The most critical moment in a relay race takes place when one runner passes the baton off to the next runner.
The all-important handoff.
It’s my favorite event at any track meet. Relay races are run by four-member teams. Each member is responsible for sprinting a certain distance and must pass the baton to the member waiting ahead. It may look easy. It isn’t. If the runners drop the baton during the transfer—the game is over. It doesn’t matter how fast each runner may be.
I recently discovered that in some parts of the world, the baton is called the “witness.” How appropriate is that word when applied to passing on the faith from one generation to another!
In previous posts I have suggested that the Bible stories are threaded together with hope in the promise God made in Genesis 3:15. Everything changed after Adam and Eve disobeyed God. The man, his wife, the serpent and even nature itself fell under the curse. In the midst of all these tragic consequences, however, God also promised that “the seed of the woman” would someday completely destroy the lying serpent.
Confidence or hope in that promise was passed from generation to generation through righteous people like Seth, Enoch, Noah and Abraham. There was another family line that chose to disregard God and ignore the promise. The history of the Old Testament is a record of the struggle between these two people groups. Through Abraham, the baton (or witness) was passed down through generations of Israelites. But not everyone held onto the baton. The Bible tells of many muffed handoffs—and the tragic consequences that followed. Disobeying God’s commands, despising His promises, and turning to idol worship resulted in severe consequences, including famine, invading armies and eventually exile from the Promised Land.
In these severe times of God’s discipline prophets like Isaiah would pick up the baton/witness and exhort the nation to get back on the right track. Seeking to rekindle hope when everything seemed hopeless, these godly men reminded the nation of God’s promise to send the promised seed.
This was Isaiah’s mission when Judah was facing imminent invasion from a far superior Syrian army. God sent his prophet to challenge King Ahaz to ask for a sign—for proof—that that God would deliver Judah from Syria. Ahaz had drifted so far off the path, however, that he refused to ask for a sign. Isaiah responded with these words: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, esv).
There it is! The promise that a child would be born to a virgin Jewess. He, the seed of the woman (not a man and woman) would be called Immanuel or “God with us.” Isaiah gripped the baton/witness and continued:
“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone. … For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. The Lord has sent a word against Jacob, and it will fall on Israel.” (Isaiah 9:2–8, esv)
Note the names of this unique promised child: Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of peace. How encouraging and hopeful these titles should have been to Judah, now facing military invasion from Syria. Today we recognize that child as Jesus of Nazareth.
Jeremiah, another prophet, was sent to bring hope to the people of Judah who were now living in exile in Babylon. Far from home and wondering what the future held—or if there even was a future for Judah—Jeremiah sent a message offering them hope:
“For thus says the Lord: When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will visit you, and I will fulfill to you my promise and bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you.” (Jeremiah 29:10–12, esv)
Hope that had been smoldering under a heavy blanket of despair would be reignited.
God also sent other prophets to Israel. Here’s Malachi’s warning of judgment, shot through with transcendent hope and joy.
“But for you who fear my name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings. You shall go out leaping like calves from the stall…. Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes. And he will turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction.”” (Malachi 4:1–6, esv)
That would be the last prophecy recorded in the Old Testament. There would be 400 years between the older and newer testaments without a prophet like Isaiah or Jeremiah. Four long, painful centuries scarred by invasions and occupations of foreign armies. Yet throughout those 400 years there remained a remnant, sustained by hope in Malachi’s promise that another prophet like Elijah would someday announce the arrival of the promised seed.
This small remnant of faithful believers passed the baton/witness on to give hope to their children and grandchildren.
The New Testament opens with good news about the birth of the promised seed. God, who had once walked with Adam and Eve in paradise, would now come to live among His people. Matthew begins his gospel with a long genealogy to authenticate that the promised seed was indeed a son of Abraham. Luke traces the genealogy of Jesus all the way back to Adam, who first received God’s promise that the seed of the woman would destroy the great destroyer, Satan.
With the season of Advent approaching, let’s revisit the story. Here’s Matthew’s version reaching back to Isaiah’s prophecy:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). (Matthew 1:18–23, esv)
Matthew includes the visit of Magi, who had been searching the Scriptures and the heavens for the sign promised way back in Numbers 24:17: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near: a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Numbers 24:17, esv) Matthew also records Herod’s malicious attempt to destroy the baby, the promised seed.
Luke shares the story of common shepherds receiving a birth announcement of the promised seed.
“And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:10–14, esv)
Luke also introduces us to Simeon, an old man filled with hope and clinging to the baton/witness with all the strength that remained to him. His face is weathered by harsh years. With trembling hands and throbbing heart, he holds the infant seed of the woman close to his breast. Here’s the way Luke described it:
“Now there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon, and this man was righteous and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. And he came in the Spirit into the temple, and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him according to the custom of the Law, he took him up in his arms and blessed God and said,
“Lord, now you are letting your servant depart in peace,
according to your word;
for my eyes have seen your salvation
that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and for glory to your people Israel.”
And his father and his mother marveled at what was said about him. And Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:25–35, esv)
Isn’t it a wonderful story? From Genesis through Malachi and through the 400 turbulent years between the testaments, hope in the promise survived because the baton—the witness—was never lost.
We’ll pick of the story next week and discover how hope is the thread that binds all 27 New Testament books together.