No Man Can Ransom Another, Except One

Psalm 49:7-9, 14-15

7 Truly no man can ransom another,
or give to God the price of his life,
8 for the ransom of their life is costly
and can never suffice,
9 that he should live on forever
and never see the pit.

14 Like sheep they are appointed for Sheol;
death shall be their shepherd,
and the upright shall rule over them in the morning.
Their form shall be consumed in Sheol, with no place to dwell.
15 But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol,
for he will receive me. Selah

Here in a psalm that calls us to think about life and death, and the rich and the poor, we read something fascinating, true, and glorifying to Christ. Thinking on a this-worldly level, the psalmist points out to us that no man can ransom the life of another. Regardless of how wealthy, no one has enough money, enough power, enough clout to keep another person from dying. Though in our world, we may envy the super-rich or even fear them and their might, death comes to us all.

No man can give anything, not even his own life, to ultimately save the life of another so that the other man would never die. After all, we all die. No human life is of such weight that it could be given to prevent another life from facing the grave.

In verse 14, we see that death takes all people. But then, in verse 15, we see a glorious confidence. The psalmist writes, “But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol, for he will receive me. Selah.” God can ransom my soul from the power of death. God can give me life whereas no human wealth and no human power and no human sacrifice could.

How much this redounds to the praise of Jesus. No human life can ransom the life of another. Except one. Here is the glory of Jesus. Jesus is truly God and truly man. Jesus is a man who gave his life to ransom, not only the life of another but of many. Jesus has the glory, the weight, the worthiness, the perfection, the infinitude to be able to yield his life as an atonement for sin and actually ransom from eternal death the people of God.

More Amazing than a Healing

Mark 2:8-12 – 8 And immediately Jesus, perceiving in his spirit that they thus questioned within themselves, said to them, “Why do you question these things in your hearts? 9 Which is easier, to say to the paralytic, ‘Your sins are forgiven,’ or to say, ‘Rise, take up your bed and walk’? 10 But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins”—he said to the paralytic— 11 “I say to you, rise, pick up your bed, and go home.” 12 And he rose and immediately picked up his bed and went out before them all, so that they were all amazed and glorified God, saying, “We never saw anything like this!”

What is amazing in what we just read? If you are not careful, you’ll miss it.

The story is familiar. Jesus was preaching from inside a house. Men carried a friend of theirs on a mat to Jesus hoping for a healing. The crowd was so thick that the men went up on the roof, opened a hole in the tiles, and lowered the man down before Jesus.

When the man was before Jesus, the Savior first pronounced the man’s sins forgiven. And that pronouncement was what set the religious teachers off. They were not going to complain if Jesus healed the man. What the teachers could not imagine is that Jesus would assume the right to forgive sins on God’s behalf. After all, the only person who can forgive sins against God is God.

Keep the conflict in mind in order to grasp the significance of the miracle. Jesus knew what the religious teachers were complaining about. And so Jesus heals the man to prove his identity and Bonafede’s. The rationale works like this. A declaration of forgiveness cannot be proven from earth, but a declaration of healing is verifiable. Both are things that require the power of God. If Jesus can do one, he can do the other. If Jesus can heal, he can forgive. If Jesus can forgive, Jesus is God.

The thing that is supposed to amaze us here is not the ability of Jesus to heal. We have seen that before and after in Mark. What is supposed to impress us is that Jesus can forgive. This is intended as a proof from Jesus to directly declare himself to be God in the flesh.

Here is what is amazing: Jesus is God and will forgive. The healing power proves it. Be amazed at who Jesus is. Be amazed that Jesus will forgive.

Friends, we are sinners. We have given enough offense to the infinitely holy God that we have earned for ourselves eternal punishment in hell. That God would forgive anyone at any time is utterly stunning. When we see that Jesus, God come to earth, is the door through which we enter for forgiveness, we must honor him. We must rejoice. We must run to Jesus and Jesus alone for forgiveness. And then we must worship, honor, thank, and live for Jesus. Our lives are for his glory.

