"Why Christmas Had To Be"
(Delivered Sunday, December 21, 2003 at Bethany Bible Church. Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotes are taken from the New King James Version.)
This morning, I'd like to share with you from a passage that may seem unusual to read on the Sunday before Christmas. But the fact is that the story that we celebrate as Christmas is something that the Bible touches on in many important passages, and this is but one of them. I like to think of this as a "behind-the-scenes" Christmas passage.
Personally, I love going "behind-the-scenes", and learning what the significance of certain things is and why things must be done as they are. I was in an intra-district vocational program in high school; and as a part of the visual arts program, I took a class in television production. One of the things that we did in this class was visit a major broadcast station in Seattle; and it happened to be the station that produced one of my favorite TV shows throughout my growing up years - "The J.P. Patches Show" (which was the longest running local TV clown show in the country). And while the other students were learning about the technical side of television, I was sneaking off to wander around "behind-the-scenes" of the J.P. Patches set - learning why things were done the way they were done on my long-time favorite television show, and having years of childhood questions being answered in just a few minutes time. I continued to watch J.P. Patches, just like almost everyone else my age who grew up in Seattle; but I now watched with a new appreciation of what happened "behind-the-scenes".
I've had several "behind-the-scenes" opportunities since then. I was able to sit "behind-the-scenes" and watch a movie being filmed (and as fascinating as it was, I discovered that watching a movie being filmed is nowhere near as interesting as actually watching the movie itself). A couple of years ago, a friend of mine who is a radio newscaster had to work alone on Christmas day; so he called and invited my family and me to come and spend the morning with him as he worked at the station. We had the radio station pretty much to ourselves; and we sat and watched my friend as he did the very news reports that we heard him report every day on the radio. On another occasion, I was involved with the Luis Palau Portland Festival; and I was very much "behind-the-scenes" in the planning and organizing of volunteers; and I got to watch as the stage was being set up at Waterfront Park and wander around backstage as the various bands and recording artists performed. I came away with a new sense of all the work that's involved in such productions.
Those "behind-the-scenes" experiences give me a greater appreciation of things that I ordinarily take for granted; and for that reason, I think of this morning's passage as a "behind-the-scenes" passage. We're so accustomed to the images we ordinarily think of at Christmas - the manger scene, the angels, the shepherds - that we often fail to appreciate the true significance of these events and why Chritmas had to happen as they did. This morning's passage takes us "behind-the-scenes", as it were, and helps us to appreciate the tremendous intentionality that lies behind what happened on that first Christmas day. It helps us to understand why Christmas had to happen.
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This passage is found in the New Testament letter to the Hebrews. In this letter, the writer is developing a great theme to his Jewish readers - that Jesus Christ is the fulfillment of all that God was seeking to establish in the ceremonial laws of Moses. He shows them that Jesus constitutes a better sacrifice than those commanded through Moses, His priesthood better priesthood than that established through Moses, and the covenant through His blood a better covenant than that offered through Moses. This is because Jesus was, Himself, the eternal Son of God who created Moses and all that was given to Him; and who had purposed all the Mosaic law to be that which ultimately pointed to Him.
And in the second chapter, the writer highlights the fact that the Son of God took full humanity to Himself, and was born into the human family. Quoting from several passages from the Old Testament, he writes,
For it was fitting for Him, for whom are all things and by whom are all things, in bringing many sons to glory, to make the captain of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For both He who sanctifies and those who are being sanctified are all of one, for which reason He is not ashamed to call them brethren, saying: "I will declare Your name to My brethren; in the midst of the assembly I will sing praise to You." And again, "I will put My trust in Him." And again: "Here am I and the children whom God has given Me" (Hebrews 2:10-13).
And it's then that he comes to our passage this morning - a very appropriate passage, I say, to focus on for Christmas, because it gives us a "behind-the-scenes" look at why Christmas had to happen as it did. He writes;
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy Him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For in that He Himself suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted (Hebrews 14-18).
This passage, of course, doesn't mention the Christmas story that we're so accustomed to this time of year. But it does speak of the great event that Christmas celebrates - the incarnation. It speaks of the great act of condescending love that the Son of God performed for us: looking down upon us in our pitiful condition as sinners, laying aside His heavenly glory and all the rights and privileges that belong to Him as God, and - without ceasing in any respect to be fully God - taking full humanity permanently to Himself by being conceived in His humanity in the womb of Mary and becoming born into the human family as one of us.
