“A COMPLETE CHRISTMAS”
(I Timothy 3:16)
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh.”
The daily newspaper of Sunday, December 21, 1997, carried a magnificent Gospel message in Johnny Hart’s “B. C.” comic strip. By his personal testimony and the public testimony he incorporates often into his comic strips, it is apparent that Johnny Hart knows Something Awfully Big—in fact, it is evident that he knows it (Him) well! The comic strip was built around this poem:
“It seems to me that since the ‘Fall’ — without even thinking it odd,
That man has had no trouble at all, Believing that he can be God.
How he would do this I cannot conceive, Tho’ he certainly thinks he can;
And yet, he cannot bring himself to believe, That God can become . . . a man.”
Does Johnny Hart know The Story — or what?
Let’s “try on” a poetic presentation that may have more theological clout, but not more profundity. This poem was written by an Englishman named H. R. Bramley.
“A babe on the breast of a maiden He lies, Yet sits with the Father enthroned in the skies;
Their faces from Him the Seraphim hide, Yet Joseph stands unafraid by His side.
O wonder of wonders, what more can unfold? The Ancient of Days is but a few hours old;
The Maker of all things is made of the earth; Man is worshiped by angels, and God comes to birth. The Word in the bliss of the Godhead remains, Yet in flesh he suffers the keenest of pains;
He is what He was and forever shall be, But became what He was not for you and for me.”
One little boy got thoroughly confused as he was reciting the Lord’s Prayer in a candlelight Christmas Eve service. When he came to the “trespasses” part, he said, “And forgive us our Christmases as we forgive those who Christmas against us!” Everywhere we see figures of Santa and his reindeer, striped candy, mistletoe, holly wreaths, and sparkling lights—in most places, we see everything but Jesus. We would be wise to pray, “Lord, forgive us for our kind of Christmas, and move us again to Your kind of Christmas!”
But what is God’s kind of Christmas? Pastor Stephen Crotts was right when he said, “Christmas was actually a 33-year event.” Christian author and educator T. S. Rendall wrote, “In reading a biography we never stop after having read about the birth and early years. We keep on until we have read the entire account of the subject’s life.” However, many people today celebrate the season and the sentimentality of Christmas and totally disregard “the rest of the story.” In the early church, they magnified the rest of the story (the life, death, resurrection, ascension, etc.)—and didn’t even celebrate Christmas at all! In fact, the celebration of Christmas apparently did not begin until sometime in the fourth century after Christ. So what is God’s kind of Christmas? What is this “33-year event”?
I. A BABY IN A CRIB
First, the story of Christmas is the story of a Baby in a crib. At Bethlehem, God dropped an anchor squarely in the middle of the mainstream of history. A baby in a crib, and wonder of wonders, the Baby was God! At Bethlehem, He who made man was made man! Here was the greatest case of planned parenthood the world has ever seen! In fact, Jesus was the only person in history who could plan His own birth. But then after an eternity of planning, He was still only born in a barn, in a despised out-of-the-way country. Was it a case of poor planning—or did He know something we don’t know? The truth is that God is at home in barns and despised places—provided they will accommodate Him! It is not that He has a prejudice against palaces, but people in palaces usually do not want Him.
The shepherds were only “on their way to Bethlehem” for several hours, and the wise men for several months, but Jesus had been “on the way to Bethlehem” for all eternity! When Adam sinned in the Garden, Jesus had already “packed His bags” for Bethlehem. On that “holy night,” when “God reduced Himself to the span of a woman’s womb,” God came to where we were, that He might finally take us to where He is. The newborn Babe of Bethlehem was the everlasting God come “down from His glory.” This Infant “with no language but a cry” was the Eternal Word Who spoke the worlds out of the womb of nothing. The tiny arms of this helpless Child were the limbs of Him who laid the timbers of the universe. In the crib, the Most High became the Most Nigh, the Infinite became the Intimate. In face, the Limitlessly Infinite became the Locally Definite. God built a bridge across the deep, wide chasm of sin and came to us. He came to us because we could not go to Him. Why did He come? “To bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18). But before He could bring us to God, another dimension had to be added to the story.
“Sing lullaby! Hush, do not wake the Infant King.
Soon comes the cross, the nails, the piercing.
Then in the grave at last repining. Sing lullaby!”
