All’s Well That Starts Well

All’s Well That Starts Well

Matthew 4:1-11

Dr. Jim Denison

We’re all salespeople in life. We all have something we want others to “buy” or believe.

According to Newsweek, Andrew Fischer is selling his forehead. The 20-year-old Nebraska man decided to auction it as ad space for 30 days, and received more than 100 bids. The winner is a snoring remedy named “SnoreStop,” which will pay him $37,375 to display their logo. He says he’ll use the money to pay for college. With a son in college myself, I’m wondering what a pastor’s forehead goes for.

Last week, two men robbed a pizza delivery woman. Then one of them called the victim on his cell phone to apologize, and asked her for a date. She declined, gave his cell phone number to police, and they arrested the man. What he was selling, she wasn’t buying.

My father sold electronic components to oil companies. I’m a salesman as well, with a specific product to sell you this morning. I’ll show you why you need it, how to use it, and what happens when you do. Then I hope you’ll buy what I’m selling–not for my sake, but for yours.

Why to live by the word of God (vs. 1-4)

As our story opens, we catch up with Jesus after he’s spent 40 days in solitude with his Father. He’s in the wilderness area between Jerusalem and the Dead Sea known to the locals as “the Devastation.” It is desert, full of rocks and sand, parched, cracked, dusty hills and valleys, “Death Valley” in our country. No wonder he’s able to be alone with God.

He has just fasted 40 days, abstaining from everything and everyone but his Father. No one could be closer to God than him, right now. Just then Satan appears out of nowhere with his first of three temptations. The Greek reads, “Since you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (v. 3).

The wilderness surrounding Jesus is covered with small, round, sun-bleached rocks which look amazingly like the bread baked in his day. Imagine you have not eaten for 40 days, and you have the ability to turn a tennis ball into an orange or a sandal into a steak. You would have to rely on yourself rather than your Father for your needs, using your powers for your purposes rather than the One you have come to serve. But you would be tempted.

Here’s how Jesus responds. Here’s what to do the next time Satan comes calling: live on “every word that comes from the mouth of God” (v. 4).

Jesus quotes a statement made by Moses to the children of Israel after they learned to trust God for the manna which kept them alive in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:3). The point is simple: we do not live on our ability but God’s provision. Not on our resources and experience and education, but on the word and grace of God. Your next breath is his gift. Your abilities and opportunities come from his hand. You didn’t deserve to vote in America and not Iraq. It all comes from the grace of God.

So before you begin your next day or make your next decision, go first to his word. Go to Scripture before you go anywhere else–to your own education and ability, the advice of friends, the counsel of worldly wisdom. Seek Scripture first. Ask what God says on the subject, and choose to do it. Live by the words of God.

Why trust the Bible with your life?

Because it is literally the “word of God”: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16).

Because it has been accurately transmitted to us. “Textual critics” are scholars who compare ancient manuscripts to produce a copy as close to the original as possible. Whether they are Christians or not, they know that the Old and New Testaments we possess today are virtually identical to the originals. The only questions which remain affect matters of spelling, punctuation, and isolated verses; none relates to essential doctrines or practices of the faith.

Because archaeology confirms the accuracy of Scripture. For instance, the Pool of Bethesda (John 5:2) was once dismissed as non-historical. Now tour guides in Jerusalem point groups to its location in the northeast quarter of the Old City. I’ve seen the ruins myself. We have a stone inscription documenting the life and office of Pontius Pilate; the ossuary (coffin) of Caiaphas, the High Priest of the crucifixion; an inscription found at Delphi which describes the work of Gallio, proconsul at Corinth (Acts 18:12-17); and scores of other artifacts which document the accuracy of biblical history and description.

Because the Bible keeps its promises. A mathematician once investigated the statistical probability of one man’s fulfilling eight of the 61 major Old Testament prophecies regarding the Messiah, and calculated the odds as one in 10 to the 17th power (one followed by 16 zeroes). That number of silver dollars would cover the state of Texas to a depth of two feet.

Because the Bible changes lives. I once owned a 1965 Ford Mustang, and found myself under its hood as often as I was behind its wheel. Chilton’s Car Repair Manual became my constant companion. I learned to trust its advice because it worked.

