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One of the most important words in the Christmas story is an unassuming one. It’s one you’ve probably skipped over many times, failing to recognize its significance. It’s not a main character—like Jesus, Mary, or Joseph—but you can hardly understand the Christmas story without it.

At Christmas, one little word—with—helps to explain why Jesus came and how we can know him. With clarifies, convicts, and comforts.

1. With Clarifies

What we see depends on what our hearts are filled with. Herod’s heart was filled with envy, pride, and fear. When the magi asked him where the “king of the Jews” had been born, he was disturbed—“and all Jerusalem with him” (Matt. 2:2–3). At the time of Jesus, after all, Herod was known as the “king of the Jews” for his military and political leadership of Palestine. Since he had protected the land from outside threats, Jerusalem associated him with victory, peace, prosperity, and hope.

To give an unknown baby boy his title was threatening to Herod—and also to Jerusalem. In a vain attempt to vanquish his foe, therefore, Herod killed all male babies younger than 2 born in Bethlehem. It was an overkill, quite literally, because he was brimming with envy and fear.

But the eyes of the magi were filled with curiosity and faith. These wise men had opened the Scriptures to see what had been said about “where the Christ was to be born” (Matt. 2:4). They saw the star that rested over the place where Jesus was born and “rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matt. 2:10). When they arrived to the manger and saw baby Jesus, they “fell down and worshiped him,” offering their treasures (Matt. 2:11).

Unlike Herod, these men weren’t proud and protective. They were distinguished visitors with treasures in their hands, but they were humble and generous, bowing before a baby. Their hearts were brimming with curiosity and faith.

2. With Convicts

Before Jesus was born, the angel of the Lord told Joseph, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). We need his salvation because we are with sin. From the time we’re conceived, we are bent toward evil (Ps. 51:5; 58:3). We want the wrong things, and we want the right things for the wrong reasons. As Paul confesses, “sin dwells within me” and “evil lies close at hand” (Rom. 7:20–21).

When sinners come into God’s holy presence, the first response is often fear (Exod. 3:6; 1 Sam. 6:20; 2 Sam. 6:9; Ezek. 1:28). Isaiah repents when the presence of the Lord fills the temple (Isa. 6:5). Angels of the Lord appear and tell people not to fear. Our first response is fear because God’s blinding holiness exposes us.

And Simeon prophesied that we would respond this way. Forty days after Jesus’s birth, Joseph and Mary took him to the temple in Jerusalem to present him to God and offer a sacrifice. When they arrived, a righteous and devout man named Simeon greeted them. Simeon had one goal in life—to see the salvation of the Lord. As he took Jesus into his arms, God revealed to him that this baby was his salvation for Jews and Gentiles alike. Blessing God and turning to Mary, Simeon prophesied:​

Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. (Luke 2:34–35)

Seeing that we’re with sin is painful, like being pierced by a sword. But the scalpel in the hands of our Father doesn’t kill us; it saves us. Thirty-three years after his birth, Jesus would be pierced by a Roman sword and would offer his life as an atoning sacrifice for our sins—just as the angel had told Joseph.

Hidden in Christ, we are now with righteousness, not sin. As Paul writes, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). We’re no longer slaves to sin, but sons of God.

3. With Comforts

Being alone can feel dangerous—ask anyone who’s walked alone down a darkened street at night. But being with someone can comfort and, in some cases, save us.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, telling him the baby would be named Jesus and would save sinners, Matthew explains that this took place to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah: “‘Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel’ (which means, God with us)” (Matt. 1:23, quoting Isa. 7:14).

God with us. This is Christmas. This is the incarnation. And this is shocking. That an infinite and holy God would voluntarily live with unholy sinners, that he would leave his throne for a manger, that he would allow himself to be butchered on a cross at the hands of his creation—this is astonishing.

Yet he did this to be with us—both to comfort and to save. As the writer of Hebrews explains, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb. 4:14–15). In this, his with-ness comforts us.

It also saves us. We are no longer alone, walking down a darkened path, for he is with us. As the writer of Hebrews continues,

Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him. (Heb. 5:7–9)

Reflecting on this little, overlooked word—with—ushers us into Christmas, since it reminds us to fill our hearts with curiosity and faith, to give thanks for making us people with the righteousness of Christ, and to marvel at the miracle of God with us.

Indeed, with may be the most significant word at Christmas. May we not overlook it.