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The Birth of Christ


Or, A Christmas Call to Condescend
Luke 2:1-7
December 12, 2021
Lord’s Day Worship
Sean Higgins



Introduction

There have been a lot of babies born under the sun. There have been a lot of important people born. There have been a lot of incredible stories surrounding births, even ones we read in the Old Testament. Yet there is only one only-begotten child of the Father, there is only one virgin-born son, there is only one Christ, one Savior of men, and one birth story gloria in excelsis.

I can’t imagine how many times I’ve read or had read to me the birth of Christ in Luke 2. My dad read it every Christmas morning before we opened presents, and that custom continues in our house. Linus nails it in the Charlie Brown Christmas special (reciting Luke 2:8-20). It has been embellished in our collective imaginations through nativity artwork and cartoons, adding animals and condensing days into one silent night. But we will not overreact to the excellencies that came down to earth. It will take our glorification to give glory to God in the highest that He deserves. In the meantime, we try.

I am not preaching these advent messages because you must celebrate the month of December in a particular way per se. But for good reasons, and in light of the flow of godless propaganda, in masked and maskless stores, it isn’t whether or not we’re thinking about the season, but how we will exalt and embody the grace and truth of the Word become flesh.

In our series so far we’ve considered Mary’s faith when Gabriel foretold her virgin pregnancy, followed by Mary’s praise in response to Elizabeth’s recognition of her blessing. Though it has only been half a chapter, forty weeks have passed since Luke 1:26 as we enter Luke 2. As in the previous messages we’ll consider the passage, some theology, and a use.

The Birth of Christ – Luke 2:1-7

For however familiar the words are, there are some significant questions that turn up in this paragraph, let alone the mystery itself of the eternal God born into time and laid in a manger.

Caesar Augustus is well known. His birth name was Octavian, nephew turned adopted son of Julius Caesar, and he was the first to don the title of Emperor from the senate (27 B.C.) as well as demanding recognition as Dominus et Deus, “God and Lord” (Sproul). Through him Roman rule expanded, and what is most needed for empire building and consolidation? Money (not more soldiers per MacArthur). How do you get that much money? Taxes. How many taxes can you get? You need to know how many people there are whom you can make pay.

So a decree went out…that all the world should be registered, enrolled for a census, put on a list for the purpose of taxation. The well-known KJV (“that all the world should be taxed”) jumps the translation gun.

There is also some question about this census taking place during the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria. The Jewish historian Josephus doesn’t record a census under such governorship until AD 6 (also mentioned by Luke in Acts 5:37), though there’s good reason to think Jesus was born around 6-5 B.C. (which, yeah, could have been helped by better dating from the start). But Luke had collected eye-witness accounts, and Luke was helped by the Spirit. Either he meant that this was before that other well-known census by Quirinius, or maybe Quirinius governed twice. We can work with it either way.

That all went to be registered, each to his own town (verse 3) lead Joseph to travel to Bethlehem (verse 4). Each’s own town could be birthplace, hometown, place of family property holdings. The key was, this is where you got counted for paying your taxes. Apparently Joseph didn’t have any family remaining there with whom they could stay.

Joseph went from Nazareth to the city of David, which sometimes refers to Jerusalem (as in 2 Samuel 5:7), but here refers to Bethlehem (again in 2:11), the place where David grew up. Joseph went because he was of the house and lineage of David, and as we saw in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus, which put Jesus into the royal line as an adopted son.

It also put Jesus as the fulfillment of Micah’s prophecy:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
who are too little to be among
the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,
from ancient days. (Micah 5:2)

Why did Joseph take Mary with him? It’s not just a question of her traveling while pregnant, but was she to be counted too (since she was also from David’s house)? Was Joseph protecting her from the mean-girls’ gossip back home? And was it usual, or proper, for an unmarried couple to travel and stay together? She did go with him, and she was only his betrothed (even if Matthew 1:24 claims he took her as his “wife”), and she was with child, an elegant phrase attributable to William Tyndale, since the Greek word means “pregnant.” They could have arrived a month or more ahead of time.

While they were there the time came for her to give birth. That actually sounds not like they arrived in Bethlehem the night the baby arrived. But it was the time.

We’re given not as many details as we might like to know. Was it only the two of them for labor and delivery? She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Again, “inn” may be overdoing it. The word here – κατάλυμα – could be just guest room or “private room” (unlike the specific word for “inn” – πανδοχεῖον – used in Luke 10:34); though the inn could point to a particular lodging place. Regardless, any and all rooms were taken due to the influx of out-of-towners. Joseph and Mary did not have the conveniences, they seem not to have had help, they were on their own with the contractions and blood and in some place where animals could have been close by.

History suggested that it was a cave (so Constantine built a basilica over the site, and the Church of the Nativity was built over that). It could have been a stable, but no animals are mentioned, albeit knowing that a manger is a feeding trough for domesticated animals.

This is the “Son of the Most High” (1:32-33)? This is the one destined for the throne of a never-ending kingdom? This is blessing? This is God’s favor? And it was really real. She had not known a man, and she’s delivered a flesh and blood, breathing little baby boy. There was absolutely zero pomp and the circumstances were about as gloriously ordinary and wearisome and isolated as they could be.

