Few of the Christmas cards on display in Christian bookstores catch my eye. There are some, because of the words, which I discard; and there are still others which make me angry over the idolatry and the picture of a babe with a halo in the arms of the virgin Mary. But there was one card that did make me to pause and think. It was a picture of a manger in all of its raw crudeness. No human figures were to be seen-just a lowly stable made out of rough-hewn beams under the starry night. But the artist had cast a shadow over the manger, a shadow of a cross. The Babe in the manger with a shadow of a cross over it.
Yes, that is right. He came to die on the cross for our sins. The depth of our poverty was already on Him. He was born under the poverty of our sins which would one day cause Him to cry with a piercing cry into the heavens, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?”
If you do not see the shadow of the cross over the manger, you simply do not know the Christ of the Scriptures, or the reason He came.
This is the gospel which is found in II Corinthians 8:9. Here we read this Word of God: “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.”
The apostle Paul assumes that every believer knows this. He assumes that all those who are saved by the grace of God know the reason for the coming of the Son of God into our flesh, know that He came in order that we who are poor might be made rich. You know that, do you not? You know the grace of God shown in that, do you not? Has it taken hold of you? Do you stand before the manger as well as the cross in wonder and amazement over the grace of God?
We are going to look at this verse for a few moments at this time, this profound statement of the incarnation. Let us look at what this verse says of the glory of the incarnate Christ, with the prayer that the Holy Spirit will now do what He delights to do, namely, that He will take of Christ and show it unto you.
Before our Lord’s incarnation (the word “incarnation” means “to be made flesh,” or “to come in flesh”) He was rich. We read that “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor.” What does it mean that He was rich? The word means “to abound in resources, to be abundantly supplied.” It is the word used, for instance, of that famous character in the Bible, the rich young ruler in Matthew 19, a young man who had great abundance and was affluent and left Jesus very sadly when the Lord told him that he must sell all. It is also the word that we find in Luke 16, the parable of the rich man and Lazarus, the man who was clothed in purple and fared sumptuously every day, while Lazarus lay at his door in sores and poverty. Rich means to be abundant in resources, possessions, and power.
Now in what sense was our Lord rich? We can exclude immediately any reference to His earthly life or existence. While He was among us on the earth He was far from rich. He was born in poverty, in a manger. How do we know that He was born into poverty? We know, for instance, when our Lord was forty days old, Mary brought Him to the temple for her purification and offered two turtledoves. We read of this in Luke 2. The Old Testament law in Leviticus required that a woman must be ceremonially purified after the birth of her firstborn son by offering a lamb or, if she could not afford a lamb, by offering two turtledoves or pigeons. In case of poverty, parents could substitute birds for that lamb. So, the words “He was rich” do not refer to His earthly state. Further, when our Lord Jesus Christ had to pay His taxes, a miracle is performed and the money is found in the fish’s mouth. When He will make an example of rendering to each honor in his own sphere, He will say, “Give me a coin.” And after He died on a cross, He was buried in a borrowed tomb. No, He was not rich in the earthly sense.
What does it mean, then, that He was rich? It means this: Prior to our Lord Jesus’ birth in a manger He was in a condition of abounding resources. It is a statement of the pre-incarnate glory and majesty of Jesus Christ. Before Jesus was born into our flesh, before His self-imposed poverty, He was rich.
And we could draw out many lines. We could speak of His riches in terms of the adoration of the heavenly beings. In Isaiah 6 we have a vision of the seraphim, the angels, worshiping with adoring wonder before the throne of God and crying to each other: “Holy, holy, holy, Lord God almighty.”John 12:41 tells us that Isaiah spoke those words when he saw His glory, that is, the glory of Christ. Christ, before He came into this world, was rich in glory. He was the object of the angels’ worship.
He was rich in all the powers of the Godhead. John 1:1 tells us that He is and was God. All the powers of the eternal God are His. He has all the prerogatives of almighty God.
