“Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?” (Isaiah 53:1 MSG)
Isaiah then proceeds to describe “this”: a man who was common in appearance, easy to overlook and look down upon. And as the bearer of God’s wrath he would be, in his disfigurement, difficult even to look upon. Isaiah asks rightly, “Who will believe that God’s saving power would come like this?”
Our wonder must expand mightily as we discover that we ourselves are the cause of this circumstance. Our heart disfigurement is the origin of Jesus’ travail. We are all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost. We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way. We are not just physically lost, we are lost-of-heart, alienated-by-nature to God. Our lost-hearts did not comprehend Jesus. We did not grasp that it was the disfigurement of sin within us that brought about Jesus’ suffering. In this respect we have all done our own thing, gone our own way.
He was beaten, he was tortured, but he didn’t say a word. Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered and like a sheep being sheared, he took it all in silence. Justice miscarried, and he was led off—and did anyone really know what was happening? He died without a thought for his own welfare, beaten bloody for our sins. They buried him with the wicked, threw him in a grave with a rich man, Even though he’d never hurt a soul or said one word that wasn’t true. Still, it’s what God had in mind all along, to crush him with pain. The plan was that he give himself as an offering for sin… piling all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong, on him, on him! (from Isaiah 53:8-10)
Why? So that he would ultimately see life come from it—life, life, and more life. However, to secure life, he had to face off with death. Because he will not flinch, God’s plan will deeply prosper through him. Out of his terrible travail of soul, he will see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it. Through what he experienced, God’s righteous servant will make many righteous. By carrying the burden of their sins, his saving power will come to bear in the new hearts of the lowly. He will have a family alike in heart and alike in nature. Mystery upon mystery! Stunningly, we who were the cause of “this” circumstance are ourselves God’s reward. How scandalous that we, the cause of his nightmare, have always been the object of his dreams!
Truly, “Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?”
Father, Thank you. Thank you that you have born our sin and shame and that we do not have to grovel as the cause of your suffering. Thank you. Thank you for the new life that you have established in our hearts and are manifesting through our lives. May our hearts live in awe and wonder at the glory of this mystery and the majesty of your name. Amen.
Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25
For most of us who think of ourselves as Christians, this passage evokes seasonal feelings. Colors and scents fill our imaginations as we hear an echo of What Child Is This.
What child is this, who, laid to rest, / On Mary’s lap is sleeping? / Whom angels greet with anthems sweet, / While shepherds watch are keeping? / This, this is Christ the King, / Whom shepherds guard and angels sing: / Haste, haste to bring Him laud, / The babe, the son of Mary.
While our passage might awaken the default vision of that mean estate where ox and donkey are feeding, its affect on me is not pastoral, it’s militant. When I read this passage I saw the Allied Army’s staging Operation Overlord off the southern coast of Great Britain. Overlord’s ultimate objective was to land 160,000 men on the coast of France who would wage a war to the death with Adolph Hitler, the godless tyrant of the Third Reich. Everything rested upon the success of this invasion. The liberation of millions was dependent on the Allied Forces gaining this strategic foothold in Europe.
Good Christians, fear, for sinners here / The silent Word is pleading. / Nails, spears shall pierce him through, / the cross he bore for me, for you. / Hail, hail the Word made flesh, / the Babe, the Son of Mary.
Satan no doubt expected that God would attempt to reclaim that which was His through some type of invasion – likely with legions of angels. Instead, right under his nose God successfully landed The Word made flesh. He was the true Lord and He would overthrow Satan, liberating millions of captives. What an odd assignment we have for this invasion.
So bring him incense, gold, and myrrh, / Come, peasant, king, to own him. / The King of kings / salvation brings, / Let loving hearts enthrone him. / Raise, raise a song on high, / The virgin / sings her lullaby / Joy, joy for Christ is born, / The babe, the Son of Mary.
This, this is Christ the King, / Whom shepherds guard and angels sing: / Haste, haste to bring Him laud, / The babe, the son of Mary.
