Advent I: Waiting For Christ’s Return

Advent I: Waiting For Christ’s Return

Setting the Tone for Advent

The first Sunday of Advent sets the tone for the season by looking forward to the second coming of Jesus Christ. Through the Scripture passages read and the spiritual practices observed, Christians are called to re-orient themselves to a mindset of watching and waiting for Christ’s return, while at the same time evaluating their lives on the basis of Christ’s first coming.

The Scripture and Theology of the First Week of Advent

While there are many traditions and festivities tied to the Advent season, the theological center is found in the Scripture readings read during each of the four Advent Sundays. The theology of Advent is rich with significance.

Old Testament Readings

Readings from the Old Testament during Advent I ground the entire season in the story of Israel’s expectation of the coming Messiah. Isaiah 2:1–5, in one of the most beautiful and profound images in the Old Testament, looks forward to the one who will come in peace-bringing judgment:

 

He shall judge between the nations,

and shall decide disputes for many peoples;

and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,

and their spears into pruning hooks;

nation shall not lift up sword against nation,

neither shall they learn war anymore. (Isaiah 2:4)

 

This prophecy looks forward both to the Incarnation and the second coming of Jesus.

Isaiah 64:1–9 asks God to “rend the heavens and come down” (64:1), bringing his holy presence to earth. This coming, according to Jeremiah 33:14–16, is a fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. The one who is coming—one who is a Branch of David, an Israelite—will bring justice and righteousness: “In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land” (33:15). This “Branch” imagery is adopted into a significant spiritual practice associated with Advent.

Readings from the Psalms     

During Advent I, readings from the Psalms cry out to God for him to act on his people’s behalf as he has in the past, bringing final peace and restoration to the earth. Psalm 122 asks for peace to come upon the city of God in a new reign of righteousness on the earth, Psalm 80 requests God’s restoration of his people (80:3, 19), and Psalm 25:1–9 recalls God’s covenantal steadfast love and mercy, which were present from days past, and beckons God once again to remember his covenant and act faithfully on behalf of his people.

New Testament Readings

Scripture readings from the New Testament letters during Advent I bring to mind the church’s life between the ascension of Christ and his return for his people. In 1 Corinthians 1:3–9, Paul speaks of the church as waiting for the second coming of Christ, continually sustained by God’s faithful provision. Romans 13:11–14 and 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13, on the other hand, urge the church to pursue holiness eagerly. Because, as Romans 13:12–14 says, “The night is far gone; the day is at hand,” Christians are to “cast off the works of darkness” and “put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” 1 Thessalonians 3:9–13 suggests that the motive for increasing and abounding in love for one another is so that Christians can walk in blamelessness and holiness before God in preparation for Christ’s return.

Gospel Readings

Gospel readings for Advent I call the people of God to watchful vigilance for Christ’s second Advent and set the tone for the entire season. Matthew 24:36–44 and Mark 13:24–37 look forward to Christ’s coming in glory at a time that no one knows. Christians are to “stay awake” (Matthew 24:42) and “be on guard” (Mark 13:33). Matthew says that just as the flood in the days of Noah came unexpectedly and wiped away those who were unprepared, the return of Christ will be sudden, and those who are not ready for it will be left. Luke 21:25–36 repeats the theme of watchfulness, calling Christians to “raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” However, Jesus goes on to add that part of this watchfulness includes introspection: “But watch yourselves lest your hearts be weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and cares of this life, and that day come upon you suddenly like a trap” (Luke 21:34). A theme of repentance is reiterated throughout the Advent season.

The Symbolic Spirituality of the First Week of Advent

While Scripture is central to the season, there are a variety of symbolic spiritual practices that reinforce the theology of Advent. The trees and wreaths that are symbols of Advent are great visual storytellers to help teach the Christian story.

The Jesse Tree

The Jesse Tree, which is introduced on Advent I, is an artistic depiction of the genealogical tree of Jesus. It is basically an extended genealogy that tells the entire biblical story of redemption. The symbol of the tree comes from Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse, and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.”

