Incarnation

The Johannine Jesus and the “I am”

Introduction

The Jesus of the Fourth Gospel is an enigmatic figure, making tantalizing claims about his ultimate identity. His so-called “I am” statements, sprinkled throughout John, are no exception. Allusive and oblique, they are nonetheless freighted with cosmic significance. This essay will argue that the “I am” statements of John’s Gospel constitute an implicit, yet definite, claim to deity, and that this can be substantiated via an exploration of Old Testament ideas latent within the formula. Unfolding in three stages, it will first survey the two main ‘types’ of “I am” statements Jesus employs, demonstrating the formula’s verbal reliance upon key OT texts, and arguing for their fundamental reference to God’s unique covenantal character. The essay will then build upon those preliminary conclusions, offering a broader theological and salvation-historical account of Jesus’ claim, and highlighting several interlocking thematic links between the Johannine Jesus and previous instances of God’s redemptive-revelatory activity. Finally, it will attempt to properly nuance the “I am” formula, sketching out the distinctiveness of Jesus’ divine identification – particularly in light of its relationship to John’s overall Christological-theological presentation.

“I am” in Context

John’s Gospel uses “I am” on several occasions. Some are conventional forms of self-identification (e.g. 1:20). Others, however, carry weightier significance. I will identify two such categories of “I am” statements: those where Jesus used the “I am” formula absolutely; and those where he combined it with a predicate, or vivid image. One shouldn’t force the distinction: a common bed of theological meaning underlies any apparent division. Moreover, the latter unfurls what is latent in the former.

The Johannine Jesus uses the absolute “I am” statements in the Fourth Gospel without any qualifying predicate. John 8:58 is the classic example. In a steadily escalating debate over his identity and origin, Jesus boldly asserts that “before Abraham was born, I am!” His interlocutors understand this seemingly truncated turn of phrase: immediately, they attempt to kill him (v.59). Their hostility indicates an implicit interpretation of blasphemy. Jesus’ opponents, it seems, invested his pronouncement with the kind of meaning that would have led them to conclude he was, remarkably, claiming deity. John 8:24, 28 are also pertinent, as is 18:5-6. The latter passage, where Jesus confronts a detachment of arresting soldiers, is further indication of claimed deity. The party’s prostrating response – after the evangelist emphasises Jesus’ distinctive reply – certainly implies a theophanic experience.

These are inferences, of course. But why did Jesus’ statements arouse such reactions? What kinds of associations would his contemporaries have made? Here, overtones become echoes – deliberate allusions to a rich stream of OT thought, capturing foundational disclosures of God’s utter uniqueness and covenantal faithfulness. Jesus’ judicial and religious opponents, it seems (particularly in 8:58-9), understood this connection. Indeed, abundant evidence for antecedent OT usage exists, which reveals the burgeoning development of “I am” as a divine name.

Of the various OT texts that might be surveyed in this regard, Isaiah 40-55 is especially important, employing self-referential statements linguistically similar to Jesus’ “I am” formula. In the second major section of Isaiah, repeated promises of divine redemption and covenantal faithfulness appear amidst doubts about Yahweh’s willingness, or ability, to rescue his people (aroused by the calamity of exile, and the apparent triumph of pagan “gods” over Israel’s sovereign). The term, “I am [he],” and its cognates, are used to reveal, among other things, Yahweh’s absolute uniqueness – Israel’s sole guarantor of salvation. Isaiah 41:4 and 43:10-13 are prime examples in this regard. Chapters 44-46 are also apposite, where the “I am” formula is employed several times in a similar context, with similar import (cf. 44:6; 45:5-6, 18: 46:4, 9). In addition, Jesus’ “I am” utterances arguably rely upon Exodus 3:14, where Yahweh disclosed his character to Moses with the appellation, “I am who I am.” Like Isaiah 40-55, Exodus 3:14 is set within a larger, covenantal-redemptive context (which the Fourth Gospel echoes). Divine self-disclosure points again to Yahweh’s matchlessness and loyalty. Jesus’ “I am” statements reverberate with sounds of Yahweh’s titular declarations in Isaiah and Exodus. Recalling such expressions, Jesus deliberately appropriated the divine name, perpetuating a historical pattern characterised by Yahweh’s repeated self-revelation (cf. Jn. 17:11). Jesus’ opponents rightly interpreted these “I am” statements as references to a sacred-divine unveiling.

