Paul’s Christmas Letter

The sending of greeting cards have been another Christmas tradition for many years. It may not be as popular as it once was and in many cases it is used more by businesses than by individuals. Sometime back someone decided to send letters instead of cards to say more than just a greeting around the Christmas season but to summarize everything that had happened during the year. This is what Paul’s does in the three verses that we are about to look at but his is centered around a time period of more than a year.

Titus was one of Paul’s most reliable helpers. Titus is prominent in Paul’s letters although he is not mentioned in Acts. Paul used him for tasks requiring responsibility and discretion. He was Paul’s emissary to the church at Corinth and was in charge of the collection for the poor in Jerusalem. He was also placed over the churches in Crete, a place which was known for people of very low character. Paul sent him to as far away as Dalmatia, modern-day Yugoslavia.

Paul uses this letter to cover the qualifications of elders and places great emphasis on sound doctrine. The letter also outlines the obligations of elderly men and women, young men and women, and even servants. And the letter strongly warns against false teaching. One of its’ two outstanding doctrinal passages (Titus 2:1-24 & Titus 3:4-7) contains three verses (Titus 2:11-13) we will be considering today. So let’s get started. 

Verse 11 – “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men.” Obviously this is what we have just finished studying over the last three weeks or so. And we heard the story from different perspectives and characters in the four gospels. Although the first few words are very similar to John 1:14 let’s take a closer look at how this is expressed in the letter. Notice the past tense of the verb in “has appeared”. It begins in the past, celebrating the Incarnation of Christ. And for the expressed purpose of bringing salvation to the world. Remember the words of the angel to Joseph in Matthew 1:21; “She will bear a son, and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins”. Verse 11 gives us a six-word summary of the history of our salvation. Quote: That one sentence captures all that God has done prior to and including the arrival of Jesus: the creation of the world; the covenants with Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David; the care for the Israelites in exile; and beyond. And at the very moment Jesus was born, God fulfilled the promise of a redeemer. The grace of God – The undeserved, unmerited gift of salvation and redemption for the world. Has appeared – The debt has been paid and there is no need for it to be supplemented, imitated, or repeated. It is a done deal!

Verse 13 – “Looking for the blessed hope and the appearing of the glory of our great God and Savior, Christ Jesus.” Notice the change in focus of the passage to the future. In this verse Paul seems to express a sense of excitement about things to come. Paul’s Christmas Letter to Titus contains a section about “things to look forward to in the upcoming year(s).” Do you think Paul was expecting Jesus to come back during his lifetime? Although he used just six words to describe the past, the words he uses to describe the future just seem to flow on and on. I believe Paul is having a hard time containing his anticipation of what he knows  is still to come. It is as if he is saying “If you think the birth of Jesus was something, you ain’t seen nothing yet!” Ok. So what about now? What do we do in the meantime? Well let’s look at verse 12 and we will find that answer.

Verse 12 – “instructing us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires and to live sensibly, righteously, and godly in the present age.” Paul uses just three simple words to describe how we should live “in the present age.” while we wait for His return. We as believers are to pursue holiness in the present moment by living sensible, righteous, and godly lives. These three words encompass our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God himself. In Matthew 22:37-39 Jesus summarized the commandments in such a way as to describe these relationships. “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart,  with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and foremost  commandment. The second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Let’s now take a look at these three words individually.

The Sensible Life: For most of us sensible means wisdom, common sense, and intelligence. But the Greek word for sensible also means sober, self-controlled and the noun form means temperance. Generally the meaning in the context of the letter is to live a life of balance and moderation, not one of excess. Therefore the implication is a life of discipline and restraint although the world today encourages the opposite. To live sensibly means to live with self-control and therefore it is the very  means by which we can find inner harmony. The sensible life controls the harmful urges we have that cause deep pain to ourselves and to others. This can only be done because “the grace of God has appeared.” A sensible life is the mark of a life restored by the grace of God in Jesus Christ.