But I would suggest to you that from the particular Scripture we are looking at now, there was one thing that made Him most rich. That was this: the continual enjoyment of the Father’s presence unmixed with suffering. What was the greatest treasure our Lord possessed prior to Bethlehem? Was it the adoring gaze of the seraphim and cherubim and the myriad of angels? Was it the full and free exercise of His power as God, able to speak worlds into being by His own voice? No, the greatest treasure that He possessed was the enjoyment of His Father’s presence unmixed with suffering. He stood before the face of God. He possessed the intimacy of the inter-trinitarian relationship. The Trinity is the truth that there is, in the one God, three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Christ stood in a relationship of perfect intimacy with the Father. He prays in John 17 about the “glory that I had with Thee before the world began. The glory that I had alongside of Thee.”
This was confirmed when He was in Gethsemane, the garden where He prayed so earnestly before the cross. What caused Jesus, in the Garden of Gethsemane, to quake and to draw back? The Father held before Him the cup that He must drink. What was in that cup? It was not simply the physical sufferings. The Father presented to Him what it would be for Him to bear the sins of His people: that He must be cut off from the enjoyment of the Father’s face; that He must feel the abandonment of divine judgment. The greatest riches that He had prior to Bethlehem’s manger was the enjoyment of His Father’s presence. He was rich. He lived towards God’s face.
But He became poor. “Yet for your sakes he became poor.” The words speak of something that happened very decisively and very deliberately. He became poor. What is it to be poor? It is the opposite of being rich. It is to have insufficient resources, to be reduced to begging. Now, in what sense was He poor?
We need to read the Word of God in Philippians 2:5ff., where we read that, being in the form of God, Jesus “thought it not robbery to be equal with God but made himself of no reputation, and took upon himself the form of a servant.” That is, He did not cling to His prerogatives as God’s equal. But He became a slave for us. He entered into the state of our sin. He took our sins upon Himself. He humbled Himself and took our place before the law of God. In our flesh He took upon Himself the punishment that was due to us because we have broken that law of God willingly. He became a servant, a slave who has no rights.
From the adoration of the angels, from the prerogative of divine authority, from very intimate fellowship with His Father, He came now to do the Father’s will. He came under the law. He came to take the poverty of the sins of God’s people upon Him, the debt which was ours. He became thesinner before God. II Corinthians 5:21, that He “who knew no sin” became sin for us. From the enjoyment of the Father’s presence, He came under the frown and the wrath of the Father against our sins. Decisively, deliberately, God’s eternal Son took on Himself our flesh, our death, and our hell.
And that came to its fullest expression on Calvary, in the three hours of darkness upon Calvary. Every little cry that He made as a Babe, and all His groans lifelong, were but a preview of the cry which would pierce the darkened heavens: “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” On Calvary’s cross the Father hid His face from His Son. He placed upon His Son all the wrath which was due to the sins of God’s chosen people. He was stripped, and willingly He stripped Himself, of the greatest possession: the enjoyment of the Father’s presence. For our sakes He stood in our place before His Father’s wrath.
Do you see the shadow of the cross over the manger?
This is what the world refuses to see at this time of year. They do not want to hear about a cross over the manger. They want to hear about Christmas carols and merriment and trees and all the rest because the cross is an offense. The cross of Jesus Christ declares that we are rebels, that we have offended the holy God, that our sin is of such a nature that it demands the abandonment of God’s Son. If there is to be any basis for the forgiving of the likes of you, do you see the cross over the manger? The midnight of Golgotha hung already over His crib. He came from the bright mid-day of His Father’s presence to the black and heavy darkness of His Father’s abandonment. Though He was rich, yet He became poor.
The verse goes on to tell us: “for your sakes … that ye through his poverty might be rich.” It was out of a particular love. And it was out of a gracious purpose. Paul is speaking to the Corinthian believers, to the ones who, as he says in the first epistle (chapter 1:2 & 9), had been called unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ, powerfully summoned by the eternal God into spiritual life with Jesus Christ.
Jesus Christ became poor not for the angels. He did not take upon Himself the nature of an angel. But He became poor for us, who are called of God, who of ourselves are bound in our sins and wedded to our own lusts, who are now believers by God’s grace and rejoice in the fact that we know the grace of God to us in that Christ who was rich became poor for us. To those of you who know that you are fallen in the sin of Adam, ruined in the Fall, deserving eternal wrath-unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior which is Christ the Lord. It was your poverty that He took.
