Category Archives: Christmas Topic/Theme

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY SEVEN

The One Who Became Human

Who is this God? This God is the one who became human as we became human. He is completely human. Therefore, nothing human is foreign to him. The human being that I am, Jesus Christ was also. About this human being Jesus Christ we say: this one is God. This does not mean that we already knew beforehand who God is. Nor does it mean that the statement “this human being is God” adds anything to being human. God and human being are not thought of as belonging together through a concept of nature. The statement “this human being is God” is meant entirely differently. The divinity of this human being is not something additional to the human nature of Jesus Christ. The statement “this human being is God” is the vertical from above, the statement that applies to Jesus Christ the human being, which neither adds anything nor takes anything away, but qualifies the whole human being as God.… Faith is ignited from Jesus Christ the human being.… If Jesus Christ is to be described as God, then we do not speak of his omnipotence and omniscience, but of his cradle and his cross. There is no “divine being” as omnipotence, as omnipresence.

And now Christmas is coming and you won’t be there. We shall be apart, yes, but very close together. My thoughts will come to you and accompany you. We shall sing “Friede auf Erden” [Peace on Earth] and pray together, but we shall sing “Ehre sei Gott in der Höhe!” [Glory be to God on high] even louder. That is what I pray for you and for all of us, that the Savior may throw open the gates of heaven for us at darkest night on Christmas Eve, so that we can be joyful in spite of everything.

Maria von Wedemeyer to Bonhoeffer,

December 10, 1943

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1–7[1]


You Have Fulfilled Your Ancient Promises

Genesis 3:15; 12:3; 28:14; Isaiah 9:6

O God, our Father, Redeemer, and Sanctifier, we bless you and praise you and glorify you, that you have fulfilled your ancient promises:

that He is come, the Seed of the woman, who has bruised the head of the serpent;

that He is come, in whom all the families of the earth are blessed;

that He is come whose name is called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Give us your joy this day; may we hold thankful conversation with each other, and eat our meat in gladness and singleness of heart. May we rejoice with our neighbors in your house, and send our praises up to your throne.

Henry Alford (1810–1871)

[2]


We Never Tire of Seeing God’s Glory and Majesty in the Incarnation

Psalm 8:1–4; John 1:14; 1 Corinthians 1:18–25

They who see human wonders a few times at last cease to be astonished. The noblest pile that architect ever raised at last fails to impress the onlooker. But not so this marvelous temple of incarnate Deity; the more we look at it, the more we are astonished. The more we become accustomed to it, the more we have a sense of its surpassing splendor of love and grace. There is more of God’s glory and majesty to be seen in the manger and the cross than in the sparkling stars above, the rolling deep below, the towering mountain, the teeming valleys, the abodes of life, or the abyss of death.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


We Possess God if We are United with Christ

Matthew 1:23; 10:40; Romans 6:3–5; Galatians 2:20;

Whenever we contemplate the one person of Christ as God-man, we ought to hold it for certain that, if we are united to Christ by faith, we possess God.

John Calvin (1509–1564)


We Would Have a Much Worse Time Were It Not for Christmas

Luke 2:10–11, 30–32

I do not know whether an animal killed at Christmas has had a better or a worse time than it would have had if there had been no Christmas or no Christmas dinners. But I do know that the fighting and suffering brotherhood to which I belong and owe everything, mankind, would have a much worse time if there were no such thing as Christmas or Christmas dinners.

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)


We Would Not Have Known That Christ Was Present

Isaiah 53:2; John 1:5; 20:29

We are very apt to wish we had been born in the days of Christ, and in this way we excuse our misconduct, when conscience reproaches us. We say that had we had the advantage of being with Christ, we should have had stronger motives, stronger restraints against sin. I answer that, so far from our sinful habits being reformed by the presence of Christ, the chance is that those same habits would have hindered us from recognizing Him. We should not have known He was present; and if He had even told us who He was, we should not have believed Him.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890)


What Happened to Those Who Lived Before Christ’s Birth

Matthew 13:17; John 1:14; 3:16; 8:56; Hebrews 11:13–16

From the beginning of the human race, whosoever believed in Him, and in any way knew Him, and lived in a pious and just manner according to His precepts, was undoubtedly saved by Him, in whatever time and place he may have lived. For as we believe in Him both as dwelling with the Father and as having come in the flesh, so the men of the former ages believed in Him both as dwelling with the Father and as destined to come in the flesh.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430)


What the Stable, the Manger, and the Swaddling Clothes Declare

Psalm 49:12; Daniel 5:21; Luke 10:30

The stable declares that He is preparing to cure the man that fell among robbers; His manger tells us that He will minister food to him that was compared to beasts, and made like them. His tears and His swaddling clothes cry out that He will wash and cleanse man’s wounds. Christ did not need any of these things for Himself. All were for His elect.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


Whatever Christ Did, He Did for You

Romans 5:17–19; 6:3–5; 8:1–2; Galatians 2:20; Colossians 3:3–4

Whatever Christ did, if you belong to those who are in Him, He did for you. So that Christ circumcised or Christ crucified, Christ dead or Christ living, Christ buried or Christ risen, you are a partaker of all that He did and all that He is, for you are reckoned as one with Him. See then, the joy and comfort of the incarnation of Christ. Does Jesus, as man, take manhood up to heaven? He has taken me up there. Father Adam fell, and I fell for I was in him. The Lord Jesus Christ rises, and I rise if I am in Him.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


Where Can It Be Well without Christ?

Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:25; Luke 1:34

He comes from the heart of God the Father to the womb of a virgin mother; He comes from the highest heaven to this low earth, that we whose conversation is now on earth may have Him for our most desirable companion. For where can it be well with us without Him, and where ill if He be present?

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


Who Better to Take Away Sin Than He Who Knew No Sin?

Matthew 7:3–5; John 1:29; 9:6

Behold here an Infant without stain! Behold the Lamb without spot, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world! Who could better take them away than He who knew no sin? He, indeed, can cleanse me, who has never Himself been defiled. His touch can remove the clay from my eyes, for His hand is free from the lightest dust. He can take the mote from out my eye who has no beam in His own; or, rather, He who has no smallest grain of dust in His own eye can take the beam from mine.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


Why Should Jesus Not Live in Our Rocky Hearts?

Isaiah 7:14–15; Luke 2:7; John 1:14; Ephesians 3:17

If Jesus Christ was born in a manger in a rock, why should He not come and live in our rocky hearts? If He was born in a stable, why should not the stable of our souls be made into a habitation for Him? If He was born in poverty, may not the poor in spirit expect that He will be their Friend? If He thus endured degradation at the first, will he count it any dishonor to come to the very poorest and humblest of His creatures, and tabernacle in the souls of his children? Oh, no! We can gather a lesson of comfort from his humble parentage, and we can rejoice that not a queen, or an empress, but that a humble woman became the mother of the Lord of glory.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


Why the Mediator Is Man as Well as God

1 Corinthians 15:21; 1 Timothy 2:5; Hebrews 2:14

Because the divine nature is altogether impassible, and not at all subject to grief, sorrow, or sufferings, it was therefore necessary that the Mediator between God and man should be man as well as God; for, by this ineffable union, the one nature suffers and the other supports, the one conflicts and the other conquers; and, for the payment of our debt, the one brings the ore, the other stamps it and makes it valuable. And by this means, likewise, satisfaction is made unto justice in the same nature that sinned; for, as man offended, so man also is punished. The same which made the forfeiture makes the redemption.

Ezekiel Hopkins (1634–1690)


Will Christ’s Birth Do You Any Good?

Isaiah 9:6; 1 Timothy 1:15

What does Christmas mean? Is it not the time of year when men are reminded of Christ the Savior’s birth? Are you not told to remember how Jesus came into the world to save sinners? All this is true. There is no denying it. The birth of Christ the Savior—the manhood of Christ the Savior—the salvation provided by Christ the Savior—all these are mighty facts. But after all will they profit you anything? Will they do you any good? In one word—shall you be saved?

R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)


With the Birth of Christ, the Time of Fear Is Over

Luke 2:8–14; John 1:14

Angels came to proclaim the good news of the advent of the incarnate God, and the very first note of their song was a foretaste of the sweet result of His coming to all those who shall receive Him. The angel said, “Fear not,” as though the times of fear were over, and the days of hope and joy had arrived. “Fear not.” These words were not meant for those trembling shepherds only, but were intended for you and for me, indeed all nations to whom the glad tidings shall come. “Fear not.” Let God no longer be the object of your slavish dread! Stand not at a distance from Him anymore. The Word is made flesh. God has descended to tabernacle among men, that there may be no hedge of fire, no yawning gulf between God and man.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


Working Out Salvation by Means of Our Savior

Isaiah 9:6; Philippians 2:12

To us, then, He is born, to us He is given, because by us He is so greatly needed. And since He is born of our race and given to us, let us accomplish that for which He was born and given. Let us make use of Our Own for our profit; let us work out our salvation by means of our Savior.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)

[3]


[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 62–63). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY SIX

The Unfathomably Wise Counselor

Wonderful Counselor” (Isa. 9:6) is the name of this child. In him the wonder of all wonders has taken place; the birth of the Savior-child has gone forth from God’s eternal counsel. In the form of a human child, God gave us his Son; God became human, the Word became flesh (John 1:14). That is the wonder of the love of God for us, and it is the unfathomably wise Counselor who wins us this love and saves us. But because this child of God is his own Wonderful Counselor, he himself is also the source of all wonder and all counsel. To those who recognize in Jesus the wonder of the Son of God, every one of his words and deeds becomes a wonder; they find in him the last, most profound, most helpful counsel for all needs and questions. Yes, before the child can open his lips, he is full of wonder and full of counsel. Go to the child in the manger. Believe him to be the Son of God, and you will find in him wonder upon wonder, counsel upon counsel.

In winter it seems that the season of Spring will never come, and in both Advent and Lent it’s the waiting that’s hard, the in-between of divine promise and its fulfillment.… Most of us find ourselves dangling in this hiatus, which in the interval may seem a waste of time.… But “the longer we wait, the larger we become, and the more joyful our expectancy.” With such motivation, we can wait as we sense that God is indeed with us, and at work within us, as he was with Mary as the Child within her grew.

Poet Luci Shaw, in God with Us

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

Galatians 4:4–7[1]


To Be Redeemed, We Must have the Redeemer’s Nature

Romans 5:12–18; 1 Corinthians 15:22; Hebrews 2:16

In order to be redeemed, we must all have that nature which He the Redeemer took. Had our natures been different, He would have redeemed one and not another. Such a common nature we have, as being one and all children of one man, Adam; and thus the history of our fall is connected with the history of our recovery.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890)


Today Night Is Turned into Day

Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16; Luke 2:8–14

Today the angels rejoice, the archangels exult, and all the just are in devotion and spiritual joy. Today night is turned into day and great brightness, for to the righteous of heart a light is risen up in darkness: the merciful and compassionate Lord.

Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)


Today the World’s Maker Is Born

Luke 2:8–15; John 1:14

Today the maker of the world was born of a virgin’s womb, and He, who made all natures, became son of her whom He created. Today the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and that which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well. Today the shepherds learned from angels’ voices that the Savior was born in the substance of our flesh and soul; and today the form of the gospel message was prearranged by the leaders of the Lord’s flocks, so that we too may say with the army of the heavenly host: “Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace to men of good will.”

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


Truth Came into the Womb

John 14:6; 18:37–38

Sin had spread its wings, and covered all things, so that none could discern, of himself or from above, the truth. Truth came down into the womb, came forth and rolled away error.

Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)


Understanding Spiritual Things by the Flesh

John 1:14; Romans 8:5; 1 Corinthians 2:14

Since man, on account of the flesh, could understand nothing but what was of the flesh, behold, the Word was made flesh that man might be able even by the flesh to hear and understand the things of the Spirit.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


Very God Was Born in Very Man

Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:35; Philippians 2:6–7

While the distinctness of both natures and substances was preserved, and both met in one Person, lowliness was assumed by majesty, weakness by power, mortality by eternity; and, in order to pay the debt of our condition, the inviolable nature was united to the passible.… Therefore in the entire and perfect nature of very man was born very God, whole in what was His, whole in what was ours.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


We Cannot Be Saved without Humility

Luke 1:38

We can be saved without virginity, not without humility. A soul that has to deplore the loss of virginity may still be acceptable to God by humility: without humility, I will venture to say that even the virginity of Mary would not have been pleasing to Him, the Divine Majesty.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


We Are Now Reminded of God’s Gifts

Luke 2:10; John 13:34–35; 15:12, 17; 1 John 3:23; Revelation 19:13

Let us at this season approach Him with awe and love, in whom resides all perfection, and from whom we are allowed to gain it. Let us come to the sanctifier to be sanctified. Let us come to Him to learn our duty, and to receive grace to do it. At other seasons of the year we are reminded of watching, toiling, struggling, and suffering; but at this season we are reminded simply of God’s gifts towards us sinners.… Christ comes at other times with garments dyed in blood. But now He comes to us in all serenity and peace, and He bids us rejoice in Him, and to love one another.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890)


We Are One with Christ, and One with God

Isaiah 7:14; 49:10; Matthew 1:23; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 1:22; 4:15; 5:23, 31–32; Colossians 1:18

Emmanuel became man to make the church and every Christian to be one with Him. Christ’s nature is out of danger of all that is hurtful. The sun shall not shine, the wind shall not blow, to the church’s hurt. For the church’s head rules over all things, and has all things in subjection. Angels in heaven, men on earth, devils in hell, all bow to Christ. And shall anything befall them that He loves, unless for their greater good?… God is on our side, and on what grounds? God-man has procured Him to be our friend, He has satisfied God, and therefore if we believe, we are one with Christ, and so one with God.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635)


We Become His Body by Being Reborn

John 1:13; Ephesians 4:15; Colossians 1:18; 2:19

As the Lord Jesus became our flesh by being born, so we also became His body by being reborn.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


We Can No Longer Think God Is Indifferent

Isaiah 64:1; Luke 1:68; Hebrews 7:25; James 4:8

We can no more think that God sits on high, indifferent to the wants and woes of men, for God has visited us and come down to the lowliness of our estate. No longer need we bemoan that we can never participate in the moral glory and purity of God, for if God in glory can come down to His sinful creature, it is certainly less difficult to bear that creature, blood-washed and purified, up that starry way, that the redeemed one may sit down forever on his throne. Let us dream no longer in somber sadness that we cannot draw near to God so that He will really hear our prayer and pity our necessities, seeing that Jesus has become bone of our bone and flesh of our flesh, born a babe as we are born, living a man as we must live, bearing the same infirmities and sorrows, and bowing His head to the same death.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


We Could Not See God Until He Was Manifested to Us

Exodus 33:20; 1 Timothy 6:16; 1 John 4:9

The brightness of the sun might put out our eyes if we gazed upon it, and we must needs look through dim glass, and then the sun is manifested to us. So the excessive glory of the infinite Godhead cannot be borne by our mind’s eye till it comes into communication and union with the nature of man, and then God is manifest to us.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


We Enter the Kingdom in Feebleness

Matthew 18:4; Mark 10:15; Luke 18:17; Romans 6:8; Colossians 3:3

We need to die with Christ—that is the way to get delivered from the old man and self, the way to receive the heavenly life as a little child, and so to enter the Kingdom. The feebleness of Bethlehem and the manger, of Calvary and the grave, was Christ’s way to enter the Kingdom—for us there is no other way.

Andrew Murray (1828–1917)


We May Call God Our Father Because Christ Became Our Brother

Luke 1:35; John 20:17; Romans 8:29

We may venture more freely to call God our Father, because His only Son, in order that we might have a Father in common with Him, chose to be our brother.

John Calvin (1509–1564)[2]


We Remember the Love of Jesus

Matthew 26:36–39; Mark 14:32–36; John 3:16; Romans 8:34

We remember your love, O Jesus, as it was manifested to us in your holy life, from the manger of Bethlehem to the garden of Gethsemane!

We track you from the cradle to the grave, for every word and every deed of yours was love.

Especially, O Jesus, we remember your love to us upon the cross!

We gaze upon you with your hands and your feet nailed to the accursed tree.

We remember your love that you manifested through your poor, bleeding hands, and feet, and side.

We remember this love of yours until it invigorates and cheers us:

the love that you have exercised since your death,

the love of your resurrection,

the love that prompts you continually to intercede before your Father’s throne,

that burning lamp of love that will never let you hold your peace until your chosen ones are all safely housed, and Zion is glorified, and the spiritual Jerusalem is settled on her everlasting foundations.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)[3]


[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 60–61). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

Christmas: Celebrate His Love (Part 10)

The Bible and the New Year

In this lesson we look to the new year ahead and consider the tremendous changes we might experience through a fresh commitment to the Word of God.

Outline

As we begin to think about the new year ahead, we are reminded again of what the Bible really does for us as God’s people. The Bible has a unique ministry in all of our lives, and there would be no better plan for the next 365 days than to make a fresh commitment to read, study, and apply the Word of God.

  1. What the Bible Is for You
a.    It Is a Sword

b.   It Is a Mirror

c.    It Is a Hammer

d.   It Is Water

e.    It Is Seed

f.     It Is Silver

 

g.    It Is Fire

h.   It Is a Lamp

i.     It Is Bread

j.     It Is Honey

k.    It Is Milk

l.     It Is Gold

 

 

2. What the Bible Will Do for You

  • Produce Spiritual Growth
  • Provide Cleansing
  • Prevent You from Sinning
  • Protect You from Satan
  • Protect You from Discouragement
  • Promote Success in Whatever You Do
  • Prepare You for Powerful Praying
  • Point the Way to Salvation

Overview

What the Bible Is for You

In order to convey to us what the Bible does in a believer’s life, the writers of the Word of God, by inspiration of the Holy Spirit, used a number of beautiful metaphors.

The Word of God Is a Sword

The Word of God is called a sword because of its piercing ability, operating with equal effectiveness upon Sinners, Saints, and Satan!

For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart (Hebrews 4:12).

The Word of God Is a Mirror

The Word is called a mirror because it reflects the mind of God and the true condition of man:

For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man observing his natural face in a mirror; for he observes himself, goes away, and immediately forgets what kind of man he was. But he who looks into the perfect law of liberty and continues in it, and is not a forgetful hearer but a doer of the work, this one will be blessed in what he does (James 1:23–25).

The Word of God Is a Hammer

How many of us have been “hammered” by the Word of God? It drives home and breaks up the stony hearts that we have. The Scriptures say: “Is not My word like … a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?” (Jeremiah 23:29). The Word of God is referred to as a hammer because of its ability both to tear down and to build up!

The Word of God Is Water

The Word of God is called water because of its cleansing, quenching, and refreshing qualities—“That He might sanctify and cleanse [the church] with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26).

The Word of God Is Seed

The Word of God is called seed because, once properly planted, it brings forth life, growth, and fruit: “Having been born again, not of corruptible seed, but incorruptible, through the word of God which lives and abides forever” (1 Peter 1:23).

The Word of God Is Silver

The Word is like silver because of its desirability, its preciousness, its beauty, and its value: “The words of the Lord are pure words, like silver tried in a furnace of earth, purified seven times” (Psalm 12:6).

The Word of God Is Fire

The Word of God is called fire because of its judging, purifying, and consuming abilities: “But His word was in my heart like a burning fire …” (Jeremiah 20:9).

The Word of God Is a Lamp

The Word is called a lamp because it shows us where we are now, it guides us to the next step, and it keeps us from falling: “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).

The Word of God Is Bread

The Word is like bread that gives everlasting satisfaction to all who are hungry: “I am the living bread which came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever; and the bread that I shall give is My flesh, which I shall give for the life of the world” (John 6:51).

The Word of God Is Honey

The Word of God is like honey bringing the sweet comfort of God’s love to all who taste: “More to be desired are they than gold … sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb” (Psalm 19:10).

The Word of God Is Milk

The Word is like milk, nourishing the soul to spiritual growth: “As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).

The Word of God Is Gold

The Word of God is like gold because of its desirability, beauty, and value: “Therefore I love Your commandments more than gold, yes, than fine gold!” (Psalm 119:127).

Those are just a few of the pictures of the Bible in the Scripture. There are many more. But all of those metaphors are to help us understand the value and the preciousness and the importance of God’s wonderful word in our lives.

What the Bible Will Do for You

Today, however, we have lost much of that. We have taken the Bible out of the public life of American culture, and look what has happened to us. Look where we are today because God’s Word has been removed from the fabric of our society.

But far more disastrous than that, the Word of God has seemed to drop out of the lives of many of the people who claim to be God’s people. Therefore at this time of year it would be good for us to examine a number of reasons why we should read the Word of God.

If we begin to understand how this Book can change our lives, it will continue to change our lives even today. Even this week. The Word of God is a powerful tool, a change agent in the life of anyone who will take it seriously. So I would like to offer my top eight reasons why we should read the Word of God.

It Will Produce Spiritual Growth

Every year at this time, I take a little inventory and ask myself, “Have I grown in the Lord this year? Has there been growth in my life?”

There is absolutely no human way we will ever grow in our faith apart from a personal, disciplined reading and studying of the Word of God. There is no other means of growth. Consider what the Word of God says:

“As newborn babes, desire the pure milk of the word, that you may grow thereby” (1 Peter 2:2).

“All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Look at that verse and see how the Word of God helps you grow. First, the Word of God is profitable for doctrine—it shows you the right way to go.

And then it is profitable for reproof—to convict you when you get off that path.

And then it is profitable for correction—to show you how to get back on the path you left.

And then it is profitable for instruction in righteousness—to show you, in a positive way, how to stay on that path in the future.

That’s how we grow. That’s a great reason to read the Word of God.

It Will Provide Cleansing for Your Life

How many of us know that we live in a toxic environment? Not just physically toxic, but spiritually toxic. Everywhere we go somebody is trying to put something into our hearts, something into our lives, that’s going to begin to erode our spiritual walk with the Lord. How do we cleanse our lives from that? How do we keep our lives from being overwhelmed by the toxicity of the world in which we live?

“That He [Christ] might sanctify and cleanse it [the Church] with the washing of water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26).

Jesus, speaking to His disciples, says, “You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).

The Word of God cleanses our hearts! If we bring the Word of God in, it pushes out the toxicity that we have gathered through the world, cleansing our hearts and making us clean.

Listen to what David said in Psalm 119:9: “How can a young man cleanse his way? By taking heed according to Your word.”

In John 17:17, the Lord Jesus prayed that this would be true in our lives in His high-priestly prayer: “Sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth.”

It Will Prevent You from Sinning

If you get into the Word of God, you won’t sin nearly as much as if you don’t. The Word of God will prevent you from sinning. That’s what David meant again when he said, “Your word I have hidden in my heart, that I might not sin against You” (Psalm 119:11).

The more you are in the Word of God, the more sensitive you become to those things which can lead you astray. It is awfully difficult to spend an hour or two in the Word of God in the morning, and then walk away from that and begin to violate principles that you know are a part of God’s truth. The Word of God empowers you to do the right thing, so you don’t end up violating what you know to be true.

“Direct my steps by Your word, and let no iniquity have dominion over me” (Psalm 119:133).

“The law of his God is in his heart; none of his steps shall slide” (Psalm 37:31).

The more you get into the Word of God and study it, the more it will help you to stay away from things that will ultimately destroy you.

It Will Protect You from Satan

The Word of God is the greatest protection you have. Of course, someone might say, “I don’t believe in Satan.”

That, however, doesn’t make any difference. He is real anyway. Satan is alive and well, and we are in a daily warfare against the enemy of our souls. Satan goes around as a roaring lion seeking whom he may devour. He wants to take you and drown any influence you have. He wants to ruin you for anything you ever want to do for the Lord.

So how do you protect yourself against Satan? Let’s look at the Lord Jesus Christ, who was taken to the desert and was tempted. How did the Lord meet the temptation?

In Matthew 4:4–10, Jesus fought the enemy with the Word of God. If you know God’s Word and you are in the Word of God, you put Satan at a disadvantage because you have the power of God’s Word working in your life.

It Will Protect You from Discouragement

There were two disciples on one occasion who left Jerusalem after the Crucifixion. They were depressed and discouraged because they thought it was “all over.” Christ had died, and they did not know that He was resurrected. They were walking toward Emmaus talking about their hopelessness and they were sad and depressed and discouraged about the situation they saw. Then all of a sudden Jesus came alongside and began to talk with them. And after Jesus had encouraged them, they said, “Did not our heart burn within us while He talked with us on the road, and while He opened the Scriptures to us?” (Luke 24:32).

When you get to the point where you’re discouraged and don’t know what to do, go to the Friend that sticks closer than a brother, and listen to His Word. If you will discipline yourself to do that, you will discover like these disciples that your heart will begin to burn within you. God’s Word will come in, dissipate those discouraging thoughts, take away the things that would drive you down, and begin to lift you up. God’s Word has the power to protect you from discouragement.

It Will Promote Success in Whatever You Do

Being in the Word of God gives you the opportunity to be more successful than you would ever be otherwise.

In fact, Psalm 1:1–3 tells us:

Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stands in the path of sinners, nor sits in the seat of the scornful; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law he meditates day and night. He shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of water, that brings forth its fruit in its season, whose leaf also shall not wither; and whatever he does shall prosper.

Whenever you are in the Word of God, you are in a position to be successful in what you do. And if we use the Word of God’s definition of success, we can really see how that works. The Word of God promises us that when we make it the substance of our life, it will help us to succeed in what we do.

It Will Prepare You for Powerful Praying

Consider John 15:7: “If you abide in Me, and My words abide in you, you will ask what you desire, and it shall be done for you.”

How does that work? It helps you to know what to ask for. When you read the Word of God, you get a sense of God’s will, and when you ask in God’s will, He gives it to you. So it will prepare you for how you are to pray.

It Will Point the Way to Salvation

That’s what this Book is all about. Paul wrote to young Timothy, “… as for you, continue in the things which you have learned and been assured of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the Holy Scriptures, which are able to make you wise for salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 3:14–15).

How does a person become a Christian? Through this Book. The plan of salvation is in this Book. Christ died for you and for your sin, and He paid the penalty that you should have paid, and He died on the cross for you. That message is in this Book.

Are you in the Word? If not, start now reading the Word of God. Find some time in the morning to spend a few moments with God and his Word.

