The Wisdom of God Lay in a Manger: Why Christmas Shocked the Devil
The assumption behind this article is that the preciousness and pleasures of Christmas will be deeper, stronger, and more intense if we experience Christmas as part of something vaster than all creation and endless ages. The wisdom of God that planned for Christmas existed before the universe and embraces all that happens.
The universe is a theater for the display of God’s wisdom. Jesus Christ is the center and sum of that wisdom. It was executed by the Son of God and for the Son of God. Therefore, “all things were created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:16). God’s purpose which guided his plan was “set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him” (Ephesians 1:9–10).
This Christ-exalting plan for the universe was eternal — God had it in mind forever. The plan “was according to the eternal purpose that he has realized in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Ephesians 3:11). It was a “mystery that was kept secret for long ages” (Romans 16:25) — “the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints” (Colossians 1:26). Imbedded in the long-hidden mystery was a promise of eternal life which God “promised before the ages began” (Titus 1:2).
Unfolding in God’s Theater
It was a plan that would turn the cosmos into a theater, with angels and devils seated in the heavenly galleries to watch the plan unfold. The plan was to put God’s wisdom on display with Christ at the center. The infinite divine wisdom would be seen in Christ’s great achievement — a bride for the Son of God, snatched from Satan’s hold, redeemed and beautified by the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the second person of the Trinity.
At last “the mystery hidden for ages in God would come to light, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 3:9–10). This is the eternal wisdom of God “which God decreed before the ages for our glory” (1 Corinthians 2:7).
This eternal, divine, cosmically displayed wisdom was summed up in the wonder of the God-man, Jesus Christ. “God’s mystery is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2–3). Thus, in the incarnation, God “made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time” (Ephesians 1:9–10).
In other words, Christmas is a central act in a cosmic “plan” (oikonomian, Ephesians 1:10; 3:9) and cosmic “purpose” (prothesin, Ephesians 1:9, 11; 3:11). The plan existed before creation. It was not a response to sin in creation. Creation and redemption were pursued with sin and redemption in full view as part of the plan. Grace was not an afterthought to creation-gone-wrong. God gave us grace “in Christ Jesus before the ages began” (2 Timothy 1:9). Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Second Coming, and Consummation were the eternal purpose and plan of creation, not a response to its fall.
Christmas as Perfect Plan
Since Christmas is part of a great, eternal, cosmic plan, it is part of God’s infinite wisdom. We dare not think of God’s planning without acknowledging that this planning is wise. Infinitely wise. God was not guided in his eternal planning by anything outside himself. “For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?” (Romans 11:34). There is no counsel outside God to help him plan more wisely. He plans according to his own wisdom. And his wisdom is infinite. It is holy. It is perfect.
This is what guided him as he planned for Christmas. Infinite wisdom guided him as he created, endured, and redeemed the world. This wisdom is an essential part of the radiance of God’s glory. Thus Paul says, “To the only wise God be glory!” (Romans 16:27). Therefore, when we say that God created the world for his glory, we mean no less than this: he created the world to display his perfect wisdom in all that he does.
When Paul said that God displayed his wisdom for the “rulers and authorities” to behold (Ephesians 3:10), it is important to realize that those “rulers and authorities” are demonic powers. That’s the way he uses the phrase “rulers and authorities” (Ephesians 6:12; Colossians 2:15). How does God expect the demonic beings of the universe to respond when they see the manifold wisdom of God in creation, and Christmas, and the saving work of Christ?
Why Does God Allow Satan?
To answer this question, let’s ask another: Why does God allow Satan to go on acting in the world? We know that this is not because God cannot eliminate him. As soon as Satan brought misery into the world, God announced that his doom was sure: God said to the serpent that the offspring of the woman “shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15). And at the end of history, the final elimination of the devil is sure: “The devil who . . . was thrown into the lake of fire and sulfur . . . and will be tormented day and night forever and ever” (Revelation 20:10).
The devil and his angels know this. They have known from the beginning that it will come down to a power showdown, and that God, the Creator, is superior. They cannot win. For example, Revelation 12:12 says that the devil “knows that his time is short.” There is no question he will be defeated. It is only a matter of when. Similarly, in Matthew 8:29, the demons cry out to Jesus, “Have you come here to torment us before the time?” In other words, they know that a time for their utter defeat is appointed. What they did not expect is that it would come this way at this time.
