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Celebrate Christmas: Exploring the truths, traditions and meaning of Christmas

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Christmas: A Celebration of Incarnation

by Christian T. George

Flesh.  The entirety of Christianity hangs upon this little word. It is a word that existed in the mind of God before the invention of email or iPhones, before laptops, automobiles or airplanes—before cities were constructed or nations established, before oceans were introduced to shores, before stars swirled through solar systems. Even before the ticking of time itself, when nothing covered everything, there was God thinking of flesh.

And then it happened. Sometime around 4 B.C., “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us” (John 1:14). In other words, Jesus Christ became a man. A real man. A man that could bruise if you punched Him or bleed if you cut Him. He could feel the throb of a headache, the chills of a fever. The God who “measured the waters in the hollow of His hand” (Isaiah 40:12) could now wrap His palms around a cold pitcher of water. The One who “created the great creatures of the sea” (Gen. 1:21) could now sink His teeth into a tilapia sandwich. For 33 years, God walked a mile not only in our shoes, but also in our feet—in our ankles, kneecaps, shins and hip joints. The great Baptist preacher, Charles Haddon Spurgeon, said it best, “The infinite has become the infant.”

American idol contestant Mandesa Hundley got it right. “What can be stranger than God in a manger?” And how odd of God! That He should be born out of wedlock to a peasant mother in an insignificant village. That the King of Kings should emerge from a virgin’s womb in a filthy stable. It was not a silent night. No “peace on Earth, good will toward men.” In fact, Mary and Joseph had to smuggle the infant Jesus to Egypt to save His life.

As an adult, Christ would work a minimum wage job as a carpenter’s assistant. He would hang out with the marginalized of society—lepers, prostitutes, beggars and tax collectors. He would have no home to brag about. Foxes would have better holes. Christ’s closest friends would desert Him; His government would humiliate Him. Naked, flogged and spit upon, this Carpenter would be nailed to a piece of wood like any other common criminal.

Christmas is a celebration of the incarnation. It is a season that points us backward to the time when Christ abandoned His home in Heaven to descend to Earth below. It speaks to God’s interest in the nitty-gritty details of our lives, and how Christ became flesh to redeem flesh. This holiday invites us to remember that there are no limits to how far the Creator is willing to go re-create His creation.

But Christmas does more than point us backward. It also points us forward by calling each one of us to imitate Jesus by becoming flesh for those in need. In a digital age of avatars and Facebook—when flesh is so easily separated from spirit—Christmas shows us that Jesus came to Earth as a person, not a pixel. Christ was no ghost, as doubting Thomas once assumed (John 20:27). Instead, you could insert your finger in His side. You could feel a pulse beating strongly in His veins. Christmas challenges us to make ourselves available to others—to be physically and veritably available.

The doctrine of the incarnation is not an abstract concept that only a few enlightened intellectuals can grasp. This teaching finds no exclusive home in the ivory tower. On the contrary. It belongs to anyone and everyone. All of us are charged with the mission of becoming the hands and feet of God in a world that needs a healing touch.

In the following pages, the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation will be examined through a variety of lenses. Steve Lemke provides an apologetic for the incarnation by showing the foundational nature of this teaching and how God’s love for humanity is magnified through it. Bobby Kelly explores the people of the first Christmas in eye-opening ways. Rick Melick guides us through a biblical exposition of the virgin birth and reveals how this doctrine is applicable to our daily lives. Anthony Jordan helps elevate our conceptions about Christmas beyond sentimentality to deeper truth. Throughout the pages, there are various tidbits on Christmas traditions.

During the hustle and bustle of this Christmas season, let the divine descent of Jesus Christ raise our gaze upward. Let our thoughts dwell upon the greatest mystery of our faith—because Jesus was God, we can relate to the Father; because Jesus was man, the Father can relate to us. May the lowly manger remind us that the Word became flesh and remained flesh, so that even now Christ bears the marks of love on His body. May the star of Bethlehem illuminate the truth that God is in the business of forgiveness, and that no distance is too great—no pilgrimage is too far—for the wooing, pursuing grace of Christ. May the manifold gifts we unwrap direct our attention to the greatest gift ever given, when God “gave His only Son that whosoever believes in Him will not perish but have everlasting life” (John 3:16) by “taking the very nature of a servant” (Phil. 2:7). And as we come together this Christmas with families and friends, may we continually keep the person of Jesus Christ not only at the heart of our holiday, but also at the very core of our existence. For only when Christ is at the center of our lives can our lives be truly centered.