In a postmodern world which believes truth is relative, a book must be relevant to be accepted. Try living by the word of God, making its truths the guideposts of your life. Go to Scripture first. See what God says on the subject you’re considering, the decision you’re making. And you’ll learn for yourself that you can rely on “every word that comes from the mouth of God.”

How to live by the word of God (vs. 5-7)

Now Satan, seeing that Jesus is going to fight his temptations with God’s word, uses Scripture himself. Taking him to the highest point of the Temple in Jerusalem, 450 feet above the Kidron Valley, he challenges him to throw himself down since the Bible promises God will protect him (Psalm 91). Then the crowds will see and be amazed, and he can be their Messiah. He can avoid their rejection and the cross it will bring.


Faith at Work

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Are you where you’re supposed to be?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 1:1

For many in our society, place = success.

Janet and I moved to Atlanta in 1994 to pastor Second-Ponce de Leon Baptist Church. The church is located in “Buckhead,” a strange name for a residential area. The name comes from a tavern opened in the vicinity in 1837, whose owner mounted a buck’s head to attract interest. The area is today considered the most exclusive in Atlanta; living in Buckhead means you’re a success.

When we moved to Dallas, we discovered the same success/place identity. The area where you live is important to people, and even the street; and even the block on that street. Our house on Marquette is in the Highland Park school district, but is a Dallas address. Move the house one block west, and it is in University Park, and worth another $100,000, I’m told.

Where do you identify success with place? If you could change your “place” in life, how would you? A newer, larger house? Area? Address? Office location? “Place” in life–job, title, salary, social strata?

We are right: there is a “place” which defines success. Today we’ll learn where it is, and how to get to it this week.

What kind of literature is this?

A letter: the book of James is addressed “to the twelve tribes scattered among the nations: Greetings” (1:1b).

“Greetings” demonstrates the epistolary nature of this book.

This was a formal way of opening correspondence, found in the NT only here; with the opening of the letter from James and the Jerusalem Council to the Gentile Christians (Acts 15:23); and in the opening of the letter regarding Paul sent by Claudius Lysias, a Roman centurion, to Governor Felix (Acts 23:26).

A pastoral letter: James is “a quasi-prophetic letter of pastoral encouragement and, no less, of pastoral rebuke, proceeding from an unquestioned right of pastoral vocation and authority. It was most natural that James, as first ‘Bishop’ (or whatever we may style him) of Jerusalem, should address his charges, not only in Palestine but also in their many and great centers elsewhere” (Adamson 20).

Wisdom literature, like Proverbs and Ecclesiastes (thus less systematic than Romans and similar literature):

James often uses a proverbial style: “he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does” (1:8); “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says” (1:22); “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins” (4:17).

He juxtaposes good and evil (cf. 3:13-18).

He uses “wisdom” with emphasis (1:5; 3:13-17).

He quotes Proverbs. 3:34: “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (4:6).

Other parallels can be cited (cf. 1:5 with Proverbs 2:6; 1:19 with Proverbs 29:20; 3:18 with Proverbs 11:30; 4:13-16 with Proverbs 27:1; 5:20 with Proverbs 10:12; Burdick 164).

A treatise on the Sermon on the Mount:

Rejoice in trials (1:2; Matthew 5:12)

Ask and it will be given to us (1:5; Matthew 7:7)

Be perfect and complete (1:4; Matthew 5:48)

Be peacemakers (3:17-18; Matthew 5:5, 9)

Show mercy or be judged (2:13; Matthew 5:7; 6:14-15; 7:1)

Refuse oaths (5:12; Matthew 5:33-37)

Be meek (3:13; Matthew 5:3)

Refuse to hoard (5:2-3; Matthew 6:19)

Deal with anger (1:20; Matthew 5:22)

Be honest (2:14-16; Matthew 7:21-23)

Refuse divided loyalty (4:4; Matthew 6:24)

Refuse slander (4:11; Matthew 5:22; 7:1-2)

Claim the blessing of the poor (2:5; Matthew 5:3)

Follow the example of the prophets (5:10; Matthew 5:12; Martin lxxv-lxxvi).