Now, if you are not a Christian, you won’t have the motivation to do that. Further, you won’t understand a word of it when you read it. If you aren’t a Christian, you don’t have the ability to comprehend the Word of God as He meant it to be understood. The first step in understanding the Word of God is knowing the God of the Word. And you can’t know Him unless you put your trust in Jesus Christ as your personal savior.

You can do that through a simple prayer. Say, “Lord God, I come to You on this first Sunday of the New Year to give my heart to You. I ask You to forgive my sin and cleanse my life, and I accept Your free gift of eternal life which You died to provide for me.”

Christ will come into your life if you will let Him, if you will ask Him. As we begin to think about the New Year ahead, we are reminded again of what the Bible really does for us as God’s people. The Bible has a unique ministry in all of our lives. And the Bible will come alive for you.

Application

  1. If the Bible is everything mentioned in this lesson, why do you think Christians tend to neglect it? Name as many reasons as you can think of.
  2. What do the following passages indicate about the connection between God and His Word, or between knowing God and knowing His Word:
  3. John 1:1–2, 14
  4. John 17:17
  5. 1 John 5:7
  6. Revelation 19:13
  7. Read Mark 12:30, then read Psalm 119:97; 119:113; 119:163. Why is the Psalmist not guilty of idolatry (for loving the Word)?
  8. What is the means of spiritual growth and maturity, according to:
  9. Hebrews 5:12–14
  10. 1 Peter 2:2
  11. What do you think Paul is admonishing Timothy to do in 2 Timothy 2:15? Is this something only for select Christians, or for all Christians?
  12. Turn to Psalm 119 and, taking no more than five minutes for each, find:
  13. As many different names for the Word of God as you can.
  14. As many benefits of the Word of God as you can.
  15. Briefly write out, for your eyes only, your personal desires and goals for the coming year, in relation to God’s Word and your commitment to it. Tape it inside your Bible where you can find it easily, and read it at least once per week for the coming year.

Did You Know?

Until publication of the King James Bible in the early 1500s, it was unusual for anyone to possess the Scriptures in the common language. Even then, initial publication was one Bible per official (state-approved) church, kept either under lock and key, or permanently attached to an immovable pulpit. It would be another 200 years or so before individually printed Bibles would begin making their way into the hands and homes of “everyday” Christians—and then largely for the rich alone.

Of course, with the colonization of America, Bibles began making their way to the New World, but only sparsely until printing houses were established and Bibles became an affordable commodity.

That means that the availability of personal Bibles is, in the grand scheme of church history, a fairly recent phenomenon. Even more recent is the phenomenon of multiple personal Bibles—which sit on shelves, collecting dust, and remaining largely unread and unstudied.

It’s hard to believe that only 500 years or so in the past, Christians died for proposing the right to personal study of the Scriptures; and today Christians are effectively dead for a lack of it.

May it not be so in the year ahead![1]

 

[1] Jeremiah, D. (1999). Celebrate his love: Study guide (pp. 124–138). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Christmas: God In The Manger (Part 11)

The Superiority of Jesus Christ

The true christian should never take the story of Christ’s birth for granted. Even when reread from the human perspective, the narrative of Christ’s entrance into this world ought to remain for-ever fresh, fascinating, and awe-inspiring. There’s the amazing appearance of the angel Gabriel to Mary to announce that she would bear God’s Son. There’s the intriguing interaction between Mary and Elizabeth (with a Spirit-inspired response from the unborn John the Baptist) as Mary sought confirmation of Gabriel’s news. Then there is the unprecedented account of the angels’ nighttime appearance to the shepherds right after Jesus was born. And finally, there are the varied and profound human responses to the significance of Christ’s birth, from the divinely directed mission of the wise men to Simeon’s Spirit-filled pronouncement at the temple.

All those events, as uplifting as we’ve found them in our study of the Incarnation, come only from the human perspective. But there is another absolutely essential viewpoint of Christ’s birth that we must not omit—God’s perspective. And you find that perspective in the New Testament Epistles. When the inspired writers of those letters look back to the birth of Jesus Christ, all they discuss is the person of Christ, which is very fitting because in the Gospel narratives there is no in-depth description or explanation of the Child Himself. There is not even a description of His physical appearance that would distinguish Him as divine rather than human. But the Epistles continually look back at the birth and life of Christ from God’s perspective. They go beyond the human perspective of a baby in the manger to the divine perspective of His person and work.

For instance, Romans 1 asserts that Jesus was both the Son of David and the Son of God. Galatians 4:4 says that in the fullness of time God brought forth His Son, born of a woman and subject to the Law. Ephesians 3 introduces the concept of the mystery of Christ, that God has now revealed the truth of His Son in human flesh to the Jews and the Gentiles (cf. 1 Tim. 3). Philippians 2 teaches us that Christ during His Incarnation laid aside the form of deity and took on the form of humanity to die on the cross. Colossians 2 makes the sweeping and profound statement that the fullness of the Godhead dwelt bodily in Jesus Christ. But there is one other crowning passage among those that provides divine insight into the person of Jesus Christ—Hebrews 1. I believe that it is particularly important to understand this passage if we would have a complete grasp of the significance of Christ’s birth.

A Brief Introduction to Hebrews

The letter to the Hebrews, written about a.d. 67–69 by an unidentified author, was obviously written to Jews, mostly true believers in Jesus. Its purpose was to show them that Jesus Christ is in fact the fulfillment of all the Old Testament Messianic promises and that He is superior to all the pictures, types, representations, and shadows that preceded Him. The Epistle was written to assure believing Jews that their faith was rightly placed and to encourage unbelieving Jews that embracing Jesus was the right commitment to make. Many in the community were intellectually convinced Jesus was the Messiah and God, but they had not yet personally believed and publicly confessed Him as Lord. They didn’t want to be alienated like their believing friends had been. Some had been put out of the synagogue, some had been ostracized by their families, and others had lost their jobs.

In view of those fears and uncertainties, the writer of Hebrews wanted to encourage the Jews that in the long run they were not losing anything by embracing Jesus and confessing Him as Lord. The things they might have to give up in this life were worth it compared to what they would gain in full atonement for their sins and complete access to the very presence of God forever. So the writer affirms that the Babe born in Bethlehem is the Messiah and that He is indeed the Lord of a New Covenant, which is far superior to the Old Covenant of Moses.

Hebrews 1:1–3 launches right into the purpose of the Epistle: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.”

Here again in a few short verses is an insightful, divine description of who the baby born in Bethlehem really is. It is probably the most concise and comprehensive New Testament summary statement of the superiority of Christ. And the writer includes three key features in composing his classic statement: the preparation for Christ, the presentation of Christ, and the preeminence of Christ.

The Preparation for Christ

Hebrews 1:1 refers to the Old Testament as it focuses on the preparation for Christ: “God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets.” The Old Testament was simply God speaking to the Jewish people (“the fathers”) through the prophets in many different ways and at a number of different times.

The prophets were men who spoke for God, and they did so “at various times,” which actually means “portions” (nasb) or “segments.” In other words, God’s Spirit spoke through the Old Testament writers in thirty-nine different books. And these books come to us in various literary forms: Much of the literature is narrative prose and history, much is prophecy, some is poetry, and a little appears as the Law.

Furthermore, God’s servants received His words “in various ways,” or by different methods. Sometimes He spoke to them directly in audible words. At other times He spoke to them indirectly and prompted their minds with the thoughts He wanted conveyed. Then there were other methods by which God communicated His truth—parables, types, symbols, ceremonies, and even stone tablets (the Ten Commandments). But all of it was inspired, inerrant, and truly what God wanted written, the way He wanted it written.

The Old Testament is basically progressive revelation; it moves from a lesser degree of completeness to a fuller degree of completeness. It begins with what the apostle Paul later called the basic elements (Gal. 4:3, 9; Col. 2:8, 20), the early rules and regulations under the Law. Then it spells things out in greater detail through types and ceremonies. Finally, the prophetic books develop a more complete understanding of God’s redemptive program (1 Pet. 1:10–12).

The writer of Hebrews and other New Testament writers recognized that all those features of the Old Testament affirmed its divine character. When Paul wrote, “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God” (2 Tim. 3:16), he was referring to the Old Testament. And when Peter said, “No prophecy of Scripture is of any private interpretation … but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (2 Pet. 1:20–21), he too was talking about the Old Testament.

And by affirming its features and character, the writer of Hebrews shows that the Old Testament is the preparation for Christ, because he also knew that its theme was Jesus Christ. From Genesis 3:15 (the first allusion to Christ and the gospel) to Malachi 4:1–3 (a reference to Christ’s returning in judgment against the ungodly), the Lord Jesus is the subject all the way through the Old Testament. He’s the One pictured in the sacrifices and ceremonies detailed in the five books of Moses. He’s the great Prophet and King who’s promised time and again (Num. 24:17; Deut. 18:15, 18; Ps. 2:6; 24:7–10; 45:6; 89:27; Isa. 9:7; 32:1; 42:1–2; 52:7; 61:1; Jer. 23:5; Dan. 7:14; Mic. 5:2; Zech. 9:9).

However, the Old Testament preparation for Christ is incomplete and fragmentary. Not one of its books or writers presents the entire picture of the Savior. We get only a partial view here and a partial insight there—and the inspired writers present those over a fifteen-hundred-year period. As the apostle Peter says, “Of this salvation the prophets have inquired and searched carefully, who prophesied of the grace that would come to you, searching what, or what manner of time, the Spirit of Christ who was in them was indicating when He testified beforehand the sufferings of Christ and the glories that would follow” (1 Pet. 1:10–11). The prophets couldn’t sort everything out; they wondered exactly whom they were writing about and precisely when everything would occur.

The Old Testament’s progressive revelation prepared its readers for the coming of Christ. But no one saw a complete picture of the Messiah until He actually came in the New Testament.

The Presentation of Christ

The writer of Hebrews affirms that Christ is the full revelation of God when he says that God “has in these last days spoken to us by His Son” (1:2). When Jesus came, God presented the entire picture. Christ revealed God fully by being fully God. “For in Him [Christ] dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily” (Col. 2:9).

We can see in Christ everything we need to know about God. That includes the full array of God’s attributes—such characteristics as omniscience, miracle-working power, the ability to heal the sick and raise the dead, compassion for sinners, and the desire for justice and holiness.

And all of that was evident “in these last days,” a familiar phrase the Jews would have understood as meaning the Messianic age. Thus, in the time of Messiah, God ceased speaking in fragments and instead presented His complete revelation in the person of His Son. That, of course, established Jesus as superior to previous revelation. The incomplete Old Testament issued from the prophets, who were sinful men. In contrast, the complete and final New Testament came forth in the person of the sinless Son of God. Jesus Christ, as the full expression of His Father, could say, “‘He who has seen Me has seen the Father’” (John 14:9).

The Preeminence of Christ

Once the writer of Hebrews presents Jesus as God’s Son, he immediately gives us a sevenfold summary of the preeminence of Jesus Christ: “whom He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:2–3). That is the grand summation and definitive listing of the characteristics that really identify the Child who entered the world at Bethlehem. Anyone who truly confesses Jesus as Lord and Savior affirms the truth of each of those elements. That’s why it’s important to take a brief look at each one.

Christ is the Heir of All Things

The first aspect of Jesus Christ’s preeminence concerns His inheritance: “whom He has appointed heir of all things.” That is an unqualified statement asserting that God has planned for Jesus ultimately to inherit absolutely everything. It adheres to Jewish inheritance laws that said the firstborn child received the wealth of the family’s estate.

Because Jesus is the only begotten Son of God, He is logically the firstborn Son as well. Therefore, Christ is the heir of all that God has. The psalmist predicted this very reality, “I [God] will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession” (Ps. 2:8). Everything in the created order, whether the material or spiritual world—everything God has ever created—belongs to Jesus Christ.

It’s amazing to think that a Galilean carpenter, crucified on a cross outside Jerusalem, is actually the heir to the universe. Admittedly, when Jesus was on earth He owned little or nothing. One thing He did own was His cloak, and the Roman soldiers gambled for ownership of that while He was on the cross. He was even buried in a borrowed grave. But some day, all that exists will belong to Christ, and everyone—people, angels, and all powers in the universe—will bow before Him. “At the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth” (Phil. 2:10).

It’s also incredible to realize that believers will be joint heirs with Christ: “The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16–17). If you know Christ, you are a part of His bride, the church, and He, the Bridegroom, allows you to share His inheritance. And someday you will see Him return as King of kings and Lord of lords to make final claim of His inheritance and exercise sovereign, everlasting rule over all that exists. Therefore, once you say Jesus is Lord, you also say He is the heir of all things.

Christ is the Agent of Creation

The second preeminence of Christ listed in Hebrews 1 is His power in creation: “through whom also He made the worlds” (v. 2). That statement is perfectly consistent with John 1:3, “All things were made through Him, and without Him nothing was made that was made” (Col. 1:16; Heb. 11:3). Jesus created everything, both the material and nonmaterial parts of the universe. And His creatorship is a characteristic of our Lord—second only to His sinlessness—that really sets Him apart from us.

The Greek word rendered “worlds” in Hebrews 1:2 does not mean the material world but “the ages,” as it is usually translated elsewhere. Christ created not only the physical earth, but also time, space, energy, and every variety of matter. He effortlessly created the entire universe and finished it as something good. For that reason the creation, which was marred by humanity’s sin, longs to be restored to what it was originally (Rom. 8:22)—and one day Christ will create a new and perfect heaven and earth.

Christ Possesses the Brightness of God’s Glory

The writer of Hebrews further establishes the preeminence of Christ by citing that He is “the brightness of His [God’s] glory.” “Brightness,” which may also be translated “radiance” (nasb) and literally means “to send forth light,” indicates that Jesus is the manifestation of God to us. Just as the sun’s rays illuminate and warm the earth, Christ is God’s glorious light that shines into the hearts of people. And as the sun cannot be separated from its brightness, so God cannot be separated from the glory of Christ. Yet the brightness of the sun is not the sun, and in the same sense, neither is the brightness of Christ God. That does not mean that Christ is not fully and absolutely God. It simply means the Son of God is a distinct person within the Godhead.

Jesus Christ is the radiance of who God is, and He affirmed that fact during His earthly ministry: “‘I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life’” (John 8:12). Christ can transmit that light into our lives so that we can radiate the glory of God to others. God sent His glorious light, in the person of Jesus Christ, into a morally dark world to call sinners to Himself. No one would ever be able to see or enjoy God’s true radiance if it weren’t for His Son and those who know Him.

It is truly a blessing to know that Jesus Christ can come into your life and give you the spiritual light to see and believe God. Jesus’ brightness points you to salvation, which in turn results in purpose, peace, joy, and genuine fellowship for all eternity.

Christ is the Essence of God

Hebrews 1:3 goes on to declare a fourth element of the preeminence of Christ, namely, “the express image of His person.” Jesus possesses the essential nature or being of God the Father. That is, He has all the attributes that are indispensable to who and what God is, such as immutability (unchangeableness), omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence. He is the exact stamp or replication of God. In the words of the Nicene Creed, Jesus Christ is “very God of very God.”

The apostle Paul teaches us basically the same truth in Colossians 1:15, “He is the image of the invisible God.” Here, unlike Hebrews 1:3, the Greek word translated “image” is eikon, from which we get the English term icon, meaning a precise copy or reproduction. But both verses communicate the same truth. Christ possesses the essential nature of God and manifests the communicable attributes of God. In His being, Jesus is what God is, and in His person He displays that essence to everyone who sees Him.

Whenever people talk about the baby in the manger, they are talking about none other than God.

Christ Has Ultimate Authority

Fifth in the list of Christ’s preeminent qualities is that He has always been “upholding all things by the word of His power” (Heb. 1:3). As we have already seen, He is the Creator of the entire universe, material and nonmaterial. But Christ’s authority does not stop there. He upholds and sustains all that He has created.

Christ follows the principle of cohesion; He makes the universe a cosmos instead of chaos. He infallibly ensures that the universe runs as an ordered, reliable unit instead of as an erratic, unpredictable muddle. That’s because our Lord has devised and implemented the myriad natural laws, both complex and straightforward, that are all perfectly reliable, consistent, and precisely suited to their particular purposes. Time and again they wonderfully demonstrate the mind and power of Jesus Christ working through the universe.

No scientist, mathematician, astronomer, or nuclear physicist could do anything or discover anything apart from the sustaining power and authority of Christ. The whole universe hangs on His powerful arm, His infinite wisdom, and His ability to control every element and orchestrate the movements of every molecule, atom, and subatomic particle.

For example, if the size of the earth’s orbit around the sun increased or decreased even the slightest amount, we would soon fatally freeze or fry. If the earth’s angle of tilt went beyond its present range even slightly, that would drastically disrupt the familiar four-season cycle and threaten to end life on the planet. Similarly, if the moon’s orbit around the earth diminished, the ocean tides would greatly increase and cause unimaginable havoc. And if our atmosphere thinned just a little, many of the thousands of meteors that now enter it and harmlessly incinerate before striking the ground would crash to the surface with potentially catastrophic results.

Jesus Christ prevents such disasters by perfectly maintaining the universe’s intricate balance. The most astronomical distances and largest objects are not beyond His control. The most delicate and microscopic processes do not escape His attention. He is the preeminent power and authority who nevertheless came to earth in human form, assuming a servant’s role.

Christ Removes Our Sins

The sixth aspect of Christ’s preeminence deals directly with our salvation. Hebrews 1:3 expresses it this way, “He had by Himself purged our sins.” Jesus, by His atoning death, brought about the purging or cleansing of our sins. That is what we needed most, and only the Lord Jesus could meet the need.

The Old Testament priests offered animal sacrifices over and over, but none of those could ultimately remove the people’s sins. Those repeated sacrifices instead merely pointed to the desperate need for a once-for-all sacrifice that could finally take away sins. And God provided such a sacrifice in the person of Jesus. As the writer of Hebrews later wrote, “So Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many” (9:28); “for by one offering He has perfected forever those who are being sanctified” (10:14).

In keeping with the Old Testament Law that the sacrificial lamb had to be spotless, the final New Covenant sacrifice had to be a perfect, sinless substitute. To pay the price of sin for others, he had to be perfect or he would have had to pay the price for his own sin. And since no one in the world is without sin, the substitute had to be someone from outside the world. Yet he still needed to be a man to die in the place of men and women.

Of course, the only person who could meet those requirements was Jesus Christ. He was the sinless man who could be the perfect substitute for sinners. By offering Himself to die on the cross, He took the full wrath of God for sinners like you and me. That wrath, which was originally directed toward us, was then satisfied. Thus God can forgive you because Christ paid the penalty for your sin.

So one of the preeminent glories of Christ is that, as the God-Man, He came to die for sinners. And He died on the cross to accomplish redemption. Immediately prior to His death, Jesus uttered these profound words, “‘It is finished!’” (John 19:30); once and for all He paid the price for sins for everyone who would ever believe in Him.

Christ is Exalted in Heaven

The author concludes his marvelous outline of the preeminence of Christ by affirming His exaltation: “[He] sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high” (1:3).

Christ’s ministry on earth ended forty days after His resurrection when He ascended into heaven (Acts 1:9–11). And when He returned there, God seated Him at His right hand (Ps. 110:1; Heb. 1:13; 8:1; 10:12; 12:2), which always symbolized the side of power, authority, prominence, and preeminence (Rom. 8:34; 1 Pet. 3:22). Paul says that at that point God gave Him a name above all names—“Lord,” which is the New Testament synonym for Old Testament descriptions of God as sovereign ruler (Phil. 2:9–11).

When Jesus went into heaven, He did what no Old Testament priest ever did—He sat down. They never sat down while ministering because their work was never done. But Christ’s work was done; He had accomplished the work of redemption on the Cross, and therefore it was appropriate for Him to sit down. He remains on the right hand of the throne of God as the believer’s great High Priest and Intercessor (Heb. 7:25; 9:24).

Jesus Christ is Superior to the Angels

The writer of Hebrews hardly needed to tell his Jewish readers any more concerning the magnificent preeminence of Christ. But just to underscore the truth of Jesus’ supremacy, the writer sets forth another persuasive point—this one more expansive than the others—beginning in 1:4–5, “Having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they. For to which of the angels did He ever say: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?”

At Bethlehem the night of Jesus’ birth, the heavenly host that appeared above the shepherds’ field might have been more impressive than a humble Child wrapped in cloths and lying in a feed trough. Such a baby was not recognizable as God, but He was God nonetheless and therefore superior to any array of angels. And that’s what the writer sought to convince the Jews of as he contrasted Christ to the angels.

Jewish Beliefs Concerning Angels

The Jews in biblical times greatly esteemed angels. Every devout Jew knew about the angels’ important role in God’s unfolding purpose among humanity. The Jews believed angels surrounded God’s throne and worshiped Him (Isaiah 6). They also believed angels were messengers who did God’s work and occasionally came to earth to mediate between God and mankind, as occurred with Abraham and Lot (Gen. 18:1–19:29) and Daniel (Dan. 8:15–27).

But most important, the Jews believed angels were the divinely sent agents who delivered the Old Covenant, the Mosaic Law. They knew the Law was a holy and righteous reflection of God’s will, and they tried to live by it (which meant, unfortunately, that many of them saw the Law as their means of salvation).

So the Jews had great reverence for angels. In fact, they had so much respect that they revered no one but God more.

With that in mind, the writer of Hebrews argues that Jesus has a much better and more excellent name than the angels. “For to which of the angels did He ever say: ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?” (1:5). The answer to that rhetorical question is quite obviously, “None.” So if Jesus had that kind of advantage over all the angels, the Jews had to infer His superiority; and they knew that if anyone is superior to the angels, he has to be God.

How is Christ Superior to the Angels?

Because serious-minded Jews had such great reverence and respect for the position of angels and the place of the Old Testament, the writer worked extra diligently to nail down his argument concerning Christ’s superiority. It was essential for his Jewish readers to see that Messiah is better than the bearers and mediators of the Old Testament. The author establishes that point by concluding chapter 1 with an effective use of seven Old Testament passages.

If he had tried to prove his case from Christian writings, his audience could easily have said, “We don’t accept those documents as coming from God; therefore, we reject your argument.” So he wisely and skillfully demonstrated directly from key Old Testament verses five ways that Christ is superior to the angels.

First of all, Jesus is superior by virtue of His name. We’ve already had a glimpse of this truth in 1:4, “Having become so much better than the angels, as He has by inheritance obtained a more excellent name than they.” Jesus has a better name because He has inherited it from God the Father. He can make a legitimate claim to that better name because of His essential nature, as verse 5 says, “For to which of the angels did He ever say: “‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You’?” Generally, angels and people are sons of God simply because God created them. But He never told a single one of the angels that he was a son who proceeded from Him. He reserved that designation for Christ alone.

By saying, “You are My Son,” God revealed that Jesus shared the same essence as the Father. And the Jews would understand that to mean that Jesus possessed precisely the same characteristics as God the Father.

In spite of the Jews’ unbelief and doubts—in the Book of Hebrews and prior—Jesus was and is the Son of God. God gave Him the name “Son,” which expresses Christ’s eternal generation from the Father. There never was a moment in all of eternity when the Son did not exist. In a way we can’t fully grasp, the Father-Son relationship expresses a shared divine nature and an equal inheritance to all that exists in the universe. Angels are merely called messengers of God, but Jesus is called the Son of God: “And again: ‘I will be to Him a Father, and He shall be to Me a Son’” (Heb. 1:5).

Second, Jesus is superior to the angels because of His rank: “But when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says: ‘Let all the angels of God worship Him’” (Heb. 1:6).

The Greek word for “firstborn” is not a word of chronology or birth sequence; it’s a word of preeminence. More clearly rendered, it would read “the preeminent one, the prominent one, the highest one.” Because there is only one Son of God, it was not necessary for the writer to distinguish the firstborn Son from the second or third Son.

“Firstborn” also does not mean Jesus is the preeminent member of the Trinity or that He is the highest ranking in some procession of deities from God’s throne. Rather, it means He is the supreme One over all creation (Col. 1:15). The writer of Hebrews supports this truth by quoting the Greek Old Testament translation of Deuteronomy 32:43, which itself relates to Psalm 89:6. That’s where the psalmist says the angels must recognize God’s lordship. The angels are created beings, and Christ as Creator is superior to them. And so they are commanded, as a primary function of their position, to worship and serve Him, the superior One (Ps. 89:27; 97:7).

Jesus is also superior to the angels because of His essential nature. The author of Hebrews, again drawing from the Old Testament (first Psalm 104:4; then Psalm 45:6–7; then Isaiah 61:1, 3), compares Christ’s nature to the angels’: “And of the angels He says: ‘Who makes His angels spirits and His ministers a flame of fire.’ But to the Son He says: ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; a scepter of righteousness is the scepter of Your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated lawlessness; therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions’” (Heb. 1:7–9).

The angels are created spirit beings, described metaphorically in these verses as a collective flame of fire. But in contrast, Christ the Son is eternal God. That is the basic distinction—the angels are created; Christ is eternal.

The writer indicates the difference first by mentioning God the Son’s eternal throne and then describing how He rules. Righteousness, depicted as “a scepter of righteousness,” is the chief characteristic of His reign. That means the Lord Jesus loves righteousness and hates lawlessness, which are simply two primary aspects of the same divine holiness.

But as created beings, not all the angels chose to love righteousness and hate lawlessness. Initially angels were not impeccable, which means they had the capacity to sin and did so when a third of them followed Lucifer’s rebellion against God. God expelled them and Lucifer (now Satan) from heaven, and today they are demons serving the dark purposes of the devil’s kingdom.

However, the eternal Son of God has forever loved righteousness and hated lawlessness. It was impossible for Him to fall into sin. And that’s the fundamental difference in His nature that sets Him far above even the holy angels and believing humanity. The conclusion of Hebrews 1:9 wonderfully portrays Christ’s superior nature: “therefore God, Your God, has anointed You with the oil of gladness more than Your companions.”

The writer continues to quote the Old Testament as he proclaims a fourth way Jesus is equal with God and exalted above the angels. Christ possesses eternality—He was and is God forever—a truth verified by reference to Psalm 102:25–27, “‘You, Lord, in the beginning laid the foundation of the earth, and the heavens are the work of Your hands. They will perish, but You remain; and they will all grow old like a garment; like a cloak You will fold them up, and they will be changed. But You are the same, and your years will not fail’” (Hebrews 1:10–12).

