What is Christmas? Ask the Angels

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Among many other wondrous things, Christmas is a preview of Jesus’ second coming.

Christmas is bittersweet. The angels announce good will and peace on earth. Unspeakable joy at the birth of a baby, the long-prophesied Messiah, Jesus!

Then small children are massacred in and around Bethlehem.

At this 2017 holiday season we hear Christmas bells. Our hearts are warmed by “old familiar carols.” Yet “in despair” we may bow our heads and say, “There is no peace on earth!”

Some folks can be forgiven for being cynical.

Here’s where, I think, it helps to realize that Jesus’ first coming to earth is a preview of his second coming to earth.

The first coming was time-limited. The second one is everlasting.

The first coming was bittersweet. The second coming wipes away all tears forever.

The first coming solved an essential part of the problem. The second coming brings a complete and unending cure.

Beware!

Here lies a danger, however. Two common mistakes often betray the full Christmas hope.

The first error is to say: Jesus’ birth, the whole Christmas story, was just a preview. Like an exciting movie trailer. Don’t expect anything more till you see the last-days movie. Just trust in Jesus, hang on, try to be good, and then die and go to heaven.

That is unbiblical. It undermines our present prophetic discipleship—our own calling which Jesus intends to be his own kingdom ministry on earth in this key gospel period between Jesus’ appearings.

The second mistake (often tied to the first) is to say that what happens on earth is not all that important. Earthly life is a mere shadow of things to come. Maybe it’s not even real. So, don’t be concerned. God really isn’t. He’s just leading you through a dry wilderness till you cross over Jordan into the Promised Land—somewhere over the rainbow, some non-material spiritual place way beyond all the universe’s galaxies.

No. The full gospel story is not about leaving earth and going somewhere else, perhaps to some ornate, costly mansions where Jesus is. The gospel story is about a king who goes away and gives the people on his estate important responsibilities to fulfill while he’s away. He will return and settle accounts, and the estate (which is the whole earth) will finally flourish.

The gospel is about healing the divorce between earth and heaven, not about destroying the earth. “The Son of God was revealed for this very purpose: to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). That is, to destroy sin and its effects, not annihilate the earth and its wonders, the “very good” works of Almighty God.

Jesus Comes Back

Over and over again the Bible—and Jesus himself—assures us that he will return to earth permanently, unendingly, decisively, redemptively.

Jesus’ disciples were assured of this at his ascension. “This same Jesus who was just been taken from you into heaven will come back the same way you saw him go into heaven” (Acts 1:11). Jesus disappeared into heaven and is now at the Father’s right hand, all angels, authorities, and powers under his hand (1 Pt 3:22).

Jesus will return the same way he left. But not exactly the same way. In some respects his second coming will be quite unlike the first. Jesus himself says, “Everyone will see the Son of man coming on the clouds with power and great glory, coming in the glory of his Father with his angels. He will settle accounts, making everything right.” (See Mt 16:27, 24:30; Mk 13:26-27; Lk 21:17).

Think of the Angels

The Bible is well populated with angels. Jesus’ life and ministry was punctuated by them. When Jesus was born, an angel announced to shepherds, “Don’t be afraid! I’ve got good news of great joy for people everywhere. A Savior, the Messiah, has just been born!” Then suddenly a multitude of angels appeared, praising God: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth among all in his favor.”

Thousands of angels. And yet Jesus told Peter when Messiah was arrested, “Don’t you realize I could call on my father and he would send more than 60,000 angels to the rescue, just like that? But then how could the Bible come true? The prophets say it must happen this way.”

Angels come at the right time, according to the character and plan of God and the gospel.

Jesus’ first coming had hosts of angels, song, joy, light, sound, action, surpassing promises. A breaking through the spacetime veil—a brief intertwining of earth and heaven.

Jesus’ second coming has all those same elements. But with one exception. The intertwining of earth and heaven, of spirit and matter, will not be a mere passing thing. For joy will replace tears forever, and the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea. Of his peaceable kingdom there will be no end.

The Point

The point here is simple. Christmas is a preview. But it’s also a prelude, real history, the first act, the “according to the Scriptures” beginning of a story of redemptive healing that includes Jesus’ wonderful life on earth, all his kingdom signs, all his kindness and gentleness and judgment, all his agonies and obedience and his being left suffocating on the cross crying “Why?” Jesus’ actual physical death, three nights in a tomb, a mind-blowing resurrection, a shattering of despair, a new birth of hope, a new vision of what God really is up to and the cost and calling for us as we follow Jesus and do the very Jesus works he left us as a stewardship, a joy, a sacrifice, and a redemptive, life-changing, culture-healing ministry.

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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