Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 12/31/95
Isaiah 11:1 Then a root shall spring from the stem of Jesse, and a branch from his roots will bear fruit. 2 And the Spirit of the LORD will rest on him, the Spirit of wisdom and understanding, the Spirit of counsel and strength, the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the LORD. 3 And he will delight in the fear of the LORD, and he will not judge by what his eyes see, nor make a decision by what his ears hear, 4 but with righteousness he will judge the poor and decide with fairness for the afflicted of the earth. And he will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. 5 Also, righteousness will be the belt about his loins and faithfulness the belt about his waste. 6 And the wolf will dwell with the lamb, and the leopard will lie down with the kid, and the calf and the young lion and the fatling together, and a little boy will lead them. 7 And the cow and the bear will graze; their young will lie down together, and the lion will eat straw like the ox. 8 And then the nursing child will play by the hole of the cobra, and the weaned child will put his hand on the viper’s den. 9 They will not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.
This is not a typical text for a Christmas sermon, though its relevance to the season is undeniable. But it is a complicated prophecy. Verse one seems indeed to refer to the Incarnation and Birth of Christ. Verse two was fulfilled at his Baptism and verse three in his earthly ministry. But from verse four on we seem to be looking not at the First but at the Second Coming of Christ; definitely the material in verse six and following has not been fulfilled yet. Yet, as is typical of the Old Testament, these prophecies with such diverse fulfillments are presented as one undigested lump. One can understand why our Jewish friends do not accept Christ’s claims to be the Messiah. When the Messiah comes, they common-sensicallly argue, this is what is supposed to happen. They haven’t seen any wolves and lambs dwelling together, vegetarian lions seem to be in short supply, and babies playing with dangerous snakes are not long for this world. Obviously, the Messiah hasn’t come yet. Jesus did not do these things, so he can’t very well have been the Promised One, now, can he?
Well, Christians are people who have been forced by the Person of Christ, the Work of Christ, and especially the Resurrection of Christ to take another look at Messianic prophecy and realize that it is not quite so simple as the Jews would have us believe. The testimony of angels at his birth, the testimony of his Messianic works during his ministry, and the testimony of the Resurrection at the other end of his life tell us that Jesus is the Messiah, and the Old Testament has to be interpreted in the light of that stupendous fact. The historical reality and experience of the Resurrection—and then the Ascension—forced the disciples to realize that the coming of Messiah was a two-stage event: there was going to be a Second Coming to complete his work. The Old Testament had not made this clear, but neither does it deny it. After all, its prophecies were not designed to let people predict what God was going to do in advance. Then as now, people who try to use prophecy that way invariably get it wrong. They were designed to let God’s faithful people recognize his work on their behalf when it came so that they could accept it. It is not surprising that they were surprised by certain aspects of it.
Therefore, as we think today about the coming of Christ to this world to be born and to die, I want us to remember that this coming was part one of a two-part event. A sequel is coming which will be even better than the first installment; and the two are related. It is not that the Old Testament got anything wrong. It emphasized a very important truth, the unity of the two parts as really constituting one event, one act on the part of God for the redemption of his people. It has been explained as if the Old Testament prophets were looking across two mountain peaks and seeing them together from a perspective that hid from them the valley in between. There may be some truth to that. But an even better explanation is that the Old Testament saw truly the unity between the two peaks, the way they are tied together. Think of the analogy of driving a nail. Is it one act or two? You can analyze it either way. You raise your hand, and then you let the hammer fall—it is two acts. But it is just a truly pictured as one act with two parts. That is how it is with the coming of Christ to this earth that we celebrate this week. The first coming raises the hammer in such a way that the driving of the nail becomes inevitable. We are just waiting for the blow to fall. To understand the perspective of both Testaments on Christmas is to see that the birth of that baby and the laying of him in that manger prepare for his Second Coming, when the healing of our sin-ravaged planet pictured by the straw-eating predator and the lamb and wolf as playmates will be completed, in just the same way as the lifting of a hammer prepares for the driving of the nail. The birth of Christ starts the process that leads to that end. It demands the Second Coming which completes it in the way the next to the last chord in a piece of music demands the resolution of the final note. So when we stand in that stable with the Shepherds, we should see even more than the Cross and the Empty Tomb looming ahead as part of that very vision. We should see that same Jesus coming in power and glory to judge the quick and the dead. We should see the lion lying down with the lamb. Because this thing happened, that thing has been set in motion. It is coming! Look down at that manger and then lift up your heads, for your redemption draweth nigh!
Our prophecy today stresses the unity of his two-part coming, and the New Testament reveals its duality. We want to look at both truths more particularly before we are done.
