. 
Evangelistic preachers and personal workers have sometimes been known to make this mistake. In their concern to focus attention on the atoning death of Christ as the sole sufficient ground on which sinners may be accepted with God, they have expounded the summons to saving faith in these terms: “Believe that Christ died for your sins.” The effect of this exposition is to represent the saving work of Christ in the past, dissociated from His Person in the present, as the whole object of our trust. But it is not biblical thus to isolate the work from the Worker. Nowhere in the New Testament is the call to believe expressed in such terms. What the New Testament calls for is faith in (en) or into (eis) or upon (epi) Christ Himself—the placing of our trust in the living Savior Who died for sins. The object of saving faith is thus not, strictly speaking, the atonement, but the Lord Jesus Christ, Who made atonement. We must not, in presenting the Gospel, isolate the cross and its benefits from the Christ Whose cross it was. For the persons to whom the benefits of Christ’s death belong are just those who trust His Person and believe, not upon His saving death simply, but upon Him, the living Savior. “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved,” said Paul (Act 16:31). “Come unto me…and I will give you rest,” said our Lord (Mat 11:28).

This being so, one thing becomes clear straight away: namely, that the question about the extent of the atonement, which is being much agitated in some quarters, has no bearing on the content of the evangelistic message at this particular point. I do not propose to discuss this question now; I have done that elsewhere. I am not at present asking you whether you think it is true to say that Christ died in order to save every single human being, past, present, and future, or not. Nor am I at present inviting you to make up your mind on this question, if you have not done so already. All I want to say here is that even if you think the above assertion is true, your presentation of Christ in evangelism ought not to differ from that of the man who thinks it false.

What I mean is this: it is obvious that if a preacher thought that the statement, “Christ died for every one of you,” made to any congregation, would be unverifiable and probably not true, he would take care not to make it in his Gospel preaching. You do not find such statements in the sermons of, for instance, George Whitefield or Charles Spurgeon. But now, my point is that, even if a man thinks that this statement would be true if he made it, it is not a thing that he ever needs to say or ever has reason to say when preaching the Gospel. For preaching the Gospel, as we have just seen, means [calling] sinners to come to Jesus Christ, the living Savior, Who, by virtue of His atoning death, is able to forgive and save all those who put their trust in Him. What has to be said about the cross when preaching the Gospel is simply that Christ’s death is the ground on which Christ’s forgiveness is given. And this is all that has to be said. The question of the designed extent of the atonement does not come into the story at all…The fact is that the New Testament never calls on any man to repent on the ground that Christ died specifically and particularly for him.

The Gospel is not, “Believe that Christ died for everybody’s sins, and therefore for yours,” any more than it is, “Believe that Christ died only for certain people’s sins, and so perhaps not for yours”…

We have no business to ask them to put faith in any view of the extent of the atonement. Our job is to point them to the living Christ, and summon them to trust in Him…This brings us to the final ingredient in the Gospel message.

4. The Gospel is a summons to faith and repentance.

All who hear the Gospel are summoned by God to repent and believe. “God…commandeth all men everywhere to repent,” Paul told the Athenians (Act 17:30). When asked by His hearers what they should do in order to “work the works of God,” our Lord replied, “This is the work of God, that ye believe on him whom he hath sent” (Joh 6:29). And in 1 John 3:23 we read: “This is his commandment, That we should believe on the name of his Son Jesus Christ…”

Repentance and faith are rendered matters of duty by God’s direct command, and hence impenitence and unbelief are singled out in the New Testament as most grievous sins.

With these universal commands, as we indicated above, go universal promises of salvation to all who obey them. “Through his name whosoever believeth in him shall receive remission of sins” (Act 10:43). “Whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely” (Rev 22:17). “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (Joh 3:16). These words are promises to which God will stand as long as time shall last.

It needs to be said that faith is not a mere optimistic feeling, any more than repentance is a mere regretful or remorseful feeling.

