In December 1996, the headquarters congregation of our denomination first sang hymns about the birth of Christ. It was an emotional moment. We were Christians, but in years past, we had understood it to be sinful to celebrate the birth of Jesus in December. Even to sing about his birth evoked pangs of conscience. As a church, we had been taught, and had believed, that any celebration of Jesus’ birth was a pagan invention dating from the early centuries of Christian history, and as such, it would be wrong to participate in any way, at any time.
I remember having trouble reading the words on the screen (no hymn about Jesus’ birth appeared in our hymnal) because of the tears that had welled up in my eyes. My experience was not unique; others told me the moment affected them in the same way.
I pray that we never become cynical or jaded as passing time erodes the memory of that newness and freshness of the newfound freedom to celebrate Advent. I pray that we never lose the inner joy that by God’s grace the Christmas season can bring to us. Everywhere we look during the Christmas season, it seems, there is decorative lighting—white lights and colored lights and lit candles. Once we taught our children that these beautiful displays of light were one of Satan’s ways of making sin look enticing. Now, in the physical light and color we can enjoy a dim reflection of the indescribable beauty of the true Light, which enlightens everyone, who has come into the world.
In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it…. The true light that gives light to every man was coming into the world…. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:4-5, 9, 14)
It is fitting and inspiring that brilliant displays of light and color are so much a part of the Advent season. For unbelievers, such displays are little more than another advertising gimmick of modern retailers. But for us who believe the gospel, who know God and Jesus Christ whom he has sent, they can be another reminder of the glory of the One and Only Son of God, who brings the peace and rest for which the whole world aches and pines.
Desire of nations
In the days when Jesus was born in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago, there was a devout old man called Simeon living in Jerusalem. The Holy Spirit had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. One day the Spirit led Simeon into the temple courts—the very day that Jesus’ parents brought in the infant Jesus to fulfill the requirements of Torah. When Simeon saw the baby, he took Jesus in his arms and praised God, saying:
Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel. (Luke 2:29-32)
Simeon praised God for what the scribes, the Pharisees, the chief priests and the teachers of the law could not comprehend: Israel’s Messiah was not for the salvation of Israel only, but also for the salvation of all peoples of the world. Isaiah had prophesied it long before:
It is too small a thing for you to be my servant to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles, that you may bring my salvation to the ends of the earth. (Isaiah 49:6; cf. 42:6-7)
Joseph and Mary, Luke tells us, marveled at what Simeon was saying about Jesus (Luke 2:33). To add to their amazement, Simeon’s tone changed to that of an oracle of judgment as he began the second part of his proclamation. First, he blessed Joseph and Mary. Then, he began speaking directly to Mary:
This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too. (verses 34-35)
Because of Jesus, people in Israel would fall, and people in Israel would rise. What the rulers of the Jews had assumed to be true about Messiah, about the Son of Man and about the kingdom of God was going to be turned on its ear. This child would be reviled, despised, ridiculed and condemned, and the hearts of those who stood against him would be displayed for all the arrogance, pride and self-interest they really contained. People would be divided because of him, and this sword of division, this cost of discipleship, would apply even to Jesus’ own mother—she too, as one of the daughters of Israel, would need to decide whether to believe in him, or to stumble over him.
Years later, Jesus would declare during his ministry:
Do you think I came to bring peace on earth? No, I tell you, but division. From now on there will be five in one family divided against each other, three against two and two against three. They will be divided, father against son and son against father, mother against daughter and daughter against mother, mother-in-law against daughter-in-law and daughter-in-law against mother-in-law. (Luke 12:51-53)
The messianic sword of division cuts as deeply and certainly today as it did in the first century. Many who claim to believe in Jesus are unable to discard their personal sense of what a real Messiah should be and do. Killing one’s own world view—personal and group identity, plans, beliefs about success, focus of affections, sense of control, security and personal goodness—is not part of the game plan for people who only profess to be Christians.
The faith to pick up one’s cross and follow Jesus is all too easily confused with carnal commitment to a divine hero who will destroy our enemies and bring in the fulfillment of our own selfish dreams and agenda. Faith in Jesus Christ entails the death of our “old self” and resurrection into a new life in which we have a new identity—the identity of Christ. We are “dead to sin” and “alive to God in Jesus Christ” (Romans 6:3-11).
Because of this supernatural sharing in the death and resurrection of Christ, Christians no longer live for themselves, for their personal or corporate success, power and security in the world, but for God (2 Corinthians 5:15). Their hope does not rest in the pleasant things the world can provide, but in God who provides a far better country—a heavenly one (Hebrews 11:13-16).