Life, for most of us, does not resemble a fight to the death with a cruel enemy. We loose sight so easily of the captives who have not yet been liberated, or as some doctrines imply, were just created as the sovereign fodder in the story of our salvation. (sarcasm intended) I believe William Booth was on to something when he established The Salvation Army.
The Christian’s contribution to this battle and the secret of an abundant life is simply abiding in Christ. It really is that simple. Abiding is a realization of what is true. It is an adjustment of the heart to the reality of Christ in us and us in Christ. The learning process of abiding is what the tenants of spiritual formation are getting at. They aspire to equip men to embrace the mysteries of this reality.
One of my favorite equippers, Thomas Ashbrook, author of “Mansions of The Heart” and “Presence” will be in Tulsa May 2, 3 and 4 fulfilling his mission. I will be attending. I would love to have some company. Tom is a true elder in Christ’s Body. I resonate with his voice. You can learn more about this event directly through me or by going to his Imago Christi website.
Father, succeed in converting us attenders and bystanders into abiders. Teach our hearts to haste in bringing You laud – the Word of God made flesh. Amen.
Going through a long line of prophets, God has been addressing our ancestors in different ways for centuries. Recently he spoke to us directly through his Son. By his Son, God created the world in the beginning, and it will all belong to the Son at the end. This Son perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. He holds everything together by what he says—powerful words! (Hebrews 1:1-3 MSG)
When the average Christian is asked about the Word of God, what comes to mind? Most of us would likely think of our Bibles, those books from which passages are read on Sunday morning, which upon conclusion, the pastor adds the exclamation point, “And this is the word of God. Amen.” However, the Bible itself testifies that the Word of God is infinitely more than the Book. The Word has never been confined by cowhide or ink or language or principles.
The Word was at the beginning and Jesus was that Word. The cosmos (not just the speck that is earth) was created by Him and for Him. From outside of time and space, He created them and then chose to enter into it. It was as if He created the stage and then stepped onto it, saying, in perfect humility, “I am the origin and the glue that holds your reality together; I am the ointment that heals this sin-scarred planet; believe in me and become co-heir of all that is mine.”
Let’s shift for a moment though from the Word to “words” in general and their value to our worship. In The Divine Conspiracy: Discovering Our Hidden Life In God, Dallas Willard talks about the perpetual “dumbing down” our image of God has experienced over time due to language. He asks us to compare our contemporary description of God to one offered one hundred years ago by Adam Clarke:
God is…the eternal, independent, and self existent Being; the Being whose purposes and actions spring from himself, without foreign motive or influence; he who is absolute in dominion; the most pure, the most simple, the most spiritual of all essences; infinitely perfect; and eternally self-sufficient, needing nothing that he has made; illimitable in his immensity, inconceivable in his mode of existence, and indescribable in his essence; known fully only by himself, because an infinite mind can only be fully comprehended by itself. In a word, a Being who, from his infinite wisdom, cannot err or be deceived, and from his infinite goodness, can do nothing but what is eternally just, and rich and kind.
Willard acknowledges that those words are pretty hard slogging for a modern reader, but adds, “we can all appreciate what a vast difference it would make in anyone’s life to actually believe in such a God as these words portray.” To emphasize his point he says that we might describe God as love, “but this proves to be very different from forcing a bedraggled (dumbed-down) human version of “love” into a mental blank where God is supposed to be, and then identifying God as that.” When we drag God into that blank and then try to worship Him, it shouldn’t be surprising if the results are lukewarm.
But even Adam Clarke’s words, eloquent and accurate as they may be, don’t even get us close to fully describing the Word of God. Furthermore, they are not our words. We must develop and express our own language with God. Hopefully, it will be with us as it was with the psalmists, who found their own songs, animating their worship to God.