The Doctrine – Kenosis Qualified

So far we’ve considered the doctrine of the virgin birth and the doctrine of election. The obvious doctrine here would be the Incarnation. And I do want to address a particular perspective on it, sometimes referred to as the Kenosis or kenetic theory.

There is an heretical teaching about Jesus’ birth that covers itself under the word kenosis. We must do better. What we can’t do is avoid the question.

In Philippians 2:7 Paul wrote that Jesus “emptied himself” and took the form of a servant.

though [Christ Jesus] was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7 ESV)

The word “emptied” is ekenosen (ἐκένωσεν), which means to make of no effect, to empty.

In the late 19th century a German theologian named Gottfried Thomasius claimed that Jesus emptied Himself of certain divine attributes such as omnipotence and omniscience and omnipresence. Another German, Wolfgang Gess, went further, explicitly rejecting the Definition of Chalcedon and claimed that at the incarnation Jesus “ceased from His cosmic functions and His eternal consciousness” (see Berkhof). It is popular among Christians to say that Jesus laid aside the use of His divine attributes.

But, beloved, Paul also wrote that in Jesus “the fulness of God dwelt bodily” (Colossians 2:9).

For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell (Colossians 1:19 ESV)
For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily (Colossians 2:9 ESV)

God’s Son did not give up divinity to take on humanity. How else did He know what was in the heart of man? How did He call Lazarus out of the tomb? And most important, how could He take on the sins of His people as only a man?

It took a few centuries and a number of critics for some helpful clarity. The Nicene Creed and the Definition of Chalcedon acknowledge the mystery of Jesus being fully God and fully man. Christ was one person with two natures. The nature of God was joined to man when the Word became flesh (the hypostatic union), not the nature of God was left behind when Jesus was born. From Chalcedon:

to be acknowledged in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being by no means taken away by the union

Christ did not empty Himself of deity.

So what of kenosis? He emptied Himself of something. It is (grammatically as well as contextually) connected to is taking on the form of a servant. He gave up the full display of His divine glory, the prerogative of being recognized and being served. He didn’t give up all His glory, John said “we beheld his glory.”

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14 ESV)

Yet Jesus prayed that the Father would restore His glory like it had been before the incarnation (John 17:5).

O what abasement was it for the Son of God to take our flesh? Nay, that Christ should take our nature when it was in disgrace, being stained with sin, this was the wonder of humility. (Watson, A Godly Man’s Picture, Location 995)

The Use – A Christmas Call to Condescend

Older Christians used to use the language of Christ’s condescension. Today condescension almost always means to stay high and look down on another, to patronize, to act superior and treat another as lesser. The word originally meant not to treat another as low, but to get low, to give way, to defer, especially in order to serve. This is the truth of the birth and life of God incarnate. It is captured in the Christmas story. It’s the call for every Christian.

The kenosis in Philippians 2 is to honor Christ as the model for every Christian’s humility. “Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 2:6) and look at what He did. I was going to say that we should be “humble for the holidays,” but who wants to hear that? How about “condescend this Christmas”? That’s really hitting below the belt.

You do not need to deny your privileges any more than Jesus denied His divinity. He was God. You are chosen and loved by God. But don’t treat your privilege like you are precious, and don’t demand that others recognize your preciousness. Ewww. Love and lower yourself to serve, to sacrifice. It’s the call of Christmas.

You may say, “But I’m not Jesus. I can’t do that.” And half of that is true. It should make it easier for us to get low. This is how deceitful and masterful sin is, that it makes it harder (in the spiritual realm) for proud men to condescend than it was for the Son of God (in the metaphysical realm) to condescend.

The argument is from the greater to the lesser, and to be clear, we are the lesser. He came to save us from our sins, so His name is Jesus (Matthew 1:21), and that includes our sins of acting like Christmas is about Me. Love loosely your preferences, traditions, timings, and let go any demands for others to grasp your glory.

And remember, those who humble themselves will be exalted…by God. It’s how He works (Philippians 2:5-9, 1 Peter 5:6).

Conclusion

In The Last Battle, Lucy said, “in our world too, a stable once had something inside it that was bigger than our whole world.”

Let the substantizing of the eternal Word into flesh, the fulness of God pleased to dwell in our Lord Jesus Christ, the condescension of the beloved Son for sake of becoming a servant, expand our understanding of glory in grace and truth as well as set an example for us to do the same.


Charge

If your Christmas tree is sizeable, you can’t make it stand taller by trying to pin it a couple inches off the bottom of the base, hoping those half-cent screws will hold tight and keep it upright. It’s got to be grounded, all the way down. Don’t try to prop yourself up, let alone put a star on your head. Condescend. In humility count others as more significant. This is the mind of Christmas.

Benediction:

And my God will supply every need of yours according to his riches in glory in Christ Jesus. To our God and Father be glory forever and ever. Amen.
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit. (Philippians 4:19–20, 23, ESV)