When I first set out to write about Jesus, I thought one letter would be plenty. But once I was underway I realized one would never be enough. It’s a lot to explain who Jesus is, why he was born among us and why he had to die – and connect all that to the Old Testament. It’s a not complicated process – and I think the subject is fascinating – but it does take up a lot of space in print.
So, I’ve divided the story of Jesus into two letters. This first one (in three installments) takes a look at the reasons for his birth. The Christian Church calls this story the doctrine of the Incarnation, a word that means, “enfleshed.” John says in his gospel,
The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (1:14)
When we celebrate Christmas we are celebrating the fact that our God took on human flesh. He did not masquerade as a human being. He truly became one of us, living just as we do, with the same limits and struggles and temptations. No other world religion has a god who would stoop to the level of becoming one of his own creatures. I attempt in this letter to explain why God chose to become like us and how Jesus’ birth completely changed the course of human life.
I’ve written about how to explore your faith in God and how to pray; now it’s time to turn our attention to Jesus, God’s Son. Here are some facts I think you already know about Jesus:
- Christmas is Jesus’ birthday
- He was born in a stable in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago
- He grew up and did mighty things in God’s name
- Yet, he was put to death on a cross
- But, after three days God raised Jesus up from the dead.
But here is something we have not talked about before in great depth: why Jesus was born on earth. The simple truth is that Jesus came to live in our world because something about human life had gone terribly wrong. But this deserves a fuller explanation. So, in order to understand what went wrong, what needed urgently and desperately to be fixed, we shall have to go back to the very beginning of the Bible.
The first book of the Bible, called “Genesis”, tells us that God created the world and all that is in it. The pinnacle of His creation, man and woman, God made in His own image (Genesis 1:27).
You may wonder, “What does it mean that we are created in God’s image?” It means that we are designed to be honorable, generous and exercise good judgment, like God, and to love as God does. In order to live our lives fully as creatures created in His image, He gave us gifts and talents to use for good in His world, on His behalf. God also gave us a purpose: to glorify Him and to enjoy His company.
God hoped we would trust Him in all things, turn to Him for whatever we need, and live with confidence in the knowledge that He would do what was good and right for us. He set boundaries for us, out of His great love, and hoped we would respect and keep them because they were for our own good. Yet, in all these things, God did not require us to love, trust and obey Him. He gave us the ability to choose to do so.
In the story of Adam and Eve, which comes right after the story of creation, we are told how these first two people make a really bad choice. In the Garden of Eden where they live there is a serpent who tempts them to distrust God and cross the boundary He set up for them. (This is always a mistake because God is completelytrustworthy.) God had said to Adam and Eve,
“You are free to eat from any tree in the garden, but you must not eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, for when you eat of it you will surely die.” (Genesis 2:16-17)
This serpent, who was very crafty, knew exactly what to say so that it would entice them to disobey God. It said to Eve,
“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden?’” (Genesis 3:1)
Notice how the serpent exaggerates what God commanded and makes it all seem unreasonable. (To this day, human beings fall for the strategy the serpent used.) But in truth, God said there was only one tree that was off-limits, and for good reason. Eating from it would bring an end to life as they knew it and would lead to their eventual death. Every other tree, though, was available to them. God was being incredibly generous, not mean, selfish or condescending.
When Eve corrects the serpent’s statement, the serpent persists by saying,
“You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” (Genesis 3:4-5)
The first part of this statement (“You will not surely die.”) directly contradicts what God said. The serpent spins this lie to create doubt in Eve’s mind about God’s trustworthiness. In effect, the serpent is saying, “God is holding out on you. He doesn’t want you to have any fun. He wants to keep all the good stuff for Himself.” This lie is quickly followed up with a temptation that proves too hard to resist: ‘…you will be like God.’ Every human being finds this temptation irresistible.
You may not think, consciously, that you desire to be like God. Yet, consider how much time you spend thinking about yourself every day. For example:
1) mulling over how to get what you want
2) taking steps to avoid what you don’t like
3) positioning yourself in the best possible light
4) making sure you look attractive
5) figuring out how to be more popular
We all spend a great deal of time, every day, focusing on ourselves – our own wants and perceived needs. Because we are so self-involved we end up acting as though the world revolves around us. This is just another way of saying we are taking the place of God. Yet, we were not created to be self-focused. We were created to be God-focused.
