A Christmas Postscript
Most likely you heard or received many messages, devotionals, Christmas cards, and other means of communication this past Christmas season containing the text of Luke 2, Isaiah 9, or Matthew l. Probably the overwhelming majority of Christmas messages are taken from those texts, and, as a result, they tend to lose their impact for many Christians because of their familiarity. Obviously, there is nothing wrong with using these texts to convey the message of the incarnation, but allow me to offer another passage that does not receive as much attention – Galatians 4:4-6:
But, when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law, To redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons. And because ye are sons, God hath sent forth the Spirit of his Son into your hearts, crying, Abba, Father.
The Purposes of Bethlehem
The first purpose of Bethlehem was to demonstrate God’s perfect timing of the birth of Christ: “But when the fullness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law” (Gal. 4:4). While many Christians readily admit and proclaim that God’s will is perfect, few give much consideration to God’s timing. Without going into great detail, let’s look at three ways in which “the fullness of the time” indicates perfect timing on God’s part.
First, Isaiah prophesied the birth of the Messiah centuries before it occurred (Isa. 7:14; 9:6-7), and he also gave the spiritual and social background against which that birth would take place. Isaiah 9:1-2 gives the context of the birth of Christ. Although the birthplace of the Messiah was Bethlehem, He grew up and ministered in the area called by Isaiah “Galilee of the nations [Gentiles]” where “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light; they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined.” Isaiah accurately portrayed the situation in Galilee at the time of Christ’s birth and during His ministry there. After the Babylonian captivity, the Jews gradually resettled the land of Israel. But their occupation was repressed, first by the Greeks and then by the Romans. The situation was not pleasant for the Jews of Jesus’ day. They became national slaves to Rome and spiritual slaves to their tradition and law (cf. Mt. 23:1-4ff). They certainly needed the “light” of Christ’s gospel (cf. Lk. 4:16-22).
Second, when Caesar Augustus issued his decree that all the world (Roman world) should be taxed, Mary and Joseph had to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for the census taking. Thus, Mary’s and Paul’s “fullness of the time” were beautifully coordinated for the birth of Christ to be a fulfillment of Micah 5:2: “But thou, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall he come forth unto me that is to be ruler in Israel, whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting.” The rest, as they say, was history!
Third, the above-mentioned Greek oppression also left some significant literary impressions, the most important of which was the Greek koine language in which the New Testament was written. From a purely literary point of view, God could not have chosen a more beautiful and descriptive language with which to record the events of Christ’s birth. God even used a Greek physician, Luke, to describe the birth in a manner only a doctor would use.
The second purpose of Bethlehem is introduced in Galatians 4:5a: “To redeem them that were under the law.” In the original language, verse five begins with the phrase “in order that.” The Greek particle from which that phrase is translated indicates that there is an intended purpose coming. It is as if Paul were saying, Give special attention to the reason Christ came in the fullness of the time. Paul stated that the primary purpose of Bethlehem was to bring about the plan of redemption! He established that we don’t have Christmas just to decorate with pretty colors. We don’t have Christmas just to fill the house with the pleasant smell of baked goods. We don’t have Christmas just so merchants can make millions of dollars. We don’t have Christmas just for an excuse to behave nicer than at other times of the year. We don’t have Christmas just to get a pleasant break in the midst of the winter depression. We don’t even have Christmas just so there can be an abundance of church-related activities, parties, Christmas programs, concerts, etc. to attend! The purpose of Christmas, dear Christian, is so that we can experience the plan of redemption. How far we have come from Paul’s explanation of the purpose of Christmas. Paul would be horrified if he could see and hear the average Christian’s perspective on Christmas today!
The third purpose of Bethlehem is closely related to the second; indeed, it virtually comes out of it. Paul used the same purpose particle to show that we are not only redeemed but also adopted as sons of God: “that we might receive the adoption of sons” (Gal. 4:5b). Paul beautifully stated that we can now, with our new position as sons, call the holy, righteous, infinite, eternal, gracious God of the universe Daddy (“Abba, Father,” Gal. 4:6)! Our position as sons gives us an endearing relationship with God which we could not have without the plan of redemption and without being adopted into the family of God. As great as that truth is, however, some questions must be raised: How should a child of God behave? Shouldn’t there be various identifiable characteristics indicating that we belong to the family of God? Shouldn’t a son behave like and have characteristics that emulate his father? Assuming that’s true, what are these characteristics, and how should we recognize them? The Greek word Paul used to describe our sonship is interesting in itself. There are at least two Greek words he could have used to describe adopted sons. One is a word that usually denotes a little boy or child. It is an endearing term, but, when used, the writer is referring to a little guy who is just able to grab his dad by the leg and look at him eyeball to kneecap! The other Greek word means a fully mature son, not just a child, and that’s the word Paul used. Therefore, we should learn the characteristics of a mature son of God, not just the characteristics of a little guy.
