Selected highlights from this sermon.
Jesus didn’t just pop into existence at Bethlehem, He’d been at work throughout history. We see Him throughout the Old Testament as “The Angel of the Lord.” We also see Him staying Abraham’s hand from slaying Isaac and speaking with Moses from the burning bush.
Even though He was interceding and comforting God’s people, the business of redemption required more from Jesus. He had to come to Earth as a man and shed His own blood for our sins. Only He who came in flesh could pay the price for us.
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At Christmastime it’s understandable that we focus on the birth of Christ. We talk about Bethlehem. We talk about the manger, shepherds and the wise men. But one of the things we sometimes do not do often enough is think of what Jesus was doing before Bethlehem.
Many years ago when our oldest daughter was a child, she asked me this question. You know, children ask the most difficult questions, and I think that the average child asks one-half million questions by the age of seven. I think our oldest daughter hit that at the age of five. But one of the questions she asked was, “Who was looking after the world when God was a baby?” Well you know the answer to that question is that Christ was looking after the world when He was a baby, because when Simeon took the baby Jesus in his arms, there was more to that baby than the human eye could see. That baby had a divine nature and was running the world, thank you, because He was God and continued to be God even as an infant.
Of all of us it can be said that our existence began really at our conception and our birth. Potentially we existed hundreds of years ago in the sense that we were in our parents and our grandparents, but Jesus had actual existence before Bethlehem. You say, “Well, what was He doing?” Well, He was running the world. He had created it, the Bible says, so He was running it. He was sustaining the world, and He was interacting with human beings, and He was connecting God the Father with the human beings on this planet. That’s what He was doing. He was doing many of the same things that He still does today.
Did you realize that in the Old Testament whenever you have the expression the Angel of the Lord, it’s a reference to Christ, the second person of the Trinity? Now perhaps you didn’t realize that before, and because you are good Bereans (You know the Bible says that the people of Berea always checked out everything that was said. They searched the Scriptures to see whether these things are so.), you have your Bibles today, both Old and New Testaments, so you can check me out to see whether or not I am wrong. I hope you do that every Sunday.
What I’d like to do is to turn to two passages of Scripture in the Old Testament to show first of all that the Angel of the Lord is God. We could turn to many, but I have chosen two.
Let’s begin with Genesis 22. God said, “Abraham, I want you to go on top of Mount Moriah and offer your son, Isaac, on one of the mountains that I will tell you about.” Genesis 22:9-13: “When they came to the place of which God had told him, Abraham built the altar there and laid the wood in order and bound Isaac his son and laid him on the altar, on top of the wood. Then Abraham reached out his hand and took the knife to slaughter his son. But the angel of the Lord called to him from heaven and said, ‘Abraham, Abraham!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’ He said, ‘Do not lay your hand on the boy or do anything to him, for now I know that you fear God, seeing you have not withheld your son, your only son, from me.’” Did you get that – the last part of verse 12?
Who is it that is speaking here? Who is the Angel of the Lord? The Angel of the Lord says, “Now I know that you fear God because you have not withheld your son from Me (namely from God).” Now if you are unconvinced, stay in the Old Testament and turn to Exodus 3, the very familiar passage of Moses who was called from the burning bush. It says in verses 2-4, “And the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of the midst of a bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning; yet it was not consumed. And Moses said, ‘I will turn aside to see this great sight, why the bush is not burned.’ When the Lord saw that he turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, ‘Moses, Moses!’ And he said, ‘Here I am.’”
The Angel of the Lord in verse 2 is God. And later on when the Lord reveals Himself to Moses He says in verse 14, “I am who I am.” And it is the Angel of the Lord who is claiming deity – claiming God.
Now there’s one other passage I want you to look at for this reason. If the Angel of the Lord is God, what makes us think that it must be the second member of the Trinity, namely Christ? Well, I want you to turn in your Bibles to the Old Testament book of Zechariah. In the first chapter of Zechariah there is a vision that the prophet is having, and the Angel of the Lord appears, and I want you to notice something very specifically in this passage. In Zechariah 1:12 it says, “The angel of the Lord said, ‘O Lord of hosts, how long will you have no mercy on Jerusalem and the cities of Judah, against which you have been angry these seventy years?’ And the Lord answered gracious and comforting words to the angel who talked with me.”