This OT verbal background applies equally well to the seven instances of the predicated “I am,” fleshing out the absolute form, and underpinning various facets of Jesus’ salvific relationship to humanity. For instance, Jesus claimed to be the “resurrection and the life,” prefacing that declaration with “I am” (Jn. 11:25). In so doing, he appropriated something that, ordinarily, belonged to God alone – and in the process, implicitly presented himself as the locus of resurrection life. Sometimes, Jesus clearly drew from OT images and threads. He claimed to be the “bread of life” (6:35), plainly alluding to the feeding of the Israelites after their flight from Egypt (Exodus 16) – and the source, the enfleshment, of true life. His declaration to be “light” (8:12), it seems, echoed the OT’s use of light as a metaphor, not just for illumination, but for salvation (e.g. Isa. 42:6, 49:6). Similarly, as the “true vine” (15:1), Jesus claimed to be the divine reality to which OT Israel – frequently depicted in these terms (e.g. Ps. 80:8-11; Isa. 5:7) – pointed.

John 10:1-21 is a particularly good example of these realities. By declaring, “I am the good shepherd” (vv.11, 14), Jesus consciously alluded to Ezekiel 34 (cf. 37:24-28), boldly contrasting himself with Israel’s false leaders. In that passage, Israel’s “shepherds” are castigated for their predatory ways (vv.2-10); Yahweh vows that he himself will come and shepherd his people, whilst paradoxically promising the advent of a Davidic figure to reign over the nation (vv.11-24). Jesus re-applied Ezekiel’s promise to himself, asserting that he was that “shepherd,” and that he would provide security and comfort for God’s afflicted (albeit leaving the relationship between the Davidic ruler and Yahweh ambiguous). In so using the “I am” formula, Jesus identified himself with past instances of revelatory activity. Moreover, he frequently combined them with known scriptural images to substantiate his claim to be the consummating distillation of the salvific promises to which he alluded.

“I am” – Thematic Resonances

As the foregoing analysis implies, the “I am” statements signalled more than appropriation of the divine self-appellation. Indeed, they went beyond an abstract, metaphysical assertion. The “I am” formula’s OT grounding suggests that Jesus situated himself within a salvation-historical narrative, identifying (climactically) with a particular god, via particular acts – Yahweh, whose past revelations provided the boundaries for his own self-disclosure. The formula is pregnant with several interlocking theological themes and motifs, once more linking Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus to the Johannine Jesus. Three in particular stand out: the cosmic lawsuit; the revelatory-redemptive nexus; and the seminal significance of the image of exodus itself. They form a triadic relationship, having been woven together to inform a deeper understanding of the significance of the “I am” formula.

To begin, Jesus’ “I am” utterances are part of a scriptural-historical pattern of judicial contests between Yahweh and his adversaries. Both Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus feature what could be called the cosmic lawsuit motif, pitting God and false claimants to deity against each other in a supra-natural trial. Indeed, the question of knowledge of God’s identity hangs over both these portions of the OT. In Isaiah, Yahweh repeatedly reveals himself against a panoply of lifeless idols; in Exodus, he’s unveiled as the authentic Lord, over and against Pharaoh and his pantheon. The key link is the polemical unveiling of the true God in a judicial conflict, where his acts yield knowledge of his character (Exod. 6:2, 6-7, etc.). “I am [he]”, whether in Exodus 3:14, or Isaiah 40-55, hooks into this divine self-identification, and is achieved amidst controversy over who the true, universal sovereign is (cf. Exod. 5:2).

This trenchant disclosure does not, however, stand in isolation. As noted, these passages are part of a broader covenantal framework. In God’s effort to redeem Israel from slavery, or draw it out of exile, the cosmic lawsuit gives way to a deeper redemptive thrust. Yahweh’s exposure of false deities and his own, contrasting claims – by virtue of the evocative “I am” – are in the service of his desire to faithfully save his people. Thus, divine knowledge and divine redemption merge, and are twin components of the logic of Exodus and Isaiah 40-55. Finally, the exodus itself constitutes a seminal link: its founding reality becomes paradigmatic for future liberation by the time of Isaiah 40-55. Indeed, the references to the exodus in Isaiah are particularly vivid, establishing continuity between God’s salvation-historical acts.