The writer of Hebrews views Jesus as present at the creation because He was the Creator (John 1:3). Therefore His eternality stretches not only into the infinite past, but also into the infinite future. But that is not true concerning the universe. Someday Christ will “uncreate” an aging creation. He will fold up the heavens and the earth and replace them with something new. However, the Son of God never changes. “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb. 13:8).

Finally, Christ is God and superior to the angels by virtue of His destiny. The writer again turns to the Psalms (110:1) and asks his Jewish audience, “But to which of the angels has He ever said: ‘Sit at My right hand, till I make Your enemies Your footstool’?” (Hebrews 1:13). God never promised any of the angels that kind of ultimate, eternal sovereignty. But it is the destiny of Jesus Christ to rule over all, especially over those who know Him. The apostle John later wrote, “And I heard, as it were, the voice of a great multitude, as the sound of many waters and as the sound of mighty thunderings, saying, ‘Alleluia! For the Lord God Omnipotent reigns! Let us be glad and rejoice and give Him glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come’” (Rev. 19:6–7).

Hebrews 1:14 makes this final distinction between Christ and the angels completely clear: “Are they not all ministering spirits sent forth to minister for those who will inherit salvation?” Unlike Jesus, the angels aren’t sovereign rulers; they’re ministering servants, subject to His commands.

We don’t see them, but God dispatches His angels for the protection and care of believers on earth (Matt. 18:10). And beyond that, the future tense (“will inherit”) looks ahead to the full inheritance of our salvation and what the angels will continue to do for us. In the glories of heaven the Son will reign over us and we will worship Him as our King (Rom. 8:16–17; Eph. 1:11; Col. 1:12; 3:24). But amazingly, the angels will continue to serve us. Thus God created the angels to serve Christ’s church in both time and eternity. And that underscores once again the angels’ subordination to the Son of God.

When you read and study Hebrews 1, the wonderful truth of Jesus Christ’s preeminence and superiority shines forth from every verse. You can’t miss it, whether it’s in His inheritance of all things, His agency in creation, His essential nature as God, His atoning death for sinners, or the various ways in which He is superior to the angels. The entire chapter effectively proclaims the Messiah’s true identity and rightful position.

I believe an analysis of Hebrews 1:1–14 is a fitting capstone to a book on the birth of Christ. It ensures that when you consider the baby in the Bethlehem shelter, you don’t merely see an adorable child who grew up to be a good teacher and compassionate healer. The passage points you beyond that and to an accurate understanding of the person and work of Christ. The writer, through careful, Spirit-inspired argumentation, declares irrefutably that the Child born to Mary was indeed God in the manger. He truly was the Son of God, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit yet born naturally to a woman in Israel. And without doubt He was the Lord and Savior who lived a perfect life and died as a perfect sacrifice so that all who believe in Him might have eternal life.[1]

 

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 139–155). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY FIVE

God Became a Child

Mighty God” (Isa. 9:6) is the name of this child. The child in the manger is none other than God himself. Nothing greater can be said: God became a child. In the Jesus child of Mary lives the almighty God. Wait a minute! Don’t speak; stop thinking! Stand still before this statement! God became a child! Here he is, poor like us, miserable and helpless like us, a person of flesh and blood like us, our brother. And yet he is God; he is might. Where is the divinity, where is the might of the child? In the divine love in which he became like us. His poverty in the manger is his might. In the might of love he overcomes the chasm between God and humankind, he overcomes sin and death, he forgives sin and awakens from the dead. Kneel down before this miserable manger, before this child of poor people, and repeat in faith the stammering words of the prophet: “Mighty God!” And he will be your God and your might.

But now it is true that in three days, Christmas will come once again. The great transformation will once again happen. God would have it so. Out of the waiting, hoping, longing world, a world will come in which the promise is given. All crying will be stilled. No tears shall flow. No lonely sorrow shall afflict us anymore, or threaten.

Sermon to a German-speaking church in Havana, Cuba, December 21, 1930

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

John 1:14[1]


Thanksgiving to Jesus for Becoming Man

Matthew 1:18, 20; Luke 2:21–24; Philippians 2:7

O most sweet Lord Jesus Christ,

chiefly do I thank you for having, of your great love and pity,

willed to become man for me,

to take my nature upon you,

outside the course of nature to be conceived by the Holy Ghost,

and to be miraculously born of Mary, a pure virgin;

to be suckled and nourished;

to be circumcised;

and to be presented in the Temple,

in order that you might cleanse me from every impurity of mind and body,

and might teach me to live soberly, righteously and chastely all my days.

Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)


The Praise of the Shepherds

1 Samuel 17:34–37; Luke 2:8–20

The shepherds praise you, because you have reconciled the wolves and the lambs within the fold;

O Babe, who is older than Noah and younger than Noah, who reconciled all within the ark amid the billows!

David your father for a lamb’s sake slaughtered a lion. You, O Son of David, have killed the unseen wolf that murdered Adam, the simple lamb who fed and bleated in Paradise.

Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)[2]


The Infant Jesus Makes Himself Available

Matthew 2:11; Luke 2:7, 16–20

Monarchs are shut up in their palaces, and the palaces are surrounded with soldiers. It is not easy to have audiences with princes. Those who would speak to them must expect to have their patience tried; they will often be sent away and told to come again—that this is not the hour of audience. Jesus Christ does not do so. He remains in that cave, and He is there as little child, attracting all who come to seek Him. And the cave is open without guards and without doors, so that all may go in when they please to seek Him and speak to Him; and even to embrace this infant King, if they love Him and desire Him.

Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)


The King Blotted Out Our Bills

Luke 2:1–7; Colossians 2:14

At the birth of the Son the king was enrolling all men for the tribute money, that they might be debtors to Him. The King came forth to us who blotted out our bills, and wrote another bill in His own name that He might be our debtor.

Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)


The King Dwells with Beggars

Isaiah 57:15; Philippians 2:7

How can God stoop lower than to come and dwell with a poor humble soul, which is more than if he had said such a one should dwell with him? For a beggar to live at court is not so much as the king to dwell with him in his cottage.

William Gurnall (1617–1679)


The King of Kings Declares Himself Our Friend

Luke 2:14; John 1:14; 1 Timothy 6:15

A peace on earth He brings,

Which never more shall end:

The Lord of hosts, the King of kings,

Declares Himself our friend:

Assumes our flesh and blood,

That we His Spirit may gain;

The everlasting Son of God,

The mortal son of man.

Charles Wesley (1707–1788)


The Law Could Not Save, but Jesus Can

Matthew 1:21; Romans 7:9–10; 8:3

The Law—any law—could not save man from sin. But God has done what the law could not do. He has sent one into the world whose express object, as testified by the very name given Him, is to save His people from their sins.

Henry Alford (1810–1871)


The Law Fulfilled in Jesus

Matthew 5:17; John 14:9; 1 Corinthians 1:20–25

What wisdom is manifested in the plan of redemption of which the incarnate God is the center! What love is there revealed! What power is that which brought the Divine One down from glory to the manger; only omnipotence could have worked so great a marvel! What faithfulness to ancient promises! What truthfulness in keeping covenant! What grace, and yet what justice! For it was in the person of that newborn child that the law must be fulfilled, and in His precious body must vengeance find recompense for injuries done to divine righteousness. All the attributes of God were in that little child most marvelously displayed and veiled.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


The Life Came Down to Be Slain

Matthew 1:1–23; Luke 1:26–38; 2:1–20; John 1:1–18; 6:32–51; 19:28

The Life came down, that He might be slain; the Bread came down, that He might hunger; the Way came down, that He might be wearied in the way; the Fountain came down, that He might thirst.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430)


“The Lord Is Come; Come and Adore”

Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 2:11; 7:7–8; Luke 2:15–20; 11:9–10

The Lord is come; come and adore. Seek Jesus, and you shall find Him; knock at the door, and it shall be opened to you; enter the house and you shall see.

Our King is arrived; Christ is born to us. Come, let us adore and fall down before Him, for He it is who made us.

Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)


The Majesty Came Down, Not Angels

Luke 2:7; Hebrews 1:5–14; 2:5, 14–18

It was not seraphim He sent us, nor yet did cherubim come down among us. There did not come watchers or ministers, but the firstborn to whom they minister. Who can suffice to give thanks that the majesty which is beyond measure is laid in the lowly manger!

Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)


The Object of Jesus’ Coming Was to Die

Matthew 16:21; Mark 8:31; Luke 9:22; Acts 2:23; Hebrews 9:26

The great object of our Lord’s coming here was not to live, but to die. He appeared, not so much to subdue sin by His teaching, or to manifest goodness, or to perfect an example for us to imitate, but “to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.”

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


The Power of the Incarnation

John 3:16; Romans 8:3; Philippians 2:7; 1 John 4:9

The Only Begotten Word of God has saved us, putting on likeness to us in order that having suffered in the flesh and risen from the dead He might set forth our nature superior to death and decay. And that which has been achieved is beyond the reach of our estate. Hence stronger than men is that which seems to have been wrought in infirmity as ours and as it were in suffering, and it affords proof of God-befitting power.

Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 375–444)


The Redeemer Would Have Come for You Alone

Matthew 26:28; 1 Timothy 1:15

If there had been no others in the world beside yourself, the Redeemer would have come for the sake of you alone, and would have given His blood and His life for you.

Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)


The Redeemer’s Appearance the Source of All Joy

Matthew 2:10; Luke 1:44; 2:10

The appearance of the Redeemer is the source of all other joy in the Christian world; and for this reason there is nothing else that can deserve to be so celebrated.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)


The Shepherds Spoke of What They Had Seen

Luke 2:15–20

Though the shepherds told what they heard from heaven, remember that they spoke of what they had seen below. They had, by observation, made those truths most surely their own which had first been spoken to them by revelation. No man can speak of the things of God with any success until the doctrine which he finds in the book he finds also in his heart.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


The Son Became Incarnate to Gather All Things into One in Him

John 3:16; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Colossians 1:15–20; Hebrews 9:12; 1 John 4:9

God would have His eternal, His only-begotten Son to be incarnate, to take our nature on him—to be made man. What is His design in this incomprehensible work of His wisdom, love, and power? Indeed, in the first place, it was for the redemption of the church, by the sacrifice of Himself, and other acts of His mediation. But there is that which is more general and comprehensive, and wherein all the concerns of the glory of God do center. And this was that He might gather all things into one in Him—that the whole creation, especially that which was to be eternally blessed, should have a new head given unto it, for its sustenance, preservation, order, honor, and safety.

John Owen (1616–1683)


The Son Did Not Take Sin When He Took Our Nature

John 1:14; Hebrews 2:14

Sin is not ourselves: is not our nature, but is something fatal and hostile to our nature. The Son of God took on Himself our nature; became very man. He therefore took on Himself our flesh; for this tabernacle of flesh and blood is necessary to the nature of man, and none is full and very man, but those who bear it about with them. But sin is not man. Sin is not necessary to our nature. Sin is destructive of our nature. Sin is the very negative of our nature. And for this reason, and by a reason also inherent in Himself, on account of His absolute and perfect holiness and purity, the Son of God did not, when He took our nature, take sin with it: did not, when He entered into our flesh, enter into sinful flesh. His flesh was our very flesh; it had the same attributes, the same necessities, the same pains, the same liability to death, even as had Adam before his sin; but sin it had not.

Henry Alford (1810–1871)


The Son Is Only Inferior in His Human Nature

John 5:19; 10:30; Philippians 2:5–11

The mystery of power united to weakness, in respect of the same human nature, allows the Son to be called inferior to the Father: but the Godhead, which is One in the Trinity of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, excludes all notion of inequality. For the eternity of the Trinity has nothing temporal, nothing dissimilar in nature. Its will is one; its substance identical; its power equal, and yet there are not three Gods, but one God.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


The Son of God Becomes the Son of Man

Matthew 1:25; Luke 3:23; 1 Corinthians 1:23

He that was without mother becomes without father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). He who is not carnal is incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever.

Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–389)


The Son of God Made Himself Little to Make Us Great

Philippians 2:5–11; 4:6; Hebrews 4:16

The Son of God has made Himself little, in order to make us great. He has given himself to us, in order that we may give ourselves to Him. He is come to show us His love, in order that we may respond to it by giving Him ours. Let us, therefore, receive Him with affection. Let us love Him, and have recourse to Him in all our necessities.

Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)


The Son of God Wants to Be Known as a Redeemer

Matthew 2:2; Luke 2:11, 21–24; Hebrews 10:19–22

The Son of God came down from heaven to be not only the Savior, but the King, the Lawgiver, the Prophet, the Priest, the Judge of fallen man. Had He chosen any one of these titles, He would only have chosen that which was His own. But He passed by them all. He selects a name which speaks of mercy, grace, help, and deliverance for a lost world. It is as a deliverer and Redeemer that He desires principally to be known.

R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)


The Son of Man Gives Us Power to Become Sons of God

John 1:12; 2 Corinthians 5:17; Ephesians 4:24; Colossians 3:10

Any believer in whatever part of the world that is reborn in Christ, quits the old paths of his original nature and passes into a new man by being reborn. And no longer is he reckoned of his earthly father’s stock but among the seed of the Savior, who became the Son of Man in order that we might have the power to be the sons of God. For unless He came down to us in this humiliation, no one would reach His presence by any merits of his own.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


The Wise Men Got Lost, but the Shepherds Did Not

Matthew 2:1–12; Luke 2:16

Take notice of the visitors who came around his cradle. The shepherds came first of all. We never find that they lost their way. No, God guides the shepherds, and He did direct the wise men too, but they lost their way. It often happens that while shepherds find Christ, wise men miss Him.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


“The Word Becomes Incarnate”

Luke 2:8–14; John 1:14

The Word becomes Incarnate,

And yet remains on high:

And cherubim sing anthems

To shepherds from the sky.

And we with them triumphant

Repeat the hymn again:

“To God on high be glory,

And peace on earth to men!”

Anatolius of Constantinople (d. 458)


They Found the Lamb of God While Keeping Sheep

Exodus 12:21–23; Judges 6:37; Luke 2:8–20; John 1:29

While they were keeping their sheep they found the Lamb of God, whose fleece bright and clean was made wet with the dew of heaven when it was dry upon all the earth beside, and whose blood when sprinkled on the doorposts drove off the destroyer of Egypt and took away the sins of the world.

Jerome (ca. 347–420)


Those of Good Will May Receive This Infant

Luke 2:8–15

The angel who heralds the birth of our little Master announces in his song, and sings as he announces, that he proclaims joy, peace, happiness for men of good will; in order that no one may be ignorant that to receive this infant it is enough to be of good will, although one may not up to this have been of good deed. For He came to bless good wills, and little by little He will make them fruitful and of good effect, provided that they let Him govern them.

Francis de Sales (1567–1622)


Three Reasons for Joy

Luke 2:10

Since Jesus is born, let everyone rejoice whom the consciousness of sin has condemned as deserving of eternal punishment. For the compassion of Jesus exceeds all crimes, however great their number and enormity.

Since Christ is born, let him rejoice who wages war with the vices inherent in our nature. No disorder of the soul, however inveterate, can withstand the unction which Christ brings.

Since the Son of God is born, let him rejoice who desires great things, for a great rewarder comes.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


Three Results of the Word Become Flesh

John 1:14; 6:39–40, 44, 54; Hebrews 2:18; 1 John 2:6

Did the Word become flesh? Then He is One who can be touched with the feeling of His people’s infirmities, because He has suffered Himself, being tempted. He is almighty because He is God, and yet He can feel with us, because He is man.

Did the Word become flesh? Then He can supply us with a perfect pattern and example for our daily life. Had he walked among us as an angel or a spirit, we could never have copied Him. But having dwelt among us as a man, we know that the true standard of holiness is to “walk even as He walked.” He is a perfect pattern, because He is God. But He is also a pattern exactly suited to our wants, because He is man.

Finally, did the Word become flesh? Then let us see in our mortal bodies a real, true dignity, and not defile them by sin. Vile and weak as our body may seem, it is a body which the Eternal Son of God was not ashamed to take upon Himself, and to take up to heaven. That simple fact is a pledge that He will raise our bodies at the last day, and glorify them together with His own.

R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)[3]


[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 58–59). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

Christmas: Celebrate His Love (Part 9)

If God Has Not Forgotten Us, Why Have We Forgotten Him?

In this lesson we hypothesize what the world would be like if there had been no first Christmas.

Outline

It is hard to comprehend a world without Christ. That is because most of us have grown up in a Christian environment. But perhaps one of the best ways we could comprehend it is to look for just a moment to a period of time after Christ had gone to the cross, then to the grave, then out of the grave in resurrection. And Paul, trying to explain the importance of that to those who would read his letter to the Corinthians, posed a similar question in 1 Corinthians 15. He said in effect, “Let me tell you what life would be like if Christ had not come, if He had not died, if He had not been resurrected from the grave.”

  1. A World Without Christ?
  2. A Life Without Christ?
  3. Christmas Without Christ?

Overview

A World Without Christ?

In 1 Corinthians 15:14 Paul tells us that if Christ had not come, our preaching would be useless.

In that same verse, he says that if Christ had not come, our faith would be empty.

In verse 15 he said that if Christ had not come, those of us who are Christians would be false witnesses. We would be telling lies because we would be saying something was true when indeed it was not.

In 15:17 he said that if Christ had not come, our faith would be futile, worthless.

He said if Christ had not come we would all still be in our sins. We would be unforgiven.

In verse 18 of that text, he said if Christ had not come, we would never see our dead loved ones again, for those who have died have perished. And then in verse 19 he summarizes it by saying if Christ had not come, we would be the most miserable of all people.

Sometimes the only way we can appreciate what we have as Christians is to realize that everything that’s good, and everything that’s wholesome, and everything that’s positive, and everything that’s clean, and everything that’s true, has its roots in the Person of the Lord Jesus Christ, who came as the gift of God the Father to be our Savior. It is a wonderful thought to remember that God has not forgotten us.

A Life Without Christ?

But the question, then, must be: If God has not forgotten us, then why do we seem to have forgotten Him?

Every Christmas is the coming together of a magnificent occasion and a wonderful opportunity. It is not different from that first Christmas Day recorded for us in Luke 2:1–7:

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

I like to think of that night in terms of the kind of silence that is observed in the eastern U.S. when snow falls on Christmas Day, and everything is absolutely still.

On this magnificent night recorded by Luke, we are told that Mary brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger. It was a magnificent occasion that escaped observation by almost everyone who was there.

We read in John 1 that “The Word was with God, and the Word was God.… and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” At that moment in that silent night when Mary birthed her baby, Deity invaded humanity. In that moment, when Mary birthed her baby, eternity invaded time. And no one really understood that.

Micah the prophet said it this way in his prophecy of Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.”

How could one be born whose goings forth have been from old, from everlasting? In that moment of time when Mary birthed her baby, Royalty invaded poverty. The One who had all wealth at His disposal, who was the King of glory, who created the world that we love and live in, that same One was birthed to Mary.

What a magnificent occasion! A silent night interrupted by a tiny cry in Bethlehem. This magnificent occasion was set up from eternity past. And it wonderfully met every criterion that was laid out for it.

But, on this night of all nights, it happened in a place where no one even recognized what was going on. The God who had refused to forget us, was forgotten by those to whom He first came. The Bible tells us “He came to His own, and His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). The King of glory had come down, and He was not recognized or received.

The innkeeper should not have missed it because he was so close to it. Isn’t it interesting how we can go through life, and often be so close to the magnificent, and never let it dawn upon our conscious awareness? He was so close. The mother of our Lord was at his door. She was seeking a place to birth the Son of God, and he would not let her in because there was no room.

Christmas Without Christ?

Am I pressing the point too much when I say that today the world is filled with innkeepers who miss the meaning of Christmas?

If that is not the case, why, as we go through the shopping centers during this season, are there so many grim faces in our stores, so many exhausted, sleepy people in our churches the Sunday before Christmas? The innkeeper missed Christmas not because he was angry or because he was belligerent. He missed Christmas because of ignorant preoccupation. He got so busy with everything that was going on in his life, taking care of the inn, taking care of the census, taking care of all of the pressure, he couldn’t stop to reflect upon the moment that was at hand.

Many people today are like that. The chambers of their souls are filled with needless things, stuff that doesn’t really matter. They miss the Messiah of God. Oh, how hard it is for us to clear out the chambers of our heart and mind, and make room for the Messiah!

One of the great tragedies of our time is not that God has forgotten us, but that we have forgotten Him. On the same day that Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the Russian-born Nobel prize winner, was presented with the Templeton Foundation Prize for Progress in Religion by Prince Philip at Buckingham Palace, he addressed many of Britain’s leading political and religious leaders, including the Archbishop of Canterbury. “Over half a century ago,” stated Solzhenitsyn, “while I was still a child, I remember hearing a number of older people offer the following explanation of the great disasters that have befallen Russia. Men have forgotten God. That’s why it has all happened. And if I were called upon to identify the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, I would be unable to find anything more precise and more worthy than to repeat, men have forgotten God.”

In our world today, doesn’t it seem to you that men have forgotten God? And we who have been given this holiday occasion to embrace the Christ because God has not forgotten us, we must ask ourselves in our hearts, “Have I forgotten God?” That is not a question just for those who do not know God through Christ. That is a question for all of us. It is possible for us to live as practical atheists and still be Christians in the sense that we go through our lives without giving any time whatsoever to the One who came to make life meaningful for us. Let us not, at this time of the year, forget the One who has not forgotten us.

Some have heard the gospel message throughout life from a mother’s teaching, in Sunday school, or growing up in church. Periodically, you have been reminded that it was for you that this Christ came. But like the innkeeper, you are so busy with everything else you keep pushing Him away. But there is a day coming when He will knock no more. If He knocks at your heart today, you must not forget Him. That is the message of Christmas. You must not forget the One who refused to forget you. Receive Him as your Savior.

Application

  1. If you know Christ today, make a list of as many good things as possible that would not exist in your life if not for your relationship with Him.
  2. Which of those events or circumstances were bad things that the Lord Jesus Christ transformed into something good?
  3. What, then, is the connection between Christ’s resurrection from the dead and His ability to redeem our lives into something good? (See Romans 8:11, 28–31.)
  4. In 1 Corinthians 15:12–22, what eventual circumstance is Paul connecting to Christ’s resurrection?

Why is that an essential part of every Christian’s perspective on the future?

If the resurrection of Christ is not a historical fact, where does that leave every Christian?

  1. What has been the historical pattern of great nations that have denied or left their faith in Christ?

In our culture today, what is replacing a belief in the Jesus of the Bible?

What effect is that producing?

  1. Do you believe it is possible for a genuine Christian to “forget God” in a practical, day-to-day sense?

Why or why not?

What would you forecast as some of the symptoms of that problem?

  1. What would you propose as good “preventative medicine” for not forgetting God?

What would you propose as good solutions for those Christians who have?

  1. In what way(s) might the Christmas holiday season afford an opportunity for us to “remember” Him? To encourage others to do the same?

To make Him known to those who don’t know Him?

Did You Know?

Although the story line for the Christmas classic “It’s a Wonderful Life” is purely fanciful and fictitious, it has for decades connected with those who feel forgotten and forsaken during the holidays, even pointing many to the God of the Bible and genuine faith in Christ.

For actor James Stewart, the barroom scene in which he cries out to God was so profoundly moving, the tears were real and the experience entirely unique. When he was asked to do another take for the benefit of facial closeups, he flatly refused, admitting that at that precise moment, he felt something of the desperation and hopelessness of those who have nowhere else to turn but the true God. The film editors worked with the one take they had, closeups were engineered by enlarging one frame at a time, and a truly vicarious moment of a desperate man’s plea to God made it to the screen.

Stained Glass

Use the final remains of various colors of crayons. Shave each color and create stacks of shavings by color. Let each child create their design by placing the colors in the pattern they create on a piece of waxed paper. Place another piece of paper on top of the crayon shavings and gently but firmly set a hot iron on the paper. To make sure you have the work surface protected, place a large piece of foil under the entire project. I also place a piece of waxed paper over the top before I set the iron down.

After the paper has cooled, gently peel the top sheet of paper off and enjoy the beauty of an original stained glass window. You may be surprised at the artistic expression in your family.[1]

 

[1] Jeremiah, D. (1999). Celebrate his love: Study guide (pp. 112–123). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY FOUR

The Great Turning Point of All Things

What kings and leaders of nations, philosophers and artists, founders of religions and teachers of morals have tried in vain to do—that now happens through a newborn child. Putting to shame the most powerful human efforts and accomplishments, a child is placed here at the midpoint of world history—a child born of human beings, a son given by God (Isa. 9:6). That is the mystery of the redemption of the world; everything past and everything future is encompassed here. The infinite mercy of the almighty God comes to us, descends to us in the form of a child, his Son. That this child is born for us, this son is given to us, that this human child and Son of God belongs to me, that I know him, have him, love him, that I am his and he is mine—on this alone my life now depends. A child has our life in his hands.…

How shall we deal with such a child? Have our hands, soiled with daily toil, become too hard and too proud to fold in prayer at the sight of this child? Has our head become too full of serious thoughts … that we cannot bow our head in humility at the wonder of this child? Can we not forget all our stress and struggles, our sense of importance, and for once worship the child, as did the shepherds and the wise men from the East, bowing before the divine child in the manger like children?

“The Government upon the Shoulders of the Child,” Christmas 1940

What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us.

Romans 8:31–34[1]


The Grandest Light of History

Isaiah 9:6–7; Revelation 12:1–6

The birth of Jesus is the grandest light of history, the sun in the heavens of all time. It is the polestar of human destiny, the hinge of chronology, the meeting place of the waters of the past and the future.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)

The Great God Left His Heavenly Throne

Jeremiah 10:12; 51:15; Philippians 2:6–8; Hebrews 1:2; 2:11

He it was who created the worlds; He it was who interposed of old time in the affairs of the world, and showed Himself to be a living and observant God, whether men thought of Him or not. Yet this great God condescended to come down on earth from His heavenly throne, and to be born into His own world; showing Himself as the Son of God in a new and second sense, in a created nature, as well as in His eternal substance.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890)

The Image of the Father Came to Renew Our Image

Genesis 1:26–27; Colossians 1:15

What then was God to do? Or what was to be done save the renewing of that which was in God’s image, so that by it men might once more be able to know Him? But how could this have come to pass save by the presence of the very image of God, our Lord Jesus Christ?

