A study that considers how the reality of the Christmas event can be personally appropriated in one's life.
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The historical and theological foundations of Christmas are essential, lest it be relegated to mythical memories or subjective flights of fancy. But, on the other hand, the phenomenon of Christmas is more than historical remembrance, theological formulations of doctrine, and an amalgamated cultural celebration.
Christianity is more than an historical society to remember events such as the birth of Jesus Christ. Christianity is more than a theological society to ponder the ideological implications and interpretations of the events and teaching of Jesus Christ. Christianity is more than just the "reason for the season" of Christmas or Easter.
If the focal point of Christmas is just an historical event of the birth of a baby boy in Bethlehem, even though it was a divinely orchestrated historical event whereby God intervened in human history taking the form of a man, then it remains but a static event of yesteryear - a solitary, isolated event of peculiar interest to those inclined toward the recollection of the trivia of past events. The religious remembrance of such historical events and theological facts can obviously become its own collective entity. The celebration of Christmas with its cumulative customs and traditions can become a self-perpetuating phenomenon in its own right, with ever-increasing cultural accretions. The Yule log continues to roll downhill, gaining momentum and size as it rolls.
But the dynamism of Christmas is not just in a perpetuated celebratory season. The dynamic of Christmas is in the continuing divine action of incarnation, analogous to the singular action of the Son of God becoming enfleshed in human form in the "man, Christ Jesus" (Acts 2:22; I Tim. 2:5). The abiding reality of Christmas is sustained only by the personal and spiritual experience of Christmas in human hearts.
The singular, historical event of Jesus' birth pointed beyond itself. Even the historical narratives of Jesus' birth as recorded in the gospels of Matthew and Luke indicate that His coming was for a purpose beyond Himself, as Savior (Matt. 1:21; Lk. 1:31; 2:11), Messiah (Matt. 2:4; Lk. 2:11) and Lord (Lk. 2:11) for all people (Lk. 2:10) in a kingdom that would have no end (Lk. 1:33).
Despite the fact that traditional religion has emphasized the events of Jesus' life and death as the object of Christian faith, allowing such faith to be conceived as but mental assent to historical data, or adherence to theological ideas, principles, truths or doctrines, the events of the past cannot save us or grant life to succeeding generations. Only when the divine One who was functioning in those past events becomes dynamically contemporaneous with men in every age and ontologically present to reenact the realities of those events does the past event become actualized in present and personal application.
The event of the nativital incarnation inevitably recedes into prior history; and if regarded only as history, Jesus, like all figures of history, is removed from the present scene and survives only as a recollection in the records of those who reported such, and as a picture in the minds of those who review such. In such case the Christic incarnation becomes but an intemporation, a temporary insertion into or intervention in historical time, a transient Theopany of an historical visit of God to man. Those in subsequent times can have no relational integration with One who is thus separated from them in time and space.
If the incarnational birth of Jesus is to have contemporary import in successive generations of mankind it must have dynamic extension in the experiential actualities of personal impact, rather than just recollected assertion in the philosophical and ideological constructs of propositional compact. It "must be interpreted in the 'existentialist' terms of the Biblical testimony rather than the 'essentialist' categories of Greek philosophy."1
The One who was born in incarnation must continue to live and allow for His similar birth in others. The One who was raised from the dead in resurrection must continue to live to invest His life in others. The historic events of incarnation and resurrection must represent (re-present) the ontological reality of the life of Jesus Christ in the present as "type" and "prototype" of His birth and incarnation in all men.
The birth of Jesus was a "type" of spiritual birth for all men. A "type" is a pictorial representation within a physical or historical act of a coming spiritual reality. The Old Testament is full of "types" which pictorially prefigured what God was to do in the new covenant arrangement in His Son, Jesus Christ. Those "types" were fulfilled in their "antitype" by the person and work of Jesus.