A sermon: the book displays an amazing coherence with typical preaching methods in the first century (see Robertson 6-7, Barclay 27-30). Parallels with Greek sermons:

Began with a paradox which would capture the attention of the listeners (1:2)

Carried on imaginary conversations with opponents (2:18f; 5:13f)

Introduced transitions with questions (2:14; 4:1) and used rhetorical questions frequently (2:4, 5; 2:14-16; 3:11, 12; 4:4)

Fond of imperatives (nearly 60 in James’ 108 verses)

Personified virtues and vices (1:15; 2:13; 5:3)

Used figures of speech (the bridle, rudder, and forest fire were standards; 3:3-6)

Used the examples of famous men and women (2:21-23, 25; 5:11, 17)

Often concluded with a vivid antithesis, setting the right way beside the wrong (2:13; 2:26).

The Jewish sermon possessed an additional characteristic: it was deliberately disconnected. Speakers were instructed to jump quickly from subject to subject, so as to keep their hearers’ attention. Such preaching was called charaz, which means “stringing beads.” The letter as sermon would explain its lack of systematic theology, as James was speaking on the subject of practical Christianity.

Perhaps a sermon by James, later transcribed as a letter in the best Greek in the NT (with the possible exception of Hebrews). Some hold that James wrote the transcribed letter himself: “James both writes and thinks in Greek better than any other NT author” (Adamson 52). Others suggest that the letter was written by an amanuensis who recorded his sermon in excellent Greek (Barclay 33).

Inspired revelation, despite Luther’s assessment.

Luther’s Preface to the New Testament concludes: “the gospel and the first epistle of St. John, St. Paul’s epistles, especially those to the Romans, Galatians and Ephesians; and St. Peter’s first epistle, are the books which show Christ to you. They teach everything you need to know for your salvation, even if you were never to see or hear any other book or hear any other teaching. In comparison with these the epistle of James is an epistle full of straw, because it contains nothing evangelical.” Luther thought that James ascribes salvation to works, criticizes him for mentioning Jesus only twice, and considered the work non-apostolic in value.

But the date of the letter (see below) precludes the possibility that James contradicts Paul. The two wrote to very different audiences, for very different purposes.

When was it written?

Some believe the letter to have been composed before AD 50, and consider it perhaps the first book of the NT to be written. Evidence:

Jesus’ return is expected quickly: “Don’t grumble against each other, brothers, or you will be judged. The Judge is standing at the door!” (5:7). Some scholars consider this assertion to argue for an early date, believing that the expectation of Jesus’ imminent return faded somewhat as his Coming was delayed (an assertion I would dispute; cf. Revelation 22:20, “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Yes, I am coming soon'”).


Faith At Work

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Who’s in charge today?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 1:1

Who was James?

The book of James names its author in its first sentence: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). But which James? The NT uses the name 42 times, of which 38 identifications are certain:

19 refer to James the brother of John and son of Zebedee

4 refer to James son of Alphaeus

3 refer to a son of Mary

2 refer to a half-brother of Jesus

8 refer to an unspecified James, a pillar of the Jerusalem Church

2 refer to “Judas son of James.”

James the son of Zebedee is the most prominent James in the Gospels.

He was among Jesus’ first disciples (Mark 1:29).

His mother was probably Salome (Matthew 27:56: among those at the cross were “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons”; Mark 15:40: “among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome”).

John 19:25 lists these women at the cross: “his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Unless John omitted his own mother from his listing of the women at the cross, it is likely that she is one of these four and thus the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary. As a result, her sons James and John were Jesus’ cousins.

James was so important to the first Christian movement that Herod chose him for execution (Acts 12:2).

His early death (AD 44) makes it very unlikely that he is the author of our letter.

James son of Alphaeus, while a disciple of our Lord (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), is not otherwise known to the apostolic record.

He is likely mentioned in Mark 15:40, “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses”; and Luke 24:10: “Mary the mother of James, and the others with them” who told the apostles about Jesus’ resurrection.

His mother is likely the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), so that Clopas is usually identified as Alphaeus.

He may be the brother of Jude, the author of the letter bearing his name; or that Jude may be a half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55).

Most scholars believe the author of our letter to have been a person of greater stature in the early church than James son of Alphaeus, and question whether this man could be known to a wide audience by the simple identification “James.” However, the Catholic tradition does not accept the thesis that Mary had children after Jesus, and thus denies that our letter could be written by his half-brother. Catholic theologians thus consider him to be the author of our epistle (see #6 below).

