Sunday, November 27, 2016

The First Noel (Genesis 3:15)

A familiar song that is heard this time of year says, “The first noel the angel did say was to certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” That word noel comes to us from French, and it generally equates with “Christmas.” It comes into French from the Latin natalis, which relates to “birth.” So, in English we have the word natal, which comes from the same Latin word, and is probably most commonly associated with something like a neonatal unit at a hospital, where newborn babies receive care. But it is the French word noel that we often find occurring in Christmas songs and Christmas cards. And if we speak of “the first noel,” as the familiar song says, we tend to think of that one in the second chapter of Luke where the angels bring the good news of Christmas to the shepherds. This, however, is not “the first noel,” or first “Christmas message,” that we find in the Bible. Far from it, in fact. Prior to the coming of Christ into the world at that first Christmas, there were numerous prophecies and proclamations of the coming Messiah who would rescue His people from sin and establish His everlasting kingdom of peace and righteousness.

If we want to find “the first noel,” we have to look further back in history from the one “the angel did say” unto “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay.” The very first noel is the one that the Lord God did say unto a certain evil serpent in the Garden of Eden, and the first human beings to whom he lied. We find it in Genesis 3:15. Theologians refer to this verse as the protoevangelium – “the first Gospel” – for here, in the moments immediately following the first sin of the human race, we find the first promise of redemption that will save the human race from the curse of sin.

Though this message may not often appear in Christmas cards and Christmas carols, it is as much a part of the Christmas story as the angels, the shepherds, and the magi. Genesis 3:15 is the seed from which the Christmas tree grows. And so, as we look at this, the first noel, we want to consider the reason for Christmas, the reality of Christmas, and the result of Christmas.

I. The reason for Christmas

Fill in the blank: “________________ is the reason for the season.” Now, if you said, “Jesus,” you are right, but that’s a Sunday School answer. You know what I mean about a Sunday School answer, don’t you? The story is told of a little boy in Sunday School; when the teacher said, “I’m thinking of something small and grey, has a fuzzy tail, likes to climb trees and eat acorns,” the kid said, “Well, it really sounds like you are talking about a squirrel, but the answer is probably Jesus.” So, let’s think about it for a moment, and move beyond the Sunday School answer and fill in the blank: “_____________ is the reason for the season.” There are probably many words, including Jesus, that will fill the blank correctly, but the one I’m thinking of is “Sin.”

Now, I know what you are thinking. You are thinking, “There he goes again. He’s so hung up on preaching about sin that he’s gone and dragged it into Christmas now.” Well, no, I haven’t dragged it into Christmas. It was there from the beginning. In fact, apart from sin, there is no need for Christmas. First Timothy 1:15 says, “It is a trustworthy saying, deserving full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” So, in a very real sense, sin is the reason for the season.

In the verses preceding our text, we find the serpent in the Garden of Eden. It is obvious that we are not merely talking about a reptile, but a spiritual, personal being. The serpent is referred to with personal pronouns, and is described as one with intelligence, speech, and knowledge that surpasses even that of the man and woman who were created in the image of God. The serpent has an awareness of the supernatural world.[1] And so, later on in Scripture, the identity of the serpent is made plain, but it was never in doubt. Revelation 12:9 speaks of “the great dragon … the serpent of old who is called the devil and Satan, who deceives the whole world.” Whether he adapted to the physical form of a serpent, or the imagery of the serpent is used metaphorically here, we do not know, and it doesn’t matter all that much. The point is that Satan had come into the garden of paradise in order to bring about the ruin of humanity by deception and temptation.

He came to the woman and began to cast doubt on the Word of God. “Indeed, has God said …?”, he began. Subsequently, he would flatly deny the truthfulness of God’s promise. God had said, “In the day that you eat of it you will surely die.” Satan said, “You surely will not die!” It is always a tactic of the enemy to entice us to question what God really has and has not said.

But he went further, “has God said, ‘You shall not eat from any tree of the garden’?” In point of fact, God had not said that. Actually God said they could eat freely from any tree of the garden, except the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. It was God’s will that humanity understand good and evil by His revelation, and not by personal experience. It was for their good that God gave them a restriction on this tree, that they might trust Him at His word and not experience the devastation of disobedience for themselves. But Satan always seeks to arouse within us a doubt concerning the nature of God. He entices us to question whether or not God is really good, and whether or not He really has our best interests at heart in His will. So, Satan said to Eve, “God knows that in the day you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” You see, he has her thinking now that God is holding her back from attaining her maximum potential; from achieving her best life now.

So, with doubts in her mind about God’s word and His nature, Eve took the fruit and ate it. She had been deceived. But when she offered it to Adam, he simply ate along with her. His sin was not that of being deceived, but of flatly disobeying a clear command of the Lord. Scripture is clear and consistent that human sinfulness has its origin, not in the deception to which Eve fell prey, but to the disobedience of Adam. And it was because of this sin, the promise of a coming Redeemer was proclaimed. Because God desires and designed man for an eternal relationship with Him, He immediately announced that He would bring about deliverance for humanity.

