The Jesus of the New Testament: God in the Flesh?Pastor Lutzer | December 21, 2003
The biblical Jesus is the only way to approach God. He is the message of Christmas.
Selected highlights from this sermon
Christmas is about Jesus—that He is God and that He took on flesh and dwelt among us.
Jesus upheld the Law perfectly on our behalf. And as both Priest and Sacrifice, He secured our redemption on the cross. Old Testament liturgy was no longer required. A little child born in Bethlehem—fully God and fully Man—saved us from our sins. This is the Christ of Christmas.
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So what is Christmas all about anyway? The Tribune recently had an article that really made a lot of interesting and telling and good points. It’s entitled Getting Lost in the Noise of Christmas.
Notwithstanding its annual promise of harmony and tranquility, the holiday period from Thanksgiving to the New Year’s, it imposes upon America the breathless rhythm of a machine. Noisy and relentless, this rhythm is associated in the popular imagination with reverence and spirituality, but in reality it produces the opposite effect. Indeed, looking over the increasingly desperate holiday effort at renewals of faith, the ironic end of all this delirium is to prevent us from remembering God. (chuckles) (Maybe that’s why we have Christmas – to prevent us from remembering God. Yes.)
Society is essentially the sum total of soul seeking redemption, but today in these United States, with the holidays approaching, we preoccupy ourselves with consumption, mimicry and empty ritual.
It goes on to say that people are seeking salvation of the body through exercises and health care programs, which are quite necessary, but at some point it says:
One does need to ask about life extension to what purpose?
That’s a really good question. To what purpose? It goes on to say:
The vulgar and shallow material world has infested our solitude. We Americans seek meaning and ecstasy in this world, but it is surely a vain effort.
Very good! Very good! So what is Christmas all about? “Well,” you say, “obviously we’re at The Moody Church, or we’re listening over the Internet and radio, and because of that interest we can presuppose that everyone is saying, ‘Well, of course, Christmas is Christ.’” And so it is, but we’ve been learning in this series of messages that it isn’t enough to simply say that Christmas is Christ. We have to ask which Christ is it about whom we speak? Is it the Christ of the Jehovah’s Witnesses, a Christ who is not God but a created being? Is it the Christ of the Mormons who say that Christ is Lucifer’s brother? Is it the Christ of the Gnostics who say that Jesus is but one emanation among others? Is it the Christ of the Da Vinci Code who is married to Mary Magdalene, and who has no power to save anybody? Which Christ? I want you to know today that once we understand the biblical Christ, it cuts a clean swath, distinguishing this Christ from all other options.
Thank you so much for bringing your Bibles because we are turning to John 1, where we find that this Christ is indeed special and unique, and there is none other like Him. John 1:1 says: “In the beginning was the Word (logos),” from which we get logic. Jesus is the logic, the intelligibility, the communication, and the rationality of God. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God.” And yet, even though the Word was with God, we can see here the Trinity, can’t we? The Word is with God, and lest we misunderstand that we are talking about two Gods, it says, “And the word was God.” And then it says, “He was in the beginning with God. Through Him were all things made, and without Him nothing was made that has been made.”
We learned in the last message that it’s not possible for Jesus to have been created, because the Bible says that He created everything that exists. And therefore, obviously, He would not have created Himself. He is God, a very God.
But now I’m going to introduce you one more time, because I’ve done this before, to the most explosive verse in all the Bible. You say, “Well, I thought that the most explosive verse was John 3:16.” No! John 3:16 is the best loved verse. It is the one that most people know by memory. It is the nutshell of the Gospel, so in that sense John 3:16 is very important, but I’m going to introduce you to a verse that philosophically and theologically shattered the world in the early centuries. Properly understood it will shatter our world too. It’s verse 14. “This Word that was God was made flesh.” We back off and say, “This can’t be.” It would be easier for us to accept it if we said that this Word came alongside of flesh, or even if we were to say, “This Word assumed flesh.” But it says, “This Word became flesh.”
The reason that this verse was so powerful is because the New Testament was written in the background of what we call Gnosticism, to which we’ve been introduced, that was basically confusing, but based on some platonic notions that all matter is evil (because there’s this radical distinction between the ideas of the mind which can attain perfection and the body, which is always imperfect, and therefore, evil). So to a Platonist, to a follower of Plato, reading this, he would read, “And the Word became evil.” “Impossible,” he would say. Now we know that Platonism is wrong, that matter is not inherently evil. It can’t be because the Word – this Word, God - was made flesh, and dwelt among us.