And did you notice the use in this passage of such phrases as "Inasmuch then ... He Himself likewise", or "Therefore, in all things He had to be ...", or "For in that He Himself suffered ... He is able"? These phrases reveal a marvelous intentionality behind that incarnation. This passage, therefore, shows us that it had to occur as it did. It broadens our appreciation of the Christmas story by showing us why it was so absolutely essential for our salvation that the Son of God condescended from His glory in heaven to be born as a helpless baby into the human family. It takes us "behind-the-scenes", and reveals to us the reason why Christmas absolutely had to happen.
My hope is that, after looking at this passage together, we will all be moved to trust this One who was born on Christmas Day for our salvation; and will have a greater motivation to worship and adore Him with gratitude as we should at the celebration of His birth.
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So then; how does this "behind-the-scenes" passage teach us that the incarnation of Christmas was absolutely necessary? First, it shows us that the Son of God did this ...
1. TO BECOME OUR DELIVERER BY PARTAKING OF OUR DYING (vv. 14-15).
This may come as a shock to some; but this passage teaches us that we will never come to appreciate Christmas for what it is if we don't see it in the light of Good Friday. We cannot appreciate the Babe born as one of us in Bethlehem if we don't understand that He was born in order to die for us on the cross at Golgotha.
In the verses that preceed this passage, the prophet Isaiah is quoted. The writer of Hebrews points to these words as a reference to the lost sinners whom the Redeemer would come and save - calling them His "children". And that is certainly an apt name, because "as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, to those who believe in His name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God" (John 1:12-13). And since those "children" are constituted of flesh and blood - the "stuff" of which humanity is made, and in which people live and die - then it was absolutely necessary that the Redeemer of these "children" also become a partaker of the same flesh and blood. And so, the writer says,
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy Him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage (vv. 14-15).
And do you notice why it was that He became flesh and blood? It was so that He could partake of death - just as we do - and die in our place.
Many people talk in romantic terms about death - saying that it's a "part of the journey of life". But the fact is that death is unnatural. It's not something that God intended when He made mankind, and placed the first man and the first woman in the perfect environment of the Garden. People were created to live eternally; but our first parents sinned, and introduced the curse of death upon all their offspring. The Bible tells us, that "through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned." (Romans 5:12).
The Bible therefore doesn't treat the fact of "death" as a mere "part of the journey of life". It doesn't 'prettify' death at all. It speaks of it as painful and unnatural consequence of sin - a hateful enemy to be conquered. And it tells us that the Son of God became fully human so that He could partake of death with us. Because He partook of death without any sin, He was able to rise from the dead in resurrected glory - thus giving the 'death blow' to death itself! And so, Jesus, by His incarnation, ensured the conquest of the greatest enemy of all. The Bible tells us;
But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection from the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ all shall be made alive. But each one in his own order; Christ the firstfruits, afterward those who are Christ's at His coming. Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power. For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death (1 Corinthians 15:20-25).
And as the writer of Hebrews tells us, Jesus did this in order to "destroy" (or literally, render ineffective) "him who had power over death, that is, the devil"; and to "release" (or set free) "those who through the fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage."
We not only have an enemy in "death", but we also have an enemy in the devil; and this second enemy has taken advantage over us through the first enemy. He was the one who lied to our first parents - telling the woman that, when she ate of the fruit God had forbidden, she would not die. Jesus said that the devil was "a murderer from the beginning" (John 8:44), and this is because he tempted our first parents to sin - thus bringing death on all humanity.
And ever since, the devil has sought to keep people in bondage to the fear of death their whole lives long. People may speak of it in romantic and sentimental terms. They may make fun of it a little - calling it, "pushing up daisies", or "assuming room temperature". But the fact is that death is the most fearful enemy of all. The Bible tells us that after death comes the judgment - when we must stand before God and give an account for our lives and our actions. Physical death simply ushers unredeemed people to the dreadful and ultimate judgment that the Bible calls "the second death".
