Twelve Days of Christmas: Day 12

Jesus: Gifts on a Tree

Excerpted from Rubel Shelly, What Child Is This? (West Monroe, LA: Howard Publishing Company, 1996

As with the Christmas holiday itself, the origin of the Christmas tree is not clear in all its details. Scandinavian people once worshiped trees, and one theory is that their conversion to Christianity led them to make evergreens part of their festivals. Maybe so. Maybe not.

Many people think Martin Luther was the first person to put lights on a Christmas tree. On this account, Luther put candles on his tree to portray the beauty of the stars above Bethlehem on the night of Christ's birth. Christmas candles and lights represent Jesus Christ as the Light of the World.

Most of us still put lights on our Christmas trees -- though most of us use UL-approved and safe electric ones instead of Luther's dangerous candles! One little boy in my friend Theresa Jordan's elementary school class came up to her right after Thanksgiving and asked if he could have some sheets of construction paper. She asked why he needed them, and he said, "We can't afford lights for our Christmas tree this year, and I want to make some out of construction paper." The little boy got his construction paper. And, since Theresa had just bought a set of lights for the tree she and David were getting ready to put up and had them in her car, he got a set of lights that afternoon, too!

The topping of the tree with either a star to represent the one who led the Magi or an angel to represent the angel who appeared to the shepherds is a well-known custom.

Then there is the old custom of hanging stars and angels, gilded nuts and cookies, candy canes and strings of cranberries on the tree. In fact, it used to be customary to hang the toys and gifts being exchanged from the tree. Now most of us wrap our presents and put them under the tree, but there was once a time when they actually went on it.

In Galatians 3, Paul made an argument about Christ that is clearly rabbinic rather than literary-historical in character. He took the idea of what a tree could symbolize under certain circumstances and explained a profound truth about the Son of God. "All who rely on observing the law are under a curse, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.' Clearly no one is justified before God by the law, because, 'The righteous will live by faith.' The law is not based on faith; on the contrary, 'The man who does these things will live by them.' Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: 'Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.' He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit" (Gal. 3:10-14).

Paul's point here is to distinguish between two ways of approaching God. One route of approach relies on law and keeping it accurately, and the other is based on one's trust in what Jesus has done for his followers.

On Paul's view of the matter, anyone who follows the first approach comes under the curse of his or her inadequacy. He quoted Deuteronomy 27:26 and made the same point found at James 2:10. Anyone seeking to approach God through keeping law (i.e., any law -- whether Law of Moses, law written on the heart, or the New Testament understood as law) is doomed to failure. None of us has kept the law of God perfectly, therefore all of us are sinners. Because we are sinners, we are under a curse.

The second way of approaching God is through the finished work of Jesus. Knowing that we could not be justified by our efforts at observing law, Jesus came and took the responsibility of our salvation to himself. He set us free from enslavement to law by honoring every command of God and then offering himself as a substitutionary sacrifice for us. He paid a debt he did not owe. He stepped between us and the death blow we were due. Justice was satisfied when sin's penalty (i.e., death) was exacted; mercy was granted when sinners (i.e., you and me) were allowed to have that payment credited to our account.

Law says: "Obey, and you shall live." Gospel says: "Believe in what Jesus did, and you shall live." People of law bargain with the Lord and insist that he give them credit for their righteousness. People of faith trust God and allow him to work out his righteousness in them.

Does this mean that Christians are not responsible to law? Does it say that we are exempt from civil, moral, or divine law? Does it mean that we have no obligation to obey men or God? Absolutely not. We embrace, appreciate, and obey law to the best of our ability. But we do not trust our salvation to that. We trust our salvation to Jesus Christ and to him alone.

But look again at the startling language Paul used to explain how Christ accomplished his saving work on our behalf: "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us" (Gal. 3:13a). Did you catch the play on words? "Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us." How so? "For it is written: `Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree' " (Gal. 3:13b).

The quotation about anyone "hung on a tree" is from Deuteronomy 21:23. Hanging was not a Jewish method of execution. Neither was crucifixion. The hanging of a body referred to in the Old Testament text is probably an allusion to the practice of taking a criminal after his execution (usually by stoning) and impaling him on a stake or nailing him to a tree. It was an act of contempt and utter humiliation. The Law of Moses forbade leaving a body so cursed hanging overnight lest it somehow defile the nation and the land.

Paul took the "liberty" of using that text to dramatize what happened in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. He became a curse for us. He subjected himself to contempt and humiliation for our sakes. He didn't simply die for us, but he died a ghastly and offensive death.

Jesus' cross is not as appealing a sight as his cradle. But it is the more significant of the two. It is the event for whose sake the other happened. It is the one we must see in prospect for the other to have its ultimate meaning for us.

When you see gifts beneath your Christmas this year, think of God's gift to you. When you see meaningful things such as your children's pictures or ornaments they made hanging on that tree, remember what God hung on a tree outside Jerusalem. Know that it was done to save you, and please, don't refuse the gift.

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