You say, “Well, what’s going on in the text here? The Angel of the Lord is interceding?” Follow carefully. The Angel of the Lord can be shown in the Old Testament to be nothing less than God. And yet we have passages of Scripture like this that show Him to be distinct from Jehovah, and you have the Angel of the Lord talking to Jehovah God. Then who could this be? Who is doing this intercession but the second person of the Trinity? And just like in the New Testament you have Jesus Christ talking to God the Father, in the same way in the Old Testament, Christ, who is the Angel of the Lord, is speaking to God the Father.
Now there’s other evidence for it in the third chapter of Zechariah. You have an amazing statement here about Joshua who was the high priest at this time, not to be confused with the Joshua in the book of Joshua many years earlier. But this is Joshua, the High Priest, and he’s standing before the Angel of the Lord. Satan is standing at his right hand to accuse him, and how Satan loves to stand at our right hand and accuse us. “And the Lord said to Satan (and this is now the angel speaking because it says the Angel of the Lord was there), ‘The Lord rebuke you, O Satan! The Lord who has chosen Jerusalem rebuke you! Is not this a brand plucked from the fire?’ Now Joshua was standing before the angel, clothed with filthy garments. And the angel said to those who were standing before him, ‘Remove the filthy garments from him.’ And to him he said, ‘Behold, I have taken your iniquity away from you, and I will clothe you with pure vestments.’”
Now the text is a little bit difficult to interpret, but the main idea here is that the Angel of the Lord is invoking the name of Jehovah to rebuke the sin and to rebuke Satan. Once again you have the Angel of the Lord being the Lord, and yet distinct from Jehovah. There’s only one explanation. It must be the second member of the Trinity. It must be Christ.
Interestingly, the Angel of the Lord never appears again in all the Scripture after the Incarnation. You find it only in the Old Testament. Now in the New Testament, as well as in the Old Testament, you have many references to “an” Angel of the Lord. The Bible says that “an” angel (the angel Gabriel) came to Mary, but that is “an” angel of the Lord. “The” Angel of the Lord is always a reference to the second person of the Trinity. It is a reference to Christ. Theologians call it a theophany, that is, a manifestation of God in the Old Testament.
As children we used to sometimes play the game I Spy. “I spy with my little eye something that begins with the letter “l,” we used to say. Well, in the Old Testament you have many “I spies.” You have God coming and speaking with men, and as far as we know, God the Father always remains invisible. God, the Holy Spirit, always remains invisible. It is God the Son communicating with people in the Old Testament.
Now with that as background, I might add that the word angel simply means messenger. And that’s why the Angel of the Lord can be spoken of as God the Son. But with that bit of background what I’d like to do is to very briefly give you five ministries that the Angel of the Lord did in the Old Testament that Christ still does today. Five ministries! And for these we will not turn to passages of Scripture. In some instances I may simply refer to some text that you can write down and look at later. But I want you to see the similarity between Christ in the Old Testament – the Angel of the Lord, and Christ in the New Testament after the Incarnation.
First of all, in the Old Testament as in the New, He revealed God. I’ve already given you Exodus 3:14 where the Lord is revealing Himself to Moses and says, “I am that I am,” says the Angel of the Lord.” Interestingly, in the New Testament, in John 8:58, when Jesus was being accused He said, “Before Abraham was I am.” And that’s why they took up stones then to stone Him because they knew that He had claimed to be God, Jehovah. The “I am” of the Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament is the “I am” of the Incarnate Christ in the New Testament. And may I add that if Jesus had not come to explain God, if there was no Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament, if there was no Christ Incarnate in the New Testament, we would have no idea as to what God is like. We would look at earthquakes and famines and hurricanes and tornadoes, and we would see the angry side of nature, and we’d never know that God was love. We would never know that we could be reconciled to God. All that we could do is grope in our blindness.
