Author: John Bonner, 1915-2004
When I was a child I heard many Christmas stories and watched varied kinds of Christmas programs. Every year our church presented a pageant and the offering taken at that service was used for local benevolences.
I recall there was always a manger at the front of the church and Mary sat behind it with a large white shawl draped around her shoulders. Joseph stood at the end of the manger and wore a beard that was often hard to keep in place. As the choir sang “While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” three men clad in gunny sacks marched up the aisle and knelt near the manger. Then the choir sang “We Three Kings of Orient Are” and three men in bathrobes marched up the aisle and presented their gifts to the Christ Child and knelt at the manger. Usually verses of prophecy from Isaiah were read and several carols sung.
As I grew older I kept having the thought that all these things we were doing are a beautiful part of the Christmas story, but there must be something else that brings it all together in one complete picture. It seemed as if these segments were like the pieces of a jig-saw puzzle that fitted into the center and joined all the other pieces together to complete the picture.
When I became a teenager and was in what was called the Intermediate Department of the Sunday School then, I found our Christmas lesson was different from any I had ever read before. The scripture was not from Isaiah or Matthew or Luke, but from the Gospel of John.
I read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by Him; and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life; and the life was the light of men.” (John 1:1-3) Verse 14 says, “And the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, (and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” Verse 11 says, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” Verse 12 continues, “But as many as received Him, to them gave He power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on His name.”
I learned “The Word” meant Jesus Christ and I put His name everywhere “The Word” occurred in the scripture. I realized I had found what I had been looking for to bring the whole Christmas story together. Jesus Christ had been with God from the “beginning,” the creation of the world. He was with God and He was God and all things were made by Him. Jesus Christ became human flesh and dwelt among men. His own did not receive Him, but many did. To those who did receive Him, He gave power to become the “Sons of God.” This is the key to the whole story!
I decided the story really begins with Genesis 1:1, “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.” When God had finished His many works of creation, He looked upon what He had done and saw that it was good. He then said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. So God created man in His own image, in the image of God created He him. Male and female created He them.” Man was the crown of His creation. He was to have dominion over all the wonderful things God had brought into being. Man, created in the image of God, alone, of all God’s creatures, was given the power of choice. Man could do good or evil. He could obey God or disobey. He could love or hate. He could be generous or selfish. And man alone was given the gift of eternal life.
After six days of creation, God looked upon His work and saw that it was good. It was perfect. But soon God’s perfect work was marred because of man’s power of choice. Man chose to rebel against God and to disobey Him. Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden of Eden for disobedience. The first child born on earth, Cain, murdered his brother, Abel. As his numbers increased on earth, man became more and more sinful, more rebellious, more disobedient. God created man in His own image to be a noble creature and to live a beautiful and righteous life. Man marred God’s image by sinning against his Creator in disobedience and rebellion.
Genesis 6:6 says that God saw the wickedness of man was great in the earth and, “It repented the Lord that He had man on the earth.” He sent a great flood to destroy His creation. But there was one man He found righteous. He spared Noah and his family for a new beginning on the earth. Sadly, man again fell into his old ways of disobedience and rebellion against God.
God is a holy God and cannot abide sin in His presence. Man’s sin separates him from God. The story of the Bible is a record of God’s work to bridge the gap between Him and man caused by man’s sin. God never ceased to try to restore man to the fellowship with Him which was intended in the beginning. He now put into action another plan of a different nature. He had promised He would not destroy the earth by flood again. He began this plan with another man He found righteous. Abraham lived in Ur of the Chaldees and his wife was named Sarah. God made a covenant with Abraham. He promised Abraham that He would make of him the beginning of a great nation that God would especially bless and He would also give to Abraham and his descendants a very good land in which to live. As Abraham’s part of the covenant, he and his descendants were to be to God as a nation of priests or missionaries to other people. Abraham was the first Hebrew. His descendants were not called Jews for many centuries after this. The Hebrews were to so live and teach and witness that they would bring other people to know and accept and worship the one true God, the God who made the Covenant with Abraham. We know that God kept His part of the Covenant but the Hebrews did not keep their part. They wanted to keep God’s favor and His blessings only for themselves.
Abraham and Sarah had only one child, a son, Isaac, a child of promise, born in their old age. Abraham had other sons, Ishmael, son of Hagar, and sons of Keturah, wife of Abraham after the death of Sarah, but it was through Isaac that the Hebrew line was to continue. Isaac and Rebekah had twin sons, Esau and Jacob, but it was through Jacob, the younger, that the line was to continue. Jacob had twelve sons by his wives, Leah and Rachel, and their handmaids. It was from these sons that the tribes of Israel received their names many years later.
