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.

What Is The Incarnation? (CONCLUSION)

IS THERE A DISTINCTIVELY REFORMED CHRISTOLOGY?

Having examined the church’s reflection on the person of Christ more broadly, another question emerges: is there a distinctively Reformed approach to the person of Christ? The short answer to this question is a decisive no. John Calvin staunchly defended the creedal doctrine of the person of Christ, for he believed that the early ecumenical councils of the church were simply stating what Scripture teaches. Note how Calvin carefully preserves the primacy of Scripture while at the same time giving appropriate deference to decisions of the Councils:

Thus councils would come to have the majesty that is their due; yet in the meantime Scripture would stand out in the higher place, with everything subject to its standard. In this way, we willingly embrace and reverence as holy the early councils, such as those of Nicaea, Constantinople, Ephesus I, Chalcedon, and the like, which were concerned with refuting errors—in so far as they relate to the teachings of faith. For they contain nothing but the pure and genuine exposition of Scripture, which the holy fathers applied with spiritual prudence to crush the enemies of religion who had then arisen.

And Calvin is not alone, for more recent conservative Reformed theologians such as Charles Hodge, B. B. Warfield, Herman Bavinck, Louis Berkhof, and John Murray have likewise been staunch defenders of the two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon. Witness this striking affirmation from the great Old Princetonian B. B. Warfield:

That is to say, the doctrine of the Two Natures of Christ is not merely the synthesis of the teaching of the New Testament, but the conception which underlies every one of the New Testament writings severally; it is not only the teaching of the New Testament as a whole but of the whole of the New Testament, part by part. Historically, this means that not only has the doctrine of the Two Natures been the invariable presupposition of the whole teaching of the church from the apostolic age down, but all the teaching of the apostolic age rests on it as its universal presupposition.

All that being said, are there nevertheless distinctive christological emphases among Reformed theologians? Here the answer is a qualified yes, and it is worthwhile to look at this question more carefully. Earlier we referred to the Nestorian and Eutychian heresies (see pp. 15–16). These were, in fact, more radical examples of broader christological approaches that we associate with the ancient cities of Alexandria in Egypt and Antioch in Syria. In brief, as Christians sought to understand how Christ can be both God and man and yet a single person, there were those who emphasized the unity of the person of Christ (the school of Alexandria) and those who stressed the integrity of the two natures and sought to ensure that the incarnate humanity was not swallowed up by the deity (the school of Antioch). Of course, both concerns are legitimate, but when pushed to extremes they can lead to problems. For example, Nestorianism can be viewed as the Antiochian approach pushed too far, and Eutychianism as the Alexandrian run amok. As we have seen, the Council of Chalcedon sought to avoid both extremes.

In its affirmations of Chalcedon, the Reformed tradition has often tilted slightly toward the concerns of Antioch. We can better grasp this fact by means of a comparison with the Lutheran tradition, which, conversely, tilts toward Alexandria. The Lutheran tradition teaches that the divine and human natures of Christ are so closely associated that there is a real “communication of attributes” such that Christ’s incarnate humanity has become ubiquitous (or “present everywhere”). This in turn provides a basis for the Lutheran doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper (known as “consubstantiation”), which holds that Christ’s body and blood are locally and physically present “in, with, and under” the elements of bread and wine. For Calvin and the Reformed tradition, however, such thinking is dangerous in that it implies that Christ’s humanity is qualitatively different from ours, and so Calvin insists that Christ’s humanity is finite, that it remains in heaven, and that the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity is to be rejected. This does not mean, however, that Calvin rejected the true presence of Christ in the Lord’s Supper. We receive the whole Christ, humanity included, as we are lifted up by the power of the Holy Spirit to commune with him in heaven.

This leads us directly to a related matter (a corollary, in fact, of Calvin’s rejection of ubiquity) that is often considered a Reformed distinctive—the doctrine of the extra Calvinisticum, or the “Calvinistic extra” (a term coined by the Lutherans). In opposing the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity, and others such as Menno Simons (whose doctrine of the “celestial flesh” of Christ was essentially Monophysite), Calvin maintained that the presence of the infinite Logos is not circumscribed by the incarnate humanity of Christ. In other words, even while Christ hung on the cross, he was ruling over the cosmos! Witness this striking passage from Calvin:

They thrust upon us as something absurd the fact that if the Word of God became flesh, then he was confined within the narrow prison of an earthly body. This is mere impudence! For even if the Word in his immeasurable essence united with the nature of man into one person, we do not imagine that he was confined therein. Here is something marvelous: The Son of God descended from heaven in such a way that, without leaving heaven, he willed to be borne in the virgin’s womb, to go about on the earth, and to hang upon the cross; yet he continually filled the world even as he had done from the beginning!

Three important points need to be noted regarding this extra Calvinisticum. First, it represents a genuinely biblical insight. If God is infinite, as Scripture clearly teaches, and if humanity is finite, as Scripture again teaches, and if Scripture speaks of cosmic functions of Christ that go beyond the scope of the human such as his providential government of the world (e.g., Col. 1:17), then this doctrinal insight is well founded. Thus it finds a place in the Heidelberg Catechism (QQ. 47–48). Second, in light of this we should not be surprised to discover that it is by no means a doctrine peculiar to the Reformed. As theologian E. David Willis has demonstrated in his outstanding study of the extra Calvinisticum, the concept is found widely in the fathers of the ancient and medieval church, and he suggests therefore that it is perhaps better termed the “extra Catholicum.” Finally, this doctrinal insight is useful in that it helps us at least begin to think about how infinite deity and finite humanity can coexist in a single person.

WHAT SORT OF HUMANITY DID CHRIST ASSUME?

Since the early nineteenth century there have been persistent debates regarding the sort of humanity that Christ assumed. Was it a perfected humanity or was it humanity tainted by the effects of sin, a “fallen humanity”? This issue initially came to the fore because of an early nineteenth-century Scottish minister named Edward Irving, who was deposed from the Church of Scotland in 1833 for teaching that Christ assumed a fallen human nature. Similar ideas were propounded later in the nineteenth century by the American Mercersburg theologian John W. Nevin, and most recently and insistently by Thomas F. Torrance. Torrance contends that “the Incarnation is to be understood as the coming of God to take upon himself our fallen human nature, our actual human existence laden with sin and guilt, our humanity diseased in mind and soul in its estrangement or alienation from the Creator.”23 Torrance goes on to insist that this “sinful flesh” or “fallen humanity” of Christ is then sanctified and transformed by its incarnational union with the Logos.

Here some points of clarification need to be noted. First, we must understand that in speaking of the sinful humanity of Christ such theologians are not questioning the actual sinlessness of Christ. Second, they are seeking to emphasize the solidarity of Christ with those he came to save. Third, they stress that in a concrete sense our broken humanity has been healed in Christ and thus that all of salvation is to be found in him.

That being said, some further comments are in order. Certainly Jesus did come to live in a fallen world. He was subject to temptation, suffering, and death. His triumph over temptation was real. He was made “perfect through suffering” (Heb. 2:10), and he “learned obedience through what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In other words, Scripture does indeed emphasize that Christ was “made like his brothers in every respect” (Heb. 2:17), and that as the second Adam he triumphed where the first Adam failed (see Rom. 5:12–21). However, we should also recognize that this language about the “sinful” or “fallen” humanity of Christ is provocative and ultimately unhelpful. When many people hear it, they reflexively think that the sinlessness of Christ is at least implicitly being denied, and that is reason enough for us to avoid this language. Finally, theologian Bruce McCormack has shown that the Reformed tradition has more generally maintained that the sanctification of Christ’s human nature takes place by the work of the Holy Spirit and not through the hypostatic union of Christ’s humanity with the Logos (see, e.g., Westminster Confession of Faith, 8.3).

THE SECOND COMMANDMENT AND PICTURES OF JESUS

A practical question having to do with the doctrine of the incarnation has also arisen in the Reformed tradition. The second commandment prohibits the making of “a carved image, or any likeness of anything that is in heaven above, or that is in the earth beneath, or that is in the water under the earth” (Ex. 20:4), and the Westminster Larger Catechism elaborates on this principle by forbidding “the making any representation of God, of all or of any of the three persons, either inwardly in our mind, or outwardly in any kind of image or likeness of any creature whatsoever” (Westminster Larger Catechism, Q. 109). Understandably, people often ask whether this applies to pictorial representations of Jesus. Indeed, congregations have been torn by controversies over stained-glass depictions of Jesus as the Good Shepherd in sanctuaries and the use of pictures of Jesus in children’s Sunday school materials.

