A BRAND NEW BABY BOY, just hours old, lies wrapped in rags on a bitter Bethlehem evening in the winter month of Tebeth. Incredibly, the baby’s teenage mother, Mary, has given birth to him in a reeking animal enclosure and laid him in the only ‘cradle’ she can find—a slimy feeding trough. There, on a makeshift bed of hay, the newborn lies sleeping. His velvety, olive-brown skin glimmers in the firelight radiating from some embers nearby. Mary and her husband, Joseph the carpenter, look on dotingly.
In good time, the baby stirs. (Perhaps he is awakened by a ruckus among the cattle, or a rasping heeeeeeee-haawwww! from an agitated donkey?) Little by little, his eyelids wheel open to reveal two chestnut-coloured translucent pools. Mum lets out an admiring sigh; dad1 laughs fondly. The infant contorts his face and opens his miniature mouth in a stretched-out yawn—a move that draws muted exhalations of approval. Now he relaxes and looks up into the dewy night air, blinking erratically.
Compliments of the season. You have met the Creator of the universe.
Hit the brake. Did I just say the Creator of the universe? The supreme Maker of all things? Yes, that’s what the Bible says about this delicate little baby, and what billions of Christians through the centuries have believed. But what a mind-bending, boundary-shattering way to turn up. What on earth is he doing here?
To find out, we must journey back, back, back through the mists of time. All the way back to…
Before the dawn of time and space, before anything had started to exist, there was God. But not just any God. A very specific God who would one day introduce himself by name—‘the LORD’ (similar in Hebrew to ‘I AM’). There was only God—‘the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End’—yet he wasn’t lonely. His life and being were already complete, for he was a loving Family, a flourishing Tri-union of Father and Son in the Holy Spirit. As such, God wasn’t empty or needy; he knew no hunger or thirst or poverty of any kind. His whole being was full of love and joy and light. He was the perfect example of Oneness.
In seamless unity, Father-Son-Spirit created the cosmos. He (God) unfurled the fabric of space-time like a vast tablecloth and began decorating it with baubles of matter, energy and light. Of the many worlds he made, one in particular held a special place in his heart—a dust-encrusted sphere called ‘earth.’ With deftness and power, he created the sky, land and seas; then he populated them with a diversity of life forms. Finally, he came to his pièce de résistance, the human race. ‘Let us make mankind,’ he mused, ‘in our image, in our likeness.’ Then with one accord, Father-Son-Spirit set joyfully to work. His passion was to include us forever in all that he is, that we might choose to know him and be ensconced in his love, freedom, holiness and joy.
But we humans didn’t want to know God. We turned our backs on him and stole the ‘right’ to live our own way. It was an act that made us unholy and resulted in a world of trouble.
God couldn’t turn a blind eye to our rebellion; the Righteous One had to act. But even as he was spelling out the consequences of our choice, he let it be known that Satan—the architect of our fall—would not reign on the earth forever. A future son of the human race would crush his head. It was an early signal that God would never be content to let us perish; he had our salvation in mind.
God kicked off his salvation plan by founding a special nation, Israel, and commissioning its people to show the world what a relationship with God looks like. If the Israelites loved God and chose to live his way, they would enjoy great blessing and (ultimately) lead people from all nations back to God. What a privileged calling!
Tragically, however, the Israelites preferred the gods and lifestyles of the other nations; they snubbed God and embraced evil. A day came when they petitioned their priestly leader, Samuel, to set a king over them like the other nations had. This saddened Samuel because he thought they were rejecting his leadership, but God assured him that it wasn’t him they were rejecting. In one of the most poignant sentences in Scripture, he said, ‘They have rejected me as their king.’
Chapter 1: Prophecy
FOR CENTURY AFTER CENTURY, the Israelites remained on their chosen path of disobedience. God was desperate to save them, so he sent messengers called ‘prophets’ to call them back to himself and warn them of foreign invasion if they refused to listen. In the middle of all this, the prophets brought some intriguing news: on a day yet to come, a King unlike any they had known would come to rule not only Israel, but the whole world. There were a number of such prophecies given throughout Israel’s history. Let’s take a look at seven of them.
Prophecy #1: Son of David
With something like a sigh, God allowed Israel to be ruled by a dynasty of human kings that he knew would lead Israel astray. There was, however, one king in particular who loved God with all his heart: David the shepherd, the son of Jesse from Bethlehem. In approximately 1,000 BC, God spoke to David (through a prophet called Nathan) and made him this astounding promise:
When your days are over and you rest with your ancestors, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, your own flesh and blood, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son … Your house and your kingdom will endure forever before me; your throne will be established forever.
