The Gifts of Christmas: Insight
Last night we hosted a Christian concert at the church with a group of guys we have come to love and respect, and we have had fun watching as they’ve finally started to have some commercial success. One of the things we enjoy about doing concerts here at the church is the opportunity to meet the artists whose music we listen to regularly. It is always interesting to try to get a read on what they are really like after spending some time with them. Most of the time these artists prove to be fun, devoted followers of Jesus whom we respect even more after meeting them. At other times, we see individuals who are self-centered and seem to have missed the point of their ministry. Thankfully, this has been rare for us.
The point is that the best way to get to know someone is by spending time with them. When we get to see someone face-to-face, we come to know them in a way that we can’t through any other means. This morning we are going to look at the second of our gifts of Christmas, a gift I’m calling the gift of insight. Jesus came into the world and, as God himself, gave us insight into the nature and character of God in a way that was a unique and wonderful gift.
Prior to the birth of Jesus, no one had ever interacted with God face-to-face. The times when God did appear to people, it was usually through some sort of symbolic intermediary. God revealed himself to Moses in a burning bush, to the people of Israel through a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire, through thunder, lightning, and earthquakes on Mount Sinai, and in a still, small voice to Elijah. Most of the time God is represented by a cloud or a bright light in the Old Testament. But Jesus changed everything. For the first time, people were able to interact with God face-to-face, and that face-to-face interaction teaches us more about the heart of God than anything that came before.
Jesus Was God
In order to understand how Jesus’ life gives us insight into the nature of God, we need to understand one very important fact: namely, that Jesus was God become man.
People believe lots of different things about Jesus. Some believe Jesus was merely some great human teacher (akin to Confucius, Mohammed, or Gautama Buddha). Others (like the Mormons) believe that by virtue of the way He lived Jesus eventually became a god, and that by following His example we can become gods too. Still others believe that Jesus was a representative of God, but not God himself. The truth according to the Bible and Jesus himself is that Jesus was God become man. That concept boggles our minds (and it should!) but that doesn’t make it untrue. Just because we have difficulty understanding something doesn’t mean it can’t be true. I can’t understand how this tiny bit of technology called a smartphone can do so much…but it does. In the same way, I can’t fathom how God came to earth as a human being…but He did.
There are a couple of passages in particular that lead us to this conclusion. The first is John 1:1-5 and verse 14.
1In the beginning the Word already existed. The Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He existed in the beginning with God. 3God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him. 4The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness can never extinguish it.
14So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.
At first glance this passage is confusing because John refers to Jesus as the Word. But verse 14 shows us that when John speaks about the Word He is speaking about Jesus. What he tells us is that there was never a time when the Son (that is Jesus) did not exist. He was not created, He is not somehow less than God the Father, He is God Himself. This is part of a doctrine called the trinity, which recognizes that there is one God who exists in three persons (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit). All have always existed, and all are completely unified. It’s another confusing truth, but a truth nonetheless.
So, when the Word became a human being and lived among us, He was the same God who had been there from the beginning. The same One who had created the universe, and the same One who will be there at the end of all things. Jesus showed us the glory of God in a way that had never been done before.
Hebrews gives us a similar statement,
Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. 2And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son. God promised everything to the Son as an inheritance, and through the Son he created the universe. 3The Son radiates God’s own glory and expresses the very character of God, and he sustains everything by the mighty power of his command. (Hebrews 1:1-3a, NLT)
The writer of Hebrews tells us that Jesus shows us the very character of God. He contrasts Jesus’ revelation with all of the revelation that had come before. God had previously spoken many times and in many ways to the people who had gone before, but now there was a superior revelation: God himself had come to earth. The coming of Jesus onto the scene gives us great insight, because when we look at Jesus we see God himself.
Now don’t misunderstand me. Jesus’ physical appearance is not a representation of God (and besides, we don’t really know what Jesus looked like), but rather His character is representative of God. When we see Jesus’ character, we see the character of God. So let’s look at a few things Jesus taught us about God’s character.
God Loves Us
The first thing we see when we look at Jesus is just how much God loves us. Probably one of the best passages that reveals this to us is Philippians 2:6-11.
6Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. 7Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, 8he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross. 9Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor and gave him the name above all other names, 10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This passage shows us what God did for us in coming to earth. Jesus chose to set aside His divine privileges and instead live as a weak and frail human being. The One who created the universe was now part of His creation. The Great Physician found that He could get sick. The Ever Living One was tired at the end of the day. The One who created oceans, lakes, and rivers got thirsty. The One who loved everyone was hated by many.
This is one of the great miracles we overlook at Christmas. We tend to look at the Christmas story much like we would any other story of a baby being born. Every birth is a miracle, and every child is a blessing, but there was something different about this child. Though this child was in very nature God, He chose to subject himself to the life of a human being. He had to learn to walk, to talk, and to read. He wasn’t born knowing the scriptures, He had to learn them, just as we do. The indignity of this is mind-boggling! Why would the King of all the universe humble Himself in this way? The answer is because of His great love for us. He subjected himself to this humiliation because it was the only way He could save us. The indignity of this life was worth it in order to restore our relationship with Him. In Jesus’ birth, we see His love for us.
But the indignity didn’t stop with Jesus’ birth. It continued throughout His life and culminated in His death. The One who created life came to the earth in order to die for our sin. Whenever we look at the manger, we must see the shadow that is cast over it by the cross. The entire purpose of Jesus coming to the earth was to die for us. Here’s what Paul said in Romans 5:6-8,
6When we were utterly helpless, Christ came at just the right time and died for us sinners. 7Now, most people would not be willing to die for an upright person, though someone might perhaps be willing to die for a person who is especially good. 8But God showed his great love for us by sending Christ to die for us while we were still sinners.
People are willing to make great sacrifices for great people…but we are not great people. We didn’t deserve the gift Jesus gave to us. And yet, He came to die for us. There is no greater demonstration of love in the history of the world than that of Jesus Christ. When we celebrate Christmas, we celebrate God revealing His great love for us through Jesus.
He Wants to Save Us, Not Condemn Us
The second insight Jesus’ life gives us into God’s character is that God wants to save us, not condemn us.
Many people view Christianity as simply a list of rules to follow, and believe that God is sitting in heaven waiting for us to mess up so He can condemn us. The sad thing is I think many of these people get that idea from watching us. This is often how we treat one another—but it wasn’t the way Jesus treated people.
I love the story of Jesus’ response to the woman caught in adultery. If you remember the story, some of the religious leaders brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught in the act of committing adultery. They brought her before Jesus to see what He would do. The Pharisees believed such a woman should be killed, and they wanted Jesus to agree with them. But instead of condemning her, Jesus pointed out the sinfulness of the people gathered around, and told them that the one who had no sin of his own was the one who should cast the first stone at her. Everyone dropped their stones and walked away. When everyone had left Jesus addressed the woman directly. He said that just as no one else condemned her, neither did He…but He told her to go and sin no more.
What a great picture of God’s desire for us. God’s desire for us is to go and sin no more. God has given us rules to follow not because He is mean and domineering, but because He knows what is best for us. When we sin against God, it makes Him sad—because He hates sin. He hates what it does to us, but He doesn’t hate us. He simply wants us to turn from our sin and turn back to Him. When we repent, we are forgiven. Jesus shows us that God cares more about restoring us than He does condemning us.
What does this mean for us? It means we are never too far gone in our sin to turn to God. There is never a sin so great that God cannot forgive. And there is no sin that makes us second-class citizens in the eyes of God. He is not sitting in heaven waiting for us to mess up so He can destroy us; He is waiting for us to turn to Him in repentance so He can restore us. It is never too late to start doing what’s right. It’s never too late for a new beginning. Christmas shows us that God is all about new beginnings.
He Is Powerful
One of the other insights Jesus gives us into the character of God is that God is powerful—more powerful than we can even imagine. This power almost seems at odds with the other characteristics we have listed. It certainly came as a shock to the disciples.
Jesus’ power was on display in many ways during his earthly ministry. The disciples watched as Jesus healed sicknesses no one else could, drove out demons that had overpowered anyone else who dared confront them, and wisely answered those who sought to trap Him with their questions. But one night, the disciples were face to face with a measure of Jesus’ power that surprised and frightened them.
