Thursday, December 15, 2016

Those who Seek the Lord are Not Alone-Matt. 2:9-12

Throughout this season many people have spent (or soon will be spending) a great deal of time searching for the perfect present for their friends and family. I’m married to the kind of person who loves to seek out or even create special gifts for just about everyone. There is a certain joy in the hunt for a present and then an even greater joy when one lays eyes on just the right thing. Gifts that are given and received demonstrate love and illustrate to those on both ends of the exchange that they are not alone—someone cares enough about me to spend the time, energy, and means to purchase or create this special token of affection.  


The same is true of our passage today. In Matthew 2, the wise men seek out the greatest gift of all—Jesus Christ. Once they find Him, they exchange gifts with the Christ child. This charming spectacle illustrates one simple truth—those who seek the Lord Jesus Christ—the greatest gift—will not be left alone. Let us ask and answer five questions concerning Matthew 2:9-12 to discover how the story unfolds.

I. How did they get there? -2:9

To fully appreciate the timing of the magi’s arrival, one must be privy to the beginning of chapter 2—especially verses 1-8.

Matt. 2:1-8-Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, Are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; For out of you shall come forth a Ruler Who will shepherd My people Israel. ’Then Herod secretly called the magi and determined from them the exact time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the Child; and when you have found Him, report to me, so that I too may come and worship Him.”

It is obvious by what Matthew relates here that the Messiah was born in the midst of a crisis situation (see Matt. 1:18-25) and that crisis plagued his infancy. From the moment Jesus’ was born, his life was in Jeopardy. Kings and despots were not normally in the business of allowing new kings in their territory if they could help it. When the Magi stumble on the scene and ask about a new King, you can imagine Herod’s response—panic! Rumors of a world ruler arising from Judea were already being circulated in the east during this time. Not to mention, Israel’s prophets had long expected a Davidic deliverer. That these magi had come—leading figures in the religious court life of their respective countries—to worship an infant king only fanned the flames of Herod’s outrage.

Therefore, seeking to protect his own legitimacy and squash any foreseeable coup d’etat, Herod hatches a plan: discover the young king’s whereabouts by means of these wise men and kill the insurrection before it even begins.

This is where we pick up the story-“After hearing the king, they went their way” (2:9a). This would be the last leg of a long journey. If the Magi had come from the environs of Babylon, they would have traveled approximately 900 miles. No doubt, a journey like this would have spanned months and would have included a rather large traveling party. 

All along this journey, these men were following a star—“and the star, which they had seen in the east, went on before them until it came and stood over the place where the Child was…” (2:9b). The cause or nature of the star is not made explicit. Some believe it may have been a comet (Halley’s Comet was visible in 12 and 11 B.C.), a supernova, or a conjunction of planets (unusual planetary alignment). Others believe it may have been a supernatural phenomenon that only the Magi could see. Still others say it could have been a luminous angelic being guiding these men the entire way to Bethlehem. Regardless of what it was, these leading figures in the areas of science (astrology), diplomacy (wisdom), and religion, were so enthralled by the star and its corresponding message that they could not help but follow it in search of the “place where the child was.”

Notice what peaked the interest of the magi—a star. God is able and willing to reach people right where they are and draw them to Himself by means of something that garners their interest. The arts, politics, sciences, literatures, aesthetics, design, philosophy, etc. are all potential avenues by which God can meet people on their turf and, if leveraged appropriately, lead men and women to himself. Here, a star peaks the curiosity of these astrologers of the east, leaving them with a question in need of answering: is the Jewish prophecy real? Is there a Messiah? Had the greatest gift of all really arrived? These questions prompted an investigation and their search would not leave them dissatisfied. Why? Those who seek the Lord will not be left wanting nor will they be left alone.

II. In What Manner did they Travel? -2:10

How did these men travel? “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with great joy” (2:10a). It is as though this astrological anomaly signaled that passages like Numbers 24:17 were in fact true!
Numbers 24:17-A star will come out of Jacob; a scepter will rise out of Israel.

For many, this prophecy was understood to point to a messianic deliverer. In fact, in Revelation Jesus would say of himself “I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright and Morning Star.”
After witnessing this star they set out on their journey. However, these did so rejoicing exceedingly with great joy (2:10b). Literally, this reads “they rejoiced very great joy.” These Magi met their search for the promised child with great alacrity, urgency, and glee. I imagine that part of the reason for this joy was because these men, to a degree, understood the potential implications involved in what they would find when they reached their destination.

Similarly, if people could remember that when they search for the Lord, they will, in fact, find Him, it would make for a more joyous journey.

Those who seek the Lord will find Him and everything that comes with Him! What could be more exciting than that? These wise men illustrate just this in their lengthy pursuit of the Christ-child. My goal today is to remind you that those who seek the Lord will never be left wanting or alone.

III. Why did they go there? -2:11a-b

Finally, after months of traveling hundreds of miles, the wise men arrive—“coming into the house they saw the child with Mary His mother” (2:11a). Just imagine the expectation leading up to this moment when the star rested in the heavens over Bethlehem. The magi had been successfully led to this quaint little residence that housed the most important being to ever grace this planet—Jesus, the long-awaited Savior of the world, King of kings and Lord of lords.

What else could they do by fall and worship him—“and they fell to the ground and worshipped Him…”(2:11b). Just picture this scene in your mind’s eye. A group of powerful foreign dignitaries have traveled a huge distance to a rural town only to fall down and worship a toddler by means of the most humble posture available! Why? Because these wise men lived up to their name. True wisdom seeks greatness, follows after greatness, and submits to greatness. It just so happened that Jesus was and is the greatest person to seek, follow after, and submit to.

There is a popular bumper sticker/t-shirt graphic that says “Wise men still seek him.” This quote is no doubt derived from this story of the magi who, in seeking the Lord are not left wanting. They find exactly what they were looking for—the greatest of all beings veiled in young flesh. He is the greatest gift of all. As a result, they do the wise thing and worship Him. Allow me to reiterate, my agenda today is simple, all I’m trying to do is remind you that those who seek the Lord will never be left wanting or alone—in fact, these will be found worshipping at the feet of their Lord and Savior in whom they have everything!

IV. What did they Bring with Them? -2:11c-d

Not only did the wise men sacrifice their time and effort to seek the Lord in a big way, they also came bearing gifts. This is introduced when Matthew says “Then, opening their treasures…”(2:11c). When dignitaries approached royalty or people of high political, social, or religious esteem, they often brought with them gifts to demonstrate their reverence for the recipient and their obedience to him/her.

This formality is still practiced today.  Theodore Roosevelt received a zebra and a lion from Ethiopia; Richard Nixon—a panda from China; George W. Bush—300 pounds of raw lamb from Argentina. Lloyd N. Hand, the chief of protocol during Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration, recalled an instance when the prime minister of the U.K. gifted the president a Burberry coat. “In some occasions, countries have presented a collection of small gifts, like when the government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland gifted Obama, among other things, a package of sea salt, a small, fabric-covered personal journal, and a set of four coasters. Brunei tried the same approach, giving the president among other gifts, 12 scented votive candles and a tea infuser in the shape of a penguin. That same year saw the Sultan of Malaysia give the president a 20-inch steel sword in a gemstone encrusted sheath, while not to be outdone, the prime minister of Algeria gave the president a ceremonial dagger with coral stones and silver work. Though nothing can probably beat the gift of crocodile insurance given by the chief minister of Australia's Northern Territory” (The Atlantic).

