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The Doctrine of Christmas

Christmas - Week 8

This week we finish our eight-week look at the Christmas story as described in the book “Hidden Christmas” by Tim Keller. Thanks to each of you for looking at Christmas with me over this period as we reviewed the eight chapters of this book. I pray each of you saw something afresh about Christmas that helps you every day of the year.

As I have stated numerous times, when most think of Christmas they turn to passages in the Bible that give us accounts of Jesus’ birth. We want to hear about the angels, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and the wise men. The focus passage this week does not directly describe these events but in these four verses, the Apostle John tells us something very striking about the miraculous things we have studied and the things that occurred later in Jesus’ life. What John tells us is that all of this was REAL! It really happened. He gives us in the first four verses of his epistle a wonderfully concise explanation of what the nativity means to each of us.

1 John 1:1-4 (NIV)

1) That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. 2) The life appeared; we have seen it and testify to it, and we proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and has appeared to us. 3) We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ. 4) We write this to make our joy complete.

Verse 1 tells us IT REALLY HAPPENED! John says they heard Him, they saw Him with their own eyes, they looked at Him face-to-face and their hands touched Him. John is being very emphatic in his statement. He is not merely making conversation. John is literally swearing a deposition. This is court language that John is using. This is not a set of nice stories. Many of us were eyewitnesses. Some translations actually use the term “testify” to describe what John is stating. We really saw Him. His miraculous birth was real. He really lived. He really died. He really rose from the dead!

If Christmas is just a nice story or legend, then you are in a sense on your own in this life. But if Christmas is true – and John emphatically says it is true – then you can be saved by grace and experience Him. John is saying that the incarnation, the atonement or propitiation, and the resurrection are all true. Believing these things is part of the new life available to you and as verse 2 tells us, this life is more than just a normal life, it is eternal life.

Here in the first verse John also tells us that Jesus is the Word of life. (We will be looking more at the Word during each of these weekly notes during January beginning with our “Firm Foundation” on January 6th.) John made a similar statement in his Gospel account in John 1:1 where he proclaimed Jesus was the Word of God. In verse 2 John further refers to Jesus as “eternal life” itself. To say that Jesus is “eternal life” is to proclaim that Jesus is salvation itself. In every other religion, the founder points to eternal life, but because Jesus is Immanuel, God come in the flesh, He is eternal life. To unite with Him by faith, to know Him in love, is to have this life!

The Apostle John is somewhat unique in that he tells us exactly why he wrote the Gospel of John as well as his 1st Epistle – 1 John. John 20:31 states: “But these were written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in His name”. John gives a similar but slightly different reason for writing 1 John in 1 John 5:13 where he states: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” In the Gospel, John says that Jesus truly is the Son of God and that if you believe in Him you can have life. Assuming you have understood and thus then believed that Jesus is the Son of God he then goes deeper in his first Epistle saying that this life he is describing is literally eternal life. Then if you look at John’s account of Jesus’ prayer in the garden before being arrested and taken for trial and crucifixion you see in John 17:3 that John records Jesus’ own definition of eternal life: “Now this is eternal life; that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.” I offer all of this to help you contemplate that Christmas, the story of the coming of Immanuel, the story of God with us, is much more than just a story of the One whom will eventually take you out of the trials of this life and get you into heaven. These statements about eternal life are telling us that we can have this life NOW, if we know Him.

You will run across people in church or even out of church that will say all that matters is that you live a good life or that you are a good person. They may say, “I don’t need all of your doctrine or dogma or this incarnation stuff.” What they do not realize is when they say this, they are actually declaring a doctrine or dogma of their own and do not realize it. They are saying, I can be good all on my own and that is enough. This doctrine they are citing is “salvation by works” rather than by grace. The entire story of Christmas however that we have covered the prior seven weeks points to salvation by grace alone. It points to God sending a baby to a people living in a land of deep darkness. It points to a baby being born through a lineage of men and women that had committed grave sins and were outsiders. It points to God sending His Son, not to a king or a palace, but to a simple carpenter and the young woman he is engaged to. It points to the Son of God being rejected from the inn and having to be born in a stable outside and Him being laid in a manger or cattle feed trough after His birth. It points to the witnesses of this birth not being leaders in the kingdom but instead being those of the lowest occupation – shepherds – as Cory described in detail in his sermon on December 19th. It points to the established rulers of the time, trying to kill Him. There is nothing in these things we have considered the prior seven weeks that should give us the impression that this “eternal life” which has been born, which has come to us, is something that is to be earned or given only to the “deserving”. Salvation – this eternal life referenced here by John in verse 2 – is by grace and grace alone, period.

Many today and this Christmas believe that you can earn your right to heaven with God. If they do not believe that then they may reject religion altogether and believe you simply have the moral resources within yourself to live the life a human ought to live in order to experience any positive event after you leave this earth. Those that hold either position will deep down or outwardly live a life characterized by fear and insecurity never realizing this present day eternal life which John is referencing. The joy of eternal life, a life you can experience now as well as after we leave this earth, can only be experienced by understanding it literally ALL comes from Him, by grace alone. It is truly a gift. The revelation to see it is a gift. The faith to believe it is a gift. All of your salvation comes from Him. All things are from Him, through Him, and to Him.

