A Note of Caution

Earthly service in the Lord’s kingdom is never without opposition.
While Christians are graciously justified in the sight of God through
faith in Jesus Christ, we face constant threats from the world, the
flesh and the devil. However, we are called to holy living, and that
requires us to walk cautiously but victoriously in Christ.

In his letter to the Christians in Rome, Paul urges those justified by
grace through faith to present their bodies “a living sacrifice, holy,
acceptable to God” (Rom. 12:1). This is not possible unless we allow
God’s truth to transform our minds. Otherwise, we will be conformed to
the world by fleshly desires and be an ineffective servant. Only as we
are daily sanctified by the Word of God can we demonstrate the “good and
acceptable and perfect will of God” (12:2). And it is this pursuit of
God’s will which draws the opposition of all that rebel against Him.

The apostle has made a passionate call to sanctified Christian service.
He has emphasized the unity of the Body of Christ motivated by sincere
love and faithful obedience. The chief end, of course, being to glorify
God (12:3-15:13). That is the Lord’s purpose for the Church as His
representation on earth. Paul’s perspective of his own ministry — and
that of his fellow servants — reflects this (15:14-16:16).

Here in Romans 16:17-20, Paul is compelled to issue a note of caution to
the Church. He knows that unity is not only compromised when we fail to
pursue sanctification, but it is also threatened by that which attacks
the source of our sanctification. Tolerating false teachers and their
followers can and does lead to disunity and sin. And that is precisely
the intent of the demonic influence behind them. Christians must,
therefore, always be on guard against the enemies attacks on sound,
biblical doctrine — knowing that God’s purpose ultimately prevails.

A Note of Caution (16:17-20)
Avoid False Christians (vv. 17-18)
Paul wanted to “urge” these Christians (“brethren”) to diligently watch
for “those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine
which [they] learned” (v 17). That is, from their knowledge of
Scripture, they were equipped to identify (“note”) those whose teachings
and practices led Christians astray.

False teachers and those who listen to them do not follow the doctrine
of the apostles (Acts 2:42). The New Testament (given by Christ to His
Church through the apostles) is the basis for Christian ministry. To
proffer anything else, however similar it might be (“contrary” – Gr.
para; i.e. “beside or near”) was and is incapable of sanctifying the
believer. It not only creates disunity (“divisions”), but it produces
conduct that is sinful (“offenses”). Both dishonor God and thwart the
mission of the Church.

So Paul urges the Church in Rome to identify such so-called Christians
“and avoid them.” This means exactly what is says (cf. 2 Tim. 3:5; 2
Jn. 7-11). When it comes to knowing and doing God’s will, there is to
be absolutely no tolerance for substitutions. Anyone who claims to know
God’s will, but without repentance teaches that which is contrary to
Scripture, is someone to be shunned. And if there is any doubt as to
their legitimacy, simply look at the way they live. Their conduct will
not be set apart in service to God. Unity with other Christians around
the clear and immutable doctrines of the Bible will not be important to
them. Selfless love for God and other believers will not be their
motivation.

Paul points out this very thing in the next verse: “For those who are
such do not serve our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly…” (v. 18a).
They are relentlessly driven by their fleshly desires because they are
not born again by the Holy Spirit of God (Jn. 1:12-13). Their professed
Christianity is merely religious talk, and their way of living is
without restraint in regard to the flesh. The are initially careful to
hide their true beliefs and desires, but ultimately they are exposed as
anything but doctrinally sound (Lk. 6:43-45).

Jude warns us about apostate Christians and their leaders. He
identifies them as a hidden danger to the Church, who have only their
own self-interest in mind. They boast of their benefit to God’s people,
yet they fail to deliver anything but disappointment (Jude 12-13).
The apostle Peter likewise cautions the Lord’s Church about the
destructive, depraved and deceptive doctrines of false prophets. And
with Jude, he also pronounces the Lord’s judgment on such (2 Peter.
2:1-22; cf. with Christ’s warnings in Matt. 17:15-23, etc.). In fact,
we are constantly warned about the dangers of false doctrine throughout
the New Testament. So Paul’s cautionary note to avoid such people is in
harmony with the rest of Scripture.