The historical "type" of Jesus' birth can be observed in His conception by the Holy Spirit being a precursor of the spiritual birth whereby Christians are "born, not of perishable seed, but imperishable..." (I Pet. 1:23). The physical birth of Jesus was a "type" of the spiritual birth wherein Christians are "born from above" (John 3:7), "born of the Spirit" (John 3:8), "born of God" (John 1:13; I Jn. 3:9; 4:7; 5:1,4). The incarnation was a "type" of the enfleshment of God's life in those who allow "the life of Jesus to be manifested in their mortal flesh" (II Cor. 4:10,11).
The implementation of these prefiguring "types" required the completion of the Messianic mission wherein the Son accomplished what the Father had sent Him to do (John 17:4). The purpose of His incarnational advent was to "seek the lost" (Lk. 19:10), "bring light into darkness" (Jn. 12:46), "save the world" (John 12:47), "call sinners to repentance" (Matt. 9:13; Lk. 5:32), and to bring "life more abundantly" (John 10:10) in Himself (John 14:6). But the prerequisite to the availability of His saving life was the assumption of the death consequences of human sin, made possible by His having become a mortal man. Jesus was born to die! He explained that the purpose of His coming was to die (John 12:27), "to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28; Mk. 10:45). The words of the Appalachian carol express the wonderment of this instrumental objective wherein the purpose of Christmas was the crucifixion:
Jesus did not come simply or solely to die. The death of Jesus was but the remedial instrumental purpose designed to allow for the ultimate purpose of living and bringing life to all men. But the diabolic death consequences of sin had to be taken to satisfy the justice of God (cf. Gen. 2:17), so "Jesus partook of flesh and blood that through death He might render powerless him who has the power of death, that is the devil" (Heb. 2:14). The Son of God appeared incarnate for that purpose, "that He might destroy the works of the devil" by vicariously taking death upon Himself on behalf of all men in order to overcome that death with His life.
The subsequent resurrection of Jesus was also a "type" of birth, though seldom recognized as such. Preparing His disciples for His death and resurrection, Jesus used an analogy of birth (John 16:20-22), explaining that "when a woman is in travail she has sorrow" (as the disciples would have at the time of His death), "but when she gives birth to a child, the anguish turns to joy" (just as the disciples would rejoice when they saw Jesus again after the resurrection). Even more explicit is Paul's explanation that the resurrection of Jesus from the dead was the fulfillment of the promise of God in the Messianic Psalm (Ps. 2:7), where God declares, "Thou art my Son; Today I have begotten Thee" (Acts 13:32,33).
Not only was the resurrection of Jesus a "type" of birth, but it also served as the "prototype" of life out of death. The death consequences that Jesus incurred on the cross included not only physical death but the death of separation from God's life as a man (cf. Matt. 27:46). The divine life was restored within the spirit of the man, Jesus, by resurrection. Jesus thus serves as the "prototype," the "first-born (prototokos) from the dead" (Col. 1:18; Rev. 1:5), who would become the "first-born (prototokos) among many brethren" (Rom. 8:29) who would in like manner be brought to spiritual life out of spiritual death, and the "first-fruits of those who sleep" (I Cor. 15:20,23) in resurrection.
We recognize again the necessary connection between the incarnation and the atonement (inclusive of the resurrection). The resurrection is the complement of the incarnation, the parallel counterpart whereby they serve as "type" and "prototype" of spiritual birth in the "bringing into being" of God's life in man. The Christmas and Easter celebrations remain inextricably conjoined as the events they remember together prefigure the availability of God's life in man.
Corresponding to the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus, and in fulfillment of the "type" and "prototype" of divine life being expressed in man, men in every age can receive the life of the risen Lord Jesus by faith. From "before the foundation of the world" (Eph. 1:4; Heb. 4:3) this was the intent of God to reinvest men with His own life, and the incarnation and resurrection of Jesus were enacted to effect such.
