The Significance of Christmas

It’s Christmas Day. We’re celebrating the coming of Jesus. The King of Kings who, though He was equal with God, and was God, laid aside His Heavenly splendor—even His very maturity—and came to earth, not even as a man, but as a helpless baby.

Imagine that for a moment. Imagine being a king who owned the entire world and everything in it, and then imagine shrinking down to almost nothingness again, to be implanted in the womb of a young woman.

But not only that. For all your prior existence, you have been served like no one else. You have been waited on by millions of angels. And now, you have to serve. You become a small child who must submit to his parents. Few people do anything for you.

And not only that. You have come with a mission. You are going to love these people. Teach them the truth. Heal their sicknesses and diseases. Gain a huge following. And then be condemned and killed in one of the most barbaric methods possible.

And in that death, you will carry something that no one can imagine: the sins of the whole world. Your loving Father will forsake you. You will die an agonizing death under the weight of your cruel burden—a burden so great that you will agonize for hours beforehand at the prospect, and die of a literal broken heart.

But you will not only carry the sins of the world to that cross. You will also carry something else: their pain. Their hurts. Their griefs. Their sorrows. And you will nail it to that cross and kill that pain, that grief—on your shoulders.

This, of course, after you suffer your own share of woe and sorrow. You will start your ministry and your own family won’t believe. You will be led by your father to the wilderness to be tempted by your worst enemy for over a month, surrounded by wild beasts. You will heal many people and attract great crowds—only to have them leave you when you say some things that they don’t like. You’ll be betrayed by someone who you hand-picked to be part of your ministry, denied by one of your staunchest disciples, and forsaken by the rest in your darkest hour.

But then, when you return to your heavenly palace, yet in an indescribable way remain with those you love, you can say: “I know exactly how you feel. I have been there too.”

“I, too, suffered the pain of being forsaken by all who I loved.”

“I, too, experienced the hurt of being rejected by my own family.”

“I, too, was homeless and hungry.”

“I, too, was strongly tempted to sin by the Devil himself.”

“I, too, was misunderstood and reacted against by those who should have understood.”

“I, too, was stripped of my clothes, and I was hung up for everyone to gawk at.”

“I, too, was beaten and suffered abuse.”

“I, too, was a human, exactly like you. I can totally identify with how you feel.”

And that, brothers and sisters, is the significance of Christmas. It’s the story of a loving God who came, not merely as a human, but as a human baby, that He might experience everything that a human experiences. That He could be, not only like us, but one of us. Sinless, yes. Divine, yes. But still one of us.

And not only one of us, but one with us, that when He judges the world, He can say:

“What you did to this person, who is my brother or sister—you did it to Me.”

But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honor; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man. For it became him, for whom are all things, and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the Captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings.

For both he that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying, “I will declare thy name to my brethren, in the midst of the church will I sing praise to thee.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I, and the children which God hath given me.”

Since, then, the children are partakers of flesh and blood, he also himself likewise took part of the same; that through death he might destroy him that had the power of death, that is, the devil; and deliver them, who, through fear of death, were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For verily he took not on him the nature of angels; but he took on him the seed of Abraham.

Therefore in all things it behooved him to be made like his brethren; that he might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make reconciliation for the sins of the people.

For in that he himself hath suffered, being tempted, he is able to help them that are tempted.

(Hebrews 2:9-18)

Merry Christmas!

 

Learning to Know Our Father, Part 5: Responding to God’s Love

In our study of God’s love so far, we’ve seen that God is love, and that He doesn’t want us to be afraid of Him. We’ve seen that we need to understand His nature, including His love, in order to not be afraid of Him. We also need to glorify Him and seek His help, so that He has the opportunity to demonstrate His love for us. And when we don’t understand His love, we need to ask Him to show us what His love is really like.

As we learn to know our Father better, and His love fills our hearts and lives, how do we respond to that love? And how can we find others who truly love Him?

Since God is love, part of the evidence of His love in our lives is when we have love for each other.

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son as the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, if God loved us in this way, we also ought to love one another. No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God remains in us, and his love has been perfected in us. (1 John 4:10-12)

You would think, perhaps, that God would say, “Since I have loved you this much, you ought to love Me in return.” But instead He says, “Love one another.”

Jesus says, “Because you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40) When God adopts us into His family, we become brothers of Jesus. In fact, Jesus dwells with each of God’s children, and so, when we show love to one of God’s children, we are showing love to God!