We are the most fortunate of people since God has revealed Himself in His Son to us, this Son who perfectly mirrors God, and is stamped with God’s nature. I have a fair inventory of words that I can draw from to envision God. I believe it is a tremendous aid in my worship of Him, but more important to me is that God is my Father, now on earth as He will be in heaven. When my mind is confronted with the myriad doctrinal conundrums out there, I pass it through my father-filter and see what comes out. My point is that while vocabulary is wonderful, we need to stay focused on Jesus, the eternal Word of God, who is an exact representation of the Father. He who has seen the Son has seen the Father. Father is the most powerful Word in my vocabulary.
Father, restore an image of Your transcendent glory to our hearts that delivers us from every debased notion lodged in our brains. May we bow to the mystery and the majesty of the Word of God, acknowledging His central place in all that was and is and is to come. Amen.
When Phoebe, from the sitcom Friends, was asked if she would like to help on a small community project, she said something quite profound: “I wish I could but I don’t want to.” So simple, so honest, so sadly wrong. Phoebe is perfectly content with her deadened conscience, innocently untroubled by the needs of those around her. If the Spirit does not ultimately prevail over the world, the flesh, and the devil, Phoebe’s words may be mankind’s dying words: “I wish I could have honored God’s Christ, but I didn’t want to.”
There has never been a revolutionary in the league of Jesus of Nazareth. To Phoebe and all mankind Jesus says, “Take up your cross and follow me. There is no other way.” Jesus doesn’t say this to rob us of happiness: he came to give us fullness of joy, something that will outlive this world. He came announcing the Kingdom of God and to facilitate its expansion through our abdication. Jesus is saying, “I have come to give you life and that abundantly; to receive it, you must willingly die to your rights to your life.”
While mankind is fully committed to looking out for itself, Jesus is fully committed to saving us from the folly of the enterprise. He knows where it leads. Individuals and nations together are at war with one another securing what they think is required to make life work out the way they want it to. Is this how the story of humanity will end? Those brave enough to look at the trends admit this is more than plausible. It’s not “if“, it’s “when.” Yet Resurrection Life Himself continues to call from our crossroads, “I am the Way, the Truth and the Life. All those who will come to me I will give eternal life.”
Paul is the ultimate kingdom emissary. He understands what Jesus said. His life and teaching demonstrate the gospel of the kingdom. To the Phoebe within every man Paul says:
Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus
I have come to the present idea that the Christians we read about in the New Testament said “Yes” to a different gospel than the one that has been presented to most of us in contemporary western culture. The gospel we’ve heard seems to allow for us to invite Jesus into our hearts so that we can avoid hell and gain heaven. However, when it comes to actually following Jesus, our collective and well-documented response is: “I wish I could but I don’t want to.”
I doubt that the idea of abdicating your personal throne was strange to early Christians. It was an assumption embedded in the kingdom–gospel they responded to. Believers came into the kingdom with the fundamental idea that their lives were no longer their own. They, and every disciple of Jesus since, have lived with this fundamental premise that they were bought with a price and that their lives were no longer their own. That we too might have fullness of joy and that the kingdom would grow, Jesus, the ultimate revolutionary, continues to make claims upon our personal kingdom agendas. This exchange, His Life for our own, is the ebb and flow of life in Christ.
Every disciple is brought to this place of surrender and abandonment. Initially, and throughout the disciple’s life, he is intentionally brought to this crossroads where his Lord shows him where he is clinging to or is entangled with this world. He then poses to him the ongoing and humanly impossible pathway. Paul said it like this:
Do all things without grumbling or disputing; so that you will prove yourselves to be blameless and innocent, children of God above reproach in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you appear as lights in the world, holding fast the word of life, so that in the day of Christ I will have reason to glory because I did not run in vain nor toil in vain. But even if I am being poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrifice and service of your faith, I rejoice and share my joy with you all. You too, I urge you, rejoice in the same way and share your joy with me.
