Backstage at Bethlehem
December 13, 1998
It’s amazing how simple some things really are. Take the Bible, for instance. At first glance, it’s an intimidating book filled with strange names, places we’ve never heard of, books we can’t pronounce, and verses we don’t understand. Even people who have read the Bible for years still have trouble understanding parts of it. Sometimes it helps to remember that the message of the Bible is not very complicated. This week a friend sent me an e-mail containing “The Bible in 50 words.” That wouldn’t seem possible because the Bible is such a big book. But here it is.
I don’t know who wrote that, but whoever it was did a fine job. You can quibble with what is left out—and you can ponder certain phrases such as “Saul freaked,” which isn’t entirely clear, but no matter what it means, it rhymes quite well with “David peeked,” which is in fact entirely correct.
I like it for a second reason that goes beyond the cleverness factor. It reminds us that the deepest truths are actually quite simple. This week the editor of the Trapeze, the student newspaper of Oak Park-River Forest High School, interviewed me. She said she was interviewing local clergy and wanted to know what Christmas means to me. I told her that it all comes down to one simple fact: At Bethlehem a baby was born who was God in human flesh. This is the central truth of the Christian faith—that God became a man at Christmastime. Everything else we believe derives from that essential truth.
With that in mind, let’s return to “The Bible in 50 words.” Here is the life of Christ in just 12 words:
Not bad. Not bad at all. You can always add to that, but as it stands, it’s an excellent summary of the greatest story ever told—the life of Jesus Christ on the earth.
I think the Apostle John would have liked that reading because he too had a habit of distilling great spiritual truths into just a few well-chosen words. You may recall that he’s the author of the shortest verse in the Bible: “Jesus wept” (John 11:35). John 1:10-13 illustrates his amazing ability to state huge spiritual truths in a handful of words. He takes just 74 words to tell us what happened to Christ when he came to the earth. Those 74 words don’t tell us everything, but they do tell how people responded to his coming. These verses answer a crucial question: If Jesus was the Son of God, why did they crucify him? If he really was “God walking” and “love talking,” why did so many people want to kill to him?
I. Christ Ignored
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him (John 1:10).
There are three supreme things in this verse:
A. The Supreme Fact of History: Christ was in the world.
B. The Supreme Truth of History: The world was made through him.
C. The Supreme Tragedy of History: The world did not recognize him.
Everything starts with this fact—that Christ was in the world. John means more than just a fleeting visit. God walked on this planet for 33 years. He was a flesh and blood man, born of a woman, with a human nature just like ours. He was born as we are born, and grew up through all the stages of childhood—infancy, toddler, young child, teenager, and young adult. He wasn’t a robot or an angel or some kind of strange alien from a distant galaxy. He was one of us and walked among us.
The Visited Planet
Years ago I remember hearing Dr. Richard Seume, then chaplain of Dallas Seminary, read J. B. Phillip’s famous piece called “The Visited Planet.” It imagines a conversation between a senior angel and a junior angel in which the senior angel tries to explain why the earth is such an important place in the universe. The junior angel is frankly bored and comments that the earth seems rather small and dirty to him. “What’s so special about that one?” “That is the Visited Planet.” “Visited? You don’t mean visited by …” “Indeed I do. That ball, which I have no doubt looks to you small and insignificant and not perhaps overclean, has been visited by our young Prince of Glory.”
The young angel asks a logical question: “Do you mean that our great and glorious Prince, with all these wonders and splendors of his Creation, went down in person to this fifth-rate little ball? Why should he do a thing like that?”
“It isn’t for us,” said the senior angel, a little stiffly, “to question his ‘whys,’ except that I must point out to you that he is not impressed by size and numbers as you seem to be. But that he really went there I know, and all of us in heaven who know anything know that. And as to why he became one of them … How else do you suppose he could visit them?
The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Do you mean to tell me that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures on that floating ball?”
“I do,” replied the senior angel, “and I don’t think he would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, he loves them. He went down to visit them, to lift them up to become like him.”
The story goes on to talk about how the people of the Visited Planet didn’t recognize the Prince of Glory, so they killed him. When the junior angel hears this, he blurts out, “The fools, the crazy fools! They don’t deserve …” He is cut off by the senior angel who says no one can explain why they were so wicked or why they killed the Prince of Glory.
The “C” Word
There has always been a great divide in the human race—and not an even divide either. The majority has never recognized Jesus for who he really is. When he came the first time, Herod hated him, the scribes ignored him, and there was no room for him in the inn. Only the shepherds and the Wise Men—the poor and the foreigners—welcomed him to the earth.
