He was a tax collector, but most of them were thieves. They had such a reputation that if you wanted to shame a person, you could call him a tax collector. People put them in the same sentence with the sinners, definitely low-life. Not only were they robbers, collecting more taxes than they were supposed to, but they were employed by the Roman government. People hated paying taxes to the Romans, and that a Jew could work for them meant total rejection by his race. The only friends Matthew likely had were men of the same profession, if you could call it a profession. They sold their soul for money. And they often got rich, but other Jews knew how they made it and despised them.

So Jesus came walking by. He was not afraid to associate with rejects. He was one of them. Isaiah wrote that “he was despised and rejected by men” (53:3). Those are the kinds of people he hung with, not the upper end of the social food chain. They were usually not interested in what Jesus had to say, but tax collectors, full of sin and brokenness, were sometimes all ears.

Two surprises that day. First, that Jesus said to Matthew, “Follow me.” Catch what he didn’t say: “Clean up your life.” He could have dug up plenty of sins to shame him. Jesus “knew what was in man” (John 2:25).  He knew Matthew’s past. Just so you know, prophecy is not focusing on people’s past as much as calling them to their future. It brings “encouragement, edification, and comfort” ( I Corinthians 14:3). I used to think that it was supposed to make people feel guilty, like, “I can see your heart. You have a problem with porn. You’ve been staying up and watching things you shouldn’t.” Jesus could have nailed Matthew, but the merciful Son of God was calling him to a rich future, setting him free from a shameful past. Jesus wants to do the same for us.

The second surprise was that Matthew got up. Shocker. And when he walked away from his desk, he said goodbye to yesterday and never returned. Powerful. I suspect that some of his friends saw the massive change and joined him. They might have even started a club–“Tax Collectors Anonymous.”

Why would a Jew who hated Rome work for that government? Two possible reasons:

  1. Love of money. That might have been Zacchaeus. The Scriptures say three things about him: he was small. Maybe he was teased for it: “Hey Shorty, is your dad a midget?”  He was rich. A third thing: “He wanted to see who Jesus was.” Good for Zac. He is finding out that money doesn’t satisfy.
  2. Need for money. You lose your job farming or building, and you are desperate to feed the family. They did what they had to do. And they lost friends in the process.

But not Jesus. He spent time with them–and called one of them into the inner ring. Paid off. Thirty years later he penned one of the greatest stories ever written, called “The Gospel According to Matthew.” What a destiny! Way to go, Matt! Way to go, Jesus!


“Now Joseph was handsome in form and appearance” (Genesis 39:6). He had form; sounds like a good build. His looks and physique got him into trouble. David “was ruddy and had beautiful eyes and was handsome” (I Samuel 16:12). Sadly, he had multiple wives. Daniel was “without blemish, of good appearance” (Daniel 1:4). What about the Son of God? “He had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Isaiah 53:2). The Bible is not afraid to recognize good looks. Jesus didn’t have them. He was probably on the low end of average. No one took a second look.

It was like God to do this. The world looks at the handsome and beautiful and idolizes them. Not God. He doesn’t choose the rich, the famous, the standouts, the important, the good-looking. Paul wrote, “Not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world…to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God” (I Corinthians 2:27-29).

When you see movies of Jesus and the disciples, Jesus stands out in his white robe, neat and flowing hair, and well-manicured beard. I suspect that if we had seen Jesus with his disciples, we could not have picked out who was Jesus. If Jesus had been good-looking, there would have been proof that God is after the good-looking ones, just like the Son of God. It is what he did and said that changed people, not the way he looked.

Nothing wrong with good looks. If you’ve got them, thank God. But don’t think that it gives you extra points or any kind of advantage on others. The world looks on beautiful bodies and admires them, often with jealousy. If you don’t have good looks, thank God, because for some it becomes a curse rather than a blessing.  

“The Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees; man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’” (I Samuel 16:7).

“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised
(Proverbs 31:30).

“Likewise also that women should adorn themselves in respectable apparel, with modesty and self-control, not with braided hair and gold or pearls, or costly attire, but with what is proper for women who profess godliness–with good works” (I Timothy 2:10).

“Do not let your adorning be external–the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear–but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (I Peter 3:3,4).


