If you are a genuine believer in Jesus Christ, not simply a religious person who is sympathetic to Christianity, then you live simultaneously in two worlds. You, of course, live in the world you can see and touch, like everyone else. But, unlike unbelievers, you are aware of a world you cannot see, a heavenly reality you know only by faith.
You affirm this, but sometimes it is hard to distinguish what you cannot see from fantasy. This is true especially in hard times, when God seems to be absent and it feels as if this world is all there is.
The Book of Revelation was written to Christians in hard times to reveal what we cannot see: the cosmic battle going on between God and Satan in this world. It portrays what sometimes seems so unlikely to us, that Jesus is Lord of all history, and that he will win in the end. It opens our eyes to the world we cannot see, to give us hope in the suffering of this world.
This dual perspective is nowhere more evident than in the Christmas story. Let us examine that familiar story from these two perspectives. First, we shall consider the world of what Mary and Joseph saw and felt when it seemed that God had abandoned them. Then we shall see how the Bible gives us a glimpse of the heavenly reality and involvement.
Mary got pregnant before her marriage to Joseph. Imagine the awkwardness and humiliation she must have felt. There was no way to convince people that she was innocent. Those must have been very lonely days for her. Joseph seriously considered a private divorce to spare her further shame. Did she think, “Lord, why don’t you vindicate me?”
He did vindicate her, at least to Joseph, but then she heard that the Roman government required them to travel eighty miles to Bethlehem for a census. Did she think, “This does not seem like very good timing, Lord”? Having to walk eighty miles when she was nearly due to deliver her son did not suggest that God was in control, but rather Caesar Augustus. Well, at least she would be spared the shame of family embarrassment at the birth. Small comfort.
So they arrived at Bethlehem. The “inn” that Luke speaks of was a half-open enclosure. It was first come, first served. Were there relatives living there who had heard of Mary’s pregnancy and refused hospitality to such a shameful woman? We are not told. All we know is that no one made room for her when she went into labor. Joseph undoubtedly pleaded her case: “Please, my wife is having a baby!” Response: “Go have it in the barn.” It was probably a cave in the nearby limestone hills where animals were sheltered.
So “she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). She wrapped him; she laid him. She did not receive help from any other woman. All she had was Joseph, and you women can tell us how much help a man is at that point!
Did she wonder, “Where are you, Lord?” Could she comprehend that he was right there—lying in the manger?!
They tried to settle down after the birth. They were dog-tired, and the animals were no help. Suddenly, as they were drifting off to sleep, they heard the rough voices of shepherds outside: “Is there a baby in here?” I can hear Joseph: “You gotta be kidding! Do we have to move?” Remember that Mary and Joseph had not gotten the memo from the angels about shepherds coming to worship.
They decided to stay in Bethlehem and try to make a new life there. It must have been difficult to find a home and start up a carpentry business in a new area. We know at least that before too long they had a house to live in, since Matthew mentions that the magi came to visit them there (Matt. 2:11).
But then Joseph learned that Herod was out to kill his son, so they were uprooted again and took a hasty, long journey as refugees to Egypt. While they were there, they heard that Herod’s soldiers had slaughtered all the baby boys in the environs of Bethlehem two years old and under—probably about twenty infants. That was about the same number of children that were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut, eleven days before Christmas last year. Remember the horror we felt about that child massacre.
Mary and Joseph certainly knew those families. They probably knew some of them well. Jesus may have played with some who were killed because of him. Surely Mary and Joseph felt deep grief and possibly guilt. “God, what are you doing? This world is so full of pain. Where are you?”
Before our hearts are too weighed down, let us look at the same story from the heavenly perspective. God reveals himself again and again—largely through angels, those messengers of heavenly reality.
In Luke 1, we read that Zechariah was an aged priest—ordinary, but faithful. An angel appeared to him to announce that his wife, Elizabeth, would give miraculous birth to a son, John. Then an angel announced the birth of the Messiah to Mary, his mother. So she knew that whatever would happen, God would be with her.
Elizabeth rejoiced when Mary, her relative, came to visit her, because Elizabeth’s baby, John, leapt in her womb at Jesus’ presence.
Mary was given a song, which she sang to Elizabeth. Mary was no doubt smart and spiritual, but what Galilean teenager could have crafted “the Magnificat” extemporaneously? The song must have encouraged Mary as much as it has encouraged countless believers down through the ages.
Then an angel, in a dream, vindicated Mary to Joseph and assured him of her innocence and supernatural pregnancy (Matt. 1:20–25).
An angel announced the birth of the Messiah to some shepherds, and was then joined in a heavenly chorus. (I know the Greek says they “said” [Luke 2:13], but could such a pronouncement have been without melodic crescendo?)
Luke tells us that after the shepherds reported to her what they had seen and heard, “Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart” (Luke 2:19). Surely she was given a glimpse of the Lord who was indeed with her, and she was comforted.
One or two years later, as they began their life in Bethlehem, some strangers in rich garb came to their door from the east and said a light had led them to this house, where the king of the Jews was living. The visitors then presented extravagant gifts. Mary and Joseph did not know that these were God’s provisions for a long trip that they would soon need to make. This was another evidence that he was with them.
Again an angel appeared to Joseph and warned him of Herod’s nefarious plan. God warned, delivered, and protected them. And in another year or so, this dreadful man was dead.
In the coming years, Mary would see her Son be misunderstood, mistreated, and then crucified. She didn’t see that it would be in his moment of deepest agony, at Gethsemane, that God would again reveal the unseen reality with an angel’s comfort (Luke 22:43).
Jesus’ crucifixion crushed all hope for his disciples. God seemed to them to be totally absent. Evil appeared to have won the day, and it was hard to imagine going on. But on the third day, Mary, together with other women, would have the resurrection of Jesus announced to them by angels (Matt. 28:2–7; Mark 16:5–7; Luke 24:4–7; John 20:12–13). Again the unseen inhabitants of our world disclosed the reality we so need to perceive in our darkest hours. They announced the power and presence of God in a way that changed everything, transforming the very world that seeks to erase him from our thoughts. No matter how grim your circumstances, the resurrection of Jesus is your window into that reality and hope.
The risen Christ appeared to many over the next forty days. Then he ascended to heaven, where he is no longer seen. He is now seated at God’s “right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority” (Eph. 1:20–21). And God has even “raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph. 2:6). Our true life is “hidden with Christ in God” (Col. 3:3). You cannot see that any more than you can see the angels, but it is as real as the chair you are sitting in. Ah, but “when Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory” (Col. 3:4). This is that enduring reality of which this world is only shadows.
Yes, we live in a suffering world. When you feel overwhelmed by your trials and wonder where in the world God is, I ask you, as strange as it sounds, to look at the Christmas story. Realize that there is always a dual drama unfolding—one that we can see, and one that we cannot.
When you focus on the manger, do not forget to look at the angels and see heaven breaking through. Then, like Paul, you will not lose heart because you know that “this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison.” We look “not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal” (2 Cor. 4:17–18).
The author is a retired OP minister. He quotes the ESV. New Horizons, December 2013.