This article is adapted from a talk given to Reformation Fellowship on December 20, 2008.
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At the risk of being trite, I would like to devote my remarks to an examination of the meaning of Christmas. Numerous proposals are out there. At this time of year, we hear them all around: Christmas is the time when we… encourage the spirit of giving… contemplate the possibility of peace on Earth… look back with admiration on the innocence of childhood and the joy of childhood delight… renew our commitment to brotherhood and love for our fellow man… experience the tranquility of the Spirit of Christ in our lives. But none of these proposals have much, if anything, to do with the Christmas event as recorded and explained in the Bible.
To understand the biblical Christmas, we need to go back about four thousand years, when the world was immersed in darkness and ignorance. Knowledge of the Creator was virtually, if not entirely, nonexistent. Yahweh, The One Who Is, had created the cosmos, but virtually no man on earth acknowledged Him as his Creator. No one on earth even possessed the concept of a Creator who transcended reality and was the author of it all. Mankind understood reality and history to be the net result of the petty and infantile desires of gods and goddesses colliding with one another. In the midst of that darkness, God came to a man named Abraham and promised him two things. The most important was a blessing. God promised to bless Abraham—and not just Abraham, personally, but God would bless numerous individuals from all the diverse people groups throughout the whole history of the world. Secondly, concerning Abraham’s own people, those biologically and culturally descended from him, God promised the following: (1) He would give them that particular piece of real estate we know as Israel; (2) He would function as “their god”—causing them to be safe and secure in that promised land and causing them to prosper there; and (3) they would be “His people”—striving to honor Him, obey Him, know Him, love Him, and serve Him.
Throughout human history, God has quietly and invisibly been keeping the first promise He made to Abraham—that is, He has been inviting people, individual by individual, to belong to that set of people who will receive the blessing of Abraham: Life eternal. God’s second promise to Abraham provides the dramatic story line of biblical history.
For three generations, God did nothing concrete toward fulfilling His second promise. He repeated the promise to Abraham’s son Isaac and then again to his grandson Jacob. But other than protect them and increase them in number, God did nothing definitive toward fulfilling His promise for nearly six hundred years. In the meantime, the descendents of Abraham had fallen into a state of hopeless despair. The very people whom God had promised would be a free, prosperous, righteous, secure people in Israel were, in fact, an oppressed, enslaved, miserable, poor, and threatened people in Egypt. It appeared impossible that God’s promise to Abraham could ever come to pass. But then God acted. He acted in a way that made His power and presence as explicit, as overt, and as public as it ever has been in the whole history of the world. With Moses functioning as leader and prophet, God led the people of promise out of captivity in Egypt, freed them from their oppression, and took them into Sinai where He made a covenant with them. In effect, God said to the children of Abraham, “I promised your father Abraham that I would be your god and you would be My people. I am here to keep My promise. Here is what I want you to do in order to be My people. And here is what I promise to do in order to be your god. I’m ready and willing to do My part. Are you ready to take on your part?” This was God’s first concrete action that showed his intent to keep the promise He had made.
Now note that this first step to fulfill His promise to Abraham came six hundred years after the promise. Six hundred years ago, Europe was in the middle of the Middle Ages, Columbus would not sail to the American continent for another eighty-four years, and the Reformation was still more than a hundred years away. That is how long God waited to begin to act on His promise.
As it turns out, while God was willing to keep His part of the bargain, the children of Abraham, generally speaking, were not willing to keep theirs. Accordingly, what God had promised Abraham did not come to pass at that time. On the contrary, what ensued were several generations of idolatry, disobedience, and total disregard for God’s covenant.
Eventually, after another four hundred and fifty years or so, in spite of Israel’s ongoing refusal to be His people, God took steps to keep His side of the bargain. Under a specially chosen king, David, God gave the children of Abraham a semblance of security, a semblance of freedom, and a semblance of prosperity. But this “semblance” was not what God had promised their father Abraham. God was, once again, displaying His ability and willingness to be their god, but Israel was nowhere close to displaying any willingness to be His people.
