True Sacrifice: Planting Churches Among the Poor and Undesired

Globally there is not a organized vision to plant churches among the very poor, but there should be.  I addressed this issue in an article I wrote for Church Planter Magazine.  You can find True Sacrifice: Planting Churches Among the Poor and Undesired on page 26 of the premiere issue of the magazine.  If you would like a subscription visit their page in the App Store.

I would love to hear your feedback on the article.

Serving God: Bringing Hope to the Lost

The gospel is indeed a message of hope for the lost.  The message that a sinner like me not only can be cleansed of unrighteousness, but declared righteous by God is almost unbelievable.  Even more so when we realize that this is possible only by grace through faith as I place my trust in the work of Christ on the cross.  The reality that I will spend eternity with God is truly a glorious truth.  However, the gospel has far greater implications beyond my future in heaven.  There are cosmic implications of the atonement of Christ that bring hope for today to all who believe.

In light of this I would like to take a brief but comprehensive look at the cosmic implications of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  I believe that by understanding the full scope of the gospel we can bring hope to anyone regardless of their current circumstances.  We can bring real hope of transformation today and for eternity.

Before we can fully grasp the scope of the fall of man into sin we must understand God’s original intent for mankind.  This is seen in the creation account of Genesis 1.

26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

In the commission of Genesis 1:26-28 God reveals his purpose for creating mankind.  Certainly, we should understand the image of God to refer to mankind’s relational attributes, our creative and volitional abilities, and as the root of every human being’s dignity.   These are all true, but there is much more significance to this passage.

The idea of image bearer is very significant.  In the culture of the ancient near east, kings would erect statues bearing their image throughout their kingdoms.  These statues would demonstrate to the people that the king’s reign extended to that region.  The image of the king reminded the people of whose authority they were under.  As the kingdom expanded, more images would be erected.

By creating man in his image, God was commissioning them to mediate his reign on earth.  This is understood in light of God giving Adam and Eve dominion over the earth and everything on it.  God was the creator and sovereign King, but mankind was to be his vice-regents ruling on his behalf.  In this sense, Adam and Eve were kings.  As they obeyed the commission to “multiply and fill the earth” they would carry God’s image and thus establish his reign over the earth.

God placed Adam initially in the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:8) which he had planted.  He commanded Adam to cultivate the garden (Gen 2:15) and he gave him Eve to assist him.  Their role in the garden is also extremely important to understand.  The garden was the place where God’s presence dwelt on earth.

Before the fall, mankind dwelt in the presence of God in the garden.  The command to cultivate the garden carries with it the understanding that Adam and Eve would expand the borders of the garden until it covered the entire earth.  The result being that the presence of God would extend over the earth.  In this sense, they were also priests.

In light of this we can better understand God’s original intention for humanity.  Adam and Eve were priest kings.  Their role was to mediate God’s sovereign rule over his creation and to expand his presence over all the earth.  God did not need them to do this, but rather entrusted them with the glorious privilege of participating with him in the created order.  This was the purpose of mankind.

Sadly, Adam and Eve did not exercise dominion for very long.  Adam demonstrated his mediation of God’s reign in that God allowed him to name all of the animals (Gen 2:19-20).  However, we see that Adam and Eve fail to fulfill their mandate.  Rather than mediating the rule of God over creation, they commit an act of treason and betray God.

They allow God’s enemy to enter the garden that they were commissioned to protect.  The serpent, Satan, begins to plant doubt in the mind of Eve and pander to her love of self.  He twists God’s words in an attempt to deceive her (Gen 3:1).  When Eve corrects him and states God’s actual command, the serpent calls God a liar (Gen 3:2-4).

The serpent says that if they eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil they will not die, but that they will become like God “knowing good and evil” (Gen 3:5).  Immediately Eve was enticed in her flesh to eat the fruit.  It’s clear that it was her love of self that led to her sin.  She saw that the tree was “good for food” and would satisfy her hunger.  It was a “delight to look at” which increased her desire of it.  Ultimately, she desired to be wise like God and believed the fruit would exalt her (Gen 3:6).

Eve, just like each of us, succumbed to the tyranny of self-love and self-gratification.  Adam likewise desired the fruit and freely ate of it when Eve offered it (Gen 3:6).  The couple that God entrusted to rule the earth on his behalf betrayed him and as a result surrendered their dominion to God’s enemy.  Through deception and mankind’s love of self, Satan was able to gain a stronghold on creation.

