With night covering Bethlehem, and in a crude, dirty, drafty stable, God’s eternal Son was born of a virgin in our flesh.
A familiar story? Do not let the familiarity of it rob you of its wonder and marvel. It was the greatest display of God’s grace imaginable. It was unnoticed by the world, which was absorbed that night in taxes, buying, getting, lusting, groveling in the dust-not unlike our day. In such a day God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born willingly under our curse, in order that He might take away our curse and earn eternal life for us.
Jesus lived eternally as God’s Son in heaven. He was worshiped by angels. The Father delighted in Him. But now He joins Himself in Mary’s womb with our flesh and blood. Why? Because there was no other way for God’s people to live with God than the way of God giving His Son to carry away our sins and to bury them in His blood.
I want to look at the wonderful birth of Jesus Christ today from the viewpoint of the apostle Paul in II Corinthians 9:15, where he says: “Thanks be unto God for his unspeakable gift.” In the chapter Paul was teaching about collections or offerings: Christian giving. And he drives home one principle. He says, before you put one penny into the plate you must stop and look at what God’s grace has given to you. And it is out of thankfulness for what God has done for you, and out of the abundance of what He has given, that you must be prompted in your giving. And he concludes with these wonderful words: “Thanks be unto God for His unspeakable gift!”
Notice that the apostle Paul assumes that all Christians will know what that gift is, even though he does not mention it specifically. Notice, secondly, that he calls it a gift, something that we did not have coming, something we could never earn. And notice, finally, that he says that it is an unspeakable gift; that is, human words cannot describe, cannot explain the wonder of it. Words do not exist to tell what it is. It bursts the bands of words. No words can translate the love of the Father. No words can translate the emotions behind the value of this gift. I am persuaded that through all eternity we will never be able to state the love of God which prompted the gift of Jesus.
The question is this: are you one to whom this gift is given? There is one way to know. You say, “Well, I know it because it is in the Bible.” Yes. You say, “I know it because I have been taught this in a Christian home and in a Christian church.” That is a great blessing. But that is still not the answer. You say, “I know that this is true because I am decent and hard working.” No. If you talk that way, it becomes plain that you do not believe that it was a gift. No, you know this truth as being true for you in that you are given to know yourself as a sinner. Do you see in the manger the sign of your sin, your poverty, and your guilt before God? That is the work of the Spirit of Jesus Christ in you. And from that position, you can see how gracious God is. And you can say, “How unspeakable is the gift of God in giving Christ to be born to cover my sins!”
In the night that Jesus was born, everything had been prepared by God in the most minute detail, so that His Son would be born exactly at that time, exactly in that place, and exactly in that way. None of it took place by chance. None of it was simply the unfortunate train of circumstances. God had been preparing this gift since Adam ate of the tree and fell into sin. In fact, God had planned this gift in His mind eternally. And He had planned to give it in the very best way to show forth His grace and glory. A gift, after all, involves some planning, some preparation. Everything must be “just so.” Well, God’s gift of giving Jesus was prepared in divine wisdom. And it was woven out of the perfect and pure love of God. In Luke 2 we read, “And it came to pass in those days….” What days? They are the days spoken of in Luke 1. They were exciting days for the people of God who were waiting for the coming of Christ. They were days when angels returned to earth, sent from heaven, breaking the silence of 400 years since the last prophet, Malachi. They were days when old Zacharias and Elisabeth had been blessed with a son who was filled with the spirit of Elijah from his mother’s womb: John the Baptist who was to be the forerunner of the Lord and to announce the coming of the Lord as a voice crying in the wilderness. They were days when a virgin named Mary, a descendant of the line of David, who lived in the despised town of Nazareth, who knew no man sexually, yet conceived without a human father. God conceived His Son within the womb of the virgin Mary.
But those days in which Jesus was born were the exact moment, the precise time, which God had set down to do what He had promised. We read in Galatians 4:4, “When the fulness of time was come….” As if time was like water filling a glass to a point when it was full and complete-the point to which God had worked, the central moment of time. Those days are the days that God had put on the calendar when He would arise to provide eternal deliverance for His people, when His Son would be born for sinners so that sinners might live with Him. And the angels knew this. They were thrilled with wonder! Oh, what has God done, they said to each other. They sang unto God, the Savior, with a joyful song. The eternal God, faithful to every promise, unchangeable in every purpose, has now led time, history, nations, men, and every tick on the clock to lead to Bethlehem where a virgin brought forth her firstborn son.
