I usually write a new post every Christmas, but this year I’d like to direct you to a brief series on the topic that I wrote in 2018.
This Christmas season I’d like to engage in a thought experiment by telling a story that I’m pretty sure never happened.
An angel walks into the Executive Office Wing of heaven and steps up to the receptionist.
“I’d like to see the Son, please.”
The receptionist replies, “I’m sorry, but you can’t see the Son right now.”
Now, this is the first time those words have ever been uttered. The angel is taken aback.
“I can’t?! Why not?!”
“Well, he’s not in.”
“He’s not in?! What do you mean, ‘He’s not in’?! He’s omnipresent; how can he be ‘not in’?!”
“Well, he’s not here.”
The angel sputters.
“OK, you’re not making any sense, but I’ll play your little game. ‘Where’ is he? If you’ll tell me ‘where’ he is, I’ll go ‘there’ and talk to him.”
“Well, I could tell you where he is, but even if you go there, you won’t be able to talk to him.”
The receptionist pauses for an awkwardly long time.
“Um, he can’t talk.”
The angel is apoplectic.
“He can’t talk?! What kind of nonsense is this?!”
“Well, … he’s a fetus.”
There are several reasons that I’m fairly sure this scene never happened.
For one thing, while I suppose it’s possible that the executive offices of heaven have a receptionist, there don’t seem to be any of the usual reasons why one would be needed, and there’s no biblical indication of such a position.
Second, my story has a logical problem. Why is the angel bamboozled by the concept of “going there” to talk to the Son, if he’s come to the Executive Office Wing to talk to him?
For another, I’m quite doubtful that any unfallen angel was surprised by the incarnation. This event had been predicted in the Garden of Eden—possibly by the Son himself—and angels seem to be the kinds of persons who pay attention.
So it almost certainly never happened.
But it illustrates a few of the complexities that we celebrate at this time of year—complexities that we often gloss over because we’re just so familiar with the whole concept that God became man.
What an incomprehensible thing.
What happened when a member of the Godhead became germinal (pre-embryonic)? Did he, unlike other germinals, know what was happening? If his knowledge was limited in some ways during his season on earth (Mk 13.32), how extensive was that limitation, and did it change over time? If he is fully human, did he have to grow a brain during his embryonic stage? And if so, did he have any human consciousness before his brain developed?
The Bible tells us that the Son is the agent of providence; by him all things hold together (Col 1.17). Was he maintaining the universe and directing the affairs of people and nations while he was a fetus? Or is there some sort of 25th Amendment in heaven, whereby the Son hands over those responsibilities to the Father or the Spirit while he’s temporarily intellectually incapacitated?
We have no idea what we’re talking about.
He learned, right? How did that work?
Did the 12-month-old Jesus walk the first time he tried, or did he “fall down and go boom” while learning? Did Joseph ever say to him, “Now, Son, if you hold the hammer that way, one of these days you’re going to hurt yourself”? Did Mary ever say the Aramaic equivalent of “No, Jesus, it’s not ‘Can me and Simeon go out and play,’ but ‘Can Simeon and I go out and play’ “?
The Bible doesn’t speak to these things. It does tell us that he developed “in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man” (Lk 2.52). How did he grow in favor with God?!
I’ve studied the Son at a serious level for five decades. And the more I think and read, the more convinced I am that there is more to this person than we will ever know. And there is more to the Incarnation—to Christmas—than we can possibly conceive.
At some point, we simply have to thank the Almighty.
Christmas is tomorrow. Since my Christmas post for last year was about Mary, it makes sense that this year I should say something about Joseph.
We know precious little about him. If, as most scholars believe, the genealogy in Matthew 1 is that of Joseph, then he was the royal descendant of David in his generation—the heir to the throne of Israel. I suspect he knew that; the Jews kept track of such things, as is evidenced by the simple fact that the genealogy is produced in Matthew 1. If he was the heir, he certainly knew that he was.
But he also knew that he would never be king. First, because Rome. Caesar Augustus would never tolerate such a thing; he had installed a puppet, Herod, and called him “king,” but Herod wasn’t even really Jewish—he was Idumaean—and the Jews hated him as an interloper and collaborator with the hated Romans.
There was another reason Joseph knew he would never be king. God had cursed his ancestor, Jehoiachin (Jeconiah, or just Coniah), the last Davidic king of Judah (Jer 22.30), saying that none of his offspring would ever rule. Some scholars think that God reversed that curse with Zerubbabel (Hag 2.23), but Zerubbabel never ruled, nor did any of his offspring clear up to Joseph’s day.