The world views strength as conquest.  God’s power is shown in surrender. Jesus said, “I have power to lay down my life.” Nowhere is God’s power shown more clearly than in the cross, portrayed graphically by Isaiah seven hundred years before. The prophet writes that “he had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.  He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering” (Isaiah 53:2,3). Far from being attractive or domineering, he was an insignificant “root out of dry ground.” The prophet shows us three ways that the slain Lamb demonstrates might, the kind the world knows nothing about.

THE CROSS BRINGS HEALING FROM SIN.  Some may say, “We don’t need healing; we need forgiveness.” Jesus said to the Pharisees:  “They that are well have no need of a physician but they that are sick.” Sin is a sickness. But “there is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul,” like the song goes. For “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed” (5).  Thankfully, the cross brings healing not only from the penalty of sin but also from the power. Jesus said to the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you.” In those words she experienced the acceptance of grace.  It gave her power to receive the truth: “Go and sin no more.” “He breaks the power of cancelled sin, He sets the prisoner free.” That power is found in the cross.

THE CROSS BRINGS HEALING FROM SORROW.   We have sinned, and we have been sinned against.  The devastating work of sin has brought untold sorrow.  A man abandons his family, leaving a wife and children to cope. Another hopes for a promotion and is terminated unjustly after thirty years of service. Jesus heals broken hearts.  His hometown sermon was taken from Isaiah 61: “He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted…” (1). He did that through the cross: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows…” (Isaiah 53:4a).  He can give us a “crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair” (Isaiah 61:3). People who have walked with deep grief may say, “Impossible.”  But that power comes from the cross.

THE CROSS BRINGS HEALING FROM SICKNESS.  Matthew was a reject like Jesus, but of a different kind; he collected taxes. Jesus made the right choice in calling him. Years later, Matthew painted one of the most beautiful portraits of Christ ever penned.  When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, Matthew thought back on the day, adding these words: “This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah: ‘He took up our infirmities and carried our diseases’” (Matthew 8:17). I find no greater reason to pray for the sick than this, that when Jesus died, He carried not only our sins and sorrow but our sicknesses as well. May you know the power of the cross in your life—today!

(Moved the domain name from to our registrar in November. Whoops! Knocked out notifications. Sorry! Back on target!)


God knew everything from the beginning. The sin of Adam that ruined the race did not surprise Him. He didn’t say, as if caught off guard, “Now what should we do?” He already had the plan in mind–from the foundation of the world. He is the Alpha and Omega. He knows the end from the beginning, in fact, before the beginning. Actually, He had no beginning. Wrap your brain around that. He is the architect of history.  What he says becomes reality, even what he thinks.

So when the serpent tampered with Mr. Adam, God knew what would take place thousands of years later to correct the fatal flaw. He said to the serpent, the devil in disguise, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). God wasn’t thrown for a moment. The answer was there before the question.

Three truths arise out of God’s strong words to the serpent::


When it looks like he is winning, and it will near the end, God turns the tables on him. Jesus returns, and the devil is defeated once and for all, cast into the lake of fire, the third to go, after the beast and false prophet (Revelation 20:10). Christians are eternal optimists, because the one who could take us down knows he is already headed for outer darkness, and he operates out of panic, not peace. The clock is ticking, and his time is running out.


He knew from before the beginning that he would be giving up heaven for a season. He accepted the assignment without complaining or wondering. He knew it meant terrible pain and agony, something he had never known. He knew he would be rejected by the world he created and was coming to rescue. He knew that most would embrace the plan of the serpent and refuse his provision. Yet his “yes” was unconditional. Satan would bruise his heel during his life on earth, but he would triumph gloriously and embarrass the adversary publicly on the cross.


God’s answer to the universal epidemic of sin would come through a human birth. The son of God would be born of a woman, the first and last of its kind. We call it the incarnation. It means “in carne” (flesh). In Jesus God put on skin. Chili con carne is chili with meat, with flesh. God became a man. The answer to the world’s problem is a man. Humanity sinned–humanity dies. Jesus didn’t surrender his divinity. He was still God, even inside Mary. But “he emptied himself.” He freely chose to live fully as a man, yet without surrendering to sin. He grew tired and hungry. He could only be at one place at one time, though as God he was omnipresent. “Unto us a child has been born. Unto us a son has been given” (Isaiah 9:6). The mystery of the incarnation in five words: “And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). The one who lived from eternity with astounding glory was confined to the uterine wall of a virgin woman. Then he was born.  He is our answer! Let us praise him!!