Faith and repentance are both acts, and acts of the whole man…faith is essentially the casting and resting of oneself and one’s confidence on the promises of mercy which Christ has given to sinners, and on the Christ Who gave those promises. Equally, repentance is more than just sorrow for the past; repentance is a change of mind and heart, a new life of denying self and serving the Savior as King in self’s place…Two further points need to be made also:

(i) The demand is for faith as well as repentance. It is not enough to resolve to turn from sin, give up evil habits, and try to put Christ’s teaching into practice by being religious and doing all possible good to others. Aspiration, and resolution, and morality, and religiosity, are no substitutes for faith…If there is to be faith, however, there must be a foundation of knowledge: a man must know of Christ, and of His cross, and of His promises before saving faith becomes a possibility for him. In our presentation of the Gospel, therefore, we need to stress these things, in order to lead sinners to abandon all confidence in themselves and to trust wholly in Christ and the power of His redeeming blood to give them acceptance with God. For nothing less than this is faith.

(ii) The demand is for repentance as well as faith…If there is to be repentance, however, there must, again, be a foundation of knowledge…More than once, Christ deliberately called attention to the radical break with the past that repentance involves. “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me…whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it” (Mat 16:24-25). “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also (i.e., put them all decisively second in his esteem), he cannot be my disciple…whosoever he be of you that forsaketh not all that he hath, he cannot be my disciple” (Luk 14:26, 33). The repentance that Christ requires of His people consists in a settled refusal to set any limit to the claims that He may make on their lives…He had no interest in gathering vast crowds of professed adherents who would melt away as soon as they found out what following Him actually demanded of them. In our own presentation of Christ’s Gospel, therefore, we need to lay a similar stress on the cost of following Christ, and make sinners face it soberly before we urge them to respond to the message of free forgiveness. In common honesty, we must not conceal the fact that free forgiveness in one sense will cost everything; or else our evangelizing becomes a sort of confidence trick. And where there is no clear knowledge, and hence no realistic recognition of the real claims that Christ makes, there can be no repentance, and therefore no salvation.

Such is the evangelistic message that we are sent to make known.

Thoughts on the Forerunner of Christ: The Annunciation of John the Baptist. Part 2.

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(St. Matthew 1; St. Luke 1:26-80.)

The Galilee of the time of Jesus was not only of the richest fertility, cultivated to the utmost, and thickly covered with populous towns and villages, but the center of every known industry, and was part of the busy road of the world’s commerce.

Nor was it otherwise in Nazareth.

The great caravan route which led from Acco on the sea to Damascus divided at its commencement into three roads, one of which passed through Nazareth. Men of all nations, busy with another life than that of Israel,would appear in its streets; and through them thoughts, associations, and hopes connected with the great outside world be stirred. But, on the other hand, Nazareth was also one of the great centers of Jewish Temple-life.

The Priesthood was divided into twenty-four ‘courses,’ each of which, in turn, ministered in the Temple. The Priests of the ‘course’ which was to be on duty always gathered in certain towns, whence they went up in company to Jerusalem, while those of their number who were unable to go spent the week in fasting and prayer. Now Nazareth was one of these Priest-centers. Thus, to take the wider view, a double symbolic significance attached to Nazareth, since through it passed alike those who carried on the traffic of the world, and those who ministered in the Temple.

We may take it, that the people of Nazareth were like those of other little towns similarly circumstanced: with all the peculiarities of the impulsive, straight-spoken, hotblooded, brave, intensely national Galileans; with the deeper feelings and almost instinctive habits of thought and life, which were the outcome of long centuries of Old Testament training; but also with the petty interests and jealousies of such places, and with all the ceremonialism and punctilious self-assertion of Orientals. The cast of Judaism prevalent in Nazareth would, of course, be the same as in Galilee generally. We know, that there were marked divergences from the observances in that stronghold of Rabbinism, Judaea –indicating greater simplicity and freedom from the constant intrusion of traditional ordinances. The purity of betrothal in Galilee was less likely to be sullied, and weddings were more simple without the dubious institution of groomsmen, or ‘friends of the bridegroom. The bride was chosen, not as in Judea, where money was too often the motive, but as in Jerusalem, with chief regard to ‘a fair degree;’ and widows were (as in Jerusalem) more tenderly cared for.