The Bible says in John 1 that Jesus Christ came to explain God. There’s much about God that we cannot understand, but how thankful we are for the Angel of the Lord of the Old Testament, and Christ in the New, who helps us understand that behind the apparent anger and indifference of God, there is a loving, caring face. Christ reveals God.
Secondly, He intercedes. If He is the revealer, He is also the intercessor. We read that passage from the third chapter of Zechariah where the Angel of the Lord is interceding on behalf of Joshua, the high priest. And you’ll notice that the problem there, as it is a problem today, is sin. The Bible says that Joshua was clothed with filthy garments, and the Lord says, “Take those filthy garments away, and give him beautiful clean festive robes.”
What does Jesus do for us today? He intercedes for us. The Bible says, “Who shall lay anything to the charge of God’s elect. It is God that justifies. Who is he that condemns? It is Christ that died, yeah rather, that is risen again, and is even now at the right hand of the throne of God who makes intercession for us.” And some of you feel today as if you are clothed with filthy garments. If we could look into your souls we would see the defilement of the flesh, the defilement of the spirit. We would see some of the things that are upon your conscience for which you think you cannot be forgiven. Well, I want you to know today that because of the intercessory work of Christ, your garments can be taken away and God can cleanse you and forgive you and purify you.
Yesterday it was my privilege to be here at the church with Women in the Working World. Talk about grace! Joe Carlson, who was running the PA system, and I, I think were the only men allowed in, but it was a wonderful program that illustrated the grace in the lives of five women mentioned in Jesus Christ’s genealogy. There were prostitutes, Gentiles, those who would not normally fit, and God says, “I love to save bad sinners who know how bad they are and who realize how desperately they need my grace.” And God is continually looking for people like that. Grace! He intercedes for us. He reveals the Father. He intercedes for His people. He comforts His people.
We won’t take time to turn to this but you can do this on your own this afternoon. You ought to sit down, if it’s been awhile, and read Genesis 16, which is the first time in all the Old Testament where the Angel of the Lord appears. Here is the story. There’s a woman by the name of Hagar who is living in the home of Abraham and Sarah. Sarah is barren and she can have no children, and yet God said, “Abraham, you are going to be the father of a multitude.” Can you imagine God named him Abraham, father of a multitude? As he’s taking his camels to drink, people say, “What is your name?” And he says, “My name is the father of a multitude.” Well, how many children do you have?” “None.” They probably said to him, “You have been misnamed. Get a different name.”
So one day Sarah says to Abraham, and this was custom in those days, “You know, I am not able to bear you children. Have children with my maid, with my servant, Hagar.” So Abraham accepted her suggestion and Hagar became pregnant and she bore a son named Ishmael, and the conflict in the home was actually overwhelming.
You know, there are people today who think that the blended family is a brand new 20th century phenomenon. Can you imagine in the Old Testament a man sometimes had several wives? Do you think that everything was sweetness and light and everybody loved one another, and they had no arguments and it was all just wonderful bliss from early morning to late at night? (chuckles) “Not!” as the saying goes.
So Hagar begins to despise Sarah. I am pregnant and you are not,” and that was a way of saying, “God has blessed me, and He has cursed you.” That’s the way childbearing was viewed in those days. Finally after having too many arguments, Sarah goes to Abraham and says, “What am I supposed to do with this woman?” And Abraham says, “Well, you can do with her as you will.” And so she says, “I’m kicking her out of the house.”
Here’s this lonely woman, kicked out of her house, alone, and she is going through the desert and she comes to a well, and the Bible says that the Angel of the Lord appeared to her. He said, “Hagar, don’t be discouraged. Let me comfort you. First of all, I want you to know that you should return to Sarah and submit to her and stop this arguing. Secondly, I want you to know that you are going to bear a child and I am going to bless him, too, and make him also a father of a multitude. And so she was encouraged and she said, “I’m going to call the place where I am at Beer-lahai-roi (which in Hebrew means, Thou, O Lord, seest me.)”