There were many great councils in the Christian church, but one met to affirm the deity of Jesus Christ, that He is God, a very God. But about 130 years later there was another council that was held that had to affirm the humanity of Christ, that indeed God became man, and that Jesus had the divine nature and the human nature (fully God and fully man), but he is not schizophrenic. He is in one person so that He is whole. And so it affirmed the humanity of Jesus. And that’s what Bethlehem is all about.
When we go to Bethlehem in our minds and hearts, and we join with the shepherds, and you look at that little baby that Mary had in her arms, and then the baby that was given to Simeon there in the Temple (I hope some day in heaven we can review a video tape of that event), Simeon holding the baby Jesus, that was God, a very God, the Word became flesh, and that’s what we celebrate at this time of year.
Now I want you to notice that John in this verse goes on and he says, “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling place among us.” You may be aware of the fact that the Greek word really is tabernacled among us. One translation says He pitched His tent among us.
Now clearly it’s John’s intention that we think about the Old Testament Tabernacle, and that Jesus Christ comes and He replaces that Old Testament Tabernacle. Now to remind ourselves of what that tabernacle was, let’s go in our imaginations and pretend that we are coming to the tabernacle of the Old Testament, and first of all we are in the outer courtyard. As we approach the Tabernacle, we first of all see a brazen altar upon which sacrifices were offered continually. And you can imagine what that was like. You can imagine the stench. You can imagine the blood and the fire. Then we walk a little further and we come to a laver, which is a large basin where the priests had to wash. And then we come into the Tabernacle proper, and if you walked in, to your left there would be a Menorah with seven candles burning. To your right there would be a table with showbread, as it was called. And directly ahead of you there would be an altar of incense, representing prayer. And then you could go no further because there was a curtain. There was a veil that prevented you from going further. In fact, it would be dangerous for you to go further because behind the veil is the Holy of Holies where the priest was able to go on the Day of Atonement. He went in several times on that day, but only on that day because in it there was this Ark that represented the presence of God. It was built of wood but was overlaid with gold, and it is there that the glory of God rested, and there atonement was made, symbolically speaking.
Now, with that background, what I’d like to do in the next few moments is to show you how Jesus Christ replaced all the Old Testament liturgy. This message could be much longer than it’s going to be, which should be a comfort to some of you. It could be longer, but I’m going to give you four ways in which Jesus replaced it all. We could give you more ways, but I’ve chosen four.
First of all, He replaced it as a place of worship. In the Old Testament that’s the place where you were to worship. Now, David worshipped God in his heart, of course. God wanted the people’s hearts, but when it really came to the offering of gifts and the offering of sacrifices by which sin could be at least temporarily forgiven, it was to be there, and nowhere else. Jerusalem was the place where you were to worship.
Jesus was speaking to a woman at the well because the Samaritans had rival worship on one of the hills, and many years ago I was at Jacob’s Well exactly where this conversation took place. And the woman said, “You know, our fathers worshipped in this mountain,” as she pointed to Mount Gerizim, “and you Jews say that Jerusalem is the place where men ought to worship.” And Jesus said, “Woman, believe me. The hour is coming when neither in this mountain, nor at Jerusalem shall people worship the Father, for the people shall worship the Father in spirit and in truth.” And today we find in the Scripture that Jesus said, “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them.” You don’t have to go to Jerusalem. You don’t have to go to Mound Gerizim. You don’t even have to go to Moody Church, though thank God you are here.
But really worship is a matter that can take place anywhere because the ritual of the Old Testament requiring you to go to Jerusalem is passed. It says in Romans 5:1, “Therefore, now being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ by whom also we have access.” And that word access means that we are brought in the presence of the King, and we have access to God through Jesus. He replaces the Temple, which came a little later on in Israel’s history, but He replaces the Tabernacle and the Temple as a place of worship.
Second, I want you to notice that Jesus replaces the Law. You know, in that box, as we might call it, perhaps four feet long and about two-and-a-half deep, which is called The Ark of the Covenant, one of the things that was placed in the box was the Table of the Law. And it was a reminder to Israel that God would judge them according to the Law. And then the Law became such a noose around their necks, because they discovered that they couldn’t keep the Law. However good their intentions, they always came short of keeping the Law, especially as you look at its deeper intentions. They could not keep the Law, and neither can we.
