And the angel said unto her, Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David: And he shall reign over the house of Jacob forever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end.
– Luke 1:30-33
A conflict of gospels
The world into which Jesus Christ was born, Palestine under the authority of the Roman Empire, was already engulfed in the gospel of the kingdom. The problem is that this gospel was a false gospel, and its kingdom was a false kingdom. The evangel, or gospel, denoted joyous messages of the pagan Roman emperor, his birthday, the day on which he came to power, special days in the Empire, and so on. It was a kingly gospel to which all Roman citizens were forced to submit. Rome championed the union of religion and state, and the state religion was emperor-worship.
This explains the Roman King Herod's frenzy to locate the babe Jesus when he heard the news of our Lord's birth from the Wise Men (Matthew 2). Ironically, though his intent was murderous, Herod understood the significance of Christ's birth much better than many of Jesus' own followers seem to understand it today. He correctly perceived that a rival King was born, potentially introducing a rival kingdom. For Herod, the issue was not so much about "religion" as it was about authority. The birth of Jesus Christ heralded a new King, a new kingdom, a new authority – all rivals to a pagan Roman kingdom that refused to admit rivals.
It is crucial to understand that the early Christians were not persecuted for following Jesus Christ. The Roman Empire of the time was intently polytheistic, with a plethora of religions. The Roman authorities did not mind what religion you practiced just as long as you swore ultimate allegiance to Caesar. The great clash was over ultimate loyalty, not over private religion. A privatized religion would never have been a threat to the Roman Empire. Early Christianity, however, just because it demanded of its adherents exclusive allegiance to Jesus Christ as King of kings and Lord of lords (Revelation 19:16), was a threat to the Roman Empire. Therefore, Rome believed that it had to be eradicated. Rome could permit religions, just not rivals.
Messiah of the gentiles
The overarching message of the New Testament is how the Jehovah God of Old Testament Israel has now amplified His redemptive purposes to include all believing Gentiles. Simply put, it is the message that Israel's Messiah would be the Messiah of believing Gentiles, too. The issue is not so much personal salvation (though it certainly includes this) as it is the dramatic expansion of God's redemptive purposes. The Old Testament had predicted that Messiah would come and "rise to reign over the Gentiles; [and] in him shall the Gentiles trust" (Romans 15:12). St. Paul declares that this is explicitly what was happening in the New Testament era. Our Lord was given the earthly name "Jesus" because He came to save His people from their sins (Matthew 1:21). But He could be Savior precisely because He was, in fact, a King. This is why our Lord's work on the earth is termed a kingdom in the first place (Colossians 1:13). His is not a piecemeal salvage operation. It is a comprehensive redemption operation. It is an operation to redeem a world that has gone seriously awry in sin. What the first Adam did in his sin, the Second Adam came to undo in His righteousness (Romans 5:12-21).
If at Christmas season we see only a Christ who came to save a few souls from sin, we may mistakenly interpret the Incarnation as essentially a salvage operation. But it is not. It is a radical restructuring of the world's sinful order, the subordination of all of the evil principalities and powers to Jesus Christ (Colossians 2:12-15). In His atoning death and, in particular, His victorious resurrection, He vanquished Satan's evil forces that have been holding man in captivity. The Incarnation is all about salvation, indeed, but it is a salvation that is about the liberation of the world.
While our Lord's kingly rule is not formally inaugurated until the ascension to the Father (Daniel 7:13-14; Acts 2:22-26), His earthly ministry was a kingly ministry. He came announcing the advent of the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43). When this fact bores itself indelibly into our minds, we will never presume that there are any areas exempt from the exercise of His authority. One reason that the Church today is so anemic and effete is that it too often does not acknowledge the Kingship of Christ, either in its theology or its practice (and the two are ultimately interchangeable). So, the Church too often refuses to speak out against the holocaust of abortion, the blight of materialism, the violence of Islam, the tyranny of statism, the heresy of Enlightenment, the relativism of postmodernism, the lasciviousness of Hollywood, the emasculation of feminism, the secularism of government education, and scores of other social evils.
Jesus Christ is King, and we are His ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:19-20). We are called to be Christians in all that we do.
The gospel of the Roman Empire was a gospel of coercive statism (for the very nature of the state is to coerce). The gospel of Jesus Christ is a gospel of the Church – the good news of peace and righteousness and tenderness and hope amid a sinful world. The gospel of Christ can afford not to be coercive because it is backed up by the power of the Holy Spirit. But statist gospels, abandoning the power of God, must resort to the power of man – we call this tyranny. Christ's gospel is an alternative and rebuke to all statist tyranny.
This Christmas, and every Christmas, we celebrate the 2000-year-old arrival of the only permanent King of the Earth (Daniel 2:44). We celebrate the fact that, with the coming of this King, Satan and sin will not get the last laugh. We celebrate the incremental overturning of Satan's kingdom. We celebrate the coup de grace to the outworking of the catastrophe of Genesis 3, man's Fall. We celebrate the head-crushing victory of the woman's Seed, Jesus Christ.
This is the central meaning of Christmas.