So what gifts did these wise men bring? What could possibly be fitting for the King of Kings?
Three gifts are mentioned specifically: “they presented to Him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (2:11d). These were peculiar playthings for the young toddler. Though the use of these gifts may have been limited for young Jesus, these three gifts represented something very special.

Gold was (and remains to this day) valued throughout the world as a medium of exchange as well as a precious metal for making Jewelry, ornaments, and dining utensils for royalty. It communicates status, prestige, and majesty. Heaven is described later as gold plated (see Revelation 20-22) and is no doubt a consistent image of glory and magnificence. Incense (here “frankincense”) comes from an amber resin and produces a sweet odor when burned. Though used as a perfume, in Israel it was used on the altar in worship observances. Again, in Revelation, the prayers of the saints and the death of martyrs is described as incense that rises to God on the thrown (Rev. 8:4). To the Lord, incense or frankincense is a fragrant and pleasing aroma (2 Cor. 2:15) that is characteristic of the worship of almighty God. Finally, myrrh consisted of a mixture of resin, gum, and the oil myrrhol and was used to pack in the wrappings of the clothing of a deceased person to combat the smell of the decaying body (John 19:39). Ultimately, though perceived as peculiar at first, the gifts the magi gave were poignant as each on spoke of Jesus’ unparalleled glory, the worship He would no doubt receive, and the ministry of redemption He would accomplish on the cross respectively.

These gifts communicate that once one finds the Lord, an expected response is to give of oneself to Him. He that would and did give His life for the world, deserves nothing less. My agenda today is relatively focused all I’m trying to get across is that those who seek the Lord will never be left wanting or alone—instead, these will be filled so much that exuberant worship and reverence for Christ will take place. You may say that it is a grand gift-exchange. He came to this earth and gave His life; we give him glory, worship, and appreciation for His sacrifice in response.

V. How did they leave?

After spending time in worship of Jesus, the magi are made aware of Herod’s nefarious plan to eradicate the Christ-child—“And having been warned by God in a dream not to return to Herod…” (2:12a). This is the second time a dreams is used to communicate something important in Matthew’s gospel (the first was in the case of Joseph). In both cases, the dreams are given to help eliminate a threat to God’s plan. Interestingly enough, having found the Lord, the wise men are included in God’s plan to help preserve the Christ Child so that he might fulfill his ministry of redemptive and escape a premature death.

After hearing from the Lord in a dream, the magi “left for their own country by another way…” (2:12b). Though the literal route they took was amended, what is also obvious is the life change that the magi received after their pursuit of the Lord. Sure, they returned home “by another way.” But I imagine they also returned as different people entirely having found exactly what they were looking for in the first place—Jesus Christ.

So What?

I remind you that my agenda today is simple. All I’m trying to do is remind you that those who seek the Lord will never be left wanting or alone. Here, God reveals himself to the magi, instigating a search for the greatest gift of all, the Lord Jesus Christ. Once found, a grand gift exchange is described. Jesus, in coming to the earth illustrates His willingness to give of His life for men and women like the magi and like you and me. In response, the wise men give him glory, worship, and appreciation for what He would one day do and what He has already done for you and for me.


What are you seeking in this life? What characterizes your life’s pursuit? In what ways are you spending your time and energy and focus? While I can’t speak for what the things of this world may provide once they are found and acquired, I can say without equivocation that those who seek the Lord will not be left wanting and will not be left alone. The great thing about a message like this is that it is just as relevant today as it was for the magi. Not only that, but it applies to believers and unbelievers alike. In every season, circumstance, triumph or tribulation, our pursuit, the focus of our attention, and direction of our effort ought to be in His direction. He is there, He is waiting, and He is ready to give of Himself for you. What else do we need? What do you seek? 

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Believers in Crisis are Not Alone-Matt. 1:18-25

This past Sunday night I was made aware of some shocking news. The 27-year-old son of some beloved former members of our church had passed away unexpectedly in his sleep the night before. What proved truly troubling to me, I imagine, marked an acute moment of crisis for this man’s parents, sister, and close friends/family. As a pastor, even of a small church like ours, I am made aware of and pray for many of the crises that people I know face. My relatively short ministry experience has taught me that crises don’t care who you are, what stage of life you are in, how much money you have, or how prepared you believe yourself to be. Likewise, from what I’ve been able to witness, I’ve come to learn that often crises can cause people to feel the unmistakable chill of hopelessness and sting of loneliness at the same time. Where was God? Where can I go for help? Who, if anybody, understands what I’m going through? These and other questions can plague the mind and even crush the spirit, leaving those who are trying to offer support at a loss for words. Thankfully, in our weakness, God’s Word proves strong and informs difficult moments of silence. Today we are going to witness four stages involved in a crisis that take place in Joseph’s life in Matthew 1:18-25. This texts will prove that in the midst of unforeseen difficulty, God’s people are not alone.



I. The Crisis is Identified-1:18

After providing a genealogy of Jesus’ family up to this point (beginning with Abraham), Matthew continues his gospel by announcing the birth of the next in line with “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows” (1:18a). The title “Jesus Christ” plays off of the name provided later in the chapter and Jesus’ office as messiah (“Christ”). Messiah/Christ speaks of Jesus unique anointing as Savior/Redeemer of His people. Here, in this miracle birth, God breaks his 400 year silence in a big way and, as reiterated in Luke 1:26-38, demonstrates that His people are not alone/forgotten—here was their long-awaited Savior! 

However, before all of the glories of the incarnation could be enjoyed by all, a crisis needed to be addressed. In fact, the greatest of all births was, in many ways, birthed out of a crisis situation. The conflict existed on a highly personal level for one named Joseph who, as stated in 1:18b, was not anticipating this news. In fact, the timing of all of this could not have been worse—“when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together” (1:18b).

In ancient Israel, to be engaged or “betrothed” meant far more than it does today. Joseph’s betrothal to Mary marked the first of three stages of marriage in which a “ketubah” was signed. This was a legally binding document signed by the father of the bride and the groom.  This agreement would include details of a negotiated dowry (money to be paid to the father by the groom), bride price (set at 50 shekels of silver—it was a cash penalty for divorce without cause) and an inventory of the bride’s estate (accounting for the assets the bride contributed to the new husband’s estate when she married him).  Just like today's legal documents, the ketubah was signed in triplicate form. In this case the father and the groom each received a copy and a third was "filed" in the court (synagogue) with a seal to be broken only by a judge. Once signed, a legal divorce was required to dissolve the betrothal. Interestingly, this first stage of a Jewish marriage is comparable to the last stage of modern weddings (the signing of the marriage license that you buy at city hall). In today’s world, the couple dates, then is married on their own terms. In Bible times, the father scoped out a husband, reached an agreement, then the couple would get to know each other. Following the courting stage instigated by the betrothal, eventually they would consummate the marriage with sexual intimacy (stage two). This was then followed by a grand celebration—stage three.

With this in mind, the Bible is clear—Jesus came to earth somewhere in between the first two stages of Joseph and Mary’s wedding journey. By this time, Joseph and Mary’s father had negotiated a dowry, reached an agreement, drawn up a document, filed the paperwork, and the couple was just beginning to get acquainted.