Isaiah had written centuries earlier about the division that Messiah would bring:
He will be a sanctuary; but for both houses of Israel he will be a stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall. And for the people of Jerusalem he will be a trap and a snare…. This is what the Sovereign Lord says: ‘See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.’” (Isaiah 8:14; 28:16)
For some, those who put their confidence in him, he is a cornerstone that will be a foundation for an unshakable house. But for those who trust in themselves, he is a stone over which they will stumble and fall.
These are the prophecies that Jesus used to challenge the rulers of Israel:
Jesus looked directly at them and asked, “Then what is the meaning of that which is written: ‘The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone’?” Everyone who falls on that stone will be broken to pieces, but he on whom it falls will be crushed. (Luke 20:17-18)
Jesus confronted these rulers with these prophecies in the context of the parable he had just told them, about taking the vineyard from its present tenants and giving it to others (from Israelites to Gentiles). There were Jews in the beginning who accepted Jesus, but the majority refused to listen, and the synagogues became the persecutors of those who put their faith in him.
Paul and Peter used the same prophecies in explaining why Israelites rejected their own Messiah, while Gentiles were accepting him:
What then shall we say? That the Gentiles, who did not pursue righteousness, have obtained it, a righteousness that is by faith; but Israel, who pursued a law of righteousness, has not attained it. Why not? Because they pursued it not by faith but as if it were by works. They stumbled over the “stumbling stone.” (Romans 9:30-32)
For in Scripture it says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a chosen and precious cornerstone, and the one who trusts in him will never be put to shame.” Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe, “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone,” and, “A stone that causes men to stumble and a rock that makes them fall.” They stumble because they disobey the message. (1 Peter 2:6-8)
People have continued to stumble over this rock to this day. Even some Christians find the gospel of God’s grace through Jesus Christ offensive. The idea that for the sake of Jesus, God justifies the ungodly by faith alone without their having to measure up to standards of obedience (Romans 4:5) is offensive and distressing even to some Christians.
We humans like to feel good about ourselves. We like to feel that we are basically good and decent people. Conversely, we don’t like the idea that people who are not good and decent, people who are different from us, can be justified by God just by believing the gospel without going through at least some of the righteousness hoops that we feel we have gone through.
Certain Christian groups like to feel that they are the faithful remnant, the true and faithful holy ones of God, the decent ones who alone are pleasing to God and who alone are chosen by God. They like the idea of being special, and they set various standards and rules that keep the riffraff, the pretenders, the false believers out of their holy circle. They look forward to the day when Christ will return to vindicate their group as the faithful few and crush the evil majority.
They identify themselves as the “new Israel,” the ones who now have the distinction of being God’s chosen ones, and they intend not to make the mistakes Israel did in failing to measure up to their call. Some groups even adopt some of the identifying signs God gave to Israel as the marks of their group’s “special standing” before God.
It is true that God called Israel to be his special people, and that God gave Israel special commands that would mark them out as his chosen ones. But what many Christians have missed is the fact that God chose Israel not merely for themselves, but for the salvation of all the nations. Through Israel, God was dealing with the sins of the whole world. Yet, Israel, being sinful, could not muster the faithfulness to God necessary to do the job. In the midst of Israel’s failure, however, God brought forth his chosen one, his Messiah, as the perfect representative of Israel to do what Israel could not do. Now that he has done so, there is only one “identifying sign” of the people of God, and that sign is Jesus Christ.
The new Israel
The Israelites were the people of God. God had called them out from among the nations and set them apart through a covenant as his own special people. He did it not merely for them, but for the eventual salvation of all nations (Isaiah 49:6). But Israel failed. They were to be a light to the Gentiles, but their light had gone out. They failed to keep the covenant. But God is faithful to his covenant regardless of the faithlessness of his covenant people (Romans 3:3-4).
In the fullness of times, God sent forth his own Son, the perfect Israelite, who perfectly kept the covenant as the new Israel (Romans 5:18-21). Despite the failure of Israel, God accomplished through Jesus all that the covenant was intended to accomplish. Jesus was the prophesied Messiah, the perfect representative of the covenant people, and as such, he was also the true light to the Gentiles, the One through whom both Israel and all nations are delivered from sin and brought into the family of God.
Works of the law
The Jews believed they were the people of God by virtue of their keeping the “works of Torah.” But this does not mean that the Jews thought they were God’s people on the basis of their own moral integrity or observance of all the 613 laws included in Torah (the law of Moses). By “works of the law,” Paul is referring to those particular aspects of Torah that represented Torah’s very essence and purpose—those aspects that kept Israel separate from the nations around them and marked them out as God’s own special people.
