At a time when the celebration of Jesus’ birth is being buried ever deeper beneath the landfill-waste of a decadent, hedonistic, secular western paganism, we are naturally anxious as the church to recover the true meaning of Christmas.
What we expect to find, when all the modern stuff has been stripped away, is a universal religious idea, pure and simple, divested of both narrative and historical context—that out of love for humanity God became flesh in a helpless babe. That’s fine. It has some point to it. But it is a theologically inspired reduction of the New Testament material to something more congenial to the mindset of the post-Jewish church. The story that is actually told in Matthew and Luke is rather different.
The priest Zechariah is reminded by an angel of Malachi’s warning to post-exilic Israel that God will soon come to judge a corrupt and faithless priesthood (Lk. 1:8-17). The priests have dishonoured their “father” and have led many astray with their worthless teaching. In the manner of Elijah, Zechariah’s son will prepare the way for one who will baptize both with the Spirit and with the fire of a dreadful destruction.
After the birth of John a more hopeful note sounds: God will raise up a king from the house of David, who will deliver Israel from its enemies so that righteous people like Zechariah will be able to serve God in peace and security (Lk. 1:67-79).
Mary is told that God will give to her son the throne of his father David and that he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever (Lk. 1:32-33; cf. 2 Sam. 7:16). She celebrates the fact that God will soon overthrow the current régime and will exalt the humble and downtrodden in Israel (Lk. 1:46-55).
The “virgin conception” of Jesus will be a sign that, at a time of great political instability, God is with his people (“Immanuel”) to deliver them finally from destruction. This is not incarnation as we understand it—it is a presence constrained historically in both time and space. Just as Isaiah’s child was given a prophetically significant name, so Mary’s child will be given a prophetically significant name: he will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21-25; cf. Is. 7:10-8:10).
An angel proclaims to the shepherds the good news for all Israel that a Saviour has been born in the city of David; and a heavenly host promises liberation from oppression and peace for the people in whom God takes pleasure (Lk. 2:8-20).
When the chief priests and scribes consult the book of Micah, they find a story about the judgment of unrighteous Israel, the restoration of the lame and afflicted, and the emergence of a ruler from Bethlehem who will “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God”, who will be “great to the ends of the earth” (Matt. 2:3-6; cf. Micah 3-5).
When God establishes his new king over his people, the nations will be drawn to the light. Jerusalem will see her sons and daughters being brought back from exile on the shoulders of foreigners. The wealth of the nations will be handed over to Jerusalem. People will come from Sheba bringing gold and frankincense, and they will “announce the good news of the salvation of the Lord” (Is. 60:1-6 LXX). The arrival of magi from the East to pay homage to Israel’s newborn king is a sign that this drama is being re-enacted in Israel (Matt. 2:1-12). The coming judgment and salvation of Israel will have a profound impact on the surrounding nations.
Simeon is another righteous Jew who is waiting for the sort of “consolation” of his people that Isaiah prophesied for the exiles (Lk. 2:25-32; cf. Is. 40:1-2; 51:3; 52:7-10). He sees in the infant Jesus the promise that God will save his people from annihilation and that this salvation in itself will reveal to the Gentiles the power and glory of the God of Israel.
Finally, the elderly prophetess Anna speaks of Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:38). There is no redemption of the world here. It is the story of first century Israel that is being told.
So here we have the true meaning of Christmas according to Matthew and Luke. It is not that the godhead is to be seen veiled in the flesh of the baby Jesus. The Christmas story simply is not about incarnation. It is about kingdom.
There are three parts to the story. First, God is about to take dramatic action in history to “judge” Israel—to punish the leadership in Jerusalem and to refine his people, as by fire. Secondly, a son is born who will not only save Israel from the consequences of its sins but will be established as king for ever over the restored community. Thirdly, the nations will see this manifestation of the sovereignty of Israel’s God and, in concrete ways, will acknowledge its theo-political significance for the ancient world.
That is all historical event, part of the grand narrative of the people of God. It’s our story. Have a great time celebrating it!
