December 24, 2023


Christmas ❧ Part 2 of 2

Matthew 16:13-17 ❧ December 24, 2023

Three Prevailing Images

* The Cradle – Helpless Infant

* The Cross – Defenseless Victim

* The Resurrection – Victorious Savior

A number of years ago around this time in December I was in Italy teaching an intense two-week Church history course on Renaissance and Reformation in the town of Cassasa. During that time we visited three countries: Germany, Austria, and Italy.    At one point during my short stay in Northern Italy we literally traveled through the cold Swiss mountains (one tunnel through the mountains was about 5 miles long!) and visited Salzburg Austria – the hometown of Mozart and The Sound of Music.  One thing you couldn’t help but notice – everyone was celebrating Christ’s birth. And let me tell you, the Swiss Mountain air was bitter cold!  While there I visited Maria Van Trapp’s old abbey; the oldest monastery in Germany whose construction began about 600 A.D.  I stepped through the great ornate cathedral doors of the huge sanctuary where Maria Van Trapp would have attended mass (and no, I didn’t see Julie Andrews).  I did see numerous large crosses that displayed Jesus being crucified.  While I was taking all of this in the thought occurred to me – who is Jesus to these people?   

A few days later found my students and I in Florence Italy, literally the birthplace of the Renaissance that began in the 1300’s (Renaissance, literally rebirth of classic learning of art, language, math, architecture and so on).  We visited the world’s greatest Renaissance art collection in the Uffizi Museum containing more than 100 rooms filled with over 2,200 pieces of world-renowned art from the 13th to the 18th centuries.  We admired the famous paintings of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Raphael, and a host of others.  Many of the paintings centered on Jesus’ birth or crucifixion.  Again, the thought occurred to me – who was Jesus to these people?  

Shortly after I finished teaching, I caught an all-night train to Rome.  After finding a room, I spent an entire day touring the Vatican and St. Peter’s Basilica, the largest church in the world able to accommodate 50,000 people.  Not surprising, I saw one of the world’s finest collections of art, much of it centering around Jesus.  It was overwhelming even though I’d seen much of it before.  Once again, I could not help but ask myself, who is Jesus to these people? 

On the long plane ride home I had plenty of time to think and pray.  I could not shake the question that kept coming to my mind: How does the world see Jesus?  A familiar passage in Scripture ran through my mind where Jesus asks His disciples the critical question: Who do the people say the Son of Man is?  (Matthew 16:13). (Read: Matthew 16:13-17). Jesus and His disciples just happen to be standing in a place called Caesarea Philippi.  They were surrounded with carved symbols of some of the world’s greatest belief systems; a temple to the Emperor of Rome, shrines to the Greek god Pan, this was the place where the center of Baal worship was, and Jesus asks His followers the most decisive question He could asked: Who does the world say that I am?  

That’s a big question.  But if you boil it all down, I think there are Three Prevailing Images of Jesus around the world: 1) The Cradle – Helpless Infant 2) The Cross – Defenseless Victim 3) The Resurrection – Victorious Savior. Viewed as a whole, these are all right.  Viewed separately, they are inadequate and wanting; they don’t paint a complete picture of who Jesus really is. They remind me of the three blind men describing what they though an elephant was. The first happens upon its leg and concludes it’s a tree. The second bumps into its trunk and concludes it’s a snake.  The last blind man feels its tail and concludes it’s a broom.  No one view is complete. You need all three.  

I think that is one of the main reasons many of us feel empty in our relationship with God.  We talk about Jesus; we even talk to Jesus; many of us know His stories by heart; we celebrate Him in worship; we serve Him in a multitude of ways.  Still, if we’re honest, something’s missing.  We long for a closer relationship with Him.  Sometimes Jesus seems so far away, so historical, so spiritual, so other-than-real-life we can’t really relate to Him.  We know about Him, but we don’t know Him. The poet E.A. Robinson captured our struggle well when he said,The world is a kind of spiritual kindergarten where bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.

