Christ Before Christmas

Christ Before Christmas

John 1:1-18

Dr. Jim Denison

It was the middle of the Christmas rush at the airport. One passenger, standing in line, asked the clerk, “Why is there mistletoe hanging over the baggage counter?” The clerk replied, “It’s there so you can kiss your luggage goodbye.” You’ve been there.

Welcome to the hurried, and holy, Christmas season.

Before there were holidays in Dallas, there were holy days in Bethlehem. Across these four weeks in Bethlehem, we will seek to experience Christmas the way they did. So that Jesus can be as real to us as he was to them.

We begin with a neglected topic: Christ before Christmas. What Jesus did before he chose to come to earth in a feed trough in a cow stall.

The early Christians knew what we will learn today. Because they knew about Christ before Christmas, the Christ of Christmas was even more special to them. I trust the same will be true for us.

Seek your Creator in Jesus (v. 3)

First, let’s think about Jesus Christ and creation.

Astronomers have determined statistically that there are about 10×25 stars (10 million billion billion) in the known universe. It is not humanly possible to count this number. If you could count even as many as twenty numbers per second, it would still take you at least 100 million billion years to count to 10×25. And who knows how many stars exist beyond the reach of our finite telescopes?

Now, our text is clear: “Through [Jesus] all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (v. 3). In other words, the Christ of Christmas, the babe of Bethlehem, made all of that.

Verse 1 is just as explicit. Here John calls Jesus the “Word,” which is the Greek term “logos.” To the Jewish mind the “word” of God related to the creative power of God. Remember that YHWH created everything that exists by his word; for instance, God said, “Let there be light” and there was light (Genesis1:3). To be the “word” of God is to be the creator God.

And the “word” or “logos” was not only the creating principle to the ancients, but its sustaining principle as well. The Greek philosophers saw the “logos” as the order, the reason, the harmony in the world. For Jesus to be the “logos” of God meant that he was holding the world together since it began.

And the rest of scripture agrees.

Hebrews 1:2 says that Jesus “made the universe,” and Colossians 1:16 substantiates the claim: “By him all things were created, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things were created by him and for him.”

Hebrews 1:3 says that Jesus is “sustaining all things by his powerful word.” And Colossians 1:17 says that Jesus “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”

Think of it—a newborn baby created the mother who gave him birth; he created the manger in which he was laid, the cave where it all happened, and the shepherds who came to wonder and worship. He created the Wise Men who came eventually to celebrate his birth, and the star which guided them to him.

This is bold, and even absurd—a baby created the “hospital” where he was born. But it is true. At the beginning of the Old Testament and the beginning of time, Jesus Christ was creating and sustaining all that is.

And now, because of Christmas, the creator has entered his creation. We can know our maker, and his purpose for our lives.

You exist for a reason. Jesus Christ made you for a purpose. Ethel Waters was born because her mother was raped, but she used to say, “God made me, and he don’t make no junk!” That was the gospel truth.

You can know his purpose for your life. You can ask Jesus to give you direction and significance, to guide and lead you, and he will. Where do you need help with the “directions”? What questions would you like to ask your creator? Because of Christmas, you can.

And because of Christmas, you can have his power in your life as well. The creating, sustaining power of God himself. At Christmas the creator entered his creation, and he has never left.

Here’s another way of trying to describe the indescribable. If you could bore a hole in the sun and somehow put in 1.2 million earths, you would still have room for 4.3 million moons. And Jesus made that sun. Then consider the star called Betelgeuse, 880 quadrillion miles from us, with a diameter of 250 million miles—greater than the earth’s orbit. The babe of Bethlehem made that. And you. And he makes no junk.

Your life can have purpose and power. Just ask him.

Seek your Savior in Jesus (12)

Now John makes another astounding claim for the Christ of Christmas: that he is our creator and sustainer, and our savior. If we will “believe in his name,” meaning that we trust in him with our lives, we “receive” him as our Savior and “become children of God.” This baby can do that for us.

Jesus is God’s only plan for our salvation. And he has always been exactly that.

Revelation 13:8 calls him “the Lamb that was slain from the creation of the world.”

In Genesis 3:15 God said to the serpent, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” Only Jesus was born as the “woman’s seed,” of a virgin. He was God’s plan to defeat the enemy and save us from our sin, from the very beginning of time. No wonder Charles Spurgeon called this verse “the first gospel sermon that was ever delivered upon the surface of this earth.”

From before time began, God knew that he would bring his Messiah (Hebrew for “Chosen One”) to die for our sins, to take our place and punishment, to purchase our salvation. And step by step, the Old Testament revealed who this Messiah would be.


Congratulations—It’s a God!

Congratulations—It’s a God!

Galatians 3:26-4:4

Dr. Jim Denison

The third grade was staging their annual Christmas pageant. Finally it came time for the birth. Mary, hidden from the crowd by bales of hay, was making the sounds a third-grader might make to tell the audience what was happening. A boy appeared on stage, in a bathrobe with sandals, a stethoscope around his neck. He disappeared behind the hay bales, and reemerged with a bundle. He handed it to Joseph and said, “Congratulations—it’s a God!”