They were crossing the Sea of Galilee in a boat when a terrible storm came up. This was very common in the Sea of Galilee and many of the disciples were experienced sailors, but this storm had them scared. The boat began to fill with water and they feared they were going to drown. Jesus, however, was asleep in the boat. One of the disciples woke Him, rebuking Him because He didn’t seem to care if they all drowned. Jesus, from a dead sleep, stood up and rebuked the storm. He said, “Peace, Be Still!” And suddenly the storm stopped and the sea was calm. The raging wind and crashing waves instantly disappeared and the lake and the boat once again became serene. The scriptures say that rather than being impressed by this feat, the disciples were terrified. (Mark 4:35-41)They had seen the power of God on display, and they were scared of someone who had such great power that even the wind and waves obeyed His command. Little did they know that this wasn’t even scratching the surface of the power of God—but this one little glimpse made them afraid.
In truth, that’s the other side of the coin to understanding the character of God. We see His care for us, His desire to save us rather than condemn us, and yet we also see that He has a great and awesome power that should give us pause and prevent us from taking Him lightly. This is a mistake many in our culture make today. They imagine God as a genie who exists simply to give us what we want, but who can be safely ignored otherwise. They fail to revere Him as the One who deserves to be respected and submitted to.
It’s an example that’s overused, but with good reason…in C.S. Lewis’ great work, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which is the first book in The Chronicles of Narnia series, he records a scene in which one of the children first learns that Aslan, the great ruler everyone reveres, is a lion. When she hears that the great Aslan who she has heard so much about is a lion she asks, “Is he quite safe?” The response is, “Of course He’s not safe! He’s a lion…But he is good.”
Lewis intended Aslan to be a picture of God, and it’s a picture we would do well to remember. Jesus shows us that God has the power to wipe out evil with a word (which includes us), and if He were to direct His wrath at us, it would be a dreadful day. When we see the power of God on display we will tremble in fear at such awesome power. But we also see the other side of His character. This is not power run amok—it is power guided by goodness. Those who oppose God should fear Him, for one day they will stand before Him to answer for their sin. Those who have trusted in Jesus should still respect the power of God, but we should trust in the fact that this power is guided by the One who is, above all, good and who loves us so much that He sent Jesus to save us.
Christmas is a time of celebration for a lot of different reasons. Many of the reasons we celebrate have nothing to do with the real meaning of Christmas, but I hope as we go through our Advent series this year you will come to see the best gifts we have ever received are the gifts that came as a result of Christmas itself. One of those is the fact that because Jesus came into the world at Christmas 2,000 years ago, our understanding of the character of God has been forever changed.
For the thousands of years preceding Jesus’ arrival on earth, people had only a partial picture of God. They had heard God’s commands, they had seen how God dealt with His people Israel, and they had seen that He was mighty and powerful, but they had only seen part of the picture. The coming of Jesus into the world that first Christmas gave us all the gift of insight—a fuller picture of God’s character.
Through Jesus we see God’s love. We see the great lengths He would go to save us. We see that no matter how badly we have messed up in the past, no matter how far we have drifted from Him, His desire is always for us to repent and turn back to Him. He wants to restore us, not destroy us. Jesus demonstrated this perfectly in the way He lived. And at the same time, we see God’s awesome power. We are reminded that even though God loves us, He is not safe, and we should not take Him lightly. We see that God is worthy of our worship and obedience.
And as we see God’s heart in Jesus, we should cultivate that same heart in our own lives. Think of it this way—you know you got someone a great Christmas gift if they go out and buy the same gift for all of their friends. They appreciated your gift so much that they wanted to share that joy with others. That’s what we should do with the gift of insight we receive from Christmas. We should pass it on, showing others the same kind of love and care He has shown us—so maybe people will see God’s character reflected in our lives.
So let me challenge you this week. Be like Jesus! See the people others have written off as lost causes. Make the effort to build a bridge with those who are wandering from God. Rather than condemning those who fail, look for ways to love them and to support them as they start trying to walk a new path. Be willing to be inconvenienced, to sacrifice in order to make a difference in the lives of others. And no matter what trials you face, no matter how hopeless your situation seems, don’t give up. You serve a God who is more powerful than you can ever imagine. Trust Him enough to do what He says. Be obedient to God because you see His character, and you see what He has done for you. In short, don’t keep the gift of insight to yourself…pass it on in the way you live!