Monthly Archives: December 2020

When Jesus Reached My Heart with His Birth

My wife and I grew up in Herbert Armstrong’s Worldwide Church of God (WCG) for nearly 30 years. I am 55 years old now. WCG considered itself “God’s one true church” (for a great message about how to avoid the arrogance of claiming exclusivity by balancing those claims like Jesus did with grace, love, and mercy, click the link to hear Christian apologist, Michael Ramsden). I met my wife in 1983 at WCG’s Ambassador College in Pasadena, CA.

Ambassador Auditorium and Ambassador College Campus, Pasadena, CA

WCG leadership changed between 1986 and into the mid-1990’s. New leadership had asked area Christian leaders why WCG was considered by some Christians to be a cult. Their answers resulted in significant and dramatic WCG doctrinal changes in the early-to-mid-1990’s.

During the mid-1990’s, my wife and I’s lives were in an upheaval. Seven people we knew had died in an 18-month period, and we almost lost one of our twin daughters, Brittany. Many theological questions and much searching to see where God was, resulted in what I realized later was the empty, broken place I had heard in Christian testimonies. John MacArthur’s and Greg Laurie’s ministries on WMIT in Black Mountain, NC really helped us discover the truth of God’s word during that turbulent time. Because WCG considered itself the exclusive church with God’s truth, I discovered that the foundation of my faith was in a set of religious beliefs rather than fully resting in Jesus Christ.

WCG adamantly taught that Christmas and Easter were pagan holidays not to be observed by true Christians. To do so was considered mixing pagan worship with worship of God, and therefore sin (a bit about that later). Too many WCG families allowed those beliefs to tear Christian families and friends apart during WCG’s history. WCG observed God’s annual holy days in Leviticus 23, including the 8-day Feast of Tabernacles.

After exiting WCG, my wife and I saw things very differently about Christmas. My wife wanted to run as far away from the legalism in WCG and yet I did not want to put up a Christmas tree in our house. I knew the passages about the golden calf (Exodus 32), the Gentile Christmas tree (Jeremiah 10:1-5), and the warning of mixing of paganism into the worship of God (2 Kings 17). My mother-in-law visited during this time and warned me that leaving WCG would mean we would soon be putting up a Christmas tree. I adamantly disagreed. I was not going to put up a pagan Christmas tree. That much, I knew WCG had right.

In 1995 we were blessed with twin girls and in 1999, a son. Eventually with the children, there was inevitable conflict in our house every December. I am thankful that it was my wife who finally decided to turn me over to the Lord with the issue of Christmas and yield in submission with humility as 1 Peter 3 describes.

Isaiah 55:12-13

Through this time, God was calling us to serve in overseas missions. In early 2013, my sister, D’Etta, called me excitedly and said that she had been reading Isaiah 55 and she felt strongly that we would be leaving for the mission field with great joy. She was so impacted by this insight, I noted what she said and recorded the passage (in the picture to the left) and her comments in my journal.

That year there was no significant joy. We moved our family to Uganda that year, but often while there, God seemed silent, distant, and Michelle and I continued to experience conflict and argue. We returned to America in mid-2014 due to lack of funding. The Isaiah 55 Scripture passage had long left my memory.

In 2015 we sold our house, Michelle and I went into marriage counseling due to conflict, and our daughter, Alexis, got married. As we waited for God to move, in November 2016 I happened across Isaiah 55 and began studying the part about the word of God going throughout the earth like rain producing seed and bread. A phrase caught my attention, “all the trees of the field” are clapping their hands (55:12). What did that mean? The context speaks of the Creator’s magnificent power and work, which are much higher than the understanding and work of men. That power and work results in the creation glorifying and praising God, just as the shepherds went away from meeting the Christ child in Luke 2:20 glorifying and praising God (but I’m getting ahead of myself).

The two trees mentioned there (Isaiah 55:13), the myrtle and the cypress (or juniper) replace the thorn and the brier. As I studied this passage in depth, I discovered the myrtle tree, a fragrant deciduous tree, was used in worship by Israel at the Feast of Tabernacles (an 8-day joyous feast of celebration, Nehemiah 8:15). The cypress is an evergreen fir tree used by Gentiles in pagan worship, but Gentile worship when converted in the New Testament turns to love, serve, obey, and worship the one true God and away from idolatry (Acts 28:28; 1 Corinthians 10:31). It dawned on me that the Gentiles (a few centuries after Jesus was resurrected) began using the evergreen tree for celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ! When coming to faith in Jesus Christ, Gentiles stopped worshiping the creation and began worshiping the Creator. Certainly these Gentiles used trees in their worship of Jesus just as Israel had done at the Feast of Tabernacles. For them, Jesus was very much like the evergreen tree (Hosea 14:8). This passage in Isaiah 55:12-13 was prophetic: one tree represents the Jews (the myrtle, Neh. 8:15); and the other tree the Gentiles (the evergreen fir, Hosea 14:8) as a prophecy of the coming unity in the new covenant of Jew and Gentile under the Lordship of Jesus Christ (Ephesians 2:14). The glory then goes to the LORD for a name (Psalm 96:12; Isa. 55:13). Wow!