God prepared everything so that Jesus His Son would be born exactly in the manger in Bethlehem. We read in Luke 2 that “there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed.” Yes, Caesar Augustus made that decree. But we read in Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord; he turneth it withersoever he will.” Caesar Augustus, one of history’s most capable, gifted rulers politically and economically, a statesman, a leader of men cut out of the mold of Nimrod, the mighty hunter ( Gen. 11). He wanted revenue for his kingdom, so he issued a proclamation that all must register for a tax. And to register they must go to their own city. That meant, for Joseph and Mary, even though Mary was great with child, that they would have to journey to Bethlehem. Caesar Augustus, in far off Rome, in his palace, concerned only with revenue for an earthly kingdom, is nevertheless only an instrument in God’s hand. Man, who thinks he is building his kingdom, is simply a tool for God to accomplish His promise.
We read that Joseph and Mary went up then to the city of Bethlehem. God, at that time, controls also Mary’s pregnancy and sends labor pains in order that His Son might be born exactly in that night and under those situations. In a manger, that is, in a stable, for there was not room for them in the inn. Man, in his documents, refers to history this way: “When in the course of human events….” Oh, no. The Bible puts it this way: My times are in Thy hand (Ps. 31:10). The eternal God rules history and brings it to pass. But the almighty Father prepares all things in order that His promise may stand fast, in order that His Son may now lay His head, in His first few moments of life, in this manger. Everything leads up to this. Everything is directed exactly to this point. It was all prepared.
But we would say, if that is the case, is there not a mistake? This is God’s Son? This is the One before whom angels are unclean? This is the moment that God had planned, and these are exactly the circumstances that God had planned to give the gift of His Son? Would it not have been better at least to have a few angels in front of the manger, or to have some signs, external signs, of splendor and wonder? It is surrounded with poverty, with lowliness, with weakness. It is a very shameful setting. There is barely enough there to keep the little baby alive. Should it not, first of all, have been in surroundings which were a bit more fitting, if this is God’s Son? A manger? For the Creator of the heavens and the earth? Is not this totally out of place? It should have been done in Caesar Augustus’ palace with its marble floors. Or, maybe, Herod’s mansion. Should there not be a line of royal officers conveying best wishes from all the earthly dignities? Perhaps there should be some way of recording this event for posterity and for history. Or, at least let us have some scribes and Pharisees, the religious leaders of the Jews, present to give their blessing and, perhaps, to sprinkle around some religious significance. God’s Son comes and all that He has is a manger, a place where animals eat their food. And all He has to cover Him are torn bits of cloth. In a smelly barn. Is there not some mistake?
No, there is no mistake. Divine wisdom has prepared and selected everything. This is exactly the way it has to be. It fits.
You say He should be born in Caesar’s palace? No. Caesar Augustus and Jesus Christ have nothing in common. Jesus would say, “My kingdom is not of this world.” The kingdom of Jesus Christ would ground Augustus’ kingdom to powder. He should be born in Herod’s mansion? No! Herod is going to see Him as a rival and is going to try to kill Him. The Pharisees and the scribes should be present? No, they are the ones who are going to hate Him the most. They would strangle this child if they knew He was there.
Do you know why this is the proper setting for God’s gift of Jesus Christ? Do you understand that this is the only place where He can be born? Do you know why? Because, you see, the surroundings are intentional to show the gift. The gift is that the sinless One has come to take the place of sinners who are given to Him of the Father. The poverty, the squalor, the filth, the lowliness of His birth. He is born with just enough, born seemingly on the very edge of the world. It all reveals the gift of grace. God’s Son, the perfect image of the Father, the blessed, almighty God, God the Son has in grace stooped low to take the place of sinners. He has come for us. And we have nothing. We deserve nothing. We are covered in the filth of sin, we are evil, corrupt. We are foul, smelly. He did not come for the righteous. He did not come for the self-maintaining, the well-adjusted, the people who have it all together in their own pride. He came for those, sinners, given Him of His Father, who were poverty-stricken and ugly in their sins.
