Tag archives: Christmas

The Crises that Led to Christmas (Part 5): Mary Endured the Crisis of Ostracization

by Joy Zavalick

December 24, 2021

This is the final part of a five-part series. Read our previous entries on Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.

***

The fifth and final woman acknowledged in the genealogy recorded in Matthew’s gospel is Jesus’ mother, Mary. Scripture tells us that Mary was a young woman from Nazareth who was highly favored in God’s sight (Luke 1:26-28). The angel Gabriel visited her to explain that she would serve the Lord in an unprecedented way; the power of the Holy Spirit would allow for Mary to conceive even though she was a virgin, and the child would be the Son of God.

Mary would have understood the social consequences of her conceiving prior to her impending marriage to Joseph. She would have faced possible ostracization from her community, since at this time in history, women could even be executed for an out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Nevertheless, Mary readily accepted the Lord’s charge for her, telling Gabriel, “I am the Lord’s servant […] May your word to me be fulfilled” (Luke 1:38).

What Mary’s community would have viewed as a “crisis” was all part of God’s plan. In reality, the crisis Mary faced was not her pregnancy but the pain of facing a world that would not celebrate the creation of this new life with joy. We learn from Scripture that Mary did receive support from at least a few people in her life. These included her fiancé, Joseph, and her cousin, Elizabeth.

After the angel of the Lord affirmed to Joseph in a dream that Mary had not been unfaithful to him, and that the child in her womb was the Son of God, Joseph responded in faith and accepted his charge as the adoptive father of Jesus. Joseph cared for Jesus as his own son throughout the entirety of his earthly life. In so doing, Joseph set a strong example of a man of God rising up to fill the role of an earthly father for a child who was not biologically his own. Prayerfully consider if God might be calling you—like Joseph—to adopt, foster, or mentor children who are not biologically your own.

The response of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth paints a beautiful image of how all Christians ought to respond to the news of a pregnancy, even if the surrounding circumstances are not easy. Elizabeth was also pregnant at the time of Mary’s visit, and Scripture tells us that the baby in Elizabeth’s womb, who would later become known as John the Baptist, “leaped in her womb” as he recognized the nearness of the Messiah. Elizabeth and her own unborn child shared in Mary’s joy at the news of her pregnancy and treated it like the miracle that it was.

Just as Elizabeth shared in Mary’s joy, Christians ought to rejoice at the news of pregnancy, encouraging the mother and reminding her of the miracle of life in which she is participating. Each child is a unique individual handcrafted by the Lord and worthy of celebration. Although Mary had the unique honor of carrying the Savior in her womb, every mother has carried a human made in the image of God.

Every new life is a gift of God, but not all pregnancies are surrounded by joyful or peaceful circumstances. Some pregnancies are unexpected. Some pregnancies might be unwanted by one or both parents. Some pregnancies result from rape. Some pregnancies are accompanied by a prenatal diagnosis of a disease or disability. However, the faithfulness of the Lord ensures that a response of trust in His plan can contribute to redeeming a broken situation. Even amid dark circumstances, the light of miraculously creating a new image-bearer can shine through.

Though not in bodily presence, as he was with Mary, Christ is present with each of us as we face challenges. The world may see an insurmountable trial, but as Christians, we are called to believe that each “crisis” no matter how big or how small is all part of God’s plan.

Let us pray that this Christmas, no matter what circumstances we happen to be facing, we would recognize that God will use every moment of our life for good. May we join Mary in singing, “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior… The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is His name” (Luke 1:46-49).

The Crises that Led to Christmas (Part 4): Bathsheba Endured the Crisis of Sexual Sin

by Joy Zavalick

December 23, 2021

This is the fourth part of a five-part series. Read our previous entries on Tamar, Rahab, and Ruth.

***

The fourth woman identified by Matthew’s gospel as being part of the lineage of Christ is Bathsheba, or “Uriah’s wife” as Matthew refers to her. If we take a closer look at Bathsheba’s story, it becomes clear that Matthew’s description of her as Uriah’s wife is intentional.

According to 2 Samuel 11, King David remained at home while his army was away at war. One night, while walking on the roof of his palace, he noticed Bathsheba bathing. Instead of respecting the woman’s privacy, a lustful David sent one of his servants to find out the woman’s identity. Despite learning that she was married to someone serving in his army, David continued to pursue Bathsheba.

David commanded his officials to bring Bathsheba to him, and he slept with her, causing her to conceive. Scripture does not tell us what Bathsheba’s role in this affair was; she could’ve been a co-conspirator in David’s act of sexual immorality or a victim of sexual assault. However, Scripture does show us that David misused his position of authority to initiate a crisis of sexual immorality.

When David learned that Bathsheba was pregnant, he attempted to hide his sin by tricking her husband into sleeping with her so that Uriah would believe the child was his. After this strategy failed, David resorted to placing Uriah at the front lines of battle so that he would be killed. Thus, David not only sinned against Bathsheba sexually but also by murdering her husband and leaving her a widow.

Bathsheba married David after Uriah’s death. She might have had little choice, given David’s position as king and her own desperation to survive after being widowed. Although David believed his sin to be in the past, the prophet Nathan reminded him of the Lord’s wrath against David’s acts of sexual immorality and murder. David was convicted and cried out to the Lord in repentance. His prayer for forgiveness, Psalm 51, is one of the most well-known penitent psalms in Scripture. Although he repented, David still had to live with the consequences of his sin. Tragically, the first child that Bathsheba had conceived with him died (2 Samuel 12:19).

