THE BABE OF BETHLEHEM
Dr. W. A. Criswell
Luke 2: 7
12-23-56 10:50 a.m.
You are listening to the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas. This is the pastor bringing the morning message, a Christmas message, from the second chapter of the Third Gospel; Luke 2. And the reading from the Word is from the first through the seventh verses; the text is the seventh verse:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.
(This enrollment was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger,
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them,
And the angel said, Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy,
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord,
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,
And they made haste to see this marvelous thing that had come to pass, which had been made known to them by an angel chorus from heaven.
And thus the first Christmas story.
Not in all literature, not in all history, is there anything comparable to the pageantry, the great sweeping, moving, human appeal of Christmas. Its symbolism has come to bring to hearts of all the races of the world a noble expectancy, one other than which we had heretofore never thought for, never known, never cherished. It was an interposition of God: a new thing, a marvelous thing, a heavenly thing.
The star is set eternal in God’s sky. The smoke and the flame of war may hide it from our sight; but it always shines. This angel chorus, "Peace on earth," sung at a time of universal peace, and an ideal and objective ever since. And the shepherds seeking the newborn Child [Luke 2:8-15], and the magi coming to worship at His feet [Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12], the humble and the poor are welcome to come, the rich, the learned, the affluent may inquire: all of humanity, welcome. The gifts – gold and frankincense and myrrh – a sign of universal giving, and the holy family, Joseph and Mary and the Child, an endless subject of art, of song, of poetry, of gladness; the symbolism of Christmas has reached to the farthest corners of the earth and is a part of the rich inheritance of the Christian faith. But oh, there is so much and infinitely more!
Wise men, old rabbis, people who love God, pored through these Scriptures for the centuries and the centuries and found a stream of prophecy like the Gulf Stream, warm and life-giving, laving the shores of the Old World; so they found through the Holy Scriptures a great stream of prophecy. And they looked forward to a Child of promise. In Genesis He was to be the Seed of the woman – of the woman – that would bruise the serpent’s head [Genesis 3:15]. In the forty-ninth chapter of Genesis, the prophet Jacob points out Judah, and says, "Judah, thou art he whom thy brethren shall praise" [Genesis :8]; Judah, "praise." "For a lawgiver shall not depart from between his feet, nor the scepter from his hand, until Shiloh come; and unto Him shall the gathering of the people be" [Genesis :10]; born of the woman [Galatians 4:4], born of Abraham, of Isaac, of Jacob, born of Judah. And Moses said, in the eighteenth [chapter] of Deuteronomy, "Of your own brethren shall God raise up a Prophet, like unto me; unto Him shall ye hearken" [Deuteronomy 18:15]. He is to be a great Prophet, like unto Moses.
And the song increases, and the tempo is faster, and the crescendo rises: He is to be the Son of David, upon a throne that shall never end [2 Samuel 7:16]. Then the prophets see, with sight clearer than if that had stood in the very presence of the fulfillment themselves:
For unto us a Son is given, and unto us a Child is born: and the government shall be upon His shoulder: and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.
There shall come forth a Rod out of the stem of Jesse, and a Branch shall grow out of his roots: And the Spirit of the Lord shall be upon Him.
For behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Child, and they shall call His name Immanuel, God is with us.
But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the princes of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come who shall rule My people Israel.
As the old prophets pored through the Book, the Child of promise, their hearts were lifted in that hope and in that prayer that the day would come in their time, and they might look upon its fulfillment. Even as old Simeon prayed, saying, "Now Lord, let Thy servant depart. . .for mine eyes have seen Thy salvation. . .and the glory of the Lord" [Luke 2:28-32].
Not only was that hope kindled by this Child of promise through the pages of the Book, but the whole world in that first century was alive and great with the expectancy of a new deliverer that was to come to heal the wounds and the hurt of the world. Suetonius and Tacitus were contemporaries with the later apostles; and in their histories they describe the spirit of expectancy and of hope that out of the East there would come in that cruel day a deliverer for the people.
I have never read except in God’s Word a more beautifully poetic poem of the coming of the Christ, than that written by Virgil in his Fourth Eclogue. Virgil died in 19 BC, nineteen years before Christ. But there was given to that prophet – a pagan poet, but a man whose heart sought God – there was given to the Latin poet Virgil, their greatest singer and seer, a revelation that he wrote down in his Fourth Eclogue; and I read it here, written nineteen years before Christ: "Lo," says Virgil,
Lo, the last age of the seer has come.
Again the great millennial eon dawns,
And from high heaven descends the firstborn Child of promise.
Smile softly on the Babe.
The age of iron in its time shall cease,
And golden generations shall fill the world.
For thou, fair Child, the lavish earth shall spread the earliest playthings,
Thy very cradle, blossoming for joy,
Shall with soft buds caress thy baby face.
The treacherous snake and deadly herb shall die,
And Syrian spikenard blow on every bank.
Come, dear child, claim thine honors, for the time draws nigh;
Babe of immortal race, the wondrous seed of God
Lo, at thy coming, how the starry spheres are moved to trembling, and the earth below.
