Surely I’m not the only one wondering whether there’s a message of Christ left in this Christmas time of rampant commercialism, so with your indulgence let’s take a moment to look back into the origins of Christmas.
Before beginning, let me define a few terms. The first term is “Jesus.” Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus, but why was he called “Jesus”? The name “Jesus” comes from the Hebrew name Joshua. It means savior or deliverer, and brings back the memory of Joshua who was able to deliver the Jewish people into the promised land–something Moses was forbidden to do.
In the Christmas story, the young child is given the name Jesus.
And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. (Matt 1:21)
How was He to save His people from their sins? Hold that thought.
The second term is Christ. Contrary to popular conception, Christ was not Jesus’ last name. In the time of Jesus, family ties were denoted by naming who someone’s father was. For this reason, the Bible discusses how Jesus is both the “Son of God” and the “Son of Man.” No, the term “Christ” is transliterated from the Greek word for the Hebrew Messiah–a type of king. Unlike “Jesus”, which is a name, Christ is a title. Moreover, “Christ” isn’t just the term for any King, it’s the term used to describe a very special King, prophesied by God, and placed upon the throne by the Almighty Himself. Unlike most Kings, the Christ rules with the authority of the Almighty (Matt 28:18). To oppose the Christ is to oppose the Almighty Himself.
That’s a special kind of King.
The term king carries other connotations as well, often forgotten through time. Unlike the United States, where the three pieces of power are separated into three branches of government: an executive, judicial branch, and legislative branch, a king holds the total authority of all three of these government functions in his person. A king is a lawgiver and a judge, as well as the commander in chief of his people. Further, unlike many modern national leaders, kings are not elected.
“Christ”-mas is therefore the celebration of the birth of this King.
The story of Christmas, however, began thousands of years earlier.
It started in the Beginning
The first indication of a coming Christmas was revealed in the Garden of Eden, way back at the very beginning of mankind. Once God created man, He placed man into this garden that God had planted (Gen 2:8), instructing him to tend and to keep it (Gen 2:15). God also commanded Adam that he was not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil that was in the middle of the garden (Gen 2:9), “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” (Gen 2:17) (This is a Hebrewism, woodenly translated “in dying thou shalt surely die”.)
God then had compassion upon man, noting that he was all alone in the world. (Gen 2:18) He created Eve to be his helper on this earth. (Gen 2:21) The serpent then tricked Eve through cunning into eating the forbidden fruit, and Eve gave Adam the same fruit to eat as well. (Gen 3:1-6) At this point, the judgment of God was certain upon them. Their death was sealed: they would spend the rest of their lives dying until they ultimately and most certainly died. The judgment was also so severe, that it passed on to all of Adam’s offspring as well–all who shared in his flesh. (Rom 5:12)
God then comes to chat with Adam, and gives him a chance to explain and possibly defend himself. (Gen 3:8-9) The discussion that follows is commonly viewed as God’s judgment of Adam, but I might argue that Adam had already been judged by the commandment that had been given to him. In this conversation, God offers several mollifying statements to try to keep the judgment from being quite as bad as it might have been. Among these statements, God curses the serpent for deceiving Eve in the first place.
And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. (Gen 3:14-15)
This is the often-overlooked first Gospel message of Christmas.
The first key to this message are the two words, “her seed.”
The biblical history talks often in the chapters and books that follow of the seed of men. This is a reference physically to the “sperm” of a man, that then produces offspring. But the seed of a woman? It’s never mentioned again. The entire concept of a woman having her own “seed” would violate everything we understand of human reproduction.
Rather, this was the first prophecy of Christ, requiring that Christ be born of a woman without the seed (sperm) of a man involved. Indeed, it requires a virgin birth to be fulfilled.
The serpent himself was later revealed to be Satan, also known as the Devil.
And he laid hold on the dragon, that old serpent, which is the Devil, and Satan, and bound him a thousand years (Rev 20:2)
The second key to this message is that the woman’s seed would crush the head of the serpent, while only allowing Satan the opportunity to strike a glancing blow on “his heel”. Satan’s doom was therefore first foretold here.
