When we look at Christmas from Christ’s perspective, we can see the truth behind the familiar scene of the baby in the manger. In this sermon, Alistair Begg walks us through an enigmatic passage in Hebrews that speaks to an important reality: while the Old Testament sacrifices were not enough for true redemption, Christ was totally sufficient. Pride may threaten to prevent us from accepting Christ, but God faithfully pursues us through the incarnation of His Son.
And now, Father, we pray that you will “make the Book live to me, O Lord, show me Yourself within Your Word, [and] show me myself and show me my Saviour, and make the Book live to me.” For Christ’s sake. Amen.
And may I encourage you to turn to Hebrews chapter 10, to the portion of Scripture which was read for us previously? And this morning we will be paying attention to simply one phrase out of all of the verses that were read for us. Our text takes us, for the fourth and final time… actually, that is not accurate. We’d be more accurate to say this is our fourth and final text. And it takes us behind the scenes, once again, at Bethlehem.
The writers of the Gospels introduce us to a whole cast of characters. If we’ve been around church for any length of time, we’ve grown familiar with them. It’s no surprise: we know Joseph and Mary, we know that there were shepherds and wise men. Some of us also have considered the song of Anna and the song of Simeon. Others know of Zechariah and Elizabeth and so on. And again, if we’ve been around church circles for any length of time, we have probably, over the years, during the Christmas season, been treated to sermons, to studies of the Bible, from the perspective of just about every member of the cast. And I know that some have even gone beyond this cast to the supporting cast, and out of great urgency and running short of material, I think it’s not unfamiliar that people would start to try and let, in flights of fancy, their imaginations run wild as they began to look at the Christmas story from the perspective of one of the donkeys or somebody, one of the creatures that was right there in the stable. When you reach that point, you probably should stop preaching altogether, and if your pastor has reached that point, then you should stop listening altogether; in fact, you should’ve stopped listening a long time ago.
I think, although I haven’t checked, that I’ve probably done it all, in terms of the cast of characters—certainly, over twenty-nine Christmases—but there is one notable exception, and I want to address that exception with you this morning. And that is, I want us to look at Christmas from the vantage point of Jesus Christ himself. If we gave a title to our study, it would simply be “Christmas according to Christ.” Because in the verses that were read for us, and particularly beginning in Hebrews 10:5, we discover where Jesus speaks for himself. Jesus speaks for himself.
As I said on Christmas Eve, those of you who just happen to be here once, you ought to have the opportunity to hear what it is we’re really on about. You say to yourself, “I’m going to go to that Parkside place once; I hope I can find out what they’re really on about.” And I hope this morning that in this phrase you will find out what we’re really on about.
There are three phrases; I’ll mention them to you, but we won’t, on the basis of our first study this morning, get beyond the first phrase. The first phrase is “a body you prepared for me.” It’s there in verse 5. The second phrase is in verse 7, the parenthetical phrase “it is written about me in the scroll.” And the third phrase is “I have come to do your will.” “I have come to do your will.”
Now, let me give you just a word of warning. I think perhaps Pastor Bickley has, in a very gracious way, suggested that sleep and the impact of yesterday may have a sort of inertia-creating impact on our time, and for those of you who’ve arrived hoping for some somewhat gentle, sentimental treatment, then I have, of course, dreadful news for you. For those of you who are expecting a little cream cheese with some peaches, here I am, up with some of the sharpest cheddar that could ever hit your nostrils. If you’re gonna benefit from this study, you really need to sit up straight, and you need to put your thinking cap on, and you need to think with me. Please don’t misunderstand this; I do this for you and with you as an expression of my devotion to you, as well as my devotion to the gospel. I can by this time in my life and in my experience trot out all kinds of little sermons that will demand of me no preparation at all and that I will be able to slip by you unwittingly on any given Sunday. I can’t do that to you, and I won’t, and so I encourage you to think along with me.