Bathsheba eventually bore David a son named Solomon, who later succeeded his father as king and became known for his immense wisdom. However, the trauma and anguish that David caused Bathsheba may never have fully healed in her life. Even if the intercourse between David and Bathsheba was consensual (which is unknown based on the biblical evidence), it was nevertheless a sinful act that God mercifully commuted. The Messiah’s lineage passing through Solomon, David, and Bathsheba’s son, demonstrates God’s willingness to graciously use for good situations that man intended for evil (Genesis 50:20).

Tragically, there are many women who must live with the consequences of evil acts committed against them, such as sexual assault or abuse. Just as David attempted to escape the consequences when Bathsheba became pregnant, many men today try to conceal evil actions or simply escape the responsibility of fatherhood by abandoning women or coercing them to undergo abortions. It is important to note that although men must be held accountable for sexual abuse, children conceived through an act of sexual sin are never to blame for their fathers’ sins and must be treated with the same inherent dignity as every other child made in the image of God.

Chemical abortion pills have provided yet another way for men to avoid the responsibilities of fatherhood. But what makes this abortion method even more appealing to abusers is that it limits the woman’s contact with an in-person physician, making it harder for the abuse to come to light. Women who have suffered a coerced abortion ought to know that there are resources available to help them. Additionally, women who have taken the chemical abortion pill should know that this form of abortion is reversible if only the first pill has been ingested and action is taken quickly to reverse it.

Many women have been sexually manipulated or assaulted and may be struggling to recover from this pain. The church must rise up to protect and care for these women, ensuring that they have access to resources and ministries designed to help them heal.

The story of Bathsheba reminds us that Jesus Christ came to free mankind from captivity to sin and demonstrates the loving character of God in bringing beauty even from the depravity of human actions.

The Crises that Led to Christmas (Part 3): Ruth Endured the Crisis of Being Widowed

by Joy Zavalick

December 22, 2021

This is the third part of a five-part series. Read our previous entries on Tamar and Rahab.

***

The third woman identified in Matthew’s gospel as being part of the lineage of Jesus is Ruth, a Moabite woman who married into the nation of Israel. In addition to being an ancestor of Christ, Ruth has the distinction of being one of only two women with a book of the Bible named after her (Esther being the other).

The book of Ruth opens with an introduction to three widows: Naomi, Orpah, and Ruth. Naomi had relocated to Moab with her husband and two sons in order to avoid an ongoing famine in Israel. While they were living in Moab, Naomi’s sons married two local women, Orpah and Ruth. Tragically, all three husbands passed away, leaving Naomi alone in a foreign land and Orpah and Ruth childless.

When Naomi decided to return to her homeland of Israel, Orpah returned to her parents’ household, but Ruth refused to abandon Naomi, knowing that her mother-in-law had no one left to care for her. Ruth demonstrated her loyalty to Naomi by saying, “Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God” (Ruth 1:6).

Ruth and Naomi returned to Naomi’s hometown of Bethlehem. Upon arriving, Ruth provided for them by gleaning in the fields of a man named Boaz, the son/descendent of Rahab and a relative of Naomi’s late husband. Boaz took notice of Ruth, impressed by her loving sacrifice to leave her home in order to stay by Naomi’s side. Boaz treated Ruth with kindness and ensured that she could work safely in his fields without being harmed by men who might prey on her.

Naomi informed Ruth that Boaz was one of their family’s kinsmen-redeemers. According to Hebrew law, Boaz was eligible to purchase their family property and marry Ruth, thus allowing her to carry on her late husband’s family line (Ruth 2:20). When Ruth approached Boaz and explained her family’s situation to him, he went through the proper cultural channels to redeem Naomi’s husband’s inheritance and marry Ruth (Ruth 3:9-13). Ruth’s first son with Boaz was named Obed. In God’s wonderful providence, Obed had a son named Jesse, whose youngest son, David, would one day become king of Israel.

The intricate story that God wove from the tragedy of Ruth’s widowhood shows His ability to bring beauty even from crisis situations. After the death of her first husband, Ruth likely was unsure of her future. When Ruth selflessly refused to abandon Naomi, she took a leap of faith and trusted that God would care for her—and He did, grafting the Moabite woman into Israel’s family tree.

It is worth noting that Ruth likely did not see the ultimate plan that God was working through her suffering during her lifetime. This is true for us as well. In this life, we will likely never fully understand why God allows us to experience a tragedy. Whether it is the experience of heartbreak, miscarriage, death of a spouse or loved one, or loneliness, it is important to know that the Lord is still present even when He seems silent and that hope for the future remains even when today’s circumstances are filled with pain. Just as Ruth mourned her loss and placed her faith in God, so should we today whenever tragedy strikes.

There are ministries and resources equipped to support widows as they raise a child while simultaneously coping with grief. The book of Ruth may also be read as a call to action for the men of the church to meet the needs of women facing crisis circumstances. Marriage aside, there are countless other ways for Christian men to emulate Boaz and serve the widows or single mothers in their community through acts of kindness.

Ruth’s example may provide inspiration to women and men who have experienced a tragic loss or who unexpectedly find themselves in the position of being a caretaker. Ruth displayed her noble character by acting based on her love for her family and trust in God, rather than allowing the pain of loss to overshadow her hope for the future. Her story reminds us to turn to the Lord in every sorrow and trust that He is working all things together for our good (Rom. 8:28).

