We come now to the main point of all the stories we have been telling, that is to say, we have come to the story of the Lord Jesus. This is a very difficult story to tell, for at least two reasons. First, no storyteller or preacher is really sufficient for the task. The apostle John once said that the world itself could not contain the books that could be written about this Man, and for the last two thousand years men have been writing books about Him, and all these books have only served to reinforce John’s point.
In telling stories about Bible characters, it is important to note that Jesus is not just another character in a line of other characters. And yet the limited capacity of the storyteller can too readily create that impression. The apostle Paul once lamented, "Who is sufficient for these things?" and it was just this sort of thing that provoked the cry. And he was an apostle. No one should think that because the story of Jesus is being told by the same man who told the story of Moses, or Noah, or Jeremiah, that it is the same kind of story. It cannot be. The same finger can point at the sun, the moon, and the stars, and we should never be distracted by the finger. In our line of stories, we have now come to the time when we point to the sun.
But there is a second consideration as well. Even though the Lord Jesus is the ultimate point of all the stories, there are some other stories that follow this one. Every good story in the history of the world that was ever told was somehow an intimation, foreshadowing, prophecy, or echo of this story. And every evil story has been a rebellious attempt to distract attention away from this one, or somehow to shout it down. So the fact that other stories follow this central story should not be taken as an indication that we can ever move on to other things. Stories that follow after this story are also the work of God, but handled wrongly, they too can create a false impression. We can never really move past this. We may apply it, and we may apply it in many different ways, and in countless wonderful stories. But if we are wise, they will all be applications. The testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy, and it is our responsibility here in telling this story, and in hearing it, to be faithful sons and daughters of the prophets.
The Lord Jesus was born in the line of the tribe of Judah—the royal tribe of all Israel. Jacob had prophesied many years before that the scepter would not depart from Judah before Shiloh came.
Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise: thy hand shall be in the neck of thine enemies; thy father’s children shall bow down before thee. Judah is a lion’s whelp: from the prey, my son, thou art gone up: he stooped down, he couched as a lion, and as an old lion; who shall rouse him up? The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor a lawgiver from between his feet, until Shiloh come; and unto him shall the gathering of the people be. Binding his foal unto the vine, and his ass’s colt unto the choice vine; he washed his garments in wine, and his clothes in the blood of grapes: His eyes shall be red with wine, and his teeth white with milk (Gen. 49:8-12).
The line of David had descended from Judah, in accordance with this word, and even though the lineage of David was not sitting on the throne of David in the time of the Romans, the royal line was still identifiable, and Joseph, betrothed to a young woman named Miriam (we call her Mary), was of that line.
We must confront the identity of the Lord Jesus at the very first, even to talk about His genealogy. He was the complete man, but at the same time, He was and is fully and completely God. So in his human nature, he was descended from the house of David (Rom. 1:3) His natural father was David, reckoned through his mother Mary. His legal father was David also, reckoned through Joseph. His Father was God the Father, through the power of the Holy Spirit (Rom. 1:4). He was called the son of God because Mary became pregnant without ever knowing a man. The Holy Spirit came over her, and she conceived in her virginity, and remained a virgin until after the Lord was born.
Luke visited Jerusalem with the apostle Paul in A.D. 56 or 57, and he probably obtained many of the details that he records in his gospel from Mary herself. His narration of the early events of Jesus’ life is certainly told from her perspective. We know that Mary lived past the death of Jesus, and if she was the average age of young women of that day who married (about 14), this meant that Luke could easily have visited with her when she was in her seventies.
Luke made a point of saying that he had gathered his details of the life of Jesus from consulting with eyewitnesses. Who was an eyewitness of what the shepherds did on the night of the Lord’s birth, if not Mary? Luke most likely knew that Mary treasured all these things up in her heart (Luke 2:19) because that is what Mary told him.
Now Jesus was born in Bethlehem in order to fulfill the prophecies made concerning Him (Mic. 5:2). Not only was the Messiah to have been born in Bethlehem, this prophetic word made it clear that the one to be born was an eternal one—his goings forth were from all eternity. This Bethlehem was the city of David, and David’s descendents returned there in response to an imperial order given by a pagan emperor, and he did what he did in order to fulfill the words of the prophet. The important men who believe they run the world never actually do run the world. The mighty overlook many little things, and in overlooking them, they overlook the obvious.