You see, the Law condemned them. The Law said, “Thou shall not bear false witness,” and when people lied, the Law was there to remind them that they had sinned. And when there was envy in their hearts God said, “You’re not supposed to envy or desire anything that belongs to your neighbor.” The Law pointed out all the covetousness of the human heart, but the problem is, the Law didn’t have the strength to overcome it.
I have sometimes said that the Law is like a plumb line. Those of you who are builders will know what I’m talking about. It’s like a plumb line that can tell you that a wall is crooked, but it can’t straighten it out. All that the plumb line can do is just hang there and remind you that you’re six inches off. And that’s about all that the Law can do.
But the Bible says that Jesus is the end of the Law. It says He redeemed us from the curse of the Law, both its condemnation and its penalties. That doesn’t mean that we are lawless by any stretch of the imagination. Now the righteousness of the Law is fulfilled in us who walk not after the flesh but after the Spirit. But the problem of that guilty conscience and that feeling of never being able to match up is over, because Jesus now matches up for us. (applause)
Looked at in one way, I don’t owe God any righteousness today. Twenty-four hours a day God demands righteousness if I am to be in fellowship with Him. Twenty-four hours a day Jesus supplies what God demands. “There is, therefore now, no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus.”
You know, I’m not that smart, but I am smart enough to know that I’m not going to get involved in this great controversy regarding the Ten Commandments, whether they should be in our courthouses or not. I’ll let you folks figure that all out and tell me what to believe. Okay? But I do need to remind you that the Ten Commandments are not a means of salvation. They may have some value in pointing what God’s absolutes are, most assuredly, but beyond that the Law cannot save you. It can only tell you that you need a Savior, and that may be of some value, but it’s not the essence of Christianity – the Ten Commandments. The essence of Christianity is that Jesus died and kept the Commandments so that you and I could be redeemed. (applause)
Jesus also replaced the Old Testament Tabernacle as a place of glory. Remember that glory cloud that would come! Sometimes the cloud existed only in the Holy of Holies, but there were other times when the cloud engulfed the whole tabernacle area. And this was a reminder that God was present. Now, of course, God is present everywhere at all times, but what it was a reminder of is that His presence was localized. There’s a sense in which He was there in a unique way with His people.
Take, for example, this congregation. God is always in this place, even when it is totally and completely empty, as God is in any sanctuary or building. But there is a sense in which when the people of God are gathered together in the name of Jesus, as we’ve learned, that God’s presence is here in a special way. And we sometimes leave a meeting and say, “Boy, I just knew that the presence of God was there.” The Old Testament was symbolized by this cloud.
Notice what John says. I’m back in the text. Verse 14: “We have seen His glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.” We saw His glory. He is the glory cloud, and when His glory broke open there on the Mount of Transfiguration, the people who were there (Peter, James and John) saw His glory in a unique way. Now He couldn’t live like that on earth because it would have been difficult for Him to navigate, and most assuredly He’d have not been put to death if that glory had always been shining forth. And that’s why we sang this morning, and you’ve heard me repeat it many times, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” Veiled in flesh!
You can’t handle the glory, but where’s the glory today? Is it in some kind of a tabernacle? Is it in some kind of a building? No. For one thing, the Holy of Holies (You know that inner sanctum that I talked to you about with the Ark of the Covenant?), where is it today? In 1 Corinthians the Apostle Paul says in chapter 6, “For your bodies are now the temple of the Holy Spirit,” the nous, the Greek word, the very inner shrine of the Holy Spirit. And just like the glory of God was veiled, in the case of Jesus on earth, His glory is veiled in the lives of people who know Him, even though it is within them, and sometimes we see it on their faces even in the midst of great tragedy as the glory of God breaks forth and the Apostle Paul says that as we gaze at Christ we are changed from one degree of glory to another degree of glory even as by the Spirit. But today the glory does not exist in a place. It exists in a people.
Fourth, Jesus replaces the Old Testament sacrifices. Oh, could we just visualize for a moment those priests standing at the brazen altar, 24 hours a day, eight hour shifts so that the fire would never go out? One animal after another! The priest standing there and saying, “Oh my goodness, my goodness, here’s that guy. He’s coming with a sheep again. Did he commit the same sin again?” And it never ended. But thank God, Jesus put an end to all of that.