In context, this biblical prohibition is clearly directed against all forms of idolatry (see Ex. 20:5). Scripture emphasizes the spirituality and invisibility of God (see John 4:24; Col. 1:15; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16), and the biblical writers knew full well that any pictorial representation of God inevitably distorts this spirituality of God. Thus the danger of idolatry is very real, and, against the Greek and Roman Catholic traditions with their extensive use of icons and statues of Jesus, the Reformed tradition has been especially careful on this point. Here we do well to recall Calvin’s warning “that man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.”

All that being said, we must also remember that Jesus is not simply God. He is the God-man, the Word made flesh. His humanity was real—his body was visible and tangible—and if photographic or video technology had been available in the first century a.d. we might well have pictures of Jesus available to us. Furthermore, some of the scriptural passages that speak of the invisibility of God at the same time teach that this visible Christ has made God known to us, that as the apostle Paul teaches, “He is the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15; cf. John 1:14–18). And if Christ is indeed the preeminent and divinely authorized “image” of God, then the Old Testament prohibition of visual portrayals of God must be interpreted in light of the Christ event. All this suggests that the danger here is not so much the simple violation of the second commandment. Certainly pictures of Jesus can be helpful in teaching children the stories of the Gospels, and we can scarcely be expected to read the gospel accounts without forming a mental image of the events in our minds.

But are there dangers to be concerned about here? Indeed there are! One of the lessons of history is that Christians have tended to fashion views and images of Jesus that are congenial to themselves. Thus Jesus often becomes the exemplar of whatever human beings at a particular time happen to value or admire rather than the Jesus of Scripture. Here we think, for example, of those infamous “Aryan Jesus” paintings portraying Jesus as tall, blond, and blue-eyed, or of what Stephen J. Nichols has called the “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild” of sentimental Victorian culture, or of the political revolutionary Jesus of Marxist-influenced liberation theology. The list of such distortions is nearly endless. Particularly egregious was the Jesus-as-merely-human-moral-teacher-and-example of nineteenth-century German Protestant liberals such as Adolph von Harnack, which prompted the English Roman Catholic theologian George Tyrrell in 1909 to quip, “The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well.”

For these reasons we should be cautious, not only about visual pictures of Jesus, but also about the conceptual portrayals of him that we create for ourselves. We must constantly return to Scripture in order to correct our “vision” on this matter. After all, in the providence of God we have no visible images of the historical Jesus available to us. In fact, if we want a visible representation of Jesus, Scripture encourages us to find it in other Christians, especially other Christians in need (see Matt. 25:34–40; Acts 9:5).

THE ETERNAL INCARNATION

It is apparent from Scripture that the incarnation is a permanent condition for the second person of the Trinity. The author of the epistle to the Hebrews declares, “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb. 13:8). As the apostle Paul teaches, we are eternally saved by being spiritually united with Christ, the principle of our own resurrections is to be found in his resurrection, and all this is “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:7; cf. 1 Thess. 4:17). In other words, in Jesus Christ deity and humanity are forever united in a single divine-human person. God himself has chosen to live with us as part of the human community … forever! In Christ we have God’s final affirmation of human worth and dignity and his eternal commitment in love to us as human beings. This is remarkable and cause for wonder. May we grow in our love for Christ and in our appreciation of his incarnation as we ponder these truths.

A CALL TO DOXOLOGY

In this booklet we have looked at the biblical portrayal of Christ and at the history of the church’s encounter with the doctrine of the incarnation. We have also touched on some more technical theological issues that have arisen in the course of the church’s discussions of the incarnation. In all of this, however, it is easy to get lost in the details, and perhaps to miss the forest for the trees. We must remember that ultimately the incarnation is about God’s purposes to redeem and to live in communion and fellowship with his human creation forever, and the lengths that he will go to do this. We must also remember that the appropriate response to the incarnation is doxology; that is, praise, adoration, and worship.[1]

 

[1] Evans, W. B. (2013). What Is the Incarnation?. (S. M. Lucas, Ed.) (pp. 20–28). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

What Is The Incarnation? (THE CHURCH EXPLORES THE MYSTERY OF THE INCARNATION)

As we saw in the brief survey above, Scripture provides ample and compelling witness to both the true deity and the true humanity of Christ. But how is the scriptural data to be understood? The Bible affirms that Jesus is both God and man, and it also presents him as an integrated personality, but how can finite humanity and infinite deity coexist in a single person? In fact, it took the church several centuries to sort through the various possibilities in order to arrive at a stable and authoritative formulation of the matter. As someone has said, the wheels of theology grind slowly, but they grind exceedingly finely, and the development of the church’s understanding of the incarnation is a case in point.

The process whereby the church worked through these issues can be helpfully presented in terms of the six major heresies associated with the person of Christ that arose in the early church—two having to do with the integrity of his deity, two with the integrity of his humanity, and two with the relationship between the deity and the humanity. In each instance the church quickly came to realize that these views did not measure up to what Scripture teaches.

Ebionism

An early misunderstanding of the incarnation is known as Ebionism. The term “Ebionite” means “poor,” and what we know of the Ebionites comes to us secondhand from the writings of the church fathers. Apparently, the Ebionites were poor Jewish people who accepted Jesus as the Messiah but who had difficulty reconciling the doctrine of the incarnation with their Jewish monotheism. Thus they viewed Jesus as a mere man who was indwelt by the Spirit of God and “adopted” as the “Son of God” at his baptism. Thus they would affirm that God was in Christ, but not that Christ was God, and their view of Jesus was basically that of a great prophet. But such teaching obviously did not do justice to the richness of what Scripture teaches about Christ. Unfortunately, similar teachings are popular in some circles today.

Docetism

A second heresy, known as “Docetism” (from the Greek word dokein, “to seem”), admitted that Jesus was in some sense a divine being, but it denied his essential humanity. It was especially popular among the Gnostics, who believed in salvation by secret knowledge provided by a mediator from the spiritual realm, and whose dualistic understanding of reality viewed the material realm as evil. If Jesus was the gnostic mediator/messenger who had come from the spiritual realm in order to bring saving knowledge, then they supposed that he could not have been compromised by material existence, and so they viewed his humanity as phantasmal. He only “seemed” to be human. Such ideas were clearly on the scene by the early second century, and the apostle John may well be referring to this error when he speaks of those who deny “that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2).

Arianism

In the early fourth century a priest in Alexandria, Egypt, by the name of Arius taught that the Word or Logos was but the highest of the creatures, that the Logos had a beginning, and that the Logos could have fallen into sin. In essence, Arius viewed Christ as a lesser “god” but not as God. This teaching, of course, constituted a decisive repudiation of the deity of Christ, and the great Athanasius of Alexandria opposed it, not only on the grounds that it was contrary to Scripture, but also that it made salvation impossible. Such a Christ, Athanasius cogently argued, cannot save us, and his arguments prevailed at the Council of Nicaea (a.d. 325) and the Council of Constantinople (a.d. 381). Unfortunately, however, such ideas are still with us, for the teachings of the contemporary Jehovah’s Witnesses closely resemble this ancient heresy of Arianism.

Apollinarianism

Later in the fourth century, a bishop of Laodicea (an ancient city in the western portion of what is now modern Turkey) named Apollinaris, who apparently viewed the human mind as inherently sinful, sought to safeguard the psychological integrity of Christ by having the Logos take the place of the human mind and soul as the rational principle of Christ’s person. This, of course, was a denial of the full humanity of Christ, and the church fathers opposed Apollinaris, not only because his teachings were contrary to Scripture, but also because it made salvation impossible. If we are to be saved as complete human beings—body and soul—they argued, Christ must therefore have assumed, or taken to himself, a complete humanity. “What is not assumed,” they rightly declared, “is not saved.” Thus it was that Apollinarianism was condemned at the Council of Constantinople in a.d. 381. While these doctrinal disputes were no doubt unpleasant, they also illustrate the way that the challenge of heresy can cause the church to reflect more deeply and adequately on what Scripture teaches.

Nestorianism

With the integrity of both the deity and the humanity of Christ decisively affirmed by the Council of Constantinople, attention soon turned to the question of how the deity and humanity relate to one another in the context of a single, integrated divine-human person. From around a.d. 430 to 451 a “christological controversy” raged. The historical details of this period are too complicated to explore here, but we gain an appreciation of the issues involved by examining the two chief heresies, which in turn gave rise to the great christological settlement of the Council of Chalcedon in a.d. 451.

The Nestorian heresy is named after Nestorius, who briefly served as the bishop of Constantinople from a.d. 428–31. Nestorius affirmed the integrity of the divine and human natures, but he was unclear about the unity of the person of Christ. He spoke of the deity and humanity as each having its own subsistence or “hypostasis,” and as “conjoined” rather than united. This understandably seemed to many to smack of two separate persons squeezed together without any real union of the two. In short, the Jesus of Nestorius seemed to be schizoid, with two distinct persons inhabiting a single body. How could such an odd being accomplish redemption and save us? Not surprisingly, the views of Nestorius were quickly rejected by the Council of Ephesus in a.d. 431, and Nestorius himself was exiled to a monastery.