The Johannine Jesus, by way of his “I am” pronouncements, relied upon this scriptural edifice, even as he presented himself as its capstone. “I am” is an allusion to a multi-faceted, redemptive narrative. The Fourth Gospel’s cosmic lawsuit, for example, is a well-known motif, reaching a crescendo in Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. Adversarial-legal passages, such as Jn. 5:16-47 or 8:12-59, offer glimpses, as do the frequency of words such as “testimony” and “witness,” references to judgment and divine verdicts (e.g. 3:19ff; 5:22, 28-30; 11:31; 16:8-11), and the Holy Spirit’s depiction as counsellor or advocate.

The Johannine concept of truth takes on a decidedly judicial “hue” in this context, seen most clearly in the repeated disclosures of authentic deity. Jesus’ “I am” pronouncement in 8:58 (and 8:24, 28) is rooted in this environment, and is a particularly clear reflection of the wider cosmic contest, built into the Fourth Gospel’s narrative, between the true God and his opponents (cf. 1:4-5; cf. 19:15c). Controversy over Yahweh’s rightful status as universal Lord is transmuted into a trial over Jesus’ kingly identity (e.g. 19:15). Echoing those crucial portions of Exodus and Isaiah, Jesus offered himself, polemically, as true deity – Yahweh’s unique representative. The “I am” formula, so allusive in its brevity, encapsulates this fundamental (and exclusively authentic) unveiling (8:28). But, also like those OT passages under examination, such revelation was indissolubly linked with salvation: Jesus adopted the “exclusive soteriological function” claimed of Yahweh, where acknowledgement of the “I am” meant life (8:24, 51, 58; esp. 11:25-26; cf. 17:3). Conceiving of truth as revelation, John’s Gospel uses the “I am” statements to encapsulate the authentic character of God, as revealed in Jesus. It is in this regard that John’s frequent use of glory as a metaphor for divine light/truth, explicating Jesus’ identity as its ultimate channel, is relevant: “I am” reflects an understanding of redemptive enlightenment – the already-surveyed conjunction of divine knowledge, communion and salvation. The culmination of that nexus, of course, occurred at Calvary, the paradoxical site of Jesus’ ultimate unveiling as Israel’s true saviour-king (8:28). “I am,” as used by Jesus, is the functional, verbal equivalent of the image of Yahweh’s radiance.

The Fourth Gospel also employs the key motif of exodus as an overarching framework, using its seminal influence to flesh out the nature of Jesus’ salvific ministry. Features include: echoes of the tabernacle’s establishment, a key plank in Yahweh’s salvific-covenantal project (1:14); the corresponding use of divine glory to communicate a key dimension of Jesus person and ministry (e.g. 1:14; cf. 40:34-38); various Mosaic comparisons (1:15; 3:14); the wider import of Isaiah 40:1-3 in John 1:23 (trading, as the former passage does, on exodus imagery); allusive references to the paschal lamb (1:29); imagistic overtones of the exodus in Jesus’ “born again” declaration (esp. 3:5); typological use of the Israelites’ feeding in the wilderness (John 6); salvation as freedom from slavery (8:31, 34); Jesus’ crucifixion at Passover, consummating that event’s anticipatory significance; and, of course, the “I am” formula itself (given its already-noted provenance). Passing the exodus through an Isaianic prism, Jesus obliquely claimed to be the same “I am” who had already achieved redemption for his people, and vowed to do so again. He deployed the formula to identify himself intimately with the God of the exodus – signalling the inauguration of a new exodus, as promised in the Isaianic literature. Isaiah 40-55 and Exodus 3:14, then, should be combined as part of a layered backdrop to Jesus’ own claim – which his “I am” statements reflect – to be the salvific God’s climactic self-revelation.

“I am” God?

One shouldn’t conclude from the above account that Jesus was baldly claiming to be Yahweh/God, without remainder. His pronouncements were, it must be said, far more subtle. Whilst he appropriated uniquely divine prerogatives (bestowal of life, judgment, etc.), and implied unity with God (10:30), Jesus paradoxically distinguished himself from the Father, explicitly referring to this difference at several points (e.g. 4:34; 5:19). It’s important, in this final section, to nuance his solemn assertion of deity found in the “I am” formula.