David was dumbfounded. One of his future sons (descendants) was destined to rule over an everlasting kingdom and build a house (temple) for God to live in. But he would not only be a son of David;2 amazingly, he would be a Son of God.
Prophecy #2: Immanuel
When Judah, Israel’s southern kingdom, was about to be attacked in 735 BC, Isaiah the prophet assured one of David’s descendants, King Ahaz, that the LORD would save him from his enemies. To prove he was serious, he directed Ahaz to ask God for a sign (miracle), but Ahaz refused. Isaiah’s comeback was stunning: ‘The LORD himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel’—a name that means ‘God with us.’3 It was a promise not just for King Ahaz, but for us too: When you see that a virgin has given birth to a son, know that God is with you to save you.
Prophecy #3: God in person
But who would this Saviour-King really be? It was already known that he would be a son of mankind and a son of David and a Son of God, but these descriptions were all based on his relationship to others. Who would the eternal Son and King be in himself? Isaiah answered this question in the same year as his Immanuel prediction:
For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
Wow! The son to be gifted to us would be so much more than just a baby. He would be called:
- Wonderful Counsellor: An ideal source of truth, wisdom, guidance and comfort (the same help that would later be provided to us by the Holy Spirit as our Counsellor or Advocate).
- Mighty God: Not simply God’s messenger or agent or next of kin, but God himself.4
- Everlasting Father: So utterly at One with God the Father that he could rightly be called such.
- Prince of Peace: Able to give us his very own peace—the same peace that flourishes between himself and his Father.
The birth of the son in Isaiah’s prophecy wouldn’t just be a sign that God was with us. Nor would God be with us in a merely sentimental way: thinking warmly of us, feeling deeply for us, wanting the best for us. No, the son’s arrival would be bodily evidence that God himself was with us—in person. The Son in our midst would literally be God in our midst. God among us. God on our side.
As LORD and King with us, the Son would establish harmony between human beings that surpasses a mere absence of war. The government founded in his Name would join justice and righteousness together so perfectly that the political divide would cease to exist. His peace, the very peace of God, would reign on the earth and in people’s hearts forevermore.
Prophecy #4: Messiah
Around five years later (in 730 BC), Isaiah gave us another sneak peak of David’s future son:
A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him—the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of might, the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the LORD—and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash around his waist.
With these poetic words, Isaiah was announcing that the coming eternal King—a ‘Branch’ (or Son) from David’s father, Jesse—would be anointed with ‘the Spirit of the LORD.’ In this way, he would be an ‘anointed one’—a Messiah (māshîah in Hebrew), or Christ (christos in Greek). The ordinary kings of Israel were anointed with oil5 as a symbol of the Holy Spirit, but the one and only King of the nations would be anointed with the Holy Spirit himself—God’s own essential being.6 Thus the Son of David would rule his everlasting kingdom in a Godly way, looking at the heart with no regard for the outward appearance. He would not show partiality to the rich and powerful, nor listen to people’s testimony about themselves. Rather, he would uphold the rights of the poor and inflict final judgement on the wicked. He would be distinguishable by his characteristic honesty, purity, decency, integrity, and devotion to God.
Prophecy #5: Shepherd
During the days of Isaiah, God sent another prophet, Micah, to Israel’s southern kingdom of Judah. Among Micah’s public statements was this:
You, Bethlehem Ephrathah,7 though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times … He will stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God. And they will live securely, for then his greatness will reach to the ends of the earth.
It was a message that sat well with Nathan’s earlier promise to David: the coming King, the Son of David, would be born in Bethlehem—the town where David himself had been born.
But there was something rather more striking about Micah’s words. The lifespan of David’s eternal Son would stretch forever in two directions rather than just one. He would live forever into the future, yes, but he would also be ‘from of old, from ancient times’—from before the beginning of his earthly life. Micah was careful to point out that the coming King’s origins ‘are’ from of old. If we are right to take Micah literally, then he was hinting that the yet-to-be-born King was already in existence, and had been so for a very long time.
