The Paradox of Christmas
December 22, 2002 | Randy Smith
1 Timothy 3:16
The Paradox of Christmas1 Timothy 3:16
Sunday, December 22, 2002
Pastor Randy Smith
William Phelps taught English literature at Yale for forty-one years until his retirement in 1933. Upon grading an examination paper shortly before Christmas one year, Phelps came across the note written by one of his students: "God only knows the answer to this question. Merry Christmas." Professor Phelps returned the paper with his own note: "God gets an A. You get an F. Happy New Year."
Though we don't wish to excuse a diligent study of God's Word, the comment by the student bears much truth and humility. Because as much as we search the Scriptures, elements of God's character and His actions will always be veiled to our finite minds. And apart from His special revelation, recorded in the Bible, we as humans would know very little about God.
Often the Bible calls the plans of God a "mystery," because they are truths humanly undiscoverable except by divine revelation. But our God is a talking God. He speaks to us. He reveals His plans to us, plans formulated in the depths of His counsel long before the creation of the world.
For instance, the fierce enmity between Jew and Gentile lasted for centuries with no end in sight. But the mystery has been revealed. God was now going to bring both parties together in peace under the blood of Christ (Eph. 3:3). From the time of Moses, God took up residence in physical buildings such as the tabernacle or the temple. But the mystery has been revealed. God would now dwell in the hearts of His children (Col. 1:27). God created marriage in Genesis 2 and thousands of years passed without ever knowing the symbolic purpose of matrimony. But the mystery has been revealed. Ephesians 5 states that marriage was created to be an illustration of Christ's union with His church (Eph. 5:32).
Let me show you another mystery now revealed that is spoken of in the Bible. The Apostle Paul said in 1 Timothy 3:16, "By common confession, great is the mystery of godliness: He who was revealed in the flesh, was vindicated in the Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world, taken up in glory."
The mystery Paul speaks of is essentially the mystery of Jesus Christ. As he quotes what I believe to be an ancient hymn, the Apostle spells out 6 undeniable truths about Jesus Christ that summarize the gospel. These 6 truths, once a mystery, are now bold declarations revealed to us in the church age as to how God planned to save the world through Jesus.
But when I compare the 6 great assertions in 1 Timothy 3 with the biblical events surrounding the birth of Jesus I almost see two different stories. On the one hand I see a victorious King worthy of worship (1 Timothy 3). And on the other I see a tiny innocent baby lying helpless in a manger (the Christmas story). On the one hand I see a mystery (the Christmas story). On the other hand I see a revelation of that mystery as to how God would bring salvation (1 Timothy 3). I see a plan that would have never been formulated in the mind of man. I see man's desperate need for a revelation of the mystery. I see a strange way to save the world!
This morning I would like to cover the 6 great truths about Jesus Christ from 1 Timothy 3:16 by comparing them to some snapshots from the Christmas story. My prayer is that you will get a better understanding for the mystery of Jesus Christ, which enables you to praise God for His incomprehensible wisdom and indescribable gift (1 Cor. 9:15).
1. REVEALED IN THE FLESH
The Father's plan to save the world is absolutely remarkable! He predetermined before time to send His own Son into the world that was created through His Son. As Augustine said, "He, without whose divine permission no day completes its course, wished to have one day for His human birth." The Son would be born to a young virgin without the natural means of any human father. The Son would retain all of the properties of God, but at the same time would take on all the fullness of humanity.
It was John Donne who wrote, "Twas much, that man was made like God before, But that God should be like man much more." Martin Luther said, "The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding."
The very Son who enjoyed perfect fellowship with the Father and the Holy Spirit would limit His glory, deal with the restrictions of humanness and eventually subject Himself to the mockery and abuse of those He came to save.
God in the flesh would come that first Christmas morning fully dependent on people, human parents to protect Him and to provide for His needs. Omnipotence personified would come in all frailty and finitude. Paul described this remarkable display of humility in Philippians when he said, "Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross" (Phil. 2:6-8).