Importantly, Jesus’ “I am” statements can be viewed in light of John’s unique Christological-theological presentation, particularly as it is found in the prologue (1:1-18). The notion of the divine logos (or Word/wisdom/mind) is pertinent, underpinning the distinctiveness of Jesus’ “I am” utterances. John 8:12 (bookending Chapter 8 with v.58) recalls the prologue’s characterisation of the Word as light, and coheres with allusive references to Jesus-as-Temple, the “site” of Yahweh’s resplendence (= glory, above p.5; see 1:14; 2:12-25; cf. Exod. 40:34-38). Tapping into a rich vein of Jewish theology about the transcendent God’s simultaneous immanence, John’s Gospel depicts Jesus as God’s embodied wisdom, identified with his nature, yet distinct (cf. Isa. 55:11; Prov. 8:22ff). The “I am” statements link Jesus with Yahweh’s activity and being, echoing the prologue’s portrayal of the divine Word as supervening agent in creation. Yahweh’s kingship, to which this essay has already referred, is of a piece with the Johannine picture of God’s presiding over creation: he is the universal sovereign, to which authorship of creation attests. Furthermore, this identity is “concretized,” so to speak, in Jesus and his “I am” claims. John 8:58 is especially apposite, strongly implying Jesus’ pre-existence, and contrasting it with creation’s contingency and finitude (represented, in this case, by Abraham’s qualified existence [cf. 1:1-3]). Functions attributed to Jesus are attributed to the logos, and these connections reflect the Gospel’s conviction regarding his co-inherence, his ontological identification, with Israel’s – and the world’s – God (14:10). Jesus is seen as, and declared himself to be, God’s mediating presence in the creation (1:9-10), witnessing to humanity as the climactic bearer of the divine name (cf. Heb. 1:1-3).

As can be seen, then, this isn’t merely a matter of later theologizing. In the aforementioned use of Ezekiel 34, Jesus himself fused the paradoxical combination of a divine-human shepherd in his own person. John 14:6, where Jesus claims, “I am the way…”, touches upon the enigma of his twin-status as the supreme revelation of Yahweh and the distinct channel, mediator – even enfleshment – of divine truth; indeed, to know Jesus is to know the Father (Jn. 14:9-10), and Yahweh’s singular reality is “devolved,” in a sense, to his uniquely qualified representative. “I am” functions as a subtle reference to Jesus’ divine status, whilst discouraging facile attempts to baldly equate him with Yahweh. Therefore, although he claimed deity, Jesus did so in a way that didn’t exhaust the Godhead. “I am” isn’t a totalizing declaration of godhood, but points to Jesus’ status as God’s true “image” – the incarnation of Yahweh’s wisdom. The Johannine picture of God’s manifold nature calibrates the import of Jesus’ statements, holding in tension his dual identity as Yahweh’s manifest presence and a discrete personage. “I am,” in this environment, successfully preserves the Son’s essential deity, but without collapsing it into the being of the Father.

Conclusion

It is apparent that the Johannine Jesus, according to his “I am” statements, sought to (obliquely) claim divinity. The formula bears clear linguistic parallels with OT instances of God’s self-identification – found, above all, in places such as Isaiah and Exodus – encompassing his uniqueness and covenantal loyalty. Moreover, Jesus’ declarations captured a complex web of fundamental salvation-historical themes and motifs, building upon those striking verbal similarities. The cosmic lawsuit, the coalescence of revelation and salvation, and the use of exodus as a defining image for that process, form a coherent backdrop to Jesus’ “I am” statements. More than an inert, metaphysical assertion, his declaration signalled the climax of God/Yahweh’s redemptive-revelatory activity, to which the surveyed background pointed. Past acts of self-disclosure converged in Jesus, crystallized – in abbreviated form – in the “I am” formula. Importantly, Jesus remained within the confines of monotheism, utilising Jewish categories to explicate his own, distinctive claims to deity. Rather than offering up an exhaustive declaration of godhood, the Jesus of the Fourth Gospel presented himself as God’s supreme self-expression: participating eternally in divine life, embodying divine truth, but retaining a distinct identity. Properly contextualised, Jesus’ “I am” statements buttress this paradoxical portrayal.

