What is the Gospel?
The Manger and the Cross
Everyone loves the baby in the manger.
There is something endearing about the story of Mary and Joseph making the trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem only to discover that there was no room in the inn. We can almost see the disappointment in Mary’s face when she is told that she will have to “deliver” or “give birth to” the baby in a stable. Even the most hardened heart is touched.
The baby Himself is a threat to no one, eliciting nothing but nostalgia and compassion. No wonder Christmas is so popular even among those who would never think of themselves as Christians. The Christmas story touches everyone regardless of creed, religion or moral persuasion. No one is offended by the Christmas story. But for us, the meaning of the manger is found only in the suffering of the Child who was laid to rest within it. The manger has no particular significance apart from the cross. Jesus was, as one man put it, “Born Crucified.”
The good news is not just that Jesus was born of lowly estate, but rather that He was born to “bear the sins of many.” His death between two thieves was not the tragic condemnation of an innocent man; it was rather the excruciating death and condemnation of a very guilty man. He was regarded as a sinner by His executioners, but doubly so by God — guilty of your sin and mine. There on the middle cross hung the world’s greatest sinner.
Please don’t misunderstand. Jesus was not personally guilty. But though innocent of transgression, He nonetheless received on His person the full weight of our terrible disobedience.
Sometimes I hear even evangelicals say that God forgives us because He loves us, giving the impression that His love is the basis of our acquittal. Not so. Yes, He does love us, but apart from the death of Christ on our behalf He could not forgive us. We are saved not by God’s love, but because His love made provision by which His holiness could be appeased.
We must celebrate this good news at Christmas as well as Easter. What the world needs to know is not just that Jesus was laid in a manger at Bethlehem, but that He was laid in a tomb outside of Jerusalem only to rise the third day as proof that His work on earth had been accepted by the Father. We have to invite people to join us on a journey that leads six miles north of Bethlehem to “Skull Hill” on the outskirts of Jerusalem. For some, the trek, spiritually speaking, will be difficult, but it must be done if they are to be redeemed.
Enjoy the Christmas season. Sing the carols with joy, and bless others with gifts and laughter. But don’t forget that it is not the manger that saves us; it is not the birth of a baby that reconciled us to God, but the death of a man who came to “save His people from their sins.” Only this message that offends the world will save the world.
What Child is This?
This Christmas, we wanted to sit down with Pastor Lutzer and ask him some questions about the relationship between the Christmas story and the Gospel, particularly how Christmas can be misunderstood.
Q: Are the details of the Christmas story as we know it, accurate? For example, we see pictures of a pregnant Mary riding on a donkey with Joseph at her side?
A: This might come as a surprise to some, but the idea that she gave birth the night she arrived is not supported by Scripture. They came to Bethlehem, and then we read, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born…” Joseph obviously would have timed their arrival so that there was adequate time for rest and preparations.
When we read that Jesus was laid in a manger, it is doubtful that the birth process was surrounded by sheep and travelers as commonly thought. Remember that Joseph made the trip because his ancestors were from Bethlehem, so it is reasonable to think that they had friends there. Often homes had areas where shepherds and perhaps animals stayed for the night. The guest room of the home (the Inn, as it was called) was already occupied so we can assume that Mary gave birth in the adjacent quarters of the house. I don’t want to ruin our images of Christmas, but the scenario I have outlined is more likely.
Q: So our Christmas cards don’t always teach biblical truth?
A: No, they do not! The picture that is most obviously in error is the one with the wise men coming to see the baby Jesus in the manger surrounded by the obligatory sheep! The fact is that when the wise men gave Jesus their gifts, Jesus was already about 2 years old; thus Herod, reckoning time from when the wise men showed up in Jerusalem, ordered all males two years old and under slain. Furthermore, we read that when the wise men came, Jesus was in a house, not a stable surrounded by blow dried sheep! (See Matthew 2)
Q: What brought the wise men?
A: The most reasonable suggestion is that they were astrologers from Persia who were seeking the Messiah. God accommodated Himself to them and used a star to guide them. But this star did not lead them directly to Bethlehem, but to Jerusalem where the Scribes consulted the Bible and discovered that Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. God was careful to not bypass His Word! Only after they received this instruction from the prophet Micah, did the star reappear.
Q: By any standard Jesus had a lowly birth in an insignificant town that always played second fiddle to Jerusalem. Why?
A: God was making a statement about the poverty of Jesus, His accessibility to people of all economic and ethnic levels. As Paul put it, Jesus “became poor that we, through His poverty, might be made rich.”
Q: So our responsibility at Christmas is…
A: To befriend our neighbors and friends; to build bridges and use the celebration as an opportunity to talk about Christ. I’ve found that at Christmas I can speak more freely about Jesus and lead people all the way from the manger to the cross.