“The Third Day He Rose Again from the Dead”

posted by R. Fowler White

As we continue to work our way through the Apostles’ Creed, examining its articles in the light of Scripture, we come now to Article 5: The third day He rose again from the dead.

There is no doubt that this is what Scripture teaches. Moreover, this is what the church of Jesus Christ, following Scripture, has confessed throughout its history. That is, with Scripture, the true church continues to confess that Christ really and truly did rise from the dead, and in rising His soul was really and truly reunited with His body, inasmuch as the two had been separated at death. He really and truly did come out of His tomb in which He had been buried, despite the steps that the Roman guards had taken to make the tomb secure. He rose again the same Person, the same Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man—only now glorified! The same body, the one that had fallen victim to death and burial, rose again—only now it was a glorious body (Phil 3:21).

The particular phrase that the Creed uses to affirm Christ’s resurrection is noteworthy: He rose again. Elsewhere we read that He was raised again. What’s the difference? The Creed’s word choice puts an emphasis on Christ’s power to rise from the dead, to raise His body from the grave. In other words, the Creed bears witness that Christ rose again from the dead because Scripture teaches that, as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself (John 5:26). In this connection, we remember that Jesus had declared, speaking of His body: Destroy this temple, and I will raise it up in three days (John 2:19). He had also proclaimed: I have authority to lay down My life, and I have authority to take it up again (John 10:18).

It’s equally noteworthy that the Creed specifies that Jesus Christ rose again on the third day. The Apostles’ gospel (e.g., 1 Cor 15:4), to which the Creed bears witness, was (and is) not a novelty. The resurrection that they preached and documented was the NT fulfillment of the promises of God in the OT Scriptures. Moses, the Prophets after him, and the Psalms testified that the Christ would suffer and rise again from death on the third day. Strikingly, Scripture provides many pictures (foreshadowings) of resurrection, including birth from barrenness, return from exile, release from a death sentence, release from prison, deliverance from the waters of death, deliverance from thirst, hunger, sickness; deliverance from the sting of the viper, and the raising up of a fallen tabernacle. In the places where we find these themes, we find that life comes from death after three days, on the third day. The Apostles’ gospel, then, was the OT gospel. 

So what difference does Christ’s resurrection make? How does it benefit us? First, by His resurrection He has overcome death, so that believers share in the righteousness that He obtained for them by His death. In other words, through faith, God reckons to sinners Christ’s righteousness in exchange for our sins. By Christ’s resurrection, God our Judge declares: “Debt paid in full!” And not only that. By Christ’s resurrection our Divine Judge declares to us who believe: “Accepted as righteous in Christ; in Him you have all the righteousness I require.” Second, by His power we are raised up to live a new life of obedience to God. United to the resurrected Christ by faith, we have been raised from death in sins to a new life of seeking the things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Third, Christ’s bodily resurrection is to us believers God’s sure pledge of our own glorious bodily resurrection. Christ is the firstfruits of those who have died (1 Cor 15:20), the first one to have been raised from the dead to die no more. Christ is God’s down payment in guarantee of more to come, the assurance of a full harvest. For believers, then, their resurrection is as sure as Christ’s resurrection. Particularly as believers get older, the more they appreciate God’s pledge of their own resurrection, a pledge that holds true because Christ is the firstfruits of the full resurrection-harvest to come.

Of course, our pagan culture is flooded with skepticism of the miraculous, particularly about the resurrection of Christ. Yet we forget that the original skeptics of His resurrection were His first disciples. Some folks like to portray them as a gullible, superstitious group that simply took resurrection as a given. But that portrait is fake news. For example, the NT Gospel writers make a considerable effort to show their readers that Jesus’ earliest followers did not go to His tomb believing in His resurrection or presuming His resurrection. No, they went to His tomb with spices because they expected to find a decaying dead body there. There was no hint that they anticipated His resurrection. In fact, it was a surprise to them. Now don’t get me wrong: the resurrection of Jesus should not have been the surprise to His disciples that it was. After all, what they found at His tomb was exactly what He had predicted on at least six different occasions. In fact, what they found at the sepulchre was exactly what they had been told they would find and what they could and should have remembered and expected. But they did neither of these things. In truth, so-called “Doubting Thomas” turned out to represent, to some degree, all of Jesus’ earliest followers when he said: Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.

The point is, Jesus’ initial followers became convinced of His resurrection as God bore witness to them in word and deed and as they saw Him, heard Him, and touched Him (1 John 1:1-3). The first followers of Jesus became what they were not at first. They became eyewitnesses of His resurrection. This is why the message of the Apostles, documented in the Scriptures, is what it is. Of the resurrected Christ, the Apostles all ended up confessing with Thomas, My Lord and my God! Readers and hearers of Scripture, then, are not expected to be gullible. No, they are expected to take seriously what the historic church of Christ persists in confessing forthrightly with the Apostles’ Creed, following the Scriptures of the Prophets and the Apostles: the third day Jesus Christ rose again from the dead.

Our meditations turn to Article 6 of the Creed here.

“Crucified, Dead, and Buried”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Continuing our reflection on article four of the Apostles’ Creed, we examine what it means to confess faith in Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried.

In the ancient world crucifixion was believed to be an effective way to maintain law and order. The Romans reserved it for dangerous criminals, slaves, and the populations of foreign provinces. In the province of Judea, for example, it proved to be generally effective against resistance to Roman occupation. Applied as a form of execution, it was so frequent, and its details such common knowledge, that people in the first century were all too familiar with crucifixion. Despite its frequency—or maybe because of it—written descriptions of the act of crucifixion are rare. The more refined writers were hesitant to dwell long on an act so horrifying, brutal, and shameful. Reading the NT Gospel accounts, we realize that none of them goes beyond the barest minimum when they describe it. All that they say is they crucified Him. It is hard to describe a more cruel and unusual form of capital punishment, but we will have to try.

