Manger… Cross… Crown

God, the Son, had to become human in order to be a fit Substitute for sinners and take the curse of their sins.  That is why He was born.  The manger is meaningful only because it is meant to lead to the Cross. 

God, the Son, had to become human in order to be a fit Substitute for sinners and take the curse of their sins.  That is why He was born.  The manger is meaningful only because it is meant to lead to the Cross.

Give love on Christmas Day… No greater gift is there than love.  This favorite song usually during this season is made popular by the catching voice of the Jackson Five.  But did you know that not a single line of that song refers to the birth of Christ?  It has a reference to Santa Claus (Every little child on Santa’s knee, has room for your love underneath his tree!), but not to what this season is supposed to be celebrating.  Its give-away message is probably couched in that line: It’s that once of year when the world’s sincere.  It is ironic that it should choose the very character that can never be seasonal – sincerity!

No icon of the Christian story is more fashionable in this season than that of the manger.  The baby Jesus in the manger – so “Christmas is for children.”  Add the wise men (not three kings!) bearing gifts – so it is time for gift-giving.  Lost in all of these is the very reason for the manger.  Lost is the centrality of the Cross.  I suggest that there are two paradigms that relate the manger and the cross – the first is the popular one, and it is wrong; the second is the biblical belief.

The Manger OR the Cross

The way Christmas is celebrated, even when rationalized as remembering the birth of Christ, it misses the significance of that birth.  It is not because the baby in the manger had a halo to distinguish it from other babies.  He had none.  Like other babies, it would be crying and make a mess.  The wonder of the manger is that this is what God became.  The Bible gives that astounding statement: “The Word became flesh” (John 1:14).  It is the Word earlier identified as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”  New Testament scholar D.A. Carson insightfully calls the Word as both “God’s own Self” and “God’s own Fellow.”  In theology, it is called the Incarnation.  Augustine has this well-known summary: “Remaining what He was, He became what He was not.”

There must be necessity for such a condescension to happen.  The very wonder of that birth is its message of lowliness.  We can only appreciate that lowliness if we accept the biblical teaching of the pre-existent identity of the One born.  He is the eternal God who chose to be human.  The Creator became a creature.  He who made all things chose to be One of whom it was asked: Is this not the carpenter? (Mark 6:3).

For many, the manger has an independent meaning to itself.  When linked with the cross, it is a no-brainer to decide which one is preferred by the world.  Here lies the problem.  Even if we take the manger on its own merit, it challenges us with the humbleness of its character.  This is not like the birth of the crown-heir of the British throne – announced to the world with all the regalia of royal festivity.  It is the birth of the One who “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6-7).  Think of this when you think again of the manger.  The insight of faith should discover to you the dissonance of the ostentation and materialism characterizing this season with the humiliation (to use the old theological term) of the Son of God.

But the manger cannot be taken as having independent significance.  It has its reason.

The Manger TO the Cross

The New Testament is unambiguously lucid in its teaching on the humanity of Jesus.  Anselm’s medieval query, Cur Deus Homo (literally, “Why a God Human”) has a clear answer. 

As to what His humanity consists, the writer of Hebrews is straightforward: “Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Hebrews 2:17).  He was human in every way – in all but sin.  The reason given is to make propitiation for the sins of the people.  The word propitiation is one of the effects of sacrifice – in a ceremonial way, it pacified the just wrath of God.  Except that in Jesus, it was not ceremonial.  It was actual, and permanent as once-for-all.  In the simplest form, He needed to be completely human in order that He might suffer the death of sacrifice for the sins of the world.  He was born in the manger, lived a perfect life, and to fulfill the mission of the Cross.  The Manger is not a self-meaningful event.  Its meaning is in preparing the Son of God for the Cross.

Thus Paul asserts: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” (Galatians 4:4-5).  Earlier, in the same context, Paul explains what this redemption involved: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the Law by becoming a curse for us” (3:13).  God, the Son, had to become human in order to be a fit Substitute for sinners and take the curse of their sins.  That is why He was born.  The manger is meaningful only because it is meant to lead to the Cross. 

