Don’t settle for a diminished Jesus this Christmas!
Christians in the first century CE had not yet begun an annual celebration of the birth of Jesus. Official, formal celebrations of Advent began later, perhaps as late as the fourth century. This post is not about that.
Neither is it about the sentimentalism that portrays Jesus as an infant who didn’t cry when startled from sleep by cattle mooing in the stable where he was born. That’s suspect on historical grounds—more likely, the stable would have been for goats and sheep, not cows. Not to mention theological grounds—the baby Jesus didn’t cry when startled from sleep?! Hello! Have you heard of Docetism?
What we’re about here is unpacking the theology of Christmas based on Paul’s teaching in Colossians that Jesus is the firstborn, the creator and reconciler of the world, the ruling lord of the church, and the one in whom all divine fullness dwells (Col 1:15-20; 2:9-10). This profound teaching didn’t come about during Paul’s idle reflection but to protect his flock at Colossae from teaching that threatened the church. That teaching went off the rails about angels.
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Our previous Advent posts have reflected on Mary, prayer, the Gospel of John, the book of Revelation, and Epiphany. You will find them here.
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Jesus and the Angels
The Christmas story in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 is full of episodes featuring angels. I count six of them. Angels announce God’s astounding plan to fulfill prophecy through a very unlikely couple from an obscure village in Galilee. They warn the holy family of the diabolical opposition to that plan. These messengers carried out crucial missions for God. The Christmas story could not have happened without them, but it isn’t about them. Compare how Hebrews 1-2 gives the angels their due while exalting Jesus far above them.
About sixty years after that first Christmas, angels were also prominent in the thinking of some in the church at Colossae. But not in a good way. Erroneous teaching had sprung up, tempting the congregation to think that they needed to have a mystical experience in which they worshiped angels, or perhaps joined in with angels in worshiping God (Col 2:8, 18, 20). This unhealthy preoccupation with angels was interwoven with false teaching that the Colossians had to observe human regulations about their diet and calendar (Col 2:8, 16, 20-23). Adding angels and rules to simple faith in Christ could only subtract from the authentic gospel that had begun to bear fruit in Colossae and around the world.
Jesus is all we need.
To counter this bogus teaching at Colossae, Paul reaffirmed Jesus’ Lordship in one of the most sublime passages in the entire New Testament, Colossians 1:15-20. Some call it poetry; others call it heightened prose. Some think Paul drew it from a previously existing hymn; others think he composed it himself from scratch. Whatever. This beautiful passage leaves us worshipping Christ as the Creator and Redeemer of the universe and leaves no room for powerless human rules and fictions about angels.
Paul’s thanksgiving and prayer for the Colossians (Col 1:3-14) concludes with Paul’s teaching that believers in Jesus have been transferred from the devil’s dark domain into the light of Jesus’ kingdom. Freedom and forgiveness have come to them through the cross (Col 1:13-14; cf. 1:20; 2:11-15; Acts 26:18). This leads us to the center of Christmas at Colossae.
The poem, if we may call it that, has two stanzas. The first (1:15-17) proclaims Christ to be supreme over the world he created. That includes both heaven and earth, the physical world and the spiritual powers (angels) that exist in it. The second stanza (1:18-20) proclaims Christ to be supreme over the church he redeemed. As the one in whom all divine fullness dwells, his blood shed on the cross provided for the ultimate peace of the universe. Christ reconciled the spiritual powers the Colossians were confused about—even the rebellious ones were disarmed and put to shame (compare Col 2:10, 15, 20). The Colossians were complete in Jesus—how foolish for them to be distracted by bogus teaching about angels. How foolish we are today when anything takes our atttention away from the preeminence of Jesus.