God saw this destitute disappointed rejected woman, and he sees you today in your apartment, which is far too small. And he sees you in the midst of a family with all of its struggles and will all of its hassles, and He has eyes that look into your room, and even into your ghetto, whatever that might be. And God sees you there. The Angel of the Lord in the Old Testament comforted those who were hurting.
And in the New Testament Jesus does the same thing. “Come unto Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.”
Jesus, Thou art all compassion,
Pure, unbounded love Thou art.
Visit us with Thy salvation,
Enter every trembling heart.
He comforts His people. He judges His people. This is 1 Chronicles 21. David committed a sin and the Angel of the Lord came to discipline him. It’s a story you can read.
And then, number five, He delivers His people. He is the deliverer. The Lord said to Moses, “I’m going to take you out of Egypt,” and He said, “I’m going to bring you into the Promised Land,” and Jesus is our deliverer today.
I know what you are thinking. You are saying, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, since the Angel of the Lord had so many ministries to His people in the Old Testament, why the Incarnation? Why didn’t the Angel of the Lord just keep on ministering to people, comforting them, interceding for them, revealing God to them, delivering them? Why Bethlehem? Why Christmas?” Well, here’s where the news becomes breathtaking. It’s because the Angel of the Lord could do many things but there were some things the Angel of the Lord could not do.
The Angel of the Lord could do some things only if the Angel of the Lord assumed human form and the Word would become flesh. For this I want you to turn to the book of Hebrews as I give you four or five ministries that Christ can have only as man, that He could have never had as the Angel of the Lord. And what a wonder the Incarnation is.
Number one, He could not be our Savior. He could deliver people from Egypt. He could do miracles. He could supply water. He could rain bread down from heaven. But God could not forgive our sins finally and eternally until God became one of us to become a sacrifice for us. It says in the book of Hebrews, chapter 1, verse 3 (and I’m beginning in the middle of the verse), “Jesus holds all things by the Word of His power, and after making purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”
You say, “Well, why couldn’t the Angel of the Lord just simply wipe out people’s sins? Why the need for the incarnation?” Well, because without the shedding of blood there is no remission of sins, and you could not take the Angel of the Lord and nail him to a cross, could you? Could you imagine taking the Angel of the Lord? And if you could nail Him to a cross, which, of course, is impossible, there would be no blood. So you see, there had to be someone who would become like us, to redeem us, and blood had to be shed and a sacrifice had to be made, and for that, Christ had to become one with us. That’s why you’ve heard me say from this pulpit that even if Satan repented he could never be forgiven. We know he never will, but let’s suppose Satan woke up some morning and said, “You know, I think I’m traveling in the wrong direction. This business of rebelling against God is leading me to eternal destruction and the flames and torments of hell forever. I am going to cast myself upon God’s mercy, and seek forgiveness.” Even if he did that, he could not be forgiven because there was no sacrifice made for him.
The Bible is very clear in Hebrews 2 that Jesus took not upon Himself the form of an angel, but took upon Himself the form of humanity, and His death cleared the guilt only of human beings, and not for angels. And so, to be our Savior, He had to become one of us.
Notice to become Israel’s king He had to become a member of the human race. You know it says in Hebrews 1:8, “But of the Son Thy throne, oh God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of His kingdom.”
Now hear me carefully. In the Old Testament God is spoken of as being king, but in order to become the King of Israel, He had to come through the lineage that had been predicted, the lineage of Solomon, the lineage of David. All of these things were predicted. God says, “I’m going to give you a king who is going to reign on the throne of David forever and ever. And in order for Him to qualify, He has to come through a human lineage.” So you see, in order to be King, Jesus had to become man.
And then also He had to become one of our brothers. Have you read Hebrews 2:10 recently? “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” God is spoken of there in verse 10 – God the Father, through whom are all things, by whom are all things, to perfect the author of salvation (that is Christ) through suffering. Christ was always perfect in His person, but He had to also be perfect in His work to redeem us.