So Joseph is a carpenter (Mt 13.55), or perhaps a mason. He works with his hands, in the village of Nazareth, in Israel’s backwater (Jn 1.46).
And that’s that.
Under circumstances we’re not told, he becomes engaged to a Jewish girl. She gives evidence of true godliness. He’ll be able to support her and their eventual children. This will be good.
He didn’t do it.
It all comes crashing down. Yet another curse.
He can’t sensibly give his life to a woman who has so deeply and thoroughly deceived him. The Law gives him an out, however; he can “divorce” her for fornication. The legal penalty is stoning, but he doesn’t want a big scene, or even personal vengeance. We’ll just handle this quietly and move on.
Like Mary, as it turns out, Joseph doesn’t understand either. It’s not what he thinks.
After 400 years of silence, God steps in to ensure the success of the hinge point of all history.
Joseph is asleep—that’s surprising in itself—and God sends a messenger in his dreams.
It’s not what you think, Joseph. Mary is not unfaithful. God is doing a work, a great work, an epochal work. Her child will save his people from their sins.
You need to adopt him.
Like Mary, Joseph knows what the social consequences of that will be. There will be a community wink and nod—we thought that’s who the culprit was. Joseph’s reputation will be ruined. What of his business? How will he support his family?
Adopt the child.
Why is that so important?
Remember the curse?
No biological son of Jehoiachin—or of Joseph—will ever sit on David’s throne. But only a descendant of David—through Solomon—can sit there.
Mary, too, is descended from David, but through his son Nathan, not Solomon (Lk 3). Her son has no claim to the throne by bloodline.
But if Joseph … adopts … the boy …
And there, sitting on his mat, in the dark of night, in a backwater village, a carpenter makes his decision.
He’ll trust, and obey.
Like millions of others before and since.
But unlike any of those others, at the key hinge point of all salvation history.
Next to the obedience of the Son Himself, the most important act of obedience ever.
And hardly anybody even noticed.
Joseph shows up one more time in the Bible, when Jesus is twelve. But after that, he disappears. No one knows what else this critically important man did or how or where he died.
I’m not much for statements about what I’ll do when I get to heaven. I think the Lamb will be the focus of all of it.
But I hope I’ll have a chance to find Joseph and say thanks.
As my Christmas post this year, I’d like to share some thoughts about Mary.
The first thing I notice about her, which may surprise some people, is how ordinary she is. Like you and me, she has difficulty understanding and even accepting God’s plan. Like any other woman, she’s puzzled by Gabriel’s announcement that she is to have a son (Lk 1.34). I’m not criticizing her; my point is that her response is completely understandable—completely ordinary. At the visit to the Temple for the baby’s circumcision, she’s surprised by Simeon’s exalted blessing over the child (Lk 2.33). When Jesus is 12, she questions his respect for her and Joseph, drawing a mild rebuke (Lk 2.48-49). At the wedding where Jesus will perform his first recorded miracle, she appears to have priorities that her son needs to correct (Jn 2.3-4). And in the most surprising episode of all, Mark, writing under Peter’s direction, seems to suggest that Mary and her other sons thought Jesus was mentally unbalanced (Mk 3.21, 31)—something consistent with John’s direct statement that during his earthly ministry, Jesus’ brothers did not believe on him (Jn 7.5).
Mary appears to respond to her unique situation pretty much as we would. It’s all pretty confusing; there’s a lot she doesn’t appear to understand.
There’s no evidence in the Scripture that Mary herself is immaculately conceived, or that she was perpetually a virgin—as though sex isn’t something really holy people do (Heb 13.4)—or that she is sinless. Yes, she is said to be “full of grace” (Lk 1.28), a statement that has given rise to the idea of a “treasury of merit” into which she and other “saints” have deposited (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1477); but the same Greek expression (charitoo) is used of all believers over in Eph 1.6. We’re all “full of grace,” by God’s grace.
So she’s ordinary, like us.
In her confusion and wonder, she trusts God and consequently pleases him.
When told she’s going to have a child out of wedlock without having done anything wrong, she agrees to the arrangement (Lk 1.38). She knew there would be significant negative social consequences for this; virgin births were no more common in her day than they are in ours. Nobody would believe her. Indeed, 30 or more years later Jesus’ enemies threw his “illegitimacy” back in his face (Jn 8.41).
She treasured Jesus’ words even in confrontational situations (Lk 2.51). After her son’s mild rebuke at the wedding in Cana, she instructed the servants to hear and obey him (Jn 2.5).
