The End of Christmas

The End of Christmas

One Christmas season our family went to see the "Christmas Spectacular" at Radio City Music Hall in New York City. It was an enjoyable show, in spite of all the secular trappings and symbols that have come to characterize Christmas. The most fascinating part of the program, however, comes at the end. For some reason, I had never heard of this scene. It was completely unexpected.

At the end of all the standard, secular Christmas fare, men dressed as shepherds began to emerge on the stage; others dressed as "wise men" led their camels into the scene. The scene was focused on a man and a woman, both dressed in first century middle eastern garb, looking down onto a manger, with a baby in it. Every person coming onto the stage merged together to bow down to this child. Then, a man with an appropriately deep voice, narrated the following sermon excerpt entitled, "One Solitary Life":

He was born in an obscure village 
The child of a peasant woman 
He grew up in another obscure village 
Where he worked in a carpenter shop 
Until he was thirty when public opinion turned against him

He never wrote a book 
He never held an office 
He never went to college 
He never visited a big city 
He never travelled more than two hundred miles 
From the place where he was born 
He did none of the things 
Usually associated with greatness 
He had no credentials but himself 

He was only thirty three 

His friends ran away 
One of them denied him 
He was turned over to his enemies 
And went through the mockery of a trial 
He was nailed to a cross between two thieves 
While dying, his executioners gambled for his clothing 
The only property he had on earth 

When he was dead 
He was laid in a borrowed grave 
Through the pity of a friend 

Nineteen centuries have come and gone 
And today Jesus is the central figure of the human race 
And the leader of mankind's progress 
All the armies that have ever marched 
All the navies that have ever sailed 
All the parliaments that have ever sat 
All the kings that ever reigned put together 
Have not affected the life of mankind on earth 
As powerfully as that one solitary life. 

After a couple of hours of dancing bears, marching tin soldiers, perfectly synchronized "Rockettes," and a special appearance by Santa himself, this last scene was particularly   striking. It was a scene of reverence, as all the people on the stage gathered in adoration of this little child.

As striking as this scene of worship was, especially against the backdrop of Christmas baubles and balls, the description of this "one solitary life" is woefully inadequate. It describes someone who is not deserving of adoration and worship. To be sure, it has a poignant, poetic quality about it. It contrasts the child's humble beginnings and lifestyle with the wide-ranging influence that he has had in the world. As it stands, however, the description of this child never moves beyond a vague notion of mere celebrity. He was a person who lived humbly, but who ended up affecting a multitude of lives. The last thing we learn, in this narration, is that this child, when he was thirty three, was laid in a grave because of the pity of a friend. Why would such a one be worshipped and adored?

In his brilliant little work against theological liberalism, J. Gresham Machen contrasts liberalism's view of Christ with the biblical view. In that work, he says:
The liberal Jesus, despite all the efforts of modern psychological reconstruction to galvanize Him into life, remains a manufactured figure of the stage.[1]
Unfortunately, a "manufactured figure of the stage" is all the "Christmas Spectacular" is able to offer in its final scene. Even worse, such a view of this "one solitary life," like liberal theology, allows no room for Christmas at all. All that's left are dancing bears, marching soldiers and Rockettes. In this poetic portrayal of "one solitary life," to use Feuerbach's phrase, theology has become anthropology. Nothing is left but the hopelessness of humanity; "one solitary life" provides no Savior. The solution -- to state the obvious -- is, as Machen notes, a biblical view of Christ. That includes -- to state the obvious again -- the glorious truth of his miraculous incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. 

As centrally important as the incarnation is, it is also important, even crucial, for our own Bible reading, and our own spiritual lives and growth, to recognize that the incarnation of the Son of God was something to which all of redemptive history was explicitly pointing. More specifically, his incarnation was the climax of his previous redemptive appearances and acts in the Old Testament. When we affirm that Christ was in the Old Testament, we're not simply saying that the Old Testament points to Christ, but we're also saying that the Person who is Christ -- the Son of God -- is the Person who is present, physically oftentimes, in order to redeem his people.

