Turn the page from Malachi into the New Testament and you’ll fast forward through four hundred silent years—centuries in which God did not speak, prophets and visions ceased, and the long night of exile lingered on. Even though God’s people had returned to God’s country, all was not well in paradise—and in fact, paradise had disappeared entirely. Under the brutal occupation of one enemy power after another, God’s people toiled on in virtual slavery, longing for the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises. Where were the guarantees made to David? Where was the destiny given to Abraham? Where was the offspring of the woman, who would bring the death to the curse and lift God’s people from the wreckage of the fall? All of it—all the stories, all the promises, the whole point of history—had seemed to stall, crash, and melt away into despair.
During this dark time, the book of Psalms was assembled into its current form as a prayer book for God’s enslaved people, with this heartbeat of messianic longing woven through the structure of its five books. Psalm 89 closes out Book Two of the Psalms with a summary of the exilic community’s hope and lament:
You have said, “I have made a covenant with my chosen one; I have sworn to David my servant: I will establish your offspring forever, and build your throne for all generations’… I will set his hand on the sea and his right hand on the rivers. He shall cry to me, ‘You are my Father, my God, and the Rock of my salvation.’ I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings of the earth… But now you have cast off and rejected; you are full of wrath against your anointed. You have renounced the covenant with your servant; you have defiled his crown in the dust… How long, O LORD? Will you hide yourself forever?… Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David? (Psalm 89:3-4, 25-27, 38, 46, 49)
The psalmist—and with him, all of God’s languishing people—looked back and rejoiced in God’s covenant with David. The promise of a divinely secured everlasting throne and a reign that would stretch across the world was what had been promised all those years before and repeatedly confirmed by the prophets. But now, in the midst of interminable exile in their own land, the bewildered cry of the desperate faithful was, “Lord, where is your steadfast love of old, which by your faithfulness you swore to David?” Where are your promises, God? The once-glorious crown of David lay defiled in the dust, and with it all the hopes of Israel and the world.
N.T. Wright lays out the aching and waiting of the homebound-yet-homeless people of Israel, and the turbulent political scene into which the New Testament brings us:
“The corrupt pseudoaristocracy of the high-priestly family, the fake monarchs of the Hasmonean and then Herodian families, and different movements of reform and revolution and various stages in between—none of this offered a real sense of completion, of God’s best will for the world coming into view at last. That sense of incompleteness, of an unfinished story, was not simply a matter of biblical texts. It was a matter of a whole society struggling to see its way forward, clinging to the institutions of Temple and Torah and the festivals that embraced both, hoping that somehow the sovereign creator God would take his power and reign in the way he had always promised. Hoping, in fact, for a new exodus.”
With everything incomplete, the whole society of God’s people struggled to see their way forward. Into this groaning, waiting, chaotic silence, the opening sentence of the New Testament explodes with world-altering, epoch-defining significance:
The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)
“Here he is!” the gospel writers trumpet. Every word and phrase in this short declaration pulses with significance. “The son of David”—God has not forgotten his promises of a righteous Branch and universal ruler. “The son of Abraham”—God has not abandoned his people and, through them, the nations. Even “genealogy” brings to mind the lineage of grace through which God promised that the serpent-crushing seed of the woman would come. In fact, that word translated “genealogy” is actually the Greek word “genesis,” calling our minds back to the first book of the Bible and alluding to this moment in history as the beginning of a new world order, a re-creation of the entire cosmos. And finally, “Christ”—not a last name but a title, meaning “Anointed One.” The promised King at last had come to raise his people up from the dust and break the chains of their slavery.
Matthew’s introduction to his gospel then proceeds to a genealogy which, to our modern sensibilities, seems a starkly boring way to begin the epic story of the Great King. He traces the lineage of grace from Abraham to David, then David to the last of his broken royal line, and then from there through the exilic period all the way to Jesus, ending in verse 17:
So all the generations from Abraham to David were fourteen generations, and from David to the deportation to Babylon fourteen generations, and from the deportation to Babylon to the Christ fourteen generations.
Is this a bit of superfluous math in addition to an already-boring record of names (congratulations, Matthew, you can add!), or is there something more going on? This strange introduction is, in actuality, a powerful summary of all the prophetic hopes up until this point. Think back to Daniel’s vision of “seventy sevens” and the distant “jubilee of jubilees.” N.T. Wright again picks up this text and explains its significance:
“With Daniel 9 in mind, learned scribes were calculating and recalculating, asking when the seventy sevens would be fulfilled. When will the real return from exile happen? And Matthew makes it clear… that the moment had come with Jesus. Instead of years, he does it with generations, the generations of Israel’s entire history from Abraham to the present. All the generations to that point were fourteen times three, that is, six sevens—with Jesus being the seventh seven. He is the jubilee in person. He is the one who will rescue Israel from its long-continued nightmare.”
