You have likely heard of the Christmas Truce of 1914, when, for a few brief hours, the Brits and the Germans left off their fighting and came together to celebrate Christmas.

That fascinating event raises an important question: How could one man—or rather the memory of one man—stop a whole world war? How has it been able to do so for over 2000 years? And how will it continue to do so until the end of time?

If you’re like me, you are grieved by the cultural and political war that seems to have engulfed us. If you’re like me, you may also be grieved by the part you have played in it. How in the world will this end? How can we extricate ourselves from this all-consuming anger and polarization?

Here is my best thought: At Christmas it is God himself who draws near to us, and who draws our attention once again to the baby of Bethlehem. Then, as we pay such attention, he somehow reveals to us what we are actually capable of being—as individuals, and as the family of man—if only we could abide in this Spirit, and enjoy this peaceful presence year round.

Thus, the revelation is also an invitation: to consider afresh, not only the baby in Bethlehem, but the life he lived, the death he died, the aftermath of the death he died, and what all of this might have to do with us dwelling permanently in the presence of a divine being who can truly change the world.

As in 1914, so today: When the Christmas truce is over the world will go back to war.

But the memory of that truce, and of the invitation to consider the baby of Bethlehem, will linger throughout the year. And in my experience, those who take time to accept the invitation will often find, to their great joy, something they have been looking for all their lives: not just a temporary truce, but an eternal one.

Well, lest my inner preacher overtake me, I will cut short here.

I will, however, leave you with this lovely short clip about the Christmas Truce.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6KHoVBK2EVE

May it—and the baby of Bethlehem—be a rich blessing to you and yours throughout 2020.

With All Our Love,

Dean and Linda Davis

Hinting broadly at the deity of the promised Messiah, the prophet Isaiah spoke of Jesus Christ as Immanuel, which means “God with us us” (Isaiah 7:9). That name got me to thinking about the many fascinating ways in which Immanuel is related to us. Here are a few of the choicest:

  • He was before us—with the Father and the Holy Spirit—prior to the time when time began and the world was created through him
  • He was ahead of us, when, for four millennia, the Old Testaments prophets longingly foretold his coming
  • He was down here among us after he left heaven and, through the Spirit’s work, took up residence as a true human being in a virgin’s womb
  • He was out there among us, when, in the days of his flesh, he lived, worked, taught, and ministered (miraculously) to the children of Israel
  • He was in behalf of us, when, through all of the above, he obeyed every divine command, fulfilled every law, and passed every test, thereby attaining a perfect righteousness that God will credit to all who believe in him
  • He was instead of us, when, on the cross, he endured the sentence of suffering and death for all who would place their trust in him for the forgiveness of their sins
  • He is now over us, having risen from the dead, ascended into heaven, and taken his seat at God’s right hand as King of the Cosmos and Head of the Church
  • He is now facing us in the person of his people and their proclamation of the Gospel, through which he urges everyone who hears to receive him by faith as Savior and Lord
  • He is within us (and at work within us) through the gift of the Holy Spirit, if and when we do receive him
  • He is up above us in heaven, where he is praying for us, and where, on the day of our death, our perfected spirits will see him and fly to him with inexpressible joy
  • He is up ahead of us in the World to Come, which he himself will create at his return, when he raises the dead, judges the world in righteousness, and welcomes the saints to eternal life with God in the new heavens and the new earth

This is our Immanuel. As we think afresh about him this Christmas, may he be with us all in every possible way.

Then the disciples of John came to him, saying, “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” So Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn while the bridegroom is still with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast. No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be made worse. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins, for if they do, the wineskins burst, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” —Matthew 9:14-17

 

The New Testament—a single long book comprised of 27 short books, written over a span of some 40 years by eight or nine chosen followers of Jesus Christ, telling us who he was, what he did, what he taught, how he died and rose and ascended into heaven, and what all of this means for Israel and the nations—may aptly be called God’s Wineskin. The New Testament text cited above helps us to understand why.

