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how to tell the biblical story in a way that makes a difference

“Glory to the newborn King” or “Hail the incarnate Deity”?

The Gospel Coalition has a blog post by Joe Carter: 9 Things You Should Know About Christmas. It’s all fairly trivial stuff: Jesus probably wasn’t born on December 25th, there’s no mention of a donkey in the texts, we don’t know how many wise men there were, Martin Luther disapproved of Santa Claus but may have been the first person to decorate a Christmas tree with lights, and so on. Nothing that’s going to break any paradigms there.

I would add a more substantial misconception—if you’ll excuse the pun. Contrary to popular belief, Christmas is not about an incarnation (“Hail the incarnate Deity!”). It’s about the birth of a king (“Glory to the newborn King!”). The New Testament does not construct the divinity of Jesus on the stories of his birth. I have a lot of marking to do before the end of the year, so I’ll keep this brief.

Matthew constructs a genealogy that runs from Abraham to David to the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah (Matt. 1:17). Jesus completes a political story about Israel. He embodies Israel. Later he will be the obedient son who is called out of Egypt and does not fail the testing in the wilderness (Matt. 2:15; cf. Hos. 11:1).

Joseph is “Son of David”, “of the house of David” (Matt. 1:20; Lk. 1:27).

Jesus is the king who will deliver his people from their sins—from the catastrophic consequences of the story that runs from Abraham to David to the deportation to Babylon to the first century under Roman rule (Matt. 1:20-21).

Mary likewise is told concerning her son:

He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end. (Lk. 1:32–33)

There is no biblical reason for thinking that conception by the Holy Spirit (Matt. 1:18-20) is to be understood as the means by which divinity and humanity are fused in the person of Jesus. In fact, there is good biblical reason for thinking that this is not an attempt to account for the bio-metaphysics of incarnation. Hagner comments: “We do not have here the pagan notion… of a god having sexual relations with a woman but rather of the creative power of God at work within Mary in order to accomplish his purposes.”1 The miraculous nature of the conception is interpreted for Joseph as a sign that this child will be the Messiah of God.

Luke makes more or less the same point. Because Jesus is conceived by the Holy Spirit, the “power of the Most High”, he will be called “Son of God”—that is, the king who will reign over the house of Jacob forever (Lk. 1:35).

Zechariah rejoices in the fact that the God of Israel “has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David” (Lk. 1:69).

Similarly, the naming of Immanuel is invoked for the sake of the prophetic analogy (Matt. 1:22-23). Just as the naming of the boy Immanuel signified the presence of God with Israel to judge and save, so the naming of the boy Jesus signifies the presence of God with Israel to judge and to save.

The eastern astrologers come looking for a king in the obvious place, having seen a king’s star appear in the heavens. They are sent to Bethlehem, from where “shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Matt. 2:1-6; Mic. 5:2).

Luke is very careful to set the birth of Jesus in a political context: Caesar Augustus decrees that the whole empire—the oikoumenē—should be registered; Quirinius is governor of Syria. Joseph goes back to the city of David, “because he was of the house and lineage of David” (Lk. 2:1-4). The implication seems clear enough. The birth of this Davidic king will challenge the sovereignty of Caesar over the oikoumenē.

The angels tell the shepherds of good news for the people of Israel: a king has been born in the city of David, who is Saviour, Christ, and Lord (Lk. 2:10-11). No mention of an incarnate deity.

It had been revealed to Simeon that he would see YHWH’s anointed king before he died (Lk. 2:26; cf. 1 Sam. 24:6; Ps. 2:2).

John’s assertion that the Wisdom of God became flesh probably does not refer to the birth of Jesus (John 1:14).

So I wish everyone a very happy celebration of the improbable birth of the king who saved his people from destruction and was exalted to the right hand of God to reign throughout the coming ages!

  • 1. Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13 (WBC 33A, 1993), 17.

Comments

It goes from bad to worse!

From Ian Paul’s linked article: “we find it very difficult to read the story in its own cultural terms, and constantly impose our own assumptions about life.”

Sounds familiar?

Exactly.

So… incarnation happens at Jesus’ baptism? Is that where this leads?

Philip Jenkins discusses this some in “Jesus Wars.” The short version is that Mark and John start their gospels with Jesus’ baptism, and early readers who only knew those gospels would have concluded that His incarnation happened then.

Awesome to read your comment on John 1:14, Andrew!

Thank you! I’m glad it was appreciated.