In the middle of this period of God’s fresh revelation of Himself to His people, He made a very important addition to His previous promise. God promised to embody His rule and authority over Israel in the throne of David. David’s son would be the embodiment of Yahweh’s rule. God had promised their father Abraham that He would be their god and they would be His people. What would it mean for Yahweh to be their god? What would that look like? It would look like Yahweh translating His person, His power, His rule, and His authority into the sovereign rule of a human king who would be the embodiment of Yahweh Himself. Such was the promise that God made to David. It would be David’s son who would embody Yahweh’s rule.
Many sons of David ascended to the throne over the next several generations, but none of them ruled as if they embodied Yahweh’s rule and authority. They were corrupt, wicked, selfish, ordinary kings. As the prophets eventually made clear, God’s promise to David was not going to be realized by any such ordinary, unrighteous sons of David. Rather, there was one, unique son of David yet to come. He and he alone would fulfill God’s promise. Only he was destined to embody God’s own person, power, and authority. All preceding sons of David were mere placeholders—concrete reminders of a yet unfulfilled promise that God had made to His people.
More than four hundred years go by, and Israel remains unwilling to take God seriously. They do not, generally speaking, love Him, obey Him, or serve Him. And, as a consequence, God eventually judges them. He orchestrates history such that they end up in captivity once again—this time, in Babylon. So, about one thousand, four hundred, and forty years after God promised Abraham that his children would be a free, prosperous, righteous, and secure people in Israel, it looked like God’s efforts had been defeated. Instead, Abraham’s children were expelled from the land of promise and were in captivity, under judgment for their unrighteousness. Once again, it looked hopelessly impossible for God’s promise ever to be realized. Furthermore, the promised son of David—the coming Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One, the unique Son of God—was nowhere to be seen.
After seventy years of subjugation to and captivity in Babylon, an insignificant few were granted permission to return to the promised land and begin rebuilding a life of worshipping and serving Yahweh in the land of promise. Then, over five hundred years and several Gentile overlords later, many of the children of Israel were back in the land of promise. But they were completely controlled by and under the rule of Rome.
Even so, the memory of the promise God had made to David over a thousand years earlier was still alive and vivid. A significant number of Abraham’s children in Israel were waiting eagerly for the Coming One, the unique Son of God—that son of David who would finally establish Yahweh’s rule over Israel. And God would establish them safe, secure, and prosperous in the land He had promised, and He would establish righteousness among them.
Just then the Christmas event happens. Christmas was the appearance of the One, the Anointed One, the Messiah. At that first Christmas God brought the unique son of David into existence—the One who would embody God’s rule over His people when God finally kept the promise made to their father Abraham. Jesus was that unique King they were awaiting. Not only will Jesus fulfill God’s promise with regard to Abraham’s physical descendents, but—beyond that—His kingdom and rule will extend into the final age of the cosmos. In the age to come—when the present earth has been destroyed and a new heaven and earth have come to be—Jesus, as the embodiment of Yahweh himself, will rule over all the chosen of God, Jew and Gentile alike, in the eternal kingdom of God.
This, then, is why that first Christmas event was so exciting and so significant: more than two thousand years after God had promised Abraham that He would establish and prosper Abraham’s biological and cultural descendents in the land of Israel and that He would function as their god and they would respond by being His people, God had finally brought into the world the One who was going to bring all of that to pass. Little did they know, when Jesus was born, that more than two thousand years would pass before that child would actually fulfill the promise He was destined to fulfill. But what they did know—and what excited them on that day—is that the One had come into existence. The promised son of David had finally arrived. After more than two thousand years of waiting, God had finally taken the decisive concrete step toward bringing to pass what He had promised.
