Perhaps the single most astounding supernatural event ever to take place, outside of creation itself, was the incarnation of Jesus the Christ. And by incarnation, I refer not only to the miraculous birth, but to the entirety of Christ taking on human flesh and dwelling among us. To Christians, it is rightly called the most significant event in history.
It is quite easy for us to look back from our vantage point in history and understand at least to some extent how this event was one of wonder and amazement. Less easy for us to realize is how important the coming of the Messiah was held to be by believers before the period of time which bears his name: A.D. - the abbreviation for the Latin "anno Domini" - which means "in the year of the Lord." I would like to try to convey a little bit of the sense of anxious waiting and expectation and excitement that was present in the faithful of the time period before the coming of the Savior.
When we look at the Bible, we find that throughout Old Testament history, God's people looked forward to the coming of a Savior, though the details of that event were often only seen through a mirror dimly, to borrow a phrase from Paul's letter to the Corinthians.
Most theologians seem to agree that Genesis 3:15 contains the first promise of a coming savior. You will recall that Adam and Eve had just confessed that they had broken God's command, and while the promise was made in a statement to the serpent, it was given in the presence of Adam and Eve, and for their benefit.
"And the LORD God said unto the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field; upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life: And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; he shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel." Genesis 3:14-15
This promise of enmity between Eve and the serpent, and between her offspring and the serpent's offspring are fulfilled on at least two levels. On a purely natural level, is there any member of animal kingdom that is as universally disliked as snakes? On a spiritual level though, the enmity is even more pronounced. We might consider the seed of the serpent to be the spirit of disobedience, which has clearly, throughout history, been at war against the seed of the Woman who is Jesus Christ. Satan, embodied by the serpent in the garden, now most often embodied by this spirit of disobedience, did indeed bruise the Messiah's fully human body in the crucifixion; but that same act which Satan meant for evil was the way God chose to crush the head of the serpent.
Great damage was done to the human race when Satan beguiled Adam and Eve to choose to disobey God's command. However, this promise that the seed of the woman would triumph over that damage, while it contained very little in the way of specific information as to how it would be accomplished, seems to have been fully embraced by them. So much so, that in the very first verse of Genesis 4 we read this: "And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived, and bare Cain, and said, I have gotten a man from the LORD." - Or "by the help of the LORD" as some translations put it. This has often been cited as an indication that Eve mistakenly thought that the promise of her offspring bruising the head of the serpent was being fulfilled right then and there in the birth of Cain. If this was true, then she was to be sorely disappointed to find that her firstborn was not the promised one who would set things right.
If we were to trace the Genesis account to the flood and beyond, we would notice that despite the ongoing rebellion of man in his disobedience to God, there was in every generation at least some who can be identified as God's people, though the number was so small in the days of Noah that a world-wide judgment took place, sparing only one family.
However, throughout this long period of history, I don't think it’s a stretch to think that all of those generations of God-fearing people remembered and held fast to that promise made of one who would be born of a woman and who would bruise the serpent's head. In fact, that promise was likely the hope they would treasure in their hearts while personally witnessing that "the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every imagination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually", as we read of Noah's generation.
In support of that conjecture, consider this. Adam, who was an eye witness of this promise, was still alive for the first 243 years of Methuselah's life. Methuselah was still alive for nearly the first 100 years of Shem’s life. Shem, the son of Noah, did not die until Abraham was 150 years old. In other words, in terms of the possibility of face to face communication, it would compare to your great-grandfather telling your grandfather of a great promise, and then your grandfather telling your father, who in turn tells you. Do you think the substance of a promise that is life changing and in fact world changing might survive those few re-tellings?
Just to clarify, the Bible does not tell us that Abraham ever spoke to Methuselah, or Methuselah to Shem, or Shem to Abraham, but the possibility does exist. And I might add that I took the liberty of taking those years quoted from a book called "The Timechart of Biblical History" without which it is doubtful I'd have noticed the overlap in life spans. I'll also add that it would be easy enough to confirm the accuracy of the chart using the genealogies listed in Genesis chapters 5, 10, and 11.
