Luke

Ethics and the Birth of Jesus

It is a truism to suggest that Jesus’ life and teachings are inescapably ethical. Even a cursory glance at, say, the Sermon on the Mount reveals the moral hue of much of what Jesus’ claimed, did and taught. Less obvious is the way in which events that happened to Christ bear the unmistakable traces of ethical significance. It is one thing to argue that the life of Jesus, to the extent that he exercised authorship over its shape and trajectory, was a moral one; quite another to suggest the same of moments in his life over which he (ostensibly) had no control. Still, we must not forget that the New Testament presents Jesus’ earthly sojourn – all of it, from beginning to end – as an epochal event, pristinely reflecting the eternal will and nature of God. Birth was no different. It was something Christ chose; it was not foisted upon him, and nor was he the unwilling subject of divine fiat. No: he decided, in concert with the Father and the Spirit; he acted, in complete accord with the other members of the godhead; he sacrificed, the ground of which was the loving union of the Triune God. It is the very beginning of Christ’s life, when he entered the flow of creation and time, upon which I want to meditate; the moment at which sovereign divinity deigned to inhabit the fetters of mortal humanity. Clothed in the fine garment of infanthood, the Word incarnate demonstrated the full character of the godhead. Moreover, in doing so, he left an ethical model for followers past and present – one which remained consistent, and constant, until the very end of his life.

All this is very well; but even if we agree that Jesus’ birth was the result of God’s decree (whose identity, of course, cannot be separated from Jesus’ own), in what way does it constitute an ethical act? In what way does it function as a pattern to be imitated by Christians? I submit that it does so in three ways, by way of movement hierarchical, metaphysical and social. The first act of movement rests upon Jesus’ voluntary decision to lay aside his innate glory and live amongst his own image-bearers. The second act rests upon the singular, inimitable nature of his birth, by which he bridged the metaphysical [1] chasm between deity and humanity. And the third act rests upon his identification with the poor and disenfranchised. In reality, the various threads are deeply intertwined – the metaphysical “gap” that exists between the Creator and the creation is also a hierarchical one, whilst the social identification of Christ is an extension, or specification, of his entry into the realm of humanity. That said, for the purposes of this essay, I shall parse them out to make clearer my reflections – and, in the second part of this piece, the ethical implications thereof.

Let us begin with the hierarchical or vertical axis of the Son’s great migration. In becoming man, Jesus moved from the unshielded glory of God’s presence, as well as the acknowledged and unfettered glory of his own nature, to the “soft envelope” (to borrow Tozer’s phrase) of finite human existence. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians expresses well this aspect of Christ’s birth. In a few short verses, the Apostle deliberately establishes a contrast between the innate equality Jesus had with God prior to his advent, and the fact of his humble entry into the created world (2:6-7). In speaking of that great event, Paul uses language that conveys deliberation, control and voluntary self-abnegation – qualities that one might argue are necessary (though not sufficient) for any act to be considered ethical. Indeed, he declares that Jesus “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant; he humbled himself”, and so on (Philippians 2:7-8; italics mine). Paul is emphatic, in declaring that Jesus made himself “nothing” (v.7). We might think that he is simply talking about Jesus entering this world as a powerless, impoverished individual – the son of parents who lived in penury and want. That is true, so far as it goes (I shall return to this theme below). However, what Paul means by “nothing” is humanity itself. Whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless, influential or marginal, humans are comparatively “nothing” when placed next to the infinite glory of God.

In a previous essay, I spoke about the incomparable nature of the Deity, whose awful majesty swallows up the grandiose notions of his subjects. Whereas humans are bound, God is boundless; whereas we are finite, he is infinite; and whereas we are subject to corruption and decay (physical, moral and spiritual), God – being uncreated – is utterly untouched by these forces, governing them with complete freedom. His resplendence is “above the heavens” (Psalm 8:1), which is a way of proclaiming his complete sovereignty over all there is. Time and again, the Psalms wax lyrical about Yahweh’s kingship. It is an apt metaphor that describes the hierarchical distinction between the Creator and his creation. Remarkably, however, he left what was his by nature, “emptying” himself to make possible the redemption of his creatures. Paul’s careful language preserves the paradoxical distinction between the first two persons of the godhead. Christ is at once the One who intrinsically possesses the essence of God and the One who can still relate to the Father, being as he is “with” him (Phil. 2:6). God is simultaneously transcendent and immanent, and it was the latter that was fully expounded in the humble person of Christ, whose self-oblation upon earth quietly began at the moment of his birth.