During the week following the first Sunday of Advent (and each week thereafter), different ornaments are added to the tree, each symbolizing an Old Testament figure in the family line of Jesus. In the first week, ornaments representing God (Gen 1:1-2:3), Adam and Eve (Gen 2:4-3:24), Noah (Gen 6:11-22, 7:17-8:12, 20-9:17), Abraham (Gen 12:1-7, 15:1-6), Isaac (Gen 22:1-19), and Jacob (Gen 27:41-28:22) are put on the tree, starting from the bottom and progressively moving upwards. Each week until Christmas, new figures are added as the story of the Old Testament progressively unfolds.

The Advent Wreath

The Advent Wreath is an ordinary wreath with special candles added to it. Three purple candles and one pink candle stand around the outside of the wreath, and a white candle fills the center. Each Sunday during the Advent season, one candle—each representing something different—is lit. Like the Jesse Tree progressively being filled in, the Advent wreath gets brighter and brighter as Christmas approaches.

The first purple candle, lit on Advent I, is called the prophecy candle. In conjunction with the Scripture readings for the week, it represents hope and expectation for the coming Messiah. As the candle burns throughout the week and becomes smaller and smaller, it helps us remember that time continually passes and the return of Christ becomes nearer and nearer with each passing day.

Waiting for Christ’s Return

Advent is rich with theological significance, and the Scripture readings and spiritually symbolic practices of the season help focus our attention on the first and second coming of Christ. The Advent season is a somber time of personal reflection, hope and longing, and joyful expectation for the coming of Jesus.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

Finally Alive (Book Highlights)

Finally Alive (Book Highlights)

Do not marvel that I said to you, “You must be born again.” The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.

–John 3:7–8

Finally Alive: What Happens When We Are Born Again

by John Piper


In his book Finally Alive, John Piper aims to recover a phrase that has lost some of its power—“born again.” These days, being “born again” is often equated with attending church, but the term itself has entered popular culture and often refers to any mystical experience or new lease on life. Piper reminds his readers that being born again is not merely flowery language, but describes the crucial moment of salvation. He sets out to describe the new birth by answering a series of questions:

  • What is the new birth?
  • Why must we be born again?
  • How does the new birth come about?
  • What are the effects of the new birth?
  • How can we help others be born again?

What is the new birth?

Piper begins by exploring the story of Jesus and Nicodemus from John 3, the most famous instance of the born again language in Scripture. Using this conversation as a template for new birth, Piper answers his first question—What is the new birth? As Piper describes it, the new birth is an act of the Holy Spirit, not of an individual person. When we say that a person has been born again, we mean that the Holy Spirit has supernaturally intervened in their lives to give them new life.

The new life that the Spirit gives to believers is not just a feeling or a renewed vigor to live rightly—the life which the Spirit gives is Jesus Christ himself. What Jesus offered Nicodemus and what we receive when we are born again is the new life of Christ. This means that we do not just experience an improvement on our previously broken selves; we become an entirely new person, still recognizable, yet completely changed. As Piper writes, this new self is “a nature that is really you, and is forgiven and cleansed; and a nature that is really new, and is being formed by the indwelling Spirit of God” (28).

Why must we be born again?

Why must the cure for our situation be as radical as a new birth? Piper asks, “Do we really need to be changed? Can’t we just be forgiven?” (48). To answer this, he turns to a litany of biblical passages to highlight the hopeless situation of those without the new life of Christ. From Ephesians, he notes that apart from the new birth, we are dead in trespasses, are by nature children of wrath, and are slaves to Satan. From Romans, he points out that apart from the new birth, we are slaves to sin, unable to submit to God. From the gospel of John, he shows that apart from the new birth, we are unable to come to Christ because we love darkness and hate the light. The overwhelming sensation is that human life outside of the new birth is really no life at all. A new birth is absolutely necessary.

How does the new birth come about?

As the imagery of birth shows, there is a certain passive element to being born again. It is the primary work of the Holy Spirit, and a person has as much control over being born as a physical child does in childbirth. Yet Piper balances the work of the Spirit with the simultaneous action that occurs in the life of the individual—faith in Christ. The new birth comes about because of the work of the Spirit, but from our perspective, we see evidence of the new birth when a person places their faith in Christ. As Piper explains it, “Our first experience of this [new birth] is the faith in Jesus that this life brings. There is no separation of time here. When we are born again, we believe. And when we believe, we know we have been born again. When there is fire, there is heat. When there is new birth, there is faith” (78). Piper acknowledges that this balance reflects a mystery, but that this accurately reflects the biblical depiction of the new birth.