Listening to Christians Around the World: Do You Hear What I Hear?

by Lela Gilbert

December 22, 2021

One of many beloved Christmas songs filling the air these days is “Do You Hear What I Hear?” and it holds a promise, “The Child, the Child, sleeping in the night. He will bring us goodness and light…”  

We American Christians are usually able to set aside our difficulties and challenges when Christmas comes around and fully celebrate “the Child”—the Son of God. We are so grateful that He lived among us not only to offer goodness and light, but also the opportunity to share in a lifetime of His love and grace.

Over the past year or two, our country has faced unusual challenges: continuing pandemic concerns, the worrisome shifting of political winds, and other trials such as floods, fires, and—most recently—horrifying tornados. Many fellow believers also struggle with financial worries and other concerns. Still, during this special season, our families and church congregations joyfully gather to sing hymns and carols, light candles, listen to children’s choirs, and worship the Christ Child who came and lived among us, and who continues to bless us with His presence.

Unfortunately, however, beyond our borders, the Christmas story is not so welcome as it is here. In much of the world, the gathering of Christians for any reason is often far from safe. A 2021 article in The Guardian reported:

Persecution of Christians around the world has increased during the Covid pandemic, with followers being refused aid in many countries, authoritarian governments stepping up surveillance, and Islamic militants exploiting the crisis, a report says.

More than 340 million Christians – one in eight – face high levels of persecution and discrimination because of their faith, according to the 2021 World Watch List compiled by the Christian advocacy group Open Doors.

It says there was a 60% increase over the previous year in the number of Christians killed for their faith. More than nine out of 10 of the global total of 4,761 deaths were in Africa.

At Family Research Council, we keep in contact with Christians in places where the decision to follow Jesus Christ is dangerous and—as The Guardian notes—even deadly. In fact, our concerns about international religious freedom have deepened dramatically in recent weeks and months. Just this week we asked friends in Nigeria, Iran, and a refugee from Afghanistan about how Christmas is celebrated in their countries.

Dr. Hassan John, Director of Communications Church of Nigeria, Anglican Communion writes:

For Christians in northern Nigeria, Christmas, especially this year, is full of anxiety and fear from the continuing attacks by Islamist Fulani militias and the Boko Haram terrorist Islamic sect. There is also anxiety for the new year for the fact that the Nigerian government has demonstrated a lack of will to stop the massacres and destruction of predominantly Christian villages by the Fulani Islamists. Many can’t reunite with loved ones because the roads are dangerously spotted with terrorists. Unfortunately, before the Christmas season is over some Christians will likely be killed or kidnapped for ransom their families cannot pay. The world will celebrate Christmas but in Nigeria, for many Christians, it may be yet another season of mourning.

Mary Mohammadi is an Iranian convert from Islam to Christianity who was jailed and physically abused for her faith. She explains:

In Iran, celebrating Christmas—like holding other Christian occasions and ceremonies such as Easter, baptism, etc.—is a crime. But we know this is a very important occasion, especially for Christians. So, despite widespread arrests and severe punishments, they secretly celebrate Christmas in their house churches every year. Yet, every year at Christmas, security forces raid house churches more than on any other days, arresting as many as 100 people in one house church.

Personally, I have not been ever able to celebrate Christmas in any year. In 2017, for the second Christmas after I believed in Jesus Christ, I was locked up in the Ministry of Intelligence security detention center, called 209. I had forgotten the date in the cell. I realized that it was Christmas Day only by seeing a Ministry of Intelligence newspaper.

The regime congratulates in the media on Christmas, but on the other hand, Christians must spend Christmas in detention, and those who have not been arrested are detained in house churches during the celebration! This represents the government’s lies and hypocrisy and propaganda.

And finally, here is testimony from a 24-year-old Afghan Christian refugee. She and her family, who were rescued from Afghanistan, must remain unnamed, and are living temporarily in refugee housing.

Up to now we never celebrated Christmas. Only between us we celebrated in my family. Here, also, no one celebrates Christmas. I hope one day I celebrate it and [can be] proud of my religion!

Thankfully, with wonderfully few exceptions, in our free country, we are free to celebrate together without fear or threat of danger. This is a great blessing—perhaps greater than we sometimes realize. Our problems are many, but the physical dangers for following our faith are few. As we hear the stories of others, let’s listen closely and remember them in our prayers.

As that familiar Christmas song “Do You Hear What I Hear?” says, “Pray for peace, people, everywhere…”

The Crises that Led to Christmas (Part 2): Rahab Endured the Crisis of Protecting Her Family

by Joy Zavalick

December 21, 2021

This is the second part of a five-part series. Read our previous entry on Tamar.

***

The second woman identified by Matthew’s gospel as being part of the lineage of Christ is Rahab. When Scripture first introduces us to Rahab in Joshua 2, she is a Canaanite prostitute living in the city of Jericho at the time that the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land. Two spies sent by Joshua to scout out the fortified city of Jericho secretly lodged in Rahab’s house. When word reached Jericho’s king that Israelite spies were inside the city, he commanded Rahab to turn them over. However, she sent the king’s men to search elsewhere instead of betraying the spies’ true location.