A key term that describes Jesus’ supremacy in both stanzas is firstborn (πρωτότοκος/prOtotokos). As God’s incarnate image, Jesus is firstborn over the world he originally created. By his death and resurrection Jesus became firstborn over the dead—death died when he rose from the grave. Unfortunately, some have taken the word in a strictly temporal sense, concluding that Jesus was God’s first creation, who subsequently created the rest of the world. This heretical view is contradicted by Paul’s elaborate explanation of “all things” in Colossians 1, as well as many other NT passages that affirm the Son of God’s eternal existence. “Firstborn” often describes one who was “born first” (e.g. Luke 2:7; Heb 11:28), but as we learn from Genesis the one “born first” did not always receive the status the term implies (Gen 27:36; 48:13-20). Similarly, Israel became the primary nation in God’s plan; it was not the first nation God created (Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1). God’s plan was to give the Davidic dynasty (ultimately David’s son Jesus) firstborn status (supremacy) over the kings of the earth (Ps 89:27). Beyond Colossians 1, the NT uses the word prOtotokos several times to describe Jesus exalted status over the church by virtue of his deity, incarnation, and resurrection (compare Rom 8:29; Heb 1:6; 12:23; Rev 1:5).
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Go here for a teaching video on Colossians 1:15-23.
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Many texts in the New Testament reflect on the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. Galatians 4:4 says that God sent his son to be born of a woman when the time was right. 1 Timothy 3:1 speaks of the revealed secret of godly living beginning with Jesus as the revelation of God in a human body. The passages below speak in more detail about the eternal Son of God miraculously taking on human existence.
Incarnation is a Latin-based word with the awkward English equivalent of “enfleshment.” Jesus’ human body was no mere costume to be put on or taken off as the situation demanded, like the angels who occasionally appeared as humans to do God’s bidding. Through the miracle of Mary’s virginal conception, the Son of God truly became human without ceasing to be divine. God originally made humanity in his image (Gen 1:26-28), so Jesus as the incarnate Son of God was both fully human and fully divine.
This biblical teaching was formalized in the Chalcedonian Creed of 451 CE. This creed built out biblical teaching with detailed and precise terminology that guarded against the heretical teachings of that day. Stephen Wellum has briefly summarized key aspects of the incarnation here.
Don’t settle for a diminished Jesus this Christmas!
We’re all emotionally affected by the scene of the infant Jesus in the manger. That’s fine, but Christmas is so much more than warm fuzzy feelings about a cute baby. Most of us admire what Jesus taught once he was all grown up. Great, but Jesus was so much more than a thinker of lofty thoughts. Strictly emotional or intellectual responses to Jesus actually diminish him. Don’t damn Jesus with faint praise this Christmas!
Don’t settle for a diminished Jesus this Christmas! Let’s wrap our whole selves in worship around the One in whom all divine fullness dwells, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us. Let’s approach the manger in amazement that it was the beginning of a faithful life that led all the way to the cross, the empty tomb, and back to glory at the right hand of God. Let’s ponder how the one who created us in his image graciously became one with his creation, displaying all the fullness of God during his life on this earth. Let’s glory in the confidence that when he took on our flesh and blood he destroyed the devil and delivered us from the fear of death.
Let’s not just be affected by how he was born or admire him for his teaching. Come, let’s adore him, Christ the Lord.
Making Melody to the Lord with all your Heart
Many great songs, traditional and contemporary alike, celebrate God’s amazing grace by pointing us to Jesus’ astounding incarnation. They help us echo the angels who announced Jesus’ birth to the shepherds:
“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” (Luke 2:14 NLT)
Here are some of my favorite Christmas songs. Add yours to the list in the comments below.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; Hail th’incarnate Deity, Pleased with us in flesh to dwell, Jesus our Emmanuel. Hark the herald angels sing, glory to the newborn king.
Thou didst leave thy throne and thy kingly crown, When thou camest to earth for me;
But in Bethlehem’s home was there found no room For thy holy nativity.
O come to my heart, Lord Jesus, there is room in my heart for Thee.
[Mary] did you know your baby boy has walked where angels trod. When you kiss your little baby, you kiss the face of God.
To fulfill the law and prophets, to a virgin came the word. From a throne of endless glory, to a cradle in the dirt. Praise the Father, praise the Son, praise the Spirit, three in one. God almighty, majesty, praise forever to the King of kings.
King of all days, oh so highly exalted, Glorious in Heaven above. Humbly You came to the Earth You created, All for love’s sake became poor. So, here I am to worship, Here I am to bow down. Here I am to say that You’re my God. You’re altogether lovely, altogether worthy, Altogether wonderful to me. Behold the King has come, divinity incarnate, Creator of the world, breathing our air. Behold what light has come and the dark cannot contain it. The Savior of the world Is finally here.