Imagine the shape of the cross: X, T, and were the most common. Imagine the height of the cross: ordinarily the victim’s feet were no more than two feet above the ground—to give wild beasts and scavenger dogs easy access to the dead body. Imagine the nails of the cross, the spikes used to impale the victim. Imagine the small wooden peg or block, often placed midway up the vertical post to prolong the victim’s agony by preventing his premature collapse.

Once impaled on the cross, the victim endured a seemingly endless cycle of pulling, pushing, and collapsing—pulling with his arms, pushing with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing, then collapsing in exhaustion until the body’s need for oxygen demanded more pulling and pushing. The combination of flogging, blood loss, and shock from pain, all produced agony that could go on for days. The end ordinarily came from suffocation, or cardiac arrest, or blood loss. When there was reason to speed up death, the executioners would smash the victim’s legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breathing.

The shame of crucifixion compounded its pain. In fact, so intense was the combination of shame and pain that it was expressly prohibited that a Roman citizen be executed in this manner. Crucifixion was always public, at an intersection, in the theatre, or elsewhere on high ground. Victims were usually crucified naked to intensify the experience of humiliation, though Jewish sensitivities would have demanded that the victim wear a loincloth. More than nakedness, however, the act of raising the victim up off the ground on a cross was meant to make manifest the level of criminality and heinousness of his transgression. The cross itself was thus a visible symbol and physical embodiment of all that was morally shameful and aesthetically offensive, and crucifixion was referred to as “that most cruel and disgusting penalty.” As such, it is understatement to say that the crucifixion of the innocent, sinless Jesus was the most monstrously obscene act ever committed.

Here, we have to note that it was significant that Jesus was crucified instead of dying some other way. Death on a cross was cursed not only by human standards but also by God’s standard. Already by the first-century AD, victims of crucifixion were viewed in terms of Deut 21:22-23: he who is hanged on a tree is accursed by God. The form of Jesus’ death tells us that it was for lawbreakers that He endured the curse of God. His crucifixion was neither by chance, by accident, nor by the sole decision of Romans and Jews, but by God’s special providence and counsel (Acts 2:23). Christ had to be crucified to bear our curse and to share His blessing with us, to satisfy God’s justice and to free us from the curse. He had to be crucified to make peace for us with our offended, estranged Creator, to rescue sinners from bondage and misery by the payment of the price. Consequently, we must confess that Jesus Christ was crucified.

Confessing Jesus Christ crucified, we also confess Him dead, redundant to say so though it seems. Joseph of Arimathea, attended by Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James, took His dead body down from the cross and laid Him in a tomb. He had died in the sight of men—and also in the sight of God. He did not die of natural causes; nor did He die for His own sins, since He was without sin. The death He died was for our sins. He laid down His life as an offering for sin, as the sinless Substitute, putting Himself in harm’s way for His people, for His sheep, for His bride. He took the punishment to which God had sentenced sinners, and, as a result, He satisfied God’s displeasure against them. The death He died was according to the Scriptures. We confess, therefore, Jesus Christ dead.

We also confess Jesus Christ buried. His body was placed in a tomb, a grave. And again we wonder, as perfunctory as it sounds, why would Scripture and the Creed give such prominence to His burial? Because, if satisfaction for our sins came in no other way than by the death of the Son of God, we must have proof of His death. It was burial of His body, together with the women’s determination to anoint His buried body with spices and ointments, that proved the death of His body. Thus, the incarnate Son of God really and truly died, and His burial was the certificate of His death.

In the words of the Creed, then, we confess Jesus Christ crucified, dead, and buried: three stark words bearing witness to the horror, brutality, and debasement of His humiliation.

We consider the last phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here.

“Suffered under Pontius Pilate”

Posted by R. Fowler White

We turn here to article four of the Apostles’ Creed, in which we confess our faith in Jesus Christ, who suffered under Pontius Pilate. Three times Pilate pronounced Jesus innocent of all charges against Him, yet Pilate had the authority to release an innocent man or to have him crucified. He was the one human being who had the most to do with Jesus’ crucifixion. He chose the latter to preserve his political career. In the Gospel of Matthew (ch. 27) the Evangelist gives a terse but vivid portrayal of Jesus as He suffered under Pilate and the soldiers in his charge. The details of our Lord’s suffering before He suffered on the cross are expressed in eight brief, heartbreaking statements. They provide a disturbing picture of unspeakable atrocity and unbearably sadistic torture. For they show us that under Pilate the King of Glory was in the hands of angry sinners. 

Despite Governor Pilate’s threefold finding of innocence, the official process of Jesus’ execution by crucifixion began. Now, for the first time, the Roman military had Jesus, the royal wannabe (as they saw Him), in their hands. They will proceed to act out a mock ceremony of coronation, mixing brutality with sarcastic barracks humor. Since Jesus was on His way to execution, nothing will curb their enjoyment of this opportunity to humiliate this King of the Jews, this ludicrous example of a Jew who, as they saw it, had dared to challenge the world’s super power. Like no one else, they would see to it that this one suffered under Pontius Pilate. Merciless soldiers were never more cruel or crude than they were with the King of Glory. 