These “works of the law” were 1) circumcision, 2) the Sabbath and 3) the purity laws (the laws of clean and unclean). These were the works of the law, the marks of the covenant, that set Israel out as being the people of God, as being distinct from the Gentiles, as being God’s own special people.
Law of faith
Now Paul is telling the Jews that they are not the people of God on the basis of the works of Torah, but on the basis of the principle of faith. Through faith in Jesus, the promised Christ (or Messiah) of God, Israelite and Gentile alike are made the true covenant people of God on the basis of being identified with Christ—the true Israel, and as the true Israel, the true representative before God of humanity itself (Romans 3:19-26).
In Christ, God fulfilled everything that Torah was intended to fulfill. By putting our faith in Christ, by giving our allegiance to him, by becoming identified with him, we become members of the faithful covenant community, the people of God—not by the works of Torah, but by a new torah, or law, the torah of faith (Romans 3:27-30).
Do we overthrow the Torah by this faith? By no means. On the contrary, we uphold the Torah (v. 31). How do we uphold the Torah? Because it is precisely through faith in Christ, and only through faith in Christ, that the law is kept in the way God intended from the beginning.
The purpose of the law was to create of Israel the people of God, to mark them out as his own. They failed to keep it. They became lo ammi, or “not my people,” God said (Hosea 1:9). But now Paul tells us that through faith in Christ, and not through keeping the law, we become the true keepers of the law, the true people of God. That’s because through faith we become identified with the true Israelite, the true humanity, Jesus Christ the perfect one. It is through faith in Christ that we join with Israel in redemption to become ammi, or “my people” (Hosea 14:4).
Not two classes
Paul is telling Jew and Gentile alike that the “works of the law” are no longer the way God marks out his people. Now the fulfillment of Torah has arrived on the scene. Now the essence and purpose of Torah is fulfilled through faith in Jesus—everyone who believes is now a full member of the people of God. There are not two classes—Jews as the charter members of the kingdom and Gentiles as the associate members. No, Paul says. On the basis of faith in Christ, Jew and Gentile alike are full members of the kingdom; there is no difference (Romans 3:29-30).
God’s people belong to him on the basis of faith in Christ. Circumcision, the Sabbath and the purity laws are no longer important (Galatians 5:1-6; Colossians 2:16-17)—not because they did not have their fitting place for a time, but because they have now been fulfilled in Christ. To continue to insist on these “works of the law” as needful in order to be counted among the people of God is to deny that Jesus has fulfilled the law, to deny that he is the climax of the covenant, that he is the true Israelite and the true human in whom the people of God must now be identified.
Identity only in Christ
Some have asked: “But isn’t it good to keep the Sabbath anyway, since it was commanded by God, even though we know it is not required? Wouldn’t God be pleased with that?” The answer to this important question is no. When we adopt from ancient Israel a law that has been fulfilled in Christ, we miss the point of what God has done in Christ and relegate him to something less than having completely fulfilled the law.
Christ did not destroy the law—he fulfilled it (Matthew 5:17). Now we fulfill the law by putting our trust in him (Romans 3:21-22). We are lawkeepers in Christ according to the original intent and purpose of the law, not by keeping the works of the law but by putting our faith in Jesus through whom God has indeed fulfilled the law (Romans 4:4-8).
The original purpose and intent of the law was to define and identify the true people of God. Israel failed to keep it. But God does not fail! In Christ, God kept the law for Israel, as the perfect representative of Israel, the perfect Israelite.
As the perfect Israelite, Jesus not only redeemed Israel, but became the light to the Gentiles that Israel had failed to be. This was no afterthought. This was God’s plan and purpose from the beginning. We are defined and identified as the true people of God by faith in Christ.
Israel failed to keep the law, and in breaking the covenant, they became “not my people,” God said (Hosea 1:9). But in Christ, not only is Israel redeemed, but all people are redeemed by a new and better way, the way of faith, the way that makes us God’s own people in Christ, the true and perfect Israelite, the true and perfect human.
If we go back to the works of the law, including Sabbath, it is as though we have no concept of the fact that Jesus fulfilled the law and calls us to put our faith wholly and completely in him. We cannot muster righteousness on our own. Only as we are identified with Christ the Savior are we counted as righteous.
To go back to the works of the law means we have not fully comprehended what God has done in Jesus. It means we are still bound up with the idea that God is after some form of righteousness from us and that God identifies his people by at least one of the works of the law, in this case, Sabbath observance. Our identity as God’s people centers on faith in Jesus Christ, not in the performance of identifying signs given to ancient Israel. (We must distinguish between keeping the Sabbath and teaching it as though it were commanded for Christians on one hand, and the practice of simply meeting for worship on Saturday on the other. To meet on Saturday is not the same thing as teaching that Sabbath keeping is required for salvation.)