We must unsympathetically shun false teachers and those who ardently
follow them. Yes, we are certainly to pray for their salvation, but we
are to hate their sin and not associate ourselves with them if they fail
to repent (Matt. 18:15-20). We must not allow ourselves to become
stained by their corrupting doctrines and practices — calling them to
Christ with the truth (Jude 20-23). Not confronting false believers in
the Church only creates disunity and hinders our sanctified service. As
Paul says here, “by smooth words and flattering speech [they] deceive
the hearts of the simple” (v. 18b). But those who know sound doctrine
are equipped to avoid deception.

Avoid Sinful Conduct (v. 19)
And if we avoid their deception, then we can avoid the sinful conduct
their corrupt doctrine produces. The Christians in Rome had a
reputation for “obedience” to the apostle’s doctrine. Their faithful
ministry had “become known to all” the churches, and Paul was “glad on
[their] behalf” (v. 19a).

However, they were not immune to the problems that false believers can
produce. While true Christians may not necessarily follow after false
doctrine, tolerating it can negatively impact their ministry. Paul
simply did not want their service in the Church to become stained with
the lies and immorality of these religious hypocrites.

“Therefore” the apostle says, “…I want you to be wise in what is good,
and simple concerning evil” (v. 19b). That is, by careful study and
practice of the truth, they could be certain to do God’s will. In this
they could and would effectively demonstrate His will in their lives as
His justified and sanctified servants. And in so doing, they would be
innocent (“simple”) in regard to that which is opposed to God’s will
(“evil”).

Paul’s love for fellow believers and the mission of the Church motivated
this admonition to a group of Christians he had never met in person.
This is a clear view into the heart of one of God’s most faithful
servants. It reveals total devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ and His
kingdom.

Anticipate God’s Victory (v. 20)
Paul has in mind the ultimate victory of God’s kingdom, where the Lord’s
will is always done (Matt. 6:10). Paul’s teaching about the Church and
Christian service is rooted in God’s plan and purpose for redemption.
In grace, our Redeemer has chosen and called out of the world with the
Gospel a people to serve Him for eternity.

The Lord Jesus Christ is at the heart of all that God is doing. The
sacrificial death of Christ on the cross is not only the means by which
God brings us into His kingdom, but His resurrection and ascension into
glory ensures our hope of the fullness of eternal life with Him (cf.
15:7-13). This has been but one of several threads forming the fabric
of this letter (e.g. 8:28-39; 11:33-36; 13:11-14).

And so Paul reminds the Christians in Rome that “the God of peace will
crush Satan under your feet shortly” (v. 20a). Chief among those who
oppose God’s will and His kingdom is none other than the architect of
sin and the deceiver of humanity, the devil (1 Jn. 5:19; Rev. 12:9).
But the evil personality behind false doctrine and all false religion —
who seeks to undermine the work of God in and through the elect — will
never prevail. He may wound God’s chosen as they serve Him, but he will
never destroy them.

The devil will tempt us with the weakness of the flesh and with worldly
allure (1 Jn. 2:15-23). He will persecute us through the ungodliness of
men (Jn. 16:33; 2 Tim. 3:12-14). But he will never have the victory!
Christ will ultimately judge and punish Satan in hell for eternity (Rev.
20:10); those who believe his lies will receive the same (Rev.
20:11-15). But as the apostle John said, “We know that whoever is born
of God does not sin; but he who has been born of God [is guarded by
Him], and the wicked one does not touch him” (1 Jn. 5:18).

True believers persevere in faith because they are the elect of God, but
the devil perishes. To “crush” simply means to break in pieces, and it
hearkens back to Genesis 3:15. There God promised that the chosen Seed
of the woman (i.e. Christ) would overcome the deceptions of Satan to
redeem a remnant of humanity for God. Christ Jesus our Lord is
ultimately victorious — delivering the crushing blow to Satan and his
rebellious schemes.