Eutychianism

But almost immediately the opposite error arose. The Eutychian heresy, named after a monk of Constantinople named Eutyches, spoke of Christ as having one divine-human nature, and Eutyches seems to have taught that the humanity of Christ is qualitatively different from ours. In other words, Eutyches so closely related the deity and the humanity of Christ that the infinite deity seemed to swallow up the finite humanity, such that Christ was no longer like us in every way except for sin. Again the reaction was swift, for most Christians realized that Christ’s oneness with the humanity he came to save is of crucial importance. Eutychianism threatened the very possibility of salvation.

The Council of Chalcedon

All this brings us to one of the great watersheds in early church history—the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which was held at Chalcedon in a.d. 451. At this meeting the views of Eutyches were condemned, and the Council wrote a statement that carefully expressed the consensus that had emerged after several centuries of christological discussion. Three points need to be noted regarding this Chalcedonian Christology. First, against Eutyches, the Council affirmed that Christ possesses two natures—a divine nature and a human nature. In this way, the Council underscored that Christ is fully God and at the same time fully human. Second, against Nestorius the Council affirmed that these two natures exist in hypostatic union. That is, the two natures form one “subsistence” or “person.” In this way the Council safeguarded the unity of the person. Third, the Council described this relationship of the divine and the human in Christ by using primarily negative terminology (“without confusion, without change, without division, without separation”). That is, the Council did not presume to define it exhaustively or to explain it. After all, the theologians and churchmen present knew full well that they were dealing with a divine and holy mystery. All this is quite evident in this famous language from the decree of the Council, according to which Christ is

to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way abolished because of the union, but rather the characteristic property of each nature being preserved, and concurring into one Person and one subsistence (hypostasis), not as if Christ were parted or divided into two persons, but one and the same Son and only-begotten God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from the beginning spoke concerning him, and our Lord Jesus Christ instructed us, and the Creed of the Fathers has handed down to us.

The Council of Chalcedon was a watershed event, but it was certainly not the end of christological debate in the early church period. For example, there were some who disagreed with the results of Chalcedon and who continued to speak of Christ as one divine-human nature. Thus there are Monophysite (“one-nature”) churches that persist down to the present day (such as the Coptic and Armenian churches in the Middle East). In addition, there were discussions as to whether Christ had one will or two. This Monothelite (“one will”) controversy was settled by the Third Council of Constantinople in a.d. 680–81, which decided that Christ possesses both a divine and a human will (because a human being without a human will is obviously incomplete) but that the two are in perfect harmony.

Theologians after Chalcedon such as Leontius of Byzantium (who died c. a.d. 543) and John of Damascus (a.d. 675–749) continued to ponder the relationship between the divine and the human. In order further to safeguard the unity of the person of Christ, they argued that the humanity of Christ does not have its own independent hypostasis (anhypostasia) but that it has its hypostasis or subsistence in the Logos (enhypostasia). While such ideas may seem to us rather abstract, they serve to underscore that the divine Logos did not happen upon a previously existing human being and take it over. Seen in this light, these ideas are useful and are defended by theologians even today.

Post-Enlightenment Criticism of the Incarnation

The Council of Chalcedon marks a decisive point in the church’s reflection on the incarnation, and it has long served as a doctrinal benchmark for Christians in both the East and the West. But with the Enlightenment (c. 1650–1800) this began to change. This was the “Age of Reason,” and extraordinary emphasis was placed upon the alleged adequacy and autonomy of human reason. That is, many came to believe that human reason is adequate to discover all truth, that reason is the highest authority, and that it need answer to no other standard (such as divine revelation in Scripture).

Obviously such ideas had implications for how Jesus Christ was viewed, and these are evident in at least two ways. First, the emphasis upon human reason as the final judge of all truth left little room for divine mystery, and increasingly the doctrine of the incarnation was viewed as irrational or worse. Second, the Enlightenment was profoundly anthropocentric, and this man-centered mindset increasingly meant that when people did think about Jesus they began with the humanity of Christ as a given, and only then did they ask about his divinity. That is to say, in contrast to much of the thinking of the early and medieval church, which started christological reflection with the deity and then sought to understand how Christ’s humanity fit in with that divine reality (a “Christology from above”), post-Enlightenment theology has often begun with the humanity and sought to work upward (a “Christology from below”). For example, some became convinced that the attributes of infinite deity simply were incompatible with finite humanity, and particularly with finite human consciousness. The net result of all this was that the traditional Christian doctrine of the deity of Christ came to be seen by some as implausible, and for these reasons the two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon was subjected to considerable criticism in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A variety of alternatives to Chalcedon have been suggested in the modern period, and while space precludes a detailed discussion here, we can briefly mention two such proposals by way of example. First, the so-called “Kenotic Christologies” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries sought to explain the incarnation by suggesting that the Son of God “emptied himself” of some or all of the divine attributes when he became man. Proponents of this view appealed to Philippians 2:7, where the apostle Paul says that Christ “emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (rsv). Thus some have argued for a kenosis of the divine Son (a noun related to the Greek verb meaning “to empty”). Of course, in this passage Paul does not say that Christ emptied himself of anything in particular, or that he discarded his divine attributes. In fact, the transfiguration narratives in the three Synoptic Gospels suggest that Jesus’ divine attributes were, as Calvin argued, “hidden” rather than relinquished. Rather, the emphasis here is on the way that he assumed a lowly human mode of existence in the incarnation, and so the scriptural basis for such Kenotic Christologies is slim. As is often pointed out, such kenotic approaches subvert both the doctrine of divine immutability (changelessness) and the doctrine of the incarnation itself, in that they assume that the second person of the Trinity could become human only by ceasing in some sense to be God.

Second, there is the more recent theory of “retroactive constitution” proposed by the contemporary German theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg. He explicitly rejects the two-natures doctrine of Chalcedon, but still wants to speak of Christ as God, and so Pannenberg argues that the unity of God and man in Christ must be seen in light of the resurrection event. In fact, it is retroactively constituted by Christ’s resurrection on Easter morning. Pannenberg writes, “But through his resurrection it is decided, not only so far as our knowledge is concerned, but with respect to reality, that Jesus is one with God and retroactively that he was also already one with God previously.” Obviously this theory not only stands in tension with the biblical passages speaking of the preexistence of the Logos (John 1:1–4, 14; Phil. 2:5–11), but it is also heavily dependent upon some rather arcane philosophical presuppositions. For these reasons Pannenberg’s theory has elicited more curiosity than acceptance. Thus, at the end of the day these modern alternatives to Chalcedon are a good deal less convincing than the theory they propose to replace.[1]

 

[1] Evans, W. B. (2013). What Is the Incarnation?. (S. M. Lucas, Ed.) (pp. 12–20). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

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.

What Is The Incarnation? (THE BIBLICAL WITNESS TO THE PERSON OF CHRIST)

As many are aware, terms such as Trinity and incarnation are not found in Scripture. They are, however, useful and appropriate terms for describing what the Bible teaches about God and Christ. In fact, the biblical witness to the person of Christ is vast and resounding, and Christians need feel no embarrassment on this issue when they speak with those who deny that Christ is God. That being said, we can only begin to explore this matter here.

The Old Testament

The Old Testament materials, as we might imagine in the pagan and polytheistic context of the ancient Near East, are particularly focused on the oneness of the true God over against the many gods of the nations. Even so, there are striking indications that the promised Messiah was to be both human and divine. In fulfillment of the Davidic covenant he was to be the son of David who will reign on the throne of David forever (see Isa. 11:1–5). Moreover, the messianic child prophesied by Isaiah will at the same time be called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (see Isa. 9:6–7). In addition, the so-called “royal psalms” sometimes ascribe divine identity and qualities to the Davidic kings, and such psalms were rightly interpreted as messianic by the Jews of the later Old Testament period (see, e.g., Pss. 2:7; 45:6–7; 110:1). The richness of this Old Testament witness is such that the New Testament writers had much to work with when the Messiah finally came.

The New Testament

The New Testament materials are, as we would expect, much more extensive and complex. The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) emphasize in various ways that Jesus was fully human. For example, Matthew’s gospel begins by affirming that Jesus is the “son of David” and the “son of Abraham.” Human genealogies of Jesus are found in Matthew and Luke (see Matt. 1:2–17; Luke 3:23–38), and Luke’s gospel emphasizes that Jesus underwent a normal human process of development, that he “increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” (Luke 2:52). At the same time, while the writers of the Synoptic Gospels do not expressly speak of Jesus as “God,” they everywhere assume his deity by ascribing divine functions to Jesus. For example, Jesus has the power to forgive sins (see Matt. 9:2–6). He is Lord of the Sabbath (Mark 2:23–27). He possesses a unique knowledge of God the Father (Matt. 11:27). He will come in glory to judge the nations and establish the eternal kingdom of God (Matt. 25:31–32), and after the resurrection he declares that “all authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me” (Matt. 28:18). All this makes little sense if Christ is not God as well as man.

