Christmas is over now, and we are all focusing on the beginning of a new year. Early January is a time for resolution-making and goal-setting. It would be easy to move on from the story of Jesus’ birth and leave it in December until next year.
But the story of Jesus and his birth has historically been more important than a mere holiday recognition. In 431 AD, church theologians gathered to Ephesus in the Third Ecumenical Council to resolve a great debate and prevent church division. The topic was: “Is Mary the mother of God or the mother of Christ?” If that sounds like a bit of hairsplitting, I understand the feeling. The first time I read about this council, I felt the same. However, it was a hotly contested doctrine at the time.
Jesus’ birth was a fact, and Jesus being God was a fact. This was confirmed after a hefty debate at the previous two councils. But how could the eternal God be “born” to a human woman? If we said that Mary was the “God-bearer,” didn’t that inadvertently diminish God, making him mortal and finite like humans who are born?
At the council, Nestorius of Constantinople argued that calling Mary “God-bearer” went too far and confused the nature of Jesus. Cyril of Alexandria argued against him, saying that if the incarnation was to be affirmed, the divinity of Christ and the humanity of Christ could not be neatly divided in the way Nestorius preferred. Cyril would write, “Emmanuel is God in truth,” therefore, Mary “bore in a fleshly way the Word of God become flesh.” Cyril won out, and his preferred terminology became ensconced in Christian orthodoxy.
However, you probably don’t spend a lot of time after Christmas examining the theology of the Third Ecumenical Council, and for that matter, neither do I.
But I think it is important to note that the practical implications of Jesus’ birth have always loomed large in Christian thought. A better example comes three centuries before the Third Council in the infancy of Christian thought.
In 47 and 48 AD, Paul had been proclaiming the gospel of Jesus to the cities of Galatia. Christianity, we might say, was merely a teenager, and not a single word of our New Testament had been written. The Christian faith, begun in Jerusalem, was spreading into the larger world, and Gentiles were placing their trust in Jesus as Savior.
The problem for Paul’s ministry was understanding what to do about the Gentile believers. It was a settled fact for Jewish people like Paul that Gentiles were not children of Abraham, and therefore, Gentiles were not heirs of the promises of God. How could the hope found in the Jewish Messiah be extended to people who were neither part of God’s family nor heirs of Abraham’s legacy?
One early solution appeared almost immediately. It was not unheard of to have Gentiles proselytize to the Jewish faith and start living as Jewish citizens. Maybe if Gentiles kept the law of the Jews, God could treat Gentiles like Jews.
Paul emphatically rejected this option and spent his entire ministry arguing against it. In about 48 AD, Paul would write a letter to the churches of Galatia on this subject, and this letter would likely become the first word of the Christian New Testament ever to be penned.
In Galatians 2:15–16, Paul began, “We ourselves are Jews by birth and not Gentile sinners.” He understood the problem succinctly as a problem of birth. “Yet,” he continues, “we know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ, so we also have believed in Christ Jesus, in order to be justified by faith in Christ and not by works of the law.” If the gospel truly proclaimed that Jesus was Savior, it could not at the same time say that salvation only came by keeping the Law.
Furthermore, he concluded, “By works of the law no one will be justified.” Paul found beneath the initial concern about Gentiles a more fundamental truth. Jews didn't become children of Abraham by keeping the law either. Jews kept the law because they were children of Abraham. If the law did not make the Jew a child of Abraham, then the law could not make the Gentile a child of Abraham either.
What hope does that leave Gentiles then? If keeping the Law didn’t make you a child of God, what could? How could a Gentile adult ever become a child of Abraham?
Paul’s simple answer comes a few paragraphs later and draws surprisingly from the story of the manger and not just the cross. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4). Do not overlook how surprising this sentence is. If you read Paul’s letters which fill most of our New Testament, you will find that Paul consistently centers his faith and teaching on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus. That is the essence of the gospel for Paul, and the birth of Christ makes essentially no appearance at all in anything Paul writes.
Stranger still, Paul would be the person least likely to reference the birth of Jesus. Paul had not been reading the Gospel of Matthew or Luke to ponder the nativity because those books had not yet been written. They are still decades in the future. Nor had Paul spent time walking around Judea and Galilee with Jesus as had the other apostles. Paul had no close connection with Mary or the family of Jesus. We might assume, that of all the New Testament writers and apostles, Paul likely knows the least about the events of the birth of Christ.
And yet, Paul knows that Jesus was born. He knows that it happened. He knows that this fact matters. The gospel begins with God himself being “born of a woman.”
Before the cross came the manger. Jesus was born, and God became flesh. His mysterious birth is not just an incidental fact, but the template that shows us the nature of our hope. Jesus was born of woman “to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:5). The gospel is possible because of a mysterious birth, and so the gospel becomes a story about “new birth” for everyone.
The new birth means learning our relationship with God all over again. Whether you were a Jew descending from generations of Hebrews or a Gentile who learned of God yesterday, you had to learn to know God afresh in the new relationship of the new birth. “And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’” (Galatians 4:6)
Once, God, born of woman, learned to say, “Mother!” God - who had formed every cell in Mary’s body and known her before her own birth - once looked up at Mary and learned to know her through an infant’s eyes. He learned to love her face and know her presence the way every infant does. Now in the same innocent newness, the Spirit teaches us to say, “Father!” In one sense, he has been our Father from the beginning of creation, but now we meet him anew by Jesus and learn to speak to him all over again. The Spirit within teaches us an intimacy made possible by Christ that passes beyond any prior acquaintance with God.
”So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God” (Galatians 4:7). Our old relationship, by comparison, was mere slavery. Whether Jew or Gentile, we were more the servants of sin than the children of God. The real problem had never been that we were Gentiles. The problem was that we were sinners. Jew and Gentile alike needed a brand new relationship with God in order to be heirs of the ancient promises.
How could such a new relationship be possible? Paul’s answer is simple. If God could be the child of Mary, is it so crazy that you could be a child of God?
Now here we are, centuries after Paul and the Galatians, even after the councils and the long march of Christian history. The Christmas story, now long past, still has the same practical - but mysterious! - lesson for us today. The Gentile converts and their Jewish brethren were all tempted to believe that they could have their relationship with God by just doing all the right things or keeping the right laws. But that isn’t how birth works. That isn’t how the gospel works.
The gospel happened because Jesus was “born of woman.” You are a Christian because you are born again in him. Something new happened in the Christmas story that continues to shape our identity today.
“The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:9-13).
In this coming year as every year before and after, what you will become has less to do with your resolutions and self-determination than your willingness to trust in God to create something new in you. Look to God with infant eyes, and let the Spirit within teach you to say “Father” as if you have never uttered the word before.