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One of the most frivolous theological controversies of all time, a dispute that made the question of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin seem respectable by contrast, was the “omphalos debate.” This controversy focused on the anatomy of Adam: Did God fashion the first man with or without a belly button (omphalos)? Since the omphalos, or navel, is a result of tying the umbilical cord after birth, it would seem that Adam, having been created in the adult stage of life, had no place to display a navel ring. But perhaps God adorned Adam with a navel to display his solidarity with his progeny.
Who knows? But more important, who cares? This question gives substance to the definition of idle curiosity.
But a related question is not at all a matter of frivolity. This question asks, “Why did the second person of the Trinity, the eternal Logos, become incarnate as a baby?” In other words, why didn’t the Word made flesh come fully grown (like Adam) into this world? Why did the Son of Man not descend from heaven on a cloud of glory; go straight to Jerusalem to suffer, die, and rise again; then return via ascension to glory?
Or, to approach the question from a different angle, why didn’t Mary and Joseph take their babe to Jerusalem (a journey of only a few miles) and sacrifice Him there on the altar? Could not the baby Jesus have served as a perfect sacrifice for our sin? Would the atonement of the Christ child have been any less efficacious than that of the adult Jesus? After all, wasn’t the baby also both divine and human? Was He not also vere homo, vere deus (truly man and truly God)? The church long ago rejected any form of adoptionist Christology that envisioned a human Jesus gradually becoming divine. At no point in Jesus’ life was He ever anything less than truly man and truly God.
The New Testament makes much of Jesus’ role as the “last Adam” (sometimes called the “New Adam” or the “Second Adam”). As Paul declares: “And so it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being.’ The last Adam became a life-giving spirit. However, the spiritual is not first, but the natural, and afterward the spiritual. The first man was of the earth, made of dust; the second Man is the Lord from heaven. As was the man of dust, so also are those who are made of dust; and as is the heavenly Man, so also are those who are heavenly. And as we have borne the image of the man of dust, we shall also bear the image of the heavenly Man” (1 Cor. 15:45–49).
Although there is a great contrast between the two Adams, we see some crucial similarities. Both Adams were put in a testing place of probation. Both were exposed to the unbridled assault of Satan. But whereas Adam succumbed to the tempter and disobeyed the Creator, Jesus trampled over the evil one by His obedience to God.
At this point, we see why it was critical for Jesus, our Mediator, to spend time on earth before His atoning death. We remember that our salvation rests not only upon the death of Christ, but also upon His life. In the Atonement, He took the curse of God on sin for us. He paid the penalty we deserve. That took care of our guilt before God. However, it did nothing to solve our lack of righteousness or merit before God. For this reason, there is a two-fold imputation in our salvation, according to Scripture. God not only imputes our guilt to Christ, He imputes Christ’s righteousness to us. That righteousness or merit of Christ is an achievement. Jesus gained righteousness by obeying the law of God at every point during His life.
At Jesus’ baptism, John hesitated, thinking it wrong to baptize the one who was without sin. Why “cleanse” a Lamb without blemish? John protested, saying to Jesus, “I need to be baptized by You, and are You coming to me?” (Matt. 3:14). The words of Jesus’ reply are important to our understanding of His role as the last Adam: “Permit it to be so now, for thus it is fitting for us to fulfill all righteousness” (3:15).
“To fulfill all righteousness.” You see, Jesus’ task included more than the Cross. We distinguish in theology between the passive obedience of Christ (suffering God’s wrath on the cross) and His perfect, active obedience (His perfect fulfillment of the law). Both were necessary for our salvation. Thus, Jesus’ mission not only required that He die on the cross, but that He obey every law that God imposed upon His people (And since God now required baptism of His people, it was required also of Jesus, even though He Himself was sinless.).
This could explain why Jesus didn’t descend immediately to Jerusalem and submit to crucifixion. Jesus was baptized in the Jordan and sent to the wilderness to be tempted by Satan at the beginning of His three years of public ministry. That period of active obedience could have been enough to satisfy the Law if Jesus, like Adam, had come on the scene as an adult.
Yet we still have the question of the period from His birth to His baptism. Why was He born to grow into adulthood?
Because of His corporate solidarity with His people, Jesus bore their sins and fulfilled all the demands of the law. In this role, we see a strong identity between Christ and Old Testament Israel. In His person, Jesus fulfilled the elements of the Old Testament. He was the Tabernacle. He was the Bread from heaven. He was the Light. He was the Mercy Seat.
In the gospel according to Matthew, we are told that Jesus’ parents were warned to flee into Egypt to escape Herod’s “slaughter of the innocents” (Matt. 2:13–16). They remained in Egypt until the death of Herod. Then we are told that the family’s return fulfilled Old Testament prophecy (Matt. 2:15). Here Jesus, as a child, recapitulated the Exodus. He, like Israel, was the “Son” who was called.
The link to Israel is noted often in the gospel of John. Not the least of these references is found in John 15:1. “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.” It is hard to read these words and not think of Psalm 80: “You have brought a vine out of Egypt; You have cast out the nations, and planted…. Return, we beseech You, O God of hosts; look down from heaven and see, and visit this vine and the vineyard which Your right had has planted, and the branch that You made strong for Yourself…. Let Your hand be upon the man of Your right hand, upon the son of man whom You made strong for Yourself” (Ps. 80:8, 14–15, 17).
Israel was God’s vine, and Jesus, as the true vine, has fulfilled that role. In the metaphor, the vine is planted by God. Israel was a “babe” as a nation at the Exodus. So Jesus, as the true Israel, began as a babe, but He grew to manhood and fulfilled the destiny of Israel for His Father and for His people.