“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
“God with us” is a Christmas message that we will always hold dear to our hearts because it is love in action. Jesus left the splendor of heaven, became flesh, so he can show us the full extent of his love. We do well to dwell on this theme. But today, I wish to take you a little further. Is God still with us? Is he gone for a little while and will return some time later?
The answer is “Yes” to both questions.
Matthew, the disciple, started writing the Good News of the kingdom with what it means to have Jesus. It means God is with us. And he ended the Good News with Jesus saying, “Lo I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20). The Gospel starts with “God with us” at the birth of Jesus, and ends with God with us at the resurrection. Yes, Jesus is still with us. The resurrection of Jesus, with his ascension, does not make us lose Jesus. He is with us to the end of the age.
There is no contradiction in the presence of Christ and the return of Christ. It is only our limitation that prevents us from embracing both his presence and his return. We cannot think of a person who is present having to return. So we choose to focus on one and diminish the other. Today, we explore the true presence of our ascended Lord while we affirm his return.
John, another disciple of Jesus recounts a conversation with Jesus. It was after the last supper Jesus had with his disciples and Jesus was explaining to his flabbergasted disciples about things they had real trouble wrapping their minds around. In human categories, Jesus was about to leave them. So he said, “Do not let your heart be troubled … I go to prepare a place for you. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and receive you to myself” (John 14:1-3).
Jesus affirms he is about to leave his disciples. But he also affirms his presence. “I do not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. After a little while the world will no longer see me, but you will see me; because I live, you will live also” (John 14:18-19). While the world will not see Jesus, Jesus insists that his disciples will see him. Because Jesus lives, his disciples will also live. The disciples will be drawn into a new life in the resurrected Christ. The world will not see Jesus, but the disciples will see Jesus.
Jesus will be truly present with them even with his resurrection. And that applies to all of us who live between the resurrection and the return.
There are several aspects of the true presence of Christ. One important aspect is the presence of Jesus Christ in the person of the Holy Spirit. Jesus said, “I tell you the truth, it is to your advantage that I go away; for if I do not go away, the Helper [i.e. the Holy Spirit] will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7).
God is with us; not God was with us. And he is with us in authority and strength. Jesus made it clear, “All authority has been given to me in heaven and on earth. … and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20).
Let’s take a second look at the Christmas messages. We start with “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace” (Isaiah 9:6, KJV). One of the aspects of the Messiah is that “the government shall be upon his shoulder.” This suggests the rule of Jesus Christ as king in a geographical way.
When Jesus was born, magi from Persia came and presented gifts of homage to Jesus as to a king. Their limited understanding was the Jesus would be “king of the Jews” but they also knew he was more than just a king to the Jews because these Persians “fell to the ground on worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).
King Herod was fearful of this infant king and decided to massacre the boys in the town of Bethlehem to satisfy his insecurity. Jesus as king was central to how the magi and how Herod perceived him.
Mary prophesied in the Manificat, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones, / And has exalted those who were humble” (Luke1:52). This is very similar to the beatitude “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Jesus will depose proud rulers and fill those posts with the humble. That sounds rather geo-political to me.
Zechariah, prophesied, “To grant us that we, being rescued from the hand of our enemies, / Might serve him without fear” (Luke 1:73). Here we see in the Messiah in the role of delivering the Jewish people from Roman control in their worship, and by extension, this is a promise of freedom of worship through Jesus.
In the famous song of the angels, we are told that with the coming of Jesus, there will be “peace on earth” (Luke 2:14). Does this sound geographical to you?
When John the Baptist introduced Jesus, his message was, “Repent for the Kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2). When Jesus began his ministry, “Jesus was going throughout all Galilee … proclaiming the Good News of the kingdom” (Matthew 4:23, NIV).
Throughout the Gospels, Jesus taught the kingdom of God. The message is clear. Jesus the king has come. God’s kingdom has come because God’s king has come. The Jews of Jesus’ day could not accept the Messiah as the suffering servant, and saw him only as the conquering king. These two aspects, both taught in the OT are so diametrically opposed that the decided the prophecy must be about two different people.
Christians today still suffer from this false dichotomy. In our case, we accept the suffering servant but push back the idea that Jesus is a conquering king to the end times. We replace the Good News of the Kingdom of God with the Good News of going to heaven. But the word of God is clear. The triumph of Christ at his resurrection is the true triumph of God in him.