For by men’s means it was impossible, since they are but made after an image; nor by angels either, for not even they are God’s images. For this reason the Word of God came in His own person, that, as He was the image of the Father, He might be able to create afresh the man after the image.

But, again, it could not else have taken place had not death and corruption been done away. For this reason He took, in natural fitness, a mortal body, that while death might in it be once for all done away, humans made after His image might once more be renewed. None other then was sufficient for this need, save the image of the Father.

Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 295–373)

The Image of the Father Paints a New Portrait

Genesis 1:27; 9:6; 2 Corinthians 4:4; Colossians 1:15

As, when the likeness painted on a panel has been effaced by stains, he whose likeness it is needs to come once more to enable the portrait to be renewed on the same wood—for, for the sake of his picture, even the mere wood on which it is painted is not thrown away, but the outline is renewed upon it—in the same way also the most holy Son of the Father, being the Image of the Father, came to our region to renew man once made in His likeness, and find him, as one lost, by the remission of sins.

Athanasius of Alexandria (ca. 295–373)

The Incarnation Exalts Human Nature

Psalm 8:5; 2:7, 9

In the light of Bethlehem’s candle we see man not as he often is, but as he may be, as we trust he yet will be. God became man that man might become as God; that he might be a little higher than the angels, instead of a little lower than the brutes. Thus, in the light of this truth, we escape from the snare of the devil, which would lead us to despise human nature.

Frederic Farrar (1831–1903)

The Incarnation Is Better Than Creation

Luke 2:7, 14

Though creation may be a majestic organ of praise, it cannot reach the compass of the golden canticle—incarnation! There is more melody in Jesus in the manger than in the whole sublime oratorio of the creation. There is more grandeur in the song that heralds the birth of the babe of Bethlehem than there is in worlds on worlds rolling in silent grandeur around the throne of the Most High.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)

The Incarnation Is the Greatest Miracle

Ephesians 1:22; Philippians 2:6–7; Colossians 1:18; 2 Peter 1:4

It was the greatest miracle of all God’s works that ever He revealed to the sons of men, to take the human nature into union with the divine—that Christ, who was God, should condescend to be made man. And the next is that He will take His church into union with Himself, and will magnify His love, in such a wonderful advancement of poor sinners, that without His grace they could not well believe it.

Richard Baxter (1615–1691)

The Incarnation Is the Heart of the Gospel

Luke 1:77–79; Philippians 2:6–7; Hebrews 7:27

If, for the first time, you had heard of the visit of the incarnate God to this world, you would be struck with a wonder which would last throughout all eternity, that God Himself should really condescend to such a deed as this. This is the heart of the gospel, the incomparable fact of the incarnation of the Son of God, His dwelling upon the earth, and His presentation of Himself as a sacrifice unto God.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)

The Incarnation Lays the Foundation for God’s Blessing

Romans 8:6–8; Ephesians 2:13–18

There was not only a distance between us and God by reason of impurity, but a difference by reason of enmity. God is a God of glorious majesty, and we are poor creatures; God is a God of pure and immaculate holiness, and we are sinful creatures, lapsed and fallen under the guilt of sin, and deserving of punishment. There was our great trouble and grievance, and nothing comfortable could we expect from him. But when God is willing to come among us, and take our nature, and die for a sinful world, there is a foundation laid for His being with us, to help us, and bless us upon all occasions.

Thomas Manton (1620–1677)

The Incorruptible Lays Hold of the Nature Subject to Corruption

1 Corinthians 15:50; 2 Corinthians 5:21

It behooved that the incorruptible should lay hold of the nature subject to corruption, that He might free it from corruption; it behooved that He who knew no sin should be made of the same form with those who were under sin, that He might make sin to cease. For as where is light, there surely darkness will have no work, so where incorruption is present, is all necessity that corruption flee, and that, since He who did not know sin has made His own that which was under sin, sin should come to nothing.

Cyril of Alexandria (ca. 375–444)[2]


Praise to Jesus for the Incarnation

Philippians 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:10

I praise and magnify you for voluntarily emptying yourself of your fullness,

and for graciously taking upon yourself our weak and degraded nature,

capable of suffering and of death,

that you might fill us by emptying yourself,

might save us by your sufferings,

might raise us by your lowliness,

might strengthen us by your weakness,

and by your death might bring us to a glorious immortality.

Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)

Sweeter to See Christ Humbled than Glorified

Philippians 2:6–7

O good Jesus, how sweet you are in the heart of one that muses on you and that loves you!

It is far, far sweeter for loving memory to see you born in time of your virgin mother than to behold you begotten of your Father before the daystar;

sweeter to think that you have emptied yourself, and have taken the form of a servant, than that in the form of God you are equal to God.

Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109)

Thanksgiving for Sending the Savior

Jeremiah 33:12–16; Ephesians 2:14; 3:6

Grant, Almighty God,

that since you have been pleased to perform to the Jews what you promised, by sending the Savior,

and have also designed, by pulling down the middle wall of partition, to make us partakers of the same invaluable blessing,

O grant that we may embrace Him with true faith,

and constantly abide in Him,

and so know you as our Father,

so that, being renewed by the Spirit of your Son,

we may wholly devote ourselves to you,

and consecrate ourselves to your service,

until at length that which is begun in us is completed,

and we are filled with that glory to which your Son, our Lord, daily invites us.

Amen.

John Calvin (1509–1564)[3]


[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 56–57). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

The Wonder of the Season (Part 8): The real twelve days of Christmas

CELEBRATING CHRIST’S BIRTH WITH SAINTS OF THE FAITH

Edwin and Jennifer Woodruff Tait

King Wenceslas popularized the idea of the rex justus, or “righteous king.”

© UNIVERSITÄTSBIBLIOTHEK HEIDELBERG

KINGS AND THE KING The Feast of the Holy Innocents, a remembrance of Herod’s order to kill all male children after the birth of Jesus, serves as a reminder that the Christmas story is not without its moments of sorrow and tragedy.

CCI / THE ART ARCHIVE AT ART RESOURCE, NY

As it now stands, the “Christmas season” begins sometime in November. The streets are hung with lights, the stores are decorated with red and green, and you can’t turn on the radio without hearing songs about the spirit of the season and the glories of Santa Claus. The excitement builds to a climax on the morning of December 25, and then it stops abruptly. Christmas is over, the New Year begins, and people go back to their normal lives.

The traditional Christian celebration of Christmas is a bit different, and exhortations to follow its calendar rather than the secular one have become routine at this time of year. The season of Advent begins on the fourth Sunday before Christmas, and for nearly a month Christians await the coming of Christ in a spirit of expectation—singing hymns of a longing that in many ways culminates on December 25. But if we look a bit deeper into Christian history, we discover that Christmas Day itself ushers in 12 more days of celebration, ending on January 6 with the Feast of the Epiphany. More than just lending their name to a cryptic holiday song, the “real” 12 days of Christmas give us a way of reflecting on what the Incarnation means in our lives.

Christmas commemorates the most momentous event in human history—the entry of God into the world in the form of a baby. The Logos through whom the worlds were made took up his dwelling among us in a tabernacle of flesh. One of the Christmas Day prayers in the Catholic liturgy encapsulates what Christmas means for all believers: “O God, who marvelously created and yet more marvelously restored the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share the divinity of him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” In Christ, our human nature was united to God, and when Christ enters our hearts, he brings us into that union.

THREE FEASTS

The three traditional feasts (dating back to the late fifth century) that follow Christmas Day reflect different ways in which the mystery of the Incarnation works itself out in the body of Christ. December 26 is the Feast of St. Stephen—a traditional day for giving leftovers to the poor (as described in the carol “Good King Wenceslas”). As one of the first deacons, Stephen was the forerunner of all those who show the love of Christ through their generosity to the needy. But more than this, he was the first martyr of the New Covenant, witnessing to Christ by the ultimate gift of his own life.

FOOLS DAY What began as a celebration of subdeacons eventually became a day of excess and debauchery with echoes of various pagan rituals. By 1431, the Catholic Church officially forbade the Feast of Fools.

FEAST OF FOOLS: COURTESY OF LAURENCE SMITH

Commemorated on December 27, St. John the Evangelist is traditionally thought to be the only one of the 12 disciples who did not die a martyr. Rather, John witnessed to the Incarnation through his words, turning Greek philosophy on its head with his affirmation, “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us” (John 1:14, KJV).

On December 28, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Innocents, the children murdered by Herod after the birth of Jesus (Matt. 2:16). These were not martyrs like Stephen, who died heroically in a vision of the glorified Christ. They were not inspired like John to speak the Word of life and understand the mysteries of God. They died unjustly before they had a chance to know or to will—but they died for Christ nonetheless. In them we see the long agony of those who suffer and die through human injustice, never knowing that they have been redeemed. If Christ did not come for them too, then surely Christ came in vain. In celebrating the Holy Innocents, we remember the victims of abortion, of war, of abuse. We renew our faith that the coming of Christ brings hope to the most hopeless. And, in the most radical way possible, we confess that, like the murdered children, we are saved by the sheer mercy of Christ, not by our own doing or knowing.

THE NEXT SEASON The Protestant liturgical year includes a long season of Epiphany, which begins with the arrival of the magi on January 6 and ends on Ash Wednesday.

THREE KINGS: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

AN UPSIDE-DOWN CELEBRATION

In the Middle Ages, these three feasts were each dedicated to a different part of the clergy. Stephen, fittingly, was the patron of deacons. The Feast of John the Evangelist was dedicated to the priests, and the Feast of the Holy Innocents was dedicated to young men training for the clergy and serving the altar. The subdeacons (one of the “minor orders” that developed in the early church) objected that they had no feast of their own. So it became their custom to celebrate the “Feast of Fools” around January 1, often in conjunction with the feast of Christ’s circumcision on that day (which was also one of the earliest feasts of the Virgin Mary and is today celebrated as such by Roman Catholics).

The 12 days of Christmas saw similar celebrations of the topsy-turvy and the unruly. A “Lord of Misrule” was often elected at Christmas to lead the festivities until Epiphany. A schoolboy was traditionally chosen as bishop on December 6 (the Feast of St. Nicholas) and filled all the functions of bishop until Holy Innocents’ Day. The Christmas season also sometimes saw the “Feast of the Ass,” commemorating the donkey traditionally present at the manger. On this day, people were supposed to bray like a donkey at the points in the Mass where one would normally say “Amen.”

Churches that follow the Julian church calendar celebrate Epiphany on January 19. The day commemorates Jesus’ baptism rather than the visitation of the magi.

ETHIOPIAN EPIPHANY: RONNIE JAMES / ALAMY

The Ethiopian feast of Timket (Epiphany) is marked by mass baptisms. Russian Orthodox Christians celebrate by drawing sanctified water out of a cross-shaped “font” cut in the ice.

ORTHODOX EPIPHANY: PAVEL FILATOV / ALAMY

It is easy to dismiss all these customs as pagan holdovers (which many of them are), or at best as irrelevant and harmless follies. Indeed, the medieval church frowned on most of these practices, and the Reformers of the sixteenth century finished the job of suppressing them. But perhaps there’s a message here worth pondering—that in the words of the horrified pagans of Thessalonica, the message of Christ turns the whole world upside down. In the birth of Jesus, God has put down the mighty from their seats and exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty. Nothing will ever be safe or normal again. In the words of Michael Card, we are called to “follow God’s own fool.” And yet, paradoxically, this greatest of revolutionaries was not a rebel. The one who revealed the surprising meaning of God’s Law and turned the tables on human traditions nonetheless submitted to be circumcised according to the teaching of Moses.

Finally, on Epiphany (January 6), the celebration of Christmas comes to an end. “Twelfth Night” (as all lovers of Shakespeare know) is the ultimate celebration of Christmas madness: Shakespeare’s play features one of his many “wise fools” who understand the real meaning of life better than those who think they are sane. Epiphany commemorates the beginning of the proclamation of the Gospel—Christ’s manifestation to the nations, as shown in three different events: the visit of the magi, the baptism of Jesus, and the turning of water into wine.

In the Western tradition, the magi predominate, but in the Eastern churches, Jesus’ baptism tends to be the primary theme. In Bucharest, children leading lambs walk through the subway trains in commemoration of the Lamb of God to whom John pointed. Orthodox Christians traditionally have their homes blessed with holy water on or around this day. Nowhere is Epiphany celebrated more joyously than in Ethiopia. Pilgrims from all over the country converge on the ancient city of Aksum, where they bathe in a great reservoir whose waters have been blessed by a priest.

Epiphany is often a forgotten festival. As the true end point of the Christmas season, however, Epiphany sends us into the world to live out the Incarnation, to witness to the light of Christ in the darkness. Following Jesus, we have been baptized into his death and Resurrection. Whether we are called to martyrdom, or to prophetic witness, or simply to faithful living in the joys and sorrows of our daily lives, we live all of our days in the knowledge of our dignity, redeemed through Christ and united to God. We are part of the strange society of people whose world has been turned upside down, and we go out to witness to this topsy-turvy truth: “The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us: and we beheld his glory … and of his fullness have we all received, and grace for grace” (John 1:14, 16).

Jennifer: Freelance writer living in Huntington, IN; adjunct or affiliate professor of history/church history at Asbury Seminary, United Seminary, and Huntington University; and author of The Poisoned Chalice.

Edwin: Adjunct professor of history/church history at Asbury Seminary, Huntington University, and the University of St. Francis.[1]


[1] Tait, J. W. with Edwin. (2012). The Real Twelve Days of Christmas: Celebrating Christ’s Birth with Saints of the Faith. Christian History Magazine: The Wonder of the Season, (no. 103), 25–27.

Christmas: Celebrate His Love (Part 8)

Just an Ordinary Baby

This lesson emphasizes the humanity of Jesus so that we might fully appreciate what God did when His deity invaded our humanity.

Outline

The older we get, the more we understand that the real meaning of the holiday is not the giving of gifts (as exciting as that is), but the relationship we have with one another, and the privilege that the holiday provides for us to get together.

But as we enjoy the warmth and joy of our relationships with one another, if we think of it very deeply, we finally contemplate the truth that God so desired a relationship with us that He paid the incredibly supreme price to come and be one of us, so that we might know Him.

  1. At His Birth
  2. During His Childhood
  3. In His Adulthood

Overview

In 1 Timothy 3:16 we read, “And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh.” It is almost as if Paul were overcome by the thought of it.

At His Birth

The Apostle Paul bursts out in this epistle with the astonishing words: “Without controversy.” In other words, there won’t ever be any argument about this. No one can bring an argument against this. “Without controversy, great is the mystery of godliness.”

Then he describes the mystery: “God was manifested in the flesh.” The only reason we don’t say that to one another more often is because we haven’t taken the time to comprehend the incredible truth that is involved in God becoming flesh.

In my reading, I have discovered that many of the great writers whom we admire have had moments like Paul had when he wrote 1 Timothy, moments when in the ordinary course of their writing it suddenly dawned on them, it suddenly hit them, it suddenly became part of their frontal lobe thinking, this truth that God has become a man.

  1. W. Tozer wrote, “The coming of Jesus Christ into this world represents a truth more profound than any philosophy that the world has ever known. All of the great thinkers of the world together could never have produced anything even remotely approaching the wonder and profundity disclosed in the message of these words: He came. The words are wiser than all learning, and understood in their high spiritual context, they are more eloquent than all oratory, more lyric and moving than all music. They tell us that all of mankind, sitting in darkness, has been visited by the Light of the world.”

John the Apostle, writing in the New Testament, said it this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).

And writing in a more formal way to the Galatians, Paul the Apostle said it in these words: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Galatians 4:4).

Isaiah the Prophet said it would be like this. In the seventh chapter of his prophecy (Isaiah 7:14), which is quoted by Matthew in the narrative of the birth of Jesus, Isaiah said that His name would be called Immanuel, which, being translated, is “God with us.” God coming down to be one of us.

As we’ve asked ourselves before, is this the way we would have done it? Would this have been your master plan to rescue lost mankind? Would you have had your Redeemer delivered to a manger and wrapped in strips of swaddling cloth? Would you have had Him born in a stable built for cattle? Would you have had His first visitors the hated shepherds of the hillside? Have you ever heard of a royal story quite like that? Paul was right—great is the mystery of godliness! God was manifested in the flesh.

During His Childhood

I would be afraid of God were it not for the fact that He has come to show me that I don’t need to be. He has come as a man, to walk among men and reveal Himself to us, one hundred percent God and one hundred percent man, but truly human. And that’s what we often forget. It is a mystery, this birth of our Savior, born in Bethlehem so many years ago. Isaiah the Prophet said, Jesus grew up “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground,” and, “He has no form or comeliness; and when we see Him there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected of men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:2–3).

One writer has interpreted Isaiah’s words like this: “There was no splendor or appearance that we should be drawn to Him. He was just an ordinary baby.”

It’s true that if you and I had lived during the days of our Lord’s childhood, and if we had met Him on the street, we would not have nudged each other and said, “Why, there is the young Messiah!” We would not have known. It was not even known by those with whom He grew up.

Even his own brothers did not know that He was the Messiah. He was just an ordinary baby like you and like me. There was nothing that would have set Him apart from us, except the fact that if we were near Him and could have watched His life, you would have understood that He did not sin.

One thing that has captured my attention is that from the day Jesus was born until He was 12 years old, we have no record of Him speaking. Then, when Jesus was 12 years old, He lingered in Jerusalem at the temple after His parents had left to return to Nazareth. When they found Him and asked Him why this had happened, He spoke 17 words in the Jewish language to the effect that, “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?”

In His Adulthood

Then in the New Testament we are given the record of His baptism at the age of 30. So all through His life, from the time He was born—with the exception of that time when He was 12—until He was 30 years of age, we have no word from Messiah. No word. Jesus lived His life in those early years in total obscurity. We have no word from His lips for three decades. And then we have His magnificent ministry that was lived out in just three years.

Jesus spent His whole life as we would know it experiencing humanity, living among the common people, going to work every day in his father Joseph’s carpenter shop, working alongside his brothers, learning to experience what it is like to be a human being. Not a human being with a halo, because that’s not normal human experience, but human life as our lives are.

In Luke 2, just as Luke is concluding this early period of the Lord’s life, he provides us with the only sketch of what was going on with Jesus during that time. In Luke 2:40 Luke says of Jesus in His early days, “[He] grew and became strong in spirit, filled with wisdom; and the grace of God was upon Him.”

Then, in Luke 2:52 he writes, “and Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.” That’s it. That’s all we have.

All kinds of legends have been invented about His childhood, but they don’t come from the Scriptures. The Scriptures are incredibly silent about those years.

This tells me that it was done on purpose, so that God could get through to us that Jesus Christ grew up as one among us—with little being said, little being written, but much being experienced in His life.

There are some things we can arrive at by conjecture. Secular historians tell us that Jesus’ father died when He was a very young boy. That is pretty well accepted. If so, then Jesus no doubt would have had to take more responsibility as the older brother in the family and in the family business. It would also mean that He knew what it meant to lose a parent. He experienced that. It would also mean that He grew up in a single parent home. He knew what that is like as well.

Think for a moment just what those days must have been like. Later, when He was rejected by His brothers, that must have hurt. He knew in His heart that one day He would close the door on that home and walk out into a life that would be chronicled for the rest of history to read about. But how could He say that to James so that it would come through? In fact, in the beginning James didn’t believe any of it.

As He got out into His ministry, we know that Jesus felt the pain of being betrayed by a very close friend. Three times, one of His closest friends said that he didn’t even know Him. He probably was slandered and lied about more than any human being who ever walked on this earth. Why did that all happen? Because He came to be one of us. He came to walk among us. He came to experience what we experience. Whatever your troubles or trials, Jesus understands all of it, because He has experienced it.

The Bible tells us He was tired, He was thirsty, He wept. Two places in the New Testament say that He was troubled in spirit. Have you ever been troubled in spirit? Jesus understands what that is like. He was hungry, He was often tired, and yes, He was even tempted.

All of that is to say that the ratio of 30 years of living and three years of ministry is so that when He spoke in those three years, He would speak with authority, He would speak as one who could be trusted, and He would speak as one who had lived life as we do. So when He says, “Don’t do that,” it is not because He is trying to keep us from enjoying a good time. As the Son of God He walked in the soot and dirt and sin and filth of the world, and He saw the pain and anguish of those who violated the holy law.

Hebrews 4:14 tells us, “Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”

We are to come boldly to Jesus Christ not just because He is God, but we can come boldly to Him because He is a friend who understands. He has been there before. He has walked through the thing you are walking through. Whatever pain you have felt, He has felt. In fact, one of the translations of the words “to speak boldly” is “to have free utterance.” Come before the Lord with free utterance.

Do you pray like that? Sometimes when I hear Christians praying, and especially when I know how badly they are hurting, I want to put my arm around them and say, “Would you just please tell the Lord what you feel?” He will understand. He is not someone who is removed from us as if a planet in a distant galaxy. He is the Lord who came down. He is the One who became one of us and walked among us and felt every emotion we feel. If you are hurting, He has hurt as you do. Therefore, what a friend He can be to you!

When you pray, you don’t have to couch all your prayers in the “thees and thous” of the King James Bible. You can come and tell Him what is in your heart.

Do you know Him like that? Have you cultivated a relationship with Jesus Christ that helps you to have free utterance when you pray?

That’s why Christmas is so special. It brings God down, not in a defamatory way, not in a defeating way, but to be one of us so that we can relate to Him. And just as human relationships at Christmas are special, so the relationship we have with Jesus Christ is special because of who He is, how He lived, and what He did.

Application

  1. Why do you think it was essential that the Son of God be incarnated as a Baby in Bethlehem?

Upon what portions of the Bible do you base your thoughts?

  1. What stereotypes of Christmas (Christmas scenes, cards, nativity scenes) might we need to rethink if we understand that Jesus was, physically, just an “ordinary baby”?
  2. What do you think Paul meant in Philippians 2:7 when he referred to Jesus “coming in the likeness of men”?

What point is he making?

Why do you think that “likeness” is important?

  1. What physical trials can you think of that Jesus either endured according to the biblical record, or might have endured because of when and where He lived?

What mistreatment from other people?

  1. In Matthew 26:48–49, why do you think Judas needed to provide Jesus’ captors with an indication of which Person He was?

How does this compare with the perception that Jesus always stood out in a crowd?

  1. What comfort do you personally find in the fact that Jesus was a “common man”?
  2. What do the following verses tell us of the benefits of Jesus’ coming in the likeness of man?
  3. Hebrews 4:15–16
  4. Hebrews 12:1–2
  5. Hebrews 12:3–4

Did You Know?

Myths of Jesus performing miraculous or magical feats during His childhood are rampant, especially in the various Eastern religions. And often, Christians do not know how to answer such claims from outside the Bible.

It is essential to remember that through God’s covenant with Abraham (Genesis 12, 15, 17), the Messiah was—by God’s unconditional contract—promised to Israel first (Romans 1:16), and then to the world through Israel. That is precisely why Jesus went first to the Jews, then after being rejected by the religious leaders, to the population of Israel at large, and to the Gentiles.

Because of that, it was essential that Jesus present Himself first to Israel, through the “signs” Israel required (John 2:18; 1 Corinthians 1:22). These signs were not simply magic tricks; they were local, immediate manifestations of acts that the Old Testament had already revealed only Messiah could do. And—very clearly stated in John 2:11—the very first of these was His miracle of turning purification water into “best wine” at the wedding in Cana of Galilee. That means none—exactly zero—miracles were done by Him as a child.

Donna Jeremiah’s Package Code

Four curious children can create a challenge for any mom at Christmastime, so I decided to avoid the constant struggle to hide presents and keep track of which child was shaking, smelling, or unsealing a package to determine what was inside.

I wanted to wrap the packages and put them under our tree in advance of Christmas morning, but keeping an ever-present watch over the activities around the tree was more than this mom could easily handle.

I decided to create a numbering system that would allow me to wrap the packages and affix a name tag, but instead of the name I would code each gift with a multiple digit number. I had to rotate the numbers; our children are clever and could soon figure out who had what number.

On Christmas morning we would distribute the gifts and the children would not have time to guess the contents. My system has proven effective and we still use it.[1]

 

[1] Jeremiah, D. (1999). Celebrate his love: Study guide (pp. 100–111). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Christmas: God In The Manger (Part 9)

Righteous Parents

Many local television stations across the United States entitle their newscasts Eyewitness News. Obviously, the impression station managers and news directors want to convey is that their newscasts are accurate and that viewers can count on the broadcasts as bona fide sources of daily community information. Such telecasts do not always achieve their goals of accuracy and balanced reporting, but use of the term eyewitness by the producers implies a desire to attain those ideals. That’s because eyewitness, in some sense, still connotes the idea of a credible, reliable report—a trustworthy individual actually witnessed certain events and can provide a truthful account of them.

The principle of the honest eyewitness also derives from the traditions and standards of Western jurisprudence. Courts accept a story as true when two or three witnesses can corroborate and verify its major elements. But the principle goes back much further to the biblical affirmation that testimony had to be confirmed in the mouth of two or three witnesses (Num. 35:30; Deut. 17:6; Matt. 18:16; 1 Tim. 5:19).

Luke, ever the careful historian and theologian, used the testimony of reliable witnesses to great effect in confirming the truth of his narrative of the birth of Christ. His efforts were all the more effective because he could cite the most credible witnesses any writer ever had. And he did all that so we would know beyond a doubt that Jesus Christ was the greatest and most special child ever born.

The Righteousness of Joseph and Mary

First of all, Luke removed any uncertainty about the character and honesty of his witnesses by relying on the testimony of Jesus’ parents. Because of the righteous character of Joseph and Mary’s lives, Luke knew his readers could trust their testimony.

Matthew 1:19 identifies Joseph this way: “Joseph … being a just man.” That means he was right with God—a righteous man. And that was notable because in those days Israel had quite an array of theological and political viewpoints that were out of step with God’s righteous plan. There were those influenced by the Sadducees, who were essentially the religious liberals (they denied the supernatural and a bodily resurrection from the dead). Many Jews followed the system of the religious legalists, the Pharisees, who believed in tradition, ceremonies, and good works as a means to salvation. Then there were the adherents of nationalism, who politicized Judaism and were fanatically intent on overthrowing Roman control and regaining independence for the nation of Israel. The Zealots most clearly represented that outlook. And there was even a segment of Jewish society that lived out in the desert as separatists. The Essenes, with their asceticism and contemplative piety, epitomized that sectarian element.

