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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today by continuing to examine God’s communicable attributes. Dr. Spencer, last time we discussed God’s love, which can be viewed as an aspect of his goodness. What are we going to cover today?

Dr. Spencer: I want to look at God’s holiness.

Marc Roby: And the root meaning of that term has to do with separation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, it does. According to the great Hebrew scholar and Old Testament theologian E.J. Young, the root word “is generally taken in the sense ‘to separate, cut off.’”[1] And God is separate from his creation in two different senses. First and foremost of course is the awesome fact that he is the Creator and everything and everyone else are mere creatures.

Marc Roby: Which is why we have emphasized the Creator/creature distinction a number of times in these podcasts.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. And that is the dominant sense in which the word holy is used in the Bible with respect to God. But there is also an ethical sense because God is entirely separate from sin. The prophet Habakkuk exclaimed to God, in Habakkuk 1:13, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” [2]

Marc Roby: That is a big problem for sinful creatures like us.

Dr. Spencer: That is not only a problem, it is the problem of the human race. It is the problem that, in one sense, defines our existence in this life. We live in a world corrupted by sin and inhabited by sinners, the effects are pervasive. In fact, the Bible makes clear that since the fall, the sole purpose of human existence, from our perspective, is to deal with this problem. Coming to know Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and thereby taking care of our sin problem, is the one thing needful as Jesus told Mary.

Marc Roby: You’re using the King James wording when you say “the one thing needful”, but you are, of course, referring to the time when Jesus came to the house of Mary and Martha, the sisters of Lazarus, all of whom Jesus loved.

Martha was preparing a meal for them and was distracted by all of the preparations that needed to be made, while Mary sat at Jesus’ feet listening to him. Martha then complained about this and Jesus replied, as we read in Luke 10:41-42, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Dr. Spencer: That is, of course, the situation I am referring to, and I like the King James wording –only one thing is needful.

We must take note that there was nothing wrong with what Martha was doing, in fact, it was a good thing. But even things that are good and necessary in this life are of no importance in comparison with coming to know Jesus Christ as our personal Lord and Savior. And this topic is particularly appropriate at this time of year. In our previous session we discussed the love of God, which was an appropriate message for our last podcast before Christmas because God’s sending his own Son to pay for our sins is the greatest possible expression of love. But today’s message is no less fitting for the first podcast after Christmas because when we are confronted with the holiness of God, our own sinfulness and need for a Savior is immediately and obviously apparent.

Marc Roby: You said last time that people must receive the bad news that we are sinners and cannot save ourselves before they can receive the good news of the gospel, that there is Salvation possible through faith in Jesus Christ.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we must. And considering the holiness of God brings us face-to-face with the bad news. There is a classic passage I would like to examine today as we begin to look at this extremely important topic.

Marc Roby: What passage is that?

Dr. Spencer: It is Isaiah 6:1-7.

Marc Roby: That is an amazing passage, where the prophet tells us about receiving his call from God.

Dr. Spencer: And in that passage we see the most glorious and awesome vision of God given to anyone in the entire Bible. It begins, in Verse 1, with Isaiah telling us, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple.”

Marc Roby: A little history will probably help our listeners. Uzziah, who is also known as Azariah, was the king of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 792 to 740 B.C. He started out as a godly king, and served for a very long time – 52 years. But late in life he became proud and God punished him with leprosy. His reign however was a time of great prosperity for the nation.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, much like the times we are living in now, which should serve as a warning to us. In any event, P.G. Mathew notes the importance of this history in his commentary on Isaiah. He wrote that “Despite Uzziah’s unfaithfulness late in life, he had been an able administrator and military leader, and the people had looked to him for protection. Now his very long reign had ended and the people did not know what to do. It was in this context that God was saying, ‘Don’t worry, Isaiah, the King is not dead.’ So Isaiah says, ‘I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted’.”[3]

Marc Roby: It is always the greatest possible source of comfort for Christians in troubling times to know that God is seated on his throne and is absolutely sovereign over everything and everyone in the universe.

Dr. Spencer: I agree, that is our greatest comfort. But Isaiah was given this comfort to an extreme degree by being given this vision of the heavenly throne room. Now in 1 Timothy 6:15-16 God is described as, “God, the blessed and only Ruler, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone is immortal and who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see.” Therefore, E.J. Young points out that “It is not the essence of God which Isaiah sees, for, inasmuch as God is spiritual and invisible, that essence cannot be seen by the physical eye of the creature. At the same time it was a true seeing; a manifestation of the glory of God in human form, adapted to the capabilities of the finite creature, which the prophet beheld!”[4] And Young goes on to note that “He sees God as sovereign in human form, and this appearance we learn from John was an appearance of Christ.”[5]

Marc Roby: Of course, he is referring to John 12:41, which we read just a little while ago in our daily readings[6], where John gives a quote from Isaiah Chapter 6 and then says, “Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the verse he was referring to. Isaiah saw a pre-incarnate vision of Christ. But let’s read a little more of the revelation given to Isaiah. Let me read Verses 1-4. “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Marc Roby: Just the thought of being given a vision like that gives you the chills. The word awesome is overused in this day and age, but it is completely appropriate here. I can’t think of anything that would inspire more awe than this.