But now notice verse 11: “For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified (that’s a reference to us) all have one source (You see, God the Father is the Father of Christ, but He’s our Father too). That is why He (that is, Christ) is not ashamed to call them brothers.” Isn’t that amazing?
Some of you perhaps lived with an elder brother who did well. He became wealthy or famous, and after that he doesn’t want to have much to do with his family. He’s a little ashamed of his background. And he’s ashamed of those in the family who have not been able to attain his qualifications and his expertise. Well, here is Jesus Christ, King of kings, Lord of lords, God of all gods, totally victorious in heaven today, and the Bible says (and I would never say this unless it was in the Scripture) that He is not ashamed to call us His brothers.
Now isn’t this astounding? Do you realize what kind of benefits come to those who believe in Christ? We have God as our Father. We have Christ as our brother. Some of you, bless your hearts, are from smashed homes. Some of you have been victimized because you did not have parents who loved you or who cared for you – perhaps parents who abused you. And you’ve understood the tearing of the family that is taking place today. And of course, we know that part of the help that is so necessary is for those of us, who are members of the Body of Christ, to come to your side to help you and to encourage you, and to become those mothers and fathers that you didn’t have. But over and beyond that, the image of the family in the New Testament is so powerful and strong because God says we know that it communicates and we were created for a father and for a mother and for brothers and for those who love us. And the Bible says that for those who believe, Christ is our brother. God becomes our Father. We finally find a place to belong.
Well, how could Christ be our brother and be the Angel of the Lord? Impossible! So the Angel of the Lord became a man of human lineage so that He would be our brother. Well also, He had to become man to become our high priest. Later on in the book of Hebrews it says that we do not have a high priest who cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities. We don’t have somebody in heaven who is so distinct from us, so disinterested that He can’t identify with our struggles. No, we have somebody who partook of flesh and blood, somebody who was hungry and thirsty, and who knew the power of rejection, being rejected by Judas, somebody who hurt when stones were thrown at him, and somebody who felt the full effects of the whippings and the beatings that He received on His way to the cross. We have somebody who endured that who says, “I, too, am a man, and I know how they are hurting.” The exaltation of Jesus reminds us of our own triumph. In fact, He is going to be in heaven today, and He is there already of course, and we will participate with Him as heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.
Now here’s the best part of the message. Do you realize how far God is going to exalt us someday because Christ became one of us because we are brothers and we are members of the family, and God is our Father? Do you notice in Hebrews 2 (and I did want you to keep your Bible open to that passage), that it says regarding man, “You made him for a little while lower than the angels.”?
We are lower than the angels today. They can fly with tremendous speed. Apparently they can leave the glories of heaven, and over a period of time come to earth. They are not omnipresent in the sense that they are everywhere. But supposedly, as far as we know, an angel can travel from here to Taiwan very quickly. He doesn’t have to stand in line to get a ticket, or worry about all those discount fares that don’t seem to be happening. Just sheer power – strength! And they don’t struggle with sin like we do. They see sin and they hate it because they are watching us all the time, but they don’t have the same kind of struggles. You know, in our bad days, we say to ourselves, “You know, I just wish that God had created me an angel.” And some people think perhaps that their mate is an angel, like one man said, “Always up in the air and harping about something.” You can just erase that if it doesn’t apply, but we say to ourselves, “I wish I were an angel, constantly worshiping God and doing assignments.”
I want you to know today that if you are thinking clearly, you will never say that. God has made us for a little while lower than the angels, and the time is coming when we are going to be exalted above them in privilege and authority. No angel will ever be an heir of God and a joint-heir with Jesus Christ. No angel will ever be able to look into the face of Jesus and call Him brother. Why? It’s because the Bible says that the exaltation of Jesus Christ is our exaltation. His privileges become our privileges. His responsibility of ruler-ship become our responsibility of ruler-ship. And as I mentioned to you a few weeks ago, no religion so believes in the depravity of man and yet exalts him so high because of the incarnation. And though we are there in the pit, we are made to walk in the palace. And though we come from the mud, we are invited to walk with Christ on marble. And all of that would be impossible were it not for Bethlehem.