The James whose son is Judas (not Iscariot; Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13) is even less known to Scripture, and thus even less likely to be the author of our epistle.

We are left with James, the half-brother of Jesus. Here’s what we know about him from the Gospels:

He is named with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3); he was likely the oldest of the brothers, as he is listed first.

He and his brothers did not believe in Jesus at first: “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).

Note the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary maintained her virginity, so that James could not be her child. Two theories are proposed to support this assertion:

The Epiphanian theory (after Epiphanius, ca. AD 370): James and his brothers were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. But nothing in the text indicates such a previous family; and the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2) would surely have mentioned this other family if it existed.

The Hieronymian theory (proposed in AD 383 by Jerome, whose Greek name is Hieronymius): Jesus’ “brothers” were his cousins. Paul describes “James the Lord’s brother” as one of the “apostles” (Galatians 1:19); Jerome insists these are only the Twelve. He thus identifies him as James son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3) and asserts that Alphaeus was married to Salome, the sister of Mary, making James the cousin of Jesus. But “brother” does not mean “cousin” in family relationships; and the “apostles” were more than the Twelve (cf. Romans 16:7, where Andronicus and Junia are “outstanding among the apostles”). Nonetheless, this is the official position of the Catholic Church today.

Nothing in the biblical text suggests that James was anything other than Mary’s son and Jesus’ half-brother. This fact will become important in the applications which conclude this week’s study.

After the resurrection, Jesus made a special visit to his half-brother. He visited Peter and the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:5), more than 500 of the “brothers” (v. 6), and “then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (v. 7). The second-century Gospel according to the Hebrews adds that Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with James at this time (Martin, James xliv).

This distinction between James, the “Twelve,” and the “apostles” makes clear that this person is not James the brother of John or the son of Alphaeus (see also Galatians 1:19, where Paul says he met with “none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother”).

And it demonstrates that this James was important enough to warrant a specific visit from the risen Christ, and special mention by Paul.

Most interpreters believe that this event led James to faith in his half-brother as the Messiah.

Eventually, the other brothers came to the same faith commitment. By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus’ brothers are among the believers: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Following this life-changing encounter, James became one of the most significant leaders of the Jerusalem church:

From the death of James the brother of John, the book of Acts refers to “James” as if there is only one person known widely by this name.


Faith At Work

[email protected]

Who’s in charge today?

Dr. Jim Denison

James 1:1

Who was James?

The book of James names its author in its first sentence: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ” (1:1). But which James? The NT uses the name 42 times, of which 38 identifications are certain:

•19 refer to James the brother of John and son of Zebedee

•4 refer to James son of Alphaeus

•3 refer to a son of Mary

•2 refer to a half-brother of Jesus

•8 refer to an unspecified James, a pillar of the Jerusalem Church

•2 refer to “Judas son of James.”

James the son of Zebedee is the most prominent James in the Gospels.

•He was among Jesus’ first disciples (Mark 1:29).

•His mother was probably Salome (Matthew 27:56: among those at the cross were “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons”; Mark 15:40: “among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses, and Salome”).

•John 19:25 lists these women at the cross: “his mother, his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Clopas, and Mary Magdalene.” Unless John omitted his own mother from his listing of the women at the cross, it is likely that she is one of these four and thus the sister of Jesus’ mother Mary. As a result, her sons James and John were Jesus’ cousins.

•James was so important to the first Christian movement that Herod chose him for execution (Acts 12:2).

•His early death (AD 44) makes it very unlikely that he is the author of our letter.

James son of Alphaeus, while a disciple of our Lord (Matthew 10:3; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15), is not otherwise known to the apostolic record.

•He is likely mentioned in Mark 15:40, “Mary the mother of James the younger and of Joses”; and Luke 24:10: “Mary the mother of James, and the others with them” who told the apostles about Jesus’ resurrection.

•His mother is likely the wife of Clopas (John 19:25), so that Clopas is usually identified as Alphaeus.

•He may be the brother of Jude, the author of the letter bearing his name; or that Jude may be a half-brother of Jesus (Matthew 13:55).

