And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way. Matthew 2:12
A little noticed aspect of the Christmas story is that it is full of revelations imparted by God through dreams. God uses this method to communicate important instructions to people that will ultimately change the course of events. It is in a dream that an angel tells Joseph to marry Mary, who he would otherwise have divorced. It is in a dream that the wise men are warned not to return to Herod and let him know the location of the newborn king of the Jews. Again, it is in three separate dreams that Joseph is given specific instructions after the birth of Christ about where to move his family in order to keep them safe from the massacre of children instigated by Herod.
Dreams were a means of communication that would have been familiar in the culture at the time, and indeed many important dreams are recorded throughout the Old and the New Testament. They were taken seriously in the same way that the wise men saw the stars as a means of communication about important events, and the way in which Herod called on his chief priests and scribes concerning the prophecies that had been given of where the Christ was to be born.
In our age of modern communication and technology we can perhaps become deadened to the way that God is trying to communicate with us, and prayer can become a one-way form of communication where we lay out our requests to God without really listening for or even expecting a response. Yet Scripture indicates that, through the power of the Holy Spirit, we should still expect God to reveal things to us through some of the same means of communication He has always used. In Joel 2:28 it says ‘And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh; your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, and your young men shall see visions.’ The same God who spoke the earth into creation can speak to us through all manner of things, regardless of whether we are awake or asleep. As you spend time celebrating Christmas this week, and as this year draws to a close, consider putting aside some time for quiet reflection. Ask God what he wants to speak to you about and be ready to receive from him through anything that He chooses to use.
Lord, thank you for the many varied ways in which you communicated with people throughout the Bible and still do today. We ask that you would help us to develop listening hearts, open to what you want to say to us and to those around us. Through your Hoy Spirit would you transform us into a people who are sensitive to the ways in which you are speaking and reveal to us your will. Amen.
And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit Luke 1:41
Perhaps it is because the Holy Spirit is mentioned so frequently in the Christmas story that it has become so easy to take him for granted. I recently read that many Muslims today mistake the Trinity for the Father, Son and Mary which is simply astonishing when we consider how active the Holy Spirit is throughout the accounts. The Holy Spirit is not just the power behind the conception of Christ, as Mary and Joseph are informed by the angels, but we are also told that John will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb, that Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit when she hears the greeting of Mary, and that Zechariah is filled with the Holy Spirit when he prophesies after the birth of John. It is important then that we recognize that this saving act of God in history is the work of the whole Trinity; it is a team effort of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The mention of the Holy Spirit has particular importance in the gospel of Luke. Luke would go on to write the book of Acts which would tell of how this same Spirit would be poured out on the apostles at Pentecost (Acts 2). Luke means to show that this Spirit which was present at the birth of Jesus, and which would be the means by which Jesus’ entire ministry was possible (Luke 4:18-19), would also be poured out on the apostles who would communicate it to the rest of the world. What is truly incredible is that this power which is responsible for the amazing events of the Christmas story is now available to every believer!
In Joel 2:28 God promises to pour out His Spirit on ‘all flesh’, and in Luke 11:13 Jesus indicates that the Spirit will not be withheld from those who ask for it. We too then are intended to be filled with the Spirit just as those at the birth of Christ were. That’s a pretty amazing offer! Today, consider asking God to pour out His Spirit on you, whether for the first time or for a fresh experience of His power.
Holy Spirit, thank you that when Jesus ascended into heaven he did not leave us alone, but went so that we might receive you as our helper. Would you fall upon us as you did on Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah and John, that we too might experience the power of the living God in our lives and be filled with boldness to proclaim the truth of your saving work. Amen.
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” Luke 1:34-35
Today’s devotional focusses on the virgin birth- now you don’t see that represented too often on an advent calendar! It’s an unusual topic that’s normally skirted around but is actually of vital importance to the Christmas story. Both Matthew and Luke affirm in their accounts that the child that Mary bears is not from a human father but is conceived of the Holy Spirit.
In his excellent book Systematic Theology, Wayne Grudem outlines three reasons why the virgin birth is doctrinally significant. First, it reminds us that salvation ultimately comes from God and not by any human effort; it is the work of the Holy Spirit by the initiation of the Father that our world receives its Saviour. Second, that it made it possible for Jesus to be both fully divine and fully human. To illustrate this point he suggests that we imagine two other possibilities in which Jesus could have entered this world; either he could have been created as a complete human being and then descended from heaven without a human parent at all, or he could have had two human parents and had his full divine nature miraculously united to his human nature at some point early in his life. Grudem writes that when we think of these two alternatives it helps us to understand God’s choice; Christ’s full humanity is made evident to us from his human birth from a human mother, while his full divinity is clear from his conception by the Holy Spirit. Finally, the virgin birth makes it possible for Jesus to be truly human but without inherited sin; the guilt and moral corruption that descends to all of us through Adam did not belong to Jesus because the line of descent from Adam was partially interrupted. This is why, as todays verses indicate, the child to be born could be called ‘holy’.
We cannot read and believe in the Christmas story without accepting the supernatural work of God in it; it is not a human story, its author is divine. It may seem impossible to us, too great a stretch for our imaginations. Even Mary, full of faith as she was, asks but one recorded question to Gabriel; ‘How can this be?’ Gabriel’s response to her is God’s response to us; “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37)
Lord, thank you that you are an almighty God for whom nothing is impossible. Help us when we struggle with disbelief, and find ourselves doubting that you can move in situations in our lives. Help us to trust your timing and your plans knowing that they are infinitely better than anything that we could do ourselves. Amen.
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet Matthew 1:22
One of the things that’s always amazed me the most about the Christmas story is how the birth of Christ was foretold hundreds of years before it took place. Matthew’s account is absolutely littered with references to Old Testament prophets; in the space of two chapters, he quotes verses from Isaiah, Micah, Hosea and Jeremiah, as well as indirectly alluding to Balaam’s prophecy of a star in Numbers 24 and the prophecies of foreign dignitaries visiting with gifts in Psalm 72 and Isaiah 60. How could we not but be convinced that this child is the Christ and that something divine is at work?
However, these references are a little more complicated than first meets the eye. Many of these prophecies refer to events that had already taken place. For instance, when Isaiah talked about a child it is likely that he had in mind the child of a young woman he knew. This leaves Matthew open to the accusation of having simply lifted various Old Testament passages from their original context in order to suit his own purposes.
What we need to know, and indeed is even more amazing, is that these prophecies had partial fulfilment sometimes within the prophets’ own life time, but that the Holy Spirit who inspired them intended a deeper meaning than even the prophets themselves understood. In 1 Peter 1:10-12 we are told that the prophets of antiquity longed to understand the meanings of the things they wrote concerning Christ, but however hard they tried they could not find out when and how this would happen. This is why Matthew adamantly persists in using the term ‘fulfilled’ in his references to these prophecies. The Greek term for “fulfilled” is pleroo and it was used in the sense of “to fill”, or to bring to completion something that had been pledged earlier. In the light of his new knowledge of Christ, something the prophets themselves never had the privilege of, Matthew sees that while their prophecies had partial fulfilment in bygone eras, they are brought to true completion in Christ Jesus.
Lord God, we praise you that in so many of your actions across the Old Testament, you were foreshadowing something even greater. Thank you for speaking through ordinary people across hundreds of years, in order that we might know that Jesus is our Messiah. Help us to never settle for just a partial completion of what you intend to do, but instead help us to be diligent in our prayers and our deeds until we might receive the fullness of your blessings. Amen.