The true meaning of Luke’s Christmas, part 1

13 But the angel said to him, Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard, and your wife Elizabeth will bear a son for you, and you will call his name John.

14 And it will be a joy and a gladness for you, and many will rejoice at his birth.

15 For he will be great before the Lord, and he should not drink wine or strong drink, and he will be filled with the Holy Spirit even from his mother’s womb.

16 And he will turn many of the sons of Israel to the Lord their God,

17 and he will go before him in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of fathers towards children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready for the Lord a people prepared.

A couple of statements that I heard in church last week have stuck in my head (along with the tune of the little drummer boy, which I now can’t get rid of). The first was in a song by someone whose name I forget that was played during the collection—a ludicrous line about the little boy Jesus staring up at the stars and remembering how he had made them all. That was another reason to look at what John has to say about the creative logos.

The second statement was a standard true-meaning-of-Christmas one: it’s not about giving presents, etc., it’s about the gift of eternal life, or something along those lines—and after a rather stimulating sermon about the wretched shepherds we were invited to accept this gift of eternal life.

But if you read the first two chapters of Luke with anything like an open mind, it’s very difficult to see how you would reach the conclusion that the true-meaning-of-Christmas is the gift of eternal life. It’s not just that there is no actual reference to “eternal life” in the story. Luke is at great pains to interpret the events surrounding Jesus’ birth, and the interpretation runs in a quite different direction.

1. It’s worth noting, in the first place, that Zechariah and Elizabeth are described as “both righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord” (Luke 1:6). No filthy rags here—and apparently no need for personal salvation.

2. John appears to be presented as a “Nazirite”, who abstains from “wine and strong drink” (cf. Num. 6:1-21). It may or may not be relevant, then, that the only actual Nazirite described in the Old Testament is Samson. Before his birth his mother is told by an angel that “she will become pregnant and bear a son”, who will be “sanctified”, and who “shall begin to save Israel from the hand of foreign occupiers” (Judg. 13:5 LXX).

3. It’s an obvious point to make, but the narrative implications easily get overlooked, and not only when we are in true-meaning-of-Christmas mode: the significance of John is not simply that he announces the imminent arrival of Jesus. His purpose is to prepare Israel for the coming of YHWH in judgment by initiating a movement of repentance. At the heart of Luke’s Christmas story is the question not of personal salvation but of Israel’s salvation.

4. This is made abundantly clear by the detailed allusion to Malachi. A messenger is sent to Israel to prepare the way, but the day of YHWH’s coming will not be a pleasant one: “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” (Mal. 3:1-2). The Christmas story is not one of unalloyed merriness. When this day comes “all the arrogant and all evildoers” in Israel will be burnt like stubble in an oven: “The day that is coming shall set them ablaze, says the Lord of hosts, so that it will leave them neither root nor branch” (4:1). It is this catastrophic judgment on unrighteous Israel that John has in mind when he says that the one coming after him will thresh the wheat of Israel and burn the chaff “with unquenchable fire” (Lk. 3:17).

5. Before this “great and terrible day of the Lord” the prophet Elijah will be sent to “turn the hearts of fathers to their children and the hearts of children to their fathers, lest I come and strike the land with a decree of utter destruction” (Mal. 4:5-6). The scenario is evoked quite intentionally by the angel.

6. So if we are to grasp the true meaning of Luke’s Christmas story, we must place squarely in front of us the crisis facing Israel: the coming of John is a sign to a disobedient people that they face destruction—not a final judgment or eternal torment in hell but a national catastrophe. Nothing has yet been said about the nature or form of salvation other than that it must begin with the turning of the “sons of Israel” to the Lord their God. But Malachi sees the coming day of destruction as an act of purification:

But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, and they will bring offerings in righteousness to the Lord. Then the offering of Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former years. (Mal. 3:2-4)

Just as the coming judgment is conceived in national terms, so it is likely that, as in this passage, the coming salvation is conceived in national terms. This suggests that if there is a “gift” of Christmas, it is given specifically to Israel under foreign occupation; and, moreover, that any interest we today might have in it is only second hand: God gives the life of the age to come—the life that comes after judgment—to his people Israel, and that renewed and purified people will subsequently become a gift to the world.

paulf | Mon, 12/20/2010 - 16:04 | Permalink

Well done, very thought provoking.

Maybe the forecast of judgement is backwards-looking, a way for Luke to explain why Jerusalem was sacked.

Yes, that must be considered a possibility, particularly given the more “legendary” character of the birth stories. But it seems to me that the stories do not betray much familiarity with the actual circumstances of the war and the sacking of Jerusalem—they seem to rely not on later retrospective accounts but on Old Testament stereotypes of judgment.

