My Favorite Version of the Christmas Story

… is of course the version with the dragon in it — Revelation 12:1–6.

I discuss this passage in my book Lit! to show the spiritual value of dragons (see pages 85–86). But here’s the gist of Revelation 12:1–6 in the words of D. A. Carson in his outstanding book Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway, 2010):

The scene is grotesque. The dragon stands in front of the woman. She is lying there in labor. Her feet are in the stirrups, writhing as she pushes to give birth, and this disgusting dragon is waiting to grab the baby as it comes out of the birth canal and then eat it (12:4). The scene is meant to be grotesque: it reflects the implacable rage of Satan against the arriving Messiah.

Do we not know how this works out in historical terms? The first bloodbath in the time of Jesus takes place in the little village of Bethlehem — in the slaughter of the innocents as Herod tries to squash this baby’s perceived threat to his throne.

Jesus is saved by Joseph, who is warned by God in a dream and flees to Egypt. Herod, in a rage, “gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). Satan later manifests his rage against Jesus in the temptation, and he manifests his rage against the church in every temptation. Satan’s rage manifests itself when some people try to push Jesus over a cliff, and others take up stones to stone him. Satan is after Jesus and wants to destroy him by any means possible.

Behind all these attempts to destroy Jesus is the red dragon, and behind the red dragon is God himself, bringing to pass his purposes even in the death of his Son to bring about our redemption.

But the text does not go on to talk about Jesus’ triumph here, not because this book has no interest in him but because the triumph of Jesus has already been spectacularly introduced in Revelation 4–5. The great vision of Revelation 4–5 controls the entire book. There we learn that Christ, this male child, is the only one who is fit to open the scroll in God’s right hand to bring about all of God’s purposes for judgment and blessing. He is the Lion and the Lamb, the reigning king and the bloody sacrifice, the heir to David’s throne yet the one who appears from God’s throne. Because of his struggle, men and women from every tongue and tribe and people and nation are redeemed. Countless millions gather around him who sits on the throne and the Lamb and sing a new song of adoring, grateful, praise.

But here in Revelation 12 we move from Jesus’ birth to his ascension; we run through his entire life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension in two lines: he “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter” and “was snatched up to God and to his throne” (v. 5). The male child, Jesus, is born and snatched to heaven. In other words, this passage focuses not on Christ’s triumph — that is presupposed — but on what happens to the woman and her children, the ones left behind. And that is us: the messianic community, the people of God, the blood-bought church of Jesus Christ. This side of the cross they are described as “those who obey God’s commands and hold the testimony of Jesus” (v. 17). The woman (the messianic community) is the focus of the passage.

Why Advent Should Be Slow

Slow is bad in the modern vernacular, but around this time of the year the slow celebration of Advent serves as a reminder of just how right and precious slow is the plan of God. Take the lesson from Octavius Winslow and the words he penned in his book The Glory of the Redeemer (1844):

The entire theocracy of the Israelites was interwoven with a system of symbols and types of the most significant and instructive character. It was thus the wisdom and the will of God that the revelation of Jesus to the Church should assume a consecutive and progressive form. Not a sudden but a gradual descent to the world, marked the advent of our adorable Redeemer.

The same principle of progressiveness is frequently seen in a saving discovery of Christ to the soul. Not by an immediate and instantaneous revelation, not by a single glance of the mind, is Jesus always made known and seen. Long and slow is often the process. “Unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise” [Malachi 4:2]. Observe, it is a gradation of light. The Sun rises – beam follows beam, light expands, Christ is more known; more known, He is more admired; more admired, He is more loved; and more loved, He is more implicitly obeyed and devotedly served. Thus, the “path of the just is as the shining light, which shines more and more unto the perfect day” [Proverbs 4:18].

Thus has been the revelation of Christ’s glory to the Church of God. In her infancy – her nonage – she was placed “under tutors and governors, until the time appointed by the Father.” Not prepared to sustain the sudden and full revelation, God disciplined and trained her by various types and ceremonies; thus, wisely, and, it must be admitted, graciously, shadowing forth His dear Son by gradual but increasingly clear and luminous discoveries, until the “fulness of time was come” [Galatians 4:4], when He appeared the great Antitype of all the types, the glowing substance of all the shadows, the full signification of all the symbols, the “brightness of the Father’s glory, the express image of His person” [Hebrews 1:3].

