What is your attitude as we enter another season of Advent? It is very easy to be almost totally preoccupied with the mundane, superficial aspects of the holiday season. We may find ourselves busy with decorating, shopping, and juggling our schedules and finances. Many voice their complaint about the crass materialism and commercialization of the season. How necessary for us to focus on the spiritual riches revealed in Bethlehem, the riches of which the apostle Paul speaks in this Word of God!
The apostle emphasizes that Christ was rich: “though he was rich….” Of course, there can be no debate about that. Christ was rich in a way that is beyond our comprehension. Paul refers to the riches of Christ’s eternal Godhead. For He is the second person of the holy Trinity, the eternal Son of God. As such Christ is co-equal with the Father and with the Holy Spirit. This co-equality means that all of the virtues of the Godhead belong to Christ. Everything that makes God the infinite, almighty, and transcendent One also belongs to Christ within the Trinity as well as to the Father and Spirit. And within the eternal Godhead, Christ also possesses all the fullness of the blessedness of God’s covenant life. He was truly rich! All the perfection, joy, blessedness, and supreme happiness of that full and perfect covenant life that is God’s very nature and life was (and is) the full possession of Christ.
But, “though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor….” The meaning certainly cannot be that when He became poor, Christ left behind the riches that He eternally possesses as God. We might receive that impression, but that cannot be the idea. Bethlehem does not mean that when Christ was born He left behind the glories and riches that were His so that He ceased to be God. Nor did He deliberately lay aside His riches. This would be in conflict with what the apostle John declares at the beginning of his gospel: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” Christ Jesus did not become poor as a very wealthy man might lose his riches through some sort of a disaster.
As paradoxical as it may sound, the idea is really that He was poor, being rich. The point is, that Christ remained God even when He was born of the virgin Mary in the cattle stall in Bethlehem. And of course, that is precisely the wonder of the birth of Christ. It is not as if He who was God became man and left His Godhead behind. The wonder is that Christ became man all the while remaining God! Christ, as the second person of the Trinity, unites in this one divine person a complete human nature and a complete divine nature. It is the mystery of God become flesh of which Paul speaks—Immanuel, God with us.
The fact remains, nonetheless, that Christ’s divinity was hidden behind the veil of His human nature. It was somewhat obscured from us by the fact that Christ became man. And remember, He became a man who is like us in all things with the exception of the sins that we commit. He became a man who bore a weakened human nature—a human nature subject to hunger and thirst, to disease and weariness, to sickness and death.
This is what Paul expresses when he tells us that Christ became poor. You recall the poverty of Bethlehem, do you not? Joseph and Mary had journeyed to Bethlehem, lowly Bethlehem, to be enrolled for the tax according to the decree of Caesar Augustus. Seeking lodging at the inn, they discover that there is no room for them. The little town is overflowing with people present for the enrollment. There was no lodging to be found for them in the city. They are compelled to find shelter for the night in a stable, probably nothing but a cave on the edge of the city where passing caravans would stable their animals for the night. The squalid and dirty stable was the only shelter for the Christ. All attempts through the ages to make this a pleasant place are failures! It was dirty and ugly; it was smelly and sour; it was dark and foul. Most of our modern barns are clean, bright, sanitary, even luxurious compared to that smelly stable. Christ was born in terrible poverty. It could scarcely have been any worse.
But this poverty that was Christ’s lot when He came into the world continued all His life. Christ never possessed anything at all that He could call His own. Not even the clothes on His back! When a would-be disciple clamored to follow Jesus, Jesus reminded him, “The foxes have holes; and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man hath no where to lay his head” (Matt. 8:20). When finally He was crucified, Christ’s clothes were taken from Him by the brutal soldiers who enjoyed their gambling in the shadow of the cross. Already through the psalmist Christ had spoken of this when He cried, “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture” (cf. Ps. 22:18). Yes, at His birth we see Christ’s poverty. All He has are swaddling clothes, not fine robes, and a manger, not a palace, and presently even that will be taken from Him. He was hated so completely by all His enemies that at last they robbed Him of everything He possessed, even of His life itself.
Yet, the awful poverty of Bethlehem was a sign! Remember when the shepherds were visited on the glorious night by the angel who told them of the birth of Christ. At that time, the angel made it quite clear that this poverty was a sign to them: “And this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12). Of what was this poverty a sign? It was a sign of the poverty of the human nature into which Christ entered. We cannot comprehend the full reality of this poverty and the suffering Christ endured because of it. God became a man! He who was omnipotent became weak and helpless—a babe in His mother’s arms, a man among men. He who created food and drink became hungry and thirsty. He who had the power of life in Himself and was dependent upon no one grew weary and required sleep. He who was above the law, and who had created the law, was now born under the law, obligated to perform all the requirements of the law and was subject to its penalties.