Despite the opposition to our service in God’s kingdom, we can take
heart in knowing that our Lord guarantees victory. Our labor is not in
vain (1 Cor. 15:58). The devil and all who rebel against God will meet
a just end. The need for the Church to battle against false doctrine
will cease when the Lord destroys His enemies once and for all. It will
be a speedy end when the day comes, as indicated by Paul’s use of the
word, “shortly.”

Until then, we are to rest in our relationship with God. Note that the
apostle once again refers to God as the “God of peace” (cf. 15:33).
Peace is the short-term and long-term result of our reconciliation to
God through Christ. Paul is saying that our peace with God is secure.
This is true, both in our present sufferings and in God’s final victory
on our behalf over the the world, the flesh and the devil. The “grace”
of God shown to us through “our Lord Jesus Christ” is essential in all
of this. Not only has God justified us by His grace, but He also
sanctifies us and helps us persevere. Paul prays for continued grace
for these believers (v. 20b).

Paul’s note of caution is as relevant for the Church today as it was in
the first century. False doctrine and those who espouse it have always
been a threat to our mission. We must be aware and on guard, and we
must shun without hesitation those who believe and live the lies of the
devil. They may claim to follow Christ, but their sins expose their
true nature. Avoiding them helps us to avoid the blight of their evil
practices (1 Cor. 5:6; Gal. 5:9). We must remain focused on unity in
the faith as we represent our Lord’s kingdom. And we must keep our eyes
on His final victory over all sin, knowing that we are secure in His
grace.

Do you distance yourself from those who falsely claim to be Christians?
Are you immersing yourself in the sound doctrine of Scripture as it is
taught by those who teach it without compromise? Are you discerning
when it comes to biblical doctrine and the unbiblical practices of false
Christians? Are you resting in the grace of God and His assurance of
complete victory over sin?

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God With Us – Part II

God has always wanted human beings to know Him. Permitting humanity’s fall into sin did not change His purpose for creating us. Instead, it put in motion His plan of redemption, which was determined before we were ever created. The heart of that plan involved a member of the Trinity coming to us in a wonderful and permanent way. It is the ultimate expression of God’s love for His creation — the very gracious gift of salvation that is His Son Jesus Christ.

As the apostle Paul taught the churches of Galatia: “…when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons” (Gal. 4:4-5). Out of eternity, God the Son entered the human race as the Man, Christ Jesus. His objective was to pay the penalty of death demanded by God’s Law for our transgressions, so that we might not only be forgiven but also adopted into His royal family and conformed to the likeness of His Son (Rom. 8:29). And it happened precisely as planned.

Matthew’s gospel gives us a brief yet thorough explanation regarding the occasion of our Savior’s conception and birth. And he emphasizes the reality that, in Jesus, God is forever with those who trust Him.

In His humanity, He was miraculously conceived of the Holy Spirit in His mother’s womb without a trace of man’s sinful nature (v. 18). His entrance into the world involved not only his mother, Mary, but her betrothed husband, Joseph, whose understandable concerns God quickly comforted (vv. 19-21). The Child was the promised Christ of God — THE Son of David — whose royal lineage came both by birth through Mary and by legal right through Joseph. And it was Joseph who was tasked with making sure that Mary’s baby boy received the name His heavenly Father had chosen: Jesus — Savior.

But while His given name said much about what He would accomplish for us, the title that describes His Person as the God-Man is “Emmanuel…God with us.” In part two of this study, we consider the prophetic covenant (i.e. promise) of God upon which Jesus’ incarnation rested as well as the conclusion of the matter.

God With Us – Part II
The Covenant (vv. 22-23)
Matthew explains that “all this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the Lord through the prophet” (v. 22). On many occasions he emphasizes Old Testament prophecies directly fulfilled by Jesus or associated with Him, and several deal with His nativity (cf. 2:6, 15, 17-18, 23). Only Paul quotes from the Old Testament more. This is Matthew’s first reference, and he cites Isaiah’s Immanuel prophecy.

