Note: The below is a manuscript from a recent small group teaching in my local church. I have preserved the personal and contextual references for the benefit of my small group members who will be reading. Thanks!
Would you believe me if I told you that there is more going on to the story of Christmas than you ever dreamed possible? Would you believe me if I told you that Christmas was not only about joy, but about devastation? Would you believe me if I told you that Christmas was the precursor to the final Jewish Exodus from Exile?
My aim tonight is going to be to show you that all of these things are indeed true. It is going to be a fascinating journey and adventure into the world of Christ’s mission—into the world of Christmas.
Before we begin, I do feel as though I should offer a few important caveats. The reality is that some of what we’ll cover this evening is familiar territory, and other things that we’ll cover tonight, well……will not be familiar.
Pastor Stuart asked us to think about how to “sharpen” one another tonight, and I told him on the phone the other day I was going to sharpen us like a mechanical pencil, haha. I don’t want that to scare you—at the same time, I do feel as though part of my mission as it relates to the ministry of this church is to help stretch our minds, think biblically about everything, and not fear what the Bible has to say.
Let me add, as well, that everything I am about to say tonight is backed by sound biblical, evangelical scholarship, even though some of these items of discussion may seem unfamiliar. The reality is there is far more to the story of Christmas than we often think about it, and I think this study will help shed some light on that fact.
Before diving into the “meat and potatoes” of this study, we need to understand the concept of “hyperlinking” as it relates to the Bible. I use this because it is a modern analogy that is actually extremely accurate when it comes to thinking about how biblical writers wrote.
First, is it fair enough to assume that everyone here has a basic understanding of what it means to “hyperlink” to a webpage or something when writing a document?
In case there are any uninitiated, the basic idea is that you can highlight a certain string of words and “embed” a clickable link into those words. If you’ve ever received any email about a deal or something that said “click here to redeem your coupon” what you clicked was a hyperlink. Again, it is a string of text that is designed to transport you someplace else.
As it relates to the biblical text, there are layers/degrees of this. Most people have heard of this in its most basic form; I.e., when NT writers directly quote OT passages. Also, most modern Bibles do some of this work for you by putting textual links in the notes and margins.
The problem is that far too many of these miss even more important connections that are most discernible with knowledge of the biblical languages. That is not to say that what we are holding in our hands is not a faithful English translation of the original texts—it is. But there is always SOMETHING lost in translation, and for us, what is lost is worldview context. The worldview of an ancient Israelite or first century Jew is very different from what is commonly in OUR minds, so it’s important we do our best to think like them when studying the Bible.
So to that end, oftentimes this hyperlinking is accomplished through simply using similar words and phrases as were found in other passages. Biblical writers chose their words carefully and intentionally. The context of hyperlinking will be helpful as we progress through this study, and frankly, I hope the analogy sticks with you and it helps you going into future Bible study as well.
As for Christmas…it is more than a time to love our brethren, take care of our fellow man, etc. It is a time to celebrate the defeat of the powers, principalities, and dark forces that currently hold the world in bondage. To celebrate the last and final Exodus. And to celebrate the restoration of hope and resurrection for all humanity. This is the cosmic mission of Christmas — let’s dive in.
1. To End the Exile of Israel
A. The Importance of the Jewish Mindset
One of the things you’ll hear myself, Pastor Stu, and Pastor Jake talk about often is our Western / American mindset. I don’t think anyone gets this impression from Pastor Jake (he’s fairly straightforward about his love for America), but there is nevertheless a risk of thinking there is some bias against being American when we talk about this. That is not what’s going on.
I love being an American. Our country was founded on Christian values, we live in the best country in the world, and I want to do everything in my power to keep it that way. BUT—Jews—those to whom the story of the Bible was directly written—did not have an American mindset. They didn’t have an English mindset. They didn’t have a Roman Catholic mindset. They didn’t have a Reformation mindset.
The context for the biblical writers is the world they lived in. That world was, broadly speaking, the ancient Near Eastern and Hellenistic Greco-Roman culture. People thought very differently about the world in those days, so it’s important to place ourselves there.