Jesus' birth as a "type" is fulfilled when God's divine life is received into and "brought into being" again in an individual person. Such spiritual regeneration is figuratively portrayed in the New Testament by the metaphorical analogy of spiritual birth. Jesus explained to Nicodemus, the Jewish teacher, that "unless one is born from above, he cannot see the kingdom of God" (John 3:3). Continuing, He explained that such a birth necessitates being "born of water (physically) and of the Spirit (spiritually), and "that which is born of the Spirit is spirit" (John 3:5,6).
The "prototype" of Jesus' resurrection from the dead is also integrally connected to such a spiritual birth, for Peter wrote that "God has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead" (I Pet. 1:3), being "born again...through the living and abiding Word of God" (I Pet. 1:23), i.e. the living presence and activity of the risen Lord Jesus. Passing out of spiritual death unto spiritual life (John 5:24; I Jn. 3:14), the receptive individual is "raised to newness of life" (Rom. 6:4) in conformity with Christ's resurrection.
Though some have denigrated and caricatured the concept of being "born again" spiritually (usually because of abuses and misuses of the phrase by less than astute Christians), the reality of the experience of receiving Christ's life is nonetheless legitimate and real. Swiss theologian, Emil Brunner, has noted that "there must really take place in us something corresponding to what once happened in Bethlehem; a birth through the Holy Spirit."2
The connection of Jesus' historical birth and the spiritual new birth of Christians has long been noted in Christian poetry. Poet, Angelus Silesius, whose real name was John Scheffler (1624-1677), wrote:
John Wesley's depth of theological understanding is evident in the carol, "Hark, the Herald Angels Sing," written in 1739.
More than a century later, in 1868, Phillips Brookes of Philadelphia wrote "O Little Town of Bethlehem."
The divine objective of the nativital incarnation was the spiritual regeneration of individuals throughout the entire human race. Jesus was born in Bethlehem, so that He could be born again in us. It is important to note though that regenerative "new birth" is not an exact equivalent to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem. Rather, our being spiritually "born of God" is analogous to the physical birth of Jesus delivered from the womb of Mary. Whereas in Jesus "the Word became flesh" as the God-man to function as mediatorial Messiah and Savior, Christians do not become God-men in the same sense, nor can they serve in the singularity of His Messianic function.
In analogous parallelism Christians do, however, become indwelt by the life of God (I Jn. 4:15). We become "sons of God" (Gal. 3:26) and "children of God" (John 1:12; Rom. 8:16) in personal relationship with God as Father (Rom. 8:15). We become "partakers of the divine nature" (II Peter 1:4) as the "Spirit of God dwells in us" (Rom. 8:16). We assume a new spiritual identity as "Christians" (Acts 11:26; 26:28), Christ-ones, being "partakers of Christ" (Heb. 3:14) in spiritual union with Christ (I Cor. 6:17), participating in the mystery of "Christ in us, the hope of glory" (Col. 1:26,27).
The very life that was enfleshed in the historical Jesus is "brought into being" regeneratively in the Christian, and is incorporated into our innermost being, our spirit, our identity, our nature, to the extent that it can be said that "Christ is our life" (Col. 3:4). Jesus is not just a past pioneer and pattern, an exemplary model of how life should be lived. Nor is He merely the promise of life in the future for the Christian. Jesus is not just the medium and conveyer of the substance of spiritual life in the present, but He is in Himself "the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6), the modality, reality and vitality of God in the Christian. As "the resurrection and the life" (John 11:25), the dynamic eternality of Jesus' resurrection-life becomes operative in the Christian.
As another unknown poet has expressed this truth:
The Christian's initial personal experience of spiritual birth and incarnation, in the receipt of the life of Jesus into himself, is analogous to Jesus' physical birth and incarnation in Bethlehem. Our regeneration and spiritual birth is an antitypical fulfillment of the "type" of Jesus' birth.
