CHRISTMAS SUNDAY 2008

 

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"The Cosmic Side of the Incarnation."

MESSAGE FOR CHRISTMAS SUNDAY 2008 FROM REVELATION 12:1-5

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As we think about the incarnation of Christ, it’s easy for us to isolate the event of Christ’s birth from the larger story of God’s overarching plan of redemption found in the Bible.  The Bible is such a magnificent book for several reasons, but one of them is its unity.  This unified story of redemption—of God who, for his glory retrieves lost humanity for himself through his Son Jesus Christ and restores his fallen creation.  That is the central story of the Bible.  There are however, many different strands within that one story line and one of these strands is captured in the second half of 1 John 3:8.  The apostle writes, “... The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” 

          That verse highlights one piece of this redemption story that runs through the Bible. This aspect of the story communicates the invisible spiritual conflict in the heavenly realms that is waged between God and the adversary, Satan.  One of the pivotal moments within that cosmic conflict is the incarnation of Jesus in Bethlehem.  This morning, we want to look at the incarnation through that “cosmic” lens.  As we trace this story line through the Old Testament leading up to the incarnation, we must never make the mistake of thinking that Satan is the one who initiates or in any way controls this war.  Throughout the Biblical narrative, Satan is never portrayed as God’s equal—he is merely the foil in this divine drama that God repeatedly uses to display his glory and supremacy as he wars against Satan and his destructive schemes against God and his redemptive plan for humanity.  In order to provide that context and pick up that militant thread of the redemption story, we need to go back to the beginning. 

          The first battle scene recorded in this heavenly conflict involving humans is captured in the creation story when God placed humanity on earth as his highest creation.  He uniquely created Adam and Eve in His own image and gave them his delegated authority over this world.  Through Adam and Eve, God was expressing his Kingdom—his sovereign rule over the world.  Adam was placed on this earth, along with Eve as vice regents under God and when they arrived, Satan in the form of the serpent soon makes his presence known.  We must see Satan’s temptation of Adam and Eve as a spiritual attack and it’s not fundamentally against humanity, but against God and his kingdom rule.  Graeme Goldsworthy says, “Since man had been created as the pinnacle of all creation, Satan attacked the kingdom of God at that point.  He decided to get at God through man.”  Adam, not the serpent had been given the authority to rule here.  The only way Satan could gain any authority over the world is if he could get Adam to forfeit his authority to rule by compelling him to rebel against his King, God. 

We know the tragic story of Genesis three where Adam did just that.  He committed treason against his King by violating the one prohibition God had given him—to not to eat of the tree of knowledge. When he rebelliously chose to follow Satan’s counsel rather than God’s, he forfeited his authority to rule under God and Satan took over temporary control of the world.  It’s crucial to remember that Satan did NOT defeat God, (!) only his representative, Adam.  This defeat obviously came as no surprise to an all-knowing God and it was in fact part of his plan to use Satan as his foil—so as to display more fully his power, his supremacy and his glory as he now worked to redeem this sin-soaked, wretched mess Adam had made.  In Genesis 3:15, God reveals in general terms his battle plan to redeem humanity, a plan established in eternity past.  That is—he will re-establish his kingdom in this world through another man of his choosing, yet to be born, whom he will send to conquer Satan.  God tells the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.”

          We must understand that part of what motivated Satan in all his attacks against God’s people was his wicked desire to prevent this divinely appointed, promised Conqueror from appearing and bringing the fullness of God’s kingdom reign to earth. With much help from fallen humanity, Satan brings about increasing levels of evil in the world and God, as part of his sovereign plan, destroys all humanity with a flood but preserves for himself one family—Noah’s, who will continue the human race and keep the door open for God’s Conqueror who is to come.  Then in Genesis 12—many hundreds of years and many generations later, God shows his hand and reveals a very important and specific piece of information about the identity of this one, this offspring of the woman who is to come.  Out of all the peoples on the earth, God’s Vanquisher who will crush Satan’s head will be born through the offspring of Abraham. God prophesies that his Champion, who would succeed where Adam failed, would be a Jew. 

