We’ve all heard the story of Santa Claus. Cheery old chap from the North Pole, swings by once a year to deliver either toys or coal depending on whether you’ve been naughty or nice. Yeah?
Well, if you grew up listening to Adventures in Odyssey like I did, you’ve also heard how Kris Kringle comes to us from a real historical figure: Nicholas of Myra. When Nicholas was very young, his parents died leaving him a large fortune. Under the care of his uncle, an abbot, he became a Christian. He decided that he would do whatever he could to bless people, since God had blessed him with wealth. He would give away his money whenever he could, but he would do it in secret.
Once, the story goes, he saw three daughters who’s father had gambled away their dowry. Since he didn’t want them to know what he was doing, he snuck a sock full of gold through the window of the oldest daughter one night. She found it the next morning, and soon was married. He did the same with the next daughter, and she too was married. The youngest daughter, however, kept her windows boarded up tight every night. Saint Nick couldn’t figure it out. It was almost dawn before he had a brilliant idea! He dropped the sock full of gold down the chimney. It bounced off the now-cold logs and into the youngest daughters shoes. She was overjoyed, and she too was soon married.
While these old stories about Nicholas do serve as a lesson in humility, long-suffering and perseverance for the faith (he was tortured under the Emperor Diocletian, a ruthless wicked man), and generosity, even this doesn’t capture the zeal that Nicholas had for his Savior.
During the early parts of the 3rd and 4th century, a heresy started to pop up. Feeding in from Gnosticism and various other religions, people began to teach that Jesus was not actually the Son of God. A man named Arius taught that Jesus was homoiousian with the Father — of a similar substance. As this heresy began to take root and spread, a council of the Church was called. All the bishops came to meet at Nicaea, in the year 325 A.D.
Unfortunately, I think today most Christians would not understand the danger of teaching that Jesus was of a similar substance as the Father. But the bishops and presbyters at the Council of Nicaea understood. The defense of the historical position of the Christian church — that Jesus was homoousian, or of the same identical substance, with the Father — was the man Athanasius. On his side was our protagonist, Nicholas of Myra. As the heretic Arius continued to claim that Jesus was less than divine in nature, our Saint fumed at the blasphemy this man would dare to level at his savior. Finally, Nicholas could stand it no longer. He stood up, walked over to Arius, and slapped him in the face! Aren’t you thankful that you only got coal in your stocking, and nothing worse?
Now the Council did discipline Nicholas for his misbehavior. But they also came to the conclusion that Arius was not teaching the doctrine of the apostles, and condemned his heresy for what it was. The proceedings at the Council go to show just how important it was to the early Church that we rightly understand that Christ was God.
Isaiah actually wrote about the coming Messiah, 740 years before Christ showed up on the scene. He said, in Isaiah 9, that Messiah would be called Mighty God. That’s not a title that God gives to people who aren’t God. And in Matthew’s Gospel, when he talks about the birth of Christ, in chapter 1, he says that Christ’s birth fulfills Isaiah 7, because Christ was Immanuel — “God with us.”
So what is the good news about Immanuel? Why is God in the flesh such cause for celebration? Well, again in Isaiah, this time in chapter 53, God foretells about how the Messiah would bear the iniquity of us all (vs. 6) and how he would cause many to be accounted righteous (vs. 11). So Isaiah says that this divine figure who will come as a child from a virgin will exchange His righteousness for our sins. Again, 740 years before Christ is born.
Then we find Paul, in 2 Corinthians 5, give the most concise explanation of what happened that we can imagine: “For our sake, [God] made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (vs. 21). Paul’s language sounds almost exactly like the language of Isaiah 53, doesn’t it? God gave his Son, who didn’t even know what it was like to sin, to be treated as sin on our behalf, so that when we are joined to Christ in faith, we become the righteousness of God. No wonder Saint Nick was so zealous to defend the deity of Christ! If our savior had been a man like us, what hope would we have in heaven or earth?
And so, this Christmas season, I implore you to be reconciled to God through faith in Christ. Know that this is the good news of Christmas:
That Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me, Paul…
— 1 Corinthians 15:3-8