By / Dec 19

To outside observers, Mary and Joseph were just another Jewish family showing up at the temple for the purification rite. They were following the Jewish law. Seven days after birth, Jesus circumcised and thirty-three days after circumcision, Mary and Jesus were back here in the temple for the purification ceremony and the presentation of their child to the Lord for his service. 

But here is where this moment is anything but ordinary. That baby, after all, is the Son of God, the one whose words breathed out creation, sculpted Adam and Even from the dust of the ground and breathed into his own parents the breath of life was publicly identifying with his people, Israel, by submitting to the circumcision. Jesus, perfectly submitting to the law that only he could perfectly fulfill, the spotless One identifying with the impure so that Mary, Joseph, Simeon, and all true believers might one day become pure. 

Mary and Joseph carried with them two turtledoves as part of the sacrifice offering. There is, of course, deep irony here. Though they carried in their arms, the Lamb of God, they were too poor to purchase a lamb and instead, had to settle for the lesser turtledoves. It reminds us of the kind of people among whom God chose to dwell. The kingdom of Christ breaks in, not in the palaces or private estates of the powerful, but among the common, the meek, the kind of people who had to dig for enough shekels to afford turtledoves. And the baby held so tightly in their arms would one day become the perfect sacrifice for sins that these slain animals symbolized, the Lamb of God slain for the sins of the world. 

Nobody in the temple that day was looking for a Christ child. Nobody was seeking a Savior. Nobody expected, on this of all days, a moment that would be written down later in ink by a doctor and preserved as Scripture for us to read today. There was a heaviness in Jerusalem that day and most days. It had been centuries since God spoke directly to his people. And every time Jewish people trudged past their temple, they had seen the Roman flag, flying high above their land, a recurring symbol of their lost glory. 

Would-be messiahs had come and gone. Now they were ruled by men like Herod, whose corrupt ascension to power and ruthless leadership further disillusioned ordinary Jews. None of them thought the solution for the corruption in Rome and the malfeasance in Herod’s palace and the sin in their own hearts was resting, not a few feet away, in a carpenter’s arms. 

Even the religious elites in this temple, who pored over the ancient books and prided themselves on knowing every last arcane point of theology, were oblivious to Jesus. 

But among the crowds that day, not among the waiting parents, not among the religious leaders, was a mysterious old man. Unlike the cynics, unlike the religious leaders, Simeon held onto a seemingly impossible wish grounded in a radical faith in the Scripture’s promise of a coming Messiah. Would God appear in the flesh in their day?

He studied the Scriptures and the prophecies. But more than that, he listened to the voice of God’s Spirit. 

Who is Simeon? 

So who is this Simeon character who just kind of appears, from the shadows, into the gospel story? What’s interesting is that, 2,000 years later, we still don’t really know who he was. Luke, who wrote his eyewitness account with painstaking detail thought only one thing mattered in Simeon’s bio: “faithful, devout Jew waiting for the consolation of Israel.” 

Simeon believed the promise of a coming servant-king, the son of David, threaded throughout the law and the prophets. He may not have understood everything he read, but he knew enough to believe. Simeon knew enough to listen to the Holy Spirit’s whisper and was more in tune with God than the scholars who were paid to study and the scribes who were paid to teach. 

Imagine the scene in the temple that day. An old man, stooped and graying, coming every day to the temple, expecting the Messiah. The religious people probably think he’s an eccentric. They make jokes behind his back. There’s Simeon. He thinks the Lord is coming today. 

Every day he scans the crowd. Every day he asks the Lord, “Is this baby the one?” and every day the Lord says, “No, Simeon, this is not the one.” 

And then finally one day the Spirit of God whispers those words: This is the day. This is the one. You will meet the Son of God. 

Perhaps he’s reminded of the way Israel’s last great king was chosen. A similarly aging man of faith approached Jesse’s lineup of young men, asking the Lord, Is this the next king? And the Spirit answers Samuel, each time, No, this isn’t the one. Until finally, David, the unlikely shepherd boy, summoned from the shepherds’ fields, enters. 

Yes, this is the next king of Israel. 

Imagine how Simeon’s aging heart leaped within him. “Can I hold your child”, he asks. And in his arms, Simeon carries the frail, newborn baby whose arms would one day carry Simeon from sin to salvation. He looks into the eyes of his tiny Savior, the same Jesus who holds up the universe with his power. 

What wells up in Simeon’s heart were words he had been preparing to share his entire life. A prayer that has been memorized, sung and framed from caves to cathedrals throughout church history:  

“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.” (Luke 2:29–32 ESV)

I can die because I’ve seen your salvation. This, for Simeon, was no ordinary baby. He would not only be Simeon’s salvation, but the salvation of the world, people from every nation, tribe, and tongue. This is the one of whom God spoke to Abraham, when he promised that the patriarch’s heir would bless the nations. This is the one of whom God spoke to David when he promised the monarch an everlasting kingdom. This is the one of whom the prophets spoke, a lion of the tribe of Judah, a suffering servant, a conquering king. 

Simeon had met Jesus, and Simeon was ready to die. 

Death, of course, is a strange subject for Christmas. It doesn’t make for cozy Hallmark specials and singing Christmas trees. But Simeon knew he could face death—something every one of us will face one day—because he met the one who would conquer death. 