Given the close" generational links", do you think that the great promise given in the garden may have come to mind when the LORD spoke to Abraham as recorded in Genesis 12?
"Now the LORD had said unto Abram, Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred, and from thy father's house, unto a land that I will shew thee: And I will make of thee a great nation, and I will bless thee, and make thy name great; and thou shalt be a blessing: And I will bless them that bless thee, and curse him that curseth thee: and in thee shall all families of the earth be blessed." Genesis 12:1-3
I can't help but think that this promise was understood by Abraham to be an extension of the original promise made in the garden. In fact, I can't help but wonder if that were a factor explaining why Abraham's wife Sarah seems to attempt to give God's promise a little help when she arranges for her handmaid to bear Abraham a son, since she herself was barren. But eventually God did intervene and Sarah did conceive and bear a son.
This same scenario played out in the life of Abraham's grandson Jacob. His beloved wife Rachel also was barren, and she too arranged for her husband to have a child by her handmaid. Later when Rachel did bear a son, she said that "God had taken away her reproach."
John Gill in his commentary on that passage says this: "the reproach of barrenness with which she was reproached among her neighbors; and perhaps by her sister Leah, and indeed it was a general reproach in those times; and especially, it was the more grievous to good women in the family of Abraham, because they were not the means of multiplying his seed according to the promise, and could have no hope of the Messiah springing from them." close quote.
This holding on to and looking for the fulfillment of the promises of one being born of woman in whom all the families of the earth would be blessed when he bruised the head of the serpent seems to have become a major motivation for childbearing in Israel. And of course as time went on, by further revelations by God, the details of how this would come about were made clearer.
Over 400 years later, the first Passover took place as the LORD brought the nation of Israel out of bondage in Egypt. God's command to sacrifice a lamb, and to put its blood upon the door posts of the homes of the children of Israel so that they could escape the judgment of Egypt was a picture of the coming judgment of all men. This was a significant clue as to the exact nature of God's method for the seed of the woman to bless all the families of the earth. The subsequent giving of the Law through Moses only served to reinforce the necessity of the birth of the promised one by showing them the many ways that they fell short so they would not miss the fact that they, like Adam, were disobedient.
When God, by way of his servant Moses, instituted the sacrificial offerings in Israel, it was yet more information about this promised one and how he would defeat the serpent.
In the book of Judges we read of another woman who was barren, but who received a visit from the angel of the LORD
"And there was a certain man of Zorah, of the family of the Danites, whose name was Manoah; and his wife was barren, and bare not. And the angel of the LORD appeared unto the woman, and said unto her, Behold now, thou art barren, and bearest not: but thou shalt conceive, and bear a son. Now therefore beware, I pray thee, and drink not wine nor strong drink, and eat not any unclean thing: For, lo, thou shalt conceive, and bear a son; and no razor shall come on his head: for the child shall be a Nazarite unto God from the womb: and he shall begin to deliver Israel out of the hand of the Philistines." Judges 13:2-5
By this point in time, the Israelites had possessed the written history given by God to Moses, for about 300 years. That history, which we still possess today in the first 5 books of the Old Testament, contained both and account of the promise from the garden and the promise to Abraham of a son born of a woman who would set things right.
Do you think that maybe when the angel of the LORD appeared to Manoah saying his wife would bear a son who would be a deliverer, that they made a connection? Don't you think that they at least hoped that this was to be the long awaited fulfillment of those promises? I do.
Not only that, but don't you suppose the other God fearing men and women in Israel knew of Manoah's visitation by the angel of the LORD? How the angel promised that his wife would bear a son who would deliver Israel? And Samson did indeed deliver Israel from the Philistines, insuring their continuing existence as a people of God. Certainly he was not "the" deliverer that was hoped for, which was attested to by what we might be tempted to refer to as character flaws, but can be more accurately labeled sins.