The Righteous Life: To live a righteous life means to live with others for the common good and in common regard for one another. In other words to live in harmony with others. The Greek word for righteous is also translated ethical, upright, or just. Our righteous life or ethics are based on the righteousness of God and therefore requires us to live according to God’s commandments. In order to live in peace with others we must do the right thing, follow God’s commandments, and follow the example of Jesus himself. It also means we should live according to the standards of love, self-sacrifice, and generosity instead of selfish agendas. Living righteously is to exhibit a life of a redeemed behavior and one that aligns its’ actions with the will of God. The righteous or ethical life is also a gift from God and then can only be accomplished by the grace of God. As we learned in the past few weeks, the Christmas Story offered several examples of righteous living in the characters of Joseph, Zacharias, Elizabeth and even John the Baptist.

The Godly Life: This characteristic of a faithful life is probably the most important of the three. It has been described as the lynchpin that holds the three together. Without a full and wholehearted devotion to God it is impossible to be at peace with ourself (sensible life) or with others (the righteous life). The word godly in the Greek is also often translated as “to worship” and therefore a godly life is characterized by true worship out of love for God. Godly doesn’t mean divine nor does it mean perfect but it means that we direct our worship to the One who is divine and perfect. It is interesting to note that none of the Advent characters were described with the word godly although no doubt most of them were. However, there are two people in the book of Acts that were described by that word; Cornelius and his soldier. Neither of these men were Jews but both were converted to Christianity and  were the first among the Gentiles to do so. This means that in addition to a godly life being one of worship it is also one of  being open to be used by God to share the gospel to those in need of it. The fact is that the Christmas Story is that Christ himself, godly in the purest  sense, came into the world to be the very means by which all of us might be restored to a right relationship with God.

In summary, Paul’s Christmas Letter written to his beloved and trusted helper Titus speaks volumes to us in this three verse passage. It is one of the few passages in the entire Word of God that refers to both advents. What sets it apart from other passages is that it also details have we should live in the present age while we wait for His return. And folks, we are closing in on that day. I’m reminded of the words of a song that says “Soon and very soon, we are going to see the King”. And like Paul’s words at the end of the Revelation, I too say “Come Lord Jesus.”

John’s Christmas Story

As we continue to celebrate the Advent tradition, the fourth and last Sunday of Advent season is upon us. This Sunday is the end of the second half of the Advent season is coming to a close and the birth of the Savior is here.

On the three previous Sundays we have celebrated each one with the lighting of candle. We have introduced the Candle of Hope, the Candle of  Faith, and the Candle of Joy The candle we will light tomorrow will be the Candle of Peace also known as the Angel’s Candle. It symbolizes the peace that the angels announced to the shepherds when they sang that Jesus came to bring peace, to bring people close to God, and to each other. This part of the Christmas story is also found in the Gospel of Luke. However, this evening we are going to look at another version of the Christmas Story that we find in the gospel of John. Similar to Mark’s gospel there is no narrative concerning the details of the birth of Jesus but we still find the coming of God Incarnate in the first chapter of  John.

John was one of the twelve, the son of Zebedee. He, his brother James, and Peter were  the inner circle of the disciples. Sometimes he is known as “the apostle Jesus loved” and Jesus commended his mother Mary to John while He was on the cross. John wrote the letters that bear his name and the Revelation.

John’s gospel is a summary of God’s relationship to man and he immediately declares the Deity of Christ Jesus at the very beginning of the gospel. The purpose of John’s gospel as he himself writes, “that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in His name. The Gospel of John is the only one of the gospels that we find the great “I am”   declarations of Christ.

The Deity of Jesus ( John 1:1-2). Jesus was in the beginning, the same beginning that we find in Genesis 1. Jesus was with God and Jesus was God. The Greek word that is used to refer to Jesus is logos which we translate as Word. In the Aramaic translation of the Old Testament it is used as a designation of God. The word means a thought or concept and the expression of the same. So in Jesus the very thought of God and all the treasures of divine wisdom are embodied. In other words, Jesus, in His incarnation the expression of God and the thought of God is found. In the Being, Person and work of Christ, Deity is expressed. In summary Jesus is God, has always been God, and will always be God.