•Most scholars believe the author of our letter to have been a person of greater stature in the early church than James son of Alphaeus, and question whether this man could be known to a wide audience by the simple identification “James.” However, the Catholic tradition does not accept the thesis that Mary had children after Jesus, and thus denies that our letter could be written by his half-brother. Catholic theologians thus consider him to be the author of our epistle (see #6 below).

The James whose son is Judas (not Iscariot; Luke 6:16; Acts 1:13) is even less known to Scripture, and thus even less likely to be the author of our epistle.

We are left with James, the half-brother of Jesus. Here’s what we know about him from the Gospels:

•He is named with Joseph, Simon, and Judas as Jesus’ brothers (Matthew 13:55; Mark 6:3); he was likely the oldest of the brothers, as he is listed first.

•He and his brothers did not believe in Jesus at first: “even his own brothers did not believe in him” (John 7:5).

Note the Roman Catholic doctrine that Mary maintained her virginity, so that James could not be her child. Two theories are proposed to support this assertion:

•The Epiphanian theory (after Epiphanius, ca. AD 370): James and his brothers were the sons of Joseph from a previous marriage. But nothing in the text indicates such a previous family; and the flight to Egypt (Matthew 2) would surely have mentioned this other family if it existed.

•The Hieronymian theory (proposed in AD 383 by Jerome, whose Greek name is Hieronymius): Jesus’ “brothers” were his cousins. Paul describes “James the Lord’s brother” as one of the “apostles” (Galatians 1:19); Jerome insists these are only the Twelve. He thus identifies him as James son of Alphaeus (Matthew 10:3) and asserts that Alphaeus was married to Salome, the sister of Mary, making James the cousin of Jesus. But “brother” does not mean “cousin” in family relationships; and the “apostles” were more than the Twelve (cf. Romans 16:7, where Andronicus and Junia are “outstanding among the apostles”). Nonetheless, this is the official position of the Catholic Church today.

Nothing in the biblical text suggests that James was anything other than Mary’s son and Jesus’ half-brother. This fact will become important in the applications which conclude this week’s study.

After the resurrection, Jesus made a special visit to his half-brother. He visited Peter and the Twelve (1 Corinthians 15:5), more than 500 of the “brothers” (v. 6), and “then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles” (v. 7). The second-century Gospel according to the Hebrews adds that Jesus shared the Lord’s Supper with James at this time (Martin, James xliv).

•This distinction between James, the “Twelve,” and the “apostles” makes clear that this person is not James the brother of John or the son of Alphaeus (see also Galatians 1:19, where Paul says he met with “none of the other apostles–only James, the Lord’s brother”).

•And it demonstrates that this James was important enough to warrant a specific visit from the risen Christ, and special mention by Paul.

•Most interpreters believe that this event led James to faith in his half-brother as the Messiah.

•Eventually, the other brothers came to the same faith commitment. By the time Paul wrote his first letter to the Corinthians, Jesus’ brothers are among the believers: “Don’t we have the right to take a believing wife along with us, as do the other apostles and the Lord’s brothers and Cephas?” (1 Corinthians 9:5).

Following this life-changing encounter, James became one of the most significant leaders of the Jerusalem church:

•From the death of James the brother of John, the book of Acts refers to “James” as if there is only one person known widely by this name.


Happiness Where You Least Expect It

Happiness Where You Least Expect It

Matthew 3:1-17

Dr. Jim Denison

I’d like us to begin with a survey. Time magazine recently explored the subject of happiness, and included in its report a tool devised in 1980 by a psychologist named Edward Diener. It rates your happiness compared with the rest of us. Answer these questions on a scale of one (not at all true) to seven (absolutely true):

In most ways my life is close to my ideal.

The conditions of my life are excellent.

I am satisfied with my life.

So far I have gotten the important things I want in life.

If I could live my life over, I would change almost nothing.

What did you score? 31 to 35: you are extremely satisfied with your life; 26 to 30: very satisfied; 21 to 25: slightly satisfied; 20: neutral; 15 to 19: slightly dissatisfied; 10 to 14: dissatisfied; 5 to 9: extremely dissatisfied.