Faced with the outcry of the unruly crowd in Jerusalem, Pilate caved in and decided to punish Jesus by having Him flogged in anticipation of crucifixion. So, first, they tore off the outer garments and undergarments of Jesus. Stripped of clothing, He endured the shame of public nakedness that Jewish persons in antiquity earnestly sought to avoid. Naked, He was most likely tied to a post or pillar with His hands secured tightly above Him; if not in that position, thrown to the ground would have worked too. Next, the military guards took their positions standing on either side of Him, brandishing the whip(s) made from cords of leather, with pieces of metal and bone braided into the leather strands. Then they flogged Him, repeatedly lashing his back, his chest, or both, likely leaving strips of flesh hanging from His wounds, perhaps exposing even bones or organs. While the Jews only allowed thirty-nine lashes, the Romans had no such limit. This gruesome assault was designed, if not to kill Jesus, at least to weaken His overall constitution before He was nailed to the cross, shortening the time it would take Him to die there.

The flogging left Jesus a pathetic sight: His appearance severely altered, His form marred beyond easy recognition, barely able to stand or walk, and certainly humanly powerless to resist. Putting His garments back on Him, the soldiers took Jesus into Pilate’s official residence and the military barracks housed there, and they gathered the whole battalion before Him. There stood a company of the 600 men normally stationed in Jerusalem at the fortress on the Temple Mount, reinforced by troops who accompanied Pilate to the Passover feast in case they were needed for riot control. They had Jesus to themselves inside their barracks, and it was time for a little macabre theater. Their mocking coronation play began, each new action a parody of a king’s regalia.

After they again stripped His garments off, leaving Him naked, the staring, chuckling battalion put a loose robe (a reddish-purple outer garment worn by soldiers and travelers) on Him, pretending He was a royal warrior. Arrayed in knockoff royal regalia, He needed a crown. After all, those who held national office wore crowns as a sign of their exalted status. The Roman victor’s crown was a bent twig or perhaps two twigs tied together. Often a single wreath of grass or one made of flowers and leaves was used to adorn the brow of the wearer. So, continuing their little coronation charade, the soldiers crowned Him with a crown all right. In their contemptuous, sadistic ridicule, they designed a crown of thorns to puncture and scrape His forehead and scalp. This was no sign of exalted standing. It was a derisive imitation of the crown worn by Rome’s rulers, a sign of utter disdain.

But their parody was not done yet. What else did a king need but a scepter, a monarch’s symbol of his authority and power? So, they placed a scepter in His right hand: in fact, an imitation of a scepter, a bamboo cane often used in military floggings. And still the ceremony for their cartoon king was not complete. It remained for them to show Him what homage they owed Him. They knelt before Him and mocked Him, pretending to recognize Jesus’ royal majesty and throwing in His face that sneering taunt, King of the Jews. Kneeling before Him was not enough, however: they spat on Him. Nothing of the expected kiss of homage (e.g., Ps 2:12) for this king, these soldiers repeated the insult that Jewish leaders had inflicted on Him earlier. And still the abuse continued as they ripped the fake scepter from His hand and beat Him about the head with it, every blow driving the thorns of His crown more deeply, more painfully into His forehead and scalp. Having shown Him what homage they owed Him, the torture of their coronation play was over. They stripped Him of His royal regalia, dressed Him again in His own garments, and led Him away to be crucified.

Ordinarily, as the person condemned to execution by crucifixion, Jesus would Himself have had to carry the thirty- to forty-pound horizontal beam of the cross on which He was to be nailed out to the site where the upright stake stood. But it was physically impossible for Him to do so. So, to carry the beam, the soldiers pressed into service Simon from Cyrene (roughly modern Libya), probably a Jewish pilgrim who had travelled to Jerusalem for Passover. Onward they would walk, until they arrived at the site on Calvary where the upright stake stood.

Thus do we confess Jesus Christ … suffered under Pontius Pilate.

We take up the second phrase of Article 4 in the Creed here.

“Conceived by the Holy Spirit and Born of the Virgin Mary”

Posted by R. Fowler White

Having focused in the second article of the Apostles’ Creed on Christ’s relation as God the Son to God the Father and on His relation as Lord to believing sinners, we turn next to the third article and the events that resulted in His incarnation. What was required of the eternal Son of glory whom the Father sent from heaven to earth? The Creed affirms that, for our sakes, He was required to humble Himself in incarnation through conception and birth. That being the case, we learn that His nativity began His earthly humiliation, and the Creed summarizes that nativity in two phrases.

Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit. The Son was pleased to humble Himself in incarnation through conception. Though from all eternity God the Son had been in the presence of God the Father and God the Spirit, He emptied Himself, poured Himself out, made Himself of no reputation, condescending to be made in human likeness and fashioned as a man. Pleased to take on human flesh, He did so when the fullness of time had come, when all the events of history that had to occur for His arrival on earth had occurred, just as the OT prophets had predicted. In fact, before His mother and His adoptive father would come together in marital union, it would become obvious that she was with child. Yet, because Mary and Joseph were chaste before their marriage, it would be revealed that His conception as to His human nature was not just ordinary conception, but conception that could not have been other than by the power of God the Holy Spirit, such power as preserved Him from sin’s defilement throughout His gestation in His mother’s womb. For this reason, we Christians confess Him to be the holy Child, the Son of God, in the unique sense of the incarnate Son.

In due course, the Child conceived by the Holy Spirit became the Child born of the virgin Mary. We can only marvel at the truth condensed here in the Creed’s brief phrasing. Though He was the glorious eternal Son, He was born of a young virgin woman, thus taking part in all human properties, except sin, through His mother. Just as His conception was anything but ordinary, so we know that His birth was also: born of a virgin, born without a man. The commissioned Son, in taking on human flesh, was not only made and formed in woman; He was of her, of her flesh and blood.

