“Nothing of importance happened today.” So read a diary entry once, scribbled by a citizen in Paris—a cobbler named Jean Lenoir. The date of the entry was July 14, 1789. Only a few streets away, the French Revolution had been touched off, as a furious mob stormed the gates of the infamous Bastille prison, razing its walls to the ground and freeing its prisoners. Yet in the mind of an oblivious Frenchman, “Nothing of importance happened today.”
So it must have seemed to many on the night of Jesus Christ’s birth. Certainly Caesar Augustus—who reined over a regime that stretched from the cataracts of the Nile to the northern hills of Britain—was unaware that within his domains a Child had been born whose followers would one day stand over the grave of his empire. This was the event that would split the dispensations, B.C. to A.D.
How then would you describe Christmas in its entirety?
The first chapter of John’s Gospel helps us to realize that its shape is not unlike one of the old-fashioned hourglass sand timers that preachers used to use. Thousands of sand grains would sink down from the wide top of the glass until they trickled through the tapered center, only to fill the bottom as the glass widened once more.
At the top of the glass in John 1, the dimensions are enormous:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made” (John 1:1-3).
“The Word” is another name for Jesus (Revelation 19:13). As “the exact representation” of God’s being (Hebrews 1:3), Jesus perfectly expresses all that God has ever desired to communicate. The Word did not begin halfway through history. People are sometimes heard to say, “I can understand about God, but where does Jesus fit in?” It was the great teacher of the fourth century, Athanasius—Egyptian-born and Greek-trained—who once declared, “The only system of thought into which Jesus Christ will fit is the one in which He is the starting point.”
Christ is present from eternity. He could reverently be described as the Executive of the Trinitarian God, in that the Father has only to speak, and a beautiful blue-green world—complete with mountains, rivers, forests and oceans, and teeming with animal life—comes into being at the action of The Word.
“Without him nothing was made that has been made.” Take Jesus out of the picture, and we shall be like the man who buttons up his shirt in the morning, beginning with the wrong button. He may think, If I keep on with this, it will work out somehow. But it never will! If we are to make any sense of life, Christ must be seen as the starting point—at the top end of history’s hourglass.
But quickly the glass begins to narrow down.
“In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:4-5).
With the initial catastrophic rebellion of banishment from God’s presence followed. Yet a divine way of restoration was pledged. A future descendant of Eve would one day come; a solitary Individual who would inflict defeat upon Satan and the kingdom of sin and evil (Genesis 3:15).
Thus the hourglass tapers down, from the great width of the whole world in its fallenness to the continent of Asia. It narrows still further—to a particular Middle Eastern country measuring little more than 250 miles long and 70 miles wide. Today you can drive across it in a couple of hours. The scene narrows down yet further to a family—the children of Israel. It was to that family that, in John’s words, “The law was given through Moses” (John 1:17).
From the vastness of Eternity and the created order down to a single family and its progeny—surely, the hourglass cannot become any narrower?
But it does. For if we know our Bible story, we will remember how the people of Israel—who were called to be God’s light to the nations—failed in their mission, and under God their rebellion met with a 70-year exile at the hands of the Babylonians. Despite their eventual restoration, we seem to be left at the end of the Old Testament with little more than a faithful remnant of “those who feared the Lord and honored his name” (Malachi 3:16).
Does the glass become any narrower? Come to the New Testament—with Israel under Roman rule. In a remote town of Galilee, the promised Child is born. Then—after 400 years of silence from Heaven—there arrives on the scene John the Baptist, as a prophetic announcer of the One who is to be the Universal Light for the whole world.
“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light. The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world” (John 1:6-9).
Although John would be killed, 12 other men had been called to join Jesus as disciples. Now, with the 12—and their Leader—the hourglass has surely slimmed down to its very narrowest width: just 13 men. But it hasn’t. One disciple turns are scattered.
As the sands of time descend to this narrowest moment, we are down to a solitary grain at the center—none other than the original Being who inhabited eternity. He “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). John the Baptist hailed Him as “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
One grain—one Man—“came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (John 1:11). With the hourglass now wafer-thin, Jesus is everything the world could have been looking for. As the Lamb of God in His suffering on the cross, He is all that Israel never could be. All depends upon Him; He is Israel in a single Person; He is the personal and solitary fulfillment of the divine Covenant. He is the One whom the Apostle Paul would one day describe to his protégé Titus as “our great God and Savior” (Titus 2:13).
One Individual is there, at the center of God’s saving purpose.
And what of His proportions? In monistic belief systems, the deity is conceived as immense but distant; inscrutable and unapproachable (as in the beliefs of Islam). Revelations might be imparted, but only of laws and duties, and never of the person. Such a being is gigantic—but you cannot get near!
In traditional pantheistic belief—where the deity is identified with nature—the god or gods might be found in the rivers and rocks, or identified with a particular tree. Perhaps this being is quite close to the worshipper—but oh, so small!
The miracle of Bethlehem and Christmas is that the great God of the whole universe could come among us as a man—without shrinking Him. “We have seen his glory,” writes John, “the glory of the one and only” (John 1:14). As early as the wedding feast at Cana, such glory was revealed (John 2:11). It was highlighted at the Transfiguration. Supremely it was, however, the approaching cross that Jesus spoke of as the moment when He would be glorified (John 12:23-32).
The old hymn puts it, “In the cross of Christ I glory, towering o’er the wrecks of time.” And John is able to declare that to all who receive the God-Man, the right is given to become personally related—not by natural means, but supernaturally, within the divine family, as “children of God” (John 1:12).
The entire saving action of God was inaugurated at Bethlehem, achieved at Calvary, authenticated by the Resurrection and celebrated at the Ascension. Here was the narrowest point in eternity’s hourglass.
Then Pentecost drove it all worldwide! A widening process began, as the Gospel witness spread—in Jerusalem, Judea, Samaria, and “to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). Despite widespread persecution and martyrdoms, the Christian faith today represents the fastest-growing body of belief in the world.
Ephesians 4:10 expresses the full dimensions of Heaven’s action: “He who descended is the very one who ascended higher than all the heavens, in order to fill the whole universe.”
Salvation’s hourglass had narrowed in shape from Eternity down to its historical center, only to widen once more back to Eternity. The Man born to be King in tiny Bethlehem now stands at the right hand for us all. He is still a man; not even an “ex-man,” but He is glorified Man, beckoning us all—beckoning you—to follow Him onward from this very Christmas to partake with Him in the Glory. D ©2014 RICHARD BEWES
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS ARE TAKEN FROM THE HOLY BIBLE, NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION®, NIV® COPYRIGHT© 1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 BY BIBLICA, INC.® USED BY PERMISSION. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED WORLDWIDE.
RICHARD BEWES SERVED FOR MORE THAN 20 YEARS AS RECTOR OF ALL SOULS CHURCH, LANGHAM PLACE, IN LONDON. HE HAS WRITTEN MANY BOOKS AND SERVES ON THE BRITISH BOARD OF THE BILLY GRAHAM EVANGELISTIC ASSOCIATION.
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