Dr. Spencer: I agree completely. Awe means a strong feeling of fear, respect and wonder, and this vision would certainly inspire all of those things to the highest degree possible.

Marc Roby: And the prophet had exactly that reaction. In Verse 5 we read about Isaiah’s reaction. He cried out “Woe to me! I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the LORD Almighty.”

Dr. Spencer: I again like the King James wording better here, it translates the first part of Isaiah’s response as “Woe is me! for I am undone”. Somehow the word “undone” is more powerful.

Marc Roby: That is a powerful word. Being undone does not sound like a pleasant experience.

Dr. Spencer: It isn’t a pleasant experience at all. But we must ask, “Why did Isaiah say he was undone?” R.C. Sproul, in his book The Holiness of God provides an interesting perspective on this passage.[7] He points out that to be undone is a very descriptive term; it means to come apart at the seams, to disintegrate. It is the very opposite of being integrated, or coming together. Now we don’t say that an individual is integrated; we say that he has integrity, but it is the same root. It means to be together; or, in casual speech, to have it all together. So to be undone is to realize that you do not have integrity, you do not have it all together. And who could say anything else in the presence of a holy God? When we compare ourselves with each other we may be able to say that someone is a person of integrity, or that he or she has their act together. But when we compare any of us to God, that illusion disappears.

Marc Roby: It certainly does. God is perfect in every conceivable way and, more to the point, he is, as we have emphasized, our Creator.

Dr. Spencer: And not only is he the Creator of all, but he is also the Judge of all. And this judge does not need a prosecuting attorney, or any witnesses to be called, or any evidence to be presented because he knows everything perfectly. And no defense is possible. Whatever charges he brings against us are guaranteed to be absolutely true. That should be terrifying. Think about a courtroom here on earth. Even that can be an intimidating place.

Marc Roby: Yes, I’m sure it can be. I’ve never been a defendant in a case, but even serving on a jury gives you an idea. The judge is separated from the attorneys, jury, lawyers and audience. He sits up higher, he wears a robe, you all rise when he enters the court, and so on. There is serious decorum demanded.

Dr. Spencer: And not only demanded, but enforced by officers with guns and a judge with authority to throw you into jail for contempt of court. That is scary, and it is meant to be because they are dealing with very serious issues. But the throne room of God is infinitely more important and impressive and the issues dealt with are infinitely more important because they deal with the eternal destinies of people.

Marc Roby: Which, quite literally, does make it infinitely more important.

Dr. Spencer: And we must also think about the standard being used by this perfect judge. We are told in Hebrews 12:14 that we are to, “Make every effort to live in peace with all men and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.” In this verse holiness is obviously being used in the moral sense. We cannot become God. We will always be creatures and so cannot be separate in that sense. But God does demand that we be holy in the moral sense. As we saw earlier, the prophet Habakkuk properly said to God, in Habakkuk 1:13, that “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.”  Because God is holy, we must also be holy or we will not see him, which means we will not go to heaven when we die.

Marc Roby: And the only alternative is hell.

Dr. Spencer: That is the only alternative. And every single human being alive will face judgment. We are told in Hebrews 9:27 that “man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment”. There are no exceptions to this rule.

Marc Roby: God’s holiness, combined with his power and perfect knowledge, are extremely bad news for anyone who faces him standing on their own.

Dr. Spencer: They are the worst possible news. Anyone who stands before God on his or her own will be sent to eternal hell. But, praise God, there is a way of escape. Going back to the revelation God gave to Isaiah, we read in the next two verses, Isaiah 6:6-7, that “Then one of the seraphs flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, ‘See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.’”

Marc Roby: Having a hot coal touched to your lips would be extremely painful, but nonetheless, it is wonderful news. Our sins can be atoned for.

Dr. Spencer: They can, but not by our effort. Only God is able to do that. And he has done it through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. We just celebrated his birth last week, which is the pivotal point in human history, and in a few months we will celebrate Good Friday and Easter, which speak about the culmination of his work of redemption.

