Category: Incarnation/Christmas

Christmas Continued…(Just add 11 days)

I’ve always found the significance of Christmas too great to confine to celebration on December 25th. So for the past few years I’ve enjoyed celebrating the 12 days of Christmas (personally, with family & via Facebook), by continuing to contemplate some of the themes of Christ’s coming beyond Christmas Day (now Day 1) and into the New Year.

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If you like the idea too and would like to join me (or would simply appreciate a template to adjust to suit your own way of celebrating), here are the themes I’ve designated for each day for reflection and as a launch-pad for Scripture reading and seasonal singing.

2nd Day of Christmas: Celebrating and reflecting upon the 2 natures of Jesus (divine & human)

3rd Day of Christmas: The three gifts brought to Jesus by the Magi and how they show He is worthy to be praised and worshipped by people from all nations.

4th Day of Christmas: Celebrating the divine testimonies we’ve received concerning Jesus, including: the four heavenly harbingers of Christ’s birth (i.e. angel of the Lord to Joseph; angel Gabriel to Mary; angel(s) to the shepherds; star to the Magi); the four enscriptured praises to God in anticipation of/response to His birth (Mary’s Magnificat; Zechariah’s blessing; the angelic Gloria in excelsis Deo & Simeon’s praise to God); and the four gospel accounts of Christ’s life (Matthew, Mark, Luke & John).

5th Day: “Fish Day” Celebrating the names and titles of the Messiah in the acronym ΙΧΘΥΣ (Greek for fish and thus the <>< symbol for Christians).
Ιησοῦς – Jesus (“YHWH saves”)
Χριστός – Christ (“The Anointed One” of God)
Θεοῦ – God’s
Υἱός – Son (with respect to His eternal relationship to the Father and His Davidic Kingship)
Σωτήρ – Saviour (one who rescues or delivers people)

6th Day: Remembering God made the world through Jesus in six days, with humanity being created on the sixth day. Marvelling at the Creator becoming part of His creation.

7th Day: Meditating on the perfect rest and perfect peace that comes through Jesus, because of God’s redemptive work through Him that had it’s beginnings at Xmas.

8th Day: Remembering Jesus was circumcised to mark Him out as a participant in God’s covenant with Abraham – and that He became the fulfiller of all that the covenant entailed.

9th Day: Thinking of Jesus’ role as the Christ – the King (over all Kings) who would fulfill God’s promise to David by sitting on his throne forever and ruling over an everlasting Kingdom. [9 is connected with long-lasting and the monarchy in Chinese culture so I happily adapted the idea].

10th Day: Jesus was born “under the law” (represented in the 10 Commandments) in order that He might redeem those who were under the law, so that they might receive adoption (Gal 4:4-5)

11th – Reconciliation (1&1 joined together) – Jesus was born as part of God’s grand plan to reconcile all things to Himself in Christ (Rom 5:9-1; 2 Cor 5:17-19; Eph 1:7-10; Col 1:19-20)

12th – The cosmic, eschatological significance of Christ’s birth, spoken of allegorically in Revelation 12 (the birth of the child that will shepherd and rule the nations) and leading to the culmination of salvation history in the New Jerusalem (which is represented in the Bible by many 12s cf. Revelation 21-22) – where God and Christ dwell with us in all their fullness as Emmanuel (God-with-us).

I’m sure my list can be improved upon – but I do kind of hope the 12 days of Christmas catches on as a celebration amongst Christians. Because the Incarnation of the Son of God is far better contemplated in a season than on an all-too-short day like today.

The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 2)

(For part 1, please click here).

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
(Matthew 1:18-25, ESV emphasis added).

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We saw in the previous post how the child born to Mary in Bethlehem was given the name “Jesus” because of who He was: Yahweh, the Creator, God of Israel, coming in human flesh to save His people. This shows how Jesus fulfilled and carried on one of the great themes of the Bible: God’s desire to be known and glorified as Saviour.

But what of this other name Matthew introduces? Why Immanuel?
I can’t go much further without acknowledging that vv. 22-23 earn scorn from many unbelieving skeptics and have confused more than a few Christians. How can the apostle be serious about the birth of this child fulfilling the prophecy “they shall call his name Immanuel” when He’s explicitly given a completely different name by His parents?

It’s a valid question and by answering it we’ll not only get an insight into what Matthew intended by quoting Isaiah here, but we’ll also see how Jesus relates to one of the other great themes of the Bible – the greatest promise God gives to His people.

