Let us go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
How near! . . . .
Let us see this thing, this Word that is come to pass!
How close He is to us, there in Bethlehem, in the manger, in the swaddling clothes, in the flesh and blood of that little babe. . . .
Let us go now, and see this thing, this Word, Him, the God of our salvation! Let us behold Him; and, yes, let us touch Him if we may: for now He is as close to us as possible! Let us go now, and see this thing that has come to pass, for He is there of which the apostle later declared: ‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled of the Word of life”. . . .
The God of our salvation!
Naturally, it is through Luke that this invitation to go to Bethlehem, and see this thing, comes to us. With him we find the narrative of the incarnation from its human aspect, the story of that which might be seen and heard and touched of it. In Matthew the gospel is particularly concerned with the genesis of Jesus that is called the Christ, the son of Abraham, the Son of David, the Messiah. There He is presented as the fulfillment of the prophecy that a virgin should be with child, and should bear a son, and that His name should be called Immanuel. In Mark the gospel proceeds at once to picture Him as the mighty King, marvelous in power. On the wings of the profound revelation of John we are invited to soar into the mysterious heights of eternity, the “beginning” when the Word was with God and was God. But the gospel as Luke viewed it brings Him very close to us, as the Son of man, like unto His brethren in all things. . . .
His incarnation narrative centers around the simple words of 2:7, marvelous in their simplicity, amazing in their inexhaustible depth: “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.”
O, yes, marvelous things are told us as the narrative continues. Angels appear to shepherds in the hollow of the night. They preach and sing, they rejoice and give glory to the Most High. Yet, it all concentrates around that little babe in the manger. Of Him they speak, to Him they point, toward Him they direct the way of the angels when they declare unto them: “And this shall be a sign unto you: ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.”
That which may be seen and handled of the Son of God become flesh!
Let us go now, and see! Thus spoke the shepherds! And they went and saw!
Let us, too, go, and let us behold the thing that has come to pass.
Yes, and let us follow the shepherds, that we may behold what they saw. To the first witnesses of the fulfillment of the promise they belong, and through their eyes, by faith, we would behold the Word that is come to pass. Yet, as today we turn to Bethlehem, let us not be satisfied with the company of the shepherds, to follow them alone. Other witnesses have come, and seen, and heard, and handled. They heard and testified that He has the words of eternal life; that He is the Christ, the Son of the living God; that He is the One that is in the bosom of the Father, the Word become flesh, the way, the truth, the life and the resurrection. They heard Him speak, they saw His mighty works, they witnessed His awful death, they beheld the reality and the glory of His resurrection, and they looked up into heaven as He was received into the heavenly glory. . . .
Let us go now unto Bethlehem, but not as if we had no more than the beginning of this revelation of the God of our salvation, but with all these witnesses, that in the light of their light we may see, and by their testimony we may believingly contemplate this thing that has come to pass!
Then we know: that child is the God of our salvation!
The wonder of wonders: God come near, extremely near us!
Yes, even in that Christmas night, Mary knew: through her own amazing experience as interrupted by the words of the angel beforehand: That holy thing that shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God!
Joseph knew, for in a dream it had been revealed to him that Mary was with child of the Holy Ghost, that her child should be called Immanuel, and Jesus, for He would save His people from their sins.
And the shepherds knew, for the angels in the fields of Ephratah had preached the gospel unto them.
Yet, as they went and saw, they could not behold Him, as we do by faith, in the light of His terrible death and glorious resurrection!
Let us go, then, and see! No, indeed, not to fathom the mystery of the Babe in the manger; not to comprehend the Wonder of all wonders; for the oftener we go and see, and the more earnestly we contemplate this thing that has come to pass, the more profound and amazing the mystery becomes. Yet, as we now go to Bethlehem, and look upon that babe in the manger, in the light of His own Word which He spoke concerning Himself, in the light of His deep humiliation and glorious exaltation at the right hand of God, in the light, too, of the Spirit He has given us,—we know and understand the riches of the gospel that there, in the manger, in that frail little baby, is very God come down to us!
How near He is!
Near He is, not in the providential sense, according to which in Him we live and move and have our being. For, mark you well, we must go to Bethlehem, to a manger, to swaddling clothes, to a little child, this time, to behold our God. No, this time the message is not: “Lift up your eyes on high, and see who hath made all these things; your mighty God calleth them all by name!” Your attention is not now called to the fact that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament sheweth his handiwork.” On the contrary, you must now, for the moment at least, turn your eyes away from these witnesses of God’s eternal power and Godhead, and you must look for your God close by, very near, where you may even touch Him; to Bethlehem you must direct your steps, into a stable you must enter, and there the sign and symbol of your God shall be a Babe, a manger, swaddling clothes!
How near, how dreadfully near!
Yet, though you approach with fear and trembling because of this nearness of your God, how blessed is this proximity! For He is become like unto us! He tabernacles with us! Uniting Himself with us in personal union He has fellowship with us!
There in the manger of Bethlehem is the central realization of the tabernacle of God with men, the eternal covenant of God’s friendship in its highest possible fulfillment!
In the first paradise God, too, was near to man. Yet, Adam’s knowledge of the living God, and his fellowship with Him, were always mediate: though near God was always far.
But in the manger we see the thing come to pass that God is become man!