The shepherds came to adore Christ on the night of His birth. Although our Christmas cards sometimes teach us that the magi came on the same night, this is not the case. The magi from the east actually came sometime within two years after His birth. By the time they had arrived, Joseph and Mary had found a house in Bethlehem to live in, and were not in the unsettled circumstances they were in the night Jesus was born. We do not really know that there were three magi, but this has often been guessed from the three kinds of gift—the gold, the frankincense, and the myrrh.
The magi were pagan astrologers of some sort, and were probably informed not only by the star that had appeared to them, but also by Balaam’s prophecy that a star would arise in Jacob, and that a scepter would come from Israel. Balaam was not a Hebrew prophet, and it is quite possible that his words were kept and recorded outside of Israel. In any case, the magi were not led astray by what they saw, and they consulted with King Herod upon their arrival in Judea. He was suspicious of this auspicious birth, as evil kings always are. He lied to the magi in order to find out more, but they were warned in a dream to return home by another route.
In response to this, Herod ordered the execution of all boys two years old and under who lived in the area of Bethlehem. We too often forget that this great wickedness is just as much a part of the Christmas story as the others parts of the story we tell, and it underlines, in a gruesome way, our need for a Savior and Messiah. In order to escape the evil and murderous order of Herod the Great (who died in 4 B.C.), Joseph led his small family to seek Egypt as a refuge. Because Herod ordered the death of boys two years old and under, it is likely that Jesus was born somewhere between 6 and 4 B.C.
After the death of Herod, when the Son of God, the new Israel, was brought up out of Egypt, Joseph decided to settle in Nazareth, a city of Galilee—instead of in Bethlehem, the city of Christ's birth in Judah. This was to fulfill the word of the prophet Hosea—when Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my Son. God had done this in a type when Israel was delivered under the leadership of Moses, but He was now doing it forever in the person of the Lord Jesus. Jesus came up out of Egypt, because Jesus was the new Israel.
When Jesus was twelve-years-old, He was left behind in Jerusalem once after His family had gone there to worship. He was eventually found in His Father’s house, discussing theology with the scribes. Jesus grew up under the grace of God in a normal way, but He clearly had some intimations of who he was (Luke 2:40, 49). He grew up in the grace of God, not because He had sinned and required forgiveness, but rather because grace means favor. When favor is shown to a sinner, this means forgiveness. But favor can be extended beyond the boundaries of forgiveness. The grace of God rested upon Jesus as He grew up in wisdom.
Now this raises a question about the consciousness of the boy Jesus. He clearly knew He had a special relationship to His Father, and He spoke of it to His parents, but the Scriptures also tell us that Jesus learned things; He grew in wisdom and in stature, it says. Later, we are told that He learned obedience through the things that He suffered. We should not think of the Incarnation as though Jesus had two compartments in His mind, as though when lying in the manger as a baby, He was thinking in one compartment, "Well, thirty years to go," while in the other compartment He was thinking that He wanted some milk. This kind of schizophrenia is not what the Incarnation accomplished. Of course, Jesus remained fully God in the Incarnation, and, as such, He possessed attributes of Deity, such as omniscience. But in possessing these attributes, there is some sense in which He did not avail Himself of them, in order to be able to grow in grace and wisdom. This is why it is likely that Jesus discovered, fully, His own identity when His Father declared from the heavens that He was His Son, and He was well-pleased with His Son. This was declared by God from heaven, and this was the point of the temptation that immediately followed. "If you are the Son of God . . ."
But Jesus had to know growing up that He was in a special relation to God. He mentions this to His parents after the incident where His parents misplaced Him, and His father and mother of course knew of the virgin birth. And, as they watched Him grow up, sinlessness is difficult to miss.
This incident when Jesus was left behind is the last we hear of Joseph, so we do not know when Joseph died. Jesus had numerous brothers and sister, and Jesus was trained as a carpenter (Mk. 6:3), so we may assume that Joseph was around long enough at least to see Jesus almost grown.