          That means that if the Adversary could in some way destroy the Hebrews as a distinct people, that would ruin God’s plan of redemption.  One text where this ongoing cosmic assault to destroy God’s people is specifically taught is in Revelation chapter 12, where the apostle John through his apocalyptic language writes, “And a great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.  2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.  3And another sign appeared in heaven: behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and on his heads seven diadems.  4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to give birth, so that when she bore her child he might devour it.  5She gave birth to a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne,”

          John, in this apocalyptic section of the Bible paints a vivid picture using Old Testament imagery to describe the spiritual battle in the invisible, heavenly realm waged by the forces of darkness.  These forces lay behind the visible, recorded events of the history of Israel.  Many of these battles were, from Satan’s perspective, executed with the intention of preventing this Jewish Messiah from coming and defeating him.  We can’t do a detailed exposition, but let’s walk through the pertinent major symbols here, the meanings of which we find in the Old Testament.  First, John sees “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars.”  In this context, when we read of a woman who is pregnant and before whom a red dragon is standing with the plan of devouring the child at birth, many of us think of Mary, the mother of Jesus.  Certainly, Mary is the final expression of this, but the symbols here don’t allow us to limit this to just Mary, or even to say that this is mainly about Mary.  John is telling us about a spiritual conflict with a much wider scope than what was experienced by one teenage girl in Bethlehem.

          When John writes of “a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars,” his main reference is to God’s people, the Jews.  We know this because these same symbols are used to refer to Israel in the Old Testament.  Back in the story of Joseph in Genesis 37, do you remember how he refers to his brothers-who would, along with himself, make up the 12 tribes of Israel?  Genesis 37:9 says, “Then he [Joseph] dreamed another dream and told it to his brothers and said, “Behold, I have dreamed another dream.  Behold, the sun, the moon, and the eleven stars were bowing down to me.”  The eleven stars are the 11 progenitors of the tribes of Israel, minus himself.  The symbol of the crown in Revelation 13:1 also represents Israel.  We see this same symbol in Isaiah 62:3 where God says of Israel, “You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.”  Both the woman and the crown were established Old Testament symbols for his people, the Jews.  That means that John is saying in Revelation that from the time of the patriarchs, Satan had warred against the woman (Israel) who was as a nation “pregnant” with the Messiah.  He tried to destroy God’s people and in so doing “devour” or destroy this Jewish Messiah who would come from this Hebrew mother race.  Mary happened to be the young woman God chose to bless with the honor of being the biological mother of the Messiah, Jesus.  But Satan rightly saw Israel as the “mother” of the Messiah in this larger, ethnic sense.  That is John’s context in verse two when he writes of Israel, “2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pains and the agony of giving birth.”

          That verse is an overview of this cosmic strand of Old Testament history.  That Greek word translated “pains and agony” in the book of Revelation repeatedly refers to torment—that’s predominantly how John uses this word.  The symbolism tells us in the words of one scholar that Israel, “the woman and her children will be exposed to persecution, deception and corruption.”[1]  That’s a fair description of Jewish Old Testament history, isn’t it?  The ultimate source of that persecution, deception and corruption (with much cooperation from the Jews) is the Adversary.  Here in Revelation, John equips us with a militant lens through which to read and understand this piece of the Biblical story of redemption.  This satanic strategy--behind so much of the conflict in and around Israel, was decisively thwarted by God with the birth of the Jewish Messiah, Jesus to Mary in Bethlehem.  As we read the narrative in Luke chapter two with the angels singing “glory to God in the highest” in the skies above the shepherds, it’s important to remember that those angels were not the only ones on duty in this period of history.  There were other, dark angels who would once again work to kill the young King whose birth they had proven impotent to prevent. 

The red dragon, Satan, ultimately did stand before Mary, attempting to devour the child some time after he was born.  When Herod, having been tricked by the wise men, killed all the baby boys in Bethlehem, we must not separate that piece of human history from the spiritual battle being waged in the heavenlies revealed in Revelation 12.  Satan used a wicked ruler, King Herod, in a foiled attempt to “devour” as a baby our Deliverer, Jesus.  This was the same strategy he used 1500 years earlier when through Pharaoh, he tried to kill all the Jewish male babies in Egypt in an attempt to thwart the birth of another deliverer, Moses, whose life so clearly pointed to Christ.