When the disciples of John the Baptizer came to Jesus, they brought both a question and (it would appear) a complaint. “Why is it that we and the Pharisees fast, but your disciples don’t fast at all?” Jesus’ answer—cordial but firm—is twofold.

The King Has Come!

First, in light of his current presence in the world, it isn’t proper that they should fast. He is the Bridegroom—the long-awaited Savior, King, and spiritual Husband of Israel. How can the friends of the Bridegroom fast when he is right there with them? This is not a time for mourning, but for celebration!

Note, however, that Jesus himself casts a shadow over the celebration: “But the days will come when the bridegroom is taken from them, and then they will fast.” With the benefit of hindsight, we know what he means. Through treachery, injustice, and a shocking death by crucifixion, he and his friends will soon be separated, seemingly forever. And that indeed will be a proper time for fasting. But on the subject of joy and celebration, Jesus is not yet finished. Far from it!

A New Covenant is Coming!

For now he tells them (and us) something further, and something staggering to the Jewish mind. There is another reason his disciples cannot fast: God is now doing something new, something that calls for uninterrupted celebration, indeed, eternal celebration. He is fashioning a new patch of cloth. He is stitching a new wineskin. In other words, he is now revealing a new and definitive body of spiritual truth. What’s more, by means of this new body of truth he is also unveiling a new and definitive covenant (or spiritual agreement) between himself and everyone on earth who is willing to enter into it.

In the days ahead Jesus will have much more to say about this New Covenant. For the moment, however, he is focused on one of its outstanding characteristics: its fundamental incompatibility with the Old Covenant. And so he says, “No one puts a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment and the tear will be made worse. Nor do men put new wine into old wineskins, for if they do, the wineskins burst, the wine is spilled, and the wineskins are ruined. Instead, they put new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.” Why did Jesus press this point? Why was he so keen on exalting the new wineskin above the old, and on separating the two once and for all?

The Old, the New, the Eternal 

The rest of the New Testament supplies the answer. The Old Covenant was instituted through mere men, Abraham and Moses; the New Covenant will be instituted through the incarnate Son of God, Jesus Christ. The Old Covenant was an agreement solely between God and Israel; the New Covenant will be an agreement between God and all who trust in Christ the whole world over. The Old Covenant pictured, promised, and prepared for the things of Christ; the New Covenant gives us the things of Christ themselves, and Christ himself. Under the Old Covenant, life was characterized by much spiritual failure, sorrow, and penitential fasting; under the New Covenant, life will be characterized by much spiritual victory, joy, and celebratory feasting.

All of this and more was in Jesus’ mind as he spoke to John’s disciples. For he knew that from the very beginning God had but a single plan for the spiritual life and joy of people everywhere. Now that he (Jesus) is here, the plan is beginning to be unveiled. Later—after his death, resurrection, and return to heaven—the Holy Spirit will fully unveil it to his apostles. Moreover, in the apostles’ writings that same Spirit will definitively lay out the plan and treasure it up in a book called the New Testament; likewise, he will lay out the new way of life that is proper to the plan. Thus, through a great chain of divine revelation, the spiritual truth, power, and joy of God’s New Covenant people will be preserved forever.

Here then is why we may aptly refer to the New Testament as God’s Wineskin. According to his own testimony, given through Jesus Christ, it is the God-appointed vessel in which he now brings to all mankind his ultimate spiritual truth, truth that will bring all who hear and obey it into an everlasting covenant with him, thereby enabling them to partake of the new and intoxicating wine of eternal life (John 17:1-2). For this reason what was said long ago to an earthly father about a marriage feast prepared for his daughter, may now be said to our Heavenly Father: “Every man sets out the good wine first; then, when the guests have drunk freely, the inferior. But you have kept the good wine till now” (John 2:10)!

The Wine in the Skin

But what exactly are the contents of God’s Wineskin? What are these definitive truths that he is so eager for us all to know? Surely the best response to such questions is for each of us to take up the Wineskin and drink from it ourselves. But in hopes of encouraging you to do that very thing, please permit one of the friends of the Bridegroom to share a little of what he has seen, tasted, and come to cherish.