Some of our best teachers can help us here. Herman Bavinck puts it this way:
In a sense God's becoming human starts already immediately after the fall, inasmuch in his special revelation God reached deeply into the life of the creation, linked up with the work of his own providence, and so ordered and led persons, situations, and events, indeed the entire history of a people, that he gradually came close to the human race and became ever more clearly knowable to it. But it reaches its culmination only in the person of Christ, who therefore constitutes the central content of the whole of special revelation. He is the Logos who made and sustains all things (Jn. 1:3; Col. 1:15; Heb. 1:3), and may be considered the angel of YHWH...and the content of prophecy...; and in the fullness of time he became flesh and dwelt among us. Thus Christ is the mediator both of creation and re-creation...In creation and in providence..., and in the leading of Israel..., he prepared his own coming in the flesh. Special revelation in the days of Old Testament is the history of the coming of Christ.[3] 
God's incarnational presence, says Bavinck, in one sense, "starts immediately after the fall." There we see the Lord God walking in the Garden in the cool of the day, coming to judge the sin of Adam and Eve. This is what Meredith Kline called "The Primal Parousia."[4] It is the Day of the Lord that looks forward to the final Day in history. In both "Days," it is the Son of God who comes to judge.

John Calvin recognizes the Old Testament presence of the Son in a multitude of texts. For example, in a discussion of Genesis 32, as Jacob wrestles with the angel, he says:
And the confession of the holy patriarch sufficiently declares that he was not a created angel, but one in whom full deity dwelt, when Jacob says, "I have seen God face to face" [v. 30]. Hence, also, that saying of Paul's that Christ was the leader of the people in the wilderness [1 Cor. 10:4]; because even though the time of humbling had not yet arrived, that eternal Word nevertheless set forth a figure of the office to which he had been destined.[5]
Charles Hodge, in his comments on 1 Cor. 10:4, puts it this way:
This passage distinctly asserts not only the preexistence of our Lord, but also that he was the Jehovah of the Old Testament. He who appeared to Moses and announced himself as Jehovah, the God of Abraham, who commissioned him to go to Pharaoh, who delivered the people out of Egypt, who appeared on Horeb, who led the people through the wilderness, who dwelt in the temple, who manifested himself to Isaiah, who was to appear personally in the fulness of time, is the person who was born of a virgin, and manifested himself in the flesh. He is called, therefore, in the Old Testament, an angel, the angel of Jehovah, Jehovah, the Supreme Lord, the Mighty God, the Son of God--one whom God sent--one with him, therefore, as to substance, but a distinct person.[6]
Geerhardus Vos is eloquent in his assessment of the Son in the Old Testament:
Sacramental condescensions on God's part include his appearing in human/visible form. ...Behind the Angel speaking as God, and who embodied in Himself all the condescension of God to meet the frailty and limitations of man, there existed at the same time another aspect of God, in which he could not be seen and materially received after such a fashion, the very God of whom the Angel spoke in the third person. In the incarnation of our Lord we have the supreme expression of this fundamental arrangement. The form in which the Angel appeared was a form assumed for the moment, laid aside again as soon as the purpose of its assumption had been served.[7]
But we needn't rest on our best theologians for this glorious truth. The New Testament is replete with signals that point to the condescended Son in the Old Testament. New Testament writers often take passages referring to Yahweh in the Old Testament and, without qualification or explanation, refer them to Christ (see, for example, Rom. 9:33, 14:11; 1 Peter 3:15). Jude tells us explicitly that it was Jesus who saved the children of Israel out of Egypt (v. 5). The apostle John tells us that the vision of majesty and holiness that Isaiah saw in the temple (Is. 6:1ff.) was the a vision of the glory of the Son of God.

Jesus himself, of course, in one of his many confrontations with the Pharisees, told them that he was the one of whom the entire Old Testament spoke; he was the "I Am," (John 8:58).

The deep and abiding reality of the coming of the Son, from the beginning of creation to its end, together with his climactic appearance as the God-man in the incarnation, has a host of implications for us.

