December 20, 1981 (Morning)
Bethlehem Baptist Church
John Piper, Pastor
CHRISTMAS AS THE END OF HISTORY
This is my tenth and final message in this series on the history of redemption. What I
would like to do this morning is to pull it all together and show how God's work in history
comes to a climax -- and in a sense comes to an end -- in the coming of his one and only
eternal and divine Son into the world.
The first thing that had to be proclaimed about God was that through the agency of his
eternal Son, and by the word of his power God created out of nothing all that is not God in
order to display the fullness of his glory among men and among all the hosts of heaven. And
he sustains and holds in existence moment by moment the whole universe so that by virtue of
creation and providence God owns all things and has absolute right to do with creation as he
pleases. There is no higher court before whom we can appeal his decisions There is no other
law than his word. There is no other maker behind the Maker of all. He is simply and
awesomely Absolute: no beginning, no ending, no becoming. Everyone, without exception, will
have to reckon with this God sooner or later. And there are only two possibilities: we can rebel
against his absolute authority over us creatures, or we can bow in lowly adoration and do his
But the second thing proclaimed in the history of redemption is that our first human parents
fell prey to a deception and chose the path of rebellion. The deception for which they fell was
that if they ate of the tree of knowledge of good and evil, they would be like God. Which
means: if you stop depending like little children on God to tell you what is good and bad for
you, and start making those choices yourself, then you will be like God and much happier.
The Fall, therefore, was the desire and effort of man to be self-determining and self-reliant. And
as a result God withdrew his special sanctifying grace so that since that first sin, all people
have come into the world bent on rebellion. The essence of sin which presses for control in
everyone of us is the intense distaste of surrendering all authority to God and becoming like
little children in dependence on him. The early history of mankind stands under this sentence
from Genesis 6:5: "The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth and that
every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually."
But the third thing that had to be proclaimed about God in the course of redemptive history
was that his purpose to be glorified through the obedience and joy of his creatures was not to
be frustrated. Out of all the peoples on the face of the earth God chooses one man, Abraham,
and makes him a promise: "I will make you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your
name great so that you will be a blessing … and by you all the families of the earth shall be
blessed (Genesis 12:2,3). We must learn from redemptive history that it is God's way to
pursue great ends through small beginnings. (Is not one of the most captivating things about
Christmas that the cosmic business of Christ began with a babe in a manger? God always
seems to act that way, lest anyone should boast and give man the glory.) God aims to
reclaim the rebellious creation. And he begins his grand plan of reclamation with one obscure,
imperfect Aramean whose wife is barren.
From that man and woman came a great people, the people of Israel, named after
Abraham's grandson whose children were the twelve tribal patriarchs. And God begins to go to
work on this people to make them the lesson-book for the nations about how salvation is to be
found. After centuries of bondage on Egypt he displays the unbridled glory of his power in their
deliverance through the Red Sea.
Fear not, stand firm, and see the salvation of the Lord, which he will work for you
today, for the Egyptians whom you see today, you shall never see again. The Lord will
fight for you, and you have only to be still. (Exodus 14:13).
With a few changes those could have been the very words that the angel spoke to the
shepherds on the night Jesus was born. And that is no mere coincidence, because God
intends for everything in his dealing with Israel to point to the righteousness that comes from
faith, and finally to the Christ.
When the people come, to Mount Sinai and the law is given through Moses, the basic
reason is to show the people how they should act if they have faith in the God of the Exodus
(Exodus 20:2). The law is a description of the obedience of faith for that time. The law did not
demand that the people try to earn their salvation through works. It did not offer blessing only
to perfection. It demanded that people put their hope in the mercy of God (Exodus 34:6); it
called for the obedience of faith; and it provided a ritual of atonement so that sacrifices could
be offered for sins. All of this -- the call for faith and the provision of sacrifices -- points to a
coming redeemer whose death will fulfill all sacrifices and who will be received by faith alone.
In the wilderness wanderings God showed that he could spread a table for his people where
there was not food and that therefore they should trust him. The manna that he provided was a
prefiguring of the true Bread that comes down from heaven (John 6:32-55), Jesus Christ. When
Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness for the people's healing (Numbers 21:9) it was a
foreshadowing of how Christ would be lifted up on the cross for our salvation (Jn. 3:14). And all
the tests of faith in the wilderness (Deuteronomy 8:2,16) pointed ahead to the time when
Christ himself world be tempted in the wilderness, but without sin.