Marc Roby: And just in case some of our listeners do not know about Good Friday and Easter, we should point out that Good Friday is the day we commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ and Easter Sunday is the day we celebrate his resurrection from the dead.

Dr. Spencer: And praise God for Christ and his atoning sacrifice. I quoted from Hebrews 9:27 a minute ago, but let me read all of that verse this time, along with the next. Hebrews 9:27-28 tell us that “Just as man is destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him.”

Marc Roby: And that is the glorious hope of all Christians.

Dr. Spencer: It most certainly is. And we should be extremely thankful that God’s attribute of holiness is communicable, because we are not holy, and yet as we read a couple of minutes ago, Hebrews 12:14 tells us that “without holiness no one will see the Lord.” Therefore, the Christian’s ultimate hope is that God will perfect us in Christ and we will, ultimately, be perfectly holy in his presence.

Marc Roby: And, of course, our holiness is not the basis of our salvation – that is the perfect righteousness of Christ alone. We don’t become holy in this life and then earn heaven by our holiness. Rather, having already been justified by faith, we are made holy by God through a process which begins when we are born again and acknowledge Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior and it isn’t completed until after we die.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. We will talk about that process in some detail in a later podcast, but for now let me just summarize it. All people are sinners in need of a Savior. But, praise God, he has chosen to save certain people. And those whom he has chosen to save he effectually calls, which means that he causes them to be born again, and they then respond in repentance and faith. And God then works in them to change them throughout this life. When we die, our souls are perfected and brought into the presence of God as we read in Hebrews 12:23. Then, when Christ returns, we receive our perfected resurrection bodies as we read in 1 Corinthians 15:51-54, and we then begin our eternal state perfected and living in God’s presence forever.

During this life, however, this process of sanctification involves suffering, which none of us like, but it is for a good purpose. In Hebrews 12:10 we are told that “Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness.”

Marc Roby: Now that is a glorious thought, to share in God’s holiness. Which then makes us fit to be in heaven with him.

Dr. Spencer: That is God’s glorious plan of salvation. The whole purpose of creation and human history is for God to redeem a people for himself. When that has been accomplished, this universe will end and God will create a new heaven and a new earth.

Marc Roby: We read about that in 2 Peter Chapter 3, which tells us, in Verse 13, that “in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, the home of righteousness.”

Dr. Spencer: And because it is the home of righteousness, or we could say holiness, it is only those who share in God’s attribute of holiness who will be there. And the only way, as sinful human beings we can do that, is to be united to Jesus Christ by faith.

Marc Roby: I assume we have more to say about the holiness of God, but this looks like a good place to end for today. I want to remind our listeners that they can email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org and we will do our best to respond.

 

[1] E.J. Young, The Book of Isaiah, W.B. Eerdmans Pub., Vol. 3, 1972, pg. 242 (fn 19)

[2] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[3] P.G. Mathew, Isaiah: God Comforts His People, Grace and Glory Ministries, 2018, pp 49-50

[4] Young, op. cit., pg. 235

[5] Ibid, pg. 237

[6] Our church’s daily reading schedule is available from the home page of our website: https://gracevalley.org/

[7] R.C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, Living Books, 1985, pp 42-44

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Marc Roby: We are resuming our study of systematic theology today with a special Christmas message based on God’s communicable attribute of love, which we saw last time can be considered an aspect of his goodness.

But before we begin I want to let our listeners know that we also have a Christmas present to offer to you. If you go to our website, whatdoesthewordsay.org, you can request a free copy of the book Rediscovering the True Meaning of Christmas, by Rev. P.G. Mathew. It is filled with great encouragement and hope for the people of God. This book will be available for free from now until the end of the month.

Dr. Spencer, we ended last time by introducing the context for what may be the most famous verse in the Bible, John 3:16, which says, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” [1]

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we did start looking at that, and I pointed out that the first word in that verse is often ignored. That first word “for” tells us that this verse is providing some explanation for the verses that preceded it. In this case, Christ had been telling Nicodemus that a person has to be born again to enter the kingdom of heaven and concluded, in Verses 14 and 15, by saying, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” So, John 3:16 is explaining these verses.

In his commentary on John’s gospel, Mark Johnston writes this about John 3:16, “Why did the sinless Son of God have to suffer in such a way? John supplies the answer, and his answer is more staggering even than the brutalities of the cross. In what must be the best known words of Scripture, John says, ‘For God so loved the world…’”.[2]

Marc Roby: That statement is, as he put it, staggering. But Verse 14 mentions Moses lifting up the snake in the desert, and I suspect many of our listeners may not know that bit of history.