He that is eternally in the form of God, even while we behold that babe in the manger, assumed the likeness of man, the likeness of sinful flesh!
The eternal one has come within the limitation of time; the infinitely immense lies wrapped in swaddling clothes!
God lives our life, thinks our thoughts, is moved by our desires, is come into our sin-cursed world!
In this child the fellowship of God with man is immediate!
How amazingly near!
Yet, how far away!
This, too, must be confessed, as we go to Bethlehem, to see the thing that has come to pass!
For, as we stand there at the manger, and contemplate this amazing revelation of the living God, we cannot but be struck by the astounding fact that now He is completely hid!
In His highest revelation it is wholly concealed!
In His closest approach to us He has wholly receded from within the range of our vision!
O, indeed, always there is an element of concealment in the revelation of God. Does not the revelation of the eternal necessarily imply that He speaks to us in time? When the Infinite makes Himself known to us, does He not come down to the level of the infinite? When His Word goes forth to the understanding of man, does it not assume the form of human speech? And is there, then, in that limitation of time no concealment of the eternal? Does not always the measure of the finite hide the Infinite? And is not human speech incapable of representing completely the fullness of the divine Word? And would it not lead us to idolatry if we should forget this element of concealment and anthropomorphism, and identify the glory of the sun and of the moon, and of all the starry heavens and all the wide creation, with the glory of the Creator Himself?
Yet, in the works of creation the glory of God shines through!
The heavens do declare the glory of God, and the firmament does show His handiwork. Day unto day does utter speech concerning God; and night unto night does shew knowledge of Him. In and through the things that are made, the invisible things of Him are clearly seen, even His eternal power and divinity. For even the concealment is revelation! We know Him as the one that calleth the things that are not as if they were! Though He reveals Himself in time, recognizing clearly the element of concealment, we know that He is eternal; though His revelation takes place within the limits of the finite, we know that He is the infinite. . . .
But as we go to Bethlehem, to see this thing that is come to pass, what do we see? . . . .
A child like unto our children!
A manger! Swaddling clothes!
And as you enter, you quickly shut the door of the stable, lest the chill of the night strike that frail little body; and you are careful not to remove those swaddling clothes. The little child might get a chill, It might get sick, It might even. . . .die! For you see Him there in the likeness of sinful flesh, weak, mortal, subject to death. . . .
No, He will not die until His hour is come, we know! He has power to lay down His life and to take it again. He is the life and the resurrection, the mighty God!
But in Bethlehem you cannot see this: it is completely hid!
Where now is the glory of the eternal? It is concealed in the temporal, and the eternal glory is not even suggested here in Bethlehem. Where is the incomprehensible glory of the Infinite? It is wholly hid in the finite, wrapped up in human flesh and blood, in swaddling clothes! Where is the majesty of the Lord of heaven and earth? 0, it still shines in the heavens; but here in Bethlehem, the central and highest revelation of the God of our salvation, it is quite covered by the form of a servant!
If in Bethlehem we must behold our God, where is His omnipotence? It has assumed the form of a frail human body, mortal flesh!
Where is the I AM, the Immutable, the self-existent, the independent, the Creator? He is wrapped up in the swaddling clothes of a weak, changeable, dependent creature!
And how far away is our God in Bethlehem, though He is so near!
For, indeed, He is the Word that is God, the effulgence of the Father’s glory, the express image of His substance; yet now, here in Bethlehem, the Word can-
If you worship Him there, and kneel down at the manger, He will pay no attention to your devotion. . . . If you pray, He will not answer. . . .
In His central revelation God is lost in concealment; in His closest approach to us He is far away!
O, how far!
The paradox of the incarnation!
The union of God and man, of the Creator and the creature, of the eternal and the temporal, God revealed completely hid, very near yet far away!
The living God in the midst of death!
But we must not be lost in the paradox of Bethlehem. We dare not forget, as we stand by the manger, and contemplate that babe, and marvel at the mystery of godliness, and worship and give glory to God in the highest, that here we behold only the beginning of the revelation of Jesus Christ, of the anointed of God, who came to save His people from their sin. In the greater, the clear light of His complete revelation, through the faithful and inspired testimony of those that heard and saw and handled the Word of life and declared Him unto us, we know that this beginning of God revealing Himself in the likeness of sinful flesh was, indeed necessary unto our salvation.
His glory must be hid before it can shine forth in greater glory.
Nay, it must, be hid in order that it may be revealed in all its riches and beauty of divine power and virtue.
Yes, as this child grows up, increases in stature and understanding as any other child, the wonder of the incarnation, of His being Immanuel, God with us, will become known to those that believe. For He will speak with authority, words of grace as no man ever spoke, words of eternal life; and He will perform mighty works, such as no mere man ever did: He will heal the sick, open the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf, cast out devils, bid the tempest be still, and raise the dead.
Yet, His glory must be eclipsed still more completely than it is in that babe in the manger: it must be contradicted in death!
Then, when He, the God of our salvation, who took all our sins upon Himself, has descended into deepest death, when His glory seems hopelessly swallowed up of death, yea, of the death of the cross, then He will mightily break forth through the darkness into the glorious light of the resurrection, and ascend into the glory of the Father.
And then He will reveal Himself, through His Spirit and Word, as being God with us, very near with His blessed fellowship.
He will draw us unto Himself, that we may be with Him.