Gen Z needs a bigger Christmas story.
The majority of culture has a very small, me-centered view of Christmas. It’s all about wish lists and gifts, Santa and shopping. Some connect Christmas to the baby in the manger, envisioning a surprisingly clean stable and a newborn who never cried. Some might go further and connect that baby to a man who died around 33 years later on a blood-stained cross. But the true Christmas story, in all its grandeur, is bigger than even that.
Why was that baby born? When we sing O Come, O Come Immanuel,1 why are we asking Immanuel to come? What does Immanuel even mean? God with us? When? How? Where? Why?
In truth, the Christmas story is huge. There’s no way to show its fullness in one article, but let’s try to tackle at least a few questions. To do so, we’re going to take a tour through several key passages in the Bible.
With Us, God
The key that unlocks the Christmas story is the idea of God dwelling with his people—in short, Immanuel. The Bible begins with the reality of Immanuel—God with us—or more woodenly translated with us, God. At the very beginning, God walked with man on earth. Adam and Eve, the first humans, knew God face-to-face until they were banished from his presence.
One reach, one bite, one rebellion that has echoed through the ages, and God’s question: “What is this you have done?” (see Genesis 3:132). The day Adam fell was the day humanity declared independence from their Creator. Their rebellion splintered humanity’s fellowship with God. God no longer walked with man on earth.
Before they were thrust from the garden, a promise was given. The serpent had succeeded in his plot to deceive Eve, leading to their downfall into sin. God had given Adam the task to cultivate and protect the garden (Genesis 2:15), and Adam’s first move should have been to immediately crush the head of the snake. But Adam failed miserably and the consequences of his failure were far-reaching. Yet God promised that one day, another man like Adam would come. He would succeed where Adam failed—he would crush the serpent’s head. Listen to these words: “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her Seed; He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Genesis 3:15).
Yet God promised that one day, another man like Adam would come. He would succeed where Adam failed—he would crush the serpent’s head
This is the first explicit reference in the Bible to the one we commonly refer to as the baby in the manger—Jesus Christ. That baby was and is the promised serpent-crusher.
Years passed and the people of God waited for the One who would deliver them. Have you ever wondered the point of all those seemingly random genealogies in the Old Testament? Or even if they have a point? Well, the truth is, they do. They’re a record, over and over again, that countless men had come and lived and died, but no one had yet come who was the One.
More promises were given, however. As generations went by, God chose a nation to be his holy people—the nation of Israel. He continued reminding them of his promise: “I will make My dwelling among you,” he said, “and My soul will not reject you. I will also walk among you and be your God, and you shall be My people” (Leviticus 26:11-12, NASB).
This promise pulls us back to Eden when God walked among men and assures us that our relationship with him will one day be restored. At this time, he led the people of Israel by a pillar of cloud and a pillar of fire (Exodus 13:21). He spoke with them from the top of a mountain (Exodus 19-20). His glory even filled the tabernacle they built for him (Exodus 40:34). But there was still a distinct separation. A thick curtain kept the Israelites from the presence of God because exposure to his undiluted holiness would result in immediate death.
Even amid Israel’s deepest rebellion, when they were driven out of their land and exiled to pagan nations, God never retracted his promise. Instead, he sent prophets who urged them to repent and reminded them of what God had said: “I will make a covenant of peace with them; it will be an everlasting covenant with them. And I will place them and multiply them, and set My sanctuary in their midst forever. My dwelling place also will be with them; and I will be their God, and they will be My people” (Ezekiel 37:26-27, NASB).
Over and over again we see the promise of God dwelling among his people. It’s a beautiful promise, but there’s a problem—how? How could a holy God dwell with unholy people? What would change? That’s where the Christmas story comes in. Only the promised Messiah could bridge the gap between sinful man and righteous God.
The Coming Child
Who was this Messiah? How would he come and who would he be? He would be a Child—yet he would be a King (Isaiah 9:6-7; Psalm 24:7-10). He would come from the house of David—yet he would be a better king than David ever was (2 Samuel 7). All authority and dominion would be given to him (Psalm 72). As the prophet Isaiah said:
“For unto us a Child is born,
Unto us a Son is given;
And the government will be upon His shoulder.
