The Christmas Epistles: A Most Human Understanding of Godliness
When did God save the world? In answer, one might make a valid argument for the Cross or the Resurrection. But what about the Incarnation? More than any other event, it is the Incarnation that puts the person of Christ front and center, because its emphasis is not on what Christ did but on who he is.
If the Incarnation has been overlooked, perhaps it is because of the temptation to assess the events of Jesus' humanity—his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension—only as building on one another in some unlocking, chronological way. This is natural to do because of the temporal, historical nature of Jesus' earthly life. Unfortunately, the result of such an approach is that it can relegate God's mind-blowing assumption of our humanity to something like a means to an end—the end being the crescendo of Easter.
But because of the always-divine nature of the eternal Son, these gospel events also carry a trans-temporal element that gives each its own salvific potency—each event is contained in the other, because all are lifted off the earthly timeline and gathered up in him. To say it another way, whereas in chronological time the events of salvation historyrely on each other, in the eternal economy the events reveal with each other the reality that is Christ.
The event of the birth of Christ, then, contains all the others. Bundled in the manger is the salvation of the world. The Cross, Resurrection, and Ascension are all present implicitly in the baby Jesus, only to be unpacked over the next thirty-plus years. Far from being secondary, the Incarnation is in a very real sense our saving moment! At Christmas we can thank the Lord with Simeon: "For my eyes have seen your salvation" (Luke 2:30).We say this not only because we are looking backward through the Cross to the crib but also because, from the very beginning, even before Adam fell, God was looking "forward" through the crib to the Cross!
It is in the Pastoral Epistles—1 and 2 Timothy and Titus—that we find most profoundly this idea that salvation comes in the person of Jesus Christ, and for this reason I call these pastoral letters the Christmas Epistles. The author of the Pastorals (for our purposes, Paul) is keen to keep the person and work of Christ together so as to equip his hearers to thrive in a similar economy of being and acting. For Paul in these letters, the conspicuous term "godliness" (used only four other times in the New Testament) is undoubtedly meant to signify believers' participation in the humanity of God, the ongoing vicarious humanity of Jesus Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Hark the herald angels sing,
"Glory to the newborn King."
With the arrival of the Savior, the world is never the same. Something absolutely cataclysmic has occurred in his coming. In a resounding echo of the angels' chorus, Paul chimes in, twice asserting that he has been "appointed a herald" of the Good News (1 Tim. 2:7; 2 Tim. 1:11). Paul is sure that the day of God's kingdom has dawned with the birth of the King. While he certainly doesn't ignore the death and resurrection of Christ, his emphasis in the Pastorals is consistently on the arrival of "God our Savior"; the focus is the arrival or appearance of Christ, not his works:
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. (Titus 2:11 NRSV)
When the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. (Titus 3:45a)
Simply put, with the arrival of the Savior, the world is saved. Incarnation means Atonement!