Knowing as the Apostles did that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary, they proclaimed Him to us as the Word of Life who was from the beginning with the Father (1 John 1:1-2; John 1:1-2), the eternally preexistent Son of the Father, now one Person with two natures. The facts of His nativity are among the reasons they could document for us and preach to us the audible words of His that they had witnessed with their own ears; the visible deeds of His that they had witnessed and had looked upon with their own eyes; the tangible flesh-and-blood physicality of His body, before and after His death and resurrection, that they had witnessed with our own hands. The Apostles’ references to their ears hearing, their eyes seeing, and their hands touching can hardly be explained as anything other than first-hand, empirical, sensory experiences. As such, their confession stands in stark contrast with that of the world, ancient and modern. The world, then and now, either denies that knowing God is possible or claims to know God through objects made with hands or concepts fabricated in our imaginations (as in “God is a concept by which we measure our pain” [John Lennon]). By contrast, the Apostles saw and heard and touched the Source of true knowledge of God, and they proclaimed that revealed knowledge as morally binding on all who read or hear them.

With the Creed, therefore, we confess that Jesus Christ was God with God, God the Word, God the Son who has permanently taken to Himself sinless human nature with all its properties, and will remain forevermore one Person with two natures, the God-man, fully God and fully man. Let’s be careful not to underestimate these affirmations concerning Christ’s conception and birth. To deny that Jesus of Bethlehem is God who became man is not merely to reject the Creed. It is to reject the Christ of the authentic gospel of Scripture; it is to exchange the truth for a lie.

We consider the first clause of Article 4 of the Creed here.

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17

Posted by R. Fowler White

In my previous post about Christ’s family tree from Abraham to David, we noticed that the tree was an amalgamation of Israelite and Gentile branches. Now we turn to the branches from King David through the exile to Christ Himself (Matt 1:6b-17), and once again we realize that this is no ordinary list of names. These branches carry the history of not just a nation but also a royal lineage, both reeling from the travesty of David’s sins with the wife of Uriah and against Uriah himself. Having laid bare the root of Israel’s division into ten northern tribes and two southern tribes, Matthew would show us again how God’s grace overruled the moral chaos in and among His people to keep the line of Christ alive.

The Evangelist opens this segment of the family tree by casting a knowing glance toward King David’s affair with the woman-whose-name-shall-not-be-mentioned. She was the wife of the faithful and elite Gentile warrior Uriah, whom David conspired to get killed in an effort to cover up his tryst. The effects of David’s sins on his family and on the nation of Israel were catastrophic. We’d prefer to remember David as a war hero and conquering king, but the Evangelist pushes us to face the reality of who Christ’s ancestors really were and what they really did.

Matthew wants us mindful of how David yielded to sexual indulgence and excessive ambition … how he so badly mismanaged the raising of his children that he sired not only insurrectionists but an incestuous sex offender. Later in life, David was presiding over the nation when it collapsed, and he was responsible for his family when it fell apart. Embedded in the names of 1:6b-11 we find the conflict among his sons and the revolt they led against him. We recall too the revolt of the ten northern tribes of the twelve that made up the nation. Do we remember just how bitter the fruit of David’s sins was not only in his family’s history but in the whole nation’s history? Yet the fruit here is not only bitter. As we turn from King David to his descendants, the names in Matthew’s genealogy remind us how God brought hope to the nation: hope in the midst of failure during the divided kingdom and during the southern kingdom’s final years.

For Matthew, it seems, this hope-amidst-failure was epitomized in David’s son Solomon himself, whose divided heart led to a divided nation and bore a spiritually divided lineage. We track these divisions in the four royal father-son combinations that Matthew mentions after his brief glance at Solomon. We’re to remember that bad father Rehoboam begat bad son Abijah, and bad father Abijah begat good son Asa. Then good father Asa begat good son Jehoshaphat, while good father Jehoshaphat begat bad son Joram. Clearly, Solomon’s divided heart begat a divided lineage. And as we reach the final branch in Christ’s pre-exilic family tree, we stumble on Jeconiah and his brothers. Remember them? No? No, not so much. They’re David’s descendants who were taken prisoner by Nebuchadnezzar, enduring the shame of being the last royal family of Judah before the exile. So, what was going on among Christ’s ancestors from Solomon to Jeconiah and his brothers? Despite bad royal seed, God raised up good royal seed and, in the midst of failure, He was giving hope. Though King David’s sins wrecked the purity and peace of his family, his descendants, and his nation, God’s grace was finally irresistible, preserving the line of the Messiah.

There’s one last segment of Christ’s family tree for Matthew to cover: he walks us from the exile to Christ’s birth in 1:12-17. Having given us three selective groups of fourteen generations to aid our memories, Matthew informs us that even through the deportation God preserved the line of Christ. Made obscure by the exile, only two names in the final group stand out. The first mentioned, Zerubbabel, was heir to David’s throne and governor of Judah after the return from exile. Then we reach the last name, that of Joseph, only to notice that once more Matthew departs from the standard genealogy formula and recounts a most extraordinary event. Matthew states only that Mary was Christ’s mother. Wait. What? Though Joseph is the last natural branch that links Jesus to David, Matthew indicates that he was not Jesus’ biological father. How, then, was Joseph a link between David and Jesus? The facts of how Joseph got into Jesus’ genealogy may rattle our cages.

