- As so often in the Bible, it is said here that the Lord came into the world with a very specific purpose. He came to die for the salvation of his people, or, as we will read in v. 17, he came to make atonement for the sins of his people. The incarnation was not itself the salvation of the world, but it made possible the atoning death of the Son of God that itself was the salvation of the world.
- The verb used here and translated by the NIV as “helps” literally means, “take hold” and for more than a thousand years this statement was taken to mean that the Son of God “took hold of the seed of Abraham” in the sense that he assumed the nature of the seed of Abraham. The verse was read so that “he took hold of the seed of Abraham” was understood as a description of the incarnation, God assuming human nature. The early fathers, the medieval commentators, and the 16th century Reformers took the verse that way. Some modern commentators continue to support that interpretation (e.g. Hughes, 115-118). Modern exegesis has generally abandoned that interpretation for several reasons. “Taking hold of the seed of Abraham” is not an obvious way of saying that he “took the nature” of the seed of Abraham. There is nothing like a word for “nature” in the sentence. He took hold of us, not our nature. The same word is used again in Hebrews 8:9 and there it has a similar sense: “to take,” that is, “to take by the hand to help” and, even here, in this context, we read again of the Lord’s helping man in v. 18, this time with a different word that unmistakably means “to help.” Taking the phrase that way, “For surely it is not the angels he helps, but Abraham’s descendants,” it is an arresting and powerful way to express the thought. The incarnation is in any case already present in v. 14. Now we get the purpose for it, that the Lord might help us in our need. The Lord Jesus, in order to meet our terrible need, took hold of us and of our trouble by becoming one of us so that he could live for us and die for us.
I hadn’t thought of devoting my Christmas Sunday sermon to this theme until very recently. But I have been reminded a number of times of late how paltry, how low, and how unworthy a view of man, of human beings many, if not most, people have come to have in our day. It is no doubt an unwitting change in most cases, the result of incessant propaganda that, for whatever reasons, presents man as little more than a welter of sensual desires, a slave to forces beyond his control, whose existence is unrelated to anything eternal or transcendent. We live in an entertainment culture that panders to the less noble aspects of human life and in a porn culture that panders to the lowest interests of his mind and heart. Man is, in this view, merely another animal, however more intelligent, however more remarkable his powers. The theory of evolution, the practice of abortion, even of cremation; sexual promiscuity, the breakdown of family and of healthy relationships generally, the tendency to compare man to machines in our technological society, the power that now exists to manipulate his life, even the origin of his life – in vitro fertilization, the prospect of cloning, and all the rest – the estimation of man as a unit of consumption in the ubiquitous advertising of the consumer culture, all of this and more has reduced man to something small. I’m sure most people are largely unaware of this. They have little or nothing to compare it to. But it does not take much observation to see how denatured human beings have become in modern life.
And when in the media, in the television that modern man watches for hours a day, when in public life all mention of eternity, of the next world, of the prospect of divine judgment is systematically removed, and when these transcendent perspectives on human life are increasingly absent even from the preaching of the Christian church, no wonder that human beings struggle to know what their lives mean or whether they mean anything at all. Secularism – which is the worldview of not only explicitly unbelieving people but practically the worldview of many who call themselves Christians – has no eschatology. It does not draw man toward a future consummation. It has nothing lasting, nothing transcendent to offer human beings. The meaning of their life must be found here, in this brief life and in the existence of this world. And for that reason secularism has no convincing way of persuading human beings that their lives have transcendent meaning and eternal importance. They are an evanescent wisp, here today and gone tomorrow. In that they are just another animal, seeking food and sex and warmth and other basic pleasures until their existence is extinguished and they are forgotten. Do you realize how few human beings there are in this world, who will be remembered by more than a very few people for more than very few years. Almost every one of us human beings will be completely forgotten, as if we had never lived, a few years after we have died. And this is true no matter how we lived, wisely or foolishly, lovingly or selfishly. Secularism cannot surmount that simple fact. We don’t really matter if this life is the measure. Secularist thinkers will, of course, say that they can provide a moral foundation for human life and for human meaning. They will argue that you don’t need God and you don’t need a future life to justify a good life in this world. But the fact is, that is all most of them ever do. They say they can do it; they don’t actually provide such a foundation. And when they try to, when it is demanded from them, their efforts are pathetic. They end up saying what Albert Einstein said: there isn’t any meaning but you have to act as if there were. Good luck trying to convince human beings – whose whole nature cries out that man is important, meaningful, that his life has true dignity and importance, that it matters how he lives – I say, try to satisfy the world with that! You don’t have meaning, your life is nothing but atoms and cells and biological processes and soon will be snuffed out: but you should live as if it were much more than that. Live a lie in other words!