Having traversed eternity, Micah then came rapidly back to earth. Israel’s forthcoming King, he said, would be a Shepherd. Could there be a more mundane occupation than watching a bunch of sheep? Yet there was something undeniably special about that occupation. David was a shepherd before he became a king; Micah was saying that the Son of David would also be a Shepherd. Not the kind of Ruler who is uninvolved with his subjects, but one who gathers his people together as a community, keeps watch over them, takes care of them, and ensures that they find pasture (spiritual food). What a King! The idea was reminiscent of prophecies spoken around 150 years later (in the 580s or 590s BC) by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. In these prophecies, the LORD identified himself as the true Shepherd of Israel—the One who gathers his scattered sheep together, rescues them from their enemies, and grants them nourishment and safety in their own land. It was entirely consistent with Isaiah’s prophecy that the coming King would be God in person.
Prophecy #6: Saviour
In 588 BC, the prophet Jeremiah was sent to Judah, in Israel’s south:8
The days are coming, declares the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel (in the north) will live in safety. This is the name by which he will be called: The LORD Our Righteous Saviour.
There it was again: the coming King (the human ‘Branch’ of David) wouldn’t just be with the LORD or from the LORD; he would actually be the LORD.
But there was a further element of Jeremiah’s prophecy: David’s eternally-ruling Son would be called ‘The LORD Our Righteous Saviour.’ The fact that the LORD was a Saviour wasn’t a huge revelation in itself, for God had saved his people from their enemies on myriad occasions.9 But he had done this from a position above humanity; Jeremiah was talking about a kind of saving action that would be human-to-human. It would require the LORD Almighty, the Maker of a hundred billion worlds, to empty himself of his divine splendour… scale himself down, down, down… and become a tiny baby boy who cried and slept, and who needed to be nursed, comforted, sheltered and loved.
Prophecy #7: High Priest
In 520 BC, during the reconstruction of the temple after it had been destroyed by foreign invaders, the prophet Zechariah had a vision that filled in yet more detail about the future Messiah. In the vision, the LORD instructed Zechariah to set a crown on the head of the High Priest at that time, Joshua, and say to him:
This is what the LORD Almighty says: Here is the man whose name is the Branch, and he will branch out from his place and build the temple of the LORD. It is he who will build the temple of the LORD, and he will be clothed with majesty and will sit and rule on his throne. And he will be a priest on his throne. And there will be harmony between the two.
Zechariah was saying that the ‘Branch’ of Jesse wouldn’t only be a King; he would also be a High Priest called Joshua (a name that means ‘the LORD is salvation’). His temple wouldn’t be the edifice of stone that was being rebuilt in Jerusalem; it would be a living temple that Joshua himself would build. Within it, he would sit on his throne and rule in Kingly glory, ministering God’s forgiveness to all who came to him (the role of a priest).
God’s prophets through the centuries had given us more than a few pieces of the jigsaw puzzle. They had told us that the coming ‘Branch’ would be:
- the Son of David
- the Son of God
- the eternal King
- born to a virgin
- God with us
- God in human flesh
- the Messiah (or Christ)
- our Shepherd
- our Saviour
- our High Priest
- the Builder of God’s eternal temple.
But could a human being be all of these things?
Chapter 2: Fulfilment
IN 2-3 BC,10 in the rural town of Bethlehem, eight kilometres southwest of Jerusalem, God fulfilled his promise. If you’d like to read the story in the Bible, you’ll find it in the gospels of Matthew and Luke (click on these links to go there). Matthew’s telling of the story is short and to the point; Luke provides a greater amount of detail.
Here’s a highlights package with a few reflections along the way:
- Mary’s surprise visit from an angel: The prophecy given to David a thousand years earlier was about to be fulfilled: the Son of David and Son of God was coming! He was to be named yēshūa’ (Jesus), a contemporary form of Joshua—exactly in line with Zechariah’s vision. And, as prophesied by Isaiah, he would be born to a virgin—the sign of Immanuel. Notice how quickly Mary surrendered to God’s will despite the possibility that she would be treated as an adulterer.11
- Mary’s excited visit to her elderly relative Elizabeth: How about the reactions of Elizabeth and her unborn child to Mary’s unexpected greeting?
- Mary’s song: A heartfelt celebration from a young mum-to-be of God’s rich blessing upon her, together with a commentary on God’s way of working: he lays low the proud and uplifts the poor. Her words were on track with Isaiah’s prediction that the Son of David would deliver justice to the earth’s poor.