There were several significant results of mankind’s betrayal of God and alignment with his enemy.  First, their eyes were opened and they realized they were naked and became ashamed (Gen 3:7).  They attempted to cover their shame by sewing leaves together for clothing, however this was useless.  When God came walking in the garden they hid from him, because of their shame.  The couple that God had created to fulfill the role of priest by extending his presence throughout the earth was hiding from the very presence of God (Gen 3:8-10).

Next, we see several curses are placed by God on his creation as a result of mankind’s sin.  The serpent is cursed and enmity is placed between Satan and humanity (Gen 3:14-15).  Thus, as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience mankind is now caught in the middle of a cosmic battle between God and Satan.  While this battle is cosmic it is worked out in the lives of mankind.  Thus, those who were intended to rule now find themselves under constant assault by Satan and his cohorts.  Satan desires to destroy them and wipeout the remnant of God’s image in creation.

In the midst of this curse however, there is hope.  God tells Eve that her offspring will ultimately crush the head of the serpent.  The understanding here is that God will raise up a man who will destroy Satan and return mankind to his rightful position as priest king mediating God’s reign over the earth.  This word of hope is the first prophecy of Jesus Christ.

The next curse is placed upon the woman.  God increases her pain in child birth and brings enmity into her relationship with her husband (Gen 3:16).  The woman who before, had the privilege of filling the earth with God’s image bearers, now will endure much pain in the process.  Though she was created to rule alongside her husband now he will rule over her.

In this curse we see the root of so many problems in the world.  Problems in the home between husbands and wives stem from this curse.  The oppression and abuse of women is a result of this curse.  Indeed, this passage can be seen as affecting all human relationships and thus is the beginning of strife between man and his neighbor.  This plays out very quickly in the life of Cain and Abel (Gen 4:1-8).

As a result of Adam’s sin all of creation is cursed (Gen 3:17-19).  Adam was created to be a blessing to the creation to cultivate it and to benevolently mediate God’s reign over it.  Instead, his sin leads God to place a curse on the earth.  The cultivation of the earth which was to be a joy to Adam now becomes a hardship.  The ground is no longer as productive and Adam will constantly battle against thorns and thistles.

We don’t have to look far to see the multitudes of problems resulting from this curse.  Natural disasters like floods, tornados, and earthquakes wreak havoc on our world.  Droughts and the resulting famine and disease are the results of this curse. The world that was to be a beautiful garden filled with the presence of God is instead a planet struggling to provide for those originally commissioned to care for it.

Finally, to protect mankind from eating from the tree of life and thus living forever in his fallen sinful state, God forced Adam and Eve from the garden (Gen 3:22-24).  Though they were created to live in the garden in God’s presence they were forced out of the presence of God.  Cut off from God’s presence and the tree of life they would no longer live forever.  Just as God had said, they would surely die.

Thus, we see the magnitude of the scope of the fall.  Every aspect of life has been affected by Adam’s sin.  He surrendered his position of authority to Satan who is determined to eradicate God’s image from the earth.  Human relationships have been twisted and the love of self is mankind’s driving ambition.  The creation itself groans for redemption as it struggles under the weight of the curse, the exploitation of mankind, and the constant assault of the war that rages between God and Satan.  Indeed, the fall of mankind has had immense implications for all of God’s creation.

However, there is a glimmer of hope seen in Genesis 3:20-21.  Adam, in faith, named his wife Eve, because she was the mother of all living (Gen 3:20).  This is a reference back to the prophecy in Gen 3:15 that the seed of the woman would crush the head of Satan.  After this, God clothes them with garments of skin (Gen 3:21).

There are two very important concepts for us to understand in this act.  First, in order to make the clothing, blood must have been shed.  In this we see the necessity of the shedding of blood to deal with sin.  Second, we see the restoration of fellowship with God.  The couple hid from God because they were ashamed of their nakedness, but God in his grace clothes them in order to restore fellowship with them.  Both of these realities point forward to the hope found in the cross.