Of the four gospels it is John’s that provides the most explicit witness to the deity of Christ. The opening prologue is particularly striking in that it provides important building blocks for the doctrine of the Trinity by speaking of the relationship between the divine Word and God as one of both identity and differentiation: “In the beginning was the Word (Greek: Logos), and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). In other words, while there is one God, both the Word and the Father are God, and the Word is distinct from the Father. It goes on to speak of the Word’s involvement in the divine act of creation (John 1:3), before triumphantly declaring that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Quite a number of Jesus’ statements in this gospel must finally be interpreted as claims to deity. He expressly claims to be one with the Father (John 10:30–39), and particularly striking are the various “I am” sayings by Jesus where he identifies himself with the divine name I Am in the Old Testament (see, e.g., John 6:20; 8:12, 57–59; 11:25; cf. Ex. 3:13–14). Finally, at the close of this gospel Jesus’ identity as God is recognized by “Doubting Thomas” (John 20:28). At the same time, John’s gospel also presents Jesus as fully human—he is subject to human physical limitations such as fatigue, hunger, and thirst (John 4:6–8; 19:28), and his sorrow at the grave of his dear friend Lazarus demonstrates that Jesus had a genuinely human emotional life (John 11:33–35).

The Pauline epistles contain two passages that are best translated as direct ascriptions of deity to Christ (Rom. 9:5; Titus 2:13). Just as important, the Epistles of the New Testament provide further evidence that the incarnation is a foundational assumption of the New Testament writers. For example, the Greek word kurios (“Lord”) is persistently used of Christ, and this very word was used in the Greek version of the Old Testament to translate the Hebrew divine name Yahweh. Old Testament passages speaking of Yahweh are applied to Christ (see Isa. 45:23; cf. Rom. 14:9–11). There are statements that say in so many words that what God is, Christ is (see Phil. 2:6; Col. 1:19; 2:9). Similar sentiments are expressed by the author of the book of Hebrews, for whom Christ “is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power” (Heb. 1:3). At the same time, the apostle Paul emphasizes that Christ was fully human—that he suffered on the cross and died for our sins. The author of Hebrews also strongly affirms the full humanity of Christ and sees it as essential to his high priestly work: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17).[1]

 

[1] Evans, W. B. (2013). What Is the Incarnation?. (S. M. Lucas, Ed.) (pp. 10–12). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

What Is The Incarnation? (INTRODUCTION)

This booklet is an introduction to Christology (the doctrine of the person of Christ)—a topic that lies at the center of Christian faith. As we will soon see, there is much to think about here, but at the outset a crucial point needs to be made. Although there are issues of Christology that continue to perplex and fascinate theologians, the doctrine of the incarnation is first and foremost a matter of doxology rather than an intellectual puzzle. It is something that should cause us to marvel at the matchless grace of God and to respond to that grace with worship and praise. After all, the second person of the Trinity has come to us in human form to save helpless sinners, to accomplish salvation for us, to unite us with himself, and so to raise us up into fellowship and communion with God. Even as our faith seeks understanding on this issue, may we be driven to worship and adore the God who has created us for himself, who has revealed himself to us in his written and incarnate Word, and who has by the work of that incarnate Word redeemed a people for himself.

Anyone who desires to be a Christian must answer two vital questions. The first is this: who is Jesus Christ? The second follows quickly upon the first: what has Christ done for me so that I may be saved? As we shall see, our explorations here will focus on the first question, but we must touch on the second as well.

According to the great confessional tradition of the church, in dependence upon Scripture we affirm that Christ is both truly God (vere deus) and truly human (vere homo) and that these two natures nevertheless comprise one divine-human person. Echoing the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451), the Westminster Confession of Faith declares “that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion. Which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man.” Admittedly, this is the careful language of technical theology, but here the Westminster divines express truth that is of momentous, indeed essential, practical importance. Thus we must be careful not to dismiss these somewhat technical discussions of the person of Christ as irrelevant to the life and health of the church, or as of little consequence for our Christian lives.

SOME PRELIMINARY COMMENTS

As we suggested above, we cannot ultimately separate the doctrine of Christ’s person from the doctrine of his work. They go together, because Jesus was perfectly fitted for the work he came to do. This strong connection of person and work is evident in the two most influential theological arguments for the full deity of Christ from the early and medieval church periods. The first is by Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–373), that stalwart hero of the faith who did more to defeat the Arian heresy (which denied the deity of Christ) than any other. He wrote in his treatise “On the Incarnation”:

The reason of his bodily appearing; that it was in the power of none other to turn the corruptible to incorruption, except the Saviour himself, that had at the beginning also made all things out of naught; and that none other could create anew the likeness of God’s image for men, save the image of the Father; that none other could render the mortal immortal, save our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the very life; and that none other could teach men of the Father, and destroy the worship of idols, save the Word, that orders all things and is alone the true only begotten Son of the Father.

Here the great bishop of Alexandria argues that sin has decisively separated humanity from God who is the source of life and immortality, that only God himself can fix the situation, and that Christ therefore must be fully God. Note also that Athanasius is pointing us to a particular aspect of Christ’s saving work—his transforming work in us.

The second great argument regarding the person of Christ was presented by that remarkable medieval theologian Anselm of Canterbury (c. 1033–1109). In his treatise entitled Cur Deus Homo (Why the God-Man), the great archbishop of Canterbury notes that human sin has resulted in alienation because God’s infinite honor has been offended and a proper satisfaction must be offered. Furthermore, only God can offer such infinite satisfaction and only man should offer satisfaction, and so the one offering such satisfaction must be the God-man. Anselm’s formulation here is worth quoting in full:

For God will not do it, because he does not owe it, and man will not do it, because he cannot. Therefore, for the God-Man to do this, the person who is to make this satisfaction must be both perfect God and perfect man, because none but true God can make it, and none but true man owes it. Thus, while it is necessary to find a God-Man in whom the integrity of both natures is preserved, it is no less necessary for these two complete natures to meet in one person—just as body and rational soul meet in one man—for otherwise the same person could not be perfect God and perfect man.

Here we see that Anselm is focusing particularly on the question of what Christ does for us. To rephrase the matter in more familiar terms, we recognize that God is just and that human sin must be punished. After all, as the apostle Paul teaches, “the wages of sin is death” (Rom. 6:23). The only way for sinners to be redeemed from this penalty of eternal death is for a perfect sacrifice to be offered, and Jesus as the God-man is this perfect and all-sufficient sacrifice for sin on our behalf as he took upon himself the penalty that we deserve. Thus Christians have rightly sensed that Jesus Christ must be exactly who the Bible says he is—God and man in a single person—in order that he might both reconcile us to God and transform us into the people God wants us to be.

This doctrine of the person of Christ is also inevitably connected with other crucial doctrines of the faith. Because Christ is fully God and fully human, it is closely related to what theologians call “theology proper” (the doctrine of God) and to theological anthropology (the doctrine of humanity). History demonstrates that it is particularly connected to our understanding of humanity in its sinful and fallen condition. Some have argued that the human condition is not grave, and that all we need is a bit of education and encouragement to do what is right. In other words, a modest savior will do. Such people often deny that Christ is God and view him as little more than a human teacher and example of moral truth. On the other hand, if the human condition in sin is not only grave but completely beyond our capacity to rectify it, if we are truly dead in trespasses and sins, then we need a grand and mighty Savior, one who is no less than God himself. In addition, the doctrine of the incarnation is related to our doctrine of salvation, for all of salvation comes to us through our spiritual union with Christ (see Eph. 1:3–14), and he is the mediator between God and human beings (1 Tim. 2:5). Finally, it is related to ecclesiology, or the doctrine of the church, for the church is the body of Christ (see Rom. 12:3–8; 1 Cor. 12:12–31). Thus we have ample reason and incentive to get this doctrine of the person of Christ right.

One final comment needs to be made. We must not suppose that we can rationally explain the incarnation, and it is with good reason that Christians have long spoken of the “mystery” of the incarnation. As we will see later in this booklet, this fact has been a stumbling block for some, but we should not be surprised in the least that there is mystery involved here. If the incarnation—the union of infinite deity and finite humanity in a single person—is a reality, then we should not expect fully to comprehend this fact. It is by definition a unique event, and thus we ought not to use the categories of our ordinary experience as arguments against it. As the late Scottish theologian Thomas F. Torrance notes,

We cannot compare the fact of Christ with other facts, nor can we deduce the fact of Christ from our knowledge of other facts. The fact of Christ comes breaking into the continuity of our human knowledge as an utterly distinctive and unique fact, which we cannot understand in terms of other facts, which we cannot reduce to what we already know. It is a new and unique fact without analogy anywhere in human experience or knowledge.

