Whose Birth Exactly Are We Celebrating on Christmas?
Posted on 26 Dec 2020 by Li Qi Yip
Whose birth exactly are we celebrating on Christmas?
Yup. It’s Jesus Christ’s.
That wasn’t a trick question. Even non-Christians have at least heard about CHRISTmas being the celebration of CHRIST’s birth. But for us CHRISTians who have become so used to this fact, I hope that the significance of Christ’s birth has not been lost on us.
In the first place, have we ever stopped and considered what it is about our birth that is so significant to warrant persistent celebration year after year? I don’t know about you, but as a kid (and even a teenager), birthdays were fun and cool! Yet, around the time I turned 20, the novelty was starting to wear off. With the likes of Facebook firmly integrated into the fabric of social life, we are reminded of someone’s birthday every day. Eventually, it became apparent that birthdays were mostly just another day – except with added benefits. But Christmas is not a birthday party like the ones we throw for our friends and family every year just for festivities’ sake, without any deeper meaning, and repeated again the next year, and then the next, and again and again; ad nauseam. No. Not at all.
The Christ’s birth is different. That’s significant. Very significant.
To appreciate the magnitude of Christ’s birth, let us put ourselves in the shoes of the Israelites of that time. The very first Christmas (before it was celebrated as such) was neither about the birth of an ordinary man, nor a celebration without profound meaning. The birth of Jesus in Bethlehem held deep historic significance for the faithful who have been awaiting the fulfilment of God’s oracles: it brought millennia of prophecy and hope to culmination – a cathartic climax in the redemptive history of God’s people after thousands of years living in frustration and hopelessness.
This was BIG.
It was the birth of the Saviour that has been long awaited by the whole of creation.
He is the serpent-crushing offspring
Let’s start from the very beginning.
Everything. Was. Good (Gen 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31).
But The Fall happened.
That was when the serpent planted sin into the hearts of humankind. Ever since then, all of us without exception have been enslaved by its crafty whispers which teach us to rebel against our Creator and rationalise for us that it is okay (Gen 3:1-5). Because of this, we became co-conspirators in suppressing God’s truth, choosing instead to decide for ourselves right and wrong (Rom 1:18-23). We reject our Creator’s rule, choosing instead to live under the serpent’s rule (all the while believing that we are in control). Things were no longer good.
Would our holy God stand for this? No.
That would have been the end for us, but thankfully God had a plan.
14 The Lord God said to the serpent,
“Because you have done this,
cursed are you above all livestock
and above all beasts of the field;
on your belly you shall go,
and dust you shall eat
all the days of your life.
15 I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and her offspring;
he shall bruise your head,
and you shall bruise his heel.”
We see the first seed of the gospel sown in Genesis 3:15. The serpent beguiled Adam and Eve into sin, and corrupted God’s good design for humanity ever since. Yet, it is against this backdrop of the most disastrous event in mankind’s history that we see the first ray of hope – one day, the woman’s offspring (remember this word) will bruise (or crush) the serpent’s head; the great evil that constantly tempts humankind with sin which separates us from God will be vanquished.
When that happens, the shackles of sin will be broken, freeing us to worship God. All of creation would be reconciled to God, and God would finally be able to dwell with His people. Things will be good again.
But what happened next was instead more evil: from the offspring of Adam and Eve, we see brother murdering brother (Gen 4:8), wickedness corrupting the earth, and God flooding the world with a great deluge in judgment, sparing only Noah’s family (Gen 6-7). Yet, even this remnant who received God’s mercy through Noah’s ark continued to perpetuate evil, with the entire populace colluding to overthrow God by building the Tower of Babel (Gen 11).
It isn’t until we are introduced to another offspring of the woman by the name of Abraham – the man through whom all the families of the earth shall be blessed according to God’s promise (Gen 12:1-3) – that rays of hope shine through again. Abraham will be exceedingly fruitful, and kings will come from his line; God will establish a covenant with him and his offspring throughout generations for an everlasting covenant: to be their God (Gen 17:1-8).
What follows next are the life stories of Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses and all of God’s faithful – all eagerly yearning for the day the promised offspring is born, so that all creation can be restored and reconciled to goodness under God’s rule.