She was a woman of grace and dignified accession to the will of God.
And where did that come from?
We don’t know anything about Mary’s childhood or upbringing, but we can see evidences of it in her speech. When we carefully study her most famous statement, the “Magnificat” (Lk 1.46-55), we find an apparently extemporaneous speech astonishingly filled with Scripture: she quotes or alludes to about 19 different verses in 5 different Old Testament books from all 3 of the sections of the Hebrew canon—Genesis and Deuteronomy from the Law, Isaiah from the Prophets, and Samuel and Psalms from the Writings. This in spite of the fact that it was common for Jewish girls in that day to be illiterate, and even if she could read, she certainly did not own copies of the Scrolls, which were prohibitively expensive. Most likely she listened at synagogue—from the women’s section—and committed those passages to memory, deeply meditating on them to the point where she could weave them—artfully—into an extemporaneous expression of gratitude to God in the midst of deep social embarrassment.
With all of our education and all of our copies of the Scripture, few of us today could do something even remotely similar.
Mary kept things in her heart (Lk 2.19, 51). She treasured the words and works of God.
What a rebuke she is to our shallow and reactionary thinking.
What a model for all of us to follow.
So both of the Christmas names—Jesus and Immanuel—highlight the fact of the Incarnation, that God became one of us. As I put it last time, the eternal God the Son added to his (divine) nature, or set of characteristics, a second, human nature, a different set of characteristics.
That’s a unique event. No other person, not even the Father or the Spirit, has ever had two natures.
We have trouble with unique things, because we like to learn by comparing the new thing to something we already know. And when there’s nothing to compare the new thing to, we end up scratching our heads and asking questions that we have insufficient data to answer.
How does a divine person add a human nature? How does any person add any second nature?
The early church spent 400 years trying to figure that one out, and pretty much every theory they came up with along the way was a heresy. Finally, in AD 451, at the Council of Chalcedon, they managed to formulate a statement of what happened—a statement that has stood the test of the centuries since—but they gave up forever the possibility of actually explaining it.
Really—how does a person with two natures live out his life? How does he think? How can he be both mortal and immortal? How can he be both omnipresent and corporeal? How can he be omniscient and yet say, matter-of-factly, “I don’t know when I’m coming back” (Mk 13.32)?
I’d like to make up a story that I’m pretty sure never happened, just to make the point.
An angel shows up in the executive wing of heaven and approaches the receptionist.
“I’d like to see the Son, please,” he says.
The receptionist replies, “I’m sorry, but you can’t.”
Now, that answer has never before been given to that request, so the angel is puzzled.
“I can’t?! What kind of an answer is that?! Why can’t I?”
“Because he’s not here. He’s out of the office.”
The angel is nonplussed, whatever that means.
“What do you mean, he’s ‘not here’?! He’s omnipresent. How can he not be here? That doesn’t even make any sense!”
“Well, it’s a little difficult to explain, but I assure you that he’s not here.”
The angel, perplexed, gives in.
“OK, I’ll play your little game. He’s ‘not here.’ Well, then, ‘where’ is he? I’ll go ‘there’ and see him.”
The receptionist takes a deep breath.
“Well, I can tell you where he is, and you can go there, but even if you do, you won’t be able to see him.”
Another deep breath.
“Because he can’t talk.”
“He can’t talk?! Are you kidding me?! How can he not talk?!”
The receptionist clears her throat.
“Because he’s a fetus. He’s not going to be able to talk for a couple of years yet.”
As I say, I’m pretty sure this never happened, first, because our imagined angel seems a little impatient for somebody who’s not a sinner, and more importantly, I don’t think any angels were surprised by the incarnation. Oh—and I doubt that the executive wing of heaven has a receptionist, although I can’t be completely sure of that.
But let’s take some time to think about this.
Paul tells us that among other things, the Son is the agent of providence—by him, all things are held together (Col 1.17). As far as I know, there’s no 25th Amendment in the Constitution of Heaven, whereby a member of the Godhead passes off his duties to another member in anticipation of his temporary incapacitation. So is the Son running the universe from Mary’s womb? as a fetus? as an embryo?
Is it true that “little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”? Does he learn to walk the first time he tries, or does he “fall down and go boom”? Does Mary ever have to correct his grammar? Does he always get A’s in school? Does Joseph ever have to tell him, “Now, Joshua, if you keep holding the hammer that way, you’re going to hit your thumb!”?
My friend, you think you know this person, but there is more to him than you can ever know. He is unfathomable, unimaginable, indecipherable.
