“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 10: Good News, not Good Advice

December 10, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Matthew 1:1, 12-17

glory_cover_finalAs of this writing, many people around the world—including at least one of my three kids—are excited about the latest chapter in the Star Wars saga, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Each of the previous seven Star Wars movies—along with the new one, I’m sure—begin with the following words on the screen: “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

In other words, no matter how much tinkering with computer-generated imagery that George Lucas and others have done to keep the movies looking as visually “realistic” as possible, these ten words may as well read, “Once upon a time…” They remind us from the beginning that, despite the fact that thousands of British people in a recent census claimed “Jedi” as their religion, the world of Star Wars is nothing more than a glorified fairy tale.

Notice, by contrast, how different the Gospel of Matthew is. By the time we reach the final third of the genealogy, we know little, if anything, about these names. Matthew records them, not because they represent great heroes of faith, but for the sake of historical accuracy. As Tim Keller writes, “That means he is grounding what Jesus Christ is and does in history. Jesus is not a metaphor. He is real. This all happened.”[1]

star_wars

Fables, fairy tales, and even science-fiction fantasies can impart life lessons to us. They can teach us how to live our lives better and how to be better people. But notice this isn’t what Matthew and the other gospel writers are up to. They are not giving us good advice; they are bringing us good news. Keller puts it like this:

Advice is counsel about what you must do. News is a report about what has already been done. Advice urges you to make something happen. News urges you to recognize something that has already happened and to respond to it. Advice says it is all up to you to act. News says someone else has acted. Let’s say there is an invading army coming toward a town. What that town needs is military advisers; it needs advice. Someone should explain that the earthworks and trenches should go over there, the marksmen go up there, and the tanks must go down there.

However, if a great king has intercepted and defeated the invading army, what does the town need then? It doesn’t need military advisers; it needs messengers, and the Greek word for messengers is angelos, angels. The messengers do not say, “Here is what you have to do.” They say rather, “I bring you glad tidings of great joy.” In other words, “Stop fleeing! Stop building fortifications. Stop trying to save yourselves. The King has saved you.” Something has been done, and it changes everything.[2]

He goes on to say that the biblical Christmas texts are not moralizing stories like Aesop’s Fables, which tell us how to live. Rather, they are descriptions of actual events in history. “The birth of the Son of God into the world is a gospel, good news, an announcement. You don’t save yourself. God has come to save you.”

I would argue that other religions and many churches, when they talk about salvation, understand it and proclaim it as advice. Salvation is something you have to wrestle and struggle for, you have to perform. It comes only if you pray, obey, or transform your consciousness. But the Christian Gospel is different. The founders of the great religions say, in one way or another, “I am here to show you the way to spiritual reality. Do all this.” That’s advice. Jesus Christ, the founder of Christianity, comes and says, “I am spiritual reality itself. You could never come up to me and, therefore, I had to come down to you.” That’s news.[3]

What’s the difference between Christmas as news and Christmas as advice? Are there ways in which you trust yourself rather than Christ to save you? Do you live your life as if it’s news or advice?

1. Timothy Keller, Hidden Christmas (New York: Viking, 2016), 21.

2. Ibid., 21-2.

3. Ibid., 22.

10 Responses to ““Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 10: Good News, not Good Advice”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    Well, Christmas is certainly “news,” not a fable. The biblical message does tell us what has been done for us. However, it then calls for a response. “Follow me, even as I follow Christ,” Paul says. “Take up your cross, and follow me,” Jesus says. “Be ye perfect, even as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” Jesus says. The Sermon on the Mount and substantial portions of Paul’s Epistles tell us “how to live.” So, it is “both/and,” news and “advice,” not “either/or.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      It’s still primarily news. Otherwise, we’re doomed. How are any of us doing with “be ye perfect” and “love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength”? How many consecutive seconds, out of the hundreds of millions of seconds we’ve lived, have we achieved this kind of perfection? Does God grade on a curve? Of course not… “Be ye perfect” is exactly right. So we need a savior to do something for us; what we do, however necessary or critical, is less than a drop in the bucket of what God has done for us.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I don’t see this as a question of “grading on a curve.” Rather, I see this as “goals we should be striving for.” Of course we can’t “get there,” as in always reaching those goals, which is why Christ had to die. But it is like baseball. The coach tells the batter to “Bat 1.000.” Of course he can’t. Nobody has even done “.500” over any significant period of time. But, what? You had better be trying to reach that goal, or you will be sitting on the bench! The grace of God gets us “on the team” (through faith). Striving toward the goals gets us a measure of “glory.” (Such as the parables of the talents and minas, and Paul’s “gold, silver, precious stones.”) So, certainly it is true that the grace through what has been done is more important, but the “advice” remains pretty important as well.

      • brentwhite Says:

        O.K., but I believe we’re more likely to be successful in our “striving” if we stay focused on what we Christ has done for us, rather than our response. This doesn’t preclude “testing ourselves,” but our testing of our works isn’t to see whether or not we’ve worked hard enough, but rather whether our works prove the genuineness of our faith in Christ’s works, by which we’re saved.

        You have to admit we’re not even batting close to .280 when it comes to being perfect, especially when you consider how easily corrupted our works become by pride and self-interest—as Jesus teaches. One of the main themes of the Sermon on the Mount, with which Paul’s letters to the Galatians and Romans would heartily concur, is that what matters is the condition of the heart, not the works. In other words, works are meaningless apart from a pure heart.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Sure, our hearts are the thing. But having a “clean heart,” as David says, is surely no more easy a thing than doing “good works.” And it is frequently the works that demonstrate the state of the heart. “Bring forth therefore works demonstrative of repentance,” we are told. “If you love me, keep my commandments,” Jesus says. “I will prove my faith by my works,” James says. So, certainly I agree that we “fall short,” but that hardly means the striving is unimportant. We know this with our families. I will never be the “perfect husband” or the “perfect father,” but my wife and kids certainly appreciate it when I “strive in that direction”! Of course, they want “love in my heart,” but they see that “played out” in how I live. And we cannot do the one or the other without the help of God, but the two “work in tandem”–God does not just “make us” do what’s right. So, I would continue to insist that “striving” is a “significant thing,” though not the “main thing.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Yes, but what have I said that disagrees with any of that? You’re more afraid of the danger of “easy-believe-ism” and I’m more afraid of “works righteousness.” But I don’t perceive that we’re far apart. In my own life, I know which is the bigger spiritual danger for me. Plus, I struggle with guilt more. So I need the reassuring message of justification by faith alone.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        Well, I doubt that you struggle with guilt more than I do! Or that you are any more reassured by God’s grace. So that is why I agree about what the “main thing” is. However, I don’t think my position can be relegated to opposing “easy-believe-ism.” What is important in the Christian life is not just salvation, but our growth in life as saints thereafter. See Peter’s “add this to that.” I know you don’t actually disagree with this, but I guess what I react to is the “less than a drop in the bucket” characterization. We play a significant role in our sanctification. And while justification is more important (and even that is intertwined with “faith and repentance,” whatever those may entail), sanctification is also vitally important. Way too many scriptures focus on sanctification for us to downplay its importance.

      • brentwhite Says:

        But we downplay it in relation to one thing only: Christ’s atoning work on the cross. Sanctification may otherwise rightly be the most important thing in our life, above everything else.

      • Tom Harkins Says:

        I think I agree with that.

      • brentwhite Says:

        Thanks. As always, iron sharpens iron.


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