Advent: It begins with hope

Advent begins with hope. Hope is one of those words that Christians use a lot, but we seldom take time to consider the idea. It is, after all, a tricky thing. Hope believes in better things even when everything points to the contrary, and it does so without succumbing to naïve optimism. We might hope for more money and be bankrupt. We might hope for perfect health but find ourselves sick.

True, biblical hope is not like worldly hope. It is grounded in two realities.

First, God promised that things will be better someday. Second, this world cannot satisfy our desires. Or to say it another way, because this world cannot ultimately make me happy, I look forward to another world in which my greatest desires are finally realized. That’s hope.

Hope means that things aren’t like they should be. We do not hope for what we have. We hope for something yet to be true. Hope keeps us longing (Rom 8:20–25).

In his classic work Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis reflects on the theological virtue of hope. He reminds us that the purpose of hope is to look for things that ultimately satisfy—things of heaven, not of earth. God did not make this world to make all our dreams come true, especially in its fallen state. Hope anticipates what will come in heaven and makes our hearts yearn for the beauty, peace, holiness, joy, and satisfaction that will be ours. Lewis writes,

“I must keep alive in myself the desire for my true country, which I shall not find till after death; I must never let it get snowed under or turned aside; I must make it the main object of life to press on to that other country and to help others to do the same.”

Christmas hope is about the in-breaking of heaven, but it’s just a foretaste. It reminds us that this world is important, which is why God sent his Son to redeem us, but it also points to fulfillment when the Son will come again to take us home.

So this Christmas, in a time when it feels like so much is unraveling, I encourage you to lift your eyes to heaven. Jesus came once and he will come again.

This is our hope.

Dr. Brian Arnold serves as the fourth President of Phoenix Seminary. In this role he combines a love for the local church with a passion for serious, academic theology. He is convinced that seminaries are servants of the church, uniquely positioned to train men and women for mature, biblically-grounded ministry in a rapidly changing world.

Before joining the faculty of Phoenix Seminary in 2015, Dr. Arnold served as the Pastor of Smithland First Baptist Church in Kentucky. Dr. Arnold earned his Ph.D. from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2013 and has since authored two books, Justification in the Second Century (de Gruyter; Baylor University Press) and Cyprian of Carthage: His Life and Impact (Christian Focus), and a number of journal articles. He has been married to Lauren since 2007 and has two children, Jameson and Natalie.

How Jesus was, is, and always will be the Light

Darkness is an apt metaphor for 2020. Yet in spite of how we might feel at the end of this long year, we are surrounded by lights on trees and houses, in windows and on lawns. Why are we drawn to light? Why do we long for the days to lengthen and for the gray of winter to fade away?

God made light and darkness and he called them day and night. There was nothing evil in night. But when sin entered the world, night and darkness became places to hide and symbols for places where sin and evil rule.

The Light From Before the Beginning

Matthew and Luke began their gospels with Jesus’ birth, his entrance into the darkness of this world. Mark launched immediately into Jesus’ mission as the son of God who would suffer and die before being resurrected and glorified. John begins, not with Jesus’ birth, nor his mission, but with his eternal existence.

“In the beginning” Jesus was already there. Everything and everyone else has a beginning, but not Jesus. Yes, as Matthew and Luke recount he was born as a man, but he had always been. He had always been with the Father. He had always been God. And from before the beginning of time, the beginning of the earth or the universe, Jesus had always been the Light. And now with darkness reigning, Jesus has come to earth, born as a man, but still God from all eternity. He came and shone in the darkness and the darkness could not, cannot, and will not overcome the Light.

The Light Foretold in the Old Testament

John’s teaching that Jesus is God and that he is the Light was not new. He was connecting with a significant theme in Isaiah. Isaiah spoke of a savior who would come, someone who would be called Immanuel, “God with us” (Isa 7:14). Other deliverers had represented God to man (Exod 7:1), but this one would truly be God among men. This savior would be called Mighty God, and he would be the great Light that would shine on people who walk in darkness (Isa 9:2, 6). This savior would be a suffering servant whom God would make a Light to the nations (Isa 42:6; 49:6) and who would carry our sorrows, be crushed for our sins, and bring us peace. He would bear our iniquity, to make us righteous in him (Isa 52:13–53:12).

The Light for Those Who Have None

This is the story of Christmas. The Light has come into our darkness and he has conquered sin and death. We try hard, in the darkness of our own lives, to light our way, but the savior Isaiah promised comes for those who realize they have no light of their own, to those who trust the name of the Lord, and in the Light he has given to the world. May God grant us eyes to see and hearts to receive the Light that shines forth from before the beginning.

