As much as I enjoy the traditional elements of Christmas—twinkling lights, the pungent aroma of a fir tree, the sound of carolers—I am moved most of all by the wonder of the birth of Jesus.
Ever since I accepted Christ at the 1963 Los Angeles Billy Graham Crusade, Christmas has been far more than just a cultural holiday. It is a celebration of manifold mysteries: the Word of God becoming flesh; the Creator joining creation; the King of kings lying humbly in a manger. Christmas cheer abounds because the Savior of the world has come. Gloria in excelsis Deo, indeed!
At Christmas we rightly focus on the baby Jesus. But perhaps our celebrations would be enriched and our experience of Jesus deepened if we reflected a bit more on the life of the One who was born in that little town of Bethlehem. As true as it is that Jesus was born to die, He was not born only to die. He was also born to live, and through His life to help us know God and, therefore, to know how to live life to the fullest.
Caring About the Life of Jesus
Faithful Christians care deeply about the life of Jesus. To be sure, some throughout history have neglected His real life, paying attention only to His teachings. The Gnostics of the second and third centuries wrote plenty of so-called “gospels” that ignored what Jesus did, preferring instead to concoct secret revelations of “the Savior.”
The authors of the biblical Gospels, on the contrary, cared about the life of Jesus. They meticulously gathered oral and written traditions about Jesus that had been preserved by the early Christian community, weaving these remembrances into tapestries that present historically credible accounts of Jesus’ ministry even as they portray Him as Messiah. Of course, the Gospel writers left out much that we’d like to know about Jesus, such as what He looked like and how He fared in Hebrew school. But what the Gospels tell us about the life of Jesus can be trusted.* Moreover, they remind us that Jesus’ words and deeds really matter.
The Life of Jesus Shows Us God the Father
What difference does the life of Jesus make for us? First of all, His life shows us God the Father. The Gospel of John explains, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14, NIV). Jesus, as the Word Incarnate, “who is at the Father’s side, has made him known” (John 1:18, NIV). Thus, Jesus can say, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John14:9, NIV).
Jesus reveals God through His words, to be sure. For example, He teaches us to address God as Abba, an Aramaic term that means both “father” and “daddy.” Jesus also speaks to God as Abba, modeling the content of His instruction. Moreover, in His exemplary love for people, including the downtrodden and the outcasts, Jesus embodies the love of the Father.
Ultimately, Jesus reveals the Father’s love by choosing the cross. In the stirring image of the crucified Son, we see the love of the God who “so loved the world” (John 3:16, NIV).
The Life of Jesus Shows Us How to Live
Through words and deeds, Jesus teaches us how to live. The One who challenges us to love our enemies is the same One who healed the daughter of a centurion, a man who represented the hated domination of Rome. The One who called us to forgive others is the same One who forgave the Roman soldiers who crucified Him.
What Jesus models for us is not simply a life guided by authoritative instructions. Jesus exemplified what it means to live in the Kingdom of God. Wherever Jesus was, God’s reign was present and active. Jesus healed the sick, ate with sinners, cast out demons, welcomed children and preached the Good News of the Kingdom, not only because these were right things to do, but also because they reflected the presence of God on earth.
Thus, when we imitate Jesus, we do more than tally up His commands so we can be sure to obey them. We also learn what it means to offer our life fully to God our King, seeking His will, ministering in His power, announcing His presence and inviting people to experience His salvation–just as Jesus did.
The Life of Jesus Helps Us Experience His Sympathy
Part of living life to the fullest involves experiencing the sympathy of Jesus. Hebrews 4:15 explains, “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (NIV). Why can Jesus sympathize with us this way? Because He was fully human, even as He was also fully divine. As Hebrews puts it, Jesus was made like us “in every way.” Therefore, “because he himself suffered when he was tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted” (Hebrews 2:17-18, NIV).
Hebrews reveals the theological truth of Jesus’ full humanity. The Gospels illustrate this truth in living color. Here we watch Jesus weep (John 11:35), get angry and thirsty (Mark 3:5, John 19:28) and be deeply grieved (Mark 14:34). We see Him moved with compassion (Mark 6:31) and tempted (Matthew 4:1-11). In one of the most stirring scenes in all of Scripture, we observe Jesus struggling with the knowledge of His impending crucifixion yet wanting God’s will to be done (Mark 14:32-42).
So when we’re struggling, aching or doubting–when we’re going through all the challenges of human life–we have in Jesus One who truly understands, One who knows our sorrows and our joys. This is a Jesus before whom we can be ourselves, holding nothing back.
Discovering the Real Life of Jesus at Christmas
For much of my life I overlooked the abundant evidence in the Gospels of Jesus’ human life. Though I confessed that Jesus was “fully human and fully God,” a part of me always regarded Him as some impervious Superman.
This changed forever during Christmas 1992. Four days earlier, my first child was born. As you can well imagine, I was preoccupied during the next days as my wife and I welcomed Nathan into our lives. So I didn’t spend much time preparing my sermon for the Christmas Eve services at church. Usually I’d work for hours to get that special sermon just right, but this year my hours were taken up with more pressing business.
Shortly before the first of our services was to begin, I stopped to reflect upon what I might preach. What should I say about the birth of Christ? All of a sudden it hit me like a ton of bricks. As I thought about what it was like to hold my little boy, I realized in a new way just how utterly human Jesus really was. He was an infant–needy, dependent and vulnerable, just like my baby. That Christmas Eve I preached about how my experience of Nathan gave me a deeper appreciation for the humanity of Jesus.
Immanuel–God With Us
His humanity wouldn’t be remarkable, since all babies are fully human, except for the fact that Jesus was also fully divine. That’s one of the majestic mysteries of our faith, a truth we confess confidently even as we understand it incompletely this side of Heaven. The Baby laid in a manger was not just an inspired human being, but also Immanuel, which means in Hebrew, “God with us.” Jesus was not God appearing like flesh, but God in flesh appearing. Jesus was and is God.
To be sure, Jesus was a great teacher, a miracle worker and the Savior who bore our sin on the cross. He was fully man, whose perfect human life helps us know God as our Father. And He was really God with us. His life shows us who God is and how God wants us to live. When we wonder what God is like, we need to look only to Jesus. Moreover, in the One called Immanuel, God has drawn near to us. Therefore, we have confidence to draw near to God, assured that He understands our weaknesses, forgives our sins and welcomes us into His presence.
As you celebrate the birth of Jesus this Christmas, may you also remember His fully-human, fully-divine life. May you know God more deeply, so that you might live more fully–not just in this joyous season–but all year long.
*I discuss the historical dependability of the Gospels more completely in my recent book, “Can We Trust the Gospels? Investigating the Reliability of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.”