Seneca has said that, when death is feared, the fear is always present. Chrysostom has written that the fear of death is so intense, even the worst of tyrants constantly live in dread of it. There is no way any man or woman can free themselves from this great enemy death, or release themselves from the grip of fear that the devil holds over them because of it. But it was to conquer this great enemy that the Son of God was born into the human family on that first Christmas Day. The apostle John says, "He who sins is of the devil, for the devil has sinned from the beginning. For this purpose the Son of God was manifested, that He might destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). The writer of Hebrews says, "And as it is appointed for men to die once, but after this the judgment, so Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many. To whose who eagerly wait for Him He will appear a second time, apart from sin, for salvation" (Heb. 9:27-28). The apostle Paul, therefore, was able to proclaim that "death is swallowed up in victory": "O Death, were is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory?" The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 15:54-57).
Can you see then why it was absolutely essential that Christmas happened? The Son of God had to be born into the human family, in order to fully partake in our behalf of the death that was the consequence of our sin - and thus conquer death, destroy the work of the devil, and set us free from death's horrible bondage of fear!
How grateful we should be for this "behind-the-scenes" look at God's great purpose in Christmas!
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Another reason that it was absolutely essential that Christmas happen, and that the Son be born into the human family, was ...
2. TO BECOME OUR HIGH PRIEST BY PARTAKING OF OUR NATURE (vv. 16-17).
The writer of Hebrews goes on to say;
For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
Here, we're told that the Son of God had to be made like His brethren in all respects - His brethren being identified as the "seed of Abraham". One reason that they are described as Abraham's seed may be because it was through the linage of Abraham that the Savior came into the human family. God had told Abraham, "... In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed" (Genesis 12:3). And certainly, this would be something that the writer of this letter would emphasize to his readers, since they themselves were Hebrews - the physical sons and daughters of Abraham. They were, after all, being encouraged to cling to Jesus as the great fulfillment of all the promises that had been made to their fathers. He does, indeed, give His aid to the seed of Abraham.
But included in this idea of "the seed of Abraham" would be all those who believe on Jesus - whether they are Jews or Gentiles. They too are heirs of the blessing promised through Abraham. The apostle Paul wrote that people are saved, not by being 'Jewish', but by faith just as Abraham "believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness."
It was to these - the seed of Abraham - that the Son of God gives His aid. The Greek word used for "giving aid" is one that actually means "to take hold of"; and in this case, it means "to take up as an object of help" - as when we say that we "take up a cause". It's the same word used to describe how Jesus "took" the blind man by the hand to heal him in Mark 8:23; or when He "took" a man with dropsy and healed him in Luke 14:4.
Think of it! The Son of God did not take up the cause of the angels. He did not become one of them to effect their redemption. Instead, He stooped much lower in His condescending love, and "took up" our cause in order to give us aid. He gives His aid to the seed of Abraham - that is, all of us poor sinners who believe as Abraham believed. He condescends, therefore, to call us His "brethren". And notice what that help is that He gives to His brethren. The writer of Hebrews tells us that He does this in order to be "a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people."
Protestants often boast that they have no need for a priest. But that is absolutely untrue. Everyone of us - whether we are Protestant, or Catholic, or Orthodox, or whatever else we may be - are desperately in need of the ministry of a priest. The fact is that none of us could stand before God if it were not for the ministry of a High Priest. And the only High Priest God has provided for us is Jesus - who is the eternal Son of God who became man. The Bible teaches us that "there is one God and one Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus" (1 Timothy 2:5). He serves as Priest for us "in things pertaining to God"; and His priestly ministry is perfect and complete.
Not only does Jesus serve as our High Priest, but He Himself is the offering that makes us acceptable! He is the one who makes "propitiation for the sins of the people". A "propitiation" is that which satisfies the righteous anger of God for our sins, and renders Him well-disposed to us. Our sins placed the barrier between ourselves and a holy God; and it was Jesus own blood that "propitiates" - that is, that satisfies God's righteous anger for our sins. What a marvel of a priest our glorious High Priest is! He not only ministers the sacrifice that makes us acceptable to God, but is Himself the very sacrifice that is ministered on our behalf!
The ministry of Jesus, our High Priest, far exceeds the high priests that were appointed from among fallen humanity. As the writer says elsewhere, that Jesus...
... because He continues forever, has an unchanging priesthood. Therefore He is also able to save to the uttermost those who come to God through Him, since He always lives to make intercession for them. For such a High Priest was fitting for us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and has become higher than the heavens; who does not need daily, as those height priests, to offer up sacrifices, first for His own sins and then for the people's, for this He did once for all when He offered up Himself. For the law appoints as high priests men who have weaknesses, but the word of the oath, which came after the law, appoints the Son who has been perfected forever (Hebrews 7:24-28).