At the same time, we should also recognize that the incarnation is a mystery with great explanatory power, for the New Testament everywhere presupposes it and makes little sense without it. Theologian J. I. Packer writes,

Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of this [i.e., other teachings of the New Testament]; it is all of a piece and hangs together completely. The Incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.[1]

 

[1] Evans, W. B. (2013). What Is the Incarnation?. (S. M. Lucas, Ed.) (pp. 5–9). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Christmas: God In The Manger (Part 10)

Simeon’s Eye of Faith

A forgotten authority on Wesleyan hymns once commented, “There can hardly be a single paragraph of Scripture that is not somewhere reflected in the hymns of the Wesleys.” That observation was certainly accurate regarding the following two stanzas from Charles Wesley’s elegant 1744 Advent hymn:

 

Come, Thou long-expected Jesus, Born to set Thy people free;

From our fears and sins release us; Let us find our rest in Thee.

Israel’s strength and consolation, Hope of all the earth Thou art;

Dear Desire of ev’ry nation, Joy of ev’ry longing heart.

 

Born Thy people to deliver, Born a Child, and yet a King,

Born to reign in us forever, Now Thy gracious kingdom bring.

By Thine own eternal Spirit Rule in all our hearts alone;

By Thine all-sufficient merit, Raise us to Thy glorious throne.

 

Those beautiful lines summarize well the main sentiments of another impeccable testimony to the significance and validity of Christ’s birth—the aged, humble, and wise Simeon. Luke again reports on what happened and records Simeon’s prophetic words:

And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him. And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law, he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:

“Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,

According to Your word;

For my eyes have seen Your salvation

Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,

A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,

And the glory of Your people Israel.”

And Joseph and His mother marveled at those things which were spoken of Him. Then Simeon blessed them, and said to Mary His mother, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” (2:25–35)

The Man Simeon

Although very little is known about him except what Luke 2 records, Simeon was, as we shall see, a fascinating character. His name is certainly a common Hebrew name (it was the name of one of the twelve tribes of Israel; Gen. 49:5–7) that means, “God has heard.” When Simeon’s parents named him as a baby, the Lord prompted them to give him a name that wonderfully alludes to the result of his heartfelt cry for God to send a comforter and deliverer. That cry was certainly Simeon’s lifelong hope, and at the end of his life God graciously heard and sent the Messiah.

His Spiritual Character

The first biblical description of the man Simeon involves his spiritual character: “this man was just and devout” (Luke 2:25). As we saw regarding Joseph and Mary, that simple statement is loaded with meaning—as a just man, Simeon stood righteous before God. God had declared him righteous, as only God can, when he trusted in Him rather than his good works for the forgiveness of sin. Simeon recognized his sinfulness, cast himself on the mercy of God, and the Lord declared him righteous because Christ’s death on the cross would bear away his sins.

If Simeon was a just man, it follows that he was also “devout.” That word means he was righteous. If anyone is truly justified, then scripturally he or she is necessarily also righteous, or in the process of being sanctified. Even in Simeon’s day, still under the Old Testament economy, when God declared someone like him righteous, that person’s life changed and he became a lover of God’s Law (see Psalm 119 and David’s heart attitude toward the Law of God).

Simply stated, a devout man such as Simeon is primarily concerned about the things of God. In fact, the term rendered “devout” in Luke 2 is often more literally translated “cautious,” indicating that Simeon would have been very careful how he treated God and responded to His Word. He lived a careful, cautious, responsible life, one that was exemplary and conscientious to honor God and bring glory to His name. And that’s what defined Simeon’s character as a true Jew—a believing Jew—and a genuine member of the righteous remnant of Israel.

His Theology

Luke 2:25 also indicates something important about Simeon’s theology: he was “waiting for the Consolation of Israel.” The word rendered “Consolation” is a direct reference to the Messiah. Thus Simeon had a hope for the coming of Messiah, the King who would bring in the promised Kingdom of Israel. And the only one who could fulfill that hope was the Consoler, the Comforter, the Helper—the Messiah.

But what was the source of Simeon’s great sense of hope? Undoubtedly, a major one had to be the Book of Isaiah. The second half of the prophet’s inspired writing contains a wealth of references to the theme of the coming Messianic consolation and comfort. Isaiah 40:1–2 declares, “‘Comfort, yes, comfort My people!’ says your God. ‘Speak comfort to Jerusalem, and cry out to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.’” The righteous Jews looked for the time when Israel’s warfare would end and the Comforter (Messiah) would remove all sins.

The prophet goes on to say, “Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, and His arm shall rule for Him; behold, His reward is with Him, and His work before Him. He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young” (vv. 10–11). None other than God Himself, in the person of Christ, would come to rule and comfort His people, even as a shepherd helps his sheep and lambs.

Isaiah 49:8–10 provides further promise:

Thus says the Lord:

“In an acceptable time I have heard You,

And in the day of salvation I have helped You;

I will preserve You and give You

As a covenant to the people,

To restore the earth,

To cause them to inherit the desolate heritages;

That You may say to the prisoners, ‘Go forth,’

To those who are in darkness, ‘Show yourselves.’

“They shall feed along the roads,

And their pastures shall be on all desolate heights.

They shall neither hunger nor thirst,

Neither heat nor sun shall strike them;

For He who has mercy on them will lead them,

Even by the springs of water He will guide them.”

God in effect reiterated the Abrahamic Covenant and promised to give Israel back her land. And along with that, the Lord pledged to minister a variety of compassionate favors. All of these prophecies foreshadowed the ministry of Christ as the Comforter of His people (Isa. 51:3; 57:18; 66:10–13).

So Simeon was a man who believed the Old Testament and took the prophet’s promises of consolation for Israel at face value. Simeon cared not only about his personal salvation, but also about the spiritual welfare of his people. His desire was very much a precursor to Paul’s decades later, when the apostle told the Roman believers:

I tell the truth in Christ, I am not lying, my conscience also bearing me witness in the Holy Spirit, that I have great sorrow and continual grief in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed from Christ for my brethren, my countrymen according to the flesh, who are Israelites, to whom pertain the adoption, the glory, the covenants, the giving of the law, the service of God, and the promises; of whom are the fathers and from whom, according to the flesh, Christ came, who is over all, the eternally blessed God. Amen. (Romans 9:1–5)

In that sense, Simeon was a passionate true believer. And he even went Paul one better. The great apostle was not a member of the true remnant for his entire adult life and ministry; after all, he once persecuted Christians prior to his conversion from legalistic, lost Judaism. But Simeon always looked in faith to the hope of Israel’s comfort and consolation, the coming of Messiah. He longed earnestly for the fulfillment of the covenant promises; and the more his nation sank into sin, apostasy, unbelief, and legalism, the more his heart ached to see the Messiah deliver his fellow Israelites from all of that iniquity.

Special Anointing

In addition to his exemplary character qualities and his adherence to biblical theology, Simeon was a remarkable example of divine anointing for extraordinary service: “the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25).

First of all, Luke’s statement about Simeon applies just as if he were speaking of any Old Testament-era believer. The Spirit of God had to work in his heart to save him—to enable him to believe that God would provide a sacrifice and would forgive his sins, and that it was all by grace through faith, not works. The Holy Spirit used the picture of the Old Testament sacrificial system to point Simeon and other true Jews toward Christ’s final sacrifice. He thus brought them to justification and began the ongoing process of sanctification in their lives. In Simeon’s life we clearly see that process at work in his devout character and careful obedience to God’s Law.

That the Holy Spirit was upon Simeon, therefore, was not an indicator of a brand-new phenomenon. The Spirit was always present in believers’ lives. Luke was simply saying that God had anointed Simeon for a special responsibility, much as He had done for certain Old Testament saints (e.g., Samson, Samuel, the prophets). Most often that responsibility involved speaking for God, as we’ll see when Simeon interacts with the young Jesus and His parents.

But before Simeon uttered any prophetic statements, the Spirit had to reveal certain truths to him. “It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ” (2:26). Sometime earlier in his life God had revealed that amazing message to Simeon, which would have had some rare and unusual implications for his life.