When Israel crossed the Jordan and conquered the promised land and dwelt in it and had
rest, it was a partial fulfillment of the promise to Abraham. But since the rest was imperfect,
sensitive readers of the Old Testament saw this too as a type of something yet to come: there
is still a promised land in the future for God's people, a "better country" (Hebrews 11:16), a
"city which is to come" (Hebrews 13:14), a Sabbath rest for the people of God (Hebrews 4:9)
in the Kingdom of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
Then came the establishment of the monarchy in Israel -- sought for evil motives but turned
for good by the grace of God. Through this very line of kings God promises to bring the Savior
towards whom everything has been pointing. All the history of Israel is a great lesson-book for
the nations to read. And the lesson the book teaches is this: God the creator owns and rules
the world, his aim is to subdue its rebellion and be glorified through an obedient and joyful
people who forsake self-reliance and put their faith and hope in him alone. They cannot attain
righteousness through "works of the law" (Romans 3:20) but must count entirely on the mercy
of God who will raise up for David a Righteous Branch whose name will be "The Lord is our
righteousness" (Jeremiah 23:5,6).
The next thing God did to bring redemptive history to a climax took almost everybody off
guard. Only those few people who were most sensitive to the heart of the Old Testament could
begin to fathom what God did next. He split the coming of the Messiah into two comings,
separated by some 2,000 years. This was incomprehensible to the Jews of Jesus' day. The
Old Testament prophets had not been told by God how some of their prophecies fit together in
time. 1 Peter 1:10,11 say (literally): "The prophets who prophesied concerning the grace
coming to you sought out and searched out about this salvation, searching into which or what
sort of time the Spirit of Christ was revealing to them as they testified beforehand about the
sufferings of Christ and the glories after them." In other words, some of the prophets foresaw
that the Messiah would suffer (e.g. Is. 53) and that he would also be revealed in glory. What
they did not see was how the sufferings and glory of the Messiah fit together, namely, that
there would be two comings of the Messiah, once to suffer and a second time to gather his
people into his Kingdom and judge unbelievers. The prophets, and all Israel with them, looked
forward to one great Day of the Lord when the Messiah would come, defeat his enemies,
sanctify his people, establish his kingdom and rule in peace and righteousness forever over a
joyful and obedient people. The coming of Messiah meant the end of this age and the
beginning of the age to come; it meant the establishment of the eternal kingdom of God on
earth; it meant the fulfillment of all God's promises.
Is it any wonder then that the disciples were dismayed into speechlessness when they
confessed Jesus as the Messiah and heard him respond, "Yes, and the Son of Man must
suffer many things and be rejected by the elders and the chief priests and the scribes and be
killed" (Mark 8:31). How can you defeat your enemies and establish the Kingdom and fulfill the
promises, if you are rejected by Israel and killed like a criminal? It took three years of
instruction from Jesus, numerous resurrection appearances and the anointing of the Holy
Spirit before the apostles could grasp that it was precisely through his rejection and death that
Jesus defeated his enemies, inaugurated the Kingdom and fulfilled the promises.
The meaning of Christmas was a great blur for well over thirty years until the apostles broke
through to the insight that this event was the first half of the final act of redemptive history and
that the second half remains for the future. When they finally saw that, they were prepared to
interpret the meaning of Christmas for us. And they have done it in the writings of the New
In all that they wrote there is a kind of trademark which tips us off that these men once
believed there would be only one coming of the Messiah and that this coming would mark the
end of the age. God has seen fit to preserve this trademark for us because there is a very
important truth in it, which I think could give a new dimension of joy and expectancy to our
Christmas celebration this year. The trademark is this; even though the apostles looked
forward as we do to a second appearance of Christ, yet they still say that the first coming
happened in the last days or at the end of the age. They do not treat Christmas as just one
more bend in the river of redemptive history . With Christmas comes the end. For example,
Paul says in 1 Corinthians 10:11 that the events of the Old Testament "happened to them as
a warning, but they were written down for our instruction upon whom the end of the ages has
come." When the apostle Peter stood up on Pentecost to interpret for the crowds the meaning
of what was happening he said, "this is what was spoken by the prophet Joel: 'And in the last
days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh…"' (Acts 2:16,17).