The new birth that God creates in believers is part of the broader work of God in renewing and restoring all of his fallen creation. The new life of Christ that springs up in believers is like a down-payment, a promise of the future regeneration of both our bodies and this physical world. The new birth is “the first installment of what’s coming.” New birth gives us the confidence that “God’s final purpose is not spiritually renewed souls inhabiting decrepit bodies in a disease and disaster-ravaged world. His purpose is a renewed world with renewed bodies and renewed souls that take all our renewed senses and make them a means of enjoying and praising God” (89).

All of this regeneration occurs as a result of the character of God, not because of any worthiness in creation or in us. The result of the new birth is our faith in Christ, not the other way around. “In other words,” he writes, “‘hearing with faith’ is what happens when we are ‘born again through the living and abiding word of God.’ The gospel—the news about Jesus Christ—is preached, we hear it, and through it we are born again. Faith is brought into being” (114).

What are the effects of the new birth?

Piper draws eleven principles from the book of 1 John to illustrate how the life of believers differs from the life of non-believers. Most importantly, those who are born of God believe in Jesus and love other people. Faith in Christ stands above our love for others, since our love may waver, but believers can always trust in the unchanging Christ. “Even if you have failed to love as you ought,” he writes, “he has never failed to love as he ought. And this perfect one stands before God and advocates for you” (140). As believers grow in the new birth, we want to imitate the love of God more and more in our daily lives. We will not achieve perfection in this life, and we need to constantly turn to Christ for forgiveness, but the new birth has definite and distinct results.

How can we help others be born again?

The final portion of the book is focused outward: How can we help others be born again? “The biblical answer is not obscure, and it’s not complicated. The answer is: Tell people the good news of Christ from a heart of love and a life of service” (166). In all of his emphasis on the work of God in the new birth, Piper ends with a stirring call to personal evangelism. He encourages his readers to treasure the Word of God until they cannot help but share that truth with others. A lost world desperately needs the truth that can make them finally alive.

 

 

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What Is Advent?

What Is Advent?

For many Christians unfamiliar with the liturgical year, there may be some confusion surrounding the meaning of the Advent season. Some people may know that the Advent season focuses on expectation and think that it serves as an anticipation of Christ’s birth in the season leading up to Christmas. This is part of the story, but there’s more to Advent.

The History of Advent                                 

The word “Advent” is derived from the Latin word adventus, meaning “coming,” which is a translation of the Greek word parousia. Scholars believe that during the 4th and 5th centuries in Spain and Gaul, Advent was a season of preparation for the baptism of new Christians at the January feast of Epiphany, the celebration of God’s incarnation represented by the visit of the Magi to the baby Jesus (Matthew 2:1–2), his baptism in the Jordan River by John the Baptist (John 1:29–33), and his first miracle at Cana (John 2:1–11). During this season of preparation, Christians would spend 40 days in penance, prayer, and fasting to prepare for this celebration; originally, there was little connection between Advent and Christmas.

By the 6th century, however, Roman Christians had tied Advent to the coming of Christ. But the “coming” they had in mind was not Christ’s first coming in the manger in Bethlehem, but his second coming in the clouds as the judge of the world. It was not until the Middle Ages that the Advent season was explicitly linked to Christ’s first coming at Christmas.

Advent Today                                   

Today, the Advent season, which begins on the Sunday that falls between November 27th and December 3rd, lasts for four Sundays leading up to Christmas. At that time, the new Christian year begins with the twelve-day celebration of Christmastide, which lasts from Christmas Eve until Epiphany on January 6.

