The Five Fingers of Salvation: Baptism

Large Question: When do we become a Christian?  If a Christian is one who is fully committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, when do we go from being non-committed to being committed?

For some, this is a problem of growing up in the Christian faith: We have no conversion experience to give a testimony about. We don’t remember ever not being Christian. We might be the most desperate asking, when do we become a Christian? How do we know for sure we are Christian?

Modern Solutions

  • Sinner’s prayer, asking Jesus into your heart. Problem: this is not what Peter says when asked, “What must we do?” Acts 2:37-38.
  • Gift of tongues: when received, you are a Christian. Problem: this is not a supported by the New Testament in any conclusive way. The New Testament gives evidence of Christians who did not speak in tongues (1 Corinthians 12:30).
  • Some type of dramatic spiritual experience. Problem: the only real example in the New Testament is Paul.
  • Join a church. The problem seems to be the medieval belief that the bishop was the church and there no salvation outside the church, therefore the bishop/clergy controlled both who was a member of a church and who was saved.

Biblical Pattern

The New Testament pattern is Very Simple. It is BAPTISM

Baptism is the Church’s rite of commitment to Christ.
(Jack Dean Kingsbury)

There are lots of misunderstandings about baptism in the Christian world today. In the 2,000 years of church history, baptism has been distorted in many ways:

  • Misunderstanding #1: That proper baptism is something other than full immersion in water. In changing this, the primary significance of baptism is lost and the baptismal experience is diluted. The early church understood the importance of going under the water fully, the symbolic bathing of every part of the body. It also likened this to a burial, of being buried with Christ. The symbolism is rich and deep and is watered down when we sprinkle or pour water on the head.
  • Misunderstanding #2: That babies should be baptized as a remedy for their sin. This misses the most important finger in Walter Scott’s hand of salvation, the thumb: FAITH. Baptism is a response of faith. The New Testament knows nothing of proxy baptism based on the faith of the parents. The New Testament knows nothing of baptism as a magic bath that washes away the curse of original sin.
  • Misunderstanding #13 That baptism is a way of joining the church and has nothing to do with my relationship to the Lord. In this, baptism is like taking the pledge to become a Rotarian or undergoing hazing to be part of a football team. I never baptize anyone saying, “I baptize you so that you can now be a member of our church (as long as you tithe).” I say, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, of the Son, and the Holy Spirit for the forgiveness of your sins.”

And despite these distortions, let us not throw out the baby with the bath water. Baptism is a watery act with deep symbolism. Baptism is closely related to the forgiveness of sins. And baptism does open the doors for becoming part of the body of Christ, a member of his church.

If baptism is such a great thing, why do people resist being baptized? Why are people unwilling to be baptized by immersion as adults, the pattern of the New Testament? Here are reasons I have encountered in ministry:

  1. No one has ever asked them. Are we embarrassed about our teaching on baptism?
  2. Pride (baptism is a humiliating act). The older you get, the more humiliating it seems!
  3. Concern about family members who have not been immersed. What about my Lutheran grandmother, my Catholic mother?
  4. They have come to a position the makes baptism theologically unnecessary. If I don’t understand completely why baptism is necessary, it must be unnecessary. My need to understand trumps the teaching of the Bible and the practices of the early church. If your theology tells you not to be baptized and the Bible tells you to be baptized, to whom should you listen?
  5. They realize what baptism symbolizes: a complete submission to the Lordship of Jesus Christ. They reject this commitment. Which is, perhaps, the only valid reason: You don’t want to be a Christian.

There are many texts in the New Testament about baptism, but let me focus on one from Paul from the neglected book of Titus:

Titus 3:4-7 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5 he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. 6 This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, 7 so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.

