Have you ever tried to imagine winter without Christmas? When I do, the early scene of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’s “The Lion, Witch, and the Wardrobe” always come to mind where Lucy meets Mr. Tumnus. “Always winter, never Christmas” — what a dreadful season that would be!
The Christmas season is the time for gathering with family and friends, overeating at big holiday dinners, decorating trees and windows, hanging lights, watching old Christmas movies, baking gingerbread and cookies, drinking eggnog, and holding various Christmas traditions. Every family celebrates the holidays differently, whether it’s the white-elephant exchanges, traveling to visit loved ones, or even escaping to the Caribbean. And of course, who could forget Festivus (for the rest of us!)?
When most people look up the Christmas story in their Bibles, they usually turn to Matthew 1-2 or Luke 2, or even Isaiah 7:14 and Micah 5:2. We would always read from Isaiah and Luke on Christmas Eve before exchanging presents (and having knockdown dragout wrapping-paper fights). John 1:14 also contains another portrayal of the Incarnation and Birth of Christ when John declares that “the Word became 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.”
But there’s another version of the Christmas story that’s seldom read at Christmas, even though it holds much greater significance for believers than the other accounts: “Christmas According to Paul.” While his version contains fewer details than the others, the purpose for Christ’s coming is much more clearly articulated: to free us from bondage to sin and death, to open the way for us to becomes heirs with Him.
The backdrop of Paul’s telling of the Christmas story begins in Galatians 3 with his discussion of the purposes of the Law, which was intended to be our tutor which brings us to Christ. Though we are all slaves to sin, it is the Law which reveals our true helpless condition, our desperate need for the Savior who will set us free:
21 Is the law then against the promises of God? Certainly not! For if there had been a law given which could have given life, truly righteousness would have been by the law. 22 But the Scripture has confined all under sin, that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe. 23 But before faith came, we were kept under guard by the law, kept for the faith which would afterward be revealed. 24 Therefore the law was our tutor to bring us to Christ, that we might be justified by faith. 25 But after faith has come, we are no longer under a tutor.
Before Christ came, we were under the Law, the law of sin and death. Until faith came (v25) — until Christ came. In much of the Old Testament, the Law (Torah) is the focus and defined how people interacted with God. Paul goes on in Galatians 4 to describe the profound significance of what Christ’s First Coming means, which not only redeems us and frees us from the Law (under which we are all guilty) but clears the way for us to be adopted into God’s Family, to make us heirs with His Son.
4 Now I say that the heir, as long as he is a child, does not differ at all from a slave, though he is master of all, 2 but is under guardians and stewards until the time appointed by the father. 3 Even so we, when we were children, were in bondage under the elements of the world. 4 But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. 6 And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” 7 Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ.
Like winter without Christmas, have you ever considered what Christmas would be like without Christ? It would be just another day on the calendar and given as much significance as the other non-religious special days of the year like the solstices. Consider how dreary, cold, and depressing the long winters would be if there was no holiday of lights, giving, and generally good cheer that splits the season nearly in half! And we can’t forget the plays, music, and hot drinks that make the atmosphere of December much different than January. Though there is compelling biblical and cultural evidence that Jesus was probably born in late September instead of the dead of winter, the observance of Christ’s birth is what makes the first half of winter so special, even to those who are not particularly religious.
One of the key phrases in this passage is “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son…” Why did He choose to wait thousands of years before introducing Him to the world? And what exactly does Paul mean by “the fullness of time”? As a student of the Bible, I’d like to offer a few suggestions:
- Under the Babylonian, Greek, Persian, and Roman Empires, much of the ancient “civilized” world was unified by a relatively common religious system (pagan as it was), a “standard” language and system of laws, as well as a reliable system of roads, bridges, and ships. Pax Romana had brought stability to much of the Mediterranean.
- The observance of the Law (Torah) had reached it’s zenith in Israel. The nation had swung from the one extreme of gross paganism of the Canaanites, Moabites, and Babylonians to the other extreme of hyper-legalism such that the Pharisee’s commandments were superseding the God-given commandments. Idol-worship had practically been replaced by law-worship.
- The prophets of God had been silent for four hundred years, though the major events of those “silent years” had been detailed in the Book of Daniel, particularly the rise of the four great empires and their significant kings. God gave Daniel, Ezekiel, and several other prophets of the Babylonian Exile detailed visions and insights as to what would take place in the years between the Exile and the Coming of the Messiah.
- God’s plan for history was rapidly approaching it’s next significant event, the greatest event in history as described in Daniel 9 (also known as Daniel’s Seventy Weeks). From the decree to rebuild Jerusalem to the Coming of the Messiah was to be 69 “weeks” of years, and only a handful of those “weeks” remained until the Messiah would visit the Temple. For both Jews and Christians, all history hinges on the Coming of the Messiah, in both this age and in the age to come!
In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to fulfill the Law. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to be sacrificed on the cross, to take all our sins upon Himself. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to free us from the law of sin and death. In the fullness of time, God sent forth His Son to enable us to become sons and daughters of His Family, to become heirs with Him.
This week as we observe and celebrate the birth of Christ, let’s take some time and give thanks for all He has done for us in His humble birth, sacrificial death, victorious resurrection, and the Comforter He sent to indwell us. Without Christ, we would be without hope and still enslaved to the law of sin and death. Without Christ, we would never be adopted into God’s family as sons and daughters.
“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