Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
We often view Christmas with a soft and serene sense, with visions of a baby, a cradle, blankets and bottles, peace, and many other things associated with this sort of context. Granted, our emotions and the reality of the season may be anything but that with the hustle and bustle, the last minute shopping, the spending of money, etc. But that is the sentimental vision many have or hope for during the Christmas season.
The proper context to understand Christmas, however, is as a battle and victory. After the fall, as God pronounces judgment He informs Adam, Eve and the serpent there would be one who would bruise her Seed’s (offspring) heel, but this Seed (offspring) would crush the Satan’s head (Gen. 3:15; Rom. 16:20). This is known as the Protoevangelium, the first gospel. This peace the angels’ spoke about (Lk. 2:14) was real and true. At eight days of age, when Joseph and Mary brought Jesus to the temple to be presented to the Lord, Simeon prophesied that this One is appointed for the rising and falling of many, and Mary’s own soul would be pierced (Lk. 2:34-36). The partial realization of this prophecy occurred almost immediately as shortly after Jesus’ birth Herod wanted Him dead (Matt. 2:1-11). This is reflective of Jesus’ life. But He was clear in His purpose and mission, and He knew, being God, this was the only way He could be the appointed mediator between God and man (1 Tim. 2:5).
This Prince of Peace (Isa. 9:6) would bring peace between God and human beings and between human beings (Eph. 2:11-22). But this peace would be brought through the cross. This is what we often forget: peace comes through the cross, which was anything but peaceful to Christ. But for the joy set before Him (Heb. 12:1-3), He endured the cross for us and for our salvation (as stated in the Nicene Creed).
At Jesus’ birth the angels’ spoke of peace: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom He is pleased” (Lk. 2:14). After Jesus’ resurrection when He appeared to the disciples, some of His first words to them were, “Peace be with you” (Jn. 20:19). Peace was achieved through the cross. It was at the cross that sins were forgiven and Satan and the principalities were defeated (Col. 2:15).
We now live between the times of Christ’s first and second comings. Though Satan is a defeated foe (Heb. 2:14-15; 1 Jn. 3:8), and though his time is short, which he knows, he will raise as much havoc and do as much damage as possible. He lives to accuse Christians day and night (Rev. 12:10), doing all he can to kill, steal and destroy (Jn. 10:10).
Russell Moore wrote about this tension: “Let’s Rethink Our Holly-Jolly Christmas Songs.”
Of course, some of the blame is on our sentimentalized Christmas of the American civil religion. Simeon the prophet never wished anyone a “holly-jolly Christmas” or envisioned anything about chestnuts roasting on an open fire. But there’s our songs too, the songs of the church. We ought to make sure that what we sing measures up with the, as this fellow would put it, “narrative tension” of the Christmas story.
The first Christmas carol, after all, was a war hymn. Mary of Nazareth sings of God’s defeat of his enemies, about how in Christ he had demonstrated his power and “has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate” (Lk. 1:52). There are some villains in mind there.
Simeon’s song, likewise, speaks of the “fall and rising of many in Israel” and of a sword that would pierce the heart of Mary herself. Even the “light of the Gentiles” he speaks about is in the context of warfare. After all, the light, the Bible tells us, overcomes the darkness (Jn. 1:5), and frees us from the grip of the devil (2 Cor. 4).
During this season, we worship the Prince of Peace. We remember and celebrate His first coming in the incarnation when “the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn. 1:14). We honor Christ when we eagerly long for His second coming. Though we live between the times, we know Christ is the conquering King and Satan is a defeated foe, and we are not ignorant of his schemes against God, His work and His people. Through Christ we overcame and in Christ we overcome (1 Jn. 4:4; Rev. 12:11). The peace we now have with God in and through the gospel of Jesus Christ we now live with another in such a way that the gospel is manifested. As the gospel triumphs in our lives which enables us to impact families and churches, we long for the day when Jesus returns when He will right all things and to make all things right.
As we sing Christmas carols this season, let’s also join with the early church in saying and living maranatha, Come Lord Jesus (Rev. 22:20).