For the season of Advent leading into Christmas, I am doing a short 4 week Bible study looking at the birth of Jesus in the New Testament. This study will start in the obvious places (the birth stories in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke) but go a bit deeper in looking at the big picture we get from the whole New Testament.
Here’s the plan for the next 4 weeks:
- Week 1: Introduction & Matthew’s Story
- Week 2: Luke’s Story
- Week 3: One Messiah, Two Birth Stories
- Week 4: John, Mark and Paul
While there are 4 weeks to the study happening at the church, I’m going to break these weeks into several smaller blog posts.
Introductory Question: How important is Christmas and the Christmas story to your faith? Are the birth stories a central part of how you understand Jesus and the Gospel, or something you only think of around Christmas?
I ask this question for a couple of reasons. The first reason is fairly straightforward: The key story in all four of the Gospels is the Cross and Resurrection , while only 2 of the 4 Gospels include the birth story. The same goes for the rest of the New Testament. While the Incarnation (the Son of God being born as an ordinary human being) is necessary for the rest of the story of Jesus to make sense, the focus of the rest of the New Testament is Jesus’ teaching, his death, resurrection and coming again. The birth stories only make up a small part of the New Testament.
On the other hand the secular celebration of Christmas is by far the biggest holiday of the year in North America. Even for dedicated Christians, it can be hard to separate the story of Jesus birth and it’s spiritual meaning from the bright lights of the ‘Holiday Season.’ I know that even as a minister, I find it a challenge to get into the Christmas story with the same depth I do with the story of Easter.
Yet for all this, the small place the birth stories fill in the New Testament and the huge space that secular Christmas fills in our culture, the details of Jesus’ birth are extremely important to our faith. The whole story of Jesus only makes sense when we start with his birth as God born among us as a fragile human child.
The most profound illustration of this comes from one of my favourite passages in the letters of Paul – Philippians 2:5-11. This text is both a hymn of praise and a statement of faith which Paul either composed for his churches, or received from one of the Apostles before him.
5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross.
9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Taking a cue from the Paul, both of the central faith statements of the early church (The Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed) take Jesus’ birth as an essential part of our faith. Every time we celebrate the Lord’s Supper at St. Andrew’s we confess that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.”
So what I want to explore is what we learn about Jesus and the big message of the Gospel when we look at the stories of his birth, and the other parts of the New Testament that speak of him as the Son of God born as a human being. Or put another way, what does it mean for us to sing, “Christ is born in Bethlehem!”
Next post, we’ll start to consider this by looking at the Gospel of Matthew.