All Scripture Points to Jesus

I’d like for you to take a look at two verses at the end of the 2 books Luke wrote for us under the inspiration of Almighty God.

Luke 24:27 – And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.

Acts 28:23 – When they had appointed a day for him, they came to him at his lodging in greater numbers. From morning till evening he expounded to them, testifying to the kingdom of God and trying to convince them about Jesus both from the Law of Moses and from the Prophets.

These two events occurred around three decades apart. The first is the Lord Jesus speaking about himself to the disciples who were traveling on the road to Emmaus. The second is Paul speaking to the Jews in Rome.

Do you see the common thread? The Scriptures testify to Jesus. God has promised and proclaimed the glory of Christ in the Old Testament for us to see. Abram found out about salvation by grace through faith alone and heard God’s promise to bless all people groups through Abram’s coming descendant. The law of God shows us God’s holiness, our sinfulness and helplessness, the principle of substitutionary atonement, and the idea of being made clean before God. The history of Israel shows us God’s faithfulness even to a sinful people as he preserves the family line of the promised Savior. The prophets promise a king to come who will rule the world, who will be holy and good, who will do justice, and who will be God with us. The prophets point us toward God’s coming promise of a new nation, a holy nation, made up of people from all nations under the rule of God’s promised King. Isaiah pointed us to a servant who would die to bear our sins and then rise again to eternal reward.

Christian, thank God for his word. Thank God for all of his word, Old Testament and New. Thank God for pointing to and promising Jesus in the Old Testament. Thank God for unveiling the mystery of the gospel in the New. Love the word of God and do not neglect any part of it.

God With Us

It is interesting to see how Matthew’s gospel opens as it closes. There are so many things that parallel between the birth of Christ and his death and resurrection. God’s fingerprints are all over this story in a way that I doubt very seriously a common tax collector had the art to put together on his own.

For example, angels show up both at the time of Jesus’ birth (chapter 1) and again just after his resurrection (chapter 28). Just after Jesus’ birth, a wicked king schemes to kill him (chapter 2). Of course, in chapter 27, Jesus is put to death by command of a Roman official. At the garden of Gethsemane, the disciples run just before his death (chapter 26). Just before Jesus’ public ministry, he calls the disciples to himself (chapter 4). The devil tries to tempt Jesus with “If you are the Son of God” (chapter 4) while the crowds at the cross do the same thing (chapter 27).

It is as if God is showing us that Jesus’ story is a glorious and complete accounting of the life of the Son of God. Putting those bookends, those parallels in the first and last chapters show us that God has been carrying out a clear plan all along.

The one that caught my attention today was in one of the clearest parallels that we can find in chapters 1 and 28.

Matthew 1 :20-23 – 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us).

Matthew 28:20b – And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.

Jesus will be called Emmanuel, God with us. Jesus said he will be with us to the very end of the age. We see promise and fulfillment. We see prediction and completion. We see the Lord Jesus take upon himself the mantle that was promised by an angel and which we must have as truth if we are to live in this world.

Jesus is God with us. Because he lived a perfect life, died a sacrificial death, and rose from the grave in victory, he can be with us. We have hope and life because of the presence of Jesus. We can face the world because of the presence of Jesus. We can obey the commands of God because of the presence of Jesus. We can seek forgiveness for our sins and restoration to fellowship with God because of the presence and the intercession of Jesus.

Let those beautiful bookends give you courage today. God is showing you that part of his purpose in the Gospel According to Matthew is to let you know that Jesus is God and that he lives present with his people forever. We are not alone if we are in Christ. We are not defeated, regardless of what this world throws at us. We have hope for eternity because of the actual presence of the Savior right now.

You Need a 100% Savior

The good news of the gospel is only the good news of the gospel because we know the bad news of our situation outside of the gospel. One problem in our society today is that many people do not have a clear understanding of the depth of our sin or the state in which we stand before our Lord. Many have a mistaken understanding of what is required to make it to heaven and how far short of that standard we all fall.