Dr. Spencer: You’re probably right. Jesus was speaking to Nicodemus, who was a religious leader in Jerusalem, so he knew that Nicodemus would be familiar with the history, but we should give the background for those of our listeners who don’t remember.

Marc Roby: Alright, well let me begin. Jesus’ mention of the snake in the desert refers back to events that took place during the 40 years the Israelites wandered in the desert after God had miraculously delivered them from slavery in Egypt. We read in Numbers 21:4-6 that “They traveled from Mount Hor along the route to the Red Sea, to go around Edom. But the people grew impatient on the way; they spoke against God and against Moses, and said, ‘Why have you brought us up out of Egypt to die in the desert? There is no bread! There is no water! And we detest this miserable food!’ Then the LORD sent venomous snakes among them; they bit the people and many Israelites died.”

Dr. Spencer: And we see, as always, that sin brings trouble. And their sin was great. God had delivered them from slavery, was providing food daily in the desert and had previously provided water miraculously, so they had no good reason to doubt that he could do so again. Nevertheless, they weren’t satisfied with God’s provisions and grumbled against God and his representative, Moses.

Marc Roby: I fear that we too often think we somehow deserve more and fail to appreciate God’s blessings as well.

Dr. Spencer: I’m sure you’re right about that. But the people got one very important thing right; they properly understood that these snakes were sent by God as judgment against them for their sin. So, in Verse 7 we read, “The people came to Moses and said, ‘We sinned when we spoke against the LORD and against you. Pray that the LORD will take the snakes away from us.’ So Moses prayed for the people.”

And God was very gracious to them, although he didn’t simply take the snakes away. It is often the case that God does not take our troubles away, but he gives us grace to bear up under them and uses them to discipline, purify and strengthen us.

Marc Roby: The Bible often uses the metaphor of gold being refined by fire.

Dr. Spencer: And no one likes the fire of troubles, but even the secular world has an expression that admits the truth, there is no gain without pain.

Marc Roby: An unpopular truth.

Dr. Spencer: So it is. Numbers 21 goes on to tell us, in Verses 8-9 “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Make a snake and put it up on a pole; anyone who is bitten can look at it and live.’ So Moses made a bronze snake and put it up on a pole. Then when anyone was bitten by a snake and looked at the bronze snake, he lived.”

Marc Roby: That is a great display of God’s mercy to his people.

Dr. Spencer: It most definitely is. But we must recognize that there certainly wasn’t any magical power attached to the bronze snake itself, this was just God’s way of making the people realize that they had sinned and pointing them to the fact that they needed to look to him for forgiveness and healing.

Marc Roby: And yet, even though there wasn’t any power in the bronze snake itself, it is interesting to note that it later became a snare to the Israelites. Sometime in the late eighth century before Christ, during the reign of the godly King Hezekiah, we read in 2 Kings 18:4 that Hezekiah “removed the high places, smashed the sacred stones and cut down the Asherah poles. He broke into pieces the bronze snake Moses had made, for up to that time the Israelites had been burning incense to it. (It was called Nehushtan.)”

Dr. Spencer: It is a manifestation of man’s sinful nature that he seems to constantly be looking for a God that can be manipulated. We want some simple ceremony, or something we can do that is supposed to obligate God to bless us with a particular response. In other words, we want a vending machine god; you put in your 1-minute prayer, or you perform a particular religious ceremony and he is obligated to bless you in some way. But God will not be manipulated by us. He does offer unimaginable mercy and blessings, but we must be conscious of the Creator/creature distinction. God makes the rules, not us.

The original purpose of the bronze snake was to cause the people to see their sin and their need for God. The snake itself was only a symbol. And God was gracious in not simply removing the snakes from the people. Had he done that, it would have been much easier for the people to forget that God delivered them from this pain.

Marc Roby: We are all too quick to forget God’s mercies. It is also important to note that the snake was a type of Christ, meaning that it was a symbol that pointed to Christ in some way. We talked about typology like this in Session 44.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we did. And this is one of the clearest examples of typology in the Bible. Jesus himself tells us that this event in the desert pointed to his sacrifice on the cross in the verses we’ve been examining. Remember that John 3:14-15 say, “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life”. And then, immediately after those verses, we read John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”

Marc Roby: And we now have the necessary background to understand that verse correctly.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, we do. This is the gospel message, the good news. This is the real reason for celebrating Christmas. The birth of Jesus Christ is an amazing event, but the reason God sent his eternal Son into the world to be born of a poor virgin in the backwater town of Bethlehem was so that he could live a sinless life and then willingly go to the cross, bearing the wrath of God and dying to pay for the sins of everyone who will believe in him. As Jesus himself said in contemplating his crucifixion, in John 12:27, “Now my heart is troubled, and what shall I say? ‘Father, save me from this hour’? No, it was for this very reason I came to this hour.”

