In 2 Corinthians 8:9, Paul writes, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that you through his poverty might be rich.” I love how Paul describes the incarnation in terms of grace. In the Christmas season, when so much focus is placed on buying gifts for others, we need to remember that the greatest gift ever given was something no one could buy – the gift of God’s Son coming into the world.
This gift – this grace – was the most important event that had ever taken place upon the earth until that time. As Wayne Grudem has put it, the incarnation was the greatest miracle that ever took place, for it involved the Son of God taking unto himself a human nature and coming into the world of sinful men. And yet God did not give this gift wrapped in glitter; he gave it to humble people in the most inconspicuous way. When kings and queens make an entrance into any place, usually only the noblest are invited amidst great pageantry. But that’s not how God does things. When Jesus came into the world, God didn’t invite kings and princes and the wise and noble to attend his Son’s entrance. Instead, he invited the lowly, the unknown, the poor, and strangers from faraway places.
What does this tell us about God, his Son, and the salvation he came to accomplish? Specifically, what does it tell us about the grace of this gift?
Joseph and Mary – The Foundation of Grace in the Promise of God
Probably of all the people who attended the entrance of Christ into the world, the two most intimately involved were Joseph and Mary. The first two human faces the incarnate Son of God saw were those of Joseph and Mary. God chose Joseph and Mary to be the human parents of the Son of God. Joseph of course is only the “supposed” father of Jesus (Luke 3:23); Mary was still a virgin when Jesus was conceived in her womb. Nevertheless, he acted as his father until he died (evidently, sometime between Jesus’ twelfth and thirtieth years). Mary not only brought him into the world, but also was able to attend his ministry and witness his death, resurrection, and ascension.
The remarkable thing about Joseph is that he was a descendent of King David, a point that both Matthew and Luke are careful to make (Mt. 1; Lk. 3). This is important because the Messiah was promised to come from the line of David (Isa. 9:7; Jer. 23:5). In fact, when the angel addresses Joseph, he addresses him as “thou son of David” (Mt. 1:20). Later, Paul would remind Timothy that this was an integral part of the gospel he was to remember: “Remember that Jesus Christ of the seed of David was raised from the dead according to my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8; cf. Rom. 1:3).
The coming of Jesus into the world was thus the fulfillment of a promise. This is an amazing reminder that despite external appearances to the contrary, God always keeps his word. It might have seemed by that time that God was going to renege on his promise. After all, the line of David had fallen into almost complete insignificance. Joseph was a simple carpenter from Nazareth in Galilee, an obscure town in northern Palestine. Israel was no longer its own nation, but ruled by the Romans under the Edomite King Herod. And yet it was at this time that God moved in history to bring into the world his Son who would bring redemption to men.
God was also working out his promises through Mary. God sent the angel Gabriel to tell her, “Behold, you shall conceive in your womb, and bring forth a son, and shall call his name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: and he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end” (Lk. 2:31-33). That was an incredible promise to a young girl like Mary. Yet she believed the Lord: “And Mary said, Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (v. 38). She believed what the angel had said: “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (v. 37).
We can probably learn a lot of things from Joseph and Mary, but the thing that stands out to me is that God is always true to his word and that he can use the most insignificant people (in the eyes of the world) in the most desperate of times to accomplish his purpose.
The Shepherds: The Freeness of Grace
They were unimportant in the eyes of the powerful and prestigious. “Shepherds in an agrarian society may have small landholdings, but those would be inadequate to meet the demands of their own families, the needs of their own agricultural pursuits, and the burden of taxation. They were, then, peasants, located toward the bottom of the scale of power and privilege. . . . Good news comes to peasants, not rulers; the lowly are lifted up.” (Joel Green, Luke (NICNT, 131). Note the implied contrast between the shepherds and the Roman emperor in Luke 2.
They were unimportant in the eyes of the religious. They were not part of the priesthood, nor were they scribes. They were not part of the established religious system. Nor were they prophets like John the Baptist. Though we are led to assume they were pious men by the response they gave to the announcement of the Birth (Luke 2:15, 17, 20), nevertheless, they were unknown to the religious scene of the time.
They were unknown to the world both then and now. We don’t know their names, or what happened to them after this. They come into the birth narrative and then disappear without a trace.
The lesson is that God exalts the lowly and humbles the proud. And he does this through his Son’s redemption. Prestige, power, wealth, and wisdom do not qualify someone for God’s favor, though these certainly make one important in this age. In fact, they are often stumbling blocks to the favor of God (e.g., the rich young ruler in Matthew 19; see also 1 Cor. 1:25-31). Of course, it is not that worldly poverty puts one automatically in the category of the saved. Poor people are lost, too. Poverty does not make one holy. Rather, God seeks those who are “poor in spirit,” who see their own spiritually impoverished state before God, who mourn over their sins, who feel their vileness before a holy God. Jesus did not come to call to repentance the righteous (those who are in their own eyes at least, rich before God), but sinners (those who feel the poverty of soul before God).
