Tim Dunkin As our increasingly secularized society comes unmoored from its Christian foundations, one of the most noticeable changes around this time of year has been the shift in how and why we celebrate Christmas (if we're even allowed to call it that anymore). Many Americans lament the increased attacks on the religious nature of the holiday itself, often perpetrated by radical groups like the ACLU or People for the (un)American Way, who seek to force the spiritual underpinnings of Christmas out into the cold, leaving behind a shell of "winter holidays" that encompass everything while encompassing nothing at all. But, even among those who don't want to unanchor Christmas from Christ, there has been a subtle change over the past several decades. Santa has replaced Jesus; the "magic" of the "Christmas spirit" has taken the place of the glory of the Messiah's birth; the miracle in Bethlehem so long ago has yielded to the Miracle on 34th Street. Commercialism and an emphasis on materialism now enjoys a centrality where the Incarnation of our Lord and Saviour once held sway, even in the practice of many who would decry the overt atheistic attempts to suppress Christmas. Even something as subtly sentimental as the warmth of friends and family still somewhat misses the point, however inoffensive it may be in and of itself.
With so many conflicting ideas about Christmas, what can we do to recover what Christmas is really all about? We have to return to the Word of God, seeking out the glory and wonder of the Saviour who humbled Himself to become like one of us, yet without sin. Christmas is about nothing less than the greatest gift of grace that God ever gave to the race of humanity who was so sorely in need of that grace and mercy.
The Prophecy of His Coming
Jesus Christ was nothing less than the very Son of God, the Messiah who was promised to the nation of Israel as their deliverer, and who would turn the Gentiles, the nations of the earth, to Himself.
"I the LORD have called thee in righteousness, and will hold thine hand, and will keep thee, and give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles, to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison house." (Isaiah 42:6-7)
"And he said, It is a light thing that thou shouldest be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob, and to restore the preserved of Israel: I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth." (Isaiah 49:6)
Jesus the Messiah was foretold by the prophets in the Hebrew scriptures, a unique set of prophecies fulfilled by one Man only.
Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be born of a virgin,
"Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14)
This virgin birth (and it did indeed foretell a birth from a virgin, not just a "young woman") was a miraculous sign denoting One who was unlike any other person ever born of woman." This special One was specifically said to be "Immanuel," a name meaning "God with us" in Hebrew, denoting that He was no mere human being, but one who was yet at the same time God - God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us,
"And the Word was made 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)
Isaiah also prophesied about the nature and name of this promised One elsewhere,
"For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." (Isaiah 9:6)
This child given would nevertheless be God's ordained ruler, the prince who would one day establish peace over all the earth, and who would Himself be "the mighty God" and have the same nature and being as "the everlasting Father." He would be co-equal with God the Father, as God the Son, itself a foreshadowing of the doctrine of the Trinity to be revealed more fully in the Greek scriptures,
"For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." (I John 5:7, which despite what you may have heard, is as much the Word of God as any of the rest of it)
The Messiah was to be born in the city of David, Bethlehem, just as the Greek scriptures record that Jesus was,
"But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel; whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting." (Micah 5:2)
Again, this ruler coming from the city of David yet was from everlasting, a phrase which (despite many attempts at naysaying) means exactly what it sounds like it means - the Messiah was born in Bethlehem, yet was eternally pre-existent as God. Jesus was nothing less than Jehovah God taking on human flesh, yet without sin, to serve as the intercessor and sacrifice for us.
The Purpose of His Coming
Jesus the Christ did not come to earth merely to live a good life, to be a good teacher, or to set a good example. Indeed, He came to earth so that He would serve as the sinless sacrifice for the sins of the people of the whole earth. Isaiah foretold the suffering of the Messiah as He bore the sins of the people upon Himself,
"Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all." (Isaiah 53:4-6)
Despite attempts to reinterpret them apart from their plain meaning, these verses (and indeed, the entire chapter of Isaiah 53) are not speaking about the nation of Israel, but of the Messiah who would come to save Israel. Clearly, the Messiah was bearing the punishment for our transgressions.
Through His punishment, we are brought to a place of peace with God ("the chastisement of our peace"), and through what He endured, we can be healed of the terrible disease of sin that afflicts each and every one of us.
The Bible tells us that ALL are sinners,
"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God." (Romans 3:23)
"For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not." (Ecclesiastes 7:20)
Every single one of us who has ever been or will be born has a sin nature that leads us to naturally want to disobey God's law and displease Him through our own self-will and disregard for God and other human beings. To see the truth of this in the world around us, we need only watch the news - it is full of people acting selfishly and wrongly, hurting others as well as themselves. People like Adam Lanza do what they do, not because of guns, but because of the sin nature that is within them. But - each of us has the same sin nature. Each of us has the same propensity to selfishness, hatred, vice, and evil. Every single one of us not only has this inward propensity to sin, but is sinner in practice, as well. Every single one of us - no exceptions.
"If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us." (I John 1:10)
The very act of denying our sin is itself a lie and an affront to the living, holy God. If you have ever told a "little white lie," you've sinned. If you've ever looked at another person lustfully, or envied another person's success, or desired to have something someone else has - you've sinned. ALL have sinned.