I love everything about this. I’m already thinking how I might put this together in a “child friendly” story for my kids to tell on Christmas Eve.
I also wish Linus could have gotten into some of this in his speech in “A Charlie Brown Christmas.” I would love to have heard him say:
The “virgin conception” of Jesus will be a sign that, at a time of great political instability, God is with his people (“Immanuel”) to deliver them finally from destruction.
“But it is a theologically inspired reduction of the New Testament material to something more congenial to the mindset of the post-Jewish church.”
Yes, your Christmas story-in-context probably looks unrecognizeable for pew-goers. And so it won’t exactly resonate with Gentiles who aren’t exactly ‘in the picture,’ it never has (and so be careful or you’ll be labeled a ‘Judaizer’).
Later dogma (written by [mostly] anti-Jewish bishops) simplified the faith and enhanced it (by universalizing) for its Gentile audience, but with a cost. It gutted the original texts for its own purposes, obscuring the historical context.
Your version doesn’t preach as well. Doesn’t every generation simply want a Christmas story that preaches to its day?
Just in case this might be interesting, I tried a distilled version of the bit about Zechariah last night with my six and eight year old. We’d been reading in Exodus, so they were already familiar with the idea that Israel had been set free from Egypt and were going to Canaan.
So, I just sort of flew over a few thousand years of history for the purposes of getting to how Israel found themselves under the Roman Empire (from the Bible’s POV). I then talked about the promised coming of Elijah before God would save them from Rome, and they totally got it.
Tonight, the announcement to Mary.
Last night, we went from the announcement to Mary through the visit to Elizabeth and the Magnificat.
My oldest conflated Egypt and the Roman Empire in Israel’s story, which is a very encouraging mistake, in my opinion. We walked through the idea that Jesus was promised as a king who would be Israel’s ruler forever who would free them from foreign oppression. They totally got it, and my six year old articulated the fact that John the Baptist was coming to prepare Israel for this to happen, per our reading last night.
Because we are going through Luke, that key passage of saving his people for their sins hasn’t been discussed, so I’m considering the merits of pulling that in versus just going through Luke’s narrative as it stands.
Who wants to help me write The Narrative Historical Children’s Bible?
Last in the Christmas series (we’re now back in Exodus going over the finer points of the priests’ garments — one almost gets the impression these things weren’t originally written to provide devotional material) we had the privilege of including my parents in the group. We read Luke 2:1-21.
In this, we talked about what it meant for Jesus to be announced as the Savior and “Christ the Lord,” the hopes people had as a result of hearing this news, and how God accomplishing this salvation for the people set the stage for us (we’re a flock o’ Gentiles) to be included in His new people and, in that sense, we share in the benefits of what He did and now try to live faithfully under the lordship of Jesus.
This whole “experiment” has demonstrated to me that the story of God, Israel, and Jesus can be told in a narrative-historical way such that even children have no difficulties grasping it. If anything, it made intuitive sense to them in a way more abstract systematic theologies do not.
At various points, I felt similar to how I imagine some ancient Israelite might feel telling his children about the Red Sea and what it meant for them as a people, today. I think that’s how I’m supposed to feel when I tell my kids stories from the Bible.
My parents (Southern Baptists) were cool with it, too, although my dad was quick to point out that Jesus was not just the king of Israel, but of Gentiles as well, which is not present in the text we read, but is nonetheless true today.
I would love more of this. I struggle with articulating my evolving understanding of the Bible to my 5 year old (and also to myself) The children’s bibles I have found seem to trod over well worn paths and generally lead one to the Roman’s road gospel in some fashion or another. I’d pay good money for a proper kids bible or intro to biblical stories or whatever.
Thanks for drawing my attention back to this. Wow. Six years. The 6 and 8 year old I was talking about are now 12 and 14. Makes me a little misty-eyed remembering those times. They’re not super big on me reading to them these days.
I will say that at the time I had these grand visions of my children asking me all these questions and really wanting me to explain the Bible to them. Those never really materialized, but I’m given to understand from other parents that this isn’t unusual. :D