Beloved, let this truth be our deepest desire and prayer this Christmas! “O Come, O Come, Immanuel!” Let us pray as God’s people that Jesus Christ will come and take us to be with Himself, and to “close the path to misery” here in our lonely exile in this present age. The wonderful Christmas hymn “O Come, O Come Immanuel” captures the proper longing and desire that should be in every believer’s heart. This is a deep expression of longing for all things to be renewed, and for God’s people to enjoy His presence without the hindering and contaminating presence of sin, death, and the evil one. As Christians, we cry
“Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus” and “Your Kingdom Come” (Rev. 22; Matt. 6).
We all long for home. We want to get back to Eden, but we cannot in our own ingenuity and strength. God must act graciously and powerfully on our behalf to end our lonely exile, and to bring us home to be forever with Him.
In the Old Covenant time, Israel was deported to Babylon as discipline for her sins against her covenant God (Isaiah 39:5ff; Daniel 1:1-2; Habakkuk 1:5ff). The exile is an important part of God’s Old Covenant story of His people (Matt. 1:12, 17). In the exile, God chastised His elect, the True, believing Israel. God’s fatherly discipline caused the people to shine in the midst of darkness, and to live for God’s glory (Jeremiah 29; Dan. 12:1-3; cf. Phil. 2:12-16. Though the exile brought terrible suffering and affliction, there was also salvation and sanctification to make them a people prepared to meet the LORD (Luke 1:17; Malachi 3-4). This is the wonderful salvation message of the prophets of old. Although True Israel was God’s Beloved, they were pilgrims, exiles, aliens in a strange land (cf. 1 Pet. 2:9ff), and they cried out to God saying:
“O come, O come…and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.”
While they cried out and waited, the people longed for the day when God’s comforting and peaceful presence would be with them permanently, and God’s glory would cover the whole earth! (Isa. 11:9; Jer. 33:9; Hab. 2:14). In their understanding, this coming Day would dawn with God’s enemies being judged and punished, and God’s oppressed people being set free to serve God without fear! God’s Beloved hoped to be ransomed from their captivity and brought home! (Luke 1:68-75; cf. Rom. 8:18-25). Although True Israel belonged to God, and experienced joy in their journey, nevertheless, they lived as those who mourned. As they waited, God spoke comfort through the mouths of the prophets, saying essentially: “Blessed are you who mourn, you will be comforted” (cf. Matt. 5:3ff; Isaiah 60:20b-21). God as kind and compassionate Heavenly Father revealede His comforting grace through promise in the midst of lonely Israel’s sadness. As Isaiah said in light of the coming Messiah:
“Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the LORD’s hand double for all her sins. …And the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” – ESV Isaiah 40:1-2, 5
God’s people patiently waited, and waited, and waited for the Day when the Son of God and Son of David would appear (Matt. 1:1). The cried: “O LORD, how long, shall I cry for help, and you will not hear?!” (Hab. 1:2), waiting…
“…Until the Son of God appear!”
The people of God eagerly awaited the promised Messiah, the Anointed King, who they confidently hoped would redeem Israel and bring everlasting light and righteousness into a dark and evil world (Psalm 2:6-8; Isaiah 9:2-7; 49:5-9, 13). The mystery that wasn’t fully understood from the Old Covenant perspective was that when Israel returned from Babylonian captivity to the land of Israel (under Nehemiah, Ezra and a few of the Minor Prophets), they would still be oppressed by their enemies (for centuries!), and all their hopes would not yet be fully realized. Still, they were called to feed on God’s promises to give them hope (Psalm 81:10; Hab. 2:3). The people were to continue to walk by faith and to trust God that He was faithful to His promises, and that He would eventually dwell as “Immanuel” with His Beloved people.
“Fear not, for I am with you; be not dismayed, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my righteous right hand.” – ESV Isaiah 41:10
God is faithful to His promises, and in the fullness of the times (Gal. 4:4), the Messiah did indeed come to ransom captive Israel:
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. ….[God] has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.” ….”Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has visited and redeemed his people and has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke by the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we should be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us; to show the mercy promised to our fathers and to remember his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our father Abraham, to grant us that we, being delivered from the hand of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.” – ESV John 1:14; Luke 1:54-55, 68-75.
