’Twas the Night Before Christmas
December 25, 2013
I’m sure most of us are familiar with the famous poem by Clement Moore that begins this way:
’Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.
The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
In many homes this has become a Christmas tradition. I remember hearing it read at school when I was a little boy, and I’ve heard it read many times since then on various Christmas TV specials. I’ve never tried to memorize it, but I’m sure I know most of it by heart anyway.
It happens that I am writing these words on Christmas Eve. In just a few minutes we will make our way to church for the Christmas Eve service. While is quite true that we do not know the exact day of Christ’s birth (see When Was Jesus Born?), we take one day each year to celebrate the fact that he was born. I ran across these words that put the birth of Jesus in very personal terms:
Little Jesus wast Thou shy
Once and just as small as I?
And what did it feel to be
Out of Heaven and just like me?
If we take the words of Clement Moore (minus St. Nick) and combine them with Francis Thompson, we are presented with a very good Christmas Eve question:
What was happening in heaven as Jesus was being born on the earth?
We may not know this part of the Christmas story </h6 class=”pullquote”>
We know of course about the angels and the shepherds and we know about Caesar’s decree that led to Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem. We know about the manger and the Wise Men and the star that led them from the east. We even know about Herod’s evil plan to kill the baby Jesus. But here is a part of the Christmas story we may not know.
Christmas According to Jesus
What was on our Lord’s mind as he was being born?
You may be surprised to know that the Bible actually gives us an answer to that question. Hebrews 10:5-7 gives us a prayer of the baby Jesus as he was coming into the world. It is the declaration of the eternal Son of God as he stepped out of heaven and entered this world through a virgin’s womb.
This is the Christmas story according to Jesus Christ. We know Luke’s version and Matthew’s version. In Hebrews 10:5-7 we get the Christmas story from the lips of Jesus Christ. This is what he was thinking on the “night before Christmas” 2000 years ago.
Hebrews 10:5-7 quotes Psalm 40:6-8 and applies it directly to the coming of Christ. If we want to know what Christ was thinking before he was born, these verses provide a glimpse:
Therefore, as He was coming into the world, He said:
You did not want sacrifice and offering,
but You prepared a body for Me.
6 You did not delight
in whole burnt offerings and sin offerings.
7 Then I said, “See—
it is written about Me
in the volume of the scroll—
I have come to do Your will, God!
What does our Lord emphasize in these verses?
He Did Not Begin at Bethlehem
They tell us first of all that our Lord’s existence did not begin at Bethlehem. Verse 5 stresses that fact when it attributes these words to Christ “as he was coming into the world.” They speak to us of the preexistence of Christ in heaven. When I was a young man, I heard a preacher explain this great truth by speaking of the “councils of eternity.” He meant by that the divine agreement among the Father, Son and Holy Spirit that the Son would enter the human race and offer himself as Savior.
Our Lord did not “begin” at Bethlehem. As the 2nd Person of the Trinity, he had no “beginning.” That’s what Jesus meant when he declared, “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8:58).
The Son existed eternally with the Father </h6 class=”pullquote”>
Someone asked me recently why the birth of Christ is recorded only in Matthew and Luke but not in Mark and John. The answer goes back to the purpose of those two gospels. Mark wants to emphasize Christ as the great servant who came to give his life for others. In that context it does not matter where a servant comes from, only who sent him and how he serves others. By contrast John’s gospel goes back to the ultimate beginning, far beyond Bethlehem. It starts with the eternal preexistence of Jesus as the true Word of God:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1).
There are many mysteries to all of this, but let us remember one important fact. Christmas marks the human birth of the Lord Jesus, but it does not mark the beginning of his existence. As the Son of God, he existed with the Father long before he was conceived in Mary’s womb.
He Came to Take Away Our Sins
Second, he came to replace the failed Jewish system of animal sacrifice. Verse 5 says it very explicitly: “You did not want sacrifice and offering.” That would have come as a shock to the Jewish priests who for centuries had offered bulls and goats as God had prescribed in the Old Testament. They did that because they sincerely believed that is what God wanted from them. They were not wrong in what they did, but they did not understand the truth of Hebrews 10:4, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” Drop down to verse 11 and you can grasp the futility of the old system:
“Every priest stands day after day ministering and offering the same sacrifices time after time, which can never take away sins.”
