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.

Born at Just the Right Time

Posted by R. Fowler White

One of the most beloved carols that Christians sing during the Christmas season is that of William C. Dix, “What Child is This.” As few other carols do, the lyrics of this selection prompt us to contemplate the identity, the person and work, of the Baby in the manger (i.e., the feeding trough). In fact, the carol politely but persistently presses us to answer the question: is this Child truly a holy infant or merely a holiday infant? When we think about that question, most of our reflections focus on the birth announcements in the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke. Those passages certainly have their place. For now, however, consider Christ’s birth according to the Apostle Paul. Yes, even the Apostle reflects on the wonders of the birth of Jesus, and he does so in Gal 4:4-5. 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. In that one sentence, the Apostle Paul tells us extraordinary things about Jesus, and in the process he gives us answers to the question that the carol poses. Though the lyrics of “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” may have us singing, “late in time behold him come,” the first thing Paul tells us is that Jesus is the Child born at just the right time.

Paul’s words—when the fullness of time had come—prompt us to reflect on the timing of Christ’s appearance in the world. The time at which Jesus came is said to have been time at its fullest point, a unique occasion when all the parts of history that had to occur had, in fact, occurred. Each and every detail that had to take place was then in place. Clearly, Paul wants us to realize that the timing of the historical appearance of the Father’s Son was something agreed upon and fixed between the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Apostle Peter adds to this that the timing of the Son’s arrival was a date that the prophets of old diligently searched out, and it was revealed to them and predicted by them (1 Pet 1:10-12). Paul’s words, then, make us realize that the timing of Christ’s birth was according to the determination of God, the Lord of history. He, from all eternity, had, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass. Christ could not have been born either sooner or later.

If, then, the birth of Jesus took place in the fullness of time, what did that fullness look like? As the commentators have pointed out, it was a time of political preparation. The Roman Empire had brought the pax Romana to the then known world and so the world was united as never before (cf. Luke 2:1). It was a time of economic preparation. Of particular note, the Romans had constructed a superior transportation system, focused in five main highways facilitating travel and commerce from Rome to destinations throughout the ancient world (cf. Col 1:23). It was a time of cultural preparation. The Greek language had become the medium (i.e., the lingua franca) of commerce, culture, and philosophy, and so it was possible for the gospel and the gospel literature to reach an effectively worldwide audience. And, finally, it was a time of religious preparation. We might say that a famine of the soul, individual and social, had come upon the world. The failures of paganism and even Judaism, along with a revival of Messianic hopes, characterized much of the ancient world.

Thus, in his phrase when the fullness of time had come, the Apostle Paul points us to the truth that, politically, economically, culturally, and religiously speaking, history had been orchestrated by the one true God. In fact, by God’s own singular sovereignty and providence, the histories of Rome and Jerusalem, both of which figured so prominently in our Lord’s life on earth, had converged. The appointed date for the debut of the Son of the Father arrived right on schedule. In the fullness of time behold him come! What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Child born at just the right time.

Christ the Holy Son: Better Than Moses and the Levites (Heb 3–10)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Having put before us the contrasts between Jesus the Son and the prophets in Heb 1:1-3 and the angels in Heb 1:4-14 and 2:5-18, the writer of Hebrews continues to increase our esteem for Christ by turning in chs. 3–10 to the contrast between the Son and Moses and the Levitical priests. Beginning in 3:1-6, we’re told that Jesus is the faithful Son over God’s house and the builder thereof; Moses is a faithful servant in God’s house. To understand better the different roles of Jesus and Moses relative to God’s house, it helps us to consider the house’s two forms. One of those forms appeared in Exod 20–23, where God required “the house of Jacob” (Exod 19:3) to be holy as He is holy (Exod 19:6; Lev 19:2) so as to become His holy nation of priests (Exod 19:4-6). A second form of God’s house came into view in Exod 25–31 and 35–40, where the earthly tabernacle was built after the pattern of God’s holy residence in heaven (Exod 25:40; Heb 8:5) according to His word and by His Spirit. In fact, the tabernacle stood as a shadow and type of what the house of Israel was required to be, namely the living and holy house built when God’s Spirit effectually applied His word to His people. Noticeably, what these two forms of God’s house have in common is the holiness required of them, and to understand how they were sanctified is to gain an even more reverent esteem for Christ. So let’s look further at how God’s house was sanctified.

As summarized in 9:11-28, the sanctification of God’s house in its two forms was accomplished through the priesthoods of Moses and the Levites and of Christ. Under God’s servants Moses and the Levites, God’s house was sanctified when Moses inaugurated the first covenant, cleansing the earthly tabernacle and the worshipers with the blood of calves and goats for his own sins and for those of the worshipers. Once inaugurated by Moses, the Levitical priests kept the tabernacle and the worshipers cleansed by continually offering sacrifices for their own sins and for those of the people. Similarly, under God’s Son Jesus, God’s house was sanctified when He inaugurated the second covenant, cleansing the heavenly tabernacle and the worshipers with His own blood, not for His own sins but solely for those of the worshipers. The sacrifice by which Christ established the holiness of the heavenly tabernacle and the worshipers is the same sacrifice by which He maintains that holiness. He offered His sacrifice for sins once for all time (10:10, 12), forever perfecting those worshipers He sanctified (10:14) and now always ministering for them in heaven (7:25; 12:22, 24). As Hebrews presents them, then, both priesthoods followed the same liturgy necessary to sanctify God’s house in both its forms. Even so, the two priesthoods were markedly different when it came to fulfilling God’s command to emulate His holiness.

