John’s Gospel begins, not at Jesus’ conception or cradle, but at the conception of the cosmos.
No angels, swaddling clothes, or sheep enter the scene to deflect attention from the essential point: God, through whom the world was created, the one who gives light to all people, became a human being. God lived among us and died among us. In this one human being, out of all the billions who have lived, God’s own glory shone with life-giving light.
John’s careful statement, “the Word was with God, and the Word was God” simultaneously identifies the Word as God and describes the Word as “with” and thus in some way separate from God. Marianne Meye Thompson says that calling Jesus God’s word means “he is God’s self-expression, God’s thought or mind, God’s interior word spoken aloud … [John portrays] Jesus not only as the representative of God, but also as the representation of God: the one whose origins lie uniquely in the very being of God.”1
The term Word (logos in Greek) connects the Genesis 1 creation story with Greek philosophy and thus allows John to speak both to Jews and to Gentiles. According to Genesis 1, God creates through the Word; God speaks, and God’s Word brings each created thing into being. In Greek thought, the Word is the logic that permeates and structures the universe, the divine reason that orders and gives meaning to all that is. Jews and Greeks can agree that the very existence of the created order depends on the Logos, without whom not even one thing has come into being.
Bible translators disagree about where to break the sentence in verses 3 and 4. For example, NRSV reads, “without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life,” while NIV reads, “without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life…” The oldest Greek manuscripts do not include punctuation, and since both ways of dividing the sentence make good sense, an argument can be made for either.
The sentence division in the NIV, however, is more consistent with John’s literary style and theology. John often begins sentences with the preposition “in.” Furthermore, “in him was life” fits well with Jesus’ repeated claims both to be life and to be the source of life (John 5:26, 6:33, 10:10, 10:28, 11:25, 14:6). Whichever way the sentence is divided, John’s point in this passage is clear: the Word animates the world. God’s Word, through whom life and light were created, continues to enlighten and enliven people (see also John 1:9). Every human being carries a spark of God’s life and light—a claim with important consequences both for ethics and for interfaith dialog.
In John 1:6–8 the focus shifts, briefly, to John (the Baptist, though this Gospel simply calls him John). The Gospel writer stresses John’s role as a witness to Jesus. It almost seems as if, without John, the world might have overlooked Jesus’ presence within it. After all, though loving parents may see their child’s birth as a miracle, to everyone else that birth is simply the ordinary entry of one more human being into the world. To make sure that no one misses the divine light entering the world, John points to Jesus: that is God at work, right there!
Despite John’s testimony, the world remains in the dark about the divine light shining within it. “The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it” (John 1:5, NASB; the Greek word katelaben here means both comprehend and overpower). In a supreme irony, the creatures reject the One through whom they were created and to whom they belong.
Yet, the Gospel writer assures us, the Word that spoke the world into being continues to speak. In Jesus, God says to the world, “I have so loved you that I am sending my unique child to live among you so that all of you may become my children.” Those who listen, who recognize and welcome God in Christ, become God’s children not by any ordinary biological process, but solely by God’s gift of rebirth (compare Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3).
For some readers this passage may well raise the question, since all people are created by God, aren’t all people God’s children? Jesus’ conversation with the Judean leaders in John 8:39-43 suggests an answer: yes, but not all children reflect well on their parents. Ideally, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. Just as true children of Abraham act like Abraham, so true children of God put God’s love into action. Those who, by entrusting themselves to Jesus, are born of God become so fully permeated by the divine being that their lives begin to shine with God’s own radiance.
After discussing God’s other children, the Gospel-writer returns to the key point: in Jesus the infinite, pre-existent Word of God has become human. The language is striking: God’s Word becomes not just a concept perceptible to human minds or a sound perceptible to human ears, not just a spiritual reality, but flesh. Later in the Gospel Jesus will use this same word, sarx, when he says, “the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh” and then tells his hearers, “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you” (John 6:51, 53). Jesus’ flesh is a reality that we can sink our teeth into.
Throughout history some strains of Christianity have emphasized the spiritual realm at the expense of the material world. Many Christian leaders have dismissed earthly life and the body itself as unimportant, distracting, or even dangerous. This passage, and the whole Gospel of John, absolutely contradict this worldview. The Gospel writer stresses that God chose to live a human life in a human body. That body—Jesus’ flesh—is not a distraction to be subjugated, denied, or dismissed. It becomes the place of revelation.
During the Exodus God traveled with the people of Israel, revealing the divine glory to Moses and to the people at the tent of meeting (Exodus 40:34–35; Leviticus 9:23; Numbers 14:10, 16:19, 17:7, 20:6). Now Jesus’ body is God’s temple, where the Word of God pitches its tent (skenoo, from the same root as skene, “tent”) among us. In Jesus’ words and actions God’s glory shines. Jesus’ face and touch communicate God’s grace and love. He not only teaches but embodies God’s truth. We perceive God’s glory and grace and truth most clearly when Jesus is “lifted up” (John 3:14, 8:28, 12:32). His human flesh, tortured and broken on the cross, dies, but he is raised to life again. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5, NRSV). In Jesus’ mortal human body, the immortal God is revealed for all to see.