- The birth of Jesus: Jesus was born in Bethlehem, precisely as Micah had predicted. How humble were the circumstances into which the Son of God came? Born in an animal compound. Wrapped in pieces of cloth. Placed in an animals’ feeding box. What was God saying about his own humility and his empathy for the poor?
- God’s angelic birth announcement to some unlikely shepherds: The news that ‘a Saviour has been born to you’ was consistent with the meaning of Jesus’ name, ‘The LORD is salvation.’ Imagine being graced with a special performance like that! How delightful were the words sung by the company of angels? What was God saying about himself that he had chosen to give a personal birth announcement to some low-class nomads commonly regarded as unclean?
- Simeon’s prophecy in the temple: Look for a clue that Joseph and Mary were poor.12 Also notice the wonderful, yet ominous, quality of Simeon’s words.
- Jesus is visited by some wise men (magi) from afar: What was God saying about himself that he had spoken to some far-off people from another religion by means of a sign in the cosmos—one that they could understand? How excited these men must have been at the prospect of seeing with their own eyes the Messiah, ‘the one who has been born king of the Jews.’ Allow yourself to be moved by their humble worship and their precious gifts. Do you know what these gifts signified?13
The ancient prophecies about Jesus’ birth had all come to fruition. The King that the Israelites had rejected was with them to save them. They had wanted a human king, and now, as never before, they had one. His splendour and power were well hidden, but don’t be fooled; they were shining brightly beneath the cloak of his ordinary humanity. ‘Father,’ he would one day pray, ‘glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began.’ And when asked, ‘Are you the Messiah, the Son of the Blessed One?’ he would reply, ‘I am. And you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven.’
In adulthood, Jesus fulfilled all the other prophecies previously mentioned:
- He crushed the serpent’s head. On the night before Jesus died for the sins of the human race, he said: ‘Now is the time for judgment on this world; now the prince of this world [Satan] will be driven out.’ He then died a death that the apostle Paul would describe as a triumph over ‘the powers and authorities’—a reference to Satan and his evil angels.
- He gathered, taught and fed his followers like a shepherd. Jesus declared himself to be ‘the good shepherd … [who] lays down his life for the sheep … I know my sheep and my sheep know me.’
- He saved many people from their sins. Jesus described his mission this way: ‘The Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.’ Later, he paid the full debt of our sins to rescue us back to God.
- He was (and is) our High Priest. Jesus is depicted in Scripture as ‘a great high priest who has ascended into heaven.’ He became our brother, identified with us as sinners, destroyed our sin and our broken humanity, created a new humanity that we can share in, and entered the holy inner sanctuary where he now ‘lives to intercede for us’ as our human representative.
- He is building God’s temple today. Scripture presents the church as a temple of ‘living stones’ that is being built by none other than Jesus Christ. Whoever wants to find God need only go to where he lives—right in the midst of his faithful Christian community.
But let’s not be in too much of a hurry this Christmas to take Jesus out of the manger. Let’s just appreciate the wonder of who he is. Draw near to this little child and hear his shallow, rapid breaths. Touch the palm of his perfect little hand and let him wrap his tiny fingers and thumb around your index finger. Look into his as-yet-uncomprehending eyes and know that they have since closed in death for your sake, and in eternity will look into your eyes and love you. He has come for you. He has come for us all. He is God with us, in this age and in the age to come.
The jolly old fellow in the red suit is looking a little shabby, don’t you think?
- Matthew tells us that Joseph initially had in mind to divorce Mary quietly so as not to expose her to public disgrace. This changed, however, when an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him that the child to whom his betrothed would give birth was from the Holy Spirit. This led Joseph to take Mary home as his wife and implicitly accept Jesus as his son (Matthew 1:19-20,24).
- The Gospel of Matthew uses the title ‘son of David’ to refer to Jesus no less than ten times. By the time Jesus came, this term was a common way of designating the expected Messiah. Matthew was keen for his Jewish readership to understand that Jesus was (and is) the eternal Davidic King of Israel.
- Matthew 1:22-23. The name ‘Immanuel’ is reminiscent of the English adjective ‘immanent,’ which means ‘inherent’ or ‘intrinsic.’ Theologically, this word conveys the idea that God always exists everywhere within his creation. (Simultaneously, God is ‘transcendent’: he is outside of, or beyond, his creation.)