These are the last days. The apostle Peter also wrote that Christ was "destined before the
foundation of the world but was made manifest at the end of the times for your sake" (1 Peter
1:20). The appearing of Jesus Christ at Christmas marked the end of the times (or as Paul
said "the end of the ages").
And one other text shows that this apostolic trademark is preserved even where the future
second coming is explicitly in view: Hebrews 9:26-28:
Christ has appeared once for all at the end of the age to put away sin by the
sacrifice of himself. And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes
judgment, so Christ having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a
second time not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.
What this text shows is that even though time had elapsed between Christ's first coming
and the writing of this book; and even though the writer looks ahead to an unknown future
lapse of time before Christ comes a second time, nevertheless he does not give up the
apostolic trademark: Christmas marks the end of the age. And I believe there is a very
profound reason why the Holy Spirit has preserved this trademark for us even though 2000
years have passed since that first Christmas. I believe the Spirit preserved this trademark for
us to keep us from trivializing Christmas.
Creation out of nothing was an awesome event. Imagine what the angelic spirits must have
felt when the universe, material reality of which they had never imagined, was brought forth out
of nothing by the command of God. The fall was an awful event shaking the entire creation.
The Exodus was an amazing display of God's power and love. The giving of the law, the
wilderness provisions, the conquering of Canaan, the prosperity of the monarchy -- all these
acts of God in redemptive history were very great and wonderful. Each one was a very
significant bend in the river of redemptive history bringing it ever and ever closer to the ocean
of God's final kingdom. But we trivialize Christmas, the incarnation, if we treat it as just
another bend on the way to the end. It is the end of redemptive history.
And I think the analogy of the river helps us see how. Picture the river as redemptive history
flowing toward the ocean which is the final kingdom of God, full of glory and righteousness and
peace. At the end of the river the ocean presses up into the river with its salt water. Therefore
at the mouth of the river there is a mingling of fresh water and salt water. One might say that
the Kingdom of God has pressed its way back up into the river of time a short way. It has
surprised the travelers and taken them off guard. They can smell the salt water. They can
taste the salt water. The sea gulls circle the deck. The end has come upon them. Christmas
is not another bend in the river, It is the arrival of the salt water of the Kingdom of God which
has backed up into the river of history. With the coming of Christmas, the ocean of the age to
come has reached backward up the stream of history to welcome us, to wake us up to what
is coming, to lure us on into the deep. Christmas is not another bend in the river of history. It
is the end of the river. Let down your dipper and taste of Jesus Christ, his birth and life and
death and resurrection. Taste and see if the age to come has not arrived, if the Kingdom has
not come upon us. Does it not make your eyes sparkle?
But scoffers will say -- they have always said -- 2000 years is a long river delta! Too long to
believe in. Christmas was just another bend in the river. The salty taste in the water must have
been done to some chemical plant nearby. Who can imagine living in the last days for 2000
years? To such skeptics I say, with the apostle Peter, "Do not ignore this one fact, beloved,
that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day" (2 Peter
3:8). As far as God is concerned the incarnation happened last Friday.
I want us to think of Christmas this year not as a great event in the flow of history, but as
the arrival of the end of history which happened, as it were, but yesterday and will be
consummated very soon by the second appearing of Christ. Let me make one last effort to
help you see it this way. Most of you probably know someone who is 90 years old or older --
probably a woman. I want you to imagine 22 of these ladies standing here in front, side by
side, facing you, each one still alert and able to remember her childhood and marriage and old
age. And then instead of seeing them side by side as contemporaries, have them turn and
face sideways so they form a queue and imagine that each one lived just after the other. If the
one on my far left were alive today, do you know when the one on my far right would have
been born? At the same time Jesus was. Jesus was born just 22 ladies ago. That is not a
very long time. Just twenty-two people between you and the incarnation. In comparison to the
size of the ocean of the age to come, the mouth of the river of redemptive history is small. The
delta is not long. It is short.
My prayer for us all this year is that we might see ourselves living between the first and
second appearances of Jesus Christ, which together, are the end of redemptive history. That
we might see these two appearances united by the overflow of the glorious ocean of the future
kingdom of God into the present; and ourselves borne along no longer by the forces of history,
but by the power of the age to come. May we feel the undertow of the eschaton and yearn to
be there with the Lord forever. Even so come quickly Lord. Amen.
© COPYRIGHT John Piper.