Contracted to a Span

Time to read: 4 mins

There have been many momentous events throughout the history of the world, but perhaps none of them quite so incredible as what happened just over 2000 years ago in Bethlehem. We commemorate this event every year at Christmas when we focus on the birth of the Lord Jesus. It’s very unlikely that Jesus was actually born on 25th December, but that does not really matter. What is important is that he was born at all.

Why, though, was a baby being born in Bethlehem just so incredible? It’s clear (see Matthew 2:16) that in the locality other babies were born around that time. What made Jesus so special that a host of angels left heaven to sing about his birth? Why was this one of the most momentous events ever to happen in the history of the world?

The clue is in one of the names given to Jesus – ‘they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us‘ (Matthew 1:23). I posted about this a couple of years ago – we saw how Jesus (who is God) became a man (a real human being) and lived on earth with us.

‘And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us…’ (John 1:14)

The reason that this was just so incredible was that God himself stepped into human history as a real man.

We find it hard to comprehend God, don’t we? Just stop and think about him for a few minutes – who he is and what he is like. Our finite minds struggle with it. Now try to grasp how he could have become a human being. And remember, Jesus didn’t come as a glorious King (that will happen one day, at the end of time) rather, he came as a baby.

Charles Wesley wrote about it in his hymn Let heaven and earth combine, putting it like this –

Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made man.

A span is roughly the distance between the tip of your thumb and the tip of your little finger.

How could the eternal Son of God, who is everywhere, be reduced to a baby a few inches long in a manger in Bethlehem?

How could the omnipotent, all-powerful God become a helpless baby completely dependent on his mother for everything?

How could the glorious second person of the trinity come from inhabiting the holy perfection of heaven to live a sinful world, in a stable in Bethlehem?

How incredible that the creator of the world entered his own creation. We can’t understand how it was possible, but must accept it by faith, remembering what the angel Gabriel said to Mary when she asked ‘how shall this be..?

‘For with God nothing shall be impossible.’ (Luke 1:37)

The first three verses of Wesley’s hymn sum this up – it’s a mystery we try to ‘sound [get to the bottom of]…in vain’.

1. Let earth and Heaven combine,
Angels and men agree,
To praise in songs divine
The incarnate Deity,
Our God contracted to a span,
Incomprehensibly made man.

2. He laid His glory by,
He wrapped Him in our clay;
Unmarked by human eye,
The latent Godhead lay;
Infant of days He here became,
And bore the mild Immanuel’s name.

3. See in that infant’s face
The depths of deity,
And labor while ye gaze
To sound the mystery
In vain; ye angels gaze no more,
But fall, and silently adore.

4. Unsearchable the love
That hath the Saviour brought;
The grace is far above
Of men or angels’ thought:
Suffice for us that God, we know,
Our God, is manifest below.

5. He deigns in flesh to appear,
Widest extremes to join;
To bring our vileness near,
And make us all divine:
And we the life of God shall know,
For God is manifest below.

6. Made perfect first in love,
And sanctified by grace,
We shall from earth remove,
And see His glorious face:
His love shall then be fully showed,
And man shall all be lost in God.

This hymn also tells us why Jesus came – to join extremes, to ‘bring our vileness near’ to God.

‘…thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1:21)

‘For ye know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, that ye through his poverty might be rich’ (2 Corinthians 8:9).

Jesus came to earth to fulfil his role in the great story of redemption. To save his people from their sins and to bring them into the fellowship and riches of God’s family.

We celebrate Christmas year by year and perhaps sometimes lose sight of what it is really all about. I pray that this year we’ll all remember that we are celebrating one of the most important events in history – the birthday of our King and Saviour, the day God became man. For if Jesus had not been born, he could not have lived, died or risen again on our behalf, and there would be no hope of salvation or heaven for any of us.

We wish you all a very happy Christmas.

[A00126 – 24/12/2019]

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