The Jubilee in person! This meant nothing less than the end of exile, and with it, the ushering in of all the prophetic hopes. A new temple, a new kingdom, and a new creation was dawning. The restoration of human dominion and divine presence was arriving in the person of “Jesus the Anointed One, Son of David, Son of Abraham.”
THE GREAT REVERSAL ARRIVES
This is the good news announced to a peasant girl named Mary in Luke 1:
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. (Luke 1:31-33)
Upon hearing the news, Mary—who apparently knows her Bible very well—bursts into a song echoing Hannah’s “great reversal” song from 1 Samuel 2. Open these two songs up side by side and the import of Mary’s song will become clear. Here, at long last, is the true great reversal that Hannah saw coming from a great distance. All of the themes of tables being turned, humility being exalted and arrogance being cast down, are clarified and expanded by Mary. The true humble king, whom we saw reflected in the ascent of David to the throne, is riding in to rescue his people. Reality will be released from the upside-down nightmare of satanic slavery and set free into the glory of God’s human rulers again:
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant… He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.” (Luke 1:46-48, 51-53)
Now would begin the restoration of all things pictured dimly in Hannah’s song. The proud, through whom the demonic dragon has exercised his stolen dominion ever since Eden, will be scattered, and the meek will at last inherit the earth. All who pride themselves as mighty—including that arrogant serpentine pretender to the throne—will be brought down from their perches of imagined authority, and the humble will rise and take up the reins of Isaiah’s long-promised government of ever-expanding peace. This great reversal of authority, as the prophets said, would be what finally unleashes the new creation, with everything old passing away and everything new and beautiful springing up to take its place.
The Christmas story, at its heart, is all about this great reversal. Brush away all the sentimentalized crust that has built up through years of “Silent Night,” “Away in the Manger,” wrapping paper, and Christmas trees, and what you’ll find is the epic origin story of the new creation and the opening salvo in the cosmic war between the offspring of the woman and the old satanic snake. Christmas is the arrival of reality into this world of upside-down nightmares. It is the first act of setting right everything broken. It is the announcement to the world that the old order of things is passing away, to be replaced by an older order; in C.S. Lewis’s words, the “deep magic” that the devil knows so well superseded by a “deeper magic from before the dawn of time.” Flannery O’Connor, a great 20th century writer, once said that the story of Jesus breaking into history is—far from being a brief supernatural episode—actually the resumption of reality, a reality that had been on pause ever since Genesis 3. “The virgin birth, the incarnation, the resurrection,” he wrote, “are the true laws of the flesh and the physical. Death, decay, and destruction are the suspension of those laws.”
And so the Great King, the restorer of all things, enters the scene in the ultimate display of humility, which is exactly the way you’d expect if you’ve been tracking with the story so far. The angel said, “He will be called great,” and now we see once and for all that the definition of greatness in this kingdom is lowliness. The king arrives, not in a capital city or at the center of some global empire, but in a small town on the edge of nowhere. He fulfills Micah’s ancient promise, “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.” His first bed is not in a palace but in a feeding trough. His parents are not nobility (other than their status as image-bearers), but rather poor laborers. His first attendants are not servants dressed in fine linen but smelly shepherds.
In fact, those smelly shepherds are a picture themselves of what this whole story is about. The angels don’t bring the glad birth announcement to those we would think of as important, but rather to a hill outside Bethlehem, to a ragtag group of scruffy sheep herders. And the announcement is tailored specifically to them:
Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling g cloths and lying in a manger. (Luke 2:10-12)
This good news of great joy, the angel says, will be for “all the people,” not just the powerful and prestigious. And then, to underline this claim, the angel says to the shepherds that this great Christ is born “unto them,” that is, unto these shepherds. And when the angel says, “This will be a sign for you,” he isn’t giving them directions to the baby. He’s announcing a sign “unto you,” that is, a sign for you shepherds. This king, the angel tells them, will not be in a palace but in a poor cottage on the “wrong” side of town, the kind of poverty-stricken house that has a manger fixture in the living room (as most poor families did in Bethlehem at the time). In other words, he will be in a house just like theirs. For this great king had not just come for them; he had come as one of them.
The point of all of it couldn’t be clearer. In the coming great reversal, the humble are the only ones who will be exalted, and this humble king is leading the way, beginning the process of cosmic renovation not as a conqueror but as a helpless infant. This is what greatness looks like.
