Christmas Was and Christmas Is

The Whole Story of Advent

Cities Church | Minneapolis

I was watching the Super Bowl this past February, expecting to see the newest commercials from Doritos and Budweiser and Coca-Cola, when this unusual music began to play. On the screen were still shots of kids doing adorable things — helping each other, hugging each other, wrapping arms around the family dog. At the end, the words came up,

Jesus didn’t want us to act like adults. . . . He gets us.

It was a heartwarming riff on Jesus’s teaching about being childlike. I liked it. This is the Super Bowl, with hundreds of millions of people watching, and a 30-second spot comes up commending Jesus. I love Jesus. I worship Jesus. Yeah, let’s commend Jesus.

Then another spot came up in the second half. Harsher music. Pictures of adults demonstrating manifest outrage and hatred, in each other’s faces. Sometimes it’s a physical altercation. All of it from the last three years. Then the message:

Jesus loved the people we hate. . . . He gets us.

And my response was, Ouch and yes.

The ads are from a non-profit looking to “put Jesus in the middle of culture.” They paid $20 million for the Super Bowl ads and plan to spend $3 billion in the coming years.

So, I’ve seen more of these “He gets us” ads in recent months. Sometimes, I like them. Other times, I cringe a little, concerned it will give a skewed impression of Jesus.

Jesus was judged wrongly.
Jesus had strained relationships.
Jesus welcomes the weird.
Jesus was fed up with politics.
Jesus invited everyone to sit at his table.
Jesus chose forgiveness.

Then last week I took my twin sons to their first Minnesota Wild hockey game at the X, and now there’s a hockey “He gets us” on the thin digital screens around the side of the arena: “Jesus had great lettuce, too.” “Lettuce” means hockey hair. (I had to ask my boys for help on that.) I don’t want to be too picky, but I wonder if “great lettuce” might represent some mission drift for the “He gets us” campaign. Admittedly, it doesn’t speak to me personally like it would if it said, “Jesus was losing his hair, too.”

Hebrews 2 is a “he gets us” passage. But it’s also clear that he not only gets us, but he helps us. He rescues us. Saves us. Getting us is good; as we’ll see, that can lead to real, genuine help for us in our need. But getting us, on its own, doesn’t do a whole lot for us. Yes, he gets us. He really does. And this is a slice of what we celebrate in Advent. But there’s no real joy in Advent if he only gets us and doesn’t also help us, save us, change us, lift us up. In Advent, we celebrate that he became man, fully human like us, not just to be one of us, but to save us.

Our Pioneer and Champion

Hebrews 2:10 has a name for Jesus that I’ve come to love, and it’s hard to find an equivalent word for it in English. The ESV has founder: God “make[s] the founder of [our] salvation perfect through suffering.” Founder is a good translation, but I want to fill out the meaning for us a little bit.

The Greek word is archegos, and it’s built on the word archē, which means “beginning.” So archegos, we might say, is “the originator” or “the beginner.” The problem is we mean something else by “beginner” in English: “a person just starting to learn a skill or take part in an activity.” Jesus is not a “beginner” in that sense. Rather, he’s a “beginner” in the sense that he’s the leader who goes first and others follow him. Like a pioneer. This archegos, however, doesn’t just go first into uncharted territory, but into battle. So “champion” or “hero” could be a good translation of archegos as well.

Again, we don’t just stand back and watch this champion fight from afar. We’re connected to him and come with him. He doesn’t just fight for us; he leads the charge, and we follow in his wake. So, Jesus as our archegos, is both our hero and example. He is “the beginner” in that he births the people, and he leads us into the battle, and he rescues us through faith in him, and then he also inspires us as our model to follow. We benefit from what he does for us (and couldn’t do for ourselves), and yet in his work for us, he opens up a path that we might follow in his steps.

And Advent is where our “beginner” begins, so to speak. That is, Advent is the beginning of his humanity, and his getting us, saving us, and helping us. But Advent is not the beginning of his person. So, let’s walk with Hebrews chapter 2 through the Advent drama of our “beginner,” our “champion,” from the very beginning until now. There are four distinct stages here in the drama of Hebrews 2 — four movements in the story of Advent.

1. Jesus Did Not Start Like Us

Our champion, our “beginner,” did not begin like we did. His person was not created like ours. He is a divine person, the second person of the eternal Threeness. His humanity was created, conceived in Mary’s womb and born in Bethlehem, but not his person.

The book of Hebrews begins with glimpses of his godhood. Before any world existed, he existed and was “appointed the heir of all things” (Hebrews 1:2). Then through him God (the Father) made the world. “He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” — he is distinct from the Father in his person and same as his Father in divine nature. “And,” verse 3 adds, “he upholds the universe by the word of his power” — as only God can do.

So, the story of Advent begins before time, before creation, before “the beginning.” Jesus himself is God, and if you have eyes to see his divinity, it’s all over the New Testament.