Thus, the New Testament Church is given an institution of sacraments that will remember the death and resurrection of Christ.  While one may recognize the liberty of those who wish to celebrate the manger, it is not biblically mandated.  Celebrating the death of Christ is mandated through baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

The Empty Tomb TO the Crown

The death of Christ led to His burial.  As He promised, on the third Day He rose from the dead, and left for His disciples nothing but an empty tomb for them to witness.  Through His resurrection, and later Ascension, He gave fulfillment to the long-awaited promise of the Son of David who will fill the throne and reign in a kingdom that will have no end.  This has already began.  As Peter declares in the first post-resurrection sermon on Pentecost, Jesus has fulfilled the Davidic covenant promise of being seated on His throne (Acts 2:30ff).

This is the real celebration of believers.  It happens not seasonally every last month of the year.  It is being done every Lord’s Day when the Church assembles for worship.  It is remembered in an especial way when a believer is baptized, and when the community shares the emblems of bread and fruit of the vine – to commune with the body and blood of the Lord Jesus Christ. 

But yes, let us also celebrate the manger befitting its lowliness.  Let us be amazed at the incarnation of the Son of God.  But let us always bear in mind that it all led to the real turning-point event of redemptive history, and even of world history – the Cross of our now-crowned Lord Jesus Christ!  Glory to Him!

Nunc Dimittis: A Year-End Reflection

That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom. No one will reach the whole of humanity. But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ. This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ. Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection. Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him. That is when we are doing our mission. That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.

Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may dismiss your servant in peace!  (Luke 2:29).  These were the first words uttered by Simeon upon seeing the child Jesus.  Recognizing the child as the Messiah that Simeon was promised to see before he was to die, Simeon breaks forth into a hymn.  It is the third of three hymns that Luke uses in his Nativity narrative.  We have seen Mary’s Magnificat (Luke 1:46ff) and Zechariah’s Benedictus (Luke 1:68ff).  The shortest and the least-known of the hymns is this one by Simeon, known in the first words of Jerome’s Latin Vulgate as Nunc Dimittis (‘Now, dismiss me’).  There are good thoughts here for a year-end reflection.

This is the only place where the character of Simeon is mentioned.  He is introduced as righteous and devout.  He received a revelation that he will see the Messiah (every pious Jew’s hope), before his life ends.  He must have waited for the day with eagerness.  Until one day in the Temple, amidst the daily ceremonies of dedication and circumcision of children, his eyes see Joseph and Mary and the child they have brought for dedication.  Instantly, Simeon recognizes Him to be the long-promised Messiah.  He carries the child in his arms and sings his hymn.  This is the first in the inspired record of a verbal reaction to the Messiah in-person.  Simeon’s song intones with a sense of mission accomplished.  And he has a sense of peace as he addresses the Lord: you may now dismiss your servant in peace!

For a year-end reflection, the passage is rich with meaning and implication.  We too have a mission to accomplish because of the coming of the Son of God.

A Mission Covering All Sinners

Simeon’s song brings together two groups of peoples that rarely combine with positive note – Israel and Gentiles.  And even more rarely, Simeon mentions the Gentiles first: revelation to the Gentiles… and for the glory of your people, Israel.  In Simeon’s mind, what makes this child in his arms unique is that the plan of God from eternity has come on earth, and it now covers the whole of humanity.

The coming of Christ makes the mission global.  It is now for the whole world.  Christian mission is for all humanity.

It has always been so in the plan of God.  Even in the calling of Abraham, God made clear to Abraham, In you, all the families of the earth will be blessed (Geb 12:3).  But over generations, the Israelites petrified this living hope into an exclusivism that translated into contempt for other nations – the Gentiles.  Now the birth of Jesus would refresh the original plan of God.  It is His intention to reach the whole of humanity through the Saviour, the Lord Jesus.  Simeon calls this baby Salvation.  That early, he establishes the basic truth that salvation is not an institution, not a set of works to accomplish.  Salvation is in the Person of the Messiah – Jesus, the Son of God.

But this salvation is now offered to all humanity.  Unfortunately, there are still groups of believers today who think that Israel (the Middle East nation) holds a special place in the plan of God that is above all other nations.  We must reject that, and refresh the original intention that Israel was the means by which God will reach out to the nations of the world.

That challenges believers to look at their mission as part of God’s worldwide plan for His kingdom.  No one will reach the whole of humanity.  But each individual servant of Christ – by serving the kingdom in his piece of humanity (even a mother to her child) – will contribute to the worldwide coverage of the mission of Christ.  This demands of believers a kingdom outlook – that which sees life in the light of the rule of Christ.  Christ rules by virtue of His death and resurrection.  Every believer must sense his mission to extend that rule whatever place of the world is allotted to him.  That is when we are doing our mission.  That is when we can have a sense of mission accomplished, and be able to say when done, Nunc Dimittis, dismiss your servant in peace.