Jesus could not have fulfilled this marvelous role for us if He had not been one of us. And so, can you see that it was absolutely necessary that He be made in all things like His brethren? Can you see how absolutely necessary Christmas was?
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So far, we've seen the necessity of Jesus' incarnation from the standpoint of God's plan of salvation, and of a suitable priest to stand before us. But there's something very personal and loving about it all too. Finally we see that it was necessary that the Son of God be born into the human family ...
3. TO BECOME OUR HELPER BY PARTAKING OF OUR SUFFERING (v. 18).
The writer of Hebrews concludes by saying,
For in that He Himself suffered, being tempted, He is able to aid those who are tempted (Hebrews 2:18)
Did you know that, because the Son of God took full humanity to Himself, He is able to know from personal experience what it was like to suffer as we do? He wept tears of sorrow (John 11:35). He experienced hunger (Matthew 4:2) and thirst (John 19:28). He felt weariness (John 4:6). And as for our sin, He too felt temptation - though without any sin in Himself. He was tempted by the devil to sin when He went into the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11). He was tempted to withdraw from the agony and humiliation of the cross by the words of Peter (Mark 8:31-33). He was even tempted to flee from the pain of the cross when He was in the garden awaiting His betrayal - even being in such great agony as to have His sweat fall to the ground like great drops of blood (Luke 22:41-44). He died on the cross for sins - not for His own but for ours. He Himself never sinned. But He knows exactly what our temptation and suffering feels like.
And because this means that He knows what you and I suffer, He is perfectly able to be compassionate toward us and to help us in our times of suffering and testing. He is able - as it says in the prior verses - to be a "merciful" High Priest; one who helps. The writer of Hebrews tells us,
Seeing then that we have a great High Priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a High Priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but was in all points tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore come boldly to the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy and find grace to help in time of need (Hebrews 4:14-16).
He not only understands our weaknesses and is familiar with what it feels like to be tempted, He is also a High Priest who is compassionate and gracious when we stumble and fall. He lifts us up on our feet again. He stands at the Father's side as our Advocate, and mercifully points to the merit of His own blood on our behalf. The apostle John writes,
My little children, these things I write to you, so that you may not sin. And if anyone sins, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world (1 John 2:1-2).
What a wonderful High Priest we have! He Himself came to die in our behalf in order to defeat death for us. He now stands forever in His priestly role to minister for us in the things of God. And in doing it all, our High Priest is also our merciful and compassionate Friend, who understands our weakness, helps us in our times of testing, and lovingly pardons us when we confess our failures.
And can you see that all of this is true because He first condescended to be born into the human family? Can you see how utterly necessary Christmas truly was? We would never appreciate the story of Christmas as we should, if it weren't for this "behind-the-scenes" look at why Christmas had to occur in the first place.
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Last week, I had the opportunity to talk with a friend about an older couple in his church. This couple was quite distressed and saddened, because their adult son has chosen to reject the Christian faith he was raised to believe. And I was very sad to hear this young man's reason. He said that he didn't want anything to do with a religion that's main motivation was that you'll go to hell if you don't believe it.
What a distorted conception of the message of the "gospel" - which means "good news"! That young man was grievously mistaken; because it's not at all the perspective of the Bible that we'll go to hell if we don't believe the message of the gospel. The Bible teaches us that, because of the sin of our first parents in the garden, we're all born already fallen in sin, and are already helplessly on our way to hell. And the wonderful the message of the gospel is that God lovingly and mercifully works to rescue us from our destiny.
And this great "rescue effort" is what He accomplished through His Son being born into the human family, taking our sins upon Himself, and dying in our place. The message of the gospel isn't one of fear and condemnation, but of love and of the great lengths God has gone to reach His hand out to us undeserving sinners and save us. It's the message that...
... God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:16-17).
Have you accepted the fact that your sins made it necessary for the eternal Son of God to be born into the human family, become like you, and die on the cross in your place? Have you placed your trust in His sacrifice on the cross, and made His ministry as High Priest your only trust before God?
Have you come to terms with the fact that Christmas is something that was absolutely necessary for your salvation?
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