Prophecy, fulfillment, and time

During this Advent season, many Christians contemplate the prophecies of Jesus in Moses, the prophets, and the Psalms, comparing those promises to the ways they were kept in the birth, life, passion, and resurrection of Jesus. This meditation is good, but it can sometimes be approached in a misleading fashion. Some Christians speak of God first making the promises and then finding ways to keep them, like a planner checking items off a list.

“Let’s see – I said he would be born of a virgin – Mary of Nazareth will do nicely. (check)

“I said he would be born in Bethlehem. I can prompt Caesar to call for a census so that Joseph will be compelled to take Mary there before the birth.” (check)

“I said that he would be honored by Gentiles bringing gold and incense and myrrh. Here’s a group of wise men who will fit the bill.” (check)

“I said they would be led by a star. How on earth am I going to lead them to Bethlehem by a star?”

Peter wrote, “Do not overlook this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (II Peter 3:8). God does not move through time as we created beings move through time; he can step into and out of the time stream at will. When the Holy Spirit spoke through the prophets, he was not setting up conditions that would have to be met. No, he was telling what he had already seen of future events, for he had already been there. Judas was not fated to betray Christ because of some promise God made centuries earlier; Judas chose to betray Christ, and then the Holy Spirit told prophets about the betrayal centuries earlier.

Some say that, hanging on the cross, Jesus quoted the first verse of Psalm 22. A more theologically sound position is that Jesus prayed sincerely from the depths of his anguish, and then the Holy Spirit inspired David to write the Psalm which vividly describes the crucifixion and quotes Christ’s prayer one thousand years earlier.

When the prophecies and fulfillments are seen from this perspective, deeper and richer meaning appears in those prophecies. Mary was a genuine person, a historic figure, who conceived and gave birth to a son while still a virgin. At the same time, Mary stands in the place of the Bride of the Lord—Old Testament Israel and the New Testament Church, one Bride distinguished only by the before-and-after of Christ’s Incarnation in our time stream. This Bride is betrothed, still awaiting the coming of her Husband on the wedding day. Although a virgin, she has already given birth to the Son of God, now Incarnate, who has fulfilled the promises that would claim his people and bring about the royal marriage of Christ and his Church.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem so he could claim the throne of his father David. David had been promised a son who would rule an eternal kingdom (II Samuel 7). Solomon does not match the son described to David—Solomon became king while David was still alive (v. 12), although Solomon sinned he was never disciplined with stripes and rods (v. 14), and after ruling for forty years, Solomon died, and his kingdom was divided—it was not eternal (v. 16). Jesus fulfilled all the requirements of the Son of David and remains a true Son to God the Father (v. 14). Though he did not sin, he took upon himself the sins of the world and was treated accordingly, including the stripes and rods borne by Roman soldiers.

But Bethlehem was more than the hometown of David and therefore of his descendants. The name of the town means “house of bread,” and it became the birthplace of the Bread of Life, the Living Bread that (like manna) comes down out of heaven (John 6). After he was born, Jesus was placed in a manger, a trough from which sheep eat, signaling that the Good Shepherd would feed his sheep with his own body (I Corinthians 10 & 11).

The wise men bearing gifts who were guided by a star probably knew the prophecy of the Gentile prophet Balaam, who said in the days of Moses, “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” (Numbers 24:17). The wise men knew that the King of the Jews, whose birth was signaled by that star, would also be a priest and a sacrifice, so they honored him with royal and priestly gifts.

All the Old Testament descriptions of the Messiah add up to more than a checklist of things God had to do, or ways to identify the Messiah when he came. They were given as instruction to the saints of Israel, so they could believe in the coming Savior and have a place in his eternal kingdom. They remain for our instruction today, expanding upon what was written by the apostles to describe Jesus as Savior. God’s Bible is full of rich interconnections which never stop teaching us about the glory and grace of God, who came among us to be one of us, to rescue us, and to claim us for his kingdom. J.

God in a box

When your family celebrates your birthday with you, do they get out the old pictures and look at you as a newborn baby, lying in a crib in the hospital with a knit cap on your head to keep you warm? Do you look at the same picture year after year? I thought not.

On Washington’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the colonial mansion? On Lincoln’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the log cabin in Kentucky? On King’s birthday do we talk about the baby born in Atlanta? Generally, when we celebrate the birth of a hero, we remember the entire life and career of that hero, not merely the circumstances of his or her birth.

What is it, then, about the manger scene that makes it central to every year’s Christmas celebrations? We see it on Christmas cards and in three-dimensional displays, we see it portrayed by children, we sing about it, and every single Christmas we hear again about Mary and Joseph and the manger because there was no room in the inn. Every year we hear about angels and shepherds and Bethlehem. Every year we bring out the baby pictures and remember Jesus at the time when he was born.

The prophets spoke of a King born in Bethlehem and of a virgin giving birth to Immanuel, but the prophets never mentioned the manger. The apostles wrote about Jesus, but they did not comment on the manger. Only Luke gives us the details of a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger—Matthew and Mark and John did not consider the manger worth mentioning.

The cynical part of my mind thinks that the manger is celebrated because it is our chance to put God in a box. No one feels threatened by a newborn baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The power of God and his judgment upon sin are conveniently missing from our Christmas pictures. On Good Friday and on Easter we see the cost of sin and the power of God. We are confronted by grace and mercy in a way that encourages us to confess our sins and to trust ourselves in the hands of our Savior. On Christmas, we can leave God in the manger, and we can credit ourselves with bringing gifts to him as the wise men did. We invite our Lord to “sleep in heavenly peace” while we go on celebrating his birth in a way that suits our sense of autonomy and control.

Yet that baby lying in the manger was still running the universe at the same time. That baby lying in the manger was invading a sinful world to confront and destroy evil and at the same time to rescue the victims of evil. That baby lying in a manger, relying on his mother for food and shelter and diaper changes, was almighty and all-knowing, present everywhere in the universe even while confined to a small human shape.

If Christmas is merely Jesus’ birthday, that is still no reason to skip over the rest of the life and career of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem long ago. He did not remain the Christ Child lying in a manger; his birth into this world means more than any other birth in human history. The point of Christmas is more than a birthday—it is the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is a reminder that the all-powerful eternal God became one of us, as human as we are, to battle our enemies and to defeat them, not with power but with sacrifice, because God is love.

Jesus called himself the Bread of Life. To underline the promise of that title, he was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” His first bed was a manger, the very place where sheep come to be fed. The manger is meaningful, not as a box to contain God, but as a humble place in this world where God promises to be found. The manger becomes a symbol of the other humble places where God is found—in his Word, the Holy Bible, and in the gathering of his people, the Holy Christian Church.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the people of God will gather to hear and to sing about the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. Beyond that manger lies a cross where the Shepherd will rescue his sheep, giving them peace and eternal life by his sacrifice. May your coming Christmas celebrations bring you, not only to the manger, but to the Shepherd and the King. J.