Environmentalism, the emotional investment of many in the apocalyptic warnings about climate change or the prospect of other environmental catastrophes, are perhaps primarily ways to restore some higher, some lasting purpose and meaning to an all too brief and otherwise meaningless human life – it is a way to restore a future to our temporary individual human existence – but such purposes amount to far too little, far too late to repair the damage that a century of secularism has done to our view of what it means to be a human being and the importance and sanctity of human life.
And it was while thinking about this most important and baleful development in modern life and worrying about its implications for the future of our society and culture and for the future of the church in this society, that into my hands fell a volume of Sermons on the Nativity preached by Lancelot Andrewes. It was a late 19th century edition elder Hannula had purchased in London in 1998 and given me as a gift. Lancelot Andrewes, if you remember, was one of the translators of the King James Bible. He was born of a seafaring father in 1555 and died the Bishop of Winchester in 1626. Andrewes was a godly man, the author of the immortal Private Devotions, from which prayers I have read to you more than once and at least one of which prayers we use regularly in our worship. He was an Anglican, a decided Protestant, but definitely not a Puritan; but he was recognized on all sides as a man of God. He was one of the most learned men of his day. He was also regarded as one of the greatest preachers in a day of great preaching.
The volume contains seventeen sermons, all preached on Christmas Day, all in the presence of King James I of England, from the year 1605 to 1624. In those 20 years, Andrewes was not the court preacher on Christmas day only three times. What caught my eye as I opened the volume this year to read a Christmas sermon was the text and subject of the very first of the seventeen sermons, the one preached in 1605. The text was Hebrews 2:16 and the theme, identified in the first paragraph, was that, by the incarnation, God “bestowed upon us a dignity which upon the Angels He bestowed not.” The Lord Jesus became a man, not an angel, and in so doing, he did far more for mankind than he ever did for the angels of heaven. Andrewes took the statement in 2:16 as a reference to the incarnation, as most interpreters did in his day; he took the verb to mean that the Lord took the nature of man not the nature of angels. But the point is unchanged if we read it in the more likely way the NIV does and most modern Bible translations do (including the ESV). The Lord helps man in this mighty way, he never helped the angels in such a way. We tend to think of the angels as being above us, as greater than human beings. And, no doubt, in some ways they are. They have powers that we do not have.
But in dignity and in honor they fall below human beings. This was Lancelot Andrewes point in the sermon he preached to King James and his court on Christmas Day, 1605: the incarnation is the greatest conceivable proof of the dignity and honor of mankind and of the limitless importance of human life. The greatest thing that ever happened in heaven or on earth happened not for angels but for men; not to help angels but to help human beings; not to save angels but to save the seed of Abraham. No fallen angel has ever been or ever shall be saved by the humiliation of the Son of God, by his taking upon himself a human nature, and by his death on the cross. All of this was done for men and women, for boys and girls, not for angels. God made the greatest conceivable sacrifice not to save angels, but to save men. The greatest miracle that ever occurred was performed not for the sake of angels but for the sake of human beings.
This is the thought of Charles Wesley’s beautiful and suggestive verse:
Angels in fix’d amazement
Around our altars hover,
With eager gaze
Adore the grace
Of our Eternal Lover.
It is the proof of their righteousness that the angels are not jealous of the great gift that God has given to men and not to them, but stand ready to serve in various ways as that gift is prepared and given. Already in Hebrews, at the end of chapter one, we have read that angels, far from being the objects of God’s saving love, are his ministers sent to serve those who will inherit salvation.
We see this, of course, beautifully illustrated in the Christmas narrative itself in Matthew and Luke. Angels populate that history in a remarkable way. It is the appearance of an angel to Zechariah that opens the first act in the drama of the world’s redemption. Then an angel appears to Mary, then to Joseph, then to the shepherds accompanied by other angels. Then an angel appears to Joseph to warn him to flee with his infant son to Egypt. Our Christmas hymns are full of angels. Christian art is full of them, the angel of the annunciation, the angels appearing to the shepherds. Angels everywhere, but always as the servants of man’s salvation, not as those who were saved themselves. There is no incarnation for the angels, no saving love, no atonement. Those angels who fell, and the Devil at their head, are lost forever. God has made no effort to save them. Those who remained righteous at the time of the fall of the angels do not need atonement. No, it is for the salvation of human beings that the history of the world takes the form that it does. No greater honor could be paid to the human race, no greater demonstration of the transcendent value of a human life, no more unyielding argument for the immortality of human beings can be imagined than this: that God the Son, the creator of heaven and earth, took upon himself a human nature, lived an ignominious life as one of his own creatures, and died the cruelest imaginable death to secure their forgiveness and so their fellowship with him in heaven forever.