Marc Roby: That is incredible. Christ’s willingness to die, and to endure the wrath of God in our stead, that’s something I will never understand, but for which I am eternally grateful.

Dr. Spencer: Christ’s love is impossible to fathom. And John 3:16 gives us the reason that God gave his one and only Son, it was because he, meaning the Father, “so loved the world”. It was the love of the Father that necessitated Jesus humbling himself and becoming incarnate, and then giving his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Marc Roby: Modern people don’t like this idea of God requiring a sacrifice.

Dr. Spencer: No, they don’t. But God is just and holy and cannot simply forgive sin by winking at it. His eternally perfect justice requires that sin be paid for, and that requires a sacrifice. There is an important word in John 3:14 that it is easy to overlook. The verse says that “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up”. That word must is critically important. It is the Greek word δεῖ (dei), and it means that it was necessary for this to be done. There was no other option. It was a divine necessity to satisfy God’s justice.

Marc Roby: Yes, Paul tells us about this divine necessity in Romans 3:25 and 26. He wrote that “God presented him [speaking of Christ,] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice, because in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished—he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.”

Dr. Spencer: That is the best verse to demonstrate this necessity. In order to be just, in other words to fill the demands of his own eternally perfect justice, and yet to justify those who have faith in Jesus, which here refers to a legal judgment that they are ‘not guilty’, it was necessary that Jesus Christ be presented as a sacrifice of atonement. The Greek word translated here as “sacrifice of atonement” is ἱλαστήριον (hilastērion), which means propitiation. As John Murray explains, “Propitiation presupposes the wrath and displeasure of God, and the purpose of propitiation is the removal of this displeasure.”[3]

Marc Roby: People also don’t like the idea that God is justifiably displeased with us and wrathful toward us.

Dr. Spencer: No, they don’t. This is the bad news that we must acknowledge before we can receive the good news of the gospel. We are sinners and cannot save ourselves. God is justifiably angry with us and we are, therefore, subject to his wrath. When people reject this bad news, they unwittingly reject the good news of salvation through faith in Jesus Christ along with it.

Marc Roby: Most people seem to think that God should simply forgive our sins without anyone being punished.

Dr. Spencer: That does seem to be the case. But P.G. Mathew explained the biblical idea of justification as presented in Romans 3, he wrote, “Justification is not amnesty, which is pardon without principle. It is not seeing bad people as good people. Justification is based on God’s justice demonstrated in the life and death of Christ. The wrath of God against elect sinners was poured out on God’s innocent Son, the spotless Lamb of God. Without the cross, the justification of the unjust would be unjustified, immoral, and impossible.”[4]

Marc Roby: Of course, we don’t like to admit that we are wretched sinners.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, that is a serious problem. Our society tells us from the cradle on up that people are all basically good at heart. But that is a lie, which even a quick glance at the morning newspaper will confirm. That lie leads to people thinking of Jesus as just a good moral teacher. Christmas then becomes a time to celebrate the birth of this good moral teacher who gave us an example of a humble life. But that is not what the Bible tells us. It is not the truth. The truth is, as Paul wrote in Romans 3:23, that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” and as he wrote in Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men”. And because of these facts, we need a sacrifice of atonement.

Marc Roby: And Jesus Christ is that sacrifice of atonement.

Dr. Spencer: Yes, he is. But I think people sometimes view God the Father as this mean and angry God of wrath and then they picture Jesus as kind and gentle person and think that he comes along and cajoles the Father, perhaps even somewhat against the Father’s will, to not destroy his people. But that picture is completely and totally unbiblical. The Bible makes it clear that it is the love of the Father that is the ultimate cause of our salvation. It is the Father who gives his Son, so it is the Father that is referred to when John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world”.

Marc Roby: Now that is an amazing fact. That God would love rebellious sinners. And, of course, it is not just the Father, Jesus also loves us. In fact, he told us in John 15:13 that “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

Dr. Spencer: You’re right. And Romans 5:5 tells us that “God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us.” So we conclude from this verse and the unity of the godhead that the Holy Spirit also loves us. We also know that it is the particular work of the Holy Spirit to apply to us the redemption which God the Father planned and God the Son accomplished on the cross. All three persons of the godhead are involved in our salvation.

Marc Roby: Now, when we celebrate Christmas we properly focus on Jesus Christ as our Redeemer, but we also need to remember the triune nature of God.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. But let me go back to the verse you read from John 15 and put it in context. In Verses 12 through 14 Jesus tells us, “My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command.”

