Essay / Theology

Christmas Before Christmas

For the past twenty years, since becoming a believer, I have been trying to get my head around the incarnation; that is, to understand why Christ had to become a human being and how he became a human being. Growing up my father would read us Luke 2 each Christmas Eve before we went to bed. I remember listening to my father’s reading after having been mesmerized for weeks looking at the nativity scene that we placed under our Christmas tree. My brother, sister and I would get down on our hands and knees and look at the nativity with its plastic figurines and “straw” roof. I remember playing with some of these figurines, as they broke loose from their position in the stable until my dad would re-glue them onto their original places. These were good years and even now, as I look back I see how God was working in my heart. Each Christmas I would retreat into our nativity scene. I can remember pretending that I was one of the wise men, having traveled far to see the baby Jesus. Similarly, I can remember the picture Bible that I carried to church as a child. It too depicted the birth of Jesus and I can remember many Sundays in church where I would pretend that I was one of the people in the picture, coming to see the baby Jesus.

Well, as I grew up and settled into my own shoes, if you will. The nativity was set out each year but I quit getting on my hands and knees to see the figures. My picture Bible was not replaced with a more grown-up Bible; it was replaced by work and by not going to church. Then, in April 1988, God got a hold on my life again. He used high school friends and co-workers to draw me to himself. I re-discovered the nativity but not as wood and plastic under my family’s Christmas tree, but as a historical event that had eternal consequences for my life. Since this time, you could say, I have figuratively been on my hands and knees again, trying still to come to terms with the mystery of the nativity, the mystery of the incarnation of Jesus Christ in human flesh. I want to state categorically, however, that I still do not have answers to all the questions that I have been asking. I want to look into the nativity and ask myself, why and how? For I do not have all the answers to these questions, in some way they are beyond us, hidden in the very nature of God himself. Rather, I simply want to be willing to get down on all fours and look into the nativity.

To do this, my perspective is not only as a believer living on this side of the incarnation. Rather, through Ephesians 1, I look at the nativity from the other side — I need to look at Christmas even before Christmas, if you will.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ. In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory. (Ephesians 1:3-10)

Ephesians 1:3-4 is in the form of a benediction, that is, an exclamation of praise and prayer, resembling those used in Jewish homes and synagogues. This benediction may have come to Paul as an oral, probably liturgical, Christian tradition. The “we” and “us” forms reveal that Paul is not presenting only his own private opinion. The contents of this benediction are primarily the grace, the work and the revelation of God. God is the subject of most of these sentences and the whole benediction reverberates with the praise of God’s glory. However, it should be noted that the benediction has a Trinitarian structure which moves from the Father through the Son to the Spirit.

In verses 4-5 and 11, we learn that God has chosen and predestined us. This choosing and predestination is not some form of divine determinism but rather God’s loving election of us to a relationship with God’s Son, Jesus Christ. This passage states that the election of the saints was made “in him,” that is, “in Christ”:

  1. Jesus Christ was the first elected (Luke 9:28-36)
  2. Resurrection from death, together with Christ, is the content of election (1 Cor. 15:20-24)
  3. Christ is also the means or instrument of election — through his blood, we are liberated and forgiven (Romans 5:8-11)
  4. Jesus Christ’s function in election is that of a free, responsible, active agent — he has loved us and given himself up for us (Luke 22:39-42)

Thus, the formula “in him” or “in Christ” denotes the concentration, summation, revelation, and execution of God’s own decision in one person, that is, the Messiah. Since Jesus Christ is the prime object and subject, the revealed secret and instrument of God’s election representing all those chosen by God then we see that the doctrine of election is a person-to-person relationship of love. Furthermore, this election is said by Paul to have been “before the creation of the world.”

Christmas before Christmas, then, is seen in God’s loving election of us as his adopted children to holiness and blamelessness.

According to verse 10 this time of “fulfillment” denotes a dynamic unilateral relationship: the revelation of God’s glory to the world through Jesus Christ; the power exerted by God in Christ and in the church for the subjection of the powers and the salvation of all humankind; the life, growth, and salvation given by Christ to his body; and the presence of the living God and his Messiah among his chosen people for the benefit of all creation. First, God chose people to come to faith in Christ before even the foundation of the world was laid; and second, this choosing was “put into effect” or “administered” when the time was right. In other words, Christ came in the form of a baby when it was time to secure the salvation of those who were chosen from eternity past. As John Chrysostom wrote, “The fullness of time was the Son’s appearing. When, then, God had done all through angels, through prophets and through the law, yet nothing had improved, there was a danger that humanity had come into being for nothing. It was not going merely nowhere but to the bad. All were perishing together, just like in the days of the flood but more so. Just then, he offered his gracious dispensation — to ensure that creation should not have come into being for nothing or in vain. The fullness of time is that divine wisdom by which, at the moment when all were most likely to perish, they were saved.”

Christmas before Christmas, then, is seen in God’s perfectly timed sending of Jesus Christ to earth in human form.

We commonly place nativity scenes in our homes during this time of year. I can think of five that our placed in our house right now! These scenes usually have the holy family, some shepherds, sheep, perhaps a donkey or two and a small manger containing the infant Jesus. Yet, what would an Ephesians 1 nativity look like? How would you depict God choosing human beings to be saved? How would you picture God deciding that it was now the “fullness of time”? Christmas is not only the day of December 25 nor is it only that original birth of Jesus in a stable in Bethlehem. Rather, Christmas is God’s eternal decision and decree to provide a Savior to pay the penalty for the sins of humankind and then his choosing us to be the recipients of this grace at the appointed time. The words of the traditional English carol “The Lord At First Had Adam Made” says it well:

The Lord at first had Adam made
Out of the dust and clay,
And in his nostrils breathed life,
As Holy Scriptures say.
And then in Eden’s Paradise
He placed him to dwell,
That he within it should remain,
To dress and keep it well.

And thus within the garden he
Commanded was to stay;
And unto him in commandment
These words the Lord did say:
The fruit that in the garden grows
To thee shall be for meat,
Except the tree in the midst thereof
Of which thou shall not eat.

For in the day thou dost it touch
Or dost it then come nigh,
And if that thou dost eat thereof,
Then thou shalt surely die.
But Adam he did take no heed
To that same only thing,
But did transgress God’s holy laws,
And sore was wrapp’t in sin.

Now mark the goodness of the Lord,
Which He to mankind bore;
His mercy soon He did extend,
Lost man for to restore:
And then, for to redeem our souls
From death, and hell, and thrall,
He said his own dear Son should come
The Saviour of us all.

Which promise now is brought to pass:
Christians believe it well:
And by the coming of God’s Son,
We are redeem’d from Hell.
So if we truly do believe,
And do the thing that’s right,
Then by His merits we at least
Shall live in Heaven bright.

Now, for the benefits that we
Enjoy from Heaven above,
Let us renounce all wickedness,
And life in perfect love.
Then shall we do Christ’s own command,
Even his written word,
And when we die, in Heaven we shall
Enjoy our living Lord.

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