Sin has a terrible penalty - death for eternity in a very real place called hell. Death is the due penalty for sin,
"For the wages of sin is death..." (Romans 6:23a)
This punishment of death entirely just, for when we sin, we transgress against the goodness and mercy of a God who is completely holy, who cannot allow sin to enter into His presence in heaven.
Jesus warned about hell more than anyone else in the Bible - because He did not want anyone to have to go there. He came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10), so He warned His listeners about the place where "the worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched" (Mark 9:44, 46, 48)
This was the purpose of Jesus' coming - to save any who would trust on Him to the saving of their souls, delivering them from the just punishment for their sin by taking their place in death. Jesus truly was God's gift of eternal life, given to provide the means to reconcile the sinfulness of man with the holiness of God - given by a just yet merciful God who can't simply "sweep sin under the rug," yet who desires for us to be reconciled to Himself so that we may have eternal fellowship with Him.
Sin was the problem Jesus addressed. The Pharisees and Jewish religious leaders of His day misunderstood the purpose of His ministry - they thought the Messiah was supposed wage a political war to deliver Israel from the Romans. Jesus said that His purpose was to deliver from sin,
"Jesus answered them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin. And the servant abideth not in the house for ever: but the Son abideth ever. If the Son therefore shall make you free, ye shall be free indeed." (John 8:34-36)
The Power of His Coming to Save
Friend, if you have never been born again, then you still need to be delivered from the condemnation for your sins against a holy God. Jesus told a religious man that his religion wasn't good enough - he had to be born again,
"Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God." (John 3:3)
Religion cannot save. Doing good works cannot save. Baptism cannot save. Confirmation cannot save. Being a "good person" cannot save. None of these things can earn you any merit in the sight of the perfectly holy God.
"But we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away." (Isaiah 64:6)
"Not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to his mercy he saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost." (Titus 3:5)
Indeed, no matter how relatively good your life may be compared to others, if you have sinned even once in your life (and ALL have sinned, remember), you are guilty before God, and liable for that eternal penalty of death,
"For whosoever shall keep the whole law, and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all." (James 2:10)
Jesus Christ came to earth to save you from that penalty. Earlier, we saw that the wages of sin is death,
"... but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." (Romans 6:23b)
He came so that He might die on the cross of Calvary, taking the penalty of death upon Himself. For all who are willing to repent and believe on the Lord, you can be delivered from the condemnation before God and be given the righteousness of Christ, God's own Son. When a person trusts and believes on Christ, that person is cleansed of the guilt of their sin before God, and is imputed (reckoned up, given, considered to have) the righteousness of Christ Himself. That person is no longer condemned, but is now freed from their guilt before God, and is given eternal life.
"There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit." (Romans 8:1)
"And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, hath he quickened together with him, having forgiven you all trespasses; blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to his cross..." (Colossians 2:13-14)
Salvation from sin and restoration to God the Father through His Son Jesus Christ is really very simple. One must first be willing to repent of their sin, that is, to turn from it and to turn to God, desiring to live for Him by faith instead,
"Repent ye therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be blotted out, when the times of refreshing shall come from the presence of the Lord." (Acts 3:19)
Without repentance, without the desire and willingness to turn away from the sins that separate you from God, no person can be saved. repentance is an integral part of faith - without it, there is no genuine faith being exercised. The willing soul must then call upon God for salvation, praying to Him to confess their sin to Him and asking Him to deliver them from the power and condemnation of sin, crying out to Him for forgiveness and restoration,
"That if thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised him from the dead, thou shalt be saved. For with the heart man believeth unto righteousness; and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation...For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved." (Romans 10:9-10, 13)
Simply put, to be saved, to be restored to a place of rightness before God, to be able to enter into His presence in heaven for all eternity, you cannot be self-righteous. You must instead humble yourself before the living, holy God and cry out to Him - He will give you His own righteousness, as Abraham received when he put his faith and trust in the LORD,
"And therefore it was imputed to him for righteousness. Now it was not written for his sake alone, that it was imputed to him; But for us also, to whom it shall be imputed, if we believe on him that raised up Jesus our Lord from the dead; Who was delivered for our offences, and was raised again for our justification." (Romans 4:22-25)
God can and will change you and make you a new person,
"Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new." (II Corinthians 5:17)
The process of sanctification (progressively being separated and set apart for God's service) will begin in your life, and you will be made more like the Saviour! This is not done through the power of the flesh, simply by keeping rituals or religious observances, but by walking God day by day, praying, reading His Word, and submitting your life in every area to Him so that HE will change you.
THIS, ultimately, is the meaning of Christmas, because it is the culmination of why Jesus Christ came in the flesh, as the eternal plan of God had decreed (I Peter 1:18-21) from before the foundation of the world. Jesus Christ our Creator and our Saviour came to earth to become like one of us, yet without sin, so that He might suffer the death that each of us deserves, but which God sent Him to free us from,
"But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels for the suffering of death, crowned with glory and honour; that he by the grace of God should taste death for every man." (Hebrews 2:9)
He willingly took this humility - becoming like one of us, enduring the hardships of the human condition, ultimately dying a slave's death on a Roman cross - for each and every one of us.
Christmas is about this greatest gift - more precious than any piece of clothing or electronic doodad that we might unwrap on Christmas morning. Won't you accept this gift, being freed from guilt and heartache, given liberty to live for God and be in fellowship with Him, from now into eternity?