GOD OR MAN?
At this point, we need to stop and consider something vitally important if we are to understand how the rest of the story unfolds. Who (or what), exactly, is this baby? We know from the angelic announcement and Matthew’s genealogy that he is most certainly human—a son of David and Abraham. The apostle Paul in Galatians 4:4 completes the chain of promise all the way back to Eve and the promise made in Eden: “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman…” In Jesus we have the final flower of the gospel bud we first saw in Genesis 3. He is the seed of the woman who will crush Satan’s head, a serpent-crushing, victorious, human Savior. The genuine humanness of Jesus is emphasized through these genealogies and promises. His humanity, after all, is the entire point. A human Savior and King is necessary to put things right, since only a human can exercise image-bearing dominion and rule the universe from Adam’s throne. Any rescue that will successfully dethrone the serpent must originate from within Adam’s broken line, or creation will never be restored.
But at the same time, the gospel writers push us to consider something extraordinary, even as they pick up prophetic threads that we might not have put together on our first read-through. The hope of restored human dominion has always been tightly interwoven with the hope of restored divine presence. After all, God’s kingdom exists wherever God’s presence resides and God’s king reigns. And in Jesus we somehow have both threads coming together again. In the garden, these two realities of king and country—human dominion and divine presence—were united in one experience. Adam and Eve ruled with perfect dominion over God’s world, enjoying uninterrupted access to God’s presence. The whole story of the Old Testament, as we have seen, is God’s mission to restore both of those realities—God’s king and God’s country, his king and his presence. And ever since Ezekiel saw the presence of God depart from Jerusalem and Nehemiah’s generation failed to see Him come back, God’s people had been waiting for the day when the presence of God would be restored. This was the message of the prophet Haggai, encouraging the rebuilding of the exilic temple: “Yet once more, in a little while… I will fill this house with glory, says the LORD of hosts” (Haggai 2:7). In other words, God says, “I’m coming back, and coming back soon. Get ready for my arrival.” God would indeed be coming back to his temple.
Zephaniah also saw this homecoming and added to it a dimension of kingship: “The King of Israel, the LORD, is with you; you shall never again fear evil” (Zephaniah 3:15). In Zephaniah’s view, the end of exile comes when God becomes king and dwells with his people again. That should initially puzzle us. As we have seen, God never stopped being king of the world, and has been on a quest ever since Eden to restore a human king. Throughout the Bible, the definition of God’s kingdom is not just God reigning; it’s God’s king reigning. And yet Zephaniah seems to muddy the waters, for he points to the day when God is king and God is present—both of the realities of king and country somehow brought together by God’s direct rule over his people.
And finally, in Ezekiel, the muddy prophetic waters are brought to the point of paradox. Look again at Ezekiel’s vision of the Davidic shepherd king and you’ll see the contradiction:
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD… And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. (Ezekiel 34:15, 23)
So which is it? Will the Lord be their shepherd, or will David? Or, to put it another way: who is going to be the promised king? The long-awaited son of David, or God himself?
In the opening pages of the New Testament, we get the stunning answer to the paradox: “Yes.” Both are somehow true simultaneously. Matthew’s genealogy sets up Jesus’ human credentials and claim to David’s throne, and then turns everything on its head with the citation of a promise from Isaiah: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means God with us” (Matthew 1:23). God with us—God with us in the person of “Jesus the Anointed One, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” The surprising solution to the prophetic paradox is that David’s human son, the perfect shepherd king, will be none other than Yahweh arrived in person. The restoration of human rule eagerly awaited by the prophets will indeed see a man on the throne, and this man will himself be God. The return of God’s human king will also mean the return of God’s presence—the reinstatement of God’s kingdom in a single person. It turns out that the prophet Haggai saw more than perhaps even he realized. The glory was indeed coming back to the temple, but not the same way it had left. In the human Jesus, God himself was returning to his people, Immanuel again. All the hopes of king and country shockingly come together in Jesus, who is both the restored human ruler we need and the restored divine presence we’ve longed for.
Nowhere in the Bible is this laid out in more explicit detail than in Paul’s letter to the Colossians. Paul earnestly wants this band of early Christians, buffeted by pagan philosophies and powers, to understand that Jesus Christ is the risen, reigning King of all creation. To drive this point home, he unpacks Jesus’ identity as the simultaneous perfect Man and perfect God, the God-Man King:
Jesus is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Colossians 1:15-19)
In our modern day of “high Christology” and with the good and true evangelical emphasis on the deity of Christ, I confess that I have often misread what Paul is saying. When he says that “Jesus is the image of the invisible God,” he doesn’t simply mean that God is the invisible God made visible—although that is true (see, for example, John 1:14-18 making that argument). In actuality, he is saying something perhaps even more surprising: Jesus is the perfect image of God. That is, he is the fully actualized human, the goal to which the human project was aiming all along.