Moreover, being known to men is a really big deal to a lot of us. We call it fame, and most of us want it. But the shepherds were not famous. And just as riches can become an obstacle to seeking God, even so fame can present just as big an obstacle. Jesus told the Pharisees of his day, “How can you believe, which receive honor one of another, and seek not the honor that comes from God only?” (Jn. 5:44). In other words, Jesus is claiming that their pursuit of fame stood in the way of their embracing the Son of God. Later in the Gospel, John gives this assessment of such people, “Nevertheless among the chief rulers also many believed on him; but because of the Pharisees they did not confess him, lest they should be put out of the synagogue: for they loved the praise of men more than the praise of God” (Jn. 12:42, 43). Being known to men may get your career advanced. But it will not save you. The only thing that really matters in the end is being known to God, being “approved unto God” (2 Tim. 2:15; Rom. 2:29). The shepherds were not famous, they were not known to men. But they were known to God.
And the way this happens is through Christ. God “knows us” in a loving, saving way through his Son. The only one who is important in God the Father’s eyes is his Son. But when Jesus came into the world, he did not come to represent himself, but to represent his elect and to live and die for them in their stead. And so God now sees them through his Son. Though in themselves they are wicked and undeserving of the least of God’s mercies, God sees them in Christ, and therefore loves them in Christ and accepts them in Christ. When a person is “known” by God in this kind of saving way, that person is truly famous.
Simeon and Anna: The Beauty of Grace
The shepherds illustrate the freeness of God’s grace in introducing unknown and unimportant peasants to the birth of the King of heaven. They were tending their sheep, not spending weeks and years in fasting and prayer in the temple. And yet God ushered them into his presence; he surrounded them with a choir of angels and pointed them to his Son. On the other hand, the characters of Simeon and Anna illustrate what God’s grace does in the lives of redeemed sinners. In contrast to the shepherds, we know the names of this prophet and prophetess, and we are given a thorough “background check” and some of their history. Of course, Luke’s purpose in this is to provide believability for their claims about Jesus. But it also serves to exemplify the power of grace in men and women, and what true religion really looks like.
And this needs to be celebrated in our day. Though it is true that we devalue the Cross if we make good works of any kind a precondition for the enjoyment of the grace of God, we also devalue the Cross if we do not rejoice in its power to change lives and reorient us toward God and away from ourselves and our idols. To devalue to Cross in the first way leads to legalism; to devalue the Cross in the second way leads to licentiousness and antinomianism. Legalism and licentiousness are both forms of bondage and should be avoided at all costs. We need to recognize the fact that God’s grace can find a person in any condition, but we also need to recognize the fact that it does not leave a person in the same state in which it found him. Grace changes lives. And it had changed Simeon and Anna. Their testimonies are a striking example of the beauty of holiness in the lives of believers.
Note how they are described. Simeon is described as a “just and devout” man, who was “waiting for the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him” (Luke 2:25). The fact that he was “just and devout” showed that he loved God’s law and sought to place all of his life under obedience to God. Moreover, his hope was set not on this world, but on the redemption that was to bring the entire world into the kingdom of God, for he was waiting for “the consolation of Israel.” This is the “salvation which thou hast prepared before the face of all people; a light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel” (vs. 30-31). Simeon longed for the time that the whole world would embrace the Lordship of Christ, and now that he had seen the Messiah, he was ready to “depart in peace” (v. 29). Further, Simeon was a man who was led by the Spirit of God. God revealed the coming of Christ to him by the Spirit and by the Spirit was led into the temple to meet the Christ. Thus, Simeon was a Spirit-led man who life was characterized by holiness and hope.
Anna is similarly described: “And there was one Anna a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher: she was of a great age, and had lived with her husband seven years from her virginity; and she was a widow of about fourscore and four years, which departed not from the temple, but served God with fastings and prayers night and day” (Luke 2:36-37). In a day when marriage for a woman was as much a necessity as it might have been desirable, it is incredible that Anna did not let that deter her from seeking God in the temple as a widow. Seeking the Lord was the most important thing to her, more important than finding a husband or living a “normal” life. And as a result, God rewarded her seeking by letting her become a part of the welcoming committee of his Son into the world.
These two people also illustrate the fact that God rewards those who diligently seek him (Heb. 11:6). As we enter this Christmas season, my hope is that we do not become distracted by the glitter and forget the God-Man, Jesus Christ, but that we would rather seek him more persistently – and find him in new and amazing ways.