II. A MAN ON A CROSS
Second, the complete Christmas story is the story of a man on a cross. A biography doesn’t stop with the birth and early life of its subject. In fact, when it’s time to honor historical figures who have a day set aside for them on our calendar, we don’t think about them as babies. We don’t keep pictures of cuddly little Abe Lincoln in the log cabin where he was born in Kentucky. In the story of Jesus, also, we must continue reading until we have finished the entire account. With Jesus, the “rest of the story” is the Best of the story. The Virgin Birth was the first historical step toward the Cross. In fact, one theologian phrased the combination of His Birth and His Death in this graphic sentence: “Theologically and spiritually, it is as if Jesus was born in a tomb.” Just as Bethlehem, the place of His Birth, and Jerusalem, the place of His Death, are less than ten miles apart, so His Birth and His Death are very closely connected.
Charles Dickens illustrated the truth of Christ’s death for men and their sins when he allowed Sydney Carton to die in the place of Charles Darnay in A Tale of Two Cities. All the sympathy in the world could not have kept Darnay from the guillotine once the revolutionaries had marked him for death. His only way out was through the death of a substitute. Even so, Christ died as a substitute for sinners!
When Jesus was born, He came into fallen humanity, cursed by sin, and though He was personally free of both the sin and the curse, He took both the sin and the curse upon Himself, and passed down into death itself. We cannot now properly celebrate Christmas without realizing the Cross in the midst of it all.
Jesus not only came to us; He also came for us. The word “for” must be translated carefully here. It is a word of sympathy—Jesus is for me (John 3:18). But it is also a word of substitution. Jesus died, “the just in place of the unjust, that He might bring us to God” (I Peter 3:18).
This peculiar and poignant story will illustrate the part that Christ’s Person and Sacrifice had in covering man’s sin. An eight-year-old boy was in class, taking a test. He was so nervous and distraught over the possibility of not completing the test on time and not making a passing grade that he suddenly and uncontrollably wet his pants. He was wearing dark trousers, and he hoped that the evidence of his mishap would not be seen. However, when he looked down at the floor, he saw a telltale puddle beneath his feet. Already sick with panic, he looked up in time to see the teacher moving down the aisle toward him. What could he do? Everybody will see, everybody will laugh, and I will never recover, he thought.
What the boy didn’t know was that at that very moment one of his classmates, a little girl who sat behind him in class, was coming up the aisle from behind him, carrying the large goldfish bowl which she had just taken from the classroom window sill. When she got alongside his seat, she suddenly tripped and dropped the heavy bowl. It shattered on the floor with a loud crash and sent water, broken glass, and the fish flying everywhere across the floor. Some of the water even splashed up on the boy’s legs. He was rescued! With the evidence of his problem now covered by the water of the fish bowl, the boy experienced a rush of relief (forgive the pun; you could call it a second relief). Thank God! What a wonderful gift! My problem is covered!
But then it dawned on him that boys were not even supposed to like little girls. So he looked at her and sternly said, “What’s wrong with you? Can’t you hold onto anything? Can’t you watch where you are going?” The boys laughed at the girl, the boy recovered his dignity, and the teacher took him to the gym to get him some dry clothes to wear.
At lunchtime, no one sat with the little girl. Even her friends avoided her at recess. In the unforgiving society of elementary school, she was suddenly without companions, though she was normally a very popular girl.
When the school day was over and the students were walking away from school, the boy walked out the door and saw the little girl, walking alone toward her home. He thought back over the episode in the classroom that day and suddenly, on an impulse, he walked over to her. He said to her, “You know, I’ve been thinking of what happened during the test today. What you did wasn’t an accident, was it? You did that on purpose, didn’t you?”
She answered quietly, “Yes, I did do it on purpose. I knew what . . . what had happened to you. You see, I wet my pants once, too.”
What a great Gospel illustration! Every one of us had “wet his pants” in a big, bad way. The stain, and shame, and humiliation of our sin is real, and if it has not yet been fully seen, it will one day be exposed. But Jesus Christ has covered for us (the exact meaning of kaphar, the Old Testament word for atonement)! He shed His blood, He poured out His blood for you and for me (the girl did not merely “spill” the water; her act was intentional), with the intent of covering our sins, their stains, and the shame and humiliation of them. He took all of our blame and all of our shame upon Himself. And He fully, finally, freely and forever covered us and our sins. Now I am clean! He saw my hopeless situation and rescued me. He has given me dignity and hope and a brand new start. Hallelujah, what a Savior!
