“who for us men and for our salvation
came down from heaven”
This is my favourite line of the Nicene Creed. When I read it I want to shout out in worship, and I hope it will do the same for you. It is a perfectly apt line to consider this Christmas season. It answers questions like: What is the reason for the season? Why is there “joy to the world”? Why did Jesus come? Where did Jesus come from?1
Consider these words from Paul that were probably part of the inspiration for this line:
Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus, Who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God something to be grasped. Rather, he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, coming in human likeness; and found human in appearance, he humbled himself, becoming obedient to death, even death on a cross. Because of this, God greatly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, of those in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Paul was once a Pharisee of Pharisees. Before meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus he was passionately opposed to Christians. He saw Christianity as a crazy cult that derisively believed that Jesus had risen from the dead by the power of God. Paul knew what the implications of this would be if it were true: If Jesus had been raised from the dead, then the Old Testament—the only Bible in existence at the time—was no longer infallible. And that was not an option for Paul.
The major influence that drove Paul was Deuteronomy 21:23: “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” How could God have blessed Jesus by raising him from the dead if he was cursed by God for hanging on a tree? When the apostles began to proclaim the resurrection, Paul had to react. However, when he was confronted by the resurrected and ascended Lord on that dirty road, he was pressed between a rock and a hard place: The Bible was infallible, yet God had raised Jesus from the dead.
The next three years Paul spent alone in Arabia, trying to come to grips with this paradox. What was he thinking during these years? How frustrated he must have been with his own blindness to the Scriptures! Paul returned with a clear understanding of the gospel: Jesus Christ died in our place, suffering under the wrath of God, to pay for our sins. And his resurrection from the dead was the proof that God accepted his payment on our behalf. In Paul’s first letter, he quoted from this Deuteronomic curse and knitted it into his theology of the cross: “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree’” (Galatians 3:13). He understood how the sacrificial system pointed ultimately to the death of Jesus. The innocent one suffered, died taking our sins on himself, in order that we might have life. Here we see our Passover Lamb (1 Corinthians 5:7). The imagery is clear: The unblemished lamb was slain so the firstborn of each home would live. The lamb died in the place of the firstborn, the innocent for the guilty.
In the magnificent letter to the Roman church, Paul’s topic was the vindication of the righteousness of God. Some had accused Paul of being licentious and relaxed with regards to sin; he vehemently denied this. Central to Romans we discover what is arguably the most significant paragraph ever written: Romans 3:21-26. This passage beautifully unfolds the gospel; yet that is not the main point. The passage is really about God’s righteousness: How could God wink at sin, and how is the cross God’s display of his righteousness? It is because God poured out his wrath on his Son. And the Son, as we saw above, went to the cross willingly.
And so the gospel is indeed what Christmas is all about.
Christ “came.” It wasn’t an accident. He wasn’t forced to come. He didn’t arrive because others wanted him to. He acted volitionally and came.
He “came down from heaven.” He left the glory and perfection of heaven with all its unending joy and satisfaction, and was born as a human on an earth of suffering and wickedness.
And he came down from heaven “for us men and for our salvation.” He didn’t come to be a good example and he didn’t come to give wise teaching—though those are benefits derived from his coming. He came so that sinful people like us might be saved from the wrath we deserve. Celebrate that this Christmastime!
Christ came for us, and our salvation.