With the entrance of sin into the world, the cosmic conflict between God and Satan entered a new theater of battle. The battle began when Satan, who was created as an angel, rebelled against the Lord and took a host of angels with him in the revolution. But by bringing humanity into the fray, the battle moved to the earth, where we continue to live in the midst of the strife. The Lord said to Satan, “Because you have done this … I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed.” That phrase “her seed” points to the One who would come to deliver humanity from sin, the Messiah Jesus. He would come to wage war against Satan and save those who trust in Him.  

As a foreshadowing of what the Redeemer would do for humanity, verse 21 says that “the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” He did not make for them a garment of wool. A lamb can be shorn of its wool and it will grow back. But the Lord made garments of skin, and the only way a living thing can provide its skin is to die. Remember that the Lord said, “In the day that you eat from this tree you will surely die.” Indeed, on that day they began dying physically. And death spread to all men through sin. But God inaugurated a process of redemption for humanity on that day, by which an innocent substitute could die as a sacrifice for the guilt of the sinner. Just as the animal died as a sacrifice to become a covering for Adam and Eve’s sin guilt, so the Redeemer would come and suffer on behalf of sinful men to bring about forgiveness and reconciliation with God. And this brings us to the second element of this first noel.

II. The reality of Christmas

We have all seen lots of artwork depicting the nativity scene, haven’t we? We’ve got a lovely stained glass scene here in the sanctuary and these figures we put out at Advent, and maybe we have nativity figures we put up in our home. We see the scenes on Christmas cards, magazine covers, and so on. Here is Jesus, minutes after emerging from His mother’s womb, sleeping peacefully while his adoring mother, in her full attire, spotless and clean, looks on with a smile and a radiant glow about her. And they’re in a barn. I don’t know about you, but that scene is not reminiscent of any barn I have ever been in, nor is it reminiscent of any labor and delivery scenario I have ever seen. I’ve watched two children be born. If we were to have posed for a picture in either situation, it would have taken days for us to look like the nativity characters we typically see. It is not a nice, neat, tranquil thing. And neither should we think of Christmas as such. God forbid that we consider His coming into the world to deliver us from sin a nice, neat, tranquil thing. The reality is far different from the artwork depicting it.

The reality of Christmas is that the Savior who was promised to come did come in a very unusual way. When the Lord spoke of “her seed,” He was indicating that the Redeemer would come into the world in a way that no other being ever has. The word “seed,” when used of human beings, can have a general reference to “offspring,” but most commonly it is used to refer to the descendants of a male, not a female. This is evident when we see how the Hebrew scholars translated this passage into Greek over two hundred years before the birth of Christ. They chose to translate the Hebrew word that is translated for us as “seed” with the Greek word spermatos. That is an unusual word to attribute to a female. Under normal circumstances, we might have expected the Lord to say that he would put enmity between Satan and the woman, or between Satan and the human race, and between his seed and Adam’s seed. But He said “her seed.” And this points to the unusual reality by which Jesus Christ came into the world through the virgin birth.

Isaiah understood the strangeness of this idea, so when he spoke of the coming of the Messiah, he said in Isaiah 7:14, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” There are many who assert that the word used by Isaiah here should refer, not to a virgin, but to a young woman of a marriageable age. It is interesting that the Greek translation of the Hebrew here (again, produced 250 years before the birth of Christ) uses a word that exclusively means “virgin.” It is the same word used in the New Testament to describe Mary’s virginity. You do not have to be a Bible scholar, however, to realize that there is nothing significant about a young woman of marriageable age bearing a son. The child’s birth is a sign because of its strangeness. He would be born “the seed of woman,” that is, without an earthly father, to a mother who is a virgin when she conceives.

When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary to announce that she would conceive and give birth to Jesus, her response was, “How can this be since I am a virgin?” Literally, the Greek text says, “How can this be, since I have not known a man,” employing “known” in the common euphemistic sense of sexual relations. But the angel explained it to her: “The angel answered and said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:26-35).

And so we have the wonderful statement in Galatians 4:4-5, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons.” In order to redeem us from the curse of sin and adopt us anew as His rightful sons and daughters after our sinful rebellion, God became a man, coming into the world through the virgin birth, in fulfillment of the promise made in the Garden of Eden. The redeemer would be the seed of woman, and that title can be applied to no one else but Jesus. His coming into the world through the unusual and complicated circumstances of a virgin birth is the reality which we celebrate at Christmas. It was foretold in the first noel.

