Sabbath Reflection for Friday, December 12 (’14)
I really don’t care if you think Christmas is a pagan holiday Christians shouldn’t celebrate, or if you think it messes with the liturgical calendar and minimizes regular Sunday/Resurrection celebrations. Those may both be true (and I do think those are valuable debates). That is, perhaps, not the most pastorally or logically helpful argument to be making at the moment.
Truth is, most Christians around the world will celebrate the incarnation of Jesus in just over two weeks. We would do well to remember this, and particularly, we would do well to remember how utterly foolish the whole idea is.
The incarnation of the Son of God is foolishness. It’s stupid. It makes no sense. No, I don’t mean it doesn’t make any biblical sense. It does. In fact, the idea that we would need God himself to come in the flesh makes perfect biblical sense. But only biblical sense. It makes no sense outside of a biblical worldview.
Without Jesus—God in the flesh—we have no access to God and remain in need of a Good Enough mediator. As Luke puts the reason for Jesus,
You will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end….The child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God (Lk 1:31-33, 35).
Mark Jones puts it well:
The incarnation makes theology possible. It makes communion with God possible. Whatever saving benefits we have as a result of the incarnation and Christ’s obedience to death, we must never lose sight of the fact that Christ brings us to God.
Christ brings God to us, and us to God. It is Jesus’ flesh and divinity that are so ridiculously stupid to most of the world that we must remember the scandal that is our faith. Paul put it like this:
Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified… (1 Cor 1:22-23a).
You don’t crucify something that isn’t flesh, and so Paul concludes:
…a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles… (1 Cor 1:23b)
The Jews could not conceive of God taking on flesh, and we’re claiming—as per Luke—that God was, in fact, conceived.
The Gentiles could not rationalize that the Supreme Logos (that almost indefinable expression of the Wisdom of All That Is and Holds All Things Together) would take on flesh (that which many Greeks saw as the lowest, most worthless of our humanity). We’re claiming the Logos didn’t just take on flesh, but is now flesh forever.
Greek Guy: “No real God would do such a weakly thing.”
Jew Guy: “The real God could not do such a human thing.”
Modern Guy: “Hahahahaha. Morons!”
Christian Guy: “If he has not become flesh, you are lost, and still in sin, and will be judged accordingly.”
As I reflected this week on the international scandal of the Incarnation, I came across 1 Corinthians 2:1, given here in the ESV (English Standard Version, 2001):
And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom.
Now, this struck me, because I thought, “Hmpf. ‘Testimony.’ That doesn’t sound like Paul.” I decided to check the translation of that word “testimony” against the Greek and noticed that, in Greek, the word was τὸ μυστήριον, which is, basically, “mystery.” You can even see the almost letter-to-letter correspondence between μυστήριον and mystery. That’s where we get the word, anyway.
In other letters, Paul uses this word “mystery” (given as “testimony” in 1 Cor 2):
In each of the above, the idea of flesh is linked with Jesus as the Great Mystery—he is the being who is fully God and Man, divinity and flesh. Both together are part of what makes this so mysterious.
Yet, in 1 Corinthians 2:1, it’s simply translated as “testimony.” My guess is, the translation committee of the ESV viewed the available manuscript evidence and determined there was a greater chance the original documents held “testimony”. However, the consistent theme of Paul seems to keep the scandal clearly a scandal by reinforcing it as a “mystery”, i.e., it can’t be figured, rationalized, or solved. He calls it:
- a “mystery kept secret for long ages” (Rom 16:25)
- a “mystery” now proclaimed (1 Cor 2:1)
- a “mystery hidden for all ages” (Eph 3:9)
- a “mystery made known by revelation” only (Eph 3)
- a “mystery that is profound,” and especially is reflected in very fleshly, human marriage (Eph 5:22-33)
Mysteries aren’t easily solved. They can’t be figured out by just everyone. We value Sherlock Holmes and the entire mystery genre because we are kept on the edge of our seats and marvel at how the pros solve and save the day. It’s certainly not less than this for Christmas Day. Christmas Day is a scandalous mystery, and it’s not something everyone accepts or can figure out.
With respect to the ESV committee on translation, it is far more helpful to keep words the same unless there is a compelling—even overwhelming—reason to change their semantic use because of surrounding context, and I don’t see such a scenario in 1 Corinthians 2. In fact, I think Paul’s argument about his Gospel and the Power of God in Christ is more compelling if you keep it “mystery,” because it is, as he said in 1:23-25, utterly foolish to Greeks who demand wisdom, because God’s wisdom is wiser than theirs, and they don’t understand (which plays into it being a mystery) unless the Holy Spirit reveals it. This is, in fact, the very mysterious role the Holy Spirit plays, as Paul later says just a few verses away:
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned” (1 Cor 2:14).
Whatever your view on the Santa nonsense, gifts and parties, liturgical calendars and Christmas music, please do not lose sight of how scandalously mysterious the Good News of Christmas really is. There is no Resurrection Sunday without the Incarnation, and spouting such “nonsense” is a 100%, Grade-A guarantee to get you mocked:
All who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted (2 Tim 3:10-12).
We mustn’t allow familiarity with Christmas to obscure the scandal of what God has done in Christ. Doing so diminishes our praise and worship, increases the likelihood of our pride, and will cause us to miss the utter mystery that is Jesus. He is, in fact, the best kind of mystery, for the more you know, the greater you realize you cannot possibly understand it all. This mystery is the kind that draws you ever inward, discovering more every day with a promise of always satisfying more. Part of being “the mystery of God” is that it was once hidden but now made plain, and so it is knowable, but only with the work of the Spirit.
This mystery, in short, turns the Law of Diminishing Returns full on its head:
God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. And because of him you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption, so that, as it is written, ‘Let the one who boasts, boast in the Lord. And I, when I came to you brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the mystery of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling (1 Cor 1:28-2:2).