Disabled by sin and death (5:1-3; 7:23, 28; 9:7; 10:11), the Levites were not and could not be holy as God is holy. Nor could they make anyone else holy and perfect (7:18-19): their ceaseless sacrifices could neither take away sins nor cleanse the inner man (9:9-10, 13; 10:1-4). Granted these realities, however, the Levites and the worshipers they represented could and should have learned of the good things to come (3:5; 10:1). Though many continued to boast in the Levites, the remnant who shared Abraham’s faith knew of those good things. Through God’s promises, prophecies, ordinances, shadows, and types, they, like Isaiah, looked heavenward to the priest better than any son of Levi and found in Him the blessings of His sanctifying (cleansing) work (Isa 6:7). They, like Moses and David, also looked forward to the priest from the tribe of Judah (Gen 49:8-12) and the order of Melchizedek (Gen 14:18-20; Ps 110:4). According to Hebrews, Jesus, the eternal Son incarnate, became that priest. Having through the eternal Spirit (Heb 9:14) demonstrated in His life and in His death the holiness that God required, Jesus proved to be holy even as God is holy (4:15; 5:7; 7:26; 9:14; cf. 2 Cor 5:21). Sinless and immortal, He is powerful to sanctify the people He represents, cleansing their hearts and transforming them into a living tabernacle-house (e.g., Deut 6:6; Ps 37:31; 40:8; 119:11; Isa 51:7), a holy nation of priests on whose hearts God’s law is written (e.g., Mal 3:1-4). He is, in a phrase, both sanctified and the sanctifier of all who believe (Heb 2:11; 13:12), as Abraham, Moses, David, and Isaiah did.

The message of Hebrews is clear: though pressures from our opponents may tempt us to deemphasize or conceal, or even reject and deny, the distinctives of our historic Christian faith, let us hold unwaveringly to the hope that we confess (10:23), since in Jesus the Son, the Holy One, we have so great a priest over the house of God (10:21).

Christ the Victorious Son: Better than the Angels (Heb 2:1-18)

Posted by R. Fowler White

As we’ve emphasized in part 1 and part 2 of our series, the author of Hebrews teaches that our perseverance is traceable, in part, to a deepening appreciation for the eminence of Christ our high priest. In this post, we come to 2:1-18, where the author finishes what he started in 1:4-14. Having told us that Christ the God-man is exalted over the angels, he warns us: since we know that punishment was inescapable for neglecting God’s previous message through the angels at Mt Sinai (2:2), we dare not turn a deaf ear to God’s final message through the Superior who is over those angels (2:3 with 1:4)! To impress us further with the gravity of this warning, the author amplifies the contrast between the Son and the angels even more.

In 1:4-14 the writer’s accent fell on the Son’s historical glorification and His eternal deity, but in 2:5-18 his accent shifts to the Son’s historical humanity and humiliation. In 1:4-14, the theme is the Son’s supremacy to angels by rank and being, pivoting off of Ps 110:1 in 1:3 and 1:13. In 2:5-18 the theme of supremacy reappears, but now the emphasis is on His supremacy to angels by conquest as promised in Ps 110. Quoting Ps 8:4-6 to focus our thinking, it is clear in 2:8b-18 that the glory of the conquest promised in Ps 110:1 will belong not to the angels, but to man. More than that, the man qualified to conquer will not be just any man: according to Ps 8:2, God’s design is for the weak to conquer the strong. To see the force of this argument, we need to backtrack to Gen 3, where man was overcome by God’s enemy—a former cherub angel, at that—and was given with his seed over to sin, death, and defeat. In Gen 3:15, when God announced His future victory over the serpent and his seed, He reasserted His original design to have the weak conquer the strong. Specifically, God appointed death—the death of the woman’s one upright Seed—as the way to new life. Though ostensibly weak in death, that Seed would conquer the strong. Until the arrival of that upright Seed, however, God effectively took away from man the task of keeping the garden secure and pure and transferred it to the cherubim angels (Gen 3:24). As a result, man was, for a little while, subjected to the angels (Heb 2:7a; cf. 2:9).