Whatever view may be taken of the genealogies in the Gospels according to Matthew and Luke, there can be no question that both Joseph and Mary were of the royal lineage of David.

Most probably the two were nearly related, while Mary could also claim kinship with the Priesthood, being, no doubt on her mother’s side, a ‘blood-relative’ of Elisabeth, the Priest-wife of Zacharias. (Luke 1:36) Even this seems to imply that Mary’s family must shortly before have held higher rank, for only with such did custom sanction any alliance on the part of Priests. But at the time of their betrothal, both Joseph and Mary were extremely poor, as appears –not indeed from his being a carpenter, since a trade was regarded as almost a religious duty –but from the offering at the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. (Luke 2:24)

Accordingly, their betrothal must have been of the simplest, and the dowry settled the smallest possible. From that moment Mary was the betrothed wife of Joseph; their relationship as sacred as if they had already been wedded. Any breach of it would be treated as adultery; nor could the bond be dissolved except, as after marriage, by regular divorce. Yet months might intervene between the betrothal and marriage.

Five months of Elisabeth’s sacred retirement had passed, when a strange messenger brought its first tidings to her kinswoman in far-off Galilee. It was not in the solemn grandeur of the Temple, between the golden altar of incense and the seven-branched candlestick, that the Angel Gabriel now appeared, but in the privacy of a humble home at Nazareth. And, although the awe of the Supernatural must unconsciously have fallen upon her, it was not so much the sudden appearance of the mysterious stranger in her retirement that startled the maiden, as the words of his greeting,implying unthought blessing. The ‘Peace to thee’ was, indeed, the well-known salutation, while the words ‘The Lord is with thee’ might waken remembrance of the Angelic call to great deliverance in the past. (Judges 6:12) But this designation of ‘highly favored’ came upon her with bewildering surprise, perhaps not so much from its contrast to the humbleness of her estate, as from the self-unconscious humility of her heart.

Accordingly, it is this story of special ‘favor,’ or grace, which the Angel traces in rapid outline, from the conception of the Virgin-Mother to the distinctive, Divinely-given Name, symbolic of the meaning of His coming; His absolute greatness; His acknowledgment as the Son of God; and the fulfillment in Him of the great Davidic hope,with its never-ceasing royalty, and its boundless-Kingdom.

In all this, however marvelous, there could be nothing strange to those who cherished in their hearts Israel’s great hope. Nor was there anything strange even in the naming of the yet unconceived Child. It sounds like a saying current among the people of old, this of the Rabbis, concerning the six whose names were given before their birth: Isaac, Ishmael, Moses, Solomon, Josiah, and ‘the Name of the Messiah, Whom may the Holy One, blessed be His Name, bring quickly, in our days!’

Thus, on the supposition of the readiness of her believing heart there would have been nothing that needed further light than the how of her own connection with the glorious announcement. And the words, which she spake, were not of trembling doubt, but rather those of inquiry, for the further guidance of a willing self-surrender. And now the Angel unfolded yet further promise of Divine favor, and so deepened her humility. For the idea of the activity of the Holy Ghost in all great events was quite familiar to Israel at the time, even though the individuation of the Holy Ghost may not have been fully apprehended. Only, they expected such influences to rest exclusively upon those who were either mighty, or rich, or wise. And of this twofold manifestation of miraculous ‘favor’ –that she, and as a Virgin, should be its subject –Gabriel, ‘the might of God,’ gave this unasked sign, in what had happened to her kinswoman Elisabeth.

The sign was at the same time a direction. The first, but also the ever-deepening desire in the heart of Mary, when the Angel left her, must have been to be away from Nazareth, and for the relief of opening her heart to a woman, in all things like-minded, who perhaps might speak blessed words to her. It is only what we would have expected, that ‘with haste’ she should have resorted to her kinswoman.

