The First Christmas Miracle
John 15:22; Galatians 4:4“If I had not come” (John 15:22).
“But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law” (Galatians 4:4).
In the first verse, which is really just a fragment of a verse, Jesus invites us to consider a possibility. What if he had not come to earth? What if he had not been born in Bethlehem? What if he had not walked the dusty roads of Judea? What if he had not uttered those wonderful words we call the Sermon on the Mount? What if he had not walked on water? What if he had not made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk? What if he had never raised the dead? What if we didn’t have his words to comfort us, to challenge us, to teach us, and to lead us to God? What if he never died on the cross? What if he never rose from the dead? What if he never sent his disciples out into the world?
Where would we be? And what kind of world would this be? How would things be different if he had not come?
In just a few days we celebrate the anniversary of his birth. It’s not exactly 2000 years but it’s close enough. We’re not sure what year he was born and we’re not sure what day is really his birthday. It might be December 25 but no one knows for certain.
The fact that we don’t know the exact day or year shouldn’t upset your faith. Secular historians didn’t record his birth and among the gospel writers, only Luke gives us specific historical information to work with. The New Testament doesn’t command us to remember his birthday with a yearly celebration. That started in the early church several centuries later. The great message of the Christian faith may be found in the declaration that God was manifest in the flesh, that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, that Jesus was God Incarnate, fully man yet somehow also fully God. That is the center of our faith; everything else derives from that one fact. The dating of his birth is secondary.
Jesus said, “If I had not come.” But he did come. And history itself has been changed forever. That’s what matters. For a little over 30 years the Son of God walked on this earth and nothing has been the same since. He came and in his coming he split time itself in two. That’s the real importance of the year 2000. The computer bug is a sideshow compared to what happened in Bethlehem on a bleak midwinter night 20 centuries ago.
I. The meaning of “fully come”
The second verse invites us to consider God’s timing. “But when the time had fully come.” That phrase “had fully come” is a very picturesque Greek expression. It speaks of something that is complete and fully developed, like a ripe apple ready to be picked. Or like a pregnant woman feeling labor pains, ready to deliver her baby. It describes the moment in history when all things were in place, when all the pieces were on the board, that one moment when the stage was perfectly set. At that moment, not earlier and not later, God sent forth his Son.
God’s timing is perfect. We know that because we know the Bible. He’s never early and he’s never late. Yet God’s timing sometimes staggers us, when he does something we weren’t expecting and we say, “Why did you do that?” Or when we have prayed and prayed and the heavens seem as brass, when we wonder if God can’t hear us, and deep in our souls we wonder if there is even a God at all.
The Jews wondered about that too. They had some legitimate questions to ask of the Almighty. One of our great carols says, “Come, thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free.” That’s exactly accurate. “Thou long expected Jesus.” From the very beginning of time God promised to send His Son. Going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, God promised that one day the Seed of the Woman would crush the head of the Serpent, who is Satan (Genesis 3:15). Adam and Eve didn’t know and couldn’t have known but that phrase “Seed of the Woman” was a direct prediction of the coming of Christ. Centuries later God promised Abraham that he would have a son and that through his son and his descendants all the earth would be blessed (Genesis 12:1-3). Several generations later the promise was made more specific, that a scepter would arise in Judah (Genesis 49:10), meaning that Christ would be born of the tribe of Judah. Hundreds of years later God promised David that one day he would have a son to sit on his throne whose reign would be everlasting (2 Samuel 7:12-16). Thus, the promise narrows from Adam to Abraham to the tribe of Judah to the house of David. Still later the prophet Micah declared that Messiah would be born in the little village of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). Finally, Daniel was given divine insight into the exact time frame when Christ would come to the earth (Daniel 9:24-27).
All of that was written in the Old Testament, and much more that I haven’t mentioned. The Jews knew this, and even if they didn’t understand it all, and even if they couldn’t put it all together, it created within them a great desire, a hope and dream that one day the Messiah would come from heaven.
The Old Testament comes to an end with the prophet Malachi who lived approximately 433 years before the coming of Christ. We call the period following his ministry the “400 Silent Years.” That phrase can be misleading but those centuries were filled with momentous events, including the storied career of Alexander the Great. We call them “silent years” because no prophet arose to speak for God and no Scripture was being written. The heavens became silent almost as if God had forgotten his promises.