But the point is that there can be no doubt that in Israel there was expectation and an anxious looking for of the birth of the promised one. The son who would be born of woman would set the things right that had gone so horribly wrong because of Adam's disobedience! All the families of the earth would be blessed by this promised one who would come through the nation of Israel.
We see this reproach and despair of a barren woman played out once again in the birth of the prophet Samuel. His mother Hannah poured out her heart to the LORD as recorded in the 1st Book of Samuel.
"And she was in bitterness of soul, and prayed unto the LORD, and wept sore. And she vowed a vow, and said, O LORD of hosts, if thou wilt indeed look on the affliction of thine handmaid, and remember me, and not forget thine handmaid, but wilt give unto thine handmaid a man child, then I will give him unto the LORD all the days of his life, and there shall no razor come upon his head." 1 Samuel 1:10-11
Elkanah called her inability to have children an affliction. No doubt she too felt that deep seated desire to be a part of the great work her people, not only to become a great nation, but as part of that, to be a blessing to all of the families of the earth. And perhaps, just perhaps, that God would choose her to be the woman who would bear the promised one. The one who would finally set things right! The one who would undo the damage done to the human race in the garden.
This attitude endured and was still prevalent at the time of the birth of Christ. In the first chapter of Luke we read of Zacharias and Elisabeth, who are referred to as "well stricken in years." Can there be any doubt then, that this inability to bear a child in light of the promises of a coming deliverer still weighed heavily on the mind of Elizabeth causing her to refer to it as a reproach among men, as recorded in Luke 1:24-25:
"And after those days his wife Elisabeth conceived, and hid herself five months, saying, Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein he looked on me, to take away my reproach among men."
You may have noticed a common thread through the Old Testament, of women who are barren, who by the intervention of God, bear a son. We saw it with Abraham's wife Sarah, with Isaac's wife Rebekah, Jacob's wife Rachel. We see that with the mother of Samson, Samuel's mother Hannah, and even continuing into the New Testament with Elisabeth the mother of John the Baptist. All of these involve, to at least some extent, a miraculous birth. A barren woman is not called barren because she was slow to have children, but because she cannot have children. When a barren woman conceives it is a miracle. And the older the barren woman is when she conceives a child, the more miraculous it is. When Sarah became the mother of Isaac at the age of 90, it was clearly a supernatural event. Of course all of these were just a foreshadowing of the birth of Christ, and the picture is always lesser than the fulfillment. As such, these miraculous births pale in comparison with the miracle of the birth of the Messiah, not just in the fact of a virgin giving birth, for even that is minor compared to God taking on human flesh and dwelling among us. But each of these women were another reminder to faithful Jews which lead to their anxious watching for the coming of the promised one.
As the years went by, more and more information about the promised one was revealed to the children of Israel through the prophets. God sent the prophet Nathan to tell David that he would raise up one of his offspring and establish his kingdom and throne forever. (2 Samuel 7:12-13)
The Psalms are rich with details about the promised one which was to come. Psalm 2 speaks of YaHWeH's anointed and calls him his Son and a King set on his holy hill of Zion. Psalm 45 told them that this throne would be God's throne and reinforced that it would be everlasting. It goes on to say that the one on this throne would be anointed by God. In light of Hebrews chapter one quoting this Psalm, it is somewhat easier for us to see that this refers to God the Father anointing God the Son, but even if those who were at that time looking ahead to the coming of the Messiah were not able to grasp that fact, this certainly did much to help them understand his importance.
The prophets Hosea, Micah and Jeremiah were all used by God to reveal further bits of information concerning this promised one's birth and life. None of the other prophets, however, provided as much information about this anointed one, as did the prophet Isaiah. Isaiah refers to the Messiah, which means anointed one, as a light to the gentiles several times. God also revealed by way of Isaiah that it would be a virgin who would bear this deliverer.