I want us to note that we can’t think of Jesus Christ as a helpless baby in a manger, or just as a dying Savior on the cross. We need to remember that Jesus Christ is the Lord of the universe and he commands us to love each other as he has loved us.

Marc Roby: That’s an impossibly tall order.

Dr. Spencer: It is impossible for us in this life because we still have the vestiges of our sinful nature with us. But that is the standard to which we are to aspire. And notice that Christ said we are his friends if we do what he commands. Obedience is not optional. Our obedience does not earn our salvation in any way, but it is necessary to prove that we do, in fact, belong to Jesus.

Marc Roby: It’s a good thing that our obedience doesn’t earn our salvation, because our obedience is never perfect in this life.

Dr. Spencer: Which is why the great theologian Charles Hodge wrote that “As portrayed in Scripture, the inward life of the people of God to the end of their course in this world, is a repetition of conversion. It is a continued turning unto God; a constant renewal of confession, repentance, and faith; a dying unto sin, and living unto righteousness.”[5]

In other words, we don’t just confess and repent once, professing faith in Christ and then go on living the same old way. If we have been born again, we see our sin more and more clearly as time goes on and we see even more than before those things we need to repent of, and our need for faith, and we strive to put our sin to death and live righteous lives that please God.

Marc Roby: Just like the Israelites in the desert would see their need for God when they were bitten by a snake, and then they would then acknowledge that need by looking to the bronze snake on the pole.

Dr. Spencer: Exactly. That look demonstrated their confession, repentance and faith in God to heal them. And notice that when God brings trouble into our lives it is a great mercy if it causes us to see our need for God more clearly.

Marc Roby: And then, if we turn to him in repentance and faith, he shows us even greater mercy by forgiving our sin.

Dr. Spencer: And he does all of that on the basis of Christ’s atoning sacrifice on the cross. God is loving and merciful, but he is also just and holy. Our sins must be paid for; either by us, or by Christ. Most people focus on giving and receiving gifts at Christmas, but the real meaning is that God has offered to us the greatest gift that can ever be given to anyone, the gift of salvation. But we must see our need for it. If we think that our good works, or even our faith, will save us, we are as lost as Nicodemus was before Christ explained to him that he, and we, must be born again.

We need to receive the bad news that our hearts are “deceitful above all things and beyond cure” as the prophet Jeremiah wrote in Jeremiah 17:9. If we acknowledge that fact, repent and turn to Jesus Christ, trust in him alone as our Savior and obey him as our Lord, then God, in his rich mercy, will adopt us as his sons and daughters and bring us into his glorious presence for all eternity. That is the Christmas gift that God offers to us. And it’s my prayer that God will grant that gift to everyone who listens to this message.

Marc Roby: I join with you in that prayer. And that concludes this week’s podcast. As always, we encourage our listeners to email their questions or comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. We’d love to hear from you.

 

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] Mark Johnston, Let’s Study John, The Banner of Truth Trust, 2003, pg. 50

[3] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 30

[4] P.G. Mathew, Romans: The Gospel Freedom (Volume 1), Grace and Glory Ministries, pg. 130

[5] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol. III, Eerdmans, 1997, pg. 247

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Marc Roby: We are taking a one-week break from our examination of the characteristics of the Bible to present a special Christmas message. Dr. Spencer, I’m sure there are lots of different Christmas sermons and messages out there at this time, what do you want to say to our listeners?

Dr. Spencer: I want to stick to what this podcast is all about – what the Word of God says. I saw a story on our local TV news show the other night about people giving to a local charity and helping serve meals to the homeless and so on and they ended the story by saying something about this illustrating the real meaning of Christmas. But, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Marc Roby: Before you go on I want to be sure you don’t leave yourself open to being misunderstood, you’re not saying that there is anything wrong with donating to good charities or helping to feed the homeless.

Dr. Spencer: No, of course I don’t mean that. Those are good things to do and, in fact, Christians have often led the way historically in taking care of various social needs like helping orphans and feeding the poor. We read in Luke 3:11 that John the Baptist told the people, “The man with two tunics should share with him who has none, and the one who has food should do the same.”[1] And in Proverbs 19:17 we read that “He who is kind to the poor lends to the LORD, and he will reward him for what he has done.”

But, social activism, or even more generally, statements like the golden rule – to do to others as you would have them do to you – or to love your neighbor as yourself, while biblical and good, are not what Christmas is all about.

Marc Roby: Alright, obviously Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Christ. But, Christ himself told us to love our neighbor as ourselves. So, isn’t keeping his commands at least part of what Christmas is about?