There is so much for us to learn from Simeon’s life. His perseverance, his attentive listening to God in a noisy, cynical age, his worship of the baby Jesus. But what is most important about Simeon—and you—was his relationship with Jesus. Simeon could die, not because he checked off the right religious boxes or performed all the outward rituals of the Jewish faith, but because he put his faith in the God-man. 

You, like Simeon, can be unafraid of death because you can know and understand that this baby is the triumphant, conquering Jesus whose own death and resurrection defeated the sin, death and the grave. 

Don’t misunderstand: Simeon wasn’t seeking death. And neither should we. But there is a sweet assurance in knowing that if and when our time comes, whether tomorrow or in forty years, we can face death with peace because we know the Prince of peace. 

In my experience as a pastor, the people who were most full of life, who walked through every day with joy and verve were those who were most at peace with their own mortality, who understood that this little baby in the manger we celebrate at Christmas defeated the grave. This is why Paul could say, of his own contentment, “to live is Christ, to die is gain.” Either way, he has peace and Christ is glorified. 

This is the central message of Christmas. No doubt, today as you read this, you are enveloped in the charm and the coziness of another December. But as much as we enjoy the season, let us not remember that we set aside time, as believers, not merely to gather with family or to sip warm beverages, but to acknowledge the central truth of Christianity: Jesus has come to save us from our sins. 

This Jesus, Simeon knew, wasn’t just an ordinary baby. He may not have understood exactly how it would all play out, nor did he fully grasp the mystery of God becoming human (neither do we). But Simeon knew enough to know that Jesus would not only be the long-awaited Messiah every Jewish person longed to see; he would be “a light for the Gentiles.” This is repeated, often, in the gospel narratives of Jesus’ birth. In Mary’s song. In Zachariahs’ praise. In the words of the angel to Joseph. 

Jesus is and was a Savior for the entire world. It’s important for us to understand this truth. Sometimes we are tempted to think Jesus came only to save people that look like us, but we are told, from the promise to Abraham in Genesis through the words of the prophets and on into the gospel narratives and on through the letters of Paul and into John’s vision in Revelation that the kingdom of God is made up of people from every nation, tribe and tongue.

And let’s not forget the great cost of our salvation. This day in the temple was a day of celebration and dedication, but Simeon’s words were not all pleasant for Mary to hear, especially his proclamation that “a sword would pierce” her soul. This is not what new mothers exactly want to hear about their motherhood, but Simeon knew that the promise contained both joy and pain, blessing and anguish. The baby whom Simeon held, who cooed and kicked and delighted his young parents would one day endure the unjust trial, motivated by blood thirsty crowds. The very people he formed as Creator would laugh at his cries of pain. The world he came to save would send him to his death. Most of all, the Father with whom he communed in all of eternity would see his son, not as the pure and spotless lamb, but as the embodiment of all the sin and anguish of a rebellious human race. 

This sword was Mary’s unique calling. One day she would kneel at the foot of an ugly Roman instrument of execution: a cross. One day she would weep, with the others, as he lay dead in a borrowed tomb. One day she would question and fear and doubt the angel’s promise. 

Simeon’s word to Mary was rooted in the prophet’s vision of a coming king who would both suffer and conquer, who would reign over his enemies and yet be pierced for the transgressions of his people. This is why Christmas is both wonderful and yet violent, far from the saccharine holiday we often celebrate. The kingdom of God was to first come through the violent death of the Son of God. 

But Mary, like all of those who believe, could find hope that the baby she held would not only pay for the sins of those who nailed him to the cross, but would defeat death in his resurrection. Her son would endure all of this to reconciliation between sinners–like herself, like Simeon, like you and me–and God. Jesus’ future agony would be our salvation and God’s glory.

*This excerpt is an adapted excerpt from “The Characters of Christmas: The Unlikely People Caught Up in the Story of Jesus” (Moody Publishers, 2019).

By / Sep 12

My personal study of the Scriptures has been enriched by wondering, “What was that really like?” This question feels particularly relevant to the stories of those who came face-to-face with the God-man, Jesus Christ, and lived to tell about it in the Gospels. Author Rebecca McLaughlin gives full treatment to this sort of curiosity in her book Jesus Through the Eyes of Women: How the First Female Disciples Help Us Know and Love the Lord (The Gospel Coalition, 2022)

Before we get into her masterful debunking of certain myths and stereotypes, let me deflate one on the author’s behalf: though women are in the title, this book is not just for women, and it is not even really about women. This is a book about the person of Christ, and it is for all those who want to know and follow him more. The fresh perspective it offers us is an aide to that lifelong endeavor. 

The book is also for those who are questioning—or even deeply skeptical—about Jesus and about the Bible that tells of his improbable life, death, and resurrection. McLaughlin has spent plenty of time considering the cynic’s vantage point, with books that include Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion in 2020 and The Secular Creed: Engaging 5 Contemporary Claims in 2021. She effortlessly brings them along in this project as well.

Birthed out of McLaughlin’s own inquisitiveness, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women was written at “breakneck speed” in late 2021, said Ivan Mesa, TGC’s editorial director. It reads easily, too, as if penned in nearly one sitting. Though there is plenty to underline in a print edition, the author’s British accent makes the just over 4-hour audiobook a delightful option as well.

A winsome apologist with a Ph.D. in renaissance literature and a degree in theology, McLaughlin brings an academic’s understanding of history, context, and biblical commentary to bear on the core question of this book: How did the women named in the Bible describe their interactions with a Christ who was as countercultural then as he is today? And what would we have missed had these women not told others, ‘I have seen the Lord’? (John 20:18)

“To look at Jesus through the eyes of women may seem at first like an innately modern project,” McLaughlin admits in the book’s conclusion. But “what we see through their eyes is not an alternative Jesus, but rather the authentic Jesus, who welcomes both men and women as his disciples, and who is best seen from below.”

Though she leads into the subject with mention of the Gnostic Gospel of Mary (a text from the early church period rejected as heretical), acknowledging why it would resonate with some who view the Bible as dismissive of women—don’t worry. McLaughlin’s thesis is that the first-century Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John already reflect the eyewitness testimony of women who met Jesus and that “the Jesus we see through their eyes is more beautiful, more historically accurate, and more valuing of women than anything the Gospel of Mary can offer.”  

McLaughlin’s even-handed approach would make the book a viable suggestion even for a secular book club, and questions written by TGC’s Joanna Kimbrel at the end of each chapter make such discussions even easier. Have a few academics or self-declared feminists in the group? All the better. These are the types of readers McLaughlin seems eager to bring along, graciously refuting some of the false claims they may have heard about Christianity—that it is, at best, dismissive of the female experience and, at worst, harmful to women—while introducing them to the one who “valued women of all kinds—especially those vilified by others.”

But those who would avoid the book for fear it is tainted by feminist underpinnings would do well to pick it up, too. McLaughlin is faithful to the biblical text and to history while being keenly aware of our current cultural moment. Rather, this book lands in the good company of Dane Ortlund’s Gentle and Lowly and Paul E. Miller’s J-Curve through its meditation on Christ’s momentum toward the lowly and its call that we respond.

After building inroads for a variety of readers, McLaughlin gets into the nitty-gritty details of how women’s accounts added to the picture we see the Gospels paint of Jesus. Which stories in these books were likely included only because women witnessed and relayed them? It turns out, plenty. “If we cut the things that only women witnessed, we’d lose our first glimpse of Jesus as he took on human flesh and our first glimpse of his resurrected body,” McLaughlin writes. “The four Gospels preserve the eyewitness testimony of women.” 

The book delves into what these women witnessed by dividing the stories into six broad categories, from discipleship and nourishment, to healing and forgiveness. 

Zooming in 

Asking what Jesus looked like through their eyes helps us relate in fresh ways to familiar female characters like his mother, Mary. Just as the prophecy that new life is being birthed inside her seems unfathomable when it first arrives, the Christian can also wonder just how the promised newness of life in Christ is really at work in him or her. “Through Mary’s eyes, we see the life-upending blessing of receiving Jesus,” McLaughlin summarizes.

The book introduces us to lesser-known women of the Bible, too, like Joanna, the wife of Herod’s household manager and a likely source of inside information from the halls of power (Luke 9:1-3; 9:9). In his Gospel account, Luke would have named Joanna and other women who were with Jesus “in order to flag them as eyewitness sources” for some of the stories he includes, McLaughlin writes. McLaughlin also revisits biblical women we think we know, from Mary Magdalene to Lazarus’ sisters. 

Perhaps my favorite of these is the author’s take on the well-known story of Mary and Martha. When Jesus tells Martha, who is “distracted with much serving,” that her sister Mary “has chosen the good portion” by sitting at his feet, McLaughlin doesn’t see it as an indictment of the domestic anxieties that can plague women (how often have you heard a woman confess to “being a Martha”?). Rather, his words are a “validation of female discipleship,” of Mary’s and Martha’s access to Jesus as thinkers and students, not just servers. 

Through the eyes of these sisters, “we see [Jesus] as the one who welcomes women and defends their right to learn from him. We also see him as the one who gives us so much more than we could ever give to him.” 

It’s paradigm-shifting, then, to consider that this Martha is the one to whom Jesus later speaks some of his “most world-transforming” words: “I am the resurrection and the life.” McLaughlin points out that almost all of Jesus’ ‘I am’ statements are spoken to groups, but the two that are spoken to individuals are spoken to women. 

Besides John, women are largely the consistent witnesses of Jesus’ excruciating death, burial, and resurrection as well. In a chapter on life, McLaughlin focuses on these women’s accounts to winsomely argue for, not against, biblical soundness at several points, anticipating opposing views. She even quotes a resurrection skeptic and politely refutes his claims. 

She reminds us that, in that culture, the only reason to say that women witnessed all this is that they really did. 

Bringing Christ into focus

In her chapters on healing and forgiveness, McLaughlin acknowledges the messier stories, too. Jesus’ interaction with the bleeding woman, in particular, “shows he doesn’t shy away from femaleness.” This is often in sharp contrast to the responses of those around him. When this woman reaches for his cloak, “Jesus does not recoil.”

As he is with these women, he is also with us. “Jesus is no more put off by our inevitable uncleanness than a mother who has just given birth would be put off from holding her blood-smeared newborn. Before long, Jesus would bleed for this woman.”

Her chapter on the theme of forgiveness brings into focus Jesus’ infamous interactions with women of ill repute. These stories show a Jesus who “welcomed prostitutes: not like the other men of his day, and of ours, but like a loving brother, searching for his sister in the slums to bring her home.” Why does he welcome them? Not because of permissiveness, McLaughlin writes, but because of their repentance. 

Through the eyes of the sinful woman who crashes Simon the Pharisee’s dinner party (Luke 7:36-49), at last we see Jesus as “the one who defends” the woman wetting his feet with her tears and wiping them with her hair. Rather than tearing this woman down along with his host, Jesus lifts her up “as a shining, tear-stained paragon of love to humble the self-righteous Pharisee.”

All this goes to show that those who throw themselves at Christ’s feet are the ones who will enter his kingdom. In this way, Jesus Through the Eyes of Women bridges the growing gap between how cultures—both the New Testament’s and our own—treat women who equally bear God’s image, and how the Jesus of the Bible did. We would do well to ingest, imitate, and marvel at the latter.

By / Apr 11

Every Christian parent wants their kids to live in the hope and joy found only in Christ. But every day, our kids talk to kids who disagree with what we’ve taught them. At school, in the neighborhood, and even at church, your child will hear, “Has God really said that?” “God isn’t really going to do that!” “That’s just make-believe.” How can we prepare our children to know what is true and what is a lie?

The Bible warns us of God’s enemy, Satan. From the beginning of time, Satan has lied to keep us from trusting God. Satan easily deceives us. Without God’s powerful Word, our kids trust in cultural trends. Each new philosophy and temptation tries to carry them away. What can we as parents do? We can teach them to look to Jesus, who triumphed over Satan at the cross. When Pilate asked, “What is truth?” Jesus answered, “The reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). 

And although it’s true that God, in Christ, delivers believers from the penalty our sin deserves, we still struggle constantly with sin on this Earth. This can be a hard reality for our children to grasp. How can we help our family understand the struggles we face and, at the same time, the hope we have in Jesus? God’s truth responds to our biggest questions and our inner struggles. Here are three truths to hold on to as you prepare your family to celebrate the foundation of our hope — Christ’s death and resurrection. 

1. Satan’s lies battle against God’s truth

The serpent whispers, “True happiness comes through what you have and do.” “Who needs to be Jesus’ friend? Live for yourself and be happy.” “Why tell the truth when no one else is?” “Don’t you have a right to be angry?” Let the truth of God’s Word drown out Satan’s lies. In the Holy Spirit’s power, we can help our kids identify the lies.

We can expect Satan’s lies to battle with God’s truth in our minds and hearts. When we least expect it, doubt and fear will suddenly fill our kids’ hearts. Prepare for those moments. Give your family the hope we all need — Jesus truly saves! In Christ, God loves and forgives us. And God assures us that he is greater than he who is in the world (1 John 4:4). As we trust in Jesus, the Holy Spirit makes the truth more powerful than the next new lie (2 Timothy 3:15-18).  

2. God has a bigger purpose in our suffering

Our world expects parents to teach their kids to look on the bright side. But what happens when the bright side is hard to find? God doesn’t ask us to pretend that things are good when they are bad. Instead, God calls us to cry out to him. The psalmist says, “Pour out your hearts before him; God is a refuge for us” (Psalm 62:8). Prayers of lament and repentance let your kids hear you talk to God about your fears, impulses, and discouragements. They may begin to see the connection between our struggles and our need to depend on God.    

We may think our kids need to hear “feel-good” prayers, but we don’t have to pretend all is well. God, in his Word and by his Spirit, is with us in life’s struggle. He invites us and our kids to ask hard questions. “Why do Christians still struggle with sin?” “Why does God allow bad things to happen?” “Why do people get sick and die?” Hard questions can lead our kids to the solid hope in Christ they need. 

As Easter approaches, follow Jesus on his hard road to the cross. You can read excerpts from A Jesus Easter with your family. It tackles 25 of Satan’s lies with God’s eternal truth. It may lead your kids to ask more tough questions: “Jesus had done nothing wrong, so why did bad people accuse him?” “Why did they call Jesus names and beat him?” “Why did Jesus have to suffer and die?” As your family reads the Scriptures together, teach your kids to watch for God — his person and promises. Open God’s Word, and show your family what it means to look for God’s bigger purpose. Our loving heavenly Father is at work, making us more like his Son, Jesus. 

3. Hardship teaches us to hope in God

Our children hope for many things that may or may not happen. But there’s no maybe about hope in God. Resurrection hope in God means we can be certain his Word is true. Jesus died on the cross to pay the penalty for our sin and open the way for us to be God’s children. He rose to life, defeating Satan, sin, and death forever. Now God’s children know that they, too, will be raised to new life after they die (1 Corinthians 15:20-23). Our kids can know that Jesus empowers his children to live the life he died to give them. Our bodies will die, yet we will be resurrected in a glorified body. Death and sin can never touch us again (Philippians 3:21). 

Easter is a special time to look to the cross of Christ and his resurrection — to refresh our hope in God if we have already trusted in Jesus, and to point our children to salvation if they have not yet trusted in him. Jesus frees us from the power of sin (Romans 6:17-18). The more this amazing truth takes hold of us, the more we experience a taste of victory. The truth our kids believe can overpower whatever lies Satan throws at them. And when they sin, they will find grace and comfort in repentance and forgiveness. Jesus has gone ahead of us to prepare a place for us (John 14:2-3). One day he will come for us. We will live with him in his kingdom without sin (1 John 3:1-3). He will wipe away every tear. We will only have pefect joy, forever (Revelation 21:3-4; 22:5).