We are told that Jesus began His ministry when he was about thirty years old (Luke 3:23). Given the time of His birth, this meant His ministry most likely started around 27 A.D. We also know that His ministry was roughly three years in length because it extended over three separate Passovers (not counting the Passover that was being observed at the time of His death). One reasonable reconstruction would mark the beginning of His ministry around December of 26 A.D., ending with His execution and resurrection around March/April 30 A.D. The dates of course, are not absolutely certain, but if we believe the details given in the Bible, we do know a good deal about the life of Jesus Christ.
From the beginning, the ministry of Jesus consisted of identification with sinners. This is why the Incarnation occurred in the first place, and His formal ministry began with Him receiving the baptism of John—which was, you recall, a baptism of repentance. So Jesus began His public ministry by repenting, a fact that brought John the Baptist into a state of no small consternation. As the perfect one, Jesus was the only one who could repent perfectly. Of course, this also meant that He did not need to repent, but Jesus lived His life as a second Adam—one whose obedience or disobedience was to be reckoned to His people. And in this repentance, He was Israel, repenting on our behalf.
So He began His public ministry by repenting in the Jordan River. Have you ever felt that your repentance was completely inadequate? That is why Jesus repented for you. He began His ministry of representing you by coming to John and requesting baptism. He ended this ministry of identification with sinners in His death and resurrection. The baptism of Jesus and the death and resurrection of Jesus are the two bookends of His ministry that contain the story of your salvation, as well as the reality of it.
In His baptism, the Father declares His identity. The Son is baptized. The Spirit descended upon the Lord in bodily form, like a dove. Right after His baptism, the Lord Jesus was driven by the Spirit into the wilderness in order to be tempted by the devil. He had come up out of Egypt, just as Israel had come up out of Egypt. He spent forty days in the wilderness, just as Israel spent forty years in the wilderness. He confronted temptation in the wilderness, just as Israel had, but there was a great difference in that Israel fell and the Lord Jesus stood.
The first Adam fell in his temptation, although he lived in idyllic conditions. The second Adam was fiercely tempted, in a wilderness, and yet stood. And this is why our first garden became a wilderness, and then, in the grace of God, our wilderness became a garden.
Israel spent forty years in the wilderness in preparation for the invasion of Canaan. Jesus spent forty days in the wilderness in preparation for His "invasion" of Canaan, an invasion which we see in His public preaching, teaching, and casting out of demons. Jesus (or to use the Old Testament form of His name, Joshua) came into the land to bring it into submission to the Word of God.
Think of the ministry of Christ in broad terms. At the time of Jesus, the Jews lived in two sections of Palestine. The first was Judea to the south, where Jerusalem is. Just to the north of Judea was Samaria, a region populated by half-breed (and thoroughly-despised) Jews. To the north of Samaria was Galilee. The whole region, from north to south, is about 80 miles long, or about the distance between Moscow and Spokane.
In the year 27, we find His early Judean ministry, His ministry in the south. During this time, He was tempted (Matt. 4), changed water to wine (John 2:1-12), cleansed the Temple (John 2:13-25), had His famous conversation with Nicodemus (John 3), and so on.
He then moved north to Galilee for all of 28 A.D. and the first part of 29. There was a brief visit down to Jerusalem for Passover, which was one of the three festivals of obligation. But during this time He was rejected at Nazareth (His home town), and spent most of the time ministering out of Capernaum.
The third phase of His ministry was committed to a special focus on training the disciples in isolated places, still in the north. This time included the Transfiguration. Jesus was spending a good deal of time with His disciples, instilling in them the word fulfilled.
The fourth phase was His later Judean ministry, culminating in His betrayal and death. When Jesus set Himself to go down to Judea again, His disciples knew what was coming. Jesus had told them over and again that He was going to be rejected by the chief priests and the scribes, and that He was going to be crucified, and that He was going to return on the third day. His disciples heard these words, but must have thought they had some deep spiritual meaning. They had a number of disconnected aspects of this in their minds, but they had not put it all together. But Jesus meant just what He said. He was going to be murdered, and He was going to conquer that death, that murder, after the fact. And in conquering that particular sin, He conquered all sin, giving His life as a ransom for many.