I'm a bit disturbed that any interest I might have in the christmas story can only be second hand.....especially when it's only four days to go, and it's too late to cancel all the presents! Is it not significant that Luke chose to tell the story through individuals? Mary, Elizabeth, Zechariah, Simeon and Anna all experienced the coming of Jesus at a personal level, while at the same time Luke is alerting us to the wider significance. But there are still the very personal stories of a young girl being visited by an angel, a barren woman conceiving, and an elderly man holding a new baby in his arms. Luke's story, more than any of the others, seems at pains to show that the incarnation was good news for individuals, as well as for the nation of Israel.

Yes, sorry about the presents, Hilary. I would have got round to writing this piece earlier but Christmas shopping got in the way.

I agree, the story is told through individuals.The individuals are interesting and significant, and it is certainly instructive to consider how they contribute to the telling of the story through their words and actions. I agree that Luke highlights how the “good news” was received joyfully by individuals. My intention is to come to the reactions of Mary, Zechariah, Simeon, and Anna later in the week—shopping permitting.

But there is still the question of what this story or good news actually is. What story is being told through individuals? Is it—as far as it goes—a story of or a gospel of personal salvation? Can it be condensed satisfactorily down to such statements as “the true meaning of Christmas is the gift of eternal life”? I don’t think so—not without seriously diminishing the biblical argument. It is told consistently as a story about the salvation of Israel facing judgment. Only once we have established that central narrative fact—and, I would add, learned to live with it—can we begin to explore the nature of our “second hand” relationship to it.

Let me be clear. I’m not saying that there is no such thing as “personal salvation”. I’m just saying that this is not what the Christmas story is about, and that there are very good reasons for insisting that it is about something else.

So I would say that Luke shows that the “incarnation”, if we must use that theologically loaded and unbiblical term, was good news for certain individuals not “as well as for the nation” but because it was good news for the nation. They rejoiced because of what God was doing for Israel.

I hope that makes some sense.

I suppose to the extent that individuals exist and can experience salvation, "personal salvation" can be said to be a coherent concept. However, I agree with your point that wasn't central. And I would go so far as to say that it would have been completely foreign to Jesus or the vast majority of the bible's authors, including Luke. In fact, the author of Luke-Acts nowhere makes the point in either book that Jesus died for our sins.

A few years ago I wrote an article that touches on personal salvation and the concept of the kingdom:

Peter,  thanks for the holiday greetings. I would also like to extend a merry Christmas to the frequenters here.

peter wilkinson | Tue, 12/21/2010 - 10:45 | Permalink

I'm relieved to hear that you are reading Luke 1 & 2 with an open mind, Andrew. I was beginning to think you had a particular agenda to promote.

My open mind suggests to me that on a personal level, it was possible for individuals to be described as "righteous before God, walking blamelessly in all the commandments and requirements of the Lord”. So we don't need to set up a theological construct in which inability to obey the Torah led its failed adherents to throw themselves on the mercy of the new covenant. This is helpfully highlighted in an on-line article by Steve Jones - 'Imputed Righteousness?'

I find that points 3, 4, and 5 work well with an end of time judgement as well as preceding judgements - of which the judgement on unrighteous Israel is one. I'm not convinced that Jesus only had in view this limited horizon - interesting as it is to speculate and line up the ducks in its favour, as it were. Judgement is anticipated each time someone or some group of people rejects the kingdom which Christ came to announce, as an alternative to their own kingdoms. Judgement seems often to be the reverse side of the coin to the coming of Jesus and to the gift of the Spirit, as it is described in the NT.

But I'd be very relieved if we could drop Christmas as it is currently 'celebrated' here - or put it back to 6th of December as in some other European countries, so that the shopping frenzy could be separated from the focus of advent itself. In that sense, let's all vote for a historically limited interpretation of the Christmas stories, and when that has accomplished its purpose (the demolition of the Christmas frenzy for believers), we could quietly reinstate 'the true meaning of Christmas', which Mary and Zechariah speak of as being the affirmation of the promises made to Abraham, and Simeon speaks of as a "light for revelation to the gentiles". A worldwide salvation introduced by a child born in Bethelehem - who did make the stars according to Colossians 1:16, Hebrews 1:2, and even John 1:3 - if the close association between Jesus and 'the Word' is to be believed.

I doubt if Jesus would have seen the stars though, as at that stage of development, his eyes would not have been able to focus on distant objects, and he was within the house, even if laid in a manger. But "dull philosophy can clip an angel's wings".

Happy Christmas Andrew, and Hilary, and Paul, (and Daniel, and Jim, and all other frequenters of this theological Inn, in which there is some room for visitors, if slightly less than there used to be at its preceding stablemate, OST).

Yes - even better. 6th December (Switzerland) or 7th December for believers in Santa, 25 Dec for believers in Jesus.