On the authority of Matthew’s account, we learn that it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that Mary became the mother of Jesus, and it was therefore not through ordinary biology but through adoption that Joseph, a son of David, became the father of Jesus and Jesus the son of David. Furthermore, however, Matthew would have us reckon with the world-altering fact that Jesus, conceived in Mary by the Holy Spirit, is truly David’s God as much as He is truly David’s son! He is the eternal Son of God in the flesh, God-with-us, Immanuel! And it was Heaven that mandated that His parents give Him the name Jesus because He had come to save sinners from their sins!

Christ’s family tree is no mere registry of names, is it? No, these names carry indelible memories of God’s power in His grace to overcome the sin that destroys both individuals and nations. Is it not transparent from this genealogy, then, that we must confess on bended knee that God, from all eternity, did—by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will—freely and unchangeably ordain whatever comes to pass? Moreover, must we not confess that He was pleased, in His eternal purpose, to choose and ordain the Lord Jesus, His only begotten Son, to be the mediator between God and man? Knowing Christ’s family tree as Matthew has given it to us, let us be sure to confess Him as the God-man, son of David and son of Abraham, who came to save us sinners from our sins.

Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:1-6a

Posted by R. Fowler White

The family tree of Jesus Christ as Matthew presents it, and the window that it gives us into His human origins, is as intriguing as it is startling. When we review it closely, the lessons are arresting. One means that Matthew seems to use to give us clues to his lessons is when he adds phrases to the standard genealogy formula of “X was the father of Y.” Notice, for example, these three listings: “Jacob was the father of Judah and his brothers,” “David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah,” and “Jacob was the father of Joseph the husband of Mary.” Additions such as these, and even omissions of certain names, seem to be among Matthew’s tactics to focus our attention where he wants it to go. Let’s see what we can find.

The Evangelist presents to us, first, the branches of Christ’s family tree that came from Abraham to King David (Matt 1:1-6a). Strikingly, here we see that certain natural branches (i.e., Israelite descendants) were selected and cut off from the line of the Christ, while unexpected unnatural branches (i.e., Gentile descendants) were grafted in. Check out the details.

Matthew begins with a summary of his message about Jesus’ human origins: He is the son of David and the son of Abraham. His family tree starts with His lineage from David and Abraham (notice the reversed chronology), evidently and primarily because of the covenant promises God gave to each. What makes this the more interesting is to recall the events in each man’s life that gave rise to the promises they received. One event that made David’s reputation (before his tragic fall into sin with Bathsheba) was his victory over Goliath, the enemy of God’s people. It was a victory that adumbrated his future subjugation of the foreign enemies that remained in the land after the conquest under Joshua. God rewarded David’s faith with the promise that his son would be better than he and would have the better, final victory over the enemies of God’s people. In fact, in the narratives that follow the family tree, Matthew will show us that Jesus is indeed better than David. He is, in fact, the obedient Royal Son who defeats the greatest enemies of God’s people: sin and death, the devil and the world!

But what of Abraham? Two events stand out in Abraham’s saga as preludes to God’s promises to him. At the beginning, we remember that it was by faith that Abraham left his home in Ur to go to a land of which he knew nothing other than that God would show it to him. Let that reality sink in for a moment. Later, toward the end of his story, by faith Abraham offered up his unique son Isaac in sacrifice to God, and God delivered Isaac from death. On both occasions, God rewarded Abraham’s faith with a promise to provide him a seed, a son in whom all the nations of the earth would find blessing. No wonder Matthew shows us by the end of his Gospel that Jesus launched a pan-national evangelistic campaign through His Apostles. This was the commission from none other than that Son of Abraham who, having offered Himself in sacrifice and been raised from the dead, brings the blessing of salvation from sins to all the nations!

With the summary of Jesus’ human origins before us in the headlines about David and Abraham, Matthew moves on to tell us that, from Abraham through David, God grew and trimmed Christ’s family tree. The Evangelist tells us that by grace God chose certain natural branches, but He cut off others. He included Isaac and Jacob, but cut off Ishmael and Esau. The Lord also included Judah, the natural branch who persuaded his brothers to sell their brother Joseph into slavery and was otherwise known in Scripture as a devious, conniving, promiscuous womanizer. Of course, He also included David the king, the war hero who fought God’s enemies; the king who reformed the nation and established its worship. This was David the poet, musician, and prophet in Israel; a friend to Jonathan, the firstborn son of none other than his nemesis Saul. This was David the adulterer, the accomplice to murder, the failed husband, the failed father. One message Matthew would have us get: in God’s determinations of Christ’s ancestors we do well to recognize His grace to the natural branches that He included and His severity to those that He excluded.

Matthew’s account of Christ’s family tree continues as he recites the names of those unnatural Gentile branches whom God grafted in by grace. God grafted in the sons of Tamar, the Gentile daughter-in-law of Judah. She is the woman who took the desperate step to save the coming Messiah’s lineage from extinction by posing as a prostitute to seduce negligent Judah to make her the mother of his twin sons, Perez and Zerah. God also grafted in the son of Rahab, the Gentile prostitute who believed in the God of Abraham, and was saved by Joshua and his spies from the destruction of Jericho. Further, God grafted in the son of Ruth, yes, even Ruth, the Gentile widow from the shamed line of Lot.

The family tree of Christ from Abraham up to David the king was quite an amalgamation, wasn’t it? It was a tree of natural Israelite branches and of unnatural Gentile branches. More than that, it was a tree husbanded by the singularly sovereign God who overrules sin for His own good purposes, even to bring His eternal Son into the world to save sinners.

Stay tuned for a meditation of Christ’s Family Tree in Matt 1:6b-17.

