This article is adapted from a talk given at Reformation Fellowship on December 20, 2009.
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The author of a book I read suggested that the day most deserving of being celebrated by Christians is Easter, not Christmas. He reasoned that Jesus’ resurrection is the event where God began to redeem fallen reality. However important Christmas might be, Easter—the resurrection—truly represents the good news; Easter marks our salvation, transformation, and liberation—not Christmas.
In a sense, of course, the author made a valid point. The fact that the birth of Jesus has become a more significant celebration than the resurrection of Jesus is a rather curious accident of history. Be that as it may, however, I think the author misunderstood God’s purposes. The resurrection of Jesus (Easter) did not transform, save, or liberate any more than did the birth of Jesus (Christmas). In an important sense, both Christmas and Easter were anti-climactic.
Consider the anti-climactic nature of Christmas. A flurry of events, all marked with the fingerprints of God and the supernatural, were followed by thirty years of empty ordinariness. One day there were angelic visitations, a supernatural virginal conception, heavenly choirs, mysterious wise men from the east, a murderous and paranoid king, a flight by night to Egypt. Then followed thirty years of toil, labor, and ordinary Galilean peasant life. The excitement of a few months and years all died away in the mundane aftermath that ensued. Christmas was anti-climactic.
But was Easter any less anti-climactic? Did anything change on Easter day? Did the resurrection of Jesus transform the world? The author of the book I mentioned earlier says that it did. But I think he is largely wrong. Not entirely wrong, but largely.
The events surrounding the resurrection were exciting, even more exciting than the events surrounding Christmas. Amazing things happened. Astoundingly, Jesus arose from his grave alive, not as a disembodied spirit but as a transformed human being in a transformed body. He appeared to and spoke with numerous people. Then, after several weeks, he was raised into the clouds, never to be seen again in the lifetimes of those who saw him. Afterward, the world went on: wars, rumors of war, famine, pestilence, injustice, unrighteousness. The world continued just as it always had. People continued to be evil, depraved sinners; they continued to be mean, cruel, false, unjust, and hateful. People still died. The created order still groaned under the burden of death, decay, and entropy. Easter had come and gone, and nothing had really changed. When all is said and done, Easter was just as anti-climactic as Christmas.
Jews who believe in a messiah do not believe that Jesus was the Messiah predicted in the Scriptures, and two or three of their reasons pertain to the aftermath of Jesus’ life. Where is the transformation of reality that the Messiah was supposed to bring? Jesus did not change things for the better in the way the prophets describe, they argue. Jesus did not bring about world peace. He did not bring about the whole world’s acknowledging and serving the one and only God. The Jews are right about that, aren’t they? The world has not become a world of righteous obedience to the Creator since the resurrection of Jesus.
The fact of the matter is that the Jesus born on Christmas day is not the Messiah these Jews are looking for; he is not the Messiah the prophets describe. Neither is the Jesus who was raised from the dead on Easter day the Messiah they are looking for; nor is he the Messiah the prophets describe. The Messiah these Jews are looking for—the Messiah that the prophets describe—has not yet come. In that respect, these Jews are absolutely right. We still await the Messiah.
But these Jews are not giving due consideration to something important. They are ignoring the story-like structure to God’s sovereign authorship of history. They are forgetting that the fulfillment of God’s purposes grows, develops, and progresses over time. Step-by-step, stage-by-stage, God develops the story line of His purpose to rescue mankind. Little-by-little, bit-by-bit, God prepares the actors and characters who have roles to play in that story. Jesus is no exception.
What about the baby Jesus in Mary’s arms—was he the Messiah? Yes and no. He was the one destined to one day fill the role given to the Messiah, but he was not yet filling that role. He was a helpless infant, not King of kings and Lord of lords.
What about the twelve-year-old Jesus who earnestly wanted the rabbis to teach him about the Messiah—was he the Messiah? Yes and no. He was the exact individual who would one day identify himself as the Messiah, but he was not playing that role as yet. He was a boy—a boy who still had much to learn.
