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.

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.