If someone were to pinch me ten years ago and tell me that, by the end of 2019, Kanye West would be producing gospel music, the host of The Apprentice would be president, and Joe Biden would be the most conservative name in the Democratic primary pool, I might have asked said person if whatever they’re smoking is legal in 2019 too.
We live in strange days, but not unpredictably strange days. A wise man once said that while those who don’t learn history are doomed to repeat it, those who do are doomed to watch everyone else repeat it. Yet it doesn’t take an historian to gather that actions have consequences, and cultural actions have cultural consequences. We can only abort so many children, legalize so many fruitless unions, and print so much currency until we find ourselves barren, battered and bankrupt. These days are no qualitatively stranger than those of the Roman Empire’s last gasps—though our bread and circuses come by way of Doordash and Disney.
Societal breakdowns like this always fuel messianic fervor, whether one’s messiah is the Child in Bethlehem, the child on the cover of Time, or any one of the overgrown children who occupy public office. When covenant curses fall, each man cries out to his god (cf. Jonah 1:5). We Christians even have our own odd relief valve for our cultural pessimism: a whole industry of Rapture fiction that rises and falls in inverse proportion to the Dow.
In this respect, perhaps we can now better relate to the first-century Jews living under the Roman boot.
Eschatological Spidey Senses
Around 4 B.C. or so, the Pax Romana was just beginning to show signs of decay. Soon there would be “wars and rumors of wars” (Matthew 24:6). Since the math of Daniel’s seventy weeks prophecy (Daniel 9:24-27) pinned the coming of an anointed one to that generation, claimants to the messianic title came and went (Acts 5:36-37), often leading bloody insurrections along the way. Israel’s ruling class had made themselves little more than vassals of the pagan empire, including the religious elite, who made it their goal to squelch the “Make Palestine Great Again” Zealot party. Predictably, all these goings-on were enough to get everyone’s eschatological Spidey senses tingling, and if Twitter had been a thing in the Ancient Near East it would have been at least as heartburn-inducing as it is today.
The known world was coming unglued, and the eyes of the people were fixed heavenward, squinting to see any sign of their deliverance—or portent of their demise. Isaiah’s plea hung in the air: “Oh that you would rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at your presence—as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil— to make your name known to your adversaries, and that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2).
Placing yourself in this setting perhaps not too remote from our own, you would have expected, as did the Jews, the age to come to come with a convulsive bang all at once. The final judgment, the advent of Messiah, the regathering of the Jewish diaspora, and the establishment of the global rule of Yahweh were all prophetic events expected to march into history like a Roman victory parade. As someone else has put it, the collective sense would have been, “Behold, the kingdom the God cometh like the 82nd Airborne.”
This makes what happened next so subversive.
In the 1960s, Canadian couple Don and Carol Richardson were sent as missionaries to the headhunting, cannibal Sawi tribe of Papua New Guinea. The Richardsons’ eventual claim to fame was their use of the “peace child” metaphor to make sense of the gospel message among the tribesmen. In Sawi culture, if one warring tribe sent a single, helpless child into an enemy settlement, the enemy was required to care for the child and receive him as an envoy of peace—an inviolable token of reconciliation. So Jesus, the missionaries explained, was the ultimate Peace Child sent from heaven. The Sawi understood and believed the message, and the rest is, as they say, history.
This analogy helps us to adjust our own perspective. At a moment in time when God should have come in all-out war against a hostile human race, the Messiah entered the world in stealth—such that he went almost entirely unnoticed. Just as Joshua’s spies infiltrated Jericho first to save unworthy Rahab before bearing the sword of divine judgment against the city, the better Joshua slipped into our realm on a silent night, into the formless void of a virgin’s womb, to accomplish salvation before judgment. “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3:17). The kingdom came more like a Navy SEAL on a rescue mission than a heavy-duty bomber carrying a full payload.
That no one expected the two-stage coming of Christ and his kingdom is evident from the Jews’ reactions to his messianic claims and the content of his teaching in response. This is the timbre of all the parables: “The kingdom of heaven is like a grain of mustard seed that a man took and sowed in his field… The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened” (Matthew 13:31, 33). The kingdom was coming, but not in the way anticipated. This barren world was to first become pregnant with the new creation before the rule of God would be fully consummated in history.
The Real Apocalypse
When the world teeters on its foundations, as it seems to be at the moment, we would do well to realize that Christmas is truly in this sense apocalyptic.
The book of Revelation is named such because it is introduced as the “revelation (apokalupsis) of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show to his servants the things that must soon take place” (1:1). G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy, “And though St. John saw many strange monsters in his vision, he saw no creature so wild as one of his own commentators.” But Jesus’ apocalypse is meant not as the sort of apocalypse that spins off literature of the “Late, Great” sort. An apocalypse, or revelation, is an unveiling—a pulling back of the curtain. A revealing. Revelation is not meant to obfuscate but to clarify, despite our abuse of its prophetic imagery. And this revealing is not only what happens at the end of days, but what did happen in the advent of the Son.
There are an odd handful of places in Scripture when the visible world peels back and reveals the real nature of things underneath. In one crucial moment of impending doom at the hands of the Syrians, God opened the eyes of the prophet Elisha’s servant to see that “those who are with us are more than those who are with them” (2 Kings 6:16). “When the servant of the man of God rose early in the morning and went out, behold, an army with horses and chariots was all around the city.… Then Elisha prayed and said, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” So the Lord opened the eyes of the young man, and he saw, and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha” (vv. 15, 17).
Christmas night is one such night, complete with the angelic announcements befitting such a cosmic event. Imagine expecting the upheaval of the world and the coming of Christ in your own generation (as many evangelicals do). Now, imagine being told that Christ had already come—but half a world away in a stable, and no one’s eyeballs had melted in their sockets when they beheld him. If we can put ourselves in this situation, we are close to hearing the gospel story the way the first-century audience did.
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
As I finish penning this short post—well, tapping it onto a screen—it’s Christmas Eve, my children are in bed, and expectation fills the air along with the white noise from our daughter’s sound machine, safe from the more sinister clamoring of a hostile world outside our window.
But Christmas marks the beginning of the end of the world, at least as we know it. The kingdom of God is not yet fully here, yet it is already here—and growing. Rather than smite us rebel earthlings, our God Yahweh donned flesh and bone to bear our curse and reconcile us to live under his righteous reign. An “apocalypse” is simply a revealing, an unveiling—and that is exactly what took place 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem against the backdrop of a world in cultural and political upheaval. The curtains have already been rolled back on the final judgment of God—yet it was a judgment who fell on heaven’s Spy on his redemptive recon mission.
This is a weighty glory.
So have yourself a merry, little, apocalyptic Christmas.