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The Difference Christmas Past Makes Now

“I saw the Holy City, the New Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.”

Revelation 21:2

Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Lutheran theologian who was imprisoned and killed by the Nazis for his participation in a plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler during World War 2. From Tegel Prison in Germany, he wrote to his fiancée, Maria von Wedemeyer, about a spiritual lesson he had learned from prison life: “A prison cell, in which one waits, hopes, does various unessential things, and is completely dependent on the fact that the door of freedom has to be opened from the outside is not a bad picture of Advent.”[1]

John, the author of Revelation, envisions God’s righteousness through Jesus Christ coming down from heaven to earth. At Christmas we celebrate this glorious truth that Christ has opened the door of our prison to sin from the outside. He has done so specifically by bringing to us the righteousness of God and thus supplying everything we need for eternal life with him.

This is true righteousness. It is righteousness we have never had before. Righteousness simply describes perfect conformity to the will of God and the Bible teaches that no one will be admitted to heaven unless he is perfectly conformed in thought, word and deed to God’s rules. However, the Bible also insists that there is no ordinary human being who is morally perfect or righteous (Ro. 3:10,23). Christ has to create a new humanity.

In John’s vision, he sees the new Jerusalem coming down out of heaven. Jerusalem is used two ways in the Bible. For one, it is used to describe the literal geographical city of Jerusalem. That obviously is not the reference here. For another, it is used as a metaphor for the Church. The Church is often described as a city in the Bible because we have a King, a set of laws, and we relate together as citizens of the same hometown (Is. 26:1; 40:9; Ps. 48; Mt. 5:14). The Church is also described as a bride (Is. 54:1; Ep. 5:32). This image of the new Jerusalem coming down to earth is a not a city but a new humanity which lives according to God’s will. It is a new humanity characterized by righteousness. The fact that it is coming from heaven to earth is a symbol of the fact that one day only God’s redeemed will live on the earth. All ungodliness will be removed and consigned to hell.

This is another picture of the new relationship between heaven and earth, which is possible now among Christians, but will one day be permanent. Because Christ has come to bring God’s will to earth by enabling his people to live it, a heavenly quality of life may be lived now. It is not perfect now as it will be some day, but it is possible. In other words, it is possible to experience the answer to the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” John makes it abundantly clear that this ability to live righteously is entirely the gift of God. You must embrace Christ alone for your righteousness because he is the source and the Savior.

 

Source

From Heaven. We must look to heaven, not earth for the ability to live righteously. Notice the direction from which the new Jerusalem comes—it comes down out of heaven. In other words, only heaven could devise and execute a plan by which a new humanity which does God’s will could be created. Clearly, people on earth do not decide they are going to start living in a way that pleases God. As rebellious and sinful people we would never do such a thing and never could. It was heaven’s initiative to bring the righteousness of God to earth, so that a new people could be created who would live in relationship with God the Father.

In the meantime, the Bible makes clear that those who refuse to live according to this righteousness made available through Christ are experiencing something far different from heaven: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Ro. 1:18). If this is the case, where is our hope for righteousness rather than wrath?

From God. It is by looking in faith to God, not ourselves or other men. Lest we miss it, John adds that the new Jerusalem does not come down from heaven in an impersonal way; it comes “from God.” We look to God himself for our righteousness. After Paul gives us the bad news in Romans 1:18 about the wrath of God coming from heaven, he gives us the good news in 3:21-22: “But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.”

It is very simple. If you want to live according to God’s will, you must ask God to give you this as a gift. That is all that is required. Righteousness, the ability to live in a pleasing way to God, is a free gift which you could never purchase. You can only receive it.

 

Savior

Notice John says this gift of righteousness was “prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband.” Christ brings the righteousness of God to you if you ask for it. And he brings it in two forms. First, he brings to you his own righteous life and substitutes it for your sinful record. As a result, God views you as righteous through the life of his Son. Second, by means of his Spirit he brings to you the ability to begin living a righteous life in a gradual way.

Record. That is what John is after with this image of beautiful clothes. Throughout the Scriptures, God uses clothes to describe the way he makes us righteous. He often uses the image of dressing to describe the substitution of the record of Christ’s life for ours. The prophet Zechariah, for instance, has a vision of a priest named Joshua who appeared before the Lord in filthy clothes. However, the Lord gave the command and the filthy clothes were removed and he was given clean, rich garments so that he was made worthy to stand in God’s presence (Zech. 3:1-10). That is what God will do for us if we ask him. He will remove the filth of our sinful record and replace it with Christ’s so that we may stand before God, now and in eternity, guiltless.

The Bible makes clear that Christ’s earthly life and death was for the purpose of securing a guiltless record in our place. He repented in our place, believed on our behalf, and fulfilled all of the law in our stead. And he died taking the curse due for our disobedience on himself.

Ability. But the Bible also pictures our new ability to live righteously in terms of clothes. Sometimes it is envisioned as being properly attired for a wedding (Mt. 22:11). Those who come properly to a wedding are those who display honor for the wedding party by dressing up. Those who will be found in heaven will be those who honored Christ with their lives on earth. John has explained how that will be possible in Revelation 19. The ability to live in a pleasing way is just as much a gift as the record of Christ’s life.

In chapter 19, John says that at the end of time, the Church will be presented to Christ as a radiant bride and welcomed to a grand wedding supper. And in preparation for that wedding, the Church will be given “fine linen, bright and clean” (8), in other words, a spotless wedding dress. Then he explains what it symbolizes, “the righteous acts of the saints.” But remember that fine linen was given her to wear. In other words, our righteous acts will serve as proper garments for admission to heaven and are not our own but themselves gifts of Christ. The Bible makes it very clear that our righteousness is a gift from Christ.

The Bible also makes it clear that every good work we do was “prepared [using the same language as John in our text] in advance for us to do” (Ep. 2:10). And Paul also explains that the only way we live a righteous life is by Christ living it in us (Ga. 2:20).

The Advent of Christ is in every way a gift to us that we have only to receive. Jesus offers this righteous life and the ability to live righteously now to us and he accomplished it by coming as a baby in a manger.


[1]Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison (New York: Collier, 1971), 416.