Advent symbolizes the present situation of the church in these “last days” (Acts 2:17, Hebrews 1:2), as God’s people wait for the return of Christ in glory to consummate his eternal kingdom. The church is in a similar situation to Israel at the end of the Old Testament: in exile, waiting and hoping in prayerful expectation for the coming of the Messiah. Israel looked back to God’s past gracious actions on their behalf in leading them out of Egypt in the Exodus, and on this basis they called for God once again to act for them. In the same way, the church, during Advent, looks back upon Christ’s coming in celebration while at the same time looking forward in eager anticipation to the coming of Christ’s kingdom when he returns for his people. In this light, the Advent hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” perfectly represents the church’s cry during the Advent season:

O come, O come, Emmanuel,
And ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear.

Rejoice! Rejoice!
Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

While Israel would have sung the song in expectation of Christ’s first coming, the church now sings the song in commemoration of that first coming and in expectation of the second coming in the future.

Advent Liturgy and Practice                                   

To balance the two elements of remembrance and anticipation, the first two Sundays in Advent (through December 16th) look forward to Christ’s second coming, and the last two Sundays (December 17th – 24th) look backward to remember Christ’s first coming. Over the course of the four weeks, Scripture readings move from passages about Christ’s return in judgment, to Old Testament passages about the expectation of the coming Messiah, to New Testament passages about the announcements of Christ’s arrival by John the Baptist and the Angels.

While it is difficult to keep in mind in the midst of holiday celebrations, shopping, lights and decorations, and joyful carols, Advent is intended to be a season of fasting, much like Lent, and there are a variety of ways that this time of mourning works itself out in the season. Reflection on the violence and evil in the world cause us to cry out to God to make things right—to put death’s dark shadows to flight. Our exile in the present makes us look forward to our future Exodus. And our own sinfulness and need for grace leads us to pray for the Holy Spirit to renew his work in conforming us into the image of Christ.

One catechism describes Advent spirituality beautifully: “When the Church celebrates the liturgy of Advent each year, she makes present this ancient expectancy of the Messiah, for by sharing in the long preparation for the Savior’s first coming, the faithful renew their ardent desire for his second coming. By celebrating the precursor’s birth and martyrdom, the Church unites herself to his desire: ‘He must increase, but I must decrease.’”

 Advent Wreath and Candles

Three purple candles and one pink or purple candle stand around the outside of the wreath, and a white candle fills the center.

  1. Prophecy Candle: In conjunction with the Scripture readings for the week, this purple candle represents hope and expectation for the coming Messiah. As the candle burns throughout the week and becomes smaller and smaller, it helps us remember that time continually passes and the return of Christ becomes nearer and nearer with each passing day.
  2. Bethlehem Candle: This purple candle represents love—both God’s for us and ours for him and others—and symbolizes the manger where Jesus was born. The manger is a vivid reminder of the great lengths to which the King of Creation went, humbling himself for his people. He deserved a kingly procession into the city with much fanfare. Instead we see him born in a manger, living in poverty with no place to lay his head, and entering the city on a donkey as he makes his way to the cross. Lighting the second Advent candle reminds us of Jesus’ life of love for us.
  3. Shepherd’s Candle or Joy Candle: This purple or pink candle represents joy, such as the joy the shepherds experienced when the angel told them that Christ was to be born. The Advent season is now half over, and Jesus’ coming—both his first coming, liturgically, and his second coming, historically—is nearer now than it was two weeks ago.
  4. Angel Candle: This purple candle has been called the “Angel Candle” and represents the peace that Christ’s birth brings to earth. All four of the candles around the Advent Wreath are now burning, each at a different height.
  5. Christ Candle: The white Christ Candle that is lit on Christmas Eve, representing the pure lamb of God who has come to take away the sins of the world.

Advent and the Christian Life                               

While Advent is certainly a time of celebration and anticipation of Christ’s birth, it is more than that. It is only in the shadow of Advent that the miracle of Christmas can be fully understood and appreciated; and it is only in the light of Christmas that the Christian life makes any sense. It is between the fulfilled promise of Christ’s first coming and the  yet-to-be-fulfilled promise of his second coming that Karl Barth penned these words: “Unfulfilled and fulfilled promise are related to each other, as are dawn and sunrise. Both are promise and in fact the same promise. If anywhere at all, then it is precisely in the light of the coming of Christ that faith has become Advent faith, the expectation of future revelation. But faith knows for whom and for what it is waiting. It is fulfilled faith because it lays hold on the fulfilled promise.” The promise for Israel and the promise for the church is Jesus Christ; he has come, and he will come again. This is the essence of Advent.