O, if but life would bring me days enough, and breath not all too scant to sing thy deeds.
Come, child, and greet thy mother with a smile;
Ten weary waiting months her love has known.
Come, little child.
Can you believe that? Virgil, a heathen, pagan poet, nineteen years before Jesus was born, and write a paean, a song like that. I say he but reflected the expectancy of the whole world that at that time there should be born in the East Him who is to be the Savior of the world.
Was it any cause for surprise, therefore, when the magi, the Parsee priests, the wise men, came from the East, saying, "Where is He that is born King? We have seen His star, and are come to worship Him" [Matthew 2:2]. And those who had been searching the Word of God gave answer to the Parsee priests: Bethlehem. "Thou little Bethlehem, little among the cities of Judah, but out of thee shall come the Prince to rule My people" [Micah 5:2; Matthew 2:6]. What a day! What a day!
As we look upon that scene ourselves, there is a hush, and an awe, and a mystery about the coming of that Child that is beyond what a man might fathom, what mind could enter into, much less what tongue could explain. For this thing that has come to pass, as great and as miraculous and as inexplicable as any child’s birth is, and there’s no man can say how the soul of a child is created, and how life is made to bloom and to flower, save the miraculous interposition of God, God’s hand – so here, how much more elevated and exalted as we look upon the mystery of this divine thing that comes to pass, when God is clothed in human flesh. "Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son; and His name shall be, God is with us" [Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23].
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us. And of His grace have all we received" [John 1:1, 14, 16]: truth for truth, love for love, mercy for mercy, revelation for revelation, grace for grace, grace on top of grace; the Word made flesh.
"He who, being in the form of God" [Philippians 2:6] – God has a form, a morphos. I can’t explain it, but I still say it is wrong for us to think of God as some evanescent, intangible, ethereal nothingness. God has a form. I do not know what God’s form is; but the Book says God has a form. God is somebody. God is a personality. God is like a man, except infinitely more wise, and able, and omnipotent, and omniscient, and omnipresent. I cannot describe, I do not know, I have not language, my tongue fails me; but God has a form, an image. And a man is created in the image of God [Genesis 1:27]; and Jesus was in that form. "Who, being in the form of God, thought it not a thing to be grasped, to be held onto, to be God, to be equal with God: But poured Himself out, and made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him" – and there’s that word again – "and took upon Him the morphos, the form of a man." God has a form, and a man has a form created in the image of God, and Jesus Christ took upon Him in this birth, this virgin birth [Matthew 1:23], He took upon Him the form of a man, "and was made in likeness as a man. And being found in fashion as a man, He became obedient unto death; even the death of the cross. Therefore God hath also highly exalted Him" [Philippians 2:6-9]. Our God Christ has a human form now: He has a frame, He has flesh, He has bones, He is a man among His brethren, proud to be called one of us.
And that leads me to this great holy observation: the great purpose of this incarnation was that the Son of God, our Savior, our brother, might be the mediator between us and heaven [1 Timothy 2:5]. He represents God to us; came for that purpose, that we might know the Father. Philip, Philip: "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father" [John 14:9]. What is God like? Jesus. When a man knows Jesus, he knows God. When he listens to the word of Jesus, he listens to God. When he obeys Jesus, he obeys God. When he follows Jesus, he follows God. When he loves Jesus, he loves God. What is God like? Jesus. "He that hath seen Me hath seen the Father."
Not only that, but He is a mediator between man and God. Here is another mystery. And as I said it in words to myself and then wrote it out, I said, "That’s not true"; and yet it is true. There are truths you can’t catch in language, and you can’t put it down in words. And when I thought through the message, to say it here this morning, I thought, "That’s not true." And yet it is true. This is it: for God to know a man, God had to be a man. Is that a denial of the omniscience of God, of God’s ableness to penetrate our hearts, to understand our motives, to live in our minds, to ferret out the most deepest recesses of our being? No, I do not deny, God is able, all able, I know. And yet, I cannot escape saying the thing as I read it, and the impression comes in my soul: somehow, somehow, if God was really to understand the man, God had to become a man.
And that incarnation was in that little place of Bethlehem, in the warm womb of a virgin girl by the name of Mary [Matthew 1:21-2:1], and He was born flesh of our flesh, bone of our bone, blood of our blood. And He lived our life: He was a child, He was a youth, He was a man. And He suffered our sufferings. He died our death. By the grace of God He tasted death for every man [Hebrews 2:9]. He was tried as we are [Hebrews 4:15]. He groaned in agony [Luke 22:44]. He cried [Luke 19:41; John 11:35]. He wept of the burdens laid upon His soul [Hebrews 5:7]. He poured out His life. He was filled with sympathy and understanding. "Himself bear our sickness, and bore our infirmities" [Matthew 8:17]. He lived our life in order that, the great Book of Hebrews says, "That we might have a High Priest in heaven, who could be touched with the feeling of our infirmities" [Hebrews 4:15].
