This article originally appeared in the November/December 2006 issue of byFaith.
Christmas is a time for stories.
When I was a boy, our family would gather on Christmas Eve by the fire’s warmth and hear the story of Santa’s coming with toys: “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house / not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” I always liked that story, because I got its message: the sooner I got to bed, the sooner I would be opening presents!
The Santa Claus story endures because its point is simple and attractive: be a good girl or boy and get ready for great toys on Christmas morning.
Christians tell a better story and receive a better gift. But is the basic story clear and simple in our minds? For all its profound and glorious depths, Christmas is the story of God fulfilling His promise to send a Savior from heaven to earth. Mary sang, “[The Lord] has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever” (Luke 1:54-55). The story was clear in her mind: A faithful God’s most precious gift, a Savior who came from heaven to earth.
Theologian Michael Williams has written of the importance of those last words, “from heaven to earth.” He urges us to remember “the general trajectory of relationship between God and His people. From heaven to earth, rather than from earth to heaven, is the flow of movement and energy, the direction of travel that we see in Scripture. The biblical hope is not one of man going to God. It is not the story of the ascent of man. Rather, it is the story of God coming to man, in man’s createdness, redeeming both man and the creation.”
This really is a simple message, but the implications are revolutionary. All other religions work from earth to heaven. They are all attempts at “the ascent of man.” In glorious contrast, the Christian gospel teaches the descent of God with saving grace. From heaven to earth! This is the simple story of Christmas.
A Pretty Special Place
“From heaven to earth” is a powerful message, and its implications can transform our thinking about both heaven and earth.
For starters, it tells us that earth must be a pretty special place. Earth was obviously very special to God, since He sent His Son here to be born, to live, and to die a sacrificial death. And this is what the Bible says: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). This familiar verse refers to the salvation of sinners through faith in Jesus. It is God’s salvation gift because He loves the world.
God loves the earth despite His displeasure with what He sees here. The reason for the terrible flood in Noah’s day is no less valid today: “Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence” (Gen. 6:11). But even then, God still loved the earth. He promised never to send another flood, telling Noah: “I establish my covenant with you, that… never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth” (Gen. 9:11). It was not that God was wrong for sending the flood; rather, God promised grace because He loves the earth. And because of that love, God sent His own Son to save the world.
After all, God made the earth. It belongs to Him, and He made it all “very good” (Gen. 1:31). God loves the flaming red sunsets that drape the Florida beaches, the holy solemnity of jagged peaks in Colorado, and joyful waving of corn stalks on green Kansas fields. But when we say that God loves the earth, we mean much more than that God loves the earth’s landscape. God also loves the wonderful creatures He made to live on earth. God loves the covenant bond between a man and a woman in marriage. God loves childhood. God loves the creative genius of the artist and the orderly calculation of the engineer. God loves laughter, the inner warmth of friendship, and the determined resolve of duty. God loves the delight of sliding safe into second base and the satisfaction of finishing a good book. He made all these things, and everything that God made, God loves.
Christians who realize this will love the earth, too. They will see the handiwork of God in all good things and count them precious. Though our lives may often be hard or bitter, the earth in which we live is very special. Marriages may be struggling, but marriage itself remains worthy of delight. The streets may be cracked and dirty, but they are worthy of being repaired and kept clean. Human beings are especially precious, since we all bear the image of God. So as David celebrated God’s glory in the starry sky and in the baby’s cry, let us rejoice for the glory of God on earth: “O Lord, our Lord! How majestic is your name in all the earth” (Ps. 8:1).
Years ago I attended graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, its ivy-covered walls surrounded by urban blight. The streets of West Philadelphia were dirty and the houses were run down. But it did not take much imagination to see what West Philly once had been. For the houses were large and elegant, and the leafy bows of trees towered to the sky. You could easily fall in love with West Philadelphia by realizing what it once must have been.
God must look on the whole earth with such eyes. Yes, God is well aware of the scar of sin, like cracks in a West Philly sidewalk. But it is still the earth that He made and that belongs to him. God has never forgotten the purpose for which He created the earth – to display the wonders of His own glory – and sin has not forced God to give up on what is His. It was to His own earth that God sent His Son from heaven. Realizing this, Christians will love, care for, and nurture everything good that God has made on earth.
Reclaiming & Restoring the Earth
Jesus did not come from heaven to earth as a tourist, and while Christians are pilgrims in this world, we should not be tourists either. God’s Son was born as a baby to fulfill a mission: to reclaim a world lost in sin and restore a world broken by sin. Jesus was born to save the earth to what it really is: a theatre for the display of God’s glory.
In our service to God in the world, let’s make sure we remember the trajectory of Christmas. Our calling as Christians is not to fix the world so that it can ascend to heaven. That is the secularists’ agenda for the world. Instead, Christians serve in a world where God has already come from heaven to earth. So just as Adam was born to enjoy co-creation with God, believers in Christ are born again to be co-reclaimers and co-restorers with Jesus.
And Jesus’s coming gives us hope for the earth. “Glory to God in the highest,” sang the angels at his birth, “and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14). Or, as Isaiah foresaw Christmas, “Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined” (Isaiah 9:2). Truly, the earth would be lost in darkness, except that Jesus has come from heaven to save. John explained, “In him was life, and the life was the light of men” (John 1:4).