As extensive as the results of the fall are, we have hope because of the gospel!  The atonement of Christ is equally extensive overcoming all of the results of the fall and sin.  The immediate result of Adam’s sin was that they lost innocence and became ashamed of their nakedness.  In Genesis God clothed them in fur to restore fellowship with them, but believers are clothed in Christ (Gal 3:27).  That is to say our shame has been removed by the blood of the cross and we have been given the righteousness of Christ.  No longer must we hide from the presence of God; we can now approach him with boldness because of Christ (Eph 3:12).

As a result of the fall there were several curses placed by God.  When he cursed the serpent he placed enmity between him and humanity.  As previously discussed, this explains the spiritual warfare that we all endure from Satan.  He is a lion who seeks to destroy mankind (1 Peter 5:8), but as prophesied in Gen 3:15 the Son of Man has crushed his head.

This is evidenced in the ministry of Jesus.  By casting out demons, Jesus was demonstrating that he was reestablishing the dominion that Adam lost.

28 But if it is by the Spirit of God that I cast out demons, then the kingdom of God has come upon you. 29 Or how can someone enter a strong man’s house and plunder his goods, unless he first binds the strong man? Then indeed he may plunder his house. (Matt 12:28-29)

Christ clearly showed that he had defeated Satan by exercising authority over demons.  The death blow was dealt at the cross and though Christ was bruised, his ultimate victory was established by the resurrection.  Satan has been defeated.  He still attacks the church, but in Christ we know that we have the victory and we will reign with Christ for eternity.

The curse that was placed on Eve made the process of filling the earth with image bearers a painful one.  In Christ, this process takes on new meaning.  Mankind is dead in sin and the image of God is marred in us.  Thus, filling the earth with the image of God requires new birth (John 3:3).  Paul talks of our old self being baptized into the death of Christ and raised with him to “newness of life” (Romans 6:3-6).  In Ephesians he refers to this as removing the old self and putting on the new self which is created in the likeness, or image, of God (Eph 4:22-24).  In this way, filling the earth with image bearers has a spiritual significance because only those who have died and been raised with Christ participate in his kingdom as image bearers.

As a result of the curse on the woman, discord arises in the home and spreads throughout all human relationships.  Yet Christ overcomes this by the cross.  He lives a life of self-denial and considers others as more important than himself.  Our old self was crucified with Christ and freed from the tyranny of self-love.  His life becomes our model of humility (Phil 2:3-8) as we seek to love God with all that we are and love our neighbors as ourselves.  Thus in the kingdom of God, this curse is likewise overcome by the blood of Jesus.

Adam also was cursed as a result of sin.  He forfeited the dominion the Lord had given him and brought death and sin into the world.  The creation itself groans under the weight of this curse (Romans 8:19-22).  Christ, the last Adam, reestablished man’s role in mediating God’s reign over creation.

 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ. (Romans 5:17)

The citizens of the kingdom of God reign with Christ.  This reign has begun even now as Christ has been given all authority in heaven and on earth.  He mediates that reign through his body the church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, for the glory of the Father.

For sure the reign of Christ has not come in its fullness.  There is a now and not yet reality to the kingdom of God.  The kingdom has begun and we build for the kingdom now with the hope that Christ will return and establish his reign in its fullness and completely wipe away all of the effects of sin.

This is exactly what we see in the close of scripture in the new heaven and new earth and the new Jerusalem.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

And he who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” Also he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” And he said to me, “It is done! I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. To the thirsty I will give from the spring of the water of life without payment. The one who conquers will have this heritage, and I will be his God and he will be my son. (Rev 21:1-7)

By the blood of his cross the Lord Jesus ultimately overcomes the fall and the curse.  Because of his righteousness the stronghold of sin is broken and all things are made new.  As originally intended, mankind will mediate the reign of God over a restored creation and we dwell in the presence of God forever just as was intended in the Garden of Eden!  This is a message of hope for everyone!

God’s Election

Paul begins Romans 9 by sharing his heartbreak over the lost condition of his fellow Israelites (vs. 1-5).  Israel had been adopted as God’s special people, and as such had received the covenants, the law, the promises, and the patriarchs.  It was from their race that the Messiah would come.  In spite of all of this they rejected God.  As Paul later put it, they stumbled over Christ (vs. 33).  How could the people of God who had received so much fail to receive the salvation provided in Christ?  Had God failed to do what he promised?