II. How God Prepared the World
Jesus said, “If I had not come.” And Paul said, “When the time had fully come.” Meaning, when time itself was pregnant and ready to deliver, when the stage was fully set, God sent forth his Son.
If we stand back and look at history, what do we discover about the world in the days when Christ was born? Four simple statements answer that question.
(The information in this section comes from a number of sources. The best summary I have found is in Phillip Schaff’s History of the Christian Church, Volume 1 Chapter 1, “Preparation for Christianity in the History of the Jewish and Heathen World.")
A. It was a period of international peace.
For only the second time in the history of the Roman Empire, the doors of the Temple of Janus (the god of war) in Rome were closed, meaning that the Empire was not at war anywhere. The great Pax Romana, the Roman Peace, was in force which meant that the whole Mediterranean world was united under one government. No doubt you’ve heard it said that “all roads lead to Rome.” That statement was literally true. The Romans had built a road system that stretched from Rome in all directions. That enabled the gospel message to quickly spread to all parts of the known world. And Greek was the common language throughout the empire, which further united people and made it easier for the message of Jesus to come to the masses.
B. It was a time of religious ferment.
Across the empire the mystery religions were in decline. There were so many gods in ancient Greece that the one writer called Greece one large altar. And Judaism was ripe for the Messiah to come. During those 400 “silent years” the Jews had migrated to every corner of the ancient world. Judaism flourished as the Jews built synagogues wherever they went. And where did Christianity begin? It emerged from the womb of Judaism. Early church worship was modeled after synagogue worship. Where did the Apostle Paul start when he went to a new city? Always he started in the local synagogue, preaching the gospel to his own people. By the time of Christ there were Jews at every level of society in the Roman Empire. And many Gentiles knew of the God of Israel. Looking back, we can see clearly that God had placed his chosen people, the Jews, in strategic positions to help advance the gospel.
And still the Jews asked each other, “Why hasn’t the Messiah come?” Their experience in Old Testament times had left them yearning for something better. The Law, good as it was, could never save them. It was a schoolmaster meant to lead them to Christ.
Historians tell us that in the centuries preceding the coming of Christ there was a feeling of unrest, and an undefined expectation of something about to happen. That is why Paul, standing on Mars Hill in Athens in A.D. 50, could refer to the Altar to the Unknown God as a jumping-off spot for proclaiming the gospel.
C. It was an era of moral decline.
Athens was in the late afternoon of its glory. The gods of Greece and Rome no longer could command the blind allegiance of the masses. Education, philosophy and great art created desires they could not fill. In the end the verdict was clear. Athens could produce Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides, and Aristophanes. Rome produced Seneca, Cicero, Juvenal, Tacitus, Suetonius, and Julius Caesar. But the best man could do was not enough. Nothing could fill the “God-shaped vacuum” inside the human heart. Art, literature, poetry, music, architecture, and the greatest military machine the world had ever known, all of it taken together could not provide meaning to life, or point the way to lasting forgiveness, or offer any answer to three questions we all must answer: Where did I come from? Why am I here? Where am I going?
Again, it is a simple historical fact that the condition of the heathen world was deplorable. Even the Roman poets said as much. They saw the problem but were powerless to do anything about it. They knew the truth, at least part of it, but had no power to effect lasting change. The result was gross superstition, debased immorality, widespread corruption, evil run amok, and rank unbelief.
This is the world into which Christ came. It is the world Paul describes so graphically in Romans 1, a world that knew the truth but suppressed it, ignored the true God, and turned to idolatry. It was a world that was given over to paganism, sexual immorality, homosexuality, murder, perversion, dishonesty, and brutality. A world of broken promises, broken dreams, broken homes, and broken hearts. And into that darkness God shined a light in a stable in an obscure village called Bethlehem.