Rahab had heard about the mighty deeds of Israel’s God and decided her fear of this God and love for her family were worth the risk. In the face of impending death for herself and her family, Rahab saved the lives of the Israelite spies by hiding them from the king and asked them to do the same for her and her family, acknowledging, “the Lord your God is God in heaven above and on the earth below.”

The spies assured Rahab that they would spare her when the Lord delivered the land into their hands, so long as she tied a red cord to her window and kept her family members inside during the impending attack. When the Israelites eventually surrounded Jericho in Joshua 6, God miraculously delivered the city into their hands. Prior to the battle, Joshua commanded his men to spare Rahab and her family because she had honored her word to protect the spies.

Rahab and her family were rescued and brought into the camp of the Israelites, where she married a member of the tribe of Judah named Salmon. According to Jewish tradition, Salmon may have been one of the two spies whose lives Rahab had saved. Rahab was either the mother or direct ancestor of Boaz, whose marriage to Ruth is named later in the genealogy of Christ. The Lord transformed Rahab from a prostitute and a woman who likely worshipped pagan gods to the wife of an Israelite and an ancestor of the Messiah, thus adopting a Gentile woman into His family.

Rahab’s brave actions embodied obedience to the charge God gave Joshua himself in Joshua 1:9: “Be strong and courageous. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go.” Hundreds of years later, Rahab’s faith was even included in the “Faith Hall of Fame” in Hebrews 11. Many women today face circumstances that seem insurmountable and approach motherhood with trepidation. Rahab modeled a response to fearful circumstances that constitutes courage, trust, and devotion to God.

Rahab’s story can encourage women (and men) that their past does not have to define them. God did not have to include a prostitute in the family line of Christ. He did so to demonstrate that no life on earth is too broken, shameful, or deeply steeped in sin that He cannot redeem it and use it for His glory. Rahab’s family lineage went on to produce the Messiah, who spent His time on earth ministering to those lost in sin, as well as the needy and the downcast, in further affirmation of God’s love even for those that society rejects or those who start out their lives far away from God.

Rahab’s actions on behalf of her family also contradict the modern narrative of individualism. Just as Rahab risked much to protect her family, women and men facing unplanned or unwanted pregnancies ought to consider their duty as mothers and fathers to their unborn children rather than using abortion to bypass that responsibility.

Tragically, the pain of abortion is already part of many women’s stories. Rahab’s example shows that women who have something in their past that they are ashamed of ought not to distance themselves from the Lord but rather draw near to the throne of grace and accept the mercy that is theirs in Christ.

Resources such as Project Rachel and Rachel’s Vineyard exist to bring healing to women who have suffered the pain of abortion and to help them to lead lives reconciled to God. For women who, like Rahab, have worked as prostitutes, resources such as Gems helps provide an exit from the commercial sex industry. Additionally, for trafficking victims who were involuntarily forced into the sex industry, organizations such as Justice Ministries assist with rescue and coping with trauma.

Rahab’s story shows that being strong and courageous can take many different forms—sometimes, it is simply choosing to trust the Lord and serve one’s family that can produce the greatest fruit.

The Crises that Led to Christmas (Part 1): Tamar Endured the Crisis of Familial Abandonment

by Joy Zavalick

December 20, 2021

The genealogy of Jesus, as recorded in the first chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, includes many of the most recognizable and celebrated men of the Judeo-Christian tradition, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and the kings David and Solomon. Five women are also listed as being among Jesus Christ’s earthly ancestors: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and, of course, his mother Mary.

In the coming days, we will explore the lives of these women. Each one faced challenging circumstances and endured hardships, but ultimately God saw fit to include them in the family line of the Messiah. Moreover, given that Matthew’s genealogy is not comprehensive—and that the inclusion of women’s names in a genealogy was unique for Matthew’s time and culture—we can be sure that each of these five women were included in this list for a reason. The Lord evidently wants us to learn important truths about His grace by considering these women and their stories. The beauty of God’s plan is that the unique “crises” that each woman faced ultimately led to Christmas.

***

The first woman listed in the genealogy is Tamar, who was the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of the 12 sons of Jacob. Genesis 38 says that Tamar’s husband, Er, was put to death by the Lord for unspecified wickedness. According to custom, it was the responsibility of Er’s brother, Onan, through “levirate marriage,” to marry his brother’s widow in order to provide an heir and keep property in the family. Onan, however, refused to accept this responsibility (likely motivated by sinful desires to assume the position of family leadership and a double inheritance). Because of his failure to fulfill the duties of levirate marriage, he sinned against his deceased brother and Tamar. For his actions, he was also put to death (v. 10).

After the death of his second son, Judah was fearful of giving any more sons to a woman he thought might be cursed, so he sent Tamar away to live in her father’s household. Although Judah promised Tamar that he would give her his third son in marriage, he evidently had no intention of keeping his word. This abandonment of Tamar was a grave evil.

Years later, Tamar learned that her father-in-law was visiting her hometown. Determined to carry on the family lineage of her late husband, Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute. Judah, not recognizing her as his daughter-in-law, solicited her and impregnated her. Three months later, Judah learned that Tamar had conceived a child and demanded she be put to death for prostitution. This hypocritical demand reveals not only the inconsistent manner in which men and women were treated in that day, but also puts in sharper relief the evil of Judah’s abandonment of a woman he was supposed to provide for and protect. Tamar immediately revealed that Judah was the father of her child. Judah responded that his daughter-in-law had been “more righteous than I” and rescinded his call for the death penalty.