Paul deals with this in the next section (vs. 6-13).  The word of God had not failed because not all of ethnic Israel is the Israel of God (vs. 6).  He first illustrates this in the life of Abraham (vs. 6-9).  The Lord made a covenant with Abraham promising that he would make him a great nation and bless him, so that he would be a blessing.  This included blessing the entire earth through the coming Messiah (vs. Gen 12:2-3).  Abraham fails to trust God and fathers Ishmael with Hagar, his wife’s slave.  However, God tells Abraham that it is by Isaac that the promise will be fulfilled (Gen 12:12, Romans 9:7).

While the promise was made to Abraham and his descendants, not all of them are included.  The children of the flesh, the descendants of Ishmael, are not the children of God.  It is the children of the promise that are the true offspring.  Paul’s point is that simply having Abraham as their ancestor, did not qualify the Jews to belong to the Israel of God.  The people who, like Abraham, exercise faith are the ones counted righteous (Romans 4:3-5).

Paul further explains this through the life of Jacob and Esau (vs. 10-13).  Rebecca conceived twins and before they were born she and Isaac were told that the older (Esau) would serve the younger (Jacob).  This was totally contrary to their culture, and would have been very shocking.  Paul says that God did this so that his purpose of election might continue.  Before either boy could do anything to merit God’s favor, God chose to bless Jacob.

Again he is illustrating that not all the descendants of Abraham are of the true Israel.  He drives this point home by quoting Malachi 1:2-3 “Jacob I have loved, but Esau I hated.”  Some scholars try to soften this statement and say it simply means God “loved Esau less” than Jacob.  First, we can quite simply note it says he hated Esau not loved him less.  Second, Malachi 1:2-5 makes this view impossible.  God says he has utterly destroyed the descendants of Esau and they will be called ‘the people with whom the Lord is angry forever.’  So, from the womb, before birth, God determined that he would love Jacob and hate Esau.  This was not based on any works, including faith, but simply on the call, or choice, of God.

Paul is stating that the Lord has kept his promise because the remnant, the true Israel, is being redeemed while the remainder of ethnic Israel continues in rejection.  He anticipated the Israelites shock so he asks “Is there injustice on God’s part” (vs. 14) and proceeds to address this issue (vs.14-18).  First, he quotes Exodus 33:19 to address this concern.  In this passage Moses has been commanded to lead the people out of Sinai, but the Lord says he will not go with them.  This is because they are stiff necked and if God goes with them he will consume them (Ex 33:3).  Moses intercedes on their behalf and God tells him “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and compassion on whom I have compassion” (v 15).  Regarding this passage, Paul states that God’s display of mercy has nothing to do with human will or deeds but simply on God’s choice to show mercy.

Further, Paul points to Pharaoh in Exodus 9.  Through Moses the Lord tells him about the coming of the seventh plague.  The Lord says that he could have already destroyed the Egyptians (Ex 9:15) and freed the Israelites.  Instead, he hardened Pharaoh’s heart so that he might raise him up to demonstrate his power and that his name would be proclaimed (Ex 9:16, Rom 9:17).  Again, Paul says it is God who has mercy on whom he wishes and hardens whom he wishes.

Expecting objections Paul asks “Why does he still find fault?”  Certainly, we respond in the same way.  How could God be just in finding fault when he hardens some for judgment and exercises mercy on others solely based on his calling?  Paul’s response is very significant (vs. 19-29).  He offers no explanation of this seeming injustice or contradiction.  Instead he asks, who are we to question God?  Just as the clay has no right to question the potter who shapes it as he wills, we have no right to question the one who created us (vs. 20-21).

It is God’s prerogative to create vessels as he sees fit, some to display his wrath and others to display his mercy (vs. 22-23).  Surprisingly for the Jews, the Gentiles are found among those vessels called to display God’s mercy (vs. 24).  This is shown through multiple Old Testament passages.  The first passage is Hosea 2:23.  In its original context, it refers to Israel, but here the Holy Spirit inspires Paul to apply it to the Gentiles.  The second passage is from Isaiah.  The prophet speaks to how the Lord preserved a remnant (Rom 9:27, Is 10:22, 23) otherwise the people of God would have been destroyed like Sodom and Gomorrah (Rom 9:29, Is 1:9).  Thus the word of God has not failed because he has preserved a remnant of ethnic Israel and added the elect of the Gentiles.  These two make up the true Israel of God.