In case you missed it, this passage also explains the reason and cause for suffering in our world today. Man sinned against God, and violated God’s commandment. Ever since then, Man has struggled under the punishment of the Almighty God–a punishment wherein death grips a man early in his life and draws him perpetually to the grave. Indeed, from the day of our birth and before, the process of this death has already started.
The Coming King
While there are hints of the coming Christ elsewhere (for example, Gen 49:9), I’ll pick the story up again in the time of David. David notices at one point that he gets to dwell in a pleasant house, but God? God dwelt in a tent at the time known as the “Tabernacle”. (2 Sam 7:2) This didn’t seem right to David, so he inquired about building a house for God–something that would be more permanent than a tent.
God’s full response is worth reading (2 Sam 7:4-17), in which he discusses the absurdity of David creating a house for the Almighty, but let me focus on just a couple of verses of the message that the prophet Nathan relays to David.
And when thy [David’s] days be fulfilled, and thou shalt sleep with thy fathers, I will set up thy seed after thee, which shall proceed out of thy bowels, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build an house for my name, and I will stablish the throne of his kingdom for ever. I will be his father, and he shall be my son. If he commit iniquity, I will chasten him with the rod of men, and with the stripes of the children of men: But my mercy shall not depart away from him, as I took it from Saul, whom I put away before thee. And thine house and thy kingdom shall be established for ever before thee: thy throne shall be established for ever. (2 Sam 7:12-16)
Herein is a promise from God that David’s seed, i.e. one of his sperm or more appropriately understood in context as one his offspring, shall be established on the throne “for ever.”
Think about this for a moment.
Something would need to be done about the curse that fell upon Adam, for since Adam all men die (1 Cor 15:22). This King on the other hand was to remain on the throne “for ever.”
God also states, rather strangely, that “I will be his father, and he shall be my son.” This passage is often overlooked, for how should God be the father of a man?
The Lost Throne
In the years that followed, this promise appeared to be one that was lost. Solomon took the throne, and God was not nearly as pleased with him as he was with David. Solomon’s son then took the throne and the kingdom split. (1 Kings 12:19) Ten tribes went to the Northern Kingdom, sometimes called Israel and sometimes Ephraim, and two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, formed the Southern Kingdom, often simply called Judah.
The Northern Kingdom suffered through the leadership of several different dynasties as one king after another arose to punish the wickedness of the king before. This particular kingdom was unique for the consistency of their leadership. No righteous kings arose from all of these dynasties.
Judah was also unique during this time, however, in that only David’s offspring ruled Judah in Jerusalem. Indeed, it almost seemed as though the prophecy given to David might hold through one of the offspring’s of these kings. Yet during the reign of these kings, Isaiah wrote,
And in that day there shall be a root of Jesse, which shall stand for an ensign of the people; to it shall the Gentiles seek: and his rest shall be glorious. (Isaiah 11:10)
Only a couple hundred years after this prophecy, Babylon conquered Judah. The Davidic dynasty lost the throne, as one empire or another ruled over Israel. Worse, God told Jeremiah that the Davidic king of the time, through whose line the throne ran, would have “none to sit upon the throne of David” because he did not listen to God. (Jeremiah 36:30-31) First was Babylon, then the Medes and Persians, the Greeks, and then the Romans (Daniel 2:38-40). Today, it is the United Nations ruling as an empire over what’s left of the nation of Israel (2:41-43).
Looking back at Isaiah’s prophecy, you’ll note that “root” could just as well be translated as “stump”, and perhaps even more appropriately so. It describes a tree that has been cut down, but whose stump remains in the ground. (Job 14:7) In historical hindsight, we can see that it refers to the fact that Jesse, king David’s father, no longer had any offspring on the throne. David’s dynasty appeared to be completely and utterly extinguished.