Why would we be surprised that Jesus, in stepping onto the stage of history, would take the words of Psalm 40 upon his lips? Because you will notice, if you go down the page, that this is a quote. Why would we be surprised when we have already reminded one another that the Bible is a book about Jesus—that if we want to understand our way around the Bible, that we need to keep our eyes on Jesus? It’s the story of how Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves, in order to bring us as a lost people back to God himself. That’s essentially the story of the Bible, and it is on the lips of Jesus that we find these words of David.
How can the words of the psalmist David find themselves on the lips of Jesus? Well, we have studied the Bible together, and we’ve learned that there are places where the story is partially fulfilled, where it is prophetically expressed, where it has an immediate impact in a historic setting, and where it is relevant there but still points forward until ultimately the phraseology from the Old Testament makes perfect sense as we discover it fulfilled in the New. This is one of those instances. Luke is telling us that for Jesus to have these words upon his lips is like Cinderella’s glass slipper, in that, if you remember correctly from the story, the slipper didn’t fit anybody else, nor does this text fit anyone else except Jesus.
Now, the first phrase, as you note, is “a body you [have] prepared for me.” It’s an interesting statement, and let’s try and understand it. The context, of course, is important. That should be no surprise to us either, insofar as context is always important. If you are an attorney and you’re dealing with legal briefs, you know that you don’t just turn the page open and fasten on a phrase disconnected from the rest of the material and proceed—not if you want to do your job properly. In the same way, if you are the nurse that is coming on after the night shift, and you come in and you take the patient profiles, you know it’s important that you take time to read what is being said, what has been written by your evening staff, and to understand it in context. Of course, we know that even in the reading of a novel. We may have already received a number of novels that we can’t wait to dig into this afternoon, and we know that the only way we’re going to be able to come to terms with them is by ensuring that we don’t just take phrases haphazardly out of them and try and make sense of the story. No, it must be read in context.
Well, what is the context? Well, the context is actually the whole Bible, And whenever you read a part of the Bible, the context is the whole Bible. Well, you say, “Please don’t give us the whole Bible this morning, not this morning of all mornings!” No, I’m not going to, but I want you to know that that’s why it’s important that you read your Bible from Genesis to Revelation. Because it is only as you understand the story of the whole Bible that you can come to a paragraph in a place and say, “Aha! That’s why this is here, and that’s what that means.” And in relationship to a book within the Bible, because the book of Hebrews is the most “Old Testament” of the New Testament books. And the very phraseology with which it begins reminds us of that fact: “In the past” is the opening phrase of Hebrews. Chapter 1:1, “In the past…” What did God do in the past? Well, he spoke in the person of his Son. That, in technical terms, is revelation; he made himself known. And what else did he do? He “provided purification for our sins” in the person of his Son. That is redemption. And the great context of the book of revelation is how God in Jesus, in sending Jesus, has both revealed and has redeemed. And if you keep those two thoughts in your mind, then that will help you to navigate the course.
And it will help us to say, “Well, what’re we supposed to do with this very interesting phrase, ‘a body you prepared for me’?” It is a reminder to us that God has wonderfully taken the initiative, that he has approached us in Jesus, and that we don’t need to make a long journey to find God. God is the seeking God. And God came, and the angelic word to these shepherds, remember, he said to them through the angel, “[Don’t] be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy … for all the people. … A Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” And on Christmas Eve, some of us were singing about that. We sang the phrases together: “Come to Bethlehem and see [he] whose birth the angels sing; come, [behold] on bended knee.” “Come, [behold] on bended knee.” I would be surprised if any of us actually knelt down when we sang that. Of course, we don’t make all of the physical gestures that are conveyed in our hymnody, unfortunately. “I lift my heart up to you”—I don’t know what we would be doing there. We certainly couldn’t reach in and lift our hearts up. We understand metaphor. And in the same way, if we would behold Christ, we must come on bended knee. What does it mean to come on bended knee? It means to come humbly. It means to come expectantly. It means to come in recognition of the fact that the one to whom we come is worthy of such of homage. And the shepherds, of course, are a wonderful illustration of that.