My Girls in Front of Our Christmas Tree 2016

After this insight around Thanksgiving in November, I agreed to put up a Christmas tree in our house. What happened after that yielding was incredible. I caught a deeper glimpse of the gospel. Every Christmas song I heard in December that year which spoke of the coming of Christ as a baby, literally brought me to tears – sometimes sobbing with amazement that a holy God would enter a sinful world so that sinners could have light and life with Him forever. Jesus came for pagan Gentiles in their sin.

After 30 years of legalism, I certainly understand Christians are to repent of sin and not stay in it. Yet now I see this issue as one of Christian freedom and conscience (Col. 2:16-17). God’s holiness hates paganism and false idolatrous worship. God’s amazing love in Christ pleases Him to bruise Him for our sake that we may be sons of the living God. I hope and trust I will never get over that love and His mercy. For mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13). There was great healing and finally *PEACE* in our family as we together worshipped Jesus’ coming to save the world.

But God was not finished. In the summer of 2017, I planned to go with our youth to a Christian summer camp. We were to leave for the beach on an early Monday morning in July. The preceding Sunday our pastor gave a sermon on Psalm 90. He said that this psalm was always read by the Jews the night before the Feast of Tabernacles started – a feast where celebration and rejoicing was commanded. It is a psalm of repentance, God’s presence, God’s sovereignty and ending with joy and His beauty. The sermon impacted me greatly.

Driving to Youth Summer Camp

On the next day, we left for the beach with the youth. As we made the 5-hour drive, I began to talk to our pastor’s wife and a mutual friend in the van about our history in WCG and observing the Feast of Tabernacles for more than 25 years. We talked about how I finally put up a Christmas tree the previous December in 2016. When we arrived at the youth camp, the camp opened that evening at 7 PM to my shock and surprise with Christmas carols in July! Their theme that year (in the summer) was the coming of Jesus Christ. Seven Christmas trees lined the stage! As we sang Christmas carols in July, those leading the singing on stage asked everyone to raise their hands in clapping, joyful singing, and shouts of praise to God. No one in the auditorium but the two people in the van with me knew what God was doing.

The Crown of Thorns which was twisted by Roman soldiers (John 19: 2) and placed on His head as a mockery, Christians recognize as His glory as the Son of Man and Son of God. The thorns represent the result of humanity’s work (Gen. 3:18), which brought pain, suffering, and killed Him. The thorns were twisted just as humanity’s perverse ways are (Deut. 32:5; Prov. 2:15). Jesus was then nailed to a tree to die. What men meant for death, actually like a seed (Isa. 55:11) produced living trees (both Jew and Gentile) united under Him for His praise and glory.

I broke into tears of joy as I realized this was the fulfillment of the Scripture in Isaiah 55:12-13 my sister, D’Etta, had shared in 2013. As we saw in yesterday’s post, the Bible uses trees as a symbol of people. Because of the cross (a tree, 1 Peter 2:24 ESV) we were leaving for the mission field in Uganda in September with peace in our marriage and “trees” (the people) on stage were rejoicing and clapping their hands before the LORD. We truly went out with peace and joy. The thorn and brier (Genesis 3:18, the thorn and brier are symbolic of what the work and toil of humanity produces; that is, personal and relational pain and suffering by symbolically cutting and drawing blood because those thorns are a result of humanity’s carnal sin nature) in Isaiah 55 are being replaced with trees of worship (blown by the winds of the Spirit). Jesus used the metaphor of wheat in John 12, but a tree metaphor is similar, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24). He dies by bearing the sin and “work of men” and the result is life and reproduction. “And it SHALL be to the LORD for a name, for an everlasting sign that shall not be cut off” (Isa. 55:13).

One final note. Today, some people argue that observance of Christmas is not commanded in the Bible. That is true. I just want to leave you with this: the shepherds received no command of God in the story to go see the Christ-child. They simply received a “good news” (a spiritual insight about Jesus’ birth) invitation which was joyous. And because of the invitation and revelation (insight) about Jesus, they decide to go see Jesus (2:15). The great joy is brighter than the duty of a commandment. God does not force people to come to Him for salvation or to worship. Motivation from an invitation and revelation of good news is greater than motivation by duty (Luke 17:5-10). It is always your choice.