Paul closes out the chapter rather unexpectedly.  He does not use the sovereignty of God and his election to absolve the Israelites of responsibility.  He says the Gentiles have attained righteousness by faith, but Israel failed to attain it because they pursued the law of righteousness by works (vs. 30-32).  They have stumbled over Christ.  That is they rejected the righteousness of Christ that was made available to them through faith.  They chose to remain under the law and will therefore be judged by the law.  It is only in Christ that we can receive the righteousness of the law, because only he has fulfilled the law.  Somehow God’s sovereign election does not diminish man’s responsibility.

This is a difficult chapter and we often don’t like it because we look at it from the wrong perspective.  Just as Paul anticipated, our response is to say if this is true then God is unjust and unloving.  This goes against his nature.  However, this response reveals a major oversight on our part.  We must remember that all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom 3:23), and none are righteous (Rom 3:10).  Therefore, all deserve wrath and God is not obligated to save any.  God does no injustice when he allows unrighteous people to persevere in their rejection or even when in judgment he hardens their hearts further.

However, God is exceedingly merciful when he chooses to intervene and call some of those unrighteous into saving faith.  Admittedly, these are difficult truths but we are not called to justify God in them.  We are called to humbly submit to them and rejoice in the undeserved mercy we have received.  Further, far from quenching our evangelistic zeal, these truths should lead us to respond as Paul did in Rom 1: 2-3 and 10:1.

Released from the Law

In Romans 6 Paul discusses how the believer has died with Christ and thus died to sin.  In vs 14-15 Paul states that believers are no longer under the law, but under grace.  This concept is fleshed out by Paul in Romans 7.  The child of God has been released from the bondage of the law.

He begins in vs 1-3 with an analogy to illustrate how the law no longer has authority over one who has died.  Paul uses the law regarding marriage to make his point.  A woman is freed from the law of marriage when her husband dies, that is she is released and is free to marry another in good conscience.  The death of her husband frees her to be joined to another.

Likewise, the believer is freed from the Mosaic Law when he dies “through the body of Christ” (vs 4).  The idea of dying through the body of Christ, speaks to Christ as our representative.  He physically died for us, thus we died in him.  Having been freed from the law, the believer is now free to be united with Christ; just as the woman in the previous analogy was free to marry another.  The purpose of this union with Christ is that we would belong to him and as a result bear fruit for God (vs  4).

In John 15 Jesus talks to his disciples about abiding in him and bearing fruit.  He makes it clear that we cannot bear fruit unless we abide in, or are joined to, him just as the branch must be joined to the vine.  So our death through the body of Christ, which releases us from the Mosaic Law and frees us to belong to or be in union with Christ, is essential to our fruitfulness.

When we were “living in the flesh” (vs 5) our sinful passions were aroused by the law.  As Paul makes perfectly clear in vs 7 he is not stating that the law was sin but rather aroused his sin nature.  The law did not cause sin, but by pointing out sin it aroused our sinful nature to sin.  Paul uses the example of coveting, but we know that whenever we are told not to do something it becomes the very thing our rebellious nature desires to do.  In this way the law not only revealed sin, but in so doing aroused our flesh to sin producing fruit that lead to death.  So the law is good, but because it did not empower us to overcome the sin it pointed out, it lead to death.

The believer has now, by their death through Christ, been released and is no longer in bondage to the law (vs 6).  Christians do not serve God in a legalistic manner seeking to obey the law to please God.  Rather, having been raised with Jesus they serve God in the “new life of the Spirit” (vs 6).  In chapter 6, Paul talks about this as becoming “obedient from the heart” (vs 17).  Indeed, as prophesied in Jeremiah 31:31-34, the law is written upon the heart of the believer.

In light of all of this, how is the believer supposed to view the Mosaic Law?  Is being released from the law a license to sin?  While the Christian is no longer in bondage to the law, seeking to slavishly yet powerlessly obey it, the fact remains that the law is good and reveals God’s will for man.  Christ stated that he did not come to abolish the law but to fulfill it (Matt 5:17).  Likewise, the Christian, walking in the new life of the Spirit, will fulfill the law.  He will not do so by legalistic works but from obedience that flows from the heart.  By the power of the Spirit and motivated by a heart of gratitude for the grace of God our release from the law insures our obedience to it.