The prologue to John makes it clear that God created and loves this material world and the material beings who live in it, and that God took on material form in order to redeem it and us. God became incarnate in Jesus, but Jesus—though uniquely God’s child and God’s incarnate Word—makes it possible for all of us to become God’s children who embody God’s word. Through Christ, our ordinary human lives can become places where God’s glory shines. The Word became flesh to bring us all into God’s family. The Word became flesh to help us see every human life as a temple of the Holy One. The Word became flesh so that witnesses could point to person after person throughout history and say, that’s God at work, right there!
1 Marianne Meye Thompson, John (New Testament Library. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2015), p. 39.
Beauty. Good tidings. Peace. Salvation. Joy. Comfort.1
These aesthetic marks of the Nativity of Our Lord culminate in the prophet’s proclamation: “Your God reigns!” and this is “the salvation of our God!”
Critical to considering the aesthetics of this pericope is considering the historical and narrative context.
Exile. Real exile, not a metaphor.
In the wake of the enemy’s conquest, against the historical backdrop of destruction, in the midst of physical exile, the prophet speaks these words of peace. The context is not neutral. It’s also not in its origin metaphorical. Rather, the context for this language of beauty is a backdrop of ugliness: enslavement, displacement, suffering, death. Flesh and blood reality. Take to heart that this is not to disparage our attempts to relate to the beauty of Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry. Rather, it is meant to help orient our thoughts to the radical nature of this beautiful text. The exiles were kingless, landless, homeless, but not forgotten by the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.
Isaiah 52 begins with the prophet’s call to the people to rise out of the ashes and to put on their best duds. The Lord is about to act. From the Lord’s mouth:
“You were sold for nothing, and you shall be redeemed without money.” (Isaiah 52.3b)
This one little phrase, though properly outside of our pericope, sums up the reality of the exiles. Their exile is real, and the prophet in spite of all the evidence to the contrary can and does proclaim the promise of their freedom.
Lest we mistake that this text is solely about the exiles, it is important as well to recognize what the text says of God. The Lord’s desire, perhaps even the impetus for the Lord’s redeeming action, is that the Lord’s people know the Lord’s name (see also Isaiah 52.6). This name of the Lord is intimately tied with this movement from slavery to freedom. It is this self-revelation by the Lord that then is the object of our pericope.
What are these good tidings (see also Isaiah 52.7)?
Simply put: who God reveals God’s self to be.
“Your God reigns.” (verse 7)
“The salvation of our God.” (verse 10)
The first proclamation is for those who have no agency or power. For those who live under the thumb of a king that is not their own. Your God reigns! The kingship that matters is different from the exilic experience alone might suggest.
With this proclamation, itself a revelation, is the promise that the exiles will see the holy arm of the Lord — a demonstration of this kingly power. The poem promises that the people will see “the salvation of our God,” this God who reigns even for those living in the midst of realities that run contrary to the claim. The Lord, the king of the universe, promises to act and the act is salvific.
In our day and age (as in perhaps all!), it does not take a great deal to conjure the trappings of exile. While it is incumbent on the preacher and the Christian in general to always keep in mind that this text was written to those who lived in the midst of true exile with all its ugly ornamentation and trappings. In our preaching and our prayers, we are called especially as we celebrate the Nativity of Our Lord to be conscious of those who live in realities more analogous with those exiles who served as the initial audience for Deutero-Isaiah’s poetry.
Yet, the aesthetic of God’s kingship and the revelation of the salvation of our God remains for all to hear. This news for all is beauty-full, peace-full, joy-full — worth singing about!
Consider this Isaianic text within its Christological horizon.
As we mark again the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ, tradition calls us to at least consider this reign of God, which is our salvation, revealed in the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes. At the center of the beauty of this news is its paradoxical nature. God makes God’s self known — in particular God’s reign and the desire that God’s name be known — in the birth of a child. Here the Eternal Word takes on flesh and dwells among us. The holy arm of the Lord is ultimately the tiny arm of a helpless infant who would reveal the fullness of God’s kingship with arms outstretched on the cross.
Like many psalms of praise, Psalm 98 begins with an imperative “call to praise” followed by a “reason to praise” introduced by the Hebrew word ki, “for.”1
Here is my translation of 98:1-3:
Sing to the Lord a new song, for (ki) he has done wonders! By his right hand and his holy arm has he achieved deliverance! The Lord has made his deliverance known, he has revealed his righteousness before the eyes of the nations! He has remembered loving fidelity and faithfulness to the house of Israel, all the ends of the earth have seen the deliverance of our God!