Now, how can you raise your “happiness” score? Here’s an answer which will surprise our culture. According to Time, “Studies show that the more a believer incorporates religion into daily living–attending services, reading Scripture, praying–the better off he or she appears to be on two measures of happiness: frequency of positive emotions and over all sense of satisfaction with life. Attending services has a particularly strong correlation to feeling happy, and religious certainty–the sense of unshakable faith in God and the truth of one’s beliefs–is most closely linked with life satisfaction” (p. A46).

As we will learn this morning, Christianity was meant to be a public relationship, not a private religion. The more we divorce faith from life, the further we step from joy. The more we make Jesus Lord of Monday as well as Sunday, the more he is able to bless both. So let’s consider the third Covenant of Grace value–worship publicly–and what’s in it for God and for us today.

How did John go public with his faith?

We’ll walk through our story, then learn its lessons. As it begins, “In those days John the Baptist came” (v. 1a).

Luke tells us that this was the fifteenth year of Tiberius’s reign (Luke 3:1), AD 26. John is around 30 years of age, as is our Lord (Luke 3:23).

John’s parents were elderly when he was conceived. It is likely that he has lived most of his life in this “Desert of Judea,” a region east of Jerusalem. He spent these years in seclusion, far from the crowds and culture of his day. But then he “came,” a word which means that he chose to appear in public. He could have stayed in seclusion, but chose a public ministry instead.

His message was public, and counter-cultural: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near.”

“Repent” in the Bible means a change of heart which results in a change of life. It is not the Greek word for “feel sorry,” but the word for “turn” or “change.” The rabbis said, “The true penitent is he who has the opportunity to do the same sin again, in the same circumstances, and who does not do it.”

The “kingdom of heaven” is the place where God is King. To be in his Kingdom, turn from serving yourself to serving him.

He dressed exactly like Elijah the Old Testament prophet (2 Kings 1:8): “John’s clothes were made of camel’s hair, and he had a leather belt around his waist” (v. 4). These were the poorest clothes he could wear, like tattered blue jeans and a t-shirt to us.

His food was “locusts and wild honey,” still common food for poor people in Palestine today. He did not seek to impress the people with his message and appearance, but only the Lord. His priorities were on display for all to see.

His sermon and lifestyle led to public response: “People went out to him from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan. Confessing their sins, they were baptized by him in the Jordan” (vs. 5-6). Jerusalem, the city sophisticates; Judea, the country folk; the whole region turned out. They were “baptized,” something no Jew had ever done in all of Hebrew history. This act was reserved for Gentiles who became Jews. Now these people started their lives over, washing away their past, in a public act of confession and repentance. Nothing private, all before the world to see.

And his ministry led to public confrontation: “he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing” (v. 7).

These were the wealthiest and most powerful people in their society, the CEOs, big-church pastors and political authorities. But they too must “produce fruit in keeping with repentance” (v. 8).

Racial ties to Abraham are not enough (v. 9)–their trees must bear spiritual fruit for all to see. Otherwise they will be “cut down and thrown into the fire” (v. 10).

This judgment will be public, when Jesus will “clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire” (v. 12).

Now comes the climax of the story: Jesus “came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John” (v. 13). Like John, he has been living in seclusion far from the beaten path of his culture. But no more. It is more than 60 miles from Nazareth to the place where the baptism probably occurred; can you imagine walking from Weatherford to Dallas to be baptized today?

John’s reaction demonstrated his understanding of Jesus’ divinity: “I need to be baptized by you” (v. 14).

But Jesus wanted to make public his own commitment to his Father, so John consented. And the Father blessed his public proclamation with his own: “this is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (v. 17).

Why should we?

Here’s the point: Christianity is a public faith. It is not a private commitment reserved for Sundays at church. It is not a personal, individual, subjective belief best kept to ourselves. Our faith has always been public in nature. Jesus’ baptism was public, not the private ceremony he could have arranged with John. His ministry was done in public, and his disciples followed him in public, not in private closed-door meetings. He died in public, even though a private execution would have paid for our sins. He appeared in public for 40 days after his resurrection, and ascended to heaven in public.


How to Hear From God

How to Hear From God

Matthew 2:19-23

Dr. Jim Denison

A friend recently sent me some questions I couldn’t answer: Why do we wash bath towels? Aren’t we clean when we use them? If not, what was the purpose of the bath? What is the point of brick wallpaper? Is there ever a day when mattresses are not on sale? Is it true that the only difference between a yard sale and a trash pickup is how close to the road the stuff is placed?

