In previous posts, I have emphasized many times that Christianity does not hesitate to speak of God’s intervention in history, and that Judaism also shares this belief, but with one major difference: only Christianity teaches that God actually appeared once on Earth in the form of man (i.e. a God-man, One who was both fully God and fully man). In his Letter to the Colossians the Apostle Paul expresses it this way: “For in him (i.e. in the person of the historical Jesus) all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…in him the whole fullness of God dwelt bodily” (1:19 and 2:9). PAUL HAD ALREADY PROCLAIMED THE UNIQUENESS AND SUPREMACY OF JESUS CHRIST in both the universe and the Church, His authority and Lordship over all creation, His majesty and glory, His preeminence and power: “He is the image of the invisible God (i.e. the exact likeness, the perfect revelation of the invisible God in visible form), the firstborn of all creation (i.e. the pre-existent Christ, the “Logos”, the eternal, Word of God), for in him (can also be translated “by him” ) all things in heaven and on earth were created (i.e. the agent of God in the creation of all things), things visible and invisible (i.e. both physical and spiritual) …all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things (i.e. eternal, “from the beginning” – see also John 1:1-5, “with God” and “was God,” was, not “became”), and in him all things hold together (i.e. “consist,” the Cosmic Christ who is the power, the adhesive force, who holds everything in the whole created order together). He is the head of the body, the church…so he should have preeminence (i.e. “first place”) in everything for it pleased God that in him (i.e. in the unique and solitary Son of God) all the fullness of Deity should dwell (a technical terms for plentitude of God, all the attributes of God, “the same…equal in power and glory), and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (1:15-20).
THIS IS THE MESSAGE CHRISTMAS BRINGS, not just the birth narratives in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, the journey of Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem, the infant Jesus born in a stable and cradled in a manger, the appearance of angels announcing the birth of the Messiah to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, the visit of wise men from the east who had come to worship Him, and the flight of the holy family to Egypt to escape the wrath of King Herod, who had been told that another king had been born in the City of David. The author of the fourth gospel, the Apostle John, does not include any of these details about the birth of Jesus. He takes into much deeper water, theologically speaking, for he was writing not only to Jews but to Gentiles as well, using Greek expressions and images to let his readers know that the most important thing to record about Jesus for posterity was not the story of his birth, but his pre-existence as the Eternal Christ who was “..in the beginning with God, and the Word was God…all things came into existence through him, and without him not one thing came into being…and the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1-3, 14). John makes this point not only at the beginning of his gospel, but at the very end as well, when he tells us why he had written a gospel of his own: “These things have been written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).
Then in the first of his three letters to the young church, after the death, resurrection, and ascension of the Risen Christ, John emphasizes once again what is most important; KNOWING WHO JESUS IS, BELIEVING HE IS WHO HE CLAIMED TO BE, AND KNOWING HE IS STILL MUCH MORE THAN WE CAN EVER FULLY COMPREHEND (“knowing” and “believing” are two of the Apostle John’s favorite words). This is his testimony, as well as the testimony of all the other apostles: “We declare to you what was from the beginning, what we have heard with our own ears, what we have seen with our own eyes, what we have touched without own hands, concerning the Word of Life…this life was revealed to us; we have seen it and testify to it, and declare to you the eternal life that has been made known to us….so that you may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ” (I John 1:1-3).
John doesn’t tell us he had merely accepted the testimony of others. He wants us to know what he had seen and experienced for himself as an eye-witness. He was not sharing something he had heard others say they had witnessed, for he himself had known Jesus, heard Jesus, and touched Jesus, not only during his earthly life and ministry, but after his death and resurrection! So, the written gospels and epistles we have in the New Testament are not “hear-say,” not stories and opinions handed down by others, but rather first hand accounts of those who were closest to the real Jesus, those whom He had hand-picked, chosen and called, to be His first disciples, who would continue His ministry after His departure, sharing what they themselves knew to be the truth about Him. Furthermore, because of their faithful witness we know that Jesus Christ is not just one among many religious leaders who have appeared on the stage of human history through the ages, but the only One in whom God has been incarnated, fully revealed, the visible manifestation of the invisible God. SO, IF WE REALLY WANT TO KNOW WHAT GOD IS LIKE, WE MUST LOOK AT JESUS – and also, WE TOO MUST KNOW HIM AND LOVE HIM FOR WHO HE IS!
Therefore, this means Christianity is more than a religion, IT IS A RELATIONSHIP – a personal and intimate relationship with the person of the living Christ. Christianity is not just one among many religions in the spiritual marketplace. It is more than a system of beliefs, so much more than a philosophy. IT IS A PERSON! IT IS THE PERSON OF THE LIVING LORD, JESUS CHRIST, THE LORD OF HEAVEN AND EARTH! Yes, other religions certainly give us valuable truths and spiritual insights, important ethical principles, and valid values for living life as spiritual beings created in the image of God. Christianity does not have a monopoly on truth. We can learn much from other religions, and we need to cultivate opportunities for inter-faith dialogue and joint participation in ministries for the common good. Nevertheless, we cannot just blend all religions together into one common belief in the same God, ignoring the fact that no other religion offers a Savior, no other religion proclaims One who is “the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). JESUS CHRIST IS THE ONE WHO MAKES CHRISTIANITY UNIQUE AMONG THE MANY RELIGIONS OF THE WORLD, and we must recognize and identify the many differences and disagreements among the most common religious beliefs and practices. We must challenge those who contend that all faiths are simply different ways of offering worship to the same God, outward manifestations of an inward spirituality that is expressed in a variety of ways, but inspired by the one true God who is the common source of all religious precepts and practices.