But when God sent forth His Messiah, His Beloved Son, it was not what many in Israel expected! Even after the incarnation of the Son of God, Israel was still under foreign oppression and rule (Luke 2:1ff; Matthew 2:1ff). Rather than immediately destroying God’s enemies, Messiah was seemingly destroyed Himself—by these same feared and oppressive enemies of God! Messiah who was to ransom them–who was to bring glorious victory for all who eagerly anticipated His visitation–was humbled himself in deep suffering and rejection, and was seemingly defeated in death—a death by crucifixion from the foreign powers Israel had expected to be immediately conquered by Messiah, their hope (Acts 2:25-36; 3:12-15; 4:26-28; Luke 1:71)! This is one of the reasons that Jesus was such an obnoxious “stumbling block” to many of the Jews (1 Cor. 1:21ff; 1 Pet. 2:8; Matt. 13; cf. Isa. 6:9ff); this seemed like foolishness to them. Yet this was all part of God’s marvelous and wonderful plan to redeem! (cf. Romans 11:33-36).
Yet Jesus Christ, the Messiah, as was promised, gloriously and victoriously rose from the dead on the third day; death did not conquer Him (Luke 24:25ff; 1 Cor. 15:1-11). In His resurrection, God, the Eternal Son, permanently united to our nature, rose to reveal that He was free from the judgment of God, and from the enslaving clutches of sin, death, and the devil (Rom. 1:3-4; 1 Tim. 3:16; Heb. 2:14-18)! Jesus the Messiah rose wonderfully in power to ascend to the Eternal Throne of David (Psalm 2:7ff; 2 Sam. 7:12-17; Isaiah 9:7; Daniel 7:13-14, 27). Jesus the Messiah uniquely and powerfully overcame our worst enemies first: the just judgment of God because of our sins, indwelling sin and its dominion over God’s people, the fear of death, and slavery to the Prince of the Power of the Air (Rom. 3:23-26; Heb. 2:14-18; Eph. 2:1-4). Freedom in Jesus brought first reconciling peace with God! Jesus told His people He came as a ransom to lay down His life to pay our debt of sin to a Holy God! (Mark 10:45).
Christ Jesus, when He ascended as King on David’s Eternal Throne at God’s right hand, sent forth His Spirit to dwell within His people, and to encourage us and strengthen us to endure and complete our exile-pilgrimage here and to know His sweet, loving presence as Immanuel “with us” (Acts 2:28-33; cf. John 14:21,23).
“But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. ….When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, for he will take what is mine and declare it to you. ….This Jesus God raised up, and of that we all are witnesses. Being therefore exalted at the right hand of God, and having received from the Father the promise of the Holy Spirit, he has poured out this that you yourselves are seeing and hearing. For David did not ascend into the heavens, but he himself says, “‘ The Lord said to my Lord, Sit at my right hand, until I make your enemies your footstool.’ Let all the house of Israel therefore know for certain that God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified.” – ESV John 14:26-27; 16:13-15; Acts 2:32-36
Now on behalf of True Israel, Jesus is preparing a place for us (John 14:1ff); this is why our hearts should not be troubled even in hard times (John 16:33)! The return from exile back to the land where God would dwell with His people in peace, giving rest and victory and security from all of His and our enemies, has begun with the resurrection and ascension of Christ, and the outpouring of His Spirit upon us! The full outpouring of the Holy Spirit upon God’s people in exile, releasing us from bondage, was the inaugural act of the Resurrected-Ascended Messiah to David’s Eternal Throne, and the assured down payment of the full restoration and return home that God has promised (1 Cor. 15:20, 23; 2 Cor. 1:20-22; Eph. 1:14)! The return from exile has begun as He frees His people by HIs Spirit from captivity to sin and the devil, and frees us to live loving His truth and growing in His likeness (John 8:31-32; Rom. 6:18, 22; Eph. 4:17-24).