- There is much evidence that both Jesus himself and the apostles understood Jesus to be divine. Here are but a few examples, most of them from John’s Gospel:
- The apostle John portrayed Jesus poetically as ‘the Word’ (or in Greek, the Logos)—the rational principle upon which the universe was founded. ‘The Word,’ he proclaimed, ‘was God. He was God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made’ (John 1:1-3; see also Colossians 1:16-17).
- On a number of occasions, Jesus is recorded as saying ‘I am he’ in reference to himself (John 4:26; 8:24,28, 18:5-6,8; Revelation 2:23). When he spoke these words in Gethsemane immediately prior to his arrest, his enemies drew back and fell over (John 18:5-6). This is significant because ‘I am he’ was a statement of self-revelation made by the LORD in Old Testament times (Isaiah 41:4; 43:10,13; 46:4; 48:12).
- When Jesus was accused of claiming to be equal with God because he had referred to God as his Father, he did not refute the accusation. Far from it; he emphasised the closeness of his relationship with God—a bond of such Oneness that it meant sharing in all that belonged to God and in all that God was doing (John 5:17-23).
- When Jesus claimed that whoever obeys his word will never see death, some Jewish hardliners pointed out that their ancestor Abraham (who lived in approximately 1,900 BC) had died. ‘Are you greater than our father Abraham?’ they asked rhetorically. ‘Who do you think you are?’ Jesus then came back with this jaw-dropping statement: ‘Very truly I tell you, before Abraham was born, I am!’ (John 8:51-58).
- Whenever the disciples worshipped Jesus (Matthew 14:33; 28:9,17; Luke 24:52; John 9:38; 20:28), he accepted their worship. By doing so, he was implicitly claiming to be God.
- During the prelude to his High Priestly prayer, Jesus asked his Father to ‘glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began’ (John 17:5).
- The following kings of Israel are shown in Scripture as being anointed with oil: Saul (1 Samuel 10:1); David (1 Samuel 16:13); Solomon (1 Kings 1:39); Jehu (2 Kings 9:6); Joash (2 Kings 11:12); Jehoahaz (2 Kings 23:30).
- When Jesus returned to his hometown of Nazareth, he quoted the prophet Isaiah in reference to himself: ‘The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor’ (Isaiah 61:1; see also Luke 4:18).
- ‘Bethlehem Ephrathah’ was the ancient name of Bethlehem and its surrounding district.
- Israel’s northern kingdom had by this stage ceased to exist as a recognisable entity. On account of the Israelites’ stubborn disobedience, God had sent the Assyrian king, Shalmaneser, to invade their land and take them back to Assyria, from where they would never return (2 Kings 17:5-23).
- There are too many such occasions for them all to be listed here. However, the most celebrated example of God’s saving action on behalf of his people was his liberation of the Israelites from cruel slavery in Egypt (Exodus 12:31-41), closely followed by his spectacular intervention to usher them safely across the Red Sea (Exodus 14:19-30). God’s salvation of his people from the cruel hand of Pharaoh and his subsequent bringing of them out of Egypt would be cited for centuries to come as the LORD’s archetypal saving act.
- The year of Jesus’ birth was calculated by Dionysius Exiguus, a Roman monk and mathematician, in AD 525. Our calendar was then formulated with Christ’s supposed birth year as 1 BC. Later, however, it was discovered that Dionysius had made an error of 1-2 years. Sadly, our calendar couldn’t be corrected. Jesus’ most likely birth year was therefore 2 or 3 BC.
- The Seventh of the Ten Commandments forbade adultery (Exodus 20:14; Deuteronomy 5:18). Suspected adulterers were deemed to be in disgrace. According to the Law of Moses, anyone found guilty of this offence was to be put to death (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24), a sentence most often carried out by stoning (see John 8:3-5).
- When Joseph and Mary went to the temple in Jerusalem so that Mary could be cleansed after giving birth, they gave ‘a pair of doves or two young pigeons’ (Luke 2:24). Presumably, this was because they could not afford a year-old lamb as stipulated by the Law of Moses (Leviticus 12:6,8).
- The gifts given by the magi to baby Jesus were each a statement about his identity or mission:
- gold: a hint that Jesus was a King (it was a precious metal fit for royalty)
- frankincense: a clue that Jesus was a priest (it was used as incense in the temple)
- myrrh: an indicator that Jesus would die a significant death (it was used in medicine and burial).
- Immediately prior to breathing his last, Jesus said, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). This statement was customarily spoken when a debt had been paid in full.