Whoever believes that Jesus is the Christ has been born of God. Whoever loves the Father also loves the child who is born of him. By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God and keep his commandments. For this is loving God, that we keep his commandments. His commandments are not grievous. For whatever is born of God overcomes the world. This is the victory that has overcome the world: your faith. Who is he who overcomes the world, but he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God? (1 John 5:1-5)

I used to read these verses and believe that it was my job to keep God’s commands on my own, with His help. I thought that anyone who was saved got as much help from God to keep His commands as any other Christian. In other words, I believed that all Christians, including myself, were receiving God’s help to obey Him, and if I had trouble following Him, I needed to try harder.

Brothers and sisters, it doesn’t work that way, for two reasons. One is that some of us need more help than others, and some of us need help in different areas than others—for example, overcoming an addiction. The second reason is that God doesn’t help us unless we allow Him to do so.

God is not a control freak. He does not force us to do what He wants us to do. Nor does He force us to accept His help. He definitely gives us guidance, changes circumstances, and works all things together for good. But He knows that, if He were to control us into doing the right thing, it would not lead us to truly love Him. We would just be robots.

Forcing people to do the right thing can actually be detrimental. When a person has a personal drive to do something, they will work with a will and try to accomplish the task. However, if someone forces them to do it, or bribes them to do it with some sort of reward/punishment system, it kills the person’s inward drive. This, I believe, is one reason why some homeschool families have fallen apart, despite looking so good when the children were young. Because the well-meaning parents tried to control their teenagers into doing the right thing, it actually turned their children against the parents and against the “right thing”.

Spiritually abusive systems, which stress human effort to achieve a man-made standard, prevent us from receiving God’s love and help, while loading us down with guilt and shame over our inability to follow God (and the pile of human commands the system gives us). This is one reason why you may have to change your beliefs about God and His nature in order to receive His love. If you’re always trying to live the Christian life on your own, God never has a chance to demonstrate His love to you!

The truth is that, when we put our faith in God, realizing that on our own strength we will never measure up to His standards, He gives us the victory to overcome the world and keep His commandments.

Jesus said, “One who has my commandments, and keeps them, that person is one who loves me. One who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him, and will reveal myself to him.” (John 14:21) In other words, when we love God, we will naturally want to keep His commands. I used to think this was run in reverse: you keep God’s commands, and then He loves you.

The truth is that we love God because He first loved us. If we don’t know the love of God, we will not love Him in return. If we think He is just a hard taskmaster who is burdening us down with a grievous load, we will never love Him, and we will despise the very commands we are endeavoring to keep.

What Jesus is saying is that, when we know God, receive His love in our hearts, and love Him in return, we will also love His words and keep them. This is not a “if you really loved me, you would do…” guilt trip.

God is love. Therefore, without God, we will never have true love. Moreover, since we cannot manufacture God, we also cannot manufacture love. If you find yourself unable to love others properly, don’t just “try harder” to love them. That will never work. Ask God to fill you with His love and give you love for others!

So what does that look like? What are loving actions, anyway? We already saw part of the answer to that question earlier: God’s commands explain what loving actions are. They were written in love, and they are our guidelines for walking in love. Someone who claims to love Jesus, yet fails to obey Him, does not love both Jesus and his fellow men.

Not only that, though, God shows us from day to day how to love one another:

But concerning brotherly love, you have no need that one write to you. For you yourselves are taught by God to love one another… (1 Thessalonians 4:9)

With God’s love ruling in our hearts, He will teach us how to love one another. He will guide us how to help one another in the most beneficial way. He will show us areas where we lack love for one another or are treating one another unlovingly.

Remember, love for one another is the result of God’s love first dwelling within our hearts, and then overflowing in love for others. It is not something that you can create on your own!

If you would like to study God’s love some more, I recommend the free e-book He Loves Me! by Wayne Jacobsen. I do not endorse this book completely; I believe that Jacobsen downplays the fear of God too much. God does tell us to “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12), and unless we recognize that He is also holy, just, righteous, and all-powerful, as well as loving, we will not serve Him or even love Him as we ought. However, I recommend this e-book for those who have heard much about the fear of God, yet do not understand the love of God. It will help to shift your thinking in the proper direction.

God’s blessings to you as you learn to know Him!

Photo © Can Stock Photo Inc. / grace1221

Learning to Know Our Father, Part 4: How to Understand God’s Love

As we saw in the last post in this series, when we don’t understand God’s love, it keeps us from having a great relationship with God. The love of God is the basis for our love for Him and others. Since He is love, if we don’t know His love, we don’t know Him.