Getting Paul’s first phrase right helps the rest of the paragraph to fall into place. Take the next phrase, for example: “the firstborn of all creation.” “High Christology” people have often stumbled over that one, for it sounds (at least to our modern ears) as if Jesus was God’s first act of creation (which is what Jehovah’s Witnesses claim it means). But once we understand that the first phrase harkens back to Genesis 1:27 and humanity made in God’s image, the meaning of the next phrase becomes clear. It’s a reference to Genesis 1:28, and the dominion wielded by image-bearers. “Firstborn” doesn’t refer to the date of Jesus’ birthday. That title is always used in Scripture to denote royal status, as in “the one who inherits the throne.” Paul’s spectacular claim in Colossians 1:15 is that Jesus is the only one capable of ascending to Adam’s throne and wielding dominion over the universe because he is the perfect image of God, the only complete human since Eden.
But then, just like the gospel writers do, Paul presses us further. It becomes clear that, while Jesus is fully human, he is not merely human. One could say that “all things were created for” a perfect human to rule over. However, one could not say that “all things were created by” that perfect human; that is a prerogative of God alone. And yet there it is, clear as day: “By him all things were created,” including every rival authority and dominion that now belongs to him by virtue of both his humanity and divinity. The longer we read, paradox of king and country united in Jesus continues to deepen. The one who wields dominion is also the source of that dominion. This perfect image-bearer “is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The human ruler of the world is also the divine sustainer of the world. And finally, the crescendo: “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” The reason that Jesus is able to be the culmination of God’s kingdom—both human ruler and divine presence—is because in him the immensity of deity has somehow translated itself into the fragile dust of human existence. The Almighty Creator himself has become his own creation. God has become the image of God. N.T. Wright says, “The gospels offer us not so much a different kind of human, but a different kind of God: a God who, having made humans in his own image, will most naturally express himself in and as that image-bearing creature.”
The point of all of this—the point Paul and the gospel writers want us to embrace—is not that we would simply participate in some exercises in Trinitarian theology (although in these Trinitarian texts we see echoes going all the way back to the beginning of the story and the Trinitarian fullness which birthed creation). Rather, in the mystery of the God-Man, we see both the depths of divine love and the heights of human calling. It turns out that, in one sense, Satan really did win back in Genesis 3. Humanity was so irreparably damaged by joining the demonic rebellion that the rescue—which needed to originate from within Adam’s line—could never come from within Adam’s line. Humanity was simply too far gone. So how would God keep his promises and put a human back on the throne? Like this: the Creator rescues the human project by stepping into the wreckage of humanity himself. And then, from the ground up, he begins rebuilding a new humanity, one that can fully wield the lost dominion of Adam. Jesus, the perfect image-bearer, leads a new humanity up from the ashes of the fall, in the process remaking the shattered image of God in our souls, equipping us to rule and reign with him.
The story of the gospel, in its most distilled essence is all about the exaltation of humanity by means of the humiliation of divinity. Or, as the church father Athanasius put it, “He became what we are that we might become what he is.” He didn’t mean, as Mormons and other splinter sects allege, that we somehow rise to level of divinity. As always, God remains the utterly unique High King. Rather, Athanasius means that, with our human nature now woven into the very being of the Trinity, we who are joined with Jesus rise into the restoration of the regal status that once was ours, and even higher than Adam ever dreamed. God’s design from before the beginning—that his Trinitarian fullness would overflow and fill the world through the reign of his image-bearers—is realized in the God-Man Jesus and then extended to all who put their trust in him.
SON OF GOD, SON OF MAN
All of this turns our simple Trinitarian categories upside down and inside out. The ways that we try to neatly separate out Jesus’ human and divine natures fall apart once we start pressing biblical texts onto them. His humanity and divinity are so intertwined as to be inseparable (maybe the Chalcedonian Formula of 451 AD, articulating the union of Jesus’ two natures, was onto something).
Take, for example, the two favorite New Testament titles for Jesus, “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” We typically use those titles as shorthand for “Jesus’ divinity” and “Jesus’ humanity,” respectively. Even my favorite hymn, “Crown Him With Many Crowns,” makes the same sloppy exegetical mistake in one of its lesser-known verses, albeit in a soul-stirring way:
Crown him the Son of God before the worlds began,
And ye who tread were he has trod, crown him the Son of Man,
Who every grief has known that wrings the human breast,
And takes and bears them for his own, that all in him may rest.