Will our dismissal from the year 2021 be one of peace, God’s shalom, because we have done our mission for this year?

A Message Demanding a Response

In his address to Mary, Simeon prophesies: This child is appointed for the fall and rising of many.  Some commentators see fall and rising as covering the same identity – people who will come to Jesus, and will first experience the fall in conviction before the rise of conversion.  That is possible.  But it is better to see this song as extending the contrast sustained in the first two other hymns of Mary’s Magnificat and Zechariah’s Benedictus. 

What it does tell us is that Jesus remains a message that divides humanity based on response to Him.  We stand against division of humanity based on racial identity or social status.  But Jesus Himself asserts that there is an inevitable division based on response to Him and the gospel message.  Peter divides humanity as honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe; etc. (1 Peter 2:7).  Simeon describes the Child as One for a sign to be opposed.  This is a word that Luke uses in Acts for contradicting the message (cf. Acts 13:45).  Jesus remains the fall (of those who will oppose the message) and the rising (those who will believe in Him as Lord and Savior) of many.  On which side are you as you conclude this year?

A Master Deciding the Discharge

This brings us back to Simeon’s Nunc Dimittis.  It means ‘dismiss now.’  The original Greek has the sense of leaving the presence of another.  The immediate application is dying and being discharged from our life on earth. 

For someone like Simeon, the thought of dismissal from life is one that gives peace.  That is because of his sense of mission accomplished.  He acknowledges that the sovereign decision belongs to the Lord.  He uses a different term for Lord than the usual.  His word can be literally translated despot.  To call someone’s rule as despotic is extremely negative in current usage.  But that is not the sense in Simeon’s calling of his Lord.  It simply acknowledges that it is the Lord to sovereignly decide.

That dismissal may be from this life.  Like a soldier, it is possible to be discharged honorably or dishonorably.  We could think of some who had been dismissed rather dishonorably from this life in 2021.  One cannot think of the name Ravi Zacarias, without squirming at the mess his death had left behind.  But others had given their mission a luster of honor when their dismissal came.

But let us not think yet of the dismissal of death from this life.  Just think of the year that we are now to be dismissed from.  Would it be honorable or dishonorable?

The Lord Jesus has come at birth; and by His death and resurrection, He is now ruling.  His servants have mission to accomplish in their service.  At the end of this year, can we say with Simeon, confident in shalom, Nunc Dimittis?

The Benedictus

It is usual for us to think of salvation as a conscious experience.  We talk of being saved, or of possessing salvation.  There is nothing wrong with this language of experience.  But we must remember that the experience is only made possible by the arrival, or the event, realized in Christ.  We are thinking of experience.  Biblical thinking is more of a timeline.  In that timeline that stretched back to eternity, the turning point is the fulfillment of God’s plan – and it happened in the coming of the Son of God.  With that event, the experience is now made possible for all who are in union with Christ.

Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for He has visited and redeemed His people!  (Luke 1:46, 47).  These were the first words of Zechariah – introducing his song that is known as the Benedictus.  It comes from the first word of Latin as translated in Jerome’s Vulgate: Benedictus, which means Blessed!

This is the first word of Zechariah after enduring nine months of being mute as chastisement imposed by the angel.  This was because of Zechariah’ unbelief.  It is interesting to compare Mary’s response to the announcement of her conception, though a virgin: How will this be since I am a virgin? (Luke 1:34).  Zechariah’s may be slightly different, but it spelled his unbelief: How shall I know this?  For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years. (1:18).  Mary asked out of obliviousness, without questioning that it can happen.  Zechariah’s question was marked by unbelief.  Thus the chastisement of silence, until things shall come to pass.

When finally, Zechariah’s child was named John, as directed by the angel, his voice returned.  And his first word is one of praise and benediction – his Benedictus.  The Benedictus has two parts; the first recognizes both the great act of God in redeeming His people; and the second anticipates the role of John (the Baptist) in this redemptive act of the birth of the Messiah.

It has a continuing relevance today.  We are on this side of the fulfilled mission of the Messiah who was born at the time of Zechariah.  Also, the Church perpetuates what John the Baptist was chosen as the first witness of the Messianic coming.