An old Appalachian Gospel folk song says,
“I wonder as I wander out under the sky, Why Jesus the Savior came forth to die,
For poor ornery sinners like you and like I. I wonder as I wander out under the sky.”
As sinners, we needed more than His company, His example, His sympathy, or His teaching. So “He was delivered over to death for our sins” (Romans 4:25). As a result of His Full Settlement for our sins at Calvary, the holy and just law of God is satisfied, God Himself is propitiated, and I am free to be received into fellowship with my Heavenly Father. What a Gospel! But before it is a full Gospel, still another dimension must be added to the story.
III. A BODY IN A TOMB
Third, the complete Christmas story is the story of a body in a tomb. Here again, we are dealing with the solid stuff of history. The resurrection is no illusion produced by wishful people. It stands concretely in the domain of definite objective reality. Anyone with uncertainties should avail himself of one of the great books on the historical occurrence of the resurrection (and there are many such books) and see for himself. I have read dozens of such books over the years. I have just read John Ankerberg’s book, Knowing the Truth About the Resurrection, which I would highly recommend to any seeker.
In spite of the overwhelming evidence for the resurrection of Christ, human flesh has strained to the limit to try to argue another explanation for the disappearance of the body from the tomb on the morning of the resurrection. One such “explanation” is the “swoon” theory of the resurrection. A story will help us see both the theory and the fallacy of it. A college student had just returned to school from the Easter break. She approached a much-loved Bible professor with this question: “The preacher at the church I attended while I was at home said that on the first Good Friday, Jesus really just swooned on the cross and the disciples revived him and nursed him back to health. What do you think?” The wise professor, tongue in cheek, replied, “Next time you go home, look up that preacher and give him thirty-nine lashes with a cat-o’-nine-tails. After that, make him lie down on a cross and nail him to it. When he is securely fastened, raise the cross with him on it and drop the bottom of its main beam into a deep hole. Leave him hanging out there in the afternoon sun for several hours. Along the way, run a spear through his heart, and when he looks dead, embalm his body and place it in a musty, damp tomb for a couple of days and see what happens!” ’Nuff said about that “explanation”! And all the others are equally ridiculous.
There are really only three possibilities in explaining the Empty Tomb. The first possibility is that Jesus’ foes took the body. Even the slightest investigation will show how ridiculous this view is. All that would have been necessary to destroy any possibility of a Christian movement would have been for them to produce the body, but they did not do so because they could not do so. The second possibility is that His friends took the body. Only an ignorant person would take such a view seriously. Read the story for yourself in the Gospels and then ask the question, “In their demoralized state, and with the maximum security guard that stood at the tomb, could they have removed the body?” And if they could have, why would they? Most of the Apostles of Jesus were martyred for their faith. Now, men will lie in order to avoid death, but they will not die for a lie. The only other possibility is that His Father “disposed” of the body by raising Him bodily to life again. Certainly it involves a miracle, but it is even logically the only viable and reasonable explanation of what happened. Any open-minded reader of the Gospel accounts, considering all the evidence, would be forced to a positive conclusion about the resurrection of Christ. And theologically, it was an absolute necessity. If Jesus’ body had remained in the grave, the transaction necessary for our salvation would have remained incomplete. A dead Savior is no Savior. It is the resurrection that shows God’s acceptance of Jesus’ payment for our sins, and it is the resurrection that demonstrates Him to be the “Son of God with power” (Romans 1:4). He was “raised again for our justification” (Romans 4:25).
Long ago, when the Pharaoh of Egypt exalted Joseph to be next to him on the throne he made him the source of life itself to all the people. No one could even eat without Joseph’s permission. In fact, the issue of life and death rested entirely in Joseph’s hands. Even so, Jesus is now in full authority over all matters in heaven and on earth (Matthew 28:18). If I want to live spiritually, Jesus is the only Bread of Life. If I ignore Him, I will starve my own soul forever. The destiny of every human being lies in Jesus’ sovereign hands. In the old story, Joseph not only saved his brothers from death, he also was the means of their being kept alive and on good terms with Pharaoh. He became their companion and sponsor. Even so, Jesus is with us as our Companion and Sponsor, as His Christmas name, IMMANUEL, tells us (Matthew 1:23). Through His Death, He became our Savior. Through His Resurrection, He became our Sponsor. What a Gospel!
