Christmas is the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, the God-Man. It is the celebration of the incarnation, when “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
The Christmas story is the story of the greatest of miracles, but unlike much “holiday lore” the story of Christmas is a historical reality. It happened. God took on human flesh. God became a man. The second person of the Godhead took on the form of a servant. The Son of God became a little lower than the angels (Hebrews 2:9). In other words, He became like us, but without our sin. And He did so that He might become sin for us so that we might become the sons of God. As the hymnist exulted, “Amazing love—how can it be?—that Thou my God shouldst die for me?”
The incarnation is the most profound of mysteries. As Paul put it, “without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen by angels, preached among the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up in glory” (1 Timothy 3:16). Meekness and majesty indeed!
The incarnation is a massive truth. If this were not true then nothing else could be true with respect to the life, ministry, death, resurrection and ascension of Christ. Without the incarnation we would have no gospel.
J. I. Packer reminds us that the incarnation is a far greater miracle to believe than any other doctrine of Christianity.
It is no wonder that thoughtful people find the gospel of Jesus Christ hard to believe, for the realities with which it deals pass man’s understanding. But it is sad that so many make faith harder than it needs to be; by finding difficulties in the wrong places [such as the atonement—one dying in the place of another to atone for sins—the resurrection of Jesus Christ, His virgin birth, and His many miracles]. But in fact the real difficulty, because the supreme mystery with which the gospel confronts us, does not lie here at all. It lies, not in the Good Friday message of atonement, nor in the Easter message of resurrection, but in the Christmas message of incarnation. The really staggering Christian claim is that Jesus of Nazareth was God made man. . . . Once we grant that Jesus was divine, it becomes unreasonable to find difficulty in any of [these other miracles]; it is all of a piece, and hangs together completely. The incarnation is in itself an unfathomable mystery, but it makes sense of everything else that the New Testament contains.
It is not too much to say that the incarnation is the crux of the crux of the matter. For, again, without the incarnation there could be no gospel. It is the foundation of the gospel and is hence at the centre of the comfort that the gospel offers to us.
As we reflect on the incarnation this Christmas season, I want to highlight some of the comforting realities associated with the entrance of the Son of God into the world in space-time history—comfort that we all need, eventually, in this sin-cursed world.
Christmas time is not always a time of great joy and celebration for everyone. It can, in fact, be a time of loneliness, sadness and even despair for some. Some will spend this Christmas without a loved one who was present last year. Some will face this time with great financial uncertainty, including (but not limited to) unemployment. Some will carry great and deep heartache, which all the Christmas hymns in the world cannot assuage.
But having acknowledged this, we need to also recognise that all of us in the coming year, regardless of how joyful you feel at Christmastime, will face serious challenges to our faith. And when that happens we will need the comfort that the space-time historical event of Christmas reveals and offers to us.
There are four truths in Luke 2:1-20 that I want to highlight towards this end. Each offers true and lasting comfort, because each is grounded in the character of God. The true Christmas story is joyful because it is rooted and grounded in who God is. Who He is affects how we live and how we face the challenges that come our way.
These four truths that will help us to combat the lies that we face and, sadly, sometimes embrace. These lies are detrimental to our wellbeing, and the Christmas story aids us in combatting them.
God is Great
The first truth, which we encounter in vv. 1-7, is that God is great—and therefore we do not have to be in control.
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
One of our biggest challenges is that, to some degree, most of us are control freaks. We want to know and to determine what is going to happen. The famed poem “Invictus,” which Barak Obama quoted at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, is the motto for many: “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” Though at a certain level this contains some truth—after all, we are morally responsible creatures—at another level it is a terribly misguided philosophy of life. We can plan, labour and connive all we want, but ultimately God is the sovereign one who determines outcomes. Man proposes, but God disposes. The sooner we realise this, the more dependently we will look to the Lord. We need to overcome the lies that challenge God’s lordship. Who is the functional Lord in your life? The Christmas story helps us to see whom we ought to submit as Lord.
It is impossible to appreciate history as anything but chaotic unless you posit the existence of a God who is both transcendent and immanent, both incomprehensible and yet intimate. The Christmas story shows us both. The God of the Bible—for the Christian—is (immanently) our Father who is (transcendently) in heaven. He is both immensely different from His creation and yet intimately near to it. It is for this reason, among others, that a true understanding of history requires that we see all events as His story.
James Garfield, twentieth president of the United States, once said, “History is the unrolled scroll of prophecy.” Perhaps nowhere do we see this more clearly than in the Christmas narrative. The Christmas story was under God’s control. And so is your story.