It could have been no ordinary welcome that would greet the Virgin-Mother. Elisabeth must have learned from her husband the destiny of their son, and hence the near Advent of the Messiah. But she could not have known either when, or of whom He would be born. When, by a sign not quite strange to Jewish expectancy, she recognized in her near kinswoman the Mother of her Lord, her salutation was that of a mother to a mother –the mother of the ‘preparer’ to the mother of Him for Whom he would prepare.

Three months had passed, and now the Virgin-Mother must return to Nazareth. Soon Elisabeth’s neighbors and kinsfolk would gather with sympathetic joy around a home which, as they thought, had experienced unexpected mercy. But Mary must not be exposed to the publicity of such meetings. However conscious of what had led to her condition, it must have been as the first sharp pang of the sword which was to pierce her soul,when she told it all to her betrothed. For only a direct Divine communication could have chased all questioning from his heart, and given him that assurance, which was needful in the future history of the Messiah.

Brief as the narrative is, we can read in the ‘thoughts’ of Joseph the anxious contending of feelings, the scarcely established, and yet delayed, resolve to ‘put her away,’ which could only be done by regular divorce; this one determination only standing out clearly, that, if it must be, her letter of divorce shall be handed to her privately, only in the presence of two witnesses. The humble Tsaddiq of Nazareth would not willingly make of her ‘a public exhibition of shame.’

The assurance, which Joseph could scarcely dare to hope for, was miraculously conveyed to him in a dream-vision.

All would now be clear; even the terms in which he was addressed (‘thou son of David’), so utterly unusual in ordinary circumstances, would prepare him for the Angel’s message. The naming of the unborn Messiah would accord with popular notions; the symbolism of such a name was deeply rooted in Jewish belief; while the explanation of Jehoshua or Jeshua (Jesus), as He Who would save His people (primarily,as he would understand it, Israel) from their sins, described at least one generally expected aspect of His Mission.

The fact that such an announcement came to him in a dream, would dispose Joseph all the more readily to receive it. ‘A good dream’ was one of the three things popularly regarded as marks of God’s favor. Thus Divinely set at rest, Joseph could no longer hesitate. The highest duty towards the Virgin-Mother and the unborn Jesus demanded an immediate marriage, which would afford not only outward, but moral protection to both.

Meanwhile the long-looked-for event had taken place in the home of Zacharias.

No domestic solemnity was so important or so joyous as that in which, by circumcision, the child had, as it were, laid upon it the yoke of the Law, with all of duty and privilege which this implied. It was, so tradition has it, as if the father had acted sacrificially as High-Priest, offering his child to God in gratitude and love; and it symbolized this deeper moral truth, that man must by his own act complete what God had first instituted.

We can scarcely be mistaken in supposing, that then, as now, a benediction was spoken before circumcision, and that the ceremony closed with the usual grace over the cup of wine, when the child received his name in a prayer, that probably did not much differ from this at present in use: ‘Our God, and the God of our fathers, raise up this child to his father and mother, and let his name be called in Israel Zacharias, the son of Zacharias.’ The prayer closed with the hope that the child might grow up, and successfully ‘attain to the Torah, the marriage, and good works.’

Of all this Zacharias was, though a deeply interested, yet a deaf and dumb witness. (From St. Luke 1:62 we gather that Zacharias was what the Rabbis understood by a Hebrew term signifying one deaf as well as dumb. Accordingly, he was communicated with by signs.) This only had he noticed, that, in the benediction in which the child’s name was inserted, the mother had interrupted the prayer. Without explaining her reason, she insisted that his name should not be that of his aged father, as in the peculiar circumstances might have been expected, but John (Jochanan).

A reference to the father only deepened the general astonishment, when he also gave the same name. But this was not the sole cause for marvel. For, forthwith the tongue of the dumb was loosed, and he, who could not utter the name of the child, now burst into praise of the name of the Lord. His last words had been those of unbelief, his first were those of praise; his last words had been a question of doubt, his first were a hymn of assurance. This hymn of the Priest closely follows, and, if the expression be allowable, spiritualizes a great part of the most ancient Jewish prayer: the so-called Eighteen Benedictions. Opening with the common form of blessing, his hymn struck, one by one, the deepest chords of that prayer.

