December 22, 2010

Amazed at Bethlehem

 Have the words of a song ever lifted your heart and encouraged you to face your day with new courage? There are times God brings a song to my mind and I repeat a phrase over and over. The thoughts expressed in the music may lead me down undiscovered pathways of divine truth.
Recently Shawn Craig’s song “Your Grace Still Amazes Me” sent me on a journey of discovery into the wonder of God’s grace and the majesty of His love. The line in the song that so vividly impressed me is “Each time I come into Your presence, I stand in wonder once again. Your grace still amazes me.”1
I have preached messages on the wonder of Jesus’ love for more than 40 years to hundreds of thousands of people internationally, yet I’m still amazed at His grace. The teachings of Jesus are amazing. His parables are amazing. His miracles are amazing.
When Mary and Joseph found Jesus teaching about the wonders of grace in the Temple at only the age of 12, Luke’s Gospel records: “Everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:47). As the disciples traveled with their Master down the dusty roads of Galilee and the cobblestoned streets of Jerusalem, they continually discovered something new and wonderful about His grace. They were amazed when Jesus delivered the demon-possessed, blind, mute beggar. Scripture records: “All the people were amazed” (Matt. 12:23, KJV). When Jesus came from the presence of God on the Mount of Transfiguration radiantly reflecting His Father’s glory, “the people, when they beheld him, were greatly amazed” (Mark 9:15, KJV). When Jesus healed the paralytic in Capernaum, the record states: “This amazed everyone and they praised God, saying, ‘We have never seen anything like this!’” (Mark 2:12).
2010 1541 page18Some of the most incredible events in Jesus’ life surrounded His birth. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, Joseph’s faith, Mary’s submission, and Christ’s incarnation are simply amazing. Bethlehem reveals significant spiritual insights; depths of truth to mine; practical lessons of faith to learn.
Amazed at Jesus’Genealogy
Genealogies aren’t usually the most interesting part of the Bible. We tend to skip over them quickly. The long lists of names about “who begat whom” can seem either daunting or downright boring. But before we pass over Jesus’ genealogy too quickly, here are a few thoughts to keep in mind:
Matthew’s Gospel was written to a Jewish audience to present indisputable evidence that Jesus was the Messiah. Every Jew was interested in his or her pedigree. A person’s genealogy was an essential part of his or her life. The Jews placed extreme importance on the purity of one’s lineage. The Sanhedrin kept impeccably accurate records of each Jewish leader’s genealogy.
Jesus’ genealogy ends with these significant words: “Thus there were fourteen generations in all from Abraham to David, fourteen from David to the exile in Babylon, and fourteen from the exile to the Christ” (Matt. 1:17). Christ’s genealogy summarizes three great stages of Jewish history.
The first 14 generations lead us from Abraham through the rise of Israel to the nation’s greatest king, David. These are Israel’s glory days. The pinnacle of Israel’s history was David’s reign. The next 14 generations take us from David through Israel’s shame and defeat to the Babylonian Captivity. This is the period of bondage. The last 14 generations guide us to Israel’s Messiah or Deliverer, Jesus Christ. This is the time of liberation.
Matthew’s genealogy is really the story of the plan of salvation in three stages. The human race was created in the “image of God,” destined for greatness. We are not now what we were created to be. Through our own free choice we have rebelled against our Maker. The Fall brought guilt, shame, and condemnation. It resulted in disease, disaster, and death.
Even then God didn’t abandon us. He didn’t leave us to our own folly; He provided a way of escape. Jesus Christ, the divine Son of God, was born as a babe in Bethlehem’s manger; He entered this pit of a world filled with selfishness and greed and revealed the Father’s heart. He is our liberator. He sets the captives free. Commentator William Barclay explains the genealogy of Jesus in these words: “In his genealogy Matthew shows us the royalty of kingship gained; the tragedy of freedom lost; the glory of liberty restored. And that, in the mercy of God, is the story of [humankind], and of each individual [man and woman].”2
Matthew then did the unthinkable in Jesus’ amazing genealogy: He included four women. It’s unusual to find women’s names recorded in Jewish lines of lineage. And look at the women Matthew included:
There’s Tamar, Judah’s daughter-in-law, the widow who pretended to be a harlot, seduced Judah, and bore twins by him.
There’s Rahab, the harlot of Jericho, who delivered the spies in the days of Joshua.
Add to this Ruth, the Moabite. She wasn’t even a Jew. She belonged to a foreign and hated people. How could she possibly be included in the genealogy of Jesus?
Last, there’s Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, the object of David’s adultery. Together David and Bathsheba bore Solomon.
This is no list of respected women from well-known Jewish families who were paragons of virtue. What is Matthew’s intention? The Gospel writer is speaking of the wonder of grace. God’s love revealed in Bethlehem’s manger includes us all—male and female, Jew and Gentile, rich and poor, educated and uneducated, well known and unknown. Here gathered around the cradle of the Messiah at the birth of Christ we find enough grace for us all.
That’s pretty amazing; but it’s just the beginning of the story. We must further consider the three central figures in the story: Joseph, Mary, and the Christ child.
Amazed at Joseph’s Faith
Think of the thoughts that must have raced through Joseph’s mind when he discovered that Mary was pregnant. He must have been astonished, confused, and bewildered. The Scripture declares that “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph” (Matt. 1:18).
What exactly does this mean? In those days in Jewish society there were actually three steps to consummate a marriage. First, there was engagement. Typically parents chose the marriage partner for their son or daughter. Parental parties would agree that their children would one day marry. This contract between the two families when the boy and girl were young was termed engagement. The engagement could be broken if the girl eventually refused to marry.