Verse 3 and 4 moves from the reality of Christmas – God come in the flesh - to the goal of that proclamation. Verse 3 builds on or elaborates further on his statement about eternal life. John says we can have “fellowship with God”. John is telling those he is writing to that he wants them to know they can enter the same fellowship with the Father and the Son that he and the other witnesses referred to in verse 1 have experienced. John uses a particular word in the Greek to describe this fellowship. He uses the word “koinonia”, which means a relationship of mutual sharing or partnership. One of our closest words in the English language to this word is “communion”. It means deep, intimate, multidimensional bonding. John is saying that believers, not just then but today, can enter into the same personal communion with God that the Apostles and others had who saw and knew Jesus personally! All of the fellowship that John, Peter, James, Matthew, Mary and the rest had with Jesus, can be yours, now. That is what John is saying the goal of Christmas is all about. This fellowship is eternal life. Fellowship is knowing the Father and the Son intimately. As we will see in a note a few weeks from now, They both want to literally be your friend in addition to everything else that They are.

Many that are familiar with stories from the Old Testament may see God as overwhelming and daunting. In the New Testament through Jesus, God becomes personal. We see His loving nature, His compassion, His humility, His brilliance, and His wisdom. He is no longer some abstract force that is hidden. He becomes someone we can have a relationship with. Christmas means that God went through infinite lengths to make Himself someone whom we can have fellowship with personally.

The last verse above, verse 4, tells us that in addition to having fellowship with God, we can also have joy. John is saying that his own joy will not be complete until we have the same joy that he experienced in fellowship with God. Stop and think about that evangelistic statement a minute. Opening up this day-to-day fellowship with God Himself through Jesus for others was what made John experience a more complete joy. This fellowship was something so rich and life changing that he wanted all of God’s “little or dear children” (as John so often referred to them in 1 John), to realize the fellowship and joy that were available to them.

To better comprehend this concept of joy, we need to refer back to the Gospel of John again where Jesus speaks of joy on many occasions. John 16:22 describes Jesus talking intimately with the eleven disciples on the night He was to be arrested (Judas had already departed them to betray Jesus). Here Jesus promises His followers a joy that “no one can take away”, not even COVID, not even a bad boss, not even a bad marriage, not even a wayward child. Then in the middle of the prayer of all prayers in the Bible, John 17:13 tells us that Jesus is passing down the “full measure of His joy” to those that will follow Him. Notice He does not say He is giving us a portion of His joy. He is giving His disciples, and then to all others that will believe what the disciples then go proclaim, the full measure of His joy.

The joy which John and Jesus are describing and which we sing about in songs such as “Joy to the World”, is more than just happiness or giddiness that can easily fade in the face of negative circumstances or adversity such as has abounded in 2020 and 2021. This joy is more like the ballast that keeps a ship stable and upright in the water during a storm. This joy is like the tree planted near the river of life and not dependent on rain. The joy described and available to us is the thing that is there to reinvigorate you no matter the circumstances you are faced with in this life. The eternal life or fellowship of Christ, gives you the joy that will be the ballast steadying you through every day. He is your cornerstone, the strongest and most important part of your foundation.

The Christian life begins not with high deeds and achievements but with the most simple and ordinary act of humility. Just as Jesus came through the most humble means, He asks us to humble ourselves and ask Him to save us. We cannot do it ourselves. It is only then that this life of fellowship and joy can grow in us over the years. You may want it to all come at once through some magnificent experience. That is the exception rather than the rule though. You will find that this life of joy mostly comes through commonplace, what seems to many, boring practices such as daily obedience, reading and prayer, worship attendance, serving our brothers and sisters in Christ as well as our neighbors, or depending on Jesus even in the hard times that are promised to come. Bit by bit our faith will grow and the foundation of our lives will become stronger. Don’t be put off by the ordinariness of the means of joy. It is in that ordinariness where the “hidden” extraordinary riches of the Gospel reside. It is in those things that the Light reveals Himself to you more and more. Remember the following from verse 3 of “O Little Town of Bethlehem”:

How silently, how silently

The wondrous gift is given!

So God imparts to human hearts

The blessings of His heaven.

Christ, the most wonderful gift ever, came silently that night in Bethlehem. Just as God sent His Son that still, silent night, God sends His Son to our human hearts bringing the blessings of eternal life – fellowship and joy with Him and the Son. Just as the world around Bethlehem did not expect Him or see what was occurring there in that small town out in a stable, the meek and lowly today can still receive Him just as the lowly shepherds did, and let Eternal Life Himself enter in.

May you too, know the fellowship and joy of Christmas today and everyday. Doing so will open your life to more than you ever dreamed and also help make my own joy complete.


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