Very important phrases:

  • Goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared: Christ came in the flesh, God in flesh, as a human.  Christ’s work on the cross was a work of unspeakable kindness and love.
  • He saved us: Christ came to “seek and to save.”  His atoning death on the cross yields salvation for us.
  • Not because of any works of righteousness we had done: We cannot possibly earn our salvation.  What we have earned is death
  • According to his mercy: Our salvation is always dependent upon the mercy and grace of God our Savior
  • He saved us through the water of rebirth: Our baptism shows us and all who witness it that we are forgiven people, saved, that we are part of the people of God
  • He saved us through the renewal of the Holy Spirit whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior: God’s Spirit gives us the spiritual strength to change our evil lives in ways we could never do through our own efforts.
  • Having been justified by his grace: We are counted whole and clean and righteous by the grace of God.
  • We become heirs: and this is what we inherit:  eternal life.

When do you become a Christian? When do you know you are a Christian? Paul neither lifts up baptism as the most important thing nor does he toss it aside as of little importance. In his description of the salvation journey for any believer, it is right in the middle.

Walter Scott reduced the necessary elements of salvation to five points, and used the hand to illustrate them, the five fingers. For Scott, Baptism was the middle. The first two fingers, Faith & Repentance, were largely our actions. We make a decision for faith. We develop a heart of repentance. The last two, Forgiveness & the Gift of the Holy Spirit, were God’s actions, things we receive through his grace. The middle finger was baptism, which included both our action and God’s action. Scott was convinced (and so am I) the Bible taught that baptism was the place where God meets us. When Jesus was baptized by John the Baptist, the voice of God came from the heavens, “You are my beloved Son, and I am very pleased.” He is present with us in baptism, and it is here that he pronounces, “You are my Child, and I am pleased, I am delighted that you have come to me.”

God has designed a way for you to show your commitment, and it is more than mental commitment. It is even more than heart commitment, emotional commitment. It is to make your faith known to others and to be buried with Christ in the waters of baptism. It is to be raised from that watery grave and walk in newness of life.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

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The Five Fingers of Salvation: Repentance

“Repentance” is not popular today. One internet blogger called repentance, “the most unpopular message in the history of mankind.” Why is this? What is it about calling people to repent that rubs us the wrong way?

Biblical Idea of Repentance

In Walter Scott’s Five Finger system, the first finger was Faith. The second finger is Repentance

Scott based this on Acts 2:36-38:

36 “Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Messiah.”  37 When the people heard this, they were cut to the heart and said to Peter and the other apostles, “Brothers, what shall we do?” 38 Peter replied, “Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit

We cannot repent without or before faith, for repentance is an act of faith, a move of trust. We are saying, “O God, I’m wrong and you are right.” It seems fitting to me that this is represented by the “pointer” finger, for repentance is pointing us in a new direction, we are pointed to God and not to ourselves. We are saying, “That’s the way I’m going to go. I’m going to follow Jesus and serve him, not myself.”

There are four things that happen in repentance.

1.    I experience deep sorrow or regret for my sin

Job 42:6 Therefore, I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.

This is where our pride comes in. We must lay down our proud ways and submit to God and his ways. We must feel a pain for our sin. Repentance is not simply a logical exercise, it is a condition of the heart. This is what Joel is talking about when he says, “Tear your hearts, not your clothes.” Repentance is an emotional response.

2.    I turn away from my sin and turn to God

Ezekiel 14:6 “Therefore say to the people of Israel, ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Repent! Turn from your idols and renounce all your detestable practices!

This is a matter of allegiance, of loyalty, of orientation. It is not turning from one sin and replacing it with another. It is repenting on the broadest level: turning back to God, resolving to serve him with all of our hearts, souls, and minds. Repentance is an act of submission.

3.    I align my thinking with godliness

Luke 5:32 I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.

The idea of metanoia (translated “repentance” here) is to “rethink,” to think a new way in regard to sin. This is Peter’s famous call in Acts 2:38, “Repent and be baptized.” When we repent in this way, we admit our error. We admit that our acceptance and enjoyment of things that displease the Lord were wrong and destructive. We seek holiness and righteousness. We have new standards by which we measure our decisions in every area of our life.