The story of Tamar reveals God’s enduring faithfulness to Abraham in allowing the line of Judah to continue so that Jesus could be born from it. Tamar gave birth to twin boys—Perez and Zerah. From the line of Perez came King David, and later, Jesus Christ—the Son of God.

God saw fit to use Tamar, a widow who faced the crises of being abandoned by her family, feeling that she had no recourse but to act as a prostitute, and having her father-in-law threaten to have her killed, in the story of His Son’s birth.

Today, many women, like Tamar, are abandoned by their families. Many women feel their only option is to allow men to use them. Many women face abuse from those who should love and protect them. These women can find encouragement in God’s faithfulness to Tamar—a woman who was never deserted by God, even when her earthly circumstances were less than ideal.

Women who find themselves in situations like Tamar should know there are people ready to support them as they work to raise their children. Approximately 3,000 pregnancy resource centers (PRCs) are available across the country, seeking to provide material support, emotional encouragement, and spiritual healing to pregnant mothers facing difficult life circumstances. These centers allow women to advocate for their children even when they lack support from those who are closest to them.

Although Tamar’s husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law all failed to love and care for her, and although Tamar’s act of prostitution was immoral, God still provided for her and saw fit to include Tamar and her family in the earthly lineage of His Son. Tamar’s life proves that God’s mercy is endless, and His ability to bring good out of our missteps is boundless.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 6): How the Servant’s Death Brings the Light of Life

by David Closson

December 25, 2020

This is the final part of a 6-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, and Part 5.

 

10 Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him;
    he has put him to grief;
when his soul makes an offering for guilt,
    he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days;
the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.
11 Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see[the light of life] and be satisfied;
by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant,
    make many to be accounted righteous,
    and he shall bear their iniquities.
12 Therefore I will divide him a portion with the many,
    and he shall divide the spoil with the strong,
because he poured out his soul to death
    and was numbered with the transgressors;
yet he bore the sin of many,
    and makes intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53:10-12)

Christmas, the day when Christians celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ, is joyful precisely because Jesus succeeded in His earthly mission, namely, securing salvation for all who trust in His saving work. Our study of Isaiah 53 concludes with verses 10-12, which direct our attention to the meaning and significance of the Servant’s suffering and death and help us understand the depth of God’s love for His children.

Verse 10 reveals a startling truth—God willed the terrible death of this innocent Servant. Verse 11 explains why—His death made it possible for many to be accounted righteous. Verse 12 returns to the theme of Isaiah 52:13 and glories in the Servant’s exaltation. Together, these verses marvel at the work accomplished by the Servant and foreshadow Christ’s work on the cross.

Verse 10 opens the stanza with the disjunctive “Yet,” signaling a clear contrast with the content of the previous verse. The focus shifts from man’s sensory experience to God’s perspective on what has unfolded so far. In light of the horrifying miscarriage of justice perpetrated against the Servant, Isaiah’s readers expect God to avenge and vindicate the Servant. Thus, when God’s sovereign purpose is at last revealed in verse 10a, the truth is startling— “it was the will of the Lord to crush him.”

The natural response to this statement is disbelief and perhaps even anger. Why would God want to crush this man? Why would God want an innocent person to suffer? On these questions, theologian John Oswalt’s reflections are illuminating:

The faithful God of the Bible would certainly not visit bad things on innocent people, would he? Yes, he would if some greater good would be served. Is it possible there is some greater good than all the terrible things the Servant has endured will procure?… [Yes,] what God wants to come out of the Servant’s suffering is of monumental proportions. He wants human beings to be able to offer this man up on the altar of their sins so that he can be a “full and sufficient sacrifice” for them, satisfying all the unpaid debts of their behavior.[1]

God’s sovereign purpose behind all the suffering of the Servant was to make Him a guilt offering, not for His own sins (He had none), but for the sins of others.

An important note must be made concerning English translations that render verse 10a: “But the Lord was pleased to crush him” (NASB) or “Though the Lord desired to crush him” (NET). Unfortunately, these translations contribute to the faulty understanding that somehow, God took delight in making the Servant suffer. Peter Gentry helpfully clarifies this point: “Here, ‘delighted’ is being used in the context of sacrifice. God is delighted or pleased with the sacrifice in the sense that he accepts it as sufficient to wipe away his indignation, his offense and his outrage at our sin.”[2] Thus, it was not God’s sadistic will to punish an innocent man. Rather, it was God’s redemptive will. This notion is further clarified in the second part of verse 10 with the mention of “guilt offering.” 

The guilt or “reparation” offering in 10b refers to the fifth offering described in Leviticus. Of all the Old Testament offerings, this one covered guilt that had been knowingly incurred by the individual and had to be offered by the individual responsible.[3] Three important benefits of this offering are highlighted in verse 10c: “he shall see his offspring,” “he shall prolong his days,” and “the will of the Lord shall prosper in his hand.” In view of fulfilling God’s glorious plan, the Servant will be successful; he will enjoy offspring and length of days. These should be interpreted figuratively to indicate that despite the bleak future forecasted in previous stanzas, the Servant’s life will be marked by blessing and fruitfulness. This thought is continued in verse 11a with the phrase, “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see [the light of life] and be satisfied.” Despite not appearing in some English translations, the phrase “light of life” in verse 11 is supported by textual witnesses.[4] Taken together, verses 10c and 11a point to another significant reality—resurrection.

