The other day I was listening to talk radio when the hosts began the inevitable seasonal discussion about the meaning of Christmas. Callers quickly chimed in with their various perspectives and opinions, often intermingled with touching stories and well-intended exhortations toward charity and kindness.
However, the friendly discussion quickly turned confrontational as various callers (and even the hosts) began disagreeing about the real meaning of Christmas. As one host attempted to settle the disagreement, a critical thing happened. Rather than appealing to some authority or truth that would supersede all the opinions offered, the host emphasized that he was only concerned to know what Christmas means “to you.”
The addition of these two little words—seemingly innocent and insignificant—sent a clear philosophical message: It does not matter what Christmas really means, it only matters what each individual finds personally and existentially satisfying about Christmas. Thus, in essence, the radio host was saying that there is no reason to disagree about the truth of Christmas, because, after all, there is no truth.
Obviously, much in this story is not new. Christians in America have always struggled to maintain the true meaning of Christmas in the face of mounting challenges from materialism, commercialism and even theological liberalism. However, in this last generation a significant shift has taken place. It’s not just that the meaning of Christmas has been changed (as it always seems to be), but now it seems the meaning of meaning has been changed. People are no longer celebrating the truth of Christmas, but rather they are celebrating the truth they have attached to Christmas. Thus, in effect, people are celebrating themselves. It’s not about God becoming man, but about man becoming his own “god.” Welcome to the era of the postmodern Christmas.
In light of these trends, believers in the gospel of Jesus Christ face the daunting challenge of effectively declaring the reality of Christmas to a world that does not seem to have ears to hear. How can we reach people with the truth when they question the reality of truth? The words of Jesus in John 18:37 seem to hold the answer: “For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice” (NASB). This remarkable passage, set during Jesus’ trial before Pontius Pilate, not only provides a concise, authoritative proclamation concerning His birth, but also delivers a strategic blow to the foundations of postmodernity. So as we spread the light of the gospel in a dark place this Christmas season, let us focus on the three aspects of Christ’s birth this passage highlights.
The Nature of Christ’s Birth: Incarnation
In John 18:37 Jesus sets His birth apart from every other birth the world has ever known: “I have come into the world.” In the context of John’s Gospel, this phrase undoubtedly refers to the Incarnation. Note John 16:28, where the identical Greek construction is found: “I came forth from the Father, and have come into the world.” Jesus is not only declaring that He was born (like us), but also that he has eternally existed in the glory of heaven with God the Father. He is different. He comes from another place. He is the Ancient of Days. Here, then, this passage confronts us with the overwhelming, almost frightening, reality of Christmas: God came into the world.
Of course, when we understand Christ’s language in John 18:37, the scene before Pilate takes on new proportions. Consider Pilate’s perspective: Before him stands a man wearing working-class clothes, obviously poor, beaten and abused by His own people, bound like a criminal, accused of crimes worthy of death, with nobody willing to stand with him, and yet still declaring Himself to be the pre-existent God come in the flesh. How can this be? This deep paradox and irony is the heart of the Incarnation. Christ left the Holy to be with the unholy. He left fellowship with God for fellowship with sinners. Christmas is not about men becoming “god,” but about God becoming man.
The Incarnation, then, is the decisive challenge to postmodernity. One look at Jesus of Nazareth shatters the notion that we can be “gods,” shaping our own reality and truth. The real God has revealed Himself. He has entered the world and walked among us. Christmas reveals an absolute standard of truth in the universe outside ourselves: the person of Jesus Christ.
The Purpose of Christ’s Birth: Revelation
In John 18:37 we also learn the purpose of Christ’s birth: “to bear witness to the truth.” Jesus is the supreme revelation of God the Father, the author of all truth. As He declared to Phillip, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). The prologue of John’s Gospel reveals this same theme: “Grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ. No man has seen God at any time; the only begotten God, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained Him” (1:17b,18). Thus, Jesus came into the world to make God known to His people. Why? So they may have eternal life and fellowship with God: “And this is eternal life, that they may know Thee, the only true God” (John 17:3).
Understanding the purpose of Christ’s birth has tremendous implications. If Jesus is the incarnate God and the perfect image of the Father, then truth has been fully, accurately revealed. Postmodern people, even if reluctantly conceding the existence of absolute truth, will deny we can know what that absolute truth is. But the birth of Jesus Christ tells us that God is not so utterly transcendent that he is unknowable, beyond our comprehension. He has made Himself known through the trustworthy witness of Jesus Christ.
Christ’s birth also shows us He is the exclusive revelation of the Father. In other words, Jesus not only accurately reveals the Father, but He is also the only one who reveals the Father. John 14:6 amplifies this: “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but through Me.” While this is highly offensive to the postmodern mind—to which tolerance is the supreme virtue and exclusivity the supreme vice—we must make it central to our Christmas message. Ironically, our effectiveness is diminished when this aspect of Christ’s birth is overlooked or abandoned. Only by maintaining the exclusivity of the gospel, presenting Christ as the ultimate God, will non-Christians be challenged to forsake themselves as “god” and submit to the total lordship of Christ.
Jesus coming to reveal the Father also tells us about God’s ultimate, relational purpose. When Jesus says He came to bear witness to the “truth,” he is not talking about revealing “information” to the world; rather, He is revealing Himself to the world. In other words, Jesus desires to save a people for himself by paying the penalty for their sins and granting them eternal life (John 17:3). So here is why the God of the universe stands before Pontius Pilate bleeding, humiliated and degraded. He has suffered for his people so He could dwell in fellowship with them. To this generation, which lacks relational intimacy and an understanding of true love, Jesus’ words in John 18:37 are a powerful witness. Christmas is not about the loving actions of men, but the unfathomable, gracious love of God.
The Result of Christ’s Birth: Salvation
As we spread the gospel this Christmas, we may be discouraged by a lack of response. Indeed, as Jesus stood on trial before Pilate, abandoned by His followers, one might have wondered whether Jesus would accomplish the purpose for which he was born. Amid such doubts and frustrations, the final portion of John 18:37 encourages us: “Everyone who is of the truth hears My voice.” Jesus reminds us that His word will not return void, but will accomplish His intended result: the salvation of His people (Isaiah 55:11). Jesus is not referring to “hearing” Him audibly, but to following and obeying Him. As He declares in John 10:26: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” Jesus has a people set aside for Himself—the ones “of the truth”—whom God is working on by His Holy Spirit, softening their hearts and enabling them to understand and respond to the truth when they hear it (John 6:65). Thus, as we proclaim the gospel this Christmas, God’s sovereignty is our assurance of His intended result.
Before we charge off to apply the Christmas message of John 18:37 to others, let us apply this passage to our own lives. We must ask ourselves: Are we of the truth? Have we understood the nature of Christ’s incarnation and His authority in our lives? Do we look to Christ, and nowhere else, as the ultimate revelation of the truth of God? And have we responded to Christ’s loving initiation by faithfully “hearing” His voice and following it? This Christmas, let us make sure that we are people of the truth. For as Jesus declared, “You will know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Note: This article originally appeared in the Winter, 2002, issue of The Reformed Quarterly.