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On Faith and Floods – God’s Response (Part 3.2)

The Word Made Flesh

In my last post, I spoke of God entering into time and space in a new way through the person of Jesus, which constituted his answer to the problem of evil. Here, I want to delve into that some more. Passages such as John 1:14, Philippians 2:7, Romans 8:3 and even Hebrews 2:14, 17, all speak of Jesus coming in the flesh. Christians often emphasize Christ’s deity. And so we should. But let us not forget the remarkable message that confronts us in these verses: that the Word, the divine logos, became flesh. And this was not just some divine experiment. No; it was instead the beginning of the process by which God would defeat evil.  The Creator entered the chaotic flow of creation and history to experience it for himself – not just its highs, but its lows, it joys, and its pain. From the simplest feelings of thirst to the most agonizing cries of distress in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus underwent the full range of human emotions and appetites and experiences. As F.F. Bruce once wrote, this was “no impassable visitant from another realm, untouched by our ordinary infirmities”. The passages that I have cited all claim that God has revealed himself most completely, most supremely – most uniquely – in a fully-rounded person: Jesus Christ. The book of Hebrews is especially clear. It speaks of Jesus sharing in our nature, “being made like his brothers” (2:17). He did not just “dip his toe into the water” of humanity, so to speak. He immersed himself in it fully. Incarnation meant inhabitation, and through the person of Jesus, God himself was dwelling fully within human nature.

This in itself ought to be a comfort to those suffering, for those who are Christ’s disciples follow a god who is not absent, or whose transcendence means that he is simply removed from this world. No; we pursue a god who knows what it is to suffer. It is easy for me, in the comfort of my study, to write about evil and suffering. I can argue for the existence of God in light of the terrible, unimaginable horrors that confront people every day from a position of safety. But God himself knows first-hand what it means to be crushed under the weight of evil. In responding to the power of sin in this world, God has so radically identified with the brokenness of his creation that he became a part of it. And thus, he is able to identify with all those who have been touched by the scourge of sin and evil. It is one thing for another to come alongside a person who is grieving; quite another for the Creator God, the One who has brought this world into being to then participate (voluntarily, no less) in its pain.

And of course, the most pristine image of that participation was the cross. It was there that the worst of sin’s power was drawn to one point – the body of Jesus (Romans 8:3), and he experienced the torment of pain – physical pain, distress, and the agony of abandonment. Thus, to the person who is battling with cancer, or who has lost his or her spouse in a flood, we can truly say that God, too, has experienced suffering. To those who weep over abandonment, we can honestly say that God knows of that intimately. Jesus’ cry when he was on the cross – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34) – emerged from the depths of his being. He was not simply quoting Scripture; he was undergoing the consequences of divine abandonment, and thus enduring the loneliness of a broken world (about which I will say more). The triune God elected to experience that process, in part in order to identify with his suffering creation. Indeed, Isaiah 53 – that great prophetic ode to the suffering servant, sent to deal with his people’s sins, and who was revealed as the incarnate Son, Jesus – speaks of this:

“He was despised and rejected by others,

            a man of suffering, and familiar with 

                        pain…”

“Surely he took up our pain

            and bore our suffering…”

“He was oppressed and afflicted,

            yet he did not open his mouth;

he was led like a lamb to the slaughter,

            and as a sheep before its shearers is

                        silent,

so he did not open his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:3,4,7).

Through the cross, God in Christ experienced sin’s consequences for himself, standing with the lowly and the burdened in the midst of the maelstrom. Indeed, the invisible God has become visible – concrete – in Jesus. His care for humanity has now become incarnate in the person of his Son. To those who, like Job, wonder where God is in the middle of their misery, we can say that he is truly there.

More must be said, but I shall leave that for the ultimate post in this series.

On Christmas

Well my faithful readers, I am back after a few weeks’ hiatus. It’s been rather busy, and this explains my absence. However, I thought that the imminent arrival of one of Christianity’s most important days warranted a new article. So here I am, bringing to you my thoughts on Christmas. Again, I was hoping to continue my exploration of how Christians should engage with this world, but that will have to wait.