J. Michael Thigpen (Ph.D.) serves as Provost and Professor of Old Testament at Phoenix Seminary. His special areas of interest are prophetic literature, God’s motives, and the theology of work and economics in the Old Testament. Dr. Thigpen’s passion is to help the church connect more deeply to the Old Testament by understanding its literary nature and historical background. He and his wife Bonnie have two daughters, Abigail and Hannah.

How Advent Brings an End to Our Exile

Among the Gospels, Mark offers the shortest Advent reflection of all—a mere three verses in his opening:

The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God. As it stands written in Isaiah, the prophet: “Look, I am sending my messenger before your face who will prepare your way, (Malachi 3:1), a voice crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Isaiah 40:3)

Mark cites two passages from the Old Testament together—a common way of interpreting Scripture at the time called gezerah sheva—because the words originate from one author—God. But he also learned from Jesus (see Mark 12:35–37) to hear Scripture as a Trinitarian conversation between the Father and Son prior to the Incarnation that the Holy Spirit allowed prophets to hear and record—in this case, Isaiah and Malachi. John communicates some of this mystery when he presents the Word (the son of God) as “beside God” (the Father) before creation (1:1–3).

A Messenger to Prepare the Way

In the first quotation, the Father says to the son, “Look, I am sending my messenger (John the Baptist) before your face . . .” Malachi is the final Old Testament prophet through whom God promised to send Elijah back to the people for a final opportunity to repent after the Babylonian Exile; Mark then portrays the Baptist in Elijah’s dress (1:6); and from this conversation, Jesus can explain to his disciples, “Elijah has come, and they did to him whatever they pleased” (9:13), referring to John’s beheading (6:14–29).

The End of Exile

In the second quotation, the Father celebrates the mystery of the Trinity by referring to the son as Lord, the God of Israel, commanding the Baptist and—ultimately the people—through Isaiah: Prepare the way of the Lord. God is about to end the Exile through a new Exodus into a final Paradise and Temple, the crucified yet resurrected body of Christ in whom we are united through repentance and faith.

The Way to Resurrection and Glory

Advent for Mark is the son of God coming in the way of suffering and death before resurrection and glory. There is no glory before the cross. Instead of catering to our disordered will, which led to death and separation from God, Jesus has come to show and make possible through his atoning death and the gift of the Holy Spirit a life ordered according to the will of the Father, a path of repentance and faith that is ideal for Christmas in a Pandemic—when circumstance disallows us from doing what we want. In Christ, we are no longer in Exile but still very much on the way.

John DelHousaye (Ph.D.) serves as Professor of New Testament & Spiritual Formation at Phoenix Seminary. His research and publications focus on Jesus, the gospels, the restorative and reconciling ministry of the Triune God, and great disciples throughout church history. Dr. DelHousaye serves as an Elder at Redemption Alhambra in Phoenix.


Cancelling the Curse

The first glimpse of Christmas comes in the third chapter of your Bible just after Adam and Eve sinned against God. With the juices of the forbidden fruit still running down their cheeks, God made a promise to our first parents in Genesis 3:15:

I will put enmity between you [the serpent] and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.

From the moment sin entered into the world, God promised He would send a deliverer to crush the head of the serpent. Christmas, then, isn’t primarily about the warm, cozy feeling we get when we sing “Silent Night.” Christmas is about cosmic warfare, when Jesus came to battle the Serpent of Old, for your sin and for my sin. This is why Joseph was told to name his son Jesus, “for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt 1:21).

Isaac Watts, reflecting on the role of Christmas in rewinding the curse in his carol “Joy to the World,” wrote,

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found.

The curse of sin affected everything. But as far as the curse goes, God’s grace and blessings go farther. Christmas reminds us that God has already forgiven the sins of those who turn to him in repentance and faith, and that he isn’t done yet. Satan’s head may have been crushed when Jesus rose from the dead, but this Christmas we still await the final crushing of the Devil. The Apostle Paul looked to this day and encouraged the church at Rome with these words: “The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet. The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you” (Rom 16:20). Christmas reminds us of the promise God made to Adam and Eve that He would redeem us from Satan and the curse.

This Christmas rejoice that God has sent His Son to cancel the curse for those who place their trust in Him, and rest in knowing that He will come again to finish the job!

Merry Christmas!

About Brian Arnold

Brian ArnoldDr. Brian Arnold serves as the fourth President of Phoenix Seminary. In this role he combines a love for the local church with a passion for serious, academic theology. He is convinced that seminaries are servants of the church, uniquely positioned to train men and women for mature, biblically-grounded ministry in a rapidly changing world.