But far and wide, as these marvelous tidings spread throughout the hill-country of Judea, fear fell on all –the fear also of a nameless hope:

‘What then shall this Child be? For the Hand of the Lord also was with Him!’

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Taken from, Jesus the Messiah
Written by, Alfred Edersheim

When the Lord leads the Examination… Of the Evils in Your Own Heart

Taken and adapted from, “The Works of Robert Leighton, D.D.” (1611 – 1684)
Excerpt edited for thought and sense.

Failed Test

MANY and great are the evils that lodge within the heart of man…

…and they come forth abundantly both by the tongue and by the hand, yet the heart is not emptied of them; yea, the more it vent them outwardly, the more they increase within. Well might he that knew the heart so well, call it an evil treasure –We find the prophet Ezekiel in his 8th chap, led by the Lord in vision to Jerusalem, to view the sins of the Jews that remained in time of the Captivity; when he had shewed him one abomination, he caused him to dig through the wall, to enter and discover more, and so directed him several times, from one place to another, and still said, I will show thee yet greater abominations.

Thus is it with those whom the Lord leads into an examination of their own hearts (for men are usually strangers to themselves); by the light of his word and Spirit going before them, he lets them see heaps of abominations in every room, and the vilest in the most retired and darkest corners; and truly, should he leave them there, they would despair of remedy. No, he makes this discovery on purpose that they should flee to him for help.

Do so, then, as many as have taken any notice of the evils of your own hearts: tell the Lord they are his own works. He formed the heart of man within him, and they are his own choice too: My son, give me thy heart. Entreat him to redress all those abuses wherewith Satan and sin have filled it, and then, to take possession of it himself, for therein consists its happiness.

This is, or should be, a main reason for our going to his house and service.

Wrong not yourselves so far as to turn these serious exercises of religion into an idle diversion. What a happiness it is if every time you come to his solemn worship, some of your strongest sins did receive a new wound, and some of your weakest graces a new strength!

Thoughts on the Forerunner of Christ: The Annunciation of John the Baptist. Part One.

Annunciation_Zechariah_Ivanov

(Thoughts on Luke 1:5-25.)

It was the time of the Morning Sacrifice…

As the massive Temple gates slowly swung on their hinges, a threefold blast from the silver trumpets of the Priests seemed to waken the City to the life of another day.

Already the dawn, for which the Priest on the highest pinnacle of the Temple had watched, to give the signal for beginning the services of the day, had shot its brightness far away to Hebron and beyond. Within the courts below all had long been busy. At some time previously, unknown to those who waited for the morning, the superintending Priest had summoned to their sacred functions those who had ‘washed,’ according to the ordinance.

levites-aaronic-blessingThere must have been each day about fifty priests on duty. Such of them as were ready now divided into two parties, to make inspection of the Temple courts by torchlight. Presently they met, and trooped to the well-known Hall of Hewn Polished Stones. The ministry for the day was here apportioned. To prevent the disputes of carnal zeal, the ‘lot’ was to assign to each his function. Four times was it resorted to : twice before, and twice after the Temple gates were opened. The first act of their ministry had to be done in the grey dawn, by the fitful red light that glowed on the altar of burnt-offering,ere the priests had stirred it into fresh flame. It was scarcely daybreak, when a second time they met for the ‘ lot,’which designated those who were to take part in the sacrifice itself, and who were to trim the golden candlestick, and make ready the altar of incense within the Holy Place. And now nothing remained before the admission of worshippers but to bring out the lamb, once again to make sure of its fitness for sacrifice, to water it from a golden bowl, and then to lay it in mystic fashion “as tradition described the binding of Isaac” on the north side of the altar, with its face to the west.