But the gift unspeakable is exactly this, that the blessed and wonderful God now tabernacles with us for one reason: that He would take upon His shoulders the sins in which we were conceived and born, and carry them away by enduring the penalty for those sins upon the cross.
We read about early missionaries in the Christian church who were filled with the love of Christ and were concerned to reach a segment of humanity that nobody could reach. This segment of humanity consisted of wretched slaves who were locked in their chains and beaten. In order to reach them, these missionaries sold themselves into slavery. They put themselves on the slave-block. They were sold and bound and whipped and abused in order that they might bring the Word of God to slaves.
Well, that is just a little picture. And it does not hold a candle at all to this: God’s Son, to save us from our sins and the eternal wrath of God due to us for those sins, entered into our state and took upon Him the iniquity of us all. Now there are many who would say, perhaps, “Don’t burden the simple Christmas story with all the trappings of your Christian theology, much less this Reformed theology. Don’t burden this with all the words about sin and death and man’s unworthiness. Let’s lighten it up. Isn’t Christmas all about good cheer and feelings and warmth and firesides and all the rest?” That is not the gospel. That is not God’s Word. That is the folly of man who seeks for his peace and rest where there is no peace and there is no rest. This is peace: Thou shalt call His name Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.
His very name, Jesus, implies that man is in bondage; that your and my problem is not our wages. It is not your boss. It is not your job, your friends, the clothes you have or do not have to wear. Your problem is sin! Sin is the ugly reality which is shown in the setting of the manger. Sin demands satisfaction of God’s justice. If you want just the slush of the Christmas story and simply sentimental music, then you have to see that the Scriptures, the gospel of Jesus Christ, are not that. That is the very opposite of the gospel of Jesus Christ. The account must not be adjusted to avoid the issues of your sin and your accountability to God. The setting of His birth cries out man’s fall and depravity.
And thus, it is the revelation of the unspeakable gift of God, of God’s grace of election, that by a perfect substitute and through an irresistible love He shall save His people from their sins. He did not come simply so that we can give and receive gifts and have office parties and fill out cards. But He came to save. Do not trifle with this baby. God says, This is My Son, prepared and now placed exactly where He belongs, in the place of sinners. Believe on Him. Throw the weight of your sin on Him. Kiss the Son in humble love. Put all your trust in Him. Bow before Him in complete devotion. He alone is worthy.
Now, can you place a value upon such a gift? What is it worth? Do you see the virgin Mary cradle in her arms her firstborn son? That is God’s Firstborn: by whom and for whom all things are created ( Col. 1), and in whom all things consist; that is, that is the One who created the world and holds it in existence. Now He appears in a body, as a little child, to redeem us from our sins.
Do you see Joseph and Mary tear up old cloth to make covering for the child? Do you see them lay the child in a manger under the rough beams of wood in the darkness of night? That child is God, not ceasing to be God, God who holds the manger in existence and God who holds Caesar Augustus’ palace in existence willingly.
In the body prepared for Him in the virgin’s womb He now stands under something. Something horrible, something vile, something damnworthy! Your and my sins-that He might bear them away.
Can you put a value upon such a gift? Where would you be without this gift? We would be in hell or waiting for it. Can you measure the love of God? Can you take in the glory of God’s grace? Can you plumb the depth of His love? How shall we thank Him? Without this gift there is no life, there is no joy, there is no peace. There is no open heaven. There is only death and misery, agony and curse.
Ah, but with this gift, there is everything. Look into the manger now. Do you see God’s mighty work? Do you see the wonder: very God and very man, Immanuel, Redeemer, Lord, and Savior. Do you say, My Savior, my Lord, my God? Then rejoice. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And shout. Shout with all the saints: Thanks, thanks be to God for His unspeakable gift.
Let us pray.
Father, we thank Thee for Thy word. We thank Thee for the wonder of Thy grace. We pray that, seeing Thy unspeakable gift in Jesus Christ, we might live unto Him who has so exceedingly loved us. Amen.