The Meaning of the Magnificat

Text: Luke 1:39-56

There are not many times when evangelical pulpits will devote sermons to Mary. This is typically due to reactions against Roman Catholicism, but it also comes from the simple fact that Mary does not actually occupy much space in the New Testament. However, there is a time where she does factor in a big way, and it is in the beginning of the gospels and the birth of Jesus. The opening chapters of Luke’s gospel tell us the most about her, and her famous song, The Magnificat, teaches us something about how she understood God to work. This morning we will look over Mary’s meeting with Elizabeth and her reaction to the fact that already her son-to-be was recognized as the Lord Himself. We will see how she is blessed by this and how she reflects that blessing back to God to magnify the Lord.

Mary and Elizabeth

The story of Mary and Elizabeth meeting together is primarily meant to show us that Jesus’ special identity was known already, even if in part. He isn’t even born yet. He is just recently conceived, alive in Mary’s womb, but already His spiritual significance can be detected. This teaches us something about prenatal life as well: both John and Jesus already have clear and irreducible identities, and John is portrayed as having a sort of awareness. Indeed, he is able to identify Jesus as he leaps in the womb. Continue reading

Wilderness Baptism and the End of the World

Text: Mark 1:1-8

The gospels begin in a time of anticipation. Things are not quite as they should be, and we are told that something big is on the way. In Mark’s gospel, this point is made through the strange imagery of a new sort of wilderness prophet. John the Baptist calls Israel to repentance for their sins, but he also says that his ministry is not the main attraction. The baptism for repentance is not the last word. Something else is coming, something bigger. In fact, someone else was coming. That person, the messiah, would bring in the fulfillment of all the Old Testament prophecies. He would reverse the way things were, straightening what was crooked and raising up what was low, and he would finally reveal the glory of God on earth.

Wilderness

We shouldn’t miss the fact that John the Baptist is in the wilderness. Mark 1:4 says that “John came baptizing in the wilderness,” and in Matthew’s gospel we are told, “John the Baptist came preaching in the wilderness of Judea” (Matthew 3:1). This is especially significant when we remember that John’s parents were temple servants who lived in a city in the hill country of Judea (Luke 1:39). That means that John chose to go to the wilderness. It was a conscious decision for his special ministry of prophecy. Continue reading

The Law of Faith

Text: Romans 3:27-28

We come to the conclusion of our survey of justification in Romans 3. We’ve talked about the guilt of the law and the propitiation found in Christ, and now we come to the conclusion of it all, that “a man is justified by faith apart from the deeds of the law.” But what we need to notice is that this conclusion is itself supported by the observation that boasting is excluded. That means Paul’s argument runs like this: No one can boast because everyone’s guilt was atoned for in the same way and by the same person, by the death of Jesus the messiah. That can only then mean that we are justified by faith alone. In short, penal substitutionary atonement and justification by faith alone are two sides of the same coin. They both imply the other, and they both mean that we must be humble and dependent upon God. The shorthand which Paul comes up with to explain this relationship is what he calls “the law of faith.”

The Law of Faith is Established

Now this expression, “the law of faith,” is a sort of play on words. Paul is using it to trump the other law, the law of works. He’s basically saying, “If you want a law, here’s one for you, the law of faith.” This is the same “law” that he says is “established” in vs. 31. So there are two laws, a law of works and a low of faith, and the law of faith overrules and disproves the law of works. And the law of faith excludes, it prohibits, boasting on the part of any human. So, the law of faith is “Thou shalt not boast.” Continue reading

God Demonstrates His Righteousness

Text: Romans 3:21-26

We’ve been discussing justification by faith these last few weeks, with a special emphasis on Romans chapter 3. Last week we set up the “problem” with a discussion of sin and the role of the law in revealing sin. This week we move to the next component, which is really the central component, the justice of God. As we will see, the righteousness of God which is revealed in justification is both His righteousness and the righteousness by which we are declared righteous. The two are the same in Christ so that God may be righteous in declaring His people righteous, the just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. Our justification is also God’s justification, as in it He demonstrates His righteousness.

