Christmas Isn't an End in Itself
The True Purpose of the Incarnation
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)
At Christmas, we celebrate the miracle of the Incarnation: the God of heaven and earth, the Lord of Hosts, Creator of all things, took on flesh. The Son of the Most High left behind the glories of heaven, leaving behind his exalted place with the Father, and descended to the earth to live among us.
Yet it’s easy to fix on Christmas and lose sight of the fact that Christmas was not an end in itself in God’s plan. The way it’s described sometimes, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the greatest gift of Christmas is that God decided to give life on earth a spin. Kind of like a journalist who decides to live for a week on the streets as a homeless person, I guess – many think that the Incarnation was merely God wanting to identify with us in our lives here on earth.
There is a lot of truth in that view, of course. The author to the Hebrews writes: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15) Part of Christ’s mission on earth, as a man, was to experience and identify with our sufferings – particularly our temptation by sin. As the Second Adam, as humanity’s “second chance,” the life of Christ was in a very important sense a recapitulation of Adam’s temptation in the garden. The fact that Jesus carried out that task surrounded by sin, by the allurements and seeming benefits and attractions of sin, makes his accomplishment of a blameless life an even greater feat than it would have been had Adam succeeded—after all, Adam, in the perfect Garden of Eden, never having been exposed to the deceptive delights of sin, was tempted far less than Jesus ever was.
So this sharing of our human experience is a vital part of Christ’s mission. And yet, it was not the entirety of that mission. There is so much more to Jesus’ Incarnation than merely his experience and sharing of our life on earth. Indeed, the ultimate purpose, the primary point, of the Incarnation is at risk of being lost if we start thinking that the Son of God merely wanted to go on a walking tour of the earth or “put on our shoes” for a change.
The ultimate reason for the Incarnation, the primary purpose for the divine Son of God to join a human nature to himself, is this: God’s justice demanded that a man die for the sins of man.
The writer to the Hebrews is clear: “under the law almost everything is purified with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). The sins of the human race, the rebellion of the Creation against the Creator, are so serious that they call for capital punishment. As creatures that owe every breath and everything we have to God, when we disobey him and try to live our lives as if we don’t need him, that ungratefulness and rebellion is an act of cosmic treason. It’s not as if there was no warning, for God told Adam in the Garden: eat the fruit and die. Disobey, and your life is forfeit. And so your sin, and my sin, has brought a sentence of death upon us all. So for God’s justice to be satisfied, something had to die.
So: what about a sacrifice? What about all those sheep and goats and cattle slaughtered under the Old Testament? No, that won’t help you either: “It is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins” (Hebrews 10:4). Those sacrifices were never intended to actually remove sin, but rather to be a reminder of the seriousness of sin (Hebrews 10:3) and to point to the need for a better sacrifice that could actually do the job (Hebrews 10:10, 12).
That is why the Incarnation happened. That is why Christmas is such Good News—just as God provided Abraham a ram to sacrifice in the place of his only son, so, too, God has now provided his only Son to sacrifice in the place of his people. Christmas, then, is ultimately a means to an end. An end celebrated and fulfilled in Good Friday.
It is so heartbreaking when families fight, when parents or children or brothers or sisters hurt one another through selfishness or bitterness during the holiday season. How many of us have seen that happen, or experienced it ourselves? But because Christmas is not ultimately about itself, but points to Good Friday, those who hope in Christ have hope. In Christ, the child of Bethlehem, who suffered at the hands of his own people, there is found the hope of forgiveness. In Christ, who was punished by his Father for the sins of men, the penalty is paid and forgiveness is made possible.
So Christmas is not about itself, but about Good Friday. But it never ends there. It’s about Easter Sunday, as well. Christmas is a beautiful picture of God’s creative power: a virgin conceives, life is created apart from any human intervention. God gives life in a way man never could. And so the Incarnation anticipates the Resurrection of Christ as well. After all, if God has the power to conceive a child in the womb of a virgin, what is death as an obstacle? So Christ’s resurrection, as a demonstration that God has accepted his sacrifice, is our hope that one day we, too, will be accepted and raised from the dead.
It is so heartbreaking when a loved one passes away near Christmas, isn’t it? It is devastating that at a time of celebration and giving, one could wind up mourning someone being taken away. But for those who remember what Christmas is really about, who remember that Christ took on flesh so that he could die and rise again, hope still shines even in the midst of grief. In Christ, in that child of Bethlehem, is found the hope of resurrection.
Because Christmas is about Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it cannot be spoiled or ruined by sin or death. Because it is about Good Friday and Easter Sunday, it is about forgiveness, and about the hope of new life.
This hope, this reassurance, can be yours as well this season. And all that is required is that you believe. That you recognize who and what you are, a rebel sinner, and just trust in this Christ’s life, death, and resurrection to be enough for your acceptance by the Father.
So Christmas is a joyous time, but not because it is an end in itself. Rather, because it was a means to a most glorious end: the salvation of sinners through faith in Jesus Christ, to the glory of the Father who planned our salvation and sent our Saviour to us.
Merry Christmas, and praise the Lord!