Here is where the wisdom of God shows itself most clearly. Satan knew that divine power would one day undo him. But he had no idea that far more than raw power would be on display in his defeat. He did not realize that God would deliver his elect from Satan’s captivity in a way that put God’s eternal wisdom on spectacular display.
Salvation Without Brutal Strength
Human beings were not just captive to Satan; they were under the wrath of God (Ephesians 2:3). They were guilty. They did not deserve rescue, and they were wholly unable to rescue themselves. Satan could not fathom how God’s rightful honor would be restored after man’s treason. He could not comprehend how God’s just wrath would be assuaged, or how sinners could be counted worthy of being adopted as God’s children, or how God could possibly be just and at the same time justify the unjust. All Satan foresaw is that God’s power would overthrow him some day.
But the plan, hidden for ages in God, was vastly more glorious than Satan could see. The thought that God would, himself, in the person of his eternal Son, enter history was unfathomable. Christmas was beyond demonic imagination. What kind of inscrutable plan was this? What kind of triumph had the wisdom of God designed from all eternity? Why did God himself need to become human? Power did not require this. God was, evidently, intent on displaying something more than raw power in defeating Satan and saving humans.
Indeed he was. Wisdom! Infinite wisdom would be on display. God’s plan was to save his people and defeat Satan in a way that would not just glorify his power, but would glorify his “much-manifold wisdom” (Ephesians 3:10). Not just his “wisdom” (sophia). And not just his “manifold wisdom” (poikilos sophia), but his “much-manifold wisdom” (polupoikilos sophia).
Why Christmas Shocked Satan
At the center of this display of unfathomable, many-faceted wisdom was the unforeseeable wonder of the second person of the Trinity, united as one person in two natures, divine and human. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father” (John 1:14).
Then the manifestations of unthinkable wisdom multiplied. Born in a “little” town (Micah 5:2), laid in a feeding trough (Luke 2:7), raised in Nazareth — “can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) — uneducated (John 7:15), misunderstood (Mark 4:13), denied (Matthew 26:34), abandoned (Matthew 26:56), betrayed (John 6:71), mocked (Mark 15:20), spit on (Luke 18:32), flogged (Matthew 20:19), crowned with thorns (Matthew 27:29), and finally, crucified (Mark 15:24) — all in obedience to the Father (Philippians 2:8), according to plan (Acts 4:28; Philippians 2:5–8). This was the “secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages” (1 Corinthians 2:7). Unimaginably, all this weakness and loss was “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:23–24).
Satan did not see this coming. He expected to be defeated by power. He did not expect to be defeated by divine incarnation, or weakness, or mercy, or grace, or justice that vindicates God and justifies sinners. This was hidden wisdom (1 Corinthians 2:7), a hidden plan (Ephesians 3:9), a hidden mystery (Colossians 1:26). Christmas must have utterly shocked him. Where is this unfathomable act going to lead?
Satan Conquered and Ashamed
The answer is that it led not only to Satan’s defeat but to his shame — his utter shame. This is what God intended for Satan to feel when he saw the divine wisdom from his gallery. There would be no mere power-on-power conflict with a noble loser. There would be grace, incarnation, weakness, death, and justice. This was the wisdom of God hidden for ages. And it would have so many divinely planned twists and turns that Satan would be left to own nothing but shame.
We know that the incarnation of the Son of God was designed to cancel the designs of Satan: “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8). As Jesus came to his last hour — the hour of his apparent defeat! — he said, “Now will the ruler of this world be cast out” (John 12:31). The crucifixion was not the defeat of God’s plan but the destruction of Satan’s. Satan was blindsided. He was made a fool.
Paul makes the shaming of Satan explicit.
God forgave all our trespasses, by canceling the record of debt that stood against us with its legal demands. This he set aside, nailing it to the cross. He disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him. (Colossians 2:13–15)
Satan thought of his defeat and our rescue only in terms of power. He did not realize that his age-long opposition to God would be the occasion of God’s spectacular display of all the facets of God’s glorious wisdom, not just his power. The fullness of his shame rose to its climax as he realized — and still realizes with each new blood-bought work of grace — that his own deceptions were being turned into the glorification of the perfections of his arch-adversary.