Righteousness(es)

This word righteousness is very important in the book of Romans, and right in the first chapter we read that “in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, ‘The just shall live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17). But as obviously important and central as this word “righteousness” is, its meaning has been the source of considerable controversy. To begin, you should know that the English words “righteous” and “justice” are the same word in both Hebrew and Greek. Furthermore, the term “justification” shares this same root, and so “justification” can also be translated “vindication” or “rectification.” While each of these terms has slightly different connotations and emphases, they all come together in the biblical word for righteousness. Continue reading

Stopping the Mouth of the World

Text: Romans 3:19-20

 

This sermon took me about three drafts to write. I filled up about ten pages with words, and I thought I was almost done for a minute, before I decided to throw it all away and start yet again. This text kept stopping me in my tracks. There’s a lot that you could say about it, and part of my problem was that I kept trying to say it all. So instead I decided to say just one thing. Shut your mouth.

This is Paul’s argument here in a nutshell. You cannot find justification in the law because the law will not even let you speak. You cannot defend yourself. You are a sinner, and when you call upon justice the first thing that is exposed is yourself. The law shuts your mouth, and you are left with nothing to say. All you can do is ask for mercy. And that’s exactly where God wants you.

The Law

“Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God” (Rom. 3:19). In this text, the Apostle Paul is essentially telling the Jews and Jewish Christians alike to shut up. They have no ground for boasting in their standing before God, and they cannot appeal to their law-keeping as proof that they are somehow better than Gentiles. This is because the law which they are appealing to actually condemns them. It does not support their case at all but instead shows that God is righteous in judging both Jews and Gentiles to be sinners and under the curse of death. Continue reading

Why Justification by Faith Alone?

Text: Romans 3:19-28

This past Friday was the 497th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Saturday was All Saints Day, and so we celebrate both today. You might ask why we celebrate one, the other, or both. Well, the two days are historically united. They go together. Martin Luther chose the eve of All Saints Day to begin his public dispute. The date had symbolic relevance. He wanted to talk about what it means to be a saint and, really, how one is saved. Because of the power and success of the Reformation, the two days continue to be united in their theme. We are today celebrating the work of those Christians who have gone before us to proclaim the gospel and to bear witness to the power of Christ unto salvation to all who believe, including the Reformers. We celebrate both days because we believe that both days, rightly understood, proclaim the power of that gospel and the glory of God as He has been at work in history.

The Protestant Reformation dealt with lots of issues, but the main one, the only real bottom line, was the doctrine of justification. How a man is made right with God, and subsequently how he becomes a saint, are both answered by this doctrine. Protestants make their stand on this issue because the Bible makes its stand there too. “We have believed in Christ Jesus, that we might be justified by faith in Christ and not by the works of the law” (Galatians 2:16). Justification by faith alone is a central and essential teaching of our faith because it points us back to Jesus, the cross of Christ as the exclusive ground for our acceptance by God. This truth underlies all other teachings on salvation, the church, and Christian living. John Calvin called it a lynchpin upon which all else turned. Martin Luther said it was the article of a standing or falling church. This is true, as we said, because it directly informs our understanding of God in Christ— not only Who He is, but How He works. It tells us how we can know Him.

But I wonder, do we still believe this doctrine is all that important or interesting or does it strike us as a little passé? It is probably true that some pastors have overcooked this topic. They parse every question and sub-question in order to show how their tradition has a unique and essential interpretation. Others spend all their time arguing that their opponents cannot be Christians. All in all, what ought to be a dynamic and powerful teaching on God’s power and grace turns into a graduate school course in abstract theology. The prime rib becomes beef jerky. And this is a great tragedy.

You see, justification by faith alone is not an end in itself. No it is a means to explaining several other things, the problem of evil, the sovereignty of God, the redemption of sinners, the doctrine of the church, the role of the moral law in the life of believers, and even the end times. The point is not to dot all our I’s and cross our T’s, but to see that God is here, really here, and that He works directly and immediately in order to bring about His purposes. Justification by faith alone is a call to believe. Continue reading

Communion in Giving

Text: Philippians 4:10-23

As we come to the end of our study of Philippians, it is interesting to note that we come back to where we started. In these final verses, Paul returns to his very first point—communion and real unity in the Spirit. All Christians share their lives together, including ministers, laypersons, and missionaries. This doctrine of communion sits before and after the letter’s central point of submitting to others and the mind of Christ, and there’s something to learn just from that. We can only properly submit to one another when we understand our unity. But here we also see a particular expression of Christian partnership, and it is a very important one. We share even in our finances. Our money is an extension of ourselves and our service, and that means it is involved in Christian communion. Paul is calling us to communion in giving. Continue reading

Miraculous Contentment

Text: Philippians 4:10-13

This morning we come to one of the most misunderstood verses in the whole Bible. Philippians 4:13 is definitely the favorite verse of Christian athletes everywhere, and a quick Google search will reveal it is also a favorite script for tattooing. The verse has even made its way onto Tim Tebow’s famous eye-blacks. But there’s only one problem. It’s almost always taken out of context and misused.

