(November 29, 2020) Dr Jim McClure, straight shooting theologian, reflects on the full significance of next month’s spiritual highlight…
Christmas is quickly approaching. Having grown up in in Ireland and then ministering in England, I was used to having Christmas as a mid-winter celebration and, I must admit, I miss that kind of Christmas atmosphere! But wherever we live, as Christians the most important thing we associate with Christmas is the birth of Jesus! Images readily spring to mind…
- The newborn baby lying in a stable manger.
- Mary and Joseph and the shepherds gazing in awe at the newborn child.
- The visit of the wise men to the infant Jesus (although their timing was actually off by a couple of years)
- Christmas carols playing a part in reinforcing this scenario.
The surprising thing is that in the early church Christmas was not celebrated as a festival. I don’t mean that the first Christians didn’t believe that Jesus, God’s Son, was born in a stable in Bethlehem. Of course, they did. But in the first couple of centuries Christmas, as a festival, did not exist. In the early writings of Christians, there are no references to celebrating of Jesus’ birth while there are many references to celebrating his atoning death and glorious resurrection. For example, about 20 years after the ascension of Jesus, Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, ‘Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Therefore let us keep the Festival’ (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).
Why then was the birth of Jesus not also celebrated as a festival? I’m sure that part of the reason was that no one was really sure of the exact date on which Jesus was born although after a few centuries the church, with some rather strange reasoning, settled on two possible dates – December 25 and January 6 – although both dates are probably wrong!
Eventually, almost 300 years after Jesus was born, people began actively to celebrate
his birth in mid-winter.
A celebration to be kept!
So as Christmas was not observed as a ‘festival’ in the early church, should we observe it today? My answer is, ‘Yes! Absolutely yes!’ Because the birth of Jesus Christ is uniquely wonderful. Nothing like this had ever happened before or since!
Did Paul celebrate the birth of Jesus? He most certainly did because to Paul the birth of Jesus Christ was an integral part of the divine plane of salvation.
In Galatians 4:4-6 he wrote, ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”’
1. Amazing Timing – ‘…the time had fully come’
I don’t know who coined the phrase ‘Timing is everything’ but there is so much truth in it. The ‘right’ time is acutely important. This is what Solomon was saying in Ecclesiastes 3:1, ‘There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven.’ The Good News Bible translates verse 11 in this way, ‘He (God) has set the right time for everything.’
That is precisely what Paul was meaning when he wrote in Galatians 4:4, ‘When the time had fully come, God sent his Son.’ He wanted us to grasp the significance of the timing of Jesus’ birth. It happened at just the right time – not too soon and not too late. At a very precise time in history a miracle happened in a Bethlehem stable and this set in motion a series of events that was forever to change human history.
The coming of Jesus, which for hundreds of years the prophets looked forward to in awesome anticipation, took place at the most opportune time in history. Israel and Judah, and indeed the whole world, had gone through a long time of darkness and war but now the Roman Empire had become established and ruled many nations in Europe, Asia and Africa and it brought what it called the Pax Romana, that is, the ’Peace of Rome’, throughout the nations. This period of peace lasted for over 200 years. The goal of the Roman Emperors was to establish and maintain law, order and safety throughout their empire. They largely established that and there was great political stability throughout the Roman world in those days. The Romans also allowed the Jews to practise their religion.
With that stability there was a greater freedom to travel than ever before. And because the Romans were remarkable road builders, travel was also now so much easier. When the Romans came to power, the Greek language had already established itself as a universal, second language that was spoken and read in many countries. This was the language in which the New Testament was written.
The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, issued a decree that required everyone to go to their hometown to be registered. Caesar was wholly unaware of the fact that he was playing a significant part in the fulfilling of a 700-year-old prophecy by Micah that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. There was never a better time for…
- The world at large, and not just the Jews, to discover that the Creator of the world cared about his world.
- The message of God’s love for humankind to begin to be broadcast throughout the world.
- God personally to make an appearance in his world.
And an absolutely amazing and unrepeatable thing happened 2000 years ago but most people were not even aware of its significance. And today, sadly, most people are still not aware of the awesome significance of the birth of Jesus.
2. Astonishing Revelation – ‘…God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law’
In the early church there was a major debate raging – who really was Jesus? Those who were engaging in the debate didn’t doubt the fact of the historical person of Jesus. They didn’t doubt that he ministered and taught, was crucified, rose again and ascended into heaven. But the question that some people were asking was – ‘Who was Jesus, really?’ The core belief of the church was that Jesus was both God and man.
But some people were arguing that he couldn’t be both. One group maintained that Jesus was simply a man, although a particularly good man, a holy man and a wonderful teacher. Some added to this by stating that Jesus was a man in whom God’s power dwelt but that he couldn’t truly be God!
