In just a few weeks most of us will be hovering over a gastronomical feast preparing to eat much more than we should, appropriately celebrating the generosity of God towards us that is much more than we deserve.
Not long after, we will celebrate the most sublime example of that generosity, the greatest reason for giving such hearty thanks just weeks before—God come down. God getting low. God with us. Emmanuel.
Christmas starts the story of Jesus, the greatest tale ever told. But it is not really a tale at all, because the story is a true one. It is the most important part of the true Story of Reality.
What follows is an excerpt from The Story of Reality—How the World Began, How It Ends, and Everything Important that Happens in Between. In this part of the Story I answer the second of the two most important questions anyone could ever ask about the remarkable man from Nazareth: Why did He come? It is a question there is far too much confusion about, even for those who call the Story their own.
To answer that question I first want to tell what Jesus did not come to do. Then I want to tell you why He did come. It’s captured in the most important Christmas verse in the Bible you will never see printed on a Christmas card and you will never hear recited at a Christmas pageant. It tells of a rescue operation that formally started at Christmas, but ended in a dark event decades later. It tells the reason Jesus was born. It tells the reason God came down.
Now to our second question: What did Jesus come to do? Since there is more debate on this than there ought to be, we must first correct a misunderstanding. Sometimes knowing what Jesus did not come to do is almost as important as knowing what He did come to do, because a wrong understanding of the first can lead to confusion on the second.
So let us be clear. Jesus did not come to help us get along, or teach us to take care of the poor, or to restore “social justice.”1 To some, this assertion is a bold stroke, since they have been told just the opposite. This is because there are many noble people who are drawn to Jesus for His moral excellence (as they should be). However, often their admiration of His civic virtue has distracted them from a more important matter.
Their mistake is thinking that Jesus came principally to teach us how to live a better life. He did not. God had already sent many before with the kind of advice we need to hear, and there was no point in His personally coming down merely to repeat what had already been said. No, Jesus came for a different reason.
What I am going to say next will come as a shock to some, but here it is. You can eliminate every single thing Jesus ever said in His life about the poor and social justice, and still you will not undermine His main message one bit. As severe as that may sound, this is precisely what one of Christ’s closest followers actually did.
The Gospel of John is the last biography written on Jesus, and it came to us from His last surviving Apostle, the “beloved” disciple John, a member of Jesus’ intimate inner circle. Many think it the most elegant summary and most definitive statement of who Jesus was and what He came to do. Yet you can read from John’s first sentence to his last and you will not find a single word about helping the poor or restoring social justice. Not one. In John’s lone reference to the poor, Jesus is actually somewhat dismissive of them.2 That is not because He doesn’t care about them, but because He is comparing their situation with something far more important.
This observation about John’s account in itself seems enough to make the point about Jesus’ focus, but let’s go a bit further. Jesus gave four major discourses—the Sermon on the Mount, the Bread of Life Discourse, the Olivet Discourse, and the Upper Room Discourse.3 Only in the first does He mention the poor at all. Yet even here there are two qualifiers you must keep in mind.
First, in His Sermon on the Mount Jesus commends not the poor per se, but rather the poor in spirit. To them, He says, belongs the Kingdom of Heaven. There is a reason the Kingdom belongs to them—not because they are poverty stricken (their income is irrelevant to Jesus), but because they are morally broken and they know it.4 That is what “poor in spirit” means. Picture the tax collector in Jesus’ parable—hardly a destitute man—beating his breast pleading, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”5 This man proclaiming his spiritual poverty goes away justified, Jesus says, while the Pharisee, whose spiritual arrogance clouds his genuine spiritual need, does not.
The second qualifier I want you to keep in mind about Jesus’ comments on the poor is this. In the vast majority of cases where Jesus mentions the poor, He does so not to commend the poor as such, but to make a point about something else—hypocrisy, a widow’s generosity, Zaccheus’s repentance, the rich young ruler’s confusion, or a lesson about the afterlife.6 Even when He mentions them, the plight of the poor simply was not the focus of Jesus’ teaching.
Now, we must not conclude from this that Jesus didn’t care about the poor and so we need not care, either. He cared very much about them, and the Story has much to say about their situation. Do not miss, though, that He also cared about the rich and powerful. Jesus helped everyone and anyone who came to Him—poor beggar or prostitute, wealthy tax collector or Pharisee. The divide for Jesus was not between the poor and the rich, but between the proud and the repentant, regardless of income or social standing. Miss that, and you miss everything.
These are the facts we must face if we are to get Jesus right. “Social justice” is not the Gospel. It was not Jesus’ message. It was not why He came. His real message was much more radical. Jesus’ teaching—and the Story itself—focuses on something else. Not on the works of Christians, but rather on the work of Christ. That is what the Story teaches.
And so our question remains: Why did God come down? What was the reason He became a man? What did He come to earth to do? The Story tells us.
I want you to think for a moment about what the Story says about Christmas. Now when I say “Christmas,” I am not speaking of any of those things that usually come to mind when you think about the birth of Christ. I do not want you to think, for example, about shepherds or wise men or stables or mangers or anything like that. Those things all have their place, but they have nothing at all to do with my point.
I am talking about something in the Story you probably have never noticed. I want you to consider the most important Christmas verse in the Story that you will never see on a Christmas card, and you will never hear in a Christmas pageant because it is not in the accounts of Jesus’ birth at all. In fact, it does not appear anywhere in the record of His life. Instead, you find it in a dark and foreboding passage that speaks of blood and sacrifice and death. It is a section of the Story recounting a ghastly, grisly system of slaughter where bulls and goats were bled out, their innocent lives forfeit on behalf of others who were the guilty ones.