“May He whose second coming in power and great glory we await, make you steadfast in faith, joyful in hope, and constant in love. Amen.” – The Book of Occasional Services, page 22.

This post is part of a series on Advent:

Ransomed Out of Slavery

Ransomed Out of Slavery

“You were ransomed from the futile ways inherited from your forefathers, not with perishable things such as silver or gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot. He was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you 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.” 1 Peter 1:18–21

Writing to Christians, the Apostle Peter highlights both our desperate situation on our own (“futile ways”) and the high cost to God of rescuing us (“the precious blood of Christ”). These two are brought together when it says we were “ransomed,” which means “delivered from slavery upon payment.” In the ancient world, a slave would only experience freedom if their master set them free or if someone paid the price for their freedom.

In this context, Peter says we were ransomed when Jesus paid for our freedom. In the word “ransom” we see that:

  1. We needed to be redeemed, because we were slaves.
  2. Jesus Christ redeemed us with his death.

SLAVERY TO SIN

Peter’s use of “ransom” easily would have caused the Gentiles to think of slavery. And for the Jews, he referred to the Passover Lamb in verse 19, which would have triggered images of their ancestors’ slavery in Egypt.

Peter is underlining the point of our helpless situation under sin, using intense imagery to highlight the desperation of our situation.

Peter is not alone in using this language of slavery either. Jesus says, “Everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (John 8:34), and Paul explains that when you sin, you’re offering yourself as a slave to sin (Rom. 6:16).

REDEEMED AT A HIGH PRICE

God responds to our desperate need by sending Jesus Christ to redeem us with his death. God’s action matches the desperation of our slavery. Our salvation cost God the precious blood of Christ. Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that true grace “is costly because it cost God the life of his Son . . . God did not reckon his Son too dear a price to pay for our life.”

This is why Jesus said, “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28). Paul also uses the language of ransom: “You were bought with a price” (1 Cor. 7:23).

Peter has the Passover lamb in mind when he says we were ransomed “with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or spot” (1 Pet. 1:19). That’s straight from Exodus 12 and Leviticus 22. Jesus is the Passover Lamb that was sacrificed for us.

Being ransomed by the blood of Christ is all about substitution. But the point about “without defect or blemish” highlights his perfect life, his purity—the fact that he was not deserving of death. The spotless Lamb without defect died for the blemished, spotted, and scarred—you and me.

Elimination Of Violence Against Women

Elimination Of Violence Against Women

Each year, the United Nations designates November 25 as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon explains,

Violence against women and girls takes many forms and is widespread throughout the globe. It includes rape, domestic violence, harassment at work, abuse in school, female genital mutilation, and sexual violence in armed conflicts. It is predominantly inflicted by men. Whether in developing or developed countries, the pervasiveness of this violence should shock us all. Violence–and in many cases the mere threat of it–is one of the most significant barriers to women’s full equality.

The Bible teaches us that because of sin, suffering and violence entered the world. One expression of sin which is seen throughout Scripture and human history is the pervasive male domination of and violence against women. Here are some of the numerous ways that women around the world continue to experience violence and oppression.

Domestic violence

Women and children are the predominant victims of domestic violence, which is defined as a pattern of abusive behavior—physical, sexual, emotional, and/or verbal—used by one individual to maintain power and control over a partner in an intimate relationship. In the United States, every 9 seconds a woman is assaulted or beaten. Around the world, at least one in every three women has been beaten, coerced into sex, or otherwise abused during her lifetime. Nearly 33% of female homicide victims are killed by an intimate partner, and domestic violence is the leading cause of injury to women—more than car accidents, muggings, and rapes combined.

Sexual assault

Sexual assault is any type of sexual behavior or contact where consent is not freely given or obtained and is accomplished through force, intimidation, violence, coercion, manipulation, threat, deception, or abuse of authority. Sexual assault affects millions of women, men, and children worldwide: One in four women and one in six men are sexually assaulted at some point in their lifetimes. Most victims of sexual assault are female, and those responsible for sexual assaults are predominantly male and usually someone the victim knows.