You see, you are not just a speck of protoplasm on the vast sea of cosmic dust, as men would have you believe from evolution. You are not simply part of the universe. You are not a little god who can make it on your own. You are not answerable simply to yourselves. Oh no, you are a creature, created for God’s purposes. And, of yourselves, you are fallen into sin. But for those who are saved by God’s grace out of a fallen human race, Jesus Christ was made poor, that they might be made rich. For us, who of ourselves could only stew in the vileness of sin and uncleanness, who would drink down iniquity like water-for our sakes He became poor that we might be rich.
The apostle Paul is telling us that without this we are not rich. We are poor. Jesus says in John 10:10, I am come that ye might have life and have it more abundantly, indicating that, apart from His coming, we do not have life. The Scriptures are very clear. We are impoverished because of our sins. We have no covering for our sins in the sight of God. We have no title to heaven. We have no ability to work our way there. We have lost our greatest possession: the face of God with delight. We are fallen in sin.
It does not matter what you have in terms of earthly possessions and homes and wealth. If you do not walk with God by grace through faith in Jesus Christ, you are of all people most to be pitied. You are a pauper. You are in abject poverty.
But Christ came to make us rich. We did not have the light of the Father. We did not know what it was to have communion with Him. But He came that we might be rich, rich in the grace of God, heirs of life eternal, rich now and rich in death, forgiven. On the basis of His atoning death we may now approach the holy God. We are delivered from the bondage of our sins. We may come to God through Jesus Christ. And even in death we may have perfect wealth and riches when we enter into His fellowship for ever.
That is what it means to be rich. It means this: through what Christ has done we are brought to know God now and evermore. John 17:3, “And this is life eternal,” said Jesus, “that they might know thee the only true God.” And He went on to pray in that chapter, “I will that they also whom thou hast given me, be with me where I am; that they may behold my glory, which thou hast given me.” That is why He came. That is the whole message of the manger. The message of the manger is: our poverty, and He came under that in order that His riches might be ours.
You know that, do you not? “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ,” we read, “that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich.” You know that grace, do you not? Do you sit before this Word of God in wonder and in amazement, right now baffled by the almighty grace of God? Why should He who enjoys the praises of angels, who is very God, why should He no longer cling to His prerogatives but stoop Himself and commit Himself not just to earthly poverty, but to the poverty of divine abandonment and the wrath of God against sin? Is not your heart amazed? Do you know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ? If you do not, you are in the most pitiable poverty known.
If a man came off the streets and we would see him with open sores and with clothes shredded and smelling of strong odors and his hair matted on his head, I am sure that there would not be one of us who would not be moved in the depth of our being with compassion and pity. And, if we did nothing else, we would at least say, “Oh, how terrible!” Well, beloved, God sees something far worse in you and in me. Beneath all our respectable and well-groomed appearance, we have of ourselves a spiritual poverty which would make that man’s poverty wealth. If you are not clothed with the riches of Jesus Christ, if you do not by grace walk with God through the mediation of Jesus Christ, you are poor. Christ came for wretched, filthy sinners that we might be rich.
What is His call to you in this season? Is the call of the gospel of Jesus Christ in this Christmas season simply a sentimental feeling that we gather around the manger and we have some holiday cheer and talk about human goodness? Oh, no! The call of the gospel at this time of year (and all the year) is that you bow with submission before the cross, by grace confessing your sin before the cross and the display of the love and grace of God. The gospel is this: Kiss the Son, lest He be angry and ye perish in the way ( Ps. 2). Repent and believe the gospel. Do not go on in poverty. Riches are not to be found in food or clothing. Riches are not something you put in your stomach or on your finger. It is not something you unwrap from under the tree. But it is the grace of God in the heart. Do you know that grace of God?
If you do not know that grace of God, and if you do not know your own spiritual poverty by the work of the Holy Spirit, and if you do not see the shadow of the cross over the manger, you are still a pauper. What is hell? Hell is the final collecting place of paupers. In Luke 16 we read that a certain rich man died and lifted up his eyes in hell. He had everything in this world, he had nothing in the next world.
Ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that, though He was rich, yet He became poor for your sakes, that ye, through His poverty might be rich. Do you know that wonderful grace of God through faith, God’s precious gift? Then how shall we ever be able to thank Him?
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy Word. And we pray that it may ever abide in our hearts. Amen.