Yes, there are some similarities between Christianity and the other major religions. For example, all of them have their own sacred writings (i.e. their own “Book”), but this does not mean they are equally authoritative. Nirvana does not equal heaven, and immortality is by no means the same as “everlasting life.” Brahman, Shiva, and Vishnu are not the “Holy Trinity” – not “God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord…and the Holy Spirit” (quotes from the Apostles’ Creed). Our calling as Christians is not to contend with other religions, not to criticize and condemn, but rather to bear witness to the truth about Jesus, the Christ, the unique and solitary Son of the one true God – the One in whom God has been most fully revealed, by whose atoning death on the cross we are saved from the power and penalty of sin, and by whose resurrection we have “…been born anew into a living hope…and into an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for all those who are being guarded by the power of God through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (i.e. “completed”, “finished”, “perfected”, in the “fullness of time”); in this we rejoice” (I Peter 1:6). While acknowledging that which is true and good in other religions, those of us who are followers of Jesus never need to apologize for standing up for Him, for bearing witness to His supremacy, but to witness boldly and lovingly by both word and deed – reflecting His image in our character and conduct, embodying the truths of the Gospel in our attitudes and actions, in our speech and service.
The author of the Letter to the Hebrews began his letter by bearing witness to the superiority of Jesus Christ, His superiority to the prophets (1:1-3), to the angels (1:4-5) – and then in succeeding chapters he compares His majesty and supremacy to Moses, the giver of the Law (3:1-6), to the Levitical priesthood (4:14 – 7:28), and the superiority of His own sacrifice of Himself on the cross to all the animal sacrifices offered by temple priests (8:1 – 10:39). The writer’s purpose was to prevent early converts from Judaism to Christianity from returning to Jewish ritual practices in the first century, following the death and resurrection of Jesus, during the phenomenal growth of the Early Church. In speaking of Jesus he says “He is the reflection of God’s glory, the exact imprint of God’s very being (i.e. the exact counterpart of God the Father, the “same in substance, equal in power and glory”). In his Letter to the Philippians, the Apostle Paul says essentially the same thing, but wants his readers to understand that Jesus was both fully God and fully man): “Though he was in the form of God (i.e. pre-existent Deity) he did not regard equality with God something to be exploited (i.e. something to be used for himself, but at the same time never relinquished), but emptied himself (i.e. laid aside some of his divine prerogatives, the extreme expression of self-denial, in his incarnation as the Word made flesh), taking the form of a servant (the Greek word that is used is “doulos,” literally “a slave”), being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore, God has highly exalted him, and given him the name that is above every other name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (2:5-11).
All this is a scandal to other religions, especially Judaism and Islam, (the other two monotheistic religions) for whom the thought of God actually taking human form is not only offensive, but blasphemous, for the body (i.e. the flesh) is considered evil, and it is therefore impossible to conceive of God becoming man without also becoming sinful, which is precisely what Christianity proclaims (i.e. until his death ion the cross, when Jesus took the sins of humankind upon himself, as our sin-bearer). One of my favorite Christian writers, G.K. Chesterton, in his influential book on the incarnation, The Everlasting man (a book that was instrumental in the conversion of one of Chesterton’s contemporaries, C.S. Lewis), says: “I can sympathize with those (i.e. with Jews and Muslims)…for whom this thought is a blasphemy that might shake the world, but it did not shake the world, it steadied the world.” Yes, that is precisely what the incarnation, including the atoning death and victorious resurrection of Jesus, did for this broken and fragmented world!
The Bible records many times when God “appeared” to biblical saints, such as His appearance of God to the Hebrews during their Exodus from Egypt, in the form a “cloud” by day and a “pillar of fire” by night, to guide them – as He appeared to Moses on the slopes of Mt. Sinai, when He spoke to him from a burning bush, a bush that was burning but not consumed – when He appeared to Isaiah in the temple, when God’s prophet saw the Lord “high and lifted up,” in a vision of God’s holiness that made him agonizingly aware of his own sinfulness. But those were theophanies (appearances, not incarnations); God did not reveal Himself fully in those events! God did not become flesh in those events! God revealed His glory and His power in those appearances, but only once did God visit this planet in human form for the purpose of manifesting and demonstrating His redeeming love for a sinful humanity! ONLY ONCE DID GOD COME TO EARTH AS A REAL MAN, LIVING AMONG US IN THIS REAL WORLD, THAT YOU AND I MIGHT BECOME ONCE AND FOR ALL CHILDREN OF GOD! The Son of God became the Son of Man, that the sons and daughters of men might become the sons and daughters of God! He who “knew no sin,” whose cheeks were never wet with the tears of repentance (as mine have been, and I hope your’s have also been) was actually “made sin” when He died as “the Lamb of God, to take away the sins of the world.” This the Good News Christmas brings, but it is only Good News for those who choose to believe and receive the greatest of all Christmas gifts, the gift of God’s “…only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).