It was during this delicate time in Mary and Joseph’s relationship that “she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.” That was sure throw a wrench in the courtship and wedding plans, especially when one considers that Joseph was not yet privy to or convinced that this child had been miraculously conceived. After all, at this point, Joseph had not received an encounter similar to what Mary witnessed in Luke 1:26-38.

Hence Joseph’s crisis. Has something ever blindsided you? Your life was trucking along according to plan when all of a sudden, news breaks, diagnoses are shared, the unexpected happens, or an unforeseeable hiccup interrupts your routine? Crises like these and like the one Joseph experienced are enough to make one feel alone. What was Joseph to do now?

II. The Considerations are Made-1:19

Once Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant, he experiences a great dilemma. Divorce for adultery was not optional, but mandatory in many Jewish contexts as it produced a “state of impurity that, as a matter of legal fact, dissolved the marriage” (Wilkins, 11). Though Mary and Joseph had not completed the wedding process yet, make no mistake, those who were betrothed to one another were called “husband” and “wife” and any sexual infidelity that existed during the engagement was considered “adultery” and as such was punishable by death (see Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:23-24). However, Joseph “being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her [Mary] planned to send her away secretly” (1:19).

Inasmuch as Joseph cannot follow through and marry Mary (as, in his mind, she is not a virgin and a union with her would condone her sin of adultery), he has two options. First, He can make Mary’s condition known publicly, subjecting her to widespread disgrace and thereby rendering her liable to be stoned in accordance with the law. Second, he could divorce her quietly. This would allow him to leave the marriage agreement and maintain his righteousness while also protecting Mary from public disgrace and possible death. Thankfully, for Mary’s sake, Joseph, though he had every right to choose the former, instead chose the latter.

Imagine how disappointed Joseph must have been. All of that work to get to this point would not be undone. Historians suggest that Joseph was considerably older than Mary and served as a prominent member of the community (if not also the synagogue). He had proven himself worthy to Mary’s father, reached an agreement, was working to pay off a dowry, etc. Now what did he have? Who did he have? This crisis spelled the end of a relationship into which he had invested considerable time and effort. His crisis left him alone—at least as far as he could see for the time being.

III. The Communication is Provided-1:20-23

Joseph had made his decision. The perfect tense of the verb tells us as much in verse 20—“But when he had considered this,” (1:20a). However, immediately after his mind was made up, “behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Him in a dream” (1:20b). “Dreams were commonly believed in the Greco-Roman world not only to be of natural origin, but also to be a medium of divine communication. In the Old Testament, dreams were believed …to point to a message from God about present activities or future events. The expression ‘in a dream’ is more restricted in its New Testament use, found only in Matthew’s Gospel. In each case the dream is related to Jesus, providing supernatural guidance” (Wilkins, 12).  

In this particular dream, the unnamed angel says, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife” (1:20b). In other words, Joseph need not fear the crisis that faced him. Why?  
The angel answers this by saying “…for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit” (1:20c). In other words, Mary’s pregnancy was not a result of sexual infidelity. It was wrought by the power of God Himself by means of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, Joseph was no longer required to divorce Mary in order to maintain his or her reputation. Whether their friends or family would believe it, Joseph could now rest easy knowing that Mary had done nothing wrong. Instead, the grace of God had shown on her in a special way.

Next, the angel divulges more details. After all, it is not every day that God’s power places a child in a young girl. There must have been a special reason for this miraculous conception—“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (1:21).

This message was similar to the one Gabriel revealed to Mary in Luke 1:26-38. In both passages, the promise of a baby boy is met with a command to call His name “Jesus” (literally “salvation.”) Though a popular name in Joseph’s day, none would live up to their name quite like this baby would, for, as the angel reveals “He will save His people from their sins” (1:21). This demonstrates that Jesus would be a savior par excellence. While others had saved God’s people in the past from military oppression and/or political rule, Jesus would one day save God’s people from a much bigger problem-sin itself, thereby answering mankind’s greatest crisis of all!

After this inspiring message is presented, Matthew provides a small aside for the benefit of the reader in verses 22-23—“Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet ‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which translated means, ‘God with us.’…” (1:22-23).

Matthew draws from Isaiah 7 (the passage from which this quote is derived) to demonstrate that what was promised the prophet hundreds of years before in some ways applied to the birth of Jesus Christ. Truly, the sign of a virgin birth would signal not only God’s involvement in the world, but that God was “with” His people.  In fact, “Immanuel”—one of many names given to Jesus—literally means “God with us.”

Such a dream no doubt demonstrated that God was not only with His people, but that God was with Joseph in the midst of his crisis.

IV. The Consequences Follow-1:24-25

That this dream helped Joseph realize this is made clear as the consequences of this interaction unfold. First Joseph was obedient after he realized that he was not alone-“and Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife…” (1:24). Just as Mary proved obedient when she realized that her people were not alone in Luke 1:26-28, Joseph obeys the word of the Lord when he learns the same here in Matthew 1.

This was no small act of obedience either. Obedience to God in this crisis situation meant that Joseph would avail himself to the gossip and scrutiny of the Nazareth social scene. No doubt people had their suspicions throughout Mary’s pregnancy. It could not have been easy for either Mary or Joseph to go through with this. Truly, it would not have been possible for them if they were all alone. However, they were not—God was with them every step of the way.

Not only was Joseph obedient to the Angel’s directions, he also abstained from sexual intimacy with Mary until after Jesus was born. You will notice that the angel did not command this. However, it was customary for men to practice abstinence during the pregnancy of their wives. Joseph’s sacrifice also maintained the integrity of Jesus’ miraculous conception. Joseph’s patience places the focus where it belongs—the miracle baby and the salvation He would bring.

Finally, Joseph named the baby in accordance with the angel’s instructions—“and he called His name Jesus.”

So What?

What began as an unforeseen crisis in Joseph’s life transformed into a source of great celebration and hope. What made the difference? Joseph discovered that he was not alone—the Lord was with him in Spirit and Jesus would literally be Immanuel for both he and Mary. This radical change from crisis to celebration, horror to hope, is available today for all who can call God “Immanuel”—God with us. Is He with you today?

There is at least one family that I know of that if they were here today could testify to this incredible phenomenon. After journeying through what I’m sure they would say was the most horrific week of their lives—a week that included the unexpected loss of a son and the unfortunate phases of planning and attending an unanticipated funeral—yesterday’s service ended in celebration and hope. How? This family knows that God is with them and, more importantly, they know that God was and is with the departed.

You see “Immanuel” is not just a title reserved for cursive script on Christmas cards—it is a truth that informs the hope of every believer both for this day and for eternity. He is “God with us,” even and especially in the midst of our crises.  



Saturday, December 3, 2016

God's People Are Not Alone- Luke 1:26-38

The Christmas season promises good times with family and friends over a glorious meal and around a Christmas tree. Just listen to the titles of the songs that play over the airwaves at this time of year-“I’ll be home for Christmas,” “Rockin’ around the Christmas tree,” “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year,” etc. Would it surprise you to learn that in the midst of coca-cola commercials and present wrapping that the Christmas holiday season is one of the loneliest seasons for many people? Margarita Tartakovsky writes

“Loneliness is common during the holidays.
Empty nesters, the elderly and individuals who are grieving — the loss of a loved one or a relationship — may be particularly vulnerable to feelings of loneliness” (psychotherapist Joyce Marter, LCPC).