For example, the popular notion that the God of the Old Testament was a mean, vindictive God completely neglects this focus on the Son. Richard Dawkins, with typical hubris, puts it this way:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.[8]
There are, of course, other, more sinister, reasons why Dawkins thinks of God in this way, but it would be interesting to see how Dawkins might respond if he recognized that the God of the Old Testament is the same God who is announced by the angels on that first Christmas. Our Christian apologetic won't make theological sense unless we help people see this redemptive continuity throughout history.

Or consider Antony Flew. His main objection to Christianity was the problem of evil. Flew complained:
Someone tells us that God loves us as a father loves his children.  We are reassured.  But then we see a child dying...  His Heavenly Father reveals no obvious sign of concern.  Some qualification is made...  Just what would have to happen us to say 'God does not love us' or even 'God does not exist'?  ...What would have to occur to constitute for you a disproof of the love of, or of the existence of, God?[9]
Flew famously became a theist, but continued to deny Christianity because of the problem of suffering and evil. How might Flew have responded if he had recognized that God, in the Person of his Son, suffered so that suffering would one day cease? What if Flew had recognized that "in all their affliction, he was afflicted" (Is. 63:9)? Wouldn't a focus on the Son and his condescension throughout redemptive history have provided the needed truth in his affirmation of a supreme being? Any supreme being that has not condescended to save cannot be the true and Triune God of Scripture.

With all of our debates and discussions about who God is, whether he exists, what his character might be, we could perhaps clarify and enhance those discussions and debates if we helped people to recognize that the one who came, climactically and humbly, by taking on our nature -- the one on whom we focus this time of year -- is the very same person who was actively, by his visible presence, redeeming a people for himself since the moment that sin entered into the world.

Like little children who see a pile of wrapped presents under the tree, anxiously awaiting the day when they can be opened, the Lord's people, in the Old Testament, saw the Son of God, wrapped, as it were, in temporary form, as they anxiously awaited that day when the temporary form would be set aside, so that they could see clearly this great Gift that had been given to the world.

This one who is incarnate, this "one solitary life," was not an unknown person who happened to have worldwide influence. It was the Son of God, condescending to redeem, from Genesis 3 to the end of time. The announcement of the angels was not a surprise to those who knew their Scriptures. It was the announcement that the one who had been appearing, working, fighting, comforting, rebuking and redeeming throughout redemptive history had finally come, permanently, in the flesh. Our discussions about God, our defense of the Christian faith, take their proper form when we see that the focus of Scripture is the revelation of the Triune God in the Son

All of Old Testament redemptive history looked forward to his climactic appearance; all of history since looks back on that appearance, and as with Christmas, we anxiously await that Day when he will come in all his glory and take us, eternally, to be with him. 

Christmas, when God acts to be permanently with us, is just the beginning of the end. The end, for us, will be the lasting and permanent Christmas:
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away." (Rev. 21:3-4)

K. Scott Oliphint is Professor of Apologetics and Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary. His latest book is Covenantal Apologetics (Crossway, 2013)


[1]  Adapted from a sermon, "One Solitary Life," by Dr. James Allan Francis © 1926.

[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism, New Edition (Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, U.K.: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2009), p.98.

[3] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics: Prolegomena, ed. John Bolt, trans. John Vriend, vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2003), p.344.
  Kline explains this event as "an advent of the Lord in his awesomely fearful judicial Glory. ...Genesis 3:8 turns out to be an account of a primal parousia, a record of the beginnings of what is known later in the Scriptures as the day of the Lord." Meredith G. Kline, "The Primal Parousia," Westminster Theological Journal 40, (1977-78), p.245.

[4] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, vol. 1, The Library of Christian Classics (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), p.133.

[5] Charles Hodge, An Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1857), p.175.

[6] Taken from Vos' discussion of the "Angel of the Lord" in Geerhardus Vos, Biblical Theology, Old and New Testaments (Grand Rapids, Mich.,: W. B. Eerdmans, 1948), pp.72ff.

[7] Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston, New York: Mariner Books, 2008), 5.
 [8] Antony Flew "Theology and Falsification," in New Essays in Philosophical Theology, ed. A. Flew and A. MacIntyre (New York: Macmillan, 1955), pp.98-99.