Now, I think it is obvious to just about everyone that animals can never really pay for people at all. The system of sacrifice God gave to the Hebrews, as important as it was, served only as a kind of sop, a temporary measure to cover man’s moral wound for the moment. It would never do in the long run, and it was not meant to. No, man owes the debt, and in the long run man, not creatures, must pay. And only a sinless man—someone with no debt of his own—could cover the debt of another. And only a man who was more than a man could ever pay for the sins of multitudes.
And this brings us to the most important Christmas verse you will never hear on Christmas. Here it is:
Therefore, when Christ came into the world, He said: “Sacrifice and offering You did not desire, but a body You prepared for Me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings You were not pleased. Then I said, ‘Here I am—it is written about Me in the scroll—I have come to do Your will, O God.’” (Heb. 10:5–7 NIV)
Note the opening words of this passage: “When Christ came into the world...” The Story is saying that on that first Christmas, in some incredible way the eternal Son of God in a baby’s body said to His Father, “Here I am. I will do as You have asked. I accept the body You have prepared for Me, the body that will bleed out in perfect payment for sin.”
And this is the answer to our question. This is why Jesus came to earth. God’s Son surrendered His sinless human self to be the future unblemished offering to perfectly and completely save sinners.
And this we do find in the birth narratives, everywhere. God tells Joseph that Mary “will give birth to a son, and you will give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins.” In the field that first Christmas night the angel tells the shepherds, “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you. He is the Messiah, the Lord.” Zacharias prophesies over his son, the infant John Baptist, saying John would go prepare the way for “the Lord,” and “give His people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins.” Thirty years later John points at the Lord Jesus Christ and says, “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”7
Each of these events echoes our unsung Christmas verse: “A body You prepared for Me.” The Lord. The Christ. The Savior. Emmanuel. God with us, who would die for us. The Lamb of God.
So, the Story tells us the precise reason the Son came to Earth. Not to teach love and peace and care for the poor, but to submit Himself to something unspeakably violent and brutal. That is why every crèche ought to have a cross hanging over it, because Jesus was born to die. And on this point Jesus speaks clearly:
- “God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him.” (Jn. 3:17 NIV)
- “The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” (Lk. 19:10 NIV)
- “I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.” (Lk. 5:32 NIV)
- “I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative.” (Jn. 10:17–18 NASB)
- “The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matt. 20:28 NIV)
I want you to think very carefully about Jesus’ last statement, because there are three questions we must answer to understand His meaning. The first is, “What is a ransom?” Well, a ransom is the price paid to purchase a hostage or a slave, of course. A ransom buys a body. Second, “Whose body does Jesus buy with the ransom?” He buys those who are held hostage. He pays a price to purchase sinners, rebels, and slaves. Finally, “What is the price He will pay?” Jesus will buy bodies by surrendering His own body. “A body You prepared for Me.” He will sacrifice Himself to save others.
So, Jesus came to earth to save sinners. The statement is so common to our ears, it is easy to miss its significance. “Save” means to rescue from imminent danger. Jesus came to rescue us because we were in danger. What was that danger? What was Jesus rescuing us from? Here is the answer. Jesus did not come to rescue us from our ignorance or our poverty or our oppressors or even from ourselves. Jesus came to rescue us from the Father. 8
Remember, the King is angry.9 He is the One who is offended. He is the One who is owed. He is the Sovereign we have rebelled against, the Father we have disobeyed, the friend we have betrayed. And that is a dangerous place for us to be. Jesus said, “Do not fear those who kill the body, but are unable to kill the soul, but rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in Hell.” Later in the Story we learn, “It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”10
That is the bad news. And it is very bad news, to be sure. Yet, without the bad news, the good news is not good. And the good news is very, very good. Here it is: The Father has mounted a rescue operation. There has been an invasion.11 God came down. “A body You prepared for Me.”
Jesus’ life was filled with many extraordinary deeds, so many, one of His disciples wrote, the world itself could not contain the books needed to record them.12 But there are two very particular things Jesus did that were vital to the rescue.
First, Jesus lived the life we should live, but do not. We rebel; He submitted. We sin; He obeyed. We live for self; He lived for the Father. We falter; He succeeded. He had no hint of sin, no darkness, no shadow. As one has put it, “He remained free, uncontaminated, uncompromised.”13 Jesus never failed, obeying even to the death. This no one has ever done. There was no one like Him.
Second, Jesus made a trade. He took His perfect life and He traded it for our rotten lives. He gets our badness—and the judgment and punishment that go with it. We get His goodness. We take His place, and He takes our place.
If that seems hard to imagine (and I understand completely if it does), let me offer something that might help. On a flight from Jacksonville to Miami I spoke with a dear Muslim woman about the differences between the God of Jesus and the God of Mohammed. I said that both were holy and both demanded we be holy, too, and there will be justice to pay because we are not. But on this issue of justice, I said, we come to an important distinction.
I asked the Muslim woman to imagine our plane being hijacked and the terrorists trying to drag her out onto the tarmac to kill her in front of cameras for all the world to see. I then asked her to imagine that I put my own body between hers and the attackers and said, “Don’t take her. Take me instead.” She said she could not imagine anyone doing that for her.
Yet this, I told her, is what God has done in Jesus. To satisfy justice, God came down. Not Allah; Yahweh. Not Mohammed; Jesus. God stepped out of Heaven and dwelt among us—“A body You prepared for Me”—and said to the Father, “Take Me instead.” That was the trade.
The trade took place on a small outcropping of rock outside the walls of ancient Jerusalem. It was called Golgotha, the place of the skull. We know it as Calvary, the place of the cross. It was the reason Jesus was born. It is the reason God came down.
[Taken from The Story of Reality by Gregory Koukl. Copyright © 2017 by Gregory Koukl. Used by permission of Zondervan (www.zondervan.com). Available from Stand to Reason in December 2016.]