I have recently been reading a fascinating book. It is a biography of one of the 20th century’s greatest mathematicians, the Hungarian Paul Erdős (“Air-dish”). The life of this man is fascinating on a number of levels. I am always fascinated by the remarkable powers of the human mind and Erdős’s mind was extraordinarily powerful. The author of the book regales his readers with one story after another of Erdős’s prodigious mathematical genius. He was a world traveler, but everywhere he went his mind was absorbed with mathematical problems and proofs. He published in a host of journals and in many different languages, hence the limerick composed by one of his colleagues:
A conjecture both deep and profound
Is whether the circle is round.
In a paper of Erdős
Written in Kurdish
A counterexample is found.
When Erdős heard the limerick he tried to publish a math paper in Kurdish but couldn’t find a Kurdish math journal. [Paul Hoffman, The Man Who Loved Only Numbers, 6-7]
So influential was Paul Erdős in the world of 20th century mathematicians that there is such a thing – recognized by all practicing mathematicians – as an “Erdős number.” If you were one of the 485 who were privileged to have co-authored a math paper with Erdős – he was very generous with his talents and often let much less talented men take joint credit for his discoveries and his proofs – you have an Erdős number of 1. A supreme honor among mathematicians. If you have an Erdős number of 2, that means you have published a math paper with someone who published with Erdős. If your Erdős number is 3, you have published with someone who has published with someone who has published with Erdős. The highest known Erdős number of a working mathematician is 7.
Geniuses also fascinate because they tend to be unusually eccentric and Erdős was no exception. He was always at work on math problems, usually in collaboration with other mathematicians around the world. Every day he would call one or another of them, no matter how far away. He knew every mathematician’s phone number but none of their first names. One says that he doubts Erdős would know his first name even though they worked together for more than twenty years. The only person he called by his first name was Tom Trotter, whom he called Bill.  As a seventeen year-old math prodigy – when he was three years of age he could already multiply three digit numbers in his head – Erdős was hired by the Budapest shop-keeping father of a bright fourteen year old, Andrew Vázonyi, to provide intellectual companionship for his son. Sixty-seven years later his first encounter with Erdős was still fresh in the man’s mind. He came at the appointed hour to the store and knocked on the front door, no more the custom in Hungary then than it is to knock on the front door of a store in America today. Such detachment from the ordinary world would be a characteristic of the man’s life until his death in 1996. After being taken to the boy in the back office of the store Erdős’s first words were, “Give me a four-digit number.” “2,532,” came the reply. “The square of it is 6,411,024,” Erdős said. “Sorry, I am getting old and cannot tell you the cube.” “How many proofs of the Pythagorean Theorem do you know?” Erdős asked. “One,” Vázonyi replied. “I know thirty-seven. Did you know that the points of a line do not form a denumerable set?” He showed the boy a proof and then announced he had to run. Strangely, even after that first encounter, the two boys became friends but Vázonyi was always ambivalent about being with Erdős because he was so strange that he drove the girls away.
Erdős never married, he lived out of a battered suitcase, his friendships, such as they were – he took little interest in anything but math – were with people who stood agape at both his mental prowess and his personal weirdness.
Now I give you all of that to set the context for this. Erdős was an atheist. He said he wasn’t sure, but he didn’t really believe and all his life spoke and acted as if he did not really believe in the infinite/personal God. He spoke of God a lot, as Einstein did, but did not mean by the word anything in particular and he didn’t believe in life after death. The only thing infinite that Erdős believed in was numbers, mathematics. And, in his view, man had taken only baby steps toward the understanding of reality embedded in mathematics. “It will be millions of years,” he once said, “before we’ll have any understanding, and even then it won’t be a complete understanding, because we’re up against the infinite.” A colleague expressed his viewpoint this way:
“Our brains have evolved to get us out of the rain, find where the berries are, and keep us from getting killed. Our brains did not evolve to help us grasp really large numbers or to look at things in a hundred thousand dimensions.”
In Erdős’ view, his many proofs, elegant and remarkable as they are, are just a small step toward real knowledge of reality. And that leads me to this question: How can a man so smart be so stupid? Quite apart from the fact numbers are hardly the most important part of reality: a thousand years from now man will know no more about morality than he knows now.