When doubts and sins threaten our children’s hearts, hope in Jesus keeps them safe. God’s Word tells the truth about sin and suffering so that our families can find freedom, hope, and joy in Christ. You don’t have to live in fear of the wrong opinions and lies that your children will encounter. Let God’s Word guide your family, make them wise, and strengthen. Make this Easter a time for your family to discover true hope through faith in Jesus Christ. 

By / Nov 19

The Christmas season is one of the busiest and brightest times of the year. Houses and store windows shine with twinkling lights, while smart phones and televisions are lit up with dazzling advertisements for the latest and greatest goods. During the month of December, there’s no shortage of hustle and bustle, festivities and feasting. We decorate, cookie-bake, and fill our days with parties, programs, and present-shopping. Whether these activities excite or exhaust us (or both), we can agree that the Christmas season is significant, not only in our culture but in our hearts as well. Although it has been commercialized, there is a glory or “weight” to the season as it completely invades an entire month of the year and our lives.

Are we enthralled by Jesus at Christmas? 

As Christians, we know “Jesus is the reason for the season.” We recognize that all the bright and beautiful traditions and celebrations of December should point us and our children to the ultimate glory of God himself — the God who took on flesh and entered history as a human baby to save sinners. Yet, while we know what is true, the gloriously good news of Christ’s first coming often seems a bit muted next to the flashy glories of the holiday season itself.   

Let’s be honest. The events, traditions, and “stuff” of Christmas tend to enthrall our hearts and consume our minds more than the reality of the long-awaited Messiah and King, who came and is coming back for us again. Our children are more quickly and easily enamored by tales of Santa Claus, with his flying reindeer and bag of shiny new toys, than by the story of the Christ child in the manger. And that’s not too surprising if all they hear is a serene story about a baby born in Bethlehem thousands of years ago to save them. Save them from what? Santa brings kids stuff they can see, touch, feel, and enjoy right now! What does this baby of old have to do with their lives (and their parents’ lives) today?

The answer is: everything. We just need eyes to see it. In his book What is Biblical Theology? James Hamilton writes: “What we think and how we live is largely determined by the larger story in which we interpret our lives. Does your story enable you to look death in the face? Does your story give you a hope that goes beyond the grave? . . . The world does have a true story. The Bible tells it.”

Jesus Christ is the hero of the world’s true story — a story that’s epic, true, and able to bring meaning, purpose, and hope to our own stories. The world’s story is really God’s story, found in the pages of Scripture and told through many smaller stories that all connect to form one grand narrative. This narrative begins with the creation of the world in the book of Genesis and ends with the consummation of all things in the book of Revelation. Between these bookends, the story climaxes in the life, death, and resurrection of the story’s hero, Jesus the Christ — the one who changes everything about our lives.

Jesus is the connecting thread who binds each individual story and book of the Bible together to reveal something greater. So, when we disjoin his nativity from the larger narrative, it loses its luster, so to speak. In fact, the birth of Christ really makes no sense when removed from the context of the larger story. When we read it and teach it to our children as an isolated event, we fail to realize the personal and cosmic significance — the sheer glory — of Christ coming to earth and taking on human flesh. Without the whole story, we don’t understand why we needed him to come in the first place. 

Helping your family trace glory

Tracing Glory: The Christmas Story Through the Bible is a daily advent reading for the month of December that seeks to help individuals and families see and celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ within its proper context of the Bible’s big story. Written with children, teenagers, and adults in mind, it begins looking back at the creation of the world in the book of Genesis and ends looking forward to the new creation in the book of Revelation, tracing the glory of Jesus Christ from start to finish. In each day’s reading, there is a key scripture to look up, a devotional commentary to read, a helpful summary highlighting the key point and showing how that Bible passage points to Jesus, and questions to prompt discussion with your families. 

Tracing Glory was written to help my children and others see that the Christmas story we read in Luke chapter two is much more than a sweet tale of a baby lying peacefully in a manger under the warm glow of the stars. The birth of Christ is the pivotal event in history and the climax of the Bible’s storyline, a story full of captivating themes like good and evil, power, love, war, sacrifice, redemption, mystery, death, victory, and glory. It’s all there, and it’s all true. As we start to truly grasp God’s big story, it draws us in and enables us to make sense of our own individual stories. It tells us why we’re here, what has gone wrong in our own hearts and in our world, and what (or, rather, who) is the solution to our problem.

The reality is that the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ outshines all the flashy glories of this present world, even, and maybe especially, during the holidays. When we truly “see” him, our lives are forever changed. God alone can give us eyes to see, and he does this by revealing the beauty and sufficiency of his Son through his Word and by his Spirit. The goal of this resource is to take you and your family to the Word of God during the Christmas season and help you trace the glory of Jesus Christ from start to finish. As you do, my prayer is that Christ would become more desirable to you and sufficient for you than anything else. During this bright and busy season, may you and your family more deeply love the story and more joyfully reflect his glory. 

By / May 12

Authenticity is the ideological currency of our culture. 

Many preachers and evangelists of the 20th and 21st centuries have rightly emphasized absolute truth. Often, as these faith leaders died or were discovered to be hypocrites (for some, in that order), so did confidence in their message. People witnessed leaders who preached something that didn’t actually change or affect their lives, and as we slid closer to postmodernity, Christianity became just another option in a sea of belief systems. 

Yet behind the grandiose, post-truth taglines like “I’m living my truth” or “What’s true for you isn’t true for me,” there is a deep longing for truth with a favorable outcome. Truth worth believing in produces positive, long-lasting change.

So as our leaders-at-large dwindle to a handful of still-trusted (or not-yet-distrusted), who is left to tell the truth? To share authentic, deep, abiding faith? We are. And it’s time to start telling our stories. 

The power of storytelling

Lee Strobel, prolific author and former skeptic, says it wasn’t just the facts that led him to faith in Jesus, but the stories of those he spoke with and studied. First, the “winsome” changes he saw in his wife intrigued him. He interacted with scholars who shared their own personal faith stories. Even the 12 disciples’ changed lives moved Lee to consider Jesus. 

The Bible tells us that our stories, when paired with the gospel of Jesus, have incredibly powerful effects. Revelation 12:11 says the life-changing gospel ultimately defeats Satan:  “And [the saints] have conquered [Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death.”  

Our stories don’t enhance the gospel; it’s the opposite. The gospel infuses our stories with an incredible, true, and certain hope for those that need it most. Our stories hold a power the devil cannot withstand. 

God created our brains to process stories differently and more effectively than facts and data. It’s nearly impossible for our brains to ignore a good story. Well-told stories can create a closeness between the storyteller and the listener, making storytelling a natural relationship-building skill. 

Your story of how the gospel changes your life can go where a tract, a preacher, or any other kind of evangelism method or tool often cannot. Your story can open doors and pave the way in friendships where the gospel can be explained — and lived out — in personal and authentic ways. And yes, our stories include flaws and our imperfections, but these allow us to share how Jesus loves and heals us deeply and uniquely. Our evangelistic tone shifts from “You need Jesus” to “We need Jesus, and he is bigger than all our sins and mistakes.” 

Share your story, share Jesus 

Being ready to tell our stories whenever we’re asked (1 Pet. 3:15) means we have to know how the gospel has changed our lives. It also means we have to be willing to listen to others’ stories, and to do so free of criticism so that we can earn the right to be heard. 

Storytelling is more than a buzzword or a societal phenomenon; it’s a way we can share how Jesus is real and awesome and trustworthy. Storytelling is a sacred art which helps us engage our culture for the gospel of Jesus, honestly and genuinely. Through the Holy Spirit, may our stories point to the trustworthiness of Jesus rather than a leader’s platform or charisma. 

In a world that is increasingly skeptical of leaders and official narratives, our authentic stories may go farther than previous evangelism methods. But our message is the same: Jesus Christ crucified, raised, bringing abundant life, and coming again. 

By / Apr 1

Editor’s Note: The day that Christ died on the cross was the darkest of days for the disciples. They had put all of their hope in this Jesus, and now it seemed to be for nothing. What they didn’t know was that the cross paved the way for their freedom, their joy, and their future. May these meditations about the truth of the resurrection cause your heart to soar in wonder at what Christ has purchased for us. 

1. The resurrection is the core of the Christian message and should never be neglected or assumed.

Sometimes today, when we hear the gospel preached, the focus is on the cross. The resurrection is often ignored, assumed, or mentioned only in passing. In contrast, the preaching recorded in the book of Acts emphasized the resurrection of Jesus, and barely mentioned his death. The apostles were preoccupied with the resurrection and emphasized it much more than the cross.

Sadly, the church only seems to get excited about the resurrection once a year at Easter time. In reality, every Sunday should be Resurrection Sunday. The reason why the early church began to meet on the first day of the week was to celebrate Jesus’s defeat of death. Imagine what church would be like if we consciously gathered every week to celebrate the resurrection?

2. Belief in Jesus’s physical resurrection is the defining doctrine of Christianity.

It is surely a remarkable thing that every Christian denomination—from the Orthodox to the Catholic, from the Pentecostal to the Reformed Baptist—all believe one simple truth: the tomb was empty. There is very little else we all agree on! Only some liberals deny the physical resurrection of Jesus. Surely they thereby forfeit the right to call themselves Christians at all.

In my book, Raised With Christ, I offered the following definition of a Christian: a Christian is someone who believes in the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ, and lives in light of the implications of that event.

This is based on Paul’s clear promise: “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9, emphasis added).

3. The resurrection demonstrated to the whole universe the deity of Jesus and God’s love for him.

Jesus was, “declared to be the Son of God in power according to the Spirit of holiness by his resurrection from the dead” (Rom. 1:4).

It is the resurrection of Jesus that reveals his true nature to all who will see: “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance . . . and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31).

4. Without the resurrection, there would have been no church at all.

After Jesus’s arrest and death, the disciples were lost, helpless, and afraid. Peter denied Jesus, whilst the rest ran away. It is hard to conceive of anything other than the resurrection of Jesus that would have led to this rag-tail bunch of people sharing the message of Jesus in such a way that it grew into the largest religious movement ever known to man.

Without their unwavering confidence in Jesus’s resurrection, would the disciples have risked everything, and in many cases been killed for their faith? People do die all the time for falsehoods that they themselves genuinely believe to be true. It is, however, impossible to believe that all of the disciples would die for something they knew to be a deliberate deception.

The church did not create the resurrection stories; instead, the resurrection stories created the church.

5. Our neglect of Jesus’s resurrection may be one of the reasons our gospel preaching is so powerless.

Spurgeon examined the preaching of his day and felt the reason for its lack of power was its lack of emphasis on the resurrection. Spurgeon determined to emphasize the message of the resurrection, and saw thousands of conversions as a result. If we choose to neglect the preaching of the resurrection, should we be surprised if we don’t see similar results?

