It’s that time of year again. It’s a time for family, friends, thanksgiving, and shop-till-you-drop-and-can’t-afford-anymore gift buying.
It’s no surprise to anyone that Christmas has diverted from its stated purpose. Obviously, the holiday has become more about us and less about Christ. To be honest, I can’t say this is particularly offensive to me. In my opinion, if a person relegates the celebration of Jesus to only one day then Jesus is probably of little significance. Thus, you won’t find me fighting any “keep the reason for the season” battles. To us whom Christ is significant, we celebrate Christmas everyday.
With that said, there is obviously great significance in Christ and His birth. In fact, it is the most significant event in the history of man. Whether a Christian or not, one would be hard pressed to find a more important and influential person who has existed. Therefore, as a Christian, I do not take the birth of Christ lightly because there are great depths to understanding what took place on that first Christmas.
The greatness of this event I think can be summarized on one word. This one word, I believe, encapsulates so much about why Christmas is significant. This one word is found in several passages of Scripture, however, is most famously found in Matthew 1:21-23. It says, “She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”
As Matthew will later address, the term Immanuel means, “God with us”. For many, the term is taken to mean, “Well God is with me, loves me, and takes care of me”. However, I believe there is an even greater depth of meaning in Immanuel. To fully understand it, I think there are 3 questions worth answering. First, who is this God that is with us? Second, how can we know Him? Third, what does this change?
Who is this God?
There are many attributes and characteristics to God. As His creation, we can never fully understand the depths of His nature and character, however, there are several characteristics that we do know about Him.
First, we know that God is loving and gracious. We see this all throughout Scripture.
John 3:16: “For God so loved the world…”
Eph. 2:4: There is great love with which he loved us.
1 John 4: He loved us before we loved Him.
Second, we know that God is just and righteous. We also see this throughout Scripture
Psalm 33:5: “The Lord loves righteousness and justice”
Is. 6:3: “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord”
Is. 33: “For the Lord is our judge, the Lord is our law giver”
Rom. 14: We will stand before the judgment seat of God
Yet, while these are biblically sound characteristics of God, they often cause tension for us because they seem irreconcilably dichotomous. This is largely because we have a difficult time understanding how God can be both. Thus, we end up leaning toward one or the other as a default approach to God. On the one side, some might say, “I don’t believe in a God of judgment and wrath, my God is a God of love”. On the other hand, some might say, “God is holy and righteous. You better be too or you will suffer His wrath”. However, to embrace one to the exclusion of the other is deny the depths of God’s character.
For example, we want a God of love and goodness, but can God be good if He does not punish sin? Can a judge be considered good if He does not punish that which is punishable? The answer is of course no. This is the definition of corruption. Yet on the other side, some want a just God who is pouring wrath out on the sinful and wicked. Yet the question must be asked, who is a sinner? If a sinner is one who breaks the law of God, and there are over 600 laws in the Bible, then to disobey one qualifies an individual for wrath. This leads to the question; how can God be loving and good if He demands adherence to a law that is impossible to follow? This is the definition of cruelty. In the end we are left with the tension; is God corrupt or is He cruel?
How can we reconcile what seems to be irreconcilable? The short answer is we can’t reconcile it. Therefore, it is this tension that leads us to Immanuel. Within Immanuel we see the love and goodness of God, as well as, the justice and righteousness of God. Therefore, how can we know this God?
How can we know Him?
Probably the best way to illustrate how one comes to know God is to use an illustration used by C.S. Lewis. Lewis said, “We relate to God the way that Hamlet relates to Shakespeare. We might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that the author chooses to put information about himself in the play”.
In the analogy, we are in a story of which God is the author and we are the characters. As with any story, the characters in the book have no categories for understanding the author’s existence. There is no conceivable way for Hamlet to know Shakespeare unless Shakespeare is willing to write himself into the story. There is no conceivable way for the characters of a story to save themselves unless the author writes their salvation.
Jesus is God writing Himself into the story. Immanuel is the author making Himself known to those who could not know Him otherwise. As with all stories, the author does leave traces of himself throughout the story, however, these are mere traces. While God’s fingerprints are found throughout creation, in Immanuel, God goes one step further by entering the story.
While there are many possible inconsistencies with this illustration, the main point is simply God is revealing Himself to creation. Most importantly, it is only through Immanuel that we can begin to understand the seemingly irreconcilable characteristics of God.
What does this change?
By writing Himself into the story, the incarnate Christ reconciles the goodness and justice of God. Jesus comes and lives a life of perfection. 2 Cor.5 tells us “he knew no sin”. He would live the law of God perfectly. It is this perfection that Jesus now extends to us. He does this so that when we stand before the judgment of God, we do not stand with our own righteousness, but rather with the righteousness of Jesus. This righteousness of Christ makes us not guilty of breaking the law. This perfect life extended reveals God’s love and goodness to us.
However, if it stopped there, God would not be just because there must be punishment for lawbreakers. God being gracious to us is a threat to His justice. So, on the cross, Christ becomes our sin. The sin of humanity rests on Him. In this moment the wrath and judgment of God are poured out on Christ. On our behalf, Jesus takes the full brunt of the God’s righteous judgment. His death on the cross reveals God’s justice and righteousness.
Bottom line, you cannot say God is not wrathful and just because He poured out His wrath on Immanuel. However, you also cannot say God is not good for demanding adherence to the law because Immanuel fulfilled the law for us.
This is the great depth of Immanuel. With this in mind, let us enjoy the holiday, but also remember the transcendent majesty of the incarnated Christ. Christ is the benevolent God who wrote Himself into the story that first Christmas day.