Allen D. Curry
Have you noticed at this time of year how some people get so upset by stories of crime and cruelty in the news? These are the same people who seem to take all sorts of bad things in stride throughout the rest of the year. Frequently they will comment on how terrible it is that people commit crimes around Christmas. For some reason, they believe that this season of the year should bring a moratorium on bad behavior. In fact, some of us may even have similar feelings. We have the idea that Christmas should have such an impact on our world that it makes people better.
Those in the helping professions may notice that Christmas brings on certain kinds of emotional difficulties for some people. Again, some of us may be surprised. We would like to believe that Christmas is such a wonderful time of the year that it should have a therapeutic effect on people.
All of this, it seems to me, misses the very reason for Christmas. Certainly it reminds us of love and giving. But if we think about Christmas simply in terms of love and giving, we miss the point. Christ was not born simply in order to set an example for us to follow.
If there were no crime or cruelty, there would not have been any need for the incarnation. The Lord Jesus was born in order to address the problem of sin. If there is no sin, there is no need for Christmas.
In the first few verses of Romans 8, the apostle Paul reminds us of why Christ came into the world. He tells us in verse 3 that God sent his Son in the likeness of sinful man in order to condemn sin.
Paul explicitly tells us that the law was powerless to free us from condemnation. The weakness of the law was not something inherent in it, but in our sinful flesh. Paul is clear that the law is not bad; rather, the people who are to keep the law are bad.
The problem was that humankind, beginning with Adam, failed to obey God. Because Adam failed and passed his guilt on to all his progeny, we are all guilty of sin. Our guilt is compounded because not only are we guilty of Adam’s sin, but we also sin ourselves.
I find it interesting that some who are disgusted with crime and cruelty at Christmas are the ones who encourage greed, self-centeredness, and hedonistic indulgence. They want us to enjoy ourselves. You have heard them say, “Enjoy yourself; Christmas only comes once a year.” They see it as license to engage in a variety of sinful behaviors.
Paul writes to Timothy, “The saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am the foremost” (1 Tim. 1:15). Sinful failure and Christmas are integrally related. The Father in heaven loves sinners and sends his Son to earth to redeem them. The heavenly Son becomes a man in order to save sinners.
Any view of Christmas that does not recognize the role of sin in the incarnation misses the point of the incarnation.
Paul is at pains to make sure we remember that the incarnation is real, not mythical. It is not simply a story that brings out the good in people. I think many who get exasperated by the evidence of crime and cruelty at Christmas think of the story of Jesus’ birth as a fable like those of Aesop. Well, it is not.
Jesus was a real baby. When we romanticize the birth of Jesus, we reduce the meaning of what he did. He freely gave up the glories of heaven in order to take on genuine human flesh. The Creator became a creature. When we make Christmas so ethereal that it is no longer real, we diminish the marvel of it all. Jesus did not simply appear and take on an apparent human form. When he was born in the stable, there was an afterbirth to be cleaned up. His mother experienced birth pains, just like every other mother.
Jesus is like us in our weak humanity, yet without sin. Note the way Paul describes the incarnation in a few words in Romans 8:3. He speaks of God “sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.”
Jesus was a man with all the weaknesses that accompany human beings. He faced life without any special tricks or gimmicks that enabled him to fulfill God’s will. He was like us in all ways, except that he did not inherit Adam’s sinful nature and did not commit any sins. In our reflections on Christmas, it is easy to forget this about Jesus.
When Jesus was born in that stable, he experienced cold, hunger, and discomfort. Like any other baby, he was able to communicate his wants and needs only by crying. Yet we often forget this. Even a carol as wonderful as “Away in a Manger” misses this point. The second verse says, “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes.” Surely Jesus cried—how else would Mary know he was awake?
It is essential that the Lord Jesus was really a man. He had to face and overcome every temptation in order that his righteousness could be imputed to us and received by faith alone. It was as a real, weak human that Jesus faced the cross. It was as a regular person that he endured the pain of crucifixion. If not, it would have done no good. Because we, as humans, sin, it is necessary that a human being suffer in our place.
Christmas is about God taking the initiative in sending his own Son. The babe of Bethlehem is sent by God the Father in order to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Jesus freely comes because we cannot save ourselves. He comes because he loves us and will die to take away our sin. He is called Jesus because he will save his people from their sin.
The incarnation provides us with freedom from the curse and penalty of the law of sin and death. In Romans, the apostle Paul helps us to see that Jesus defeats sin by taking the punishment that sinners deserve in his death on the cross. The incarnation was directed toward that deliverance from the penalty of sin.
Jesus was born in order to keep the law and then bear the consequences of breaking the law. Note that Jesus kept the law and then suffered the penalty of law-breakers in order to free us from the guilt and penalty of sin.
Remember the last verse of “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing”: “… born that man no more may die, born to raise the sons of earth, born to give them second birth.”
In Romans 8, Paul teaches us not only about freedom from the penal consequences of sin, but also about deliverance from the dominion of sin. Jesus frees us from the necessity of sinning. Sin no longer reigns over us. Paul tells us in verse 4 that God’s people don’t live according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit. We are no longer fleshly; we are now spiritual—that is, the Holy Spirit directs us.
In our thinking about Christmas, we need to keep this in focus. When you read of crime or when you hear reports of cruelty, remember that because Jesus was born in Bethlehem and died in Jerusalem, you are no longer mastered by the Evil One and his evil ways. You are now able to love the Savior. You are now able to rejoice in his wondrous love. You are now able to please him by doing as he did, denying yourself and esteeming others better than yourself.
I’m not suggesting that we aren’t supposed to be disturbed by reports of sin in God’s world at this time of year. But what I am suggesting is that we don’t forget that the babe of Bethlehem was born to set us free, so that we could obey God, rather than always disobeying him.
Try to make sure that your Christmas celebrations include rejoicing in the freedom Christ brought to you.
In the future, a wonderful transaction will take place. Whereas Jesus came to earth in the incarnation and took a true body and a reasonable (rational) soul, in heaven we will become like Jesus. He will still have his body, and we will have a transformed body just like his. But the wonderful thing is that we will be conformed to his image, and will only and always desire to do the will of the Father.
Because we and all others in heaven will be transformed, there will no longer be any crime or cruelty. In the new heavens and the new earth, righteousness will prevail. No one will engage in cruel thoughts or actions. Crime will disappear, and all will be glad followers of the way of the Lord.
We are all disappointed when we hear of crime and cruelty. No Christian person should ever forget the horrible ugliness of sin and how cruel sinners can be.
Nevertheless, when we hear about such things at Christmastime, remember that Jesus came because of our failure to keep his law. Rejoice in his fraternal character—he was born to be like us, in order to save us. Embrace the freedom that the incarnation begins and the cross completes. Live free from the consequences of sin and from its dominion. Most of all, as you celebrate the first advent, anticipate the future advent, when you will be with the Savior forever. Sing with hope the words of Charles Wesley: “Come, thou long-expected Jesus.… Raise us to thy glorious throne.”
The author is a retired, but busy, OP minister. New Horizons, December 2015.