God had a purpose when He created this world and that purpose was His glory. But it was not long before that sin entered His perfectly glorious world and nature became (to cite another poet) “red in tooth and claw.” Death and decay became the dominant motif of the created order. But God was not surprised. God’s purpose was assured because of His everlasting promise (2 Timothy 1:1; Titus 1:1-3; Hebrews 13:20).
God purposed to glorify Himself throughout eternity by a people who would be redeemed by His Son. And God’s purposes are always God’s promises. You can count on them. Christmas is a reminder of this. God promised to send the seed of the woman to crush the head of the serpent (Genesis 3:15), and the Christmas story heralded the coming of the seed. God became a Man for the suffering of death in order to bring many sons to glory (Hebrews 2:9-10). Christmas was the initial historical event that put this in motion. Christmas was a reminder that God always keeps His Word. And forty days after Christmas, both Simon and Anna rejoiced in the faithfulness of God to keep His promise (Luke 2:25-32, 36-38).
Yes, Christmas reveals that our God is great and thus the great promise keeper.
This matter of God’s greatness is clearly seen in the opening verses of Luke 2. We see God’s sovereign and therefore providential control of where, when and how His Son would be born into this world.
We see in these opening seven verses several reminders that God was in control of the Christmas Story every step of the way. And such revelation assures you and me that our story is also under God’s great and wise providential care.
God’s Providential Control of Government
The first way in which God’s sovereign control is seen is in His providential control of government (vv. 1-3). In order for God to fulfil His purpose, the Lord Jesus needed to be born in Bethlehem, a small town of insignificance (Micah 5:2). The problem was that the woman who was carrying Him was in Nazareth. And so God needed to get her to the prophesied place of His birth. For God, this was simple. He had decreed that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem, and so He decreed that the most powerful person on earth would issue a decree to get Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city.
A census involved returning to one’s hometown in order to record one’s name, occupation, property and family. It was a sort of voter registration. God moved the Roman government to institute a tax! I appreciate the observation of Warren Wiersbe that “Augustus Caesar was ruling, but God was in charge.”
I find the opening words helpful and hopeful: “And it came to pass in those days.” What “days” were those? Contextually, it can be argued that they were days of miracles (see chapter 1): the miracle of John’s birth; the muteness and then the loosened tongue of John’s father; the announcement and commencement of the virgin birth; the angelic appearances; etc. The point is simply this: God is sovereign over the most mundane as much as He is over the miraculous. We need to see that God is as much in the mundane as He is in the miraculous. He was as much in the virgin birth as He is in taxes!
Government is under the providential care, concern and control of God. Even taxes are under God’s control! This should give us much hope. As South Africans, with the death of Nelson Mandela, enter a new political era, we need not be anxious. We do not need to be in control; we need not have the final say. God’s decree is what matters. God will move governments to fulfil His will.
God moved this young couple from Nazareth to Bethlehem by a “combination of decree in distant Rome and gossiping tongues in Nazareth. God works through all kinds of people to effect His purpose” (Leon Morris).
God’s Providential Control of Genealogies
The second area of providential control, as can be seen in vv. 4-5, is in the area of genealogy: “Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child.”
Intertwined in this whole scene was the need for Mary to have a genealogical connection to Bethlehem. God made sure, before the foundation of the world, that this would be the case. He made sure that Mary would have a husband who was of the tribe of Judah in the lineage of David. (In fact, Mary herself was of the tribe of Judah in the lineage of David.) He planned her marriage and prepared her partner.
Joseph’s genealogy was under the control of God. His genealogy apparently mattered as much as did Mary’s. It made sure—connected to the census—that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem.
You were born to your parents and in your family under the providential hand of God. Even if there are some bad apples in your bloodline, God can use you. A survey of Jesus’ genealogy—which included adulterers and prostitutes—is evidence of this.
You did not choose your parents or your birthplace. You had no control over those things. But God did. Rest in His sovereignty and stop comparing your lot with that of another. At the end of the day, what really matters is that you are in the bloodline of God’s family (John 1:12-13).
God’s Providential Control of Gestation
In v. 6 we see a third area of God’s sovereign control, and it is in gestation: “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.” It is clear that Mary’s pregnancy was under God’s control. We do not know how long Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, or how far Mary was in her pregnancy (the KJV tells us that she was “great” with child) when they made the trip. God, however, sovereignly controlled her pregnancy so that Jesus was delivered only after they had arrived in Bethlehem—and while they were still there.
As an aside, Jesus at this point had already entered the world and had been here for many months in His mother’s womb. The incarnation did not begin in a stable in Bethlehem but rather in a womb in Nazareth.
I have fathered five children with my wife, and none of them have arrived on their due date. With all the technology at our disposal, predicting the precise date of a child’s birth is still far from an exact science. But not so with God. Jesus was born “when the fullness of the time had come” (Galatians 4:4).