Now I need you to turn in your Bibles to one of the most blessed passages in all the Bible (This is Hebrews 10.) because I want you to see the contrast between the Old Testament priesthood and how Jesus replaced the whole thing. It’s a powerful contrast, a life-transforming contrast. Those of you who have come here today with a sense of alienation and guilt and condemnation, listen up because help is on the way.
It says in Hebrews 10:11: “And every priest stands daily at his service, offering repeatedly the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” He stands and performs his religious duties. Again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sin. You see, if these sacrifices took away sins they could stop offering them, but the problem was they couldn’t. This was all symbolic. Their salvation was wrapped up in their obedience. That’s true, but it was a symbolic act. The blood of these bulls and goats and sheep could never take away sins, but they were commanded to offer them.
Verse 12: “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins, he sat down at the right hand of God, waiting from that time until his enemies should be made a footstool for his feet. For by a single offering he has perfected for all time those who are being sanctified.”
Many of you who are listening to this message, no matter by what means you are listening, belong to the Catholic faith. God bless you. But listen carefully because you probably wonder, “Now, what is really the difference between Protestantism and Catholicism?” And there are many differences, but there’s an important difference here I want to point out because I have looked at this for a long time and I believe it is true to say that Roman Catholic theology builds a lot of its liturgy on the Old Testament where you have priests. And these priests have special abilities. They intercede for the people, and they have the ability also to reoffer Christ, and there’s another offering going on. Christ is reoffered time and time and time again 200,000 times throughout the world every Sunday.
Now I want you to notice the contrast here between the Old Testament and the New Testament. First of all, the first contrast is many priests versus one priest. I told you that the priests were in shifts because you can’t stay up all night. You can only work at this for eight hours. That’s the first contrast.
Secondly, many sacrifices versus one sacrifice! Why so many sacrifices? Think this through. It’s because whatever benefit those sacrifices had in the Old Testament, they could only be beneficial for past sins, not sins that you were going to commit in the future, or that your children were going to commit. That’s why the children would have to bring their own sacrifice and on and on and on it would go because there was no final sacrifice.
Listen to what the text says: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duty, again and again.” Do you see the contrast there (in verse 12)? “But when Christ had offered for all time a single sacrifice for sins…” Wow! He took care of sins past, present and future in one sacrifice. When He did that, He didn’t keep standing. You see, it was a requirement for the Old Testament priests. They could not sit down on the job, and the reason they couldn’t sit down is because when you sit down you give the impression that you’re done.
We’ve all done jobs, or we’ve been working outside or something and we get so tired, and somebody says, “I don’t even want to sit down because if I sit down I won’t be able to get up again,” so you just keep going. But when you sit down, you give the impression, “Well, I’m finished.” Oh, in the Old Testament, you don’t sit down. You keep standing until your shift is over because your work is never done. Tomorrow is another day. But this man, oh my, He sat down, the Bible says. Don’t miss the symbolism. The work is finished! It is done! Tetelestai! Paid in full! That’s the message of the Gospel. This is good news for sinners. Now if you’re not a sinner you don’t have to listen to the rest.
One day at a college retreat the leader of the college ministry put up a sign on the doors of the retreat center that said, “For sinners only.” And some of the college kids came and looked at it and said, “Well, then, where do we go?” (laughter) Well, if you’re wondering where you are going here, I mean, if you’re not a sinner, then you don’t have to listen to the rest of this.
But I want you to notice another difference. All of the priests in the Old Testament offered animals. Okay? But somebody brought them. This is the only instance in which (Catch this now.) the priest himself becomes the sacrifice. The priest is the sacrifice. He offers up himself. And that’s why we believe so strongly that all of those Old Testament rituals have been done away with. We are priests, but all of us are priests unto God. We all come. There does not have to be another sacrifice. There does not have to be another reenactment or another offering of Jesus because by one sacrifice He fulfilled it all when He came and tabernacled among us, and lived and replaced the entire Tabernacle with all of its liturgy. Yes, it is good news for sinners.
Years ago I read a story about a man who was a drunk, and he somehow, in his stupor, wandered into a barn and fell asleep. And when he woke up he discovered that there was something very warm next to him, something even very soft. He discovered that he had been sleeping next to a cow all night. And as he was there thinking about how low his drink had taken him, he wondered whether anyone would offer him anything. Is he worth anything? No, he says to himself. He’s not worth anything.