Greg Lanier, in his recent book Is Jesus Truly God?, shows how the deity of Christ shines on just about every page in the New Testament:

  1. He is preexistent before Advent, and before creation.
  2. He is the unique “Son” of the heavenly Father, eternally begotten.
  3. He is called “Lord,” which refers to God’s Old Testament covenant name (Yahweh).
  4. He receives worship.
  5. He relates to the Father and Spirit in ways that reveal his person as one of the divine Threeness.

So, let’s get this clear before we talk about his humanity and how he gets us. In Jesus, a man did not become God. Rather, God became man. We say that Jesus is fully God and fully man in one person, but we do not mean that he became God and man at the same time. There is a profound asymmetry in the story of the God-man: he has been God for all eternity, and he became man at the first Christmas.

2. Jesus Was Made Like Us

Now we come to his first Advent and the first Christmas, when God made God in the image of God. Without ceasing to be God, God the Son took on humanity. He added humanity to his divine person.

Humanity, as a created nature, is “compatible” with the uncreated divine nature. Deity and humanity are not a zero-sum game. The divine Son did not have to jettison any eternal deity (as if that’s even possible) to take on humanity. Uncreated deity and created humanity operate at different levels of reality, so to speak. Without ceasing, in any way, to be fully God, the Son took on our full created nature and became fully human. As Hebrews 2:17 says, he was “made like his brothers in every respect.” Look at verses 11–14:

“For he who sanctifies” (Jesus) “and those who are sanctified” (us) “all have one source” (that is, one nature). “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, ‘I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.’ And again, ‘I will put my trust in him.’ And again, ‘Behold, I and the children God has given me.’ Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things . . .

We’ll come back to finish verse 14, but let me just say about these Old Testament quotations in verses 13–14 that Pastor Jonathan explained them so well in a previous sermon as pointing to Jesus’s solidarity with us in our suffering.

“Flesh and blood” in verse 14 refers to our humanity. We are flesh and blood, and so Jesus became one of us — to which Hebrews 4:15 adds, “without sin.” Sin is not an essential part of what it means to be human. Jesus was fully human, made like us in every respect, and “without sin.” So, then, what’s included in this “every respect” of our humanity? What does it mean for Jesus to be fully human, like us?

One of the biggest moments in the collective formation of early Christians in saying what the Scriptures teach about the humanity of Christ is a church council called Chalcedon in 451 AD. The Chalcedonian Creed says Jesus is “perfect in Godhead and also perfect in manhood; truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and body.”

Jesus has a fully human body. He “became flesh,” which means at least a human body. He was born and grew and grew tired. He became thirsty and hungry. He suffered, and he died. And his human body was raised and glorified, and he sits right now, on heaven’s throne, in a risen, glorified human body.

But becoming fully human also involved taking “a rational soul,” or “the inner man,” including human emotions. He marveled. He expressed sorrow. “He was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled” and he wept (John 11:33–35). And he rejoiced and was happy. John Calvin memorably summed it up, “Christ has put on our feelings along with our flesh.”

A “rational soul” also includes a human mind (in addition to his divine mind). So, Jesus “increased in wisdom” as well as in stature (Luke 2:52), and most strikingly, he says about the timing of his second coming, “Concerning that day or that hour, no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Mark 13:32). With respect to his humanity, and his human mind, there are things he does not know. His human knowledge is limited, like all human minds. Yet, at the same time, for this unique two-natured person of Christ, he also knows all things with respect to his divine mind. As one-natured humans, this is beyond our experience and ability to understand, but divine and human minds are compatible. And this is no contradiction for the unique person of Christ, but one of his unique glories.

So too with his human will, in addition to the divine will. Jesus says, “I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). Jesus, speaking with respect to his human will, says that he came “not of [his] own will” but his Father’s. And that divine will, while not proper to his humanity, is proper to his person as God. When he prays in Gethsemane, “Not as I will, but as you will” (Matthew 26:39), he aligns his human will with the divine will, which also is his as God.

So, Jesus has a fully human body and emotions and mind and will. And verse 11 says, “That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers.” He is not ashamed to call you brother (or sister). Jesus could have been a brother in our nature, and yet ashamed to call us his brothers. But mark this, he is not that kind of brother. He’s not ashamed of his siblings. He’s not worried that our weaknesses and immaturities, or even our follies, will mar his reputation. He’s not stuck with us and embarrassed by them.

That’s not how Jesus is with me, and with us. I want to be like Jesus is with me. I want to be like this as a dad, and be like this as a friend, and be like this as a pastor: not mainly concerned about how others’ behavior reflects on me, but mainly concerned about my brother or sister in Christ, so that I can be loving, rather than self-focused — especially in the moments when love is needed most.

3. Jesus Suffered Like Us

Being fully human, he suffered both with us and for us.