Incarnate Work of Jesus (John 1:3-5). Jesus created everything and nothing was created the Jesus the Word didn’t create himself. In Him was life which was and is the Light of men. The Light is so bright that there is no possibility that darkness can overcome    or over power it. In other passages in John’s gospel Jesus refers to Himself as the light or the  “light of the world”.

The Witness of the Light (John 1:6-8). John the Baptist was sent from God to testify of the Light so that man would believe. John was not the Light but only gave testimony to the light.

The True Light (John 1:9-13). When the true Light came into the world every man was enlightened and had the opportunity to receive that Light. Jesus was and is the true Light and when He was in the world that He had  created that same world did not recognize who He was and rejected Him. He came to His own domain but He was not received by his own creation. However there were some that did receive Him and he gave them right to be children of God for those who believed in His name. These were not born of blood or the will of the flesh or the will of man but were born of God.

Jesus the Word Became Flesh (John 1:14). This is the Christmas Story according to John. The birth of Jesus was God Incarnate come to earth. Jesus was born and then dwelt among men in a manner such as a man himself. This allowed man and us to see His glory as the only begotten son of the Father. He was grace and truth although He was man. He was 100% God and 100% man.

Jesus is the Mirror of God. (John 1:18). John the Baptist reveals to us that although no one has ever seen God, Jesus in His time on earth was what gave us the eyes to see God.

The question arises many times as to why the Incarnation was necessary. As John states in 1:18 as we have just read, no one has ever seen God. But God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known. That is why He would be called Emmanuel, God with us. And the fact is, that when He ascended He sent the third Person of the Trinity to abide in us. And as a result of that, God is still with us in a spiritual but real sense. And the other fact is that one day we will be with Him.

Next week we will close our study by considering more of a modern-day Christmas Story by referring to one of Paul’s letters that we don’t study very often. Our text will be Titus 2:11-13.

Luke’s Christmas Story

As we continue to celebrate the Advent tradition, the third Sunday is one of particular importance. This Sunday is the beginning of the second half of the Advent season and it is a reminder that the birth of the Savior is almost here. The Catholic Church and some others refer to it as Gaudete Sunday. The Latin word gaudete is the first word of the entrance portion of the mass on this Sunday and it is translated “rejoice”. It is taken from the passage of scripture found in Philippians 4:4 where Paul writes “Rejoice in the Lord always and again I say rejoice.”

Gaudete Sunday is also known as Rose Sunday and Sunday of Joy. The candle that is lit on this Sunday is pink or rose-colored and is known as the Shepherd’s Candle and the Candle of Joy. It symbolizes the great joy the shepherd’s experienced when the angel announced to them the birth of Jesus. And this part of the Christmas story is found in the Gospel of Luke which is the focus of our study this evening.

Luke was known as “the beloved physician” and was a companion and fellow worker with Paul the Apostle. Luke was the first historian of the early church and wrote more of the New Testament than any other writer. Luke continues the narrative he begins in his gospel in the book of Acts which he also penned. Luke’s gospel is the longest of the four gospels and was written primarily for the Greeks. It is about Gods’ relationship to man and is known as the Gospel of compassion. It stresses Jesus’ sympathy for the brokenhearted, the bereaved, the sick and the mistreated. It also places a great emphasis on a worldwide scope of salvation. So let’s take a look at the Christmas Story as presented by Brother Luke.

Luke begins his gospel with an introduction of Zacharias and Elizabeth found in Luke 1:5-25. In this passage we find the story of how the birth of John the Baptist is foretold to his father Zacharias and the response by his mother Elizabeth. They both were righteous in God’s eyes and blameless in their walk with Him. They were also childless and were quite old. God sends an angel to announce to Zacharias that he would have a son but Zacharias  was afraid of the  angel when he appeared. Zacharias questioned the angel’s announcement and was then silenced because of his unbelief. Elizabeth’s response was one of joy and gratitude. We will pick up this part of the story back up later in our study.