Expectations are high, and comparisons run rampant. Many people feel tremendous pressure to be happy and socially connected. There’s a prevailing sense that everyone is living a Hallmark movie with the ideal family and perfect celebrations.”



Other studies suggest that “loneliness is as dangerous as cigarette smoking. Scientists have concluded that given all the drastic ways in which loneliness impacts our bodies, it represent as great a risk for our long term health and longevity as smoking cigarettes. Indeed, studies have concluded that chronic loneliness increases our risk of an early death by 14%.”

It is apparent that our culture of connectivity and instant information is no cure for the loneliness bug and that the holiday season can potentially make things worse.

Whether you feel the lonely bug now or not, we are all prone to periods of feeling isolated from others and even from God Himself. However, as we kick off our new series “Not Alone” we are going to look at 4 Parts of a conversation experienced by two unlikely individuals—an archangel and a teenage girl—that demonstrates one simple truth: God’s people are never alone.  

I. PART 1: The Context of the Message-1:26-27

The timing of the conversation found in Luke 1:26ff is intimately connected to the first 25 verses of Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ story begins as yet another story has already been introduced—the birth of Jesus’ would-be cousin John.  This correlation is draw to show how Jesus’ life and work was a large part of an even greater narrative God was in the process of writing. Just as Elizabeth had conceived miraculously in her old age, Mary would conceive even more miraculously in her virginity. When John would be called great in the sight of the Lord (1:15), the Lord Jesus would be called the Son of God (1:32 & 35). 

After the timing of this conversation is identified, the messenger is revealed-“…the angel Gabriel was sent from God…”(1:26b).  Gabriel is the trusted messenger whom God sent from the eternal glory of heaven. His angelic resume makes Gabriel a perfect choice for this particular as it is riddled with eschatological proclamations. Twice in Daniel, it is Gabriel who brings news of the end of the ages. This new message He will bring to Mary is yet another announcement of God coming to earth.
Consider this! God had not spoken to His people in over 400 years! Though God’s people may have felt abandoned and alone, believing that their best years were behind them, Gabriel proves this is not the case.

Now that we’ve examined the time and source of the message Mary was given, it follows next that we uncover the location in which the message was received—“ to a city in Galilee called Nazareth…” (1:26c). Luke is oddly specific (as would become his trademark in Luke and in Acts) concerning where Gabriel was sent. Nazareth was the Schertz of Israel.  Have you heard of Schertz, TX? Exactly. In order to help his readers understand where the tiny town of Nazareth was, he gives its location according to its proximity to the better-known Galilee. The humility of this birthplace is made even more acute in John 1:46 when Nathaniel says, “What good can come out of Nazareth?” Humble beginnings like this are not accidental nor are they superfluous. It is purposeful that God would allow His Son to be sent in such a humble way as His ministry would be forever marked with humility and His destiny marked with an even greater humiliation (the cross). God’s glory is, even in Christ’s birth, shown most beautifully in the most unlikely of places.

Part of understanding the context of this interaction involves understanding who was included in the activity. Luke clearly emphasizes here and elsewhere that Gabriel was sent to a virgin woman—“…To a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (1:27). Not only was this woman a virgin, she was given to be married to a man –something that could not be broken except through something similar to a formal divorce. At this time, Mary would have probably been only 15 years old. Some scholars suggest she was even a younger 13 (as this was the normal age of betrothal).

The lucky fiancĂ© of this young lady was none other than Joseph of the descendants of David. This important factoid demonstrates Jesus’ relationship to the line of David, King of Israel, who was promised a forever kingdom. Through these context clues, Luke reveals that the message Gabriel is bringing has something to do with this royal family line. This, along with the unlikely setting and even more unlikely miracle would have created quite a stir Mary and Joseph’s life.

You can bet that Mary would never forget the encounter that was about to ensue or the conversation that will take place. There, on that lonely night, an ordinary girl learned that her and her people were not alone.

II. PART 2: The Content of the Message-1:28-33

So eager was Gabriel to bring this news that he begins talking as he was coming into Mary’s presence. While in the process of appearing, he tells Mary that God considers her highly favored, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you” (1:28). There is no evidence to suggest that this was because of any merit or special holiness she possessed (as some suggest). Instead, she had been chosen because of God’s own mysterious and glorious purposes. This proclamation of God’s choosing is quickly followed with a promise of God’s presence in her life (“the Lord is with you)”, revealing a timeless principle: once God chooses you, there is no escaping His presence. In spite of her being ordinary, “the Lord was with her” and there was nothing that either her or anyone else could do about it.

There is nothing implicitly confusing about Gabriel’s salutation. However, think for a moment about how it was given in the first place. Here is an angelic being appearing to young girl in the middle of nowhere after God has proven almost silent for 100s of years. A little confusion is understandable of this young girl who had seen nothing of this sort in all of her life, “But she was very perplexed at this statement, and kept pondering what kind of salutation this was” (1:29).

The heavenly being is able to read her expression of dumbfoundedness and quickly assures her that there is nothing to be afraid of—“ Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God” (1:30). As stated earlier, this does not suggest that Mary had earned this grace in some way. Instead it means that she had been sovereignly chosen of God for the task she would soon hear about.
After assuring her, Gabriel eagerly divulges the prediction he had been sent to communicate, “…You will conceive in your womb and bear a son…”(1:31).

Immediately following the prediction of the child Himself, Gabriel provides Mary with the name of the child. This follows an Old Testament pattern of prophecy and then naming. When Brianna and I found out she was pregnant (both times) we couldn’t wait to discover whether it would be a boy or a girl. Notice that Mary is not given the opportunity of waiting to see what the sex of the baby will be. Nor is she able to name the baby for herself!

Gabriel states that the name will be “Jesus.” Luke doesn’t make a big deal out of the name, in fact, the commonality of his name in the Jewish culture runs parallel to His ordinary birthplace. However, Jesus (which means God is salvation), would prove to be anything but ordinary and his life everything but common.

 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord will give Him the throne of His father David” (1:32). According, to Gabriel, Jesus will be great…PERIOD (no qualifications, nor conditions)! Gabriel also reveals that He will be the “Son of the Most High,” which is simply another name for the Son of God. Finally, Jesus will prove to be the long-awaited heir to the throne of David. The Davidic throne is clearly a regal image drawn from the Davidic covenant’s promise of a son, a house, and an everlasting rule. In fact, the promise made to David (the hero of the Old Testament) will culminate in Jesus Christ. Words like “son” and the reference to “David” are examples of strong regal language Gabriel used to let Mary know that her son would prove to be the King her people had waited for a long time.  

However, not only will Jesus have a title and claim to the throne of David, “He will reign over a the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end…”(1:33). The phrase “house of Jacob” is another way to refer to Israel. However, the everlasting quality of His reign seems to suggest that his sovereignty will extend beyond Israel’s borders.
What an earful!

III. PART 3: The Explanation of the Message-1:34-37

Given her lack of sexual experience, Mary questions how this all will transpire. While not yet through high school, it is obvious that Mary understands that several things need to take place socially and biologically for this to happen; and yet, in keeping her vow to stay pure, she has not “known” a man—“ Mary said to the angel, ‘How can this be since I am a virgin?’” (1:34). This question along with the couple’s resolve to abstain from sexual activity until after Jesus’ birth help to prove that Jesus would be miraculously conceived. This is what Gabriel reveals next.