Although the Servant’s death is communicated in stanza four (verses 7-9), stanza five indicates that the Servant is alive. How is this possible? Verse 11a, with its contrast of “guilt offering” and “light,” strongly suggests resurrection, which is implied by the idea of seeing offspring and prolonging days.[5] Faithfully reconciling stanza four and five requires the Servant’s resurrection (taking place between the realities described by each). The reference to “light” in 11a is another clue to resurrection.

Verses 11b-12 conclude stanza five by describing the benefits of the Servant’s death given to the “many.” The use of “knowledge” in 11b should be understood as experiential knowledge of faith.[6] In context, this accurately captures Isaiah’s understanding of the Servant’s accomplishment. People do not benefit by what the Servant knows, but by knowing and believing in what the Servant did.  

Verse 12 explains that the benefits of the Servant’s success will be “divided… with the many.” This highlights the breadth of the Servant’s work. Because the Servant “poured out his soul to death” and “bore the sins of many,” he effectively has provided a way for men to have a right relationship with God. Gentry notes this “corporate solidarity” between the one and the many and explains it in terms of the Ancient Near East context of the relationship between a king and his people.[7] In this case, because the Servant represents the people, the rewards and benefits He secured through His suffering and death are transferred to the people. It is striking to discern that all the major words used for sin— “transgressions,” “iniquities,” and “sin”—are in the plural, indicating that the Servant’s sacrificial death is holistic, covering the guilt of the “many.” This is a magnificent picture of substitutionary atonement and points to what Christ did on the cross.

Conclusion

Isaiah 53 is one of the most magnificent messianic prophecies in the Old Testament. In a way that is striking and sobering, this passage blazes forth the glory of Christ and the hope of eternal salvation by teaching that God loved the world so much that He sent His Son as a humble Servant who willingly substituted Himself in our place and bore the full wrath of God for our sin that we might be forgiven.

Thus, at Christmas, it is fitting to read and study Isaiah 53, which clearly captures the meaning and significance of Christ’s work on the cross. Examining the intricacies of this text is not easy, but the reward is worth it. Seeing Christ’s person and work thus depicted—exalted (52:13-15), despised (1-3), rejected (4-6), killed (7-10), and resurrected (10-12)—prompts reverent worship and a profound sense of gratitude. Indeed, praise God for this Servant, this man of sorrows, “who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising its shame, and is now seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).



[1]  John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 400.

[2]  Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT), June 12, 2007, http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 35.

[3] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 402.

[4] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 37.

[5]  Allen P. Ross et al., Proverbs–Isaiah, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Revised ed. edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008), 802.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 41.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 5): The Lamb of God Is Sacrificed for Our Transgressions

by David Closson

December 24, 2020

This is Part 5 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

 

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth.
By oppression and judgment he was taken away;
    and as for his generation, who considered
that he was cut off out of the land of the living,
    stricken for the transgression of my people?
And they made his grave with the wicked
    and with a rich man in his death,
although he had done no violence,
    and there was no deceit in his mouth. (Isaiah 53:7-9)

Our study of Isaiah 53 continues in verses 7-9, which contain the shocking climax of the chapter: the Servant suffers to the point of death. Because the parallels between the Servant’s death and the final events of Jesus Christ’s life are so striking, ever since the first century, Christians have acknowledged Christ’s death on the cross as the fulfillment of this passage. Verses 7-9 are quoted no less than 15 times by New Testament authors.[1]

The two comparisons with sheep (in verse 6 of the previous stanza and in verse 7) are noteworthy and most likely intentional. On this point, John Oswalt comments: “It is difficult to escape the conclusion that it is not accidental that the only extended metaphor in this poem involves sheep, the primary animals of sacrifice.”[2] While “we” the people are likened to sheep that have gone astray, the Servant is likened to a sheep led to slaughter. Amid His ongoing oppression and suffering, the Servant is silent, like a sheep before its shearers. Rather than objecting to the injustice of the proceedings, the Servant accepts his role and does not protest. In the same way, Christ was silent before His own accusers (Pilate, Herod, etc.), in fulfillment of this text.

The phrase “by oppression and judgment” in verse 8a presents an interpretive challenge. Professor Gay V. Smith understands “oppression” to mean “restrained,” suggesting that the Servant was arrested and imprisoned. He understands “judgment” as referring to a court or place of judgment.[3] Smith concurs with Peter Gentry, who thinks that a lack of justice in the judicial process (no fair trial) is most likely being implied.[4]

Verse 8 continues by noting that the Servant was “cut off” out of the land of the living, indicating death. Professor Geoffrey Grogan comments, “The phrase ‘cut off’ strongly suggests not only a violent, premature death, but also the just judgment of God, not simply the oppressive judgment of human beings.”[5] Although His death is somewhat expected, given the progression of the text, the fact that the innocent Servant is finally killed hits the reader with force. The miscarriage of justice is infuriating and cries out for retribution. However, the final phrase adds a shocking, revelatory detail that clarifies the motive of the Servant— he was killed “for the transgression of my people.” Oswalt notes that this reveals that the Servant was not killed because of a corrupt legal system: “It is not legal injustice that condemns him but the transgression of my people. If he is treated unjustly, and he is, the author wants us to know that this injustice is not an expression of that all-too-common custom of mistreating innocent people. The Servant was doing this on purpose.”[6] Despite the rejection, sorrow, grief, and shame, the Servant’s death was ultimately the result of an intentional and purposeful plan. This is a staggering statement that will be developed in the final stanza.

