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The conflict of Christmas

December 2000 | by Mark Johnston

To speak of the ‘conflict of Christmas’ might conjure up images of children squabbling over toys, or tense moments during the gathering of the clan. But it seems a million miles away from our traditional idea of what the Christmas story is all about.

Carols, cards and cradle scenes all suggest that ‘peace on earth and good-will towards men’ sums up what happened when Jesus was born in Bethlehem two thousand years ago. There is, however, far more to it than we might first imagine.

For too long, encrusted layers of tradition and culture (not to mention myth and fantasy) have surrounded this event. This has created a most unhelpful filter through which most people read the biblical account of Jesus’ birth.

Put simply, we have concocted a sanitised version of events which blurs rather than clarifies the meaning of Christ’s coming. The Bible wants us to understand that it was all about conflict on a monumental scale.

Unexpected angle

The biggest clue to this conflict is found in an unexpected quarter of the Bible, namely, the book of Revelation. Many people think of the book of Revelation as being about the end times of world history, but that is not actually the case.

It concerns the past and present, just as much as the future. In fact the whole purpose of Revelation (as its title suggests) is to reveal an angle on the world and life that we would not otherwise be able to see. God draws aside the curtain for a moment to show us things about the world that normally go undiscovered.

Since the so-called Enlightenment in the eighteenth century, there has been an obsession with trying to explain things by means of reason alone. But there is another dimension to reality, and one which lies beyond the reach of bare logic and natural science.

People sometimes talk of a ‘parallel universe’ – an invisible world that exists alongside our own. This idea means different things in different contexts, but there is a sense in which the Bible speaks along those lines.

It does not suggest that there is some distinct and separate entity out there somewhere, as TV agents Mulder and Scully might have us believe. Rather, the Bible speaks of another dimension to existence which is spiritual as opposed to physical, but which is very much part of the cosmos to which we belong.

It is the realm to which God belongs, because he is Spirit. Yet it is also a realm which touches every human being, because we are spiritual beings as well as physical creatures. The book of Revelation opens the window on the way these two aspects of the cosmos relate to each other. It allows us to view the whole sweep of history, gain a different perspective on the present, and catch a glimpse of what will happen before the end of time.

The birth of Christ

Revelation’s account of the birth of Christ begins with these words: ‘A great and wondrous sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head’ (Revelation 12:1).

Anyone not familiar with this book of the Bible might think these were words taken from some New Age fantasy, but that would be mistaken. First-century readers would not have found Revelation in the least bit strange. It was written in an ‘apocalyptic’ style, a form of literature well known and widely appreciated in the Jewish world.

Such writings were deliberately designed to portray events and truths by means of caricature, as opposed to simply stating them in a literal way. They were the written equivalent of today’s cartoons, which deliberately exaggerate features in a surreal fashion to get their message across.

Cosmic conflict

This stylised account of the birth of Jesus picks up the Old Testament themes of: (1) a promised Saviour who would be the ‘seed of the woman’ (Genesis 3:15); (2) the people of God portrayed as a virgin bride (Jeremiah 14:17); and (3) a dragon as the epitome of opposition to God (Ezekiel 29:3).

Revelation weaves these themes together to show that they all find their fulfilment in the coming of God’s Son. It is Christ who fulfils God’s promise to conquer the arch-enemy, the dragon (identified as Satan in Revelation 12:9). The passage paints a picture of a cosmic conflict which already existed but which erupted with new ferocity the moment this child is born.

A dangerous pregnancy

If we revisit the biblical account of Jesus’ birth with this added insight, we begin to appreciate the details in a new and sobering light. We realise that his coming into this world was not the saccharine gesture of ‘Christmas’ mythology, but an event with far-reaching consequences.

The conflict begins in a quiet home in Nazareth in the foothills of Galilee, where a teenage girl was pledged to be married to the local carpenter. A messenger from heaven tells her that she will become pregnant without having sexual relations with a man. And the child she will bear will be none other than God’s Son (Luke 1:16-38).

If a teenager in our local community came out with a tale like that, she would be ostracised or institutionalised! The risks for Mary were higher still. Under Jewish law, to become pregnant when she was pledged to be married was seen as fornication, for which the penalty was death by stoning.

Yet she stuck to her story and was prepared to face the divorce proceedings her future husband was about to set in motion. But then he too was persuaded, by another angel from heaven, that her story was true.

Pain and perplexity

Life for Joseph and Mary could never be the same again. If they had some kind of plan for starting a new religious movement, they could hardly have picked a more painful way of doing it!

When the time came for the birth of her child, Joseph had to go south to Bethlehem to take part in a Roman census. So Mary ended up giving birth in a stable, far away from family and friends. Her joy as she held her newborn son was surely mingled with pain and perplexity, as she tried to work out what would happen next.

What did happen next was that Joseph, Mary and Jesus became overnight refugees. When told that a ‘new king’ had been born in his realm, King Herod sent a murder squad to the general area of the report and butchered every male child under the age of two (Matthew 2:16-18).

God warned Jesus’ parents in advance and they fled to Egypt until it was safe to return to Nazareth. The little family had become caught up in the cosmic conflict that was raging in the unseen world around. It was the battle of the ages, the battle for the souls of men.

Satan, who had held sway over this world for so long, was not going to yield lightly. He would fight fiercely every step of the way until the struggle reached its climax in the death of Christ and in his resurrection. Those two events were decisive to the battle. Jesus defeated the devil and conquered death, securing a future for his redeemed people in eternal glory.

New light on the present

Revelation’s portrayal of the conflict of Christmas not only sheds light on what happened long ago. It also helps us understand our world today.

D-Day marked the decisive battle in the last war, yet Germany did not surrender until Berlin fell. In the same way, the devil continues to wage his war against God and his people, even though he knows it is a losing battle.

He will go down fighting and he will take as many people with him as he can. Only those who have a living faith in Christ can be sure they will not share the devil’s fate when the end finally comes.

This should make us all ask penetrating questions. Where does our confidence lie as we contemplate eternity and where we will spend it? Whose side are we on in this cosmic battle between good and evil, God and Satan?

In any battle, men seek a place of safety. In this cosmic warfare, safety is found only in relying upon Christ and his saving work on the cross. The baby who came so helplessly into our world two thousand years ago was the mighty God who came to save us. Trust in him!