This morning I want to ask you the most important question anyone could ever ask you: Who do you say Jesus is?  A.W. Tozer What comes to our minds when we think about God is the most important thing about us. . . and the most portentous fact about any man is not what he at any given time may say or do, but what he in his deep heart conceives God to be like… Were we able to exact from any man a complete answer to the question, “What comes into your mind when you think about God? We might be able to predict with certainty the spiritual future of that man.  

What does God want you to think about Him?  God wants you to know something important about Him in every prevailing image of Him: the cradle, the cross, and the resurrection.  Biblical Christianity is relationship focused.  It begins and ends with a complete picture of Jesus. What’s lacking in our relationship with Jesus is more of Jesus.  We need a more complete picture of Him.  So what does He want us to know about Him through His cradle, His cross, and His resurrection?    

  1. The cradle means that Jesus relates to our human weakness.  When we celebrate

Christmas, we remember Jesus birth.  We’re recognizing that God the Son humbly took off His robes of glory, stepped down from His perfect home in Heaven and stepped into our imperfect world as a helpless baby in a manger.  2 Cor. 8:9 says though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. 

Why did Jesus come as a baby?  Why didn’t he just appear as a full-grown man? Why did He bother going through all the motions of growing up?  I wonder what it was like for Joseph and Mary to have a perfect child.  They’re the only parents I know who could honestly say, “My son is perfect! I know my child didn’t do that!”  Jesus became a baby so He could say, “I know what it feels like to be five.  I know what it feels like to be 12 or 18!  I know what it feels like to have parents that don’t understand.”  Jesus is also the only One who could ever honestly say, “I know more than my parents!” Why did He go through it all from birth to manhood?  He’s saying, “I can relate to wherever you’re at.”  The Bible says Jesus was both completely man and completely God.  Theologians call it the hypostatic union. He was both completely God and completely man.The mystery of the humanity of Christ, that He sunk Himself into our flesh, is beyond all human understanding. Martin Luther

The author of Hebrews helps us get a grip on this mystery when he says, Because God’s children are human beings—made of flesh and blood— Jesus also became flesh and blood by being born in human form (Heb. 2:14, NLT). It was necessary for him to be made in every respect like us, his brothers and sisters, so that he could be our merciful and faithful High Priest before God. Then he could offer a sacrifice that would take away the sins of the people. Since he himself has gone through suffering and testing, he is able to help us when we are being tested (Hebrews 2:17-18). 

Long ago, there ruled in Persia a wise and good king. He loved his people. He wanted to know how they lived. He wanted to know about their hardships. Often, he dressed in the clothes of a working man or a beggar and went to the homes of the poor. No one whom he visited thought that he was their ruler. One time he visited a very poor man who lived in a cellar. He ate the coarse food the poor man ate. He spoke cheerful, kind words to him. Then he left. Later he visited the poor man again and disclosed his identity by saying, “I am your king!” The king thought the man would surely ask for some gift or favor, but he didn’t. Instead he said, “You left your palace and your glory to visit me in this dark, dreary place. You ate the course food I ate. You brought gladness to my heart! To others you have given your rich gifts. To me you have given yourself!”  Why did Jesus step out of eternity and into time, from infinity to an infant?  To show us He relates to our whole life, not just part.

  1. The Cross means Jesus removes our personal failures. (Jesus) understands our 

weaknesses, for He faced all of the same temptations we do, yet He did not sin(Heb. 4:15, NLT).  Have you ever wondered how a perfect Savior, One whose never sinned can understand your personal failure? He was tempted just like you and me; He faced greater temptations than you or I will ever know, yet He didn’t sin.  I’m very glad He didn’t.  But if He never sinned, how can He really understand how I feel when I’ve blown it?  That question often bothered me.  In fact, it caused me to feel all that more distant from Jesus.  

One of my favorite heroes of faith is a man whose name many know: Martin Luther. Luther was an Augustinian monk who exhausted every means the Catholic church had to offer peace to his troubled soul.  Nothing worked.  He had been taught that God’s grace was something you received when you’d done everything humanly possible to reach God.  The problem was how did you know when you had done enough? Once you achieved God’s grace, how long could you stay there?  Luther grew so tired and discouraged that at one point in his diary he wrote he hated God because he couldn’t seem to satisfy Him.  Have you ever felt that way?  