The One True Worldview

First, God’s Wineskin contains the answers to what I like to call the Questions of Life. Every human heart is familiar with them; and sooner or later every human heart is deeply concerned about them. They include: What is the ultimate reality, the source of the universe and everything in it? What is the origin of the universe, life, and man? What (if anything) went wrong: Why are evil, suffering, and death present in the world? What (if anything) can be done about them? Does human life have a purpose, and if so, what is it? What are the moral standards by which we should govern our lives? What happens when we die? What is the future of the universe, life, and man? And finally, is it really possible to find trustworthy answers to all these ultimate questions?

The answers we give to the Questions of Life determine what is called our worldview: the way we look at all things as a whole. True philosophers tell us that the unexamined life is not worth living; that the primary purpose of a meaningful life is to find the answers to these questions, to go in search of the one true worldview. According to Jesus and his apostles, God has poured them all into the New Testament. If you are a philosopher or a theologian (and in a way we all are), such a claim, and the prospect of validating it, is intoxicating indeed.

A Treasure Trove of Good Gifts

Secondly, God’s Wineskin contains instructions as to how we may receive certain gifts from God, gifts that we desperately need, and gifts that are meant for our eternal joy. These include spiritual rebirth, forgiveness of sins, rescue from the peril of eternal punishment, adoption into the family of a loving heavenly Father, free access to his throne in prayer, a blessed assurance that he is ordering all events for his children’s good, slow but steady progress in holiness, wisdom and strength for daily living, the sure hope of heaven when we die, and the ultimate hope of eternal life with God in a brand new world that Christ will create at his return. Again, Jesus taught that we all need these gifts; and he knew that many of us thirst for them. Accordingly, he promised that all who drink from God’s Wineskin—and respond to its contents with simple childlike faith—will find that their thirst is slaked once and for all (John 4:13-14).

A Proposal From the High King

This brings us to our final point, and to a further gift that may actually be the supreme goal of all the rest: a proposal of spiritual marriage to the High King of heaven! We catch a glimpse of this stunning offer in our text, where Jesus identifies himself as the Bridegroom. His disciples would likely have understood. In Old Testament times the prophets had spoken of God as Israel’s spiritual Husband (Jeremiah 2:2-3, Hosea 2:2-20). Elaborating further, they also spoke of the coming Messiah—the promised Savior of the world—as the spiritual Husband of his devoted people (Psalm 45, John 3:25-30). When Jesus answered John’s disciples as he did, he was saying, “I am he.”

Truly, this is a captivating way of thinking about the mission of Christ and his Church. During his life on earth, Jesus sent out his own disciples—“the friends of the Bridegroom”—to speak to their Jewish countrymen. In effect, they were saying, “Here is your Messiah, your long-awaited King. He would have you for his Wife. Will you take him for your Husband?” Later on, following his death and resurrection, the High King would send out still more of his friends into the Roman Empire, where they would ask the Gentiles the same question. Today, as we ourselves drink from God’s Wineskin, we hear him and his friends asking it of us as well.

A Holy Intoxication

But what are we to make of the intoxication component of Jesus’ message? Does it not seem strange—and perhaps even dangerous—that he would speak of the new life he offers to those in covenant with him as wine? Have we not all seen how destructive it can be to mix the fruit of the vine with the sin in man?

Yes, it was risky; but it had to be. For it is written that Jesus Christ did not need anyone to tell him about man, for he knew perfectly well what was in man (John 2:25). And because he did, he also knew that there is only one reality powerful enough to overcome man’s intoxication with sin: intoxication with God.

O Taste and See!