Dr. Spencer: Not really. The fundamental problem with all such notions is that they are man centered, or anthropocentric. Which we have noted before is a characteristic of much of what goes on in the name of Christianity these days. But, the Bible is unashamedly theocentric, or God centered, from beginning to end.

Marc Roby: I agree, but Christ came to save sinners, and that certainly seems man centered.

Dr. Spencer: In one sense it is, because it is people who are being saved, but the ultimate purpose of all creation, including the salvation of God’s people, is the manifestation of God’s glory. So, the ultimate purpose of salvation is to glorify God. Through creation and all of history, God is working to make manifest his manifold glory. The glory of his being, of his power, of his holiness, of his justice, of his goodness, of his truth, and of his love.

And the incarnation of Jesus Christ, which we celebrate at Christmas, represents the greatest expression of God’s love. As we are told in John 3:16, “God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That is an unfathomable display of God’s love for his people. And we should take some time to meditate on all that it implies.

Marc Roby: What does it imply?

Dr. Spencer: First, it implies that we need to be saved. So, we should ask, “From what do we need to be saved?” And the answer is, that we need to be saved from the just wrath of God, which is what our sins deserve.

Marc Roby: Alright, you said that’s the first thing it implies, what else does it imply?

Dr. Spencer: It implies that the price that had to be paid to save us was nothing less than the sacrifice of God’s own eternal Son. If there had been any other way to save us, I think it is safe to conclude that God would not have sacrificed his own Son. But, the sacrifice for sins had to be infinite because we have sinned against an infinite, holy God, which means that our debt is infinite and no mere man could possibly pay it. Therefore, the sacrifice had to be God. Also, because it was man who sinned, it had to be a man who paid the penalty. That fact, combined with the fact that God cannot die, meant that the sacrifice had to be man.

Marc Roby: And hence, the need for Jesus Christ, the unique God-man.

Dr. Spencer: Precisely. The atonement of Christ is what the great theologian John Murray called a “consequent absolute necessity”.[2] In other words, as a consequence of God’s choosing to save some people, it was absolutely necessary that Jesus become incarnate, live a holy life in perfect obedience to the law, and then willingly give himself as a sacrifice of atonement.

Marc Roby: That’s a thought that stretches the mind beyond the breaking point – that God would love us enough to send his own Son to redeem us, and that Jesus Christ would agree to become incarnate and offer himself as a sacrifice on our behalf.

Dr. Spencer: It is impossible to fully grasp that. And the main thing I want to do in this session is to have a short meditation on that amazing fact. In 2 Corinthians 8:9 Paul wrote that “you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” The great 19th-century English preacher Charles Spurgeon preached a marvelous sermon on this verse,[3] and I would like to take a couple of minutes to meditate on some of what he said.

Marc Roby: Alright. Paul wrote that Christ was rich, which obviously refers to his situation prior to the incarnation, what does Spurgeon say about that?

Dr. Spencer: Spurgeon discusses the riches of Christ in three categories: his possessions, honor, and love. With regard to possessions, the wealth of Jesus Christ prior to the incarnation is unimaginable. To put this in perspective, let’s take a minute to talk about Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon.

Marc Roby: Who, I understand, recently overtook Bill Gates as the world’s richest man.

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. He is now worth somewhere near 100 billion dollars. That is 100-thousand million dollars.

Marc Roby: I can’t really grasp a number that large.

Dr. Spencer: Neither can I, especially not when we’re talking about money. The town we live in, Davis, California, currently has a population slightly less than 70,000 people. Jeff Bezos could, in principle, give every single person in Davis one million dollars and still have about 30 billion dollars left over.

Marc Roby: That’s incomprehensible to me. But it does give me a good idea too, maybe we should send him a suggestion!

Dr. Spencer: Maybe we should. But the point is that he has an amazing amount of money. And yet, his riches are nothing at all in comparison to the riches of the pre-incarnate Christ. Jesus owned absolutely everything.

Marc Roby: I’m reminded of Psalm 50:9-12, where God declares, “I have no need of a bull from your stall or of goats from your pens, for every animal of the forest is mine, and the cattle on a thousand hills. I know every bird in the mountains, and the creatures of the field are mine. If I were hungry I would not tell you, for the world is mine, and all that is in it.”

Dr. Spencer: And that is speaking of Jesus Christ, because he is the second person of the Holy Trinity. But he is not only rich because he owns everything, he is also rich because he created everything. So, if he wanted more, he could have it instantly. All he would have to do is create whatever he wanted.

Modern physicists like to imagine an infinite number of universes, but Jesus could actually create however many universes he wanted! And if he wanted a billion more angels singing his praises all he would have to do is say a word and they would come into being. So, in possessions, Jesus was rich beyond measure.