This is the attitude that was expressed in the WWJD movement, based on the book In His Steps by Charles Sheldon. For some it might be helpful to ask, “What would Jesus do?” in a given situation, but more important and focused is to ask, “What would God have me do?” Repentance is an act of mental renewal.

4.    I claim a promise

Acts 3:19 Repent, then, and turn to God, so that your sins may be wiped out, that times of refreshing may come from the Lord … 

Two terms are given here, both representing repentance. First is metanoia again. We re-evaluate our lives with tears and sorrow. We give up our pride and our love for things that are ungodly.

The second idea (epistrepho) is very clear here. It has the sense of turning around, turning to God. We were walking away from God, and we turn around and walk toward him. This second word is equivalent to the Latin-based term, conversion. Conversion is not accepting a new religion. It is not joining a new church. It is an act of asking for forgiveness.  Repentance leads to the freedom of forgiveness.

Then and only then, Peter promises that we will be refreshed and renewed. How can we feel forgiven if we have not repented? If we are in denial about our guilt, about our sin, how can we feel forgiven? How can we be set free?

Repentance is not a one-time act. It is a life. We are called to be people of faith and repentance. It is like the old advice on how to quit smoking: “If at first you don’t succeed, quit and quit again.” We as believers are called to repent, repent, and repent again.

Repentance begins and ends with humility, a humility driven by our sense of unworthiness. It moves to a deep regret and sorrow for the ways we have offended God through our pride, our greed, our selfishness, and our lack of love. Repentance is complete when we resolve in our heart to change, to leave behind the sins that separate us from the love of God. Repentance is an act of faith, spiritual contrition, and confession. It is a cry for forgiveness.

To repent, you must first see yourself as God sees you—as the Bible describes you. We don’t like what we see: prideful, rebellious, selfish, defiant, moral ugliness. We can change when we repent. We can begin to clean up the filthy garments of our lives. And God will help us. He does not expect us to clean ourselves up so that we will be acceptable to him. He wants us to give him our hearts, to yield to him, and let him begin the transformation.

Prayer

Change our hearts, O God. Where we have loved sin, may we love you. Where we have loved ourselves, may we love others. Break our hearts and change our minds. More of Jesus, less of us. By your power, transform us into your image. We pray in the name of Jesus, AMEN.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first one on April 29 (Faith) and the second one on May 6 (Repentance). This week (May 13), Derek Beebe is preaching on the third finger (Baptism). You are welcome to come. For more info, follow this link.

The Five Fingers of Salvation: Faith

What does it mean to be a Christian? How do I become a Christian? Is this something that I do, following a predetermined pattern, or is this something beyond my efforts alone?

In the next five weeks, I would like to introduce five essentials for becoming and being a Christian. These are from a 19th century evangelist, Walter Scott, who brought many people on the American frontier to Christ. Scott did this by boiling the many elements of the Christian faith to five. I plan to use his system as he did, relating each of the five to the fingers of a human hand, therefore the “Five Fingers of Salvation.” The first of these is Faith.”

We have many secular faith issues in America today. 

  • Can we trust the news media or is it all “fake news”?
  • Should we trust the roadways if we are sharing them with “self-driving cars” and “driverless trucks”?
  • Who can we trust with our personal information online when we find out it is bought and sold like a commodity, or that credit bureaus or banks suffer “data breaches?”

What is faith, though? More importantly: is there anything commonly shared in faith? If the church is a community of faith, does that mean we all believe the same thing?

There is a word cluster in English that represents what we are talking about when we consider biblical faith: Faith, Believe, Belief, Trust, Confidence, perhaps Commitment. How do we apply these, however? How do we enact them in our lives?

Allow me to break this down a little. I think there are three ways Christians have traditionally understood faith:

1. Acceptance by evidence that certain things are true. We therefore believe these things are true. Example: my car is blue. If you were here with me, you could go to the parking lot and check this for yourself. This “evidentiary faith” is the basis for what Christians call “apologetics.”