The Incarnate Son Obeyed the Father by the Spirit

Posted by R. Fowler White

A friend emailed me recently to ask what I had meant when I wrote in a note that “the incarnate Son obeyed the Father by the Spirit.” So I offered the following explanation. It was a help to my friend, so maybe it’ll help somebody else too. Here goes …

God the Son became incarnate—took to Himself human nature—by the powerful work of God the Spirit. Conceived by the Spirit, the Son was born and lived full of the Spirit, anointed with the Spirit, empowered and equipped by the Spirit for the tasks He came to do.

He appeared before John the Baptist for baptism in the Jordan and was there identified as the Son by the Father’s words and by the Spirit’s descent upon Him (Luke 3). Full of the Spirit, He went on to stand His probation against the temptations of the devil in the Wilderness (Luke 4). Emerging from His probation, He introduced Himself in the synagogue at Nazareth as that Son of David who is first and foremost the Anointed One, “the man of the Spirit” (Luke 4). He proclaimed His empowerment for His mission, and His power was not merely because of His Davidic lineage. His power was in His anointing with the Spirit of the Lord, described in three pairs of attributes by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 11; Luke 4).

From the prophet, we learn that on Him rested the Spirit of wisdom and understanding for holy nation building and for governing, for discerning true from false, good from evil, right from wrong. Not fooled by appearances, He treated the socially marginalized and vulnerable with dignity and equity—and He punished the wicked. Moreover, on Him rested the Spirit of counsel and might for planning and carrying out holy warfare. Wonderful Counselor and mighty God that He is (Isa 9), He was empowered by the Spirit to destroy the wisdom of the wise and to thwart the discernment of the discerning (Isa 29; 1 Cor 1). Furthermore, on Him rested the Spirit of the knowledge and fear of the Lord for living a right and holy life with and before His God and Father, whose Person, work, will, and ways He knew so well. With all these attributes, Jesus introduced Himself as perfectly and permanently “the man of the Spirit,” the ideal King, who is delighted to live His life before God with affection and reverence for Him and who rules as the Anointed One because He is equipped by the Spirit with moral integrity and steadfast loyalty. In Him, by the Spirit, are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. The incarnate Son, then, had the sevenfold anointing with the Spirit, the fulness of the Spirit.

Endowed with the Spirit, we also see the incarnate Son going about in the Gospels waging His spiritual warfare with weapons of the Spirit. Baptized, tested, and introduced for public ministry, He entered into spiritual combat with those who occupied the Land. He engaged in battle with the rulers and powers, with the worldly forces of darkness, with those who are of the world, the flesh, and the devil. In the Land He went about delivering sinners through faith from all manner of illness, from disease and pains of body (Matt 4; Acts 10), so that they might learn that He also has the power to save them from the bondage of their sins (Mark 2; Luke 5). He found “lost sheep” in the state of sin and death, in the domain of Satan’s darkness, and He called them to repentance and faith in Himself alone. He delivered them from their sins by the Spirit and the Word to the kingdom of His marvelous light. Then, in His death, through the eternal Spirit, He offered Himself without blemish to God (Heb 9). Having done His Father’s will in life and in death, He was designated the Son of God in power, according to the Spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead (Rom 1). Enthroned in heaven, Christ now reigns, in and with the power of the Spirit, as Ruler of the nations, commanding sinners everywhere to repent and believe in Him as their only hope of salvation from the wrath to come (Acts 17).

Summing up, the incarnate Son was endowed with the Spirit to obey the Father, and by His obedience through the Spirit, He satisfied all the righteous requirements of God’s law and is now the source of eternal salvation to all who repent and believe His gospel.

Born to Give Us Adoption as Sons

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

Reflecting as he does on the wonders of the eternal Son’s birth in Gal 4:4-5, the Apostle Paul tells us extraordinary things about Him, giving us answers to the question that William C. Dix posed in his carol, “What Child is This.” In previous posts on Gal 4:4-5, we’ve seen how Paul focuses on the providential timing, three circumstances, and the purpose of Christ’s birth. Yet there is one more aspect of His birth that the Apostle would have us contemplate. As Paul puts it, God sent out His Son so that we might receive adoption as sons. What are we to make of this last phrase? Here we learn the final—yes, predestined—outcome (Eph 1:5) of the Son’s coming. We need again to deepen our understanding of the Apostle’s words.

Turning directly to Paul’s term adoption, its ancient significance was not ordinarily parallel to adoption as we know it today. We usually think of adoption as a parent-child relationship formed confidentially between persons (usually adults and orphaned or abandoned children) who are not biologically related. In the context of Gal 3:23–4:7, however, adoption was a public act in which a male heir was received from his boyhood standing as a minor into his manhood standing as full-fledged son. Elaborating on that background in Gal 4:1-2, Paul reflects on the supervision to which a male heir was subject while he was an under-age boy. Until the heir qualified as a full-fledged adult son, he did not receive the inheritance promised to a son any more than a slave did. In the meantime, however, the heir had it better than a slave. After all, he was under the temporary yoke and care of guardians and managers who would direct and bind him to meet the qualifications set by his father for full sonship. Submitting himself to their yoke and care, that sonship would come to the heir in due course.