You may be like me, however, and come from a spiritually abusive background where God’s love was distorted, minimized, and ignored. On the other hand, you may come from a background where God’s love meant that “everything goes” and God doesn’t care what you do. Reading the Bible, though, we see that God is neither a harsh dictator nor a soft fuzzy teddy bear.

So we realize that we don’t really know what God’s love is all about. Maybe, you know in your head that God loves you, that He sent Jesus to die for you because He loved you, blah, blah, blah—but you don’t know that love, from personal experience, even though you’ve been a Christian for years. This was my experience.

What do you do?

When Paul wrote to the Ephesians, he included a beautiful prayer for them that I believe gives us an answer.

For this cause, I bow my knees to the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, that you may be strengthened with power through his Spirit in the inward man; that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith; to the end that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may be strengthened to comprehend with all the saints what is the width and length and height and depth, and to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Now to him who is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that works in us, to him be the glory in the assembly and in Christ Jesus to all generations forever and ever. Amen. (Ephesians 3:14-21)

“Ask, and it will be given to you,” Jesus said. If you want to know the love of God, then ask Him to show it to you, and help you to comprehend it. Wow! Isn’t that simple?

I know. It sounds trite. But it’s true! It may not happen right away, but if you come to God in faith, He will show His love to you. Otherwise, He would be a liar!

I will warn you that in order to understand God’s love, you may have to give up some of your pre-conceived notions of what He is like. Sometimes, we believe things about God that prevent us from understanding His true nature and entering into a full relationship with Him. When you understand His love, you may find that some of your beliefs are wrong and have to change. But it will be for the better.

God further tells us that He is able to go exceedingly abundantly above anything we can ask or think to show His love to us and to help us to understand His love. Stop and think about that a moment. Imagine this: Whatever you can imagine—is the first level. God can surpass that imagination. But God can do even more than that. In fact, He can do abundantly more that you can imagine. But He can even surpass that level and do exceedingly more abundantly than anything you can ask or think: “exceedingly—abundantly—above—all that we ask or think.” Wow! That is how powerful God is! And that is how far He can go to reveal His love to you.

I believe that we should also follow Paul’s example in these verses and pray for others as well, that they, too, would know the mind-boggling love of Christ. We should pray, even for those who are seasoned Christians, that God would continue to reveal Himself to them and lead them into an ever-closer walk with Him.

Before we leave this passage, I would like to point out that part of being filled with all the fullness of God is to know the incredible, mind-boggling love of Christ. “…to know Christ’s love which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” (Ephesians 3:19) This, again, shows why it’s so important to know and understand Christ’s love—so that we can be filled even more with Him!

In the next part, we’ll conclude by looking at what we are to do with God’s love.

Learning to Know Our Father, Part 3: Digging Deeper into God’s Love

Last time, we saw that God is love. Wow! Imagine being in a relationship with someone who is not only loving and full of love, but is love itself! We never have to doubt whether something was for our good, or whether God cares about us, or whether He still loves us. God is love.

This can raise a multitude of questions, however. For example, if God loves us so much, and says that when we love one another, we put each other first, why does He tell us to put Him first and glorify Him? If He loved us, wouldn’t He seek to glorify us? Is he some sort of self-centered, narcissistic, arrogant god who only cares about what He can get out of His followers?

No way! Not at all! God wants us to glorify Him so that we understand His love. If we think that we are self-made people, we will fail to understand how much He loves us. When we recognize how much God has done for us, and how He is working in our everyday lives, we will better understand His love.

You see, God does an incredible amount for us. The Bible tells us that “It is of the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. They are new every morning: great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23) In His love, God does many things that we do not even know about.

Ironically, in fact, when we fail to seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, God is not able to demonstrate His love to us by providing for our needs. When we try to do things on our own, God is not able to help us. In order to truly experience His love, grace, and power, we have to glorify Him! Just as we cannot help those who will not accept help, God is unable to fully demonstrate His love toward us until we allow Him to do so.

God tells us, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, that no one would boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared before that we would walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10)

It is only because God loved us and sent His Son to die and rise again for us that we can follow Him and live for Him in the way that He wants us to. We cannot boast about how well we serve God, because we are only able to serve Him because He, in His love, gives us His grace to enable us to do what is pleasing to Him.