When Paul spoke about the gospel, he always meant the announcement of the glorious victory of the risen King. It is this gospel that is “the power of God for salvation to everyone who believes” (Rom. 1:16).

6. The resurrection purchased our justification.

When you ask most Christians about justification, they move straight to the cross of Jesus paying the price for our sins. But if justification simply means an absence of guilt, then we have a blank slate and have to spend the rest of our lives worrying about if we will mess it up again. Paul tells us in the contrary: “He was delivered up for our trespasses and raised for our justification” (Rom. 4:25).

What this means is that when Jesus rose again he was declared to be righteous—not just lacking any sin, but embodying holiness. The credit of Jesus’s perfection outweighed the debt of our sins. And now, the Christian is counted as righteous. Not “just as if I had never sinned” so much as “just as if I had already lived a holy life.”

Without this wonderful truth, we will not fully grasp the joy of salvation. Jesus was our obedience substitute during his life, our punishment substitute in his death, and our rebirth substitute in his resurrection.

7. The resurrection gives us the joy of knowing that Christ is with us today!

He has promised that he will be with us to the end of time. This changes everything. A dead hero in the grave is no help to us. But a risen Savior in heaven gives us great confidence!

Because the tomb is empty and Jesus is on the throne, we can know for sure that we will be victorious irrespective of what is happening in today’s world. Jesus said, “I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18).

8. The resurrection gives us hope that goes beyond the grave.

We live in a broken world. Every Christian will at some point in their lives know the pain of grieving for a loved one. When Paul told us not to ‘”grieve as others do who have no hope” (1 Thess. 4:13), he did not mean that we would not experience sadness.

But because Jesus conquered the grave, we have confidence that one day we too will rise, and so meet both Jesus and our believing loved ones again. This changes everything when we come face to face with death.

9. The resurrection unites every Christian with the life-giving force that raised Jesus from the dead.

It is through the resurrection that, “the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor. 15:45). Paul tells us, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11).

This amazing power is available to transform, equip, and empower us: “What is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe, according to the working of his great might that he worked in Christ when he raised him from the dead” (Eph. 1:19-20).

10. Because of the resurrection, we can know that Jesus is personally coming back to judge and rule the world.

It is a source of great joy for the Christian that Jesus will return. But it should also cause great concern for those who are living estranged from him. Because of the resurrection, we can be sure that this same Jesus will return again:

The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)

This article originally appeared at Crossway.org

By / Jan 9

The events that we witnessed at the Capitol this week are disturbing and almost unbelievable. And above all the things they reveal is that we are fallen human beings who are in need of a perfect, righteous, and holy Savior. When we don’t know what to do—and even when we do—the most important thing we can do is go to our God in prayer. Below is a prayer you can use personally, as a family, or in your church community.

Great God of the nations. Father, Son, and Spirit. We worship you. From the peak of Mt. Everest to the floor of the Indian ocean, you alone are worthy to be praised. We thank you for the privilege of being heard in prayer, which was purchased by the blood of your Son. 

And as we pray, we consider that majestic holiness that Isaiah peered upon. And as we do, we are quickly mindful, as he was, of our own sin. Oh Lord, how often we have fallen short of your glory. This past week, we have been greedy, prideful, and prejudiced—spending, speaking, and strolling past neighbors who were made in your image, thinking ourselves better than them. 

We are too often like the priest that walks by the wounded Samaritan. As our neighbors have been beaten, broken, and bemoaned, we have walked by with little regard for them and, at the same time, great regard for ourselves. Have mercy on us, oh God.

Forgive us for the ways in which we, the church of Jesus Christ, have contributed to the unrest that pervades our nation. Forgive us for our pettiness, our selfishness, and our gracelessness. Forgive us for the ways we have neglected your Word and prayer. Forgive us for using the church instead of serving the church. Forgive us for greater allegiances to party politics, patriotism, or preferences than to Christ, his Kingdom, his people, and his purposes in the world. 

In these days, we have had to learn, yet again Lord, that we ought not to hope in princes. We have learned to hope in you. 

As we do, Lord, we lament the present circumstances. We mourn the division that is rampant within our nation, our cities, and our churches. How much longer must we see people praising your name while at the same time blaspheming people made in your image? How much longer must we walk through the valleys of racism, murder, and pandemic fears? How much longer must we languish for our sons and daughters? How much longer until we are home, with you, in heaven? 

We wait, O blessed Lord. And as we wait, we pray that you would rend the heavens with blessings innumerable. In particular, we pray for a breaking forth of repentance among this land. People great and small. Black and white. Men and women. Boy and girl. Democrat and Republican. Baptist and Episcopalian. Bless our nation with a deluge of repentance so that we might walk in the newness of life—not alone, but together, as your people, in order that we might be the light you’ve called us to be—the light that so much of our nation is looking for now. 

Thank you, Father, for hearing us. It is only because of the sufficiency of the work and worth of your Son that we can not only be heard, but be loved and known by you. We love you Lord. May we learn to love you and one another more.

We ask, in Jesus’ magnificent name,

Amen.

By / Dec 31

James Merritt, a pastor in Georgia, shares his own struggles during the pandemic and encourages pastors to focus on Jesus.