Jesus our Immanuel

In perhaps the most theologically rich portion of any Christmas carol, the second verse of Charles Wesley’s classic Hark the Herald Angels Sing! gives us this pure lyrical gold:

Christ by highest Heav’n adored
Christ the everlasting Lord
Late in time, behold Him come
Offspring of the virgin’s womb

Veil’d in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the Incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with men to dwell
Jesus our Immanuel

Wesley expresses beautifully in this hymn to Christ what Matthew was getting at when he said: All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us).

Jesus’s fulfillment of this prophecy was not a literal bearing of the name Immanuel – i.e. it wasn’t His middle name or something like that (just like “Christ” isn’t His surname!). But names are all about identity, and Jesus certainly did embody the meaning of the name in all its fullness. As the carol puts it, Jesus was the everlasting Lord, adored by all of heaven, who came “late in time” to our world, via the womb of a virgin named Mary.

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When this child was born he was not simply some distant offshoot of the ruling Jewish tribe. He was the fullness of God veiled in an authentic human nature – flesh, blood, skin and bones. He was a baby boy, 100% human and 100% divine, worthy to be worshipped – as the Magi would conclude in the next chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. Or as another famous carol describes Him: “Jesus, Lord at thy birth.” Jesus may never have been called Immanuel by anyone during His earthly life. But millions throughout history have recognised Him as Immanuel – the God who was pleased to dwell as a man amongst the mortal, human creatures of this world.

The Greatest Promise in the Bible

What would you say is the greatest promise God gives His children in the Scriptures? That our sins will be forgiven? That there will be no more pain, suffering or sorrow in the new creation? That we will have eternal life?

All of these are wonderful things and indeed they are each connected to what I’ve become convinced is the greatest promise of all.

Probably the earliest sign of the promise is given by Yahweh to Abraham in Genesis 17:
And I will establish my covenant between me and you and your        
       offspring after you throughout their generations for an everlasting
       covenant, to be God to you and to your offspring after you. And I will
       give to you and to your offspring after you the land of your
       sojournings, all the land of Canaan, for an everlasting possession, and
       I will be their God.” (Genesis 17:7-8, ESV).

It’s even more clear though when He makes a similar promise to the people of Israel in Exodus.
I will take you to be my people, and I will be your God, and you shall
      know that I am the LORD your God, who has brought you out from
      under the burdens of the Egyptians. (Exodus 6:7, ESV).

The promise is carried through the Old Testament by the prophets (e.g. ) and the picture of the New Jerusalem, which the New Testament ends with, is more or less defined by it.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling
      place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his
      people, and God himself will be with them as their God.
(Revelation 21:3, ESV)

Could there be anything better than owning God as our God and having Him own us as His people? That’s the promise given to those He calls and redeems in the Old Testament. God can give nothing greater than Himself and He does just that in becoming their God.

But Revelation suggests there is something even better than having God as our covenant God and belonging to Him as a people. Well sort of…
In the new creation, God will dwell in and amongst His people in a way we’ve never experienced before. He will be with us as our God and we will experience the fullness of this amazing relationship like never before.

Having God as our God will be even more amazing when there is no sin, no idols, no distractions to detract from our ability to enjoy the greatest gift we could possibly receive.

season reason[3]

I’ve seen Christian friends circulating this picture on Facebook this month and the sentiment it expresses is well rehearsed. We’re repeatedly reminded not to only focus on the cute baby in the manger, but the suffering Saviour on the Cross. The refrain could be “At Christmas, always remember Easter.”

But this mentality misses something very important. Christmas is glorious in and of itself. Because the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God is the very real beginning of what we will enjoy for all of eternity. Immanuel – the God who dwelt among men as a man Himself – is the one we will enjoy an incredible relationship with throughout eternity.

In fact, if I might be so bold as to say it, there is a sense in which Easter points to Christmas – a “second Christmas”, the new advent, the greater “feast of Christ”, where instead of a few Jewish shepherds and Eastern astrologers coming to see the newborn King, people from every nation, tribe and tongue will come to feast around the table of the King’s glorious banquet. A big reason “Yahweh saves” us as Jesus, is so we can enjoy Him forever as Immanuel, with our sin completely gone and our mortal bodies changed to experience the fullness of life.

So this Christmas, I encourage you all to ponder and rejoice in the fact that God has promised to be with us as our God and that Jesus coming as Immanuel is the absolute guarantee that this promise will be delivered.
The eternal presence of God will far outshine all the presents of men. If we have this to look forward to because of Jesus, we have something worth celebrating  next week.

[1] Alkelda, “Mini Nativity with Angel and Donkey Nov09” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda, “Wool Felt Nativity 2011″CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[3] Source unknown, included for purposes of critique

The Glory of God in the birth of Christ (Pt. 1)

Matthew’s Gospel 1:18-25 would make a very short and simple Nativity play. No shepherds, no animals, no “wise men” until the next chapter, no glorious angelic host. Just one angel, Mary, Joseph and a baby boy.