The NT elsewhere picks up on this theme of the king’s voluntary pauperism. Take Luke’s birth narrative, for example. He deliberately sets his account against the backdrop of national and international history. To set the scene of the announcement of John the Baptist’s birth – he who would herald the arrival of the Messiah – Luke mentions the reign of (the non-Jewish) Herod over Judea (the name given to Judah at that time) (1:5). As context for his account of the birth of Christ, Luke refers to the reign of Augustus Caesar over the Levant (2:1). Quite clearly, he wants his readers to note the jarring contrasts. On the one hand, God’s people were ruled by a petty tyrant, a vassal of Rome who was not even Jewish (cf. Matthew 2:6); on the other, they lived under the domination of a foreign overlord, whose pomp and power were unmatched. But with delicious irony, Luke subtly suggests to us the identity of the true king of Israel, and therefore, the world. Jesus, the One to whom the Baptist was to point (Luke 3:4-6), did not reside in a palace in Judea, or a royal house in Rome. Rather, he came as an infant, shed of all the overt trappings of deity in order to consummate the Father’s redemptive plan. For all their worldly claims to rulership, the men into whose realms Jesus was going to enter were mere parodies of the true king. The point here, however, is that the true king humbled himself deeply, adopting the limitations of his creatures and entrusting himself to their imperfect care. Once more, we see the willing self-abnegation of Christ demonstrated, as he bore the lowly circumstances of those made in his image.

In laying aside his heavenly glory – something which he did not have to grasp, as it belonged to him by eternal right – Jesus also traversed the metaphysical edges of heaven and earth, humanity and divinity. This particular aspect of Christ’s birth closely follows the already-discussed overtones of hierarchical movement, whereupon he added created existence to his pre-existent nature. One might say, then, that it was the crystallization of that impossible union. In his own, writhing body, the infant Jesus personified the union between God and man; between two, apparently irreconcilable natures. Moreover, his birth was the first concrete sign that heaven and earth – the spiritual and the material – were being drawn together in loving harmony by the Creator. His life was a microcosm of that union, and a foretaste of what will be the case universally. The Gospel of John, to which I often turn, marks out the transcendent nature of God’s wisdom. Jesus, the pre-existent Word, was God and was with God “in the beginning” (Jn. 1:1). This language, much like Paul’s ode in the Philippian Letter, preserves the paradoxical nature of the Deity: combining simultaneous affirmations of the Word’s eternal identity with God and his distinctiveness. That is important, for the supervening agent in creation, who proceeds eternally from the depths of the Father, in time became one of us. John declares that “the Word became flesh” (v.14; cf. Rom. 8:3; 1 Tim. 3:16). Here, “flesh” stands for mortal, created existence, in contrast with the utterly uncreated existence of Yahweh (cf. Isaiah 31:3a). How could these two states – these two metaphysical worlds – be bridged? More to the point, how was it possible that in one being, these two natures, so seemingly irreconcilable, could be united harmoniously? How could the eternal One take on the substance of those he created without ceasing to be what he always had been?

These questions are largely imponderable, and the metaphors that abound can only offer a dimly lit path towards the truth. One, for instance, likens the coming of Jesus to a person who adopts dual citizenship. The person is fully a member of two nations, of two political groups, by virtue of legal reality. Going further, one could use the example of someone with multi-ethnic parentage as a metaphor for the manifold identity the Son adopted at birth. Like an individual who is, say, Spanish and Fijian (to select two ethnic groups that are largely unalike), Jesus combined in his own person two natures, two identities – two “streams”, unified in one person. Even this image, however, is limited, for it cannot adequately repeat the utter dissimilarity between humanity and divinity. Unlike a dual citizen, or a bi-racial individual, divinity and humanity do not occupy the same ontological territory; there is no space – save for Jesus himself – where they mingle. It required an act of God to create this new reality, when he “came upon” a virgin by his Spirit, and poured his life into her womb (Luke 1:35).