And by the way, yes to much of your interpretation of Luke and the nativity stories; no to Luke's account(s) being exclusively Israel's story, and that of the nations only 'pragmatically', which I take to mean not as a direct intention. 

I don't think the historically limited interpretation of Luke works, on two levels. It doesn't work exegetically, taking the references to the promises to Abraham into account, (which cannot be separated from Abraham's story, or the backdrop of the whole of Genesis). It doesn't work logically, that the nations 'believed' simply by hearing of what God had done for Israel.

Israel was an important player in world affairs, but not that important. On the other hand, her God was always the God of the whole world, and what happened to her was always part of God's purpose for the whole world. She was God's servant, but the service always had the world in view - even in the days when Israel's history seemed to have very little relevance to the wider world. One thinks of those reminders in Ruth, or Jonah, when Israel's history seemed to have very little relevance to the world beyond herself.

But I keep getting this feeling of deja vu - hasn't pathway of this argument been trodden somewhere before? 

Peter, I don’t think I actually said that the nations “believed” by hearing about what God had done for Israel. I did use the word “rejoice”, though; and I don’t think “believed” would be entirely wrong.

One text I had in mind was Romans 15:8-12, where Paul speaks of the nations praising God and rejoicing because “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs”.

Also in Acts 10 Peter tells Cornelius and his household the same story about Jesus’ death by hanging on a tree and his resurrection that he had earlier told the Sanhedrin, which was a story about how “God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Saviour, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins” (Acts 5:30-31). We are then simply told that the Holy Spirit fell on these Gentiles, evidenced by the fact that they do what Paul said the Gentiles would do—they praise God; and they are then baptized in the name of Jesus.

The point, surely, is that the Gentiles believed that God had saved his people through the death and resurrection of Jesus and responded appropriately by praising Israel’s God. And if it was good enough for Cornelius, it ought to be good enough for us at Christmas to praise God for what he did for his people…

Andrew - I can appreciate your enthusiasm for promoting your cause, and I am not disputing much that you bring to light, but I do think that in the process you are brushing aside inconvenient yet major exegetical issues.

First, as we have debated on a number of occasions, Romans 15:8-12 does not prove what you assert. My reading of Romans 15:8 is that Jesus became "a servant of", rather than "a servant to" the Jews. In other words, as I read it, he became the servant who fulfilled God's purposes for the Jews, especially as that role encompassed the larger world of the nations which God had in view all along, as underlined in the promises to Abraham.

The nature of that servanthood becomes clear in the verses immediately following Romans 15:8. Jesus came: "to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs so that the Gentiles may glorify God for his mercy" - Romans 15:9a. What were the promises to the patriarchs? That through the seed of Abraham, all nations would be blessed. Alongside this was the promise that Abraham's descendants would exceed the stars in the sky/sand on the seashore/dust of the earth.

Israel's servanthood was ultimately to fulfil what had been promised to Abraham - to restore blessing to the nations. That blessing had been withdrawn following the Genesis 3 events. Abraham came in the context of that withdrawal of blessing, with the promise that blessing would be restored to all nations, not simply to Abraham's immediate biological descendants. That this is understood is shown by Paul's explanation of the fulfilment of the covenant with Israel in Romans 9:6-8 - "For not all who are descended from Israel are Israel", and especially "It is the children of the promise who are regarded as Abraham's offspring". The failure of Israel to bring the fulfilment of these promises was made good by Jesus, the perfect Israelite.

The Gentiles were the directly intended beneficiaries of what God did first for Israel. Israel's failure was as much her unwillingness to accept her intended role in relation to the nations as her spiritual failures before God. The Gentiles glorified God for his mercy (Romans 15:9) because they were the direct recipients of that mercy, through believing in Him.

Acts 5:30-31, then, is not directly paralleled in Acts 10. In Acts 5:30-31, Peter describes what has happened in terms of what God did through Jesus for Israel. Acts 10 significantly widens the context of Jesus's actions. 

In Acts 10, Peter accepts the validity of his vision, and God's confirming message through an angelic visitor to Cornelius, as signs that "God does not show favouritism, but accepts men from every nation who fear him and do what is right". He couches his message in significantly broader terms than Acts 5: that Jesus is "Lord of all" - verse 36b; that Jesus is "the one whom God appointed as the judge of the living and the dead" - verse 42b, not simply of Israel; that "everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name" - verse 43b.

The confirmation of Peter's message by the coming of the Holy Spirit on those who heard it, with the gloss that this "astonished" the circumcised believers, "that the gift . . . had been poured out even on the Gentiles" - verse 45, underlines the point. The Gentiles were the recipients of what might have been thought to be the unique possession of Israel.

