The Divine Symphony of Christmas

December 15, 2016

by Kent Hughes

The great historic doctrine of the church is that the Son of God became a real man—not just someone who only appeared to be a man. When he was born, God the Son placed the exercise of his all-powerfulness and all-presence and all-knowingness under the direction of God the Father. He did not give up those attributes, but he submitted their exercise in his life to the Father’s discretion. Though he was sinless, he had a real human body, mind, and emotions—complete with their inherent human weaknesses.

Reaching for analogies helpful in understanding the incarnation, some have likened Christ before the incarnation to

a symphony, in all of its complexity and power—magnificence carried over a grand expanse. But when he became human he became a folk tune, simple and shortened. In this he lost nothing of his Godhead, his eternal character, his attributes, absolute purity, and changeless excellence. [Harold M. Best, Music Through the Eyes of Faith]

He was still the symphony (the eternal Son), but as a folk tune (a real man) he fully entered the human situation in a way that all could understand. John the apostle put it this way: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. . . . No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known” (John 1:14, 18). The symphony/folk tune analogy is elegant and helpful, but its weakness is that no symphony is infinite. But in the incarnation, the infinite God both became finite man and remained infinite God.

This mystery is beyond earthly analogy or understanding. Truly human, the Son subjected himself to his own creation and its physical laws, its ups and downs. He would experience the development of human reason and language. He would be taught things he did not know. He walked like a baby before he walked like a man. He thought and talked like a baby before he thought and talked like a man. The growing pains of the Son of God were just as real for him as they were for us. He had to learn to be a carpenter from his earthly father, Joseph. Jesus Christ lived with a human body, mind, and soul with all their limitations, except for sin.

He really did it. It really did happen. Paul was right: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness: He was manifested in the flesh . . .” (1 Timothy 3:16). The implications of this reality are stupendous at Christmastime and year-round.

Sympathetic Resonance

Consider the implication of Christ’s astounding capacity for sympathy and understanding. His instrument, so to speak, was the same as ours. It is a fact that if you have two in-tune pianos in the same room and a note is struck on one, the same note will gently respond on the other, though not touched by another person’s hand. This is called “sympathetic resonance.”

Christ’s instrument, his humanity, was like ours in every way, except that he had no sin. And when a chord is struck in the weakness of our human instrument, it resonates in his! There is no note of human experience that does not play in Christ’s as well. “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). He has an unequaled capacity for sympathy. It goes far beyond intellectual understanding. Jesus does not just imagine how his children feel—he feels it!

We are all sometimes under incredible pressure. We may feel that no one understands, much less cares. But the truth is, any note we play (whether a melody or a dirge, or a minor key, or a discordant note) has sympathetic resonance in the heart of Jesus Christ. This is a supreme glory of the incarnation. All glory to God! Do you need sympathy? With Christ there is understanding. The story began to move quickly as Christ’s birth was announced. Shepherds were the first to hear. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear” (vv. 8, 9). The shepherds on that wintry night were naturally huddled close to their fire, while icy constellations swept by overhead. Suddenly, as if a star had burst, glorious light overpowered the night, and an honored angel stepped forth as the shepherds recoiled in great fear despite his reassuring words.

There is no note of human experience that does not play in Christ’s as well.

That the message came to shepherds first, and not to the high and mighty, reminds us that God comes to the needy, the poor in spirit. Shepherds were despised by the “good,” respectable people of that day. According to the Mishnah, shepherds were under a ban. They were regarded as thieves. The only people lower than shepherds at that particular time in Jewish history were lepers. Scholars speculate that the only reason the flocks were so close in was because these men were keeping the sacrificial animals for the temple.

God comes only to those who sense their need. He does not come to the self-sufficient. The gospel is for those who know they need Jesus!

For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)

A Song for Our Savior 

The words of the angel, spoken not only for the shepherds but for all of us, were wonderful, for they promised a Savior: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (vv. 10, 11). It was because of Christ’s incarnation and his perfect identification with humanity—his taking on our nature, though without sin—that he could save us. He became “perfect” in regard to temptation by suffering temptation as a real man and putting the tempter to flight (Hebrews 5:8, 9; cf. Matthew 4:1–11). As a real man he became a perfect surrogate for us so he could take our sins upon himself, become sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21), and die an atoning death for us. As Peter explained: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness” (1 Peter 2:24).

Whatever our situation, he can deliver us. The angel said that the “good news” was “for all the people.” Whoever you are, he can deliver you, help you, save you. “Because he continues forever . . . he is able to save to the uttermost those who draw near to God through him, since he always lives to make intercession for them” (Hebrews 7:24, 25).

After the angel’s marvelous words—“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (vv. 10, 11)—something truly wonderful occurred: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (vv. 13, 14). A heavenly flash and suddenly the bewildered shepherds were surrounded by angels!

“A multitude” refers to not 50, not 150, not 1,500—but heavenly hosts beyond count. I think every one of God’s angels was there because this was the most amazing event that had ever happened in the entire universe. I think the heavenly host stretched from horizon to horizon, obscuring the winter constellations. I like to imagine that they radiated golds, pinks, electric blue, hyacinth, and ultraviolet—maybe some were even sparkling.

We on earth have the best part because we are the ones who receive God’s grace. God became a man, not an angel.

And when they lifted their voices to God, it was in cosmic stereo. They were announcing the long-awaited “sunrise . . . from on high” (1:78)—star music! Job tells us that at the creation of the world, “the morning stars [angels] sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). Now the angels again joined voices at the greatest creation of all—the birth of the God-man—the perfect sympathizer and Savior.

How we all would like to have been there—to be a fly on the ear of one of the shepherds’ sheep. But actually, though the choir in Heaven played a major role, we on earth have the best part because we are the ones who receive God’s grace. God became a man, not an angel. God redeemed us, not angels. Ours is the best part, and we will praise God for it for all eternity.

The Christmas message of this passage should make us sing year-round. The substance of the angels’ song is instructive. It was first upward as they glorified God in “the highest” heavens, and then it was outward as it pronounced “on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”—peace, wholeness, well-being for those who have been favored by God’s grace.

Has God worked in your heart? Are you the object of his good pleasure? Then you have a song to sing, for the best part is yours.

This piece is adapted from R. Kent Hughes, Luke: That You May Know the Truth (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2015), 87-91. Used with permission of the publisher.

Kent Hughes

Dr. Hughes (DMin, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) is professor of practical theology at WTS.

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