What Gabriel tells Mary runs parallel to what was spoken to Elizabeth and is similar to other stories of miraculous births in Scripture, “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (1:35). Sarah gave birth to Isaac, Isaac had Jacob and Esau, Hannah had Samuel, etc. God has always enjoyed bringing life from barrenness and glorifying Himself in these miraculous births. In fact, these allusions are small foreshadowings of Christ Himself who brought life in a dead and dying world. In the midst of spiritual barrenness, Jesus breathes life. All of these miraculous births proved for each of the women and families involved that they were not alone—God was with them and His people in a special way.

Jesus’ birth through the power of the Holy God is what gave Him His perfect nature and set Him apart from any other man. His birth was the direct result of God’s creative power and because of this He can be called the Holy Child and Son of God—holy because Jesus was set-apart for spiritual service and like His Father in every way. First called the Davidic son because of his practical parents (Joseph and Mary), Jesus is now revealed to be the Son of God because of His true Father and divinity.

To help Mary to process this incredible influx of information, Gabriel draws her attention to her relative Elizabeth whose miracle birth would have given Mary pause to consider the possibility that with God, all things (even bringing God to earth in the womb of a virgin) are possible, “and behold, even your relative Elizabeth has also conceived a child in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month” (1:36).

Only God could perform this greatest of miracles—the incarnation. In Jesus’ birth, God came to earth in the form of a man, proving in a most incredible way that God’s children are not alone.  The outsider and creator of everything became the creation to save it from itself.

Message complete, proclamation given, and predictions made, Gabriel’s task is complete. He now leaves the ball in Mary’s court. This early teenage girl’s response to the message is what I hope inspires us today. Before we think about how excited we would be to accept such an offer, consider the risk it was for her. She was pledged to be married. What would Joseph say about the teenage baby bump that would eventually show? What would friends and family members speculate?  Sure her life was simple and common, but it was familiar and stable. What if she didn’t want this God-sized interruption? What if she wished it upon someone else? She probably recognized more than anyone else that she was no one special. “Why me?” she could have asked. However, Mary says none of these things.

IV. PART 4: The Response to the Message-1:38

”And Mary said, ‘Behold, the bond slave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”…” (1:38). In this response, Mary immediately calls herself a slave of God and places herself under His rule, His will, and His ways. As God’s handmaid, she openly accepts what God asks of her and proves exemplary in the way she responds to God’s message of grace. Because of the grace shown to her (God found favor with her simply because He was pleased to do so), she proved submissive and obedient to Him. God can now do with her what he wishes. Despite all the risk involved, as the Lord’s servant, she willingly places her “yes” on the table.

Mary says “yes” in spite of what Joseph would choose to do with her. She says “yes” in spite of what her family would say. She says “yes,” in spite of how her community might respond. She says “yes” in spite of her own plans for her life. In response to the grace of God in her life, Mary is willing to leave everything to follow Him in obedience. When Mary discovered that her and her people were not alone, she cannot help but jump on board.

With this positive response, the Angel departs back toward the heavens excited, overjoyed, and anxious to see all of this unfold.

So What?

What a conversation! After understanding the context of this incredible message and observing the content and explanation of the message, how will we choose to respond?

My friend, today’s message is clear—you are not alone. Perhaps we haven’t been visited by an angel to prove this; however, the evidence is all around us. Answered prayers, sustained life, the fact that you are here today with your friends and family and about to enjoy a time of fellowship with others all speaks of God’s close proximity to you and to me.


Once we recognize this, the proper response is to do exactly what Mary did, happily obey the Lord in whatever he asks of us. What better gift could we give God this Christmas season than to allow our “yes” to be on the table when God asks us to do anything? What better activity could we engage in as believers than busying ourselves with actually doing what He has already instructed in His Word? Maybe it’s time you had a memorable conversation with God. If we really are not alone in this universe, why don’t we make the most of what God is offering us? 

Monday, November 21, 2016

Treats, Towers, and Testimony - Gen. 11:1-9

As everyone prepares for meals with family over the holiday season, I am reminded of the only time I tried my hat at cooking brownies. I was about 11 or 12 years old and asked my mother if I could show off my baking abilities by treating our family to one of my favorite desserts (all on my own). She reluctantly said “yes” and tried to offer her advice as I began—“be sure to read the directions carefully,” “did you add such and such?” etc. I quickly shrugged these off and, to be honest, shrugged her off as I wanted to prove that I was capable of baking BY MYSELF. I preheat my oven, put the ingredients in the bowl, mixed them thoroughly, poured it into the pan, placed it in the oven to bake, set my timer, and anxiously waited. “Oh my family would be so proud of me!” I thought to myself. Soon, I could smell the delicious treat baking inside. Surely, everyone was in for a real treat. As soon as the timer went off, I retrieved what was inside. Everything looked great on the surface and smelled great too until I went to cut a piece and put the brownie squares onto a plate. What was beneath the top layer of crust could only be described as greasy hot goo. My brownies looked more like hot chocolate soup! Swallowing my pride, I asked my mother what she thought went wrong. “Did you add all of the ingredients?” “Of course!” I said, believing that this concoction could not have been a result of my own oversight. Hesitantly, I retrieved the brownie-mix box out of the trashcan and read—this time more thoroughly. “Sugar? Check! Mix? Check! Milk? Check! Eggs?...Eggs!”

This story of pride and self-sufficiency getting the better of me in the kitchen is not unlike what we witness as our Genesis 1-11 series comes to a close. In Genesis 11:1-9, we witness mankind, once again, trying to emerge autonomous and, as a result being humiliated. In our world that celebrates the individual and praises self-sufficiency, the three directions of activity taken in this passage speak volumes as to how we are to live and for whose name as God’s people.

Image result for Tower of Babel

1. The People Build Up-11:1-4

As chapter 11 opens, a unified picture of humanity is painted—“Now the whole earth used the same language and the same word” (11:1). Words like “whole” and “same,” indicate inclusiveness and togetherness. This sentiment forms and antithetical inclusio with what will eventually be revealed in verse 9. However, for now, it is important to understand what the state of the world was like—people were together and very few barriers, if any, kept them from direct communication with each other. Though some argue that “whole earth” may be hyperbole and that Moses is merely speaking of the world that he knew about with this phrase, there is nothing to suggest that this phrase means anything other than what is denotes on the surface, especially when one considers how all humanity began again in one area following the flood. By this time in history, Ham, Shem, and Japheth had done their job to propagate the human race (see Genesis 10). However, inasmuch as a relatively short time had passed since the flood waters subsided, most of these people were relatively near the site of the ark’s landing.

Next, Moses reveals that this group of people “journeyed east,” and “found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (11:2). Though this might sound like little more than a geographical factoid, I imagine that the original audience was already shifting in their seats upon hearing this. Why? “East” is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. After all, when Adam and Eve were expelled, cherubim were placed on the east side of the garden to protect entrance from that direction. Later, Lot departs Abraham and journey’s east (13:10-12) where he runs into calamity at Sodom and Gomorrah. Also, Abraham’s sons (by Keturah) are dispersed “to the land of the east” to separate them from Isaac (the chosen son of blessing) (25:6). Thereafter, Jacob, Isaac’s son, flees his homeland to live among the “eastern peoples” (29:1). All of these episodes indicate that, at least in the book of Genesis, to move east means to move outside the will of God and/or His place of blessing. Used here of the Babelites, this literary indicator means that the people were slipping away from God, thereby setting themselves up for some kind of failure.