The “wonders” and “deliverance” that Psalm 98 originally celebrated may have been a specific military victory or miracle. Or, much like our Easter or Pentecost hymns, the psalm may have been composed for an annual celebration of one of the Lord’s historic “wonders” — such as the Exodus, the rescue of Jerusalem from the Assyrian army in 701 BCE, or the return from Exile in the 6th century.
Whatever the original purpose or ancient Israelite use of the psalm may have been, the Revised Common Lectionary that many Christian Churches follow has elected to use this psalm on Christmas Day. The psalm is fitting for Christmas Day because it celebrates the long history of God’s saving actions and wonders. It is also fitting because it calls for “joy noise,” “joyous song,” and “praises” to be sung to the Lord. More on that momentarily. But first, a word about the “new song” for which the psalm calls.
A “New Song”
The psalm’s opening imperative calls for a “new song” (shir chadesh) to be sung. This “new song” for which the psalm calls is generally understood by psalms scholars to refer to a special genre of songs — the “new song” that is to be sung after a particular experience of God’s gracious deliverance. To put it another way, the “new song” does not merely mean to compose a new psalm composition. The new song means to write and sing a song that has to be “new” because God has just done something new — such as a new act of deliverance, a new act of grace, a new act of forgiveness, or a new act of blessing.
There are several places in the psalms that sing of the “new song.” But the newness of this type of song can be seen especially in two places.
First, the “new song” can be seen in Isa 42:10-13 [14-43:7? — it is not exactly clear where the song ends]. In this song, the anonymous prophet of the exile sings a “new song” announcing and giving thanks because the Lord was moving to restore the Judean exiles to their home: The Lord was moving “to open the eyes that are blind, to bring the prisoners out of the dungeon, from prison those who sit in darkness” (42:7).
A second place where the newness of the new song can be seen is at the start of Psalm 40, which is a song of thanksgiving that a person sang after having experienced personal deliverance from the Lord. Here is my translation:
I waited and waited for the Lord, he inclined and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the desolate pit, out of the miry swamp. He set my feet upon a rock, he established my steps. He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God.
The “new song” here is the song of thanksgiving that the psalmist came to sing after the Lord had lifted the singer “out of the desolate pit” — a metaphor for extreme danger.
In light what the “new song” was in the Old Testament, it is appropriate for Christians to sing the old, old songs of Christmas every year, because in Jesus Christ, the new covenant, new testament, new creation, and new life of God has drawn near. As Paul wrote, “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17).
We Sing the Faith
Therefore, the people of God don’t just tell the faith, they sing it. From Jubal in Genesis 4, to Moses and Miriam, through Zechariah, Mary, the angels at Christ’s birth, and later from Martin Luther to Charles Wesley and finally right down to us — the people of God sing the faith.
I would go so far as to say that the Christian faith must be sung. This is the case because by singing, we can at one and the same time both respond to God’s active work in this world and also challenge the anti-God powers and regimes that seeks to wrench this world from God’s will.
When thinking about biblical songs, I especially am drawn to Eugene Peterson’s illuminating paraphrase of the start of the Magnificat: “I’m bursting with God-news, I’m dancing the song of my Savior God.”2
“I’m bursting with God-news!” The people of faith must sing because we are “bursting with God-news.” Mary sang because she was bursting with God-news. In response to what the angel and her cousin Elizabeth had told her, but also in challenge to the powers of the world — the powers of sin, death, and the devil that cling to us so closely, that crowd into grand jury courtrooms so that justice itself is strangled in the womb and after long labor pangs, injustice is born in its place.
Throughout the church year, the words and tunes change. But the God-news that the people sing stays the same. The God-news of Advent, the God-news of Christmas, the God-news of Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Pentecost demands that we sing. We sing because we are bursting with the God-news that in Jesus Christ, God is reconciling himself to the world, overcoming sin and all the powers of death. And we sing in resistance to the death and injustice of the world.
As one translation of the final stanza of Martin Luther’s “new song” “A Mighty Fortress” has it:
Were they to take our house, Goods, honor, child or spouse, Though life be wrenched away, They cannot win the day! The kingdom’s ours forever!3
1 Commentary first published on this site on Dec. 25, 2014.
2 Eugene H. Peterson, Luke 1:46-47, “The Message: The Bible in Contemporary Language,” (NavPress, 2002).
3 “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Text translation © 1978 Lutheran Book of Worship, admin. Augsburg Fortress.
The opening of Hebrews is a celebratory declaration of Jesus’ substance, superior status, and activity.
To substantiate its lofty Christological claims, the text utilizes comparisons, contrasts, scriptural quotes, and scriptural traditions. While Christian tradition has entitled this work as whole to be the “Letter to the Hebrews,” its opening lacks any of the standard features of a letter’s opening (for example, sender, addressee, greeting, thanksgiving).
