This time of year in the Christian calendar is called advent, consisting of the weeks (beginning with the fourth Sunday before Christmas) leading up to the celebration of the birth of our Savior on December 25. Traditionally, it was not just a time, however, of thinking only about the first coming of our Lord, but also about his second coming. This perspective has been largely lost, and I think it is bad for the church that it has been lost. We are impoverishing our celebration of the Incarnation of Christ when we think about it in terms divorced from his Triumphant Return. For when we do this, we inevitably turn Christmas into a sort of sentimentalism instead of the courage-inspiring and hope-giving event that it really was.
So in order to help us think rightly in this season, I want us to consider what kind of hope our Lord’s birth was meant to give. And to do that, I want to take you, not to the manger or the to the fields in which the shepherds met the worshipping angles or to little village of Bethlehem, but I want to take you to a dusty road that led from Jerusalem to Emmaus. And I don’t want to take you to the day of our Lord’s birth or to the moments before he first came into this world, but I want to take you to the first few days after he was crucified. And I want us to put ourselves in the shoes (or should I say sandals?), not of Joseph and Mary or of the wise men or of the shepherds, but of Cleopas and his companion.
They were on this road when a stranger met them. We know the stranger was the risen Lord, but the text says that “their eyes were holden that they could not known him” (16). They had been talking over the events of the crucifixion and were obviously perplexed and visibly shaken and sad. They didn’t know what to think of it. So our Lord asks them, in order to draw them out in conversation, “What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?” (17). They are surprised he doesn’t know about what happened to Jesus, and so they put it to him in this way. They were talking, they said, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, which was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people: and how the chief priests and our rulers delivered him to be condemned to death, and have crucified him” (19-20).
This alone would be tragic, and enough to call forth the sympathies of our hearts. But the fact that Jesus was a mighty prophet and miracle-worker who was crucified was not the reason they were in mourning. It was for this reason: “But we trusted [Gk, had hoped] that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel: and beside all this, today is the third day since these things were done” (21). These words “we trusted that it had been he which should have redeemed Israel” puts the focus on why these men were sad and why their hopes in Christ had been crushed. These words show us what our hope should and should not be, and that is what I want to consider with you in this message.
The redemption of Israel
However, in order to understand the categories of what our hope should be, we need to get a handle on what these men meant by the redemption of Israel. For this was the object of their hope. They had hoped that Jesus was the one to do this, and his death had buried these hopes in despair. A dead Messiah doesn’t redeem Israel.
But what is this redemption? Well, to answer this question, we do need to go back before the birth of Christ to the birth of his predecessor John the Baptist. When he was born, his father Zacharias made this prophecy under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit (Lk. 1:67):
Blessed be the Lord God of Israel; for he hath visited and redeemed his people, and hath raised up an horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David; as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets, which have been since the world began; that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us; to perform the mercy promised to our fathers, and to remember his holy covenant; the oath which he sware to our father Abraham, that he would grant unto us, that we being delivered out of the hand of our enemies might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life. And thou, child, shalt be called the prophet of the Highest: for thou shalt go before the face of the Lord to prepare his ways; to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the forgiveness of their sins, through the tender mercy of our God, whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us, to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace (Lk. 1:68-79).
There are a number of features from this prophecy that point us to what it meant for Israel to be redeemed.
First, this redemption is an act of God: “Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he hath . . . redeemed his people” (68). It is not something we can do for ourselves. This is significant, for if Jesus is the one who brings redemption, then he is not just some prophet mighty in deed; he is the Son of God – he is the God of Israel.
Second, this redemption is something promised in the Scriptures: “as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets.” It was promised to the fathers (72), and in particular to Abraham (73). It is therefore something which needs to be understood in the categories given to us in the Bible. It is not something we get to decide what it is; we don’t get to decide how redemption is done or what constitutes it. For that we must look in the pages of God’s holy word.