God’s words probably created both exhilaration and tension for Simeon. Positively, they would have served as a wonderful milepost or terminus point around which he could have ordered his life. Imagine the incredible feeling of having precise insight into exactly what needed to occur before you could die. But such knowledge also undoubtedly resulted in some spiritual pressure for Simeon. The constant excitement of living in Messianic times and eagerly anticipating the appearance of Christ on any given day, week, or month must have been a powerful motivation for Simeon to examine his heart regularly. He wanted to be sure he was fully ready for the special event. We don’t know how long prior to Luke 2 that Simeon had known all those things, but the entire waiting process, however long or short, surely filled his heart with anticipation as he realized Messiah was coming in his lifetime.

Simeon at Last Meets Christ

Simeon’s sense of anticipation that he would actually see the Messiah, and his lifelong looking forward in hope to the consolation of Israel, finally culminated on a special day that coincided with Jesus’ presentation to the Lord. God providentially prompted his heart, and Simeon decided it was exactly the right time to go down to the temple: “So he came by the Spirit into the temple” (Luke 2:27). More precisely, the word translated “temple” means “big area” and refers to the Court of the Women, the outside courtyard that was the only temple-related place Mary could go.

God in His sovereign wisdom appointed a time and place for Simeon and Christ to meet. And the meeting occurred even though Joseph and Mary knew nothing of Simeon, and he knew nothing of them or how to identify the Child. However, the Lord overcame those barriers and brought the four people together. Perhaps Simeon approached the parents and initiated a conversation in this fashion: “The Spirit of God has led me here and has prompted me that it’s where the Messiah is. Can you give me some information?” To which Joseph and Mary may have replied, “Yes, here He is.”

Likewise, we can only imagine what Simeon felt as he took the baby Jesus out of Mary’s arms, pressed Him to his chest, and perhaps leaned his head down to kiss Him. We can only speculate concerning the magnitude of joy that must have flooded the old manheart as he realized God truly did fulfill His promises. At last, he was holding in his hands the Messiah, the Comforter and Consoler of Israel, the Savior of the world.

Simeon was filled with such great joy because he genuinely believed that Jesus was the Messiah. And he believed that because Joseph and Mary told him. They undoubtedly reported to him the amazing, miraculous ways in which Jesus’ birth had come to pass and reaffirmed to him how God had confirmed the truth of it all to their hearts. Simeon had long believed in the coming Messiah, and God was at that moment rewarding his faith by showing him specifically and unquestionably that the infant Jesus was the Christ.

Simeon’s Song of Praise

The moment Simeon realized that the baby he saw and held was indeed the Lord Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, he launched into one of the most well-known, beloved, and theologically rich songs of praise found in all of Scripture. It certainly marked the most magnificent and joyful moment in his life as he witnessed the fulfillment of God’s promise that he would live to see the Messiah. Simeon’s clear testimony, known liturgically as the Nunc Dimittis (from the opening two words, “now Lord,” of the song’s Latin translation), appears in four short verses: “‘Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace, according to Your word; for my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:29–32).

Simeon’s affirmation that God was letting him depart in peace is simply a Semitic expression that he was then ready to die. He was acknowledging that everything was right for a sovereign God to let him die in peace. And why was that? Because Simeon understood that God is a saving God (1 Tim. 4:10), and that he was seeing the arrival of God’s salvation in the person of Jesus, the Messiah (Luke 1:69; Acts 4:12). His praise flowed because God’s Savior had come and, therefore, God’s salvation had come—and with that great truth a reality, it was then all right for his life to end. Simeon had lived to see what God had promised him.

But Simeon’s testimony did not end with one statement. If he had merely added his voice to that of Zacharias, Mary, and Joseph and confirmed the truth of God’s salvation for His people, it would not have advanced the testimony about Messiah any further. However, Simeon did go further and prophetically declared a truth that was shattering to conventional Israelite belief: “‘For my eyes have seen Your salvation which You have prepared before the face of all peoples, a light to bring revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of Your people Israel’” (Luke 2:30–32).

Simeon’s additional words would have been truly astonishing for most Jews of his day. They believed someone would come as their Messiah, that he would reestablish the Kingdom of Israel, and with that kingdom that he would rule over the infidel Gentile world. But Simeon’s bold declaration said that God brought His Messiah/Savior to earth and prepared His salvation for all peoples without distinction—it is a light of revelation to the Gentiles, as well as being the glory of Israel.

Simeon’s statement was all the more shocking because even the remnant of Israel, those who believed and studied the Old Testament, hated what the term Gentile represented—no belief in the Scripture, desecration of the true and living God, disobedience to the commandment to love God above everything else, and violation of the prohibition against worshiping images of other gods. And as Gentiles became a more distinct group within Jewish society, members of the remnant seemed to resent the Gentiles’ blasphemy and idolatry more and more.

Even the most faithful and righteous of the believing Jews could not imagine that God’s salvation would include people beyond Israel. For example, when the shepherds heard the angels proclaim, “‘For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord’” (Luke 2:11; emphasis added), they assumed the “to you” meant them and other Jews. And when Mary and Joseph heard they were to name their son Jesus (“Yahweh saves”) because He would save His people from their sins, they understood “His people” to mean only Israel.

However, the numerous statements of the prophet Isaiah, uttered centuries earlier, contradicted such thinking. Isaiah 9:1–2 applies to Galilee’s honor at the time of Jesus’ ministry: “Nevertheless the gloom will not be upon her who is distressed, as when at first He lightly esteemed the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, and afterward more heavily oppressed her, by the way of the sea, beyond the Jordan, in Galilee of the Gentiles. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined.” Jesus actually did go to the other side of the Jordan to preach and serve. Those who lived in dark lands (Gentiles) experienced the light of the gospel.

Isaiah 42:6–7 says, “I, the Lord, have called You in righteousness, and will hold Your hand; I will keep You and give You as a covenant to the people, as a light to the Gentiles, to open blind eyes, to bring out prisoners from the prison, those who sit in darkness from the prison house.” The prophet recorded a conversation between the Father and the Son that indicated God would use Christ, working through the nation of Israel, to be a light to the nations. That same expression (or one very similar), with the same meaning, appears four other places in the Book of Isaiah (49:6; 51:4; 52:10; 60:1–3; 45:25; 46:13).

In view of all those prophetic statements, no one should have been shocked at Simeon’s words. He could have had any one of the Isaiah references in mind with his declaration, which demonstrates again that Simeon was a man of God and a capable spokesman to announce the significance of Christ’s birth. In this case the significance is that salvation, brought by Messiah, has been prepared by God to be sufficient for the whole world because He loves the world (Matt. 28:18–20; John 3:16; 1 Tim. 2:1–6;
1 Pet. 3:9).

Parents’s Response to Simeon

As we’ve seen in our study, Joseph and Mary were already full of wonder and amazement concerning the incredible facts and miraculous circumstances attending the birth of Jesus. They realized they were the earthly parents of the Son of God, the Messiah, and the Savior of His people, all of which was beyond their comprehension. Then when they heard Simeon’s statement about the Gentiles, they were astonished anew and reminded afresh that the entire episode was entirely beyond their grasp (Luke 2:33). God had, as it were, placed in Joseph and Mary’s hands a Savior for everyone who believes, Jew and Gentile.

But the euphoria of that realization ended quickly for Mary and Joseph when Simeon concluded his pronouncement with this final, shocking statement: “‘Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against (yes, a sword will pierce through your own soul also), that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’” (vv. 34–35).

Jesus’ parents surely were taken aback when listening to those words, the tone of which they had not heard before. Simeon’s prediction constitutes the first negative note in Luke’s account of Christ’s birth. Until then it had been all a record of divine promises fulfilled and news of God’s salvation that brought a sense of peace, hope, joy, and praise for His glory. But then Jesus’ parents, particularly Mary, had to grapple with thoughts of Israelites falling and rising and a sword piercing Mary’s soul. They certainly were asking themselves what Simeon’s closing words really meant.

Simeon directed his sober forewarning especially to Mary rather than Joseph because he knew Joseph wouldn’t be present for the culmination of Jesus’ ministry. After Jesus’ encounter with the Jewish teachers in the temple when He was twelve, Joseph disappears from the record. (He might have died even before Jesus began His earthly ministry.) But Mary witnessed or heard about all the high moments and low points of her Son’s ministry. And Simeon foresees Mary’s experience according to three categories: separation, opposition, and affliction.

Christ Separates People

First, Simeon knew Mary would endure emotional conflict, pain, and suffering because Jesus would represent a line of demarcation in the lives of all who saw and heard Him. Some would respond positively and rise to the glories of salvation, but others would respond negatively and fall into the despair of eternal judgment.

Simeon was introducing a new concept. Mary and everyone else who heard his words confronted for the first time the new perspective that some—even many—Jews would be lost. Not all of them would rejoice at Messiah’s ministry. Again, Simeon could have drawn his thoughts directly from Isaiah: “‘He [Messiah] will be as a sanctuary, but a stone of stumbling and a rock of offense to both the houses of Israel, as a trap and a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem. And many among them shall stumble; they shall fall and be broken, be snared and taken’” (8:14–15; 28:16; John 1:11; 1 Pet. 2:6–8).