Those crosscurrents of unscriptural emphases had led the nation of Israel far from God. But He was still working among a small remnant of His people, reassuring them that Messiah was coming and that His plan of redemption was still intact. The Lord was faithfully carrying out His program through righteous people, those who believed His promises, repented of their sins, and cast themselves on His mercy for the forgiveness of sins. Joseph was a prime example of this righteous remnant, as was his young wife, Mary, whom Luke earlier quoted as saying, “‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior’” (1:46–47). It’s clear that Jesus’ parents knew and loved the Lord.

The Testimony of Joseph and Mary

Joseph and Mary’s devotion to follow the will of God in everything pertaining to their new son was also clear. Luke 2:21–24 features that faithful, joyful spirit of obedience:

And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb.

Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord”), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, “A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons.”

The Circumcising and Naming of Jesus

The first way in which Jesus’ parents testified to His identity as Messiah and Savior was by bringing Him to be circumcised and formally named.

The Law of Moses prescribed that the parents of male babies, when the boys were eight days old, were to have their sons circumcised (Lev. 12:3). However, God first introduced the rite of circumcision (Gen. 17:9–14) to Abraham when he underwent the formal procedure as an adult and the Lord identified him as the father of the Israelite nation. From then on, as a sign of the covenant, every male child in Israel was to be circumcised on the eighth day.

Although circumcision was physical and done for health reasons (by having the man’s foreskin cut away, God was protecting the Jewish wife from receiving harmful infections and bacteria from her husband), it primarily symbolized the need for spiritual cleansing. Every time Jewish parents brought a son to be circumcised, it was a reminder of original sin—they were sinners; they had borne a sinner—and their need for a cleansing at the deepest level of their souls. That’s why Scripture commands us to circumcise our hearts (Rom. 2:28–29; Phil. 3:3; Col. 2:11).

But why did Jesus, the holy and sinless Son of God (Isa. 53:9;
2 Cor. 5:21), need to be circumcised? Because that’s what God’s Law required. Whatever His Law mandated at that time in redemptive history, Jesus, through His earthly parents, wanted to comply with those commands. As the apostle Paul wrote, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4).

Christ came to fulfill every aspect of the Law (Matt. 5:17), whether He did so passively as an infant at His circumcision or actively as an adult at His baptism. “Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan to be baptized by him. And John tried to prevent Him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?’ But Jesus answered and said to him, ‘Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he allowed Him” (Matt. 3:13–15).

Jesus entered this world and lived obediently as a child, young person, and adult under the Law—an entire life of perfection—so that at the Cross the Father could credit the Son’s perfect life to sinners’ accounts. Without the death of One who lived a perfect life, there could be no substitutionary atonement. At Calvary, God treated Jesus as if He had lived your life so He could treat you as if you had lived Jesus’ life. That is a simple summary of the doctrine of justification.

According to Jewish custom, the parents named the son at the same time they had him circumcised. So on that occasion Christ’s parents formally named Him Jesus—and the choice of that name was an easy one. The angel had told both Joseph and Mary that they were to name their Son Jesus (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).

Jesus is the New Testament equivalent of the Hebrew name Joshua and means “Yahweh saves.” Joshua, Moses’ successor, was a great deliverer (Deut. 31:1–8; Josh. 1:1–7) who led the people of Israel into the Promised Land. But the Child whom Mary and Joseph named Jesus was a far greater Deliverer than Joshua. He was God the Savior, come in human flesh to willingly and compassionately save all those who believe.

God is by nature a saving God (Ezek. 18:23, 32), and Jesus demonstrated those sympathies when He wept over the lost condition of Jerusalem: “‘O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!’” (Matt. 23:37; Matt. 11:28; Luke 15:11–32).

Christianity, as the world’s only true religion, is the only one that provides a genuine savior, and that Savior is Jesus. He affirmed that when He declared, “‘For the Son of Man has come to seek and to save that which was lost’” (Luke 19:10). And Joseph and Mary testified to that truth when they named Him at His circumcision.

Jesus Presented to God After Mary’s Purification

The second aspect of Joseph and Mary’s testimony to Jesus was twofold: Mary observed a prescribed time of purification for herself, and she and Joseph formally presented Jesus to God. “Now when the days of her purification according to the law of Moses were completed, they brought Him to Jerusalem to present Him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, ‘Every male who opens the womb shall be called holy to the Lord’), and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the law of the Lord, ‘A pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons’” (Luke 2:22–24).

As Luke tells us, Mary observed a set time for personal purification, in keeping with the Mosaic Law. In Leviticus 12:2–4, the Lord commanded Moses, “‘Speak to the children of Israel, saying: “If a woman has conceived, and borne a male child, then she shall be unclean seven days; as in the days of her customary impurity she shall be unclean. And on the eighth day the flesh of his foreskin shall be circumcised. She shall then continue in the blood of her purification thirty-three days. She shall not touch any hallowed thing, nor come into the sanctuary until the days of her purification are fulfilled.”’”

The seven-day uncleanness was a ceremonial uncleanness that meant the woman could not enter the tabernacle (later the temple) or touch anything holy during that time. The week was symbolically parallel to the woman’s monthly menstrual period, during which God also considered her unclean. Both types of uncleanness were regular reminders to the woman and to her family that they were still sinners in need of God’s forgiveness.

Beginning on the eighth day, the new mother of a male child had to face another period of uncleanness, the thirty-three days of her purification. As in the previous seven days, she was not to touch any consecrated item or enter the worship sanctuary. So for Mary and all other obedient Jewish women who bore sons, there was a somewhat bittersweet forty-day period. On the one hand, they experienced the great joy of having a new son, which meant the family name would continue. But on the other hand, they had to endure a mandatory disassociation from holy things as a reminder that they were sinners, that they had borne sinful sons, and therefore that as human mothers, they needed purification.

Once Mary had carefully observed and completed the forty-day period of uncleanness, she could joyfully and with a clear conscience present Jesus to the Lord. She was accompanied by Joseph, which meant the entire little family was present at the temple for the special observance of the completion of Mary’s purification.

As with the circumcision and purification, Joseph and Mary obeyed the Old Testament when they presented their Son to God: “The firstborn of your sons you shall give to Me” (Exod. 22:29; 13:2, 12, 15; Num. 8:17). It was not mandatory for them to go to the Temple to present Jesus. But in the spirit of how Hannah brought Samuel to the Lord (1 Sam. 1:24–28), they went above and beyond the normal duty and brought God’s Son to God’s house. They knew the Child was very special and that He, of all children, belonged to the Lord already. By their action Jesus’ parents in effect said, “We are devoting this Child to You, God. He is already Yours, so do whatever You will in His life so He serves, honors, and glorifies You.”

That special presentation did not mean, however, that Joseph and Mary dedicated Jesus to the Levitical priesthood. They were of the tribe of Judah and therefore, like all non-Levite families, they needed to redeem their Son from that priestly responsibility by paying five shekels of silver (Num. 18:15–16). That would have been equivalent to many days’ wages, a difficult amount for a working-class couple like Joseph and Mary to pay. But God made sure they had the necessary coins.

That Jesus the Redeemer was ceremonially redeemed is an interesting irony, but it is nevertheless an important scriptural reality. Just as with His earlier circumcision and later baptism, Jesus did not need to go through any picture of redemption. He was the sinless Son of God; He did not need to be cleansed from sin or redeemed from condemnation. But He was circumcised, He was baptized, and He was “redeemed” as part of His presentation to God—all because He had to obey the letter of the Law to fulfill all righteousness on our behalf.

The Sacrifice for Mary’s Purification

Jesus’ ceremonial dedication to the Lord by His parents, as significant as it was, did not officially end Mary’s time of uncleanness. That end would come only by her offering a sacrifice for purification. And once again Mary, as a righteous woman, followed God’s original pattern for offering such a sacrifice:

When the days of her purification are fulfilled, whether for a son or a daughter, she shall bring to the priest a lamb of the first year as a burnt offering, and a young pigeon or a turtledove as a sin offering, to the door of the tabernacle of meeting. Then he shall offer it before the Lord, and make atonement for her. And she shall be clean from the flow of her blood. This is the law for her who has borne a male or a female.

And if she is not able to bring a lamb, then she may bring two turtledoves or two young pigeons—one as a burnt offering and the other as a sin offering. So the priest shall make atonement for her, and she will be clean. (Lev. 12:6–8)

Notice that Mary had several options in offering her sacrifice. If she and Joseph had had the resources, they could have brought a lamb and a bird. But since they couldn’t afford to do that, they utilized the second option and brought a pair of birds (Luke 2:24). That indicates again that Mary and Joseph were not wealthy. However, the Lord enabled them, with their middle-class resources, to purchase the two birds in the temple, even at inflated prices.

After the priest made atonement for Mary by sacrificing the birds—one for a burnt offering, the other for a sin offering—she was clean. That didn’t mean the blood of the sacrifices washed her sins away; it simply meant Mary’s heart was then right with the Lord because she had confessed her sin and impurity and asked Him for forgiveness.

The sacrifice for Mary’s purification was a wonderful picture that looked ahead to her Son’s final sacrifice, which alone can actually remove people’s sin. When Christ was sacrificed on the cross, God revealed the only answer for sinful alienation from Him. Remember what happened right after Jesus’ death? The thick temple veil that separated mankind from God was ripped in two from top to bottom. That momentous event signified there was now access to God because the final atoning sacrifice was complete. Never again would repentant sinners, such as Mary, need to deal with ceremonial uncleanness.

So Joseph and Mary gave the first confirming testimony to Jesus’ birth, identity, and true purpose. They named Him Jesus because they knew He would save His people from their sins. They came to the temple (which they didn’t have to do) and offered Him to God because they understood that, in a special way, He belonged to the Lord. They had that understanding, of course, because they knew their newborn was the Christ, the Son of the Father.

Because of Joseph and Mary’s faithful testimony, we also can know that the Babe born in Bethlehem was and is the Son of God, the Redeemer of all who trust in Him.[1]

 

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 111–118). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY THREE

The Burning Babe

Matthew 27:29; Mark 15:17; 16:2; 1 John 5:6

As I in hoary winter’s night

Stood shivering in the snow,

Surprised I was with sudden heat

Which made my heart to glow;

And lifting up a fearful eye

To view what fire was near,

A pretty babe all burning bright

Did in the air appear;

Who, scorchèd with excessive heat,

Such floods of tears did shed,

As though His floods should quench His flames,

Which with His tears were bred:

“Alas!” quoth He, “but newly born

In fiery heats I fry,

Yet none approach to warm their hearts

Or feel my fire but I!

My faultless breast the furnace is;

The fuel, wounding thorns;

Love is the fire, and sighs the smoke;

The ashes, shames and scorns;

The fuel Justice layeth on,

And Mercy blows the coals,

The metal in this furnace wrought

Are men’s defilèd souls:

For which, as now on fire I am

To work them to their good,

So will I melt into a bath,

To wash them in my blood.”

With this He vanish’d out of sight

And swiftly shrunk away,

And straight I callèd unto mind

That it was Christmas Day.

Robert Southwell (1561–1595)


The Celebration of the Angels

Luke 2:8–14

Soon as your only Son had made

His entrance on this earth,

A shining army downward fled

To celebrate His birth.

Isaac Watts (1674–1748)


The Child, the Night, and the Star

Matthew 2:10; Luke 2:7, 12, 16

As a child is its chief subject, so it is also the children above all who exalt and maintain the festival, and through the festival also Christianity itself. And as night is the historical cradle of Christianity, so the festival of its birth is also celebrated in the night; and the lighted tapers with which it sparkles are, as it were, the star above the inn, as well as the aureole without which the child would not be found in the darkness of the manger, or in the otherwise starless night of history.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)


“The Christ of God We Sing”

Matthew 8:20; 27:29; Mark 15:17; Luke 2:1–15; 9:58; John 19:2, 5

The Christ of God we sing,

The Babe of Bethlehem!

And on His infant head we place

The royal diadem.

The crown of thorns is His,

That child of poverty,

Who on this earth of ours can find

No place His head to lay.

The crown of heaven is His,

And angels own Him there.

The crown of earth shall yet be His,

And we that crown shall share.

Horatius Bonar (1808–1889)


The Day Rose in December

Isaiah 9:2; Matthew 4:16

In December, when the nights are long, rose unto us the day of whom there is no bound! In winter, when all the world is gloomy, the Fair One came forth who cheered all in the world! In winter that makes the earth barren, virginity learned to bring forth.

Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)


The Divine and Human Natures Were Not Confounded

John 1:14

We must never forget that though our Lord was God and man at the same time, the divine and human natures in Him were never confounded. One nature did not swallow up the other. The two natures remained perfect and distinct. The divinity of Christ was never for a moment laid aside, although veiled. The manhood of Christ, during His lifetime, was never for a moment unlike our own, though by union with the Godhead, greatly dignified. Though perfect God, Christ has always been perfect man from the first moment of His incarnation. He that is gone into heaven, and is sitting at the Father’s right hand to intercede for sinners, is man as well as God.

R. C. Ryle (1816–1900)


The Divine Person Himself Is Revealed

Job 38:7; John 1:14

When God manifested His power in the works of His hands, the morning stars sang together, and the sons of God shouted for joy; but when God manifests Himself, what music shall suffice for the grand psalm of adoring wonder? When wisdom and power are seen, these are but attributes; but in the incarnation it is the divine person which is revealed wrapped in a veil of our inferior clay.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


The Fitness of the Son’s Redemption

John 5:37; 12:49; Ephesians 2:16; 4:8; 1 John 4:14

Oh the admirable love and wisdom of God that shines in this, that the second person in the Trinity is set on work to procure our redemption! Though reason could never have found out such a way, yet when God has revealed it, reason, though but shallow, can see a fitness in it; because there being a necessity that the Savior of man should be man, and an impossibility that any but God should save him, and one person in the Trinity being to be incarnate, it agrees to reason that the first person in the Trinity should not be the mediator; for who should send him? He is of none, and therefore could not be sent. There must be one sent to reconcile the enmity, and another to give gifts to friends; two proceeding persons, the Son from the Father, and the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son.

Thomas Brooks (1608–1680)


The Glory of Angels Became the Consolation of Sufferers

Matthew 6:29; Luke 2:8–14; John 1:14; Philippians 2:8

He who is the delight and glory of the angels is become the salvation and the consolation of all who suffer. He who is glorious and transcendent in His own city, and beatifies its citizens by His presence, became little and humble when in exile that He might rejoice the exiles. He who in the highest heavens is the glory of the Father became, as a child on earth, “peace to men of goodwill.”

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


The Godhead Concealed Itself in a Babe

Luke 2:7, 12; Philippians 2:6–7

It is the terror of the Godhead which keeps the sinner oftentimes away from reconciliation; but see how the Godhead has graciously concealed itself in a babe, a little babe, a babe that needed to be wrapped in swaddling bands like any other newborn child. Who fears to approach Him? Who ever heard of trembling in the presence of a babe? Yet is the Godhead there.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)[1]

[1] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.


Christmas, Fulfilled Promise

Moses died on the mountain from which he was permitted to view from a distance the promised land (Deut. 32:48–52). When the Bible speaks of God’s promises, it’s a matter of life and death.… The language that reports this ancient history is clear. Anyone who has seen God must die; the sinner dies before the promise of God. Let’s understand what that means for us so close to Christmas. The great promise of God—a promise that is infinitely more important than the promise of the promised land—is supposed to be fulfilled at Christmas.… The Bible is full of the proclamation that the great miracle has happened as an act of God, without any human doing.… What happened? God had seen the misery of the world and had come himself in order to help. Now he was there, not as a mighty one, but in the obscurity of humanity, where there is sinfulness, weakness, wretchedness, and misery in the world. That is where God goes, and there he lets himself be found by everyone. And this proclamation moves through the world anew, year after year, and again this year also comes to us.

We all come with different personal feelings to the Christmas festival. One comes with pure joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love.… Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work.… Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy to them. Personal sorrow is painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime.… And despite it all, Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.

Sermon to a German-speaking church in Havana, Cuba, December 21, 1930

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

Luke 1:26–33[1]


I Offer You My Heart

Mark 12:33; 2 Corinthians 8:9

I love you, O my God, who did become a little child for my sake; but I love you very little. I desire to love you very much, and you have to enable me to do it. I come, then, to kiss your feet, and I offer you my heart. I leave it in your hands; I will have it no longer. Change it, and keep it forever; do not give it back to me again. For if you do, I fear lest it should betray you afresh.

Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)


Praise and Glory to the Trinity for the Incarnation

John 1:14; Philippians 2:7

O heavenly Father, we thank you, we praise you, we glorify you for your great mercy to us sinners, in sending your blessed Son, as at this time, to take our nature upon Him.

O blessed Son of God, we praise you and glorify you, who condescended to take our manhood into your Godhead, that we might be saved by you.

O God the Holy Spirit, we praise you and glorify you, by whom in a wonderful manner the Son of God became incarnate in our nature, and dwelt among us.

Henry Alford (1810–1871)[2]


“Bethlehem Has Opened Eden”

Ezekiel 36:35; Matthew 13:46

Bethlehem has opened Eden,

Come! let us behold:

Sweetness we have found, once hidden,

Pearl of price untold,

Gifts of Paradise, all precious,

Stored within the cave, refresh us.

Romanus the Melodist (6th c.)


Blessed Be That Child Who Gladdened Bethlehem Today!

Matthew 1:25; Luke 1:78; 2:7

Blessed be that child who gladdened Bethlehem today! Blessed be the babe who made manhood young again today! Blessed be the fruit who lowered Himself to our famished state! Blessed be the good one, who suddenly supplied our needs! Blessed is He whose tender mercies made Him condescend to visit our infirmities!

Ephrem the Syrian (306–373)


Born God of God and Man of Man

John 1:1–5, 14–18; 14:6

In Christ the very Mercy has descended to sinners, the very Truth to those that are astray, the very Life to those that are dead: so that that Word, which is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father, might take our humble nature into union with His Godhead, and, being born God of God, might also be born Man of man.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


Born of the Father and Born of a Mother

John 1:14–18; Galatians 4:4; 1 John 5:1

Born of the Father He made us; born of a mother He re-made us. He was born of the Father that we might be; He was born of a mother that we might not be lost.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430)


Bow Humbly to the Humble Jesus

Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 11:29; Philippians 2:6–7

To you this day the infant Jesus is born, to you a child is given: that with the little you may become little, with the poor poor, with the humble humble, with the patient patient, with the meek sweet and mild. Bow yourself therefore humbly to Him; submit yourself freely, that thus you may merit to exult with Him eternally, who to gather the little came down from the high dwelling places of Heaven, Jesus Christ the Son of God.

Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)


Bringing a Remedy and Giving Us an Example

Philippians 2:5–11; 1 John 5:20

Unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy; unless He were true man, He would not give us an example.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


By His Weakness We Know He Does Not Come to Destroy

Isaiah 42:1–3; Matthew 12:18–20; Philippians 2:6–7

Behold, He comes as an infant, and without speech, for the voice of the wailing infant arouses compassion, not terror. If He is terrible to any, yet not to you. He is become a little one, His virgin mother swathes His tender limbs with bands, and do you still tremble with fear? By this weakness you may know that He comes not to destroy, but to save; not to bind, but to unbind. If He shall take up the sword, it will be against your enemies, and, as the Power and the Wisdom of God, He will trample on the necks of the proud and the mighty.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


Castaways May Return Because of the Incarnation

John 1:13; 3:3–7; Romans 8:15

To you who were a castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying of your weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, without further hope of living, by the incarnation of the Word was given the power to return from afar to your maker, to recognize your parentage, to become free after slavery, to be promoted from being an outcast to sonship: so that you who were born of corruptible flesh may be reborn by the Spirit of God, and obtain through grace what you had not by nature, and, if you acknowledge yourself the son of God by the spirit of adoption, dare to call God Father.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


Celebrating Christmas All Year

Revelation 19:7

I will honor Christmas in my heart, and try to keep it all the year.

Charles Dickens (1812–1870)


Celebrating Christmas with Non-Christians

Luke 2:10; Acts 2:46–47

The world for once chooses to say with us, “Christ is come.” Those who do not ordinarily come to the light do not refuse to advance some steps towards the risen day. Is this good, or is this evil? Shall we refuse to let them bear a part with us in our Christian joy? Shall we drive them back again into their worldliness? Shall we forbid them because they do not feel and do not think and do not speak as we do?… Shall we not rather say to them, “Come and rejoice with us—advance and stand in the ranks of God’s people—listen to what He has done for His Church and for the world?” Which of the two plans is the more likely to win souls for Christ and to glorify God?

Henry Alford (1810–1871)[3]


[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 54–55). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

The Wonder of the Season (Part 7): Advent: close encounters of a liturgical kind

’TIS THE SEASON WHEN EVEN THE FREE-RANGING REVIVALIST PULLS UP A CHAIR TO THE TABLE OF HISTORIC LITURGY

Chris Armstrong

THE ANCIENT FUTURE Long the purview of mainline churches, Advent celebrations are increasingly common among evangelicals. Along with embracing ancient Advent traditions, evangelicals are adding their own spin on the season with efforts such as the Advent Conspiracy, a social justice initiative centered on encouraging Christians to spend less and give more.

CHRISTMAS EVE: PHOTO BY ROBYN GENUALDI; COURTESY OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH IN MORRISTOWN, NEW JERSEY

i confess: as an adolescent, when my parents tried to impress on my two brothers and me the importance and the intricacies of Advent observance, I could hardly keep from rolling my eyes. In a country that spends its cold Decembers in hot pursuit of food, presents, and parties, the historical niceties of an ancient liturgical season seemed, well … irrelevant.

13th-c. Madonna by Cimabue.

ANGELS AND PROPHETS PAINTING: THE YORCK PROJECT: 10.000 MEISTERWERKE DER MALEREI. DVD-ROM, 2002

These days, on the other side of an evangelical conversion and nearly a decade of graduate study in church history, I’ve begun to see what excited my parents about Advent. I’m even entertaining the possibility that my own young family might benefit from an informed observance of this season of waiting. (How to help my kids keep their eyes reverently lowered and their hearts in tune during such observance is, I confess, still pretty much beyond me. But that’s a discussion for another day. I’m sure my parents are chuckling as they read this!)

In fact, Advent season presents a unique opportunity to many Protestants. It’s like the once-a-year conjunction of two planets: it brings a great mass of Bible-loving, praise-and-worshiping, extemporaneously praying, born-again Protestant Christians into close contact with a big chunk of the historic church’s liturgy. Even many nonliturgical Protestants don’t think twice about joining in the season’s rituals, old as well as new. They count off Advent calendar windows, listen to lectionary sermon themes and Bible readings, and recite set prayers at the dinner table around candles in meaningful hues of purple and rose.

So, as Advent’s four bright Sundays offer us ways to meditate on Christ’s coming, let’s explore the sustaining power of liturgical observance. John Bookser Felster, editor of www.americancatholic.com, observes churchly seasons like Advent “tie our lives to Christians throughout history.” In a time of year filled with indulgence, the observance of centuries-old Christian practices can feed us in a deeper and better way.

Once upon a time, in fourth- and fifth-century Gaul and Spain, “Advent” was a preparation not for Christmas but for Epiphany, the early-January celebration of such diverse events in Jesus’ life as his baptism, the miracle at Cana, and the visit of the magi (see p. 16 for more on Epiphany). In those days, Epiphany was set aside as an opportunity for new Christians to be baptized and welcomed into the church. So believers spent Advent’s 40 days examining their hearts and doing penance.

It was not until the sixth century that Christians in Rome began linking this season explicitly to the coming of Christ. But at that time, and for centuries after, the “coming” that was celebrated was not the birth of Jesus, but his Second Coming. It was not until the Middle Ages that the church began using the Advent season to prepare to celebrate Christ’s birth. And even then, this newer sense of the Lord’s “advent,” or coming, did not supplant the older sense—the Second Coming. The muted, Lentlike mood of penitential preparation remained alongside the joyous anticipation of Jesus’ birthday.

The modern liturgy divides Advent into a period, through December 16, during which the focus is Christ’s Second Coming, and a period, from December 17 to 24, focusing on his birth. It starts with sobering passages and prayers about the apocalyptic return of the Lord in judgment. Then it moves to Old Testament passages foretelling the birth of a messiah and New Testament passages trumpeting John the Baptist’s exhortations and the angels’ announcements.

Every year these rich scriptural reminders and the traditional prayers that accompany them set my blood rushing a little faster and bring a rising excitement: Christ came with plenty of prior notice! Prophets and angels joined to proclaim his coming! And now I can join too, with the cloud of witnesses stretching back to apostolic times, in the same proclamation!

And in the protected, quiet times of meditation, I can respond as I imagine believers have done every Advent since the tradition began:

15th-c. antiphonary (hymnal) for Advent through Epiphany.

MONDADORI PORTFOLIO / ELECTA / ART RESOURCE, NY

I can bow my head and prepare my heart to receive the one who is always present, but who seems distant in the busyness of the season.

I can mourn for my hardness of heart.

I can hope in his grace.

And I can rejoice that in answer to the cry, “O come, O come, Emmanuel,” he came.

Would I really be able to do this—in the midst of December’s commercial rush of lights, decorations, present-buying, and piped-in carols—without a gently insistent, weekly liturgical pattern? Maybe.

But I’m not rolling my eyes anymore.

Update: I wrote this piece several years ago, when my children were small. Now that we have a few more Christmas seasons behind us, I am even more firmly convinced of the benefits of using the liturgical calendar.—CA

Chris R. Armstrong is professor of church history at Bethel Seminary, St. Paul, MN, and managing editor of Christian History.[1]


[1] Armstrong, C. (2012). Advent: Close Encounters of a Liturgical Kind: ’Tis the Season When Even the Free-Ranging Revivalist Pulls up a Chair to the Table of Historic Liturgy. Christian History Magazine: The Wonder of the Season, (no. 103), 22–23.

Christmas: Celebrate His Love (Part 7)

Loving Jesus at Christmas

This lesson examines the practical issue of loving Christ during the holiday season—and year around— in the same way that Jesus loved the Father.

Outline

There is a way for us to fulfill the longing in our hearts for true intimacy with our Creator. It is seldom discussed, almost never mentioned at this time of the year, but here is the key: The key to loving Jesus is to understand how Jesus loved His Father.

