Images or pictures are helpful in giving us understanding or helping us remember. Christmas is one of the most picturesque days. When we think of Christmas we cannot help to think of various images and a range of familiar pictures typically associated with Christmas – especially in secular culture and Christmas movies. Pictures such as reindeers, a red suited Santa Clause or Father Christmas, elves, beautifully decorative lights, family, food, gifts, or vacations.
The problem with these pictures though is that they are not in any way descriptive of what Christmas is actually about. For that we have to go to the nativity account recorded in the Bible. There we find equally vivid, striking and colorful pictures. The story of Christ’s birth recorded in the Bible evoke some of the most captivating and memorable pictures. These pictures help us tell and remember the Christmas story in it’s true significance.
Initially I identified 9 images that were significant in the nativity accounts; however, I ended up only looking at 6. The three I decided to leave out: 1) the image of the Child (which speaks to Christ humanity) 2) the image of Babies (specifically babies being killed by Herod, which pictures the hostility with which Christ was received) and 3) the image of Shepherds (who pictures for us the witness to and of the gospel message proclaimed). So, with that said here are 6 images in the nativity account that helps us understand and tell the Christmas well!
One of the first and more striking images in the nativity account is the almost omnipresence of angels. Everywhere you turn in the story of Christ’s birth you see angels. An angel appears in the temple to the priest Zacharias (Luke 1:8-11). An angel appears later in Nazareth to a virgin named Mary (Luke 1:26-27). An angel appears yet later to shepherds in the field (Luke 2:9) and suddenly after this angel gave his message to the shepherds, we are told a multitude of heavenly host appear praising God (Luke 2:12).
Not only do we see ordinary angels (if we can call any angel ‘ordinary’) but we also see really important angels like Gabriel. When an angel appeared to Zacharias to announce the forerunner to Christ, namely John the Baptist’s birth, it was not merely any angel but one of the only two angels named in the Bible – the angel Gabriel (the other being Michael). We then see Gabriel appear again, when according to the Scriptures, he is “sent from God…to a virgin” (Luke 1:26-27) whose name was Mary.
Angels are God’s ministers (Psalm 104:4), sent as God’s messengers. Their presence witnesses to the significance of the occasion. It is therefore fitting at the most significant point in human history, when God was about to become a man and dwell among man, that we see the heightened presence of angels. We may think of John the Baptist as the only forerunner to Christ but we would be mistaken as angels themselves come to prepare the way of their Lord. We only have to look at the scene in the field with the shepherds:
13 And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,14“Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.” – Luke 2:8–14 (NASB95)
What’s fascinating in this account is the appearance of “a multitude of heavenly host praising God and saying Glory to God in the Highest”. What the angels are doing here is fulfilling a direct act of obedience in worshipping the Child, just born, as the Son of God:
And when He again brings the firstborn into the world, He says,“And let all the angels of God worship Him.” – Hebrews 1:6 (NASB95)
The arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is marked by the worship of, not some angels, but “LET ALL THE ANGELS OF GOD WORSHIP HIM”. Every angel is commanded and joins in the worship of the Son of God. We see clearly that an outstanding image in the Christmas story according to the Bible is the image of angels. Angels picture for us the divine significance of the occasion, namely the incarnation of the Son of God, and the proper response to the occasion, namely the unreserved worship of God in flesh. With this insight in mind grasp these few powerful lines penned by Charles Wesley:
Hark! the herald angels sing,
“Glory to the new-born King!
Peace on earth, and mercy mild,
God and sinners reconciled.”
The most astonishing aspect of Christ’s birth has to be that He was born of a virgin. God dispatched the angel Gabriel to a virgin by the name of Mary to announce to her that she, without the involvement of a man, will conceive in her womb and bear a son (Luke 1:3). The picture of the virgin puts into our minds the image of a young innocent girl chosen and highly favored by God to become the mother of the Savior of all men – including the Savior of her own soul (Luke 1:47)!
The truth of the virgin birth is not only a New Testament phenomenon but is attested to by the Old Testament. Isaiah the prophet received the word that “…the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). Isaiah received this prophecy about 700 years before the angel visited Mary in Nazareth. The truth and image of a virgin therefore reminds us of the prophetic fulfillment of Christ’s birth and thereby the veracity of God’s word – that it never fails!