God didn’t have to send Jesus to die for us. He wasn’t duty-bound to rescue His creation. He could have just figured that if we were so rebellious, we could burn in Hell. See if He cared!

Don’t fall for Satan’s lie that God owes you something. God doesn’t owe anything to you. He’s done so much for you already. It is only because of His love that He continues giving His grace and power, helping us in our difficulties, seeking us when we go astray, leading us into an ever-closer relationship to Himself.

Returning to 1 John 4, we read:

We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. In this love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness in the day of judgment, because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love. We love him, because he first loved us. (1 John 4:16-19)

It’s very important to understand God’s love so that we do not live in fear of Him. If we live in fear of God—that is, that we are afraid of Him, afraid to die, afraid of His judgment, afraid that we’ll make a small misstep and be brutally disciplined—it shows that we do not understand God’s love and/or are not in a right relationship with Him. We need to seek to be made perfect in love.

How do we become perfect in love? Part of it, at least, comes from God dwelling in us, and us dwelling in God and His love. In His love, God works in our hearts, if we allow Him to do so, and fills us with His love. As He does so, two things happen: we know His love (in other words, we experience His love), and His power enables us to do what is righteous and loving so that we do not have to fear His judgment.

God loved us when we did not love Him. God does not ask us to love Him, and then if we love Him enough, He’ll love us in return. On the contrary, He loved us while we were still sinners, and He asks us to love Him in return.

God says that the reason that we love Him is because He loved us first. This is why Satan wants to deceive us about God’s love and distort God’s love in any way possible. If Satan can prevent us from knowing God’s love, we will not love God in return. This is why it is crucial that we understand God’s love and know what our Father is really like!

There is an incredible phrase in this passage: “As He is, so are we in this world.” In other words, with God dwelling in us, we become like Him! Whoa! Did God really say that? Yes, He did!

Talking about “understanding God’s love” makes it sound very academic and sterile. The reality is simply that we need to really know our Father. However, we sometimes struggle to understand or really accept the many incredible things He has revealed about Himself in His Word. So what’s the answer?

Stay tuned.

Photo by fady habib via flickr

Learning to Know Our Father, Part 2: God Is Love

We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him, and he in God. We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. (1 John 4:14-16)

The most important thing to understand about God’s love is this simple phrase:

God is love.

Love is not merely something that God does or feels. Rather, God is love, and true love is God. The two are not only inseparable, they are one and the same. Love is Who God is.

This is a powerful, incredible concept that I do not fully understand myself. Those three simple words communicate an immense concept that I could discuss for pages and pages, so I won’t even try to do justice to the subject. Here are some things that I do see, however:

  • In God’s view, the only real love is His love. We could talk about “true love”, but in reality, if it’s not real love, then it’s not love at all. There is real gold, and then there is fake gold jewelry that sparkles as much as the real thing. But no jeweler places signs in the windows advertising their “real gold rings”. As far as God is concerned, the same thing applies to love.
  • Since God is love, there can be no true love without Him, and where He dwells, there will be love. Where there is a lack of genuine love, there is a lack of God’s presence and blessing.
  • Love is not something that we can drum up on our own. We can do things that are loving and kind without God’s love, but without God, we cannot actually dwell in love. We cannot create love on our own strength any more than we can create God on our own strength.
  • Jesus said the world will know we are His disciples if we love one another, because where He is, there is love. Where He is not, there is not love. Period. Because God is love.
  • The only sort of love that we can create on our own is a poor imitation of the real thing. If we try to love others by doing loving deeds, we may be operating out of guilt, shame, or pity instead of love. 1 Corinthians 13:3 tells us that though we give our goods to the poor and our bodies to be burned, it is absolutely worthless to us if it does not come from love.
  • When we find that we lack love for God and/or others, we need to ask God if there is something that is preventing His love from working within us.
  • This passage explains the importance of knowing, experiencing and understanding God’s love. We see here that our belief in God and our relationship with God comes, in part, from knowing God’s love.
  • Since God is love, it is very important not to ignore the subject of love, even though some have misused God’s love to come to some very wrong conclusions. The real solution is to understand what God’s love is really like. If we react to the false teaching and minimize God’s love, we will cause ourselves and others to have a false view of God.
  • Everything that God does comes out of love. This means that 1) everything that God has ever done is loving; 2) “Love” does not mean letting people do whatever feels good; 3) Loving actions will not always be perceived as loving.