This was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate on Christmas.
He is the promised Son of David
God’s people need to be led by God’s king in order to be God’s people. In the beginning, God Himself presided as king over His people, leading through proxies like Abraham, Moses, Joshua and the Judges. But when Israel demanded for Samuel to appoint a king over them – like the other nations around them – Israel in effect rejected God as king (1 Sam 8:4-8).
Yet, this was not unexpected; Moses had anticipated Israel’s eventual request for a king, and set out the necessary characteristics of Israel’s king at Deut 17:14-20: he will be chosen by God; he must not be a foreigner, he must fear the Lord; and he must keep all the words of His law and statutes. Essentially, in order to rule God’s people, he must be ruled by God.
King David was a great king and arguably Israel’s greatest ever leader. The Lord gave Him victory wherever he went; he was a man after God’s own heart (1 Sam 13:14); and he very much seemed to fit the Deuteronomic mould of kings. It made complete sense for Israelites of the time to think, “could David be the serpent-crushing offspring?”
But he was not the Messiah.
12 When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. 13 He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. 14 I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. When he commits iniquity, I will discipline him with the rod of men, with the stripes of the sons of men, 15 but my steadfast love will not depart from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away from before you. 16 And your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever.’ (2 Sam 7:12-16)
David was the best amongst us, yet even he – with his sins toward Bathsheba and Uriah – fell short of God’s perfect standard. Israel’s search for its Messiah continues, but God’s people were given additional clues: this Messiah will descend from the line of David; He would be like a son to God; God’s steadfast love would never depart from Him; and His kingdom shall be established forever.
This echoed the description of Psalm 2, where the Lord’s anointed king is also the Lord’s begotten Son. The nations are His heritage, and the earth His possession. His enemies stand no chance against Him, and blessed are all who take refuge in Him.
This Messiah is also the stump of Jesse, who – like the stump of a tree which survives after its rotten boughs have been chopped off – shall be the embodiment of a renewed Israel liberated from sin, nourished by the Spirit of the Lord, and faithfully growing fruits of righteousness (Isa 10:20-11:5).
Logically, our searching eyes move on to Solomon, David’s son. God was pleased to give him a wise and discerning mind unlike any other before or after him; God also gave him both riches and honour, so that no other king could compare with him; and God would lengthen Solomon’s days if he walked in God’s ways, and kept God’s statutes and commandments like David did (1 Kings 3:12-14). Surely, it had to be him!?
But Solomon did not continue walking in God’s ways (1 Kings 11:1-8).
Thereafter, the nation of Israel splintered into the northern and southern kingdoms. Various kings ruled over God’s people – mostly terrible kings, but there were some better ones like Josiah. Eventually, the regional superpower of Babylon besieged Jerusalem, razed God’s temple, and forced the Israelites into exile. No Israelite king presided over God’s people ever since.
Where was the promised Son of David, whose throne would be established forever? Will that day ever come?
This was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate on Christmas.
He is the Lamb of God
The concept of sacrifice is embedded in the lives of God’s people. As an atonement for our sin and rebellion deserving of God’s wrath, animals are made to die the death we should have died, so that we may temporarily be at peace with God. Unless something changed, this perpetual cycle of sacrifice and atonement was the only way a holy God could have dwelt with His perpetually sinful people.
There is perhaps no animal sacrifice more well-known than the Passover lamb (Exo 12:1-28). Enslaved and oppressed in Egypt, Pharaoh would not let the Israelites go to worship God. In response, God decided to execute judgment by striking every firstborn in the land of Egypt. God instructed the Israelites to sacrifice a male lamb without blemish and put its blood on the doorposts and lintel of their houses, which shall serve as a sign of protection for them – when God strikes, He shall recognise the blood as the sign of His people and pass over these houses, sparing them from the judgment.
That they needed to be spared indicated that Israel were no less deserving of God’s judgment – after all, they were sinners too. Israel’s firstborn sons were spared not because they were better than Egypt’s firstborn sons, but because spotless lambs died to take their place. This was the prototypical penal substitutionary atonement, and one that Israel were made to observe forever (Exo 12:24-27).