In addition to this, we also note in the image of the virgin the miraculous nature of Christ’s birth. The angel informed Mary that “the Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). That a virgin conceived was an act of God’s power and this was significant as it secured the holiness and sinlessness of the child.
When we are born into this world it normally takes two sinners to conceive – a man and a woman both with sinful natures. This sinful nature then gets passed onto us and this has been the sad and cursed reality of mankind ever since the fall of our first parents Adam and Eve. However, Jesus Christ is not conceived as we are and the Scriptures very plainly state that the Holy Spirit will come upon her and the power of the Most High will overshadow her and “for that reason” says Gabriel, “the holy (hagios) Child shall be called the Son of God”. The virgin birth then secures the sinlessness of the Lord Jesus Christ as He was – in the words of the Apostles’ Creed – “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary”. The image of the virgin [birth] pictures the miraculous birth and sinlessness of the Lord Jesus Christ. He would come as the sinless Savior and only as such can He truly save! Charles Wesley again helps us reflect on this truth:
Offspring of a Virgin’s womb
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see
Hail the incarnate Deity
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
The manger is probably the dominant image when thinking of the actual birth of Jesus. Though the nature of Jesus’ birth and the purpose for which He was born is of eternal significance, when reading the account of his birth one wouldn’t be blamed for wanting more to be said. This is something that has always been fascination: the matter-of-fact nature in which the birth of Christ is recorded. It is just recorded without any special significance whatsoever.
Matthew writes, “…she gave birth to a Son, and he called his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:25). Luke writes, “and she gave birth to her first born son; and she wrapped Him in cloths…” (Luke 2:7). The account of the actual birth of Jesus is described in the most ordinary terms. One would have expected something more. I would’ve expected something like:
“and she gave birth to her first born Son and at that time the earth shook and the mountains trembled while only the place of his birth remained still and while angels flew over the area Jesus was born and a chorus of voices could be heard singing outside “Away in a manger”.
However, what we have is the story really going in the opposite direction. Instead of a big build up to some spectacular birth we have the most ordinary of births and instead of an increase in prestige around this birth we see a move in a much more humble direction. The most interesting aspect of Jesus’ birth is probably the fact that he was born in a manger. Luke tells us that there was no place for Mary in the inn but instead she had to give birth in a feeding through for animals. The Lord of glory comes in great humility.
That is really is the message that the picture of the manger communicates. The apostle Paul writes and says: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though He was rich, yet for your sake He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.” (2 Corinthians 8:9). The manger is testament to the poverty in which the Son of God came to earth. Let this Christmas remind us, especially that humble image of the manger that while we may have many nice things, many fancy things, many expensive things, and many valuable things – Christmas is really about us moving in the other direction, the direction of humility, lowliness, self-denial and sacrificial love. Martin Luther wrote:
Away in a manger
No crib for His bed
The little Lord Jesus
Lay down His sweet head
There are many interesting characters playing important roles in the nativity account but none more mysterious and almost out of place than the wise men from the east also known as the magi. Magi is a term used for astrologers and these men were in actually fact following a star. They are Gentile astrologers as the Scriptures inform us and they were from the east (Matthew 2:1). They also appear clueless about Old Testament prophecy concerning the birth place of Christ.
Now there are few things about them that are not as clear and obvious. For starters, contrary to popular belief the Scripture nowhere tells us that they were three. This number is possibly deduced from the fact that they brought three gifts.
However, what is very clear is who they were looking for and what they were there to do. Matthew tells us that they were asking, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews”. They were clearly looking for and expecting to find a king at the end of their star-guided search. It’s also worth noting the royal or kingly context of Matthew’s account for immediately after they asked about the King of the Jews, we read “When Herod the king hear this…” Matthew in moment has the Magi asking about the whereabouts of the King of the Jews and the next moment the scene opens on Herod the king.
This becomes even more obvious when they eventually found the place Jesus was born. We are told that they rejoiced and fell to the ground and worshipped Him (Matthew 2:10-11). They then presented Jesus with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. These gifts are said to be gifts fit for a king. What then becomes abundantly clear is that the magi picture for us the royalty of the Lord Jesus. Born in Bethlehem was not only the Savior of the world but also the King of kings. May the image of the magi remind us that our Savior is King and we belong to Him and are called His own possession. I’m sure you can excuse the presumption of this Christmas carol in calling them three wise men and appreciate the truth it sums up so well:
And by the light of that same star
Three Wise men came from country far
To seek for a King was their intent
And to follow the star wherever it went.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel
Born is the King of Israel!