The life and ministry of Jesus Christ would perfectly verify the words of Simeon and the prophets. The whole nation of Israel turned against our Lord, and ultimately the Jewish leaders persuaded the Romans to have Him executed—only a relatively small remnant of Jews received Him and believed unto eternal life. The rest would fall irretrievably over the “stone of stumbling” and “rock of offense.”

Christ Stirs Opposition from People

The division Messiah’s life caused among His people included overt opposition from many. He represented the light and righteousness that the average person hated (John 3:18–20). Eventually, as the Gospels clearly attest, the unbelieving Jews would contest everything Jesus said and did. The opposition began with indifference and progressed to hatred, plotting, insults, mockery, verbal vilification, physical torture, and abuse, and it ended with crucifixion.

It is hard enough for us today to believe that many of the Jews in Jesus’ time opposed Him so sinfully and completely. But Mary, who heretofore had done nothing but rejoice over the arrival of Messiah, had to be feeling shock and sadness over Simeon’s warning. Perhaps it would have been understandable if such future opposition had referred to the Gentiles; but it was unthinkable for her to identify it with the chosen nation of Israel.

But God’s sovereign redemptive purpose was again behind Simeon’s sobering declaration. His words could have wonderfully clarified for believing Jews like Mary the prophecy of Isaiah 53:3, “He [Christ] is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him.”

Mary Experiences Affliction

Simeon’s prophecy then turned from addressing the nations to addressing Mary personally. He said, in effect, that before everything ended, Mary’s role as Jesus’ mother would become very difficult personally. “‘A sword will pierce through your own soul also’” (Luke 2:35).

Because Mary undoubtedly loved Jesus more than any mother ever loved a child, it was extremely hard for her when Jesus had to push her away on the human level. When at age twelve He had to be about His Father’s business in the temple (Luke 2:46–50), it was necessary, in a sense, to push Mary aside. Later, when He was doing His first miracle in Cana (John 2:1–11), Jesus didn’t call her “mother”; He called her “woman” (v. 4). And on another occasion, when Mary came to visit Him with His half brothers (Matt. 12:46–50), He said, “‘Who is My mother and who are My brothers?’ And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, ‘Here are My mother and My brothers! For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother’” (vv. 48–50).

Jesus gently but firmly nudged Mary from merely being His mother to realizing that she needed to depend on Him as her Savior and Lord. And after Jesus was hated, ridiculed, unfairly tried, physically assaulted, and crucified, Mary was standing at the foot of the cross, watching right up to the end of His life (John 19:25). Seeing Jesus suffering on the cross certainly would have rammed a sword through her maternal heart. In addition, Mary’s heart was no doubt pierced through because she, as a believing Jew, had to witness all the unbelieving opposition to Christ pour forth from many of her fellow Israelites.

Mary was an ordinary woman who dealt with enormous strain just being the mother of the Son of God. Her life accurately fulfilled Simeon’s admonition to her as she periodically felt bewildered by Jesus’ words and actions and certainly cut to the heart with emotional pain as she saw His rejection, suffering, and death.

The Revelation Simeon’s Words Predict

Years ago I read about a man who took a friend on a tour of Paris. They went to the Louvre and looked at all the great paintings there. That night they went to a concert hall and heard a wonderful symphony. At the end of the evening, the man asked his friend, “Well, what do you think?” And the friend replied, “I wasn’t all that impressed.”

In response, the man told his friend, “If it’s any consolation to you, the museum and its art were not on trial and neither was the symphony. You were on trial. History has already determined the greatness of these works of art and of this music. All that your attitude reveals is the smallness of your own appreciation.”

Likewise, Jesus isn’t on trial, but every soul is. Simeon declared, “‘This Child … is a sign which will be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’” (Luke 2:34–35). When God prompted Jesus to begin His ministry, many people rallied to oppose Him. That opposition simply revealed the wickedness of people’s hearts. Specifically, it also revealed the apostasy of the Jews’ religion, with all its hypocrisy, self-righteousness, legalism, and shallowness. And that attitude is still prevalent today.

When considering the facts of Christ’s birth, many people think, You know, the baby Jesus was a sweet child. And when He grew up, peace, joy, and happiness followed Him everywhere. Jesus was really a good man, and everyone felt good about Him when He healed the sick and taught interesting parables. That’s the kind of Jesus I want to embrace.

But you must go far beyond that. To embrace Jesus by saving faith and enter His Kingdom, you must allow Him to expose your sin. That means you repent of your evil thoughts and deeds, come to Him for forgiveness, receive His justification, and begin to live a holy life. But if you hate Jesus for exposing your sin and refuse to repent, you’ll die in your sins and go to hell. So Christ’s life was and is a revelation. How people respond reveals the condition of their hearts.

The word Simeon used for “thoughts” in verse 35 connotes negative beliefs. He was indicating that Jesus would reveal the filth of sinful thoughts. Even the Son of God couldn’t have a ministry as He did and still make everyone feel good all the time. As we have seen, He created such hostility that the people killed Him. When one represents and teaches the truth of holiness, as Christ did, he exposes the evil of the human heart.

Some people today, as in Jesus’ time, will fall on their faces, repent, and believe. But many other people today, also as in Jesus’ time, will reject Him and refuse to believe.

In summary, Simeon’s testimony to Christ had far-reaching implications. Above all, it demonstrated the supreme joy of a righteous Jew whom God had allowed to meet the Messiah. The hope of Israel and the world was then realized—even though heartache and difficulty would result during the course of Jesus’ ministry. Salvation had come, and Simeon could die in peace. His task, though brief and contained in a small segment of Scripture, was of great significance. God used Simeon to give a powerful affirmation to the truth that the infant Jesus was the promised Christ.[1]

 

[1] MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2001). God in the manger: the miraculous birth of Christ (pp. 121–135). Nashville, TN: W Pub. Group.

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 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.

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.

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.

Top 20 Best Christmas Songs of All Time

Christmas 10 Best Songs

Christmas songs. Everybody’s got a favorite or two, or ten! I’ve given you my list of the ten worst (and volume 2!). Now, in no particular order (mostly), and according to nothing other than my own preferences, here are my nominations for the ten best Christmas songs ever.

(Note: I do not necessarily endorse all of the songwriters or performers listed below, the churches/organizations they represent, any other songs they may have written or performed, or their theology. If you decide to follow any of these people or groups, check out their theology first to make sure it’s biblical.)

1. Hark the Herald Angels Sing– Ok, so this one is in a particular order. It’s my favorite because of the awesome gospel theology wrapped in ribbons of beautiful wording. Just a few of my favorite phrases:

God and sinners reconciled
Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail th’ incarnate deity
Mild, He lays His glory by, born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth

2. It’s About the Cross– This is my favorite “non-carol” Christmas song. The beginning of the story is wonderful and great, but it’s the ending that can save you and that’s why we celebrate. The incarnation of Christ has always been about the cross and the resurrection.

3. Handel’s Messiah– Yes, I know it’s way more than one song, but, having performed it several times, I can honestly say I love the whole thing. Much of it is Scripture (verbatim) set to some of the best music ever written for a choir. Phenomenal.

4. Glorious Impossible– One of the more recent Christmas songs out there, it’s chock full of allusions to Scripture and the gospel. I think the Gaither Vocal Band does a really nice job on it.

5. Angels We Have Heard on High– It adequately handles the Christmas narrative, but I have to admit, I love this song for the chorus. It has a beautiful, intricately-woven, nearly ethereal sounding harmonic structure, and a simple, yet profound message: “Glory to God in the highest.”

6. Jesus, What a Wonderful Child– Sometimes a great song is packed with good theology, and sometimes a great song expresses one simple idea. Jesus, What a Wonderful Child is one of the latter. If you’ve read the title, you’ve got the main idea. Plus, it’s just a lot of fun!

7. Sweet Little Jesus Boy– I love how this song captures the idea that when Jesus came the first time, “we didn’t know who You were.” And nobody does it like Mahalia Jackson.

8. Christmas Offering– This song draws the parallel between the offerings of the wise men and our offering of worship, the gift our King most desires.

9. Christ is Born– I know, I know, it’s twangy and most people don’t like Southern Gospel music. That’s OK, I do. And you’ve gotta love a Christmas song that starts out with the Fall of Man.

10. Rejoice With Exceeding Great Joy– This is another one that made the list because of the music. The lyrics are a simple retelling of the journey of the magi, but the music just takes you right out to the desert and plops you down on a camel’s back.

What’s your pick for best Christmas song of all time?