What are my favorite things about Christmas? Gathering together with the extended family, listening to Christmas music, studying again the saints who surround the story, the giving and receiving of gifts, eating special foods (for us, lefse and lamb), sharing moments from past Christmases, and attending rich worship services.

How about Christmas for Joseph and Mary?

First, the hardships:

  1. They were away from family, a good thing ordained by God, since she was carrying the shame of an illegitimate child from the time she was showing. Had she been in Nazareth, people would have been scorning the holy couple rather than celebrating the birth, and perhaps more. Mary would hear about it the rest of her life. Pharisees in Jerusalem said to Jesus thirty years later, “We were not born in fornication.”
  2. The guests who showed up were nearby shepherds, on the low end of the social food chain. A visit from them might not have been seen as a compliment, but it was God’s way of saying what Mary already proclaimed, that “he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Luke 1:52).
  3. The strung-out celebration came to an abrupt halt when a warning came to Joseph to flee the country because of Herod’s rage. Not exciting escaping to Egypt with a young babe.

And what were their joys?

  1. The first Christmas topped any of ours with special music from a guest choir, a never-to-be repeated performance that was out of this world. If God ever emptied out heaven for a phenomenal event, it would have been at the birth of His Son, prophesied for centuries, now coming in the fullness of time. What a vocal number, unsurpassed! The anthem: “Glory to God in the Highest!”
  2. The second spectacular highlight was the gift-giving, far beyond anything I have ever received–gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Mary and Joseph had some charming visitors from a far-away country. Their timing was off, so they were late for the birth, but their presents more than made up for the delay.
  3. Mary probably did a little celebrating with the shepherds, but she also “kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Deep and profound things were going on that she and Joseph certainly discussed together, memories that she would hold within to comfort her in times of great sorrow.
  4. By far, the greatest part of the first Christmas was the arrival of the Son of God, born to reign, but first “to give his life as a ransom for many.” This made the first Christmas an unrepeatable event. The only reason we are celebrating two thousand years later is that it happened once and for all on the first Christmas, making it remarkably special for the mother and father In spite of suffering, opposition, and disappointments, like heavy traffic during tax season and no room for a proper birth. They knew this event was the fulfillment of prophecy and that God was attending the celebration. No way to top that first Christmas. “O come let us adore him–Christ the Lord!”


Evangelicals need not hesitate. We don’t worship Mary, but we call her blessed, as the Bible does. The greatest thing in the world is to find favor with God. Mary did. If earned, it’s not grace.

Yet we do things to invite it. God resists the proud but graces the humble. How did Mary welcome grace?


She chose virginity. You say, “All of them did back there.” Then you have not read the Old Testament lately. Purity is a decision—in any age. And she chose a pure husband. They lived together and travelled to Bethlehem, and she remained a virgin. Call it self-control.

When the angel told her she would bear the Messiah, she did not say, “Well, I had better get married quick.” She said, “I have no husband.” Simple—and holy. When God looks for a vessel through whom to bring His plan, He looks for a pure one. Mary was.


When greeted by the angel, she did not say, “About time someone recognized me.” Some think humility means ranking on yourself: “I can’t do that.” Oh, what a humble, self-effacing person. Wrong. Mary said, “All generations will call me blessed! Isn’t God wonderful?!” Humility puts God at the center, and let’s God be great—even in you.


She said yes—when it would cost. She was pregnant, without a husband. And the one who already proposed almost dropped her. Some would rather compromise than lose a man.

Mary called herself “the Lord’s bondservant.” Here I am, at your service. No footnotes like, “Please share this with my parents, and work it out with Joseph.” Having a baby without a husband is fairly easy in our culture, not in theirs. You will pay, and Mary did–all her life.

Some look for ways to get permission. People like Mary look for ways to please God. Her question was not out of doubt like Zechariah. She just needed clarification—to surrender.


In the most moving meeting of two women ever, when Mary is being commended for believing the extraordinary, that she would have a child without a man, she deflected the applause toward heaven: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant.”

It is not hard to complain in the face of suffering and disappointment. The first Christmas looked like anything but Christmas—no family, friends, warmth, or even a home. Yet this teenage woman lived full of praise: “He that is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Great people know they aren’t—but God is!  I want to be like Mary. And I want to be like Mary’s Son, Mary’s Lord!