Think about all that had to transpire for Mary to be in the right place at the right time. The government decree had to be issued at the right time so that Joseph and Mary could make plans for the trip in such a way that, in God’s providence, she would give birth precisely where and when she needed to.
Take comfort in the reality that the minutest details of your life are under the care of God. His timing is always perfect. Take comfort in this.
Life is in the hand of God: all of life and every life—including the lives of those in the womb. The Christmas story gives us hope that life comes from God and you don’t have to be the Messiah to invite God’s concern. After all, all those whom God saves have at first been conceived (see Psalm 139).
The realisation that God is in control of fertility and gestation should encourage us to trust Him even when His ways confuse us. When it comes to childbirth—no matter how complication, joyous or sorrowful—there are no accidents.
God’s Providential Control of Grief
A fourth area of providential control can be seen in v. 7, and it is in the area of grief: “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Jesus was born in obscurity, poverty and even rejection. This verse paints a solitary scene. It paints a scene that involved both celebration and sorrow, gladness and grief.
We do not know the location of Jesus’ birth. We can’t know if it was in a stable, a cave or in home (which often did contain mangers). What we do know is that a feeding trough is no place for a king to be born; it is no place for the Son of God! But this humble beginning foreshadowed the suffering, sorrows and grief that both Jesus and Mary would experience. And yet God was there.
Just as God had ordained Caesar Augustus to rule and to issue his decree, so God prepared this place for the birth of His Son! He was there in the midst of this grief as well as in all other grief that would follow.
On this Christmas, take comfort, child of God, that He is in control and is present in your grief. Cast all your care upon Him, for He does indeed care for you.
The Christmas event—the incarnation—was completely under the control of God, and all Mary and Joseph needed to do was to obey. And obey they did. They learned, no doubt, that they did not need to be in control. And what a blessed realisation that is! Our attitude needs to be that of Mary, as revealed in 1:38: “Behold the maidservant of the Lord! Let it be to me according to your word.”
Will this be your attitude today?
God is Glorious
The second major truth we learn (in vv. 8-10a) is that God is glorious, and therefore we need not fear others.
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid.”
The first announcement of the birth of Christ came to shepherds. This is significant for several reasons.
First, Jesus is the Lamb of God, and therefore it is fitting that shepherds should hear of His birth.
Second, these shepherds were most likely tending to the sheep that would be offered in sacrifice. How fitting that they therefore hear and meet the ultimate sacrificial Lamb!
Third, shepherds were on the margins of society. They were of the lowest class in Israel. But Jesus came to save all kinds of people. How appropriate that shepherds therefore be given an audience with this humble King.
Fourth, shepherds were deemed unclean by their occupation and therefore they had no access to the temple. Yet here they were given direct access to the one who fulfilled all that the temple pointed to. What a comfort to sin-conscious people!
Finally, shepherds were so disdained by society that their testimony was disallowed in a court of law. And yet they were granted the privilege of the revelation of the glory of the Lord. What a difference this would make in their lives!
When they saw the glory of the Lord they were afraid. But the angel told them, “Do not be afraid.” Fear, of course, would have been a natural response, but now they were freed from fear.
It can be assumed that these shepherds were accustomed to being treated as the outcasts of society. Perhaps they feared the opinion of men. Perhaps they strove with the temptation to be an approval junkie. But having experienced the glory of the Lord, they now feared no one. The proof is that they went to see the Saviour, the King of kings and Lord of lords. They were fearless in their pursuit of Him. They did not care what others would think or say of them. They had had a taste of God’s glory and were drawn to the one who would give them more.
The incarnation informs us that God loves sinners and therefore we need not worry about what others think of us. Because God is glorious and has reconciled us to Himself, we have no reason to fear anyone or anything. What a comfort from Christmas!
If we see the glory of Christ, we have no reason to fear to crowds, or to seek their approval. We need not fear being different. God is the one whose approval matters most and the one whose approval we have in Christ.
God is Good
A third major truth is revealed in vv. 10b-12: God is good, and therefore we need not look elsewhere. The angel continued his message to the shepherds:
Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.
This is the first occurrence (chronologically speaking) in the New Testament of the term from which we get the word “gospel.” The angels announced the “good tidings” or “good news” that Christ the Lord, the Saviour of the world, had been born.
As the angel (soon joined by a host of fellow angels) announced this good news, the assumption is that the shepherds were to go and look for Him. They were told that He could be identified as an infant (the word translated “Babe” speaks of an infant) not only wrapped in “swaddling cloths” (as was customary, indicating the care of the mother for her child) but also (very unusually) lying in a manger. Many babies in Bethlehem would have been in swaddling cloths, but this one would have a unique cot.