Human trafficking

Human trafficking is the fastest-growing criminal industry in the world. It is the recruitment, transportation, harboring, or taking of people by means of threat, force, coercion, abduction, fraud, or deception for the purpose of exploiting them. Victims of trafficking are forced into labor or sexual exploitation. Sex trafficking is one of the most profitable forms of trafficking and involves many kinds of sexual exploitation such as prostitution, pornography, bride trafficking, and the commercial sexual abuse of children. The U.S. State Department estimates there are about 12.3 million adults and children “in forced labor, bonded labor, and forced prostitution around the world.”

Rape in warfare

There is a long history of rape being used in war as an effective weapon to create fear, shame, and demoralization among the victims and their communities. During war, women and girls have been systematically beaten, raped, and mutilated, often in front of family, as part of a strategy to exert dominance and bring about cultural and ethnic devastation. Rape in warfare is used as a reward and morale-booster for soldiers and also as punishment for civilian communities who resist armed aggressors.

Female genital mutilation

Female genital mutilation, also known as female circumcision, is a traditional ritual practiced in some regions of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. The term refers to procedures involving removal of the external female genitalia or other cutting of the female genital organs for non-medical reasons. The practice is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage. There are many negative health consequences including pain, infections, and difficulty with urination, sexual activity, and childbearing. An estimated 140 million women and girls have undergone the procedure, and an estimated 3 million girls will experience it every year.

Girl soldiers

Today, as many as 300,000 children, some as young as eight years old, serve in armed government or rebel forces around the world. Child soldiers have been reported in many regions, but they are most prevalent in Africa. Children are either forcibly recruited or “volunteer” out of threat, desperation, and lack of alternatives. Child soldiers are sometimes forced to commit atrocities against their own family or neighbors to make sure they can never return to their community. About thirty percent of child soldiers are estimated to be girls. In addition to being involved in combat, girl soldiers are frequently subjected to rape and sexual violence, or given to military commanders as “wives.”

Jesus cares for the oppressed

Male domination over and exploitation of women, in any form, should be resisted because it is evil. God calls his people to stand with the vulnerable and powerless and to resist those who use their power to oppress and harm others. While this is taught throughout the Bible, we see it most clearly in the ministry of Jesus, who gave special care to women and children.

At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he stood up in the synagogue at Nazareth and declared that these words of Isaiah were fulfilled in him:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” Luke 4:17

In making this declaration and in his ministry Jesus showed that bringing freedom for captives and relief to the poor and oppressed is at the very center of his mission. His ultimate act of liberation was his sinless life, substitutionary death, and victorious resurrection, which set his people free from slavery to sin and death. Yet his teaching and his example show us that the good news of Christ’s saving work should be accompanied by tangible love, service, and mercy toward our neighbors if the gospel message is to be recognized in its full power.

God With Us & For Us

God With Us & For Us

When we talk about the Incarnation, we are claiming two things to be true: 1) Jesus is truly God, and 2) Jesus is fully human.

Around Christmas, we say some amazing things about infant Jesus. Scriptures call baby Jesus Immanuel (God with us) and the Savior.

Christmas is all about God becoming human—the Incarnation. When we talk about the Incarnation, we are claiming two things to be true: 1) Jesus is truly God, and 2) Jesus is fully human. These two truths are absolutely essential to salvation, because only God can save, and as the early church theologian Gregory of Nazianzus wrote, “That which he has not assumed he has not healed.” In other words, for Christianity to work, Christians need to be able to talk about Jesus as human and Jesus as divine. As fully human and fully divine, Jesus is God with us and for us.

God With Us

Immanuel, God with us, shows us that Jesus came to show his loves for us and to comfort us. A major theme of the Bible is God coming to live among his people: “I will live among them and walk among them, and I will be their God and they will be my people” (Lev. 26:12; Jer. 32:38; Ezek. 37:27; Isa. 7:14; Matt. 1:21).