Instead, the opening is better understood as an exordium, that is, the introduction of a discourse or exposition that lays the foundation for what is to come. In this particular case, the foundation is the who and what of Jesus; even though, interestingly, the name “Jesus” is not used until 2:9. Instead, Jesus is depicted as “son” (Hebrews 1:2, 5, 8) which highlights the relational reality and intimacy he shares with God.
In the Greek, 1:1-4 is a long, elaborate, single sentence. It opens with a contrast between the means by which God has spoken to God’s people. In ancient times, God spoke in varied ways to the ancestors vis-à-vis the prophets (verse 1). Now in the eschatological age (which in Hebrews dawns with the death and exaltation of Jesus), God has spoken to us vis-à-vis the son (verse 2a). This fundamental contrast does not so much mean that God’s prior declarations were deficient as it means that what God has spoken in and through the son is the ultimate divine declaration.
This contrast is immediately followed by a number of Christological depictions regarding the son and his ultimacy (verses 2b-3). God appointed the son to be the inheritor of all reality (recalling the divine promise of Psalm 2:8). Through the agency of the son, God created time and space (recalling the wisdom traditions of Proverbs 2:8; Sirach 24:1-2; Wisdom 8:3-6). The son manifests God’s glory, i.e., the form of God’s visible presence (see Exodus 16:7,10; 24:16; Leviticus 9:6; Numbers 14:10; 1 Kings 8:11).
Using the imagery of the imprint on a coin or a seal, the text declares that the son is the imprint of God’s essence or being. Not only is the son the divine agent through whom everything was created, the son is the one who sustains everything by means of his powerful word. The son accomplished purification of sins (i.e., priestly atonement which will be explicated in Hebrews 9-10 and which recalls Exodus 30:10; Leviticus 16). Using imagery from Psalm 110:1, the son’s exaltation is depicted as him siting at the right hand of divine majesty. The extended, opening sentence concludes with another contrast; this time between the son and the angels. The son surpasses the status of angels because the son has inherited a superior name which in this context is “son.”
The reference to the angels in Hebrews 1:4 becomes a springboard for an extended chain of scriptural references in 1:5-14 used to highlight the superiority of the son compared to the angels. Whereas in verse 2, the text declared that God spoke to us in the person of the son, here God is speaking to the son by means of the scriptural quotations. The first two quotations come verbatim from Septuagint passages in Psalm 2:7 (“You are my son; today I have begotten you”) and 2 Samuel 7:14 (“I will be his father, and he will be my son”). In their original context, these are addresses to the Davidic kings. Here, however, they are unique divine communiques from God to God’s son thus demonstrating his superiority over the angels.
At the beginning of verse 6, we are told what God declared when God brings God’s firstborn into the world (thus recalling the divine begetting of verse 5). When this “bringing” occurs is ambiguous.
In the liturgical context of Christmas, the incarnation or birth of the son would be the clear reference. In light of Hebrews 1:2-3, however, it could well refer to the time of the son’s exaltation. In either case, the central focus is one God’s command from Psalm 96:7 (as found in the Septuagint or LXX) that the angels are to worship him (angels were not the worshiping beings in the original Hebrew text). In its original scriptural context, God is the object of such worship, but here it is God’s directive that the angels worship the son.
The Greek that opens Hebrews 1:7-9 establishes a deliberate contrast between what God says to the angels and what God says to the son. On the one hand, the angels are transitory beings of wind and fire (quoting Psalm 103:4 [LXX]; again the original Hebrew text did not refer to angels). On the other hand, God presents the son as both royalty (throne, scepter, kingdom in verse 8) and a deity (the Greek word theos is used three times in reference to the son) by quoting almost verbatim from Psalm 44:7-8 (LXX).
Hebrews 1:10-12 is an extended (and almost verbatim) quoting of Psalm 101:26-27 (LXX). As before, that which originally was declared about God and God’s activity is now being applied to the son. He is Lord (verse 10). Earth and heaven are his handy-work (verse 10). That which he created is transitory so that they will perish and are comparable to foldable, changing articles of clothing (verses 11-12). The son, however, remains continuous (verse 11) and the same (verse 12) so that his years will never be terminated (verse 12 recalling the reference to “forever and ever” in verse 8).
The high, celebratory Christology within the opening verses of Hebrews is particularly suited for worship on the nativity of our Lord.
Indeed, many of this passage’s theological claims dovetail with a Christmas hymn such as “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing.” The angels worship the son. The son is king. The son is the agent of atoning reconciliation. The son is the everlasting Lord. The son ushers in the eschatological age. The son is the incarnate deity. The son loves righteousness. The son is the creator of all things including life itself.
All that Hebrews 1 declares and celebrates about the son is precisely what we declare and celebrate about the son on Christmas Day.