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Compared to the depictions of the Christmas story we often see, or even the account of Christ’s birth in Luke 2, this might seem like the “low-key” or “stripped back” version of Christmas. But at the beginning of his Gospel, in these 8 verses, the apostle Matthew recounts for us one of the most momentous events in human history – with only one or two other events ever being comparable to it.

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.  (Matt 1:18-25, ESV).

While the virgin birth is an astonishing event of great importance to our faith and of great controversy in the modern world, it appears to me to be just one component in what is an amazing culmination of the themes of the Bible in the opening of Matthew’s gospel.

The two names associated with the child-born-of-the-virgin are mini-sermons in themselves, announcing the good news to humanity and revealing where all of human history and the biblical story have been leading up to that point. They also point forward and show us where everything in God’s plan is heading. Understanding these names is crucial for knowing who this child was, is and will be and for understanding what God is up to in our world.

An angel of the Lord charges Joseph with the incredible responsibility of naming the Saviour of the world in v. 21. “She [Mary] will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Jesus.

It’s one of the most famous names in world history and the Bible says it will only grow more renowned in the future. But why this name?
The answer is given in the verse. Because he will save His people from their sins. “Jesus” (from the Hebrew Yeshua) means “Yahweh saves” or “Yahweh is my/our salvation.”

This is the name that, as far as I can see, joins the Old and New Testaments perfectly and displays one of the grand themes of Christianity. “Jesus” tells us that Yahweh, Creator of the universe and the covenant God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is coming in human flesh to save His people from their sins.

The Old Testament teaches that Yahweh alone is Saviour (Isaiah 43:11). Jesus doesn’t come along and replace Yahweh as Rescuer of Israel and humanity. Jesus is Saviour precisely because He is Yahweh in human flesh. And so even though the Greek and English versions of the New Testament do not use the divine name but translate it as LORD (probably to reflect Jewish custom), every time Christians call upon, praise or pray in the name of Jesus – they are proclaiming the eternal truth that Yahweh alone is our salvation. Thus, “there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved,”(Acts 4:12) because the eternal God was born into the world as a baby that first Christmas.

Grand theme: God glorified as a merciful, powerful & righteous Saviour

Have you ever wondered why God created the world? Or about why He allowed evil to occur, or spirits, men and women to rebel against Him? These are deep theological and philosophical questions and the most brilliant human or perhaps even angelic minds would fail to grasp the fullness of God’s reasons for His ancient plans, designs and decrees.

But there is something I’ve come to believe in relation to the story and emphasis of Scripture that goes part ways to explaining these questions (though I stress, only part!). It seems to me that although God reveals Himself as many things in Scripture, human history, divine miracles and His Son Jesus (eg; Creator, King, Judge), He seems to have a particular desire to be known by certain people in a special way: as Saviour, Deliverer and Redeemer.

While I think this is seen throughout the Scriptures (especially in the Exodus/Passover narrative, but repeatedly in varying degrees from Genesis through to the prophetic and post-exile literature in the later Old Testament), it is perhaps most clearly displayed in the New Testament’s picture of the return of Jesus. We are told that every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:10-11), but only some will rejoice in His coming as they witness the blessed hope and glorious appearing of our Great God and Saviour Jesus Christ (Titus 2:13).

In a similar vein, while God’s justice and wrath against sin is repeatedly emphasised throughout Scripture and is inescapable despite the current disdain for such a truth, He seems to be intent on being glorified specially for His mercy (without compromising His justness). While passages like Romans 9-11 generate significant debate on issues like predestination and the fate of ethnic Jews in God’s plan, there appears to be a clear thrust in verses like Romans 9:22-24 and 11:30-32 towards the idea that God is ordering human history mysteriously in a way that will best display His mercy to undeserving sinners (which I think goes part ways to explain why the humans He created were permitted to rebel against Him). Romans 15:9 seems to confirm this: the purpose of global mission is so that people from all nations in this fallen world come to glorify God for His mercy.

And so when we retell the story of the child born in Bethlehem, given the wondrous name of Jesus, we are proclaiming something God wants proclaimed from now into eternity. Yahweh, the glorious Saviour, is saving His people from their sins in/through/as Jesus Christ. And when we share the good news of Christmas with our neighbours, we are inviting the peoples of the world to join in glorifying God for His mercy.

Next time – Immanuel.

[1] Alkelda “Mini – Nativity Nov12” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.
[2] Alkelda “Nativity Angel1Sept10” CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 flickr.