One of the things promised in the Scriptures is that the redeemer would come from the house of David (69). No other redeemer or prophet or miracle-worker will do – he must be the son of Abraham and the son of David.
Third, this redemption brings salvation from the hostility of this world: “that we should be saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us” (71). Here we begin to see the comprehensive nature of this redemption. It is not a privatized or merely inward thing; it is something which involves all God’s people and their deliverance from suffering imposed upon them by their enemies. As a result, God’s people will be able to “serve him without fear” (74).
Fourth, this redemption brings salvation from bondage to sin: “in holiness and righteousness before him, all the days of our life” (75). This defines how God’s people serve him – they serve him in holiness and righteousness. Any salvation that does not ultimately free God’s people from the defilements of sin is no salvation at all.
Fifth, this redemption brings salvation from the guilt and penalty of sin: “to give knowledge of salvation unto his people by the remission of their sins” (77). God’s people are not only saved from the grip of sin; they are also saved from the guilt of sin, from its penalty and its power.
Sixth, this redemption brings salvation from the death and the grave: “to give light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (79). As a result, this redemption gives peace and hope.
Now remember that this is a prophesy uttered under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. This is not just Zacharias’ fallible stab at what he thinks is going to happen. This is not just a religious experience which he was trying to interpret in ways that merely reflected his human understanding of things. No, rather, this is revelation communicated infallibly through a Spirit-inspired priest. What we have here is God’s authoritative interpretation of what is meant by the redemption of Israel.
Now I know that some folks (our dispensationalist friends, for example) will want to separate prophesies about Israel from prophesies about the church. But you can’t always do this; the New Covenant is a clear example. The New Covenant was given in terms of Israel and Judah, but it is clearly a covenant for the church (the Lord’s Supper is also a witness to this). As Paul will say to the Gentile Galatians, those who walk according to the rule of the gospel belong to “the Israel of God” (Gal. 6:16). Those who are of faith are the sons of Abraham and inheritors of the promise made to him (Gal. 3:7). Thus, when Zacharias and the guys on the road to Emmaus speak in terms of the redemption of Israel, we are not wrong when we apply this to those who trust in and follow Jesus as Lord and Savior. These promises belong to us.
When we look at Zacharias’ prophesy, we will notice that this is not something which can be fulfilled completely in this age and on this planet where Satan now rules. This is a prophesy which will only be fully brought to pass when all the enemies of the people of God are destroyed. And when will this be? Again, the apostle Paul tells us: “For he must reign until he has put all enemies under his feet. The last enemy that shall be destroyed is death” (1 Cor. 15:25-26). In other words, redemption is fully realized when God’s people have through Christ defeated death in the resurrection of their bodies. Thus, Paul talks about “the redemption of the body” (Rom. 8:23) which will happen at the same time that this groaning universe will be freed from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. Salvation is not completed until the glorification of the saints (Rom. 8:30). Hence, when our Lord foretold his Second Coming to the disciples, he put it in terms of redemption: “And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh” (Lk. 21:27-28).
The prophesy of Zacharias points to this. Redemption is about salvation from our enemies and from death. It is a comprehensive salvation that involves salvation from all aspects of sin, from its penalty, power, and presence.
Now it is true that the disciples didn’t understand every aspect of redemption, but they knew that there was no redemption apart from deliverance from sin and death. They knew that redemption meant the coming of the kingdom and a new heavens and a new earth. Thus when they said that they had been hoping that Jesus was the one who was to redeem Israel, they meant that they had believed that Jesus was the one to usher in God’s kingdom and to bring salvation from the sin introduced when Adam and Eve rebelled against God at the beginning. And they knew that if he was dead, he could never bring this to pass. That is why their hopes were smashed.
Before we go further, let me ask you this: if Jesus had never risen from the dead, would the meaning of Christmas change for you? Because that is how things appeared to Cleopas and his friend. They would have gotten no comfort from the manger and the birth of Christ if he had never risen from the dead. For the fact that he appeared to be dead was the end of their hope in him. Now if the significance of Christmas doesn’t hinge on his resurrection and future coming, then I submit to you that you do not have a Christian view of the meaning of the event we celebrate on that day. We can only celebrate Christmas correctly when we share in the hopes that these men had. But it also means that we shed hopes that have no part in the redemption of Israel.