Jesus is the fulfillment of this hope, because he is both fully human and fully God. As John writes, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1–5). And we see in Colossians that, “In Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Col. 2:9, NIV).

But what is happening in the Incarnation is more than metaphysics—it is love.

God For Us

Jesus is the Savior who saves us from our sins. The name “Jesus” is the Greek version of “Joshua,” which means “the Lord saves” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus saves us by becoming our substitute. In his teaching, his ministry, his perfect sinless life, his death, and his resurrection, he showed that God is not only with us, but he is for us.

The greatest act Jesus did for us was his sacrificial death on our behalf. As Robert Capon writes, “Jesus came to raise the dead. He did not come to teach the teachable; He did not come to improve the improvable; He did not come to reform the reformable. None of those things works.” John calls him “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), and Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:14–15, 18; NIV).

Colossians 2:13–14 tells us that when we were dead in our sins, God made us alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.

The Incarnation reveals God’s love, comforts us in this life, and redeems us from our sins. One historic prayer blends all these together:

You gave Jesus Christ, your only Son, to be born for us; who, by the mighty power of the Holy Spirit, was made perfect Man of the flesh of the Virgin Mary his mother; so that we might be delivered from the bondage of sin, and receive power to become your children.

God Is Keeping His Promises

God Is Keeping His Promises

“He shall stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord. . . . And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.” Micah 5:4–5

At Advent, we celebrate God’s faithfulness to his promises in sending Jesus, and we trust that he remains faithful as we look forward to Christ’s second coming.

God Promises Salvation

Throughout the Old Testament, God makes promises to his people of a future deliverer he will send. Often, his people try to develop their own plans to get deliverance from enemies or to win God’s favor and love. But God continually points ahead to another Savior who will come.

Isaiah 7:10–16 recounts the story of King Ahaz, king of Judah at a time when Judah was facing a foreign invasion. Ahaz hoped for help from the king of Assyria. The prophet Isaiah, however, downplays human-oriented deliverance and instead points to God’s ultimate divine intervention to bring about his kingdom—an intervention through a baby born in Bethlehem. Isaiah says, “The Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isa. 7:14).

Something similar happens in 2 Samuel 7:1–16, when God corrects King David’s human plans by revealing his divine plan. When David starts to make plans to build a temple for God to dwell in, God counters that he himself will build his own “house” through the dynasty of David, ultimately dwelling among his people as God with us—Immanuel—in Jesus Christ. God promises that he will make for David a great name, give his people eternal rest from enemies, and give him an everlasting kingdom (Isa. 7:9–16). These promises are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus.

God Delivers

With the coming of Jesus, we see God’s faithfulness to his promises. As Paul writes, the gospel message was “promised beforehand through [God’s] prophets in the holy Scriptures, concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord” (Rom. 1:2–4). The good news of salvation is that God has been faithful to his promise in sending Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

At his second coming, Jesus will complete what he started.

Jesus’ coming obliterates the system of sacrifices for sin, and with them all our human attempts to save ourselves and win favor with God through our own effort or willpower. Because of Jesus’ sinless life, sacrificial death on our behalf, and resurrection from death, “We have been sanctified through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all” (Heb. 10:9–10). When we think about Jesus’ birth and rejoice in the salvation that he has brought, we can take courage in knowing God is faithful to his promises.

God is Faithful

The Advent season is a journey through the biblical story that shows us how “all the promises of God find their Yes” in Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 1:20). Advent points us to Jesus, just like all Scripture. At his first coming, which we celebrate at Christmas, Jesus showed us his humility, his love for us, and his heart of grace toward sinners and sufferers. At his second coming, which we look forward to in Advent, he will complete what he started, bringing a final end to suffering, sin, and death, restoring his creation, and setting up a new kingdom of righteousness and peace. God keeps his promises.

Waiting For A Savior

Waiting For A Savior

During Advent, we reflect on the prophecies that preceded the birth of Jesus and how he fulfilled them. This grounds the entire season in the story of God’s people waiting for the coming of the Messiah.

God is sovereign over the future and he alone is capable of telling the future perfectly. God told his people about their coming savior so they would have hope and anticipate his arrival. He detailed for them who was coming to save them, and how, where, when, and why he would arrive.