Priests in the Old Testament spent their days in a routine of sacrifice and offerings–one after the other, morning, noon and night, day in and day out, week in and week out, month in and month out, year after year, decade after decade, century after century. During the 1500 years from the time of Moses to the time of Christ, tens of thousands of lambs and goats and bulls were offered on the altar before God to make atonement for the sins of the people. That’s what he means when he says “day after day” and “time after time” the same sacrifices were offered.
Animal blood can never take away sin </h6 class=”pullquote”>
Suppose you took all the blood offered on all the Jewish altars,
Over all those centuries,
Offered by priests doing God’s will,
Obeying God’s law,
Sincerely doing what God told them to do,
Sacrificing bulls and goats until there was a
River of blood flowing from the altar.
What does all that animal blood amount to?
How many sins could it forgive?
That’s a shocking fact, a stunning reality, and a sobering truth.
In 1709 Isaac Watts wrote about this in a hymn called “Not all the blood of beasts”:
Not all the blood of beasts
On Jewish altars slain
Could give the guilty conscience peace
Or wash away the stain.
Then he gives the gospel answer in the next verse:
But Christ, the heav’nly Lamb,
Takes all our sins away;
A sacrifice of nobler name
And richer blood than they.
Jesus was God’s lamb</h6 class=”pullquote”>
That’s entirely right. Jesus came to do what the animal sacrifices could never do. He came to deal with our sin once and for all.
We can see this in Hebrews 10:5, “You prepared a body for me.” On one level this means that Christ’s birth was no afterthought in God’s plan, but the fulfillment of all the promises made in the Old Testament. At a deeper level it means that his body was prepared for him so that years later he could offer himself as the once-for-all sacrifice for sin when he died on the cross.
Just as the lamb was prepared for sacrifice,
Jesus comes as the Lamb of God to take away our sin.
He Came to Do God’s Will
Third, he came to do God’s will. When James Montgomery Boice preached on this text (see The Christ of Christmas, pp. 17-26), he pointed out that Christ came into the world knowing his purpose from the beginning. That could not be said of any other baby. I mentioned earlier than I am writing these words on Christmas Eve. For the last few days Marlene and I have enjoyed having our entire family with us. Last night all twelve of us shared a meal together at a Chinese restaurant, and this morning Nick and Sarah left to go back to Chicago. Given the natural scattering that life brings, it seems unlikely that we will all be together again at Christmas for some time to come. So we have treasured these days, especially the time spent with our four grandchildren: Knox who is 3, Eli who is 2, Penny who is 10 months old, and Violet who was born two months ago. Already I can see the different personalities come out. Knox tends to be reserved until Eli shows up. And then the two boys start laughing and running and playing together. On Sunday night Marlene and I took care of Eli and Penny while Mark and Vanessa went out for dinner and a movie. Penny is cutting her teeth so she was unhappy until I took her in my arms and walked her and then sang to her and then cradled her on the couch until she fell asleep in my arms. It was a sublime moment for me.
Christ came to do God’s will </h6 class=”pullquote”>
So I sit here on Christmas Eve thinking about our four grandchildren and wondering what will happen to them. When I pray for them, I ask God to keep them safe and healthy, and I pray they will grow up to love and serve the Lord. But I do not know what God has called them to do. Each one has a place in God’s plan, but I do not know how that will work itself out in the years to come. It is unlikely that I will live long enough to see everything God has in store for them. That means I pray for them based on the promises of God, leaving the outworking of the details in his hands.
I look at Violet and I do not know all that God has for her.
At this tender moment in her life, she does not know either.
But Christ knew his destiny from the very beginning.
He came to do God’s will.
Parents often have certain plans for their children. A farmer may hope his sons take over his farm someday. A business owner may dream that his sons and daughters will join him in his business when they are old enough. Very often parents hope that their children will attend a certain college and follow in their steps. These hopes, while understandable, are nothing more than that—the hopes of parents who dream good things for their children.
But those dreams sometimes do not come to pass.
Children often go their own way.
They choose a different school.
They choose a different career.
They aren’t interested in the family business.
He came anyway!</h6 class=”pullquote”>
Christ was not like that at all. Even as an infant, he had come for a purpose. It is not as if the Father had to convince the Son,
“Now I want you to go down there, be born of a virgin, be laid in a feeding trough, forgotten by the world, have Herod attempt to kill you, flee with your parents to Egypt, grow up in Nazareth, be rejected by your own people, be hated, reviled, scourged and then crucified.”
The Son knew all of that before he was born.
And he came anyway!
He came to do God’s will, knowing that it would mean his own bloody death on the cross, and he came anyway.
Welcome to Our World
Lately I’ve been listening to Amy Grant’s version of a beautiful Christmas song called Welcome to Our World. It explains as well as words can how desperately we needed Christ to come. In the final stanza, the lyrics connect the cradle and the cross:
Fragile finger sent to heal us
Tender brow prepared for thorn
Tiny heart whose blood will save us
Unto us is born
Unto us is born
So wrap our injured flesh around You
Breathe our air and walk our sod
Rob our sin and make us holy
Perfect Son of God
Welcome to our world.
Christ came to earth with a definite purpose—to do God’s will. He fulfilled that will when he died on the cross, bearing the sins of the world. That’s the ultimate meaning of the angelic proclamation in Luke 2:11, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.”
Christ came to die! Nothing else explains his birth.
Nothing else explains his birth </h6 class=”pullquote”>
He perfectly fulfilled God’s will when no one else could do it.
—As a man he died.
—As God he bore the sin of the world.
No one else could have done what Jesus did. No one else was qualified. No one else was willing. No one else was available.
That was on his mind on the night before Christmas.
“A Great Debt. Who Can Pay?”
Harry Ironside liked to tell a story about Czar Nicholas I of Russia. It seems that the czar had a good friend who asked him to provide a job for his son. This the czar did, appointing the son as paymaster for a barracks in the Russian army. However, it turned out that the son was morally weak and soon gambled away nearly all the money entrusted to him. When the word came that the auditors were going to examine his records, the young man despaired, knowing that he was certain to be found out. He calculated the amount he owed and the total came to a huge debt—far greater than he could ever pay. He determined that the night before the auditors arrived, he would take his gun and commit suicide at midnight. Before going to bed, he wrote out a full confession, listing all he had stolen, writing underneath it these words, “A great debt. Who can pay?” Then he fell asleep, weary from his exertions.
Late that night the czar himself paid a surprise visit to the barracks as was his occasional custom. Seeing a light on, he peered into the room and found the young man asleep with the letter of confession next to him. He read the letter and instantly understood what had happened. He paused for a moment, considering what punishment to impose, then he bent over, wrote one word on the paper, and left.
Eventually the young man woke up, realizing that he had slept past midnight. Taking his gun, he prepared to kill himself when he noticed that someone had written something on the ledger. Under his words “A great debt. Who can pay?” he saw one word: “Nicholas.” He was dumbfounded and then terrified when he realized that the czar knew what he had done. Checking his records, he found that the signature was genuine. Finally the thought settled in his mind that the czar knew the whole story and was willing to pay the debt himself. Resting on the words of his commander-in-chief, he fell asleep. In the morning a messenger came from the palace with the exact amount the young man owed. Only the czar could pay. And the czar did pay.
Only Jesus could pay our debt to God</h6 class=”pullquote”>
Only Jesus could pay our debt to God. That and that alone explains why “the Word became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). He pitched his tent with us for 33 years that he might pay in his own blood the debt we owed because of our sin. We stand today precisely where that young man did. When we look at our sins and realize our hopeless condition, we say, “A great debt. Who can pay?” Then the Lord Jesus Christ steps forward and signs his name to our ledger: “Jesus Christ.” Only Jesus could pay. And he does.
This is why he came. This is the real meaning of Christmas. When Christmas arrives, families 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.
Have you received God’s Christmas gift?</h6 class=”pullquote”>
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?
Perhaps you’ve heard these words by Christina Rossetti.
What shall I give him, Poor as I am?
If I were a shepherd, I’d give him a lamb.
If I were a wise man, I’d do my part.
What shall I give him, I’ll give him my heart.
Have you ever done that? Have you ever given him your heart?
No decision is more important. No one else can make it for you. If you aren’t ready, then nothing I say can compel you to come to Christ. But if you are ready, then it’s time for you to do business with the Lord.
No decision is more important </h6 class=”pullquote”>
The Bible says that “he gave the right to become God’s children to everyone who believed in him” (John 1:12 GW). Have you ever received Jesus Christ as your Savior and Lord? Would you like to do that right now?
If you answer yes to that question, here’s a simple prayer that may help express the desire of your heart:
“Dear God, I know that I am sinner. I confess that I have sinned many times in word and deed. Here and now, I confess my sins and ask Jesus Christ to be my Savior. I believe that Jesus died on the cross for me and rose from the dead on the third day. With all my heart, I am trusting Jesus alone for my salvation. Please forgive my sins and save me. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and make me a brand-new person. These things I ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.”