If Jesus (the perfect Son of God) were to come physically into our presence so that we might speak with Him face to face, we could pose this question to Him: Since we have been adopted into the family of God, can You tell us how a child of God should act? Or, put another way, Jesus, in about 50 words, how would You describe Yourself, so that we may follow Your example as the Son of God? What do you suppose He would say? Interestingly, Jesus has already answered that question! On the only occasion in the Gospels where Christ described Himself, He left for us the consummate description of a son of God.
The Purpose of the Purposes
In Matthew 11:28-30, Jesus extends an invitation that is hard to resist: “Come unto me, all ye that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart, and ye shall find rest unto your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” He encourages all who are weary and heavy laden to come to Him, and He promises to give them rest. Jesus is appealing to those who labor to the point of exhaustion to seek their rest in Him. It seems the older I get, the more I appreciate rest! A little siesta after lunch – as is the custom in many Latin and European cultures – would be great. But Jesus offers rest from the labors and exhausting efforts of Christian living that even a siesta couldn’t touch. He further states that to get the work done correctly and with less effort, we should turn to Him because His yoke is easy, and His load is light.
In the midst of this gracious invitation, we are told why it is both possible and very appealing. Christ described Himself as no other religious leader or rabbi had ever done. He said that He is “meek [gentle] and lowly [humble] in heart.” For a son to display full-grown maturity as a member of the family of God, he is to be gentle and humble of heart. Those are strange and difficult characteristics to fathom in our 20th-century society. Today the emphasis is on being “number one,” demanding rights, getting all the “gusto,” striving for the top, etc., and it is not always easy for Christians to behave with gentleness and humility of heart. And exactly what do those terms mean?
The Greek word translated “gentle” can also mean humble, considerate, meek, unassuming. In classical Greek literature, this word was used to describe the taming of wild animals or the calming of those who were irritated or excited. What happens when an animal, such as a wild horse, is tamed? Basically, it is brought under control. However, that does not mean that the horse is robbed of its power, talents, or other qualities. Rather, all of those characteristics are brought under control so that the horse may be used for a better and more constructive purpose. Correspondingly, when this term is applied to a son of God, it denotes that all of the talents, capabilities, and energies God has given him are now brought under control so that he may bring honor to his Heavenly Father. The Son of God willingly restricted His individual attributes of the Godhead when He came to earth (Phil. 2:5-8). The believer, therefore, is to act as a mature son of God, allowing the Spirit of God to bring under control all the talents, capabilities, and energies God has given him. These characteristics are not to be used in a selfish manner but for the encouragement of the family of God.
To express this concept another way, when I behave in a “gentle” manner, I am not interested in what is best for me, what my rights are, how I might be advanced in the ministry. Instead, my primary concern is to allow God to use the talents and energies He has given me to help someone else succeed. I will do this whether or not I receive recognition, whether or not I am promoted, whether or not others see me as being a “nice guy.” My primary desire is to see that others become the best they can be – the best Christian, the best boss, the best family member, the best student, the best office worker, etc. – whether or not I receive any credit. The question I must ask myself is, How can I better help others advance in the family of God? – regardless of what happens to me or how I am perceived by others.
The other characteristic of a mature son of God, as Christ described Himself, is revealed in the phrase “lowly [humble] in heart.” The basic meaning of this phrase is low or flat. Hence, it has come to mean lowly, insignificant, weak, poor. In the Greek translation of the Hebrew Old Testament (the Septuagint), the main use of the verb form of this word is depicted as an action rather than a state, and this includes its results. It came to be translated “to stoop, to stoop low,…to be humbled, to bow down, to make low.” Paul used the word to show that God comforts those who are humble (2 Cor. 7:6) and to describe himself as being lowly or meek when he was with the Corinthians but bold when he wrote to them (2 Cor. 10:1-2). This is another biblical concept that has been lost in our arrogant and egocentric society. Regrettably, our present condition was prophesied in 2 Timothy 3:1-2, and modern Christians seem to relish living that kind of lifestyle. We don’t live low or flat; we live high and prominent. We want to be noticed. This is the exact opposite of the way a mature son of God should behave. Jesus actually said of Himself, I came to minister, not to be noticed.
When considering the purpose of Christ’s birth from the viewpoint of the Apostle Paul, our modern evaluation and conduct do not compare. The very thought of commercialization and even celebration of the birth of Christ was foreign to the apostle. If he were alive today, Paul would probably say that the best way to commemorate Christ’s birth would be to remind others of the plan of redemption God inaugurated at our Lord’s birth. Further, Paul considered the believer’s relationship to his Heavenly Father to be so vitally connected with the birth of Christ that, after redemption, his conduct as an adopted son should be of utmost importance. And, as has been established, that conduct is best demonstrated by the characteristics of the Son of God; namely, gentleness and humility of heart.
The next time you think “Merry Christmas,” think “redemption,” “gentleness,” and “humbleness of heart,” no matter what the rest of the world may think.