Photo © Can Stock Photo

Learning to Know Our Father, Part 1

See how great a love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God! For this cause the world doesn’t know us, because it didn’t know him. Beloved, now we are children of God, and it is not yet revealed what we will be. But we know that when he is revealed, we will be like him; for we will see him just as he is. (1 John 3:1-2)

Do you live in fear of God? Are you are afraid of Him—afraid to die, afraid of His judgment, afraid that you’ll make a small mis-step and be brutally disciplined?

Let me assure you: God specifically says that He does not want you to live in fear of Him. There is no need for you to live in fear and turmoil, uncertain if you can trust Him!

In this love has been made perfect among us, that we may have boldness in the Day of Judgment, because as he is, even so are we in this world. There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear has punishment. He who fears is not made perfect in love. (1 John 4:17-18)

If you are born again through Jesus Christ, you are now a child of God. So what is your Father really like? Do you know? Are you sure that you know?

Our culture is a self-centered, narcissistic culture. The mantra is, “You are important! You are special! You can do anything you like!” Some churches have picked up on this attitude and emphasized certain attributes of God that can be made self-serving, such as love, grace and mercy.

This has resulted in a backlash from those who (rightfully) recognize that there is more to God than His love, grace and mercy. (This, by the way, is the camp that I grew up in.) Unfortunately, however, in my experience, God’s love, grace, and mercy are downplayed and ignored, and His anger, wrath, justice, and hatred of sin are emphasized.

In order to understand who God truly is, we must understand His entire nature, lest we fall into the trap of the Pharisees. The Pharisees failed to understand what God was really like. Because they recognized the side of His nature that hates sin and punishes those who disobey Him, they wanted to make sure that no one disobeyed Him. So they made many rules to prevent people from disobeying God, but this resulted in them rejecting God when He came in the flesh. Jesus had to sternly rebuke them:

“But woe to you Pharisees! For you tithe mint and rue and every herb, but you bypass justice and God’s love. You ought to have done these, and not to have left the other undone.” (Luke 11:42)

“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have left undone the weightier matters of the law: justice, mercy, and faith. But you ought to have done these, and not to have left the other undone.” (Matthew 23:23)

In the next several posts, we will examine the love of God and seek to learn what He is truly like. If you want a jumpstart, read 1 John 4, especially this passage:

We have seen and testify that the Father has sent the Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God remains in him, and he in God. We know and have believed the love which God has for us. God is love, and he who remains in love remains in God, and God remains in him. (1 John 4:14-16)

In God Do We REALLY Trust?

Then conquer we must
When our cause it is just.
And this be our motto:
“In God is our trust.”

The Star-Spangled Banner, verse 3

Here in the USA, we have the motto “In God We Trust”. It’s splashed across our money, part of our national anthem, and a host of people stand ready to fight tooth and nail should anyone dare to try removing it.

But here’s the question: for those of us as Christians, do WE really trust in God?

  • God says, “Be anxious for nothing” and tells us to cast all our cares on Him, yet we typically fret about our problems and only turn to Him as a last resort.
  • God says to “love your enemies” and “resist not evil”, yet we load up on guns and ammo so that, if someone attacks us, we can send him to Hell and prevent him from sending us to Heaven.
  • God says, “Owe no man anything” (Rom 13:8), yet we get home mortgages, student loans, car financing, and credit cards, fueling a debt crisis that threatens our nation.
  • God says that all world rulers are put in place by Him (Rom. 13:1), yet on the morning after Election Day, we wring our hands and fret about how the “best candidate” lost the election.
  • Jesus tells us to seek first His Kingdom and righteousness, and our needs will be supplied, yet we seek first to supply our needs and then to do something for God if there’s any time left.
  • Jesus tells us, “In praying, don’t use vain repetitions, as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard for their much speaking. Therefore don’t be like them, for your Father knows what things you need, before you ask him” (Matt. 6:7-8)–yet, when we have a pressing need, we rally as much “prayer support” as possible, and if God does what we want, we talk about all the people who were praying.

There are many more things that could be added to this list, but suffice it to say that in the church as a whole, we have a real lack of trust in God. This is serious. God tells us, “Without faith it is impossible to be well pleasing to him, for he who comes to God must believe that he exists, and that he is a rewarder of those who seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

In its simplest form, faith is belief in God. When we fail to trust God, we indicate that we don’t believe Him.

Before we point fingers at the world for all the evil that they are doing, let’s take God at His word and start trusting Him in everything.

If My people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14)