But God’s coming to us wasn’t as easy as the boy thought. His preparations for Christmas started long before Christmas. This morning we’ll learn what God did to get the world ready for his Son’s birth. We will study this subject together so that we can see the Christmas event as the first century Christians did.

And we will do this for a second reason: so we can be not just educated, but encouraged. The holidays may be chaotic for you; you may be pushed beyond what you think you can handle. Stress always goes up during the Christmas holidays; suicides and depression rates soar; loneliness becomes epidemic. Some of you are facing your first Christmas without someone you love; others are in a new or hard place. World events are troubling—school shootings continue, wars rage, uncertainty about the new year and the future mounts. And we’re all tired. These holy days can be hard days.

Despite it all, God is on the throne of our world. I want to prove that to you, and to anyone who is skeptical of God’s power and presence in our lives today.

How God prepared the world (4.4)

A twelve-year old boy wrote a letter to God which said, “Dear God, was there anything special about Bethlehem, or did you just figure that was as a good a place as any to start a franchise?” Bethlehem was far more than that. What happened there fulfilled plans God had made from the beginning of time. As Paul says, “when the time had fully come, God sent his Son” (4.4).

Here’s how the time “fully came.”

The first preparation was a universal cry for the Messiah.

When the Old Testament closes, the Persian Empire is in control, They have defeated the Babylonians and allowed the Jews to return home. Cyrus and the Persians dominate the world. But when the New Testament opens, the Romans rule the world. What happened?

In 332 BC the Greek Empire under Alexander the Great defeated the Persians. The Jews overthrew Greek rule in 167 BC under Judas Maccabeus. But in 63 BC the Pharisees and Sadducees began a civil war which eventually destroyed the Jewish kingdom and led to Roman control. By the time the New Testament opens, the hated Romans have enslaved the Jews and all the nation cries out for a Messiah, the One who would free them and save their people. There’s a universal cry for the Messiah, the one born on Christmas day. But there’s more.

Next comes a universal language for the gospel. By the first century, for the first time in western history, one language dominated the culture—”koine” or “common” Greek. Let me illustrate. If you were to write the letters of the New Testament today, you would need to write Galatians and Ephesians in Turkish, the Corinthian and Thessalonian letters in Greek, Romans in Italian, and Hebrews in Hebrew. But when Christmas came, everyone understood Greek. The first Christian missionaries needed no language schools or interpreters. They could preach and write the gospel for everyone. But there’s more.

Next comes a universal peace.

Caesar Augustus brought political stability to the Empire and ended the disastrous civil wars which had followed the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 BC Thus Christian missionaries could move about the known world in peace.

If you were to repeat the travels of the first Christian missionaries today, you’d have to move freely from Israel through Syria and Jordan, across Iraq and Iran, through Turkey and Greece, and across Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia, Egypt, Libya, and Algeria. You and I couldn’t do it today. But they could.

And there were universal roads upon which to make these travels. Augustus had developed the most comprehensive system of transportation the world had seen until this generation. Some of the roads built by him are still in use today–I’ve walked on them. Missionaries could travel with relative ease to any part of the known world. But there’s more.

Finally, there was a universal spiritual hunger across the world.

The Greek philosophers had led their society to the depths of intellectual frustration. Platonism and Aristotelianism were at war, while Stoicism, Epicurianism, Cynicism, and Skepticism fought with the mystery religions and ancient myths of the people. There was no sense of universal truth or right.

The Roman culture had sunk to the lowest levels of moral decay and collapse.

All the while, God had been scattering the Jewish people across the world to provide beachheads for preaching the gospel. They had brought their message of one God and his promised Messiah. The Romans had exempted them from Caesar worship and allowed them religious freedom as a “religio licita,” a legal religion. The Romans would apply this freedom to Christianity as a Jewish sect, until the faith had gained a foothold across the Empire.

Now God must move even more directly to get his Son to Bethlehem for his birth.

Micah 5:2 had announced that Christmas would come at this little village. But Mary lived in Nazareth, some eighty miles away—a very long distance in those days for travel by foot or donkey.

God prompted Augustus to take a census, so as to make taxation more efficient and effective. We know this census occurred in history—we have actual documents from such activities in the ancient world. And God has Augustus decree that each man or woman of the entire Empire must return to the city or village which is his ancestral home, where his family originated. And so millions of men and women and boys and girls ride and walk across the entire Empire to cities and villages across the known world, all so one young village girl could bring her unborn child to Bethlehem.


Outlaws for In-laws

Outlaws for In-laws

Matthew 1:1-17

Dr. Jim Denison

The Christmas season is full of surprises.

A lady was preparing her Christmas cookies. She heard a knock at the door. She went to find a man, clothes tattered, obviously looking to make some money. He asked her if there was anything he could do.