Yet we seemed to have moved beyond this in many ways. Science, even the concept of objective truth, is under attack today. We have moved to what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness,” where we are willing to accept something because it “feels true.”

We have long recognized that evidence-based faith has its limits. There is a well-known story of the strident British atheist of the early 20th Century, Bertrand Russell, in which he was asked what he would say to God if he found himself standing before God after he died. Russell answered: “I should reproach him for not giving us enough evidence.” Not enough evidence, God!  If faith is entirely logical and evidentiary, who decides what is a necessary pile of evidence in order to demand belief?

2. Confidence that the future will conform to what is promised. I can believe that certain expected things will happen before I experience them. Example: the sun will come up tomorrow. This faith in a promise does not always hold true, however (see video). “Try it, you’ll like it” offers a promise that may not come to pass. We should understand that the key to our confidence in the future rests on our confidence in the person who gives us the promise. This is this is the essence of biblical faith, of Christian faith. And it moves us to the third option.

3. Trust in a person. As Christians we are sometimes asked what we believe. We might list many things:

  • God created the heavens and the earth
  • The Bible is the Word of God and without errors
  • God is revealed to us in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

But there is another way of expressing this:

  • There is a God, a personal living God.
  • This personal God is willing to have a relationship with me.
  • God cares for me and loves me

I believe in God: I am trusting him with my future.

Belief that God exists may be the starting point and the controlling factor, to be sure. But Christian faith, saving faith, is to be found in our trust in a person.

  • We are not saved by believing there is one God.
  • We are not saved by being a member of a certain church.
  • We are not saved by believing the Bible.

Christian faith is personal, but not turned inwardly to say we believe in ourselves. Christian faith is faith in a personal God. Christian faith is trust in God’s Son for salvation and no one else.

We can understand this by looking at Psalm 78, a rehearsal of Israel’s failure to trust God during the Exodus from Egypt:

Because they had no faith in God,
and did not trust his saving power.

Psalm 78:22

They did not believe that God could save them. They did not trust in his saving power.

Everything in the Christian life depends on faith, on trusting Christ. Everything we do as Christians flows from our faith. Our Christian commitment is to the Lord Jesus Christ, the one we have trusted as our Savior, the person we believe will save us. This is a great commitment, a risky move. We are placing our future in someone else’s hands, but, as Kierkegaard said, “No risk, no faith.” When we believe in Jesus Christ, we are trusting him with our lives. We are saying, I believe you can save me, and I am going to follow you. You will be my Lord. I cannot save myself. Only you can save me.”

Luther said that,

“the only faith which makes a Christian is that which cast itself on God for life or death.” 

May we have that faith.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Note: I am preaching this series at the Acts 2 Church in Gretna, NE. We did the first on on April 29. You are welcome to come for the last four. For more info, follow this link.

Advent Week 4 and Christmas Morning: The King of Christmas, Genesis 49:10

Who is the King of Christmas? Many Americans would vote for Santa Claus. He embodies godlike qualities we might like to see in a king ruling over us. He knows who is naughty and who is nice (omniscience?). He creates billions of presents for all the children of the earth (omnipotence?). As a jolly old elf, he loves all people (omnibenevolence?). And he manages the physically impossible task of visiting every household on earth in a tight window of 24 hours or so (omnipresence?). His gifting seems to exemplify justice (concern for poor children), mercy (overlooking a few moral boo-boos), and humility (no self-praising tweets about his accomplishments).

Santa seems a much better King of Christmas than such pretenders such as Rudolf (abnormal nasal appearance), Frosty (undependable, melting presence), or Tiny Tim (too young). Problem: the Santa Claus we culturally celebrate is a fictional character, not a real person.

In Genesis, a picture of the future Messiah, the needed Savior of humankind, emerges for us. As the author of Hebrews might say, the messianic picture is in little bits and pieces, and we understand the hints of Genesis far better in hindsight than the ancients did in foresight.