Here is a man who takes for granted the remarkable powers that God has given him and only an infinite-personal God could give him. He takes for granted his own remarkable self-consciousness, the utterly breathtaking ability to see what most of us cannot see even when it is explained to us. The notion that such powers, such elegant and unnecessary mental prowess, such longings to know the deep secret of life and reality should have resulted from a mindless process, from the accumulation of random biological mutations, is an example of an almost inconceivable credulity. This man who demanded proof all his life embraced on a whim utter nonsense about himself and about the origin of his personality and his mental powers. This man was able to conceive the most difficult problems in mathematics and see the solution to them in his head. He everywhere saw the beauty and symmetry of mathematical reality but could not see what that beauty or his own ability to appreciate it said about creation and the Creator. He could think of immense numbers and imagine ones still far larger, but could not imagine the God who alone could create both numbers and mathematicians to appreciate them. He thought that numbers were the infinite reality and never stopped to realize that his fascination with the infinite was itself a mark that the infinite God had left upon his mind. And though he had these remarkable powers, these longings for eternity, for understanding, for the realization of the truth, he imagined that when he died that would be it. He was simply an animal, an organism, which happened to be preoccupied with proving theorems. All his fascination with mathematics, all of his pondering the deep secrets of reality were little different than a cow chewing his cud or a hen pecking at her seeds.
When man loses sight of God, he himself begins to shrink and the longer he thinks about himself without reference to the infinite-personal God the smaller he becomes; the less meaning he attaches to his life; the less he is able to appreciate the significance of his own utterly remarkable nature. In the final analysis this astonishing man, in his own view and in the view of many of his colleagues, will have amused and fascinated a few generations of scholars; that is all. Nothing more. A tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. How unspeakably foolish and how unspeakably sad.
Christmas is certainly a demonstration of many things about God: his goodness, his saving love, and his power. The incarnation of God the Son is fabulously important in its own right and for a hundred different reasons. But one thing Christmas and the incarnation demonstrate is that human life is of infinite worth, that human beings have far greater significance than their short sojourn in this world by itself could ever give them.
The very nature of man demonstrates this, of course. Men and women have been made in the image of God himself, in the likeness of God, for fellowship with God himself; they have been given powers that are like God’s own, however smaller in scale, precisely so that they might have some grasp of God and his glory and appreciate the privilege of true communion with him. They have been given the ability to peer into nature and see God’s genius on display. They think thoughts of almost impossible complexity and artistry precisely because they carry within themselves God’s own nature. It is an act of pure rebellion when they see that infinite genius on display and refuse to acknowledge its origin.
But compared to the demonstrations of nature, the incarnation is a still far greater demonstration of man’s significance and transcendent and eternal worth. God the Son became a man to save man from his sin so that he might live forever. The greatest gift ever given, the greatest suffering ever endured, the greatest sacrifice ever made, the greatest miracle ever performed was all done for human beings. Not for angels, but for human beings. For you and me.
My daughter and son-in-law have just returned from several years of living in St. Andrews, Scotland. A number of you, I know, have visited St. Andrews and have visited the old cathedral overlooking the sea. It is a precious spot for Christian believers because in the cemetery several illustrious Christians are buried, including Samuel Rutherford. But the cathedral is nowadays a ruin. Some of the walls are still standing and it is not hard to visualize what it once was: the great church that once stood there, the high nave, the stained glass windows, the transept, and all the rest. But now it is a ruin. Grass grows where there was once a floor; the remnants of the structure are now all open to the elements.
Well man is like that. His nature and powers bear witness to what he once was and was created to be, but he is now a shell of his former self. He was made for God and for the knowledge of the great and high God. He pursues knowledge, he can’t help himself, but he has lost the meaning, the purpose of the pursuit. His remarkable nature now exists without point. He lives for himself because he is unwilling to live for God who made him and made him for himself. And living for himself, living for man, he shrinks. He was made to flourish living for God but he is living only for himself. He becomes more like the animals that way and less like God.
He knows this down deep. Something in the center of man screams when he is told that he is only a higher animal. Every instinct of his life cries out that he is made for nobler things and made to live forever. But in bondage as he is to his rebellion against God, he has no choice but to forsake all that makes his life so wonderfully important and significant, for all of that is found in God and in his eternal purposes for man.
Christmas is the grandest conceivable demonstration that all of those human instincts are absolutely true and real. Man was made for higher things. His life does go on past death. Human beings are of transcendent worth. Christ’s coming into the world is the unassailable proof of that. It wasn’t angels for whom he came, but to help human beings. To atone for their sins and grant them peace with God. We will never understand the world or our own lives nor will we make of them what we should unless we remember the importance God places upon the lives of human beings and the great thing he did to save them and restore them to their true glory as those made to know Him.