  1. Jesus Loved the Father by Doing What the Father Asked Him to Do
  2. I Love Jesus by Doing What Jesus Asks Me to Do
  3. If I Will Love Jesus as He loved His Father, Jesus Will Do for Me What the Father Did for Him

Overview

Christmas is a wonderful time of the year to love Jesus, for all around us are reminders of His birth and His loving death on our behalf. The cradle or the manger reminds us that He came. The tree is a subtle reminder of where He ended up on our behalf, hanging between heaven and earth. The darkness tells us what we were like before Christ came, and all of the lights which illuminate our hearts remind us that Jesus came as the light of the world to bring joy into each of our lives.

I have been asking myself, “If Jesus were physically here today, what would I say to Him, and how different would it be from what I said to Him in my prayer this morning?” If He were to walk in here among us, and move in and out of our homes, and we had an opportunity to express our love to Him at Christmas time, what would we say? How in the world do we, as modern believers, love Jesus at Christmastime? Do we sing Him songs? Do we go to church? Do we care for the poor? Do we give to the church which is His body? All of these are fine, and they may in some measure fulfill the urge we have within us to love Jesus at Christmas, but there is a way that we can love Jesus—not only at Christmas time but throughout the year—that is so evident that we wonder how we could have missed it. It promises to fulfill the longings we have in our hearts, so when the season is over, we don’t sit there at 7:00 o’clock on Christmas Day with the bitter aftertaste in our mouth thinking, “Is this all there is? I thought there would be more, and now it is over.”

The key to loving Jesus is to understand how Jesus loved His Father.

We can understand how Jesus loved his Father by turning to a passage of Scripture in the Book of Hebrews. Actually, this passage in the Book of Hebrews is an Old Testament passage used in the New Testament by the writer of Hebrews to make a very important point. The point is how Jesus loved his Father at the Incarnation, at Christmastime. How did he do it?

In Hebrews 10:5 we read, “Therefore, when He came into the world, He said: ‘Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You have prepared for Me. In burnt offerings and sacrifices for sin You had no pleasure.’ Then I said, ‘Behold, I have come—in the volume of the book it is written of Me, to do Your will, O God.’ ” This is obviously a quotation from Psalm 40, originally spoken by David. But it is a Messianic psalm, a prophetic psalm which speaks into the future the words of the Lord Jesus as He came into the world to be our Savior. Listen to these words from our Lord’s lips. He says, “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written of me, to do your will, O God.” How did Jesus love his Father?

Jesus Loved the Father by Doing What the Father Asked Him to Do

I can’t imagine what that day must have been like. It is an eternal day, and I can’t even think in terms of eternity. I have said goodbye to my children for short periods of time, some for weeks at a time, some for just days at a time, but can you imagine the Father in heaven saying goodbye to His Son for thirty-some years? He was in fellowship with the Father, but He was sent from heaven into the world to walk among us. That is what He is talking about when He says, “Lo, I come, in the volume of the book it is written, to do your will, O God.” Jesus came in total obedience to His father. “I come to do it your way, O God,” says one of the translators.

What did that mean to Him in His earthly life? In John 4:34 Jesus continued to reiterate that He was loving His Father by doing the will of His Father: “Jesus said to them, ‘My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.’ ”

Notice, too, John 5:30: “I can of Myself do nothing. As I hear I judge; and My judgment is righteous, because I do not seek My own will, but the will of the Father who sent Me.”

And in John 6:38: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent Me.”

Throughout His life, Jesus was loving His Father. How? Every time He was questioned, Jesus said, “I have not come to do My own will. I have come to do the will of the Father who sent Me.”

And then, when it came to that moment of crisis in the Garden of Gethsemane, and the fact that Jesus ultimately would pay the penalty for the sin of the whole world, He came back to this principle again: “Nevertheless, not My will, but Your will be done.” How did Jesus love the Father? He loved the Father by doing the will of the Father.

I have written in the front of my Bible a verse. It is just a part of a verse, but it summarizes the life of Jesus while He was on this earth. It is John 8:29: “I always do those things that please [the Father.]” Every minute Jesus was on the earth, everything He did, every thought He had, was conditioned out of one truth: I want to please My Father.

Was God the Father pleased with Him? On two occasions at least, His pleasure broke out. When Jesus was being baptized the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

And it happened in Matthew 17, on the Mount of Transfiguration. Jesus was being transfigured. He was being revealed. And the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.” Not these other two (Moses and Elijah). This one.

Jesus lived all of His life that He might please the Father. And when the report card came in, the Father said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased” (v.17:5).

I Love Jesus By Doing What Jesus Asks Me to Do

At the beginning we said that if we could understand how Jesus loved His Father, then maybe, just maybe, we can understand how we can love Jesus.

In John 14:21 the Lord Jesus says, “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves Me, And he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him, and manifest Myself to him.”

Notice the first part of the verse: “He who has My commandments and keeps them, it is he who loves me.” Always doing that which is pleasing the Father. Remember—if we learn how Jesus loved the Father, we can learn how we can love Jesus.

Then notice verse 23: “Jesus answered and said to him, ‘If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word.’ ” The negative of this is in verse 24: “He who does not love Me does not keep My words.” Do you want to know how not to love Jesus at Christmastime? The Scriptures say the way not to love Jesus at Christmastime is not to keep His words.

Finally, look at John 15:10: “If you keep My commandments, you will abide in My love.” So let’s back up and ask ourselves that question again. How do we love Jesus at Christmastime? Well, how did Jesus love the Father? “In the volume of the Book it is written of me, ‘I come to do Your will, O God.’ ” He was obedient, according to the Book of Philippians, even to the point of death.

If I Will Love Jesus as He Loved His Father, Jesus Will Do for Me What the Father Did for Him

Here is the other part of the equation. If we will love Jesus as Jesus loved the Father, Jesus will do for us what the Father did for Him. Look at the second part of John 14:21. Verse 21 says if we will keep His commandments, we will be loved by the Father and Christ will love us and manifest Himself to us. That’s the promise He gives us. He says that if we will love the Lord Jesus by obeying His words, then in a very special way we will be loved by the Father, and we will be loved by the Lord Jesus Christ, and the Lord Jesus will reveal himself to us.

Someone might say, “Am I not loved by the Father?” Yes! Are you not loved by Jesus? Yes, if you are a Christian. Does He not reveal Himself to you? Yes He does, in the Scripture. But there’s a special kind of manifest presence that comes upon the person whose only joy in life, whose only passion in life, is the passion that Jesus had. That was to do the will of God.

Notice verse 23: “And My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him.”

Again, look at (John 15:10): “Abide in My love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in His love.” As we look at these verses, we cannot help but see the principle: If I will love Jesus as Jesus loved the Father, then Jesus will do for me what the Father did for His Son.

That means a day is coming which is foretold in the parable of the talents, when you will be able to stand before Him, having served as a faithful servant, and He will say you are a blessed, faithful servant, and invite you to enter into the joy of your Lord.

So, at Christmastime, when we are running around, buying gifts, and trying to stay out of trouble with all of the relatives and all of the in-laws and all of the rest of everything that happens, how do we get through all of this and focus so that we can love Jesus? Here it is.

We love Jesus by doing what He asks us to do: by keeping His commandments. That’s the way to have a very merry, and Christ- centered, Christmas.

Application

  1. What do the following verses teach us about the Son’s obedience to the Father?
  2. Romans 5:19
  3. Philippians 2:6–8
  4. Hebrews 5:8
  5. What will be the ultimate outcome of the Son’s obedience to the Father?
  6. Psalm 110:1–2
  7. Daniel 7:13–14
  8. Philippians 2:9–11
  9. What do you think was the Son’s ultimate act of obedience to the Father? (See Matthew 26:39.)
  10. What is faith in Christ called in the verses below?
  11. 2 Corinthians 9:13
  12. 2 Thessalonians 1:7–8
  13. 1 Peter 4:7
  14. What, then, should be our understanding of the connection between love for Christ and obedience to Christ?
  15. How is that reflected in these passages?
  16. John 14:15
  17. John 14:21–24
  18. John 15:10
  19. 1 John 2:5–6
  20. What does God’s Word say about the person who talks about loving Christ, but lives a life of perpetual disobedience (see 1 John 2:4)?
  21. In what practical ways, then, might you display your love for Christ during the holiday season and beyond?

Did You Know?

The history of the Christian church is a continuous record of swinging between the extremes of legalism on one hand and license on the other. The argument against legalism, of course, is that good works can save no one; while the argument against license is that Christ is not unrighteous; therefore His saints should not engage in unrighteous acts.

The Bible teaches neither legalism nor license for the believer. What the Bible teaches is liberty—freedom—from bondage to belief in works that can save one’s self, and freedom from a body that cannot produce good works under the duress of the law. Jesus indeed came that He might set us free from the law, so that rather than vowing to do good (which we cannot do) in order to save ourselves (which we likewise cannot do), by faith we can be saved by Him and be set free to live our lives in submission to Him in us, Who can produce good works.

ICE Candles

This activity needs close adult supervision.

You will need the following items:

clean, empty card- board milk cartons

taper candles

ice, crushed or cubed

old broken crayons or candles

candle wax (paraffin)

old coffee cans

Remove tops from milk cartons and cut to desired height. Center a taper candle in each milk carton, making sure the wick is above the top of the carton. Place carton in a shallow foil-lined pan.

Melt wax in a coffee can that has been placed in a pan of water. Stir wax to aid in melting, and heat to a simmer.

Fill area around taper in carton with ice. The larger the ice cubes and the more ice you use, the larger the holes in the candles. Now ís the time to add bits of broken crayons or candles for extra color and texture.

 

The next step should be done by an adult.

 

Pour melted wax over ice in carton slowly. As the wax cools around the ice, it forms holes. Allow to cool completely and pour off water. To remove from carton, simply tear paper gently away from candle.[1]

 

[1] Jeremiah, D. (1999). Celebrate his love: Study guide (pp. 88–99). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Christmas: God In The Manger (Part 8)

The News Travels Fast

It’s hard to imagine that anything could rival in importance, interest, and excitement the events that occurred during the hours and days immediately following the birth of Christ. But even several months after the amazing stir created by the angels and shepherds to herald His arrival, people were still hearing about and responding to news of Christ’s birth. By that time, men of wealth and influence were reacting to the news coming out of Bethlehem. But was their response any more uniformly noble than that of the shepherds and common people we saw in our previous chapter? Not necessarily. Actually, as you will see, the response of some powerful people was outwardly much worse than the fleeting, indifferent curiosity the average people had to the shepherds’ witness. But as with the shepherds and Jesus’ parents, some also rendered genuine faith and worship to the newborn King.

In fact, a passage in the other detailed Gospel account of our Lord’s birth (Matt. 1:18–2:23) contains examples of three basic responses people of every locale and historical era have typically had toward Him: hostility, indifference, and worship. Matthew 2:1–12 outlines the attitudes this way in the familiar story of the wise men, or Magi:

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born.

So they said to him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet:

‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,

Are not the least among the rulers of Judah;

For out of you shall come a Ruler

Who will shepherd My people Israel.’”

Then Herod, when he had secretly called the wise men, determined from them what time the star appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the young Child, and when you have found Him, bring back word to me, that I may come and worship Him also.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy. And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Then, being divinely warned in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed for their own country another way.

The Magi Seek Jesus

The story of the wise men, or Magi, is a well-known Bible narrative, yet over the centuries a certain amount of myth and tradition has clouded and romanticized it. For instance, a medieval understanding of the story claimed the men were kings, three in number and named Casper, Balthazar, and Melchior. Some believed they represented Noah’s three sons; therefore, paintings and drawings depicted one as an Ethiopian. One twelfth-century church leader even claimed to have discovered the Magi’s skulls.

However, the only credible facts we know about those men are the few details Matthew provided. He did not choose to tell us their precise number, names, means of transportation, or the specific areas they were from. Matthew’s original audience would have known the wise men were from the East, because people generally knew such Magi made up the priestly-political class of the Parthians—who resided east of Palestine.

The Magi date from the seventh century b.c., when they were a tribe within the Median nation of eastern Mesopotamia. They became skilled in astronomy and astrology (which were more closely associated disciplines in those days) and had a sacrificial system somewhat similar to the Mosaic one. We derive the English words magic and magician from the name magi.

The Book of Daniel reports that the Magi, with their knowledge of science, agriculture, mathematics, history, and the occult, were among the highest ranking, most influential officials in the Babylonian Empire. Because of Daniel’s own high position and place of respect among them (Dan. 2:24, 48), the Magi undoubtedly learned much from him about the true God and His plans for the Jews through the coming Messiah. Because many Jews remained in Babylon after the Exile, it’s likely those teachings remained strong in the region even until New Testament times.

The “wise men from the East” (Matt. 2:1) who came to see Jesus were true Magi who had learned about the Jews’ messianic expectations, likely from the prophetic writings such as Daniel’s. They were probably among the many God-fearing Gentiles who lived in the Middle East and Mediterranean areas at that time, some of whom—such as Cornelius and Lydia (Acts 10:1–2; 16:14)—are mentioned in the New Testament.

Matthew tells us that when the Magi—whether three or more, he doesn’t specify—arrived in Jerusalem, they began the final stage of their search for the Christ child by asking, “‘Where is He who has been born King of the Jews?’” (2:2). The Greek grammar of that question suggests the men went around the city posing that inquiry to whomever they met. They evidently assumed that if they as foreigners knew about the historic birth, anyone in Judea, and especially Jerusalem, would know where the special baby lived. It was no doubt shocking to the Magi when no one seemed to know what they were talking about.

We don’t know how God revealed the birth of Christ to the Magi. Matthew simply says that He gave them the sign of “His [Christ’s] star in the East.” The identity of that star has stirred perhaps more speculation over the years than has the identity of the men who saw it. Some scholars have proposed it was Jupiter, the largest planet in the solar system. Other commentators have insisted it was the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn, which formed the sign of the fish, the symbol for Christianity later adopted by the early church. Other conjecture regarding the star’s identity has concluded it was probably some other astronomical rarity such as a low-altitude meteor or erratic comet. Some writers have even gone so far as to suggest the phenomenon was some inner vision the Magi had of a “star of destiny” that symbolized mankind’s hopes for a savior.

Because Scripture does not explain or identify the star, we can’t be dogmatic about its character. It may simply have been the glory of the Lord—the same as the shepherds saw earlier when the angels appeared to them (Luke 2:9). The Bible often equates the manifestation of God’s glory with some form of light (Exod. 13:21; 24:17; 34:30; Matt. 17:2; Acts 9:3; 26:13; Rev. 1:16; 21:23). When Moses wrote the Pentateuch, he referred to Messiah as “‘a Star [that] shall come out of Jacob’” (Num. 24:17). At the end of the New Testament, Christ called Himself “‘the Bright and Morning Star’” (Rev. 22:16).

Therefore it’s plausible to say that the extremely bright star, visible only to those for whom God intended it—such as the Magi—was most likely the glory of God. Just as the cloudy pillar of His Shekhinah glory gave light to Israel but darkness to Egypt (Exod. 14:20), God allowed only the wise men to see His glory, depicted in the star’s brilliant light over Bethlehem.

It’s also quite likely that the Magi were not following the star their entire journey because they had to ask where Jesus was born. It was not until the Jews told them of the prophesied place of Christ’s birth that the star reappeared and guided them on to Bethlehem and the exact spot where the baby lay (Matt. 2:9).

The Magi made their long journey west to Palestine for one stated purpose: They wanted to find the newborn Savior and worship Him. “Worship” expresses the idea of falling down and kissing the feet or the hem of the garment of the one honored. That definition in itself verifies that the wise men were true seekers after God. Though they had limited spiritual light, they immediately recognized God’s voice when He spoke to them, and they responded in faith and obedience. The Magi had the type of genuine seeking hearts that God promises always to reward (Jer. 29:13).

Herod’s Anxiety Toward Christ

Herod’s response to news of Christ’s birth was the very opposite of the wise men’s: “When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:3). The king’s anxiety, in contrast to the Magi’s joy and eagerness, is understandable. He had expelled the Parthians from Palestine but was again battling Jewish zealots who wanted their country free from Roman domination. Herod was known as a man of intense jealousy and paranoia, so any mention of a potentially rival king of the Jews caused him much fear and anger.

This Herod, known as “the Great,” is the first of several New Testament Herods. Under their occupation of Judea, the Romans had appointed his father, Herod Antipater, governor of the region. Antipater then managed to get his son named prefect of Galilee. As prefect, Herod successfully quelled the rebellious Jewish guerillas that still opposed Rome, but he had to flee to Egypt when the Parthians invaded Palestine. Herod returned to Palestine a short while later with stronger backing from Rome as the newly proclaimed “king of the Jews.” That’s when he fought the Parthians for two years, defeated them, and set up his own kingdom.

Because the Magi were either Parthians or closely associated with the Parthians, Herod likely had an extra cause for concern. He no doubt viewed the impressive entourage (it probably numbered more than the traditional “three kings”), with its wealth, prestige, and powerful-looking royal demeanor, as a renewed political and military threat from the East.

The Magi’s claim to have come simply to worship the newborn King and their earnest desire to find Him obviously did not affect Herod positively. Because it was then common for Magi and other influential leaders to worship kings and emperors, Herod would have cynically thought their mission was as much political as religious.

Herod’s first response to news of the wise men’s arrival was to summon the Jewish leaders, the chief priests and scribes, and find out from them where the Messiah was to be born. Though Herod was an Idumean (Edomite), he knew Jewish beliefs and customs rather well and associated the title “King of the Jews” with the Jewish Messiah, or Christ. But his awareness of the Jews’ hope for a Messiah did not translate into saving faith in Jesus Christ. Instead, the king gave the Magi a disingenuous rationale for wanting to hear from them the precise location and true identity of the infant Jesus—“‘that I may come and worship Him also’” (Matt. 2:8).

Herod’s true purpose in wanting to find out where Jesus lived became starkly clear in how he actually responded when the Magi did not report back to him. The Magi were simply obedient to the Lord’s leading (2:12), but Herod obeyed his depraved nature and ordered his soldiers to slaughter every male child two years old and under in the vicinity of Bethlehem (v. 16). Of course, by perpetrating such a heinous act, Herod displayed his real desire of wanting to “guarantee” that no newborn king would rival his authority.

Like many hardhearted people today, Herod’s immediate response of hateful rebellion and opposition toward Christ shows he really wanted to know nothing of God’s way except how to eliminate it. Such an attitude reveals a heart of pride, self-interest, and a greed for power and prestige. Jesus Himself later warned about the consequences of that approach: “‘For whoever desires to save his life will lose it… . For what profit is it to a man if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul? Or what will a man give in exchange for his soul?’” (Matt. 16:25–26).

The Indifference of the Religious Leaders

There is a third response people have to Christ—indifference. In the story of the wise men, the Jewish religious leaders, composed primarily of the chief priests and scribes, typify such an attitude.

All Jewish priests were of the priestly tribe of Levi, but the chief priests, including the high priest, the captain of the temple, and other temple officials, were the most influential ones. They formed a priestly aristocracy in Israel and in certain ways were similar to the Magi, mainly because they wielded considerable political as well as religious power.

The scribes were primarily Pharisees and were also referred to as the lawyers. They had much prestige and respect among the Jews, who recognized them as scholars and authorities concerning scriptural and traditional Jewish Law. Except for the Sadducees, they held a conservative, literal view of Scripture, and they were very legalistic regarding the ceremonial and moral Law.

As we noted above, Herod called those leaders together to learn more specifically what Jewish Scripture taught about the birthplace of Messiah. The chief priests and scribes answered Herod’s question by quoting Micah 5:2 and referring partially to Genesis 49:10: “So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea, for thus it is written by the prophet: “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel”’” (Matt. 2:5–6). That answer was consistent with the concept of a shepherd’s being a ruler and therefore fit the intent of Micah’s original prophecy. He foresaw that Christ would be the legitimate King of the Jews and also the final and perfect Ruler of Israel.

In human terms, it was to their credit that the unbelieving Jewish leaders were aware that the Old Testament clearly identified a historical figure, the Son of Man, who would be born in Bethlehem and who would come to rule Israel—the Messiah. But sadly, they refused to accept Jesus as that Messiah, not when He was born, not when He ministered among them, and not when He suffered, died, and rose from the grave.

That group of religious experts did not have a perfect idea of what Christ would be like or of what He would do, but they certainly knew enough to recognize Him when He came. Thus, they knew they should follow the Magi’s example and worship the newborn Messiah in Bethlehem. They had an intellectual knowledge of God’s promises, but the chief priests and scribes were spiritually unmoved when the wise men, prompted by the extraordinary sign of the star, signaled fulfillment of His Word.

Unquestionably, the Jewish leaders are examples of those who are essentially indifferent to God and His program. The prophet Jeremiah lamented over the attitude of such people: “Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?” (Lam. 1:12). They do not believe or obey what they know of God but at best give Him only lip service. Such apathetic people almost invariably become like Herod and display their hostility toward Christ. That’s because indifference to God is simply concealed hatred and delayed rejection.

The Magi Worship Christ

The wise men, in contrast to Herod and the Jewish leaders, had the kind of attitude that pleases God. They responded to Jesus Christ the way He desires all people to respond—in adoration and worship. Because they had little of the written Word of God, the Magi had much less knowledge of the true God than did the chief priests and scribes. However, those Gentile leaders were remarkably responsive to God’s Spirit, and whatever knowledge of God and Christ He revealed to them they believed and followed.

The Magi went on to Bethlehem, not merely because Herod ordered them to, but because finally they were sure they would find the Christ child there. Presumably Herod told them what the religious leaders told him regarding the location of Christ’s birth. But the Lord soon gave them much more graphic assistance and confirmation that they were headed in the right direction. “Behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was” (Matt. 2:9). (That the star hovered directly over the house where Jesus and His family then lived—an impossible action for a normal star—is another strong indicator that it was not an astronomical body, but instead represented the glory of God.)

The men from the East were ecstatic to see the extraordinary star again: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (v. 10). Matthew’s description uses extra superlatives as if to emphasize the degree of exhilaration the Magi felt. Such emotions reveal once again their uniquely strong interest in finding and worshiping the newly arrived King.

By the time the wise men were journeying to Bethlehem, Jesus and His parents had moved from the travelers’ shelter into a house, where they lived until God gave them further direction. There the men finally saw the Child they had traveled so far to find, and they immediately “fell down and worshiped Him” (v. 11). Charles Wesley captured the essence of their experience in these lines from his beautiful Christmas hymn: “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity; pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel.”

As an expression of the Magi’s grateful worship, “they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (v. 11). Gold had long been and still is the universal symbol of material wealth and value. It was also a symbol of nobility and royalty, and thus the Magi were appropriately giving Christ the King royal gifts of gold.

Frankincense was an expensive, sweet-smelling incense used for only the most special occasions. Traditionally, it was the incense of deity. In Old Testament times, the Jews stored it in a special chamber in front of the temple and sprinkled it on certain offerings to symbolize the people’s desire to please the Lord.

Myrrh was a valuable perfume that some interpreters say represented the gift for a mortal. Therefore its role among the Magi’s gifts was to underscore Christ’s humanity. The Gospels later record that people mixed myrrh with wine to make an anesthetic (Mark 15:23). Myrrh was also used with spices to prepare bodies for burial, even Jesus’ body (John 19:39).

With their mission of finding and worshiping the King of the Jews completed, God warned the Magi in a dream not to report back to Herod. So they returned to the East by a route that allowed them to completely escape the king’s notice. Because of the nature and size of the Magi’s traveling party, that feat was not easily accomplished. But the Lord guided their steps and granted them wisdom to succeed, further indicating that the wise men’s dramatic role in marking the birth of Christ was by divine design.

The Magi’s exemplary performance again reminds us that their response to Jesus’ birth was the God-honoring one, in contrast to the responses of Herod and the religious leaders. The Magi believed in God’s Son, the King of kings, when they heard about Him. Such people today might have little divine light initially, but because they realize it is His light, they respond to the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 3:6), repent, believe, obey, worship, and live.[1]

 

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 99–108). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY TWO

“Shepherds Sing; and Shall I Silent Be?”

Luke 2:15–18

The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?

My God, no hymn for thee?

My soul’s a shepherd too: a flock it feeds

Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.

The pasture is your word; the streams your grace

Enriching all the place.

Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers

Outsing the daylight hours.

George Herbert (1593–1633)


Simple Minds Sometimes Find Christ Where Learned Heads Miss Him

Matthew 2:1–12; Luke 2:15–20; 1 Corinthians 1:18–31

Shepherds glorified God, and so may you. Remember, there is one thing in which they had a preference over the wise men. The wise men needed a star to lead them; the shepherds did not. The wise men went wrong even with a star, and stumbled into Jerusalem; the shepherds went straight away to Bethlehem. Simple minds sometimes find a glorified Christ where learned heads, much puzzled with their lore, miss Him.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


Son of Man Without Ceasing to Be Son of God

Daniel 7:13–14; Matthew 1:23; John 1:1–2, 11, 14; Philippians 2:6–8; Hebrews 2:14; 1 John 4:2

He came to that which He was not; He did not lose what He was. He was made the Son of man, but did not cease to be the Son of God.

Augustine of Hippo (354–430)


Spend Your Time Thinking and Talking of the Love of Jesus

Galatians 4:4–5; 1 Thessalonians 1:10

What could the Lord Jesus Christ have done for you more than He has? Then do not abuse His mercy, but let your time be spent in thinking and talking of the love of Jesus, who was incarnate for us, who was born of a woman, and made under the law, to redeem us from the wrath to come.

George Whitefield (1714–1770)


Take Comfort in Emmanuel

Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23; John 14:2–3; 2 Peter 1:4

Let it be our comfort that God is Emmanuel. He left heaven, and took our nature to bring us there, where He is. When times of dissolution come, consider, I am now going to Him to heaven, that came down from there to bring me to that eternal mansion of rest and glory. And shall not I desire an everlasting communion with Him? God became man that he might make man like God, partaking of his divine nature, in grace here and glory hereafter. Shall not I go to Him that suffered so much for me?