As it relates to the present study, I’m merely wanting to make the point that the NT is a collection of JEWISH documents. We don’t think of it that way because we are viewing it in hindsight as CHRISTIANS. But the documents were written by early Jews, to early Jews.
B. The Jews Still Saw Themselves as an Exiled People
It is quite common to think that the end of Israelite exile was the Judean return from Babylon in 539 BC. The problem is that baked into this is the assumption that, after the splitting of the tribes of Israel into the Northern and Southern Kingdoms, the Northern Kingdom was mysteriously written out of God’s plan for the restoration and redemption of his people. As far as I can tell, this is assumption that is taught nowhere in the biblical text — in fact, I think the very opposite is taught.
Jeremiah 23:1-8, for example says:
Woe be unto the pastors that destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! saith the Lord. Therefore thus saith the Lord God of Israel against the pastors that feed my people; Ye have scattered my flock, and driven them away, and have not visited them: behold, I will visit upon you the evil of your doings, saith the Lord. And I will gather the remnant of my flock out of all countries whither I have driven them, and will bring them again to their folds; and they shall be fruitful and increase. And I will set up shepherds over them which shall feed them: and they shall fear no more, nor be dismayed, neither shall they be lacking, saith the Lord. Behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that I will raise unto David a righteous Branch, and a King shall reign and prosper, and shall execute judgment and justice in the earth. In his days Judah shall be saved, and Israel shall dwell safely: and this is his name whereby he shall be called, THE LORD OUR RIGHTEOUSNESS. Therefore, behold, the days come, saith the Lord, that they shall no more say, The Lord liveth, which brought up the children of Israel out of the land of Egypt; But, The Lord liveth, which brought up and which led the seed of the house of Israel out of the north country, and from all countries whither I had driven them; and they shall dwell in their own land.
Of course, we have the unfair advantage of knowing that God’s plan was the redemption of not only all the Israelite tribes, but of people from EVERY tribe and tongue in the world. The gospel was for the Jew first—but it was, and is, also for the gentile.
Jews who had come back from the Babylonian exile would have understood that something was still missing. There was supposed to be a Messianic deliverer who restored all the tribes of Israel. He was supposed to be a military ruler and conquering king. Needless to say, Jesus of Nazareth is NOT who they were anticipating. You can imagine their disappointment when it turns out the conquering king is not a military leader, but an obscure carpenter from Nazareth apparently born to a virgin.
C. The Mission of Christ was the New Exodus
We could go a few different directions here; for now, I am going to spoil the conclusion for our point without giving too much deeper context: The return from Exile was inaugurated at Pentecost.
Acts 2:1-8 reads:
And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language. And they were all amazed and marvelled, saying one to another, Behold, are not all these which speak Galilaeans? And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born?
This was the beginning of God’s plan to infiltrate the known world—and the unknown world—with the gospel. And not only that, but it was executed by faithful Jews from these nations. They would be returning—as Christians—with news that the Messiah had come to save his people. Jesus arrived on the scene as the Messianic King, and sent the Spirit to dwell with his people.
The radical reality was that access to God was now direct, through the Spirit. Christmas, therefore, marks the beginning of the saga which would [temporarily] conclude with a final Exodus. An Exodus out of bondage and exile and into an eternal relationship with Jesus.
2. To Restore Hope to ALL of Lost Humanity
As briefly mentioned a few moments ago, there is an amazing reality to the fact that Jesus was not the Messiah Israel expected or even wanted, but he was the planned Messiah that they needed.
It is important to remember, though, that Israel was, in a sense, a means to an end. Notice that God did not create “Israel” in Genesis 1. There is 2,000 years worth of earth history to consider before Abraham even shows up on the scene. What I want to do here is attempt to explain more of God’s “big picture” for humanity in general, and then we’ll circle back around to Jesus as the Messianic King of Israel.