Isaiah records that God told Ahaz, king of Judah, not to fear the threat posed by Syria who had joined forces with the northern tribes of Israel. The Lord offered a sign of Ahaz’s choosing as an assurance of divine deliverance, but the king refused to ask. So God prophesied the sign of the virgin-born Christ, which would be fulfilled long beyond the time of Ahaz and a son born in his lifetime who fulfilled immediate portions of the broader prophecy.

Disobedient Judah would eventually be overrun by the Assyrians, setting in motion events that ended in the Babylonian exile. The nation Israel had failed to represent the kingdom to the rebellious world symbolized by Babylon (Rev. 18-19); they would be set aside until the time of the end when the Christ will rule the world to the glory of God (Rom. 9-11; 1 Cor. 15:24-28).

Isaiah’s prophecy says, “Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel” (v.23). Matthew translates the title: “God with us.” The prophecy is that God would come to His people as their righteous King via the virgin birth at a time following that exile. Matt. 1:17 informs us that it was 14 generations afterward. The rest of the gospel tells us how Jesus Christ fulfilled the Law of God, atoned for sin by His death on the cross, rose from the dead, ascended to His throne, and will return in power and glory to rule the nations. And He will be Immanuel forever to those who enter the kingdom by faith (Matt. 28:20). The incarnation fulfills this promise.

The Conclusion (vv. 24-25)
As a just man (i.e. a true believer, v. 19), “Joseph” would have been very familiar with this prophecy. Like Mary and all Old Testament saints, he had been waiting for Immanuel, and now He was here!

Remember that God sent an angel to Joseph while he was evidently in a deep sleep. He was exhausted over anxiously considering what to do about Mary’s confusing pregnancy (v. 20). But now it was clear to him, and “being aroused from sleep, did as the angel of the Lord commanded him and took to him his wife.” That is, the marriage was made official, and he took his betrothed and her baby as his family.

Verse 25 conveys just how seriously Joseph took this obligation. Like Mary, he was pleased to obey the Lord who had so graciously chosen them for their part in Christ’s humanity (cf. Lk. 1:38, 46-55). This meant that he would “not know her” (i.e. have no sexual relations with Mary) “until she had brought forth her firstborn Son” — an affirmation that he was not the biological father and that Mary was indeed a virgin.

Then we find that Joseph followed through with God’s command to legally adopt Christ by naming Him: “And he called His name JESUS.” This was an act of accepting God’s plan and of accepting Christ as his legal heir. Jesus (i.e. Savior) was truly the Son of the Father in heaven (Lk. 1:35), but his legal, human right to the throne of David was through Joseph (v. 20) as the “firstborn” son in this family. Joseph’s obedience established the Lord’s fulfillment of the Immanuel prophecy.

Immanuel will forever be God’s sinless Son dwelling with the sinners He has redeemed, because that is exactly what God desires. He loves the human race so much that He has become inseparably joined to us in the Person of His Son Jesus Christ (Jn. 3:16). It is not a relationship we deserve by any means, but Immanuel is God’s gracious gift — God always with us who follow Him in faith.

Are you following Immanuel? Is He your Savior? The Lord Jesus Christ is exactly what God reveals Him to be in the Bible — the true and living God who has come to us in the Person of His sinless Son. He is as much Immanuel today as He was then, and He beckons you to follow Him into His kingdom. Have you truly turned from your sins and placed your faith in Him to receive forgiveness and eternal life? If not, let this Christmas be the time of your salvation and beginning of life with God.

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© Copyright 1997-2016 Richard E. Clayton, Jr. All rights reserved.

God With Us – Part I

The birth of Jesus of Nazareth is of great significance because of who He is. His nativity is the realization of God’s promise to save sinners — a promise which God personally fulfilled by coming to earth in the likeness of man. The Almighty God, in all His perfection, dwelt among His sinful creatures in order to reconcile us to Himself forever.

The Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1:14); that in Him dwells all the fullness of God for the purpose of reconciling all things to Himself through His sacrifice on the cross (Col. 1:19-20; 2:9-10); and that, as God the Son, He willingly laid aside His glory and humbled Himself as a Man to the point of death on the cross as the sacrifice for our sins (Phil. 2:6-9; cf. 1 Pet. 2:24). God has clearly come to us because we have no hope of coming to Him on our own (Rom. 5:8).

Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth brings the wonder of the incarnation into historical perspective. It places the everlasting God into the human story — heaven’s King among His earthly subjects. Matthew 1:18-25 teaches us the historical facts about how God came to be our Savior. Here we are taught about the miraculous conception of Christ; the obvious concern regarding his mother’s virgin pregnancy; God’s comforting words to Mary and Joseph about the circumstances; the covenant or promise upon which it rested; and the conclusion of the matter. We will consider verses 18-21 in this study.

God With Us – Part I
The Conception (v. 18)
Jesus was born to a young woman named “Mary…betrothed to Joseph” who were both from the Galilean city of Nazareth (Lk. 1:26-27). Joseph was in the royal line of David, the great king of Israel (Lk. 2:4). God promised David that the Christ would be his descendant (2 Sam. 7), and we see in the previous passage that Jesus’ legal right to the throne came through Mary’s soon-to-be husband (Matt. 1:1). Mary was likewise in David’s lineage and provided Jesus’ physical association to the throne of heaven’s kingdom (Lk. 3:23-38).

However, Mary and Joseph were only betrothed and had never been married nor consummated their marriage. As Matthew tells us, “before they came together, she was found with child.” How was this possible if Mary had never known a man intimately (Lk. 1:34)? It had never happened before nor has it since that a woman could be “found with child” apart from sexual union with a man. It is physically impossible for a child to be conceived any other way.

But we are told that Jesus’ conception was supernatural. It took a miracle for this young virgin to conceive a child in her womb, and miracles are the work of God. Mary was with child “of the Holy Spirit” of God who, bypassing a human father, worked a creative miracle in the virgin’s womb.

The Third Person of the Trinity (The Holy Spirit) is the agent of miraculous intervention in humanity. He had an obvious and equal role in the creation with the Father and Son (Gen. 1:2). His work of regenerating the dead souls of sinners (Jn. 3:3) and teaching, comforting, and empowering the saints is clear (Jn. 14:26; 15:26; Acts 1:8; Rom. 8:4; Gal. 5:16-18). The Spirit of God has been as active as the Father and the Son in the work of redemption (Matt. 3:16-17; Jn. 5:17).

So, as Creator God, the Holy Spirit took a part of humanity that already existed from Mary’s seed (Gen. 3:15), and He created the necessary male seed untainted by Adam’s sin (Rom. 5:12, 18; cf. Ps. 51:5) in order to give Christ His sinless humanity (Heb. 2:14; 10:5). This sinless Man was forever united with God the Son in the Person of Jesus Christ. Luke’s gospel informs us that the angel, Gabriel, explained this to Mary, saying, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God.”

In order for God to be with us, He had to become one of us. But He had to be a sinless Man, and that is the point of the miraculous conception. Jesus Christ is God in the flesh (2 Jn. 7).

The Concern (v. 19)
Mary already understood this as God’s miraculous work, since the Lord sent the angel, Gabriel, to her with the news before she conceived (Lk. 1:26-38). But Joseph was informed after the fact; he did not expect his betrothed to be pregnant. This was cause for great concern for him and his family because it appeared that Mary had been unfaithful.

We can only imagine the fear and anxiety this situation must have caused this young couple. But this scandal would have been especially troubling for Joseph. What appeared to be infidelity on Mary’s part was worthy of capital punishment (i.e. being stoned to death) under the Mosaic Law (Deut. 22:23-24). While this was not strictly enforced in the first century, Joseph had every right to publicly divorce her. Mary’s virtuous reputation would be ruined; the public shame and humility would be intense and life-long.

