I’m glad to still see public displays of the Nativity here and there, even if mostly on church properties. Sometimes however the manger scene itself can become a distraction where it merely turns our attention to some serene ideal of personal peace or feelings of ‘goodwill toward men’. The manger after all only receives a passing mention in Luke’s gospel. Let’s face it, the picture that inhabits our carols and adorns our Christmas cards is pure conjecture. Really it is an ideal scene that we have made up, and that fact should give us pause given our propensity toward idolatry.
Jesus is the point of the story after all. The trappings of a Christian Christmas can indeed ‘trap’ where they take our focus off of Him, even toward ostensibly good things like family, gift giving and kindness. Jesus is the focus of Christmas, and anything that diverts our attention from Him must necessarily be brought into check. As a means of turning your focus upon Jesus then, I suggest you turn your gaze into the manger and consider the truth about the baby who was placed there.
Who Was Jesus?: The Second Person of the Trinity
The apostle Paul writes: “But when the set time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman…” (Gal 4:4) The Bible plainly states that Jesus was God’s Son, but what that truly means often goes misunderstood. For some, Jesus’ divine ‘sonship’ is lumped into the ancient world of mythology which celebrated many ‘sons of the gods’. The Greek myth of Hercules son of Zeus was one example, complete with its own divine conception story. Egyptian kings were also referred to as ‘sons’ of a particular god with their attendant divine begetting mythology. Is Jesus just one more in a long line of ‘divine offspring’ myths?
One huge difference between Jesus’ birth and ancient ‘divine-son’ myths is the glaring absence of any kind of ‘divine-human’ sexual encounter. Ancient ‘divine-son’ birth myths usually involved a detailed description of the god’s sexual exploits in siring an offspring via union with a mortal woman. Sex and lust were associated with pagan gods whose typically male appetites sought out female human objects. Any such notions are entirely absent from Jesus’ birth account. Mary was a virgin and a virgin she remained up and until the time she gave birth to Jesus. There is no hint of any sexual encounter in Jesus’ birth story, just a clear statement to Mary from the messenger Gabriel that Jesus’ birth would be a direct act of God’s power: “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the one to be born will be called the Son of God.” (Luke 2:35)
What really sets Jesus apart from ‘divine sonship’ myths however is his identity as the Son of God. Jesus was no divine-human creature, merely the product of a ‘god’s’ desire for offspring. He was not some mythological ‘half-breed’; one part human and one part divine. Jesus was none other than the eternal second person of the Trinity, fully divine and yet fully human. He was God himself, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and eternal, appearing in the flesh. To quote Paul and the writer of Hebrews:
“The Son is the image of the invisible God…For God was pleased to have all his fulness dwell in him,” (Col. 1:15, 19)
“The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,” (Heb. 1:3)
To put it into plain english, everything that God is, Jesus is.
Here the wonder of the Trinity comes to rest once again, revealing for us the greatest and most profound mystery about God. That God exists as ONE God in THREE Persons is bedrock for Christian faith and essential to understanding Jesus’s uniqueness. Jesus the Son of God has existed as God and is equal in being and nature with God. John calls him ‘the Word’ in his gospel, (cf. John 1) as a means of describing Jesus’ part in the Godhead. “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made…for he spoke, and it came to be;” (Psalm 33:6, 9)
John Calvin helps us in seeing the divine unity and yet personal distinction within the Godhead where he writes: “This is the distinction: the beginning of action is attributed to the Father, who is the fount and source of everything; wisdom, knowledge and planning the action is the Son’s province, while the energy and skill in action is assigned to the Spirit.” (Institutes I.III.13.18.)
The Muslim, Jew, Hindu, Buddhist and even secularist may acknowledge Jesus as the best of men, perhaps even a ‘superman’ worthy of esteem and honour and worth celebrating at Christmas, but the Christian can share no such sentiments. The baby born in that stable whom Mary named ‘Jesus’ was none other than the eternal God of the universe, and as such he is forever God in human flesh, worthy of our worship and devotion.
What Did His Birth Mean?: God Became Flesh
If you fail to grasp who Jesus is then you will fail to grasp what his birth means. For many in our world Jesus’ birth represents nothing more than the best of human sentiments; love, peace, joy, selflessness, goodwill, etc. Jesus surely possessed all of these, but his birth was no mere symbol of them. Symbols possess no content themselves, but merely serve as pointers to something else. Christians therefore must resist the temptation to treat Jesus’ birth as any kind of symbol, but rather to recognize that the meaning of Jesus’ birth is present in Jesus himself. And what is that meaning?
The answer is simply stated in the angel’s announcement to Joseph that Jesus’ birth would fulfill the words of the prophet Isaiah who 500 years earlier had written: “’The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means “God with us.”)” (Matt. 1:23; Isa. 7:14)
“God with us”? Of what use is such a name if Jesus’ birth is a mere symbol? As great a life as Jesus lived; as compassionate and kind as his teaching and actions were, if Jesus was just a man, even a great man who merely brought the message “God with us”, of what use would that have been? Our need after all is not another word ‘about’ God, but God himself.
The apostle Paul both diagnoses our problem and highlights the cure in Jesus when he says: “Once you were alienated from God and were enemies in your minds because of your evil behavior.” (Col. 1:21) Alienation is our living condition due to our sin. Our greatest need is reunification with our heavenly Father. But we cannot accomplish this. As Paul puts it, at our very best we are enemies of God, “hostile” to him (Romans 8:7). Reunion under our own steam is impossible. We cannot come to him. Even worse, we cannot even WANT to come to him. Our only hope is that he would come to us; not symbolically, but actually. This is what Jesus birth means. God has come to us so that we could be restored to him. As the apostle John put it, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14) The birth of Jesus means that God is not distant. He has come close, so very close we he can touch us.
This Christmas we celebrate the event of God’s arrival on earth. He came so that we who were so far from him might come near. As Peter put it: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” (1 Peter 3:18) This is the glory of Jesus, that in coming to him we come to God; not to God’s representative; not to God’s emissary; but to God himself.
I hope that you might find time this Christmas season to consider Jesus afresh. Above all things, Christmas is a time to worship and give thanks that in Jesus the door to God’s presence has been thrown wide open for everyone. As the angels declared to the shepherds, truly this is “good news for all people!” (Luke 2:10)