2010 1541 page18The engagement was followed by a betrothal. The couple now formally accepted the engagement and entered into one year of betrothal. During this year the couple was committed to marriage. In a sense they functioned as husband and wife, although they did not yet enter into the privileges of a married couple. If the betrothal bond was broken, the couple had to file for a legal divorce.
After the one-year betrothal the man and woman sealed their love and commitment in the wedding ceremony. Now they were free to enter into the privileges of marriage as they consummated their relationship on their wedding night. It was a great embarrassment for the family if a woman became pregnant during the betrothal period. It was a shame both for the family and for the couple.
That’s precisely why Joseph was quietly seeking the necessary legal divorce, or way out of the marriage contract, when the angel appeared and explained, “Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (verses 20, 21).
Joseph’s response is amazing. “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife” (verse 24). Joseph trusted God and did exactly what God asked him to do.
That’s precisely what faith is all about. Faith is trusting God and doing what He says. It’s not based on some sentimental, emotional feeling; it’s grounded in His Word. Faith is based on evidence, but that evidence always leaves room for doubt. If there was no room for doubt, there would be no need for faith. C. S. Lewis put it this way: “The grounds for belief and disbelief are the same today as they were two thousand . . . years ago. If . . . Joseph had lacked faith to trust God or humility to perceive the holiness of his spouse, he could have disbelieved in the miraculous origin of her Son as easily as any modern man; and any modern man who believes in God can accept the miracle as easily as Joseph did.”3
As in our minds we come to Bethlehem to view the Christ child the words of the angel to Joseph speak to our hearts: “You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” By faith we grasp the reality of Christ’s grace. By faith we understand the majesty of His love. By faith we accept the purpose of His mission. By faith, in His presence, we realize that our hopes and dreams are fulfilled in Him and we stand amazed.
Amazed at Mary’s Submission
If Joseph was perplexed at the angel’s announcement, Mary must have been absolutely astonished when the angel appeared to her and declared, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you” (Luke 1:28). The record affirms that she was “greatly troubled,” (verse 29).
The angel continued, “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end” (verses 31-33).
Imagine Mary’s thoughts. Could this really be happening? How could I become pregnant with the Messiah? I’ve never known a man. How will I explain this to my parents? I’ll be a laughingstock in Nazareth.
The angel continued: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God” (verse 35).
Mary’s response is classic. It echoes through the centuries and speaks to us today. “ ‘I am the Lord’s servant,’ Mary answered. ‘May it be to me as you have said’” (verse 38).
Essentially Mary responded, Lord, I don’t understand all of this. I am confused. I don’t have all the answers. I don’t even understand what questions to ask. But if this is Your will, I accept it.
Mary’s submission is an amazing thing. She said, “Whatever God says, I will do.” As William Barclay described it, “Mary had learned to forget the world’s commonest prayer—‘Thy will be changed’—and to pray the world’s greatest prayer—‘Thy will be done.’”4
At Bethlehem’s manger we stand amazed at a teenage girl, Mary, totally committed to doing God’s will, whatever it took. Our faith is increased, and in our imagination we have to kneel on the straw in submission.
Amazed at Jesus’ Incarnation
The most amazing fact about Bethlehem is the Baby in the manger. God chose to reveal Himself among the animals in a stable. God chose to speak to the human race in the innocence, gentleness, and helplessness of a baby. The Creator of the universe identifies with His creation. The King of kings dwells in human flesh and is born in a stinky, smelly stable. He comes to reveal the Father’s love. He comes to face the temptations of Satan head-on. He comes to live and die for us. He comes to bear the condemnation and guilt of our sins. He comes to die the death that is ours so that we can live the life that is His. He comes to hang on the cross in shame so that we can sit with Him upon His throne in glory. Love knows no other way.
Ellen White wrote: “The King of glory stooped low to take humanity. Rude and forbidding were His earthly surroundings. His glory was veiled, that the majesty of His outward form might not become an object of attraction. He shunned all outward display. Riches, worldly honor, and human greatness can never save a soul from death; Jesus purposed that no attraction of an earthly nature should call men to His side. Only the beauty of heavenly truth must draw those who would follow Him.”5
There in Bethlehem, in that baby lying in the straw, we too discover that the essence of life is giving, not getting. Life takes on new meaning as our hands are unselfishly open to give, not selfishly reaching out to grasp for more.
“The story of Bethlehem is an exhaustless theme,” wrote Ellen White. “In it is hidden ‘the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God,’ Rom. 11:33. We marvel at the Savior’s sacrifice in exchanging the throne of heaven for the manger, and the companionship of adoring angels for the beasts of the stall. Human pride and self-sufficiency stand rebuked in His presence.”6
At Bethlehem we fall on our knees to worship our Savior once again. Like Joseph we kneel in faith, believing. Like Mary we kneel in submission, surrendering. With millions from every nation, kindred, tongue, and people we kneel in adoration, amazed.
1By Connie Harrington and Shawn Craig © 2001, Ariose Music/PraiseSong Press/BMG Songs.
2William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Matthew, (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), vol. 1, p. 14.
3C. S. Lewis, Miracles (London & Glasgow: Collins/Fontana, 1947, revised 1960), pp. 76, 77.
4William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: The Gospel of Luke (Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 1993), vol. 1, p. 7.
5Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif., Pacific Press, 1898), p. 43.
6Ibid., pp. 48, 49.
Mark A. Finley is an assistant to the General Conference president and editor-at-large for Adventist Review. This article was published December 23, 2010.