The countdown to Christmas is in full swing. The shops are ribboned in red and girt in green. The halls have been decked with holly. Trees are gracing living rooms everywhere. Stockings are suspended from mantelpieces. And Michael Bublé and Mariah Carey have been brought out of annual hibernation. Christmas is almost upon us!
For some, it marks holidays and an opportunity to relax at the end of a busy year. For others, it’s a time to reconnect with family. For some, it means feasting on turkey, ham, prawns, or all of the above. For others still, it can be a difficult time, fraught with pained memories, poverty, disappointment, or loneliness. We experience Christmas in so many different ways, and it means different things to different people.
For Christians, Christmas is the annual festival celebrating the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ—an event that split history in two. We recall the God who acted in mercy by entering this fallen and broken world to redeem it. We remember that in Christ, God is with us—Jesus, our “Immanuel.” And while we too countdown to Christmas and the year’s end that it signals, we reflect on the saving grace of our God.
We draw this significance of Jesus’ birth from the accounts in the Gospels, as well as the reflection of the New Testament writers generally. With another two thousand years of Christian reflection since, plus our favourite carols playing in the background, the importance of Christmas has been ingrained into us. Although the annual celebration is fixed immovably into our calendars, the Christmas event itself lies behind us. We have to look back over our shoulder, as it were, to see it.
But it was not always so.
There was a time when the Christmas event still lay in the future. When God’s saving intervention was still being anticipated. When the magnitude of God’s love and grace was promised but yet to be fully displayed. There was a time “before Christ.” Our distance between that time and ours sometimes blinds us to some of the significance of Jesus’ birth in its original context two thousand years ago. If, instead of just looking back at it over our shoulders, we travel back in time so that Christmas still lies before us, we might be able to see some of this lost significance with greater clarity.
Over a thousand years “before Christ,” Israel was led by the prophet and judge, Samuel. He was a model leader, and Israel flourished under his direction. But as good as Samuel was, his leadership came to an end, and his sons promised to be nothing but trouble. This dilemma facing Israel at the end of Samuel’s life highlighted the two profound problems plaguing God’s people, Israel: sin and death. Wanting to deal with this, the Israelite elders asked God for a king to make them like the other nations around them. Their request had some good motives behind it, but it carried three negative aspects.
First, it effectively requested God to vacate his own divine leadership over Israel. The covenant that God had forged with the nation of Israel at Sinai enshrined him as Israel’s head of state. Asking for a human king was essentially a leadership coup.
Second, Israel’s request would potentially obliterate the distinction between it and the other nations, nullifying the work of God in forming Jacob’s descendants into a coherent people with special status due to their relationship with him.
And third, it showed that human beings do not really know how to solve their deepest problems. Having a king like other nations was not going to deal with sin and death. Those who are short sighted cannot actually see far enough into the distance to realise how far they are from a solution.
Fortunately, God is far from short sighted. Taking the longer view, he permitted Israel to have the kind of king they were looking for: Saul. But Saul’s kingship merely demonstrated the pitfalls of having a flawed human being leading a flawed nation to be like all other flawed nations. And ordinary kingship, such as all the other flawed nations had, simply involved passing rule from sinful, mortal father to sinful, mortal son. Through Saul, God showed that human initiative was not going to solve anything for Israel.
So God brought a new man to the throne: David. At this point, God made an astounding promise to David:
“When your time comes and you rest with your father, I will raise up your offspring after you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom permanently. I will become his father, and he will become my son.” (2 Sam 7:12–14a)
With this promise, God changed the nature of kingship in Israel. No longer would it be ordinary, garden-variety kingship, such as all the other nations had. It would be different. God promised to take the heirs of David who would succeed him on the throne, and make them his own sons. God himself was effectively entering the dynasty of David, becoming its father-figure, so that the king who ruled Israel from Jerusalem ruled as God’s son. In this way, the perfect, immortal God would continue to rule as Israel’s head of state, but he would do this through his son, the Davidic king.
This promise changed the nature of Israel forever. Ever since its inception, Israel was God’s personal property, his treasured possession. But now, he chose to share his personal property with his son, the Davidic king, through whom he ruled Israel.
The symbol of this promise was the temple in Jerusalem. Before this time, Israel engaged with God at the Tabernacle, which had originally been set up shortly after God rescued Israel from slavery in Egypt. The Tabernacle was a portable place of worship, made of fabric, leather, and detachable frames, so that it could be packed down and moved as needs be. But now with the promise to David, God ordained David’s son to build a permanent place of worship for him. Its permanence was symbolic of the permanent commitment God was making to David and his dynasty—they would have an everlasting dynasty that would reflect his everlasting rule over his people.
Yet, this was not the ultimate solution to Israel’s problems with sin and death. God had taken a decisive step forward in dealing with sin and death, but like David himself, his heirs who ruled in Jerusalem on God’s behalf were also sinful and mortal. In fact, they demonstrated these two problems acutely—so much so, that they led the nation into fracture, the worship of other gods, and then into complete destruction. In the sixth century bc, there was no longer any Davidic kingdom at all. The king was ruthlessly removed from Jerusalem, and the temple—the symbol of God’s commitment to David—was violently destroyed. The catastrophe led one psalmist to cast pointed accusation towards God:
You have disowned the covenant with your servant,
dishonoured his crown on the ground…
Where are your original commitments, O Lord?
