He was, I imagine, as soft and pretty as any newborn. His mother loved Him. She sat on an upturned bucket, or a pile of hay, or perhaps directly on the hard ground (the nursery was a barn, after all) and jiggled Him gently, kissed His soft, downy pate, held Him to her breast when He cried. Whether there was actually a nimbus of light surrounding His head (as many artists would have it) we can’t say; no one on the scene had camera or canvas. But as for warm parental feelings, I can aver without fear of contradiction that love was present in abundance.
It seems unkind to mar such a lovely scene of warm domesticity by superimposing on it the cruel facts of history. Let’s at least be glad Mary didn’t know then what we know now: that her Son would be executed not long after His 33rd birthday.
What She Didn’t Know
For all the trouble people go to in order to figure out what may happen next week or next year (consulting futurists and analysts, not to mention psychics and fortune-tellers), I’ve always felt it a blessing that we really can’t know the future. Why suffer tomorrow’s sorrows today? I’m glad that Mary, as she held her newborn to herself, couldn’t see to His life’s end.
Mary did know that there was more to her infant Son than met the eye. It isn’t every baby whose conception is announced by an angel! She’d been told that bearing this particular Baby out of wedlock was a privilege (though there may have been moments during her astonishing pregnancy when she thought it a dubious one). An angel had also told her husband, Joseph, that her Child’s name would be Jesus (a contemporary form of the name Joshua) for “he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Any godly parent receiving that kind of news about his or her child would understandably be pleased. My child will live to save others? What greater honor can a parent have?
That is, unless you knew what was required to save people from their sins.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, God demonstrated his abhorrence of sin with a graphic and disturbing metaphor: Anyone who wanted sins forgiven had to bring a lamb to the priests, and watch it slaughtered on the sanctuary’s altar. Scripture goes so far as to say, “The law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” (Hebrews 9:22). It seems that God hates sin that much—so much that the death of someone, somewhere, sometime is required. Either I will die for my own sins, or someone else will have to take the punishment for me.
At the same time, God wanted us to know how much He loves people. Jesus gave us a clue as to how far God would go to prove His love when He said, “ ‘Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends’ ” (John 15:13). If martyrdom is the most convincing way to get our attention, then that is what God will do, for that’s how much He cares for us. Even death is not too great a sacrifice.
God needed to find a way to show the universe His repugnance of sin and His love for humanity.
Why He was Born
As she cuddled the Baby Jesus in that drafty, smelly stable, Mary harbored high hopes for her Baby’s future.
So did others. Even in childhood He showed unusual maturity. Luke records that as He grew, “he was filled with wisdom, and the grace of God was upon him”—so much so that when the 12-year-old Jesus was accidentally left behind at the temple after Passover, He was later found discussing theology with the temple teachers and “everyone who heard him was amazed at his understanding and his answers” (Luke 2:40–47).
He became a natural leader; all He needed to say was, “ ‘Follow me,’ ” and many would (Matthew 9:9). He was an eloquent teacher and easily gathered a crowd. He also showed the ability to heal Either I will die for my own sins, or someone else will have to take the punishment for me. people of blindness, deafness, illness, and even to bring corpses to life. Thus, it isn’t surprising that some people became convinced that they were looking at the Man who would expel the occupying Romans and place a Jew on the throne of a restored monarchy. After all, hadn’t the angel told His mother, “ ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end’ ” (Luke 1:32, 33)? Jesus, some reasoned, was born with a political mandate.
Jesus Himself knew better. He knew that God wasn’t calling Him to occupy King David’s earthly throne. In a parable, He tried to tell His friends that the grand political finale they were imagining wouldn’t happen: “ ‘For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth’ ” (Matthew 12:40). Those who wanted a king were unwilling to hear it—even when He told them plainly. On one occasion Jesus explained to His disciples “that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, chief priests and teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life” (Matthew 16:21).
Hardly a fitting end to such an amazing Man, is it? You can understand why the disciples’ hopes were so shattered, their expectations so tragically disappointed; why they fought the inevitable outcome right to the very end. If Jesus didn’t come to rescue us from the Romans, they wondered, why then did He come? What greater thing could He do than that?
They were about to find out.
Picture Him before Pilate, accused by enemies of a capital crime. Jesus tells Pilate, “ ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ ”
“ ‘You are a king, then!’ ” said Pilate.
Jesus answered, “ ‘You are right in saying I am a king. In fact, for this reason I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth’ ” (John 18:36, 37, emphasis added).
Throughout His ministry Jesus spoke often of His life’s purpose. He said that He’d come to fulfill the Old Testament prophecies (Matthew 5:17), to open the way for happier, more fulfilling lives (John 10:10), and to save the lost (Matthew 18:11, KJV). Only here, though, did He tell us with crystal clarity why He was born. Here, as He stood before the governor of Judea to receive a death sentence, He said, “It was for this time—for this very series of events— that God sent me here” (paraphrase of John 18:37).
This is why You came? we want to ask Him. To live a blameless life, then die an undeserved martyr’s death?
So it seems. Nowhere in history will you find a more profound irony. Indeed, it appears that the Lord of the universe was born to a peasant family in a stable in Bethlehem for one purpose: to die and by His death to testify to the truth of God’s love for you and me. Jesus’ death said more eloquently than words ever could that “God will pay the highest price to prove to you, beyond question, that He values you above all else and wants you to live forever. Jesus was born so that His death and apparent defeat would mark the end of sin and guarantee your salvation.”
The Answer to Shame
I sometimes meet people who have little self-esteem—who live under a cloud of guilt or shame, who feel worthless and useless. If only they could understand—not just as an intellectual proposition—the value God has placed on them! Your salvation was bought with the price of the life of a Member of God’s immediate family! Please understand this, for it is the pivotal truth of Christianity: you are God’s most valuable treasure. Just as you are, sins and deficiencies and all, God paid the highest price He could pay that you might have the hope of eternal life.
What of the monarchy the angel prophesied for Jesus? It never developed quite the way His followers had planned. Something much better happened, instead. Because “he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:8–11).
This Christmas, as you look down at a tabletop crèche of the holy family in a stable, imagine cast over the scene the shadow of a cross. A grim defacement of a beautiful scene? No, a marvelous, hopeful one. For the light that casts the shadow streams from the gates of heaven, where Jesus lives and reigns and where someday we’ll live and reign with Him! (See John 14:1–3.)