It is the same today. Christmas has almost disappeared from our cultural discourse. Where we used to say “Merry Christmas,” now we say “Happy Holidays” for fear of offending people. Where students used to have “Christmas holidays,” We now have “Winter break.” And we have nearly sanitized the birth of Christ out of every public school in America. Christmas has become the “C” word—unmentionable in polite company.
Nothing has changed. He came to the world he created, and the world had no idea who he was. The old spiritual says it this way:
Sweet little Jesus boy, born long time ago.
Sweet little holy child, we didn’t know who you was.
Didn’t know you’d come to save us, Lord, to take our sins away.
Our eyes were blind, we couldn’t see
We didn’t know who you was.
II. Christ Rejected
He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him (John 1:11).
But the world’s ignorance is not the worst of it. John tells us that he came to “that which was his own.” You could easily translate this as “his own home.” He is moving from the general (the world) to the specific (the nation of Israel). He came to his own home—the Holy Land, and to his own people—the nation of Israel, and they did not receive him.
Perhaps you’ve heard it said that “home is where, when you go there, they have to take you in.” Jesus came “home” to his own people—and they wouldn’t take him in. He came to the people who should have known him best—and they wanted nothing to do with him. They should have known better. They knew he was coming—God had told them over and over again many times in many ways. They had ample warning. Even some pagan astrologers in Persia figured it out when they saw his star in the east (Matthew 2:1-5).
Moses said, “He’s coming.”
David said, “He’s coming.”
Isaiah said, “He’s coming.”
Jeremiah said, “He’s coming.”
Daniel said, “He’s coming.”
Micah said, “He’s coming.”
Zechariah said, “He’s coming.”
Malachi said, “He’s coming.”
Every book, every chapter, every page of the Old Testament testifies to one great truth—”He’s coming.” That’s the whole theme of the Old Testament—that God would one day send the Messiah to the earth to deliver his people Israel. And when Jesus finally arrived, they didn’t believe it. And some of them decided to put him to death.
Think of the long history of Israel. Over and over again they rebelled against God’s law. Time and again they killed the prophets who delivered God’s message. Is it any wonder they crucified the Son of God?
Joel Oppenheimer wrote an amusing piece for the Los Angeles Times some years ago about growing up as a Jew in a mostly Christian high school. Every year at Christmastime when the students sang Christmas carols, he and his friends would say “hum-hum” instead of saying Jesus because they were Jewish. They sang “Silent Night” this way: “Silent Night, hum-hum Night, All is calm, all is bright, Round yon hum-hum, hum-hum-hum-hum.” He adds this comment: “These were serious questions for fifth graders. Why did the song insist that Jesus was the “king of Israel” when all of us, to a child, knew he wasn’t our king?”
He came to His own people … to the one place where he might be welcomed—to his “hometown” and to “his own family” … and they did not want him. They did not receive him … they did not believe him. Finally, they crucified him.
And that rejection continues in large part to this very day.
III. Christ Received
Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God (John 1:12-13).
But the news is not entirely bad. While it is true that the world ignored him and his own people rejected him—not everyone ignored him and not everyone rejected him. Some people recognized him and welcomed him as Lord and Savior. It is useful to recall that all the apostles and 100% of the earliest disciples were Jewish. Even in the midst of general rejection, many followed the Lord.
Verse 12 has been rightly seen as one of the greatest verses in all of the New Testament for it tells us how to be saved. Charles Spurgeon begins his sermon on John 1:12 with these words: “Everything here is simple; everything is sublime. Here is that simple gospel, by which the most ignorant may be saved.”
Notice three key words in verse 12:
A. Received. This word means to welcome a visitor into your home. It’s what you do when you have planned a Christmas party and asked your guests to arrive at 6:30 p.m., but then you hear the doorbell ring at 5:50 p.m. and you’re not ready yet. So you walk to the door, open it, smile and say, “Please come in.” You “receive” your guests even though they have come early. To “receive” Christ means to welcome him as an honored guest and to have him make your heart his home.
B. Believed. This means more than just saying a prayer or signing a card. It has the idea of believing that Jesus is the Son of God from heaven and trusting him with all your heart. It means resting on him so completely that he is your only hope of heaven.
C. Right. This word means “honor” or “privilege.” The moment you receive Christ into your life, God gives you the honor of becoming a member of his family. This teaches us, by the way, that not everyone is a child of God. All are created by God, but not everyone in the world is a child of God. Sometimes people carelessly say, “We’re all God’s children,” but the Bible says no such thing. God only gives the privilege of being his children to those who by personal faith receive Jesus as Lord and Savior.