Here, I want to make some comments regarding the nature and significance of Christmas. To some, its significance does not extend beyond the mad rush to find that perfect gift, or the seemingly interminable round of dinners and meals through which one has to go as one runs the gauntlet of little-known family members and awkward bouts of small talk and chit-chat around the table. Others may put a more positive, optimistic spin on Christmas time, but it is clear that the religious, spiritual and theological overtones of the season have been lost (or in some cases, deliberately ignored). That in itself demands a response, since I would argue that the marginalisation of any specific Christian references during Christmas (which, funnily enough, is a specifically religious term) reflects a wider process of neglect and exclusion, to which Christianity has been subjected, that has been occurring for some time.

However, it is not my intention to enter into that debate (not now, in any case). What I want to do is to focus explicitly on the theological and spiritual background to Christmas, which, when boils it all down, is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ. Although there are only two explicit references to Jesus’ birth in the New Testament (one in Matthew, one in Luke), it is a much-cherished doctrine within the church, and an important part of the question of Jesus’ identity and mission. And although brief and unvarnished, those two references contain within them the seeds of great theological reflection and understanding. My aim is neither to match that reflection or try and imitate that understanding. But by looking at these passages, I hope to draw out the theological significance of Jesus’ birth and what it means for us as his people. Along the way, I shall draw together various other strands of NT thought in an effort to do justice to the different images the theologians of the first-century church used to reflect upon the advent of the Son of God.

The first image that comes to mind is the royal advent of the king. This is especially apparent when one reads the birth narrative in Luke (2:1-7). The passage begins with Caesar issuing a royal decree, compelling all people who lived within the borders of the Roman Empire to return to their ancestral homes in order that a census might be taken. And so, because of this decree, a young Jewish couple make their way to Bethlehem, whereupon a baby is born to them. Luke is making a subtle, subversive – and yet, when one reads the birth of Jesus in context, wholly apparent – point about the lineage and origins of Jesus. Already, when an angel of the Lord visited Mary to tell her that she would bear a child that would be known as the “Son of God” (Luke 1:35), we have the sense that this will be a royal birth. Remember, the term “Son of God” had kingly, royal overtones, and we should not miss its significance. What is more (and I must acknowledge that I picked up the following point after reading a piece by N.T. Wright), Luke has structured his narrative in such a way that the birth of John the Baptist (1:57-66) – the account of which constitutes an important part of the evangelist’s story – is meant to echo the miraculous birth of another individual in Israel’s long-line of prophets and royal heralds: Samuel. This may not seem apparent at first, but when one looks at the parallels between Luke’s account and the narrative in 1 Samuel, the point becomes clear. The barrenness of a righteous woman who, through God’s miraculous intervention, gave birth to a boy who would eventually grow up to be a prophet, a forerunner and a herald to royalty, are some of the parallels between the two passages. And when we understand that 1 Samuel is, at least in the beginning, about the advent of David, the true king, and Samuel, the herald who would announce him, we should also understand that Luke pictures the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Jesus through this particular historical lens. For him, the birth of the Baptist is nothing less than the advent of the one who would prepare the way for the return of the king.

And so we come back to Luke 2:1-7, where Caesar lifts his little finger, forcing Mary and Joseph to travel from their home in Nazareth to Bethlehem (note the importance of Bethlehem as the birthplace of the true Davidic king). As I said earlier, Luke is making a rather subversive point. Although the earthly parents were compelled by royal decree to travel to Bethlehem, our evangelist is under no illusions as to who the true king really is. The one who ordered an empire-wide census was just another pretender; his power was illusory and fleeting. In an extraordinary reversal, Luke is suggesting that the real king – the real lord (Luke 2:11) – was the one born in a stable, in the dead of night, to a poor Jewish couple. This was, and is, the true king, the one who now rules over all the earth. Luke’s mention of Caesar is only significant insofar as it sets up a contrast between the pomp and arrogance of royal imposters, and the humility and sacrifice of true kingship.

