The Purpose of Christ’s Coming

And now the LORD says, he who formed me from the womb to be his servant, to bring Jacob back to him; and that Israel might be gathered to him— for I am honored in the eyes of the LORD, and my God has become my strength— he says: “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to bring back the preserved of Israel; I will make you as a light for the nations, that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth” (Isaiah 49:5-6 ESV).

This year I started reading the prophecy of Isaiah on December 1 — two chapters each day. It was not intentional but this practice led me to read this passage, “he who formed me from the womb,” on Christmas day. Interestingly, the reference here is to Christ himself, the one whose emergence from the womb we commemorate on Christmas.

Some scholars have described this passage as the Old Testament’s Great Commission. Christ’s coming was not simply so that we could have a quaint and sentimental celebration. His coming was to enlighten the nations to his Truth. He did not come just for Israel, He came for the whole world. That is at least part of the significance of the visit of the non-Jewish Magi in Matthew 2. Simeon told Mary and Joseph that their Baby would be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” in Luke 2:32.

Christian orthodoxy teaches that the heart of man is inherently selfish. We tend to gravitate to what will please ourselves; we look at life from a lens that magnifies the implications of decisions on ourselves; we have trouble taking the focus off of our needs and putting the needs of others first. That is why Isaiah quotes God as saying to the incarnate Messiah, “It is too small a thing to just consider the needs of Israel; I want you to reach all of the nations.”

This inherent selfishness in fallen man is how the enemy of our souls keeps us from seeing the real purpose of Messiah’s coming. We focus on the gifts coming to us rather than the Gift that came to redeem a lost world. We are told that the physical needs of the materially less fortunate are more important than the redemptive needs of those who have never heard. By giving to material needs there can be an immediate gratification to our souls — we feel good about ourselves when we give, and we feed a subtle pride that suggests that we are better than others because we can give when, perhaps, they cannot.

There is never anything wrong with giving — we need to give; we should give; God desires that we give. We simply must guard against the pride that wells up inside as we imagine that WE gave, that others — including God — are dependent upon US.

Messiah’s purpose in coming was not to selfishly restore just His own people — His mission was to the whole world. This wasn’t the after thought to His life, death, and resurrection, as if Jesus happened to say, “BTW, before I leave, go out and tell people about Me now that I have risen.” It was the primary purpose of His incarnation.

Too High of a Price

“You have sold your people for a trifle, demanding no high price for them. You have made us the taunt of our neighbors, the derision and scorn of those around us. You have made us a byword among the nations, a laughingstock among the peoples” (Psalm 44:12-14, ESV).

Jim Elliot was martyred for Christ on January 8, 1956 as he and four other missionaries in Ecuador were attempting to make contact with a warlike, stone-age tribe of Indians known as the Aucas. The story of their martyrdom is told in a book written by Elliot’s wife, Elizabeth (Betty), called Through Gates of Splendor. It is a classic that should be read by every earnest believer in Christ.

Betty Elliot also wrote about her husband’s inner spiritual life, gleaned largely through Jim’s journals. That book is called Shadow of the Almighty and is also a worthy read. At some point while he was a student at Wheaton College outside of Chicago, Elliot wrote in his journal, “He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep to gain what he cannot lose.”

At the time, this martyrdom made the national news here in the United States. The reporters assigned to this story (and even some church leaders) considered the deaths of the five missionaries to be a tragic waste of life. Human nature being what it is, there is no doubt that the wives and loved ones went through periods of grief, wondering about the high cost of reaching a tribe of a few hundred obscure Indians hidden in the jungles of Ecuador. It may surprise many to realize that the Psalmist felt a similar emotion in Psalm 44.

Those who question the martyrdom of these five men — including the church leaders — display a lack of understanding of the worth of the human soul. If men, made in the image of God, were worth redeeming at the cost of God’s own Son, what sacrifice is too much for even the most obscure people group on earth? Their grief, notwithstanding, the loved ones of these men understood this. But do we?

I have known many men who have left ministry because the cost was just too great. The headaches and heartaches of ministry just aren’t worth the relatively low pay, the constant stress, and the scorn of family and friends. Conflicts within the congregation take their toll on ministers’ marriages and children. It would be different if the Lord would demonstrate radically transformed lives as a result of our work, but that is not often the case — here or overseas. We often labor in obscurity, not seeing many results. For many who have left ministry, God has demanded too high of a price of them. In the words of the Psalmist, “[He] has sold [His] people for a trifle…”

Many people who consider themselves to be Christians have left the Church because the cost of being among God’s people (those to whom Jesus is committed) is too great. Humility and contrition are too high of a price to pay. The souls of pagan neighbors or coworkers or family members are just not worth the pain of not getting our way in a church decision. Certainly there are times when a principled stand must be taken in today’s Church, but are we really willing to stand before Jesus for something as trivial as the color of the carpet or which version of the Bible we prefer to read? We don’t want to be “a laughingstock among the peoples.”

Does God really require sacrifice from me? Does He really expect me to humble myself before someone with whom I have had a conflict so that — MAYBE — men might know Him? The wives of the five martyrs would say, “Yes.”