Briefly, verse 9 adds details concerning the Servant’s death and place of burial. Gentry argues that the verse should be rendered, “He was assigned a grave with the wicked, but his tomb was with the rich.”[7]This means that although the Servant was killed with criminals, he was buried amongst the rich. This is exactly what happened at Jesus’ crucifixion. Jesus was crucified with criminals but buried in the tomb of a rich man. Once again, Christ perfectly fulfills Isaiah’s description of the Servant.



[1] NIV Zondervan Study Bible, Hardcover: Built on the Truth of Scripture and Centered on the Gospel Message (Harper Collins, 2015), 1427. Some of these verses include Matt. 26:63; 27:12, 14; Mark 14:60-61; Acts 8:32-33; 1 Cor. 15:3, and 1 John 3:5.

[2] John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), 391–392.

[3] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (Vol. 15) (The New American Commentary), (Nashville, B&H Academic, 2009), 453.

[4] Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBJT), June 12, 2007, http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 33. Oswalt concurs with Smith and Gentry on p. 393 of The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66.

[5] Allen P. Ross et al., Proverbs–Isaiah, ed. Tremper Longman III and David E. Garland, Revised ed. edition (Grand Rapids, Mich: Zondervan, 2008), 801.

[6] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 394.

[7] Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” 34.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 4): The Suffering Servant Is Rejected by Mankind

by David Closson

December 23, 2020

This is Part 4 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.

 

Surely he has borne our griefs
    and carried our sorrows;
yet we esteemed him stricken,
    smitten by God, and afflicted.
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:4-6)

Our continuing study of Isaiah 53 brings us to verses 4-6, which foreshadow Jesus Christ’s suffering on the cross. By invoking sacrificial imagery that would have been familiar to Isaiah’s readers, these verses shed light on the doctrine of substitutionary atonement.

Verse 4 signals a dramatic shift in Isaiah’s narrative. The focus is now on the Servant’s intense suffering. But the reason for His suffering is shocking. Note the 10 first-person plural pronouns (“we,” “our,” and “us”) in these three verses. The “griefs” and “sorrows” borne by the Servant were not on account of his own deficiencies or sin. Rather, He substituted Himself for and was punished on behalf of the very same people who had previously ridiculed and rejected Him! John Calvin relates this shocking exchange to Christ: “Isaiah complains of the wicked judgment of men, in not considering the cause of Christ’s heavy afflictions; and especially he deplores the dullness of his own nation because they thought that God was a deadly enemy of Christ, and took no account of their own sins, which were to be expiated in this manner.”[1]

The degradations described in verse 5 escalate in severity—from sickness and physiological suffering to physical injuries and, ultimately, the bearing of spiritual wrath. Verse 5 is unequivocal that “we” are the beneficiaries of the Servant’s suffering. Although many liberal theologians categorically reject the concept of the transference of guilt, there is an important biblical antecedent that informs Isaiah’s prophecy—the Old Testament sacrificial system, particularly the scapegoat ceremony.

In Leviticus 16:7-10, the priests are instructed to designate a goat that, despite its innocence, would symbolically take the Israelites’ place and carry their sins into the wilderness (this is where the term “scapegoat” comes from). The goat would eventually die in the wilderness, while the people remained alive in the camp. Professor Gary V. Smith cautions against reading too much into this connection but affirms the correlation: “Chapter 53 does illustrate substitutionary action drawn from sacrificial concepts.”[2]

Isaiah clearly states that the Servant is not suffering with the people—He is suffering for them. Verse 5 concludes with an incredible statement: “upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.” The result of the substitutionary action of the Servant is peace and healing—the same remarkable spiritual benefits New Testament believers receive when they trust in Christ for their salvation. Verse 5 prefigures Christ’s substitutionary work on the cross.

Verse 6 concludes this stanza by comparing the people to a flock of sheep, a simile that will continue in later verses. Isaiah’s point is that people wander aimlessly in their sin, completely unaware of its magnitude and wickedness, much like sheep are prone to wandering from their shepherd’s care. People blissfully unconcerned about their sin are also equally oblivious to the incredible lengths the Servant has gone to secure payment and forgiveness on their behalf. Surely the apostle Paul had Isaiah 53 in mind when he reminded the Philippians of the great lengths Christ has gone for their—and our—salvation: 

though he [Christ] was in the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil. 6-8).

At Christmas time, we Christians should celebrate and remind ourselves and others of the great lengths Christ went to for our salvation. Being fully God, Christ humbled Himself and became also fully man. And not just any man, but one who was despised and rejected, bearing the punishment that we justly deserved. As one Christmas hymn so beautifully puts it:

Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becamest poor;
Thrones for a manger didst surrender,
Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor.
Thou who wast rich beyond all splendor,
All for love’s sake becomes poor.

Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man;
Stooping so low, but sinners raising
Heavenwards by thine eternal plan.
Thou who art God beyond all praising,
All for love’s sake becamest man.

- “Thou Who Was Rich Beyond All Splendor” (words by Frank Houghton, 1894–1972)



[1] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries - Volume 8 - Isaiah 33-66 (Baker, 1999), 115.