Verse 13 explains how we become God’s children. There are three “nots” and one “but”—and all four are important.
A. Not of natural descent. Grace doesn’t run automatically from one generation to another. You aren’t a Christian just because your parents were Christians or because your grandfather was a Methodist bishop. And you won’t get brownie points with God just because you come from a good family and have a fine education. Perhaps you saw the movie this week in which a young man was trying to impress a country girl so he said, “I’ve got an MBA from Northwestern.” To which she replied, “Yeah, and I’ve got a VCR from Wal-Mart but that doesn’t mean I know how to use it.” Your family background doesn’t count when it comes to salvation.
B. Nor of human decision. Literally this reads “not of the will of the flesh,” meaning there is nothing you can do to save yourself—so don’t bother trying.
C. Or of a husband’s will. Literally it is “not of the will of a man,” perhaps meaning that you can’t get some bigshot to get you into heaven. No man is big enough to swing open the pearly gates on your behalf.
D. But born of God. Here is the heart of the gospel. Salvation is of the Lord. It’s a free gift—totally free and totally of grace. It’s not a cooperative venture where you do your part and God does his.
But someone may object, “Don’t I have a part to play in salvation?” Sure you have a part. Your part is to be hopelessly lost in sin and God’s part is to save you. That way God alone gets the credit. Salvation is a work of God from first to last.
“Wait! You can have my room.”
The only question left before us is quite simple. Have you ever received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior? The world ignored him, his own people rejected him, now what will you do with Jesus?
It is not enough that he came to the earth. His coming will do you no good as long as Christ remains outside your life. You may say, “I believe in Jesus,” and that is good. But have you ever welcomed him into your heart? Christ may be in the Bible, Christ may be in the church, Christ may be in the carols we sing, Christ may even be in your Christmas cards, and in a nativity scene in your front yard, but it will avail you nothing unless Christ is also in your heart.
Would you like to be saved? John 1:12 says, “Yet to all who received him …” Think of those words “to all who.” There is no human limit to the number of people who can be saved. “To all who” includes you! Many have received him—what about you? Many have welcomed him—what about you? Many have opened their hearts to him—what about you?
How do you receive Christ?
A. Admit your need of him—Do you feel your need of Jesus?
B. Believe the facts about Jesus—Do you believe he is the Son of God from heaven who lived on the earth as God in human flesh, who loved you enough to die in your place, bearing your sins? Do you believe he rose from the dead on the third day and that he is now exalted at the right hand of the Father in heaven?
C. Welcome him as your Lord and Savior—Are you ready to open the door of your heart and receive him into your life?
In short, receiving Christ involves trusting all that you are to all that he is. Christ stands even now knocking at the door of your heart. Won’t you let him in?
In one of his sermons, Bruce Goettsche tells the delightful story of Wallace Perling—a young man who had been given a big part in the annual Christmas program. This year he had a speaking part. He only had one line but he was thrilled. Wallace was given the part of the Innkeeper who would turn Mary and Joseph away. His job was to answer the knock at his door, listen to the plea of Joseph and say, “No! Begone!”
The night of the pageant finally came. Wallace had practiced hard and was ready. As the production began he listened with great intensity to the Christmas story. Finally, Mary and Joseph worked their way to his door. His heart was pounding. When Wallace opened the door there stood Mary and Joseph. They looked so tired. Joseph told how Mary was expecting a child and they were so weary. But Wallace looked straight ahead and said, “No! Begone!”
This is where the story gets interesting. You see, Wallace didn’t shut the door. Instead he watched the couple walk dejectedly away. Finally, Wallace said, “Wait, you can have my room!”
Some thought the Christmas pageant had been ruined. But others thought it was the best Christmas program ever. This is what it means to receive Christ. You receive Jesus by opening the door and inviting Him to come in.
I’d like to wrap up this sermon with a simple prayer of personal commitment. If you’ve never received Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, perhaps these words will be the vehicle God uses to create faith in your heart and bring you into his family. May God help you to trust Christ and to receive him by faith.
Lord Jesus, for too long I’ve kept you out of my life. No longer will I close the door when I hear you knocking. Here and now I open the door and invite you to come into my heart. I gratefully receive your gift of salvation. Thank you, Lord Jesus, for coming to earth. With all my heart I believe you are the Son of God who died on the cross for my sins and rose from the dead on the third day. Thank you for giving me the gift of eternal life. Come into my heart, Lord Jesus, and be my Savior. There is room in my heart for you. Amen.
(If by praying this prayer, you are receiving Jesus Christ as your Savior, I hope you’ll tell someone today about your decision. I’d be glad to hear from you personally. You can contact me via e-mail at