A. Jesus Fulfilled the Promise of Genesis 3 and His Desire for a Human Family
When God created Adam and Eve, his intentions were clear. He desired that they would “be fruitful and multiply” and act as God’s vice-regents on earth. Through Adam and Eve, Eden would be more than just a garden—it would be globalized. Eden was, to put it plainly, heaven on earth. A place where human and divine met and dwelt together.
Of course, we know that a fracture was introduced into that story through the temptation of Eve by a spiritual being who had “turned” against God, which we learn through later biblical teaching in the prophets as well as the NT.
In Genesis 3:14-15, we have what most scholars called the first prophecy ever written in the Bible, often called the protoevangelium. It reads:
And the Lord God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel.
People often ask the question, “What does God really want?” I mean after all, he didn’t have to create anything. He certainly wasn’t lonely or in need of anything. And it’s not like finite human beings could somehow satisfy the longing or needs of an infinite, eternal God, anyway. So what gives?
I think the most obvious question is that God wanted both a human and divine family. He already had a divine family (think Angels, for now, although it’s more complicated than that). But he wanted to share with human family as well, provided they’d quit screwing up and putting themselves before God.
In fact, Jesus wanted the human family so bad that, in anticipation of their rebellion, God planned from before the foundation of the world to become enrobed in human flesh himself. That is the gospel! The perfect, sinless, eternal God became a human himself and lived the perfect human life necessary to satisfy God’s requirements. It is through the incarnation of Christ that we are redeemed, given access, and the gap between God and man is bridged.
I don’t know about you, but I am often guilty of thinking of Christmas as secondary to the cross. Sure, in this season we celebrate when Jesus was born, but the “big news” is his death and resurrection. Well, that’s in a sense true, of course, but we are not merely celebrating the birth of the person who would go on to become that salvific figure. We are actually celebrating the marvelous mystery of God taking on human flesh and becoming like us. THAT is what is being celebrated.
And frankly, this goes beyond thinking of Jesus as the Messianic King of the Jews or even the Savior of the World. This is Jesus becoming our brother. This is the ETERNAL, EVERLASTING GOD making himself one with you. THAT’S how much he loves you. It is fundamentally incredible, and insane.
B. What Does Israel Have to Do with it? — Jesus Arrived as the Messianic King
Of course, Israel has an important part to play in God’s story. After the flood, you’ll remember the Tower of Babel incident. Much more than just thinking of this as the time when human languages split off, there is an entire context to this event that makes it one of the central keys to human history.
This is the moment in which God rejects the whole of humanity he has created, and decides to reroute the plan for his human family through this nation. He supernaturally creates a people for himself through Abraham and Sarah, and works through these people to bring about the plan of salvation for all. Everything—including their continual disobedience and rejection of Yahweh—was accounted for in his plan.
After a detailed explanation of the complicated relationship between God, the Israelites, and the gentiles, Paul remarks in Romans 11:11:
I say then, Have they stumbled that they should fall? God forbid: but rather through their fall salvation is come unto the Gentiles, for to provoke them to jealousy.
HOW ABOUT THAT? Thousands of years after God disinherits the nations of the world at Babel, God reveals, through Paul, a cosmic “Gotcha!” The plan was to bring them back into the fold after all—but it would need this Jewish, Messianic context to happen.
C. What Does CHRISTMAS Have to Do with it? — Gentile Scholars (The Magi) Understood This Context
Let me ask you a question for reflection: Psalm 19:1 says:
The heavens declare the glory of God; And the firmament sheweth his handywork. Day unto day uttereth speech, And night unto night sheweth knowledge.
When you read that verse, what comes to mind for you? DO you agree with the verse? If so, why?
Again, we are modern Westerners with a whole lot of scientific knowledge and context under our belt. We MUST understand that the ancients did not have a Hubble Telescope. They obviously understood that the heavens showed the handiwork of God, but why? Again, when I look up into the night sky, sure it’s beautiful, but I have to admit that when I look up and marvel it is because in my mind’s eye I am looking BEYOND what I can merely see in that moment. I KNOW, because of my situation in life and in the world, that our night sky is nothing more than the gates to a bazillion worlds, the OVERWHELMING majority of which we know absolutely zilch about.