The idea being communicated in vs. 1-6 is interrupted by a parenthetical section in vs. 7-25.  The thought is picked back up in Romans 8:1.  Our release from the law and its penalties means that believers are now under “no condemnation” because they live the new life of the Spirit and thus obey from their heart.

Psalm 126

The people of God were taken into captivity and forcibly removed from the land that the Lord had promised their father Abraham.  They were sojourners in a foreign empire for decades.  Undoubtedly, many had given up hope of ever returning to their beloved land.  Surely they questioned whether God had forgotten or abandoned them in the nation of their enemies.

Then unexpectedly, they receive the news that they were being restored to Zion.  The news was too good to be true.  It was as if they were dreaming!  They were filled with laughter and shouts of joy.  God had remembered his promise and was going to restore his people.  Just as the Lord delivered the people from captivity in Egypt, this second exodus would deliver them from exile and restore them to the land of promise.

Once again the nations took notice of the great things God was doing for his people, Israel.  God was moving on their behalf and the world was in awe.  In acknowledgement of this, Israel rejoiced in the goodness and blessings of God, but the rejoicing soon faded.

When the remnant of the people returned to Zion, they didn’t find the promise land they expected.  When the nation of Israel originally entered the land, they received cities which they did not build and vineyards they did not plant. (Joshua 24:13)  However, those returning from exile found Jerusalem in ruins and the people experienced famine.  Thus, they cried out to God to restore their fortunes.

The people once again are encouraged to trust in the Lord.  Though there is famine, they will sow their seed in tears trusting they will reap with shouts of joy!  The Lord will bless and they will have a bountiful harvest, bringing in their sheaves.  Their experience has been one of heartbreak and difficulty, yet by trusting in the Lord they are joyful and content.  In Christ, we can live in the tension of the harsh reality of our circumstances while rejoicing because of our trust in Him.

What is Hungering and Thirsting for Righteousness?

I have often wondered what it actually means to hunger and thirst for righteousness.  First, having grown up in a working class home in the US I have no real point of reference for what it means to be really hungry or thirsty.  I have always had food and clean water readily available to me.  Second, what does “righteousness” actually mean?  Is it simply abstaining from evil?  Does it mean reading you Bible and praying?  Is it only a longing for justification?

For the truly hungry, the desire for food is all consuming.  I remember walking through a slum in Brazil a few years ago and watched as a woman set her garbage on the curb to be picked up.  As she walked quietly back to her home several children came running, seemingly from nowhere, to the place she had left the bag of trash.  I watched as children eagerly tore through the plastic bag and pulled out scraps of food.  They were kneeling on the sidewalk consuming garbage, because hunger consumed them.

In the Bible we see stories of people in famine.  There are cases where they eat bird droppings and donkey heads.  There are even times where mothers eat their own children to survive.  In light of all of this, whatever “righteousness” is I know I can’t say that I hunger and thirst for it; at least not to the extent that a starving child searches for scraps of bread.

As a young Christian I understood hungering for righteousness to mean that I would avoid evil things like lust and adultery.  I thought that it meant that I would progressively read my Bible more and spend more time in prayer.  In essence if I avoided the big sins and practiced spiritual disciplines then I was hungering for righteousness.  While these are good things and they are certainly an aspect of what is meant in Matt 5:6, this is a woefully inadequate understanding of the verse.

Without question we see here a reference to the righteousness of God found in Christ Jesus.  Those who are poor in spirit realize their sinfulness and inability to rectify it.  They mourn over their sin to the point of repentance and faith in the one whose blood cleanses them and they are justified.  Christ takes their sin upon Himself and graciously gives them His righteousness.  Certainly the God given brokenness for sin that leads to a longing to be reconciled to God is an aspect of what is meant in Matt 5:6.

Is justification all that is in view here?  Does this verse have anything to say to the believer who is being conformed to the image of Christ?  Absolutely!  We see two additional aspects of this desire for righteousness.  One is a hunger for personal holiness.  It is clear that the one who is made righteous should desire to live out that righteousness in a practical way.  Grace is not a license for sin and we are indeed called to be holy as God is holy (1 Peter 1:15).