God sent Jesus to do what only He could. Like a good surgeon, Jesus traced the symptoms to their cause and removed the source of death. John explains, “He appeared to take away sins” (1 John 3:5). What none on earth could do, Jesus came from heaven to achieve: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 John 2:2). Here, then, is the hope for our world: where Jesus is received in faith, God forgives and receives sinners who were lost. Jesus has reclaimed us for the Father at the price of His own blood
But Jesus did more. As a conquering hero, He identified the tyrant and cast him down. John said, “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:9). Jesus defeated our enemy on the cross, and through His resurrection power He intends for all the devil’s works to be removed from God’s good earth.
This is where the story comes to us. The Bible says that Jesus did not come from heaven to earth only to save us. Instead, by dying for our sins and rising from death in resurrection life, Jesus now sends us with heaven’s power to serve the earth. By sending Jesus from heaven to earth, God gave the gospel and the church for the salvation of the world.
Good News Today
This means that the story of Christmas is still being written through our Christ-empowered work of restoring the earth. This is how Jesus presented the gospel witness of the church in His final words before ascending to heaven. As Luke records the Great Commission, Jesus said, “Thus it is written, that the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance and forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed to all nations” (Luke. 24:46-47). Notice that all three of these are placed on the same level of redemptive significance in God’s plan: Jesus’s atoning death, Jesus’s resurrection, and the gospel witness of the church in this present age of grace. There you and I are, right in the Christmas story! From heaven to earth, God gave Jesus to die, God raised Jesus from the grave, and God now sends us to proclaim His gospel to all the world.
This is why Christians I know have intentionally located in West Philadelphia to take part in the urban renewal there – not just to restore its former Victorian glory but to roll back the reign of Satan and sin through the power of Christ. This is why friends I know are working with Harvest USA to shine the gospel’s light in the homosexual community. They are there to reclaim the lost, restore what is scarred and broken, and redeem what was bound in chains of darkness. This is why Desire Street Ministries has labored to teach God’s love to the lost children of impoverished New Orleans [and other cities across the South], just as Coral Springs Christian Academy – the Christian school of the church where I [was] senior pastor – labors to bring that same love to the lost children of soulless affluent suburbia.
Is there a place for you somewhere in this story? There most certainly is if Jesus has come into your life. God has given neighbors, coworkers, family and friends for you to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins through Jesus Christ. As heaven’s gift, God has placed you on the earth to reclaim and restore in His name. It starts in your own life – your marriage, your relationships, your use of time and money, your breaking of sinful habits, and your membership in Christ’s church. There before you lies a world still covered with the mists of darkness. All around you are broken hearts, broken lives, injustice, and suffering; the environment is abused, the culture is attacked, beauty is defaced, truth is assailed, and bombs are exploded among the innocent.
How great is the reign of sin upon the earth! But hope has come from heaven to earth, empowered by the saving might of Jesus Christ. And when all His work is done, the earth will be fully reclaimed and restored: as Isaiah saw it, “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Isaiah 11:9).
Heaven on Earth
But aren’t Christians to repent of the world? Isn’t our hope in heaven, not on earth? The answer depends on what we mean. If by “the world” we mean, as the Bible sometimes does, the reign of sin in this present evil age, then Christians certainly must renounce this world. This is the sense in which John wrote, “Do not love the world or the things in the world” (1 John 2:15).
The Bible is clear in stating that the sinful world and those who belong to it will not be saved. But Benjamin Warfield warns us not to define the world too narrowly in our view of salvation. He writes: “There is a wider prospect on which we must feast our eyes if we are to view the whole land of salvation. It was because God loved the world, that He sent His only-begotten Son; it was for the sins of the world that Jesus Christ made propitiation; it was the world which He came to save; it is nothing less than the world that shall be saved by Him.”
Another way to say this is to ask, Where will heaven be when all is said and done? The answer is: right here on this earth. Paul said that “the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Rom. 8:21). And when that day comes, the angels will sing of heaven coming again to earth forever: “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever” (Rev. 11:15).
This means that when God’s work of salvation is complete, heaven will be located on the street where I live[d] in South Florida – the street where a teenage son committed suicide, where a house went up for sale because the couple got divorced, where [a] hurricane blew off half the roofs, and where the several Christian families are reaching out to share the gospel and invite their neighbors to church. Heaven will be on the street where we lived in Philadelphia, next to the lesbian couple and the family whose father died painfully of cancer. Heaven will be where your office is, at the playground where your children play, and the store where you buy your groceries. Heaven will be where Washington, D.C. is now, and where Baghdad is, too.
What a special place earth is, and all that is within it! So let’s see the earth through eyes opened wide by God’s Christmas story. If God sent His own Son from heaven to earth, let’s live the life of heaven here and do the work of heaven now. For when the light of resurrection shines, it will be on the earth that our glorious lives begin anew. As Job rejoiced, in the end our Redeemer will stand upon this earth and with our own eyes we will see His saving glory. Oh, may our hearts burn within us!
Richard Phillips is now senior minister at Second Presbyterian Church in Greenville, S.C.