Ancients did not know any of that. So what gives?
This gets us into an interesting area of study called Astral Theology. Dr. Michael Heiser writes:
Astral theology was the idea that the One who made the celestial objects in the heavens (sun, moon, stars) to be for “signs and seasons” and to mark time (Genesis 1:14) could use those objects to communicate. There is a good deal of evidence (e.g., zodiac mosaics in ancient Jewish synagogues) that faithful, theologically conservative Jews believed that divine activity that would have an impact on earthly events could be discerned in the skies—activity they were careful to attribute to the true God and no other gods.
Now—before you think I’ve gone off the rails—and to snap back to Christmas: Consider with me that the Magi followed a star to one they considered to be the Messianic King. Back in familiar territory again? Good. Let’s consider three brief questions:
Who were the Magi?
Matthew is probably using the word in a more general sense for the learned court advisers of Mesopotamia or Persian whose work involved studying ancient and sacred texts, as well as watching for movements of planets and stars that might be interpreted as divine messages.
Basically, these were the smart guys. The scholars. The astronomers /astrologers. They were learned in the movements of objects in the night sky and used that information to, as mentioned, interpret divine messages.
To put a button on my question earlier: We know what kind of things were going through the mind of those who marveled at the night sky and saw evidence for God. They weren’t thinking scientifically, but theologically! And again, this was not “astrology” in the modern sense which we think about it. Yes, Zodiac and other signs like that were involved. And pagans used this stuff incorrectly, which is frowned upon in the Bible (see Daniel, for example).
But that the Magi used this “astral theology” to locate the newborn Jewish king tells us that there is at least one sense in which this practice is legitimate.
What was the star?
This question is the most speculative of the bunch. Numerous scholars have posed solutions to this question. Some scholars think this was an actual star in a constellation, some think it was talking about an angel, and some think it was a supernatural event that was referred to as a star because of its brightness.
To be honest, options 2 and 3 sound kind of like cop outs based on a soft denial of the astral theology concept we talked about. It’s easier to dismiss this star as being something OTHER than an actual event in the heavens because it requires a lot less thought and explanation.
Unfortunately, we do not have time to penetrate the details of my preferred conclusions, so let me summarize with a few bullet points:
- I am convinced that the star was an ACTUAL astronomical phenomenon. This is consistent with the ancient methods of astral theology and makes sense of the Magi’s interest in the newborn King.
- There is an instance of astral prophecy (a subset of astral theology) in Revelation 12, that I am convinced connects back to the sign the Magi saw and, if true, would produce an accurate birth date for Jesus.
- That birthdate would be September 11, 3 BC, which has TREMENDOUS theological payoff: It would have Jesus’ birthday as being the same date as (1) Noah’s Birthday and (2) the beginning of the Jewish New Year in the most ancient Jewish agricultural calendar — Tishri 1, the Day of Trumpets.
- These are all things that are difficult for us to understand, but these mental associations were simply second nature for literate Jews. The symbolism would have been unmistakable and would have confirmed Jesus’ status as the Jewish Messianic King to literate Jews and scholars.
Who was this King?
The Jewish Messiah, of course, which is precisely why I think all of this makes sense. If you’ll remember back to the account in Matthew, they were looking for a sign in anticipation of this event:
Now when Jesus was born in Beth-lehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him. When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. And when he had gathered all the chief priests and scribes of the people together, he demanded of them where Christ should be born. And they said unto him, In Beth-lehem of Judaea: for thus it is written by the prophet, And thou Beth-lehem, in the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel. (Matthew 2:1-6)
In other words, all of the pieces make sense. The Magi—the scholars—were studying biblical prophecy and, as per their “usual”, if you will—were studying the heavens in anticipation of a sign. And while such a thing may sound offensive to our modern ear, it’s what the Bible says happened!