The Seventy Weeks
As history played out God’s judgment, we learn that David’s dynasty ended when Jerusalem fell to Babylon. Among the Jews that were enslaved by Nebuchadnezzar was a young man named Daniel. (Daniel 1:1-6) Daniel was brought captive to Babylon where God chose to make him a prophet. Indeed, Daniel was the one prophet in Babylon who was able to explain to the king why he saw a disembodied hand writing on the wall, (Daniel 5:5) and the meaning of the message that was written. (Daniel 5:23) That night, Babylon’s empire then fell to the Medes and the Persians. (Daniel 5:31)
Sometime later, this same Daniel was given the following word from the Lord by an angel,
Seventy weeks are determined upon thy people and upon thy holy city, to finish the transgression, and to make an end of sins, and to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness, and to seal up the vision and prophecy, and to anoint the most Holy. Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks: the street shall be built again, and the wall, even in troublous times. And after threescore and two weeks shall Messiah be cut off, but not for himself: and the people of the prince that shall come shall destroy the city and the sanctuary; and the end thereof shall be with a flood, and unto the end of the war desolations are determined. And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate. (Daniel 9:24-27)
The best interpretation of this prophecy that I have come across is that each “week” (Aramaic word for seven) refers to a seven year period. “Seventy weeks” therefore refers to 490 years. While I have not tracked it myself, others have tracked the 69 of these “weeks” to be a measure of time from the date Cyrus, king of Persia, sent the Jews to rebuild the city–“the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem”–until the time Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a donkey–“until Messiah the Prince”. During this time, the city and the wall were rebuilt. But upon coming, Jesus, herein known as “Messiah the Prince”, was then “cut off” by the cross.
At this point, the prophecy switches to discussing a “prince that shall come”, indicating an indefinite time into the future. Indeed, the last week, the 70th week, has not yet taken place.
But let’s look closer at beginning of the prophecy, and the declaration of what it describes. The seventy weeks were determined to, make an “end of sins, to finish the transgression [of Adam], to make reconciliation for iniquity, and to bring in everlasting righteousness …” In other words, the Salvation that God hinted to Adam was on its way. Not only that, the time of Christ’s coming had been determined.
I find it fascinating that the Magii who visited Jesus came “from the East”. Might it be that these Magii were what remained of an order that Daniel started following this prophecy, and so they were already looking for and expecting the Christ?
Prophecy then fell silent for what appeared to be nearly four hundred years.
We pick the story up again in the historical records of both Matthew and Luke. These two accounts contain the most detail about the birth of the Christ. In particular, each of these two gospels contains a genealogy.
The genealogy in Luke (Luke 3:23-28) traces the Davidic line from Adam, through David and then down through his son Nathan. Nathan’s line didn’t follow the line of the dynasty at all, and other than David, doesn’t contain any kings within it. Further, unlike the genealogy in Matthew, this genealogy traces Jesus’ heritage through Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The genealogy found in the book of Matthew (Matt 1:2-16) traces the line of Joseph, Jesus’ adoptive father, from Abraham, through king David and the dynasty that followed, through the kings that were overthrown by Babylon, the leaders that rebuilt Jerusalem, all the way to a poor carpenter named Joseph. By birth, Joseph held what was left of the right to David’s dynasty. By legal adoption, that right was then given to Jesus.
Jesus birth itself fulfilled the prophecy from Genesis, itself reiterated in Isaiah,
Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. (Matt 1:23)
Mary, as the virgin in this verse, then gave birth to Jesus. This fulfilled the prophecy from Genesis (Gen 3:14-15), regarding the seed of the woman, and also the prophecy Nathan related to David saying that Jesus’ father would be the Almighty Himself. (2 Samuel 7:14)
Indeed, we know that Jesus was not only the son of God, he was also the only son begotten by God. (John 3:16) “Begotten” being an old English word for “fathered”. The fact that Jesus was the only “begotten” of the Father just points out that God only “fathered” one son, and that one was Jesus.
Birth announcements are nothing new, and God wanted to make certain the birth of His son was properly announced. Therefore, on the night that Jesus was born, the story transitions to shepherds.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (Luke 2:8-14)
To my knowledge, this is the first time the word “Gospel” is used to describe a message. Yes, it’s used earlier in the historical records to describe the records themselves, but this is the first time within the record. Did you catch it? The angel said, “I bring you good tidings” … that’s the word!
