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“In the beginning was the Word.” With these ancient and familiar words, John the evangelist opens his gospel as a new Genesis, proclaiming the true Light that shines into this world’s darkness. The Word that was in the beginning with God, the same God who made the first Adam, this very Word became flesh (John 1:14). In John’s new Genesis, the divine Word became the new Adam.
Though not as detailed as the nativity accounts in Matthew or Luke, this brief Christmas story of John the beloved apostle is no less profound, showing us the mystery and the majesty of the Incarnation. Christmas is the expression of the heart of God the Father, who so loved the world that was perishing that He gave His own precious Son, that we who believe might have eternal life. And so John tells us that the Word became the new Adam in order to become the new Moses. He became a Man like Adam to fulfill all God required of man. And He became a Prophet like Moses to deliver us from the bondage of our sin and death.
What a depth of divine love is expressed in the birth of Jesus! The Word who, in the beginning, made the world to move with the breath of His power, whose mere syllables made the stars to burn in the heavens, this very Word became a child sleeping in a manger, a baby sucking at the breast of a virgin. God’s great Logos became an infant, a word whose Latin root signifies “speechlessness,” describing a small child still unable to utter sensible sounds. And so it was that through the humility of the Incarnation, of God sharing fully in all that constitutes the human experience, that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, at first imitating the sounds that form words and later learning obedience to the laws of syntax that give meaning to human speech. But in the full maturity of the divine Word, when all His work was done, Bethlehem’s Prophet would cry out in a loud voice, “It is finished,” a logos powerful enough to make an end of sin, to make atonement for iniquity, and to seal up vision and prophecy. His work as the new Moses was then complete in the deliverance of the new Israel. And His work as the new Adam was finished as He became the head of the new humanity.
Just as the prophet Ahijah tore his cloak into 12 pieces to signify the coming division of the kingdom (1 Kings 11:29–33), and just as the prophet Elijah left his mantle behind to signify the double blessing to come upon Elisha (2 Kings 2:8–14), so Israel’s prophets sometimes illustrated their divine utterances by striking enactments and graphic gestures. Similarly, it is in the “wordless” providence of Christ’s nativity that we see the prophetic character of Jesus’ infancy. The birth of the Christ child is the prophetic proclamation of the Word, even in the “speechless” infancy of Israel’s greatest Prophet.
I want to consider two aspects of this providence. The first is retrospective, wherein Matthew’s account of the nativity is carefully drawn to highlight the correspondence between the birth stories of Moses and Jesus.
In his valedictory addresses to Israel, Moses told of God saying, “I will raise up for them a Prophet like you from among their brethren, and will put My words in His mouth, and He shall speak to them all that I command Him” (Deut. 18:18). In this light, it is noteworthy that Matthew has recorded those aspects of Jesus’ nativity that recall the birth of Moses.
As one of God’s great prophetic voices under the old covenant, Moses appeared at the predicted time, bringing God’s greatest verbal revelation of the old covenant after four hundred years of prophetic silence (Gen. 15:13). But Pharaoh of Egypt expressed an enmity that threatened to silence God’s prophet by attempting to kill the one appointed to deliver His people while he was still an infant (Ex. 1:22). Pharaoh decreed the death of all the male infants of Israel, which put Moses’ life in jeopardy, but apparently spared Aaron, who was three years older than his brother (Ex. 7:7). Moses later fled from Pharaoh, finding refuge in Midian until God sent him back to Egypt to accomplish his mission and deliver his people, telling him, “Go, return to Egypt; for all the men who sought your life are dead” (Ex. 4:19).
Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth carefully records how the young Christ was providentially declared to be the Prophet like Moses, predicted in Deuteronomy 18:18. Jesus appeared in the fullness of time to give God’s greatest verbal revelation of all time, four hundred years after Malachi. Herod the king, hearing from the magi that a rival king had been born, sought to destroy the male children of the region around Bethlehem. He commanded the slaughter of all the males “two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16). The angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, however, and told him to flee from Israel with the Child, that the word of the prophet might be fulfilled, “Out of Egypt I called My Son” (Matt. 2:13–15). The observant reader will see that the Hosea reference to the flight from Egypt is fulfilled, according to Matthew’s careful alignment, as the holy family flees from the Israel of Herod, which, according to apostolic teaching, had become the true Egypt (cf. Rev. 11:8). For just as Moses was to return to Egypt to fulfill his calling by delivering the people of God, being told in Midian that “all the men who sought your life are dead” (Ex. 4:19), so Joseph in Egypt received the same assurance, the angel reporting, “Arise, take the young Child and His mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who sought the young Child’s life are dead” (Matt. 2:20). So, the holy family returned to Israel, which had become spiritual Egypt, where Jesus, as the Prophet, would accomplish a greater exodus through the slaughter of the Passover Lamb in Jerusalem (Matt. 26:2–3; Luke 9:30–31).
The second providence is found in the manner by which the evangelists Matthew and Luke wrote their nativity stories to foreshadow their accounts of the resurrection of Jesus. This prospective providence shows that Christ was born to conquer death by dying.
Both evangelists describe the birth of Jesus largely through the eyes of Joseph (of Bethlehem) and Mary (of Nazareth in Galilee). The central miracle of the nativity is Christ being born of the womb of a virgin. For who could come forth from the womb of a woman who had known no man (Matt. 1:18–25; Luke 1:34)? But if Jesus’ conception was altogether supernatural, we may certainly assume that His birth was completely natural. We may justly conclude that Mary was sorrowful when her labor came upon her, but that her sorrow suddenly became joy when a Son was born to her (cf. John 16:21). We are told that the body of Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger (Luke 2:7), which in Syro-Palestine would have been a hollowed-out limestone block. But in contrast to the sight of a mummiform infant lying immovable and enclosed in stone, an infant who would shortly receive the bloody wounding of circumcision (Luke 2:21), there was the joyful message of the angels announcing good news to men (Matt. 1:20–21; Luke 2:13–14). Subsequently, magi acknowledging that Jesus was “King of the Jews” brought Him gifts of spices and gold (Matt. 2:11).
The gospels’ resurrection accounts are told largely through the eyes of a second Joseph (of Arimathea) and a second Mary (of Magdala in Galilee). The central miracle of the resurrection is Christ coming forth from a “virgin” tomb, a grave “where no one had ever lain before” (Luke 23:53). After Jesus received the bloody wounding of the cross, His body was wrapped in linen cloths before He was laid in a rock-hewn tomb (Luke 23:53). John’s portrait of Mary Magdalene describes a woman overcome with a sorrow that suddenly turned into joy when she saw her Christ (John 20:11–16). And once again, angels from heaven announced glad tidings of great joy (Luke 24:1–7) to those who brought Jesus gifts of spices, to those who saw in Him the “King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37).
The Word of God, the Word that was with God, and the same Word that was God in the beginning, became man in Christ Jesus. This eternal Word was stronger than death, and came forth from the grave to preach peace to those who will believe God for His mercy. Just like the prophets of old, who announced both judgment and salvation, the living Word warns the wicked of the wrath of God for unrepentant sinners. But the same resurrected Word proclaims comfort to all those who will cry out for mercy and so find salvation in Christ Jesus.
As the new Moses, the prophetic Word is a victorious Word, having conquered death and sin. As the new Adam, the prophetic Word is a living Word, calling forth a new humanity. And just as death could not silence the Word of Life, neither could infancy impede the proclamation of the baby born to be the Prophet from Bethlehem. For Jesus was Spirit who was made flesh in order that we who are flesh might partake of the life of the Spirit. And He was also the eternal Word, who was born a baby in order that we might be born again unto eternal life.