Yet all this was by no means the worst of Christ’s suffering. He had to endure all His life long the burden of God’s wrath. He who had tasted and experienced the communion with the Father and the Holy Spirit now had to experience God’s wrath. There is here too an element in the mystery of the incarnation that we cannot understand. We know from Scripture that God’s Word was, “Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Yet at the same time Christ bore God’s wrath all His life long. Bethlehem and its poverty was a sign of it. Yet all this was because Christ bore the sins and guilt of His people. His poverty was because the burden of our sin and guilt rested upon Him. That poverty reached its climax on the cross. He became poor by making the sin and guilt that belonged to us His own.
And that receives the emphasis here! Paul is not merely discussing the birth of the Savior, the wonder of the incarnation. He is insisting in a most emphatic way that this all was on our account: “yet, for your sakes, he became poor!” All Christ’s poverty was for us. That is why Paul speaks of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. He begins this verse saying, “For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ….” The fact that grace is ascribed to Christ indicates that grace here refers to undeserved favor. It is that which stands opposed to debt, or to works that earn or merit something, or to obligation. Grace is unmerited and undeserved! It is a favor bestowed upon someone though the object of that favor is completely unworthy of it.
The idea is, therefore, that Christ was manifesting toward His people a favor completely undeserved when He came into the world and became poor though He was rich. That appalling poverty characteristic of Christ’s life was something that He willingly took upon Himself because Christ was gracious towards His people. The emphasis falls on Christ’s perfect obedience and willingness to suffer. It speaks to us of that glorious truth that although it was painful beyond description for Christ to become so poor, nevertheless, He eagerly and anxiously seized upon this poverty because the deepest motives of His heart were for the people whom He loved. No price was too great to pay for them; no humiliation too bitter; no suffering too great; no poverty too lowly.
But what makes this grace appear so wonderful is the fact that He became poor for us because we are so very, very poor! O, not in the material sense. It is true, we may not be materially wealthy; we may have a financial struggle. But, for the most part, we have an abundance of material things. Undoubtedly you will receive many nice material gifts this season. But, remember, material riches mean nothing! Spiritually, we are very poor, by nature. We are poverty- stricken, spiritually bankrupt in ourselves. This poverty is the terrible poverty of sin, of death, of the curse, of hell! It is a poverty far more awful than the worst of material poverty. Do you recognize that poverty as yours? The whole church for which Christ died is poor, spiritually destitute. Think of the corrupt host for which Christ died, of the wretched sinners we all are, even now. If you think of your own terrible poverty, the poverty of a nature completely depraved, then you can see something of the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that He, being rich, was made poor on our behalf.
There is no other explanation for it but grace—undeserved favor. Christ was under no obligation to come into our poverty. He did not have to come to Bethlehem! He certainly did not have to save you and me! It was grace! It was our poverty that created the necessity for that horrible, foul-smelling stable in Bethlehem in which Christ was born. Do not attempt, like so many do, to make that stable a cozy, lovely place. It speaks of our sins and the depths of our poverty. It is our shame!
Yet, through His poverty we are made rich! You see, Christ’s poverty was the only possible way to riches for us. God had to become man. Christ had to enter our poverty. He who was God! There was no other way. He had to bear our burden! He had to pay our debt! It is only through His poverty that we can become rich. Of course, Christ became rich first of all. He perfectly bore the burden of God’s wrath. The prophet Isaiah could say: “He was with the rich in his death” (Is. 53:9). Christ was raised from the dead and exalted to highest glory. He was exalted at the Father’s right hand and made the Prince of the universe. He was filled with the Spirit and the blessings of salvation and given the inheritance of heaven as His own possession. He was made rich! He was given a name that is above every name! For He was the poorest of the poor, but through it becomes the richest of the rich!
And it is in this way that we are made rich! Because He became poor for us, we became rich through His poverty. We are delivered from the terrible poverty of sin and death and guilt and hell. We are raised into the glory of heaven! We are given riches beyond our wildest imaginations—all of the blessings of salvation! We are taken to heaven to inherit the whole redeemed universe, even to reign over it with Christ forever. You cannot fix a price tag to those riches! You cannot place a dollar value on them! They are greater than all the world. And they are ours by grace alone because Christ became poor for us, entering into our poverty, that we might share in His riches.
Let us ponder this gospel of sovereign grace. Let us make a spiritual pilgrimage to Bethlehem this advent season. See there the shame of the lowly stable and the swaddling clothes. Remember that it is your shame and mine. Remember, too, that only in this way could Christ make room in our poverty-stricken hearts and reveal Himself as our blessed Savior. The Christmas story is the story of the riches of salvation—salvation by grace. Let us rejoice in the unspeakable riches that we have in Christ Jesus! O come, let us adore Him!