So, take a peek at this text in Psalm 24. (As a side note, I find it neat that this came up in my daily reading only a day or so after I had this very conversation with a friend.)

Psalm 24:3-5

3 Who shall ascend the hill of the Lord?
And who shall stand in his holy place?
4 He who has clean hands and a pure heart,
who does not lift up his soul to what is false
and does not swear deceitfully.
5 He will receive blessing from the Lord
and righteousness from the God of his salvation.

The poetry here asks a simple question: Who can ascend the hill of the Lord? More simply put, who can make it into God’s presence, or who can go to heaven? That is a good question, a reasonable question, and important question.

The answer to the question is a tough one to swallow. To make it into the presence of the Lord, one must have clean hands and a pure heart. One must be free from acting out our sinful desires—clean hands. And one must be free even from those corrupting desires—a pure heart.

Stop and measure yourself. Are your hands clean? Have you always done and said all that is right? Have you always physically avoided all that God calls sin? Have you lived out an absolute outward perfection? An honest answer here is no.

What about your heart? Even if you have been a pretty nice person, has your heart been perfect? Have you not only refused to act on evil desires, but have you also never had such desires? If your heart has ever shown a sign of corruption, you lack total purity of heart. And we see ourselves as twice guilty.

If we are measured by the standards of verses 3-4, we have no hope. None of us are clean and pure enough on our own. We have all failed. We have all had evil desires. Not one of us is pure enough to walk into heaven. WE must have something outside of us to give us the righteousness, the perfection, the goodness we lack.

Then notice verse 5, “He will receive blessing from the Lord and righteousness from the God of his salvation.” Who can go to heaven? That perfect person with clean hands and a pure heart can go, but not me. But then the psalmist tells us that the one who can go to heaven receives blessing and righteousness from God. Receiving righteousness indicates to us that God gives us righteousness as a gift. So the person who can go, the one with the clean hands and the pure heart, that person has those things because he has received those things from the Lord as a gift.

So, here is the truth. We are totally incapable of making it to heaven based on our own goodness. WE have nothing to bring to the table. Our hands are not clean. Our hearts are not pure. WE must receive cleanness and purity, righteousness, as a gift from the Lord. We need a Savior. We do not need a Savior who does a little work to make us a little better so that we can pull ourselves up to the throne of God. No, we need a 100% Savior who does 100% of the work to grant us 100% of the forgiveness and 100% of the righteousness we need. If we only have a 50% savior, we are damned. If we have a 99% savior, we are lost forever. Only a 100% Savior, one who gives us full forgiveness and perfect, God-level righteousness credited to our accounts can save us.

This is, of course the beauty of biblical Christianity. Jesus lived perfect righteousness as God the Son in human flesh. And Jesus will credit us with his purity, not because we have lived it out, but because he gives it to us as a gift. This is salvation by grace through faith in Christ and his finished work. And this is our only way to heaven. Jesus is the 100% Savior we must have to enter the presence of the Lord.

Emptied Himself

What the Lord Jesus did to fulfill the eternal covenant of redemption is amazing. His choice to become human, to let go his rights, and to suffer on our behalf is more than we can imagine.

Philippians 2:5–11 – 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Look at what Jesus did. Verse 6 tells us that he did not count equality with God as a thing to be “grasped.” Verse 7 says that Jesus “emptied himself.” Those are huge concepts.

Jesus did not cling to or use to his benefit his equality with God. Though Jesus is God, eternally God, the Savior did not use that status while on earth to make things easy for himself. Instead of demanding his rights and using the power at his disposal, Jesus emptied himself. He did not stop being God. Instead, he simply set aside what he could have done in order to legitimately and really be human as well. Jesus lived as a man to save men from their sins.

Consider one simple picture of Jesus laying down his rights.