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635)


The Appearance of the Newborn King Brought Peace

Luke 2:14; Romans 5:10; 2 Corinthians 5:18–20; Ephesians 2:16; Colossians 1:20; 1 Timothy 2:5

When the newborn King made His appearance, the swaddling band with which He was wrapped up was the white flag of peace. That manger was the place where the treaty was signed, whereby warfare should be stopped between man’s conscience and himself, and between man’s conscience and his God.

Charles Spurgeon (1834–1892)


The Author of Grace Grows in Grace

Isaiah 9:6; Luke 2:51; John 1:18; Colossians 1:15–17; Philippians 2:10

He who is everlasting in the bosom of the Father is conceived in a mother’s womb. Born from eternity of His Father without mother, He is born in time of His mother without father. He who clothed the earth with trees and verdure, who decked the sky with its lamps, who peopled the sea with fishes, lies wrapped in rags. He whom the heaven of heavens cannot hold is confined in a narrow manger, is fed with a mother’s milk. The Wisdom, whose wisdom has neither beginning nor end, who is Himself the very Wisdom of God the Father, advances from less to greater. He, whose eternity cannot be contracted even as it cannot be increased, exists by measurement of days and hours. And the primal author of grace, its preserver and its rewarder, grows in grace. He who is the object of the adoration of all created beings, and to whom every knee is bowed, is made subject to human parents.

Anselm of Canterbury (ca. 1033–1109)


“The Best of All Is, God Is with Us!”

Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23

The best of all is, God is with us!

John Wesley (1703–1791)


The Birth of Christ Revealed to the Poor and Hardworking

Luke 2:8–20; James 2:5

It is to the shepherds, watching and keeping the night watches over their flocks, that the joy of the new light is announced. To them it is revealed that the Savior is born. Yes, to the poor, to the hardworking, not to the rich, who have their consolation here below. It is to the poor that the light of a glorious day has shone forth amid their vigils, and the night shall be light as the day—indeed, it is converted into day. “This day,” says the angel, not this night, “is born to you a Savior.” The night is truly past, the day is at hand—a day of days, the day of the salvation of our God, Jesus Christ our Lord, who is God blessed above all forever more.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)


“The Birthday of the Head Is the Birthday of the Body”

Romans 6:6; Galatians 2:20; Ephesians 1:22; 2:5–6; 4:15; Colossians 1:18

The birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body. Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father’s right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)[1]

[1] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.


Human Beings Become Human Because God Became Human

The figure of Jesus Christ takes shape in human beings. Human beings do not take on an independent form of their own. Rather, what gives them form and maintains them in their new form is always and only the figure of Jesus Christ himself. It is therefore not an imitation, not a repetition of his form, but their own form that takes shape in human beings. Human beings are not transformed into a form that is foreign to them, not into the form of God, but into their own form, a form that belongs to them and is essential to them. Human beings become human because God became human, but human beings do not become God. They could not and cannot bring about that change in their form, but God himself changes his form into human form, so that human beings—though not becoming God—can become human.

In Christ the form of human beings before God was created anew. It was not a matter of place, of time, of climate, of race, of the individual, of society, of religion, or of taste, but rather a question of the life of humanity itself that it recognized in Christ its image and its hope. What happened to Christ happened to humanity.

The whole Christian story is strange. Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as “a kind of vast joke whereby the creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers.” He concludes, “Until we too have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”

But we have taken the idea as seriously as a child can. America is far from spiritually monolithic, but the vast backdrop of our culture is Christian, and for most of us it is the earliest faith we know. The “idea of the God-man” is not strange or scandalous, because it first swam in milk and butter on the top of our oatmeal decades ago. At that age, many things were strange, though most were more immediately palpable. A God-filled baby in a pile of straw was a pleasant image, but somewhat theoretical compared with the heart-stopping exhilaration of a visit from Santa Claus. The way a thunderstorm ripped the night sky, the hurtling power of the automobile Daddy drove so bravely, the rapture of ice cream—how could the distant Incarnation compete with those?

We grew up with the Jesus story, until we outgrew it. The last day we walked out of Sunday School may be the last day we seriously engaged this faith.

Frederica Mathewes-Green,

At the Corner of East and Now

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known.

1 Corinthians 13:11–12[1]


Angels Join in the Joy of Christ’s Birth

Matthew 2:11; Luke 2:8–20

Run with the star, and bear your gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king, and to God, and to one who is dead for you. With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this festival be common to the powers in heaven and to the powers upon earth. For I am persuaded that the heavenly hosts join in our exultation and keep high festival with us today … because they love men, and they love God.

Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–389)[2]


Grant Us to Be Freed from Our Ills

Isaiah 7:14; 9:6; John 1:9; 6:50–51

Today a Treasure is born to us.

Today the lantern of the virgin, kindled by the Holy Ghost, has manifested True Light.

Today the Physician of the blind is born.

Today the Health of the infirm.

Today the Strength of those that are weak, the Healing of those that are sick.

Today the Resurrection of the dead, our Savior, comes.

Today a new Light has appeared to us in the starry night.

Today our Savior approaches, whom the prophets had foretold, that He should be born of the virgin Mary.

Today the everlasting Bread of Light is shown to us, lying in a manger, who said, “I am the true Bread that came down from heaven: if any man eat of this Bread he shall never hunger.”

Grant us, Lord, by the virtue of your nativity, to be freed from our own ills, and ever to glory in your praises.

Amen.

Mozarabic Office


Grant Us Warmth in the Mystery of Love

Psalm 67:4; Matthew 16:27; 1 Timothy 3:7

O God, Son of God, whose name abides forever, and who, making yourself known as only God and Lord, came, through the mystery of the Incarnation you took on yourself, to be a King, to redeem the world,

grant us such warmth in this mystery of love that we may escape the snare of the deceiver, so that, as we proclaim with loud voice the joys of your Advent, we may exult in our salvation when you, our Judge, come to judgment.

Mozarabic Office


Honoring the God Who Reveals Himself to Little Ones

Matthew 18:3–4; 19:14; Mark 10:14–15; Luke 18:16–17

Almighty and everlasting God, Lord of heaven and earth, who reveals yourself to little ones,

grant us, we ask you, to honor meekly the holy mysteries of your Son, the child Jesus, and to follow him humbly in our lives, so that we may come to the eternal kingdom promised by you to little ones.

Through the same Jesus Christ, Amen.

Alphonsus Liguori (1696–1787)[3]


[1] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 52–53). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

The Wonder of the Season (Part 6): That most familiar story

HOW CERTAIN DETAILS OF THE NATIVITY BECAME TRADITION

Sarah E. Dahl

THE STORY IN PICTURES Artists began to depict the Nativity in paintings and sculpture around 400. This Madonna and Child from the Book of Kells is dated around 800, making it the oldest surviving manuscript image of Mary and the Christ child.

BOOK OF KELLS: MS 58 FOL.7V VIRGIN AND CHILD ENTHRONED, FROM THE BOOK OF KELLS, CA. 800 (VELLUM), IRISH SCHOOL (9TH CENTURY) / © THE BOARD OF TRINITY COLLEGE, DUBLIN, IRELAND / THE BRIDGEMAN ART LIBRARY

KEEPING WATCH The shepherds appear in Luke’s Gospel, but not Matthew’s, most likely because the two men were writing to different audiences. Matthew, writing to other Jews, emphasizes Jesus’ role as King of the Jews—hence the appearance of the magi in his version. Luke, writing to Gentiles, stressed Jesus’ connection to all people, even lowly shepherds

SHEPHERDS RELIEF: WIKIPEDIA

on a warm, bright christmas morning in early sixteenth-century Spain, Thomas of Villanova completed the Gospel reading and advanced to the pulpit. The Augustinian friar was preaching on the Nativity story found in Luke:

The simple hasten eagerly to see the newborn king lying in a manger … they adore and rejoice and mingle their artless praises with the heavenly hymns.… How the Virgin rejoiced at the devotion of these simple folk! How delighted and gladdened she was by their praises! For by his own announcement God had begun to make known to human beings the mystery of divine condescension which had occurred in her womb for their salvation.

Throughout the Christian era, rich traditions have arisen surrounding the Nativity of Jesus, and these traditions give a prominent role to Mary. As the mother of Christ, the “Word made flesh,” Mary plays a special part in God’s plan of salvation. Although Christians differ on the nature of her role, Mary has been honored throughout history for being the handmaiden of the Incarnation.

AWAY IN A MANGER The traditional place of Jesus’ birth has been a holy site since the first century. The first basilica was built here in 333 on the orders of Saint Helena, mother of Emperor Constantine I. That building burned in either 529 or 556. Emperor Justinian I built the basilica that stands there today. It has survived invasions, seiges, and earthquakes, and remains a holy place for both Christians and Muslims.

LORSCH GOSPEL, DETAIL OF NATIVITY: VICTORIA AND ALBERT MUSEUM, LONDON

A CAVE IN THE HILLS

Matthew and Luke give few details about Jesus’ actual birth. According to their Gospel accounts, Mary was a young Jewish woman, possibly still a teenager, betrothed to a man named Joseph. Although the Gospels say nothing about his age, the church has traditionally viewed Joseph as much older than Mary, in part because of his apparent death before the start of Jesus’ ministry.

Whatever their ages, we do know that the couple traveled to Bethlehem, Joseph’s ancestral hometown, for a census. Upon their arrival, it became clear that Mary would soon give birth, and yet they could not find a place to stay. The “inn” of most English translations need not have been a hotel—it could refer to a relative’s home, for instance.

Jesus likely was born not in a wooden barn but in a cave or a shelter built into a hillside. The hills around Bethlehem were dotted with small caves for feeding and boarding livestock. Joseph probably had to lead the donkey bearing Mary down a rocky, jagged path into the mouth of one of these caves as she was experiencing labor contractions. The Gospel writers do not mention if anyone else was present, but self-delivery was not uncommon in first-century Palestine.

The exact site of Jesus’ birth is unknown, but by the third century, tradition had established a probable cavern. Constantine’s mother, Helena, erected the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem over the small space. Nearby is the Milk Grotto, a small cave with chalky white rocks, where it is believed Mary nursed the baby Jesus as they fled from Herod’s soldiers. The story goes that she spilled a few drops of milk that whitened the rocks. To this day, Christian and Muslim women visit the Milk Grotto and ask Mary to help them conceive and nurse.

MIGRANTS AND ASTROLOGERS

Two unlikely groups heralded the birth of the Messiah. Shepherds were often feared as a dangerous migrant group on the margins of society. The magi were probably Eastern astrologers who followed their pagan calculations to the birthplace of the Jewish Messiah. Mary welcomed these visitors and the praise they brought to her newborn baby; Luke tells us she “treasured” their words and “pondered them in her heart.”

Early Christians were quick to identify the Nativity scene as a reversal of Isaiah 1:3. The prophet announced that “the ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib; but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Origen and Augustine, among others, affirmed that in the guise of the shepherds and the wise men, humanity had literally returned to its master’s crib.

MOTHER OF GOD?

Although the story of the Nativity makes clear that Mary is the physical mother of Jesus, the nature of her motherhood was hotly disputed in the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries. Was she in fact the mother of the second person of the Holy Trinity, or was she simply the mother of Christ’s human nature?

VANITY PROJECTS Artist Domenico Ghirlandaio included himself in his own painting, The Adoration of the Shepherds (1485). He is the man in front pointing to the Christ child.

ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS: WIKIPEDIA/YORCK PROJECT

LABOR PAINS In this 14th-c. painting of St. Bridget’s vision, Mary’s “inexpressible radiance” is evidenced by her white gown and the shimmering aura around mother and child.

ST. BRIDGET’S NATIVITY VISION: WIKIPEDIA

As early as the second century, Bishop Irenaeus wrote, “The Virgin Mary … being obedient to his Word received from the angel the glad tidings that she would bear God.” Two centuries later, Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria taught that the Word of God was “inexpressibly, inexplicably, incomprehensibly and eternally … born in time here below, of the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God.”

However, in the early fifth century, the influential Patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius, began to challenge this way of speaking about Mary. Around 428 he preached a famous sermon attacking the use of the term Theotokos, or God-bearer, to describe the mother of Jesus. It would be more fitting, Nestorius alleged, to call her Christotokos, the one who bore the man Jesus Christ. To refer to her as the bearer of God was to exalt her unduly. A human woman could not possibly birth the eternal Word: “No one can bring forth a son older than herself!”

Nestorius’s position was rejected at the Council of Ephesus in 431, which decreed that Mary was in fact the one who gave birth to the second person of the Trinity. The bishops claimed it is fitting and proper to call her the Theotokos, not because she was the “origin” of God, but because the baby she delivered in Bethlehem possessed a human nature mysteriously joined to the eternal nature of God. To reject the term “Mother of God,” they argued, is to deny the full divinity of Jesus.

Catholic and Orthodox believers continue to celebrate this understanding of the Nativity on the first of January with a feast honoring the Theotokos.

PAINLESS LABOR AND THE CHRISTMAS CRIB

Once Mary’s status as Mother of God was firmly established within the church, devotion to her and contemplation of her earthly life increased among pious Christians. Mystical visions and art celebrating the Nativity spread, elaborating on the biblical story.

Bridget of Sweden (1303–1373) experienced mystical visions of the Nativity that she recorded in her Revelations and that fueled popular representations of the Nativity from the fourteenth century through the Renaissance.

COME LET US ADORE HIM The Legend of St. Francis, a 14th-c. fresco, shows St. Francis taking part in a Christmas Mass—a precursor of today’s living Nativities.

ST. FRANCIS CRECHE: WIKIPEDIA

Bridget described Mary’s labor as painless: since Mary had been cleansed of original sin in the Immaculate Conception, she did not suffer from Eve’s curse. Rather, “In an instant, she brought forth her Son, from whom there emanated such an inexpressible radiance that the sun could not be compared with it.” Renaissance paintings of the Nativity, which show Mary and her child shining in the center of the canvas, owe much of their visual appeal to Bridget’s revelations.

St. Francis of Assisi had his own mystical experience of the Nativity when he celebrated Christmas Mass in a small cave in Greccio, Italy, using a crib for an altar. As he preached over a carved image of the baby Jesus, Francis experienced a vision of the Christ child in the flesh and was awed by the mystery of what Mary experienced at the moment of the Incarnation. Because of her obedience, the world received the presence of God encased in the helpless flesh of a baby. As the story spread, so did the tradition of placing cribs in Christian homes at Christmastime.

In Protestant churches after the Reformation, Mary played a less central role in celebrations of the Nativity, despite the fact that Luther and Calvin maintained a high view of her place in salvation history. Emphasis was increasingly placed on the Christ child alone, rather than on his mother who birthed God into the world.

LADY MADONNA Images of the Madonna and Child are by far the most common religious icons in history. This image, the Theotokos of Vladimir, is one of the most venerated icons in the Orthodox Church.

THEOTOKOS OF VLADIMIR: IMAGE COURTESY OF JIM FOREST

Nevertheless, all Christians appreciate the important role Mary played in the life of Jesus. Though he was fully God, Jesus was born from Mary and it was from Mary that he received his humanity. She experienced intimately, in her own body, the mystery of the Incarnation. In a dank cavern, recovering from labor amid the straw and squalor of the animals, the “highly favored” Mary became the first human creature to touch the face of God.

Sarah E. Dahl is a freelance writer living in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Ed. note: for details of Mary’s own birth narrative, see p. 10.[1]


[1] Dahl, S. E. (2012). That Most Familiar Story: How Certain Details of the Nativity Became Tradition. Christian History Magazine: The Wonder of the Season, (no. 103), 18–21.

Christmas: Celebrate His Love (Part 6)

You Shall Call His Name “Jesus”

In this lesson we focus on the name “Jesus” and its significance for us as believers today.

Outline

What’s in a name? Jesus is called by His name 500 times in the gospels. In the New Testament the name Jesus appears 909 times. It is obviously the most endearing and most loved name for our Savior. And, as we will find out, it is packed with meaning and significance.

  1. Jesus Is Pronounced the Same in Almost Every Language
  2. Jesus Is an Esteemed Name
  3. Jesus Is an Enduring Name
  4. Jesus Is an Exalted Name
  5. Jesus Is an Exclusive Name

Overview

There are at least 562 names for Jesus in the Bible.

If we study how people name their children, and if we go way back, we discover that often children were named for their fathers. That’s why we have common names in the English language like Thompson, Johnson, Peterson, and Jackson. That practice was fairly common in New Testament times as well.

Sometimes people received a name based on a role that they would bear for the family. Their name reflected the hope that was wrapped up in the child.

Sometimes a name would be given just because of preference. We do that today when we use those little books with all the names of girls and boys in them.

But when an Old Testament Hebrew named his child, he did so with great thought. Hebrew children were named carefully because they bore some special message within the family. An Orthodox Jew would never glibly decide the name of his child. So as God sent His Son into the world to be clothed with humanity, He would need to give Him a meaningful name.

How would He do it? What would He call Him? He would not leave it up to the human parents to choose. It was so important that this name be right that God originated it and brought the message down to earth by means of an angel. The angel delivered the name to Mary’s husband. The record of that conversation is in Matthew 1:21. The Bible says that the angel spoke to Joseph and said to him, “And she [Mary] will bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). By special instruction expressing God’s will, it came to pass in Bethlehem, that when the Child was born and someone said, “Who is He and what is His name?” the answer was clearly given: His name is Jesus.

One interesting thing you can do if you have the opportunity is to glance through a hymn book and see how hymn writers have memorialized this name so we can worship using the name of Jesus. John Newton gave us, “How Sweet the Name of Jesus Sounds.” Edward Perronet exalts this name with, “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name.” Bernard of Clairvaux leads us in an old hymn called, “Jesus, the Very Thought of Thee.” Lydia Baxter gave us, “Take the Name of Jesus with You.” And Frederick Whitfield adds, “There is a Name I Love to Hear.”

It is a wonderful name that our Father gave to His Son, a combination of two words, put together to mean, “Jehovah Saves.” Salvation, you see, was the expressed purpose of Jesus’ coming into the world. And if a name is to call forth the primary character wrapped up in the person, then Jesus could not have been better named, for He was here for one purpose, and that was to bring salvation to lost men and women.

Let’s think for a moment about the fact that “Jesus” is an easy name.

Jesus Is Pronounced the Same in Almost Every Language

The name Jesus has only two syllables and five letters. It is pronounced the same in almost every language. I love to listen to missionary stations on short wave radio, and often, even though I don’t understand the language, I will be able to pick the name “Jesus” out of the lyrics of a foreign language. There is something symmetrical about it in almost every language. It is a name which is known around the world, yet even a child can learn it.

If you carry that name into all the languages and dialects of the world, whether Hebrew or Greek or Anglo-Saxon, you can translate it—but you can never rob it of its music. Its tones break in upon your ear when you hear it. There is no word that is sweeter to a person who is a Christian than the word “Jesus.”

God said to the angel, “We shall call Him Jesus,” and that name was registered in heaven for the Son of God.

Bernard of Clairvaux expressed our heart when he wrote these words which we still sing often today:

Jesus, the very thought of Thee.

No voice can sing, no heart can frame,

Nor can the memory find

A sweeter sound than Thy blest name,

O Savior of mankind.

The Christmas name of our Lord is, first and foremost, the name Jesus. Jesus is an easy name.

Jesus Is an Esteemed Name

According to Josephus, there are eleven men in the Old Testament who have the name Joshua, the Old Testament equivalent of Jesus. No Old Testament parents had ever called their child Joshua until one day Moses was renaming some men. They were men who were going to go in and spy out the land, and in Numbers 13:16 we read these words: “These are the names of the men whom Moses sent to spy out the land. And Moses called Hoshea, the son of Nun, Joshua.” Moses gave him a new name, and that name is the same name we would call Jesus in the New Testament. It means “Jehovah Saves.”

There are many Bible scholars who believe Joshua is an Old Testament picture of Jesus. And there are some wonderful points of resemblance in this way. Joshua led the Israelites out of the wilderness into the Promised Land. Jesus, as our Savior, brings us out of the wilderness of sin into the spiritual Promised Land.

Joshua led his people to conquest over their enemies and their walled cities and their tall giants. Jesus leads us to conquest over the enemies of our soul, and helps us to fight against life’s difficult giants of temptation and trial and testing. As our Joshua, Jesus leads us to the inheritance that God has promised us.

But obviously the Jesus of the New Testament far transcends anything we can say about Joshua in the Old. In fact, in Hebrews 4:8 the writer of Hebrews says this: “For if Joshua had given them rest, then he would not afterward have spoken of another day.” In other words, if Joshua could have provided the victory which we truly need in the Old Testament sense of the word, there wouldn’t have been any need of another Joshua. But Joshua could only do that which was temporal, only that which was earth-bound, only that which is for our physical well-being. But Jesus came to do something eternal. He didn’t just come to free us from slavery and lead us out of the wilderness into a new land. He came to give us life everlasting. That’s why our Jesus is better than Joshua. It’s an esteemed name.

Jesus Is an Enduring Name

He was given that name over 2,000 years ago, yet His name today is the most well-known name in all the world. No other person has a name as well-known as the name of Jesus. This season of the year always intrigues me, because those who are absolutely in conflict with Jesus, those who don’t want anything to do with Him, who use that name as a swear word, those who defy everything we try to do in the name of evangelism, those who are enemies of Jesus—they all come to His birthday party. If you want evidence for the power of the name of Jesus, you don’t need a Bible, you don’t need a preacher. Just watch what happens during the Christmas season. Jesus has an enduring name.

Jesus Is an Exalted Name

His name is an exalted name. Ephesians 1:20–21 reads, “… which He [God] worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places far above all principality and power and might and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this age but also in that which is to come.” How exalted is His name? It is far above every name that has been named, or that ever will be named. It is the highest name of all names in all the world for all time. It is the number one name.

Paul wrote in Philippians 2:9–11, “Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven and those on earth, and of those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”

Paul said it as well as it could be said. The name of Jesus is the most important name in all the world. It is an exalted name.

Jesus Is an Exclusive Name

Jesus’ name is different from any other name. The angel told Joseph the reason when he spoke to him and gave him that name: “And she shall bring forth a Son and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Jesus has an exclusive name because the purpose of that name was to stamp forever upon His personality the uniqueness of His mission. What was His mission? Jesus means “Jehovah Saves.” What was the uniqueness about Jesus? He was the one who would come into the world to be the Savior of lost mankind. That is why He was called Jesus. Exclusively, one of a kind. There never has been, nor will there ever be anyone who can do what Jesus came to do.

I love to tell that story. I love for people to understand that this unique person of all the universe was the only hope of lost mankind, for He was the only God-man. He was God reaching down for man because God could not reach up to God. And in Him is salvation.

That is why the writer of the Book of Acts says, “Nor is there salvation in any other for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved”(Acts 4:12). That’s the only name. Do you want to go to heaven? You have to go through the name of Jesus. It is exclusive.

Jesus does for you what no one else can do. The Lord Jesus Christ changes a person from the inside out and makes them new.

Do you know Him? We go through all these celebrations, and parties and gift giving and decorating our homes and celebrating the Christmas season. There are certain times in the year where I just have such an incredible burden to be as simple as I can be about what it means to know God. It means to know His Son, Jesus Christ, as your Savior.

My friends, Jesus can do for you what nobody else can do. Your wife or your husband can’t do it. Your children can’t do it. Your parents can’t do it. Your teacher can’t do it. Your pastor can’t do it. But Jesus can. He came into the world, born of a virgin, the uniquely born Son of God, God walking around in a body, and His Father said, “Call Him Jesus, for He is going to save His people from their sins.”

He went to the cross, hung there between heaven and earth, and paid the penalty for your sin and mine. He fulfilled the prophecy that His Father has spoken of Him when He named Him. And today He is in heaven at the right hand of the Father making intercession for those who believe in Him.

If you have never put your trust in the name of Jesus and in the Jesus of the name, then you must do it. Without Him there is no hope, there is no future, there is no meaning in this life. He came to give you what you cannot get any place else—forgiveness for your sin and the assurance of eternal life.

Application

  1. What attributes of God are connected with the name of Jesus in the following passages?
  2. Ephesians 3:9
  3. Philippians 2:10–11
  4. 2 Thessalonians 1:7
  5. Hebrews 13:8
  6. 1 John 2:1
  7. What benefits for every believer are connected with His name in the passages below?
  8. Romans 5:15
  9. Romans 8:2
  10. 1 Corinthians 15:57
  11. 2 Corinthians 5:18
  12. Galatians 3:26
  13. Ephesians 2:13
  14. Philippians 3:14
  15. 1 Thessalonians 5:9
  16. What kinds of responses, actions, and words did the name of Jesus stimulate during the earliest years of the church, according to the passages below?
  17. Acts 9:29
  18. Acts 15:25–26
  19. Acts 19:17
  20. Acts 21:13
  21. Acts 26:9–10
  22. In light of Acts 4:12, how would you respond to a statement like, “Jesus is just another name for the same God worshiped by other religions”?
  23. In view of all you know about the name of Jesus, God’s Messiah, what kind of person do you think is being described in 2 John 1:7?

Can you think of some examples in today’s culture?

Did You Know?

The most common compound name of Jesus—“the Lord Jesus Christ”—was originally used as a very technical description of His identity, and today is an extremely accurate description of who He is.

The word for Lord in Greek meant “master” or “ruler,” which Jesus not only will ultimately be in the future, but should be in each of our lives today. The word Jesus is, of course, His human name, which constantly reminds us that He came in human flesh, and was given a name which means “YHWH saves.”

Finally, the word we so frequently use, Christ, actually was the Greek word for “Messiah,” and was used first and foremost by the Jews of that Greek-speaking day. This title alone should be a continual reminder to us that our deepest understanding of who Jesus really is will develop best as we pursue an understanding of God’s Messiah, as revealed from the earliest pages of the Old Testament all the way through the final words of Revelation.

The Legend of the Candy Cane

In the late 18th century in England, all religious symbols were banned from public display. It is said that a dedicated Christian candy maker wanted to provide a way for Christians to identify each other in spite of the restrictions. He began with a piece of white candy to signify the purity of Jesus Christ. Next, he formed the candy into the shape of a shepherd’s staff as a reminder that Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Three small red stripes around the candy represented the power of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. One bold red stripe through the candy represented the redeeming power of the blood that Christ shed for each of us, and for the forgiveness of our sins.[1]

 

[1] Jeremiah, D. (1999). Celebrate his love: Study guide (pp. 76–87). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.