In addition, we all have a tendency, when we hear we can’t have something, to begin to want it, and then, to resent anyone who keeps us from having it. For example: if you were to tell me that I could have anything I wanted to eat except peas, very soon I wouldn’t be able to get peas off my mind. And I don’t even like peas. But, I would begin to resent the fact that you told me I couldn’t have them. (“Who are you to tell me that?,” I’d think.) I don’t like having limits imposed on me.
It’s human nature to want to be the boss of your own life (and sometimes, to be the boss of other people’s lives, too). Deep down inside,no one really likes having to answer to anyone. There is a rebellious streak in all of us. But the truth is, and it’s taken me a long time to come to terms with this, what God wants for us is what’s best for us. His authority over our lives is good for us, not bad. It is something to welcome, not resist.
Because we each tend to act as though the world revolves around us, our choices and our wants, if left unchecked, will eventually get us into trouble. This is the truth I’ve learned the hard way: you won’t ever really be content in life until you choose to trust God completely. Anything short of that leads to unhappiness and lots of mistakes — and often, lots of hurt and regret.
Adam and Eve ended up with lots of hurt and regret. They did die, in a manner of speaking, when they ate the fruit from the tree that was off-limits. Their choice not to trust God, to disobey Him, came with fatal consequences. It meant they had to leave the Garden of Eden, where life was good and sweet, and live outside it, where life was harsh and painful. Their carefree, innocent way of life was now gone. No longer could they enjoy God’s company, face to face. There was now a great divide between them and God, which came about as the result of their disobedience. And, there was no way they could get back.
But God did not abandon them. He still loved them, even though they chose to listen to the serpent and not to Him. God was still looking out for them, even though they had to live with the consequences of their disobedience. God missed their company and He wanted them back, but unless He could get them, and their descendants, to trust him completely, they would just repeat the same mistake. So, God was determined to find a way to help the human race, whom He created in His image, to live within His good and healthy boundaries.
God decided to try something new with a man called, Abraham, who was born many years after Adam and Eve died. One day God asked Abraham to pack up all his belongings and move. God was not specific about where He was asking Abraham to move. God just said,
“Leave your country, your people and your father’s household and go to the land I will show you.” (Genesis 12:1)
The amazing thing is that Abraham actually trusted God! He left behind all his friends and most of his family and set out for an undisclosed location with just his wife, Sarah, and nephew, Lot and their belongings. God was pleased to find a person who would trust Him so courageously. God blessed Abraham and Sarah and told them He would make a great nation out of them and provide and care for them, forever.
Eventually, hundreds of years later, Abraham’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren moved into the land God promised to Abraham and his family, which became known as “Israel.” Moses was the man chosen by God to lead Abraham’s descendents there. Through Moses, God gave them laws and commandments to live by and promised that if they were faithful to Him they would prosper and never have anything to fear. God charged them not to forget that He had made it all possible. (You’ll find God’s charge in Deuteronomy 8:1-18. I read this passage from time to time, so I won’t forget God has made all things possible inmy life.)
Over the next seven hundred years or so Abraham’s descendents lived in Israel. Although a few of their judges, priests, prophets and kings were incredibly faithful to God, most were incredibly sinful and they led their people astray for much of the time. The Israelites, as Abraham’s descendents were called, often did not trust God, or follow His laws, just like Adam and Eve. They took advantage of the poor and they worshipped false idols. After putting up with their sins for a long, long time, God finally had enough of their disobedience and let a foreign king conquer the land and carry off the Israelites into exile in a far country.
But still, God wouldn’t give up on Abraham’s descendents, members of the human race, whom He created in His image. He wanted to try one last time to help them trust Him and live within the good and healthy boundaries He set. This time, however, it would be different. Previously, God chose a special leader from among people living on earth. But now, He was going to send His Son, Jesus, to be born on earth, just like the people He was trying to save. And Jesus, fully God and fully human, would be able to do what others, previously sent by God, who were merely human, could not do: trust God completely and open up, forever, a way back to Him.
Here are some more details about Jesus’ birth, to add to what you already know:
- He was born to a teen-ager named, Mary, who became pregnant with Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit.
- Mary’s fiancé, Joseph, married her and took her to Bethlehem just before Jesus was born.
- Joseph’s relatives had no room to put them up, so they ended up staying in a kind of cave, which shepherds would use for shelter.