Another literary parallel might also be intended. Verse 2 seems eerily similar to what happens to Cain in 4:12-24. Like the Babelites, Cain “settled” for urban life (4:17). Also, both Cain and the Babelites settled in an urban situation after both migrated “east” (4:16-“Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled I the land of Nod, east of Eden.”).

 “Shinar” is a region first introduced in Genesis 10:10. This area was originally settled by the descendants of Ham’s grandson Nimrod and the cities that belonged to this region were Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh. A relatively flat region is still present today in between the Tigris and the Euphrates river in Syria and Iraq—a perfect topography for an urban metropolis and grand tower.
This is where the people “settled”—the opposite of what will be the case later on in the story. For the time being, the people seemed to take up permanent residence here. The only other time this phrase “settled” is used in Genesis is of Abram who left Ur and made a home in Haran. There, Abram took up permanent residence in a particular land according to the will and direction of God. Here, the people of Babel took up permanent residence “east”—outside of the will of God and on their own accord (i.e. not in response to any command from on high).  

In verse 3, the human enterprise becomes the focus—again, without the prompting of the One who is really in charge and who has been the grand mover and organizer up to this point. This enterprise is indicated by the resolve the people show to build a grand tower. First, the people resolve to “make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar…” (11:3). In the Hebrew, the text reads “let us brick bricks (nilbena lebenim) and bake [them] baking (nisrepa lisrepa) and use tar for mortar (hemar homer).” In fact, the l-b-n letter sounds of “let us make bricks” (nilbena) are reiterated in the word “brick” (hallebena). This will be important later.
After resolving to use specific components for their structure, the people resolve to build a grand city and tall tower that will reach into heaven—“they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven…”(11:4). The desire for this tower to “reach into heaven” indicates the people’s ambition not to depose God, but to reach Him on their own terms, thereby gaining some level of autonomy.

This is made clear by the third resolution the people make—“and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (11:4b). Here, the intention of the builders is two-fold: 1. They want to make a name for themselves, and 2. They want to avoid being scattered (hence the urban metropolis). However, what these people fail to recognize is that it the Lord’s name that they should be more concerned about and what He is trying to do on a global level.

Interestingly, the idea of “making a name” is also used later of Abraham when God promises to “make” of Abraham a great nation and to magnify his “name.” The differences between the two passages are alarming (see 12:2-3). In chapter 11, the reflexive pronoun “ourselves” and “for themselves” indicate self-interest and independent efforts on behalf of the people of Babel. However, for Abraham in chapter 12, the Lord bestows the blessing of reputation as a gift, indicating that all that is done for him and his family would ultimately glorify God. The different outcomes of these stories ultimately illustrate that only God can make a name great. Unfortunately, the people of Babel would have to learn this the hard way.

2. The Lord Comes Down -11:5-7

As the people of Babel “build up” in a misdirected effort at demonstrating their self-sufficiency and autonomy, the “Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built” (11:5). This statement of the Lord’s direction marks the midpoint of this passage ranging from 11:1-11:9. Here is what has been covered thus far.

 A. “The whole world had one language” (11:1)
                B. “There” (11:2)
                              C. “each other” (11:3)
                    D. “Come, let’s make bricks” (11:3)
                                  E. “Come, let us build ourselves” (11:4)
                                              F. “A city, with a tower” (11:4)
                                                       G. “THE LORD CAME DOWN…” (v. 5)

Though the implications of this passage are troubling, the story is told with an ironic tone and in an entertaining way. Though the people intended to show off their self-sufficiency and power with a great city and corresponding tower, God has to shrink down to inspect it. What was supposed to convey prestige and strength is puny and insignificant compared to God. “The frailty of the engineering is marked by the description of the builders: they are bene ha’adam—“the sons of mankind” (Matthews, 483). This indicates that the quality of the tower is just as mortal as the builders themselves. One thing is for sure upon God’s review of this building project—He is not impressed.

This is clear by the Lord’s comments in verse 6—“The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them,…”(11:6). God appears to be concerned most with the potential there is for great pride—“now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” In other words, nothing mankind will set his fallen mind to is out of the realm of possibilities as they pursue autonomy and/or self-sufficiency. The shared language offered an efficient route to this aim/goal of being like God or, at the very least, capable of doing everything for themselves.
This indictment is similar to what is said in the Garden of Eden. God’s curse of Adam and Eve was intended, in part, to keep them from the tree of life. He understood that because mankind knew both good AND evil (because they did not follow the Lord’s command), they needed to be limited. Therefore, He cut off the life-giving tree, leading to their mortality and forever limiting mankind’s capabilities. Here, God does the same. Seeing what prideful pursuits mankind was capable of given their shared locality and shared language, God decides to humble mankind by limiting them further. This He does by making it harder for them to communicate.

Next the Lord says, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (11:7). From this point on, barriers would exist between different people groups, rendering it difficult for people to understand one another. Limited already in mortality, the human race was now limited in its communicative capacity.

I mentioned earlier (as we looked at 11:3) the l-b-n letter sounds of “let us make bricks” (nilbena). Here, the letters are inverted in “let us confuse” (nabela)—n-b-l. While the human race sought to work together to build themselves up, God made sure they were confused instead. The Lord’s name alone ought to be built up and every activity/pursuit ought to give Him glory. The people of Babel failed to remember this until they perceived their new lot.

3. The Nations are Scattered Out-11:8-9

Verses 8 and 9b reveal what transpired as a direct result of God’s intervention—“So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city,…and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Babel’s culture of power and unity under the banner of pride was disrupted beyond repair, leaving the construction project incomplete, people confused, and the nations dispersed.

God’s actions here reiterate mankind’s purpose in the world—“to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” Such a mandate taken alongside the command to exercise “dominion over the world” is not easily satisfied in the context of a centralized metropolis. Therefore, the scattering of the nations and the confusion of languages, brought along by this display of pride and self-centeredness, speaks to God’s heart for the world. God’s people are at their best when they are going out and cultivating culture for His glory, not staying at home and growing more complacent. The diversity created here would not only limit humanity, it would pave the way for the glorious diversity of culture throughout the world, allowing each nation to enact dominion over its respective corner of the planet in a variety of ways.

Though people had tried to assert themselves, establish their own name, and achieve autonomy, God asserts Himself, establishes His superior name, and demonstrates His own autonomy by naming this city—“Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth…” (11:9a). The name babel is related to the word “confused” (balal) and itself means “muddle.” We use this word today to speak of nonsense or incoherent muttering. To “babel on” is to speak in an indiscernible way. What began as a proud collaborative effort ends in confusion and disarray.

Here is a presentation of the passage’s chiastic organization:

A. “The whole world had one language” (11:1)
                B. “There” (11:2)
                                C. “each other” (11:3)
                                                D. “Come, let’s make bricks” (11:3)
                                                                E. “Come, let us build ourselves” (11:4)
                                                                                F. “A city, with a tower” (11:4)
                                                                                                G. “THE LORD CAME                                                                                                          DOWN…” (v. 5)
                                                                                F.’ “The city and the tower” (11:5)
                                                                E.’ “That the men were building” (11:5)
                                                D.’ “Come, let us…confuse” (11:7)
                                C.’ “each other” (11:7)
                B.’ “from there” (11:8)
    A.’ The language of the whole world” (11:9)

This chiasm indicates that what began as a unified body of people became diverse and varied pool of nations. What made the difference? The Lord’s presence—“the Lord came down”—and subsequent judgment upon the people’s pride (chiasm taken from Matthews, 468).