But those who refuse to come to Christ on bended knee, those who refuse to come recognizing that God is interested in a contrite spirit and in a humble heart, they look at this material—and you may actually be one of these people that I’m making reference to right now—individuals look at this material, and they say, “Look at these shepherds. Poor idiot shepherds, making themselves believe foolishly, and without any reason at all, that in the manger lies the Redeemer of the world. I’ve never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life. No wonder they’re shepherds; only shepherds would fall for that kind of story. I wonder what they were drinking out there in the Bethlehem fields that night.”
Two thousand years on, we invite one another to look into the biblical record. We look into the story. We’re confronted not with a phantom, not with a concept, not with an idea; we’re confronted with a person, a real, living person, Jesus of Nazareth, and what do we find? That Jesus still seems to be despised and rejected. He doesn’t apparently rule from heaven with any extravagant displays of power. That’s what people say: “If this is the risen Christ, the living Lord, why doesn’t he do something from heaven? I don’t see anything happening. I mean, it’s a long time since the angels showed up. I haven’t seen any angels here in Cleveland. I haven’t seen anything to give me any indication at all. And furthermore, I went to church, and the church seems so marginalized. And his words, they seem too simple for me. I didn’t go to school and get educated just to come here and listen to this strange story about this Christ, this redeemer in a manger. And furthermore, not only is he rejected and despised, not only is his church marginalized, but his spokesmen aren’t that impressive either. Including you, Begg! You know, let’s just call a spade a spade. No, there’s nothing really here for me. I’m not so sure. And frankly, it seems to me a very strange way for him to give perspective on what he’s doing. What do you expect somebody to say? ‘A body you [have] prepared for me’? What, that makes him different? Everybody has a body prepared for them! We don’t have a body, we don’t exist. So why does he say this? Why does it come about?”
Well, again, you need to look at the text. You need to think. And the absence of thinking on the part of some is a significant absence. “When Christ came into the world, he said: ‘Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; with burnt offerings and sin offerings you were not pleased.’” Now, what he’s saying there is simply this: that in all of the sacrifices of the Old Testament—remember, this is the most “Old Testament” of the New Testament books—God saw those sacrifices as a shadow of the reality to which they pointed. All of those sacrifices involved the death of dumb animals, but the sacrifice of Jesus was the sacrifice of a consenting will. Every other sacrifice was prodded to the altar, if you like. They had no part in it. They didn’t go into a flock of sheep and say, “We’re looking for a sacrifice, any volunteers?” They didn’t go down the road and say, “Any of you goats like to be a sacrifice in Jerusalem?” or to a bull, “We’re looking for a big, brave bull to be a sacrifice.” No, they simply went in, they picked them out on the basis of their lack of blemish and their indication of purity, and then they pressed them into service. And in that sacrificial system, there was the foreshadowing of the great, ultimate, final, necessary, saving sacrifice, which was offered up by Jesus in this body that was prepared for him.
Now, there’s a whole series of contrasts that you can ferret out for yourself when you do your homework by reading the whole of chapter 10. And the emphasis of the author is on what we have been trying to affirm in these days—namely, that it is the atonement, the death of Jesus for sin, that explains his incarnation. And in the Old Testament, all of these sacrifices are pointing forward to a reality that is to come in Jesus. Look, if your Bible is open, again at how chapter 10 begins: “The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming”; we don’t have here “the realities themselves.” Whoa, well that explains “for this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated … year after year [endlessly], make perfect those who draw near to worship.” Because, logically, he says—verse 2—“If it could, would they not have stopped being offered?” In other words, if in the endless, perpetual sacrificial system there was the cleansing of sin, there was the freeing of conscience, there was the wonderful discovery of being put right with God, then they would’ve stopped them. They would’ve said, “It’s done, it’s finished.” But the very fact they haven’t stopped them is an indication of the fact that it wasn’t finished.
In the same way and in verse 11, I think it is, you’ve got the contrast: “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” Well, we got a major problem! If the system that’s put in place cannot address the predicament, what can? “And, furthermore,” thoughtful person says, “how was it that anybody was ever saved, redeemed, accepted by God, before Jesus came? Because if it took the coming of Jesus to make possible the cleansing of conscience, the transforming of life, the granting of forgiveness, what about all those poor souls that lived before he showed up?”