Christian Timothy George is assistant professor of biblical and theological studies and Jewell and Joe Huitt professor of religious education at Oklahoma Baptist University.

Nativity Characters

by Bobby Kelly

Only Matthew and Luke record the birth of Jesus. While the basic plot and characters are similar, each Gospel highlights different aspects of the story.

Jesus, Son of David and Savior of His People (Matt. 1:1-2:23)

Matthew opened his Gospel with a genealogy that demonstrated Jesus’ relationship to Abraham and David. God promised Abraham that He would bless the world through Abraham’s seed (Gen 22:18), a promise Paul applied directly to Jesus (Gal 3:16). The connection to David, Israel’s greatest king, revealed Jesus as heir to the promise that God would raise up David’s offspring and establish the kingdom of His throne forever. Matthew also introduced the reader to Jesus’ parents, Joseph the son of Jacob and Mary, but with a twist. The text says “Joseph the husband of Mary,” not “Joseph the father of Jesus” (1:16), likely hinting at the virginal conception. Joseph is a godly, righteous man engaged to Mary,  whose righteousness is captured most pointedly by her status as “a virgin.” These are pious, godly Jewish teenagers.

Matthew’s genealogy also included four women not included in Luke’s genealogy: Tamar, the Canaanite woman who dressed up like a prostitute and had relations with her father-in-law, Judah (Gen. 38); Rahab, a prostitute from Jericho who hid Joshua’s spies in her roof (Josh. 2:6); Ruth, a widow from Moab (Ruth 2-4); and Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, a beautiful Hittite woman with whom David committed adultery (2 Sam. 11-12). The inclusion of these four Gentile women confirmed that God’s work of salvation would involve men and women of various backgrounds and reputations and that it was intended for “all nations” and not merely Israel.

Despite the unusual nature of Mary’s conception, Joseph obeyed angelic instruction and married Mary. Joseph also obeyed the instruction to name the child “Jesus,” from the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, meaning “God saves.” After the birth, “wise men” (Greek magi) from the East arrived to worship Jesus. Nativity scenes and Christmas carols wrongly depict three kings huddled around the newly born Messiah. The term “magi” referred to Persian astrologers, the kind of men who would watch the stars looking for divine action. Although they brought three gifts, there is no indication that they numbered three. Finally, they were not there at the birth. A change of venue is clear from Matt. 2:11, “entering the house, they saw the child with Mary.” In fact, Jesus was likely 2 years old at the time of the visit (2:7, 16). Even if others refuse to worship Jesus, pagan stargazers will.

The final character in Matthew’s account is the ultimate antagonist, Herod the Great. Herod was originally appointed client king of Palestine by the Romans in 37 B.C. His frequent murder of political opponents, as well as three of his sons and his favorite wife, reveal an egomaniacal, paranoid tyrant who valued only his own life and power. In light of this, his decree to murder all the male children two years and under in Bethlehem to ensure the elimination of a rival king rings true.

 Jesus, the Bearer of Salvation to All People through Jesus the True King and Lord of All Creation (Luke 1:5-2:40)

Luke’s story began with the angel Gabriel announcing the birth of John the Baptist to Zechariah, an aged priest who was in the midst of a rare opportunity to burn incense in the Holy Place in the temple and to pray for the nation Israel. Despite their age and barrenness, Zechariah and Elizabeth would have a son named John, meaning “the Lord is gracious.” John would be a “joy and delight” to his parents, but would also play a pivotal role in God’s redemptive plan (1:14-16). Zechariah responded with unbelief, and he was struck speechless for nine months.

After Gabriel’s announcement to Mary that she was pregnant with the Son of God, she immediately went to the hill country of Judea to spend six months with her cousin Elizabeth, Zechariah’s wife. When Mary arrived, the unborn John “leaped inside” Elizabeth, the Holy Spirit filled her, and she blessed Mary and praised God (1:41-45). In Luke’s account, when the time came for Jesus’ birth, there was no room in the “inn.” The word commonly translated “inn” is not the typical term for a commercial inn, as in the      parable of the Good Samaritan. The term Luke used indicates a guest room attached to the private home of a family that Joseph may have relied on for hospitality in the past. On this visit, however, the room was occupied.