We come now to …
III. The result of Christmas

A number of years ago, I heard one of the great preachers of the last half century, Dr. Haddon Robinson, preach a great message at a pastors conference. He began rather bluntly by saying, “I want to confront something that I think is present here in this room. I want to address a specific prejudice that many of you are guilty of. I believe that there are a lot of you who don’t like … snakes.” Guilty as charged! I hate snakes! I have trouble sleeping at night if I even see a picture of a snake. I have friends who love snakes, and they tell me that there are good snakes, and harmless snakes. Listen, in my opinion, the only good snake is a dead snake, and every snake is harmful to me because I feel like I’m having a heart attack whenever I see one! So I will confess to you that, when it comes to snakes, I am a serial killer. I’ve been known to run over them, put the car in reverse, and run over them a few more times just to make sure I got them good. But the best way to get rid of a snake is to cut off its head. And I have found morbid joy in so doing on a number of occasions in my life.

But the first noel is not telling us about how to deal with our snake problems. It is telling us how God is going to deal with our sin problem. He is sending a Redeemer into the world who is going to defeat Satan fully and finally. The Lord said to the serpent concerning the one who would be born as the seed of woman, “He shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise Him on the heel.” The Hebrew word translated “bruise” could just as well be translated as “crush.”

So we see here that the ancient conflict between God and Satan will have as its climax an encounter in which there is suffering on both parts. Satan will inflict harm on the Redeemer, and the Redeemer will inflict harm upon him as well. But notice the difference. The Redeemer will be bruised, or crushed, at the heel. Some of you have suffered foot injuries, and you know they are no laughing matter. An injured heel can be debilitating for a season, but usually such injuries are temporary. Bones heal and muscle rebuilds. But a crushing of the head is a fatal blow. There is no recovery when the head has been crushed. And here we have the foreshadowing of the Cross of Christ.

At the cross, Jesus laid down His life and died. It must have appeared as if the first noel was a lie! Jesus was dead and Satan was enjoying the victory he seemed to have won. The bloody, battered body of Jesus was put away behind the sealed stone tomb. But on the third day, the most extraordinary thing happened. This One who was dead returned to life in triumph. In His death, He had taken all of our sin – beginning with Adam’s and including all the sin of the entire human race – and He suffered the punishment of that sin under the full outpouring of God’s judgment in His death. He was the substitutionary sacrifice whose death rescues us from our sin guilt and provides a covering of righteousness for us. Here is the fulfillment of the imagery in the slaying of the animal in Eden that Adam and Eve could be covered with garments of skin. And in overcoming sin and death and hell for us, Jesus delivered the final fatal blow to Satan. With His bruised heel now healed, He crushed the head of the evil one forever.

First John 3:8 says, “The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil.” In the words of Hebrews 2:14-15, Christ came, and suffered and died, “that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives.”

If you’ve ever removed the head of a serpent, you know that there is a short period in which the nerves in the body continue to function, causing the snake to flop around and wiggle. And I suggest to you that the works of the devil that are ongoing in the world today are just this – the flipping and flopping about of a defeated and destroyed enemy whose demise is imminent. The day is coming when Christ shall return and cast this serpent of old into his eternal destruction. Revelation 20:10 says that the devil “who deceived them was thrown into the lake of fire and brimstone,” where he will be tormented “day and night forever and ever.” And the glory of God’s grace toward us in defeating this enemy and rescuing us from his bondage can be seen in Romans 16:20, where we read that the God of peace will soon crush Satan under our feet!

While the echo of the crunch of forbidden fruit was still reverberating in the garden, the promise was made that the serpent’s head would be crushed. This is why, throughout history, Satan tried to forestall and prevent Christmas from happening. The slaughter of the Hebrew children in Egypt was a Satanic attempt to end the line that would bring Christ into the world. Haman’s efforts to destroy the Jews in the days of Esther had its origins in the heart of darkness as a means of preventing the seed of woman from being born. Herod’s order of the murder of all the male children born in Bethlehem was yet another feeble attempt to prevent this outcome. And finally at the cross, Satan seemed to have won the battle. But the battle was not over. The risen Christ would come forth from death having conquered the devil forever and rendered him powerless over those who have faith in Jesus. Though he may try to remind you of your sinful past, you can stand by faith in Christ and remind him of his future – a future that is sure and settled, and has been since God spoke the words of the first noel to him in the Garden of Eden.

This is the result of Christmas! The Redeemer has come! The Seed of Woman, Jesus Christ, has come into the world and destroyed the works of the serpent forever. And we share in His victory by faith. God had spoken it in the first noel.

Charles Wesley’s familiar hymn, “Hark the Herald Angels Sing,” has undergone many changes since it was first written. We sing it to a different tune, under a different title, and with different words than the original composition. But in the original hymn, there was this long forgotten stanza:

Come, Desire of nations, come, Fix in us Thy humble home;
Rise, the woman’s Conquering Seed, Bruise in us the Serpent’s head.

Those words reflect the first noel, the protoevangelium, the first Gospel message, and first Christmas song. By God’s grace, may we all know and experience the reason, the reality and the results of Christmas. We can, because the seed of woman has come, and the serpent’s head has been crushed.

[1] Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., The Messiah in the Old Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995), 38. 

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