Christmas is not about a generic joy and peace that can be shared by everyone and anyone. It’s not about feeling good about everyone. It’s not about family get-togethers, though we ought to value our family. It’s about the redemption of Israel.
Our hope is not in this world but in the world to come.
The redemption of Israel was never expected to be accomplished along the lines of this world’s systems and structures. The hope was not for this world to get better; the hope was for a new world. Our Lord did not come into this world because it was good; he came into this world because it stinks, and it stinks up to high heaven. He came not to rearrange the furniture but to start over. “Nevertheless we, according to his promise, look for a new heavens and a new earth, wherein dwelleth righteousness” (2 Pet. 3:13). That does not mean that we don’t try to make this world better by being salt and light where we are. But it does mean that our hopes are not pinned on this world as such. Our hopes are fixed on the age to come: “Looking for that blessed hope and the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior Jesus Christ” (Tit. 2:13).
Sometimes you hear the message of the angels repeated out of context: “On earth peace, good will toward men” (Lk. 2:14). This is made to be an assertion of some kind of general good feeling toward everyone. But this is not the meaning of the text. The peace is a peace which Christ will bring, and this is not peace for the world as it is. It is not a peace for everyone but for those who belong to Christ. It is a peace which will only come when sin in all its dimensions has been defeated: “These things I have spoken to you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world” (Jn. 16:33). In the world as it now is we can expect only tribulation. How then comes the peace which is promised? It comes through the overthrow of this world, through our Lord overcoming the world by bringing in a new one in the age to come.
In other words, contrary to much of what passes as “Christmas spirit,” which is little more than a fondness for the good life in the here and now, the hope which the birth of Christ was meant to bring is a hope in age to come. And this would have of course been impossible apart from our Lord’s rising from the dead and coming again.
There is an important word here for us in the cultural currents in which we presently find ourselves. As more and more people jettison any semblance of Christian commitment, they are having to put their hopes elsewhere. Most often, these hopes are this-worldly in scope and content. And as a result, the hopes of such people usually end up landing in politics and political parties. And we see what happens when hope which should be in God and in the redemption which he brings in the world to come gets retooled for this-world-change through the agents of political agendas: you get angry and bitter and violent people. They are angry and bitter and even violent because they are hoping from people and political parties what only God can do through his Son and the Holy Spirit. Unfortunately, even genuine Christians can get wrapped up in this. This happens when we forget that righteousness and peace will never be found before our Lord’s coming and kingdom, when we try to create with our own hands what only Christ can do.
Now I’m not saying that there is no place for politics or for trying to be agents for justice and righteousness in this world. Of course we should be salt and light in the here and now. But we do so without ever putting our hopes in this world. Our hope is in Christ and in the redemption that he will bring; our hopes can never be in the structures and systems of this world.
The Incarnation is not about little Timmy getting his Christmas wish. It is about the reality that Christ came to die upon a cross as a substitutionary sacrifice so that sin would be finished one day. It is about his ushering in through his death this reality: “And there shall be no more curse: but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it; and his servants shall serve him: and they shall see his face; and his name shall be in their foreheads. And there shall be no night there; and they need no candle, neither light of the sun; for the Lord God giveth them light: and they shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 22:3-5).
We are impoverishing ourselves when we turn Christmas into a this-worldly thing. We are impoverishing ourselves when we settle for anything less than the complete reversal of the curse. As Isaac Watts put it:
This is what Christ came to bring. This is the reason he was born. And this is what we are to hope in: the extension of the blessings of salvation in Christ “far as the curse is found.” Nothing less than that!
How are we to think about this world?
This doesn’t mean that we give up on this world, or retreat into little Christian enclaves and disappear from society. The point is that we can only view this world and its affairs rightly when we approach it from the perspective of eternity.
Think about what Cleopas said. He acknowledged that Jesus of Nazareth performed mighty miracles (Lk. 24:19). Jesus “went about doing good” (Acts 10:38). He healed a lot of people. He gave hungry people food. He raised the dead. He gave lepers their lives back again. He cast out demons. I can’t imagine a more productive and fruitful ministry. These disciples knew that; they saw that. And yet their response was not, “We’re sad, but what a ministry! We’re sad, but at least a lot of people had their physical and psychological needs met.” That’s not what they said: despite all that, despite the power of Christ’s ministry while here on earth, his death left them hopeless. It’s as if it all counted for nothing – which in fact it would have, had not Christ risen from the dead!
What then was the point of all these miracles and demonstrations of God’s might in his Son? The point was not to make the world a better place. It was to point people to the coming kingdom of God. When John the Baptist came, he told people that the kingdom of God was coming (Mt. 3:2). Jesus himself went about “preaching the gospel of the kingdom” (Mt. 4:23). But the kingdom will not come in its fullness until Christ returns, for when the disciples asked the Lord after his resurrection when the kingdom would come, he didn’t tell them that it had already come but that when it should happen was none of their concern (Acts 1: 6-8). The fact that we are to continually pray, “Thy kingdom come,” is an indication that it has not yet come in all its glory (Mt. 6:10). And yet our Lord could say to people in his day, “The kingdom of God is [among] you” (Lk. 17:21).
How? I think the Transfiguration of Christ gives us an indication. In every single instance in the gospels, the account of the Transfiguration is preceded by our Lord saying that some of his disciples would not taste death until they had seen the kingdom of God come in power (cf. Mt. 16:28; Mk. 9:1; Lk. 9:27). Then Peter, James, and John went up on the mountain and saw the Transfigured Christ. It was a preview of the coming glory of Christ in the fulness of his kingdom. In the same way, the miracles of Christ were the inbreaking of the future kingdom into the present. They were not just wonders, they were signs, signposts pointing people to the kingdom of God in which God’s power would no longer allow things like sin and suffering. They were not meant to give people hope that this world could be a better place, but that God is going to bring in a better world where such things do not exist.
In the same way, the Christian is meant to be a wonder, a sign, to a world in darkness (cf. Ps. 71:7). We are lampposts in a world which is shrouded in the night of sin. We are miracles of the power of God who has given us life in his Son. We are meant to show the goodness of God as much as we can to as many as we can. So we are not to retreat from this world. We are to be in the world, even as we are not of it (Jn. 17:16-18). We too are to go about doing good. But we do good, not out of hope in this world, but as pointing people to the next.
This is how the NT argues. Hence Paul exhorts Timothy, “Charge them that are rich in this world, that they be not high-minded, nor trust in uncertain riches, but in the living God, who giveth us richly all things to enjoy; that they do good, that they be rich in good works, ready to distribute, willing to communicate; laying up in store for themselves a good foundation against the time to come, that they may lay hold on eternal life” (1 Tim. 6:17-19). How do you motivate the Christian to do good in this world? You motivate them with Biblical motivation when you have them do good out of their hope in the age to come, by laying hold on eternal life. Not to try to create a Utopia in this world, but by being pointers to a future world in which righteousness dwells.
So how do should our hope be inspired in this Christmas season, as we ponder the coming of Christ into this world, to be born of a woman, made under the law? We are to see the incarnation of Christ as the promise of redemption from the curse, the rescue of Israel – God’s people – from sin in all its dimensions, a redemption and rescue that can only be fulfilled in the future physical resurrection of our bodies in a new heaven and new earth. And we have great reason to hope for that. For Christ has come, died, and rose from the dead. Having come once, can we doubt that he will come again? He will come. And so we say, as we love the Lord born in a manger, “Even so, come [again], Lord Jesus!” (Rev. 22:20).