Christmas: God In The Manger (Part 7)

The Testimony of Shepherds

How do you respond to an especially intense, exciting, and memorable event or activity? What do you feel when confronted suddenly with unexpected news or a major surprise? There is no one answer, obviously. It depends on what you have just seen, heard, or experienced.

A particularly engaging film can evoke happy emotions or provoke sad ones. Seeing a spectacular fireworks presentation or hearing a stirring concert can result in great exhilaration. Watching an exciting, tense ball game between excellent, evenly matched teams can leave you emotionally drained no matter which team won.

On a more serious note, if you’re the first eyewitness to a spectacular fire, a horrific traffic accident, or a major plane crash, your first impulse—unless you are in a position to rescue some of the victims—is to notify the authorities immediately. Later, you likely will have to give an official statement to investigators about what you saw.

All those possible scenarios pale into insignificance, almost triviality, when compared to what the little group of shepherds witnessed the night Christ was born. But there is one common thread—the need and desire to talk about the experience, to tell others what was seen and heard. However, it is still hard for us to fully identify with the shepherds’ extraordinary situation two thousand years ago.

With the exception of a few broadly similar Old Testament events and several New Testament incidents that were yet future, what the shepherds saw in the skies near Bethlehem the night of our Savior’s birth was unprecedented in human experience. An angel, accompanied by a countless multitude of other heavenly messengers, suddenly and unforgettably intervened in the shepherds’ mundane, working-class existence with a news bulletin to end all news bulletins. The long-awaited Christ, the Savior of the world, God in human flesh, had just been born in a shelter in nearby Bethlehem. It was all far beyond anything previously imaginable to those lowly men whom society so disregarded.

It may be hard to place ourselves into the shepherds’ situation, but they responded to what they saw and heard much the same way as we would respond to far more ordinary events—they had to find out more, and they had to tell others. Even more to the point, the shepherds’ response serves as a good illustration of how people respond in a saving manner to the gospel.

The Shepherds’ Plan of Action

In his simple, straightforward style, Luke chronicles the shepherds’ immediate response to their awesome encounter with the angelic visitors:

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. (Luke 2:15–20)

Scripture does not tell us how long the heavenly host remained with the shepherds and conducted the unprecedented praise service. The men probably wished it would have gone on for a long time, but very likely it was a brief, intense experience that ended just as suddenly as it began. The angels went back to heaven, took up their places around the throne of God, and resumed praising Him for the grace of salvation.

As traumatic as the experience was—they were literally frightened out of their wits—the shepherds were still able to regather their senses and collect their thoughts after the angels departed. Spontaneously they all had the same response, and the Greek of Luke 2:15 indicates an ongoing kind of discussion in which they reiterated again and again their desire to go to Bethlehem and verify what the angels had announced.

No one had to prod the shepherds into the right response to the divine messengers’ words. They were in full agreement that nothing would deter them from going immediately to find the newly arrived Savior: “‘Let us go straight to Bethlehem then, and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has made known to us’” (v. 15, nasb). Since Bethlehem sits on a ridge, the shepherds most likely had to walk uphill the two miles from the fields to town. So as soon as possible, they set out to “see this thing that has happened.”

The word translated “thing” in this passage denotes much more in Greek than it does in English. The term literally means “word” or “reality.” The shepherds understood that they had received a word from God, and the reality of it was that Messiah had been born that same day. And the reality was something they could confirm tangibly because the angel gave them a sign to look for, a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (2:12). The shepherds had seen and believed the angels, which was sufficient verification for what had occurred, but they wanted to obtain additional authentication by finding the Child exactly where the first angel said He would be. That would affirm their eagerness of faith and prove that they were participants in more than a mere earthly drama.

The Shepherds Respond in Faith

It’s clear that the shepherds had a revelation from God and equally clear that they wholeheartedly believed it. Their supernaturally wrought experience and their obedient, faithful response are really analogous to how people come to saving faith in Jesus Christ. Salvation comes by hearing a message from God, by hearing and believing the truth about Christ (Rom. 10:9–10).

The Spirit of God obviously had prepared the shepherds’ hearts. As we have already suggested, because God chose those men to be the recipients of the angels’ special announcement of Christ’s birth, they were almost certainly true Jews, that is, believing Jews. Unlike those who were merely ethnic Jews with a secular outlook, the shepherds genuinely believed in the true God (which meant they had repented of sin and sought God’s grace), were among those Jews who waited for Messiah, and were undoubtedly among those who looked for the redemption of Israel.

God used the shepherds’ existing hope and knowledge to make them receptive to the good news that the Messiah, their Savior the Lord Jesus, had at last come. Such a faithful response to God’s special revelation caused the men to obediently pursue the Christ child. All of that is a wonderful illustration of spiritual truth, further underscored by Luke 2:16, “they came with haste.” The original expression denotes enthusiasm and eagerness—the shepherds were in a hurry and very enthusiastic as they sought Mary, Joseph, and the divine baby.

Scripture does not describe how the shepherds’ search for the baby Jesus actually unfolded. But it’s reasonable to assume that they entered Bethlehem and began asking questions: “Does anybody know about a baby being born here in town?” “Anyone heard about the birth of a boy in the past few hours?” There may have been several babies born in Bethlehem that night, so the shepherds may have knocked on a few doors and found some of the other babies. But of course they were looking for one special baby boy whom they would find lying in a feed trough. Their inquiries no doubt spread rapidly by word of mouth and before long they “found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger” (v. 16). At that moment those humble men of faith knew for certain that the angels’ announcement was a word from God. Their search had ended just as He promised it would.

The Shepherds Bear Witness of Christ

The shepherds’ response after finding the Christ child continues our analogy of what happens when God saves people. Anyone who hears and embraces the message of the gospel, as the shepherds did, will then witness to others of its truth. They couldn’t help but tell those living in and around Bethlehem what the angels had declared to them that night: “Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child” (Luke 2:17).

Right after the shepherds made the amazing discovery of the infant Jesus, they must have had an extensive conversation with Mary and Joseph. I can picture those working-class men, overwhelmed with all that had happened to them, hearing Joseph humbly asking them how he and Mary could help them. Each shepherd would then likely have vied to tell his version of the story. And as Joseph and Mary sat quietly listening to accounts of the angel’s announcement and the heavenly choir’s praise of God for such good news, they must have experienced a great sense of confirmation.

Upon hearing the shepherds recount their experiences, each of Jesus’ parents likely reported their own recent experiences of heavenly messengers bearing news of the coming Savior. The similarities in all the stories were striking—the details of God’s redemptive plan through the Incarnation providentially came together and reaffirmed to everyone around the manger the truth of His promises.

At that point, the shepherds joined Zacharias, Elizabeth, Joseph, and Mary as parties to the greatest news mankind would ever know. And what was their immediate response? They told the story. They witnessed to everyone they encountered that Christ the Lord had been born, that Jesus the Savior was here.

The small group of shepherds became, in effect, the first New Testament evangelists. They went on their way and repeated the astounding news God’s angels had revealed to them, and they also recounted their experience of meeting Mary and Joseph and their son. Those men couldn’t restrain themselves. The news the shepherds possessed was the greatest information they had ever heard, far beyond anything their humdrum lives could ever have expected. The joy of their salvation and their eagerness to share it proved beyond any doubt that their experiences were valid and that they had truly found the Messiah.

The Shepherds’ Influence on the People

The shepherds’ enthusiastic, spontaneous witnessing had a profound effect on those around them. Luke tells us, “all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds” (2:18). The news the men were spreading created quite a stir among the people; in fact, other meanings for “marveled” are “were amazed” and “were filled with wonder.” That was consistent with the kind of reaction people would have to Jesus throughout His later ministry. Christ was an amazing person, and He always caused people to be amazed because they had never met anyone else like Him.

There is also a certain amount of marveling today about Jesus, especially during the Christmas season. People have a certain sense of wonder about the baby Jesus and the entire Nativity story. As a result, some will even give Him a certain amount of respect. But being merely amazed or respectful toward Christ is not the same as having saving faith in Him. The Gospels and the Epistles clearly teach that. So it is sad that right from the time Jesus was born, down to the present, people have reacted to Him more with curiosity than with sincerity leading to salvation.

However, the shepherds offer us a refreshing contrast to that pattern. They received God’s revelation through the angels with awe and reverence, genuinely believed what they heard, and ran with earnest excitement and singleness of purpose to see the infant Son of God and to tell others about Him. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we could read that all those whom the shepherds witnessed to went immediately to the manger and believed? But that’s not what we see. For the most part, the people around Bethlehem who heard the good news just marveled at it briefly and then went on with their lives.

The Shepherds’ Influence on Mary

Mary certainly responded to what had happened in a far more profound way than the amazed people who heard the shepherds’ proclamation: “But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). This statement gives us a good idea of the serious manner in which Mary processed all the momentous events of the previous days and months. It also suggests that Mary’s response continued to be one of faith, in keeping with what she would have noticed from the shepherds during their visit to the manger.

As she reviewed the amazing facts of the whole story—an angel told her that as a virgin she would conceive and bear the Son of God, the baby would be the Savior of the world and the rightful heir to the throne of David, and He would be the Messiah and the God-Man—the details reminded her once again how mind-boggling everything was. And undoubtedly they prompted her to ponder all sorts of questions, such as, What am I to expect out of this child? Will I nurse this child the way any mother would nurse her child? Will I rear this child and have a normal relationship with Him as any mother would with her son? When is He going to start uttering profound theological insights? Is He going to perform miracles and how soon? When will He take hold of His Kingdom? And when will He enter into His glory?

Anything that would come into a mother’s mind—and more, considering her unprecedented situation—must have entered Mary’s thoughts. And underlying all of that pondering no doubt was deep reflection about God’s redemptive purpose, how He had promised a Savior and that Savior had finally come.

Because her son was perfect, Mary must have loved Jesus as no mother has ever loved a child. And yet she would see Him suffer so profoundly and so unjustly. Eventually she would be present when He was nailed to the cross. Being the mother of the Son of God was not going to be all happiness and ease (Luke 2:34–35). So there was much for Mary to contemplate.

Mary’s response should resonate with us and be analogous to our own Christian experience. If you are saved, you will first identify with the shepherds’ fourfold response of receiving God’s revelation, believing the gospel, finding Christ, and witnessing joyfully for Him. But after those early days of euphoria, as you grow in your Christian life, you will also begin to think more deeply about who Jesus is. If you have been a Christian for any length of time, you ought to have an insatiable desire to know more about the Lord, to plumb the depths of Scripture, and to ponder the significance of its truths and how they bear witness to the person and work of Christ. As the apostle Paul wrote, “that I may know Him” (Phil. 3:10; John 17:3; 2 Cor. 4:6; 1 John 5:20). Mary illustrates so well that hungry heart that wants to know Jesus Christ better and understand the depth of His great salvation more fully.

The Shepherds Move on to an Obedient Life

The Gospel of Luke does not tell us exactly what the shepherds’ attitude was like prior to their incredible encounter with God’s revelation. But their attitude certainly changed afterward. Whereas they may have been worried, doubtful, full of questions, and wearied by their daily existence and their feeble attempts to trust God, after their encounter with the angels and the newborn Jesus, they returned to the fields praising and glorifying God. That too is analogous to our experience following conversion. Once we’re past the initial stages, we reach a life attitude marked by praise and worship to God.

By the time the shepherds put together the entire astounding story of Christ’s birth that night, all the sights, sounds, and words of testimony overwhelmed them and filled them with awe and gratitude. Thus they went back home praising and glorifying God for everything that occurred.

The shepherds without doubt became obedient to God’s command that believers live lives characterized by continual rendering of praise and glory to Him (Eph. 5:17–20; Col. 3:15–17; 1 Thess. 5:16–18). Those men could not restrain themselves—because of their salvation, their lives were filled with genuine praise, thankfulness, and worship to God.

In the days immediately following Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph added to the shepherds’ picture of obedience with their own submission to God’s will: “And when eight days were completed for the circumcision of the Child, His name was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before He was conceived in the womb” (Luke 2:21).

We shouldn’t be surprised that Joseph and Mary had their Son circumcised and named Him Jesus. God’s Law required that boys born in Israel be circumcised on the eighth day (Gen. 17:11–12; Lev. 12:1–3). And Gabriel the angel of God had told them to name the boy Jesus (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:31).

But why would Jesus, the Son of God, need to be circumcised? It was necessary because His desire, even as an infant, was to obey God’s Law and fulfill all righteousness (Matt. 3:15). Jesus would be a man in every sense, and therefore He would fulfill all the requirements listed in the Law for God’s people. Even before His Son could consciously comply, God the Father made sure that His earthly parents fulfilled every Old Testament requirement for His life. Jesus’ circumcision was simply a preview to what Luke envisioned when he later wrote, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and men” (2:52). (We’ll discuss Jesus’ circumcision more completely in chapter 9.)

The shepherds’ various responses to Christ’s birth and Joseph and Mary’s love and obedience in the days immediately following really do encompass a pattern that illustrates the Christian life. You first hear the revelation of the gospel and believe it. Then you pursue and embrace Christ. And having become a witness to your glorious conversion, you begin to tell others about it.

Once you reach that stage as a believer, you start to think more deeply about the significance of being a child of God. You study and ponder God’s Word and become a lover of its truths. That leads to a profound sense of joy, praise, and gratitude to God, expressed both in your private and corporate worship. Finally, you continually want to respond in faith and obedience to everything the Lord shows you and teaches you, just as the shepherds, Joseph and Mary, and the child Jesus did.

May God grant you those life-changing spiritual experiences and the ongoing attitude of enthusiasm and responsiveness that cause you to tell others you have seen Christ the Lord.[1]

 

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 87–96). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.

ADVENT WEEK FOUR: INCARNATION – DAY ONE

Our Sight of Christ Enables Us to Face Death

Matthew 26:64; Mark 14:62; Luke 2:25–35; 22:69; Hebrews 1:3; 8:1; 12:2

If the sight of Christ, while He was yet a child, had so powerful an effect on Simeon, that he approached death with cheerfulness and composure; how much more abundant materials of lasting peace are now furnished to us, who have the opportunity of beholding our salvation altogether completed in Christ?… In a word, His absence from us in body is of such a nature that we are permitted to behold Him sitting at the right hand of the Father. If such a sight does not bring peace to our minds, and make us go cheerfully to death, we are highly ungrateful to God, and hold the honor, which He has bestowed upon us, in little estimation.

John Calvin (1509–1564)


Peace on Earth

Luke 2:14

As fits the holy Christmas birth,

Be this, good friends, our carol still—

Be peace on earth, be peace on earth,

To men of gentle will.

William Makepeace Thackeray (1811–1863)


Peace on Earth in the Hearts of Believers

Isaiah 9:6; Matthew 10:34; Luke 2:14

Let us reflect that at the festival of the Lord’s birth, and therefore, from the beginning of His life, we greet Him as the Prince of Peace, and that this always continued to be His character in the midst of all the strife that He Himself brought, so that in this sense also His life is carried on in us. And thus, both in the midst of the internal dissension, which, alas! not unfrequently exists among the professors of His name; and in the outward conflict with the world; we also preserve the cheerful calmness, which with Him was never disturbed; and go on in the way of peace; so that, notwithstanding the sword, peace still rules on earth, for it has fixed its seat in the inmost heart of believers.

Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834)


Proceeding from the Father, and Speeding Back

John 8:42; 16:10, 28

From God the Father He proceeds,

To God the Father back He speeds;

Proceeds—as far as very hell,

Speeds back—to light ineffable.

Ambrose of Milan (ca. 339–397)


Raising an Impure Race to Purity

Matthew 8:3; Mark 1:41; Luke 5:13; Hebrews 10:22

He who is all purity came to an impure race to raise them to His purity.

John Henry Newman (1801–1890)


Reject the Virgin Birth, and the Incarnation Will Follow

Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23

Once reject the tradition of the Virgin Birth, and the incarnation will go with it. For a few years, indeed, men will use the old language, the word “incarnation” will be on their lips; but it will be found before long that by that term they do not mean God manifest in human flesh, but they mean a man born naturally of human parents, who most clearly manifested to men the Christian idea of a perfect human character. Such a conception as this brings no solace to human hearts.

Berkeley William Randolph (1858–1925)


Rejoice with Trembling and Joy at Christ’s Birth

1 Chronicles 16:31; Psalm 96:1, 11; 98:4; Isaiah 12:5; 49:13; Luke 2:10–11

Christ is born; glorify Him. Christ from heaven; go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth. And that I may join both in one word: let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh: rejoice with trembling and with joy—with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope.

Gregory of Nazianzus (ca. 329–389)


Renouncing the Works of the Flesh

Galatians 5:16–21; 2 Peter 1:4

Having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge your dignity, and becoming a partner in the divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


Salvation Was Ordained from the Beginning of the World

Genesis 3:15; Hebrews 1:1–2; 11:10, 13–16

It was no new counsel, no tardy pity whereby God took thought for men: but from the constitution of the world He ordained one and the same cause of salvation for all. For the grace of God, by which the whole body of the saints is ever justified, was augmented, not begun, when Christ was born. And this mystery of God’s great love, with which the whole world is now filled, was so effectively presignified that those who believed that promise obtained no less than they who were the actual recipients.

Leo the Great (ca. 400–461)


Sentiment and Symbolism Inseparable from Christmas

Isaiah 7:14; Luke 2:12

If you do not like sentiment and symbolism, you do not like Christmas; go away and celebrate something else.

G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936)[1

[1] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.


Glorious Light Born of the Father

Luke 2:14; John 1:9; 8:12; 9:5; 1 Corinthians 1:24; Philippians 2:6–11

O glorious Light born of the Father,

O bright Wisdom of God, brought forth of a virgin this night,

grant me devoutly and worthily to tender you thanks;

grant me to sing aloud to your name, reverently bow, humbly kneel, worshipfully adore

and with the holy angels solemnly to chant to you, “Glory in the highest.”

For praise and honor befit you, O Lord, Who did deign to be incarnate for our salvation.

Amen.

Thomas à Kempis (ca. 1380–1471)


Grant That We May Daily Be Renewed

John 3:16; 1 John 4:9; Ephesians 4:23; Titus 3:5

Almighty God, who has given us your only begotten Son to take our nature upon Him, and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin,

grant that we being regenerate, and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your holy Spirit,

through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end.

Amen.

Book of Common Prayer 1892


Grant That We May Purify Ourselves as the Son Is Pure

Titus 3:7; 1 John 3:2–3, 8

O God, whose blessed Son was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil, and make us the sons of God and heirs of eternal life,

grant us, we ask you, that, having this hope, we may purify ourselves, even as He is pure:

that when He shall appear again with power and great glory, we may be made like unto Him in His eternal and glorious kingdom,

where with you, O Father, and you, O Holy Ghost, He lives and reigns, ever one God, world without end.

Amen.

Book of Common Prayer 1892[1]


Anyone May Be Comforted, Except Those Who Do Not Want Comfort

Matthew 6:5; 11:8–9; 23:6; Mark 12:39; Luke 7:25–26; 11:43; 20:46

The silent infancy of Christ will not console the talkative; the tears of Christ will be no comfort to one given up to worldly enjoyments; the swaddling clothes of Christ will offer no attraction to those who are clad in soft garments; the stable and the crib will only repel the lovers of the first places in the synagogues.

Bernard of Clairvaux (1090–1153)[2]


God Becomes Human

God becomes human, really human. While we endeavor to grow out of our humanity, to leave our human nature behind us, God becomes human, and we must recognize that God wants us also to become human—really human. Whereas we distinguish between the godly and the godless, the good and the evil, the noble and the common, God loves real human beings without distinction.… God takes the side of real human beings and the real world against all their accusers.… But it’s not enough to say that God takes care of human beings. This sentence rests on something infinitely deeper and more impenetrable, namely, that in the conception and birth of Jesus Christ, God took on humanity in bodily fashion. God raised his love for human beings above every reproach of falsehood and doubt and uncertainty by himself entering into the life of human beings as a human being, by bodily taking upon himself and bearing the nature, essence, guilt, and suffering of human beings. Out of love for human beings, God becomes a human being. He does not seek out the most perfect human being in order to unite with that person. Rather, he takes on human nature as it is.

This is about the birth of a child, not of the astonishing work of a strong man, not of the bold discovery of a wise man, not of the pious work of a saint. It really is beyond all our understanding: the birth of a child shall bring about the great change, shall bring to all mankind salvation and deliverance.

“The Government upon the Shoulders of a Child,” Christmas 1940

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

John 1:1–5[3]


[1] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[2] Ritzema, E. (Ed.). (2013). 300 Quotations and Prayers for Christmas. Lexham Press.

[3] Bonhoeffer, D. (2010). God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas. (J. Riess, Ed., O. C. Dean Jr., Trans.) (First edition, pp. 49–51). Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press.

The Wonder of the Season (Part 5): “A cold coming we had of it”

T. S. ELIOT, THE MAGI, AND THE JOURNEY OF CONVERSION

Carla Barnhill

WE THREE KINGS Matthew’s Gospel never mentions how many magi there were. The list of three gifts has led to the assumption that there were three. In the East, tradition holds that there were twelve.

WIKIPEDIA/JASTROW

when i was a child, my favorite holiday ritual was to help my mother decorate our house for Christmas. We’d haul up boxes of decorations from the basement, unwrap the felt and clothespin ornaments we’d made in years past, untangle the tree lights, and set to the work of decking our halls.

With all the other boxes emptied and the house made festive, my mother would hand me a final cardboard box that held our Nativity set. It was faux antique plaster, bought at Woolworth’s in 1963. My mother reserved this job for me and me alone, an early sign that she knew me well.

I would spend the better part of the evening creating an elaborate drama on top of the buffet in the dining room. The shepherds were camped out on one end, minding their plastic sheep (the originals had been broken even before I came along) with no idea that in a matter of weeks their lives would be upended. Mary and Joseph and their donkey began their journey at the other end, making daily progress toward the moss-covered shack at the center of the tableau. Baby Jesus had to wait out most of December in a drawer, making his dramatic appearance just before we went to bed on Christmas Eve.

THE LONG ROAD

But the wise men were my favorite part of the whole set. Very concerned with historical accuracy, I settled the three kings and their camel on a bookshelf in the eastern corner of the room where they had to bide their time until word came for them to head toward the action on the buffet. Then, day-by-day, I would move them slowly across the vast expanse of the living room, carrying them over the couch mountains, through the coffee table valley, across the open desert of the gold shag carpet until, on January 6, they arrived at the cradle with their arms full of strange gifts, their solemn faces never giving over to the strain of the journey they’d just completed.

That journey was far more interesting to me than the travels of dear pregnant Mary and her weary husband. These were great men who had been sent out by their crazed king for a vague purpose: asked to travel for weeks, maybe even months, to spy on a baby.

So imagine my joy when, as an adult, I happened to hear a Christmas radio broadcast of my favorite musician, Bruce Cockburn, along with Roseanne Cash and Lou Reed, performing a strange, haunting poem about these same haggard kings. The poem, it turns out, was “Journey of the Magi” by T. S. Eliot (1888–1965), published in 1930 as part of his Ariel Poems. It begins:

A cold coming we had of it,

Just the worst time of the year

For a journey, and such a long journey:

The ways deep and the weather sharp,

The very dead of winter.

The poem, written shortly after Eliot’s 1927 conversion to Christianity, is about far more than the magi themselves. Literary types read it as the story of Eliot’s conversion, the often-brutal journey into faith. He lifted these first five lines from a 1622 “Nativity Sermon” given by Lancelot Andrewes, one of the translators of the original King James Version of the Bible.* Andrewes’s sermons and writings are thought to have been instrumental in Eliot’s coming to faith, suggesting that the poet himself is pointing to the connections between this haunting poem and his struggles to hold on to his newfound belief.

A BRUTAL TALE

Like so much in the Christmas narrative, the journey of the wise men has been romanticized in our telling of the story. Our versions tend to focus on their arrival at the manger, their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, their brave decision to rebel against Herod (Matthew 2:1–12). We see them as a sign that even earthly rulers are humbled before the throne of the newborn king.

But Eliot suggests a far different reading of the magi. There is little triumph, little nobility in his narrative. Instead, it is grim, earthy, crude. There is doubt. There is complaining. There is despair.

KINGS OF THE WORLD In the 12th c., artists began to depict the magi as representatives of the three known parts of the world: Balthasar is African or Moor, Caspar is given Indian features or dress. Melchior represents Europe. Rembrandt’s 1632 magi painting is one of three he created, each of them featuring a variation on the Moor, the Indian, and the elderly European on bended knee …

PHOTOGRAPH © THE STATE HERMITAGE MUSEUM/PHOTO BY VLADIMIR TEREBENIN, LEONARD KHEIFETS, YURI MOLODKOVETS.

[W]ere we led all that way for

Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly

We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,

But had thought they were different; this Birth was

Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.

We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

When Eliot wrote this poem, not only was he a fairly new Christian, he was also in the throes of a difficult, disintegrating marriage. Coming at midlife, Eliot’s conversion was not a simple matter of belief emerging out of unbelief, but a long, slow, clearly painful process of letting go of one life and clinging desperately to another.

Like the magi, the new convert travels out of one country into a sometimes dark, dank, unfamiliar place where the natives are not always kind, the sleep is often restless, the mission is undefined. Is it a birth or a death? “I had seen birth and death,” he writes, “but had thought they were different; this Birth was hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

THE BITTER BEAUTY

My dramatic childhood inclinations notwithstanding, there is, for me, something deeply compelling about the bitterness of Eliot’s narration. Through Eliot’s words, we are invited into a different telling of the Christmas story, one in which the reframing of the world and the mixing of kingdoms ushered in by the Incarnation bring as much pain and struggle as they bring joy and peace.

This is not a simple story of God entering the world and all being well. We know there is great tragedy to come in the Jesus story, that it won’t always make sense. We know that our stories, too, are laced with sorrow and loss and the constant need to choose faith and hope over despair and confusion.

As we wander through mountains and deserts and what can often be vast wastelands of doubt, we face that “hard and bitter agony” of leaving behind our old kingdoms and making our way into new ones. And yet, in the midst of this tension, we, like the magi, find ourselves glad of another death as we slowly let go of the darkness and cling to the light. [1]


[1] Barnhill, C. (2012). “A Cold Coming We Had of It”: T. S. Eliot, the Magi, and the Journey of Conversion. Christian History Magazine: The Wonder of the Season, (no. 103), 16–17.