Other questions are more practical. Business Week began the new year with articles abounding in investment advice for 2005. It identifies such economic “wild cards” as fluctuating oil prices, inflation, the housing market, global growth, and of course terrorism. But the magazine doesn’t tell us what will happen, because it doesn’t know.

Closer to home, where do you most need advice for the year ahead? What decision is weighing on your mind and soul today? Where would you most like to hear from God? He guided Joseph in the clearest terms–will he guide us as well? Will he speak to us as fully as he spoke to Abraham, Moses, and Paul? If so, how can we hear from him this morning and this year?

Understand your place in God’s purpose

Before we get specific and practical, we need to remember some general facts about the will of God. The first is that God has a universal purpose for us all, to make disciples of all nations (Matthew 28:19). God will measure our success this year by how many people we helped follow Jesus. Our jobs, possessions, school experiences, and relationships are a means to this end. This is his purpose for every one of us.

Second, God has a unique purpose for your life: “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus has a “yoke” for you, a will for your life as you help people follow Jesus.

Third, it is critical that we know and live out this unique purpose each day of our lives.

Annie Dillard is right: how we spend our days is how we spend our lives.

Your 85 or so years on this planet are just a dot compared to the line of eternity. Consider life as a fraction. Put the 85 years of your lifespan in the top, the numerator. Now put eternity in the bottom, the denominator. 85 over infinity is the very small fraction of your existence which you will spend in this world. It only makes sense that you should live your brief life in the numerator, for the sake of the denominator.

Fourth, God has given us three keys to unlocking his unique purpose for our daily lives: the pragmatic, the intuitive, and the rational. I know those terms are not familiar to most of us, and strange language for a sermon. But stay with me–they are the most important and practical advice I have ever encountered for knowing and doing the will of God. I want to show you how they worked in Joseph’s life, and how they work in ours.

Look for God’s open doors

God’s will has led Joseph to marry the pregnant Mary, to adopt her son as his own, and then to flee his homeland with his family for Egypt. Now, after Herod died, an angel of the Lord led Joseph to return from Egypt to Israel, “for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead” (v. 20). But when Joseph returned and found that “Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there” (v. 22). And so he and the family ended up in Nazareth, a village which became Jesus’ hometown.

There are pragmatic, practical factors all through this story. Herod was a vile ruler who slaughtered anyone he considered a threat to his throne, a kind of Saddam Hussein or Adolf Hitler. If someone tells Herod that your adopted son is the King of the Jews, it makes good practical sense to take your child out of his jurisdiction until he dies.

Archelaus wasn’t much of an improvement. Immediately upon assuming power, he put down unrest in Jerusalem by slaughtering 3,000 Jews at the Temple during the Passover. He ruled only ten years before Emperor Augustus removed him for incompetence. Like his father, he might consider Jesus a threat to his power. If you’re a Christian exiled from Cuba by Castro, and you learn that he has died but his brother Raul rules in his place, you’re not sure whether you should return or not. Joseph was being pragmatic and wise.

So he took his family to Nazareth, the town he and Mary had left before Jesus’ birth. Why there? For several practical reasons. Sepphoris was nearby, a cosmopolitan city with excellent educational resources. Jesus could climb the hills of his valley, look west, and see the blue Mediterranean and ships going out to the ends of the earth. The great trade route from Damascus to Egypt and from Rome to the eastern borders of the Empire circled his town. Nazareth was a perfect place for the Savior of mankind to study and prepare to reach the world he was called to save.

God reveals his unique purpose and plan for our lives in pragmatic, practical ways–open and closed doors; circumstances and events; opportunities and disappointments. As you wrestle with something about God’s will you need to know today, ask him to guide you practically. Pay attention to your gifts and abilities, your passions and opportunities.

Frederick Buechner says, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

William Barclay got a call one day from a friend who served on the publishing committee of the Church of Scotland. He said, “Willie, do a commentary in a hurry on one of the books of the Bible. This will give us time to look around for someone really good.” Barclay quickly wrote a commentary on Acts. It was an immediate success, and Barclay was asked to write another volume. His Daily Study Bible became the most popular in Christian history. I read from it each week.