So What?

Ultimately, this passage demonstrates that anything done with the ultimate aim of glorifying any one person or mankind in general, even if done with majority and/or overwhelming support, will inevitably lead to humiliation. God’s desire is for Himself to be glorified and any enterprise that takes glory away from Him and carries it elsewhere will ultimately be undermined. Whether personally or corporately, we must acknowledge the supremacy of the Lord’s name, not our own, and stand in awe of His power, not human capabilities. Have you convinced yourself that you are self-sufficient in general or in any one area of your life in particular? Is your hope in the majority rule of our country? Do not be fooled. “Pride comes before the fall” (Prov. 16:18).  

    However, what is great about this passage is that God doesn’t leave the human race humiliated. Following the discipline He dishes out to these people, He paves the way for His will to be executed. The confusion of languages was a curse AND a blessing as now people were forced out, scattered throughout the planet to go and do what God had originally envisioned. What made things harder also provided the potential for more beauty. Therefore, this passage is a warning as well as an encouragement. The warning is “do not think too highly of yourself” (Rom. 12:3). The encouragement is, go out and cultivate culture for God’s glory. Complacency is antithetical to these two principles.


Treats, Towers, and Testimony - Gen. 11:1-9

As everyone prepares for meals with family over the holiday season, I am reminded of the only time I tried my hat at cooking brownies. I was about 11 or 12 years old and asked my mother if I could show off my baking abilities by treating our family to one of my favorite desserts (all on my own). She reluctantly said “yes” and tried to offer her advice as I began—“be sure to read the directions carefully,” “did you add such and such?” etc. I quickly shrugged these off and, to be honest, shrugged her off as I wanted to prove that I was capable of baking BY MYSELF. I preheat my oven, put the ingredients in the bowl, mixed them thoroughly, poured it into the pan, placed it in the oven to bake, set my timer, and anxiously waited. “Oh my family would be so proud of me!” I thought to myself. Soon, I could smell the delicious treat baking inside. Surely, everyone was in for a real treat. As soon as the timer went off, I retrieved what was inside. Everything looked great on the surface and smelled great too until I went to cut a piece and put the brownie squares onto a plate. What was beneath the top layer of crust could only be described as greasy hot goo. My brownies looked more like hot chocolate soup! Swallowing my pride, I asked my mother what she thought went wrong. “Did you add all of the ingredients?” “Of course!” I said, believing that this concoction could not have been a result of my own oversight. Hesitantly, I retrieved the brownie-mix box out of the trashcan and read—this time more thoroughly. “Sugar? Check! Mix? Check! Milk? Check! Eggs?...Eggs!”

This story of pride and self-sufficiency getting the better of me in the kitchen is not unlike what we witness as our Genesis 1-11 series comes to a close. In Genesis 11:1-9, we witness mankind, once again, trying to emerge autonomous and, as a result being humiliated. In our world that celebrates the individual and praises self-sufficiency, the three directions of activity taken in this passage speak volumes as to how we are to live and for whose name as God’s people.

Image result for Tower of Babel

1. The People Build Up-11:1-4

As chapter 11 opens, a unified picture of humanity is painted—“Now the whole earth used the same language and the same word” (11:1). Words like “whole” and “same,” indicate inclusiveness and togetherness. This sentiment forms and antithetical inclusio with what will eventually be revealed in verse 9. However, for now, it is important to understand what the state of the world was like—people were together and very few barriers, if any, kept them from direct communication with each other. Though some argue that “whole earth” may be hyperbole and that Moses is merely speaking of the world that he knew about with this phrase, there is nothing to suggest that this phrase means anything other than what is denotes on the surface, especially when one considers how all humanity began again in one area following the flood. By this time in history, Ham, Shem, and Japheth had done their job to propagate the human race (see Genesis 10). However, inasmuch as a relatively short time had passed since the flood waters subsided, most of these people were relatively near the site of the ark’s landing.

Next, Moses reveals that this group of people “journeyed east,” and “found a plain in the land of Shinar and settled there” (11:2). Though this might sound like little more than a geographical factoid, I imagine that the original audience was already shifting in their seats upon hearing this. Why? “East” is reminiscent of the Garden of Eden. After all, when Adam and Eve were expelled, cherubim were placed on the east side of the garden to protect entrance from that direction. Later, Lot departs Abraham and journey’s east (13:10-12) where he runs into calamity at Sodom and Gomorrah. Also, Abraham’s sons (by Keturah) are dispersed “to the land of the east” to separate them from Isaac (the chosen son of blessing) (25:6). Thereafter, Jacob, Isaac’s son, flees his homeland to live among the “eastern peoples” (29:1). All of these episodes indicate that, at least in the book of Genesis, to move east means to move outside the will of God and/or His place of blessing. Used here of the Babelites, this literary indicator means that the people were slipping away from God, thereby setting themselves up for some kind of failure.

Another literary parallel might also be intended. Verse 2 seems eerily similar to what happens to Cain in 4:12-24. Like the Babelites, Cain “settled” for urban life (4:17). Also, both Cain and the Babelites settled in an urban situation after both migrated “east” (4:16-“Then Cain went out from the presence of the Lord, and settled I the land of Nod, east of Eden.”).

 “Shinar” is a region first introduced in Genesis 10:10. This area was originally settled by the descendants of Ham’s grandson Nimrod and the cities that belonged to this region were Babel, Erech, Accad, and Calneh. A relatively flat region is still present today in between the Tigris and the Euphrates river in Syria and Iraq—a perfect topography for an urban metropolis and grand tower.
This is where the people “settled”—the opposite of what will be the case later on in the story. For the time being, the people seemed to take up permanent residence here. The only other time this phrase “settled” is used in Genesis is of Abram who left Ur and made a home in Haran. There, Abram took up permanent residence in a particular land according to the will and direction of God. Here, the people of Babel took up permanent residence “east”—outside of the will of God and on their own accord (i.e. not in response to any command from on high).  

In verse 3, the human enterprise becomes the focus—again, without the prompting of the One who is really in charge and who has been the grand mover and organizer up to this point. This enterprise is indicated by the resolve the people show to build a grand tower. First, the people resolve to “make bricks and burn them thoroughly.’ And they used brick for stone, and they used tar for mortar…” (11:3). In the Hebrew, the text reads “let us brick bricks (nilbena lebenim) and bake [them] baking (nisrepa lisrepa) and use tar for mortar (hemar homer).” In fact, the l-b-n letter sounds of “let us make bricks” (nilbena) are reiterated in the word “brick” (hallebena). This will be important later.
After resolving to use specific components for their structure, the people resolve to build a grand city and tall tower that will reach into heaven—“they said, ‘Come, let us build for ourselves a city, and a tower whose top will reach into heaven…”(11:4). The desire for this tower to “reach into heaven” indicates the people’s ambition not to depose God, but to reach Him on their own terms, thereby gaining some level of autonomy.