But could a lamb’s death really atone for our sins? And if this rite was to be observed forever, is it ultimately effective?
4 For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.
11 And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins. (Heb 10:4, 11)
Nope and… nope. The answer still had to be provided.
And God provided.
In Isaiah 53, we read a prophecy about a suffering servant who will be pierced for our transgressions; crushed for our iniquities; bring us peace through his chastisement; and heal us through his wounds. He was a lamb being led to the slaughter; it was the will of the Lord to crush him; and he shall make many to be accounted righteous.
For man to be accounted righteous, a sinless man who served God – our metaphorical spotless lamb – had to be sacrificed.
This was fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate on Christmas.
29 The next day he saw Jesus coming toward him, and said, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29)
12 But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, 13 waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. 14 For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.
Jesus was this lamb – a fact instantly recognised by John the Baptist. But more than that, He was also the great high priest who presents this lamb (Himself) to God as the perfect sacrifice that atones, sanctifies, and perfects God’s people once and for all.
He is Immanuel: God with us
Immanuel. That means God is with us. That’s good news, right!?
Absolutely! If you are on God’s side! *flashes blinding smile*
14 “Glory to God in the highest,
and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14)
Culture has somehow led us to believe that Immanuel only means good news. By jumping to that conclusion, we are forgetting something very important – we are, by default, sinners with whom God is not pleased.
Let’s take a look at Isaiah chapter 7, where the prophecy of Immanuel was first encountered:
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah–the king of Assyria!”
Yes. You read that right. Immanuel originally meant God is with us… in order to bring upon us judgment.
Now, do you remember what Isaiah said when he came into God’s presence in Isaiah 6?
“Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” (Isa 6:5)
This is Isaiah, one of God’s great prophets, that we are talking about. And even he trembled in the presence of God. Are we as righteous as he?
How about what happened to Nadab and Abihu when they carelessly offered incense without authorisation – do you remember that?
“1Now Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it and laid incense on it and offered unauthorized fire before the Lord, which he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord.” (Lev 10:1-2)
Most of us are probably more Nadab and Abihu than Isaiah in how we treat God, and we should thank God that He has seen fit to show us mercy in spite of how we have carelessly and willfully mistreated Him. Let us not take God for granted; He is not to be trifled with, and we must treat Him with due reverence. Entering into God’s presence or dwelling with Him without first dealing with the problem of sin spells only one thing for those who have sinned (read: all of mankind, other than Jesus): disintegration.
How then, can we withstand Immanuel? And why is it good news?
5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,[c] being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Phil 2:5-11)
Because God has come to dwell with us in the form of man, in Christ Jesus, to be the serpent-crushing offspring, to be the promised Son of David, and to be the Lamb of God – roles for which no worldly man or beast were qualified. Immanuel is good news for those who have attempted to keep faithful with God’s covenant, because it means God is not only with them, but also for them.
With His arrival, God’s people are now liberated from the shackles of sin to serve freely under God; they now have a perfect king to lead them; and they are now eternally reconciled to God by the sacrifice of the perfect Lamb of God. It is through this child that the much-yearned prophecies of Ezekiel 36-37 and Jeremiah 31 will be fulfilled: God will give His people a new heart; God will put His Spirit within us; He will write His laws on our hearts; we will walk in God’s statutes and obey His rules; our dead bones will be breathed into life; God will forgive our iniquity and remember our sin no more; an everlasting covenant of peace will be made; and God will dwell with us.
All of these sealed by the eternally comforting promise of:
“I will be their God; they shall be my people.”
These were all fulfilled by the birth of Jesus Christ, whom we celebrate on Christmas.
The Christ of Christmas
So friends, it is the birth of that person that we celebrate on Christmas.
Not Santa Claus, not Christmas decorations, not our family gatherings, certainly not our feasts, not presents nor goodwill.
But the Christ of Christmas – God incarnate Himself, who came into the world to live the obedient life we never could, so that God’s people can finally live the way God’s people should.
And if we can first get that right, then let us celebrate the peace, hope, and joy that His birth has brought into this world.
Merry Christmas, everyone.