The prophecy in Genesis

The very first prophecy about Jesus was in Genesis 3:15, right after Adam and Eve sinned. God promised that their savior—Jesus—would be born of a woman. Some of the other major prophecies about Jesus were that he would be:

  • Born of a virgin (Isa. 7:14),
  • Born in Bethlehem (Mic. 5:2),
  • Arrive after John the Baptist (Mal. 3:1),
  • Die at a specific time and by crucifixion (Dan. 9:24–27; Ps. 22:16),
  • Rise from the dead (Ps. 16:10), and
  • Save people from their sins through his death and resurrection (Isa. 53:1–12).

People knew of Jesus and his work in advance because God gave many prophecies hundreds and even thousands of years before he arrived. There are hundreds of Old Testament prophecies that point to the coming Messiah and to his life and death. Jesus Christ perfectly fulfilled every single one of them.

A perfectly timed first coming

The timing of Jesus’ arrival was so precise that many people were prepared for him. In Galatians 4:4–7, Paul explains that the purpose of Jesus’ perfect timing is so we could be saved and adopted as children of God: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

One of the most beautiful and profound images in the Old Testament, Isaiah 2:1–5, looks forward to the Savior who will come and set things right, verse 4:

He shall judge between the nations,
and shall decide disputes for many peoples;
and they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.

This prophecy looks forward both to the birth of Jesus and to his second coming.

Waiting for the second coming

The Advent season is rich with theological significance, a somber time of personal reflection, hope and longing, and joyful expectation for the coming of Jesus. As we reflect during Advent, we remember God’s faithfulness to his promises in delivering his people and sending Jesus, just as he promised. God’s faithfulness in the past gives us confidence in the future: though we are faithless, he remains faithful.

The Bread Of Heaven

The Bread Of Heaven

“Seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, ‘Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?’ He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, ‘Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.’ One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, ‘There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?’ Jesus said, ‘Have the people sit down.’ Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, about five thousand in number. Jesus then took the loaves, and when he had given thanks, he distributed them to those who were seated. So also the fish, as much as they wanted.” John 6:5–11

In John 6 we read how Jesus performs a major miracle, multiplying a small amount of bread and fish to feed over 5,000 people. Some have used this passage to try to say that Jesus had to wait for the boy to offer his food before Jesus would do his part. Applied to our spiritual lives, that message would be: “God cares about you, but he wants you to show that you really care about him before he will act. He wants you to make the first move and show him that you are serious. After you respond, God will look upon you with favor and good pleasure. God may even ‘use you.’”

Nothing could be further from the true meaning of this miracle.

JESUS: THE BREAD OF LIFE

When Jesus’ first-century audience sees this miracle, they corner him and beg him to explain: “What do your works mean? Come on! Tell us what you’ve come to do. We want to know. We’d like you to be our king. We have an agenda for you.”

Jesus reminds them about the bread (or manna) God provided in the desert with Moses and reveals, “It was my Father who brought the bread from heaven in the desert. And now my Father is giving you the true bread from heaven. And it’s me! I am the bread of life. I am the true life that has come down from heaven.” Jesus declares himself to be the one who can truly give the life of God: “If you do not have me you do not have life.”

In Jesus’ words about being the bread of life, claiming that he is the life of God on earth, we are looking at the heart of Christianity. We do not climb up to God; the bread comes down from heaven. We cannot climb the ladder to God through some technique or effort. Rather, Christianity teaches that we are alienated from God until Christ comes to us. God came near to us in Christ, so Christ could overcome the sin which separates us from God and then bring us near to God, giving us new life through his Spirit.

GOD HAS COME DOWN

To understand this is to get at the heart of what Jesus is about. We do not inherently have “spiritual life.” Christ is our spiritual life on our behalf (Col. 3:4), and he gives us the Holy Spirit. As the bread of life, Jesus disarms us of our self-reliant spiritual efforts. We do not naturally come near to God. He must come near to us. A relationship with God is based on God coming down to us through Jesus, the bread of life from heaven.

It is not that we have risen to spiritual heights, but that the bread of heaven has come down to us. It is not about what we do, but what Christ has done for us.