A Savior is Born
December 21, 2003
Recently I received an e-mail from a man who attended “Two from Galilee,” the Christmas program presented by our music ministry several weeks ago. He wrote to say how much he enjoyed it, and then added this sentence: “God is just in the amazement business.” That Sunday—two weeks ago today—I preached on “No Crib for a Bed: The God of All Circumstances,” and I endeavored to show that every detail of the birth of Christ—even the seemingly “negative” things like there being no room in the inn—was planned by God. Nothing happened by accident—all of it fit into God’s plan to bring salvation to the world. But much of it didn’t make sense at the time it was happening. So my friend wrote about his two recent heart operations, and the physical therapy he is undergoing, and his aging parents who live a long way from Chicago. Life has not been easy. After listening to my sermon, he came to this conclusion: “If Joseph & Mary had waited a month or Caesar had decreed a month later Jesus would have likely been born in an inn and the room arrangement would have been solved in man’s eyes.” The he adds this perceptive comment: “Amazing how God works stuff out in His time when the worst looks like the best there is.”
But that’s not the end of it. He wrote me again a few days later. Here is part of what he said:
Just a note to let you know you picked your sermon last Sunday for me. This Christmas has been different for me. I spent one Christmas in Vietnam on a riverboat and it wasn’t good, however this year hands down is the worst. I could sit down on a park bench and cry! My health problems, family health problems, waiting on a new job, and maybe missing one. I’m actually enjoying Christmas! Before the last two weeks it was doom & gloom so why the change? Your sermon—Joseph didn’t have much of a Christmas either. I heard that story a zillion times and it took this year—a year of disaster to wake me up. So when you are wondering why you picked that sermon out of all kinds of ideas…you did it for me and I thank you! The God of all circumstances!! If that is not encouragement, then you can have my cold hard park bench—I don’t need it anymore. Have yourself a nice day!!!
My friend is right. Sometimes we don’t appreciate the good news until we see it against the backdrop of bad news. Sometimes it takes a “year of disaster” to wake us up to the goodness of God. The coming of Christ to the world is the best news the world has ever heard—but as my friend said—having heard it a zillion times, we may be tempted to let our minds wander and say, “What’s for dinner?”
I would like to focus on one verse of Scripture that brings us to the heart of Christmas: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 ESV). There are four parts to this verse, and each one teaches us something important about why Christ came to the earth and what his coming can mean to each of us.
I. The Prophecy of His Coming
Notice the simple phrase—”born this day in the city of David.” The city of David is not Jerusalem—it’s Bethlehem, which is six or seven miles south of Jerusalem. I have been there three times. Today Bethlehem is an Arab town under Palestinian control, but when Jesus was born it was a tiny Jewish community. Modern Bethlehem is a bustling, busy town filled with thousands of people who jostle each other as they walk the narrow streets. The major industry of Bethlehem is tourism (when there isn’t a war going on), and the most important site is the Church of the Holy Nativity in the center of the city. Built on the traditional site of Jesus’ birth, it is the one of the oldest churches in the Holy Land, having been first constructed on that site 1,700 years ago, then built upon, added to, and restored many times over the centuries.
In 1865 a Boston pastor named Phillips Brooks visited the Holy Land at Christmastime. Upon his return he wrote a Christmas carol, which his choir director set to music for their Christmas concert in 1867. We still sing it today. “O little of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.” He wrote it that way because 140 years ago Bethlehem was still a tiny village—a quiet and peaceful place. Bethlehem is called the “city of David” because David grew up here along with his father Jesse and his seven brothers. In fact, David tended sheep in the fields outside the village just as the shepherds were doing the night the angel appeared to them.
There is one other fact you need to know. Seven hundred years earlier the Lord had spoken through the prophet Micah and declared that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem. Here is the exact Scripture from Micah 5:2—
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.
Notice the phrase “though you are small among the clans of Judah.” That prophecy came from the Lord in 700 B.C. when Bethlehem was a tiny, inconsequential village. No one would ever have named it one of the Top Ten Vacation Spots in Israel. If you went there, you would find a few small houses and that’s about it. When Jesus was born, Bethlehem was still off the beaten track. However, the Jews knew that the Messiah would be born there. Matthew 2 tells us that when the Magi came to Herod in Jerusalem, they asked, “Where is he who is King of the Jews? We have seen his star in the east and have come to worship him.” Good question. Where is the Messiah going to be born? Herod gathered his theology council and asked them the same question. They replied by quoting Micah 5:2 (you can find this episode in Matthew 2:1-6). That’s what I mean by the fact that the Jews knew. God had told them 700 years before exactly where Christ would be born. There was no secret about it at all.
As a side note, I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that even though the Magi have suddenly shown up in Jerusalem, and even though the theologians knew where the baby was to be born, and even though Bethlehem was only a few miles south of Jerusalem, as far as we know, not a one of them cared enough to investigate for himself. They were totally indifferent to the birth of the Messiah. They missed the most important event in world history because they couldn’t be bothered.