In Luke 1:26-38 we are introduced to the virgin Mary, the mother of Jesus. This passage relates the story of the announcement of Jesus’ birth to His mother Mary and the miraculous conception that will bring this to pass. The angel Gabriel is sent by God himself to make this announcement and the event occurs in Galilee in the town of Nazareth. Luke reinforces the fact that Mary was a virgin and was engaged to be wed to Joseph. Gabriel reveals the name of the child to be born and what His purpose will be. In response to Mary’s concern of how this could be Gabriel explains that the Holy Spirit would be the power that would cause it to happen. Mary is also told of Elizabeth’s conception of a son in her old age.

As Luke’s story continues in Luke 1: 39-56 we see a very special event involving both Mary and Elizabeth. Mary went to visit Elizabeth, a relative, in the hill country of Judah, possibly to check on her since she had been informed by the angel Gabriel that Elizabeth was also pregnant. When Mary arrived and Elizabeth heard her voice the baby in her womb leaped and she was suddenly filled with the Holy Spirit. As a result of this visit we see both Elizabeth and Mary burst forth with a song of praise to God. Elizabeth’s song is found in Luke 1:42-45. Mary’s song “The Magnificat” is found in Luke 1:46-55. After these things, Mary decides to stay with Elizabeth for three months.

Luke closes the first chapter of his gospel with the birth of John and another song of praise, this time by Zacharias. Thus us all seen in Luke 1:57-80. John is born to Elizabeth and it is time for his circumcision as was the custom on the eighth day after the birth of a male child. Her relatives were prepared to name him after Zacharias his father but Elizabeth said his name was to be John. When they consulted Zacharias he wrote on a tablet that his name was John. Zacharias opened his mouth and once again began to praise God and fear came on all those around. Zacharias’s song “The Benedictus” is found in Luke 1:68-79.

Luke continues his account of the Christmas story as he opens the next chapter. He describes the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem in Luke 2:1-7 and portrays it as a lowly birth. Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem to register for the census and Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room available in the inn. Luke finishes his account of the birth of Jesus in Luke 2:8-20 by relating the story of the shepherds and the angels. The shepherds were minding their own business with no thought of being surprised by an angel. Therefore, they were also afraid when the angel appeared. But the birth of Jesus was announced to the shepherds by an angel of the Lord. That is, the Angel of the Lord was announced by an angel of the Lord. Suddenly there appeared a multitude of heavenly host with the angel and they also burst into a song of praise to God. The short song of the multitude of heavenly host of angels is found in Luke 2:14.

I know all of us realize that Luke’s account of the birth of Jesus is the one used most often in annual story readings and children’s plays and even in live nativity presentations. But as we light the Candle of Joy on this third Sunday of the Advent we should all be full of joy and gratitude that the promise that God made in Genesis continued to be fulfilled in the birth of Jesus. 

Matthew’s Christmas Story

As a way of review of last week’s post I want to remind us of what we learned the last week. Mark’s gospel has no Christmas Story narrative. He opens with John the Baptist and his message of the birth of Christ to come. John quoted both Isaiah and Malachi as saying prepare the way because the Messiah was coming. One was saying prepare yourselves to be a vessel through which God’s love could enter into human history. And the other was saying be prepared for a major event that was coming. John’s preaching of a baptism of repentance for forgiveness and that One was coming that was mightier than him carried that same meaning that the two prophets were emphasizing.

Now let’s start with our study of the Christmas Story from Matthew’s perspective. Matthew was also known as Levi and was one of the 12 Apostles as we see in Matthew 10:3. Matthew was a Jew and collected taxes from his own people for the Roman government. Although he was despised by loyal Jews his gospel was originally written for these same Jews.

Matthew presents Christ with three different title; Son of David, Son of Abraham, and Christ the King. Only in Matthew’s account does Jesus speak of “His glorious throne”. Only in the gospel of Mark is Jerusalem referred to as “the holy city”. Matthew uses the word “kingdom” more than 50 times in his gospel. The expression “kingdom of heaven” is found nowhere else in the New Testament but appears thirty or so times in Matthew’s gospel.