Theology for Tsunamis

Theology for Tsunamis

Dr. Jim Denison

Matthew 2:13-18

On December 26, scientists at the Pacific Tsunami Warning Center in Honolulu forecast a massive tsunami within 15 minutes of the Indonesian earthquake, but did not have phone numbers to call to warn those in Southeast Asia. None of the countries most severely affected had a tsunami warning system or tidal gauges to alert people to the wall of water that followed the massive earthquake.

So in Sri Lanka, crowds came to the beaches to watch the sea after word spread that it was producing larger-than-normal waves. Thousands of children watched. People collected fish brought in by the waves. Then the worst natural disaster in recent history struck. Most of those who died in the floods could have been saved, if they had been warned.

Does God know the future? No one blames me for the tsunami–I could neither predict nor prevent it. Could God? If he could, why didn’t he? If he could predict and prevent your problems and pain and suffering, why doesn’t he? This morning, what causes you to ask God, “why?” Here’s how our text answers your question.

Did God know this would happen?

Joseph’s experience with God’s providence proves three facts beyond question. Let’s set them out, then see how they relate to our questions today.

First, God knows what we should do.

The Lord is clear: “Get up, take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt” (v. 13b). God has a will for our lives, and it is “good, pleasing and perfect” (Romans 12:2).

He knew what Adam and Eve should do in the Garden of Eden; what Noah should do with the approaching Flood; what Abraham should do to find the Promised Land; what Moses should do to lead his people there; what Joshua should do to cross the flooded Jordan and capture fortified Jericho; what David should do to defeat Goliath; what the fishermen should do to “fish for men”; what Paul should do to take the gospel to the Gentile world.

Second, he knows when we should do it.

“When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream” (v. 13). The same night the Magi left, the angel came. God brought his word to Joseph when he needed it. If he had given this word to Joseph earlier, he might have left before the Magi arrived. Then the Gentiles would not have worshiped the Christ, and Joseph would not have received the gifts he would need to support his family in their exodus to Egypt. God never reveals his will before we need to know it.

“So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt” (v. 14). Joseph wasted no time in obeying the command. It is well that he did so. It is only five miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. The Magi left that night, and did not return to Herod the next day. Herod sent messengers to inquire, which reported that the Magi were gone and the child missing. Herod then gave his murderous order the same day.

“Where he stayed until the death of Herod” (v. 15). God knew what he should do, and when he should do it.

Third, he knows why we should do it.

“Herod is going to search for the child to kill him” (v. 13). The threat was very real. When Herod came to the throne, he slaughtered 300 court officers, his wife Mariamne, her mother Alexandra, his eldest son Antipater, and two other sons, Alexander and Aristobulus.

God was right: “He gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (v. 16). With this result: “Rachel [was] weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more” (v. 18). Most historians think 20 or 30 children were massacred that day, the first martyrs of the Christian era.

So it is clear that God knows the future:

“I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come” (Isaiah 46:10).

“Your Father knows what you need before you ask him” (Matthew 6:8).

He is the Creator and Lord of the universe: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matthew 28:18).

He knows the future, and has the power to do whatever he wills to do. So we must ask: why does tragedy occur? If he is all-knowing, he knows a tsunami is coming before it appears. If he is all-loving, he would want to prevent such disaster. If he is all-powerful, he could. So, why did he allow this tragedy? Why has he allowed your pain?

Why does God allow tragedy?

We live in a fallen world. Our planet is not the way God intended it to be, or the way it was in Eden.

“God saw how corrupt the earth had become, for all the people on earth had corrupted their ways” (Genesis 6:12).

“Cursed is the ground because of you; through painful toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. It will produce thorns and thistles for you, and you will eat the plants of the field. By the sweat of your brow you will eat your food until you return to the ground, since from it you were taken; for dust you are and to dust you will return” (Genesis 3:17-19).

“The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:19-22).

Now we live in a world where four hurricanes can strike Florida in a single season, and Mt. St. Helens can explode, and an earthquake can strike Southern California, and a tsunami can devastate Southeast Asia. Not because God caused it–because this is a fallen planet. Is this the case for your pain?