No biblical text so vividly portrays for us the true meaning of Christmas as does 2 Corinthians 8:9. There the apostle Paul wrote this:
“For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8:9).
In what sense was Christ “rich” or “wealthy”? I want you to think with me about what kind of “wealth” or “riches” characterized the Son of God in eternity past, before the incarnation, before he became a fetus in the womb of Mary, before he was born on that first Christmas morning. But I also want you to consider with me the ways in which the Son of God became “poor”.
When I hear Paul say that the Son of God was “rich”, the first thing that comes to mind is the incalculable “wealth” of his eternal glory. The sacrifice of the Son will have its sanctifying effect on us only to the extent that we are in touch with the immeasurable splendor and limitless majesty of his pre-existent glory in fellowship with God the Father and the Holy Spirit.
Nowhere is this better seen in Scripture than in the experience of Isaiah in the OT. Isaiah did his best to convey the magnitude of this glory by providing this description of his experience:
“In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim. Each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. And one called to another and said:
‘Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts;
the whole earth is full of his glory!’
And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: ‘Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!’” (Isaiah 6:1-5).
The impact of God’s glorious presence is shattering! There is trembling (cf. Ex. 19:18; Acts 4:31) and the presence of smoke (Isa. 4:5; Ex. 33:9). “A recent survey of ex-church members,” notes R. C. Sproul, “revealed that the main reason they stopped going to church was that they found it boring. It is difficult for many people to find worship a thrilling and moving experience. We note here, when God appeared in the temple, the doors and the thresholds were moved. The inert matter of doorposts, the inanimate thresholds, the wood and metal that could neither hear nor speak had the good sense to be moved by the presence of God” (40-41).
This is but one portrait of what Jesus had in mind when he spoke to his Father of “the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Paul described it as being “in the form of God” and experiencing eternal “equality with God” (Phil. 2:6).
But it was more than splendor, more than radiant beauty, more than the unending adoration of angelic hosts. It was joy! The “riches” of Christ that he so lovingly forsook entailed the mutual and immeasurable delight of the Father in the Son and the Son in the Father and the Spirit in the Father and the Father in the Spirit and the Son in the Spirit and the Spirit in the Son. Each beholding the beauty of the other. Each exulting in the excellency of the other. Their eternal and energetic love for one another is beyond our capacity to grasp.
So, in what sense then did Christ become “poor”? Perhaps we should again let Isaiah make the point: “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and as one from whom men hide their faces he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:2-3).
Wait! No! Surely there’s been a mistake. Are you suggesting, Paul, that the one at whom the seraphim dared not look (Isa. 6:2), whose glory filled the earth (Isa. 6:3), is also the one who “has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows,” a man “stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted” (Isa. 53:4)? Are you suggesting, Paul, that the one who sat enthroned in power and glory (Isa. 6:1-2) was somehow “wounded for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities” (Isa. 53:5)? How can it be that “the King, the Lord of hosts” (Isa. 6:5) “was oppressed” and “afflicted” like “a lamb that is led to the slaughter and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent” (Isa. 53:7)?
Such was the breathtaking height of his riches and the heartbreaking depth of his poverty. And yet there is so much more to say!
His wealth was seen in the indescribable intimacy that he shared with the Heavenly Father, a love and unity that transcend all the adjectives and superlatives in the English language to describe, a depth of commitment and joy and delight one in the other that the human mind can only imagine.
His poverty was seen in the ominous and mysterious cry of abandonment on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”
His wealth was found in the ceaseless adoration of the angelic hosts, always and ever surrounding the throne and filling the galaxies with the praise of the Father, Son, and Spirit.
His poverty was seen in the mocking, derisive, sarcastic, cynical and degrading voices of those who called for his scourging and crucifixion. His poverty was seen in that his ears were filled not with songs of celebration and honor and adoration but with taunting and arrogant challenges to come down from the cross and angry denunciations of his claims to be the Son of God incarnate.
His wealth was found in the unhindered and unlimited exercise of his omnipotent power in ruling over the universe, in calling every star into existence and saying to it: Be! Stay! His wealth was seen in his sovereignty over every particle of being, from the most minuscule sub-atomic particle to the massive galaxies that fill the universe.
His poverty was manifest in his weakness as a babe, finding nourishment at Mary’s breast and depending each moment on the strong arms of his mother and his adoptive father Joseph.
His wealth was manifest in his omniscience, his endless and utterly exhaustive knowledge of everything that is and all that might be. His wisdom and insight and comprehensive grasp of every puzzle and problem, his intuitive and immediate understanding of every mystery of creation.
His poverty was manifest in that as a young man he grew in wisdom and in understanding and he learned as did any other human being who walked the earth. His poverty is revealed in the fact that this one who held in his mind every datum of information ever possible from eternity past into eternity future had to learn his ABC’s and his multiplication tables and how to tie up his sandals and comb his hair and brush his teeth.
His wealth consisted in his unrivaled authority over the angelic hosts and all that was. His word was never questioned, his commands never resisted, his will never thwarted.
Yet his poverty was revealed so very clearly when his words were twisted and made to say what he never meant, when his commands were ridiculed as the delusions of a messianic pretender, when his authority was trampled underfoot and his will cast aside as of no account.
His wealth was manifest in the eye-popping brilliance of glory that shone all around, the paralyzing power of his majesty, the majestic and breathtaking and scintillating shine of the beauty of his attributes.
His poverty was revealed in the human spit that dripped from his beard as his enemies spat upon him and beat his face bloody and bruised. His poverty was seen in that this one who was of such eternal and intrinsic worth and inestimable value was sold by a friend for a mere 30 pieces of silver.
His wealth was seen in his unfettered freedom, his self-sufficiency in accomplishing all his will, his unhindered liberty to pursue all he pleased.
His poverty was revealed in his being betrayed with a kiss and bound by Roman chains and dragged off to be scourged and tortured.
God the Son, Second Person of the Holy Trinity, the Creator, eternal and without beginning, who forever and ever existed in the same glory and divinity as the Father and Spirit, did not look disdainfully upon fallen, sinful, rebellious mankind and insist on retaining the joy of his exalted life, but made himself of no reputation by condescending to our earthly existence and took the form of a man, indeed living the life of a bond-servant, even to the point of dying that death reserved for the outcasts of society, death on a cross.
This is the one whom God the Father raised from the dead and elevated and exalted to the throne of heaven as ruler and sovereign over all, whether angels or demons or humans. This is the one who is rightly called “Lord”, the one in whose presence every knee will bow, the one whose name every tongue will confess (Phil. 2:5-11).