Marc Roby: That is something to ponder. You said that Spurgeon also spoke of Christ being rich in honor.

Dr. Spencer: Right. As the Creator and Lord of everything he had all honor and glory. In Isaiah 6 we are told about Isaiah’s incredible vision of the throne-room of God. He writes, “In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord seated on a throne, high and exalted, and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphs, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.’ At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.”

Marc Roby: And, of course, that vision caused Isaiah to cry out, “Woe to me, I am ruined!”

Dr. Spencer: I think that is the only reaction possible for a sinful human being. We also read about the throne of God in Chapter 4 of Revelation if our listeners want to take a look at that. But, the point is clear, Jesus was rich beyond measure in honor as well.

Marc Roby: Alright, you also mentioned love.

Dr. Spencer: Yes. In 1 Corinthians 13:1-3 Paul says that “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.” And Spurgeon therefore notes that having all possessions and honor would mean nothing if Christ didn’t have love.

Marc Roby: But, of course, as we already pointed out, Christ loved us enough to die for us.

Dr. Spencer: That’s true. And, while his sacrificial death is the ultimate culmination of his work, it is by no means all that he did. We must remember that his becoming a man was an amazing act of love in and of itself. Just think about it for a moment, the Lord of glory becoming a lowly man!

Marc Roby: John Murray, whom you mentioned earlier, wrote an amazing passage about the incarnation that I’d like to take a moment to read. But, before I read it, let me define an unusual word that he uses. He mentions Christ being supratemporal, which means above, over, or outside the limits of time.  So, with that definition in mind, let me read what Murray wrote about the incarnation: “The infinite became the finite, the eternal and supratemporal entered time and became subject to its conditions, the immutable became the mutable, the invisible became the visible, the Creator became the created, the sustainer of all became dependent, the Almighty infirm. All is summed up in the proposition, God became man.”[4]

Dr. Spencer: That’s a wonderful summary statement that should cause us all to praise God in complete wonder and awe at his boundless love for his people. And it’s a perfect summary of Spurgeon’s second point in his sermon, as 2 Corinthians 8:9 says, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor”.

We are told in Philippians 2:6-8 that Jesus Christ, “being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death— even death on a cross!” Let me tell you, that is poverty.

Had Jesus come into this world as the son of a great king, had he been placed in a crib of gold and attended to by dozens of servants, had he been praised and given honor by all men, it still would have been great humiliation compared to his true nature. But, he came as the son of dirt-poor parents in a backwater part of the Roman empire. Isaiah prophesied, and history confirms, that he was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrow and familiar with suffering.

Marc Roby: The humiliation of Christ is an incomprehensible display of God’s love. And, of course, 2 Corinthians 8:9 also tells us the purpose for his becoming poor. It says, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

Dr. Spencer: That’s right. Although the ultimate purpose is the glory of God, the proximate purpose of the incarnation was the salvation of sinners.

So, now we see the real meaning of Christmas. God, in eternity past, knew that man would sin, and he looked upon that future mass of sinful human beings and he chose to save some. Having made that choice, the Son agreed to become incarnate – he became poor, so that through his sacrificial death we might become rich. Which is, of course, referring to our eternal glory in heaven, which is the destiny of all true believers. That is the greatest present any human being can ever receive. And it is my hope and prayer this Christmas, that everyone who hears this message, will humble themselves, and cry out to God, “Lord, have mercy on me a sinner, on the basis of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.”

Marc Roby: I join in your prayer. And that concludes our Christmas message for this year. But, I want to tell our listeners about a couple of great gifts they purchase for themselves, or someone else. Our Pastor’s book called Rediscovering the True Meaning of Christmas[5] and his excellent daily devotional called Daily Delight[6] are now both available for purchase on our website, or from Amazon. I’m confident that you will be edified by either or both of them. I also want to remind our listeners to email their questions and comments to info@whatdoesthewordsay.org. And I, along with Dr. Spencer, wish you all a very Merry Christmas and a glorious New Year!

[1] All scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® (1984 version). Copyright © 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™.

[2] John Murray, Redemption Accomplished and Applied, Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1955, pg. 11

[3] Spurgeon’s Sermons, Baker Books, 1996, Vol. 4, pp 364-380

[4] John Murray, Collected Works, Vol. II, Banner of Truth Trust, 1977, Vol. 2, pg. 132

[5] P.G. Mathew, Rediscovering the True Meaning of Christmas – A Collection of Incarnation Sermons, Grace and Glory Ministries, 2017

[6] P.G. Mathew, Daily Delight – Meditations from the Scriptures, Grace and Glory Ministries, 2015

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