Lastly, I come to the socially significant nature of Christ’s birth. Whereas the hierarchical and metaphysical facets of this movement lay behind material reality, the social and economic environment into which Jesus was born reflects more visibly the extent of his identification with the created order. Even allowing for the Son’s act of “emptying”, by which he condescended to humanity in the flesh, it was yet still possible for him to be born into, say, a royal family – or at least a family of some influence. Why should he, the radiance of the Father, not have taken his place amongst earthly powers? Of course, the possibility was always present, but in an act of sheer grace, he chose to identify with the lowliest of his image-bearers; to inhabit this world as a person of poverty; to enter the flow of creation and time as an occupant of social and economic weakness. Nowhere is that truth plainer than at the time of his birth. One small example will suffice. We read in Luke 2:24 that Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice of two doves when they presented the infant Jesus at the Temple. A seemingly innocuous detail, perhaps – but the presentation of doves was a legal stipulation for people who were unable to afford a lamb (see Leviticus 12:8). Quite clearly, then, Jesus’ earthly parents were poor. They could not afford the normal offering, and were compelled to offer a sacrifice out of their poverty. Thus, Jesus went beyond mere identification with humanity in some vague and ill-defined manner. He did not appear in power and glory, taking for himself worldly riches. Indeed, it was precisely the opposite. Through his birth (not to mention his life), Christ identified deeply with the poor, the outcasts and the marginal.

We ought to remember that Jesus’ life was an unfurling of the nascent qualities glimpsed at the Nativity. It certainly does not stand in splendid isolation. However, far from simply marking the beginning of the Word’s incarnation, Jesus’ birth was an intrinsically ethical act. Indeed, it continues to possess moral significance in its own right. I trust that others reading this will be able to discern some of the ethical consequences of this act for those who claim to follow Jesus. In the second part of this piece, I shall sketch out some ideas in an effort to demonstrate the implications for Christians’ lives as they attempt to pattern them on the birth (not to mention the life) of Christ.

[1] By “metaphysical”, I am referring roughly to the substance, essence or nature of things.

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The Manifold Significance of the Resurrection (Part 3.2) – New Creation and the Individual

A dense and layered truth rests in a person’s hands when he or she scrutinises the resurrection. It is for this reason that I have required several posts in order to delve into it and explicate its “manifold significance” (to borrow from my title). Following my exploration of the interweaving connections between resurrection, justification and sanctification, my last post on this topic was an examination of the victory of Christ as a paradigm for a new order, indeed, a new creation. That, as I have said, takes place on a multiplicity of levels. Having looked at the model and first step of new creation, it is now time to turn my attention to what it means for individuals. Using the creational motif that I have employed previously (and which the Bible itself uses as an overarching theological theme to help elucidate the redemptive work of God), I shall attempt to offer a glimpse of the ultimate goal of justified, sanctified Christian life, of which the resurrection is the pattern. The New Testament is replete with references to resurrection, new life and the consummation of salvation as they pertain to individuals. And, although a comprehensive look at what the NT says on the matter is impossible, no account of resurrection as the fresh creation of believers can be considered faithful to its witness without a cursory glance (and hopefully more) at the statements that compose it. The NT, both explicitly and implicitly, makes the astonishing suggestion that those who have been united to Christ will participate in his resurrection. It has not simply secured our initial justification; nor has it merely provided us with new, spiritual life in the present. Rather, it takes up both those stages of a Christian’s salvation, and completes them in his or her total reception of new life. It is something Scripture depicts as a recapitulation of the original creation of humanity; and yet, it passes well beyond the first fashioning of God’s image-bearers to a kind of existence that is beyond death, chaos and decay. I want to make all this plain, but in order to do that, I must also challenge popular notions of Christian hope: not so that long-cherished beliefs are destroyed, but so that the actual truth of a person’s resurrection – according to the riches of Christian theology – may become clear. I shall say more in due time.

But first, traversing over old terrain is, perhaps, necessary. As I noted in earlier essays on this topic, a person is neither justified nor sanctified if Jesus is still in the grave. In like manner, no one has escaped death if Jesus himself – the true man and humanity’s representative – did not triumph over it. The notion of new creation is but a forlorn hope without it. As the Apostle Paul emphatically states in 1 Corinthians: “…if Christ is not raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins…If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men” (1 Cor. 15: 17, 19). But if Jesus has been raised from the dead (and I believe he has), then this life is not the end. The present creation will pass away, but only so a new creation can take its place. And those of us who are “in Christ” and united to him will receive the blessed gift of new, incorruptible life. To put it another way: death could not maintain mastery over Christ, for the Creator and source of all life could never be held by it. In like manner, all who belong to Christ will share in that same release, precisely because they share in his paradigmatic act. Such is the strength of this fact that Jesus himself could call believers “…sons of the resurrection” (Luke 20:36).