The Incarnation of Jesus

Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. (Hebrews 1:1-2, ESV)

Christians celebrate Christmas because it commemorates the incarnation of our Lord. Through this event the Creator God stepped into space and time and became a man, experiencing all of the joys and heartaches of human experience. Joseph, the man charged with the responsibility of caring for the infant Savior, was told that His name would be Jesus because He would “save His people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21).

The writer of the book of Hebrews began his letter by expressing the purpose of the incarnation a bit differently, saying that “[God] has spoken to us by His Son.” He wanted us to understand that Jesus’ purpose on earth was “to speak,” that is, to communicate (or reveal) the nature of the Godhead to men. To do so, as the rest of the book of Hebrews explains, Jesus had to leave the substantive world and enter ours, a world of forms and shadows, mere copies of the real and eternal. The incarnate Son revealed the real world.

At first, these two purposes seem to be unrelated — perhaps not at odds with each other, but certainly not supporting each other, as we would expect in the Scripture. A significant part of this disconnect stems from a misunderstanding of what God meant for men to be saved from their sins. For many in this era, to be saved means to have a happy place to go to when they die. It will be a place where their favorite foods will be served, where my neighbors (when I was a youth) used to hope they could set up their cribbage board and spend eternity in their favorite pastime. Certainly it will be a place where the sorrows and heartaches of this life will be over, where we won’t have to contend with sin any more, and where Jesus’ righteous reign will replace the flawed and dysfunctional government of this world.

The writer to the Hebrews, however, recognized that Jesus’ incarnation was more than a Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card or even a season pass (eternally renewed) to the happiest place in the universe — it was the entrance of our Creator into human experience. He would “sympathize with our weaknesses” (4:15; 5:2); He would know what it was to struggle to be obedient (5:8); and through His intercession on our behalf (because He understands the human experience), He would be able to save us “to the uttermost” (7:25), not just from the penalty of our sin.

When we have a proper understanding of the biblical concept of salvation there is no conflict between the statement of the angel to Joseph and the purpose outlined by the writer to the Hebrews. Salvation involves an intimacy with the Godhead made possible only because God entered into that experience with us. The transformed Apostle Paul could write, then, that all of the perks of this world were mere rubbish in light of “knowing” Jesus (Phil 3:8-11). The Psalmist, Asaph, recognized that, of all that the world offered, the Lord Himself was “His portion” (Ps 73:26). And Solomon told us that there is a “friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Prov. 18:24).

Christmas is ultimately not about stables and mangers, wise men and gifts — it is about a God who wants to enter into an intimate relationship with those He created in His own image. He experienced our world so that we could experience His.

The Music of Christmas

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 among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:13-14, ESV).

While my previous blog highlighted some of the things I don’t like about the American Christmas holidays in this era, there are some really wonderful parts to it as well, especially the music that often accompanies the season.

There is no other time of the year when familiar strains of music exalting the Savior are played in public venues. Regularly I pray that someone’s heart would awaken when they hear, “Hallelujah! for the Lord God omnipotent reigneth,” or “I know that my Redeemer liveth…” Even the most hardened pagan can understand the message despite the antiquated, Shakespearean forms of these verbs. Perhaps the Holy Spirit will open the heart of a person to ponder the question, “What Child is this who laid to rest, on Mary’s lap is sleeping?” Why did the “angels greet [Him] with anthems sweet while shepherds watch are keeping”?

For us who believe in Jesus, these lyrics give us opportunities to speak of the substance of the Christian Gospel while the rest of the world is merely “fa-la-la-ing” among their boughs of holly. Despite the political correctness of this world, the traditional carols (so far) are still considered part of our cultural celebration, so that the thoughtful pagan reveler might actually begin to link the celebration with Jesus, the King of Kings, rather than Santa Claus, the benevolent home invader.

I also pray for the innocent child who hears about the Baby Jesus and asks his/her parents why there is such a fuss over this Baby. What makes Him special? Perhaps the Lord will use the discomfort in the child’s parents over an innocent question to make them consider what really is the “mercy mild” that this Baby brought to reconcile God and sinners. Maybe the Lord will awaken their hearts to realize that they themselves are the sinners that He came to reconcile to Himself!

Even if the person doesn’t respond to the Gospel through the text of the familiar lyrics, the lyrics will have accomplished their purpose. It will be a sad scene for some as they stand before the throne of God on that day, as they try to justify their rejection of Christ by claiming that they had never heard the Gospel message. I can imagine the Lord stopping them mid-sentence (Rom 3:19) and bringing to their remembrance the music they heard in the mall or on their secular radio station that told them to “Fall on their knees” before the incarnate Son who became flesh on that holy night.

I know that there is much Christmas music these days that is pseudo-Christian or downright secular which we all enjoy, which highlights the cultural aspects of the season. We innocently dream of the white Christmases depicted by the Currier and Ives paintings while quietly wishing for a tender Tennessee celebration so that we don’t have to fight the weather. Nostalgically we can even smell the pumpkin pies, even if we are not originally from Pennsylvania. But I love the music of Christmas because inevitably we are drawn back to the stable near the overcrowded inn where Mary’s little boy-child was born so that men can live forevermore if they put their trust in Him.