It will be instructive at this point to provide an historical review of God's dealings with man in order to recall the logical contingencies, the historical connections, and the teleological purpose of the Creator's actions referent to man, the creature.
God's intent for man from the beginning of the original creation of Genesis was that man should express His character in a manner that no other part of the creation could do. Breathing His Spirit into man (Gen. 2:7), God provided His own presence in the spirit of man in order to visibly image (Gen. 1:26,27) His character in the behavior of the creature. Such exhibition and manifestation of His character was the incarnating and "fleshing out" of an invisible God in the visible expression of man, unto His own glory (Isa. 43:7).
Since this indwelling arrangement for the incarnational expression of His character in man was rendered void by the withdrawal of God's presence in man by the Fall into sin (Gen. 3:1-7), it was God's loving and gracious intent to restore man to His created incarnational intent by His Son. The natal incarnation of the Son of God in the form of a man, allowed that mortal man, Jesus, to assume the death consequences of man's sin. But only by the entire living enfleshment of God's character in a man for every moment in time for thirty-three years, could Jesus serve as the perfect and sinless sacrifice who would substitutionally and vicariously represent all men in Himself. As that sinless One who could not be held in death's power, He was triumphantly raised from the dead in incarnational resurrection with the power to provide His divine life to those for whom He had died. Those individuals willing to exercise their freedom of choice in reception of His life can thus be incarnationally regenerated or "born from above" with His resurrection-life, and that for the purpose of incarnationally manifesting the character of God visibly in man once again, to the glory of God.
The incarnational birth of Jesus, the incarnational life of Jesus, the incarnational resurrection of Jesus; these all serve to provide for the regenerational incarnation of God in the Christian, and the sanctificational incarnation of Christ's life in Christian behavior. The teleological objective of God in creation is brought full-circle as he restores man in the "new creation" (Gal. 6:16), allowing the Christian to become a "new creature" (II Cor. 5:17), a "new man" (Eph. 4:24; Col. 3:10), in the context of a "new covenant" (Heb. 8:8,13), for His own glorification. Mankind is, as it were, "re-genesised" as the individual is regeneratively "brought into being" again with the life of God incarnationally dwelling within, and functioning through, the believer, for the fulfillment of God's purposes.
The Christological incarnation that is at the heart of Christmas was more than just a natal or nativital enfleshment of physical condition at the birth of Jesus. John reported that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (John 1:14). The world beheld the living and functional enfleshment and incarnation of God's life and character manifested in human behavior, bringing perfect glory to Himself (John 1:17). Jesus did not come just to be admired as a cuddly baby in a manger, or as an ideal specimen of incarnated humanity. He came to live out the perfect life of God in a man, in order to be the perfect sinless sacrifice which would be the remedial solution for the consequences of man's sin, and then to rise victorious out of death to give His life to those who would receive such by faith and continue in that receptivity to manifest the divine life and character incarnationally. The import and impact of Christ's complete incarnation in birth, life and resurrection was intended to go beyond the parameters of a singular human form within a particular historical period. The infinite, eternal God continues to invest Himself in the space/time context of humanity, incarnating His character in Christian people.
In like manner as Jesus allowed for the incarnating of God's character in human behavior, serving as the visible "image" of the invisible God (II Cor. 4:4; Col. 1:15), Christians are to allow for a continuing personal expression of divine incarnation - the living enfleshment of Jesus' life in their behavior. When the Christian becomes a "new self" indwelt by the divine life of Jesus Christ, he is renewed to the "image" of the Creator (Col. 3:10), allowing for the visible manifestation of God's invisible character in all he does. The conditional means of such an incarnational expression is, as it was in the life of Jesus, the abiding presence of God in the man allowed to do His works (John 14:10). The Father (John 14:23; I Jn. 4:15), Son (II Cor. 13:5; Col. 1:27) and Holy Spirit (II Tim. 1:14; James 4:5) abide in the Christian for the purpose of functioning incarnationally as we contingently derive all from the proviso and Person of their divine power by the receptivity of their activity in faith. "As we received Christ Jesus (in regeneration), so we walk in Him (in the Christian life)" (Col. 2:6) by the receptivity of His activity - faith. As the vine derives all from the branch (John 15:1-8), so the Christian can do nothing (John 15:5) to generate character of himself, but must recognize that "his adequacy is of God" (II Cor. 3:5) for the incarnational expression of all character and ministry (Rom. 15:18).