Jacob’s favorite son was Joseph and his jealous brothers sold him into slavery in Egypt where he eventually rose to a position second only to the Pharaoh as God especially blessed him. A famine brought Joseph’s brothers into Egypt to buy grain. Joseph recognized them and eventually revealed himself to them. He showed his noble character in forgiving them and using his position to bring them, their families, and Jacob to live in one of the richest sections of Egypt. They prospered and multiplied until there arose a Pharaoh who had no regard for the memory of Joseph and was alarmed at the rapid increase in numbers and in wealth of the Hebrews. He enslaved them and sought to stop their growth in numbers and influence. The lot of the Hebrews became so miserable under their taskmasters that they cried out to God for deliverance. They had now been in Egypt for possibly 400 years and may have reached 400,000 in numbers. God heard their cries and raised up Moses to lead in delivering them from Egypt and back into the land of Canaan which He had promised would be theirs as a part of His Covenant with Abraham.
God enabled the Hebrews to escape from Egypt and to cross the Red Sea and to come to Mount Sinai where they encamped for some time. Here God gave them the Ten Commandments and the Laws of Moses which were to make up the heart of the Hebrew religion and life. The journey from Sinai to Canaan should have taken only a few days but because of rebellion and disobedience, it took forty years. Finally, Moses led the Hebrews to the border of the Promised Land. Moses died and Joshua succeeded to the place of leadership. He led the Hebrews in the conquest of the land from the pagan inhabitants of Palestine. God had directed the complete destruction of these idolatrous people but this was never accomplished and brought much trouble to the Hebrews. Joshua divided the land among the twelve tribes of Israel.
After the death of Joshua there came a period of probably over 300 years called the Period of Judges, or the “dark Ages of Israel.” There was little unity of the tribes of Israel and no leaders strong enough to mold a national spirit. The Israelites constantly were at war with the pagan people about them and frequently fought within themselves. Worst of all, they intermarried with the Canaanite people and adopted many of their pagan religious practices. This was an abomination to God. Again, God used a righteous man, Samuel, to bring some measure of order to His troubled people. But again, the rebellious nature of the people led them to demand of Samuel that he find them a king to rule over them and lead them in battle like the other nations about them. This outraged Samuel and displeased God who had planned that the government of Israel would always be a theocracy, or God rule, through His selected leaders. However, God directed Samuel to do as the people demanded and to crown Saul as the first king of Israel. He reigned 40 years and made a good beginning. He unified all the tribes and Israel really became a nation of strength. But Saul developed a haughty and rebellious nature that brought about failure as king and death in battle.
Saul was succeeded as king by David who also reigned for 40 years and was the greatest king Israel ever had. He unified the nation, drove out most of its enemies, extended its boundaries, and brought respect and prosperity to his people. Best of all, David brought the people back to the worship of the true God, the God of Abraham and of Isaac and of Jacob. David was not perfect and was guilty of some very bad sins, but he was truly repentant and he did not rebel against God and loved God with all his heart. God called him a man after His own heart. David wanted to build God a magnificent temple where the people would come to worship Him, but God denied him this because he was a man of war. He promised David’s son would build the temple.
Solomon, David’s son, succeeded him as king and also reigned 40 years. The beginning of his rule was a golden age for the nation of Israel. There was comparatively little warfare and Solomon negotiated treaties with other countries that were favorable to Israel. Borders were extended and trade flourished and prosperity was everywhere. The great temple was built and dedicated and beautiful buildings sprang up everywhere. But Solomon became obsessed with luxury and a lavish style of living which imposed a tremendous tax burden on the people. Solomon married many foreign wives and catered to their different religions which was very displeasing to God. Before Solomon died there was rising a strong tide of resentment and rebellion among his people.
Solomon’s son, Rehoboam, succeeded him and would not consent to lift any of the burdens of the people. Ten tribes revolted and chose Jeroboam for their king, leaving only Benjamin and Judah loyal to Rehoboam. The ten tribes became known as the Northern Kingdom, or Israel. Judah was known as the Southern Kingdom, or simply Judah. The Northern Kingdom had 19 kings, none good, and lasted 216 years. It was taken captive by Assyria in 721 B.C. and never emerged as an organized unit again. Judah also had 19 kings, some good, and lasted 135 years longer, falling to Babylon in 586 B.C.
Babylon was overthrown by Persia and Cyrus, king of Persia, allowed the captives who wished to do so, to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. This was, in fact, the beginning of Judaism and the people became known as Jews. They were still subject to Persia but enjoyed many privileges when Old Testament history ended. We have no Bible history of the next 400 years and must depend upon the apocrypha and secular history for information about the Jewish people.