Occasionally, a leader in another denomination or church would tell one of our members or pastors: “You have a good thing there with the holy days and the Sabbath, and you should hold on to that.”
Some people saw that as a kind of endorsement of what our former practice was and as a reason for us never to let go of it. These other Christians meant well, but they had not experienced as we had the disastrous fruit of going back to what Christ has fulfilled—the judgmental spirit it breeds, the exclusivity it fosters, and the subversion of the gospel it creates by causing its adherents to feel they should spread the word about this “good thing” they have discovered. They have not had to face the biblical and spiritual issues we had to face about the Mosaic law, but they can’t help but admire the joy they see in our worship.
We are sinners, no more righteous in ourselves than Israel was. Only when we see our sinfulness and put our faith in the One through whom God justifies the wicked can we be counted as righteous for his sake (Romans 4:16, 22-25). The church needs the grace of God as much as Israel did. All who put their faith in Christ, Gentile and Jew alike, are saved only because God is faithful and good, not because we have been faithful, or because we have found some secret formula, some “right” doctrine or the “right” church.
Trust in Jesus
What makes it so hard to trust in Jesus? It is hard to trust in Jesus because trusting in him means putting our life in his hands, and that means giving up control over our own life. That is not easy to do. We like to be in control of our own lives. We like to call the shots, make our own decisions and do things our own way. We want to be secure and safe and free and respected, and we put our hearts into getting secure and safe and free and respected and into maintaining that security and safety and freedom and respect. We like being independent from outside influence.
In the early chapters of Isaiah, we find an appalling tragedy unfolding. The sign God gave to the king of Judah for deliverance, for salvation, for peace, was rejected. It was rejected because the king had his own plans about how to best save the nation. Turning over the safety of his kingdom to God was not his idea of leadership (see Isaiah 7:1-17).
God has a long-range plan for our deliverance and security, and he has a short-range plan. But, like the Jewish king, we cannot receive the fruit of his plans if we do not stand firm in our faith. There are many ways to stand firm. Some people stand firm (or so they think) in military might. Others stand firm in financial security, in their personal integrity or their personal reputation, their skill or their strength, their ingenuity, deal-making or intelligence.
None of these things is bad or sinful in themselves. But as humans we are inclined to put our confidence in such things, and therefore to put our energy and devotion into defending and upholding and amassing these things in order to have security and safety and peace.
The way that will get us through the trials of our lives and bring to us the joy and peace of God, the deep peace of heart that provides real comfort and remains with us, is to stand firm with our confidence in God. It is not to stand firm with our confidence in the things we can get, or the things we can do—including, as we saw earlier, the works of the law.
Humanly, it is all too natural for us to think of God as a nice sentiment for celebration times, but not really effective when the down and dirty issues of life get deadly serious. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we commit to God our problems along with the positive action we take in dealing with them, and trust in his care, provision and deliverance instead of “putting him on the shelf,” he promises to be with us.
James wrote, “Humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God” (James 4:10). “Fall on your knees,” the hymn says (O Holy Night). God calls us to put aside this lifelong crusade to defend ourselves, promote ourselves, secure ourselves, preserve our possessions, protect our reputations and prolong our lives as though we were not God’s own creation and possession, as though God were not our provider, our defender, our hope and our destiny.
This facade, this illusion that we have or can get our lives under control, must fall, and then we can rise in Christ, becoming who we really are—God’s own precious children whom he saves and helps, whose battles he fights, whose fears he calms, whose pain he shares, whose future he secures and whose reputation he preserves. In giving up all, we gain everything. In kneeling, we rise. In setting aside our false illusion of personal control, we are clothed with all the glory and splendor and riches of the heavenly eternal realm.
“Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you,” Peter wrote (1 Peter 5:7). What oppresses you? Your sins? An enemy? A financial disaster? A crushing disease? An inconceivable loss? An impossible situation that you are utterly helpless to do anything about? A disastrous and painful relationship? A blackening of your name? False accusations? Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. He has sent his Son, and through his Son, he takes our hands and lifts us up and shines the light of his glory into the dark and painful crisis we are enduring. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we are not afraid, because he is with us.
God has given us the sign that his rescue is certain: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you. He is Christ, the Lord” (Luke 2:11). Let us put our confidence in him.
That is why Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus. But it is also why we should not condemn people who, out of fear or out of discomfort, or out of personal conviction, do not celebrate his birth.
The same God who loves us so much that he sent his Son to save us, loves all of us, even when we stand in ignorance or in remnants of superstition, as do we all. Together we all stand in the grace of God under the blood of Christ. With Paul, we can say, “Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift.”
J. Michael Feazell