Isaiah 9 contains a passage most of us are familiar with and one which is often quoted this time of year. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will perform this.” Isaiah 9:6-7
At the point in time when Isaiah gave this prophecy, the people of Israel had possessed the book wherein Moses recorded God's word, for approximately 700 years. This book contained the promise that the seed of the woman would bruise the serpent's head. The fulfillment of that promise was narrowed down to all of the families of the earth being blessed through the offspring of Abraham. Roughly 300 years before Isaiah’s prophesy, David received promises which both gave much more information about this deliverer and further narrowed down the family line from which he would be born.
In light of the passage in Isaiah, a picture of the promised one was becoming increasingly clear, at least with our 20/20 hindsight and the aid of the new Testament. Of course if we are honest we can see how this prophecy could be misinterpreted to represent a human deliverer and a reign over an earthly kingdom. The government would be on his shoulder. He would sit on the throne of David to order his kingdom with judgment and justice.
Remember, monotheism was a cornerstone of Israel: every faithful Israelite knew the words from Deuteronomy 6:4-5 "Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God is one LORD: And thou shalt love the LORD thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might." With that in mind, many may have misunderstood the phrase "The mighty God" in Isaiah 9:6 to be God with a little "g". On the other hand, referring to the promised one as "The everlasting Father" may be a little harder for us to properly grasp than it was in Old Testament times. In Hebrew the term “father” is often used to denote the possessor of a thing. Thus, “The everlasting Father” could also be translated “Father of Eternity”, which may help those of us with a “Western” thought process see that this passage does not conflict with the doctrine of the Trinity by diluting the distinction between Father and Son.
But of course more clarification was soon to come when Isaiah recorded God's words that describe exactly how the promised one would have his “heel” bruised, but in that act he would bruise the head of the serpent, how he would be a blessing to all the families of the earth, and how he would deliver his people. This may be the best presentation of the Gospel recorded in the Old Testament:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him that bringeth good tidings, that publisheth peace; that bringeth good tidings of good, that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!
Thy watchmen shall lift up the voice; with the voice together shall they sing: for they shall see eye to eye, when the LORD shall bring again Zion.
Break forth into joy, sing together, ye waste places of Jerusalem: for the LORD hath comforted his people, he hath redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD hath made bare his holy arm in the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.
Depart ye, depart ye, go ye out from thence, touch no unclean thing; go ye out of the midst of her; be ye clean, that bear the vessels of the LORD.
For ye shall not go out with haste, nor go by flight: for the LORD will go before you; and the God of Israel will be your rereward.
Behold, my servant shall deal prudently, he shall be exalted and extolled, and be very high.
As many were astonied at thee; his visage was so marred more than any man, and his form more than the sons of men:
So shall he sprinkle many nations; the kings shall shut their mouths at him: for that which had not been told them shall they see; and that which they had not heard shall they consider.
Who hath believed our report? and to whom is the arm of the LORD revealed?
For he shall grow up before him as a tender plant, and as a root out of a dry ground: he hath no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him.
He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.
Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows: yet we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted.
But he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth.
He was taken from prison and from judgment: and who shall declare his generation? for he was cut off out of the land of the living: for the transgression of my people was he stricken.
And he made his grave with the wicked, and with the rich in his death; because he had done no violence, neither was any deceit in his mouth.
Yet it pleased the LORD to bruise him; he hath put him to grief: when thou shalt make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.
He shall see of the travail of his soul, and shall be satisfied: by his knowledge shall my righteous servant justify many; for he shall bear their iniquities.
Therefore will I divide him a portion with the great, and he shall divide the spoil with the strong; because he hath poured out his soul unto death: and he was numbered with the transgressors; and he bare the sin of many, and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 52:7-53:12)
We are among those for whom the damage done in the fall was made right again through the seed of the woman. We are of the families of the earth who are blessed through the line of Abraham. We are among those who have been healed, have had our sins and iniquities borne, have been justified, and intercession is made for us.
Seems like a pretty good reason to celebrate the birth of the one who accomplished all that! Believe it.