          As we read the Old Testament through this lens John gives us in Revelation chapter 12, we can see this conflict—this attempt to destroy the Messiah through various satanic means throughout the history of God’s people. After Moses was born, God delivered his people from the bondage of Pharaoh and according to Exodus 12:12, God told Moses in preparation for the last plague against the first born of Egypt, “For I will pass through the land of Egypt that night, and I will strike all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, both man and beast; and on all the gods of Egypt I will execute judgments: I am the Lord.”  We know from what Paul says in First Corinthians 10:20 that there were demonic powers behind the false, idolatrous, pagan “gods of Egypt” on whom God executed his judgments.  It’s fascinating to notice that God defeated the demonic powers behind Pharaoh—he executed his judgments on them--as the Jews were eating the Passover meal.  The Passover--where a lamb was sacrificed and whose blood was used to protect the Jews from the wrath of God—a meal that pointed to the ultimate Passover Lamb, Jesus and his ultimate blood-shedding, Satan-defeating sacrifice.  That spiritual battle in Egypt was a foreshadowing of the ultimate battle that would be fought and won by God 1500 years later when He sacrificed THE Lamb of God on the cross.  When Jesus defeated the spiritual forces of darkness on the cross, “disarming the rulers and authorities, and putting them to open shame, by triumphing over them…” [Col. 2:15], our spiritual deliverance from the power of sin and death was won.

          Again, we see this spiritual attempt of the enemy to prevent the birth of the Messiah repeatedly throughout the Old Testament.  When the Jews came out of Egypt, they were only a few days past the Red Sea before they were bowing down before the same gods—the defeated demonic powers—of Egypt.  The rest of the Old Testament chronicles the sad story of the Jews again and again, being drawn away to the false gods—these demonic powers of the nations.  These were overtly satanic attempts to adulterously seduce the Jews away from their covenant God, Yahweh.  If the Jews had totally rejected their covenant God, they would have intermarried with the Canaanite peoples whose demonic powers they had worshipped and that would have irreparably polluted the blood line of Abraham.  The Jews would have been ethnically swallowed up by the other people and the promised lineage of the Messiah would have been erased.  That would have rendered void the promise of Genesis 12, that God would raise up from the Jews a devil-defeating Messiah, because the Jewish race would no longer exist as a people.

          When you read the genealogy of Jesus Christ beginning in the first verse of the New Testament in Matthew’s gospel, that’s not simply an interesting bit of historical record Matthew arbitrarily decided to include in his account.  Part of the purpose of that genealogy is to affirm that Jesus Christ did indeed, as promised, come directly from the line of Abraham.  He was indeed qualified to be a Satan-crushing Messiah.  When we read that seemingly tedious genealogy, we must never forget that every name on that list from Abraham, to David, to Jesus gloriously heralds the God-exalting truth that in spite of all Satan’s attempts to prevent the appearing of this Savior, God prevailed.  He preserved for himself a people—finally manifest in that young Jewish girl in Bethlehem who gave birth to our Deliverer, Jesus.  The red dragon failed in his attempt to destroy the promised Savior and after a few more, final engagements with the spiritual powers during the life of Jesus, Satan’s head was crushed on Calvary and we live in the wake of that glorious spiritual victory.

          Because the incarnation and the cross of Christ are inseparable, I want us to think for a moment about this victory God won through the Lamb of God on Calvary by asking two questions.  First, How did the cross of Christ defeat Satan’s weapons (or power) of sin, guilt and death?  It’s one thing to see that Christ once and for all established the kingdom of God through Calvary on a cosmic level, but on a the level where we live day in and day out, how did the cross defeat Satan’s power of sin, guilt and death over us?  The answer is in Colossians 2:13-15. When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, 14having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.  15And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.

