Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 8)

This was the last Sunday School lesson of an eight-week series that I taught a few years ago in our former church.  (See previous session here.)  Inexplicably, I neglected to finish my notes and post it.  In this session, we discussed the age-old battle between flesh and spirit.  I invite you to explore with me who we are in Christ.  For a deeper dive into this critical topic, see the article I wrote and posted on my blog here

Summary:

What have we been studying and discussing, as we looked at a theology of our identity in Christ?:

  • With few exceptions, the Bible does not refer to believers as sinners; although we do sin
  • To fully understand who we are as believers, it is good to know who we were before Christ
  • To know who we are in Christ, we must understand the blessings of the new covenant
  • By faith in Jesus, certain things became true of us “positionally”: justified, forgiven, and righteous
  • There is an irreversible radical transformation that happens to every believer; it begins at the very moment of salvation when one is born again, by grace through faith in Jesus Christ
  • Those radical changes affect everything about us: our minds, thoughts, feelings, attitudes, desires, abilities, and relationships

Introduction:

All along, we have been talking about who we are now as believers.  We are not the people we used to be, either in God’s eyes (He sees us through Christ’s finished work on the cross), or in our own experience (we are becoming Christ-like).  However, there are many times that our old sinful nature attempts to influence us and impede our progress in becoming the new creatures we already are in Christ.  What happens when old meets new?  Is there hope?  What are some of the keys to success?

Book:

1) Read Romans 7:14 – 8:17.  (Break it down by sections.) 

    a) What describes those who live in “the flesh” (the sinful nature) vs. those who live in the Spirit? 

    b) What is the answer to the problem of this constant internal spiritual battle?

    c) Discuss the penalty, the power, and the presence of sin.  When are we set free from each?

(Teacher notes: Paul is describing the internal battle between his flesh and his new nature in Christ.  All of us can identify with his frustration: “I do not understand what I do.  For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do” (v. 15).  He has this sinful flesh that he cannot totally escape in this life: “nothing good lives in me, that is, in my sinful nature” (v. 18).  The fact that he want to do what is good (vv. 18 and 21), does not want to do evil (v. 19), and delights in God’s Word (v. 22) tells me that he is indeed a new creature in Christ (2 Cor. 5:17).  He describes this internal battle between flesh and spirit as “waging war” (v. 23).  He exclaims, “What a wretched man I am!” (v. 24).  Paul asks, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” (v. 24).  The answer, of course, is Jesus Christ.  I love how he starts chapter 8, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1).  Despite our constant struggles with the flesh, if we are in Christ, we have been set free from the penalty of sin, we have victory over the power of sin, and when Jesus returns and we receive our new resurrection body like His, we will finally be set free from the presence of sin forever.  Hallelujah!)

2) Read Gal. 5:13-26; 6:7-10.

    a) What actions/attitudes characterize the sinful nature vs. the actions/attitudes of those in the Spirit?

    b) What is the secret to spiritual growth?

(Teacher notes: I see this section as an expansion of what Paul described in Romans 7.  In the NIV, we read the term “sinful nature”, where other translations use the word, “flesh” (Gal. 5:13, 16, 17, and 19).  Paul exhorts the church to “live by the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16 and 25), which is in direct contrast with living in the flesh.  Those who are in Christ should be led by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 5:18).  Jesus said to His disciples that the Holy Spirit would be with us and in us (John 14:17).  We have been indwelt by the Holy Spirit (Rom. 8:11).  We can be consistently filled with (or controlled by) the Spirit (Eph. 5:18).) 

3) Read 1 John 1:5 – 2:2.

    a) Paul contrasts the flesh versus the Holy Spirit.  John, however, chooses to use the analogy of darkness vs. light.  What is true of those who live (walk) in the light? 

    b) Why would those who walk in the light need to be purified from sin?

   c) What is the purpose of confession?  What is actually involved?  Are we asking, or are we accepting?

(Teacher notes: Those who humbly submit to God’s authority, are followers of Jesus, and live in the power of the Holy Spirit will live godly lives – in the light, not in darkness.  When we walk with God in holiness and truth, we not only have fellowship with Him, but with fellow believers in Jesus Christ.  His blood, which cleanses us from past sins, also cleanses us from present sin (v. 7).  When we confess our sins, it does not earn our forgiveness; it is already ours.  It does restore our fellowship with God.

Look

Where and when do we struggle most with sin?  Are you quick to confess these sins and submit yourself under the control of the Holy Spirit?  If so, over time, the supernatural becomes natural.

Took

Make an effort to remember who you are in Christ.  Focus less on what you are doing (or not doing) and more on what He has already done AND is doing in your life to make you more like Him.

About the author:

Robin_McMurry_Photography_Fort_Leonard_Wood__Missouri_Professional_Imaging_Russ_Gerlein-7161-Edit-Edit

Russell E. Gehrlein (Master Sergeant, U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 40 years, father of three, grandfather of four, and author of Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He is an ordinary man who is passionate about helping other ordinary people experience God’s presence and integrate their Christian faith at work. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015. He is a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor. After serving 20 years on active duty, Russ now works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. More than 50 articles posted on this blog have been published 100 times on numerous Christian organization’s websites, including: the Center for Faith & Work at LeTourneau University, Institute for Faith, Work & Economics, Coram Deo, Nashville Institute for Faith + Work, Made to Flourish, 4Word Women, Acton Institute, and The Gospel Coalition.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 7)

This is the seventh of eight Sunday School lessons I taught last fall.  In this session, we will explore the radical and irreversible transformation that happens internally and externally to every genuine follower of Jesus Christ.  It is a transformation initiated by God, by grace through faith in Christ, and brought about by the Holy Spirit in the process we call sanctification.  It is a divine partnership, which involves our cooperation, by faith and obedience.

Hook

Here is a definition of the new birth, according to Unger’s Bible Dictionary:

The new birth is a creative life-giving operation of the Holy Spirit upon a lost human soul, whereby in response to faith in Christ crucified (John 3:14-15; Gal. 3:24), the believing one, “dead in trespasses and sins” (Eph. 2:1), is quickened into spiritual life, and made a partaker of the divine nature and of the life of Christ Himself (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 2:20; Col. 1:27; 1 Peter 1:23-25; 2 Peter 1:4). The complete necessity of this spiritual transaction is the result of fallen man’s state of spiritual death, his alienation from God and his consequent utter inability to “see” (John 3:3) or “to enter” into “the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). No matter how moral, refined, talented, or religious the natural or unregenerate man may be, he is blind to spiritual truth and unable to save himself (John 3:6; Psa. 51:5; 1 Cor. 2:14; Rom. 8:7-8). It is patent, therefore, that the new birth is not the reformation of the old nature but the reception of a new Nature.

I love this definition.  It emphasizes its absolute necessity, based on John 3:3 and 5.  We are born “blind to spiritual truth”, as is every non-believer.  We must be regenerated, not just reformed.

Last week we looked at the process of our radical transformation.  As Unger emphasized above, this was required because we could not see nor enter in the Kingdom by ourselves.  All true believers in Jesus Christ (i.e., followers/disciples) were born again, regenerated, converted, and transformed at the very moment of salvation.  When the Holy Spirit indwells us, we are changed.

So, what actually changed?  Your DNA?  Probably not.  (Although, with advances in genetic studies, scientists keep finding genes for various tendencies, so it is not outside the realm of the possible that God does change us at the molecular level.)  What about your appearance?  Perhaps; especially to those who knew you before and after your conversion.  Your thoughts and mind?  Definitely!  Your feelings, desires, attitudes, abilities, and relationships as well, were dramatically altered the hour you first believed.  We have new resources we did not have before, and need now.

Book

1) Thoughts/Mind.

a) Read Rom. 12:2. Be transformed. Is this active or passive, or both?  What is involved?

(Teacher notes: I think it is clear from this verse that we are to allow the Holy Spirit to transform our minds.  This in itself is passive.  This ongoing process of sanctification begins when we accept Christ.  God initiates, but we have an active role. This transformation happens “by the renewing of our minds”.  Our minds get renewed first of all when we recognize that the world’s value system is bankrupt, counter to God’s truth in many ways.  We are to actively choose to not be conformed, but to be transformed in our minds by soaking in God’s word whenever we can.  It can be augmented with sermons, Christian music, and other means, but the main thing that each of us have to do is to take time to read, study, and meditate on the Bible.)

b) Read 1 Cor. 2: 6-16. What is one of the purposes of the Holy Spirit?  How is Jesus involved?

(Teacher notes: Paul describes the spiritual wisdom that the Holy Spirit reveals to His followers.  It is not “of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing” (v. 6).  It is described as “God’s secret wisdom, a wisdom that has been hidden” (v. 7).  Verse 12 tells us that each of us who follow Jesus receive God’s Holy Spirit “that we may understand what God has freely given us.”  Paul concludes, “we have the mind of Christ” (v. 16).  This spiritual wisdom increases over time as mature in consistent faith and obedience to God’s Word.

c) Read 2 Peter 1:3-9.  What have we been given to live out the Christian life?  What is our part?

(Teacher notes: Peter states boldly that we have been given “everything we need for a godly life” (v. 3).  It starts with knowledge of “his very great and precious promises” (v. 3).  This leads to faith, which is our acceptance of the basic truths of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  As we pursue that faith with continued trust and obedience resulting in spiritual growth/fruit (i.e., goodness, knowledge, self-control), these things become effective and productive in helping us to know Jesus more.)