D. It was an age of prophetic fulfillment.
What started in Genesis continued throughout the Old Testament. God promised over and over that he would intervene in history. One day the Messiah would come. There was an ever-narrowing stream of prophecy, the promises becoming more and more specific. Until it happened. The angel came to Zechariah and Elizabeth. Then to Mary. Then to the shepherds. Then the Magi in the east saw the star and knew the King of the Jews had been born. Herod, that evil and sick king tottering on the throne in Jerusalem, seems to have been caught by surprise. But the scribes weren’t. They knew the baby would be born in Bethlehem.
Thus the stage was set for the coming of Christ. It happened just as God said it would. Not too soon. Not too late. “But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son.”
By the sages long foretold, now the day is nearing,
Promises of God unfold, in the Son appearing.
If Christ had not come
I come back to my starting point, to the words of Jesus, “If I had not come.” If Christ had not come, how would the world be different? Just for a moment, imagine that some powerful hand has wiped the influence of Christ out of our civilization, as a hand would clean a blackboard in a schoolroom. Go to a library to find no trace left of the life or words of Jesus. All has vanished. In the encyclopedias the entries on “Jesus Christ” have all been removed.
In the museums where “The Transfiguration” and “The Last Supper” and “Christ on the Cross” had been, there are only empty spaces. The works of the great masters are gone. The great cathedrals have disappeared. The greatest poems of Dante and Milton, of Wordsworth and Tennyson—all gone, vanished without a trace. If Christ had not come, the Christian hospitals and schools that have had such a magnificent influence both at home and abroad, would all perish, as if shaken down by some cosmic earthquake. If Christ had not come, all the churches and their good works would be erased from the earth.
No more Wheaton, no more Trinity, no more Moody Bible Institute. No Dominican University. No Concordia University. No DePaul University. No Notre Dame University. No Harvard. No Yale. No Holy Cross. No Oak Park Christian Academy. No Loyola Hospital. No Rush-Presbyterian Hospital. No Christ Hospital. No Christian radio, no Christian TV, no Christian books, no Christian magazines, no Christian music of any kind. No great hymns, no choruses, no gospel songs. No Billy Graham crusades. No Martin Luther, No Reformation. No Circle Urban Ministries. No Pacific Garden Mission. No Prison Fellowship. No missionaries spreading the gospel. No Wycliffe Bible Translators. No Christian relief agencies bringing hope and help to the hurting people of the world. No Evangel Hospital in Jos, Nigeria. No Honey Rock Camp. No SonLife. No Youth for Christ. No Christian colleges, no seminaries, no Bible correspondence schools. No Christians doctors, lawyers, dentists, no godly business people donating their time and resources for Christ and his Kingdom.
No Christmas carols. No Project Angel Tree. No children singing “Away in the Manger.” No “Sweet Little Jesus Boy.” No “I’ll be home for Christmas.” No Christmas Eve services for there is no Christmas to celebrate.
No churches anywhere if he did not come. No Calvary Memorial Church. We would not be here. No building, no people, no staff, no choir, no sanctuary, no worship, no sermon because we would have nothing to preach. No Awana, no Sunday School, no Allied Force. None of the things we take for granted. All would be gone, vanished into the mist if Christ had not come.
But the news is much worse than that…
If Christ had not come, the promises of God would be unfulfilled.
If Christ had not come, the world would still be in darkness.
If Christ had not come, there would be no bridge across the gulf of sin.
If Christ had not come, we would not know that God is love.
If Christ had not come, there would be no gospel to believe.
If Christ had not come, there would be no Christmas and no Easter.
If Christ had not come, there would be no hope beyond the grave.
If Christ had not come, we would still be lost for there would be no Savior for sin.
If Christ had not come, there would be no Good News to preach to the nations.
Listen again to the words of the angel, and think of what it means for us.
“Fear not! For I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11-12).
Jesus said, “If I had not come.” But thank God, he came. “When the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son.”
III. What We Should Learn From This
A. The Marvel of God’s Providence
God’s providence means that he rules over the affairs of men and nations. As it pleases him, he raises up one ruler and brings down another. He moves the entire course of history so that all will be ready for the coming of his Son. With God there is no fate, no capricious cruelty, and no coincidence. Nothing ever happens “by accident” with God. All things are working together as part of his eternal plan.
I love the way Charles Spurgeon said it; “There are no loose threads in the providence of God … The great clock of the universe keeps good time.”