What we see in the two Comings, the two Advents of Christ, are the two final and most awesome phases of God’s ultimate act of redemption and self revelation. God’s purpose is self glorification through self revelation in atonement and in judgment. The coming of Jesus Christ into this world is what accomplishes that purpose. If you want to see who God is, look at Jesus. If you want to see God’s glory, look at Jesus. Specifically and supremely, look at Jesus on the Cross, reconciling for all time and eternity the apparent conflict between God’s justice which demands the death penalty for sin and his grace and mercy which would rather pardon the sinner. There God becomes just and the justifier of the ungodly. And look at his Resurrection, where we see God’s power and realize that the Cross was not a defeat but the ultimate triumph over sin. But we have not seen everything yet. We must also look at the coming King who will bring the healing which isolated individuals experienced in his earthly ministry to the whole planet. You will not fully know who God is until you have seen all of that. And you are going to see it! The Christ who came is the same Christ who will return, in like manner as the disciples saw him go. What he began at that time, he will complete in the future. It is all one thing.
The First Coming of Christ was personal and perceptible, it was objective and actual, it was visible and verifiable—and so will his Second Coming be. The First Coming of Christ was incomprehensible and unimaginable, it was unexpected in form yet wholly factual—and so will his Second Coming be. The First Coming of Christ was predicted by prophecy, it was prayed for by the people, it was prepared for by Providence, and it was effected by the Almighty—and so will his Second Coming be. The First Coming of Christ was the first part of a single, whole, and unified act of God. The hammer has been raised. The nail will be driven. You can depend on it!
The Advent of Christ was part one of a two-part single event. As such the two parts are similar. But they are gloriously different as well. We rightly look back with nostalgia, even almost romance, to that first part. But in doing so let us not forget that it was all to prepare for the second, in which alone the glory of the first will be fully revealed. This distinction between the two parts can be described in at least five ways.
First, we can think of the distinction with respect to Christ’s person. To think of his Person in this way reveals something about his dignity. He came in poverty; he will return in power. He came in humiliation; he will return in honor. He came in meekness; he will return in majesty. He came to glares of hate; he will return in the glory of heaven. He came to be mocked at; he will return to be marveled at. He came to be executed; he will return to be exalted. He came to the hay; he will return from the heights. He came to be whipped; he will return to be worshipped. He came in grief; he will return in greatness. He came in sorrow; he will return with singing. He came without prestige; he will return with all preeminence. His Transfiguration and supremely his Resurrection foreshadowed all of this, but it will not be complete until he comes. If we love him, if we wish to honor him, then we will long for that day when this cycle is complete!
We can also think of the change for Christ personally with respect to his office. He came as a servant; he will return as a sovereign. He came as a peasant; he will return as a potentate. He came to experience suffering; he will return to exercise sway. He came to rejection; he will return to rule. He came to experience the trial of a criminal; he will return to experience the triumph of a king. He came to be vanquished; he will return as the victor. He came to be killed; he will return to be crowned. Like a friend who rejoices in the success of a friend, if we love him, we will long for this day, for his day—the Day of the Lord!
A second way we can think of the distinction between the two comings is with respect to Christ’s work of Atonement. He came to be judged; he will return to be Judge. He came to take on our nature; he will return to transform our nature. His first coming made atonement for sin; his second will make an end of sin. In his first coming Satan was beaten; in his second Satan will be banished. He came to make restitution; he will return to make restoration. He came to bear punishment; he will return to bring peace. His big day will be ours too! Let our contemplation of his first Advent make us long for the second as we ought.
A third way in which the two Advents will differ is with respect to his People. He came to Israel; he will return for everyone. His first coming was the founding of the Church; his second will be the fulfillment of the Church. He came to win his Bride; he will return to wed his Bride. When you were engaged, did it matter to you how soon your wedding day would come? His return will be the Marriage Supper of the Lamb!
Fourth, we can think of the difference the Second Coming will make to his Story, which is history. When he came the first time the Kingdom was preached; when he returns the Kingdom will prevail. He came to keep his Promise; he will return to complete the promises. His first coming was in the fullness of time; his second will be the finale of time. His first coming was the turning point of history; his second will be the termination of history. He came at the crisis of history; he will return at the climax of history. His first coming was millennia ago; his second could be at almost any moment. Surely we should be filled with anticipation! How long, oh Lord?
Finally, we can think of the difference his Second Coming will make with respect to Christ’s goal: self glorification by self revelation. His first coming was almost unnoticed; his second will be unmistakable. The first was recorded in Scripture; the second will be revealed in the sky. He came to teach us about himself; he will return to take us to himself. His first coming inaugurated a memorial supper; the second will climax in the Marriage Supper. I can hardly wait!
We are used to the exhortation to look beyond the Manger to the Cross. It is one we need. But let us extend it! To understand the coming of Christ biblically is to be reminded that it is not yet completed. Our nostalgia for the Manger is not wrong if it leads us to anticipation of what lies yet ahead. When we think that he came, let us be reminded that he is coming! And if we think the Shepherds were privileged to see him in his Manger and to hear his angel choir singing—as surely they were—imagine the grace and privilege that may be ours: to join in that choir and welcome him back as the bright and shining, the conquering and victorious King! We live for that day. And we anticipate it by the way we serve and honor him even now. Even so, come, Lord Jesus.
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams