The Christmas season is one of those rare times when people in an otherwise secular culture will actually hear theologically rich music. And if they are listening to the words, they will notice that many Christmas songs paint an amazing contrast. It is a contract between two conditions of the Lord Jesus, one of pre-incarnate glory and the other of absolute humility.
He came down to earth from heaven
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall.
Christ, by highest heav’n adored; Christ, the Everlasting Lord!
Late in time behold Him come, Offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’Incarnate Deity,
Pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Thou didst leave Thy throne
And Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home
Was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity.
What Child is this, who, laid to rest,
On Mary’s lap is sleeping?
Why lies He in such mean estate
Where ox and ass are feeding?
Good Christian, fear: for sinners here
The silent Word is pleading.
This, this is Christ the King!
That the holy, transcendent Lord, our very Creator, descended to earth to become one of us is hard enough for us to comprehend. But the fact that he did not arrive in a brilliant, victorious show of divine power, but in lowly, unnoticed, poverty-stricken conditions, so that ultimately he could suffer and die an agonizing death for us—this is truly a stunning mystery.
Paul speaks of this amazing contrast in 2 Corinthians 8:9.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich.
These words appear in the context of a lengthy discourse that Paul is writing to the Corinthians about an offering that he has asked them to collect for the persecuted church in Jerusalem. Paul reasons that they should give to these suffering believers in the same manner that Christ gave. When Jesus Christ gave of himself, he lavished riches upon us by making himself poor. We make the same exchange whenever we give gifts. We impoverish ourselves, however much or however little. Whether we are giving gifts to loved ones at Christmas, giving to our church, or even dropping change into the red kettle outside the grocery store, we move on the financial continuum from riches toward poverty in order to enrich someone else.
But when it comes to the incarnation of Jesus Christ, we cannot even comprehend this exchange, the height of glory from which the Lord descended compared to where he came. In fact, Paul climaxes his entire discourse on giving with a doxological cymbal-crash, exclaiming, “Thanks be to God for his inexpressible gift!” (2 Cor 9:15). It’s the only time this word translated “inexpressible” is used in the NT. It means something that is indescribable, ineffable, unimaginable, something that is beyond our ability to put into words.
It’s an unimaginable exchange. Heaven’s glory for earth’s humility. Cosmic riches for abject poverty. Ruler of all for servant of all.
Paul focuses our attention on at least three remarkable aspects of this unimaginable exchange.
This Exchange was Made by the Lord of Glory
Though he was rich . . . he became poor.
Paul says in Colossians 1:16, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.”
As the God of the universe, all creation bowed before him. He enjoyed the worship of the heavenly beings crying, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory” (Isa 6:3). The phrase, “Lord of hosts” means the Lord who commands the hosts or forces or powers of all of the universe, which he has at his disposal.
The Lord God tells us in Psalm 50:10–12,
. . . Every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills.
I know all the birds of the hills,
and all that moves in the field is mine.
If I were hungry, I would not tell you,
for the world and its fullness are mine.
Yet, consider the coming of Jesus into the world, not to a rich family, but into the family of a poor carpenter, and placed in—of all things—a manger, an animal’s feeding trough.
When Jesus began his ministry after his baptism he lived with next to nothing the entire time. The Holy Spirit inaugurated Jesus’s ministry by leading him into the wilderness where he fasted 40 days.
He told his would-be followers, “The foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head” (Matt 8:20).
He had nothing of his own. In fact, he even said that there was nothing he did on his own—but only what the Father told him to do (John 5:30).
He borrowed or was given everything. And when he laid down his life in death, his executioners stripped him of his garments, and nailed him shamefully to a Roman cross to suffer and die in agony. And even after he died he was placed in a tomb that was borrowed.
Can we even begin to imagine the unreachable height from which Jesus descended to become our Savior? This exchange was made by the Lord of Glory.
But, there is a second remarkable aspect to this unimaginable exchange.
This Exchange was Motivated by the Lord’s Compassion
. . . For your sake . . . he became poor.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son… (John 3:16).
For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die—but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Rom 5:6–8).
In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis remarks,
The Eternal being who knows everything and who created the whole universe, became not only a man, but (before that) a baby, and before that a fetus inside a woman’s body. If you want to get the hang of it, think how you would like to become a slug or a crab.
Crabs don’t bother me, but I think slugs are disgusting. Can you imagine what it would be like if you realized that all of the slugs in the world were going to die if you didn’t rescue them; but in order to rescue the slugs of the world, you had to come down to the ground and become a slug like other slugs? But you loved slugs so much you were willing to suffer the pain and humiliation of becoming a slug to save slugs? That analogy breaks down at several points, not the least of which is that slugs are not created in the image of God. But at the least, perhaps, it helps open our understanding to how much God must have loved us, when he left heaven’s glories and became one of us so that he could die for our sins and rise again.
This unimaginable exchange was made by the Lord of Glory, and it was motivated by the Lord’s compassion. But there is a final remarkable aspect to this exchange.
This Exchange is an extension of the Lord’s Knowable Grace.
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ . . . .
Grace means God’s favor, or his kindness to us, even though we don’t deserve it; in fact, even though we deserve his wrath instead. And whenever the word grace is used in the NT it always refers to or implies some action on God’s part which shows that he is a God of favor and kindness toward us. Here, the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ is shown in the very action of impoverishing himself for our sake.
Furthermore, the Lord’s favor or kindness toward us is knowable.
Paul tells the Corinthians believers, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.” The Corinthian believers knew this grace same way any of us can know it. We know the Lord’s grace by experience when we embrace by faith the gospel of Christ’s death for our sins and his resurrection. We experience enriching grace, grace that raises us up from our hopeless, condemned, poverty-stricken condition as a lost sinner and elevates us to the status of sonship—not merely members of God’s family, but first-born heirs of the riches of the King of Kings.
I trust that this unimaginable exchange has enriched your life, and that you can rejoice this Christmas, in celebration of the Lord’s coming with “joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory” (1 Peter 1:8).