This initial or inaugural beginning of the return from exile that has begun with Jesus’ resurrection-ascension and the Spirit of Pentecost is another aspect of the mystery that was revealed, but not fully understood in the Old Covenant (Rom. 16:25-27; Eph. 3:1-10). This mystery is that the Messiah, Jesus Christ, would be resurrected and would begin the return from exile not to the Promised Land here on earth (in the Middle East in Israel), but a return to the Heavenly Land, or place the Promised Land in the Old Covenant (and Eden!) had foreshadowed, and pointed forward, and upward to: the “better country” or the “heavenly country” (Hebrews 11:13-16). This is the country that Abraham and all his true, believing children long for:
These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For people who speak thus make it clear that they are seeking a homeland. If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city. – Hebrews 11:13-15
As believers, united to Jesus Christ in his life, death, resurrection and ascension, we are God’s True Israel (Gal. 6:16). And as recipients of His Holy Spirit, we can still sing “O Come, O Come, Immanuel” with all of our hearts (this should not be a song for merely ethnic Israel to sing). Although the return from exile has begun for us in Jesus, and we are already seated with Christ in the Heavenly Places (Eph. 2:6; Col. 3:1-4), nevertheless, we mourn, we suffer tribulation, and persecution, yet we should be expectantly awaiting His Second Coming! (1 Pet. 4:8; Titus 2:11-14). We are taught that it is through tribulation that we will enter the Kingdom of God in its fullness in Jesus Christ (Acts 14:22; Revelation 1:9-10). Full return from exile is for all those who truly love His appearing! (1 Tim. 4:8).
Do you long for and love His appearing? The exile in the Old Covenant separated the mere ethnic, outwardly circumcised unbelieving Jews from the inwardly, believing, True Jews with circumcised hearts (cf. Rom. 2:25-28; not all of Israel is Israel, see also Rom. 9-11). God’s True Israel in any time, walks by faith, even when circumstances around us and in the world seem at their worst! (Habakkuk 2:4; Heb. 11:1, 6; 12:1-3; 2 Cor. 5:6-10). How are you doing? Are you awaiting, anticipating, longing? Or not?! What does this teach you about yourself and your need before God? Are you a True Israelite, or merely one outwardly (see again Romans 2:25-28)? Some in Israel, in response to the exile, were assimilated and became like the world and culture around them, engaging in horrid and offensive idolatry. Yet True Israel in the exile longed all the more for God’s appearing in Messiah (Daniel 1; cf. Luke 1). Are you worldly? Have you been assimilated by our world and culture? Or are you longing for Messiah’s appearing?
Similar to our forefathers in the faith who lived in the Old Covenant, yet with much more revealed truth where we stand on this side of the cross, we wait, too, and long for Messiah’s Second Coming and Glorious Appearing! (2 Tim. 4:1, 8). Let us then, as God’s True Israel (Gal. 6:16) live “Advent Lives” each day of the year, not just in this season when we think about Christmas and the Incarnation. Let us long for home with God where we shall permanently dwell with him, and let us live in obedience to His Word, in peace and mercy in this present age, resisting the allurement of our fallen world and culture.
And as for all who walk by this rule, peace and mercy be upon them, and upon the Israel of God. – Galatians 6:16
In our union with Christ, no matter how great the affliction, suffering, oppression, trouble, tribulation, and misery, we have Christ. Is HE enough for you? Is Christ your glorious and joyous portion? (Psa. 16:5, 11; 73:22-28). Is it good for you to be near to God? (Psa. 73:28; Heb. 4:16). In the midst of our arduous pilgrimage, we possess Christ’s powerful and Holy Spirit to give us hope, light, life, and joy in this present age, until He appears, until He comes again. Now we have Christ with our discouragement, darkness, death, and devastating sadness (as Israel before the first coming!), yet we can rejoice! Because we have God’s very great promises (2 Pet. 1:4). So, let us sing:
“Rejoice! Rejoice! Immanuel; shall come to Thee, O Israel!”
Let us sing as we worship our glorious and beautiful King on David’s Throne, and as we await our Homecoming to the Heavenly New Creation and New Jerusalem, where we shall behold Immanuel face to face (1 John 3:1-3; Rev. 21:1-7)! Let us sing:
“…Open wide our heavenly home; make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery!”
Beloved of Immanuel, let this be our song and prayer this Christmas. And let us visualize with holy and hopeful captured imaginations this scene that is about to take place in our lives:
“Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning nor crying nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:3-4
In Christ’s love,
 J. R. R. Tolkien diagnosed the roots of our longing for home: “We all long for [Eden], and we are constantly glimpsing it: our whole nature at its best and least corrupted, its gentlest and most humane, is still soaked with a sense of ‘exile’” (Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. H. Carpenter and C. Tolkien, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2000, pg. 110).