2) Feelings/Attitudes/Desires.

a) Read Rom. 7:22; 8:9.  How does Paul describe how he has changed?  Who is in control?

(Teacher notes: I did not fully comprehend Romans 7 until fairly recently.  I knew it described Paul’s struggle between flesh and Spirit, which is obviously ours as well.  But I missed a critical detail.  He states in 7:22 that in his inner being” he delights in God’s law.  This stands in stark contrast to what Paul has taught in the previous seven chapters of Romans, that both Jew and Gentile stand condemned as sinners.  We understand from a previous lesson that Paul has made it quite clear in Eph. 2:1-3 and other places that we were dead, separated from God – His enemies.  There was nothing good in us.  We were sinners by nature.  But now, in Rom. 7:22, we see that he somehow “delights in God’s law.”  This indicates that a supernatural internal transformation has already taken place at the core of Paul’s will, his feelings, attitudes, and desires.  He is not merely flesh; by God’s Holy Spirit he now has a new Master.  The flesh is not in control of his inner being – the Holy Spirit is.  He has moved from one sphere to another, and that changes everything about him.  Those of us who follow Christ have had that same transfer from darkness to light.)

b) Read 2 Cor. 4:16-18. Paul presents another contrast.  What is happening to us inwardly?

(Teacher notes: The contrast is clear.  Outwardly, we are falling apart.  This could be seen as physically, due to Paul’s advancing age and after years of suffering for Christ, or externally, due to the trials of life.  Life wears us down as we mature in Christ.  And yet, there is a greater thing happening inwardly.  We are “being renewed day by day” (v. 16).  I cannot help but think about the memorable song “Day by Day” from the musical Godspell, which God used to draw me to Himself in the mid-70’s.  I made the chorus my own prayer, one that I still pray occasionally to this day over 40 years later: “Day by day; day by day.  Lord, dear Lord, three things I pray: to see thee more clearly, love thee more dearly, follow thee more nearly, day by day.”  He is renewing us; we do well to assist in that renewal by welcoming it and seeking after it by grace through faith and obedience.)

c) Read Phil. 1:6. Personally, this is one of most powerful promises in the Bible.  What does God do?

(Teacher notes: This profound promise has stuck with me my entire Christian life.  God began a good work in me.  He called; I had to respond.  He transformed.  He continues to transform.  When I veer from the path of spiritual growth, He disciplines me according to Heb. 12:5-11.  This process, which seems to be irreversible, will continue until Jesus comes back or He calls me home.)

3) Abilities/resources.

a) Read 1 Cor. 10:13.  What does God provide with respect to temptation?

(Teacher notes: The answer is simple.  God provides a way out – every single time we are tempted to sin.  We can never say, “The Devil made me do it.”  We always have a choice to make, but more importantly, we have a new supernatural source of strength as Christians that empowers us to flee the flesh, have faith to overcome the world, and fight Satan directly when necessary with the armor of God (Eph. 6:10-18).)

b) Read 2 Cor. 10:3-5.  What does God provide with respect to fighting spiritual battles in the mind?

(Teacher notes: In addition to the power of the Spirit to fight temptation, we also have access to new resources to wrestle our thought life before it leads to sinful actions.  Paul says that “the weapons we fight with are not the weapons of the world” (v. 4).  These offensive weapons that complement the mostly defensive weapons described in Eph. 6, have “divine power”.  They enable us to “take captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ” (v. 5).  I don’t know about you, but I wrestle with my thought life daily.  My imagination is my greatest strength, which can also become my greatest weakness.  I definitely need to use these weapons that are available to me.)

c) Read Col. 3:9-10.  What does God provide with respect to our becoming more Christ-like?

(Teacher notes: Paul uses an illustration with which we can all identify.  Every day, and for those who exercise regularly, sometimes two or three times in a day, we remove old sweaty clothing, and put on new clothing.  When we become Christians, we are given a new nature, which we have explored in-depth over the past few weeks.  Paul says that this new nature is being renewed, which sounds like a contradiction – Why is something that is new need to be renewed?  The process of sanctification, becoming more Christlike in thoughts, attitudes, and actions, does not happen overnight.  It happens a little bit more every day that we intentionally walk with God, abide in Christ, and are filled with the Holy Spirit.)

4) Relationships.

a) Read John 1:12-13.  Who are we in Christ?  What are the implications of this new relationship?

(Teacher notes: John says that all of us who have received Jesus and believed in His name are declared to be “children of God”.  We understand this to mean those who have repented of our sin, submitted to the Lordship of Christ, and accepted Jesus by faith.  It is not true that “all people are God’s children”, which many in the world falsely believe.  What is implied is that we have a relationship with the triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that we did not have before.  This new relationship carries with it both privilege and responsibility from now until eternity.)

b) Read Eph. 2:19-22. Who are we in Christ?  What are the implications of this new relationship?

(Teacher notes: In this passage, Paul explains that our new relationship with the Godhead is not merely vertical (up and down), but horizontal (left to right) as well.  We are “fellow citizens with God’s people” (v. 19), who come from every race, tongue, and tribe; Jew and Gentile, male and female, black and white.  All who are in Christ are our brothers and sisters by faith.  This relationship supersedes all other divisions and labels.  We are going to spend eternity with this diverse group of Christ-followers, so we had better learn to experience unity here and now.)

c) Read 1 Peter 2:9-10. Who are we in Christ?  What are the implications of this new relationship?

(Teacher notes: This passage is the icing on the cake in describing who we really are in Christ.  We are part of something way bigger than ourselves.  Whether we can fathom it or not, we are called priests, who represent God before the world.  This priesthood of which we are a part is said to be “royal”.  As God’s children, we are princes and princesses.  Peter states that we are part of a holy nation, one that has no geographical borders, but cuts across all boundaries.  We the recipients of God’s blessing to the world, which was promised to Abram in Gen. 12:2-3.)

Look

As you reflect on these different aspects of the supernatural transformation you have experienced in your own life, and the resources you have, what are you most thankful for?  What do you struggle with?

Took

Your transformation into Christlikeness, a true partnership between you and God, is more about resting in what He has done than working for Him.  However, by design, it is a cooperative partnership, one that hinges upon our dependence on God and continuing to pursue Him by grace, through faith and obedience.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 6)

This is the sixth of eight Sunday School lessons that I taught from mid-October through mid-December.  It was an in-depth study of a critical topic that many Christians do not understand.

Hook

Let me begin with a series of quotes from a book we have referred to a few times in this series.

In that moment when you received Christ as Savior, not only were you justified and delivered from God’s wrath, but God made a very special change inside of you – he changed your attitude about him.  Before that, with your back toward God, you were “alienated and hostile in mind” (Colossians 1:21).  But now, realizing that the offense of your sin has been removed by the blood of Christ, you turn around.  What do you see?  You see the compassionate face of a loving God with open arms reaching out toward you.  What do you do?  You run into those open arms.  You are no longer hostile!  You have been reconciled to God. . . .This would seem to take care of everything – justified and reconciled.  But it doesn’t.  It is to that second change inside of us we now turn.  It involves a biblical truth that is so marvelous we might easily hesitate to believe it.  (Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, David Needham; Multnomah Publishers, 1999; page 61.)

Contrary to much popular teaching, becoming a Christian is more than having something taken away (sins forgiven), or having something added to you (a new nature plus the assistance of the Holy Spirit); it is becoming someone you had never been before.  It is justification + reconciliation and regeneration.  The new identity is not on a flesh level, but on the deepest level of one’s inmost self.  This miracle is more than a judicial or positional act of God.  It is an act so actual that it is right to say a Christian’s essential nature is righteous rather than sinful.  In a sense, one could say that justification is salvation as viewed from above, where God sits as a righteous judge issuing his judicial declaration.  Reconciliation touches both “above” and “down here” as it affirms that since the wrath of God has been satisfied through Jesus’ blood, we who were once enemies are now friends.  We have responded to God’s love by loving him and all that he is.  Regeneration is salvation viewed from below, where we experience God’s internal miracle of being alive with the life of Jesus by the Spirit.  These together not only remove us from God’s wrath, but qualify us to fit – to actually fit! – in his righteous kingdom through the possession of Jesus’ risen, eternal life in a restored relationship.  (Needham, pages 71-72.)

What does this all mean? It means that by the new birth, you and I are now participants in the ultimate new age of God’s eternal purposes.  We are living within the fulfillment of the prophets’ aching dreams and God’s promised miracle.  We are now, actually, the internally transformed citizens in God’s kingdom of righteousness – where Jesus reigns, within the kingdom of our hearts.  (Needham, page 77.)

So, what has Needham reminded us?  He wants us to understand that God did not merely change His mind about us when we became Christians.  There is more to salvation than God seeing us as justified, redeemed, and forgiven.  He has done a miracle inside us as well.  Needham stated, “The new identity is not on a flesh level, but on the deepest level of one’s inmost self.”  God did things to each of us internally that we could not have done by ourselves.  He radically changed our basic orientation from day one.  This transformation continues to develop and mature us into Christlikeness over the course of our whole life.  This is what we will discuss in today’s lesson.

Book

1) Read John 3:1-8.  How much of the things of God can a person experience prior to regeneration?