Luther has been taught that God’s righteousness was his anger toward sinful man.  This didn’t make any sense to him as he read his Bible.  Finally, one day Luther came to Romans 1:16-17 where it says the righteousness of God is revealed in the Gospel.   This really threw him.  The Gospel means “Good News.”  How can God’s anger being revealed be good news? As he studied the passage more closely, he realized God’s righteousness is not God’s anger toward us at all. It is God’s gift to us when we put our trust in the Lord Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior. It is something God gives us as a result of what Jesus did for us on the cross. God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21, NIV).  Oswald Chambers captures the heart of what Christ did for us and what our response should be when he says, We trample the blood of the Son of God if we think we are forgiven because we are sorry for our sins. The only explanation for the forgiveness of God and for the unfathomable depth of His forgetting is the death of Jesus Christ. Our repentance is merely the outcome of our personal realization of the atonement which He has worked out for us. It does not matter who or what we are; there is absolute reinstatement into God by the death of Jesus Christ and by no other way, not because Jesus Christ pleads, but because He died. It is not earned but accepted. All the pleading which deliberately refuses to recognize the Cross is of no avail; it is battering at a door other than the one that Jesus has opened. Our Lord does not pretend we are all right when we are all wrong. The atonement is a propitiation whereby God, through the death of Jesus, makes an unholy man holy. 

  1. The resurrection means Jesus renews our heart’s longings.  Without Jesus resurrection,

the rest of His life (His birth and crucifixion) would lose its meaning.  Without Jesus resurrection, we’re just fooling ourselves to say because Jesus experienced life like us He can relate to us, or that He died on the Cross to remove our sin.  Without the Resurrection, there would be no Christianity. If Christ has not been raised, wrote Paul, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain (1 Corinthians 15:14). The resurrection proves Jesus is God incarnate! It proves His life and death have infinite value – Jesus alone is able to take away our sins and give us eternal life.  Jesus’ resurrection proves by our faith in Him He conquered our most dreaded fear and greatest enemy – death itself.  Jesus proves there is life after death for those who trust in Him! The resurrection proves God truly loves us!  But—When God our Savior revealed his kindness and love, he saved us, not because of the righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He washed away our sins, giving us a new birth and new life through the Holy Spirit. He generously poured out the Spirit upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior. Because of his grace he made us right in his sight and gave us confidence that we will inherit eternal life(Titus 3:4-7, NLT).  The Bible says God saves us not because of our righteousness, but because of His mercy.  He forgives us and gives us a restored relationship with Him. He gives us life.  And there is more to come – eternal life!

One of the most amazing experiences I had in Italy was to admire the incredible collection of artworks in the Uffizi Museum in Florence Italy.  We got up at 3 am and caught a four-hour bus ride to Florence, spent the entire day and didn’t return until 3am the next day.  I had nothing but admiration for my exhausted students.  They came to class less than six hours later bright and alert and not one of them complained!  Their assignment as they strolled through the Uffizi Museum was to try to answer a number of interpretive questions.  One of the questions I asked them was: What stood out to you about the artwork of Jesus covering more than five centuries of history?  They noted that the Jesus they saw was either a helpless baby in a manger or a defenseless victim on a cross.  There wasn’t one picture of Christ’s resurrection anywhere to be seen!  

When the only picture we have of Jesus is one who is in a cradle or left hanging on a cross, we’re left with a helpless Jesus.  That’s not what the Bible teaches.  That’s like reading the Gospel accounts up to Jesus’ crucifixion and then closing the book.  There’s more to the story! 

Let me ask you who is your Jesus?  God gave us the picture of Jesus in the cradle because He wants us to know how He relates to us through the cradle.  But the cradle alone is not enough.  God gives us the picture of the cross because He wants us to know how He relates to us our need for His forgiveness.  He gives us the picture of the resurrection because He wants us to know how He relates to us by giving us eternal life.

error: Content is protected !!