IV. A KING ON A THRONE
Finally, the complete Christmas message is the story of a king on a throne. After His Death, Jesus was buried, and then He rose again from the dead. Then, He ascended to Heaven and today, He occupies a place of sovereignty at God’s right hand. Both at the beginning and the end of His earthly life, Jesus was proclaimed to be a King. “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?” the wise men asked. “This is the King of the Jews,” read the inscription which Pilate placed over Jesus’ head on the cross. He didn’t look like a King on either occasion, but those who surrendered to His sovereignty at His Birth and at His Death discovered that He is “King of Kings,” and that He will share His reign with those who trust Him. In fact, twice during His public ministry, He was offered a crown—once by Satan during the temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4), and once by the people when they tried to make Him a monarch by force (John 6). However, if His innate royalty became somewhat apparent even in the days of His flesh, when He was subject to the limitations incident to His Incarnation and when He deliberately hid Himself (“veiled in flesh the Godhead see,” our Christmas carol says), how much more evident it must have been when, having laid those inhibiting restrictions aside, He ascended into Heaven and sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high.
When Prince William of England was born on June 21, 1981, the London Telegraph published a 32-line ode to the baby. Any American might be able to pray a part of this prayer this Christmas, since we have recently suffered through our own national “day of horror.” Simply replace the word “politicians” with the word “terrorists,” and replace the word “British” with the word “universal,” and you have the Message. Time magazine printed the following selected lines from the ode to Prince William on July 5, 1981.
“O God, Who was Thyself a Child, But scorned among Thine own,
Who was declared the highest King, But had no earthly throne —
Save us from politicians Whose tricks our state would cast down
And bless the baby who is born To wear the British crown.”
Whether Prince William will ever wear the British crown is still in question, but Jesus was “the Man who was born King.”
You will pardon another illustration from royal British history. When Queen Elizabeth of England was still a little girl, her royal parents held a party for a large number of British dignitaries at Buckingham Palace. It was their intention to host the party in the gardens of the Palace grounds, but a heavy rainstorm on the day of the party forced a change of plans. The party was moved indoors into a large room of the Palace. During the party, Elizabeth and her younger sister happened into the room where the party was held. They immediately became the center of attention. After awhile, the questions, answers, and polite conversation subsided. At that moment, Elizabeth saw a painting of the crucifixion of Jesus on a wall near where she was standing. She pointed toward the painting and remarked, “ My papa says that’s the man who is really king.”
One author wrote, “The immense step from the Babe at Bethlehem to the living, reigning, triumphant Lord Jesus, returning to earth for His own people—that is the glorious truth proclaimed throughout Scripture.” The return of Christ is a colossal distance from the Bethlehem manger, but it may be mere seconds away from us. The clouds may break at any moment and Christ will reappear. So the Christmas hymn is true, “Bethlehem’s manger cradled a King.”
Jesus is already on the throne today, waiting for His enemies to be made His footstool (Hebrews 1:13). The One whose head was wreathed in a crown of thorns then is now wearing the diadem of sovereignty and glory. Every day, in a practical way, I prove that without His total reign in my life, I am in total ruin. But what a joy when my daily biography is written as another happy episode of “The King and I”!
He went from the communion of Heaven to a crib in a cattle stall in Bethlehem. Then He went from the crib to the cross. Then from the cross to the crypt. Then from the crypt to the crown. Crib, Cross, Crypt, and Crown. These ingredients, properly mixed, constitute a complete Christmas. I hope you stop to adore Him at each one of these places in the next few days. I hope you celebrate a complete Christmas with Christ at the very heart of the celebration.
Perhaps someone is reading these lines who has never received Christ and trusted Him for salvation from sin and for the gift of eternal life. What must you do? Simply and honestly confess your sins directly to God, the One against Whom you have sinned. Remember that Jesus loves you personally and died personally for You. Remember, too, that He “was raised from the dead for your justification (for your salvation)” (Romans 4:25). Remember, too, that He said that if you would trust Him and receive Him into your heart, He would save you, forgive your sins, give you the gift of eternal life, and live in you all the way to His home in Heaven. I join with the Holy Spirit in urging you to trust Jesus today. If you do, this Christmas will be your first real one.