For this post, I would like to share a book excerpt from the great nineteenth century New Testament scholar B. F. Westcott which provides a “big picture” perspective on Christmas. Why is Christmas such a big deal? Christmas is a remembrance and celebration of the central event in the history of the universe. Westcott rightly calls the incarnation of Jesus Christ the central point of all history. All of human history (after the fall of man) that came before Christ’s birth was preparing the world for His coming, while all of history after Christ’s death and resurrection develops as a result from it, ultimately to be consummated when Christ returns to establish His kingdom. Here are Westcott’s words, from An Introduction to the Study of the Gospels (London: MacMillan, 1881), 46-48:
The Bible is the oldest and truest vindication of the dignity of History. When the [Jews] numbered the ancient records of their state among the works of the Prophets, they acknowledged that insight and foresight are only varieties of the same faculty, differing in their objects and not in their essence. The present, if we could read it rightly, contains the past and future, though that which is real and abiding is enveloped in a mass of confused details, so that it is visible only to the eye of the true seer. This follows indeed from the nature of the case; for truth in itself is absolutely one. But though it is one in itself it can only be manifested partially; and human history in the highest sense is the record of its successive manifestations in the life of men and man. . . .
Any real appreciation of Christianity in its worldwide relations must rest upon some such view of History as this. Christianity cannot be separated from the past any more than from the future. If we may venture so to speak, it was not an accident or an after-thought, but foreknown before the foundation of the world. The Incarnation as it is seen now is the central point of all History. And more than this, if we regard the great issues of life, all past history as far as it has any permanent significance appears to be the preparation for that great mystery, and all subsequent history the gradual appropriation of its results. Isolated efforts were made in ancient times to anticipate the truth for which men were waiting; and opposing powers sought to check its influence when it was set forth in the life of Christ; but premature development and open antagonism served in the end only to display the supremacy and consolidate the power of Revelation. The Gospel was no sudden or solitary message. . . . Christianity is in one sense as ancient as the Creation, resting on a foundation wide as the world and old as time. Step by step the groundwork of the Church was laid in the silent depths, and at last, when all was now ready, it rose above the earth, that all men might consciously combine to rear the spiritual temple of the living GOD.
What is true of the subject of the Gospel is true in a less complete degree of the record. The writings of the New Testament are not a separate and exceptional development, but the ripe fruit of minds which had been matured through long ages of various fortunes and manifold influences. The very language in which they are written is in some sense an epitome of ancient history. For it was the will of Providence that the people whom He destined to become the special depository of His revelations should not only develope [sic] their individual character but also by contact with Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome, assimilate the foreign elements necessary to the perfection of their work. The history of the Jews thus becomes as it were the key to the history of the world; and, by regarding the various stages through which it passed, it is possible to distinguish the various constituents which combined to form the character of the Apostles and to prepare men for their teaching.
Westcott is essentially arguing that the Bible presents the metanarrative of history, with the incarnation (Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection) as its center point. Westcott, in this book on the New Testament, focuses on the role of historical events to prepare the world for the establishment of Christ’s church. The church is, however, only one more step toward the ultimate goal of history, which is the establishment of the kingdom of God on earth. Also, Westcott is right to observe that a record of past events cannot rightly be separated from the outcomes they produce. The full significance of past events can only be known by showing their relation to the present and the future (though he misses the reason why the Jews called the OT historical books the “former prophets”—it was because they were written by prophets, not because they contain a significant amount of predictive prophecy). Returning, then, to the Christmas event: the coming of God the Son into the world as a Man, as God-in-the-flesh, was the key event which brought salvation to the whole human race, defeated Satan, and defeated death itself. All things having been thus accomplished, the world now awaits the return of Jesus to claim at the appointed time the kingdom promised by the Father. The birth of Christ in Bethlehem two thousand years ago therefore brings hope to the whole world and to each individual in it today, not just for one’s personal salvation, but also for the redemption of all creation (Rom 8:19-23). We ought indeed to celebrate the birth of the Son of God during the Christmas season, for—among other reasons—it is the center point of all history.
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