When we read about the “city of David,” we should remember that Jesus was born in fulfillment of a prophecy made 700 years earlier. It should also remind us that knowledge alone is never enough to save us. It’s not what you know, but what you do with what you know that makes the difference.
II. The Reality of His Coming
Let’s look again at the text. The angel says, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David.” Just focus on the three words—”born this day.” They speak to the fact that what happened in Bethlehem was nothing less than the birth of the Son of God.
There are two aspects to this truth we need to mention. The first is that there were no miracles associated with the physical birth of Jesus Christ. Even though we often speak of the Virgin Birth of Christ, it’s important to remember that the real miracle took place nine months earlier when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary with the result that although she was a virgin, she became pregnant. That was an enormous miracle that has never been repeated in the history of the world. Across the centuries, the virgin birth of Jesus Christ has been considered a foundational doctrine by Christians of virtually every denomination. Both Matthew and Luke plainly ascribe the conception of Jesus Christ to the action of the Holy Spirit. Matthew uses phrases such as “through the Holy Spirit” and “from the Holy Spirit” to describe what happened. Luke adds an intriguing phrase when he reports the angel Gabriel’s words to Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35). The verb for “overshadow” speaks of the direct, personal presence of God. What is the significance of Jesus being begotten of the Holy Spirit? Since Jesus was born of Mary, we know that He was truly human. Since He was conceived through the Holy Spirit, we know that He was more than a man. The virgin birth was God’s way of announcing to the world that Jesus was indeed His Son. Through the virgin birth, the Son of God entered the human race, taking upon Himself all aspects of true humanity, yet remaining sinless, and without surrendering any aspect of His deity. Thus the Babe in the manger was truly Almighty God from heaven. He was fully God and yet fully man at the same time. Deity and humanity joined together. What role did the Holy Spirit play? Through some means unknown to us, during the “overshadowing,” he created within the womb of Mary the human life of Jesus Christ. It is a pure miracle of the highest order. No one can explain it or duplicate it. Nothing can be compared to it because no other birth has been—or ever could be—like it.
Following the miraculous conception, Mary’s pregnancy followed the normal course of all human pregnancies leading to the night in Bethlehem when she gave birth to the Lord Jesus in a stable. Although Luke gives no details, we may safely assume that the delivery itself was normal in every way. Or at least as normal as any birth could be under such trying circumstances. From time to time we read of women giving birth in strange places—in a car, in an airplane, at the mall, at a restaurant—sometimes alone, sometimes attended by a very frightened husband. Such instances are normal births that happen in extraordinary circumstances. The birth of Jesus falls into that category—a true event that took place in a normal way in a very abnormal situation.
Not Like “Lord of the Rings”
Second, it’s important to remind ourselves that the phrase “this day” means that it really happened. Francis Schaeffer used to talk about “lower-story” truth and “upper-story” truth. “Lower-story” truth is made up of the facts of history—the who, what, when and where of events that really happened at a certain time in a place to particular people. By contrast, “upper-story” truth refers to fables and stories—like the fables of Aesop—that everyone knows aren’t true but are meant to teach religious truth. Many people today read Luke 2 and call it “upper-story” truth. It’s simply too fantastic to believe, or so they say. One professor called it “theological fiction”—that is, a story made up by the early church to explain the uniqueness of Jesus.
Some of you may have heard about the “Jesus Seminar”—a group of liberal scholars who used colored pebbles to vote on whether or not the gospel stories about Jesus are true or not. When they came to this part of the story of Jesus, they voted 24-1 against the biblical account of the Virgin Birth. This should not surprise us since there have always been skeptics who attacked the biblical record. Notwithstanding those attacks, the Christian church has always professed its belief in the literal truth of the Virgin Birth. The ancient creeds put this way: “Conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” This is one truth that has always been believed by all Christians everywhere. To use Francis Schaeffer’s term, the birth of Jesus is “lower-story” truth because it really and truly happened.
So when we read “unto you is born this day in the city of David,” let us remember that it points to something true—an event that really happened. Not a legend or a myth or a nicely-told fairy tale. To put it in contemporary terms, the Virgin Birth is not like “Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien’s book is justly famous and the movies are breathtaking, but the story is not meant to be taken as history. Everything about the biblical account of the birth of Jesus is true, including the central truth that there really was a baby born in Bethlehem who really was the Son of God.
III. The Result of His Coming
Now we come to the climax of this verse: “A Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” Here’s an interesting fact that comes from the Greek text of Luke 2. When Luke wrote his account, he didn’t use any articles to describe who Jesus is. It reads this way: Savior … Christ … Lord.