[2] Gary V. Smith, Isaiah 40-66: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (Vol. 15) (The New American Commentary), (B&H Academic, Nashville), 2009, 449.

Christmas Prophecies (Part 3): A Root That Is Despised

by David Closson

December 22, 2020

This is Part 3 of a 6-part series. Read Part 1 and Part 2.

 

Who has believed what he has heard from us?
    And to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?
For he grew up before him like a young plant,
    and like a root out of dry ground;
he had no form or majesty that we should look at him,
    and no beauty that we should desire him.
He was despised and rejected by men,
    a man of sorrowsand acquainted with grief;
and as one from whom men hide their faces
    he was despised, and we esteemed him not. (Isaiah 53:1-3)

Isaiah 53 is one of the most well-known passages in the Old Testament. However, it is usually associated with Good Friday, not Christmas. Even so, as Christians consider the “reason for the season” this week, it is important to remember why Jesus came—and what His death and resurrection accomplished.

Verses 1-3 continue the description of the Servant begun in 52:13-15 by detailing His physical appearance and reflecting on how the people responded to Him. The Servant is “despised” and utterly ignored and discounted because He did not conform to preconceived notions of royalty.

Although the identity of the “we” in verse 3 is debated, a growing consensus of scholars think it refers to a believing Israelite remnant that is remembering the Servant’s person and work. If that is the correct interpretation, the ensuing verses contain a report about the deliverance God has accomplished through the Servant. Notably, the prevailing tone throughout these verses is a mixture of shock, anguish, and disappointment, as those returning from exile consider their failure to recognize God’s faithful and restoring work on their behalf. In retrospect, the people realize they completely missed the identity and significance of the Servant in large measure because of His humble comportment and appearance.

Somewhat ironically, the phrase “arm of the Lord” is used in verse 1b to introduce the physical description of the Servant. In biblical literature, the “arm of the Lord” represented the powerful, salvific strength of God manifested in episodes of deliverance. Significantly, this image would have evoked memories of the Exodus, when God dramatically rescued the Israelites from the Egyptians. The Israelites’ safe passage through the Red Sea and the subsequent drowning of the pursuing Egyptian army would have immediately been brought to mind. Thus, the juxtaposition of the Servant’s humble act of deliverance with the Exodus event conveys enormous theological truth, making it even more shocking that a figure of such importance was not recognized.

Verses 2-3 detail the physical appearance of the Servant and how the people responded to Him. Verse 2 compares the Servant to a “young plant” and “root” that comes out of the “dry ground.” Interpreters seem to differ on the significance of this comparison. John Oswalt argues that “this is figurative speech that is intended to convey to us the unexpected nature of the Servant’s entire ministry.”[1] Peter Gentry sees a reference to Isaiah 11:1 and the promised Davidic king. He explains, “This is once more the image of a tree that is a metaphor for kings and kingdoms both in Isaiah and the Old Testament as a whole.”[2]

On close observation, it is fascinating that this imagery invokes a diminutive plant and that the “root” emanates from “dry ground.” Thus, Oswalt and Gentry do not contradict—the “young plant” and “root” proceeding out of “dry ground” indeed symbolize a royal figure but also the unexpected and unlikely origin and appearance of the Servant. From the perspective of the New Testament, it is clear that Jesus exemplified these traits and is identified with the Servant.

The final verse in the stanza reinforces the notion that this figure did not resemble royalty. At first glance, there was nothing discernible in appearance or comportment that embodied majesty, and He was treated accordingly. Verse 3a summarizes this treatment: “He was despised and rejected by men.” The term “despised” refers to the fact that the Servant’s contemporaries considered Him unworthy of attention.[3] This notion is also expressed in the phrase “as one from whom men hide their faces” (v. 3b). John Goldingay notes: “Hiding the face is more commonly an act of rejection.”[4] Perhaps this rejection was partly due to the “sorrow” and “grief” that characterized the Servant’s experience.

In other words, the Servant was subject to pain, grief, and suffering. Given Jewish expectations of a powerful and conquering Messiah, they perceived this figure as weak and ineffective, not in any way resembling the strong “arm of the Lord” that brought their ancestors out of Egypt. Thus, they turned away and rejected Him. Again, from the standpoint of the New Testament, this description perfectly captures the experience of Jesus. Oswalt aptly summarizes verses 1-3: “The point is that because he does not fit the stereotype of the arm of the Lord he will be treated as though he were ill; he will experience what the ill experience: avoidance.”[5] In summary, these verses speak of the unassuming and lowly bearing of the Servant, who is stricken with suffering to the degree that people turn away from Him.

Having described the appearance of the Servant, Isaiah is ready to reflect on the Servant’s actions and their significance. These are some of the most astounding verses in Scripture and will be the focus of the next study.



[1]  John N. Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998),  382.

[2]  Peter J. Gentry, “The Atonement in Isaiah’s Fourth Servant Song (Isaiah 52:13-53:12),” The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology (SBTJ), June 12, 2007, ,http://www.sbts.edu/resources/journals/journal-of-theology/sbjt-112-summer-2007/the-atonement-in-isaiahs-fourth-servant-song-isaiah-5213-5312/, 31–32.

[3] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 383.

[4] John Goldingay, Isaiah, The International Critical Commentary (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), 303.

[5] Oswalt, The Book of Isaiah, Chapters 40–66, 385.

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