The Christian life is not an imitation of Jesus' example. Nor is it the moralism of conforming to prescribed procedures of piety; not even the biblicism of "going by the book." The Christian life is the incarnational enfleshment process of allowing God's divine life to be lived out in man, the life and character of Jesus Christ lived out in a Christian. Paul explained that "it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me, and the life that I now life in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave Himself up for me" (Gal. 2:20). The incarnational enfleshment of the Christian life is "the life of Jesus manifested in our mortal flesh" (II Cor. 4:10,11), as Christ is progressively "formed in us" (Gal. 4:19).
The continuing incarnational expression of Christ's life and character in the Christian has sometimes been referred to as "the extension of the incarnation," but careful distinction must always be made between the Christological incarnation of Jesus' enfleshment in birth, life and resurrection, and the Christian incarnation of "fleshing out" the life of Christ in regeneration and sanctification. There are indeed analogous corollaries and integrated features, but the Christian is never deified or divinized as God, and never subsumed, replaced, or transformed into Christ by escaping or rising above his humanity. The distinction between Creator and creature, God and man, Christ and the Christian must always be maintained without any monistic merging or syncretistic fusion. Neither is it wise to refer to the restoration of God's presence and function in man as a "reincarnation" of God's life, in light of the Platonic and oriental implications of the term. To refer to the Christian as a "contemporary incarnation" of the life of Christ would be the better use of terminology.
It must also be noted that the incarnational expression of God's invisible character in visible manifestation is not only accomplished individually in and through each Christian person, but is also evidenced collectively in the Church, the Body of Christ, as the corporate incarnation of the life and function of Jesus. This is sometimes referred to as the "ecclesiastical incarnation" of Christ.
What are the conclusions to be drawn from our study of the history and meaning of Christmas?
To emphasize the historical, theological and celebrational considerations of Christmas without experiencing the personal birth and incarnation of Christ is but to engage in religionism. To emphasize the celebrational and seasonal holiday of Christmas without regard to its historical and theological foundations or personal experience amounts only to humanistic culturalism. To emphasize the personal and spiritual experience of Christmas without due regard to the theological and historical considerations gives rise to interiorized mysticism. Only when we have allowed the incarnation of Jesus to become an experiential reality in our lives in accord with its background of history and meaning, are we able to understand the fullness of the Christmas reality with its foundational history, its formulated theology, its festivities of celebration, and its enfleshment of the life of Jesus Christ in human behavior.
Since we are considering the personal implications of Christmas, allow me to be so presumptuous as to address you, the reader, personally:
When the angels announced to the shepherds that "for you is born this day in the city of David, a child who is the Savior, Christ the Lord" (Luke 2:11), the plural pronoun need not be interpreted only of the shepherds, nor of the nation of Israel, but for all men. In which case we may personalize the "for you" to be inclusive of God's objective to apply the implications of the incarnation to our own lives, as the Savior and Lord Jesus Christ is available to live and be enfleshed in us.
Christmas does not find fullness of meaning for any individual until they allow the Christmas reality to transpire within them personally by the introduction and indwelling of the life of the risen Lord Jesus. Then Christmas comes alive and is enacted every day as we allow Jesus to become the incarnate expression of divine character in our behavior within our families, our workplace, our culture, and wherever we might be.
Consider carefully what Christmas means to you!
1 Hendry, George,
The Gospel of the Incarnation. Philadelphia: The Westminster
Press. 1958. pg. 139.