Peter_Paul_Rubens_The_Sacrifice_of_the_Old_Covenant_detail_350All, priests and laity, were present as the Priest, standing on the east side of the altar, from a golden bowl sprinkled with sacrificial blood two sides of the altar, below the red line which marked the difference between ordinary sacrifices and those that were to be wholly consumed. While the sacrifice was prepared for the altar,the priests, whose lot it was, had made ready all within the Holy Place, where the most solemn part of the day’s service was to take place –that of offering the incense, which symbolized Israel’s accepted prayers. Again was the lot (the third) cast to indicate him, who was to be honored with this highest mediatorial act. Only once in a lifetime might any one enjoy that privilege. It was fitting that, as the custom was, such lot should be preceded by prayer and confession of their faith on the part of the assembled priests.

It was the first week in October, in the sixth year before our present era, when ‘the course of Abia’ –the eighth in the original arrangement of the weekly service –was on duty in the Temple.

In the group ranged that autumn morning around the superintending Priest was one, on whom at least sixty winters had fallen. But never during these many years had he been honored with the office of incensing. Yet the venerable figure of Zacharias must have been well known in the Temple. For each course was twice a year on ministry, and, unlike the Levites, the priests were not disqualified by age, but only by infirmity. In many respects he seemed different from those around. His home was not in either of the 36618_all_001_01great priest-centres — the Ophel quarter in Jerusalem, nor in Jericho –but in some small town in those uplands, south of Jerusalem: the historic ‘ hill-country of Judaea.’ And yet he might have claimed distinction. To be a priest, and married to the daughter of a priest, was supposed to convey twofold honor. That he was surrounded by relatives and friends, and that he was well known and respected throughout his district, appears incidentally from the narrative. –Luke 1: 58,59,61,65, For Zacharias and Elisabeth, his wife, were truly ‘righteous,’ in the sense of walking ‘blamelessly,’ alike in those commandments which were specially binding on Israel, and in those statutes that were of universal bearing on mankind.

Yet Elisabeth was childless.

For many a year this must have been the burden of Zacharias’ prayer; the burden also of reproach, which Elisabeth seemed always to carry with her.

raphael37On that bright autumn morning in the Temple, however, no such thoughts would disturb Zacharias. The lot had marked him for incensing, and every thought must have centered on what was before him. First, he had to choose two of his special friends or relatives, to assist in his sacred service. Their duties were comparatively simple. One reverently removed what had been left on the altar from the previous evening’s service; then, worshiping, retired backwards. The second assistant now advanced, and, having spread to the utmost verge of the golden altar the live coals taken from that of burnt-offering, worshiped and retired. Meanwhile the sound of the ‘organ,’ heard to the most distant parts of the Temple, and, according to tradition, far beyond its precincts, had summoned priests, Levites, and people to prepare for whatever service or duty was before them. But the celebrant Priest, bearing the golden censer, stood alone within the Holy Place, lit by the sheen of the seven-branched candlestick. Before him, somewhat farther away, towards the heavy Veil that hung before the Holy of Holies, was the golden altar of incense, on which the red coals glowed. To his right (the left of the altar –that is,on the north side) was the table of shewbread ; to his left,on the right or south side of the altar, was the golden candlestick. And still he waited, as instructed to do, till a special signal indicated that the moment had come to spread the incense on the altar, as near as possible to the Holy of Holies. Priests and people had reverently withdrawn from the neighbourhood of the altar, and were prostrate before the Lord, offering unspoken worship.

Zacharias waited, until he saw the incense kindling. Then he also would have ‘bowed down in worship,’ and reverently withdrawn, had not a wondrous sight arrested his steps.

On the right (or south) side of the altar, between it and the golden candlestick, stood what he could not but recognise as an Angelic form. Never, indeed, had even tradition reported such a vision to an ordinary Priest in the act of incensing. The two supernatural apparitions recorded in Rabbinic tradition –one of an Angel each year of the Pontificate of Simon the Just; the other in that blasphemous account of the vision of the Almighty by Tshmael, the son of Elisha, and of the conversation which then ensued –had both been vouchsafed to High-Priests, and on the Day of Atonement.

