Getting Christmas Right

Dec 23, 2022 by David Fowler

Getting Christmas Right
As I signed a few hundred letters a week ago with a Christmas-themed postscript containing the word “joy,” I began to wonder, “What is joy? Is there an objective meaning to ‘joy’ that is not dependent on a person’s subjective circumstances?” My search exposed something about me I needed to know and knowing it filled the rest of my Christmas season with more joy.

As I signed those letters, a Scripture verse about joy came to mind that seemed unrelated to Christmas. The writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers to look to Jesus, “the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2, emphasis supplied).

Doesn’t sound very Christmas-y, even though a Christian can’t speak of Jesus and not at least subconsciously think about the Incarnation at the heart of the Christian’s celebration of Christmas. In fact, because the verse mentions the cross, I had considered it an “Easter” verse. And it mentions the “faith” by which Jesus’ vicarious death makes a person’s salvation possible (because none of us are holy).

But the verse speaks of a joy that was “set before Him,” which means it served as the ground of the act by which the second person of the Triune God willingly laid aside His eternal glory in order that His divine nature could be joined to the nature given Adam at his creation. (See Philippians 2:5-8) This act is the Incarnation celebrated at Christmas.

But a joy existing in Eternity before any act in space and time seemed to create the possibility that joy could have a meaning independent of the act itself. For us, confined to space and time, a prospective event may create excitement and be eagerly anticipated, but the thing itself gives rise to the real joy. So, I pressed on in pursuit of understanding this joy. 

Ruling Out Possibilities Exposes My Backward View of Christmas

I wanted to know the kernel, the ground of Jesus’ joy. This is the point at which I began to realize how self-centered my view of Christmas and salvation was.

A superficial reading of the quoted verse in Hebrews would make it easy to think that the “joy” was Jesus knowing He had provided the salvation I needed. But Jesus made it clear that not all would be saved by His death. Certainly, I thought, Jesus’ joy would be tempered if He knew His terrible suffering on the cross would not be efficacious for all for whom He died, and most today preach that He died for all.

Moreover, I had to consider how Jesus sitting “down at the right hand of the throne of God” factored into Jesus’ joy. But that really created a problem. 

If Jesus were only a man, being seated by God on a throne would be a superlative joy, but Jesus was not just a man. The Incarnation means the Son of God was never not God. What joy would be realized by the Son of God who is ontologically God getting to “sit” beside God? 

But there was another problem. A Triune God, by definition, lacks nothing and needs nothing. Moreover, if joy is derived from something contingent or accidental, meaning a thing that does not have to happen, that meant God lacked something in Himself. 

That, in turn, meant God needed the man Jesus for Him to have joy. That is man-centered religion as surely as me staring in the mirror and bowing to my image.

If God didn’t need man, God also wasn’t going to suffer any loss of joy had He saved no one. My salvation could be a joyous consequence to Jesus of His act of supreme condescension, but it could not be the ground of Jesus’ joy.

What Grounded Jesus’ Joy Relative to the Incarnation?

I think I found the answer in the Gospel of John, and it certainly gives at least one reason the “joy of the Lord” can be my “strength” (Nehemiah 8:10).

In Chapter 15, we find the words Jesus spoke to his twelve disciples prior to His arrest and crucifixion. He says he has “spoken” to them “that My joy may remain in you, and that your job may be full” (v. 11). “Ah,” I thought, “the answer to joy may be found in the context of this discourse with his disciples!”

Later in his discourse, Jesus prays, “Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You, as you have given Him authority over all flesh, that He should give eternal life to as many as You have given Him” (17:1-2, emphasis supplied).

Then He prays, “I have glorified You on earth. I have finished the work which You have given me to do. And now, O Father, glorify Me together with Yourself, with the glory which I had with You before the world was” (17:4-5, emphasis supplied).

Relative to that work, the reader of the John’s gospel would have read the following in Chapter 6: “For I have come down from heaven, not to do My own will, but the will of Him who sent me. This is the will of the Father who sent me, that of all He has given me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day” (38-39, emphasis supplied).

As I meditated on these verses, I concluded that Jesus’ joy was doing the work the Father had given Him, which was giving the Father those for whom Jesus had come in order that the Father would be glorified in that.

The joy of Jesus was doing the will of His father for the glory of His father. This is an objective understanding of joy resident in the relations of the persons who are ontologically the Triune God even as love is objectively understood as that which is resident in the relations of the person who are ontologically the Triune God. We know what love and joy are because God has revealed who He is in Jesus.

How This Joy Becomes My Strength

The joy of Christians is knowing that in union with Christ, through the faith He supplies (1 Timothy 1:14, Ephesians 2:8), they are persons the Heavenly Father wanted Jesus to bring to Him that they would enjoy living now and forever in the light of the knowledge of their Heavenly Father’s glorious perfections and under the perfect love that exists between the father, Son and the Holy Spirit, even as was true of human Jesus in His earthly life and His now gloried state.

In union with Christ, the Christian, like Jesus, is fulfilling the will of the Heavenly Father for the glory of God. What greater joy could a human being have than living in a right relation to the God who made and so loved him or her as to give “His only begotten Son” (John 3:16)?

Finally, the joy of Jesus is my strength when I realize in the midst of all my failures that in relation to the heavenly Father Jesus is forever for me what I could never do or become. The Father is well pleased with me because He is “well pleased with His Son” (Mark 1:11) to whom I am joined by the work of the Holy Spirit.

Indeed, the news of Christmas is joy to the world.
David Fowler served in the Tennessee state Senate for 12 years before joining FACT as President in 2006. 

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