The Magi: The Scope of Grace
Of all the people God invited to welcome his Son into the world, the Magi are the most unlikely. They were from the east, probably Babylonia, and belonged to a class of magicians and astrologers. They were almost certainly Gentiles, not Jews, since they did not know the birth place of the Messiah. Thus, whereas the shepherds and Simeon and Anna were all Jews and belonged to the people of God, these men were outsiders who knew little of what God’s word had to say. And yet God invited them, and in fact went so far as to use a star to get them there!
The implications of their visit are obvious. God was showing the world that Christ is not merely the leader of the Jewish nation, but he is the King of all the world. He is the King of kings and Lord of lords. Even before the Great Commission was given by Christ to his disciples, God was bringing people from the nations to bow at the feet of Jesus and render worship and homage to him.
The visit of the Magi is a compelling reminder also that God’s people come from every kindred, tongue, people, and nation, and that it is wrong to associate the kingdom of God with a particular culture. That is to say, we must not mistake white-American culture with the culture of God’s kingdom. We need to remember that our culture has been molded by forces other than the gospel, and insofar as it is a product of this age, it also needs to be redeemed. A recent example of a failure to remember this can be seen in the brouhaha over "holy" hip-hop in certain circles, some condemning it, some defending it. Though I am not personally a fan of hip-hop, it does seem to me that those who condemn it are making the mistake of stamping the music of a certain culture (namely, European/Western) with God’s approval and condemning everything else. But our cultural sensitivities must not be mistaken for sanctified discernment, and we need to be ready to thank God that he is redeeming men and women in other cultures who then express their gratitude to him in ways appropriate to that culture.
The Entrance of the King
If you look back at the narratives involving Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, Simeon and Anna, and the Magi, they are not ultimately about them. They are about Christ, and the events in which they were involved only served to underline the uniqueness and the glory of the one they were invited to welcome into the world.
For example, Joseph and Mary are not the main point of the birth narrative. After the incident in the temple when Jesus was 12, we hear nothing further about Joseph. And even though Mary is one of whom “all generations shall call . . . blessed” (Luke 1:48), yet she is not accorded the worship in the New Testament that has for centuries characterized some sections of Christianity. Rather, they both recognized that they were only playing a small part in a bigger movement meant to highlight not their own but the glory of God. The bigger picture is that “She shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).
Also, when you read about the shepherds, you almost immediately forget about them as you are introduced to the angelic messenger and the choir that attended the scene. As Luke puts it in 2:9-14, “And lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shown round about them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; you shall find the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (or, “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” - ESV).
What is the point of this passage? It is not the shepherds, surely. It is about Christ, the fact that the news about his birth is news of great joy – that it is for all people (like the Magi) – that he is a Savior, Christ the Lord – and that in the mission of his Son God was getting glory to himself and bringing peace to men.
Or take Simeon and Anna. The entire point of the narrative, even the introduction to their characters, is to highlight not them but Christ. It is to announce that Jesus is God’s salvation (v. 30), that he is the light for both Jew and Gentile (v. 32). Similarly, as soon as Anna heard of the entrance of Jesus into the temple, Luke tells us that she “gave thanks . . . unto the Lord, and spake of him to all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem” (v. 39).
Or consider the Magi. The chief point of the narrative has little to do with the Magi themselves. Rather, Matthew is at pains to point out the fact that despite Herod’s claim to the throne, the true King of the Jews is not Herod but Jesus (Mt. 2:1-2). The gifts they bear are fit for a king (v. 11). Even the passage that is quoted to show the Magi the way points up to the Lordship of this baby: “And thou Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, art not the least among the princes of Judah: for out of thee shall come a Governor, that shall rule my people Israel” (v. 6).
None of us are important. Christ is the only one who is truly important. He is the only one who can save us from our sins, which is our greatest need. He alone can deliver from the wrath of the just and holy God who is able to destroy both body and soul in hell (Mt. 10:28). He alone is truly the King, invested with divine glory and honor and sovereignty. With the shepherds, with Simeon and Anna, with the Magi, we need to seek him. God’s word, which shines more brightly than the star of the Magi, points us to him (2 Pet. 1:19). They welcomed the Son of God into the world, and God is now inviting you to welcome his Son into your heart, to bow to him, to trust in him, to love and obey him. He is the only one worthy of real devotion, and he alone will not disappoint those who fully place their hope in him.
We need to see him for who he is. We need to seek him. We need to worship him. In doing so, we will find the joy announced by the angels to the shepherds, participate with Magi who rejoiced with great joy when they saw the star pointing the way to the manger, and join with Simeon who held the baby Jesus in his arms, his heart overflowing with gratitude and joy in seeing the Messiah, knowing that redemption had finally come.