But how shall the great transformation occur? How shall sin-inebriated idolaters become God-intoxicated worshipers? Jesus has given us the answer. It is by drinking the new wine contained in God’s Wineskin. It is by prayerfully entering into the New Covenant with God our Father, through faith in Jesus Christ, his divine Son. It is by saying, “Yes, yes, a thousand times yes” to the High King’s proposal of marriage. It is by living with him in intimacy, fruitfulness, teamwork, testing, struggle, adjustment, and deepening friendship. Above all, it is by the experience of an ever-growing fire of love that is stronger than death, and that at the moment of death will flame up into eternal glory. In short, it is through the wholesome, life-giving intoxication that flows from spiritual union and communion with God in Christ.

Here then is one friend’s humble attempt to introduce you to the New Testament, to give you a taste of God’s new wine. But again, I reckon it a far, far better thing for you to open the Wineskin and drink deeply for yourself. As you do, may you find yourself at a marriage feast, celebrating with great joy!

Dean Davis
Winter, 2019

When God wants to drill a man,
And thrill a man,
And skill a man;
When God wants to mold a man
To play the noblest part;

When He yearns with all His heart
To create so great and bold a man
That all the world shall be amazed:
Watch His methods, watch His ways!

How He ruthlessly perfects
Whom He royally elects!
How He hammers him and hurts him,
And with mighty blows converts him

Into trial shapes of clay which
Only God understands
While his tortured heart is crying
And he lifts beseeching hands!

How He bends but never breaks,
When his good He undertakes;
How He uses whom He chooses,
And with every purpose fuses him,
By every act induces him
To try His splendor out—
God knows what He’s about.

– Anonymous

Note: Some years back, in a visit to Justin Taylor’s blog (Between Two Worlds), I happened upon this short summary of John Newton’s teaching about sanctification. As then, so now: It strikes me as wise, true, edifying, and eminently shareable. So here it is again. d

If God Is Sovereign, Why Is My Sanctification So Slow?

If God is sovereign (and he is), and if my sanctification brings him glory (which it does), then why do I continue to struggle so much? Why are there so many set-backs? Why does my Christian walk often seem like two steps forward, one step backward—at best? Why is my sanctification so slow?

In his letters, John Newton, ex-slave trader and beloved 18th century Anglican pastor, sought to address these hard questions, questions that lurk in the heart of many Christians. Here is how he answers:

1. By such experiences God teaches us more truly to know and feel the utter depravity and corruption of our whole nature, that we are indeed defiled in every part.

2. By such experiences God endears to us his method of salvation: We see that it is and must be wholly of grace; and that the Lord Jesus Christ, and his perfect righteousness, is and must be our all in all.

3. By suffering us to endure manifold infirmities, temptations, failures, and enemies, God teaches us that we must draw near to him and cling to him; that we must depend upon him; and that his strength is manifested and perfected in our weakness.

4. In the Christian’s fitful quest for sanctification, Satan is all the more disappointed and put to shame, since he finds that God has set limits to his rage and schemes, limits beyond which he cannot pass; and that those in whom he finds so much to work upon, and over whom he so often prevails for a season, escape at last out of his hands. He casts them down, but they are raised again; he wounds them, but they are healed; he obtains his desire to sift them as wheat, but the prayer of their great Advocate prevails for the maintenance of their faith.

5. By what believers continue to feel in themselves they learn by degrees how to warn, pity, and bear with others. A soft, patient, and compassionate spirit, and a readiness and skill in comforting those who are cast down, is not perhaps attainable in any other way.

6. Finally, there is nothing that more habitually reconciles a child of God to the thought of death, than the wearisomeness of this spiritual warfare. Death is unwelcome to our human nature: But then, and not till then, the conflict will cease. Then we shall sin no more. The flesh, with all its attendant evils, will be laid in the grave. Then the soul, which has been partaker of a new and heavenly birth, shall be freed from every encumbrance, and stand perfect in the Redeemer’s righteousness before God in glory.

(Quotes complied by Justin Taylor, Between Two World Blog.)

For Further Study

1. Newton on the Christian Life, by Tony Reinke (Crossway)

2. Extravagant Grace, by Barbara Duguid (Presbyterian and Reformed)