And he did this for you. When you were his enemy and determined to stay that way.
Immanuel. God with us.
Last time we noted what the name Jesus means—and that enabled us to understand what the angel is saying to Joseph in Matthew 1—this baby is Yahweh himself, the one who saves his people from their sins.
God has become one of us.
Now Matthew’s commentary on the angel’s words follows unavoidably:
22 Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 23 Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us.
Matthew is writing to Jews, presenting Jesus as the Messiah, the Christ. One of the most obvious ways he does this is by citing prophecies from the Hebrew Scriptures, what we call the Old Testament, and showing specifically how Jesus fulfills those prophecies. Note how often he says, “All this was done, that it might be fulfilled,” or something similar—
The first prophecy he chooses to cite reveals the second name of Christmas.
Emmanuel. God with us.
I suspect that neither Isaiah nor his hearers understood the prophecy. They probably thought, God is with us, as he has been with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, and with David and Solomon, and with our people throughout our history.
Yes, it includes that idea, but the prophecy embraces a much more intimate “with” than that.
He is going to join us, to become one of us. He’s going to be not just present, but identified with us.
In theological terms, the person of the Son, eternally existent with a divine nature, is going to add to his person a second nature, a human one. He’s going to get tired, and get hurt, and die.
And he’s going to keep that human nature forever.
It amazes me that when God created the world, he knew that giving humans the ability to have a healthy relationship involved giving them the ability to choose—and that meant the ability to choose wrong. And that meant the possibility—nay, the certainty—of sin. And God knew that he would never allow his image to be permanently disfigured in such a way—that he would respond to our rebellion justly, with a sentence of death, and mercifully, with the opportunity for repentance and forgiveness. He would do whatever was necessary to be just and to justify—to rescue—his image. And he knew that justice would require an infinite sacrifice, which we would be unable to pay, and which he would be unable to pay either, because the penalty is death, and he cannot die.
So from the very beginning he knew that by creating humans, beings in his image, on whom he could bestow the joy of his friendship, he was committing himself to become one of them.
What a commitment that was!
What a God he is!
Next time, a meditation on what happens when God becomes man.
PNo, I don’t mean the names of the day. I mean the names that arise out of what we celebrate at Christmas—the names of the Incarnate One.
What we call the Christmas Story introduces us to two names that are new, and meaningfully so. The first one is now so familiar to us that we’ve completely forgotten its meaning—if we ever knew it all. We meet it in Matthew’s account of the birth of the Son of God, in chapter 1—
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. 19 Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a publick example, was minded to put her away privily. 20 But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. 21 And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins.
The first name that comes out of the Christmas Story is “Jesus.” We all know it well today; it’s the personal name of the Son, which he took on when he became human. But most of us completely miss the whole significance of the way it was introduced in Scripture.
To start with, the name has come to us through several languages, and as anyone named Juan or Jean or Johann or Ivan knows, names change when they cross languages. Jesus is the English form of the Greek Iesous, which in turn translates the Hebrew Yeshua, or its longer form Yehoshua, or, as we would say it, Joshua. Yes, Jesus’ name was just Joshua—which explains a bit of translational confusion in the KJV of Hebrews 4.8, where they give the impression that the author is speaking of Jesus giving rest, when he’s actually speaking of the OT Joshua taking Israel into the Promised Land. (See also Ac 7.45.)
Where was I?
Have you ever wondered why the angel said to Joseph, “You must call his name Joshua, for he will save his people from their sins”? Have you ever noticed that subordinate conjunction in there, the one that identifies a causal link between the name and Jesus’ saving work?
To us English-speaking readers, that doesn’t make sense—or, more likely, we just sail on past it without even noticing that it doesn’t make sense, because the words are so familiar to us.
But that causal link is in there for a reason. It’s making an important point, one, I could argue, that is the most important point ever made by anyone.
Joseph would have gotten the point—it would have been as plain as day to him, and he would have understood its significance immediately. I suspect that’s why he unquestioningly obeyed the angel’s instructions. He adopted the child, risking—and probably ruining—his reputation in the process. If your fiancée is pregnant, and you marry her and adopt the child, everybody’s going to nod his head and smirk and wink knowingly. Uh-huh. We all know what that means, now, don’t we? And 30 years later they were still smirking when they tried to undercut Jesus’ authority by sneering, “We were not born of fornication!” (Jn 8.41).
Why did Joseph obey, unhesitatingly, when he knew what the cost of that obedience would be to his own reputation, and perhaps to his livelihood as a contractor?