From a biblical perspective, then, this is the meaning of Christmas: God may be slow to act, but act He will. God’s promises are certain. God will not fail to do what He has said He will do. Heaven and earth will pass away before God fails to keep His promises. More than ten thousand years may pass before God does what He has promised, but do it He will. God will never, ever fail to do just as He said. Christmas is the most important piece of evidence for that.
An interesting irony of history is that Christmas has become an exclusively Gentile holiday even though the biblical Christmas event has even greater relevance for Jews, the sons of Abraham, than it does for Gentiles. The Christmas event is what makes possible that day to come when Jesus will rule as the Son of God, the King, over the children of Abraham in the promised land. This means that the Christmas event has heightened import and more dramatic significance for Jews. Jesus’ import for us Gentiles is His role in the final purposes of God in the age to come. But for the Jews, Jesus is, additionally, the fulfillment of all their expectations for the complex story line of history itself. In spite of all the obstacles, in the face of all the delay and disappointments, history will resolve itself into the promises of God being fulfilled.
When that day comes, at least four thousand years will have passed from the time that God made His promise to Abraham to the time of its fulfillment. For those who still expect God’s promise to come to pass, the length of time separating the promise and its fulfillment will render its fulfillment all the more spectacular and dramatic. After several thousand years, God has remembered His promise and has acted to bring it to pass. Hallelujah!
Does this good news for Jews have any relevance to us Gentiles? Certainly! The same God who made a promise to the Jews about their destiny in history has made a promise to us Gentiles about our destiny in the age to come. The same God who will faithfully keep His promises to the physical children of Abraham can be trusted to faithfully keep His promises to us, the metaphorical children of Abraham. Everything that we believe and everything that we hope in is dependent upon God being faithful to do and to accomplish what He said He would do and accomplish. It is because of the Christmas event—among other things—that we can be certain that God will in fact do what He has said He will do. God is loyal to His word. He may not act quickly, but act He will. He may wait thousands and thousands of years before He does what He said He will do. But however long it takes, it will come to pass.
God has said He will destroy this present universe and create a whole new universe. God has told us not to invest our lives in this one because it is passing away. But thousands and thousands of years have passed, and this present earth is still spinning along. Has God forgotten what He said he would do? Are we fools to trust His word? Should we be seeking to eke out meaning and purpose from this present world after all?
The Christmas event says otherwise. Even if God waits thousands of years more, He will indeed bring an end to this present universe and create a new one in its place, just as He promised. It is only a matter of time.
Our part is to persist in believing, to persevere in expecting God’s promises to come to pass. The one who perseveres in hope, the one who continues to believe and who eagerly awaits God’s will to be done, will receive the blessing promised to Abraham. The one who gets distracted and loses interest in the fulfillment of God’s promise will lose out. The one who believes and who continues to believe will be granted Life in the final age to come. The one who does not persist in believing will be destroyed. The message of Christmas, therefore, is this: for those who persevere in believing in the promise of God, good things will come!
We are in much the same situation as a child three days before Christmas morning. He suffers excruciating pain from having the hardly-can-waits. A wonderful cache of gifts awaits him, but he cannot have them now. He must wait until the appointed time.
That is a picture of us. A wonderful gift of Life in the eternal age awaits us, but we must endure the drudgery and gloom of a mundane week of winter before we can lay hold of the wonderful gift of Life itself. So, like the child who knows that his wait will ultimately pay off, don’t stop wanting it. Life is coming. Keep hoping in that promise. Keep waiting for that blessing. Continue caring whether God will be faithful. The one who stops looking for it has never really cared. The one who loses interest has never really belonged to God. Don’t lose interest. Don’t stop caring. Take care that the fulfillment of God’s promise be the most important preoccupation of your life. Be like those who believed at the time of Jesus’ birth. They received the news of Jesus’ birth as exceedingly GOOD NEWS; for nothing was more important to them than that God’s purposes come to pass.
What, then, is the meaning of Christmas? That good things await those who believe the promises of God and who persevere in hope. So believe and persevere! For God will, in fact, do all that He has said he would do.