Some of us need to hear this because we wonder (and secretly fear) that God has forgotten us. Perhaps you come to the end of this year with a sense of unfillment and perhaps a sense of dread about what 2000 will bring. Fear not, child of God. God’s timing is perfect. When the time had fully come, God sent his Son. And when the time is fully come, he will keep all his promises to you.
B. The Vast Importance of Jesus Christ
Surely this is the major point. He is the center of history. History is really His Story, planned and told by God. Secular history gives us dates and times and places and people, but only God can give meaning to history. His birth is the hinge on which the door of history swings.
He came at the appointed time—not a moment too late, not a second too early. This means that the first Christmas miracle started long before Bethlehem. It took place over many centuries as God prepared the world for the coming of his Son.
And he is the Savior for the whole world. Some years ago C. K. Lee, a Christian leader from China, visited the United States. One Sunday he spoke in a church in California. At the conclusion of the message, a young college student propounded this question, “Why should we export Christianity to China when you have Confucianism in your country?” “There are three reasons,” was the rejoinder. “First of all, Confucius was a teacher and Christ is a Savior. China needs a Savior more than she needs a teacher. In the second place, Confucius is dead and Christ is alive. China needs a living Savior. In the third place, Confucius is some day going to stand before Christ to be judged by Him. China needs to know Christ as Savior before she meets Him as Judge.” (Story taken from “Triumphs of Faith,” recorded in The Most Amazing Man in History.)
In the end it becomes very personal. We all need a Savior. Some of us realize it, but many people don’t. Christ came so that you might be saved from your sin. So the question becomes: What will you do with Jesus Christ at Christmastime?
One Tiny Step
One final note. Our text tells us that God sent forth his Son. That is, he was moving toward us while we were moving away from him. God sent his Son into a world that didn’t know he was coming and didn’t care that he had arrived. There was no welcoming committee in Bethlehem.
Last night Calvary sponsored a caroling outreach that took us to an apartment building on the east side of Oak Park. While we were singing, I struck up a conversation with a man who has come to our church off and on for the last ten years. It’s fair to say that in the last few years I haven’t seen him very often. But he was glad to see me and as we chatted, he said that he thought his life was turning around and that he wanted to go in a new direction. Then he said something that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard anyone say before. He said he was hoping that God would “meet him halfway.” He meant that he was taking a step toward God and now he hoped that God would take a step toward him and that they would meet somewhere in the middle.
I was happy to tell this man that God never meets any of us halfway. It’s not you take one step and then God takes one step. And it’s not even that you take one step and God takes four steps. No, we never have to take the first step. God always makes the first move.
The message of Christmas is this. In Christ God has taken a thousand steps toward us. Now he says, “Won’t you take one tiny step toward me?” The journey from heaven to earth was the longest journey anyone has ever taken. That’s what it meant for God to “send forth” his Son. Now all he asks is that we take a tiny step of faith toward him. When we do, he meets us right where we are.
No one ever captured the essence of why God sent his Son better than C. S. Lewis: “The Son of God became a son of man so that the sons of man might become the sons of God.” He came to where we were that he might lift us up to where he is. He doesn’t say, “Climb up here.” No! He comes down to where we are and lifts us up to where he is. This is the miracle of the gospel.
Have you ever thanked God for sending Christ to the earth? Are you glad that he came? Have you ever considered where you would be if he had not come? Between now and Christmas morning take a few minutes to think about how your life would be different if Christ had not come. Think back to the way you were and then list the changes he has made in your life.
God’s Gift to You
In just a few days Christmas will arrive and families will gather to open their gifts. God has a Christmas gift for you—wrapped not in bright paper and with fancy ribbon—but in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It is the gift of his Son. It is for you. The gift is still there. It must be personally received.
You can never truly enjoy Christmas until you can look in the Father’s face and tell him you have received his Christmas gift. Have you done that?
In his carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Phillips Brooks has a stanza that is a delight at this point:
How silently, how silently
the wondrous gift is given;
So God imparts to human hearts
the blessings of his heaven!
No ear may hear his coming,
but in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.
So He does! May that be your experience this Christmas season.
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