Each word is vitally important. Savior is actually an Old Testament word that means “One who delivers his people.” Christ is the Greek version of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “the anointed One.” Lord is a term for Deity. It’s a synonym for God.
We desperately need a Savior, don’t we? When the angel announced the birth of Jesus to Joseph, he said, “Give him the name Jesus because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). A few days ago I received a letter from a prisoner in Wisconsin who had read An Anchor for the Soul. The oldest of five children, he came from a single-parent family. Seeking self-esteem and acceptance, he joined a gang as a young man. When he dropped out of school in the nineth grade, he could not read or write. He got into serious trouble when he was 17. He was arrested, tried and convicted of first-degree murder. Sentenced to life in prison, he has been behind bars for 19 years. This is his comment: “Dr. Pritchard, many had given up on me, but God never did! I was told that I would never amount to anything but God says otherwise. I was told that I would find death in prison but instead I found eternal life.” Investigators recently discovered DNA and other fingerprint evidence that evidently proves he did not commit the crime. He may soon be completely exonerated and released from prison. How does he feel about his 19 years behind bars?
I have been so overwhelmed by the grace and mercy of Christ—I’ve been given a wonderful peace that surpasses all understanding. I am absolutely convinced that had I not come to prison, my life would have been completely devastated beyond repair. It’s now been 19 years of incarceration and these years have been the most refreshing and enlightening years of my life—I am truly blessed beyond words.
Only the grace of God can enable a man to talk like that. He goes on to say he is writing a book about his life story called Saved by the Cell. That’s why Christ came—to be a Savior for everyone who will turn to him.
He is the Savior, he is the Lord, and he is the Christ—the one sent from God. This is the heart of Christmas. God loved us enough to send his only begotten Son. Think of it this way:
He didn’t send a committee.
He didn’t write a book.
He didn’t send a substitute.
When God got ready to save the world, he sent the best that he had—his one and only Son. And in sending Jesus, he was really sending himself. This is the stupendous truth of Christmas—Immanuel—God with us.
IV. The Purpose of His Coming
Our text contains one final truth for our consideration. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David.” Consider those two words: “unto you.” Pause for a moment and consider who was speaking and who was being addressed. When the shepherds heard these words from the angel, they must have been flabbergasted. We forget that shepherds were near the bottom of the social order of ancient Israel. They were often poor and uneducated and some were quite young. Not very many people would pick “shepherd” on their Career Preference Form. There were many easier ways to make a living in ancient Israel. So when the angel says, “To you is born,” he’s really saying, “Christ came for lowly shepherds.” But what about those theologians in Jerusalem who knew but didn’t care? He came for them too, but they missed it altogether.
When Christ came, his birth was first announced to the outcasts of society. They were the first ones to hear the good news of Christmas. There is a great lesson in this for all of us. Our Lord came for the forgotten people of the earth and most of the time they are the ones who receive him with the greatest joy. Rich people often have no time for Christ, but the poor welcome him as an honored guest.
He Came For You
Let me now make a simple application. The angel said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior.” “Unto you.” “For you.” He came for you. This is where Christmas becomes intensely personal. It’s not enough to say abstractly that you believe Christ came. Millions of people say that and are still lost in their sins. It’s not enough to say that Christ came for someone else.
You can never be saved until you say, “Christ came for me. He died for me. He rose from the dead for me.”
He came for you. Do you believe that?
In four days Christmas will be here. Families will gather around the tree to open their presents. Already some children are counting the hours until that glad moment arrives. When you receive your gifts this Christmas, what will you do? Will you not open them? What use is a gift that is never opened?
Two thousand years ago God sent a gift wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Jesus is God’s Christmas gift to you. But you will never experience Christmas joy until you personally receive God’s gift—the Lord Jesus Christ. When I write to prisoners, I often tell them that there are many kinds of prisons—-and not all of them have guards with guns. Some prisons are inside the human heart where we are held captive by our own sin. And some people inside prison are free while some people outside prison are imprisoned by their own self-destructive behavior. Christ came to save us from our sin-—but even his death on the cross cannot save us until we believe in him.
A man traveled a great distance for an interview with a distinguished scholar. He was ushered into the man’s study, where he said, “Doctor, I notice that the walls of your study are lined with books from the ceiling to the floor. No doubt you have read them all. I know you have written many yourself. You have traveled extensively, and doubtless you’ve had the privilege of conversing with some of the world’s wisest men. I’ve come a long way to ask you just one question. Tell, me, of all you’ve learned, what is the one thing most worth knowing?” Putting his hand on his guest’s shoulder, the scholar replied with emotion in his voice, “My dear sir, of all the things I have learned, only two are really worth knowing. The first is, I am a great sinner, and the second is, Jesus Christ is a great Savior!”
If you know those two things personally, you know the best news in the whole world, that a Savior has been born for you who is Christ the Lord!
Joy the world, the Lord is come. Amen.