Every Christmas growing up, the only two stories I normally heard during Christmas were the accounts of Jesus’s birth in Matthew 1 and Luke 2. Sometimes Luke 1 was included with Zechariah, Elizabeth, and Mary. That was it, unless we heard Handel’s Messiah. Over the years I have discovered that the story of the Messiah’s entrance to the world is spoken of in many places throughout the New Testament. Over the next few posts, I am going to highlight these various “stories” of Christmas.
Maybe the earliest recorded Christmas story is in Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Tucked away in Gal 4:4, Paul writes, “But when the fullness of time arrived, God sent forth his son, coming from a woman, coming under the law, so that he might redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.” So short, but so “pregnant” with meaning!
“In the fullness of time.” In this part of his letter, Paul discusses the role of the Jewish law. He tells us in Gal 4:1-3 that the Law was there as a guide or tutor for the Jewish people until Jesus came. And this is how the law really functioned. The law guided people in a way that regulated their lives. But the law could not bring salvation. Only God could do that. How? Paul succinctly tells of the incarnation, the coming of Jesus as a human. First, the incarnation happened in “the fullness of time,” or maybe for our ears “at the right time,” no earlier and no later. In God’s wisdom, Jesus arrived on earth at the exact moment in the history of humanity that God knew would lead to Jesus’s death and resurrection. And as we look back, history was ripe for the Messiah. The Jewish people were longing for deliverance from the hand of the Romans. At the same time, the Roman Empire was essentially at peace (the “Pax Romana”), allowing for the spread of the gospel message by the followers of Jesus, and especially Paul. The time was “full” and Paul knew it.
“God sent forth his son.” This is one of only two places that Paul talks about God sending Jesus (the other is Romans 8:3). In Romans 1 (another Christmas story!), Paul talks of Jesus’s lineage, but not that God “sent” him. Here in Galatians we are very close to the language of John 3:16-18, and 1 John 4:9, 10, and 14. Like John, Paul has a very robust idea of Jesus as the preexistent Son who comes to do the will of God (Romans 5:6-11, Philippians 2:6-9, Colossians 1:12-20). Mostly, Paul focuses on the cross, rather that the incarnation, but he knows that without the incarnation, there is no cross.
“Coming from a woman.” Most translations have “born of a woman.” The translations are ok, but Paul is focussing more on the way he came to humanity than the birth process. Paul uses the normal verb for “born” later in 4:23 and 29, so his choice of “coming” is deliberate. Many see in the verse proof for the virginal conception. Though consistent with this doctrine, Matthew and Luke are the affirmative sources for Mary’s virginity. Paul’s insistence is on the true humanity of Jesus, though sent from God. Jesus was the true God-man.
“Coming under the law.” Once again “born” is the usual translation for “coming,” but the focus is on how he came. For Jesus to be the savior of all people, both Jews and Gentiles, Jesus had to come as a Jew. Through the Jews, the Messiah would come. Only a Jew could perfectly fulfill the Torah. Only by a Jew could the promise to Abraham be fully accomplished. But at the same time, Jesus could be the savior of all peoples as the seed of Abraham, to whom God made the promise, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3, cf. Gal 3:8).
In Gal 4:4, we have the Christmas event proper, but Paul succinctly says why in v. 5: “so that he might redeem those under law, so that we might receive sonship.” Earlier Paul pointed out that Christ had become a curse for us, so we could be free from curse of the law’s just judgment on those not doing the law. In using “redeem” Paul draws in the Old Testament Exodus story of God’s redeeming from slavery in Egypt. In order for all peoples to be blessed, the Jewish people had to first be freed (hence Paul’s frequent phrase in Romans, “to the Jew first, then to the Greeks (aka gentiles).” The last phrase “so that we might receive sonship,” is inclusive of the gentiles. Sonship is the same as adoption as many translations have it.
There we have it, Paul’s telling of the Christmas story. Paul is very close to John 3:16 in these two verses, and to the announcement of the angel in Luke 2:10: ““Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”