Ever since I was a kid, worshiping on Christmas Eve has been a given. I didn’t always want to do it, of course, because it made time slow down and, thus, delayed the long-awaited gift opening. Indeed, one year I may have opened a gift, played with it, and rewrapped it before the Christmas Eve church service without my parents’ knowledge! But the habit of worship imprinted on me immeasurably important lessons about Christmas.
We worship at Christmas because Jesus is the “reason for the season.” We worship because he is the coming Messiah. We worship because of the beauty of the story of a humble virgin Mary, a humble man Joseph, and a humble Christ-child who comes to save, yet lies in a manger. We worship because the fullness of time has arrived (Galatians 4:4).
But theoretically, you can reflect on all those wonderful aspects of Christmas at home in your pajamas. Thus, gathering for public worship is particularly fitting for one other reason. The birth of Jesus is the advent of the consummate place of worship: not a temple, but a person. The incarnation of the Son of God fulfills a human longing to enjoy the presence of and offer worship to the living God.
All humans are wired to worship their Creator. Eden and its garden were symbolically configured as a sanctuary. God made his presence manifest there (Genesis 3:8). Adam was charged with working and keeping it (Genesis 2:15) and was even adorned, it seems, as a priest (Ezekiel 28:13–14). The tree of the knowledge of good and evil and the tree of life stood at the center of the garden and were, in due course, guarded by cherubim (Genesis 3:24), just as they guarded the ark at the center of the temple’s Most Holy Place. Men and women were, in other words, created to worship God in his place, and after our expulsion from Eden we have longed for a way back into the divine presence.
“The birth of Jesus is the advent of the consummate place of worship: not a temple, but a person.”
History, thus, is divided into two paths of worship. The false path runs through every pagan religion that strives to please its god(s) through rituals and sacred shrines. For instance, the Canaanites directed zeal toward Baal’s altars and Asherah’s groves (Judges 6:25); Philistines oriented worship around the sanctuary of Dagon (1 Samuel 5:2); Lystra hosted a temple and priesthood of Zeus (Acts 14:13); a plethora of gods, even “unknown” ones, were venerated with altars and statues in Athens (Acts 17:24); and the temple of the Ephesian Artemis was one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (Acts 19:35). Not much has changed in two millennia, as pagan shrines exist in every corner of the world, representing the universal longing for the divine.
The true path of worship winds through the people of Israel. The patriarchs worshiped Yahweh via temporary altars (Genesis 8:20; 12:7; 26:25; 28:18; 35:1). His glory appeared in terrifying fire and cloud upon Mount Sinai, where he was worshiped from afar (Exodus 19:16–25). The Israelites constructed a movable tent, the ark of the covenant, and other furnishings whereby sacrifices could be offered to their Lord, who filled it with his glorious presence (Exodus 40:16–38). Under King David, the ark of the covenant made its way to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:2). At long last King Solomon constructed a (seemingly) permanent and wondrous temple to Yahweh in Jerusalem, whose glorious presence again filled it magnificently — leading all Israelites to respond with effusive worship (2 Chronicles 7:1–4).
All seemed right in Israel. But the situation did not last for long.
After Solomon’s death, God’s people split up. The northern tribes built competing shrines and worshiped golden calves in Dan and Bethel (1 Kings 12:25–29). In time, God judged them for this sin through conquest by the Assyrians (2 Kings 15:29).
The southern tribes likewise polluted the worship of Yahweh in the Jerusalem temple but still ironically pinned their hopes on its survival (Jeremiah 7:1–4). In a painful act of judgment, God withdrew his glorious presence from the temple (Ezekiel 11:22–23) and permitted the Babylonians to raze it, steal its ark, and scatter the people (2 Chronicles 36:15–21).
All was not right in Israel.
The temple was eventually rebuilt (Ezra 6:14–15) but never filled by God’s glory. The Old Testament ends with the forestalled longing for God to return to his temple (Malachi 3:1).
That is where Christmas comes into play. In at least four ways, the coming of Jesus Christ is the joyful fulfillment of the longing to worship God fully and truly.
When the Fourth Gospel describes how the eternally existent divine Son stunningly takes on a body at Christmas, John uses a particularly weighty word to describe it: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The italicized verb (Greek eskēnōsen) can simply mean “to settle,” but almost certainly for the original reader it would evoke how the tabernacle (skēnē) was God’s means of dwelling among his people of old. The God who once dwelled as fire and cloud in a movable tent has now tented in the bodily flesh of God the Son.
“The coming of Jesus Christ is the joyful fulfillment of the longing to worship God fully and truly.”
Not only this, but Jesus speaks of himself as the new place where heaven meets earth, with the angels ascending and descending upon him as they once did at Bethel (John 1:51; Genesis 28:12). And Jesus’s body is described as the true temple that, though destroyed, will be raised in three days (John 2:21–22). Whereas no one could fully gaze upon God’s radiant glory in the original temple, now we behold it in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18; 4:6).
The people of God long recognized that the fullness of God could not really be confined to fabricated structures of wood and gold (1 Kings 8:27; Acts 7:48), so it is altogether fitting that the fullness of God dwells bodily in God the incarnate Son (Colossians 2:9). He is the place of true worship.
If Jesus is the true temple, then naturally he is also the true sacrifice. A striking truth about Christmas is that Jesus was born to die: he took on a body with the specific purpose of being a perfect sacrifice (Hebrews 10:5). He is the Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7), the sacrifice of atonement (Romans 3:25), and the sin offering (Romans 8:3) — the entire sacrificial system — rolled into one. His blood cleanses us far more than that of bulls and goats (Hebrews 9:13–14).
In short, not only is Jesus the manifest presence of God; he is also the one whose blood makes it possible to be in God’s presence in the first place. Christmas, then, arcs to Good Friday.
Perhaps surprisingly, Jesus never takes on priestly garments in his earthly ministry or attempts to enter the sanctuary to perform ritual duties. He only cleanses the outer courts. Why? He is a better kind of priest.
Drawing his earthly sojourn to a close, he raises his hands in a priestly manner to bless his disciples (Luke 24:50; see Leviticus 9:22) and ascends to heaven. It is there — in the true heavenly temple of which the earthly tabernacle was but a vague shadow (Hebrews 8:5) — that priest Jesus offers his blood before the Father (Hebrews 9:11–14). It is there that priest Jesus intercedes for his people (Hebrews 8:34). And it is there that the souls of departed saints worship before a heavenly altar (Revelation 6:9).
At Christmas the heavenly Son descends to earth so that he might make a way for the sons and daughters of God to be brought into the real, permanent, heavenly temple.
Christmas reminds us that Jesus is the true temple, true sacrifice, and true priest. Yet those who are united to him by faith are, strikingly, formed by God to be the same things: in Jesus we are a spiritual temple in which the Holy Spirit dwells (1 Corinthians 3:16), spiritual sacrifices offered in worship to the living God (Romans 12:1–2), and a spiritual priesthood consecrated to God (1 Peter 2:4–5).
Thus, at Christmas we worship because by faith we are, at long last, enabled through the birth of Jesus to fulfill our creational longing: to be conformed to him as temple, sacrifice, and priests.
More Than Eden
The destiny of all creation is not merely to return to Eden. It will be more than Eden. All the heavens and earth will be transformed into an all-encompassing, grand, indescribably amazing dwelling place of the triune God, who will abide with believers of every tribe and nation forever (Revelation 21:1–4, 22). The universal longing will be richly satisfied.
So let us, like the magi of old, relish this hope at Christmas and together worship baby Jesus (Matthew 2:11) — the newborn temple, the newborn sacrifice, the newborn priest.