The Angel of the Lord as the Angel of the Lord could not do all those things for us. So the Angel of the Lord assumed humanity and said, “I’m going to become one with them, so that in becoming one with them, I will do for them things that I could never do if I simply stayed in heaven as God and as King.
You say, “Well, Pastor Lutzer, this is wonderful, but how do I connect?” Isn’t that the big question – how people connect? Small groups are connections. How do people connect? How do I get in on all these benefits? Are they mine by just being a human being?” No, a thousand times no! There are multitudes that will never benefit from Jesus Christ’s coming. In fact, they will be judged by Him.
You see, what you need to do is you need to begin with understanding the real purpose of Christ’s coming. The entry point is becoming one of His children. It’s the entry point of forgiveness. It’s the entry point of receiving the gift of eternal life.
Many years ago I am told that during the days of Nicholas, the czar of Russia, because of the friendship that a young man’s father had with the czar himself, the young man was given a great responsibility. And the responsibility was to dole out the money to the troops in the barracks. So he was given a lot of money and it was his responsibility to make sure that everybody got paid exactly what he or she were to get paid. The problem was that this young man had a gambling habit. And what he began to do was to use money that he should have passed on to others to gamble, hoping that he’d get more for himself, and therefore leverage his investment. But he was losing money all the time. The troops were not being paid.
He looked at his own salary and it wasn’t enough to cover the awesome debt that he had accumulated, and so, because he was told that Nicholas himself or one of his representatives was going to come to look at the books to check the ledger, he sat down and found out how much he owed, and then wrote beneath it, “Too much to pay! Who can pay?” He put the gun at his side and said that at midnight he would do the only honorable thing he knew to do, and that was to blow his brains out.
Well, the story goes that as he was sitting there, he fell asleep, and the czar himself walked by and had heard stories of the man’s dishonesty and gambling. And he looked at the ledger and was about to arrest him. But then when he saw those words, “Too much to pay! Who can pay?” the heart of the czar was touched. And Nicholas wrote under the man’s ledger, “Nicholas can pay.” And when the young man woke up, he checked to see whether the signature was authentic, and when he discovered that it was, he was so overwhelmed, and became a loyal supporter of Nicholas from that time on because in truth, only one person could pay. And that was Nicholas who represented the government.
And that’s, I guess, the bottom line of the Christmas story. What the Christmas story is saying is that not a one of us can pay. The debt is too much. Our sin is too great. But thankfully, Jesus Christ can pay and He came to pay, not as the Angel of the Lord, but He came as man. The Word became flesh, and He died on a cross, and He shed real blood that dripped onto some real dirt. And He felt some real pain on a roughly hewn real cross. And He died for sinners.
And for those who now say, “I have nothing to pay, but I cast myself upon His mercy totally,” they receive from Him the words, “Christ can pay!” And then along with the forgiveness comes the brotherhood of Christ, comes the high priesthood of Christ, comes the exaltation with Christ. And it’s all free if we repent of our sins and believe.
Let us pray.
Now Father, I said some things today that I would never say unless they were in Your Word because they are too wonderful for us. And I pray that at this moment those who are here who have never believed on You might do that. I pray that Your Holy Spirit will do what I can’t, namely to reach down to remove all of the rationalizations, all of the barriers, all of the excuses, that men and women will come to trust a Christ who is wonderful.
At this moment, no matter who you are, if you don’t know Christ as Savior, you can pray a prayer like this. I’ll lead you through it and you pray it to Christ. I can’t pray it for you. The person next to you can’t pray it for you, but you can pray it.
Say, “Lord Jesus, I know that I am a sinner. I know that I cannot pay for my sin. I am overwhelmed by it. But at this moment I receive You as my Savior. Forsaking dependence on religious ritual and my own goodness, I at this moment come to You, pleading only to You as my Savior, and I accept You. Thank You for accepting me. In Your Son’s name I pray, Amen.
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