With the appearance of the Son “in these last days” (1:2), however, the author of Hebrews can announce the arrival of the Seed promised in Gen 3:15 and Ps 8! It is none other than the eternal Son, the Creator God, who condescended to become the man qualified for conquest. In His state of incarnation (2:14), the Son overcame the temptations to sin (2:18). While contending with the indignities of this world, the temptations of the devil, and the infirmities in His flesh, He put His trust in God (2:13a), even unto death, and was thereby perfected (i.e., fully qualified) to become as the champion of salvation for the children whom the Father had given Him (2:13b). For the sake of those children, He defeated the devil, inflicting mortal suffering on him as He Himself endured mortal suffering (2:9, 14). For the sake of those children, He faced down the terrors of death, giving them the hope of resurrection (12:2; 6:18-19; 11:35). Though feeling the weight of God’s wrath, He laid down His life as a propitiation for the sins of His people (2:17). All this He did, bearing the reproach of man’s exile from Eden in being made lower than the angels for a time, so that by grace (2:9) and mercy (2:17) He might qualify man again for the glory (2:10) of life with God.

At the beginning of the ages, God drove man from the earthly sanctuary (Gen 3:23), and the cherubim angels resisted his return (Gen 3:24). Now, at the end of the ages (Heb 1:1), God has restored man, through the incarnate Son, to the heavenly sanctuary, and the angelic hosts assist Him to maintain its security and purity for all who will inherit salvation. Knowing that Jesus is the victorious Son greater than the angels, we dare not turn a deaf ear to God’s final message through Him. No, we hold Him, with ever-increasing faith, in the highest esteem! In our next and last post in this series, we’ll focus on Christ the Holy Son in Heb 3–10.

Christ the God-Man: Better Than the Angels (Heb 1:4-14)

Posted by R. Fowler White

Our esteem for Christ becomes more and more reverent as we receive and rest upon Him alone as He is presented to us in Scripture. In Heb 1:1–2:18, He is presented not only as the Son better than the prophets of old, but also as the Son better than the angels. The angels come before us in Hebrews in two capacities: 1) as heavenly messengers who delivered the old covenant revelation at Mt Sinai (2:2); and 2) as guardians of post-fall access to God’s presence, initially in Eden’s sanctuary (2:7 with Gen 3:24) and later in the most holy place of the old covenant sanctuary (9:5 with Exod 25:18-22). We’ll look in this post at the teaching of Heb 1:4-14.

In 1:4, the writer of Hebrews contrasts the Son and the angels, capturing in that contrast the reason for the Son’s rest at the Father’s right hand. In 1:5-14 the writers accents the fact that the Son is in a new state of exaltation. The point is not that the Son, born as man, has now become God. Rather, the Son, who has always been the exalted God, has now been exalted as man. In fact, the seven OT texts in 1:5-14 with which the writer expands on his statements in 1:4 contain some of the most sublime declarations of the Son’s eternality and deity in all of Scripture. In this context, however, the Son’s supremacy to the angels rests not so much on His eternality and deity, but especially on the new state He has entered and on the new honor He has received. Keeping these things in mind, notice how the author’s citations describe the Son’s exaltation.

First, in 1:5-6 the Son who has taken His seat on high is the One whom the Father had begotten, that is, in this context, begotten as the Firstborn from the dead (cf. Col 1:18; Rev 1:5). Though other texts teach us the Son’s eternal generation and identity as the Firstborn of all creation (e.g., Heb 1:2; see also Col 1:15-17), the preceding and following contexts of 1:5-6 imply that it is most probably His re-emergence into the world at His resurrection from the dead that is in view in 1:5-6. As such, it is in the new, post-resurrection phase of the Son’s messianic role in history that He and the Father are said now to enjoy their unique relationship. Second, in 1:9 the Son who has received the Spirit-oil of gladness from His God and Father is the One who had rendered to Him the perfect obedience that satisfied His law (cf. Acts 2:33-36; Eph 4:7-11). To be sure, we read of the Son’s eternality, deity, and royalty in 1:8. The focus in 1:9, however, is the Son’s new status: He is the servant who in life and in death subjected Himself to God’s law and is now rewarded for His obedience. Finally, in 1:13 we hear echoes and amplifications of 1:3. The Son who gave Himself as the final sacrifice for sins (1:3b) is not only seated in heaven: He now awaits the reward of final victory for His obedience. He who is the immutable Lord and builder of the cosmic house in 1:10-12 is also in 1:13 the One who, after humbling Himself, has already been exalted at His first coming and will again be exalted at His second coming (9:28). Thus, the Son is before us once more, both in His immutability as the eternal God and in His mutability as the once humiliated, now glorified man—who will be glorified yet again!

All told, then, the exaltation of the Son our high priest is undeniably connected with His eternality and immutability, but that exaltation is not completely or exclusively explained by those attributes. According to Heb 1:4-14, the esteem we are to have for the Son, particularly in contrast to the angels, will come as we appreciate His role in the history of creation and His role in the history of redemption. In other words, we understand Christ’s priesthood better when we receive and rest upon Him as the Son who is greater than the angels. He is now and forever, in His one Person, God ever-glorious and man at-long-last-glorified. Our next post in this series will focus on Christ the Victorious Son in Heb 2:1-18.

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