This article discusses the message that emerges from the Bible readings and Bible study for December 5 (Advent 2) following the Revised Common Lectionary, a resource shared by many different churches and chapels.
Here are the readings and links to Bible Gateway so you can read in the Bible version of your choice — and compare them.
OT: Malachi 3:1-4 — A messenger will prepare the way for the Lord
With the OT reading: Luke 1:68-79 – Zechariah’s prophetic song of praise over John, who is to tell people to reach out and receive God’s salvation
Luke 3:1-6 — God’s word to John is to “prepare the way for the Lord” in proclaiming the need to turn lives around to His way
Philippians 1:3-11 — Paul prays with joy as for God’s continuing work in believers as he see the finished work they will become
• See this week’s short, captioned, video Anyone May Respond to God’s Salvation Offer
THIS week’s story is about being prepared, and that sits in the context of God doing a new thing, a prophetic word which has resonated with many in the past few years. What is the new thing that God is doing in salvation?
The OT passage in Malachi is, as we might expect, very much centred on the Lord coming to His temple and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem.
Suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to His temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come,” says the Lord Almighty.
But who can endure the day of His coming?… For He will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap… He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then… the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the Lord…Malachi 3:1-4 (excerpt)
This is the messenger of the Lord, preparing the way for the Lord Himself who will do a refining and purifying work — the Lord coming to His own people. And that’s exactly what Jesus said about His priorities, when a Gentile Canaanite woman from the region of Tyre and Sidon implored Him to minister deliverance to her demon-possessed daughter.
He answered, “I was sent only to the lost sheep of Israel.”Matthew 15:24
When He sent out the Twelve on their first mission to proclaim the kingdom message, He instructed them:
“Do not go among the Gentiles or enter any town of the Samaritans. Go rather to the lost sheep of Israel.”Matthew 10:5-6
But that was a starting point for that time and place — not the definition of mission. Or of God’s salvation plan. And Malachi’s prophetic word contains something which people of that time would have found shocking:
He will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the Lord will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness.Malachi 3:3
The Levites were a tribe set apart and supported by others for the general tasks of priesthood. They were considered consecrated, to be holy examples to others. And it seems that the Lord’s refining fire would fall on them first.
Zechariah’s prophecy over John 400 years later was about John proclaiming the nature of salvation to people who thought they were already entitled to it
And you, my child, will be called a prophet of the Most High; for you will go on before the Lord to prepare the way for Him, to give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins because of the tender mercy of our GodLuke 1:76-78
But right here, we find an indication that the nature of salvation might be broader than people of that time thought, might go beyond the boundaries they understood. For Jews, the knowledge of their salvation was tracing their ancestry to the Father of the Nation, Abraham and God’s covenants with him and with Moses. And if anyone was secure in that entitlement it was the Levites. But now, the knowledge of salvation is about receiving forgiveness of sins, through appealing to God’s grace and mercy. Can anyone do that?
Luke, in a detailed account rich in historical detail, gives us an answer while still staying with the proclamation of salvation to come, the message of repentance and preparation given to John the Baptist. He appeals to well-known words by the best-known prophet, Isaiah:
As it is written in the book of the words of Isaiah the prophet: “A voice of one calling in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for Him.
“‘Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low. The crooked roads shall become straight, the rough ways smooth.
And all people will see God’s salvation.’ ”Luke 3:4-6
Luke is following the common practice of quoting part to represent the whole. What Isaiah said was more emphatic:
“And the glory of the Lord will be revealed, and all people will see it together. For the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”Isaiah 40:5.
We could paraphrase this fairly by saying that the glory of the Lord would be revealed by all kinds of people seeing it together, just as God said it would be.
This brings to mind the command that Jesus left His disciples with, His final words just before His ascension into heaven. It was to go and make disciples of all kinds of people (which we call the Great Commission, Matthew 28:18-20). And from that point on, the church soon to be born would grow rapidly to consist of more Gentiles than Jews — including every ethnicity and every social level.
“All people will see God’s salvation” is a big change of direction and expectation. It marks possibly the the biggest change since Moses received the Ten Commandments.
This is not a statement of universal salvation — not an idea which finds any general support in Scripture. It is a statement that all or any people may find salvation through believing in Jesus and receiving Him into their hearts.
And here in the Philippians passage is an example of what was foretold in Scripture, now happening as a matter of historical record. This is an ‘working example’ of God doing a new thing — doing it differently. This is from the church Paul founded in the Roman colony of Philippi, a fellowship that was largely Gentile, like the population. And the believers had been taught to live in the expectation of Jesus Christ returning in majestic glory at any time. Meanwhile, they were living their lives as disciples, reaching others with the good news of Christ and His kingdom, and growing in spiritual maturity.
Paul can see that growth in these friends of his as the Holy Spirit sanctified, finished article they are growing into. He can see them with God’s eyes — a view of what they will become in Christ, albeit still a work in progress. Like all of us!
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that He who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the Day of Christ Jesus.Philippians 1:4-6
When we ask Jesus into our hearts, owning Him as Saviour and also as Lord, there is a transformation right at that point. The Holy Spirit comes into our human spirit, and a lot of things change, from our ability to hear God speak to us through the words of Scripture, to how we now want to relate to others and play our part. But there is also set in train a process of being made holy, and made free in Christ from the baggage of our old life. That is a lifelong work in us. But God always finishes what He starts.
However, there is both a judgment to come as well as an extraordinarily joyful meeting again.
And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ — to the glory and praise of God.Philippians 1:9-11
Paul wants those who read or hear his letter (including us) to be living in a love of the Lord which keeps discernment and revelation uppermost. He wants us to know who we are in Christ, new creations, forgiven, redeemed and esteemed. And he wants us growing in love and forbearance and forgiveness — knowing we are forgiven by God’s grace and Christ’s sacrifice, and extending this grace to others to cut across us.
The “fruit of righteousness” comes, not through our efforts or abilities, but in learning how to live and think as those yielded to the Holy Spirit, so that He is free to work in us.
When God can work in our lives, this gives Him pleasure — there’s nothing He loves more than our active partnership — and it gives us the joy of seeing kingdom fruit.
This is all part of God’s salvation. There is the event of spiritual salvation, triggered by our turning to Him in Jesus, believing and submitting to Him as Lord. At that point we are saved. But this opens us to the further sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit in us, bringing us into greater freedom and equipping us to be fruitful in the mission of helping “all [kinds of] people [to] see God’s salvation”.
That is God’s plan, and it will continue to go ahead, making us ready for His return and, through us, enabling many others to enter the kingdom.