Possibly most remarkable is that these incredible truths were first displayed as a baby lying in a manger. His true identity was hidden from the vast majority of humanity. But Jesus Christ was nevertheless, God "revealed in the flesh" according to 1 Timothy 3:16. Charles Wesley captured this truth well in his hymn "Hark! The Herald Angels Sing" when he said, "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail the Incarnate Deity."
To be revealed in the flesh was a revelation of God's mystery. It was a disclosure that would confound the wise. It was a disclosure that would reveal not simply another baby coming into the world, but rather God Himself coming into His world!
He became a man in order that He might redeem man from the effects of the curse. His voluntary self-concealment was at the same time a self-revelation. He made the invisible God, visible. And those who have eyes to see realize the glory and the humility and the deity and the love of the Christ child made known in the flesh through the revelation of God's mystery.
What a paradox! The ultimate sign of human weakness, a dependent newborn baby was at the same time the ultimate sign of human strength, God who became man.
2. VINDICATED IN THE SPIRIT
We would also like to think that if God would choose to become part of His own creation, He would go through every effort to vindicate His appearance. He would seek to demonstrate His royalty, display His supremacy and demand His attention. He would be born to a noble family and laid in a golden basinet and dressed in fine purple linens. Who would have ever thought that He would have allowed Himself to be born to a carpenter and laid in a manger and dressed in swaddling cloths?
Specifically Luke 2:7 says, "And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn." A manger is an animal's feeding trough. Most likely it was carved in the rock walls of a cave, a cave that was used to contain animals, a cave that was smelly and dark and dirty. There was no tinsel, no splendor, and no blinking lights to announce the birth of King Jesus. Everything pointed to obscurity, poverty and rejection.
Philip Yancey, in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, said, "In meek contrast, God's visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trough. Indeed, the event that divided history, and even our calendars, into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses. A mule could have stepped on him."
Why was Christ not vindicated?
Jesus Christ as prophesized would be "despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief." Isaiah said, "He was despised, and we did not esteem Him" (Isa. 53:3). We learned in John that "He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him" (Jn. 1:11). But in the birth narrative such rejection was received immediately at His arrival and even before people saw His face or heard His message. You'll remember the innkeeper told the young couple, "There is no room for you in the hotel." Even today Christ suffers this rejection because countless have no room for Jesus in their hearts.
Why was Christ not vindicated?
Yet in 1 Timothy 3 we read in almost contradictory fashion that Jesus "was vindicated in (probably better translated "by") the Spirit." The ignoble birth of Jesus, His rejection by most, His death on the cross, appeared to be anything but the wise and immutable plan of God. Though the demonic forces and sinful man thought they were the victors, God vindicated the teaching and sacrifice of Christ ultimately by raising Him from the dead on the 3rd day.
God is the Victor and Jesus Christ is exalted whereby that rejected baby would also be called "the King of kings and the Lord of lords" (1 Tim. 6:16). He is the "blessed and only sovereign" (1 Tim. 6:16) of whose name "every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:10-11).
To humans, the life of Christ was a bust; to God it was one of vindication!
3. SEEN BY ANGELS
Another paradox or mystery involves the people Jesus appeared to, or didn't appear to, that first Christmas morning.
Caesar Augustus was the emperor of the Roman world at the time of Christ's birth. He was the most powerful man on the face of the earth. His name means "revered." His granduncle was Julius Caesar. And he is claimed by many to be the greatest of all Roman rulers. He was considered to be like one of the gods. But this false god never saw the true God born in the manger. Even though he issued the decree for the Baby to be born in Bethlehem, thus fulfilling prophecy (Lk. 2:1), the emperor never saw Jesus nor did Jesus reveal Himself to the emperor.
Another key leader at the time of Christ's birth was king Herod. Nicknamed "The Great," Herod was a cruel and merciless king, jealous that King Jesus would usurp his position of authority. Instead of going to see the Christ child for himself, Herod gave orders to slay every male child under 2 in Bethlehem (Mt. 2:16). Herod was more interested in saving his throne than saving his soul. He never saw Jesus either, nor did Jesus make any effort to see him.