When you tie all of the threads together, you are left with a coherent picture that would have made sense theologically for the Jewish audience (and frankly, we have only skimmed the surface; I am leaving some of the good stuff out for sake of time).
3. To Put the Power of Darkness on Notice
In Ephesians 6:12, the Apostle Paul writes the following:
For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places.
Contrary to Pastor Jake’s funny pulpit remarks, I am not exactly excited about the fact that we live in a world with dark forces, demons, spiritual beings, etc. It’s a bit disconcerting to say the least. However, the Bible is FILLED with both allusions and straightforward teaching about this spiritual world, so we remain in ignorance of it to our own peril.
These things would scare me—except that I am covered in the blood of Jesus and clothed with his righteousness. And Christmas is about so much more than even that. Indeed, Christmas put the powers of darkness—those which Paul is talking about, here—on notice. He is coming for them, and it’s not going to be pretty.
A. Jesus as One with Yahweh—the Head of the Divine Council
I need to frame this with you in a very specific way. I don’t have time to rehash the teaching I have done about the sons of God, Elohim, etc. Thus I am going to have to ask that you grant a claim as true for the sake of argument as we look at this.
You need to understand that the word “Elohim” in the Bible is not a word that just means Capital-G “God” automatically. It’s a place of residence term; an Elohim is member of the spiritual world. And there are lots of them. Yahweh, the God of the Bible, is an Elohim—but no other Elohim is like Yahweh. I can argue this from Scripture but we do not have time.
The Bible also teaches that there is an assembly—or council—of these divine beings, with whom God often interacts to get stuff done in the real world (again, I can argue this, but no time).
For our purposes here, you need to realize that there are good Elohim (think angels) and bad Elohim (think demons). We hear almost nothing about demons in the OT………..so why is it just “normal” for the Son of God to go around casting out demons in the NT? Anyone ever wondered that?
Short version is: The incarnate Son of God was born to put the powers of darkness in the world ON NOTICE. He was coming for them. Their days were numbered. In fact, the Apostle Paul fills us in on a little ditty in 1 Corinthians 2:7-8:
But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
Spoiler alert: The princes language there is not talking about human leaders, at least not exclusively. In Bible terms, this language is used of spiritual rulers, and oftentimes a combination of spiritual and human leaders. If the powers of darkness had known God’s plan from the beginning, they would not have crucified Jesus and thus sealed their doom. Here’s yet another cosmic “Gotcha!” Yahweh played; this time, on the powers of darkness.
Jesus—the preeminent one—the Son of God, co-eternal with the Father—the head of the divine council itself—brought cosmic devastation not the powers of darkness. And Christmas is the beginning of God’s victory march.
B. The Birth of Christ Signaled the Beginning of Yahweh’s Claim on His Inheritance
Here, we are tying up some loose ends: Remember how we talked about pentecost, the plan to redeem the world through the Jewish rejection of Yahweh and Christ, etc?
Pentecost accomplished two things, simultaneously: The regathering of Israel AND the regathering of ALL the nations. This was the launchpad for God to make right what went wrong at Babel.
This is why the birth of the newborn Jewish King is good news not just for Jews, but for the whole world! We celebrate Christmas because it is the beginning of God’s plan to restore eden once again.
Thus, all in this marvelous birth of Christ we celebrate:
- God’s defeat over the powers of darkness
- The reconciliation of God’s chosen people back to himself
- The grafting in of ALL people who will affirm and acknowledge Jesus’ sacrifice and claim on their life into the vine
- The powers of darkness being put on notice — their defeat is coming fast, it’s only a matter of time
C. Christmas Brings Personal Joy, but Cosmic Devastation
Christmas time is absolutely a time of good cheer. It is a time to love on our neighbor and fellow man. It is a time to preach the good news of Christ with passion and zeal.
But let us NOT forget the cosmic mission of Christmas.
God’s plan for Christmas—the incarnation—is central to the defeat of Satan and his minions and his plan to reconcile all who will believe to him.
For sure—it’s the most wonderful time of the year. Let’s remember why.