We must examine more closely the connection between Christ’s resurrection and the new life accorded to those who are united to him. Romans 6:1-9, which I surveyed previously, is a good place to start. After dispensing with the hypothetical argument made against his case for salvation through the grace of God, Paul speaks of believers having been baptised into Christ’s death (v.3). If that be the case, Paul effectively asks, then a person has been separated from sin; it no longer has mastery over them. Just like Jesus, we who are “in” him (that is, united to him spiritually) are raised to “new life” – something Paul emphasises in verse 4. That new life has been secured by Christ’s death and resurrection; we cannot isolate them. It is because of the triumph of the one man, Jesus (which I examined in the previous essay on this topic), that any one of us can be said to have new life. Death to sin is, by itself, meaningless. In commenting on this passage, I. Howard Marshall puts it this way:

“…the baptized could be said have died to their old life in which they were under captivity to sin…But this would be no freedom if the believers were simply dead rather than passing through death into a new sphere of existence” (New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel, p.317).

That “new sphere of existence” is patterned on the inaugurating work of Jesus. He died his death to sin, but because he has been raised from the dead, never to die again, death cannot have mastery over him (Rom.6:9). We who are united to him in his death are thus united to him in his life.

To be sure, this certainty is a future expectation (though it emphatically commences in the present). Still, the point is that it will happen. What has already begun in the life of a follower of Jesus will be completed, consummated – radically fulfilled – by the same Spirit that brooded over the waters as he preserved God’s original creation (Gen. 1:2; cf. 8:11). What was subject to decay and death will be immersed, if you like, in immortality. What was perishable will become imperishable. What was vulnerable to the fatal effects of sin will be impervious to them. One day, a believer’s body will leave behind the fetters of mortality for good, and death will be “swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:50-54). Incidentally, it is here that a connection between individual new creation, justification and sanctification becomes apparent. Having already spoken of resurrection’s importance to these stages of the Christian life, I will not detain readers with a detailed recapitulation. Suffice it to say, if justification is God’s judicial act of counting someone righteous, what could better reflect the consummation of that initial decision than one’s final resurrection, one’s new creation? In the Gospel of John, marked as it is by a creational-redemptive framework, Jesus himself touched upon this. Using the forensic language often linked to justification, he said that those who have “done good” will enjoy resurrection and life at the end (see John 5:29). Similarly, if sanctification is the progressive unfolding of righteousness in a believer – and, with it, the progressive erasure of sin – then the consequences thereof (ie. death) will eventually be vanquished. The notion of resurrection forms the ground and the goal of sanctification, and, therefore, new creation.

At this point, the reality of the larger narrative of new creation, and its relevance to the individual, has simply been implied. But, as these passages suggest, the paradigm of Christ’s life cannot be understood apart from the notion that his resurrection was the first step in God’s efforts to re-make his world – to redeem it from death, and to inaugurate, in effect, a new creative order. The fate of individuals sits snugly within that project. Nevertheless, we do not have to travel far in order to see how explicit the idea is at certain points, particularly in light of the prominence of the original creation as a theological motif for many of the NT writers. One might easily point to John 3, which famously has Jesus exhorting Nicodemus to be “born again”. The phrase itself evokes images of new life, in keeping with John’s overall theological scheme. But we may also look to places such as 1 Corinthians 15, Hebrews 2:5-9, or even 2 Corinthians 5:17 – a verse which uses the precise phrase “new creation” – to see how the concept has woven its way into the structure of apostolic thinking. To take just one example: 1 Corinthians 15, to which I have already alluded. Before Paul embarks on an extended discussion on the necessity of the resurrection of believers, he sharply contrasts two, paradigmatic men. On the one hand, lies the first Adam; on the other, the second Adam, Jesus (1 Cor. 15:45-49). The former, Paul says, was of the earth – mortal, finite, vulnerable to corruption. The latter, however, was of heaven – immortal, infinite, free from spot or blemish. The point is that the apostle deliberately invokes Adam as a motif, in order to draw a contrast between two “creations”, or “reigns”. The first man was the head of a humanity prone to sin and death, as the Bible’s opening book points out (cf. Gen. 1-3). The latter man was, and is, the representative of a humanity that will enjoy his likeness (cf. v.49).