Another group went in the opposite direction and said that Jesus was God and definitely could not have been a man. They said that as God was a spiritual identity, Jesus couldn’t have had a physical material body – he only appeared to be a man and that, in reality, he wasn’t a real human being at all and his human body was an illusion.
So which group was right? The answer is, ‘Neither.’ The beliefs of both groups were both wrong! Both were sincere – but they were sincerely wrong. And they were both causing great harm to the church and to its message. This was the issue Paul was addressing in this verse when he wrote, ‘God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law.’ It is so easy just to read those words without realising that Paul was declaring some very profound Christian truths. So, let’s see what Paul was saying to the church in Galatia as he affirmed three astonishing things about Jesus:
(i) ‘God sent his Son’
This is a staggering comment. It is declaring the full deity of Jesus. At a certain point of time God, who had previously sent the prophets to proclaim his message, now personally stepped into our world in the person of Jesus. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem was a manifestation and demonstration of God’s personal intervention into the world. The child in the manger was none other than God incarnate, God made flesh. This astonishing event defies human reasoning. It defies logic! But God doesn’t restrict himself by working within the boundaries of human logic. The most astonishing event in history took place that night! God stepped out of heaven for a time and visited earth as a human being.
In sending his Son, God was revealing his heart. In 1 John 4:9 we read, ‘This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.’ Jesus was the visible demonstration and the evidence of God’s love. There is no one to compare with Jesus – he alone is the Son of God! In 2 Corinthians 9:15 Paul was lost for words when he thought about Jesus and so, with great gratitude he wrote, ‘Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!’ Words are inadequate to describe the gift of God’s only Son to us.
(ii) ‘…born of a woman’
In that simple statement Paul was declaring the full humanity of Jesus. He didn’t just suddenly appear one day in a puff of smoke or in a blaze of light. No, in fulfillment of a promise God made in Genesis 3:15 that the Messiah should be the offspring of a woman, born of her flesh and blood, Paul was declaring that Jesus entered the world in the same way that every child does. His mother Mary had been pregnant with him for nine months and she would have experienced all the discomfort that pregnancy brings, and she probably felt him squirming in her womb.
(iii) ‘…born under law’
Jesus was born into a Jewish family in Israel. As such, he was born ‘under the law.’ To be under the Law means that the Law has jurisdiction over a person and has the authority to judge and condemn. Jesus said, ‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them’ (Matthew 5:17). Jesus was the only human being ever to keep the Law perfectly. In satisfying all the Law’s requirements, he alone was qualified to be our sin-substitute.
3. Astounding Purposes ‘…to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”’
Having underlined the fact that Jesus was both God and man, Paul then revealed three astounding purposes behind Jesus’ coming…
(i) Redemption – ‘…to redeem those under the law.’
The word ‘redeem’ is part of the vocabulary of the slave market. If a person wanted a slave, he went to one of the many slave markets and purchased one whom he could either keep to serve him as a slave or release him or her to live as a free person. The word ‘redeem’ means to ‘set free by paying a price.’ Our salvation was costly! The price Jesus paid was his own death of the cross. Paul explained it this way in Galatians 3:13, ‘Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us.’
(ii) Sonship – ‘…that we might receive the full rights of sons.’ (‘children’ GNB)
Because Jesus has paid the price for us, we may have placed us into God’s family as God’s children. God did not pay the redemption price to make us his slaves but to make us his children. Once we were living under the bondage of law but now, through Christ, we live under the unfathomable grace of God as his children.
(iii) Intimacy with God – ‘…God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who calls out, “Abba, Father.”’
Look at this astounding purpose – God enables us to have an intimate, close, profound and loving relationship with him. Nowhere in Jewish literature has God been called ‘Abba’ because it is a very personal word that only children can use to their father. It corresponds to our word ‘Daddy.’ And the only place we find it in the gospels is Mark 14:36 which records Jesus’ anguish in the garden of Gethsemane and his crying out to God, ‘Abba, Father, everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me.’
Grasp this astounding truth – through Jesus Christ we have the status of being God’s children, and through the Holy Spirit we can have the experience of such intimacy with God that we also may cry out to God and address him as Abba – Daddy, dear Father.
The full significance of the Christmas message is something we should never stop celebrating!
Dr Jim McClure, author of several books such as the enlightening Grace Revisited and Bible study series, welcomes questions from Christians seeking enlightenment on biblical perspectives.
Grace Revisited is highly recommended – as are Looking for Answers in a Confusing World, Overview of the Old and New Testaments, Love, Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage, The Masonic Deception, Word of Life in the Old and New Testaments and Interpreting the Letter of James. All are available in electronic version in EPUB, Kindle and PDF formats with hyperlinks and offered free. Link for orders and questions: firstname.lastname@example.org