Through Jesus’ disciples, the Word is progressively en-fleshed. I believe this harrowing process of dying to ourselves and finding Christ expressing himself through us is what prompts Paul to say:
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
I believe it was Paul’s expectation that Jesus’ resurrection life would be progressively expressed among saints so that, ultimately, every tongue would confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Father, as you intended and as Paul taught, may we progressively lose the battles we fight to sustain our own kingdoms. All for your glory forever and ever. Amen.
To people like himself who joyfully concur with the law of God in the inner man yet find a different law in the members of their bodies, waging war against the law of their minds and making them prisoners of the law of sin which is in their members (from Romans 7), Paul says:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves…
To people like himself who have the principle of evil present in them, wretched men that they are (from Romans 7), he says:
Do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant….
It’s no wonder then, to a people who on the one hand, are serving the law of God with their with minds, but on the other, with their flesh the law of sin, he would need to say:
Work out (cultivate, carry out to the goal, and fully complete) your own salvation with reverence and awe and trembling (self-distrust, with serious caution, tenderness of conscience, watchfulness against temptation, timidly shrinking from whatever might offend God and discredit the name of Christ). (Amplified)
I have not studied the Greek, but it seems the Amplified translation certainly amped up verse 12 from the New American Standard translation which simply says:
Work out your salvation with fear and trembling; for it is God who is at work in you, both to will and to work for His good pleasure.
By setting Romans 7 along side Philippians 2, it would seem that Paul is a deeply conflicted man who has constructed a spiritual tight wire that we are to cautiously navigate with temerity and self-doubt. I get push back from some on this, but I don’t believe Paul spent his life on a wire of introspective worry, fretting that he may fail and offend God. My reading of the New Testament does not leave me with an impression of Paul as a shy or hesitant person. I don’t believe the full story of his life portrays God as one that Paul or anyone else could easily offend. Listen:
I also do my best to maintain always a blameless conscience both before God and before men. Acts 24:16 NAS
But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. 1 Corinthians 4:4 NAS
No, I believe the broad sweep of Paul’s life conveys something entirely different about God. At the end of Romans 7, Paul asks and settles this question for himself:
Who will set me free from the body of this death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!
I believe Paul and all who come to know the Father receive a revelation of his heart. They all learn that Father’s love is not easily offended; it’s patient. It’s not harsh; it’s kind. It’s not touchy; it bears all things, endures all things. It does not take into account wrongs suffered. This enduring love equips saints to say with Paul:
Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace. (Hebrews 4:16 NAS)
And with Jude:
Now to Him who is able to keep you from stumbling, and to make you stand in the presence of His glory blameless with great joy… (from Jude 24)
At some point in our lives as saints, we hopefully reach a crisis where we throw up our hands and say with Paul, “The Christian life is impossible!” Ironically, when we do reach this place, we may think we are washed up when in fact the opposite is true: we have actually been positioned to begin living out of His life instead of our own.
For us to have this Philippians 2, servant attitude that was in Christ, we must discover that we are in fact in Christ. This discovery usually requires some humbling and some emptying out of our selves. Until this happens we typically remain deluded regarding our natural human strength and its contribution to life in Christ. Only Jesus can pull this off. I have come to believe this is precisely what He is endeavoring to do. He aspires that His Word be made flesh through us for the joy of our own hearts and the furtherance of His kingdom:
So that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Father, help us to see in Christ the basis for our confident declarations of ourselves as new creations and temples of your Holy Spirit. Remind us that greater is He who is in us than our opposition who is in the world. Lead us in triumph for Your name’s sake. Thank You that as we work out our salvation with awe and wonder we discover that it is Your good pleasure that we find pleasure in You. Oh Lord, help us to believe the truth about ourselves no matter how wonderful it is. Amen.
I love to tell the story of unseen things above
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
I love to tell the story because I know ’tis true
It satisfies my longing as nothing else can do.
I promise we will get to our topic “The Word Made Flesh” if you will bear with me for a few paragraphs.
You know there are a lot of gospels preached around the world. There always have been. The bulk of the New Testament letters were written to defend the true gospel from the false ones of that age. This caused me to ask, “Which gospel story was Katherine Hankey referring to her in her song?” I did some research. Most of what we can glean about her is through the community to which she belonged: the Clapham Sect.
