Christmas is Saturday. It’s a great time to take a fresh look at Christmas, particularly in what Christ’s birth represents in the big picture. As the apostle Paul says of us, Christians are those “on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). The end of the ages has come upon us, and the end of the ages has come upon us by the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
This is a big concept — a hard one. But it’s worth our time. Theologian Richard Gaffin has developed this point well in a really good book, his magnum opus coming out next year, which is titled In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul (Crossway, May 2022). There he describes why the apostle Paul was so amazed that he — and us — is one upon which “the end of the ages has come.” Paul, he writes, is
deeply conscious of living in “the fullness of time,” when, at last, God has sent his Son and when the new creation has already dawned. His vantage point in history is characterized by the fact that he is privileged to be able now to look back on the climactic events of the history of redemption, the [birth and] death and resurrection of Christ, as having occurred. Using a sometimes-cited analogy from the Second World War, Paul knows himself to be among those for whom the great D-Day kingdom battle is over, for whom the era of conflict between the kingdom of God and the dominion of Satan is in the past and has been decisively resolved; the redemption of God’s people is an accomplished and secure reality.
D-Day is done. V-Day is yet future, in the second coming. Nevertheless, D-Day, the decisive battle, is over. It has been won. The kingdom has dawned. In other words, Gaffin writes, “God’s revelation in his Son, in his incarnate person and work . . . has a finality that cannot be superseded or surpassed.”
That’s the significance of the incarnation. The new creation has arrived. The kingdom of God has dawned. The future full arrival of the kingdom and the new creation, or V-Day, is now inevitable and unstoppable because there is a finality to redemptive history at Christmas. Paul never lost his amazement that something climactic, something decisive, something marking the end of time happened in a dusty manger in Bethlehem.
To use the apostle Paul’s very words: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4–5). That first Christmas marked the fullness of time. Or to say it another way, history ended on Christmas, as John Piper explains in this clip from his 1981 Christmas sermon, preached forty years ago. Here he is.
The meaning of Christmas was a total blur for some thirty years until the apostles broke through to this insight: “Oh, this is the first half of the final act of redemption, and the second half will only come later.” When they finally saw that, God counted them prepared to interpret Christmas for us. And that’s what they did in the New Testament, interpreting the incarnation in view of the second coming.
“The apostles do not treat Christmas as another bend in redemptive history. History ended at Christmas.”
Everything they wrote in their interpretation of the incarnation has a trademark about it. It’s a very unusual trademark that stamps it as apostolic, the words of the apostles. The trademark is that even though the apostles look forward to the second appearance of the coming of the Messiah, they nevertheless called the first appearing of the Messiah the end of the ages. History ended at Christmas. That’s the trademark of the apostles. They do not treat Christmas as just another bend in the river of redemptive history. With Christmas comes the end.
Christ’s Birth, Time’s End
Let me show you some examples of where this trademark is found. In 1 Corinthians 10:11, the apostle Paul says that all the events of the Old Testament “happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come.” That’s Paul speaking two thousand years ago: “The end of the ages has fallen upon us.”
Do you remember what the apostle Peter said when he stood up on Pentecost to interpret what was happening in the fall of the Holy Spirit? Quoting Joel, he said, “This is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: ‘And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit’” (Acts 2:16–17). Those were the last days.
Again, the apostle Peter wrote in 1 Peter 1:20 that “[Christ] was foreknown before the foundation of the world but was made manifest in the last times for the sake of you.” Christ was made manifest at the end of the times. The appearing of Jesus at Christmas marked the end of the times — or, as Paul called it, “the end of the ages.”
Here’s one more text, Hebrews 9:26–28. It is especially important because, here, the two comings of the Messiah are held side by side, and still the first one is called the end. The text says,
[Christ] has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:26–28)
What this text shows is that even though time had elapsed between Christmas and the writing of Hebrews, and the author looked forward to another uncertain elapse of time until that second appearing, nevertheless he still looked back and said that Christ’s first coming was the end of the age.
That’s the trademark of the apostles. That’s the way they thought about Christmas. And I think the Holy Spirit preserves that trademark for us because there is a tremendously important truth in it. Namely, don’t trivialize Christmas into just another great event in the stream of redemptive history.
How Christmas Tastes
Creation out of nothing was an awesome event. I try to imagine what the angels thought when matter, the universe, flashed into existence at the word of God. They never could have imagined such a thing, and there it was. The fall was an awful event that shook creation. The exodus was an amazing display of power and love. The giving of the law, the wandering in the wilderness, the conquest of Canaan, the rise of the monarchy, the prophetic word — all great demonstrations of the power of God along the river of redemptive history.
But don’t align Christmas on the same continuum with those great events. We trivialize the incarnation if we make it just another stage along the way to the end. It is the end of redemptive history, and I think the analogy of the river helps us see how.
Picture the Mississippi River, running all the way to the Gulf. Picture redemptive history now, flowing from creation right on through as a river. Picture the ocean into which it is flowing as the final kingdom of God — eternal and glorious beyond all description. At the mouth, or the end, of this river, the ocean presses back with its salt water some way up into the river. I’ve always wondered what kind of fish live in this no man’s land, where the freshwater and the salt water are mingling, where the river meets the ocean.
“Taste Jesus Christ. Taste his birth, life, death, and resurrection. Has not the kingdom arrived?”
Therefore, at the mouth of the river there’s a mingling of freshwater and salt water. One might say that the kingdom has pressed its way back up into the stream of history a short way. It has surprised the travelers on that river very, very much. They can taste it if they put their oar down into the water. They can smell it. They can see the seagull circling the deck. The end has come upon them, even though they’re still on the river.
Christmas is not just another bend in that river. Christmas is the arrival of the salt water of the kingdom, backing up into the river for some way. That salt water is beckoning us, welcoming us, alluring us out into the deep. Christmas is not just another great bend in the river. It is the end of the river.
Let down your oar. Taste Jesus Christ. Taste his birth, his life, his death, his resurrection. Has not the age to come fallen upon us? Has not the kingdom arrived? Do you not taste the powers of the age to come? I think those who can taste it lift up their eyes, and they see a big blue bow on the horizon between sky and ocean. And they are hankering and longing to go out of the delta, out of the mouth of the river, into the ocean.