The upside-down nature of Jesus’ royal identity is something that permeates the gospels, and to no greater extent than in the birth narratives. But the NT writers were not simply speaking of an earthly king who reigned over a merely earthly province. They were instead speaking of the cosmic universal Lord who reigns over all things in heaven and on earth, but who entered into the chaotic flow of time and human experience as one of us. Paul waxes lyrical about the great condescension of Jesus in Philippians 2:5-7. Now, Paul is well aware of the kingly nature of the one about whom he writes. At the end of the passage from which my quote comes, he speaks of Jesus in terms that ripple with regal overtones. There, in poetic form, the apostle speaks of Jesus “being in very nature God…ma(king) himself nothing”. Though he does not mention Jesus’ birth, Paul is adamant that this man was none other than the incarnation of the Creator God. Indeed, he proclaims that the equality between Jesus and God prior to the former’s earthly incarnation was total, complete, whole – indeed, not something that Jesus possessed by force or false claims, but by virtue of what he was, and is, by nature. And yet, he left his place of heavenly glory to take his place amongst sinful humanity; the king walking amidst his rebellious subjects. His birth focused and crystallised that act of sacrifice and humbling, as the true Lord began the final phase of his mission to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under him. This, finally, brings me to the second image with which I associate Christmas: that of divine sacrifice. Via his birth in a small Palestinian village, the one true king humbled himself in a manner, and to an extent, that is difficult to fathom. The life of Christ was one of constant sacrifice on behalf of humanity, and it began in Bethlehem.

The final image that comes to mind when I think of the Christmas period is the advent of Jesus as true humanity, which helps to make sense of the other two images. It was (partly) in order to give us a picture of true humanity that the true king condescended, giving up the glory of unfettered deity to humbly live amongst us. Here, the miraculous element to the birth story takes on new significance. What is striking is that both narratives do not spend much time on the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth; it is a simple, unvarnished fact. Nevertheless, there lie within these deceptively simple descriptions great truths that flesh out the already grand picture of Jesus’ identity. As with all the miracles recorded in Scripture, this one was not simply meant to be the divine equivalent of a spectacular magic trick. It contained within it theological meaning – meaning that not only goes to the heart of Jesus’ mission and identity, but also impinges upon our own end as God’s redeemed people. Part of the logic of Jesus’ miraculous birth was the fact that his advent effectively bypassed the sinfulness inherent in humanity. Rather than being the product of two sinful parents, Jesus came into this world as a product of the direct and sanctifying work of the Spirit. To be sure, he came in the likeness of sinful man (Romans 8:3), but that likeness did not include the intrinsic corruption that has afflicted God’s image-bearers. God was able to have his cake and eat it too, so to speak: on the one hand, he entered into the realm of human existence in a most profound and intimate way; on the other hand, he was able to avoid the apparent inevitability of human sinfulness as he sought to lead his image-bearing creatures out of that sinfulness as their model and representative. For Jesus was, and is, the incarnation – not simply of God, but of what humanity was always meant to be. That lies at the heart of passages such as Hebrews 2:5-9. It also lies at the heart of other passages, including John 1.

Indeed, if we read John 1:14, we find the evangelist, in his own version of Jesus’ entry into the world, speaking of the “Word” becoming “flesh”. Now, John’s depiction of the Word is clearly inspired by the creation narratives of Genesis 1 and 2. And in those narratives, we find God’s creation climaxing in the formation of man. There, God breathed his Spirit into his image-bearer, and divinity and humanity came together. With the miraculous birth of Jesus, the natural and the spiritual – divinity and humanity – came together in an even more profound manner when God’s wisdom took on the fleshly existence of man, and a baby was born to a young Jewish woman. It focused the entire trajectory of Jesus’ mission in one spectacular act and set the stage for what would follow, culminating in the epochal events of Jesus’ death and resurrection. If Jesus represented true humanity to the world – and by that, I mean the perfect union of God and man – then his birth dramatized that purpose and established the precedent for his ministry and the model he presented to sinful humanity. Thus, the birth of Jesus – in a word, Christmas – means the entry of true humanity into this dark world, a light shining in the darkness.

So much more could be said. For example, Christmas makes no sense without Easter. In other words, the Incarnation means little without Calvary, for Jesus did not simply model true humanity; he also gave his own life in order that sin – the one thing standing between humanity and God – might be defeated and man might enjoy reconciliation with his Creator. There is a strong link connecting those two events. But, since this is Christmas, I wanted to reflect on the events that set this ministry, this mission, in motion. Let us give thanks for the king who humbled himself twice: first, by adopting the likeness of sinful humanity; and second, by dying the perfect death for us so that we might be saved, redeemed, set free. We will celebrate the latter in a few months. Let us celebrate the former now.