Well, the answer to that is straightforward. How were they saved? The same way that you and I may be saved: by believing in the promises of God. God promised that he would save those who believed in him. On the basis of what? On the basis of the sacrifice of Jesus, whose body was prepared for him. So in the Old Testament they all looked forward to something that most never saw—Christ upon the cross—and we this morning look back down through the corridors of time to something we haven’t seen either—namely, Christ upon the cross .
And the Old Testament sacrifices could provide a measure of ceremonial cleansing, but they couldn’t cleanse the conscience. And some of us who are seated here this morning have grown weary under the weight of a continual religious, zealous effort, which every time we walk from this story of apparent forgiveness, we have no feeling of forgiveness at all. And so that’s Monday, and we’re gonna have to go back Tuesday to see if Tuesday will be any better than Monday, and Wednesday better than Tuesday. And in fact, apparently, we’re just going to have to keep going all the time—unless, of course, there is someone who has once for all made a sacrifice for sin on the basis of which we may be accepted by God.
Now, this is the significance of the phraseology “a body you [have] prepared for me.” Peter grasps it when he says, “[Jesus] himself bore our sins in his [own] body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed.” In other words, Jesus does perfectly and finally and once for all what is necessary for sinful men and women if they’re going to enter into fellowship with God. Did you know that?
It is as though, in Christ, God has reached out his arms to us. It is in the Lord Jesus that he comes and gathers us up in his embrace. That he speaks from heaven—the Father speaks and he says, “This is my beloved Son; I want you to listen to him.” He speaks as it were from heaven and says, “This is my beloved Son; I want you to trust in him. This is my beloved Son; I want you to follow him.” And we turn to the pages of the Gospel, and we see this beautiful Christ, this wonderful man—gracious and kind and tender and straight and authoritative and true. And in Jesus, God, from heaven, as it were, extends his arms in the way that fathers extend their arms to welcome children to them. “Come here and let me hug you,” he says. And in order to do that, he prepares a body for his Son.
Have you ever received that kind of welcome hug? You ever been hugged by God? “Well, I’ve been attending fairly regularly.” That wasn’t the question. When you put your head on the pillow at night, do you have a sense that God has gathered you up in the embrace of his Son? And did you even realize that he needs to? You see, that’s the problem for many of us. We say, “Well, that’s a very interesting story, but frankly, I’m not the ‘huggy’ kind of person at all. I don’t really like hugging many people. And the idea of being hugged by God, it seems a strange notion to me, and I don’t see why I would ever want to.”
Well, you gotta understand, you need to. You see, by nature we’re alienated from God. That’s the great alienation. We feel alienated from ourselves sometimes—a sense of angst, driving around in the car, “Who am I? Where am I? Where am I going?” Alienated from people that we should be close to—from our bride, from our husband, from our children, from our work colleagues—knowing that we’re a real bad actor and that we have spoiled things in terms of those relationships. Feeling a sense of alienation from our past—all kinds of notions of alienation—and we wonder, we say, “Why do I even feel the way I feel?”
And the answer is, because it is expressive—these things are expressive—of the great alienation: that we are alienated from God, and that none of us can immediately and by ourselves deal with that alienation. Because sin stands in the way. It’s like a huge barrier that has separated us from God, and there is a two-way animosity. God is angry at sin, and we are angry at God. And right between the two of us is this huge, insurmountable barrier. And it is a barrier that cannot be ignored, no matter how hard we try and ignore it. Now, again, I say to you—those of you who are here once, passing through as it were—it’s important that you have the opportunity to hear what we’re on about.
Here I am attending church. I’m troubled by the things I’ve said and done. I regret the things I’ve said and done. What I try and do is ignore these things. I try and put distance between them and me. I’ve tried to see if just the passage of time would deal with my predicament. But it doesn’t. It pops up. You come around a corner, and you see a scene, and you’re back at the same place. You hear a song on the radio, and you’re back on the same evening. You meet somebody from your past, and it takes you back into a realm that you thought you had dealt with and forgotten. And trying hard to ignore all these things, cover them up with a little religious ritual, a little church attendance, a little smattering of something, by zeal or by effort, and it gets even worse because in our hearts we don’t even know whether God loves us or hates us. We don’t even know whether he likes us.