Paul’s readers would recognize those Greco-Roman customs to which the term adoption referred, but they would also notice that he applies that term to the redemptive history of Abraham’s descendants. The Apostle rehearses the scenario for old-covenant Israel under the law as their guardian-manager (paidagōgos, Gal 3:24; epitropos and oikonomos, Gal 4:3). In His covenantal dealings with them, the Lord had promised the adoption to them and in particular to their king (Rom 9:4; Exod 4:22; Jer 31:9; Hos 11:1; 2 Sam 7:14-16; Ps 2:7; 89:26-27). Through His law, He showed the nation and their king how they would move from a standing as under-age boys into a standing as full-fledged adult sons. To meet the qualifications for that sonship, the Lord directed and bound them by the character and conduct that pleased and displeased Him and by the alternative consequences that followed each: life, prosperity, and victory, on the one side; death, adversity, and defeat, on the other. The message was clear: the only descendant of Abraham to whom the inheritance of irrevocable life, prosperity, and victory was promised would be the man who satisfied the law’s demands. That man would be the true Israel and the true David, hence the full-fledged adult Son. Of course, the history of Israel and their kings bore witness that until such a man arrived, God’s law disqualified everyone else, and the consequence was that all others came under the law’s curse and forfeited full-fledged sonship and the inheritance that went with it (Gal 3:10-11). And this cursed standing applied to Gentiles too. As we said in our previous post, whether God’s law reaches Jews in special revelation (Rom 2:17–3:1) or Gentiles in natural revelation (Rom 2:12-16), it judges us all to be under sin (Rom 2:6-11; 3:9-18; Gal 2:16). Therefore, apart from adoption, we all, Jews and Gentiles alike, are sons of disobedience (Eph 2:2) and by nature children of wrath (Eph 2:3). Even if we’re God’s offspring by creation (Acts 17:24-29), we’re all children disqualified and disinherited by God for our sin, and we all must find the true Israel, the true David, the true Son who satisfies the law’s demands.

While with the eyes of faith Israel could find that Son in the old-covenant promises, prophecies, ordinances, and types (“shadows”), the Apostle would have us know that, in the fullness of time, God’s own eternal Son was born as that man. That incarnate Son became the only descendant of Abraham, born under the law, to move from under-age boyhood into full-fledged Sonship. That incarnate Son had qualified to be publicly declared the Son of God with power by the resurrection from the dead, according to the Spirit of holiness (Rom 1:4, NASB95; see also Acts 13:33; Phil 2:6-11; Heb 1:5; 5:5, 8-9). As such, that incarnate Son had qualified both to redeem the disqualified and disinherited and to be the surety for the adoption of all who would be co-heirs with Him.

What Child, then, is this in the manger? He is the eternal Son incarnate qualified to give us the adoption as sons. In and for Him, we, who by our sin were disqualified and disinherited by God in His justice, are now by His free grace through faith received into the number of His children, have His name put upon us, and have the Spirit of His Son given to us! We are provided for under His fatherly care, are welcomed to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, and are made heirs of all the promises and fellow heirs with Christ in glory![i] Let us then celebrate!

[i] See Westminster Larger Catechism Q. 74. For more on the doctrine of adoption, see John Murray, “Adoption,” in Collected Writings of John Murray, Volume two: Select Lectures in Systematic Theology (Banner of Truth, 1977), 223-34; and David B. Garner, Sons in the Son: The Riches and Reach of Adoption in Christ (Presbyterian & Reformed, 2016). N.B. For those who may wonder, “the gender-specific sons speaks without an iota of prejudice against the ‘daughters’” (see David Garner, “Saved as Sons in the Son”).

Born under the Law, Born to Redeem

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

With the words born of woman in Gal 4:4, Paul had begun to reflect on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth. The next two phrases in Gal 4:4-5—born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law—bring into view not just another circumstance of His birth but also its purpose. Together both features point us again to the humiliation of God’s glorious eternal Son.

What does the Apostle mean by those words born under the law? Specifically, he means that the Son of the Father humbled Himself to be born a servant of the Lord His God (Phil 2:7). Born under Moses, the Son would live and learn obedience (Heb 5:8) under the educational rigors of the law. As a circumcised son of Abraham, the Son-born-servant would owe to His God and Father a perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience. Every detail of His life and death was under the pedagogical direction of God’s law, from His circumcision eight days after His birth (Luke 2:21), to His last Passover on the night before His death (Luke 22:7-23), to His submission to His Father’s will (Luke 22:41-42; John 17) and His honoring of His mother in His death (John 19:26-27). As a servant of the Lord, He humbly submitted Himself to the law of His God to fulfill all righteousness, down to the smallest letter and the smallest stroke of a pen. Comprehensively speaking, God’s law demanded a righteous man, a man who kept the divine commandments, a man qualified to live with God and to be the surety for His people. The Son, says Paul, became just such a man. Indeed, it was with His qualifications in mind that the law in its multiple dimensions (moral, civil, liturgical) was put into effect, for their fulfillment was to be found in Him. No wonder the author of Hebrews can say, when Christ came into the world, He said, … “Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book” (Heb 10:5, 7). What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Son born under the law, born a servant of the Lord His God.

Continuing in Gal 4:4-5, Paul’s focus shifts from the circumstances of Jesus’ coming to its purpose. Christ Jesus, says the Apostle, is the Son born to redeem those who were under the law. We need to pay special attention to the meaning of these words. The Apostle has in mind the intent to rescue, release, deliver from slavery by the payment of a price. No doubt the events of Israel’s redemption from Egypt provide the backdrop here. The price paid for the nation’s deliverance was stunning: the death of the firstborn. Through Moses, Israel learned of God’s penal substitute for their firstborn, and thus Israel offered the Passover lamb and saw their redemption from slavery in Pharaoh’s kingdom to liberty under the Lord their God. By saying, however, that the Son, God’s Son, came to redeem, Paul tells us that the redemption He provides is greater than that of Moses. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt was gospel, but only a shadow of the redemption fully revealed in Jesus Christ. It was He who humbled Himself to become both the true Israel (God’s firstborn son, Exod 4:22-23) and the true Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19; John 1:29). It was He who poured Himself out in death as the surety for His people (Isa 53:12; Heb 2:10-13; Rev 5:6-9), who by His death brought about the true exodus from slavery in Satan’s kingdom of sin and death (Luke 9:31; Matt 1:21). So great was this exodus that it brought a benefit that the first exodus could not provide, namely, the forgiveness of sins, the sinner’s release from legal liability to endure the punishment that sin and its guilt required.