By / Nov 27

In a year when every circumstance seems to conspire against feeling festive, traditions have a star role to play. You may not have the typical budget for buying presents; may not have the energy to cut out cookies, take a family photo, or address 100 cards; and may not even be permitted to celebrate with friends and family, but there is one wise custom with the power not only to direct our emotions regardless of our circumstances, but also to fill us with hope. That ritual is the intentional observance of Advent.

I have good memories of “doing Advent” as a young girl. I remember my parents bringing down a centerpiece wreath from the attic and lighting the candles incrementally each Sunday as they read from the Bible. They impressed on me the joy of marking the weeks leading up to Christ’s birth, building expectation. I knew they were intent on teaching us that when it came to Christmas, what mattered most was the birth of mankind’s Savior.

From Jesus to Santa

For generations, Advent was a central part of the liturgical calendar. Christians marked the days, preparing to glory in the birth of Christ. This was the most important part of Christmas. 

Not one to miss an opportunity to sell something, retailers have gotten in on the Advent action. My favorite grocery store tried a few years ago when it introduced a pricey, high-end chocolate Advent countdown calendar. While it’s true that imported Swiss, Dutch, and Belgian chocolates would be a vast improvement over the cheap waxy stuff behind the mini-doors in most dollar-store Advent calendars, they missed the point entirely. Getting serious about Advent has nothing to do with confections, or counting down days till Santa comes, but with conviction: teaching children to eagerly anticipate, and celebrate, the baby who came.  

In the West, Advent is increasingly being viewed from a commercial standpoint. (You might think I’m being a little harsh toward the Advent calendar makers, but lately I’ve even seen calendars for dogs and cats!) We’re letting the world steal away a prime opportunity for teaching children the truth about Jesus’ birth. 

Rethinking priorities

December has often been marked by the flurry of getting more baking done, rushing to the mall before the sales end, and the looming Dec. 25 deadline—that’s what Christmas can feel like: a shopping deadline. What if I don’t have an equal number of presents? What if they sell out of that must-have toy? What if I run out of money before I finish buying for everyone on my list?  

For all our “Jesus is the Reason for the Season” sentiments, we tend to do what we most value. Some years I think I must have most valued being busy. Doing the most. Social media only adds to that pressure to perform, and perform in picture-worthy ways. But suddenly that expectation has vanished. No one will expect proof of large, stylish gatherings this year. Quite the opposite. 

No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.

The question remains, what will we do with this upheaval?

How we feel about canceled parties and limited travel will reveal a lot about what we value most. Some sorrow over not being able to carry out all of our traditions is natural. But rather than mourning your way through a disappointing December, why not use the opportunity it offers to take measure of what’s most important to you? If you find that worldly ideas about celebrating Christmas have crept in, replace them with hope-filled truth.

Let this be the year we change course. Rather than complaining about all we can’t do this December, embrace this Christmas as a great opportunity to focus on what we can

Trees, books, songs

Wanting to give our own kids more than visions of too much sugar and materialism, we sought to celebrate Advent intentionally early on. The first few years, we read Old Testament prophecies and New Testament fulfillments. Then we added some homemade ornaments to accompany the readings and adorn a small tabletop tree. We’ve used family devotionals that include Scripture with a short reflection (Scott James’s The Expected One) as well as a story (Arnold Ytreeide’s Jotham’s Journey), and one that suggested related carols (Christopher Ash’s Repeat the Sounding Joy). 

There is a host of faithful resources to choose from with even more being added this season. Books from John Piper, Paul David Tripp, Barbara Reaoch, Marty Machowski, David Mathis, and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth come to mind. For younger ones with busy hands, an activity like Truth78’s Good News of Great Joy, or a do-it-yourself Jesse Tree, or felt-and-ribbon countdown can help build the anticipation children feel as they look forward to Jesus’ birthday. 

The most important aspect of a Christian Advent is that it anticipates Jesus. “For four weeks, it’s as if we’re re-enacting, remembering the thousands of years God’s people were anticipating and longing for the coming of God’s salvation, for Jesus,” says Noel Piper. “That’s what advent means—coming.”

When deciding how to structure your study, look for books and activities that fit your children’s ages. It’s best to keep your readings and activities concise and regular, bearing in mind the attention span of your youngest children. A little every day for 31 days is better than an hour on Dec. 1 that leaves everyone weary of trying again on Dec. 2. Unlike many Christmas traditions that are annual one-time events (think Christmas Eve service, watching your favorite movie, lighting the tree), Advent’s repetition, daily (or weekly) meditation throughout the month, is part of what makes it powerful. The rhythm and routine have a formative effect on children.  

Powerful patterns

In his Preface to Paradise Lost, C.S. Lewis described ritual as “a pattern imposed on the mere flux of our feelings by reason and will, which renders pleasures less fugitive and griefs more endurable, which hands over to the power of wise custom the task (to which the individual and his moods are so inadequate) of being festive or sober, gay or reverent, when we choose to be, and not at the bidding of chance” (Oxford University Press, 1952, p. 21).

If ever there were a Christmas at risk of being hijacked by our feelings, it’s Christmas 2020. Returning to the rhythms of Advent traditions––and if you’ve never had them, starting them––is more important than ever. The earth may tremble, the mountains may fall into the heart of the sea, but we will not fear if God is our refuge (Ps. 46:1-2). No matter what happens between now and the start of the new year, showing our children unwavering hope in the God who took on flesh is the best gift we can give them.