And when you sit in that predicament, not knowing whether God loves you, or likes you, or hates you, or rejects you, it’s impossible to bless his name. And so we don’t. It’s impossible to sing his praise, and so we don’t. There’s no response in our hearts to the words that come up on the screen. It actually means nothing. We understand the language, we appreciate the syntax, we can make sense of the melody, but in terms of a dialogue in our souls whereby it strikes a chord and we say, “That’s right: once I was blind, and I thought I knew everything,” instead we look at that and we say to ourselves, “I do think I know everything; therefore, I must still be blind.” You are, outside of Christ. “Why, then, do I not have life within me?” Because we’re dead outside of Christ. And furthermore, we are unable to rectify the problem.
That’s the wonder of what God has done. In Jesus, in the body that he has prepared for us, Jesus declares his love for sinners. His love for sinners! He has done something about our sin. Here’s the story, you see: He has, in his body, done something about this barrier. He’s done something about my sin. He’s done something about my alienation. He has, in his body, had compassion on me. He has, in his body, done what none of the sacrifices could do: borne my punishment, made possible the cleansing of my conscience, extended his mercy to me. This is the gospel, my friends. And this is what we’re really on about.
Let me give it to you in two or three statements: In the Lord Jesus, God is pleased to pardon and accept those who believe, even though we have sinned and deserve only condemnation. You see how different this is from a story of religion, whereby the law, the Ten Commandments, or the rules become a mechanism for us to try and climb up into heaven? And it’s as though the ladder’s rungs are just completely covered in ice, and as soon as we manage to get maybe one or two under our belt, down we come, and we’re back on the ground again, and then maybe a little further, and then on the ground again. And life is going by, and time is passing us by, and we’ve perhaps been attending churches where the story has been “Jesus is a wonderful example; why don’t you follow him?” And you say to yourself, “Yes I will,” and you go out, and you’re not five minutes out, and you don’t follow him, and you can’t follow him, and it’s back up the ladder and back to the example and then back in the church, and the fellow says, “Come on, now, and do your best! You bunch of rascals, get out there, and do your best!” You say, “Well, I want so desperately to do my best.”
Some of us even like it when we feel bad, because we feel we’re masochistic: “Tell me how bad I am, so that when I feel how bad I am, then I’ll be able to try even harder next week.” Listen, you and I are so bad that if you tried for all of your life to put yourself in a right condition with God, you could never do it. Therefore, problem. Therefore, great news! He has done in Christ, in this body, for us what we cannot do for ourselves. In Jesus he’s pleased to pardon us and to accept us. “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.” What’s happening in this manger? He’s bringing us to God! Has he brought you to God?
You say, “Well, why’re you so animated and exercised about this?” This is the whole reason we exist: “to glorify God, and … enjoy him forever.” But sin has marred our lives; therefore, we don’t glorify him and enjoy him. And when the religious characters come around and tell us, “I’ll tell you how you can glorify and enjoy him. Try this for a start, and climb up here a little more, and follow the example, and go out and do a little better,” we say to ourselves, “This is the great chronicle of despair.” And, of course, it is! It’s not the gospel. The gospel is that in Jesus, God has done for us what we can’t do for ourselves, and if we will trust in him, we are accepted on the basis of what he has done in his body on the tree.
Now, that’s the end of the story. Let me give you this as a close: What prevents a man or a woman from trusting in Christ in this way? One word: pride. Pride. Pride. “I’m too smart for this. I’m religious enough. I’m a good soul. I mean, I went to school with some people who are bad people. This is a great message for them; in fact, I think I’ll go immediately and get the tape. But not for me.”