Shepherds provided witness of the event. Shepherds in the First Century were poor, uneducated, and considered perpetually unclean since they so often came into contact with dead animals. For that reason, shepherding had become a despised trade for those who were concerned about status in the Jewish community. In fact, because of their status as unclean, they were not permitted to set foot in the temple, nor were they allowed to testify in court. While educated pagans from Persia worshipped Jesus in Matthew’s account, lowly shepherds close to the bottom of the social scale not only worshipped Jesus, but they also became the first to proclaim the good news of His birth (2:8-20).

In contrast to worldly expectations about the birth of a king, Jesus was not born in a governor’s mansion or a wealthy merchant’s guest room in a gated community adored by the rich and famous. On the contrary, the eternal Son of God in human flesh was born in a feedbox for animals and the first to adore Him and testify of His birth were lowly shepherds whose low status did not even permit them to testify in court. This good news would truly be for all people.

On the eighth day following His birth, Jesus was circumcised (2:21). On the 40th day when they returned to the temple for Mary’s purification, Simeon, a righteous man filled with the Spirit, recognized Jesus as Messiah (2:25-35). Alongside Simeon appeared Anna, a godly, elderly prophetess who thanked God for His coming work of redemption in Jesus (2:36-38). God’s plan of salvation was reaching its climax in the birth of this Child.

Bobby Kelly is Ruth Dickinson professor of religion at Oklahoma Baptist University.

The Virgin Birth of Jesus

by Richard Melick

The virgin conception and birth of Jesus introduce the central truth of Christianity. Jesus was God incarnate. The biblical writers care little about Jesus’ boyhood, family, shaping influences or personality. They care greatly about His origin.

Skeptics sometimes suggest Christianity would fare better without the virgin birth. Yet those who witnessed Jesus’ life and resurrection knew its central place. Like them, we accept Mary’s testimony confirmed by other witnesses and the Holy Spirit.

Three Gospels describe the Virgin Birth. John approaches it theologically: “The logos (word) became flesh” (John 1:14).  He states the point succinctly and directly. In Jesus, God became human!

Matthew is Joseph centered, presenting “the Jewish Jesus,” realizing Joseph was Jesus’ legal father. The unusual events surprised Joseph. Skeptical, he was caught between his love for Mary and the Law’s justice. Matthew calls the reader to journey with Joseph as he progressively understands the incarnation. Several aspects present a biblical case for accepting the historical nature of the Virgin Birth.

1. Joseph and Mary. Matthew describes the conception as “before they came together.” They were serious about each other, but sexually pure. Joseph’s dilemma of how to treat Mary reinforces his own surprise at the coming pregnancy.

2. The angel’s message. Angels seldom appear in Scripture. When they do, they mark transitional stages in God’s developing plan of redemption. They are always God’s intermediaries. Knowing Hebrew history, Joseph certainly connected the angel with a special communication from God.

The angelic  message contains two essential elements. First, the origin of Mary’s conception. This first occurrence of “The Holy Spirit” in the New Testament used Christian terms to connect Joseph to the Old Testament texts about God’s Spirit. Joseph understood.

Second, the mission of Mary’s son, dying for the world’s sins, required divine activity. No mere human could accomplish this.

3. The confirmation from prophecy. The angel quoted Is. 7:14, thus revealing the divine interpretation of the ancient text. Quoted from the Greek translation, the Septuagint (LXX), the word for virgin is parthenos. Less common than gune, “woman,” parthenos normally means an unmarried woman of marriageable age (see 1 Cor. 7 for a good example). The Hebrew text makes the same distinction using alma (“young woman or virgin”) rather than the more common bethula.

Furthermore, the angel says it is “THE virgin” who will conceive. Many translations omit the article “the,” preferring “a virgin.” The angel’s interpretation, however, indicates the prediction had a special virgin in mind. From the time Isaiah uttered the prophecy, it is likely that devout Jewish girls asked “am I THAT virgin?” They were not, but Mary was!

Finally, the angel affirmed Jesus’ incarnation. Names were significant, but none more so than Jesus (“Jehovah saves”). God’s purpose for Mary’s son evidenced the truth that “God is with us” (Emmanuel). God is Incarnate!

Luke centers on Mary, Jesus’ physical parent. There are differences, but Luke makes basically the same points: the Virgin Mary, the angel Gabriel, the baby will be From the Holy Spirit and her baby is God incarnate, the Savior. Two unique emphases, however, deserve attention.

