Theologians often speak of the earthly ministry of Christ up to His death as His humiliation and the period ever after as His exaltation. This Christmas, I’d like to delve a little more deeply into the humility aspect. Quite frankly, it takes my breath away. I don’t think I can do justice to it, but here goes…
I think we’re all pretty familiar with how humble the first Christmas was. Jesus’ parents were poor, so poor that a few days after Christmas they had to present the second-rate sacrifice for a firstborn specifically designated as relief for impoverished Israelites. Jesus’ first bed, as we all know, was a food trough. God called shepherds to be the first witnesses, and these people were far from royal heralds. There is a belief among Christians that shepherds’ testimony was not admissible. That is, if their saying that the Messiah had been born had been brought before the Sanhedrin, they could have been laughed out of the court.
But that’s just the beginning. For thirty years Jesus lived a life of quiet righteousness, obeying every part of the Mosaic Law but doing so little as far as the spectacular goes that the Gospels only record one event from this time period. No, He didn’t perform miracles or show off; John says His turning the water into wine after His baptism was the first sign He did. When He prepared to teach, He called uneducated fishermen with uncultured Galilean accents to be His disciples. He defended Himself resolutely against the effrontery of opponents who thought they knew so much more about the Law than He, but when these arguments turned violent, He either hid Himself or simply let them blindfold Him, spit on Him, slap Him, and finally nail Him to the cross. To any Jew this was a sure sign of God’s curse upon Him, and Romans held crucifixion in such horror that you didn’t mention the word in polite company. And even someone suffering that same fate still held himself high enough over Jesus to mock Him in His misery.
But consider what Jesus’ birthright was. He created the world and everything in it! To quote the old Jacobite song about Bonnie Prince Charlie during his time as a fugitive, “On hills that are by right his own, he roves a lonely stranger.” He could have called down fire on His enemies justly any time He had wanted to. In fact, His disciples suggested this to Him. Instead, “I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair” (Isaiah 50:6). Instead of stupid disciples who misunderstood Him at every turn and the praise of fickle crowds who eventually called for his death and picked a criminal in preference to Him, His right had been constant love from His perfect Father and their Holy Spirit and the praise of tens of thousands of perfect angels. To sum up His ministry, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark 10:45).
Which we should consider next time we want to stick up for our “rights.” There’s a place for basic human dignity as a God’s image-bearer and protection of one’s rights, but sometimes there are more important things than some “rights” we think we have. Paul told the Corinthians they should rather let their Christian brothers defraud them than embarrass the Church and hinder the Gospel by making a case of it before the entire world. He repeatedly described how he gave up some of his rights for the sake of furthering the Gospel or to build up fellow believers. We should not be quick to point out every fault or criticize (let alone avenge!) every wrong done to us. For serious wrongs, Jesus gave a procedure for dealing with them (that involved keeping things as quiet as possible), but for many of the smaller things He said, “For charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8). He also issued a grave warning for those who would insist on their “rights” against penitent transgressors when God did not insist on His infinitely greater right against them.
While recognition is nice and a natural human longing, Jesus sought the infinitely more valuable recognition from God the Father.
Christmas is a time to remember Peter’s instruction, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time” (I Peter 5:6). People will do horrendously stupid things to be the center of attention. They’ll make fools of themselves before the world on Television and Internet, thinking themselves wise, or they’ll delight in mocking such people to feel superior. They’ll break promises to score cheap political points, or they’ll backstab to get ahead. What they want is the acclaim of man. While recognition is nice and a natural human longing, Jesus sought the infinitely more valuable recognition from God the Father.
And He got it. The same night He was sleeping in a food trough, a company of angels were proclaiming His praises against the backdrop of God’s Shekinah glory. Meanwhile, a special star commissioned by God was proclaiming His birth and whereabouts to neighboring Parthia’s elite who came to offer Him some of the finest gifts in the known world. God audibly affirmed His love of Him and claimed Him as His Son twice, and He was acknowledged as the great coming one by the first prophet to appear in Israel for 400 years.
But the big reward, like for us, came after His death. Paul said that, because of Jesus’ willingness to undergo such utter humiliation, God “hath highly exalted Him and given Him a Name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). Jesus’ glory right now is so great that one of His best friends fainted at the sight of Him. This is to say nothing of His official enthronement as King of the Universe.
One of the lessons of Christmas is that we should be worrying far more about what God thinks of us than what the world thinks. No bystander looking at a baby of peasants lying in a food trough would think that they were looking at their eternal Sovereign. When we stop seeking the world’s acclaim, we’re in a better state to seek the much more satisfying words from God, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).