What a contrast this is for us today who are enamored by celebrity status. We are people who want to be accepted by the "in crowd." We are people who believe that upward advancements are made by having the "right connections."
Though the high and mighty, the influential and affluent never saw Jesus, 1 Timothy 3 says He was "seen by angels." We know that the angels surrounded the entire ministry of Christ, but with our Christmas context, Luke 2:13 says His birth was announced with a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, saying, "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased" (Lk. 2:13). Jesus was unconcerned about the prestigious human figures of His day. And they failed to see Jesus because of their lack of faith. But the angels, those who knew God the best, attended the birth of the Savior. They clearly saw the glory of the Christ child and wouldn't miss it for the world!
4. PROCLAIMED AMONG THE NATIONS
Another interesting contrast between the birth of Jesus and 1 Timothy 3 is found in the fourth clause that Jesus was "proclaimed among the nations."
When we consider that first Christmas, almost all of humanity was oblivious to the arrival of Jesus. Think about that. Arguably the most significant day in the history of the world went unnoticed as people conducted their life status quo. The Savior had arrived and the multitudes of sinful humanity all in desperate need of forgiveness were clueless. What a strange way to bring forth the Messiah? Would you have done it this way? If you were God, would you not have proclaimed the coming Redeemer from the housetops? Would you not have personally passed out invitations to the world announcing His arrival?
Remarkably, God did not proclaim the birth of Jesus to the world; rather He proclaimed it to a bunch of lowly shepherds. In Luke 2 we read, "In the same region there were someshepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened. But the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger'" (Lk. 2:8-12).
Shepherds in the first century were a despised class of individuals considered last on most social lists. They were outcasts. Their work regimen kept them absent from most of the religious affairs in the community. Most notably, they were prevented from sharing their testimony in a court of law.
Who would have ever thought of this one? God takes on flesh and tells relatively no one about it except a few modest shepherds, some "low-lifes." It was the most significant religious event, and it was revealed to shepherds not involved in the religious activities of the people. It was an event that needed worldwide proclamation, and it was revealed to shepherds whose testimony offered no credibility to the public!
But these shepherds gladly received the revelation. Overjoyed from the "Good News," instinctively they proclaimed the message to others. "When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds" (Lk. 2:17-18). These shepherds who were the first witnesses of the gospel message remarkably by God's design became the first New Testament evangelists.
It is only under the infallible plan of God that the proclamation of Christ's birth could start so small and then spread so far. Less than 60 years later, Paul said, "(The Gospel) has been made known to all the nations" (Rom. 16:26). In his Colossian epistle Paul referred to the gospel "which was proclaimed in all creation under heaven" (Col. 1:23). In less than 300 years even one of the Roman emperors, men who brutally persecuted the Christians, converted to Christianity (his name was Constantine), and gave the faith a preferential status in the empire.
The birth of Christ began as a proclamation to the Shepherds, but eventually became as 1 Timothy 3 indicates, a proclamation to the nations.
5. BELIEVED ON IN THE WORLD
The fifth clause of 1 Timothy 3 also stands in stark contrast to the scenes that surrounded that first Christmas. Naturally we would assume that if Christ were "proclaimed among the nations" He would be "believed on in the world." Of course, 2,000 years later we know that this is true. The Scriptures even testify that Jesus "purchased for God with (His) blood men from every tribe and tongue and people and nation" (Rev. 5:9). Today our hindsight is 20/20, but if you were called to predict those who would have believed in Jesus Christ that first Christmas, who would make the top of your list? Would it not be the religious leaders, those who knew the Scriptures, those who were awaiting the arrival of their Messiah?
"Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, 'Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him.' When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him. Gathering together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born" (Mat. 2:1-4). "(The chief priests and scribes) said to him, 'In Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what has been written by the prophet: 'and you, Bethlehem, land of Judah, are by no means least among the leaders of Judah; for out of you shall come forth a ruler who will shepherd my people Israel''" (Mt. 2:5-6)
The chief priests and the scribes, the epitome of religious Israel wasted no time in their reply to king Herod. Yet there is no record of them going for themselves to seek out the Messiah. It was Thomas Merton who said, "The ox and the ass understood more of the first Christmas than the high priests in Jerusalem." They knew enough from the Written Word to recognize Him when He came. Ignorance was not their excuse. But these men who should have been the first to receive Christ tragically took a backseat to a bunch of Gentile Magi from a distant country who believed. The religious leaders returned to their ivory towers of theological doubt, while the Magi continued their pilgrimage in belief for the purpose of worshipping the Child (Mt. 2:2, 9).
It began with rejection by those who should have received. It began with reception from some foreigners to Israel. It ends with Jesus Christ being "believed on in the world."
6. TAKEN UP IN GLORY
Finally, in considering all we have discussed thus far, the events surrounding the birth of Christ appear anything but glorious. To the human eye, we might describe the occasion with terms such as rejection or isolation or disbelief or mundane. Surely, this is not the way that any human would have orchestrated the arrival of the Savior.
Furthermore, consider Mary, the birthing mother of Jesus Christ. Not only was she probably only 12 or 13 years of age, but also she was pregnant with the Child prior to her marriage with Joseph. Apart from the angel's intervention, Joseph was prepared to divorce her secretly (Mt. 1:19) to spare her the public shame and possibly even spare her life as the penalty for premarital relations was death by stoning (Dt. 2:23-24). There was nothing glorious about this event. If anything, the virgin birth appeared quite scandalous.
But seen though the eyes of God, everything about that first Christmas was glorious. Oh there was little glory in the events themselves, but that was so nothing would detract or compete with the glory of Jesus Christ. Like today, we surround Christmas with so much other stuff that our attention is often divided and it becomes hard to keep our eyes focused on the Savior. But God arranged the first Christmas whereby nothing would receive greater consideration and greater glory than the baby in the manger. God painted Him on the center of the canvas, and all the other events are peripheral like a good frame that accents the beauty of a masterpiece.
The Apostle John said, "And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory" (Jn. 1:14). Jesus Christ came in glory and the final clause of 1 Timothy 3:16 says Jesus Christ was also "taken up in glory."
Only God could have come up with a plan like this to save the world. Because when we consider the events surrounding a baby named Jesus, born that first Christmas, who would have ever thought that He would have been: God revealed in the flesh, vindicated by the Holy Spirit, seen by angels, proclaimed among the nations, believed on in the world and taken up in glory?
Earlier this week as I was formulating the origins of this sermon in my heart, I providentially heard a Christmas song in the background that was being played on our stereo. I'd like to close this sermon with the lyrics to that song.
"I'm sure he must have been surprised where this road had taken him. Cause never in a million lives, would he have dreamed of Bethlehem. And standing at the manger, he saw with his own eyes, the message from the angel come alive. And Joseph said, 'Why me, I'm just a simple man of trade? Why me, with all the rulers in the world? Why here, inside this stable filled with hay? Why her, she's just an ordinary girl? Now I'm not one to second-guess what angels have to say, but this is such a strange way to save the world.'"
Think of how it could have been, if Jesus had come as He deserved. There would have been no Bethlehem, no lowly shepherds at His birth. But Joseph knew the reason love had to reach so far. And as he held the Savior in his arms, he must have thought, 'Why me, I'm just a simple man of trade? Why me, with all the rulers in the world? Why here, inside this stable filled with hay? Why her, she's just an ordinary girl? Now I'm not one to second-guess what angels have to say, but this is such a strange way to save the world.'"
What a remarkable story! What a paradox! What a mystery once hidden, now revealed to us! What a reminder that the ways of God are not the ways of man! May we praise God this Christmas and every day for His incomprehensible wisdom and indescribable gift!