She said, “Can you paint?” “Yes,” he said, “I’m a rather good painter.” “Well,” she said, “there are two gallons of green paint there and a brush, and there’s a porch out back that needs to be painted. Please do a good job. I’ll pay you what the job is worth.” He said, “Fine. I’ll be done quickly.”

She went back to her cookie baking until there came another knock at the door. There he stood, green paint on his clothes. “Did you finish the job?” “Yes.” “Did you do a good job?” “Yes,” he said. “But lady, there’s something I should point out to you. That’s not a Porsche back there. It’s a Mercedes.”

All sorts of surprises come at Christmas. Presents you didn’t expect to receive, people you didn’t expect to see, cards you didn’t expect to get. Bills you tried to forget. It’s been said, “Anyone who doesn’t believe Christmas lasts all year doesn’t have a charge card.”

To me, the greatest surprise of Christmas is waiting to be discovered in the most unlikely place—the genealogy of Jesus, where we find outlaws for in-laws. This morning I want to show you the incredible hope this neglected part of God’s word offers us. To find it, we need to answer three questions.

Why a genealogy?

First, why a genealogy? When reading the New Testament, everyone skips the “begats.” It’s about as heartwarming as a phone book—Jeconiah began Shealtiel and Shealtiel begat Ralph. Unless you’re concerned about the pedigree of your dog or cat, you probably don’t care much about genealogies.

But the ancient Jews did. This was how they always began their biographies.

You see, the ancient Jews were extremely concerned with racial purity. Matthew is writing to prove to the Jews that Jesus is their Messiah, and so the first question he must answer is, was he a pureblooded Jew, someone who could trace his lineage to Abraham?

And Matthew must also prove that Jesus was descended from King David, for this was required in the Scriptures as well (2 Samuel 7:16). If he doesn’t provide this proof at the very beginning, his Jewish reader would go no further.

Matthew made his case so well, the enemies of Jesus never thought of using his racial lineage to disprove his claims.

Note that this pedigree was so important, Matthew wants his reader to memorize it. And so he arranges it in three groups of fourteen, a common Jewish number for lists. He must exclude a number of names to do so, again a common Jewish custom. He gives us only the most essential names, listing each one intentionally.

And so Matthew goes out of his way to be honest, including such immoral failures as Rehoboam, whose pride led to civil war; Jehoram, who killed his own brothers upon assuming the throne; Ahaz, who led Israel into child sacrifice; and Manasseh and Jeconiah, who lost the kingdom to Babylon. Outlaws for in-laws.

And worst of all, in this crucial, edited, intentional list, Matthew does the unthinkable—he includes women. Jews just didn’t do this. Women had no legal rights. They were considered property, not people, the possessions of their fathers or husbands. In his regular morning prayer, the typical Jewish male thanked God every day that he had not made him a Gentile, a slave, or a woman.

What a list! Outlaws for in-laws, indeed.

Why this genealogy?

And so we arrive at our second question: why this genealogy?

I once heard about a man who decided to read through the entire New York City residential phone book. Two weeks later a friend asked, “How’s it going?” The man responded, “There’s a whale of a cast, but not much plot.”

Let’s look for the plot. Why this genealogy? If Matthew wanted to include women, he could have listed Sarah, or Rachal, or Rebekah, all venerated matriarchs of the faith. But instead he gives us four of the most scandalous names in all of Jewish history. Why?

Fact number one: these women were foreigners.

Tamar was a Canaanite (Genesis 38:1-6). Rahab was a Canaanite in Jericho (Joshua 2:1). Ruth was from Moab (Ruth 1:4), a land especially despised by the Jews (Deuteronomy 23:3). Bathsheba was married to a Gentile, which made her one in Jewish eyes (2 Samuel 11:3).

Remember how the Jews hated the Gentiles, and thanked God that they were not Gentiles. They wouldn’t go into Gentile homes, or eat Gentile food, or help Gentile women bring Gentile babies into the world. They despised them as unclean and pagan. They were aliens, foreigners, outsiders.

Have you ever felt that way? Are you on the outside of life today? New to Dallas, or to our church, or to your circumstances right now? Maybe you’ve got problems no one knows about, and you wonder if anyone cares. There are many ways to be foreigners today.

Jesus understands. He died alone and forsaken outside the city walls. He knows what it is to feel abandoned and lonely. And now he wants to receive you into his family, to give you a home and a place, to meet you where you hurt.

Matthew included foreigners, because foreigners are always welcome in Jesus’ family.

Fact number two: there are failed families here.

Tamar’s husband had died. Consistent with their customs, her father-in-law Judah gave her his next son as her husband, but he died as well. So Judah promised her his third son when he grew up, but later refused to keep his word.

So Tamar dressed as a prostitute, seduced Judah, and bore twin boys by him. And the incredible fact is, one of these twins was Perez, a distant grandfather of Jesus. The product of a dysfunctional, failed family.