Talk of new life, even resurrection, is all well and good. However, it is important to speak about what kind of life this will be, for even the notion of resurrection can be misunderstood. When the authors of the NT speak of new life, they do so with a degree of specificity. It is not the case that Paul and others were envisioning some vague kind of existence beyond the material world. To do so would have negated the goodness of God’s creative work, and undermined the thematic power of the original, material world. Ancient Greeks believed in the immortality of the soul; popular, present-day renditions of the afterlife imagine disembodied spirits enjoying some manner of heavenly joy in the hereafter. But if we look to the Apostle to the Gentiles for a moment, we find him speaking deliberately of resurrection. As N.T. Wright has commented, the term was only ever used to denote “re-embodiment, not…disembodied bliss”. Indeed, in Rom. 6:5, which we have already surveyed, Paul states that those of us who have been united to Christ in his death will certainly be united to him in his “resurrection”. Erroneous imaginings of ultimate Christian hope notwithstanding, resurrection was seen as a bodily, material phenomenon. It was certainly a new mode of existence, to be sure. But that newness was viewed as emphatically physical. Christ’s triumph over death only makes sense because his resurrection was bodily in nature. In the same way, those of us who have escaped the old life, held in bondage to sin and death, will take on new bodies. New life will be transmuted, but it will definitely remain physical. By the same token, if new life remains physical, then it will definitely be transmuted. As Leon Morris has said:

“The Christians thought of the body as being raised. But also transformed so as to be a suitable vehicle for the very different life of the age to come” (New Bible Dictionary, Third Edition, p.1010. Emphasis mine).

If the resurrection of Jesus – being bodily in nature – is the ground for the new creation of the individual, then it seems that our redemption will follow his representative act. As I have noted, he is the pattern. He is the “firstborn from amongst the dead” (Colossians 1:18). And if that be the case, then our resurrection will be like his; “we shall be like him”, as it were (1 John 3:2). Paul’s letter to the Romans is once again instructive.  In chapter 8, we find the apostle talking about life in the Spirit. In the present, the Spirit changes and transforms a believer’s spiritual and moral life. In the future, though, all of one’s life will be transformed, including his or her body. It will be a complete and total change. We might look at 8:11, for example. Once more, Paul suggests that the new life of a Christian is patterned on the resurrection life of Christ. The Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead will certainly “give life to” one’s “mortal body”. Nothing in this verse implies an escape from the body. In fact, it suggests quite the opposite: an enlivening addition to the present “body of death” (Rom. 7:24). It may constitute a radical transformation, but one that does not abandon the material realm. We should not think that it would be otherwise. And, with Paul’s multiple allusions to freedom, redemption, and creation itself (cf. Rom. 8:19-25), it is clear that for the apostle, a believer’s ultimate hope rests in a renewed creation – that of God’s world, redeemed from the bondage of death, and of those who will receive bodies fit to dwell within it.

 *          *          *

The drama of God’s redemptive activity, being played out on the stage of history and creation, is also being played out in the life of every believer. New creation will occur, not just on a cosmic scale, but on an individual one, too. What will happen universally is happening now, in the present, in the lives of believers. The triumph of the resurrection means that the old creation is passing away. All this is through Jesus Christ, who was the primary agent of both creation and new creation (see John 1:1-3). His own resurrection was the climax of his redemptive agency, and constitutes the model for believers. Those of us who have embraced that triumph will participate in his triumph, and, as members of both the old creation and the new, we have the unique privilege of seeing that sanctifying transformation happen in our midst. Christ’s resurrection body served as the first sign of new creation. Our own bodies, having already been enveloped by the Spirit, are also signs that the old has gone, and the new has come. We may still be vessels of broken clay, living in an ambiguous period between the announcement of God’s reign, and its final coming. Nonetheless, if new creation is a reality, then it is a reality that begins as a seed within each believing individual. That seed – that new birth, if you like – anticipates the wider renewal that will embrace a groaning world, as it waits on tiptoe for the children of God to be revealed. That, however, is the subject for a future post.

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.