(Teacher notes: I am sure that most Christians are familiar with this passage. Here is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where Jesus tells him “You must be born again” (John 3:3).  Jesus is not primarily giving Nicodemus (and anyone else who reads it) a command to be born again or “born from above”.  To the contrary, I believe that Jesus is stating a fact.  No one can even begin to see clearly enough to make a decision to come to Jesus unless something supernatural happens to them first.  Because of our understanding of the sinful nature of man (AKA the doctrine of original sin), we know that we must be given new spiritual eyes to see Him and new ears to hear Him.  Jesus often said, “Let him who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Matt. 13:9).  A couple of verses later, we see that Jesus did not mean every person who physically had ears on their heads.  He was addressing those who by His grace, were allowed to hear God’s voice.  Jesus clarified, “The knowledge of the secrets of the kingdom of heaven has been given to you, but not to them” (Matt. 13:11).  Jesus explained to His disciples, “Blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear” (Matt. 13:16).  This corresponds to what we discussed last week in John 10, verses 3-4 and 27, about Jesus’ sheep hearing his voice.  So, back to what Jesus said in John 3:3: we must be born again.  There must be a place and time where our new life in Christ starts.  Yes, coming to faith is a process, similar to the 9-month development in the womb.  Nevertheless, there is a birthday, which includes the exact time that we took our first breath, which is put on the birth certificate when you and I came out into this world.  From that point forward, life will never be the same.  It is the same way for each one of us when we become a Christian.  Jesus re-emphasized in John 3:5 and 7 that we cannot enter the Kingdom of God on our own; there must be a second birth caused by the Spirit of God.)

2) Read 2 Cor. 5:17.  What does it mean to be “in Christ”?

(Teacher notes: We discussed this idea of Christians being a new creation in my last lesson from weeks 4 and 5.  Paul’s point is simple.  Those who are identified with Jesus Christ by faith have been and are being transformed into His likeness.  The doctrinal term that theologians use is “sanctification”.  This internal transformation is portrayed as a radical and irreversible change in one’s nature.  Paul uses this term “in Christ” quite often in the book of Romans.  (See Rom. 6:11, 23, 8:1, and 12:5.)  Paul says that we are baptized “into Christ” in Rom. 6:3.  Baptism is a very personal and public declaration of our faith in and submission to Jesus.  It is an outward symbol of an inward reality.  We are identifying ourselves with Jesus’ death and resurrection; dying to self and being raised to new life in Him.  When we become unified with Christ, the Holy Spirit indwells us.  (See Rom. 8:9-11.)  He is the source of this one-time and ongoing transformation.)

3) Read Gal. 6:15.  To what is Paul referring here?  (See Ezek. 36:26.)

(Teacher notes: Paul’s letter to the Galatians was written in response to a problem in the local church in Galatia.  [Note: I am glad Paul did not write to the church in Dalmatia, as we might have an epistle to the Dalmatians.  It probably would have had 101 verses.  Sorry.  I couldn’t resist.]  But seriously, there was a problem with legalism.  Christians came to Jesus by grace through faith, but then were being taught by some false teachers that they also needed to keep the Jewish laws.  This unnecessary burden was in clear contradiction to the gospel of Jesus Christ, so Paul had to set them straight.  His point at the end of this epistle in 6:15 is that what really mattered was the inward transformation that came from the Holy Spirit (see Gal. 5:16-18), not any outward mutilation of the flesh according to the OT Law.  This change of heart was a direct fulfillment of OT prophecy concerning the New Covenant, which we had discussed before.)

4) Read Titus 3:3-8.  Note the contrast of lifestyles before and after conversion.  What happened?

(Teacher notes: One of Paul’s main purposes in writing this epistle is to teach that genuine faith in Christ results in a changed life.  He reminds his readers what they were like before Christ in v. 3.  Paul contrasts this with a “but” in v. 4.  Because of God’s kindness and covenant love expressed through Jesus Christ, God saved us.  Our salvation was not dependent on our good or righteous works, but rather, by His mercy (v. 5).  As a result of us being cleansed and receiving a “rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit”, we are called to respond appropriately by devoting ourselves “to doing what is good” (v. 8).  Again, this supernatural rebirth at the moment of salvation led to a radical transformation that is without a doubt an irreversible event.)

5) Read James 1:18.  Who did the choosing?  Who did the giving?  What was the purpose?

(Teacher notes: To echo Jesus and Paul, James also mentions the new birth that all Christians experience.  I like James’ emphasis on the fact that God chose to give us this new birth in Christ, which we discussed earlier.  God not only chose us, but He gave this to us through the word of truth, the gospel, which is the message of good news found in Jesus alone.   His purpose in doing so was that we would be the first fruits, like His first-born Son, the best of all that He created.)

6) Read 1 Peter 1:3-5, 23.  What does He say about the inheritance that comes with salvation?

(Teacher notes: I like this section, because it ties in so well with what we have read earlier.  Peter specifically mentions that the new birth we were given was because of God’s mercy, which Paul also did in Titus 3:5.  He goes on to mention a couple of other things that we have not yet seen.  This new birth gives us a “living hope” which is based on Jesus’ resurrection.  Peter adds to this hope an inheritance that is ours; one that is eternal in nature.  More importantly, it is one that “can never perish, spoil, or fade – kept in heaven for you”.  If that wasn’t enough to convince us that our eternal destiny in Christ is secure, Peter continues.  He states that we, through our genuine faith in Christ, “are shielded by God’s power” until Jesus returns.  The point of mentioning this passage in our discussion of our internal transformation, is to show that the new birth changes not only our present but our future.  Since we did absolutely nothing to earn this inheritance (it is by grace through faith in Jesus Christ), we can do nothing to lose it.  The changes in our status before God and the changes to our very orientation are permanent.  God chose us so that we could believe in His Son, be forgiven, be internally transformed by His Holy Spirit, reflect His nature in our attitudes and behavior, and then spend eternity with Him.  That is who we are in Christ, and where we are going.  Knowing these truths should set us free!)

Look:

What difference does knowing all this make in your day-to-day experience (i.e., walk) with God?  When you first became a Christian, what did you see as evidence of your spiritual transformation?  What have you seen that has been transforming since that moment?

Took

Is there some other area of your lifestyle that still needs to be transformed into Christlikeness?

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lessons 4 and 5)

After taking a short break over Christmas, I am eager to post the remaining Sunday School lessons I taught this fall on the topic of our identity in Christ.  Here are my 4th and 5th sessions.  (It took two weeks to get through all of the Scriptures I had chosen.  There was a lot to discuss.)

Hook

What is an inheritance?  When do you get it?  What do you have to do to receive it?

When each of us repented of our sins, surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ, and accepted Him by faith as our Lord and Savior, at that very moment of salvation, we entered in to all the blessings of the New Covenant we discussed last week.  These next two weeks, we will look at the things that became true of each of us “positionally” as born-again believers (i.e., justified, reconciled, forgiven, righteous, holy).  These things are true of all believers, not because of what we did, but because of what Jesus did for us, and how God sees us “in Christ”.  This will lay an important foundation to where we will go over the remaining weeks of this study as to what new resources we receive as believers (i.e., God’s Holy Spirit, a new nature, the very mind of Christ.)

Book

1) Read John 5:24, 6:35-40, 44-51; 10:1-16, 24-30.  Discuss what is said about Jesus’ sheep.

(Teacher notes: There is so much to see here. In John 5:25, he gives the first of many clear indications of what we call eternal security.  Jesus says that those who believe have eternal life; they will NOT be condemned.  He describes this one-time action that happens to every believer as a crossing over from death to life.  That sounds irreversible to me.  In 6:37-40, Jesus uses the word “never” to describe what will not ever happen to those who come to Him in faith (which is exactly the same number of those that the Father gives to him).  Jesus promises that His followers will never go hungry, never be thirsty, and that He will never drive them away.  He reemphasized the fact that those who “choose” to come to Him are those that the Father gave to him.  Their destiny is that they will be raised up on the last day.  Just so His listeners heard Him clearly, Jesus restates the promise: everyone who believes in Him has eternal life.  In 6:44-51, Jesus says the same thing about the Father drawing us to Himself, which results in us coming to faith in Jesus, which brings us everlasting life.  It is not about what we do or fail to do.  It is about God choosing us, calling us to faith in Jesus Christ, and us choosing to believe in Him, which qualifies us to spend eternity with Him.  John 10 gives us another glimpse into what is true of those who are Jesus’ sheep.  Jesus is clearly the shepherd here.  He says that “He call his own sheep by name” (10:3).  They follow him (verse 4).  Whoever enters through faith in Jesus “will be saved” (verse 9).  In 10:24-30, in contrast to the description of Jesus’ sheep, we see that the Jews who did not believe in Jesus were declared to be “not my sheep” (verse 26).  Once again, in verses 27-29, Jesus states what is true about those who are His sheep.  No one (no, not even ourselves) can “snatch us out of the Father’s hand.”)

2) Read Romans 3:21-26.  Where does “righteousness” come from? How does it come to us?

(Teacher notes: Twice in this passage, Paul teaches that the righteousness that both Jew and Gentile have been fruitlessly seeking on their own comes from God.  It is not by keeping the Law, which was so important to the Jews, but by God’s grace, which was foreshadowed in the Law and the Prophets. (For example, the narrative of Abram in Gen. 15, which Paul will discuss in the next chapter of Romans.)  This righteousness or right standing before God comes only through faith in Jesus Christ.  All who believe are freely justified (just as if I’d never sinned) by God’s grace based solely on the atonement that Jesus our Redeemer made for our sins on the cross.)

3) Read Romans 4:3-8; 5:1-2.  What does it mean to be justified?  How does this come to us?

