Rev. Smit is pastor of the Protestant Reformed Church in Doon, Iowa.
“… and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger….”
Jesus was born this way because God governed the circumstances of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. By doing so, God declares clearly that He alone saves us from our sin. Even in Jesus’ birth, this message of the gospel is declared unambiguously. God meticulously, in sovereign might and wisdom, governed all the details surrounding the birth of His only begotten Son, so that no glory might be to man, but rather, as the angels declared, “Glory to God in the highest!”
As a result, when the virgin Mary and Joseph arrived, there was no room for them in the inn. By that, God made very clear that the coming of His Son into our flesh was an unmerited and undeserved wonder for our salvation. Jesus came not by the will of man, not by the desire of man, nor by the power of man. He came into our flesh by way of the wonder of sovereign grace.
In harmony with that and by God’s deliberate control, the virgin Mary brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes and laid Him in a manger. This, too, is an important part of God’s sign in Bethlehem. In this we learn that Jesus was wrapped and laid in poverty for us in order that we might be made rich.
That Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, or feedbox, teaches us that He was born into a lifelong poverty. His own earthly mother and Joseph were poor. They owned no mansion in Nazareth. They had no monetary power by which to buy a place to stay in the crowded Bethlehem or to have at their disposal the best nurses, doctors, or midwives of the day.
Besides that, the place in which Christ was born spoke of poverty. He was born in the unsterilized environment of a cattle stall. He was wrapped, not in a luxurious, pre-heated receiving blanket, but in strips of cloth. He was not laid in a nice, warm, comfortable, soft bed, but in the cattle’s feedbox.
Further, this poverty into which he was born was evident forty days later in His life. When the virgin Mary and Joseph came with Jesus to the temple, the virgin Mary fulfilled the law of Moses. According to the law, she not only dedicated her firstborn son unto Jehovah, but also, for her purification according to Leviticus 12, made a sacrifice. Being poor, Joseph and Mary could not offer up a lamb and a pigeon. In accordance with the law’s provision for the poor, they offered up two pigeons instead.
Yes, Mary had brought a lamb with her to the temple. She had in her arms the Lamb of God! However, it was not yet His hour to be offered unto the Lord as the atoning sacrifice. Instead, the pigeon took Jesus’ place because He must continue in His poverty until God’s time for His sacrifice.
That event already showed that Jesus’ lifelong earthly poverty was a sign of the spiritual poverty into which He was wrapped and laid. Christ was wrapped and laid into the poverty of His humiliation. His incarnation and lowly birth in Bethlehem were His entrance into that state of humiliation.
This truth does not mean that receiving early life through His incarnation and birth was evil in itself. Rather, Jesus’ birth was humiliation for Him because of the spiritual poverty into which He came. God wrapped Christ up in the obligations of the law of Moses, which from the very moment of His birth pronounced Him accursed. God wrapped and laid Christ in the poverty of experiencing completely the curse of God in body and soul. From His birth already, Jesus was destined to experience fully the extreme poverty of being separated from the riches of fellowship with God.
According to the flesh Jesus was born poor. In the flesh He emptied Himself of His riches. He wore His whole life rags of humiliation which covered His divine glory. From all outward appearances, Jesus, whether in the manger, or even in His later earthly life, did not appear to be the mighty God. His glory was mostly hidden. He became poor, clothed with those inescapable rags of the curse.
Here we behold the Wonder: the righteous Son of God, who didn’t even know sin, became sin in our flesh. The ever-blessed Son of God in the flesh became accursed. The Living One must die. He enjoyed the weight of the eternal riches of God in heaven. However, in the way from the swaddling rags in a feedbox unto the chains of the curse on the cross, He must in our human nature bear the weight of God’s eternal wrath.
That Jesus did for you!
Understand, He was not wrapped in poverty because of Himself. He did not deserve that poverty because of Himself. There was abundant testimony of His perfect righteousness throughout His earthly life. He was the righteous Son of man. Christ was born under the curse not because of Himself or because of anything He did.
He endured such horrible poverty because of our sins. He took upon Himself the responsibility of all our sin. With our sin upon Him, He was accursed under the law of God. In our place, Christ was wrapped with those swaddling clothes and laid in the feedbox of the curse. He did that because we could never establish peace and everlasting life with God. We who by nature wear those clothes of absolute poverty and are in the wrappings and feedbox of the curse cannot restore fellowship and peace with God.