Well, actually, what God looks for us to do is bow down. If you’ve seen the scenes from the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, and better still, if you’ve visited the Church of the Nativity—whether it’s on the right spot or not and whether the spot that’s under the spot is the right spot is largely irrelevant at the moment—but the fact of the matter is, if you go there and if you’ve been there, you know that if you want to go to the place that is representative of the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ, you just can’t walk in like this: “Hey, I just came, I wanted to just have a look at the thing.” No, it’s not possible. Do you know why? Because the door is so low. There’s only one way to get in, and that is to stoop, to bow down, and eventually, to kneel.
You ever knelt down by your bed? Said, “God I can’t believe that you would do this for me in Jesus. I am a bag of dirt. I’m so stuck on myself intellectually. I’m so screwed up morally. I’m so in debt.” Still, “I’ll get through this. I’ll get through this barrier. There’s not a barrier I’ve faced that I haven’t got through.” My dear friends, you will never get through this barrier except on the basis of the body that had been prepared for Christ.
Have you ever done the hang gliding? You ever done that? Or parasailing, or whatever it is? Where you go off the side of a mountain? If you haven’t done it, don’t try it on your own initially. Try it with someone else. And there are people who will help you to do this. And you know what happens, you go up to the side of a mountain, and you get out of the van, and there are these fellows there who have all the equipment ready, and they invite you to join them in the experience. What it actually involves is a completely giving up of ourselves, of oneself, to the capacity of the one who says he’ll take you flying.
I’ve done it once; I’m not planning on doing it again. And much to the embarrassment of my wife and the people who were around me on the morning that I did this, I had a fairly lengthy interview process for the chap to whose back I was about to be strapped. Stuff like, “Hello, did you sleep last night?”
“Did you have a good sleep last night?”
“How many times have you run off the side of the mountain with somebody strapped on your back?”
“I’ve done it numerous times.”
“Good. Do you smoke pot?”
The guy said, “What?”
I said, “Hey, do you smoke pot? And if so, have you in the last thirty-six hours? ’Cause I’m not about to strap myself to your back—the high I’m looking for is just this kind of high, not this kind of high.”
And eventually, when I had completed the interrogation, I gave myself up to him, and I got strapped to him, and when he went, I went. And eventually we ran out of ground, and fortunately the law of aerodynamics took over from the law of gravity, and we were airborne. “Look at me, I’m flying. Woohoo! I want my friends to see I’m flying!” Yeah, you’re flying, but the only reason you’re flying… in fact, you’re actually not flying. You’re strapped to the back of somebody.
You ever given yourself up to the body that he’s prepared for you? “Lord Jesus Christ, there’s no way that I can go to heaven on my own. I can’t fly into heaven. I believe that you’re the most reliable person and that you are the only Savior. Therefore, today—Boxing Day, the day after Christmas 2004—I want to come, and I want you to attach me to yourself and take me to your heaven.” And the promise of God is that he will. Pride will prevent us from bowing; bowing will lead us to heaven.
Father, I thank you for the privilege of thinking about these things. Thank you that, although so much clamors for our attention, that your Word is alive, it accomplishes its purposes. I pray that you will accomplish each purpose that you have for your Word in each of our lives. Some of us have been relying on religious ritual, and our consciences remain stained. We find ourselves unable to sing your praise, and we wonder why it is, so we go out to try harder than we did last time. A few more rungs up the ladder, and still we come with skinned knees down onto the ground. Open our minds to this wonderful truth: that in the Lord Jesus, in this wonderful body that you prepared for him, you have provided the very atoning sacrifice that our sins require. And resting unreservedly in Christ alone, you will bring us safely into heaven.
May the grace of the Lord Jesus and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be the abiding portion of each one who believes, today and forevermore. Amen.
 R. Hudson Pope, “Make the Book Live to Me” (1943). Language modernized.
 See Hebrews 1:2.
 Hebrews 1:3 (NIV 1984).
 Luke 2:10–11 (NIV 1984).
 James Chadwick, “Angels We Have Heard on High” (1862), trans. from the traditional French carol “Les Anges dans Nos Campagnes.”
 Hebrews 10:1 (NIV 1984).
 1 Peter 2:24 (NIV 1984).
 Matthew 17:5; Mark 9:7; Luke 9:35 (paraphrased).
 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV 1984).
 The Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 1.
Copyright © 2020, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.