Now my thought – which I pray is not blasphemous – my thought is this: God could not be touched with the feeling of our infirmities until God became a man. But having become a man, and tried as we are tried, living our lives, we have such an High Priest in heaven who is filled with sympathy and understanding and remembrance; and as such, we are invited to come boldly to the throne of grace [Hebrews 4:16]. "For He remembereth our frame; He knoweth that we are dust" [Psalm 103:14].
The Christian faith is always one of great sympathy and understanding. When I am censorious, and carpingly critical, and unsympathetic in my own spirit, I am that much short of the expectation of God. The Lord’s spirit is always one of understanding and sympathy. He is the Mediator between God and man, and man and God [1 Timothy 2:5].
Now may I say briefly one other thing? This marvelous thing that came to pass in Bethlehem, when Mary, a virgin, brought forth her firstborn Son, wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, laid Him in a manger [Luke 2:11-16]. That was God’s answer to the infinite need of the world. We read – and it is correct – that back there in that day there was universal peace. And that’s true. But the peace was as though communism dominated the whole world. The peace was as though fascism had won the war. The peace was as though Hitler were the ruler of all the civilized nations, or Stalin was the emperor of all creation. It was that kind of a peace.
There was in Judea, at that time, at this time, there was in Judea nothing but a bitter, seething mass of embittered humanity, with a zealot underground, working day and night to throw off our hated Roman yoke. And within a generation after Jesus died came that final war against Rome. A little people, a little people, smaller than Hungary, a little people against the entire might of the Roman Empire: but the yoke was so galling and the chain so bitter, they rose up against them to live or die – and died. Jerusalem was destroyed, and the temple was destroyed, and the people were lost – that’s the kind of a world. It was a world of slavery. Three men out of every five were chattel property. It was a world of indescribable tyranny and oppression. It was that kind of a world into which Jesus was born.
Now what was God’s answer? Why, let me say it this way: in my reading and in my studying, time and again, time and again I came across that word soter after a man’s name: Seleucus Soter, Antiochus Soter, Ptolemy Soter, Demetrius Soter. Oh, those are just a few, soter. Well, soter is the Greek name for "savior." This is Ptolemy Savior. This is Demetrius Savior; Seleucus Antiochus Savior. And how did they save? They came with great armies and with the might of the sword to liberate the people. Same kind of a liberation as communism has for the masses of the world who work today. Same kind of a liberation that Russia seeks in South Korea. Same kind of a liberation as the communist Soviet government today seeks in Hungary. That kind of a liberation: soter, Ptolemy Soter!
God’s liberation: oh, how profoundly different! How strangely inexplicably unlike! How does God liberate? How does God send a great conqueror into the world? How does God answer the perplexing questions of the day? How does God do it? All right, this is the way God does it: "And it came to pass in those days, those days, that there went out this decree from Caesar Augustus; and it brought a virgin girl down to a little town named Nazareth, and down to a little town named Bethlehem [Luke 2:1-7]. And there in a stable she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. And the angels sang [Luke 2:11-16]. And the wise men came [Matthew 2:1-2, 9-12]. And the shepherds pressed around [Luke 2:8-10]. And they bowed down. And receiving God’s testimony of that little Child, they gave Him their hearts, and they devoted to Him gifts, and they glorified the God of Israel."
I am convinced that the sword never settles anything. I am convinced that war breeds more wars. I am convinced that hatred engenders hatred, strife gives birth to other strife, murder to other murder, blood to blood. O God!
I do not denounce force of arms. If a man were called upon to protect his house and home, I think he ought. If we were called upon to fight for the liberties and freedoms of our nation, I say we must. But at the same time, by the Word of God, do I avow that the solution of God to the problems of the world is never war, and it’s never hatred, and it’s never bloodshed, and it’s never riot, and it’s never strife, and it’s never force. But God’s answer to the perplexing, insoluble problems of mankind lie right here in worship, in commitment, in prayer, in intercession, in bowing down. "The meek shall inherit the earth, and the poor in spirit" [Matthew 5:5, 3]. That’s the Christian faith.
God’s people are a praying people. God’s people are a believing people. God’s people are a praising people. God’s people are a worshiping people. And God says they are the salt of the earth and the light of the world [Matthew 5:13-14].
At a season like this, how happy to be numbered among those who praise the Christ Child, who receive Him as all the Scriptures say that He was: God incarnate, our Lord and our Savior [Matthew 2:21-23].
O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep the silent stars go by.
Yet in thy dark streets shineth the everlasting Light;
The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.
["O Little Town of Bethlehem"; Phillips Brooks]
Christ our Savior is born!
Now while we sing our song, somebody you give his heart to the Lord, somebody you put his life in the church, a family, or just you. In this balcony from side to side, anywhere, would you come?
Many, many of you have listened on the radio. Are you a Christian? Does the Christmas story bring hope to your heart? Does it? Have you ever bowed before Jesus and gave Him the gift of your heart and soul? If you haven’t, would you now? Wherever you are, would you let Jesus come into your heart? Would you?
And in the great throng of people this morning, somebody you, trusting Jesus as his Savior, hoping in Him; or putting your life in the church, while we sing this song, would you come, while we stand and while we sing?