This is made clear by the third resolution the people make—“and let us make for ourselves a name, otherwise we will be scattered abroad over the face of the whole earth” (11:4b). Here, the intention of the builders is two-fold: 1. They want to make a name for themselves, and 2. They want to avoid being scattered (hence the urban metropolis). However, what these people fail to recognize is that it the Lord’s name that they should be more concerned about and what He is trying to do on a global level.

Interestingly, the idea of “making a name” is also used later of Abraham when God promises to “make” of Abraham a great nation and to magnify his “name.” The differences between the two passages are alarming (see 12:2-3). In chapter 11, the reflexive pronoun “ourselves” and “for themselves” indicate self-interest and independent efforts on behalf of the people of Babel. However, for Abraham in chapter 12, the Lord bestows the blessing of reputation as a gift, indicating that all that is done for him and his family would ultimately glorify God. The different outcomes of these stories ultimately illustrate that only God can make a name great. Unfortunately, the people of Babel would have to learn this the hard way.

2. The Lord Comes Down -11:5-7

As the people of Babel “build up” in a misdirected effort at demonstrating their self-sufficiency and autonomy, the “Lord came down to see the city and the tower which the sons of men had built” (11:5). This statement of the Lord’s direction marks the midpoint of this passage ranging from 11:1-11:9. Here is what has been covered thus far.

 A. “The whole world had one language” (11:1)
                B. “There” (11:2)
                              C. “each other” (11:3)
                    D. “Come, let’s make bricks” (11:3)
                                  E. “Come, let us build ourselves” (11:4)
                                              F. “A city, with a tower” (11:4)
                                                       G. “THE LORD CAME DOWN…” (v. 5)

Though the implications of this passage are troubling, the story is told with an ironic tone and in an entertaining way. Though the people intended to show off their self-sufficiency and power with a great city and corresponding tower, God has to shrink down to inspect it. What was supposed to convey prestige and strength is puny and insignificant compared to God. “The frailty of the engineering is marked by the description of the builders: they are bene ha’adam—“the sons of mankind” (Matthews, 483). This indicates that the quality of the tower is just as mortal as the builders themselves. One thing is for sure upon God’s review of this building project—He is not impressed.

This is clear by the Lord’s comments in verse 6—“The Lord said, ‘Behold, they are one people, and they all have the same language. And this is what they began to do, and now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them,…”(11:6). God appears to be concerned most with the potential there is for great pride—“now nothing which they purpose to do will be impossible for them.” In other words, nothing mankind will set his fallen mind to is out of the realm of possibilities as they pursue autonomy and/or self-sufficiency. The shared language offered an efficient route to this aim/goal of being like God or, at the very least, capable of doing everything for themselves.
This indictment is similar to what is said in the Garden of Eden. God’s curse of Adam and Eve was intended, in part, to keep them from the tree of life. He understood that because mankind knew both good AND evil (because they did not follow the Lord’s command), they needed to be limited. Therefore, He cut off the life-giving tree, leading to their mortality and forever limiting mankind’s capabilities. Here, God does the same. Seeing what prideful pursuits mankind was capable of given their shared locality and shared language, God decides to humble mankind by limiting them further. This He does by making it harder for them to communicate.

Next the Lord says, “Come, let Us go down and there confuse their language, so that they will not understand one another’s speech” (11:7). From this point on, barriers would exist between different people groups, rendering it difficult for people to understand one another. Limited already in mortality, the human race was now limited in its communicative capacity.

I mentioned earlier (as we looked at 11:3) the l-b-n letter sounds of “let us make bricks” (nilbena). Here, the letters are inverted in “let us confuse” (nabela)—n-b-l. While the human race sought to work together to build themselves up, God made sure they were confused instead. The Lord’s name alone ought to be built up and every activity/pursuit ought to give Him glory. The people of Babel failed to remember this until they perceived their new lot.

3. The Nations are Scattered Out-11:8-9

Verses 8 and 9b reveal what transpired as a direct result of God’s intervention—“So the Lord scattered them abroad from there over the face of the whole earth; and they stopped building the city,…and from there the Lord scattered them abroad over the face of the whole earth.” Babel’s culture of power and unity under the banner of pride was disrupted beyond repair, leaving the construction project incomplete, people confused, and the nations dispersed.

God’s actions here reiterate mankind’s purpose in the world—“to be fruitful, multiply, and fill the earth.” Such a mandate taken alongside the command to exercise “dominion over the world” is not easily satisfied in the context of a centralized metropolis. Therefore, the scattering of the nations and the confusion of languages, brought along by this display of pride and self-centeredness, speaks to God’s heart for the world. God’s people are at their best when they are going out and cultivating culture for His glory, not staying at home and growing more complacent. The diversity created here would not only limit humanity, it would pave the way for the glorious diversity of culture throughout the world, allowing each nation to enact dominion over its respective corner of the planet in a variety of ways.

Though people had tried to assert themselves, establish their own name, and achieve autonomy, God asserts Himself, establishes His superior name, and demonstrates His own autonomy by naming this city—“Therefore, its name was called Babel, because there the Lord confused the language of the whole earth…” (11:9a). The name babel is related to the word “confused” (balal) and itself means “muddle.” We use this word today to speak of nonsense or incoherent muttering. To “babel on” is to speak in an indiscernible way. What began as a proud collaborative effort ends in confusion and disarray.

Here is a presentation of the passage’s chiastic organization:

A. “The whole world had one language” (11:1)
                B. “There” (11:2)
                                C. “each other” (11:3)
                                                D. “Come, let’s make bricks” (11:3)
                                                                E. “Come, let us build ourselves” (11:4)
                                                                                F. “A city, with a tower” (11:4)
                                                                                                G. “THE LORD CAME                                                                                                          DOWN…” (v. 5)
                                                                                F.’ “The city and the tower” (11:5)
                                                                E.’ “That the men were building” (11:5)
                                                D.’ “Come, let us…confuse” (11:7)
                                C.’ “each other” (11:7)
                B.’ “from there” (11:8)
    A.’ The language of the whole world” (11:9)

This chiasm indicates that what began as a unified body of people became diverse and varied pool of nations. What made the difference? The Lord’s presence—“the Lord came down”—and subsequent judgment upon the people’s pride (chiasm taken from Matthews, 468).

So What?

Ultimately, this passage demonstrates that anything done with the ultimate aim of glorifying any one person or mankind in general, even if done with majority and/or overwhelming support, will inevitably lead to humiliation. God’s desire is for Himself to be glorified and any enterprise that takes glory away from Him and carries it elsewhere will ultimately be undermined. Whether personally or corporately, we must acknowledge the supremacy of the Lord’s name, not our own, and stand in awe of His power, not human capabilities. Have you convinced yourself that you are self-sufficient in general or in any one area of your life in particular? Is your hope in the majority rule of our country? Do not be fooled. “Pride comes before the fall” (Prov. 16:18).  

    However, what is great about this passage is that God doesn’t leave the human race humiliated. Following the discipline He dishes out to these people, He paves the way for His will to be executed. The confusion of languages was a curse AND a blessing as now people were forced out, scattered throughout the planet to go and do what God had originally envisioned. What made things harder also provided the potential for more beauty. Therefore, this passage is a warning as well as an encouragement. The warning is “do not think too highly of yourself” (Rom. 12:3). The encouragement is, go out and cultivate culture for God’s glory. Complacency is antithetical to these two principles.