Second, is a hunger to see God’s righteousness spread throughout the world system.  In The Institutes John Calvin said “Righteousness includes all the duties of justice, that every man may receive his just dues.”  In addition, Tim Keller in Generous Justice, says “If you are a Christian, and you refrain from committing adultery or using profanity or missing church, but you don’t do the hard work of thinking through how to do justice in every area of life – you are failing to live justly and righteously”.  As citizens of the Kingdom of God we must be actively seeking to spread the righteousness of our King through every aspect of our lives and society.  This is the aspect of hungering for righteousness that is most often neglected or totally overlooked.

In closing, we see that hungering and thirsting for righteousness is a daunting task.  It is not one that fallen men will ever desire on their own.  However, when the Spirit of God changes our hearts and we are reconciled to God we are made righteous.  This results in a desire to love God with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves.  As a result, we begin to long for personal holiness and for the world around us to be reconciled to God that He would rule and reign in all aspects of life.

Do you hunger for that type of righteousness like a starving child longs for a crust of bread?  I know I don’t, but I want to!  By God’s grace I pray that my life would be marked by this type of hunger and thirsting for righteousness.  That I would not be content to just go to church, avoid a list of sins, occasionally read my Bible, and pray over my meals.  That would be a tragedy and a life wasted.

The Magnificat

Why did Jesus come to earth?  What was the purpose of the incarnation?  Certainly, the incarnation of Christ was a complex event, having many effects that have rippled throughout history.  However, often we grasp at individual aspects of the result of Christ’s life, ministry, vicarious death, and resurrection.  In this case, the incarnation often becomes nothing more than a means to an end; Jesus had to be born so that he could die on the cross.  Christmas is the means to Easter.

In no way do I mean to diminish the cross, it indeed is the lynch pin that all of history swings on.  Without it we have no hope.  Rather, my point is to elevate the life and ministry of Christ, the incarnation, to its rightful place in our understanding of the Christian life.  Jesus was not randomly roaming around for 30 years waiting to die and performing a few miracles along the way simply to prove who he was.  The incarnation is much more significant than that.

To begin to fully grasp the significance of the incarnation it will be helpful to see what Mary, the mother of Jesus, understood it to mean.  This becomes abundantly clear in a passage of scripture referred to as The Magnificat (Luke 1:46-56).  However, the key to understanding this text comes a little earlier in the chapter.  In Luke 1:26-38 the angel Gabriel visits Mary and tells her that she will bear a son, but not just any son.  She will give birth to the Son of the Most High; the long anticipated heir to the throne of David.  As promised, his kingdom (reign) will be eternal (Luke 1:31-33).

To grasp the magnitude of this promise it is essential to understand the Old Testament concept of new exodus.  In the first exodus God delivered the Hebrew people from the bondage and oppression of the Egyptians.  Through this process the nation of Israel was birthed to be kings and priests mediating God’s reign on the earth (Exodus 19:4-6).  They were a corporate Adam whom God would work through to bring all of creation under his sovereign reign; as He originally intended (Gen 1:26-28).

Unfortunately, Israel continued in sin and, like Adam, was exiled from their Eden.  They were taken into captivity in Babylon, however the prophets spoke of a new exodus that would be more comprehensive than the first (Is. 35; 43:16-21; 51:9-11; 65:17-25).  God’s people would be delivered from captivity and would return to the Promised Land where the presence of God would dwell among them in the Temple.  Further, with this exodus the curse on creation would be lifted, death and disease would be defeated, and bondage in all its forms would be eradicated; including bondage to Satan and sin as well as physical and political oppression.

When God’s people were released from captivity and returned to the land, what they found was nothing like what the prophets had promised.  They found Jerusalem in ruins and faced great opposition in their efforts to rebuild the Temple and the city.  They also faced famine and as a result suffered greatly.  Furthermore, though they were in the land, they never possessed it like they once had.  As a result, they saw their return as only a partial fulfillment of the new exodus the prophets had promised.  Their return from exile was not complete and they longed for the fullness of the new exodus deliverance that would come when the son of David once again sat upon the throne in Jerusalem.