Love these 10? Come back on Thursday for
volume 2 of Top 10 Best Christmas Songs of All Time!


Christmas – there’s no other holiday in which music plays such a major role. And what a blessing that so much of the music of Christmas centers around the incarnation of our Savior! At no other time of the year are you likely to turn on a secular radio station or walk into a store and hear songs about Jesus. It’s one of the things that makes Christmas music so special.

You’ve heard my picks for the ten worst Christmas songs (and volume 2!) and my top ten favorites, and you’ve asked for more! So, here, in no particular order, and according to nothing other than my own preferences, is my next round of nominations for the ten best Christmas songs ever.

(Note: I do not necessarily endorse all of the songwriters or performers listed below, the churches/organizations they represent, any other songs they may have written or performed, or their theology. If you decide to follow any of these people or groups, check out their theology first to make sure it’s biblical.)

1.
Joy to the World

As Christians, many things in this life bring us sadness and discouragement: grief over our sin, prodigal children, death of loved ones, persecution, suffering. There is no better antidote to our sorrows than to focus on the joy we have in Christ. This is a beautiful, classical-style rendition of Joy to the World.

2.
Light of the Stable

I love this song’s upbeat focus on Jesus as Light, King, and Savior. I can almost imagine myself in Bethlehem, bowing down before my infant King.

3.
Silent Night

What Christmas music collective would be complete without Silent Night? Does your congregation sing this hymn at your Christmas Eve service or other special worship times? Grace Community Church does, and they sound just lovely.

4.
Come on Ring those Bells

Were you even a Christian in the 80’s if you didn’t have Evie’s Christmas album? This song probably sounds cheesy to younger ears today, but approaching the birth of Christ as “the greatest celebration of them all” definitely has a nice ring to it. (Yes, I went there. :0)

5.
Go Tell

There’s an undeniable evangelism motif in the story of Christ’s birth. Gabriel told Mary about Jesus. The angels told the shepherds the good news. And the shepherds…well they told everyone what they’d witnessed. That’s the theme of this Great Commission toe-tapper: GO. TELL.

6.
O Little Town of Bethlehem

In the eyes of the world, Bethlehem was nothing special. It wasn’t the center of commerce or the seat of governmental power. It was just a little town of no consequence. Until…Jesus. This song, sung so delightfully by these four brothers in Christ, reminds us that Jesus is what makes the ordinary… extraordinary.

7.
Beautiful Star of Bethlehem

In a magnificent use of metaphor, this song casts Jesus Himself as the beautiful “star” of Bethlehem. And indeed, for Believers, Jesus is that “star divine,” lighting and guiding the way “unto the land of perfect day,” when we finally see Him, in all of His glory, face to face.

8.
Ordinary Baby

Jesus was fully God, but sometimes we forget that He was also fully man. And not just fully man, but an ordinary, nondescript man. He was approachable, not elite. Personable, not intimidating. Accessible to kings and paupers alike. The Erwin siblings deliver this simple song with smooth and mellow charm.

9.
We Are the Reason

The tradition of Christmas time gift giving is an homage to the gifts the wise men gave Jesus. But what about the “greatest gift of our lives” that Jesus gave us? He gave all He could give to us: His life, forgiveness of sin, salvation. Avalon handily dusts off this CCM classic and freshens it up for a 21st century audience.

10.
O Holy Night

Christ, the thrill of hope, entered our darkened world on that holy night so long ago. As the soft, plaintive melody gradually swells into a great and glorious crescendo, we are reminded of how long the world pined away in sin and error, punctuated by the resplendent arrival of her Savior and King, much the same way we await His second coming today.

Bonus Nomination: Best Christmas Album

This is largely a nostalgic, rather than theological, nomination. My favorite Christmas record album growing up was Have a Happy Holiday with Lorne Greene. If you appreciate a classic, masculine baritone, you’ll want to grab a copy. (I still have mine!)

In part 1 of the album – The Stories of Christmas – Lorne reads ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and The Gift of the MagiPart 2 – The Songs of Christmas – includes Home for the HolidaysJingle BellsChristmas Is A-Comin’and We Wish You a Merry Christmas. Part 3 – The Holy Night: A Christmas Cantata – (below) is a reading of the birth narrative from the gospels interspersed with various Christmas carols. I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I still do.

What’s your favorite Christmas song of all time?

10 Classic Christmas Hymns to Renew Your Holiday Spirit | Christianity.com

We hope you enjoy these wonderful performances of the best Christmas hymns of all time. Be inspired by the power of music to rejoice and give thanks for our Savior, Jesus Christ!

“Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God.” ~ Colossians 3:16

“Finally, brothers, rejoice. Aim for restoration, comfort one another, agree with one another, live in peace; and the God of love and peace will be with you.” ~ 2 Corinthians 13:11

10 Traditional Christmas Hymns

We hope you enjoy these wonderful performances of the best Christmas hymns of all time. Be inspired by the power of music to rejoice and give thanks for our Savior, Jesus Christ!

10. It Came Upon a Midnight Clear

“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” is a hymn and Christmas carol written by Edmund Sears, pastor of the Unitarian Church in Wayland, Massachusetts. Sears’ lyrics are most regularly set to “Noel,” modified by Arthur Sullivan from an English melody, or to “Carol,” arranged by Richard Storrs Willis. This hymn centers around the theme of angelic singers sharing the message of “Peace on earth, good will to men.” Discover the lyrics and story of this renowned hymn at Godtube.com.

9. O Little Town of Bethlehem

“O Little Town of Bethlehem” is a popular Christmas carol, written by Phillip Brooks in the 19th Century. The lyrics refer to the town of Bethlehem where Jesus was born of Mary. This hymn describes the setting of Christ’s birth and the wondrous gift that would be his life, teachings, and sacrifice.

8. Coventry Carol

The “Coventry Carol” is an English Christmas carol dating from the 16th century. The song originates from an English Christmas play about the Biblestory of Jesus’ birth. Find the lyrics of this hymn plus the background story at Godtube.com.

7. O Come, O Come Emmanuel

“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is a Christian hymn for Advent and Christmas written by John Mason Neale. This glorious hymn calls upon various divine bodies to give wisdom, salvation, victory, and safety among other requests. Listen to a beautiful traditional version of this renowned hymn below:

6. O Come All Ye Faithful

This popular Christmas Hymn harkens to the biblical story of the birth of Christ. It is considered a reference to the shepherds, after hearing the angels singing, coming to Bethlehem to adore their new-born savior. Today this hymn signifies and celebrates our coming together in worship to adore the loving blessing of Jesus, as he sacrificed himself for our salvation.

5. Hark! The Herald Angels Sing

There’s nothing better than hearing a beautiful hymn right around Christmas time. ‘Hark! The Herald Angels Sing’ is an all-time classic and it’s been performed by numerous different artists over the years from a variety of genres. Today, we’re learning more about this powerful Christmas hymn and the story behind its origins. There’s truly nothing like singing these words with all your heart to our Father in Heaven above. Amen!

4. In the Bleak Mid-Winter

“In the Bleak Midwinter” is a popular Christmas carol that was written by Christina Rossetti in the 19th century. Its lyrics poetically describe the birth of Jesus and the scene of His nativity. In verse one, Rossetti describes the physical circumstances of the Incarnation in Bethlehem. In verse two, Rossetti contrasts Christ’s first and second coming. Listen to the popular version by Gustav Holst in the video below:

3. God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen

“God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” is a traditional English Christmas carol. It is also known as “Tidings of Comfort and Joy”, the phrase that ends each stanza of the lyrics. This carol is an affirmation of the birth and salvation in Christ, recounting His nativity event and the love of God. Listen to a beautiful performance of this Christmas hymn by the family band The Petersens below!

2. Silent Night

“Silent Night” is a well-known Christmas hymn with lyrics written by Joseph Mohr in 1816. Inspired by the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth, Mohr wrote this hymn as a celebration of the anticipation of the arrival of the newborn savior. Discover the lyrics and story of “Silent Night” on Godtube.com. We included another great performance by The Petersens for this famous Christmas hymn, enjoy!

1. O Holy Night

There’s truly nothing better than hearing an old-fashioned Christmas song right around the holidays. One of those classic hymns is ‘O Holy Night.’ It brings up such great memories and thoughts of our Savior, Jesus Christ. It was truly a glorious night when Jesus was born. The angels rejoiced and the whole world received their King. God granted us eternal salvation when He sent His Son to die for our sins. Now that I know the story behind this powerful hymn, I’m even more in awe of this song.

Find more popular hymns and carols from Godtube with song lyrics and the stories of the authors.

Photo by Arisa Chattasa on Unsplash

— Read on www.christianity.com/wiki/holidays/classic-christmas-hymns-to-renew-your-holiday-spirit.html

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.

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.