Zechariah1Still, there was always uneasiness among the people as any mortal approached the immediate Presence of God, and every delay in his return seemed ominous. No wonder, then, that Zacharias was troubled, and fear fell on him. It was from this state of semi-consciousness that the Angel first wakened Zacharias with the remembrance of life-long prayers and hopes, which had now passed into the background of his being, and then suddenly startled him by the promise of their realization. But that Child of so many prayers, who was to bear the significant name of John (Jehochanan, or Jochanan), ‘the Lord is gracious,’ was to be the source of joy and gladness to a far wider circle than that of the family. The Child was to be great before the Lord; not only an ordinary, but a life-Nazarite, as Samson and Samuel of old had been. Like them, he was not to consecrate himself, but from the inception of life wholly to belong to God, for His work. And, greater than either of these representatives of the symbolical import of Nazarism, he would combine the twofold meaning of their mission –outward and inward might in God, only in a higher and more spiritual sense. For this lifework he would be filled with the Holy Ghost, from the moment life woke within him. Then, as another Samson, would he, in the strength of God, lift the axe to each tree to be felled, and, like another Samuel, turn many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God. Nay, combining these two missions, as did Elijah on Mount Carmel, he should, in accordance with prophecy (Malachi 3:1), precede the Messianic manifestation, and, not indeed in the person or form, but in the spirit and power of Elijah, accomplish the typical meaning of his mission. Thus would this new Elijah ‘make ready for the Lord a people prepared.’

If the apparition of the Angel, in that place, and at that time, had overwhelmed the aged priest, the words which he heard must have filled him with such bewilderment, that for the moment he scarcely realized their meaning. One idea alone, which had struck its roots so long in his consciousness, stood out: A son. And so it was the obvious doubt, that would suggest itself, which first fell from his lips, as he asked for some pledge or confirmation of what he had heard.

36618_all_003_04He that would not speak the praises of God, but asked a sign, and received it. His dumbness was a sign –though the sign, as it were the dumb child of the prayer of unbelief, was its punishment also. And yet a sign in another sense also –a sign to the waiting multitude in the Temple; a sign to Elisabeth; to all who knew Zacharias in the hill-country; and to the Priest himself, during those nine months of retirement and inward solitude; a sign also that would kindle into fiery flame in the day when God should loosen his tongue.

A period of unusual length had passed, since the signal for incensing had been given. The prayers of the people had been offered, and their anxious gaze was directed towards the Holy Place. At last Zacharias emerged to take his stand on the top of the steps which led from the Porch to the Court of the Priests, waiting to lead in the priestly Benediction (Numbers 4:24-26) that preceded the daily meat-offering and the chant of the psalms of praise, accompanied with joyous sound of music, as the drink offering was poured out. But already the sign of Zacharias was to be a sign to all the people. The pieces of the sacrifices had been ranged in due order on the altar of burnt-offering; the Priests stood on the steps to the porch, and the people were in waiting. Zacharias essayed to speak the words of benediction, unconscious that the stroke had fallen. But the people knew it by his silence, that he had seen a vision in the Temple. Yet as he stood helpless, trying by signs to indicate it to the awestruck assembly, he remained dumb.

Wondering, they dispersed, people and Priests some to Ophel, some to Jericho, some to their quiet dwellings in the country. But God fulfilled the word which He had spoken by His Angel.

 ——————-

Taken from, Jesus the Messiah
Written by, Alfred Edersheim

Hooper’s Lesson from the Shepherds’ Response to Christ’s Birth

Originally posted on The Protestant Pulpit:

Read the second chapter of Luke, and there ye shall see how the shepherds that watched their sheep all night, as soon as they heard that Christ was born at Bethlehem, by and bye must go to see him. They did not reason nor debate with themselves who should keep the wolf from the sheep in the meantime, but did as they were commanded, and committed their sheep to him whose pleasure they obeyed.

So let us do, now we be called; let us commit all other things unto him that called us. He will take heed that all things shall be well. He will help the husband; he will comfort the wife. He will guide the servants; he will keep the house; he will preserve the goods; yea, rather than it should be undone, he will wash the dishes, and rock the cradle. Cast, therefore, all your care upon…

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