So the Lord Jesus set His face to go to Jerusalem, knowing what awaited Him there. He was betrayed by one of the twelve—the treasurer, as it turns out. We know that Judas Iscariot was morally compromised before his great treachery, but we do not know if his betrayal was fundamentally motivated by money, although John tells us that he was a thief. He certainly took money for the betrayal, but there may have been other forces at work as well.
The disciples had the best of intentions. Jesus had predicted that Peter would fall away, and Peter hotly denied it. He said that if everyone fell away, he would not. The other disciples, of course, said much the same thing. Jesus, knowing that they would fail like this, loved them nonetheless. He longed to observe the Passover meal with them, which He made sure they arranged for. In the context of this meal, with Jesus fully aware of the doom hanging above Him, saw and heard the disciples begin to bicker (again) about their relative importance. And so Jesus, in that setting, got a bowl of water, and washed His disciples feet. Apparently, no lesson is harder to learn than this one. The first will be last, and the last will be first. It is the fundamental lesson, and here, on the eve of Christ’s death, they are still struggling with it.
Afterwards, they went out to the Garden, where Jesus was eventually going to be arrested. He went apart from His disciples to pray, and they, oblivious to their circumstance, could not keep watch with Him in prayer. They kept falling asleep, but Jesus could feel the weight of all the sin of all His people beginning to settle upon Him. He begged the Father to have this cup pass from Him. Put another way, at this particular moment, He did not want to die for you, and He did not want to die for me. His emotions were elsewhere, and He wanted to have God figure out another way of accomplishing His purpose. He was in agony over this, in such agony that He sweat blood. But showing that His love and obedience were just what they ought to have been, His petitions were under girded with this: "Nevertheless, not My will, but Thine, be done."
The time ordained before all worlds arrived, and the inexorable chain of events began to unfold. We know that God ordains all things, but in the events of these dreadful hours the foreordination of all things is set in high relief; we cannot miss them. All things unfold according to the will and word of God, down to the behavior of chickens, godless soldiers gambling, envious priests, cowardly disciples, a remorseful traitor, and a boisterous crowd threatening to riot. All of it was in the palm of the hand of God, and this is what Jesus submitted to in the Garden. It was the will of God over all, but underneath that will was the pandemonium of the conflicting and tortured wills of Pilate, and Judas, and Caiphas, and Peter, and all the others. God’s will does not annihilate other wills, and God’s will does not crush other wills. But God’s will most certainly rules all things, and if we cannot see this in the event of our Lord’s Passion, we will never see it anywhere.
The other disciples were scattered (with the apparent exception of John), and Christ died abandoned by His followers. But the worst of it was that He was deserted (in some mysterious way) by His God. His cry of desperation from the cross is still to "My God," and He quoting the Scriptures, but He cries out forsaken.
But He did this for the joy that was set before Him—He knew that death would be unable to hold Him, and so He endured the cross, despising the shame. He went to His death knowing that the God who had abandoned Him would vindicate Him shortly, justifying Him before all the world. He would be declared, with power, to be the Son of God, by His resurrection from the dead. And on the third day after He died, just as He had said, in accordance with the prophetic words of the prophet Jonah, He rose triumphant from the grave. His body had not suffered corruption, and He was not abandoned to Hades.
There was a great earthquake and the stone rolled away from the tomb. The soldiers who had been placed there on guard were the first to know what had happened, and the chief priests who had killed Jesus were the second group of people to find out. But instead of repenting, they hardened themselves. Just like Herod at the beginning of the Lord’s life, instead of submitting to the will and purpose of God, surrendering everything, they grasped instead at their own way. The mystery of lawlessness is indeed great.
And yet the power of the resurrection is greater still. All our sins, compared the power of the death and resurrection, are like a small burning ember or coal thrown into the middle of an infinite ocean of grace. Because Jesus rose from the dead, we are here today to hear this story be told about Him. And we do more than just hear the story of Him, we are gathered here in His name, in His authority, in His power, in his goodness, to worship Him, and to approach the Father while doing so, in the power of the Holy Spirit.