The Holy Spirit confirmed the broader context of inclusion which Peter had already understood through his vision. The message of the rest of Acts confirms the same. Israel is almost eclipsed by what God goes on to do, at first through Peter, and more extensively through Paul, for the nations. The message given to Israel is intended for the Gentiles, not 'pragmatically' or 'second hand', but in a direct line of promise and prophecy.  

I largely accept your view that Jesus's immediate horizon in the gospels was the coming wrath on Jerusalem and unbelieving Israel. I acknowledge that he said very little about any role he may have had towards the nations outside Israel. I certainly do not accept, and think it is ignoring the textual evidence, that he is presented simply as a human emissary from God. I think the coming wrath on Jerusalem which Jesus foresaw was like the Old Testament visions of judgement - expressed temporally in history, but anticipating a greater judgement to come.

The limited role of Jesus in relation to the nations is simply swept aside however, by the unfolding message of Acts, in which the gospel is increasingly presented in terms which the Gentiles would understand, rather than through the detailed history of Israel of which they would have little knowledge. The broader role of Jesus is repeatedly confirmed in the letters. This is not a new Jesus, different from the Jesus of the gospels. Rather, it is the continuation of the ministry of Jesus by other means, introduced by the writer of Acts, who says that in his "former book" (Luke's gospel), he wrote about "all that Jesus began to do and teach" - Acts 1:1. The implication is that after Jesus was taken up to heaven - Acts 1:2, he continued his work, through the church, and with no suggestion that this ceased in AD 70.

The continuation of the work of Jesus is God's intention for the church now, with Jesus himself being the fulfilment of the promises to the patriarchs, living in and through his church, the means by which God's on-going blessing to the nations is being brought into effect.

Peter, in light of what you say here I have looked carefully at Romans 15:8 again—you got me worried for a moment. But it still seems to me that the direct thought of blessing the nations is absent from this passage, indeed virtually contradicted by the quotations in 9-12. The point is not that I think there is no blessing of the nations; it is rather that I think we need to open up narrative space for the historical process that Paul derives from the Old Testament.

I’ll also try to look at Acts 10 again.

The following statement puzzled me:

I certainly do not accept, and think it is ignoring the textual evidence, that he is presented simply as a human emissary from God.

Did I say that Jesus is “presented simply as a human emissary sent from God”? If so, where?

No Andrew, you didn't say this; it was my summary of what your approach amounts to, in denying the divinity of Jesus in gospels and letters.

By the way, I said in my previous post that the temple had been destroyed when Romans was written. That's absurd, of course. But it went with the flow of my description of believing Jews as stateless exiles, which in a sense they were, before the destruction of the Jerusalem, and no longer being defined by a state, as Jews in Israel had been.

OK, just for the record, I don’t personally think that my approach amounts to an outright denial of the divinity of Jesus. I think the expression “divinity of Jesus” is already misleading because it presupposes much later debates and imposes their conclusions on the text. I think the synoptic Gospels present Jesus basically as a “human emissary” if that phrase captures both the royal and prophetic character of his vocation. But I also think that there is clear evidence elsewhere that the early church could not account for the significance of Jesus in purely human terms. I think that although this was developed through reflection on Old Testament texts, the stimulus for it was largely the clash with paganism and Hellenistic thought.

Hi Andrew,

Hope you had a great Xmas. reading the comments below I can see you have been busy with Xmas shopping. I wonder what that is like in Dubai.

I come here quite frequently to read your 'stuff'. My plan is now to work slowly through your postings on the story Luke tells us and as you interpret it to us.

I pulled out my bible and read the passage in question. This leaves  wondering about something. Like you, I question the notion of 'personal salvation' and think that an honest reading of this passge does not support that interpretation.

But I also do not see the message of 'coming judgment' here. You seem to juxtapose those. Rather, the tenet of the passage seems to be on God lovingly and with care reaching out to this elderly faithful couple and entrusting to them this great messenger as a son.

The message of this messenger-son, is not —at least in this passage— 'repent or face judgment, but rather the emergence of a community of faithful, where generations are redeemed and foolish become wise (v16-17). You might call this the announcement of the Christ-community, or the church, or whatever; the point is that God in love and grace reaches out to mankind and starts a healing redemptive community. The message is enforced by the presence of an angel, the miracle of being able to speak again and the prayer of Elizabeth: "look what he has done for me, see his favor: He has not forgotten!"

I raise this with you, because in so many of our conversations it seems like you interpret much of the gospel and the Jesus-story through the historical event of the destruction of Jerusalem at the hand of the Romans. Now, I don't disagree that there are passages in scripture that allude to this — but is it possible you see this coming judgment in too many places in scripture? I, in spite of your writing, don't actually see it in this passage.

Warmly from Rotterdam - where it is actually quite cold and tomorrow Xmas gifts will be returned to the store because they were 'not wanted'. Pfff...