Alexander the Great conquered most of the known world and Palestine was taken over by the Greeks. This had great long-lasting influence upon the Jewish people. Alexander died in 323 B.C. at the young age of 32. After his death the Jews had a turbulent history for many years. They suffered very badly under Syrian rule and led by the great Maccabees family revolted and won their independence for over 100 years. But the Maccabees became weak and the Jewish Nation came under Roman rule.
We are told in many places in the Old Testament that God sent prophets to be His spokesmen and to warn them when they were disobedient to His statues He had given them to live by. These prophets warned the people when they rebelled against God and especially when they fell into idolatry and into the immoral practices of pagan people about them. The worship of Jehovah God and the Christian faith demand a high standard of morality. The Jewish people continually alienated themselves from God by their sins and were punished in many ways and lost fellowship with God often.
Some of the prophets told of one that God would send who would deliver the people from their sins and restore their fellowship with Him. The Jews interpreted this to mean God would send a Messiah who would be a great king like David and a warrior who would lead them to greatness such as they had enjoyed under David and Solomon. Some of the prophets tried to dispel this idea and pictured the Messiah as a gentle man of lowly birth who would teach and heal and minister and eventually die for the sins of mankind that people might be reconciled to God by the shedding of His blood.
The prophet Isaiah said it this way in the 53rd Chapter of his prophecy, often called the “Suffering Servant” chapter. “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised and we esteemed Him not. Surely He hath borne our griefs and carried our sorrows: Yet we did esteem Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities. The chastisement of our peace was upon Him; and with His stripes we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray; We have turned every one to his own way; and the Lord hath laid on Him the iniquity of us all.”
Galatians 4:4 says that when the fulness of time was come, God sent forth His Son to redeem them that were under the law, that we might receive the adoption of sons; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. The “fulness of time” included the Roman Peace which lasted for centuries, the universal use of the Greek language, the system of roads the Romans had built for easy travel for the spread of the Gospel, and the great need of the world for the coming of Christ into the world.
Caesar Augustus was emperor of Rome and that nation was at its height in its dominance of the world. The Gospel of Luke Chapter 2 gives us our best known and best loved account of Jesus birth. “And in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the City of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the City of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David) to be taxed with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And, there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks 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 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 Savior, 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.”
One of my favorite Christmas stories concerns an old black man named Charlie. He was illiterate and, I thought, incapable of a profound thought. One Christmas Eve Charlie came into my office to get his Christmas money and sat down for a talk. After a while he said, “Mr. John, let me tell you why we celebrate Christmas. One day God and His Son Jesus were looking down from heaven at the people down on the earth and the people were living so bad and treating each other so bad that God was very sad because they were sinning so much against Him. Then Jesus said, ‘Father, if you will give me a body like those folks down on the earth have, I will go down and live with them and teach them and show them how you meant for them to live when you made them to be your children.’ That sounded like a good idea to God and so He sent Jesus as a little baby who was born in a manger and grew up to be our Savior. This is why we have Christmas.” I thought, “Charlie, you have a better understanding of Incarnation than many college graduates I have talked to.”
Another of my favorite stories is about a man who had several young children and his wife died. He could not work at his job and also care for young children. The children went to live with different relatives, all except the eldest daughter who remained with her father. Her name was Mary and she grew up to be such a beautiful, gentle, kind, and winsome young girl that she was a joy to her father and to all who knew her. One day her father said, “Mary you have never known my family. They live in the mountains of another state. They are good people and I want you to know them and I know they would love you. We will go and visit them for a few days. During the visit all the relatives came to love her and when the time came for Mary and her father to return home they gathered to bid them good bye. They said, “Mary, you have been so sweet and lovable that we will never forget your visit with us. We will always be better people for your having been here.” And so it is with Jesus. Once one has met Him and come to know Him, that person will always be a better person for having come to know the kind, gentle, and loving Savior whose visit to earth we celebrate at Christmas.
When God created Adam and breathed the breath of life into him and he became a living soul, Adam was a perfect man. He had committed no sinful act that separated him from God. They were in perfect fellowship. It was not long before this could no longer be said. Adam could not stand before God, innocent, and in perfect fellowship with God. God’s ultimate answer for the problem of man’s sin is Jesus Christ who died on Calvary’s Cross to pay the penalty for man’s sin. Sin must be paid for. Jesus Christ died for our sins.
Because of Jesus’ vicarious death, one can again stand before God with his sins forgiven and wiped away. By faith in Jesus Christ and acceptance of Him as Lord and Savior, one can have his fellowship completely restored with God, and he can be as was Adam in the very beginning.
May this be the most joyful and meaningful Christmas ever for all!