Here is how John Owen (1616–1683), who thought about these things as deeply as anyone I know, related the wisdom of God in salvation to the shaming of Satan:
This [salvation] was done in a way that Satan never thought of. For, by the obedience and sufferings of the Son of God incarnate, there was full satisfaction made unto the justice of God for the sins of man, a reparation of his glory, and an exaltation of the honor of his holiness . . . outbalancing all the diminution of it by the first apostasy of mankind.
The charms of Satan were dissolved, all his chains loosed, his darkness that he had brought on the creation dispelled, his whole plot and design defeated; — whereon he saw himself, and was exposed unto all the holy angels of heaven, in all the counsels, craft, and power he had boasted of, to be nothing but . . . a mass of darkness, malice, folly, impotency, and rage.
[This shame was] one of the principal parts of Satan’s eternal torments. Absolute power he always feared, and what it would produce; for he believes that, and trembles. But against any other way he thought he had secured himself. [It is plain to all] what shame, confusion, and self-revenge, the proud apostate was cast into, upon his holy, righteous disappointment of his design.
To find that which he contrived for the destruction of the glory of God . . . and the eternal ruin of mankind, [had resulted] in a more glorious exaltation of the holy properties of the divine nature, and an unspeakable augmentation of blessedness unto mankind itself, is the highest aggravation of his eternal torments. This was a work every way becoming the infinite wisdom of God. (The Glory of Christ, 217–218)
Yes. In every way becoming (seemly, fitting, suitable, proper) of the wisdom of God! And the shaming of Satan continues. We are in constant combat, Paul says, “We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12). How does Satan’s shaming continue in this conflict?
Choosing Christ, Despising Devils
Paul gives us a clue in 2 Corinthians 11:2–3.
I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ. But I am afraid that as the serpent deceived Eve by his cunning, your thoughts will be led astray from a sincere and pure devotion to Christ.
Satan would succeed if, as in the case of Eve, he could make his deceitful promises look more alluring than Christ. “Pure devotion to Christ” — preferring Christ over all the allurements of Satan — shames Satan again and again. This is how the ongoing effects of Christmas and Good Friday and Easter compound the shaming of Satan beyond what happened at the cross.
Every day Christ’s people are faced with choices like Job’s — not as severe and painful, but essentially the same. Satan says to God, in effect, as in Job 1:11, “Take away some pleasure, some ease, some comfort, some convenience from Job, and he will prefer me over you every time.” This is the heavenly contest behind every temptation in the Christian life. Every time Christians prefer Christ over Satan’s temptations, Satan is made to look foolish, and the worth of Christ is magnified.
Big Christmas, Big God
That is the ongoing effect of the wisdom of Christmas. “The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil.” The decisive blow was struck by the incarnation two thousand years ago. But every day, the effect of that great blow continues wherever Christians treasure Christ’s person more than Satan’s promises. The eternal plan of God, hidden for ages, continues to be worked out by the Spirit as he causes our affections for Christ to make Satan look not only evil but undesirable. This is what Satan sees every day, around the world, as the rulers and authorities are forced to behold the manifold wisdom of God through the church (Ephesians 3:10).
Christ is the center and sum of this wisdom. The entire plan, conceived from eternity, was to put God’s wisdom on display in history with Christ at the center. Christmas was the decisive inbreaking of this plan into history. Nothing has been the same since.
Therefore, let us make Christmas a time of reorienting our minds and hearts concerning all of reality. Christmas is not small. It is the decisive entrance into our world of the greatest plan in the universe — no, before and above the universe! A plan formed from all eternity. A plan of the triune God to send the second person of the Godhead into his own creation. A plan to shame the enemies of God. A plan to save a treasonous people for his name. A plan to display the infinite wisdom of God.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist, and most recently Expository Exultation: Christian Preaching as Worship.
A version of this article previously appeared on desiringGod.org under the headline, “The Wisdom of God Lay in a Manger: Why Christmas Shocked the Devil.”
Truth and Accuracy
We are committed to truth and accuracy in all of our journalism. Read our editorial standards.