(Teacher notes: Here, in 4:3-8, Paul uses Abraham and David as examples from the OT to show that the message of redemption found through faith in Jesus does not contradict the OT, but is actually supported by the OT.  One does not become righteous (justified) by good works; Paul has already demonstrated that this is impossible.  One becomes righteous when in a wicked condition one comes to faith in Christ.  This is a free gift.  In 5:1-2, Paul explains that our justification (by grace through faith) brings peace between God and us.  This is not the “peace of God, that passes all understanding”, which Paul mentions in Phil. 4:7.  This is a peace between wicked humans and a holy God.  Jesus Christ made peace through His sacrifice on the cross.)

4) Read Romans 8:1-4.  Why is there no condemnation now for those who are in Christ Jesus?

(Teacher notes: Everyone who has heard me teach a time or two knows that Rom. 8:1 is a central promise of the gospel.  This clear promise that there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus is a lens that we can use to help us interpret those warning passages that might appear to say that a Christian can choose to take a path that will result in losing their salvation.  We must understand why Paul can make such a dramatic statement; one that once again implies an irreversible change in one’s condition based on their faith in Jesus.  Verses 2-4 explain why those who have faith in Christ are not condemned.  It is simply because of what Jesus has done, not because of anything we ourselves have done.  Jesus set me free from the law of sin that led to spiritual death.  We are under a new law now – the “law of the Spirit of life”.  The law was powerless to change us; only God could do that through Christ. Jesus death paid the penalty as a once-for-all sin offering, which means that we are now seen as righteous in God’s eyes.)

5) Read 1 Corinthians 6:9-11.  What kinds of people were we?  What did God do for us in Christ?

(Teacher notes: We talked about the kinds of people each of us were before we came to faith in Week 2, but we did not look at this particular passage.  Paul is contrasting the lifestyle of the believer and non-believer in this section, as the church in Corinth did not quite grasp that their conversion should radically change their conduct.  In verse 11, he states plainly that many believers used to practice the kind of evil things that are obviously not typical of Christians.  But, he says, we were washed, we were sanctified (meaning declared holy, set apart), and we were justified.  God redeemed us where we were, but loved us too much to let us stay where we were.  By His amazing grace, we were set free from the flesh, the world, and the devil, and brought into a new kingdom that is characterized by righteousness.  We did not earn this righteousness by our own efforts.  It was given to us by grace through faith in Christ.  God supernaturally delivered us from sin and declared us righteous based on what Christ did on our behalf.)

6) Read 2 Corinthians 5:17-21.  What does it mean to be reconciled?  Who did this work for us?

(Teacher notes: Before we discuss reconciliation, there is another key element in our identity in Christ that we absolutely must understand.  In 5:17, we read that we are new creatures in Christ.  This great pronouncement that all believers in Christ are a “new creation” echoes what the OT prophets taught about the New Covenant that would be in effect when the Messiah came. (See Jer. 31:31-34 and Ezek. 36:26-28.)  Paul then expands a bit on the ramifications of what has taken place in the life of the believer.  He states somewhat cryptically, “the old has gone, the new has come!”  What could he have meant here?  (Some well-meaning teachers have used this verse to condemn any kind of psychological therapy, even Christian counseling.  They have totally misapplied what Paul said about the old being gone to mean that traumatic events from our past should not impact us in any way now, which is just plain hogwash.  But I digress.)  In context, I think what may have been in Paul’s mind was that what was true of us under the Old Covenant is gone.  We are no longer slaves to sin or to the requirements of the Law.  The New Covenant is now in effect, which is comprised of freedom from sin and the Law, grace, and being made new in the image of Christ through sanctification in the power of the Holy Spirit.  All of this, Paul says, is from God.  He then mentions our reconciliation.  This is another way to look at the peace we have with God that was mentioned earlier in Rom. 5:1-2.  We were enemies of God; now we are His children (See John 1:12.)  Paul states in verse 21 that God brought this reconciliation about through Christ’s work on the cross to make us righteous in His eyes.)

7) Read Ephesians 2:4-10.  How did our position change when we became followers of Jesus?

(Teacher notes: In the previous verses just prior to this section (Eph. 2:1-3), Paul describes our condition before we met Christ by faith: we were dead in our sins; we followed the ways of the world, Satan, and the flesh; we were objects of God’s wrath.  In verse 4, we see the stark contrast.  “But, because of his great love for us”, Paul states, God “made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions” (verse 5).  In addition, verse 6 informs us that “God raised us up with Christ.”  He concludes in verse 8, “It is by grace we have been saved.”  Moreover, Paul clarifies all that he and Jesus had said on this subject previously in verse 9: “This [is] not from ourselves, it is the gift of God.”  It is not about what we did for God; it is about what God did for us.  Lest anyone think incorrectly that our change in position as righteous means that we do not need to pursue righteousness as a result of this declaration, Paul clarifies in verse 10 that we are “God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works”.  Our good works are merely a natural response to God’s work on our behalf.)

8) Read Colossians 1:9-14, 21-22, 2:13-14.  Note the imagery of the Exodus in 1:13.  What blessings do we all have in this New Covenant promised land to which He has brought us?

(Teacher notes: Colossians contains a lot of similarities with the book of Ephesians.  Here in Col. 1, we see some parallels to what we read in Eph. 2.  In verses 9-11, we see Paul’s prayer for the church.  What I want you to notice is an echo to what we read earlier regarding the natural connection between faith and conduct.  True spiritual maturity and understanding leads to Christlike behavior.  In verses 12-14, we again see our new identity in Christ.  We were delivered from darkness to light, and brought into the kingdom of God, where Jesus reigns.  His New Covenant is one of redemption and forgiveness.  Note that the verbs are passive, not active.  These are things that were done for us: He qualified us, rescued us, and brought us into a land of promise.  I do not want you to miss the clear tie-in to the Exodus, where God’s people were rescued from the dominion of darkness in Egypt, crossed over the Red Sea, and brought to a place where God’s presence would lead them and where His protection and power would give them victory over their enemies.  Verses 21-22 reiterate what Paul said in Eph. 2, that we used to be God’s enemies, but He has now reconciled us by Christ’s sacrificial death in order to present us “holy in his sight”.  He repeats this theme in 2:13-14, teaching that we were “dead in our sins”, God made us “alive with Christ.”  At the moment of salvation, he also “forgave us all our sins”.  All of these truths should make us grateful for all He has done for us and freely given to us in Christ.  Again, these truths also indicate the irreversible nature of the changes to our identity and new right standing before God.)

9) Read Hebrews 10:1-4, 10-23.  Contrast the old covenant sacrifices with Jesus’ sacrifice.

(Teacher notes: This section of Hebrews is one of my favorites.  In 10:1-4, the writer continues to show the stark contrast between the law, which was “only a shadow of the good things that are coming – not the realities themselves”, with the grace of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  In this passage, the focus is on the OT sacrificial system.  In itself, it could “never by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect” those who brought the offering.  It had no power to truly change the heart of the believer and make them holy.  As a result, it could not offer complete cleansing for those who brought the sacrifice, nor could it remove their guilty feelings.  Even though this system was indeed set up by God to cover the sin of the believer under Mosaic Law, it was always limited.  It could not completely take away their sin.  We know that in Christ, all of that is changed.  What the OT sacrifices could not do, Jesus does.  The clear implication I see is that Jesus’ sacrifice, for those who accept Him, not only brings complete forgiveness, but it also perfects us because it changes us from the inside out.  Accepting His forgiveness does offer complete cleansing; knowing this does remove the guilty feelings also.  Jesus does indeed take away the penalty, shame, and power of sin from us.  Skip to verses 10-23. Here, we see that Jesus one-time sacrifice makes us holy (verses 10 and 12).  In verse 14, what I took to be implied in the earlier passage is directly mentioned – Jesus’ sacrifice did make us “perfect” (i.e., holy in God’s eyes).  This status also gives us hope of inner transformation (sanctification) ; it says that we are “being made holy”.  In verses 16 and 17, the writer of Hebrews then summarizes the promises of the New Covenant as it was described in Jer. 31:33 (which he also quoted in chapter 8 of Hebrews).  Two key elements of this new deal that were realized when Jesus appeared reflect inner transformation – “I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds”, as well as complete forgiveness – “their sins and lawless acts I will remember no more.”  As a result, in verse 19, “we have confidence” to approach God (because our sins truly are forgiven).  With this confidence, in verse 22, we are exhorted to draw near to God “in full assurance of faith”, which is based in part on the fact that our hearts have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus.  This cleansing does remove the guilty conscience for all those who have come to Jesus by faith and accept His free gift of forgiveness, as we mentioned earlier in verse 2.  I must say again that the radical change in how God sees those who are in Christ (as holy), in addition to the radical changes that occur in the heart of each believer at the moment of salvation, indicate that these things are most likely irreversible.)

Look

Needham, in Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are? states, “This is a most wonderful truth. I can rest in the fact that God accomplished this without any dubious ‘book juggling.’  Before the infinite Judge of the universe, according to his own flawless reckoning, I now possess total forgiveness and acceptance.  I am justified!  I am judicially righteous, positionally righteous.  This is the way God sees me.”

Took

Try something different this week.  Deliberately find rest in the finished work of Christ.  There is no need for striving to be perfect, no need to work your way into God’s favor, no need to punish yourself for your mistakes, or think that God is punishing you.  Rest in Him.  Accept His peace and forgiveness.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 3)

This is the third of eight Sunday School lessons I am currently teaching on our identity in Christ.  If you want to read the introduction I posted a few weeks ago, here is the link.