Matthew 4:3–4 – 3 And the tempter came and said to him, “If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become loaves of bread.” 4 But he answered, “It is written,

“ ‘Man shall not live by bread alone,

but by every word that comes from the mouth of God.’ ”

Jesus had gone as long as is humanly possible without food. He was hungry, weak, and in desperate need. And the devil came to Jesus to tempt him. The enemy suggested that Jesus no longer be emptied of himself as Philippians 2:7 says. The devil wanted Jesus to cling to his rights and use his power to satisfy his own desire.

But Jesus would not go along with the temptation from the serpent. He would not stop being truly human. Jesus would rest in the word of his Father and the provision from his Father. Jesus would not do things in any way other than the way that was planned by God for eternity.

The Lord Jesus, God the Son, became truly man. Jesus laid down his rights and took upon himself our weaknesses to save our souls. Jesus did not cling to his status as God, even if he never stopped being God. He lived a truly human life so as to truly identify with humanity. In doing so, Jesus fulfilled perfect human righteousness, satisfied the divine demand for perfection, fulfilled the covenant of works, and bought salvation for all the Father sent him to save.

The result of the stunning work of Jesus is that God the Father has exalted Jesus to the highest place. This is Jesus’ rightful place. The Father has lifted Jesus back to where Jesus belongs. And now Jesus reigns as King of kings forever.

At Christmas, we marvel at the child born in a manger. We sing of shepherds and wise men pointing to the promise of God. And this is good. May we also marvel at the infinite step down the Son of God took to become a real human. May we love that he emptied himself of his rights so as to fulfill the human righteousness we could never achieve. May we praise Jesus, the name above every name, the king above every king.

Terrifying and Welcoming

How do we know what God is like? We do not know from our personal experience and observation, at least not infallibly. Your experiences and mine are all questionable. We miss things and misinterpret things. But God has revealed himself perfectly in Scripture. And, of course, God revealed himself through the incarnation, life, and teaching of the Lord Jesus. This may well be one reason why Jesus is known as the “word” who is with God and who is God in John 1:1.

When you think of Jesus, what do you think of? In general, we immediately go to the gracious scenes. We think of children flocking to the Savior to sit on his knee and hug his neck. We think of Jesus smiling and turning water to wine to save a wedding from disaster. We think of Jesus walking on the sea and beckoning Peter to join him. We think of the disciples sharing a meal, reclining at table near to one another in fellowship. We think of Jesus healing and feeding and doing kindness.

And all of these are right thoughts about Jesus. All of these are right thoughts about who God is. God is love and loving. God is gracious and compassionate. God is faithful. God invites his people to come to him for soul satisfaction.

But let us not only see one part of the revelation of who God is.

Revelation 4:5a – From the throne came flashes of lightning, and rumblings and peals of thunder…

In Revelation 4, John gets a glimpse of God the Father on the throne of the universe, and that vision is literally awesome. He sees colors and beauty of such brilliance he can only describe the scene as similar to the beauty of the most precious stones he knew. He sees a scene of such authority that crowned elders fall on their faces as angels declare God to be “Holy, holy, holy.” And he sees a throne that sends forth thunder and lightning.

Just think of the lightning and rumblings of the throne in Revelation 4:5. What do they tell us? They show us that God is mighty. They show us that God’s power and judgments are terrifying. They show us that God is one we approach with caution.

The beauty is, the Father on the throne and the Son holding children are the same God. When Phillip asked Jesus to show the disciples the Father, Jesus’ response was, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me?” (John 14:9-10). The same Jesus who gently healed the sick and who had dinner with sinners is also the same Jesus whose eyes flashed with lightning as he stormed through the temple courts, overturning tables and driving out criminals.

As we think about the birth of the Savior and the celebration of Christmas, I think it would be wise for us to try to remember all that God is, as that will help us to be faithful as we celebrate the Savior. Jesus is loving and gentle. Jesus is holy and awesome. Jesus is one we can approach in humble surrender and know he will receive us by grace through faith. Jesus is the God whose throne flashes lightning and rumblings and peals of thunder. The one who became flesh is still the God who created the universe. So let us rejoice in him. Let us feel that warm joy of Christmas. And let us bow down and cry, “Holy!”