At the resurrection of Jesus, the kingdom of God was not spiritualized. Instead it took another step forward. A kingdom comprises (1) government, (2) people and (3) territory.
When Jesus came, the kingdom was declared. Jesus is the king. The government of this kingdom will be Jesus through this twelve apostles. The territory will include the whole earth and eventually heaven and earth will be one. This will happen at the return of Christ. The first disciples of Christ had a job. They were told they need to fulfill the people aspect of the kingdom. They are to make disciples from all nations.
The kingdom of God will not be accomplished by the sword but by the power of the word of God. The kingdom of God has started and will be completed when Jesus brings it to completion.
The message of the early church was not about “accepting Christ.” It was the Good News of the Kingdom (Matthew 24:14; Acts 8:12; 28:23,31; etc.). When we proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom, we are proclaiming that the king has come! All authority has been given to Jesus, in heaven and on earth at his resurrection. The resurrection is not the point in time when Jesus made his exit from this world. It is the time when he is given authority over it. He is the true king of the earth. And in that authority we are to make disciples of all nations, because Jesus is with us to the end of the age (Matt 28:18-20).
Jesus has started his rule on earth, and will bring it to completion himself. The world cannot see him, because by the measure of the world he is not here. But the disciples of Jesus see him, because he had begun his reign on earth.
Do the subjects of a nation see their head of state every day? Does the fact that we don’t see the Prime Minister or the President mean that he is not in control? If man can rule over man without their actual presence in every instance, how can Christ not rule over this world without his being in our face every day?
For many, Christmas is a respite from the harsh reality of the grabbing and fighting in this world. It is good to have this respite. But our hope that comes at Christmas is even more profound.
The point that Jesus is the real and present ruler with the government upon his shoulder gives us a different perspective to the rulers of this world and our role in government. We become at once more distant and more engaged. We begin to distance ourselves from political issues that do not matter to Jesus, the true king over all the earth. We begin to engage in the things that count. The first and main matter that counts with Jesus is our role to increase the people of the kingdom. Other things matter, but they are secondary.
When we understand that Jesus is the true king of the earth, we are not as upset when our preferred politician did not gain power. Even the rise and fall of nations are only footnotes in the progress of the Kingdom of God. So who becomes the president or the prime minister is of very little consequence to King Jesus.
The presence of Jesus as king helps us face the good and bad of any government with confidence. We do not depend on the government to pass laws against abortion to help pregnant women. We do not wait for the government to help the poor. Kindness, courtesy, gentleness, honesty, integrity. All these wonderful reflections of God’s attributes, and against such there is no law.
Jesus as the true king of the earth empowers us to do good without waiting for the government. Disciples of Jesus have the privilege of taking initiatives without waiting for the government. We are called to lead in doing good, not pan-off that responsibility to a human government, no matter how good that government may be.
We cannot genuinely separate the discussion about government and our personal welfare. Human government will pass laws that favor one group and not another. Sometimes this is done with virtuous intentions and produces good result; sometimes, regardless of intention, these laws and policies hurt us. Our personal sense of well-being is tied to what a human government does.
God with us as the true king transforms our life. When we feel we have become the victim of policies, we do not depend on the good graces of a human government solution which may or may not respond positively to our plight. We turn to Jesus, the true king for deliverance. He may act through human agents or he may deliver us without human agents. But we have confidence that our Lord knows what is right, and what is best, even when things are not right.
Suppose you were abused by a low-level law enforcer but we you are the child of the Chief Prosecutor, would you be fazed? Suppose an unjust law or policy is proposed that will hurt, but you are the child of the Prime Minister or the President, what will you do?
Jesus has “the government upon his shoulder.” Jesus is our “Everlasting Father.” Jesus is the “Prince of Peace.”
Christmas is not the romance that God was with us. It is the Good News that God is with us. God is with us in the power of the Holy Spirit, and in the rule of Jesus Christ as king over his kingdom.
There is a chorus worth committing to memory:
Jesus, name above all names Beautiful Savior, Glorious Lord, Immanuel, God is with us, Blessed Redeemer, Living Word.
*Bible quotes are ordinarily taken from the NASB unless otherwise noted. Unconventional capitalizations in the NASB are usually changed to follow convention.