The Greek word for gospel is a compound word from the prefix “eu”, sometimes transliterated as “ev”, and “angelion”, from which we get the word angel. It is commonly translated as “Good News” today, although I believe this modern translation misses the true meaning of this word.
Let’s look at the “eu” prefix first. The Greeks had two prefixes they used for “good”. One was “kali”, from which we get “calligraphy” or “pretty writing”. It means good as in pretty, nice, or pleasant. The other prefix, “eu”, held the concept of good as in good in a godly, righteous, kind of way.
This wasn’t just “Good News” because it was pleasant, it was “Good News” because it was right, just, and came from God. This is “Godly News”.
“News” itself has also become a poor translation for “message”. It has worked for many years, but “news” today now refers to an entertainment industry willing to sacrifice truth in its competition for viewers and dollars. This is not the “news” of the Gospel. Rather, the “news” of the Gospel was a specific message, given by God. In this instance, God gave his message to angels who where then commanded to deliver it to the shepherds. The shepherds then shared this the message and their experiences in their excitement, and so the message is now available for us to read today. (Luke 2:17)
This is the idea behind the word Gospel: God sent us a message from heaven.
The Gospel and Jesus
At this point, we’ve traced the history of Christmas to the time of Christmas itself, but its hard to stop there. There’s just so much more to the story. Indeed, the Gospel message presented by the angels was far from the end of the message God wanted to give. Specifically, God gave a message to Jesus that He was to teach.
God, who at sundry times and in divers manners spake in time past unto the fathers by the prophets, Hath in these last days spoken unto us by his Son, whom he hath appointed heir of all things, by whom also he made the worlds; (Hebrews 1:1-2)
Once Jesus came of age, He began to travel and teach. The Bible records several locations where He taught. It also records one such sermon in Matthew 5-7. This has become known as the “Sermon on the Mount”–since it was taught on a mountain. It’s fascinating to note that a very similar sermon was taught in Luke 6 from within a valley, something I often call the “Sermon in the Valley.”
At one time, I wondered that Jesus taught two messages that were so similar. A friend of mine then chose to become a missionary, and described how his job entailed going from church to church in order to raise support. Since he typically didn’t return to the same church twice, he taught the same message from place to place. This then explains what Jesus was doing as well: going from one community to another teaching this same message.
Mark uses the term Gospel to describe this message,
Now after that John was put in prison, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the gospel of the kingdom of God, And saying, The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand: repent ye, and believe the gospel. Mark 1:14-15
Mark doesn’t specify what this Gospel is. It follows from the context that the Gospel is the message Jesus is teaching. Mark summarizes it here, but Matthew gives us a more complete glimpse of it.
Nor is this the entirety of “the Gospel”. Rather it is the message Jesus brought from His father to share with the world, which calls all men to repent and to turn from their sins.
The Gospel that Jesus presented was thousands of years in coming. As we’ve seen above, Christmas was first prophesied to Adam and Eve, where God promised that the offspring of a virgin would crush the head of the serpent. His coming was prophesied again to David, when God promised that David’s seed would rule after him, and that of this king’s rule there would be no end. Moreover, God promised that He would personally be the Father of this coming king.
This brings us to the last point, in order to be an everlasting king, Jesus needed to conquer death. This follows naturally. To conquer death, Jesus needed to die and then to rise again. History records that He did indeed do this (Matt 28:1, Mark 16:1, Luke 24:1, John 20:1).
There’s more to the story, and more than I will be able to get into here. Indeed, it’s not even complete as of today. That last week, the 70th week prophesied by Daniel, has not yet to taken place. (Daniel 9:27) Until that time happens, there will be no end to sin, and the transgression will not be complete. Sin, still today, remains the reason for the suffering in the world. We also know that the King will return to make an end to it.
Only one question remains. When the King returns, how will he find you? Did you listen to His message when He was here? Have you prepared yourself for His return? (Matt 7:22-23)
This, then, is the background of the Christmas story. In it is the whole of human suffering, going back all the way to the dawn of creation. It’s the story of the birth of the King who is healing individuals today, and who will someday return to judge the living and the dead.
I wish you therefore a Merry Christmas, and ask that you join me in praying that His return would come soon.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:11)