Because he understood the meaning of the angel’s words. He understood the “for,” the causal link.
Because he knew what the name meant.
“Joshua,” you see, means “Yahweh saves.”
The angel said, “You must name him ‘Yahweh saves,’ ”—so far, so good—“because he will save his people from their sins!”
Do you see it?
“He”—the infant—no, the fetus—“he” is Yahweh!
The everlasting God, who makes covenants with Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob—and keeps them—who sits high on the throne in Isaiah’s vision, whose train fills the temple, but who reveals himself to Israel by his first name—this God is now a fetus in the womb of a Jewish teenager.
This is much, much bigger than Joseph, or Mary, or shepherds, or wise men, or all of us put together. Nothing like this has ever happened before, or likely will ever happen again.
God has become one of us.
Next time, the second Christmas name.
Every Christmas there’s a rash of articles about Christmas myths: Jesus wasn’t born in winter; there weren’t 3 wise men, and they didn’t show up at the stable; the angels didn’t sing.
It’s proper to insist on the accurate retelling of the biblical story, and it’s really important not to say God said things when he didn’t (Rev 22.18), but sometimes I get the idea that the Christmas Mythbusters are just getting their jollies from popping the children’s balloons at the party.
For starters, there may have been 3 wise men; we don’t know how many there were. And Jesus may have been born at any time of year, even in December; we just can’t think of a reason shepherds would have been watching their flocks by night other than lambing season in the spring. And sure, the text says that the angels “said,” but are you really going to insist that angels don’t sing because of that? “Glory to God in the highest” as monotone? Seriously?
Get the biblical story right; but get it right for good reasons.
May I offer a counterexample?
Back to those wise men. They came from the East, according to the oft-mocked song, “bearing gifts … following yonder star … westward leading, still proceeding.”
I beg to differ, and for what I hope is a good reason, an edifying one.
Whatever their names were, they came “from the East” (Mat 2.1), which we take to be Mesopotamia, and thus perhaps were Parthians. They “saw his star when it rose” (Mat 2.2) and consequently traveled to Jerusalem. There is no evidence that they “follow[ed] yonder star” to Jerusalem; in fact, it seems most certain they did not—
So back home in the East they saw some sort of celestial phenomenon, and they went to Jerusalem to see the newly born king.
We’re going to have to speculate a little bit. But there are reasonable speculations, based on evidence. Crime-scene investigators do that sort of thing all the time. Let’s try to do one of those.
These men were court astrologers from Mesopotamia. They would have been knowledgeable regarding the history of their region, and especially of the history of their craft of predicting the future. They would have known about their prophetic ancestors. And they had a couple of ancestors whose prophecies would likely have informed them when they saw the star.
The first was Balaam. He was from “Pethor” (Num 22.5), which is commonly believed to be Pitru, near Carchemish in northern Mesopotamia. He was a well-known prophet; records of his extrabiblical prophecies have been discovered at Deir Alla, a town in modern Jordan. The wise men could well have been familiar with his work.
And his work includes the following statement: “I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near; a star shall come out of Jacob, and a scepter shall rise out of Israel; it shall crush the forehead of Moab and break down all the sons of Sheth” (Num 24.17). He finishes this prophecy with these words: “Alas, who shall live when God does this? But ships shall come from Kittim and shall afflict Asshur and Eber; and he too shall come to utter destruction” (Num 24.23-24).
Hmmm. A star. Out of Jacob. Who will destroy kingdoms, perhaps including “Asshur.” I think the Mesopotamian astrologers might have been interested in that.
The other prophet is Daniel. He would certainly have been well known, as a high government official in Babylon who was so effective that Babylon’s Persian conquerors kept him on in their government too. He prophesied of an “anointed one” who would be “cut off” (Dan 9.26) along about, oh, 30 years from now, in the wise men’s day. They’d be interested in that too.
They see the celestial phenomenon. It disappears. They remember the star prophecy of the king from Jacob. They check the timing of Daniel’s prediction. Yep. They saddle up and head for Jerusalem, report to the palace, and ask where the prince is.
The king’s reaction puzzles them. He doesn’t know what they’re talking about. The prince is apparently not his son. Bethlehem, he tells them. Go there, and find the child.
How are they going to do that? Of course there will be children there; but which one is the Anointed? How will they know?
Shaking their heads, they head for the caravan outside in the courtyard. As they exit the building, a strange but familiar light envelops them. They jump for joy.
God’s Word is reliable.
And he clarifies it for those who want to know.
I’m taking a break from blogging for the holidays. See you after the New Year.