First, Mary asked “how.” She voiced what everyone wants to know. How can this happen? Most people assume sexual activity. Some radical critics have likened it to Greek mythology describing gods cohabitating with women. These conclusions are wrong at two basic points.

It incorrectly assumes God is sexual and has sex with His creation. Human sex wonderfully approximates the intimacy between Father, Son and Spirit, as well as the relationship between Jesus and the church. Jesus, however, limited marriage, and especially the procreative aspects of marriage, to Earth’s economy and not Heaven’s (Matt. 22). It is unlikely that God “has sex.”

This also fails to understand what the angel actually said: “the power of the Most High will overshadow you.” Overshadow is hardly synonymous with procreation. God created something new in Mary’s body—He created “God in flesh”—the Incarnation!

Second, later in Luke, the angels celebrate the birth of Jesus. They exclaim “in the highest, Glory to God, and on Earth, peace to men of good will.” With our limited perspective, we think only of what God did for us in the Incarnation. But this text opens another perspective.

There are two scenes: Earth and Heaven (“the highest”). Luke’s point is not that “God is in the highest,” therefore we should ascribe glory to God who resides there. The text provides two aspects of the Incarnation. First, it should bring peace on Earth. Second, it brings glory to God. In the highest, they congratulate God because the incarnation inaugurated the redemption He so longed to see. Now God triumphs over evil. God relates to His erring creation. The universe can be restored to harmony. Our sins can be forgiven.

Thus, while the incarnation changes us far beyond what any can imagine, it brings greater joy to God, Who authored the plan of redemption.

Richard Melick is director of the academic graduate studies program and professor of New Testament studies at Golden Gate Seminary.

The Incarnation: Why Does it Matter?

by Steve Lemke

As we celebrate Christmas, we focus on one of the most important Christian doctrines—the incarnation. Jesus was “Emanuel,” “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). So why does the incarnation really matter so much?

(1) The incarnation matters because it reminds us that the body is not evil. God created the physical world, including the human body, and He described it as “good” (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31). The Bible’s affirmation that the body is not inherently evil is underscored powerfully in the incarnation when the Word (Jesus) “became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14).

(2) The incarnation matters because it allows Jesus to identify with and understand us. Jesus was born into the same sort of earthly circumstances in which we find ourselves—“born of a woman, born under the law” (Gal. 4:4, HCSB). Jesus experienced the challenges of growing up (Luke 2:42) and of being tempted (Matt. 4:1-11, Heb. 4:15). He knows what it means to be hungry (Matt. 4:2, 21:18; Mark 11:13; Luke 4:2) and thirsty (John 4:7, 19:28). In fact, since He lived in the First Century, in which there were no modern conveniences, His life was probably much harder than ours. Therefore, Jesus understands and can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Heb. 4:15, HCSB).

(3) The incarnation matters because it makes Jesus the perfect Mediator for our prayers. Jesus is our Great High Priest (Heb. 4:14), and He has the supreme advantage of knowing exactly what we’re going through. He’s been there. Jesus was “tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:15). Sometimes in the midst of a crisis, someone may tell you that they know how we feel, but in truth it is difficult for them to feel exactly like you feel until they have “walked a mile in your shoes.” Jesus took on human flesh and walked in our shoes. So, when we pray, we have a uniquely qualified Great High Priest Who truly knows what human struggles are like. Therefore, we can have confidence to pray in His name.

(4) The incarnation matters because it makes possible the forgiveness of our sins. The remission of sin requires a sacrifice of blood (Heb. 9:22). Blood comes only from real flesh and blood creatures. If Jesus were only divine, or like an angel, He would not be flesh and blood. Only because He took on human flesh could He be the sacrifice to atone for our sins (Matt. 26:28, Acts 2:38). An early church father, Gregory of Nazianzus, said, “That which was not assumed is not healed.” By that, he meant that had Jesus not taken on (assumed) human flesh, our sins would not be forgiven (healed). Because Jesus did take on human flesh, lived a sinless life (Heb. 4:15) and offered His sinless life on the cross of Calvary, He can provide forgiveness, atonement, salvation and eternal life for us (Rom. 5:1-21).