I love the truth which that verse is communicating: that the incarnate God-Man bore every human grief, so that in him I may find rest from all my trials. Amen to that! The problem that I quibble with is its use of the titles “Son of God” and “Son of Man.” Because, to quote Inigo Montoya from the movie The Princess Bride, “I don’t think that word means what you think it means.”
You may be surprised to learn that Jesus never actually uses the title “Son of God” to refer to himself. He agrees with it on the lips of others a few times, but that’s it. The reason for this is not—as liberal scholars accuse—that Jesus had no concept of his divinity. Rather, the term “Son of God” was a popular yet misunderstood messianic term at the time of Jesus’ ministry. “Son of God,” in the context of the first century, had a simple meaning: Caesar. The Roman emperor was the one who claimed the title “Son of God.” And, in fact, the Old Testament itself usually used the term simply as a royal title as well. So when Jews used the term in a messianic context, what they meant was, “The King who will kick out those bad Romans and restore Israel’s independence.” But since that wasn’t what Jesus’ messiahship was about—he was on a quest for a much more significant throne—he intentionally downplayed that title.
The title “Son of Man,” on the other hand, echoes back to the vision of Daniel 7, of a god-like perfect human descending from the clouds to claim universal kingship. “Son of Man” seems to come closest to describing the intertwined human and divine natures of Christ. It pictures an everlasting heavenly king descending from heaven, who at the same time is, literally in the Hebrew, “son of Adam,” the human inheritor of Adam’s throne. This is the title that Jesus picked up and used almost exclusively when referring to himself—a staggering 78 times through the four gospels.
The topsy-turvy nature of Jesus’ humanity and divinity extends even farther, to how we understand and interpret his earthly ministry. Typically we think of Jesus’ miracles as the evidence of his divinity. Who else, we reason, could multiply food or raise the dead? And then we think of Jesus’ suffering and death as evidence of his humanity. Only a man, we suppose, could die. But what if we have our categories mixed up (or, at least, not as nuanced as the gospels themselves present Jesus’ works)? After all, many of the Old Testament prophets performed miracles. In fact, most of Jesus’ miracles were replicas of Elijah and Elisha’s ministries. N.T. Wright suggests we’ve got it backwards:
“One could make a case for seeing the ‘powerful works’ of Jesus as evidence of his true humanity, since it is genuine humans who are in charge of God’s world, and to see his suffering and death on behalf of others as evidence of his divinity, since only God can rescue people from their sins.”
That’s quite a thought, isn’t it? And indeed, when you press your mind for biblical categories, certain messianic passages from the Psalms bubble up in seeming confirmation. Psalm 49 comes right out and says that “truly no man can ransom another or give to God the price of his life… But God will ransom my soul from the power of Sheol” (Psalm 49:7, 15). Only God is capable of paying the costly ransom for a person’s soul, let alone the souls of a great multitude that no one can count. And Psalm 8 speaks of God giving “the son of man” (a title here used to refer to humanity in general) “dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under his feet.” Creation submitting to the command of its image-bearing master is precisely what you would expect to see if a perfect human was walking around with the express purpose of reversing the curse and restoring mankind’s fallen kingdom.
Jesus’ miracles weren’t so much about demonstrating his divinity as they were about demonstrating what genuine humanity looks like, a humanity fully exercising image-bearing authority over God’s world. His miracles were the validation of his kingship, the demonstration of his qualifications to rebuild the ruined throne of Adam, and the display of the contours and priorities of his arriving kingdom. Biblical scholar Richard Belcher brings Jesus’ humanity and divinity together in his commentary on Psalm 8, and points to the end goal of all of history: a human sitting on the throne of the universe once more.
“His deity is important in his universal reign as king and in his power to deliver his people, to establish righteousness, and to confer abundant, covenantal blessings, including the transformation of creation. However, his humanity is also important, not only in his humiliation, but also in his exaltation. A human king sits at the right hand of the Father in glory and a human king will return to defeat all his enemies. Christ thus fulfills the original design of God for mankind to rule and subdue the earth.”
This is the king, the gospels breathlessly announce to us, who has arrived in the person of the God-Man, Jesus the Anointed One. The snake-crusher from the lineage of Eve has appeared in small and humble form. The offspring of Abraham, who will bring blessing to all the families of the earth, has entered history. The lion of Judah, the Son of David, has arrived with a kingdom that will overtake and reduce to rubble every rival reign. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” It is to that campaign of sabotage, the great kingdom’s humble inauguration, that we turn our attention next.