Reformed Reflections

"You are to give Him the name Jesus."

Christmas is a conglomeration of traditions from different cultures accumulated over the centuries. Greeting cards, the exchange of gifts, church plays, recitations by children, the singing of carols, and decorated trees have become so familiar that it is easy to forget the meaning behind the facts. The early church didn't celebrate Christmas on December 25. This date was chosen later to offer head-on competition with pagan Rome's sun-worshippers. As one theologian wrote in 320 AD: "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of Him who made it."

The simple fact is that on Christmas we celebrate the birth of Jesus. But who was He? Who is He? What is our answer? It seems that the Christmas card image of Jesus as someone kind and reassuring, with no sharp edges at all, has influenced us more than we are to admit. Or to phrase it in another way: Has the church in Dorothy Sayers' words, "very efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified Him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies?" Perhaps many adults have not gone beyond the image of Jesus they were taught as children in the hymn: "Gentle Jesus, meek and mild, Look upon a little child." Another children's hymn and this time at the beginning of the line says: "Christian children all must be mild, obedient, good as He." Why mild? In Your God Is Too Small J. B. Phillips comments that of all the epithets that could be applied to Jesus this seems one of the least appropriate. Phillips noted: "To speak the truth was obviously to Him more important than to make His hearers comfortable: though, equally obviously, His genuine love for men gave Him tact, wisdom, and sympathy. He was love in action, but He was not meek and mild." How true! Jesus was not a harmless person, who would let sleeping dogs lie, who would not offend anybody. Those in authority, whether religious or political, regarded him as a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace. How would telling people to be nice to one another get a man crucified?

Who then is Jesus? Jesus Christ is the greatest name in and the centre of history. His name is known throughout the world. His name is so deep in meaning and rich in content that only the Father has the right and the power to call His only-begotten Son - Jesus. And this is exactly what the Father did when He sent an angel to Joseph in a dream. The angel announced, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived of her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins" (Matt. 1:21). A very startling announcement? To Joseph this very idea of a virgin conceiving was altogether new. He would never have accepted it had not an angel sent by God conveyed this information to him. Involved in this truth of the virgin birth is the guarantee of salvation for God's people, for, apart from this kind of birth it is difficult to understand how Christ could be their Saviour. The virgin Mary was also commanded by the angel to call Him Jesus. It is His personal name and used throughout the Gospels and Acts, but generally in the Epistles it appears in combination with Christ: Jesus Christ.

The name Jesus, or Joshua, literally means "Jehovah saves." The proclamation of the angel to Joseph is that Mary's child must be called Jesus - meaning in brief, Saviour. In the fullest and most glorious sense He will save his people from their sins through His death on the cross. It is made complete and effectual through regeneration by the Holy Spirit. To link sin and salvation to Christmas may seem to put a damper on the festivities and beauty of that day. Sin is not a popular subject. But sin is a dark reality which impacts all of life. Martyn Lloyd-Jones observed that there is nothing so silly as the idea that the doctrine of sin is remote from life. He noted that there is nothing more practical, and the world is today in its present condition because men will simply not recognize the truth what the Bible tells us about them. In our day many think of salvation and Christianity in terms of a little bit of morality and decency. What an insult to Gospel? As if the Gospel is meant to make good people better! We cannot understand the meaning of Christmas, the celebration of the incarnation of God's Son, unless we understand the Biblical doctrine of sin. We will never grasp the immensity of God's love if we fail to see our lostness apart from Jesus Christ. There is only one remedy for man in his deadness, hopelessness, and complete helplessness. While some trust in physical strength, technology, knowledge, reputation, prestige, wealth or influential friends, none of these can deliver them from their chief enemy sin, the foe that is little by little destroying their very heart. Into this state of sin, frustration, and defeat came Jesus Christ, in order that by His life and death He might make man what he was meant to be. But all this takes no less than the atoning death of Jesus and the sanctifying power of the Holy Spirit to cleanse hearts. Furthermore, through His resurrection from the dead, Jesus became the centre of God's redeeming plan for all the ages (1 Cor. 15). He is the key interpretive principle, the organizing centre of our life and thought. (2 Cor. 10:5) Jesus is the Son of the Creator. His saving work is not limited to individuals. Salvation points the restoration of God's original creation, following the Biblical story line of creation-fall-redemption-consummation.

In obedience to His Heavenly Father, Jesus left heaven and came to earth. The Pure Light began to walk this dark world. God is not a remote despot uninterested in the world, a far away God. The personal closeness of the Saviour to His redeemed is one of Christianity's greatest assets. God is always near. He is always approachable. He is accessible. But no one may approach Him apart from Jesus Christ, Who is the mediator between God and man and between man and God). In Jesus we know who God is and what He is like. The glory of God is not the glory of shattering power, but the glory of suffering love. Indeed, if we want to know the nature of God, we only have to look at Jesus, for he is the very picture of God (Col. 1:15). On Christmas we are reminded anew that Jesus is now our intercessor. We dare not approach God without a mediator, if our prayer is to be heard. Jesus steps forward for us, steps into our place when praying. Therefore, when we enter into the presence of God, we go, not to hear God's justice prosecute us, but to hear God's love plead for us.

The incarnation is the miracle of miracles. The German theologian Helmut Thielicke commented that Jesus Christ did not remain at base headquarters in heaven, receiving reports of the world's suffering from below and shouting a few encouraging words to us from a safe distance. No, he left the headquarters and came down-to us in the front-line trenches, right down to where we live, where we contend with our anxieties and the feeling of emptiness and futility, where we sin and suffer guilt, and where we must finally die. There is nothing that he did not endure for us. Thielicke put it well. God's Son understands everything. Jesus knows about sleep,: sweat, footsore weariness, frustration, pain, and temptation.

The key then to Christmas is salvation from sin. Over the manger is the shadow of the cross. Although the 18th century John Newton, a man God transformed from a young degenerate slave-ship captain to a minister of the Gospel, did not write Christmas carols, he wrote a lovely hymn in tribute of Jesus, whose name is on the lips of the repentant sinners, of the broken hearted, the meek of the earth.

How sweet the name of Jesus sounds
In a believer's ear,
It soothes his sorrows, heals his wounds,
And drives away his fear.

John Newton never ceased to marvel at that great salvation that had been granted to him. At eighty-two, facing death, Newton said just months before he died, "My memory is nearly gone, but I remember two things, that I am a great sinner, and that Christ is a great Saviour."

An angel told Joseph to name the virgin Mary's son Jesus "because he will save his people from their sin." May the Holy Spirit whisper in our ears the same message. And may our personal response be: Jesus is my Saviour and my Lord. On the cross Christ carried my sin, my captivity and my suffering, and did not carry it in vain.

Johan D. Tangelder
December, 2003