One of these is the prediction that the future Messiah would be a king, a royal person. The narrative focus in Genesis is on various patriarchs; Abraham, Isaac, Esau, Jacob, Joseph, etc. These were family chiefs, but were not kings. Yet at the end of Genesis, the glimmer of a king emerges. Genesis 49 presents the aged Jacob giving blessings to his twelve sons. He has words for each, an ironic act given that Jacob’s life was radically affected when he stole his brother Esau’s blessing from his father, Isaac.

Judah, the youngest of the four sons of Leah, receives his blessing in Genesis 49:8-12. This passage is loaded with images that become important in later texts. Judah is promised that his brothers would bow down to him, an act of acknowledging royalty. He is equated to a lion, the source of the powerful image of Revelation, the Lion of Judah. He is prophesied to wash his robes in wine, a foreshadowing of the saints of Revelation who wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb.

The most intriguing text is Genesis 49:10:

The scepter will not depart from Judah,
    nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet,
until he to whom it belongs shall come
    and the obedience of the nations shall be his.

This is not an easy text to translate, but Christmas morning is no time to unravel that scholarly debate. Notice two things. First, the language of “scepter” and “ruler’s staff,” the physical implements of kingship. Second, the promise of one who is coming who is the true and rightful king commanding the “obedience of the nations.”

I know I have biases and presuppositions as a Christian, but I cannot help but see this as a prediction of the Messiah. Would he be a warrior? Maybe. Would he be a judge? Maybe. Would he be a teacher? Maybe. But would he be a King? Definitely! And this royalty is tied to Judah, the ancestor of King David and of Joseph of Nazareth. The coming Messiah of Genesis would be the King of Kings of Revelation. Paul promises that eventually, every knee would bend and every head would bow in recognition of his royal reign over all peoples.

The 19th century New England newspaper editor, Josiah Holland wrote a poem for Christmas in 1872 entitled, “There’s a Song in the Air.” This is the fourth stanza:

We rejoice in the light, 
and we echo the song 
that comes down through the night 
from the heavenly throng. 
Ay! we shout to the lovely 
evangel they bring, 
and we greet in his cradle 
our Savior and King! 

Christmas is a time of motherhood, of gifts, of stables, of babies, of angels, and of mangers. Let us not forget the original location was David’s royal city, Bethlehem, and that that manger cradled the “Little Lord Jesus,” our “Savior and King!” He and he alone is the King of Christmas.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 3: The Ladder to God (Genesis 28:1-15)

An oft-mentioned but little understood biblical reference is “Jacob’s Ladder.” It comes from a story about the patriarch of the nation of Israel, Abraham’s grandson, Jacob. It is difficult to point to a more pivotal figure in the history of Israel than Jacob, the person whose name is changed to “Israel” and whose twelve sons become the fathers of the twelve tribes of Israel.

The story of Jacob’s courtships and marriages reflects archaic practices and understandings that teach us little about family values, but Jacob’s journey and blessings from God teach us much about God and his plan for the redemption of humankind. In Genesis 28, Jacob leaves his mother and father (Isaac and Rebekah), fleeing from the wrath of his cheated brother (Esau) and journeys north to his relative Laban.

On the way, Jacob sleeps rough in the countryside. One night, he is given a marvelous dream in which the promise of the land and of a great nation originally given to Abraham is reiterated to Jacob, designating him as the chosen heir (not Esau). But this is not new. We have heard this promise several times before in Genesis. This time, though, the dream-vision reveals a staircase (or “ladder”) extending from earth to heaven. Jacob witnesses angels ascending and descending this hidden passage, moving freely from God to mankind.

He had a dream in which he saw a stairway resting on the earth, with its top reaching to heaven, and the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. Genesis 28:12)

In a little noticed encounter in the beginning of the Gospel of John, Jesus praises his future disciple, Nathanael, for his demonstrated faith. Nathanael responds with a Messianic confession,

Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the king of Israel. (John 1:49)

Jesus, rather than basking in this praise, pushes Nathanael with a “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” moment, telling him,

 You will see greater things … You will see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man. (John 1:51)

This is clearly an allusion to the vision of Jacob, the stairway to heaven full of angels. In Jesus’ interpretation, he himself is the ladder. Jesus is the connection between heaven and earth.