But the story is that while he was there in the barn waking up, he heard the bells of the church because it was Christmas morning. And he knew enough to remember that Jesus Himself was laid in a manger, reminding himself that Jesus did that so that no one would ever think they had gone so low but that Jesus in humility cannot also pick them up, and by one offering also perfect them who are sanctified.
Listen, to you out there who are alcoholics: Jesus is able to forgive you and remove your condemnation, and in the process deliver you from alcoholism. I mean, we’re not talking about a Jesus here that’s a paper Jesus. We’re not talking about a nominal Jesus who only exists in the pages of Scripture. We’re talking about a Jesus who actually changes people. (applause)
Now I have to ask you this: What did they do in the Old Testament? God had said, you know, “I’m going to ask you to do all the worship in Jerusalem,” because, you see, the Tabernacle was built in the desert, and so forth, and it moved around. But once it became permanent, it was permanent in the Temple, and God said, “That’s where you are supposed to worship in Jerusalem.”
Well, as I already told you, the Samaritans said to themselves, “Well, you know, this business of going to Jerusalem is too much of a hassle. We think that God is a lot more broadminded than that, and we’re going to have our own worship over here. We’re worshipping the same God anyway, so it doesn’t matter whether you worship Him in Jerusalem or Mount Gerizim. We’ll set up our own worship and that’s where we’re going to do it, you know.”
God was not pleased because God said, “I want you to worship in the Tabernacle in Jerusalem according to prescribed means.” Now today, what do we do? We say, “Well, yes, I’m worshipping God, but I’m just not coming to God by Jesus. You know, there are other ways to do it. You know, I have my own way of finding God, and you have your own way of finding God. And somebody else has their own way.” And God says, “I’m sorry but I prescribe that you need a sacrifice by which your sins can be forgiven, and there’s only one person out there that can provide it. I’m sorry, but Buddha can’t do it for you. However many good things he may have said, he can’t do it for you.”
So it’s important not only to come to the right God, but we must come to Him in the right way. Remember Nadab and Abihu, those seminary students who were doing an experiment with some fire that they weren’t supposed to have, and they are saying, “Well, you know there are different ways to get the fire.” And so they entered into the Tabernacle with strange fire. They were doing it on their own, and God zapped them and they died. And Aaron was really upset with God. He said, “This is overkill.” Pardon the expression. That was not to come out that way.
God says, “You don’t just come.” Even in Evangelical circles (You know, they preach the Bible and so forth) you sometimes hear it said, “It doesn’t matter how you come. Just come.” Well it matters how you come. You come in the name of Jesus. And that’s the way we come, and that’s the message of Christmas. It isn’t some baby born in Bethlehem who stayed a baby with beautiful stories around it. It’s somebody who came to Bethlehem and became a boy, and then became a man, and died to become a redeemer so that He could be both the priest and the sacrifice. That’s the message of Jesus and Christmas.
There is a Christmas Carol I like, and we don’t sing it very often, but you know what? I get to choose the closing hymn, so we’re going to sing it. Actually only the first stanza has to do with Christmas, but there’s a sequence in that song right from Jesus Christ’s birth to His return. But the words go like this:
Who is He in yonder stall,
At whose feet the shepherds fall?
Who is He in deep distress,
Fasting in the wilderness?
Who is this Jesus? What is Christmas all about?
‘Tis the Lord, oh wondrous story,
‘Tis the Lord, the King of glory.
At His feet we humbly fall,
Crown Him, crown Him, Lord of all.
That’s what Christmas is all about.
And by the way, those of you who are out there who have never trusted Christ as Savior, and you’ve come today and your conscience is troubling you, and you come and you say, “I’ve been looking for God, but I don’t know where to find Him,” I’ll tell you exactly where to find Him. You find Him in Jesus, so you come in the name of Jesus, and you come to receive and to say today, “I accept You as my sacrifice. I accept You, Lord Jesus, for myself.” Would you tell Him that?
Our Father, today we want to thank You for the mystery of the Incarnation, but we thank You that God became one of us so that we might be redeemed, so that we might belong to You forever. Grant us, oh God, the blessed revelation of Your Word to see how complete and finished His work really is.
And so as we celebrate Christmas, as we open gifts, and meet friends, may we never, never forget that it’s someone else’s birthday that we celebrate. Make us a people who, in the noise of Christmas, discover the quiet rest and joy of worshipping the One whom we love and adore. In His name we pray, Amen.