“The joyful news of the birth of Christ is this restoration of man to his original calling with the assurance of victory.”
—Rousas J. Rushdoony, The Institutes of Biblical Law (1973)
“He comes to make His blessings flow / far as the curse is found.”
—Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World” (1719)
The First Christmas
Jesus of Nazareth was born about 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, a small Judean village six miles south of Jerusalem. At the time, Caesar Augustus was the emperor of the Roman world. The king of Judea itself was Herod the Great, a master politician … cruel, insolent, and murderous. Jerusalem, rich and cosmopolitan, was the pearl of Palestine.
The Jewish temple, which Herod had adorned, was magnificent beyond words, but its priestly rulers were apostate and worldly. The Pharisees, who were the primary teachers of God’s word, were immersed in self-righteousness and legalism. They strained at moral gnats and swallowed theological camels. The faithful were few and mostly poor. The age they lived in, both in Judea and beyond, was marked by disillusionment, despair and unbelief with spiritual leanings towards the mystical and irrational. In many ways, Jerusalem at the time looked a lot like any big city in America today.
When Jesus was born, his mother and adoptive father were some 65 miles from their home in Nazareth, a backwater town in northern Galilee. A Roman census had compelled Joseph to return to his family’s hometown to enroll himself for future taxation. Mary, his espoused wife, went with him. She was in her ninth month and “great with child.” Apparently, the almost newlyweds didn’t want to be separated at this crucial time, and it is likely that Mary’s support network in Nazareth had unraveled. Her friends and family would have judged her unchaste and either crazy or the queen of lies: “Son of God, indeed!”
Crowds thronged the narrow streets of Bethlehem. By the time Joseph and Mary reached the village, all the normal accommodations were taken … and there would have been few to begin with. Finally, someone offered them a place in a stable. Tradition says it was a cave. The cramped area no doubt smelled of urine and dung. The city streets were anything but silent. The star that hung above the city went unnoticed.
Joseph most likely played midwife. There was blood and screaming and placenta. The baby cried. There was no cradle. Joseph cleaned out a manger, a feeding trough, to receive the baby. Mary or Joseph wrapped the baby tightly in strips of linen cloth, “swaddling clothes,” and placed the newborn in the trough. Mary tried to rest.
It would be a few hours later, perhaps, that a bunch of strange, tough-looking men would poke their heads into the stable and ask about a baby. Joseph, at first defensive, would yield in wonder as these shepherds told of an angelic visitation announcing the birth of the Lord Messiah. The shepherds had come to see the child. Joseph let them pass. The shepherds stared for a bit at what seemed a perfectly ordinary baby, and then they plunged back into the cold streets and told anyone they could about the angels and the baby.
So far, that’s the first Christmas. The Magi or wise men (not kings) were still in the East (Persia, probably) planning their pilgrimage. It would take them several months to reach Herod’s court in Jerusalem. By then, Joseph had moved his family to a small house in Bethlehem and had found some type of daily work. When the wise men arrived, slaughter came close on their heels, and the holy family fled into Egypt for sanctuary. The gifts of the Magi funded their life in exile.
The Flight From History
Over the last hundred years the Church and the world have slowly but surely shoved the birth of Christ into a fairy tale world of “Bible stories, Bible people, Bible times.” There is an incipient Gnosticism at work here and a strong contempt for real history. The actual history of Christ’s birth has been ignored, adorned, and rewritten to give the whole thing a Romantic, otherworldly feel. The “super-holiness” of sentimental awe has pushed aside the actual holiness of the holy God incarnate in the midst of His people. What remains is a separation of the Gospel from historical reality, a separation of the religious and the real.
This disdain for history is nothing new. It’s implicit or explicit in every form of unbelief known to man. To see this more clearly, simply consider the consistent extremes of materialism and pantheism. Both streams of consciousness are alive and well, “worldviews” with us today.
The materialist reduces everything to atoms. Reality is matter in motion. Just that. Nothing more. Love, joy, hope … these are all just chemical reactions within other chemical reactions. For folks who think consistently this way, there can be no such thing as history, let alone a meaning for history. Energy particles explode in and out of chaos and eventually collapse in upon themselves again. Or maybe they spread out beyond their own gravitational pull as the universe dies a cold death. Who knows? And why should anyone care? And what is “caring,” after all, but another meaningless chemical reaction? Why should anyone care about anything?
The pantheist sees all historical and material things or “particulars” as illusions. To the pantheists, everything you see and touch in everyday life is simply a manifestation of an impersonal reality. All is One. John Lennon lived in this world and you probably remember the song … “Imagine there’s no heaven, it’s easy if you try.” So, to John Lennon and the folks that profess such things … “all that is” … is an equal expression of that One. Master and slave, warmonger and peace child, rapist and victim, murderer and the murdered … not one of these distinctions are even real. In this way of seeing the world, history doesn’t exist. Neither does crime. There is only the One. Meaning itself, as far as that goes, is a meaningless concept. Why? Because it suggests that there is something beyond the static reality of One.
The Word Was Made Flesh
Over against this nonsense, the biblical doctrine of the Incarnation establishes the reality of history and reveals its purpose and goal.
First, the doctrine of the Incarnation presupposes the reality of Creator and creation. God and His creation are real. The Triune God exists eternally and necessarily as not only absolute personality but as the personal Source and Origin of all created reality, of all matter, space, and time. God’s eternal decree and providence structure, determine, and define creation and its temporal flow. History is what God decrees and is brought about by His providence. It is … “His story.”
Second, the doctrine of the Incarnation highlights the central conflict within all history. Humans are fallen. We are in ethical rebellion against our Creator. We have eternal punishment coming. We are incapable of saving ourselves. But God in His infinite mercy and grace has entered our history … has joined Himself to His creation … to save us from our sins through a death of penal substitution. Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners.
Third, the doctrine of the Incarnation establishes the meaning and goal of history. The eternal Word of God, the Second Person of the Trinity, entered creation, became flesh, to undo the work of the Fall, to restore men to fellowship with God, and to establish His Kingdom in history and beyond history. The Son of God came to save the world and to accomplish the restitution of all things to the glory of God.
Because Jesus Christ is eternal deity and because He has come in terms of God’s sovereign decree, He will accomplish His mission. Jesus has redeemed the earth, and all history since the Resurrection is the outworking and application of that redemption. History will see the full manifestation of His redeeming work. He will reign until all enemies have been put under His feet. But not just that … He will spread the blessings of His reign to the ends of the earth.
This is the message and reality of Christmas.