Jesus is different from us. The Pharisees did “all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5). Not Jesus; he looked for the praise from only One. And God was more than willing to grant it to him. Two times are recorded in the Scriptures in which God spoke out affirmation from heaven. The first was at his baptism, when God said, “You are my beloved Son. In you I am well-pleased” (Matthew 3:17). It must have proved deeply satisfying to the Son. He had lived in fellowship with the Father from eternity but had chosen to willingly go to earth and serve as the sacrificial lamb. Now for perhaps the first time, he heard the audible voice of his Father commending him as he prepared to launch his public ministry.

The second time came when Jesus was on the Mount of Transfiguration with three of his disciples. They would play leading roles in the New Testament church. Peter was blessed by the experience, in which Moses and Elijah showed up to meet with Jesus. Peter identified Jesus with these great men of the past, thinking he was giving Christ a notable place. Then a cloud hid them from view, and the Father spoke, not to Jesus but about him, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5). Peter got the point. Jesus was not a great man among great men. HE is singularly great, and unlike anyone else receives the verbal affirmation of his Father at the commencement of his ministry and again near the climax of it. Peter later referred to this glorious experience, remembering when “we were eyewitnesses of his majesty” (2 Peter 1:16).

When a pastor friend, Jeff, said at a monthly mentoring meeting that he wrongly sought the approval of others too much, we agreed with him. We all struggled with an over-the-top need for affirmation. But then Dan asked, “Isn’t it right and even necessary to have the affirmation of others?” It was a balancing question to offset our weakness. So what do you think?

The affirmation of a father helps his children to rightly believe in themselves. A lack thereof may create a skewed image in a child struggling to discover a true identity. The affirmation of an employer can help a worker know how well the job is being done and even provide motivation for greater work. The praise of a pastor can help the sanctification process along, when it feels like we aren’t getting it. The commendation of a teacher helps a student stick with the geometry until it is mastered.

The value of affirmation can hardly be overestimated. We need to be affirming, not flattering but diligent to “encourage one another and build one another up” (I Thessalonians 5:11) and especially “the fainthearted” (14). At the same time our ultimate, if not immediate, need is to find comfort and strength from the Father, the all-sufficient One. Then when others withhold words, we don’t fall into discouragement. We go to a Father who affirms his children like he did his only begotten Son.


“There is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus” (I Timothy 2:5). It does not say “the God-man,” although He is at the right hand of the Father being worshiped by the angels. It emphasizes His identification with those He brings to the Father. The resurrected Christ had the form of a man–and still does. Though He is the One through whom and for whom all things came into being, He is still a man, and we can relate to Him as a man. The pre-incarnate Christ was God and not man. Then He took on flesh and became the God-man.

When He returned to the Father, He did not give up His humanity; He is still a man. He could move through walls in His resurrected body, but He could also be touched. He showed His wounds and told Thomas to touch Him. He ate three meals that we know of, including “the Last Breakfast” (John 21). When we get to heaven we will see His wounds. He still bears them from “the days of his flesh.”

“In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard for his godly fear. Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered; and being made perfect he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek” (Hebrews 5:7-9).

The days of Christ’s flesh were thirty-three years, a small amount of time compared to eternity past and future. And yet the worship that goes on day and night before the throne emphasizes one day, really one fourth of one day, when Christ as the sacrificial lamb bore the sins of the world in His human body. Man sinned, so man had to die. God could not die for man. But if man died, He couldn’t help others. So it had to be a perfect Man. The only one was the God-man, Jesus Christ, and He willingly gave His life so we could live.

“For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need” (Hebrews 4:15,16).

We draw near not to a throne of law, which is what thrones typically are. They are places of judgment, where verdicts are sent forth. Kings are often selfish. Their leadership can bring fear to those who oppose them. God has a throne of grace because of Jesus. At this throne we receive mercy to overcome our misery and grace to overcome our guilt. Had the God-man compromised in just one area of His life, salvation would have become impossible. The perfect justice of God would not have been satisfied. Scripture makes a clear point of the sinlessness of Christ.

“For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified have all one origin. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brethren….Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same nature, that through death he might destroy him who has the power of death, that is the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage… Therefore he had to be made like his brethren in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make expiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered and been tempted, he is able to help those who are tempted” (Hebrews 2:10-18). All praise to the Son of God, the man Jesus!