The Christmas Story according to Matthew is found in Matthew 1:1-2:18. It actually begins with a lengthy description of the Genealogy of Jesus found in Matthew 1:1-17. In this passage the ancestral tree is based on the number seven. Numbers were very important to the Jews of that day, especially the number seven. Whenever the number seven is used in the Bible it suggests completeness, wholeness, restoration and healing. Seven is the number of days for a complete week. The Sabbath was the seventh day of the week when there was rest, healing and restoration. Jesus used the number seven when questioned about how many times one should forgive another when he replied to Peter not seven but seventy times seven.

Matthew gives us a very detailed description of the genealogy beginning with Abraham and ending with Joseph the husband of Mary. But in verse 17 he describes three distinct sets of 14 generations to match three prominent eras of Jewish history. This is obviously equivalent to 6 sets of seven generations. However, in verse 18, he begins his story concerning the birth of Jesus which ushers in the seventh set of 7 generations. In other words, Jesus was the ultimate completion of the promise of the Messiah. He was the greatest and final work of God to bring wholeness and healing to a broken, bruised and conflicted world.

A Truth for Today: In His perfect timing God sent His Son into the world to begin the completion of his plan to redeem man and reconcile him to Himself. The plan that originated in the mind of God before the foundations of the world was now on its way to full and final completion.

As we continue in Matthews gospel we find a short story of the conception and birth of Jesus in Chapter 1, Verses 18-25. The Bible says in this passage that Mary became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. In other words, Mary conceived the baby who would be named Jesus, but Joseph was not the baby’s father.

Can anyone explain how this is possible? Keep in mind that Mary would go through the normal time span of carrying the baby and most likely encounter the same discomforts that any mother-to-be would expect. The real question is this. Why was it necessary for Jesus to be physically born of a woman? May I suggest that it was necessary in order for Jesus to be able to relate and empathize with all aspects of being human. However, we will spend more time on Mary when we consider the Christmas Story from the gospel of Luke.

Continuing is this passage we can take a look at Joseph’s faith and character. In this passage we can find out a great deal about Joseph and his character traits. We see in verse 19 that Joseph was a righteous man. Apparently Joseph had a good understanding of the need to act according to divine and moral law and so he attempted to stay free from guilt and sin. In other words, he obeyed God. Joseph was also a humble and unselfish man. His reaction to finding out Mary was pregnant was to seek a divorce privately in order to keep the shame and embarrassment to a minimum for Mary.

Can you imagine how he must felt when he heard that Mary was with child? How would you have reacted? Joseph was a man of tremendous faith and placed his trust in what God was doing in his life. He heeded the instructions of the angel. In this account of the birth of Jesus, Joseph is what I call a hero of the faith.

Now here the story changes directions as we look at the wise men’s visit and Herod’s evil plot. This part of our study is found in Matthew 2:1-12 and really bring’s out Herod’s ego and fear. So let’s take a closer look at this character.

Herod was a nominal Jew and the Tetrarch of Galilee. His grandfather had been governor of Idumea and his father had been procurator of Judea, all positions appointed by the Roman leader at the time. All of these were more loyal to the Roman government than to God or his people. Known as Herod the Great, he was responsible for the erecting of the temple at that time and built other buildings that added to the splendor of Jerusalem. All of this was to fuel his ego.

The visit by the wise men however brought out fear in the heart and mind of Herod. Herod’s concern was the idea that the Messiah had come and He was a king. Being a Jew, I’m sure he had knowledge of the expected arrival of the Messiah but certainly was not expecting Him during his reign.

The situation at hand was much like that of the Pharaoh of Egypt when the children of Israel were multiplying very rapidly while being held in bondage by the Egyptians. The Pharaoh feared that they would become so numerous that they could overwhelm and overpower Rome so therefore they were a threat. That’s when Pharaoh ordered that every new male child born to an Israelite woman was to be drowned in the Nile. So after determining from the wise men when the star first appeared Herod ordered all the male children under two years of age to be killed after he realized that the wise men had returned to their country without coming back through Jerusalem.