And His name will be called
Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of His government and peace
There will be no end,
Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom,
To order it and establish it with judgment and justice
From that time forward, even forever.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.”
He would come in the most unfathomable, miraculous way—as a baby, born of a virgin. By this, everyone would know that he was the One. Isaiah said, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).
There it is—Immanuel. With us, God. This Child…this King…this promised One…would be God.
Do you remember the genealogies? Matthew 1 begins with another genealogy, but this one has a different ending. An ending so poignant, so mind-blowing, and so amazing it should cause our breath to catch. This genealogy includes the King. “And Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus who is called Christ” (Matthew 1:16).
Christ (Christos) means Anointed One or Messiah. So this could read, “Jesus who is called Messiah.” The promised One had finally come. As John recounted, “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).
This is the Christmas story we know—Jesus coming to earth in the form of a baby. He came and was born just as it was foretold. Stars heralded his arrival, shepherds testified of him, wise men worshiped him, and rulers raged against him (see Matthew 2; Luke 2). Jesus grew up and lived among the people of Israel, teaching and showing them that he was indeed their King, their Messiah. God once again walked with man on earth—until men killed him.
Jesus grew up and lived among the people of Israel, teaching and showing them that he was indeed their King, their Messiah
With shouts of “Crucify Him!” the people rose up and violently slaughtered the One they’d been waiting for (Luke 23:21-49). On a criminal’s cross between two thieves, the King of the Jews—and indeed, of the world—hung and bled and died (Luke 23:38-46). He had accomplished what he had come to do and so he cried out, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). The debt of sinners paid, the price of redemption covered, our eternal salvation ensured. Three days later, he arose from Joseph’s tomb, fully alive, a conqueror over sin, Satan, and death (Hebrews 2:14-16; Romans 8:2). He ascended back to his Father, leaving his church a commission and a promise that one day, he’d be back.
This is often where we leave the story, but there’s still much that’s incomplete. What about all those promises of God dwelling with man? Has the gap been fully bridged? Was the promise of Immanuel—God with us—only real for the few years of Christ’s life on earth? Or is there a very real sense that when we sing O Come, O Come Immanuel, we’re still crying out for Immanuel to come? That we’re not actually looking behind us, but looking ahead?
The Return of the King
“Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God” (Revelation 19:11-13).
These thundering verses describe the second advent of Christ. His first advent was quiet and unassuming, hidden in a stable and revealed to only a few. But his second will be the complete opposite. “Every eye will see Him, even they who pierced Him” (Revelation 1:7). This time he comes not as a baby, but as a conquering king to judge and rule the world. Following this return, God’s people are said to have “lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years,” after which Jesus will establish his eternal Kingdom in the new heaven and new earth (see Revelation 20:4-6; Revelation 21).
This time he comes not as a baby, but as a conquering king to judge and rule the world
We’ve been following the verses that talk about God dwelling with man, but there’s a final one that depicts the actualization of that glorious future: “And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, ‘Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them” (Revelation 21:3, LSB).
God himself will be among them—Immanuel. God will walk with man on a new earth—a new Eden—forever.
Immanuel—with us, God. With us in the beginning, with us at the end, with us for all of eternity. The Christmas story, the story of Immanuel, is far-reaching and widespread. When we consider the baby, we must also remember the separation that required him to come and the years of waiting for the promised Messiah. We must remember how he lived, how he died, and how he rose again. And we must also remember that the story isn’t over yet. We can’t forget the coming King. The profundity of the Child who came is only captured when we keep the full story in view.
He came for the forgiveness of sins and the restoration of the world. He came so the perfection of Eden could be restored and so we can one day dwell with him forever. As we celebrate Christmas, these are the truths that must ring the loudest in our hearts—not only during Christmas, but all throughout the year. Because this story not only changes how we view Christmas, but our entire lives. This is the bigger Christmas story we need.
Sara (Barratt) Starkey is the Editor-in-Chief of theRebelution.com and the author of Stand Up, Stand Strong: A Call to Bold Faith in a Confused Culture. She recently got married to her husband, Matthew, and together they make their home in Michigan. Connect with her on her website: SaraBarratt.com.