- The Son of God, the Savior of the world, was born to a poor, ordinary couple, who had to use an animal feeding trough for his cradle.
From a human point of view this is an outrageous plan. But God knew what He was doing. Nothing about Jesus’ birth was an accident.
From an early age, people recognized that Jesus was somehow different, but nobody guessedthat he was the Son of God. Everyone in Israel was hoping God would send a Savior, a Messiah, but most people expected him to be a mighty king and warrior or a powerful priest of the Temple. Jesus just didn’t look or act the part. And the religious leaders didn’t trust him, because Jesus criticized them for taking money from the poor and for not living up to the true intent of God’s laws.
But Jesus did have a large group of followers, who saw him work miracles and who were spellbound by his teaching. Jesus confided in a few of these followers, whom he called, disciples, that He was God’s Son and that he had come to save the world. These disciples believed him, but Jesus didn’t want them to go off and tell everyone, until the time was right.
Jesus was fully God and fully human. He ate, drank, slept, worked, laughed and cried, just like us. He knew what it was like to be rejected, scorned, and run out-of-town. He also knew what it was like to be tempted. In fact, after he had grown up and just before he began his public ministry, the devil tempted him, mightily. But unlike us, Jesus didn’t fall for it. He did not sin. The way he lived his life on earth was how God was hoping all of us would live – completely trusting in God, while doing His will and enjoying His company.
In time, the religious leaders grew jealous of Jesus and fearful that they would lose their influence over the people of Israel. They came up with a plot to have Jesus put to death. God allowed this to happen, because He was going to use this for great good. Jesus trusted in God, even though what awaited him was very scary. He was arrested, charged with a made-up crime, and put to death by being nailed to a cross. This was a cruel form of punishment that the Romans used on notorious criminals. But Jesus was innocent.
Immediately after his death, Jesus’ disciples were in disarray. They had believed what he said about himself, so they did not expect him to be put to death. The Savior was not supposed to die (or so they thought). They were fearful that the religious authorities would come for them next.
But an amazing thing happened: Jesus was raised back to life by his Father! He died on a Friday and on Sunday he was resurrected. He was the same Jesus, but something was different. His resurrected body still bore the scars from the crucifixion, but his body also had new properties. Jesus could walk through locked doors. (John 20:19) He could be in one place one moment and in another place the very next moment. (Luke 24:30-31)
By dying and being raised back to life Jesus conquered the power of sin and death. He conquered the things that separate us from God, make us miserable, and cause us to grow old and die. Most important of all, by being completely faithful to God, through his life and his death, he created a way back to God for all of us. The apostle, Paul, whom Jesus himself commissioned, writes about this in his letter to the Romans. He says:
If you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. (Chapter 10, verse 9)
The apostle John says the same thing in his first letter:
If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in him and he in God. (1 John 4:15)
The way back to God, as Paul says, is to confess, to tell the truth. The truth we own up to is this:
- We’ve sinned against God by not respecting the boundaries He sets for us.
- We cannot consistently obey God, no matter how hard we try.
- Only Jesus provides us with a way back to God. He is our only hope.
- We will turn over the reigns of our life to Jesus and let him steer us in the right direction from now on.
Jesus has the power to change our hearts and minds so that we sin less and less and trust God more and more. In the next letters,“Why Jesus Had to Die” and “Why Becoming Like Jesus is What’s Best for Us,” I’ll explain in detail how this all works. The most important thing to know as I bring this letter to a close is that God became a human being, at enormous cost to Himself, to save you from your sins. There is no greater love than this. You can trust God completely.
Discussion Questions for Letter No. 4: Why Jesus Was Born on Earth
- Why does freedom of choice come with great responsibility? In what way did Adam and Eve choose unwisely?
- Do you trust God to do what is good and right for you? Do you trust Him to set loving boundaries? Why/Why not?
- In what ways do human beings spend their time trying to “be like God”?
- What is the difference between being self-focused and God-focused?
- Describe the rebellious streak that is in all of us. How did it get Adam and Eve into trouble?
- How did Abraham differ from Adam and Eve?
- What happened eventually to Abraham’s descendants? Why?
- How was God’s last attempt to help us trust him different from all the others?
- What did Jesus do that no one else could do?
- What is the one way back to God?
- What do we need to confess? Have you done so?