What was the result of receiving the good news and making the decision to spend time with Jesus? “Glorifying and praising God” (Luke 2:1-20). That is what happens when a poor person meets the living Jesus Christ. They know they are now rich beyond measure. Their life has radically changed (2 Cor 5:17). This is where the gospel has impact in a sinful, pagan, and worldly setting. When followers and believers in Jesus Christ announce the “good news” (gospel) like the angels did, those with a right heart will respond and glorify the One, true God. All these days – whether Christmas, Easter, or the “appointed days” from Leviticus 23 – are not nearly as powerful as the proclaiming of the gospel of Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 2:2). When we yield and submit to the gospel, and learn that principle, there is great power to radically and fully change lives as God brings people to repentance. May we all continue to learn the depths of His love and motivation (this is what Paul prayed for the mature churches in Ephesus, Eph. 3:18-19).

So, my mother-in-law was right – we did eventually put up a Christmas tree. But, wow! What a journey Jesus took us through. My love for Him has deepened, and I would never have thought in 10,000 years that would have happened. “But God…” (Eph. 2:4)!!! This time of year listen for those stories (some people call them testimonies) which praise and glorify Jesus and God, not out of a sense of duty and cold observance like a slave or servant, but one out of simple love and joy for revelation of Jesus. That is what good news from God can do to a person – create a life story of radical change which results in glorifying and praising God for His work, His gifts and His love. Your choice.

Seek and pursue passionately for the peace and joy in the unity of the Holy Spirit under Jesus Christ. For that PEACE in Christ, for that JOY and celebration, I thank God for sending His one and only Son in humility as a baby born to grow, take on our sin, die, and be resurrected for our salvation – all unearned! Wow! My heart is drawn more to Him and His love for Gentile pagans like myself. I cannot wait to see Him and worship Him face-to-face.

Merry Christmas!

Biblical Worship Includes Trees for Both Israel & Gentiles

Tree of Life

Through our series this week, we have seen some pagan and sinful things. No doubt, when God became flesh, He often taught in figures of speech (John 16:25). One of those methods was parables, which we saw in a previous post. Jesus did this so much that the disciples seem to become a bit frustrated with Him and asked Him to speak plainly (John 16:29).

While the Bible is filled with real, literal stories, it is also full of beautiful and perfect symbolism. One of those symbols threaded throughout God’s word is the tree. Consider:

Genesis begins with two trees (Gen. 2:9):

1. The tree of life;

2. The tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

Revelation closes the Bible with the tree of life bearing 12 fruits in the new earth (Rev. 22:2).

Biblical trees symbolize humanity

1. The righteous

  • A. As trees planted by the riverside (Psm. 1); and
  • B. As trees that bear fruit (Matt. 7:16-20)

2. Israel as a cultivated olive tree (Rom. 11:17-20)

3. Gentiles

  • A. As a wild olive tree (Rom. 11:17)
  • B. Evergreen trees (Psm. 37:35)

Amid the biblical story is the greatest tree – the centrality of the rugged tree to which our Savior was nailed (1 Pet. 2:24).

Trees of celebration and worship

LuLav Branches Consisting of Four Species: Myrtle, Willow, Date Palm, and Citron (Leviticus 23:40)

1. Israel was commanded to rejoice for 8 days at the Feast of Tabernacles and use boughs of various trees in their worship! (Lev. 23:40). These boughs are known as “LuLav” branches (pictured below) and were waved during the reading of the Hallel (Psm. 113-118) at the Feast of Tabernacles.

2. Gentiles used evergreen trees in their pagan worship (Jer. 10:1-5; 17:2).

So, what do evergreen trees have to do with Jesus Christ in worship? The somewhat surprising answer is found in that prophet’s writings who married a prostitute, Hosea. Surely, God’s people would have condemned such a marriage of a prophet of God. Yet God commanded Hosea to marry a prostitute.

In Hosea’s incredible oracles we find that God turns away from Israel because of their incessant prostitution. He promises sovereignly and insistently to cause *all* of Israel’s joy (mirth) to cease, as well as all of Israel’s appointed feasts and sabbaths” to cease (Hos. 2:11). Appointed feasts (God’s commanded set times) were called both “His feasts” (Lev. 23) and “your feasts” or “your appointed feasts” (Num. 10:10; 15:3; 29:39; Hos. 9:5; Amos 5:21; 8:10; Nah. 1:15; Mal. 2:3) and John called these feasts, “Jewish” (John 5:1; 6:4; 19:42). These appointed and commanded feasts cease while God turns to the pagan Gentiles.