What does this have to do with Christmas?

Often, we understand the birth of Jesus as the descent of God to earth to dwell with men and women in human form. This is true, but there is more to the story. Jesus comes to us not simply as an emissary, but as a bridge spanning the gap between sinful humanity and holy God. In the English version of the 14th century Christmas song, In Dulci Jubilo, one of the verses has these words:

Good Christian men, rejoice,
With heart, and soul, and voice;
Now ye hear of endless bliss:
Jesus Christ was born for this!
He has opened the heav’nly door,
And man is blessed forevermore.
Christ was born for this! Christ was born for this!

Prayer: Lord, may we not forget the door to heaven that was opened by Jesus, your Son. May we take joy in the spiritual stairway he provides, the great mediator between human beings and you, our Creator and Father. He was born for this! We thank you for this great gift. In his name we pray, Amen.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 2: Sacrifice of Son

Week 2: Sacrifice of Son Genesis 22:15-18

During Advent, attention spent on the Old Testament usually has the focus of fulfillment of prophecy. This follows the pattern of Prophet said thathundreds of years later, this happened to fulfill this prophetic statement. This is not the only type of fulfillment from Old Testament to New Testament, however. An equally important pattern is that of typology, a somewhat discredited and often neglected aspect of Scripture study.

Typology understands certain patterns found in the Old Testament as being pointers or precursors to the New Testament. These can be people, events, and even institutions. In the Old Testament, this pattern (or type) can occur several times, but all of these are partial and often unclear. In the New Testament, this type is fulfilled completely (the antitype). Many, but not all, of the Old Testament types point toward the Messiah, and these are the ones that interest us the most at Christmas time.

THE BIBLE, George C. Scott, 1966, (c) 20th Century Fox, TM & Copyright

One of the most dramatic stories in Genesis concerns Abraham’s near-murder of his son, Isaac. The birth of Isaac is itself a type of miraculous conception and birth, not quite a virgin conception but still marvelous. Abraham’s wife, Sarah, had long past the child-bearing season of her life when she became pregnant through God’s miracle. Sarah herself conspired to provide Abraham with an illegitimate son, the fruit of her servant Hagar (the original “handmaid”). This Abraham/Sarah/Hagar/Ishmael incident did not meet the Lord’s plan, however, while the miraculous birth of Isaac did. Only through this legitimate, God-ordained child could the great promises of the Lord made to Abraham be fulfilled.

The Mt. Moriah event proved Abraham’s absolute trust in the Lord as shown by his obedience. Abraham was willing to kill, by his own hands, the son he had waited for over 100 years. God stopped this murder-testing at the last possible moment, speaking to Abraham while he had knife in hand. Seeing the purity of Abraham’s faith, God told him this:

I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me. (Genesis 22:16-18)

The typology here is profound. A miraculous birth. An only son. A brush with death. An act of obedience. A blessing for all nations. It is not difficult to see this as a pre-enactment of the life of Jesus, the main difference being that God allowed his own son to die for the sins of the world.

At Christmas, we rightly celebrate the birth of the Messiah, the Savior of the world. Let us not forget that this baby became a full-grown man, and that he obediently climbed his own mountain and died so that we would all be blessed. And let us also not forget that he did not stay in the grave, being raised on the third day to life forever.

The well-known Christmas carol, “We Three Kings,” is remembered primarily for its first verse. But, consider the third verse:

Myrrh is mine, its bitter perfume
Breathes a life of gathering gloom;
Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying,
Sealed in the stone-cold tomb.