The Coming of Salvation in the Son

Zechariah uses a word of divine action that, while common in the Old Testament, occurs here only in the New Testament (except for an OT quotation in Hebrews).  That word is visited.  It describes salvation as an event that has arrived in the birth of the Son of God in Incarnate mode.  It is, therefore, correct to think of salvation as an event that has come in Christ.

It is usual for us to think of salvation as a conscious experience.  We talk of being saved, or of possessing salvation.  There is nothing wrong with this language of experience.  But we must remember that the experience is only made possible by the arrival, or the event, realized in Christ.  We are thinking of experience.  Biblical thinking is more of a timeline.  In that timeline that stretched back to eternity, the turning point is the fulfillment of God’s plan – and it happened in the coming of the Son of God.  With that event, the experience is now made possible for all who are in union with Christ.

This raises an important theological question – and for many, a problem issue.  Were not the OT saints saved?  Were not believers who died before Jesus was ever born, and fulfil the saving mission of death and resurrection, also saved as much as we are who are on this side of Jesus’ saving fulfilment?  The answer is, Yes, they were saved – and saved by grace through faith.  But it is shallow to say that their salvation is no different from those who have received salvation by union with Christ in Whom salvation has come.  Those who think there is no difference may intend to safeguard the consistency of salvation, but they end up denigrating the accomplishment of the Cross.

The salvation of the OT saints – and everyone prior to the coming of salvation in Christ – was certain, but promissory.  It existed as promise.  But because it was divine promise, there was certainty to it.  But they did not have the fullness of it in personal possession.  It may be compared to a post-dated check.  Even though there may be enough fund in the bank, the holder of the check cannot encash it until the date indicated on the check.

So OT saints had assurance of all the promises of salvation.  But only when Jesus Christ accomplished salvation in death and resurrection did those blessing retroactively come into possession of believers before Christ.  This is the significance of Hebrews 7:22 in calling Christ the guarantor of a better covenant.  In the older translation, it is surety: a collateral or co-maker in today’s commercial language.  He owned and paid the debt when it matured.

That makes those of us who are on this side of the coming of Christ as much more blessed.  We now have salvation blessings in possession.  We still have the promise part as their consummation is yet to happen at the Second Coming.  But this should put a Benedictus in our own hearts and lips in praise to our God for the unmatched blessing that is ours.  All because the Son of God has come to visit – to stay and act in salvation of His people.  Marvel at the truth that you are on this side of salvation fulfilled!

The Witness to Salvation of the Church

The benediction of Zechariah to his son, John, should not be overstretched to include everything as applicable now.  There were unique features of John the Baptist.  He was the fulfillment of the voice who will prepare the way of the Lord (Isa 40:3), the Elijah who will come (Mal 4:5; Mat 11;14).  He also was a prophet, an office that is foundational to the Church.  But the function of John the Baptist as Witness to the coming of salvation in Jesus perpetuates in the Church.  Luke indicated this by being the author of the sequel to his Gospel, which is the Book of Acts.  There we see the function of the Church – bearing witness to Christ.  The Church is no longer preparing for the First Coming of the Messiah; but is now fulfilling the Great Commission to prepare for the Second Coming – the end of the world.

The Church is the witnessing agent to the salvation fulfilled in Christ, and now offered to sinners.  But do you wonder why it is a voice?  Why not a drama, or a comedy?  Because the essence of the Church’s commission is a message.  The world needs to hear this message of salvation.  In world where there is a Babel of voices, a cacophony of noises, the Church’s voice may sound faint.  But just like Elijah on Mount Horeb, the still, small voice is what we need to overcome the challenging noises of the world.

Towards the end of the Benedictus, the metaphor changes from voice to light: of sunrise shining.  This is because the voice is to give knowledge of salvation.  That alone is the light that shines in the darkness of a sinful world.  Of the many OT allusions, Mal 4:2 calls our attention: For you who fear My name, the sun of righteousness shall rise with healing in its wings.

This is the effect of witness to salvation.  In the language of Paul, the God who said ‘Let there be light’ shone in our hearts… (2Cor 4:6).  This is the significance of John the Baptist in the story.  This reminds us also that the Child in the manger will not have meaning of itself, unless understood in the light of the salvation He came to fulfill.  We only understand it aright when we see it as a movement from the manger to the Cross.

It is not wrong to rejoice in the event of Nativity – that God incarnate was found to be a Baby born.  But there is so much more meaning when we have a Benedictus to define our joy because of what later will become the witness of John the Baptist: Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! (John 1:29).