Of course, it has been observed that, given that this babe was the Lamb of God, his resting place made perfect sense! Still, it was unusual to find a baby in a feeding trough.
The shepherds made haste to find Jesus and, by God’s kind providence, they found Him (vv. 15-16). Based on their response (vv. 17-18, 20) it is quite clear that this was a life-transforming encounter. They experienced the good news of the Saviour and no doubt their lives were forever changed.
It is helpful to reflect again on the fact that shepherds were normally ostracised from religious rituals; yet here these “unclean” shepherds were given direct access to the holy Son of God. In all of their filth, they were welcomed. They responded to the good news that God is good and were blessed. If they previously had been looking for forgiveness in the sacrifices provided by their flocks they now no longer needed to do so. And the same is true for you and me.
The comfort of the Christmas event is that God is good, and the proof is that He sent His Son into the world to save sinners—filthy and otherwise barred sinners like you and me.
Perhaps you can remember how you sought to find forgiveness and fulfilment in all kinds of other things until you were confronted with the good and glorious gospel of God. And once you experienced this salvation you stopped looking, for there was nowhere else to look. Rather, you went and told others that there is a Saviour who accepts you just as you are and then reorients you to be what you should be.
Perhaps some reading this need to see the goodness of God as revealed in the gospel of God. You perhaps need to be satisfied with that which satisfies Him: namely, His Son. You need to stop looking elsewhere. Put an end to your futile search today by repenting and calling upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ—now.
God is Gracious
The fourth and final truth, as seen in vv. 13-14, is that God is gracious, and therefore there is no need for you to prove yourself: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!’”
The solitary angel was now joined by a chorus of angels, praising God, as they announced His glory and His grace.
The phrase, “and on earth peace, goodwill toward men” has been translated various ways. Some translations speak of “men of goodwill.” Depending on how you interpret that, it may be erroneous. If you mean, “God gives peace to men who are of goodwill” then there is a problem since no one fits the bill. If, however, you mean, “God gives peace to those to those to whom He has shown goodwill,” I would concur.
Some translations read “peace amongst those with whom he is pleased” (ESV) or “on whom His favour rests.” That is a helpful translation and correct in its teaching. The KJV’s “good will to men” contains the truth that is revealed here. That is, God in Christ has revealed and accomplished His “good desires” toward those men with whom He establishes peace; toward those with whom God has been reconciled.
This is important, for the phrase “goodwill toward men” speaks of grace—God’s saving grace. Our only hope for peace with God is God Himself. If He does not provide the peace then we have no hope of experiencing it. But He does! And He does so in spite of ourselves.
We spend our lives trying to prove ourselves worthy of His love. But we can’t and we won’t. Yet the Christmas story reveals that God graciously saves sinners (Matthew 1:21).
This is another clue as to why the Lord first announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds. Those who were unclean and the outcasts of society had nothing by which they could prove worthy of being in His presence. Yet they were invited. And once they experienced the Saviour, they would have rested in the reality that they did not need to prove themselves. In fact, I believe that vv. 17-18 prove this.
These who were outcasts, whose testimony was not permissible in a court of law, were now testifying to everyone whom they could that they had met the Son of God! Would people believe them? In one sense, that was not their problem. They would feel no need to prove themselves to anyone anymore. After all, if God accepted them, then why should they care if others would not? The glory of God freed them from the fear of public opinion and the grace of God freed them to proclaim this. They were actually freed to love those who might in fact despise them.
I recently read an open letter on the Internet, written by the wife of a murdered missionary, in which she expressed her forgiveness to those who had killed her husband. I was saddened to read some of the comments on her letter, in which people accused her of all sorts of ulterior motives. Some, for example, claimed that it was easy for her to forgive given what was no doubt (in their minds, at least) a large life insurance pay out upon her husband’s death. The world simply does not understand the work of God’s grace in the life of a believer, but believers have been freed from slavery to the sceptical opinions of others.
The gospel frees us from the damning curse of legalism, that soul-debilitating quest to perform so that God will accept us. The gospel assures us that, in Christ, we are accepted by God in our best day as well as on our worst day.
Let the Christmas story, which is the introduction of the gospel in space-time history, provide the comfort that God’s grace, in Christ, frees you from the futile quest to prove yourself acceptable to God. You can never do this. The good news of the gospel is that Jesus Christ pleases the Father, and He does so on behalf of everyone who trusts Him for such acceptance.
The gospel is the good news of what God has done in Christ Jesus for believing sinners. And when you experience this, you will stop trying to prove yourself to God (and to others) as you now desire to simply live to please the one who has shown you such goodwill and such saving favour in Christ. That, my friend, is the ultimate comfort of Christmas. May this be your experience this Christmas period.