Two Unfamiliar Truths in a Familiar Prophecy

In Isaiah 7, the Lord presents to us a prophecy that we know well. We see it quoted in Matthew 1 and we think about it a lot at Christmas time. This is the prophecy regarding the virgin conceiving and bearing a son.

But I fear that many Christians are so far from knowing the history of Israel and Judah that they miss what the prophecy originally told us. That lack of knowledge for many opens us up to a couple of errors that can slip in and leave us vulnerable to attacks from those who would attempt to attack the faith.

First, the history. There are some simple facts you must have if you are going to understand the prophecy in its original context. The nation of Israel, the people of God, was divided into two nations around the year 930 BC. The northern kingdom, comprised of ten of the original 12 tribes of Israel, was often identified as Israel, Ephraim, or Joseph. The southern kingdom continued to be ruled by descendants of King David, and was known as Judah for the most part.

When Isaiah spoke to King Ahaz in the southern kingdom during the 8th century BC, Judah was being threatened by a combined force. The northern kingdom was allying with the nation of Syria to come and attack the southern kingdom. This was a major threat, and the king of the southern kingdom was terrified. But Isaiah came to tell Ahaz that this was not going to be a problem. Syria and Israel would not conquer Judah. The Lord would not let that happen. And, quite soon, God would bring the nation of Assyria into the picture to deal with both threats.

With all that in mind, read the prophecy now.

Isaiah 7:14-17

14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”

The prophecy is simple, but it uses an interesting illustration to show the king how short the time will be until the Lord fulfills his promise. For a moment, do not hang up on the word “virgin.”
A woman will be pregnant and have a child. Before that child is old enough to know between good and bad, the threat to the southern kingdom will be gone. So, within a couple of years, the thing that is terrifying the people of Judah is going to be wiped out by the sovereign hand of God working through the Assyrians. And, so you know, God did exactly what he promised.

Why is this important? There are two things we need to learn from this about the Bible and about interpreting prophecy that will protect us today. And, that is all beside the fact that we see, in this prophecy, that god, the Sovran One over all, is able to tell us exactly what the future holds and to use anyone he chooses to accomplish his will.

First, note that prophecy in the Old Testament can have more than one type of fulfillment. This prophecy had both an immediate and a future fulfillment. Isaiah’s words to King Ahaz were fulfilled in less than five years. A child was born. Before that child was old enough to make moral decisions, Judah was free from the threat of the Syrian and northern armies.

Second, in order to help us understand how that prophecy could be fulfilled in the years of Isaiah, we do need to know that the Hebrew word here translated “virgin” can mean simply young woman, and it does not have to imply physical virginity. In Isaiah’s case, it looks like the word is a reference to Isaiah’s wife whom we see have a son in Isaiah 8.

Wait! Does that mean that those who would attack the New Testament claim of the virgin birth have a leg to stand on? Nope. You see, even though this word is a word that could mean young woman in Hebrew, when Matthew wrote it in a citation of the prophecy, under the inspiration of God’s Holy Spirit, he used a word that means virgin in the way we understand and use it today—virgin, not just young woman. Plus, when you read the accounts of Matthew and Luke, there is no question whatsoever that these biblical authors are intending to communicate to us that Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit and literally born of a woman who was literally, physically a virgin. So, that Hebrew word in Isaiah 7:14, a word with a broader semantic range, in no way speaks against the truth of the way that Matthew claims the prophecy with a Greek word with a more narrow semantic range. Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born. And all this was by the miraculous working of our holy God.

When you understand the two facts I just mentioned, the Isaiah 7 prophecy and those who try to oppose its application to Jesus make far more sense. Prophecies can have an immediate and a later fulfillment. Isaiah spoke of his wife and, as we see in Matthew, of a virgin to arrive centuries later. And the glorious way that God inspired the prophecy makes it apply perfectly to both.