But God already had a plan for the protection for Jesus as we see in Matthew 2:13-15. Joseph had a dream in which God revealed to him Herod’s plot and had Joseph to take Mary and the baby into Egypt. They remained there until after the death of Herod. The angel appeared once again to Joseph and told him that they could leave Egypt and return to Israel. Joseph brought them to Nazareth where Jesus would grow up and become a man.

A Truth for Today: In His perfect plan God uses people to bring His plan to full and final completion. Satan’s attempts to interrupt God’s plan in hopes that his ultimate end can be changed has never been nor will ever be successful.

From this story I think we glean a couple of reflections and applications. We should approach the celebration of the birth of our Savior with the same faith and trust that Joseph did realizing that His birth began the completion of the fulfillment of God’s promise to redeem and reconcile us to himself. Matthew reminds us that Jesus is not just any man, He is the King of Kings. As we have lit the Candle of Faith on this second Sunday of the Advent we should exercise that faith to be what God desires us to be.

Note: Next week we will consider the Christmas story from Luke’s perspective. Our text will be Luke 1:1-2:20

Mark’s Christmas Story

This evening I am beginning a series that will last for the month of December. We will take a look at the Christmas story from the perspective of each of the four gospel writers and hopefully see some truths that we have not discovered before. We will follow along a path that aligns itself with the tradition of Advent and will attempt to keep on the same track of the theme for each Sunday of the Advent season. I will also be presenting this same information in our Sunday School time at church for the month and I certainly would appreciate your prayers that God will get all of the honor and glory for anything that is accomplished.

This post will be the first in the series and we are going to start in the gospel of Mark. But before we begin I would like to share something from my pastor Mark Mayfield’s message last Sunday morning which he entitled “Christmas Hidden In A Curse”. He used Genesis 3:15 as his text to point out that Christmas really began in eternity passed. Even before God spoke this world into existence, before He created Adam, and before Adam sinned in the Garden of Eden the plan for man’s reconciliation was in the mind of God. In other words, the seed of Mary which was spoken of in Genesis and who we know is Jesus Himself, would come as God Incarnate to seek and save that which was/is lost. God made a promise and He always keeps His promise.

So, with all of that said let’s take a look at Mark’s gospel and specifically at chapter 1, verses 1-8. What is really interesting about the Gospel of Mark is that it does not include a narrative about the birth of Jesus. However, the story of preparing for the event is  there. Mark begins his gospel writing at full throttle. He immediately reflects on the writings of the prophets Isaiah and Malachi declaring that there would be a messenger or forerunner of the Messiah proclaiming that Jesus was on His way. While quoting these two prophets he uses two different words for prepare which have somewhat different meanings. The first word for prepare Mark uses has a basic meaning of making oneself ready to be a vessel through which God’s love can enter into human history. The second word for prepare means get ready for a big event that is about to occur. John the Baptist was preaching those very same preparations.

By preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins he was saying prepare yourselves to be usable vessels. As he was preaching that One was coming that was mightier than him, he was saying that they are to get ready for that event. 

There is no better way to begin the Christmas season than being reminded that God keeps His promises. Is it any wonder that on the first Sunday of Advent the purple Prophecy Candle is lit and it is considered the Candle of Hope? It represents the prophets and the hope they foretold about. And His name is Jesus.

We tend to begin the season with way too much on our minds and our to-do list.Mark reminds us that we need to stop in the midst of our busy lives and prepare ourselves to be the instruments God wants to use to share the good news of the gospel. God’s plan for the reconciliation of man to Himself has always been in the mind of God and there is nothing that can prevent it from being completed.

Maybe we should eliminate some of the unnecessary activities during this time and focus on what is really important to our spiritual growth and relationship with Him. Maybe we should try new ways to be a more useful servant for His glory. Maybe we should put our total trust in His Word because we understand that He never fails to do what He said He would do.

Next week we will consider the Christmas story from Matthew’s perspective. Our text will be Matthew 1:1-2:18.