Hook

To better appreciate who we are as believers in Jesus, we have looked at who we all were “before Christ”.  We discussed in detail the clear teaching that all human beings (us included) enter this world as blind, hopeless, enslaved, ashamed, poor, and lost sinners.  We will see clearly that because of coming to faith in Jesus Christ we have now been brought into the light, we can see, we have a new sense of hope, we have been set free; we are forgiven, rich, and found.  Why was there such a dramatic transformation in our lives?  What can we learn about the “New Covenant” that was prophesied in the Old Testament and was fulfilled in the New?

What is a covenant?  How many can you name?  What are the essential elements of a covenant?

Book

1) Read Gen. 6:18; 9:1, 7-17.  For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  (Teacher notes: In Gen. 6:18, we see God’s covenant with Noah, the first time we see this word used in the Bible.  This covenant highlights God’s mercy and faithfulness.  In 9:1, which is repeated again in 9:7, we see what God commanded Noah and his sons to do, to be fruitful and multiply.  This is part of the “creation mandate” we read in Gen. 1:28.)

2) Read Gen. 15:5-7, 18. For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  (Teacher notes: Gen. 15:5 is the Abrahamic covenant (when he was still known as Abram.)  It was God’s promise of offspring and land.  This is echoed in v. 18, where the word covenant is used.  This covenant is tied to the previous promise in Gen. 12:1-3, where we see for the first time the elements of being a great nation (descendants) and blessing to all peoples on earth through those who would become God’s people.)

3) Read Ps. 105:8-11, 42-45.  For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  (Teacher notes: There were other covenants we skipped.  Some were made to Abraham’s descendants, and are echoed here in the Psalms.  The writer lists covenants to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  The land is mentioned again; it is a place for God’s people.  The writer emphasizes the attributes of God’s faithfulness, grace, and mercy in vv. 42-45.  What God expected in return was that His people would respond in obedience.)

4) Read Jer. 31:31-34.  For whom was this made?  What was promised/expected?  Why was there a need for a new covenant?  What are the key elements of this new covenant?  (Teacher notes: This is a critical Old Testament covenant that we must understand, as it ties in with much of what we will be discussing over the new few weeks.  It is referred to as the “New” Covenant, hinting of a time when the Messiah would come and make all things new.  This covenant promises to put God’s law “in their minds, and write it on their hearts.”  Everyone who believes will have an intimate knowledge of God.  Most importantly, this relationship will be characterized by total forgiveness, where God will remember our sins no more.”)

5) Read Matt. 26:28.  (See Mark 14:24, Luke 22:20, and 1 Cor. 11:25.)  What did Jesus say?  (Teacher notes: Jesus, right before He was betrayed, shared in a Passover supper with His disciples.  When He gave the cup, He stated that this was His blood of the covenant, clearly referring to the New Covenant from Jer. 31, when He said it would be “poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt. 26:28).  It is interesting that in both Mark’s and Luke’s accounts, they do not specifically mention forgiveness.  However, we know that Matthew’s Gospel was written to Jews, who would have gotten the reference.  Also, in the version Paul gives in 1 Cor. 11:25, he states that Jesus said “new covenant”.)

6) Read Gal. 3:6-9, 14.  How does the Abrahamic covenant apply to Christians now?  (Teacher notes: In this great little passage, Paul ties faith to righteousness by bringing us back to Gen. 15:6, where Abram believed God and God credited righteousness to him.  If we have saving faith, Paul says, we are Abraham’s children.  Paul indicates that we can actually see a glimpse of the gospel in Gen. 12:3 and 18:18, where God’s blessings to all nations, indicating the Gentiles, will come through Abraham, the man of faith.)

7) Read Heb. 7:22, 8:6-13, 9:15, and 10:15-18. For whom was this made?  What was promised?  (Teacher notes: These passages in Hebrews tie everything together.  The writer declares in Heb. 7:22 that Jesus is “the guarantee of a better covenant”.  In Heb. 8:6-13, Paul teaches how the new covenant Jesus brings is superior to the old covenant, is founded on better promises, and is necessary because the old one was obsolete; it was ineffective to change people from the inside.  The writer then quotes the entire Old Testament passage from Jer. 31-34.  He quotes portions of it again in Heb. 10:16-18.)

Look

1) Summarize the elements of the old covenants made in the OT? Are they applicable today?

2) Summarize the elements of the new covenant that all believers in Jesus Christ have inherited?

3) What is most significant to you about these promises?

Took

This week, mediate on what it means to be living a “New Covenant” life – a life characterized by grace, not law; relationship, not religion; knowing God, not just knowing about Him, forgiveness, not guilt; transformation on the inside, not works of righteousness on the outside, etc.

How does the new covenant affect your prayer life, ministry, walk with God, and sense of peace?

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 2 Supplement)

I recently posted my second of eight adult Sunday School lessons on the topic of our identity in Christ.  This lesson focused on who we were before we were Christians.

What appears below is something I expanded a bit from what I put on the back page of my lesson.  It is a biblical teaching on the word “sinner”.

With the good intention of making seekers in our services feel more welcome, it is often said, “We are all sinners.”  I have to disagree with this assessment.  It does not tell the whole story.

Understanding how Scripture uses this word (and more importantly, how it does not use it) will add greatly to our discussion on our identity in Christ.  If we know who we were before Christ, and truly understand the radical changes that happened at the moment when we became Christians, we will live out our faith with a sense of gratitude for what has been done through Christ for us, to us, and in us.  Furthermore, I believe that some of these changes to us are irreversible.  My observations may be somewhat controversial, but I ask you to prayerfully consider them to see if they have any merit.

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A Study on the Word “Sinner”

After studying a complete listing of 62 references to the word “sinner” (20 in the OT; 42 in the NT), I found that with only a few exceptions, the Bible does not generally refer to believers as sinners.  The word is used as a synonym for the wicked, the unrighteous, the lost, or an unbeliever.  It is what we as human beings all were, but not what believers are referred to after they are saved.  The word is also used to refer to someone in the process of becoming a believer, who recognizes their sinful condition and repents (Luke 18:13).  The Pharisees used the label with pride, regarding others they perceived as living an unrighteous lifestyle (i.e., tax collector, prostitute).  Ironically, they did not see that they themselves were sinners.  Though they were religious, according to Jesus, they were unbelievers (Luke 24:7).  They also used it, inaccurately, to refer to Jesus Himself (John 9:16).

Here are several references worth addressing:

Psalm 1:1.  In context here, the words “wicked”, “sinners”, and “mockers”, are all synonymous.  Those individuals do not have a happy ending, compared with that of the righteous (see verses 4-5.)

Psalm 25:8.  “He instructs sinners in His ways.”  Unbelievers cannot receive such instruction, so this is something different.  Looking at the context (vs. 6-12), this is someone who is coming to faith; they fear the Lord and confess their sins in true humility and repentance.

Matthew 9:10-13.  “Sinners” came and ate with Jesus and His disciples.  This common reference applies to those known to be of ill repute (i.e., prostitutes).  Jesus said that He came to call sinners to repentance.  (Note: Although the word “repentance” is not specifically stated in this passage, nor in a parallel passage in Mark 2:13-17, it is implied.  However, it is clearly stated in Luke 5:27-32.)

Luke 15:1-10.  Jesus gives a series of three parables; the lost sheep, lost coin, and lost son.  One of the points He makes is that the tax collectors and “sinners” that were hanging out with him were lost (sheep, coins, sons), and were worth seeking after and rejoicing in when found.

Romans 5:8.  “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”  Our identity as sinners is clearly presented in the past tense.  Does this imply that there was a change of identity when we became believers, and that this label is no longer applicable to us?  I believe that it does.

1 Timothy 1:15-16.  Paul, wanting to focus on God’s great mercy, states that “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners – of whom I am the worst.”  He does use the present tense here, so it would appear at first glance that he may still see himself as a sinner.  However, Paul does not ever use this word or extend that view to apply to all believers anywhere else in any of his writings.  It is likely that his point is simply that his life as one who killed Christians and persecuted Jesus Himself illustrated the extent of the love, mercy, and grace of God towards sinners.

James 4:8.  Here, James addresses his audience using the term “sinners”.  This is an audience that in the greeting of his letter he refers to as “brothers” (James 1:2).  Considering the context of instructions to submit to God in chapter 4, he also uses terms like “adulterous people” (v. 4), “double minded” (v. 8), and “brothers” again.  Here, as in any gathering of believers, there is a mixed audience.  Some are believers; some are not.  This passage is the only one I can find that uses the term in this way.  It is almost like that phrase, “If the shoe fits, wear it.”  The title may apply to some of his listeners, but not to all of them.

Lastly, I want to address this from a grammatical point of view.  Although it may be true that sinners are those who sin, by definition, the converse is not necessarily true, that those who sin are sinners.  Let me illustrate.

Indeed, runners are those who run.  However, those who run are not all runners.  Someone may run to escape a barking dog, for example, and not be a considered a runner.  We understand that being labeled a runner implies that a person runs deliberately, regularly, and works hard to improve their running skills over time.  They may subscribe to magazines to help them run, join clubs to run with others, compete in marathons, buy gadgets to help them track their distance, and purchase special running clothes.  They have earned that title; it is who they are.

I hope you can see where I am going with this comparison.