There is still more in the Apostle’s words in Gal 4:5. Paul goes on to describe those whom the Son redeems as those under the law. By that phrase Paul characterizes all whom the Son came to redeem. Whether God’s law reaches us by special revelation as Jews (Rom 2:17–3:1) or by general revelation as Gentiles (Rom 2:12-16), it shows no partiality in its judgment: God’s law judges all to be under sin (Rom 2:6-11; 3:9-18). It is in that light that the Apostle would bring good news of great joy to all of us sinners, Jews and Gentiles alike. He would announce to us that, commissioned by His Father, God’s Son was born a servant to bring sinners release and rescue from sin and death. He would proclaim to us that, in His life and death, the incarnate Son presented to His God and Father the obedience required by His law. He would preach to us that, on that basis, the Father applies the merits of His obedience to all sinners who believe; that, on that basis, the Son answers all accusations against His people and quiets their restless consciences; and that, on that basis, the Son qualifies sinners who believe to live with God, securing for them access to and acceptance before Him.

What Child is this, then, in that ancient feeding trough? He is none other than the eternal Son of glory who, to fulfill His Father’s commission, humbled Himself to be born a servant under the law, born to redeem those judged by that same law as sinners.

Sent Forth, Born of Woman

Posted by R. Fowler White

4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, 5 to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. (Gal 4:4-5)

In his phrase when the fullness of time had come, the Apostle Paul points us to the truth that the one true God has been orchestrating all of history and, in particular, the timing of Christ’s birth. In fact, it was by God’s singular sovereignty and providence that the histories of Rome and Jerusalem—even that of little Bethlehem—had coincided at the birth of Jesus. The appointed date for the debut of the Son of the Father occurred right on schedule, and He became the Child born at just the right time. And that’s not all. Paul has more to say in Gal 4:4.

He tells us that the Child in the manger was the Son sent forth by His Father. These simple words take us to the backstory of the Son’s arrival in history. Notice that the Son existed before He was sent, before He was born, before He was given the name Jesus. Before His Father sent Him, He subsisted as a Person and, at that, as a Person distinct from both the Father and the Spirit, the latter of whom was Himself later to be sent (Gal 4:6). In effect, Paul would tell us that the Son was (and is) the same in substance and equal in power and glory with the Father and the Spirit, yet was also distinguished from them by their personal properties. Notice too that the Father sent forth (sent out) His Son. That is, the Son who came had a commission from His Father. We speak of the Great Commission, but here Paul speaks of the Greatest Commission of all. He reflects on the harmony between the sending Father and the sent Son. The Father was pleased to send the Son; the Son was pleased to be sent by His Father. According to the Apostle, then, the Baby in the feeding trough was none other than God with God, the Son with the Father and the Spirit, the Son commissioned by His Father.

Paul tells us also that the Child in the manger was born of (a) woman. Again, think on how remarkable that brief phrase is. The Apostle here discloses that he knows the history of Jesus’ birth. That phrase born of woman was an expression referring to human birth (Job 14:1; 15:14; 25:4; Matt 11:11; cf. 1 Cor 11:12), and yet with an evident allusion to at least the promise of Gen 3:15. His birth was of woman, but we know from other OT prophecies that His conception was anything but ordinary. The Son born of a woman was in fact born of a virgin, born without a man, as predicted by the prophet Isaiah (Isa 7:14 with 9:6). The sent Son became flesh: He was not only made and formed in woman, He was of her, of her flesh and blood. Of these He took part. In keeping with prophecies such as those from Genesis and Isaiah, the Son was born of a woman.

In these two short phrases, Paul begins to reflect on the circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and they in turn move us to ponder the humiliation of Him who is from all eternity the glorious Son of God. Here, after all, we see the first stage of what the will of the Father required of the Son He sent forth. For your sake, Christian, the Son was pleased to humble Himself in conception and birth. Though from all eternity He had been the Son at His Father’s side and in the Spirit’s presence, He was required to empty Himself, to make Himself of no reputation, and to condescend to be made in human likeness and the fashion of a man. He was pleased to become the Son of Man when the fullness of time had come, when all the parts of history that had to occur had occurred just as predicted. Though He was the glorious eternal Son, the will of His Father required that He be born of a young virgin woman, taking part in all human properties, except sin, through her His mother. He was pleased to be born into conditions that were even worse than ordinary. He was born in a first-century truck stop. Strips of cloth were His first garments. A feeding trough was His first crib. The humiliation of His nativity, however, would not stop there. For the rest of His earthly life, the Son would endure false accusations that He had been born as a result of an immoral relationship outside of the bounds of marriage. What, then, did the will of the Father require of the Son He sent forth?  It required that, for your sake, Christian, the eternal Son of glory be pleased to humble Himself in His conception and birth.

What Child is this, then, in the manger? He is the preexistent Son commissioned by His Father, born of woman. Miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit as to His human nature and miraculously preserved by that same Spirit from defilement in His mother’s womb, He had not always been man. Nor was He a mere woman-born human upon whom divinity descended. He was God who became flesh, thus permanently taking to Himself human nature and becoming forever thereafter one Person with two natures.

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