An Artist’s Rendering of Hosea Buying Back His Wife, the Prostitute Gomer

The eleven disciples were joyfully commissioned (Matt. 28:19-20; Luke 24:46-49) to take the gospel message to the world (Acts 1:8), which eventually became the work and ministry of Gentile believers because of Jewish confusion, arguing and rejection (Acts 28:23-29).

And as a prophetic sign and symbol of that truth of God’s people welcoming the entire world into the presence of God, Solomon’s second temple was constructed with cypress (evergreen) doors (1 Kings 6:34) a symbol of the Gentile believers, with olive wood as the posts, like a tree (1 Kings 6:33; Rom. 11:17)! In fact, Solomon hired Hiram, king of Tyre, who was mixed race (mother from the tribe of Naphtali and father a Gentile man of Tyre – 1 Kings 7:14) to construct the temple (1 Kings 5:1-8).

These “appointed feasts and Sabbaths” would “cease” or “be forgotten” in Zion, i.e., “the church” (Lamentations 2:6) since Israel had prostituted herself to the nations (Isa. 1:13-14). Now, with the coming of Jesus, God would turn away from a command-motivation (duty) and move to the heart-motivation (love and joy).

Hosea describes this incredible love like a marriage, not commandment-keeping, “And it shall be, in that day, says the LORD, That you will call Me, My Husband, And no longer call Me, My Master” (Hos. 2:16). Hosea continues, “For I (God) will take from her (His bride’s) mouth the names of the Baals…I will betroth you to Me forever in righteousness and justice, in lovingkindness and mercy; I will betroth you to Me in faithfulness” (Hos. 2:17, 19-20) because from their hearts Jesus will come from their lips and mouths.

God will do this! This is why if you believe the celebrating or not celebrating of Christmas entitles or earns you salvation, you have missed the message of the gospel. God performs heart surgery on those who search for Him, find Him and believe in Him. As a result, He accomplishes their salvation. This is why Christians refer people to Christ and the gospel (the power and wisdom of God, 1 Cor. 1:24) rather than to the 10 commandments, Sabbath, or the Bible’s appointed holy days. Notice how Paul does this in his biblical letters. He normally emphasizes Jesus Christ first and foremost, and then by the end of his letter calls people in that power to obedience.

In God’s beautiful story of grace, God turns to the Gentiles as He promised He would (Psm. 9:9-10; 86:9-10; 138:4-5; Jer. 16:19; 23:20; Heb. 1:2; Mal. 1:11) and seems to hint at a promise that He will revive Israel again in the future and possibly with God’s original feasts (Rom. 11: Zech. 12:10; 14:16). But Jesus tells His people, He is like “the green cypress” (an evergreen) tree (Hosea 14:8).

Shepherds in the field at night are visited by an angel proclaiming “good news” of great joy.

Just as Luke 2 describes, when the shepherds on that night were met by an angel proclaiming good news (gospel) of joy of the birth of Jesus, the shepherds were not commanded to go to Jesus. The communication of good news was simply proclaimed, and they in turn chose to go find Jesus. Similarly today, Christmas is not commanded. It is a story with an invitation, like a parable. The true story of Jesus’ birth contains a jewel, a nugget, a treasure that is more valuable than the entire temporary world. The Christmas story is one of a relational, resurrected and undying connection between a holy and righteous God (who has nothing to do with pagans, sin, Gentiles or any unholy people), yet in the midst of our deep darkness, spiritual death, selfish, idolatrous, pagan, sinful hearts God’s Light and Life of the world comes to rescue, secure, and save those in need. And those who go to Him receive life, healing, light, and radical change. They cannot help but speak and tell of Jesus, proclaiming the good news of His coming to rescue sinners.

This is the message of Christmas, which is the New Testament gospel message in the form of a true story, except the date of Jesus’ birth as no one knows exactly what day or date Jesus was born. There is nothing wrong with using fictional elements of a story to get a point across, especially when the celebration is not commanded. The gospel is that pagans and sinners are turned by the power of God’s grace in Jesus Christ into righteous saints who will live and abide forever in the Son of God. Humbled by the imputed righteousness of Jesus Christ, they seek to live for Him and serve Him in great joy by His strength and motivation.

Merry Christmas! Praise to Jesus Christ throughout the entire world! May He be your joy and reason you worship the One true God in Him and in His name.