Sinners, in the biblical sense, are those who sin deliberately, regularly, and sin more over time.  They have no intention or hope of ever stopping, apart from the transforming power of Jesus Christ.  They have earned that title; it is who they are.

But this does not describe the believers’ experience.  Certainly, we do sin.  To say that we do not sin is a lie (1 John 1:8).  However, doing so goes against the new nature we received at our conversion.  Sinning is not something that Christians are to deliberately pursue (1 John 1:6).  If someone does, we have to question the validity of his faith; true saving faith leads to good works (James 2:14-19).

The blessed hope that those who are in Christ have is this: through His death on the cross, Jesus has redeemed us once for all from the penalty of sin; daily, His Holy Spirit gives us strength to overcome the power of  sin; when Jesus returns, we will be set free eternally from the presence of sin.

Just before I was getting ready to head to church to teach Sunday School this morning, I was pleased to find this appropriate quote from the book, Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are?, by David Needham: “What does Scripture say?  If you have received Jesus Christ as Savior, God says that in the deepest sense of personhood, you are not a sinner – no matter what you have been told, no matter how much you feel the pull of sin.  You are righteous!”

So, if we should not state that we are sinners, what can we say that tells the whole story? We can humbly say that we used to be a sinner separated from God, but that Jesus called us to repentance and faith, forgave our sins, reconciled us to God, and has now declared us righteous in Christ.

There will be much more to say on this topic in the coming weeks.

For further study, here is the complete Scripture listing of the word “sinner” (NIV):   Num. 32:14; Psa. 1:1, 1:5, 25:8, 26:9, 37:38, 51:13, 104:35; Prov. 11:31, 13:6, 13:21, 13:22, 23:17; Eccl. 2:26, 7:26, 9:18; Isa. 1:28, 13:9, 33:14; Amos 9:10; Matt. 9:10, 9:11, 9:13, 11:19, 26:45; Mark 2:15, 2:16, 2:17, 14:41; Luke 5:30, 5:32, 6:32, 6:33, 6:34, 7:37, 7:39, 13:2, 15:1, 15:2, 15:7, 15:10, 18:13, 19:7, 24:7; John 9:16, 9:24, 9:25, 9:31; Rom. 3:7, 5:8, 5:19; 1 Cor. 14:24; Gal. 2:17; 1 Tim 1:15, 1:16, 2:14; Heb. 7:26, 12:3; Jam. 4:8, 5:20; 1 Pet. 4:18; Jude 1:15.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 2)

What follows is my second adult Sunday School lesson on the critical topic of our identity in Christ.  (See my post from one week ago where I introduced this subject.)  This lesson will focus on who we were before we became Christians (B.C.)  I will use the standard format that I learned in college: Hook, Book, Look, and Took.

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Hook

Some believe that man is basically good.  What do you believe?  What evidence do you have to back up your belief?

Introduction: To fully appreciate who believers in Jesus Christ become at the moment of salvation, and whom they are continuing to be transformed into through the process of sanctification, it is prudent to look at who we all were prior to that moment, in varying degrees of lostness and sinfulness.

Book

1) Read Gen. 6:5.  How does Moses describe the people of Noah’s day?  Are we the same today?

2) Read Isa. 53:6.  (See also Ps. 53:3.)  How does the prophet Isaiah describe human beings?

3) Read John 3:19-20.  This verse provides an explanation as to why so many resist God’s truth.

4) Read Rom. 3:9-18; 23.  Paul gives a series of OT quotes to show that Jews and Gentiles are sinners. (See the OT references in sequence: Ps. 14:1-3; Eccl. 7:20; Ps. 5:9; 140:3; 10:7; Isa. 59:7-8; Ps. 36:1.)

5) Read Rom. 5:6-8; 8:7.  How does Paul describe our condition?  Can we find God on our own?

6) Read Gal. 5:19-21; Eph. 2:1-3; Col. 1:21.  How does Paul describe sinful nature?

7) Read Titus 3:3.  Paul points out that we were all like this.  Does Paul add anything new here?

Look

Think about the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matt. 18:21-35).  There was one man who owed ten thousand talents; millions of dollars in today’s currency.  His huge debt was forgiven.  There was a servant of his who owed him a hundred denarii; a few dollars.  He was not so forgiving.  Jesus’ point was that we should forgive others as we have been forgiven.  My question is entirely different.  Where do you feel that you fall on the spectrum between owing God millions of dollars, or only a few dollars?

In a similar parable (Luke 7:36-47), Jesus explains that how much of a debt you perceive you have been released from will determine how much love you have for the One who forgave you that debt. Jesus asked Simon the Pharisee which debtor would love the moneylender more, the one with the bigger or the smaller debt.  He said it would be the one who had the bigger debt canceled.  Referring to the sinful woman who had just anointed His feet with perfume and her own tears, Jesus concluded, “Therefore, I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven – for she loved much. Be he who has been forgiven little loves little” (v. 47).

I truly believe that the more we understand how much we have been forgiven in our own lives, the more our love for God will grow; loving God is the greatest commandment.

Took

Are you truly grateful for the life that you have been rescued from before you found Jesus Christ?  Do you see it as a dark place, where you were blind, hopeless, enslaved, ashamed, poor, an enemy of God, and lost?  Do you see that now, as a result of coming to faith in Jesus Christ, you have been brought into the light; you can see, have a new sense of hope, have been set free, are forgiven, are rich, a child of God, and are found?

How will you think, feel, and act differently today as a result of seeing this contrast between the old you and the new you a little more clearly?

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

Our Identity in Christ (Lesson 1)

As I was going over my Sunday School lesson I was about to teach a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I have not posted many of my lessons on this blog.  I think it is time I did.

This eight-week series on our identity in Christ that I am teaching now is one I had taught in the summer of 2011.  Since I had been spending a lot of time the last few months on writing my book on the theology of work that I am self-publishing, I decided to teach something that would not require a lot of preparation.  I am glad I chose to do this series.  It is extremely relevant to every Christian.   It is a message that many of my brothers and sisters in Christ need to hear.  My intent is to post two lessons a week, so that I will have posted all lessons prior to Christmas.

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I started the class with showing a video of a Christian song from two years ago, Who You Say I Am, by Among the Thirsty.  Hearing these opening lyrics often causes me to weep with joy:

My sin says I’m unworthy, my shame that I’m alone

My heart tells me I’m broken, and I can’t be made whole

But ever since the day I ran into Your grace

You call me righteous; you call me yours

No longer guilty; not anymore

And I am rewritten; I’m spoken for

A new creation, now I stand, cause of who You say I am

Problem: I often hear the word sinners applied to Christians, as in, “I’m just a sinner saved by grace”.  I cringe every time I hear it.  Not that I don’t acknowledge or recognize that I sin; I do.  Daily.  Not that I don’t accept the Apostle Paul’s assessment that he was the “chief of sinners” (1 Tim 1:15).  I just recall that the Bible consistently refers to believers in Jesus Christ using different words than sinner: righteous, forgiven, saints, redeemed, new creatures in Christ, chosen ones, sons/daughters of God, etc.  Believers do sin, but to refer to us as mere sinners misses the profound changes (spiritual, emotional, mental) that occur from the moment of salvation, when a sinner repents and becomes born again, moving from darkness to light.  If believers could focus on who they really are in Christ, more than focusing on just their old sin nature (the flesh), making the big mistake of assuming that is all we can be, then we would sin less and less, as we get our eyes off ourselves and on fixed on Christ (Heb. 12:2).

Purpose: The purpose of this study is to discover, understand, and apply biblical principles on our identity as believers.   What did we naturally used to do and think as non-believers and what do we supernaturally (by His grace, in the power of the Holy Spirit) do and think now that we are born again?  What changes did God make in us when we chose to follow Jesus?  Are some irreversible?  What new abilities and spiritual resources do we all have to overcome the powerful influences of our own flesh, the world, and the devil?  Are we merely human, or are we much more than that?

Here are a couple of powerful quotes from a book I bought many years ago:

David Needham, in his book Birthright: Christian, Do You Know Who You Are? makes this foundational statement,

God tells us we are alive in a way we have never been alive before, possessing a birthright we never possessed before. . . Could it be that a major reason for the indifference, the epidemic occurrences of moral shipwreck in our evangelical churches, and the shattering of Christian homes is because we have seen ourselves as nothing more than “Christian” forgiven sinners – failing to be what we should be, because we cannot stop being what we think we are?

Later, he concludes, “Perhaps this ‘new personhood’ idea seems far away from the daily reality of your life.  That still doesn’t change the basic fact.  If you have received the Savior, you simply are not the same person you were before.”

We read Ephesians 1:1-18.  I asked the class to list all the words and phrases that Paul uses in this passage to describe who believers are or what they have in Christ.

The big question is this: Do you believe that as a follower of Jesus Christ you are different, not just “in God’s eyes”, but REALLY different from you were before you became born again?

I closed with another music video, You are More, by Tenth Avenue North.  I invite you to listen and reflect on who you are in Christ.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

God’s Double Deliverance

ten_commandments_668_330_80_int_s_c1On the way home from work yesterday afternoon, I reflected on a passage I taught in Sunday School a few weeks ago.  I had a blinding flash of the obvious.  It makes sense to me now, but I am not sure I had ever articulated it this way before.

Let me give a little background on this passage first, some of which is taken from a paper I wrote a couple of years ago for an independent study I did on the New Testament (NT) use of the Old Testament (OT).