John Piper does a great job of explaining in what sense Christ disarmed Satan’s rulers and authorities. “Satan still blinds people (2 Corinthians 4:4) and tempts (1 Thessalonians 3:5) and deceives (Revelation 20:3) and casts into prison (Revelation 2:10) and takes captive (2 Timothy 2:26) and destroys flesh (1 Corinthians 5:5).   He doesn’t LOOK disarmed or destroyed.  How then is he disarmed by the death of Jesus? One answer is that the death of Jesus nullified the damning effect (emphasis mine) of sin for all who trust in Christ.  The weapon of soul-destroying sin and guilt is taken out of Satan’s hand.  He is disarmed of the single weapon that can condemn us—unforgiven sin.  We see this in 1 Corinthians 15:55-57, “O death, where is your victory O death, where is your sting?  The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through Christ Jesus. The weapon, which Satan once used to condemn us and defeat us and ultimately kill us, now—after Calvary—drives us instead to Jesus where we find forgiveness and liberty and life in Him because on the cross Jesus stripped the lethal weapon out of Satan’s hand--he still has fangs but no lethal poison!  He’s loud and obnoxious and wants us to believe he is something, but Christ stripped the spiritually lethal weapons of sin and guilt out of his hand. 

       He “made a public spectacle of them.”  Jesus, suspended between heaven and earth was on display for all to see--all the people and all the angels of heaven—good and evil angels and in front of all that assembly, He perfectly obeyed the Father.  He took the worst Satan could dish out and he triumphed in the midst of it through his humble obedience to the Father.  Paul says He “triumphed over them.”  This is a powerful metaphor referring to what happens when a Roman general would return from a successful military campaign.  In a parade through the city, he would lead the captives through the streets to show the citizens of Rome the evidence of his complete victory.  That’s what happened on the cross--Satan went from being a cosmic ruler to a cosmic captive--conquered by the power of the blood of the Lamb.  The devil had dismally failed in his mission to defeat God’s Conqueror and his defeat was public and humiliating.  Like Hitler, who did not concede Germany’s defeat after D-Day, he knew it was over except for the clean up operation.  The decisive battle had been won, Christ will come once again to mop up, but the point for us is, we can walk in His victory.

       That leads us to our second question and that is, how should Christ’s victory at Calvary affect us?  Let me just share one major point of application we have been stressing in our Galatian study and that is--BELIEVE what the word of God says about Christ’s victory at Calvary.  Satan HAS been defeated and disarmed.  If you have accepted Chris by faith, your sins HAVE been forgiven.  Many believers live lives of defeat and joylessness for no other reason than they really don’t BELIEVE this message.  This is part of what John says in 1 John 5:4-5.  for everyone born of God overcomes the world.  This is the victory that has overcome the world, even our faith.  Who is it that overcomes the world?  Only he who believes that Jesus is the Son of God.”  Many in the church struggle with believing they are forgiven and that God has won the victory for them. They fall into legalism where they try to be righteous and acceptable to God by what they do independent of the cross.  These people when they sin think thoughts like, “What a miserable excuse for a Christian I am—how could God possibly use me?  How could God love me? I must be the worst sinner who ever claimed to be a Christian—no one else in the church could possibly think, feel or act the way I do.  I’m such a phony—I ought to right now stop this Christian charade and give up.  What’s the use?  I’ll never get it right.”  That’s not humility—that’s unbelief!

       When we think that way, we have stopped believing the gospel.  We are listening to the voice of our self-centered flesh or the defeated Accuser of the brethren, who is using the law to bring condemnation and guilt and death to us.  Don’t believe HIM or the condemnation you may feel so strongly—believe the word of God!  If you are in Christ, your sin has been forgiven.  Satan’s weapon of unforgiven sin (and the guilt and condemnation that brings) has been stripped away from him.  Too many professed believers don’t believe the message of the cross.  In that void of unbelief, Satan and his minions are more than happy to step in and press the condemning law and sink their harmless fangs into you, telling you the lie that you are hopelessly condemned and unforgivable.  We give him room to do that when we spend our time looking inward at all the sin in our hearts, instead of looking up to Jesus our Deliverer. 

Maybe you’re here today and you have never placed your trust in Christ to save you from sin.  It’s not about going to church or being a nice person.  It’s about admitting that you could never be good enough for God—that you have lived your life for you and not for God.  If you haven’t received Christ to pay for the penalty of that sin, do that today.  The gospel is for you too.  Run to Christ—place your trust in him and experience the joy of forgiveness.  In this time of year when we celebrate the incarnation, don’t forget to remember its militant context and rejoice over God’s victory in bringing our Deliverer to this world and for the victory that his birth ensured.  May God give us the grace to live in the light of that victory.


[1]The Book of Revelation, Beale, NIGTC, p.627

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