(5) The incarnation matters because it makes our resurrection possible. The Bible teaches not just the immortality of the soul, but even more importantly, the bodily resurrection. The Greek philosophers on Mars Hill in Athens already believed in the immortality of the soul, but when the Apostle Paul proclaimed the resurrection, they began to mock him (Acts 17:18-20, 30-34). Paul made it very clear in 1 Corinthians 15 that the resurrection of Jesus is the most important of Christian doctrines. If Jesus were not truly raised from the dead, Paul said, we are still in our sins, our faith is in vain and our preaching is in vain (1 Cor. 15:14-15, 17-18). In fact, however, Jesus became the first fruit of those who are resurrected, and thus we can have confidence in the forgiveness of our sins and in our own resurrections (1 Cor. 15:20).

These crucial doctrines associated with the incarnation reveal why one of the most dangerous heresies confronting the early church was Gnosticism. The Gnostics denied the incarnation—that Jesus was truly a human being. The Apostle John wrote those inspired words that in Jesus “the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), verified by the fact that the eyewitnesses of Jesus had heard, seen and touched Him (1 John 1:1-3). John even went so far as to assert that these heretical Gnostics were false prophets in the spirit of the antichrist when they denied that Jesus had “come in the flesh” (1 John 4:1-3). We must challenge those today who deny Jesus’ humanity just as the early church challenged the false prophets who denied the incarnation in their day.

So, for all these reasons, we celebrate at Christmas not just that Jesus came as the baby of Bethlehem, but that He was God in fleshly form. The incarnation really matters!

Steve Lemke is provost, professor of philosophy and ethics and McFarland chair of theology at New Orleans Seminary.


The Truth About Christmas

by  Anthony L. Jordan

“The virgin will conceive, have a son, and name him Immanuel.”  These were the words spoken by Isaiah 700 years before the angel appeared to Joseph and quoted these same words. Can you imagine the response of the people to whom Isaiah spoke these prophetic words regarding the coming Messiah? Let me use modern vernacular to give you their response, “NO WAY!”

I suspect that Joseph felt the same way when the angel announced that the problem pregnancy of Mary was not a problem, but the plan of God. Mary, a virgin, had conceived by the Holy Spirit and the child was Immanuel of Isaiah’s long ago prophecy.

To think on this biblical truth is to seek to mine the depths of the infinite. The more I ponder the truth, the more I am driven by faith to accept it. In fact, one could say there is no earthly way this can happen. To say so would be to speak truth—there is no earthly way.  This is the act of the Almighty who is not restrained by human or earthly boundaries. A virgin-born son is impossible except to a God of the impossible.

But what difference does it make?  Do you need a virgin birth in order to have a divine Savior? A simple answer is “Yes,” because it was the plan of the eternal God to secure the salvation of sinful man. But perhaps we should go a bit deeper.

The virgin birth of Jesus is essential to the salvation event. Jesus is not just a human who became good enough to become a Savior. His birth defied all human expectation. God incarnate? No one, religious or profane, would expect Holy God to come down on the level of sinful man and become human flesh like man. Even though the Jews had the Holy Writings filled with prophecy like the one of Isaiah, there was little expectation for this God-man.

It is important to note that Jesus was not like man or like God. He was fully man and fully God. By virgin birth, He was fully man, and by Holy Spirit conception, He was fully God. As the New Testament unfolds, this mystery becomes abundantly clear. He was a man who demonstrated a sinless life. Tempted and tried in the same manner as each of us, yet without sin. He was the spotless and unblemished Lamb of God. He who knew no sin became sin for us. The Prince of Peace becomes the instrument by which peace is purchased.

Our purpose in this Insight has been to lift us from the sentimentality of Christmas to the eternal and deep truths through the humble manger of Bethlehem. I fear we are often lazy and settle for warm feelings rather than wrestle with the deep theological truths revealed in the events surrounding the virgin birth of Jesus. We pass by these truths like a child holding a diamond in his hand only to throw it down when he sees a candy cane.

Luke tells us that after the visit of the shepherds, Mary was “treasuring up all these things in her heart and meditating on them.” This young virgin had given birth to Immanuel, and had much to ponder. It would do us well to follow her lead and meditate on these truths.  Rather than allowing this season to pass with a tip of the hat to the deep truths of the incarnation, I challenge you to drink deeply at the well of the articles herein and meditate on the Scripture passages that tell this awesome story of God’s great love.

 Anthony L. Jordan is executive director-treasurer of the Baptist General Convention of Oklahoma.


Author: Staff

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