Advent 2022 — December 21

Love never ends. But if there are prophecies, they will pass away. If there are tongues, they will cease. If there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but whenever the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11 When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I set aside the things of a child. 12 For now we see through a mirror indirectly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know completely, just as I have also been completely known. 13 And now these three things remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13:8-13


“The Greatest”[1]
by Sinclair Ferguson

Everyone agrees. Faith is admirable, hope is wonderful, but love is the greatest. There are songs about faith and words about hope, but the songs and words about love easily surpass them in number and in eloquence.

But why is love the greatest? Is it just because Paul says so here?

On Christmas Day this year, as every year, some TV channel will show a rerun of one or other of the movie versions of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. It is a quintessentially Dickensian novel, and has given the English language one of its most memorable nouns—“scrooge”. The story touches something deep within us because of the way it describes the transformation of a mean and miserly heart into one of sympathy and love.

But if we want to learn what Christmas means, and about the meaning of love, we would be wiser to read someone who was an almost exact contemporary of Dickens: Sir James Young Simpson (1811–1870).

James Young Simpson was born in Bathgate in central Scotland. From his early days he seemed destined for a stellar career. A brilliant student, he completed his final medical exams at the age of eighteen, and had to wait another three years before he could graduate. His accomplishments over his lifetime were such that the day of his funeral was declared a holiday, and it is said that 100,000 people lined the streets of Edinburgh on the way to Warriston cemetery, where he was buried (the family having declined Westminster Abbey). James Young Simpson is best known today because he was the first surgeon to use chloroform as an anaesthetic (he used to experiment on himself and some friends to test the anaesthetic properties of new chemicals!).

But in his own day, Simpson was also well known because of his Christian faith. He well understood why Paul wrote that love is “the greatest”, because he understood the gospel.

He explained it very simply in a little essay entitled My Substitute:

When I was a boy at school, I saw a sight I never can forget—a man tied to a cart, dragged before the people’s eyes through the streets of my native town, his back torn and bleeding from the lash.

It was a shameful punishment. For many offences? No, for one offence. Did any of the townsmen offer to divide the lashes with him? No, he who committed the offence bore the penalty all alone. It was the penalty of a changing human law, for it was the last instance of its infliction.

When I was a student at the university, I saw another sight I never can forget—a man brought out to die. His arms were pinioned, his face was already as pale as death, thousands of eager eyes were on him as he came up from the jail in sight. Did any man ask to die in his room? Did any friend come and loose the ropes and say, “Put it around my neck, I will die instead”? No, he underwent the sentence of the law. For many offences? No, for one offence. He had stolen a money parcel from a stage-coach. He broke the law at one point, and died for it. It was the penalty of a changing human law in this case also. It was the last instance of capital punishment being inflicted for that offence.

I saw another sight, it matters not when—myself a sinner standing on the brink of ruin, deserving nought but hell. For one sin? No, for many, many sins committed against the unchanging laws of God. But again, I looked and saw Jesus, my Substitute, scourged in my stead, and dying on the cross for me. I looked, and wept, and was forgiven. And it seemed to me to be my duty to tell you of that Saviour, to see if you will not also “look and live”.

And how simple it all becomes when God opens the eye. A friend who lately came from Paris told me of an English groom there, a very careless old man, who had during a severe illness been made to feel that he was a sinner. He dared not die as he was. The clergyman whom he sent for got tired of visiting him, having told him all he then knew of the way of salvation. But one Sunday afternoon the groom’s daughter waited in the vestry after church, saying “You must come once more, sir; I cannot see my father again without you.” “I can tell him nothing new,” said the preacher; “but I may take the sermon I have been preaching and read it to him.”

The dying man lay as before in anguish, thinking of his sins, and whither they must carry him. “My friend, I have come to read to you the sermon I have just preached. First, I shall tell you of the text: ‘He was wounded for our transgressions’ (Isaiah 53:5). Now I shall read.” “Hold!” said the dying man. “I have it! Read no more. He was wounded for my transgressions.” Soon after he died rejoicing in Christ.

In the incarnation the Son of God became “a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief” (Isaiah 53:3). But we are not justified, or adopted into God’s family, or sanctified, or glorified simply because the Son of God shared our flesh and our sorrows. Yes, that means he can sympathise with us in our weakness because he experienced it. But he came to accomplish much more—something we could never do for ourselves—he came to die for us. Only when we can say, “He was wounded for our transgressions” have we grasped the meaning of the gospel and the wonder of love.

This is the heart of the matter—as Sir James Young Simpson saw so clearly. This is what we should never forget on Christmas Eve and on Christmas Day. The Son of God was born for us in order to die for us. When we see that, then we have begun to understand Love. And then we discover the joyful truth of John Donne’s words:

Whom God loves, he loves to the end:
And not to their end, and to their death,
But to his end.
And his end is that he might love them more.

For this reason, Love came down at Christmas.


[1] Sinclair B. Ferguson, Love Came down at Christmas: Daily Readings for Advent (The Good Book Company, 2018), 151–155.

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