Paul, in 1 Cor. 10:1-13, alludes to and quotes the OT.  He deliberately takes his readers back to the Exodus to show that the church identifies in several key points with the Israelites.  He says in verses 6 and 11 that the things the Israelites went through during and after God’s miraculous deliverance from Egypt were recorded for the church’s benefit, as examples for us.  It is what Bible scholars call a type.  Basically, the way God acted in the past is how He will continue to act in the future.  Among other things, it shows the church that they share a similar spiritual heritage and have the same human nature as those stiff-necked people did.

Paul clearly demonstrates that the Israelites had been identified with Moses, had personally seen and experienced God’s deliverance and provision as they were brought out of bondage in Egypt by God’s mighty hand as they crossed the Red Sea, and were led by His presence through the desert.  And yet, despite these many blessings, they still fell into idolatry and God’s judgment.  So too, the church in Corinth, who had been blessed even more through their identification with Jesus, being delivered from bondage to sin through the cross, could also just as easily fall into idolatry and experience eternal consequences.

Carson and Moo, in their book, An Introduction to the New Testament, point out that “the theme of God’s deliverance bookends this section.  Paul starts by alluding to God’s physical deliverance of the Israelites in and after the exodus and ends with practical suggestions for the church to deal with temptation by drawing upon the resources of God’s spiritual deliverance in order to stand.”  The God who delivered His people back then is the same God who is faithful to deliver His people now during times of temptation.

However, it is not these two types of deliverances (past and present) that I want to highlight.  I want to explore the idea that God first specifically delivered His people out of Egypt, and then delivered them a second time, in a broader sense, all through their trek through the desert over forty years on the way to the Promised Land.  I call this a “one-time” deliverance and a “continuous” deliverance.  Scripture clearly backs this up, not only in the 1 Cor. passage, but often throughout the OT.

Certainly, this one-time only major event is something that all of God’s chosen people constantly looked upon as a foundation for their Jewish faith.  The central focus of the Exodus as THE sign of God’s faithful and gracious deliverance of the Israelites from bondage is echoed repeatedly in the remainder of the Pentateuch, the Psalms, and the Prophets as well.  In a similar fashion, Christians have always pointed back to the cross as the one-time major event which is foundational to our faith.  The cross, where God the Father, through Christ’s sacrifice, demonstrated His faithfulness and grace to deliver His chosen people from slavery to sin, is the focal point of the entire NT.

I cannot honestly say I have seen any of the NT writers make a direct comparison between the Exodus and the cross, but it has always been so obvious to me.  I cannot be the only one who can see the similarities as I attempted to plainly outline above.

The second sense of God’s continuous deliverance through the desert is not that hard to see.  The Israelites found themselves in need of water, food, and shelter.  They needed His presence and His forgiveness.  They needed protection from their enemies.  And so, God provided, He led, He was with them, He forgave, and He delivered them at every point along the way.  Surely He does the same kinds of things for NT saints along the way to our final destination.

At the end of this passage in 1 Cor. 10:13, which is often quoted out of context, Paul offers some encouragement to a church that was so plagued with various sins, just as the Israelites in their desert wanderings were tempted over four decades.  He points to God’s faithfulness as was demonstrated by the Exodus he alluded to so loudly in verse 1.  And without even saying it, he knows that the church he is writing to has experienced a greater exodus through the cross of Jesus Christ.  He states boldly that when they face temptation to sin, just as the Israelites did, God, in that same faithfulness, “will also provide a way out“.

Just as He delivered the Israelites not only once at the Red Sea, but twice, God would do the same for the church.  Not only once at the cross, but twice.  He would continually deliver them, and will continually deliver us at the moment we need rescuing.  I think that Jesus taught His disciples about this second deliverance when He taught them to pray: “And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil”.

He has delivered us.  He will continue to deliver us still, whenever we call on Him in faith.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.

The Visit by the Magi in Matthew 2:1-12

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(Note:  This is the second Christmas article I wrote and posted on this blog.  The first one was about the Gospel accounts of the Christmas story, written in December 2015.  The third one was a devotional on some non-traditional Christmas verses that I wrote in December 2017.  The fourth one was about God’s presence at work during the holidays in November 2018 and another one was about the man and the birds illustration (a well-known Paul Harvey radio broadcast) in December 2018.  In late December 2019, I reflected on our family visits at Christmas.)

This is what I presented as a Sunday School lesson to a small group of adults this morning.  It is a modified version of a paper I did for my seminary class in Matthew that I took a while back.  Hopefully others will find it interesting and inspiring.

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Introduction

There are a lot of details in the Christmas story. I selected the episode of the Magi’s visit from Matthew 2:1-12.  This narrative focuses on a group of Gentile astrologers from the east that came to worship Jesus after his birth.  It contrasts their knowledge of the prophecies about the Christ and their worshipful response to His divinity with that of King Herod, the chief priests, and teachers of the law, who also knew of the Christ and yet decided to oppose Him instead.

Carson (1994, 11) observes, “Matthew’s main purpose in this story is to contrast the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court – all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.”  Blomberg (1992, 61)  agrees, stating, “Despite their pagan background and powerful influence in the Babylonian or Persian courts, the Magi recognize and worship the Christ child for who he is.  Despite his role as legally installed ruler of Israel and his professed conversion to Judaism, Herod rejects the newborn king and plots to destroy him.”

Book (What does it say?)

1) Read Matthew 2:1-12. Who are the main characters?  What do each of them think of Jesus?  How many kings are mentioned in this story?

2) Key themes:

Key biblical themes I see in this episode include Jesus’ fulfillment of the history, ethics, and prophecies spoken by the Lord through the prophets as written in the Hebrew Scriptures (2:5-6); God’s sovereign control over His creation (2:2, 9); God’s desire to include the Gentiles in His redemptive plan (the Magi); the increasing opposition of the Jewish establishment (2:7-8); the Kingdom of God (2:11); and the majesty of Jesus who is worthy of worship (2:2, 10-11).

As Matthew’s gospel progresses, we continue to see most of these same major themes.  Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecy is well placed throughout (2:15, 17, 23; 4:14; 8:17; 12:17; 13:35; 21:4; 27:9).  In addition to the Magi who are highlighted in this episode, God’s desire to include the Gentiles in His redemptive plan is well-represented throughout the gospel: there are several Gentile women found in the genealogy (1:3, 5, 6); Jesus heals a centurion’s servant (8:5-13), delivers a Canaanite woman’s daughter from demon-possession (15:22-28), and issues the Great Commission to take the gospel of the kingdom to all nations (28:19).  God’s sovereign control over His creation is harder to find, but is clearly seen when Jesus calms the storm in 8:26, at His crucifixion in 27:51, and at the resurrection in 28:2. The themes of increasing opposition of the Jewish establishment, the Kingdom of God, and the divinity of Jesus are prevalent throughout.

3) Literary context:

Before we present details in this text, it is imperative that we put the story in its proper literary context to show how it fits in with what comes before and after. Carson (1994, 6) mentions that overall, Matthew’s prologue (1:1-2:23) “introduces such themes as the son of David, the fulfillment of prophecy, the supernatural origin of Jesus the Messiah, and the Father’s sovereign protection of his Son in order to bring him to Nazareth and accomplish the divine plan of salvation from sin.”

After the lengthy genealogy (1:1-17), there is the story of Mary and Joseph (1:18-25), who were chosen by God to be the parents of Jesus. Matthew emphasizes that Mary’s virginal conception was in direct fulfillment of Old Testament Scripture. This story of the Magi’s visit in 2:1-12 takes place one to two years later, if one compares verses 7 and 16 (Blomberg 1992, 61).

Verses 1-12 comprise the first of four sections in chapter 2, focusing on Jesus’ fulfillment of Scripture; the others are found in verses 13-15, 16-18, and 19-23. This chapter can also be seen as a “drama in two acts” (vv. 1-12 and vv. 13-23), contrasting the Magi’s faithfulness with the faithlessness of Herod (Turner 2008, 76).  In addition, there are portions in this and following passages that bring to mind the story of Pharaoh killing the Jewish baby boys in Egypt in Exodus 1:22, which would make Pharaoh a type of Herod and Moses a type of Christ (Turner 2008, 78).

This story of the Magi sets the stage well for what is to follow. In the rest of the chapter, we find that another angel of the Lord leads Mary and Joseph to escape into Egypt, again fulfilling prophecy. This also demonstrates God’s protection of His Son from Herod and others in the religious establishment who violently opposed Him.  They then return to Nazareth.

4) Historical/social/cultural setting:

This episode occurred during the reign of Herod the Great, most likely between 7 and 4 B.C. (Turner 2008, 78). These critical events come after the long four-century intertestamental period where nothing of significance was recorded.  Israel was under Roman rule at this time.

Geographically, Bethlehem was just a short five miles to the south of Jerusalem. Turner (2008, 78) points out, “Readers of Matthew who were familiar with the Bible would recognize Bethlehem as David’s city and connect it with Matthew’s earlier stress on David (Matt. 1:1, 6, 17, 20). Luke 2:4, 11 explicitly stresses Bethlehem as the city of David (cf. John 7:42).”  Additionally, “The double place name Bethlehem Ephrathah reflects a tribal distinction within the Bethlehem community and also reinforces the tie to David’s family” (Walton, et al 2000, 784.)  It is also quite interesting to discover that “Christ, who is the Bread of Life, was cradled in a town whose name means ‘house of bread’” (Youngblood 1995, 182).