But “Joseph her husband” (for all intents and purposes under the legally binding betrothal) did not desire “to make her a public example.” Why? Because he was “a just man.” This means that he was righteous in the sight of God — a true believer. He “was minded to put her away [i.e. divorce her] secretly,” be he was under no obligation to do so. However, because he was righteous, he was concerned for her well-being. He had pledged himself to the woman he loved, and despite his pain and shattered dreams, Joseph wanted what was best for Mary.

God coming into the world is not something people naturally understand or embrace. In fact, that Jesus Christ is God incarnate seems to some a very scandalous thing. Why would holy God associate so intimately with sinful humanity? The good news is that He condescended to us, without being affected by our sins, in order to make us holy.

The Comfort (vv. 20-21)
That was the comforting news Joseph received from God. As “he thought about these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream.” This paints a clear picture for us of just how troubled the young man was. He obviously agonized to the point of exhaustion over Mary’s situation, but God calmed his fears while he slept. Using the distraction of sleep, the Lord communicated His plans to Joseph by having the angel appear in his dream. Just how the heavenly messenger was inserted in the dream is not something we can understand, but it was not uncommon for God to give information and change the course of events in that way (cf. vv. 2:12, 13, 19, 22; Gen. 37:5-11, etc.). The dream emphasizes God’s providence.

The angel addressed “Joseph” as a “son of David” — an affirmation that he was in the royal line of King David of Israel. It was important to remind Joseph of this at the start. The Child in Mary’s womb was the greater Son of David, which Joseph and all true believers had long anticipated as the fulfillment of God’s promise (cf. v. 23).

There was no reason for Joseph to “be afraid to take to [himself] Mary [his] wife.” That is, he should go through with the marriage. To take her as wife was to end the betrothal and take her into his care. We later read that they did not know each other intimately to consummate their marriage until after Christ’s birth (v. 25), but God instructs him to officially enter the covenant of marriage for now. This is significant because Jesus, although not Joseph’s son by blood, had to be his legally adopted son to inherit the right to David’s throne.

Joseph needed to understand his relationship to the Christ Child. So he is told that Mary’s first born was “conceived in her…of the Holy Spirit,” and that identified Him as the legitimate Son of God. What a relief that must have been to know that Mary was the virtuous, godly young woman to whom he had pledged himself. But the real comfort for this righteous young man was that Mary’s baby was THE “Son” of God! As the prophet Isaiah foretold, the Christ would be Immanuel — God with us (Is. 7:14; cf. v. 23).

Joseph’s task in this heavenly drama was to take Mary as his wife and the “Son” she would “bring forth” as his legal heir. This would be recognized by the official act of naming the baby. However, not just any name would suffice. A name had already been chosen by Christ’s Heavenly Father to identify His Son’s purpose as a man.

Joseph was to “call His name JESUS, for He will save His people from their sins.” It is a form of the Hebrew name, “Joshua,” which essentially means, “Savior” (lit. “The LORD is Salvation”). Mary’s baby boy was not a human being in need of salvation; He was God who came to provide salvation!

Jesus Christ is God with us — the sinless Son of God who sacrificed His life on the cross for sinners. He who was not a sinner bore our sins so that God could be both “just and the Justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus” (Rom. 3:26). It is Jesus “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness — by whose stripes you were healed” (1 Pet. 2:24). He could not suffer for us unless He was fully Man. His suffering would accomplish nothing for us if He was not fully God. Although it is hard for us to understand how or why God would come to us in this way, we who believe are greatly comforted that He did.

But He is God with us always, as He says in the last verse of Matthew’s gospel (Matt. 28:20). He did not become human temporarily. Rather, He is God in human flesh for all eternity — exalted to the right hand of the Father; making intercession for us continually; saving us to the uttermost (Heb. 7:25); and bringing us into His kingdom to spend eternity with God (Rev. 21:3).

A wonderful verse from the hymn, Hark! The Herald Angels Sing, captures the truth of what Matthew has told us:

Christ, by highest heaven adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come,
Offspring of the virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail the incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell,
Jesus, our Emmanuel.

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© Copyright 1997-2016 Richard E. Clayton, Jr. All rights reserved.