The image of the tabernacle in the nativity account may come as a surprise to many. However, if we are willing to be a little brave and venture beyond Matthew and Luke and if we would then take that risk and be as daring to regard sections in John’s prologue as part of the nativity account we may not be that surprised after all. We often don’t consider John’s gospel to tell us anything about the birth of Christ. The fourth gospel is just so different from the other three and yet if we read it carefully we will see that in actual fact John does address the birth of Jesus.
Well not in those words, but John very clearly writes, “The word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The word became flesh when the Son became man and the Son became man when he was conceived in the womb of Mary and born in the manger outside the inn in Bethlehem. In other words, when we think of the word becoming flesh we cannot miss the part of His birth!
John writes, “the word became flesh and dwelt among us”. That word “dwelt” can also be translated as “tabernacle” and this is a deliberate effort to encourage us to cast our minds back to the Old Testament when God “tabernacled” with His people in various ways. However, here God would come to earth fully man to personally dwell with man. God thus draws near to us in the closest manner and one could even say this is the closest God has been to man since He walked with Adam in the garden. In Jesus, God tabernacles with man not in a structure built but in body assumed.
As much as our focused is (rightfully) drawn toward the accounts of Christ’s birth in Matthew and Luke, let us not forget that the Bible testifies to Christ incarnation, birth and coming to earth regularly and here in John 1:14 we see one very clear instance. What happened at Christmas? What are we celebrating at Christmas? How about we let John (instead of Matthew or Luke) answer those questions for us. His answer would be: we are celebrating at Christmas the reality that the word became flesh and “tabernacled” among us. Thus tabernacle is a perfectly acceptable image for Christ and the image of tabernacle pictures for us the reality that God came near in grace, kindness and truth to save and redeem us completely.
Pleased as man with man to dwell
Jesus, our Emmanuel
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn
Without a shadow of a doubt, the cross looms large over the entire nativity account. We can even say the cross looms large over the entire life of Jesus. As blunt as it may seem to say this, the little baby Jesus lay wrapped in cloths is born to die on a merciless Roman cross. Thus He came from heaven to earth to die as the Nicene creed affirms:
For us men and for our salvation,
he came down from heaven:
While there is no specific reference to the cross in the nativity account there is explicit reference to the work Jesus was to finish on the cross. It was clearly communicated by the angel that, “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” (Matthew 1:21). This culminates on that fateful Good Friday on a hill outside of Jerusalem where Jesus would hang on a cross and there endure the just anger and wrath of God for the sins of all those who would believe.
Therefore, Christmas isn’t about giving us a reason to smile or be happy or to give away gifts or even to be with family, or to feel good about ourselves. Christmas is about the Son of God being born of a virgin, fully man and fully God, living a perfect life in obedience to the law and dying a sacrificial death on the cross so that all those who would believe would be saved! The cross looms large over the birth of Christ and it pictures for us the mission He came to accomplish on earth. The image of the cross pictures the finished work of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’re truly blessed at Christmas time to have hymns and carols that sum up these great truth with such rich lyrics:
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and lamb are feeding?
Good Christian, fear, for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading
Nails, spear shall pierce Him through
The cross be borne for me, for you
Hail, hail the Word made flesh
The Babe, the Son of Mary
While I’m confident there are more images of significance in the nativity account these six serve us well in providing meaning and understanding of the birth of Christ:
- the image of the angels pictures the significance of the incarnation
- the image of the virgin pictures the miraculous nature of the incarnation
- the image of the manger pictures the utter humility and condescension of the incarnation
- the image of the magi pictures the royal significance of the incarnation
- the image of the tabernacle pictures God in flesh drawing near with grace and truth
- the image of the cross which looms large over the birth of Christ pictures the gracious message and completed mission of the incarnation.
Here’s Charles Wesley one more time:
Mild, He lays His glory by,
Born that man no more may die,
Born to raise the sons of Earth,
Born to give them second