What about the thirty-something man who began to teach and proclaim the coming of God’s kingdom—was he the Messiah? Yes and no. He was the man who would one day rule over all of creation, but he was not the ruler over all of creation yet. He was the wisest man the world had ever seen—wise enough to be profoundly grieved at the godlessness, immorality, injustice, corruption, and cruelty of God’s creature, man. But he did not yet have the power and authority to do anything about it. He was a man who had his mind set on going to his own death. In obedience to God, his Father, and as an act of God-like love toward the rest of mankind, he freely walked toward his own crucifixion. He saw glory, honor, and authority awaiting him on the other side of death. But they were not his yet. His glory was not yet manifest. His honor was not yet due. Authority did not yet belong to him.
What about the resurrected Jesus—was he the Messiah? Yes and no. He was the very man who, after thirty-plus years, had proved himself qualified to be the Messiah. He was the man whom God “seated at the right hand of the Majesty on high” because he had been obedient even to the point of death on the cross. Having passed the trial of Gethsemane, this man had indeed earned the right to rule over Israel and over mankind and over all of creation. But, even so, he was not exercising his rule over any of it yet. The enemies of mankind and the enemies of existence still held sway in the world. Israel was still ungodly and wayward. The creation was still ruled by futility. The resurrected and ascended Jesus, exalted though he was, had not yet been granted dominion. He had not yet transformed reality, making it wholly and completely righteous and subject to God. He was destined to rule in power; he was qualified to rule in power; he was on the threshold of just such rule. Even so, he did not rule yet. He was destined to transform all things and make all things new, but still, nothing was new yet.
Over two thousand years have passed since Jesus was resurrected, and still God waits. Though Jesus is fully qualified to impose His will on reality, He waits. All things continue as they always have—subject to evil, futility, darkness, and death. That is the reality we live in.
So, have we made a mistake? As many contemporary Jews suggest, should we conclude that Jesus is not the Messiah after all? The Messiah is supposed to make all things new. All things are not new. Therefore, the Messiah has not yet come. Accordingly, Jesus is not the Messiah. This is a simple and straightforward argument, but it is false.
The fact that God’s promises have not yet been realized does not mean that their realization is not already underway. That is the lesson we learn over and over and over again in Scripture. God is faithful to keep His word, no matter how many thousands of years He waits to do what He promised. God is not “slow about His promise, as some count slowness.” In other words, if God delays in fulfilling what He has promised, it is not because He is unfaithful or fickle or faltering with respect to His promise. It is because He fulfills His promises in His own time, according to His purposes. That is why “with the Lord, one day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years is like one day.” Whether God delays a day or a thousand years is all the same with Him. He is right on schedule, scripting reality exactly as He wants it, exactly in accord with His purposes. Jesus may not be exercising dominion over all of reality, setting everything aright; but that does not mean he is not the Messiah. We may not yet see all things subject to Jesus, but that does not mean that he is not crowned with glory and honor. Indeed he is. And it is only a matter of time—a matter of God’s time—that the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Master of the whole universe, will be granted dominion over all of reality; all things will be made subject to him, and all of his enemies will be made a footstool for his feet. And who is this man to whom all of reality will be made subject? It is the man Jesus—the one who was born in Bethlehem over two thousand years ago on that first Christmas day.
Christmas was not the dramatic, transformative event that Easter was. It was the relatively quiet beginning of the Messiah. But it was his beginning. The baby born Christmas day was the man who would be King, the man who would be King over all of creation forever. That is the day we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas: the day this King was born. Once this King had been born, it was just a matter of time. It is still just a matter of time—no matter how much time it takes—until all the promises attached to the Messiah’s rule will be realized in Jesus.
So Christmas is important because it was the beginning of an inexorable march toward a new heavens and a new earth where there will be no more death, evil, or futility. A new heavens and a new earth where life and freedom and flourishing will be ours forever. So Christmas means that we can live and endure the present darkness expectantly, patiently waiting until all things are made subject to Jesus’ rule and everything is set right once and for all. Christmas is well worth celebrating. And the cry of our hearts elicited by Christmas is Maranatha! Lord, come quickly!