Suffering is an important aspect of his being fully human, and saving us in his full humanity. If he was only God, he could not suffer. God is “impassible,” unable to be afflicted or be moved from outside. But not humanity. So, Jesus becoming fully human involved not only a human body and reasoning human soul, emotions, mind, and will, but he also entered as man into our fallen world, which is under the curse of sin. And even though he himself was not a sinner, he was, as a creature, susceptible to the afflictions, assaults, sufferings, and pains of our world. He entered into our suffering, and did so in two senses.

One, he suffered with us. He knows what it’s like to suffer in created flesh and blood. And verse 10 says that he was made “perfect through suffering.” This language of “perfect” or “complete” is important in Hebrews. Verse 10 doesn’t mean that Jesus was imperfect, or sinful, but that he was made ready, or made complete, for his calling, as our champion and High Priest, through his suffering. Having become man, he was not yet complete, not yet ready, but needed to be made ready, complete, “perfect” through suffering. Hebrews 5:8–9 says,

Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.

Which leads, then, to a second sense in which he suffered: for us. Not only does he, as man, suffer with us, but he, as the God-man, suffers for us — in our place, in our stead. This leads us to the connection between suffering and death. Verse 9 introduces “the suffering of death” (of Jesus suffering and dying for us): “by the grace of God he [tasted] death for everyone.” Jesus not only experienced suffering with us but for us. He not only gets us, but saves us, and that “through death.”

Now look at the rest of verse 14 and verse 15, and two achievements of Jesus for us through this human suffering of death at the cross. Pick it up in the middle of verse 14: Jesus shared in our humanity “that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.” The first achievement through his human death is that he defeated Satan. His suffering unto death conquers the one who had the power of death.

We should not forget this as a Christmas theme: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). How? “He appeared in order to take away sins” (1 John 3:5). They go together. Jesus destroys the devil by taking away sins. The weapon Satan had against us was unforgiven sin, “the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands.” But through the suffering of death, Jesus “set [this] aside, nailing it to the cross” and in so doing, God “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in [Jesus]” (Colossians 2:14–15).

So, the first achievement is destroying Satan, and second in Hebrews 2:15 is delivering us. How? We might expect what follows in verse 17, but not expect the next verse. Verse 17 gives us one reason that he had to be made like us in every respect:

so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.

We had sinned and needed covering before the holy God. We had a “record of debt that stood against us” because we were humans with sin. So, to rescue us, God needed not only to become fully man, and suffer with us, but suffer for us, unto death, that his death might be for us, his brothers, the death we deserved for our sins. That’s what it means when the high priest “[makes] propitiation for the sins of the people.” The people’s sin against the holy and infinitely worthy God deserves his righteous, omnipotent wrath. And in becoming human, and suffering with us, and unto death, for us, Jesus absorbs the just penalty due us that we might be delivered from hell and the justice due our sin.

And verse 18 gives us one more reason, embedded in the first, for why Jesus was made like us, in every respect, including suffering and then dying in our place.

4. Jesus Helps Us Right Now

Verse 17 is amazing in that he deals with our sin, and gets us right with God, and verse 18 is amazing in that he’s ready and eager to help us right now. He both makes atonement for us in his death, and he rises again, and sends his Spirit, that he might help us in our struggles right now. Look at verse 18:

For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted.

Because Jesus suffered, he can help us in our suffering. That is, because he suffered unto death to atone for our sins, he is able to indwell us by his Spirit, draw near to us in our time of need, and help us in whatever tests and challenges and trials and temptations we face in the ongoing struggle of the Christian life. Jesus not only saves us out of sin’s curse, but also through sin’s temptations. He atones for our sins, and stands ready to come to our aid in temptation and in our own suffering. Having saved us from sin’s guilt, he is poised to save us from sin’s power.

So, as Hebrews 12:2 says, Jesus is not only the founder, the archegos, the beginner, the champion of our faith, but also the finisher. He’s not only the beginner but finisher. Our champion not only leads the way and goes ahead of us to face the foe, but he also doubles back to check on us, to help us, to keep us.

What Child Is This?

Let’s close, then, with this question: What help do you need this Advent? How are you suffering? What’s your present trial (or trials)? What’s testing your faith most right now? What’s tempting you to sin or give up? What’s your biggest need this Advent?

In Advent, we don’t just remember what he did in the past; we remember who he is in the present. Christmas is not only a was; it’s an is. Get his help. He not only gets us; he helps us. So, as we come to the Table, let’s ask for his help afresh. What need do you bring to the Table this morning? How do you need his help to persevere?

The one who meets us here is fully divine, the second person of the eternal Godhead, who in his happy, expansive, overflowing, gracious nature, took our full humanity to come rescue us. And he suffered with us — and for us unto death. He destroyed Satan, and he delivers us from our sins. And he rose from the dead, and ascended, and is now enthroned in heaven, where he stands ready, by his Spirit, to help us in the fight of faith.