“I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me” does not actually mean that if Christians keep faith they will be able to win the basketball tournament, ace the final exam, or land that dream job. While it is true that God blesses hard work and faithful preparation, it is also true that He allows Christians to fail from time to time for their own sanctification. Suffering and chastisement is a somewhat ordinary aspect of the Christian life. So what does Philippians 4:13 really mean? If we read it in connection with the verses which come before it and with the argument Paul is making, we will see that he isn’t talking about great and fabulous achievements so much as he is talking about contentment. “I have learned in whatever state I am, to be content… I know how to be abased, and I know how to abound… I have learned both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and to suffer need. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” When we read these verses together it becomes clear. The miraculous grace of Jesus Christ allows us to be content in whatever comes our way. Continue reading

Prayer and Meditation

Text: Philippians 4:8-9

About a week ago, one of my friends posted something on facebook that struck me as a profound piece of deep moral philosophy. It was a quote from Anne of Green Gables. In it, Anne said, “It’s been my experience that you can nearly always enjoy things if you make up your mind firmly that you will. Of course, you must make it up firmly.” This is an important bit of advice for young children trying out new things, but it also applies in all sorts of different ways to all of us. It isn’t only the case that you can enjoy things if you make up your mind, but you can also bear things if you decide to. You can typically talk yourself either into or out of a bad mood. This is also true, with God’s grace, when it comes to spiritual contentment and peace. What you set your mind to do is usually what you end up doing. The question, then, is what do you really want?

This concept ties directly into the topic of spiritual peace which we discussed last week. Last week’s conclusion had to do with prayer and meditation. We were able to discuss prayer in some detail, but meditation had to wait for this week, and that’s what we will be talking about today. Meditation means “to think on” something, but it also has the added connotation of “taking into account.” Before you pray, as you pray, and after you pray, you ought to think of God and His mighty acts, and you should take them into account when you consider your own situation. In addition to this, Paul here lists six kinds of things you ought to meditate on. The kicker is that if you do meditate on these things, then you will have peace and you will end up modeling that peace to those around you, giving them an example of how to pray and find peace. And so, very simply, what you think about matters. Your thoughts dictate your overall state of mind and spiritual disposition, and they always manage to come to the surface. When this happens, it shows the world what it is that you really believe and what ii is that is really in your heart. It shows them your gospel. Continue reading

Peace of God and Peace of Mind

Text: Philippians 4:1-7

Do you worry? There is so much to worry about, of course. The economy, foreign wars, a collapsing culture, your mother-in-law, his mother-in-law!—there’s no shortage of problems. How do you handle this kind of anxiety? Do you ever worry that you might be worrying too much? Anxiety is everywhere we turn.

Anxiety

Anxiety has been defined as “A feeling of worry, nervousness, or unease, typically about an imminent event or something with an uncertain outcome.” Anxiety has been with us since the Fall, but the aspect of anxiety that is particular and noteworthy today is precisely that we have named it and identify it even among very privileged and otherwise comfortable people. It makes good sense, we say, to be anxious when running from wild beasts or struggling to find the next meal. It strikes us as odd to continue to be anxious when we have a steady a job, a family, and plenty of toys. Of course, this new twist really just shows anxiety in a clearer way. It isn’t simply an estimate of risk and probability. Instead, anxiety is a deep longing of the soul. It is the photo negative of romantic sentimentalism. Just as people can project all sorts of hopes and dreams onto the future, anxiety projects fears and dreads. And both anxiety and sentimentalism, being connected in this way, share the same problem. They look to find satisfaction for the soul in the wrong place. Instead of saying “In Thee, my soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness” (Psalm 63:5), we find ourselves constantly seeking, searching for more, but with no idea of where to look. Continue reading