You swore to David in your faithfulness! (Ps 89:39, 49)
When we understand that the Davidic covenant was a step in God’s intention to deal with the most fundamental human problems, we begin to realise that the fall of the Davidic kingdom was not just a national catastrophe. Yes, it was that, and the trauma left an indelible mark on the national Jewish psyche. But it also called into question God’s goodness, faithfulness, and interest in dealing with humanity’s deepest issues.
But it was not the end of the story. Christmas had not yet come!
Although God’s people were exiled from their land for three or so generations, God acted to allow them to return. When they came back, they rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. This wasn’t only so they could continue relating to God, but also to re-establish the Davidic kingdom that had been destroyed 70 years before. The temple was that physical symbol of God’s commitment to David. Yet, the problem of the so-called “Second Temple Period” was that God’s people had the very symbol of the Davidic covenant in their midst—the temple—and yet they never got the Davidic king back. It was such an incongruent situation. Instead, they spent the next five centuries being passed from one empire to the next.
In those five centuries, there were moments of hope. In the second century bc, the Jews even managed to gain their independence and set up their own kingdom. But this wasn’t a Davidic kingdom led by a Davidic king who ruled on God’s behalf as God’s son. It was, instead, a kingdom ruled by a priestly family, who ended up looking very much like the kings of the nations around them.
In 37 bc, the Romans controlled most of the Mediterranean world. They appointed Herod as King of the Jews. There were a few problems with this. First, Herod was a lackey of the Romans, so the Jewish nation was not independent. Second, Herod was not a Davidic descendant. On the contrary, he was an Edomite. Yet, Herod was politically savvy. He realised that one of the job descriptions of the “King of the Jews” was to be a temple builder. So he rebuilt the temple of God in Jerusalem in the most dazzling fashion, turning it into the biggest temple complex of the Roman world. Yet building a temple did not automatically qualify someone to be King of the Jews. Indeed, most Jews saw through Herod’s ploys, and still maintained the hope that there would one day rise a descendant of David who would free them from their enemies.
And then, some years later, “the hopes and fears of all the years” were met in Bethlehem one night with the birth of a male child to a Jewish couple descended from David. The angel that foretold his birth told to his mother said to her,
“He will be great and called the son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his ancestor, and he will rule over the House of Jacob forever. His kingdom will have no end.” (Luke 1:32–33)
When Herod was informed of the birth of this child, he rightly feared for his own status as King of the Jews. His response of slaughtering the babes of Bethlehem demonstrates some of the worst excesses of human power. Herod was by no means a solution to the deepest human problems of sin and death.
When the child was presented for circumcision at the temple, the righteous old man, Simeon, took the babe in his arms and declared that he had seen the salvation of God—a light for revelation to the nations, and the glory of Israel (Luke 2:32). And the prophetess, Anna, thanked God for the coming redemption of Jerusalem.
When we look at such responses to the birth of Jesus, it all seems so political—talk of kingship and greatness and glory and redemption. And that’s exactly what it was! We tend to lose this aspect of Jesus’ life, often seeing such political implications as misguided. Yet, it is precisely what Gabriel announced to Mary, and was completely in step with the promises of God in the Old Testament. Jesus was born to become King of the Jews. And when, as an adult, he came to Jerusalem calling for the temple to be torn down and promising to build a new one, he was fulfilling the role of a Davidic king to be a temple builder, ruling God’s people on his behalf.
What nobody was expecting was the manner of his coronation, or the significance of it. For when the child became a man, the crown placed on his head was made of thorns. The throne of his ancestor David was a Gentile cross of execution. And what placed him on that throne was the hate of humanity and nails driven into his limbs.
But as we look at what appeared to be his confounding failure, what we actually see is his stunning success. For the life Jesus surrendered on that cross had been perfect—from the moment of his birth through to his last gasp of breath. By allowing himself to be executed, he allowed humanity to give full vent to its sin. And in taking it upon himself as he died, he put sin to death. Then, by emerging from his tomb alive again, he conquered death—never to die again. In ascending to the right hand of God, he took his heavenly throne over all nations. And in granting his Spirit to those who believe in him, he built a new temple—the Church, in which people of all nations, Jew and Gentile alike, may worship God in Spirit and in truth.
The political context in which Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again, is not insignificant. For these were the very means God used to deal with our most fundamental human problems. And that means that the political context in which Jesus appeared cannot simply be confined to history as a curiosity. It is how Jesus fulfilled the very great and precious promises of God that have brought salvation even to us today.
Christmas does not signal the birth of a religious genius who appeared out of the blue. It is God stepping into human history in fulfilment of his promises to Israel—the coming of the one to whom Israel belonged. It is the birth of one who did not become son of God by adoption, but who was God the Son by nature through all eternity. Christmas represents God coming to live the life we could not lead, and die the death that would solve our deepest problems. It is the King of the Jews coming with salvation.
As we advance towards Christmas 2018, let’s try to recover some of the significance of Jesus’ birth from the time when history was still advancing towards it. Let’s fall in love again with the Old Testament that promised and shaped the expectation of God’s intervention in human history. Let the opening words of the New Testament thrill us:
The book of the birth of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, son of Abraham. (Matt 1:1)
And let’s fall in love again with the one who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to cling to, but emptied himself and adopted our nature.
“Glory to God in the highest places,
and on earth peace among people of his goodwill.”
A very blessed Christmas to all!