This was a group of like-minded influential Christians living near Clapham Common in London at the beginning of the 19th century. They were a group of friends and families with William Wilberforce as their center of gravity. They were powerfully bound together by their love for each other and by their spiritual values, which overflowed into their vision of social activism. (Among many other things, they are credited as the primary force that overthrew slavery in England.) Many of their meetings were held in their houses. In their own day, the group used no particular name, but they were lampooned by outsiders as “the saints.” In modern parlance they were a missional community.
So, I concluded that the gospel story Mrs. Hankey loved to tell was the Gospel of the Kingdom of God. As you can derive from their fruits, her’s was more than the accept-Jesus-and-avoid-hell gospel (which predominates in the western Christian demographic). Her gospel, the gospel of the kingdom, is the story rooted in our passage today that transforms hearts, communities and cultures (in that order, I believe).
For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form, and in Him you have been made complete, and He is the head over all rule and authority…having been buried with Him in baptism, in which you were also raised up with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead. When you were dead in your transgressions… He made you alive together with Him. (from Colossians 2:10-13 NAS)
The true gospel, the gospel of the kingdom, always yields transformational fruit; it always begins as revelation in the heart of man, the temple of God on earth. Where no transformation has taken place, it is necessary to ask which gospel was embraced. Here is my point: where the kingdom gospel story takes root, the Word continues to become flesh; an ongoing story is told and the life of Christ is manifested in communities.
To find that place of intimacy and transformation, so many of us professing believers in the west are going to conferences, praying like mad, reading books, studying the scriptures more intently, trying to gain that next essential piece of truth, find the experience that will put us over the top: we’re trying to spiritually arrive. Others of us are laboring in the fields of performance Christianity where our activity and service rarely produce a sprig of new life, but our works are salve to our uneasy consciences and a sacrifice that (we quietly calculate) must surely be pleasing to God. Sadly, many of us have also just given up, having exhausted ourselves on these religious hamster wheels. Listen to one sentence from the Message’s version of our passage:
Entering into this fullness is not something you figure out or achieve…you’re already in—insiders…. (from Colossians 2:11 MSG)
Until our hearts are firmly rooted in the reality that, as those born of the Spirit, we are already insiders, we will be working and our working, whether it is expressed in reading, fasting, praying, serving, or attending, will undermine, rather than facilitate, the intimacy our hearts were created to know in Christ. Much of this Middle with Mystery blog is my story as one who was delivered from a spirit of fretful-seeking. It’s passion and sobriety looked great in religious circles but it was not transformational. It was mostly just insecure religious flesh. I believe it reflected poorly on my Father in heaven.
Katherine Hanky is now in the great cloud of witnesses that is cheering us on. Looking back on her story, I think she could have as easily penned these words:
In Christ I am the story of the mysterious kingdom of God
Of Jesus and his glory, of Jesus and his love.
In Christ, I am the story because I know ’tis true,
Christ has satisfied my longing as no one else can do.
My prayer is that the earth will once again see the birth of communities of friends and families with their own transformational DNA that equips them to infect their networks with the kingdom of God—the original gospel lived out by Jesus and His disciples. I pray that we believers may somehow find the kindred spirits we were called to live among. I pray that spiritual fathers will arise and become the centers of gravity for these communities; that their homes would become safe houses and magnets for those the Father is drawing to Himself. Even if they do not have a corporate label, even if they are mocked as “saints,” I pray that these cells would multiply, connect and become known for their powerful bonds of love for each other. So be it.
Father, breathe on the cellular structure of Your church, transforming her chaos and clay into the resplendent Body You have envisioned and destined to one day take dominion over this planet. May the dreams of old men merge with the visions of the young to inspire redemptive activity in our hearts, in our communities, and in our culture. May Your Word continue to be made flesh. Tell your story through us. Amen.