Herod the Great was half-Jewish, and came to power in Israel in 37 B.C. He had a reputation as a great builder and wise diplomat.  As he grew older, though, he became extremely paranoid concerning perceived threats against his position.  He even had family members put to death (Blomberg 1992, 62).  His reign was characterized by violence, lasting for 34 years.  Herod was seen by the Romans as a successful ruler (Bromiley 1988, vol. 2, 693-4).

There were other antagonists in this story. In verse 3, Matthew, using a bit of hyperbole, described the individuals who were disturbed along with Herod as “all Jerusalem”. This most likely refers to the religious leaders in Israel who “dominated the city, many of whom were also personally installed by Herod” (Blomberg 1992, 63).  Keener (1993, 49) clarifies: “The chief priests belonged mainly to the wealthy aristocracy of Sadducees; ‘scribes’ in the narrow sense in which the term is used here applies to experts in the Jewish law, most of whom were also teachers of the law.” Carson (1994, 5) observes, “Matthew also often links the Sadducees together with the Pharisees, not because the views of these two groups were similar, but because they were united in their opposition to Jesus.”  Most readers of the gospels know that the Jewish religious officials and teachers of the law in Jesus’ time had a reputation for being too political, corrupt, and were not truly living up to the full intent of the Law and Prophets.

The Magi spoken of here “were pagan astrologers whose divinatory skills were widely respected in the Greco-Roman world . . . everyone agreed that the best astrologers lived in the East” (Keener 1993, 48). There is no indication in the text that there were three of them in number, despite what the traditional Christmas carol has taught us.  There were in fact three gifts given to Jesus, but Matthew does not specify that there was one-to-one correspondence between givers and gifts.  Blomberg (1992, 62) states that they were not kings, but wise men, possibly priests, who “combined astronomical observation with astrological speculation.” In addition, Turner (2008, 79) informs us that they were probably “prominent priestly professionals who studied the stars and discerned the signs of the times. They may have come from Arabia, Babylon, or Persia.” The gifts the Magi presented to Jesus to honor Him as King were “typically associated with royalty.” Gold was a valuable precious metal, and frankincense and myrrh were fragrant perfumes that were also appropriate as expensive gifts (Blomberg 1992, 65-6).

5) Interpretive questions/problems:

One of the common interpretative questions is concerning the nature of the star, whether or not it could have been a scientifically-proven astronomical phenomenon, a miracle, or both. Either way, Matthew clearly saw this event as a miracle (Turner 2008, 80). Blomberg (1992, 62) observes that a new star frequently indicated “the birth of a significant person in the land over which the star shone.”  He adds that a variety of efforts to pair the divine star with several historical astronomical incidents such as a comet or alignment of planets especially for the purpose of dating the event are interesting but not worth much (1992, 65).  Blomberg (1992, 66) also suggests that the appearance of the star is in fulfillment of Messianic prophecy in Numbers 24:17, “A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.”

Others disagree with Blomberg, citing that the star of Bethlehem may have been a comet, a nova, or conjunction of Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn in the constellation Pisces. The difficulty in interpreting how the star could have gone before the Magi in Mt. 2:9 can possibly be answered by the following: “As they traveled from Jerusalem to Bethlehem the star was ahead of them to the south. As they came near to Bethlehem the star was low enough in the sky to appear to touch down over the roof of the house they were seeking” (Bromiley 1988, vol. 1, 344).  God’s leading the Magi by a star calls to mind how God led Israel by “fire and cloud” (Keener 1993, 49).

Another critical interpretative question would be in regards to Matthew’s use of the Hebrew Scriptures in 2:6. This is the second of his fulfillment passages, the first being found in Mt. 1:22-23, regarding the virgin conception of the Messiah. This verse is an apparent direct prediction of Micah 5:2 (combined with 2 Sam 5:2).  It stands apart from the other fulfillment formula verses found throughout Matthew, as the Greek word, pleroo (fulfill), does not appear here, as it does in ten occasions out of the fifty formal Hebrew Scripture quotations Matthew uses (Turner 2008, 17-18).  However, he does clearly indicate in verse 5 that the quote he is about to provide originates from Hebrew Scriptures, “for this is what the prophet has written.”  Blomberg (1992, 64) adds, “Here is as close to a straightforward prediction-fulfillment scheme as is found anywhere in Matthew.  The context of the passage in Micah seems clearly messianic and was regularly so taken by pre-Christian Jews.”

Turner (2008, 83-4) points out that the text Matthew uses from Micah 5:2 differs slightly from the Masoretic Text (MT) or Septuagint (LXX) translations in use at the time. He observes: “The key difference between Matthew and MT/LXX is his addition of the word oudamos, by no means) to the second line of the quote.  Whereas MT and LXX make a simple assertion to the effect that Bethlehem is insignificant among the clans of Judah, Matthew’s addition asserts the contrary: ‘You by no means are least among the rulers of Judah.’”  Furthermore, he explains the importance of this: “One could interpretively translate the MT as follows: ‘Even though you are insignificant among the clans of Judah, nevertheless from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel.’  Micah foresees that the Messiah will rise from a geographically insignificant town . . . the birth of Jesus has transformed the significance of Bethlehem.”

When comparing Micah 5:2 with Mt. 2:6, one can also notice that Matthew left off an important part of the prophet’s message. Matthew leaves out “whose origins are from of old, from ancient times”, replacing it with a phrase from 2 Sam 5:2, “who will be the shepherd of my people Israel.”  McComiskey, in his commentary on Micah, enlightens us with this statement: “The terms ‘old’ and ‘ancient times’ may denote ‘great antiquity’ as well as ‘eternity’ in the strictest sense . . . and its application to a future ruler – one yet to appear on the scene of Israel’s history – is strong evidence that Micah expected a supernatural figure (cf. Isa. 9:6; cf. also Isa. 24:23; Mic. 4:7).  Only in Christ does this prophecy find fulfillment” (McComiskey 1994, 1475).  Much of the differences in wording can be accounted for by understanding that Matthew “made the quotations his own in his portrayal of Jesus as the Messiah” (Bromiley 1988, vol. 3, 284).

6) Key theological implications:

There are several essential theological implications in this story. The first would be the obvious contrast between the Magi, who were Gentile believers, and the Jewish establishment, who were portrayed as unbelievers. The positive focus on the Magi highlights a key element of the Abrahamic covenant from Genesis 17:4 and 22:18, where Yahweh promises to make Abraham a father of many nations, implying many Gentiles. Overall, Matthew’s gospel paints a clear picture of growing opposition from Jewish leaders which leads to an increasing openness to and anticipation of the spread of the Kingdom of God through the Spirit-led church to all nations.  Jesus thus brings the fulfillment of the Abrahamic covenant to the world (Blomberg 1992, 26).

A second one is that of the absolute sovereignty of God. He supernaturally orchestrated numerous prophecies spoken centuries before to line up with astronomical phenomena and believing astrologers at just the right time and place to fulfill His plans to present Jesus His Son and our Messiah and King into the world.  This story illustrates many of God’s perfect attributes: His mighty power, His will that cannot be resisted, His wisdom, His mercy and compassion.  His Word is completely trustworthy and He is always faithful to bring His good plans to completion.

A third implication in this account is of the demonstration of the divinity of Jesus Christ.  The Magi certainly recognized it starting in verses 1-2; they were the first to acknowledge that the God of the universe had used His own creation to proclaim His only Son’s birth. This star continued to lead them straight to Him in verse 9, reminiscent of the fire and smoke that led the Israelites through the wilderness.  In verse 11 they humbled themselves and worshipped Jesus, again pointing to His deity.  Matthew also clearly points out that this child’s birthplace fulfilled Hebrew prophecy of the Messiah (2:5-6).  Jesus truly was “Immanuel . . . God with us” (1:23).

A final implication from this passage would be the focus of the humanity of Jesus Christ.  This story illustrates well His humble beginnings.  Even though He was born “King of the Jews” (1:2), He was only treated as such by a select few.  Matthew’s lengthy genealogy in chapter one emphasizes his physical connection to the human race.  And, as Paul eloquently mentions in Phil. 2:5-8, Jesus the Son willingly laid aside His divine nature, became human from conception, and took on the essence of man.  In so doing, He was fully qualified to pay the penalty for our sins.

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L., The New American Commentary: Matthew.  Nashville: B&H Publishing Group, 1992.

Bromiley, Geoffrey W., ed. The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (4 vols.). Grand Rapids: Eerdman’s, 1988.

Carson, D.A., Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (vol. 2). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Henry, Matthew, Matthew Henry’s Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1961.

Keener, Craig S., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 1993.

McComiskey, Thomas E., Zondervan NIV Bible Commentary (vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994.

Turner, David L. Matthew: Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008.

Walton, John H., Matthews, Victor H., and Chavalas, Mark W., The IVP Bible Background Commentary: Old Testament. Downers Grove: IVP, 2000.

Youngblood, Ronald F., ed., Nelson’s New Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1995.

Russ Gehrlein

Master Sergeant Russell E. Gehrlein (U.S. Army, Retired) is a Christian, husband of 38 years, father of three, grandfather of four, blogger, and author of “Immanuel Labor – God’s Presence in our Profession: A Biblical, Theological, and Practical Approach to the Doctrine of Work”, published by WestBow Press in February 2018. He received a B.S. in Mathematics from Colorado State University in 1980 and an M.A. in Biblical Studies from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary in 2015.  He is also a former junior/senior high school math and science teacher and youth pastor.  Russ currently works as a Department of the Army civilian at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.