I will not be offended if you rush past this blog post on to the next thing in your busy day. But please don’t rush too fast past Advent this year. Take it in slowly, take it in at Godspeed.

The Cradle

A Christmas poem by Eugene Peterson published in his book, The Contemplative Pastor (1989), page 169:

The Cradle

For us who have only known approximate fathers
And mothers manqué, this child is a surprise:
A sudden coming true of all we hoped
Might happen. Hoarded hopes fed by prophecies,

Old sermons and song fragments, now cry
Coo and gurgle in the cradle, a babbling
Proto-language which as soon as it gets
A tongue (and we, of course, grow open ears)

Will say the big nouns: joy, glory, peace;
And live the best verbs: love, forgive, save.
Along with the swaddling clothes the words are washed

of every soiling sentiment, scrubbed clean of
All failed promises, then hung in the world’s
Backyard dazzling white, billowing gospel.

On Christmas Gatherings

From J. C. Ryle’s book, Practical Religion (London: 1900), chapter 11:

In town and in country, among rich and among poor, from the palace to the workhouse, Christmas cheer and Christmas parties are proverbial things. It is the one time in the twelvemonth with many for seeing their friends at all. Sons snatch a few days from London business to run down and see their parents; brothers get leave of absence from the desk to spend a week with their sisters; friends accept long-standing invitations, and contrive to pay a visit to their friends; boys rush home from school, and glory in the warmth and comfort of the old house. Business for a little space comes to a standstill: the weary wheels of incessant labour seem almost to cease revolving for a few hours. In short, from the Isle of Wight to Berwick-on-Tweed, and from the Land’s End to the North Foreland, there is a general spirit of “gathering together.”

Happy is the land where such a state of things exists! Long may it last in England, and never may it end! Poor and shallow is that philosophy which sneers at Christmas gatherings. Cold and hard is that religion which pretends to frown at them, and denounces them as wicked. Family affection lies at the very roots of well-ordered society. It is one of the few good things which have survived the fall, and prevent men and women from being mere devils. It is the secret oil on the wheels of our social system which keeps the whole machine going, and without which neither steam nor fire would avail. Anything which helps to keep up family affection and brotherly love is a positive good to a country. May the Christmas day never arrive in England when there are no family meetings and no gatherings together!

But earthly gatherings after all have something about them that is sad and sorrowful. The happiest parties sometimes contain uncongenial members: the merriest meetings are only for a very short time. Moreover, as years roll on, the hand of death makes painful gaps in the family circle. Even in the midst of Christmas merriment we cannot help remembering those who have passed away. The longer we live, the more we feel to stand alone. The old faces will rise before the eyes of our minds, and the old voices will sound in our ears, even in the midst of holiday mirth and laughter. People do not talk much or such things; but there are few that do not feel them. We need not intrude our inmost thoughts on others, and especially when all around us are bright and happy. But there are not many, I suspect, who reach middle age, who would not admit, if they spoke the truth, that there are sorrowful things inseparably mixed up with a Christmas party. In short, there is no unmixed pleasure about any earthly “gathering.”

But is there no better “gathering” yet to come? Is there no bright prospect in our horizon of an assembly which shall far outshine the assemblies of Christmas and New Year,—an assembly in which there shall be joy without sorrow, and mirth without tears?

Keep the X in Xmas!

It’s been said “Xmas” is a seasonally attempt by subversive secularists to kick Christ out of Christmas. I don’t doubt that is the intent of some folks. But the reality is the Greek spelling of the name Christ starts with an X (Χριστός).

In fact, the early Church often referred to Christ simply by his first Greek initial (X), or more commonly by overlapping his first two initials (XP). The simple cross (X) of course carried double meaning for those early Christians, and for us today.

So in that sense there’s not only a Christ in Xmas but also a Calvary. Far from a secularist attack, “Xmas” reminds us of Christ, his birth, and his cross, all at once.