Note: This discussion reviews Old and New Testament references to the most personal atonement gift God could offer us, namely Himself. The author recognizes that Christian tradition celebrates the birth of Christ on December 25 (as Christmas), which incorporated pagan end-of-year winter celebrations, previously in existence. Based on the New Testament account in Luke 2:8, Jesus was more than likely born during warmer weather since the shepherds were still out in the fields with their flocks at night, when the angel appeared to announce the birth of Messiah.
A Season Forgiving
Life is not without risks. Anyone who attempts to tell you differently is selling a deed to a pit of quicksand. Life is often riddled with hardships, setbacks, illness, loss, toil, suffering, as well as ethical and moral challenges testing our resolve and character. In the fall of 2008, with economic and political change and challenges affecting people around the world, one could easily become discouraged, disheartened, disoriented, and disenfranchised from daily life itself. Some folks become bitter and resentful, others turn to finger-pointing and blame-laying, and many become depressed and despondent. Then there are those who worry and panic over circumstances they cannot control.
It is against this very type of backdrop that God chose to send the gift of atonement and forgiveness to His chosen people, Israel. Four hundred years after the last of God's prophets (Malachi) had passed away, the promised Messiah was given to the people of Israel in the midst of Roman occupation, political unrest, and oppressive taxation by Caesar. While a census was being conducted throughout the Roman empire by Caesar Augustus (Luke 2, NIV), a very pregnant Mary and her husband (Joseph) arrived in Bethlehem, which was the patriarchal city of Joseph's ancestor, King David (Matthew 1). Shortly thereafter, Mary gave birth to a son (in a stable), whom Joseph named Jesus.
The Old Testament provided announcement of the arrival of God's "Chosen One," his lineage, and the manner of that arrival. About 1,000 years before the birth of Jesus, God promised David (through the prophet Nathan) that the Messiah would be born through his descendants. In the Book of 2 Samuel 7:8-14a, Nathan revealed to David:
"Now, then, tell my servant David, 'This is what the Lord Almighty says: I took you from the pasture and from following the flock to be ruler over my people Israel. I have been with you wherever you have gone, and I have cut off all your enemies from before you. Now I will make your name great, like the names of the greatest men of the earth. And I will provide a place for my people Israel and will plant them so they can have a home of their own and no longer be disturbed. Wicked people will not oppress them anymore, as they did at the beginning and have done ever since the time I appointed leaders over my people Israel. I will also give you rest from all your enemies.
The Lord declares to you that the Lord himself will establish a house for you: When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son.'"
Over 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah foretold the manner in which the Messiah would be born. In Isaiah 7:14 (NIV), he declared:
"Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."
The word Immanuel means "God is with us."
In Isaiah 9:1-7, the prophet revealed other details concerning the coming Messiah. In it he writes:
"Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress. In the past he humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the future he will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan ---
The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death a light has dawned. You have enlarged the nation and increased their joy; they rejoice before you as people rejoice at harvest, as men rejoice when dividing plunder. For as in the day of Midian's defeat, you have shattered the yoke that burdens them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor. Every warrior's boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood will be destined for burning, will be fuel for the fire.
For unto us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this."
In Isaiah 11:1-6, the prophet revealed the heritage of the Messiah from King David's father (Jesse), as follows:
"A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the Lord will rest upon him --- the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the Lord --- and he will delight in the fear of the Lord. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth: with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around is waist.
The wolf will live with the lamb, the leopard will lie down with the goat, the calf and the lion and the yearling together; and a little child will lead them."
About 700 years before Jesus' birth, the prophet Micah foretold of the place where the Messiah would be born. In Micah 5:2 (NIV), he declared:
"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times."
About two years after the birth of Jesus, three wise men from the East followed the sign of a bright star over Bethlehem and inquired of the Jewish King Herod as to the whereabouts of the child-king foretold in their own beliefs and prophecies (Matthew 2, 1-12.) These wise men, called Magi, were kings from distant lands who lavished expensive gifts upon the child, Jesus, and worshiped him. As the result of their visit, King Herod (believing he would be deposed by a new upstart king) ordered the wholesale murder of all male Jewish children age two and younger in and around Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary were forced to flee to Egypt to escape the edict.
The irony surrounding the birth of Jesus is quite stark. The Chosen One of God, the one who would grow up to be exalted by God the Father, did not enter this life as a worldly king, but as a servant. Jesus was born in a lowly stable, instead of a great palace. Some of those who had been expecting a grand entrance of the Messiah ignored the signs given by the prophets centuries before and did not recognize him.
Just as with the birth of Moses (mentioned in a previous discussion) the rulers during both periods issued infanticide-edicts against Jewish baby boys. God took enormous risks in sending his own son, Jesus, into the world as a human being. Among the greatest of these was rejection of the messenger and the message of hope and salvation God personally sent to a lost and sinful world.
In reflecting on this amazing gift God sent, the Apostle Paul wrote in his letter to the Romans (Chapter 5: 1-8) the following:
"Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand. And we rejoice in the hope of the glory of God. Not only so, but we also rejoice in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not disappoint us, because God has poured out his love into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, whom he has given us. You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us."
Paul pointed to God's determination to forgive those undeserving of mercy and forgiveness under the Law of Moses; those condemned by their sinfulness; those unable to save themselves by their own merit, volition, or reasoning. God came down from Heaven to save all of us through an incredible act of love, grace, mercy, and forgiveness.
In a season of turmoil and uncertainty, God came down to dwell among sinful men as a man himself, to live a sinless life himself, and to be offered as the sacrifice of atonement himself. It was this gift from God, of God, and through God that believers remember, honor, and celebrate each traditional Christmas season. Through the fulfillment of centuries-old prophecies, the infant-child (Jesus) would grow up and fulfill both the Law and the prophets through his life, death, burial, and resurrection.
(copyright 2008, Gregory Allen Doyle)