Jesus turned leadership on its head (Matt. 20:25-28). It’s not how high you get but how low you go. These truths come from His words:

Leadership by character is compelling. Leadership by position isn’t. Billy Graham has had influence more because of his character than his preaching. The Pharisees ruled by position; Jesus led from character. He said, “Come to me…I am meek and lowly in heart.” Pastors who lack character might use humor, personality, or intimidation to get the job done.

We lead by serving, and we serve by leading. The biggest need of sheep is to be led and fed (Matthew 9:36; Psalm 23:2). Some parents over-control and under-lead, as did the Pharisees. Leaders who give people what they most need rather than want are serving them.

We lead by going low. The disciples, with glory on their minds, liked the view from the top. It feels good to sit and be served. Jesus got off His seat and served. He “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…” (Philippians 2:7), grabbing a towel when the disciples were unwilling to budge (John 13:4,5). True leaders look for ways to get under, to influence not by position but by performance. How low can you go?

Serving requires character more than leadership skills. A psychologist who has excellent counseling skills but a messed up family can do more damage than good. Who we are often impacts people more than what we say. That is why when Paul lists fourteen qualities necessary for those aspiring to leadership in the church (I Timothy 3), at least twelve deal with character qualities rather than skills. Those who lack the necessary character are not qualified for ministries of oversight. God is concerned with what He can do to us in order to work through us. Character is shaped in the crucible of suffering, and that means going low.

One liability of leadership is wanting to be served. We may think that our vision is more important than those “under” us, that our position is more critical than theirs. And we would rather be over than under. Where people fail to respect us, we are offended. When they criticize our leadership, we judge them rather than forgive. Our offense shows that we are going high, not low.

The face of humility is courage. The Lamb of God is the Lion of Judah. The humble are the most courageous because it isn’t about them. They risk their reputation because they don’t have one.

Courage leads to insecurity, which leads to vulnerability, which leads to relationship. If you are secure, maybe you are not risking enough. The fight on the front lines can be ferocious, which produces insecurity. If intimidated by our insecurity, we back off. If we acknowledge it to others by transparency, it increases fellowship, which brings courage, enabling us to risk!


Jesus modeled leadership skills, but He taught character. Leadership training sometimes focuses on skills. When choosing a church council, for instance, the emphasis is sometimes more often on skills. I heard a pastor say, “He is not a mature Christian, but he’s good with finances.” Danger sign.

The problem: difficulties on leadership teams result more often from character flaws than inadequate skills. King Saul had some leadership skills, but he lacked character. Skills are what a leader can do; character is what a leader is. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln had both skills and sterling character, and they enjoyed great influence, unlike Bill Clinton.

I once hired a man to work with our young adults who had skills and vision. I overlooked the warning that he had some unfinished business. Remind me not to do that again.I went on promise more than performance—and regretted it. Skill does not make a leader.

Do you desire significance? You’re not alone. Two young fishermen had not only been chosen as disciples of Christ; they also found themselves a part of the inner circle. They alone saw Jesus transfigured, and they accompanied Him in the Garden. As they considered the approaching kingdom, perhaps they thought, “There are only two seats. We had better go for them before Peter grabs one.” They asked: “Let one of us sit at your right and the other at your left in your glory” (Mark 10:37).

What was good about their request? They wanted to be with Jesus.They saw that Jesus had prominence in His future. They were bold, and Jesus had said, “Ask, and it shall be given to you.” They had an ambition to be leaders, and greatness is a legitimate longing. They were thinking into the future and planning ahead. Bravo!

But their timing was clearly off. Their request came on the heels of Christ’s announcement of suffering. And it showed that they did not understand leadership—Jesus’ style.

The response was not: “You shouldn’t be making such a request.” Jesus gave them a two-fold answer. “You don’t know what you are asking. Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” (38). In effect, “You’d pay a high price for those seats.” Once they signed on, He told them that He couldn’t give them the seats anyway. It was assigned seating, and the Father did the assigning.

Courage is a function of character, not of personality, and courageous people are willing to pay the price. Leadership requires boldness, and many play it safe. Some would rather live with mediocrity than pay the price.

The other disciples heard the discussion and became indignant, probably because James and John had beaten them to it. Jesus then gave the second part of His answer, taking the normal picture of leadership and standing it on its head: “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all” (42-44).

Jesus said in effect, “It is not how high you go but how low you get.” Gentile leaders are sitters, not servers. Slaves, by contrast, have no rights, no titles, no seat, and no ambitions. They are not served; they serve. This is leadership from the bottom up, not the top down. Want to lead like Jesus?