John Henry Hopkins, Jr., who wrote this carol, understood the ironic symbolism of the gift of myrrh to the Baby Jesus. It was a “spice” used in preparation of corpse for burial (John 19:39). Myrrh represents that greatest of Christmas mysteries, that Jesus was “born to die.” Hopkins also knew the end of the story, though, and includes it as his final verse:

Glorious now behold Him arise;
King and God and sacrifice;
Alleluia!, Alleluia!,
Earth to Heaven replies.

What a great Christmas word: Alleluia! Hallelujah! Praise be to the Lord!

Prayer: Lord, we marvel at the faith of Abraham, willing to kill his beloved son at your command. But we are utterly astounded at your willingness to give your beloved Son, your Only Son, who died for our sins. Our astonishment turns to gratefulness when we remember how much you love us. Bethlehem was only the beginning of this story. Thank you for the birth that took place in a humble stable, the advent of a Savior for our sins. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College of Hope International University

Advent Week 1: Curse and Promise (Genesis 3:15)

Advent season is a good time to remember the scriptural background that led to the coming of the Messiah. The birth of Jesus, son of Joseph and Mary, in Bethlehem would matter little if not for the context of expectations and fulfillment of prophecies made before that birth. These earlier Scriptures define the coming Messiah in at least three important ways:

  1. What would be the purpose of the Coming One? I.e., why was a Messiah needed?
  2. What would be the identifying marks of this Messiah? I.e., how would he be recognized as the Promised One?
  3. What would be the characteristics of the Promised One? I.e., what roles would this person fulfill according to God’s plan

Clearly, these are not distinct categories without overlap and we should not expect them to be. They converge in a single person, anticipated for centuries and fulfilled in Jesus Christ.

For Advent 2017, I would like to highlight references to the coming Messiah found in the book of Genesis. These reflect the oldest traditions from the people of Israel, even before there was a nation of Israel. The first one, seen by scholars as the earliest reference to a future savior, is in Genesis 3. We call it the protoevangelium, the first gospel.

This text comes at the time of the earliest and greatest crisis in all the Bible. Adam and Eve, the first human couple, have disobeyed the Lord, and this sin has led to a series of pronouncements from God given to Adam, to Eve, and to the serpent who tempted them in the Garden. The message for the serpent is a curse, demoting his to the status of the hated snake from then on. The Lord ends his curse with this prophetic word:

And I will put enmity
between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.
(Genesis 3:15)

The great drama of human history is foretold in these words. Humanity is caught in the primeval and modern triangle. In one corner is God, the Father who loves his children but wants them to love him and obey him in return. In a second corner is the serpent, Satan himself, who tempts God’s children with the allures of sin and disobedience. In the third corner is the human race, unfaithful and needing help to resist Satan’s enticements and be restored to God.

The protoevangelium addresses this dilemma. It recognizes that the generations of people coming from Eve will hate and fear the tempter, even while falling for his lies. But the text promises a deliverer, a descendant of the woman who would deliver a mortal blow to the serpent while suffering a wound in the process.

We see this as looking forward to Jesus’ death and resurrection more than his birth, but the text reminds us that God’s intention from the earliest pronouncement was to provide a human savior. Not an angel. Not a demi-god. Not a specially created being. A human being who was born like any other man and grew from a baby to be a man. He had to be human so that he could die and then be resurrected from the dead. This crushed Satan’s power forever. At Christmas, we celebrate the first stage of this journey, the Savior of the World, destined for greatness, and born in Bethlehem to a loving mother and father in unimaginably humble circumstances. As Emily Elliot wrote:

Heaven’s arches rang when the angels sang,
Proclaiming Thy royal degree;
But of lowly birth didst Thou come to earth,
And in great humility.

This is the story of the baby of Bethlehem, the focus of Christmas who was to become the hero of humanity. May we marvel at the centuries of preparation for his coming, and the centuries of blessings we have enjoyed since his birth. May we pray the last two lines of Emily Elliot’s verse:

O come to my heart, Lord Jesus,
There is room in my heart for Thee.

Mark S. Krause
Nebraska Christian College