What we could never do, Christ did for us. Willingly wearing those clothes for us, He went from the cradle to the cross, from the grotto to Golgotha, from the feedbox to the furnace of the crucifixion. This truth ought to cause us not only to weep over our sin because of which Christ had to wear those rags, but also to rejoice in our Savior who was wrapped and laid in our poverty to reconcile us unto our God.
Weep in joy for the wonder that God sent His only begotten Son into that poverty for us!!
Why all of that for us?
The only answer is His sovereign goodness and love.
He was wrapped in that poverty not because of you and me. He was motivated to come into those clothes and that feedbox not because of us. The reason and the cause will never be found in us, unworthy, impoverished, wretched sinners. In fact, if it were ever possible for us to influence the Son of God to come to redeem us, Christ would never have come into the swaddling clothes and the manger for us.
Only because of His sovereign love, mercy, and grace was Christ willingly wrapped and laid in poverty. That love for us is fundamentally and foremost His love for His Father. It is His unconditional and unswerving love of fellowship with His heavenly Father. Christ showed His unswerving love by always doing exactly what the Father sent Him to do.
As the Father determined, so Christ went obediently through that deep, dark, and deathly way into the flames of God’s wrath. Even in the hottest moments of that death, Christ’s love remained unconditional and unswerving unto the Father. Even in those inexpressible agonies, Christ loved us, whom the Father chose and gave to Him from eternity. Even in those inexpressible pains of hell as a result of the choking bands of the curse, Christ loved the Father and also loved His chosen though absolutely unworthy sinners.
Can you understand that love? We can measure neither the length, the depth, the breadth, nor the height of that unconditional, sovereign, and particular love of Christ. Such knowledge is too wonderful for us.
Our humble praise is stirred up to a greater intensity when we also consider that Christ became poor in order to make us rich towards God.
Indeed, we were the ones wretchedly poor. We have not our own riches towards God. We have only an enormous, infinite debt against the Most High Majesty of God. For that debt, we deserve the eternal debtors’ prison, there to be bound in the inescapable chains of death forever. In that sign of the Savior’s lowly birth, the Lord teaches us that our righteousnesses are like the rags that wrapped around the body of Jesus and like the cattle smells that hung thick around the stall that dark night. Our righteousnesses are only worthless fool’s gold and filthy, putrid rags.
The evidence of that spiritual poverty cleaves to us daily like those swaddling clothes which wrapped tightly around the body of the infant Jesus. We cannot remove our old nature and its spiritual death. We cannot remove our guilt and corruption. We are absolutely poor and totally dead. We are so worthless of ourselves, we deserve to be disposed of eternally.
But Christ came into our poverty of sin and death. He became poor in the absolute poverty of the accursed cross. There God stripped Christ of all that He had. God made Christ so poor that God took from Christ even His most priceless possession: fellowship with God. Christ became so poor that He was forsaken of God in His wrath for us.
By that atoning death, Christ redeemed us from bondage to those tightly wrapped rags of sin and death. Christ broke those chains of the curse. Christ blotted out our sins and fully earned our righteousness in the sight of God. His and our poverty was finished! Thus, those clothes of His humiliation could no longer hold Him.
In His resurrection, Christ gives us the solid proof that those bands of poverty were broken. He was clothed upon in the robes of righteousness, immortality, and highest majesty!
By His work, Christ has freed us from the straightjacket of our inescapable poverty unto the liberty of His everlasting riches and immortality. Because of Christ alone, you are immeasurably rich towards God and precious in His sight!
Unto the goal of possessing that glorious inheritance in full, the Lord leads us upon our pathway through life from the cradle to the glorious crown. Between the cradle and the crown is an often steep, dark, and lonely way. In that way we must even bear a cross. In that way, we are yet tightly wrapped in the rags of our old man of sin. Nevertheless, in that difficult way, the Lord teaches us not only that we are by nature poor, but that Christ was wrapped and laid in poverty so that one day we will be clothed in the robes of everlasting righteousness and life, given a crown of glory, and exalted to our rightful place in the everlasting peace of our Father’s mansion.
Be assured of that; and give, as the angels did, all glory to our God alone in the highest!