For hundreds of years Israel waited for their promised deliverance.  They suffered under political and demonic oppression.  They longed for the righteous reign of God to manifest itself in their lives.  This was especially true of the poor and needy who suffered worst of all.  It was in this context that Gabriel visits Mary.

When she heard that she would give birth to the Son of the Most High who would finally bring the fullness of the new exodus that had been prophesied, Mary could not help but rejoice.  This is exactly what we see in Luke 1:46-56.  Mary knew that God was intervening in history and that the new creation Israel had longed for was finally coming to be!  Christmas was about God’s kingdom invading earth and all things being made new (Is. 43:18-19).

Thus Mary begins her song of praise by reflecting on who God is, her Savior (vs. 46-47).  In light of what has been discussed above, God as Savior must be understood in a comprehensive way.  The salvation Mary envisions is the fullness of the new exodus; the restoration of creation, defeat of Satan and the overturning of his kingdom, deliverance from sin and death, and restoration of fellowship with God.  It is for this that she magnifies the Lord and rejoices will all of her being.

One of the key things to understand in this passage is that the kingdom of God turns the kingdom of the Satan (the world) upon its head. They are polar opposites of one another.  In reference to the kingdom, Jesus repeatedly makes it clear that in his kingdom the last will be first and the first will be last (Matt 19:16-30; 20:1-16, 20-28).   This is demonstrated by the King himself as he humbly serves humanity (2 Cor 8:9, Phil 2:5-8).  In Satan’s kingdom the powerful and the strong are exalted while the weak are oppressed.  Under the reign of Jesus the meek and humble reign with him while the mighty are brought low.  This reality is seen throughout Mary’s song of praise.

It is seen first in vs. 48 when Mary makes reference to her “humble estate.”  This term not only reflects the humility of her spirit, but it also reflects her social status.  She was not from an important family with power and prestige.  Quite the opposite, she was a poor peasant girl.  One might imagine the Son of the Most High would be born to a great family in a beautiful palace; not to a poor couple in a stable.

Mary never seeks to rob God of his glory.  She knows that the favored position she will hold is only because mighty God has chosen to bless her (vs. 49).  She will be called blessed forever because of the special blessing the Lord has given her.  It is sad that the blessing of God has been twisted and led to two differing false views of Mary.  The Catholic Church has misunderstood Mary’s role and venerated her to a position she never belonged.  The Protestant church, going to the other extreme, has marginalized her into oblivion so that she is only occasionally mentioned in a Christmas sermon.

In the second half of her song Mary switches focus from what God has done for her to what God has and will do for Israel.  She quotes or alludes to numerous Old Testament passages about God’s work for Israel.  However, the context of her praise is the in breaking of the kingdom of God into history, the fulfillment of the new exodus.  Though she speaks in past tense, quoting scripture, she is also prophesying in new exodus language about the coming kingdom of God.  Thus, we see in the remainder of the song not only what God has done, but what he will do.

Here we see how the kingdom of God turns the kingdom of Satan upside down.  God will show mercy on the meek that fear him (vs. 50).  He will bring down the proud and will humble the mighty, while exalting the humble (vs. 51-52).  The hungry will be filled with good things and the rich will be sent away empty (vs. 53) (Luke 16:19-31; 18:18-30).  This is what the kingdom of God looks like.  It is indeed good news for the poor (Luke 4:18; 14:12-24; 19:1-10).

To be sure there are spiritual aspects to these verses.  We are to be humble in spirit and hunger for God spiritually, but we dare not rob Mary’s praise of its full intent.  A proper understanding of new exodus and the kingdom of God will not allow it.  We want to spiritualize what she is saying and rob it of all physical/temporal implications because it makes us uncomfortable.  After all, we are the rich and powerful that may be humbled and sent away empty.  The kingdom of God turns the world upside down and it must likewise turn our worlds upside down as well.  We can’t marginalize Mary’s words; we must do the hard work of applying them to our lives today.

The kingdom that is coming through the birth of Jesus is the result of the promise that God made to Abraham and his offspring (vs. 54-55).  Through the sovereign reign of Jesus the Israel of God will be delivered and all the nations of the earth will be blessed.  This is the hope of the incarnation!  This is what Christmas means to Mary.  The kingdom is here like a mustard seed, but like leaven it will spread until the long awaited promise of new exodus is fully realized.