The Incarnation in the Gospels

Greg Wilbur Articles

The Incarnation in the Gospel
By Daniel Doriani, Richard Phillips, and Philip Ryken
P&R Publishing (October 2008)
240 p.

The concept of putting together an expositional commentary on the birth narratives of Christ is a wonderful idea. To include the likes of Daniel Doriani, Philip Graham Ryken, and Richard Phillips virtually ensures that this volume will be thoughtful, challenging, revealing, and useful for both pastors and lay people. The idea behind the book is to present a series of messages with each contributor concentrating on a single Gospel narrative. The juxtaposition of the perspectives and emphasis of Matthew, Luke, and John creates a multi-faceted understanding of the Incarnation that is rich in detail and builds a more comprehensive picture of the events surrounding the birth of Christ than is usually portrayed. As such, this is a highly useful and welcome volume.

The stated intent of this book is "an attempt to interpret the birth narratives of Jesus in a faithful, fresh way for our generation" (vii).  These chapters are excerpts from forthcoming volumes on Matthew, Luke and John from the Reformed Expository Commentary series. The intended audience is fellow pastors as stated in the Introduction, "Our desire is to assist you in understanding and teaching God's Word to others, so that the message of God's glorious grace in Christ might be made plain to our times, and so that God might receive from us the glory that he so abundantly deserves" (viii).

Despite the fact that this is an expositional commentary, the tone of the book comes across as conversational in a manner that is engaging to both pastors and laypeople.  Perhaps some of that is attributable to the translation of the spoken to the written word.  Nonetheless, the reformed insights into these passages are useful for both study and lesson or sermon preparation.  It is also an interesting opportunity to examine expositional preaching and teaching from three gifted pastors.  I could also imagine this book being used in a small group study or Sunday School around the time of Advent.

The authors' commitment to canonical preaching is beautifully expressed in the Preface.  "We believe that a commitment to preach through the full testimony of one book leads us to teach helpfully on topics that are not necessarily our primary interests. The alternative, at the extreme, is need-oriented preaching that can narrow sermon topics to themes that meet felt needs.  In that event the congregation hears not the whole counsel of God but a series of replies to the whole litany of human complaint.  At worst, preachers abdicate pastoral leadership, neglect the canon, and simply answer questions.  By following the canon, we can hope at least to come closer to preaching the whole counsel of God rather than the thinner list of current human interests" (x).  The holiday flyers from seeker sensitive churches provide a stark contrast to the approach and intent of this book. While they advertise sermon series on surviving the holidays or It's a Wonderful Life, Doriani, Ryken and Phillips intent is "the connection between Jesus' birth and the Old Testament promises, the birth, the joy, and the opposition that the birth aroused, the genealogy of Jesus, and the titles of the Lord, to name a few" (ix).

Doriani starts the book with an exposition of the Gospel of Matthew--beginning with the genealogies in chapter one and the identity of Christ.  As Bruce Wilkinson says, genealogies are normally fly over territory in Scripture. However, Doriani makes these early verses the foundation of his study of Matthew by setting the stage for the coming of Christ and answering the question of who He is.  Of great interest is his observation on how Matthew continually draws our attention to who Christ is--as the son of David (the King of the Jews), the son of Abraham (a blessing to the nations), the one born of the Spirit, and Immanuel (God with us).  And yet, as important as genealogies were in ancient cultures, the inclusion of wicked kings, foolish men, and public sinners, as well as foreign women, highlights the fact that Jesus came to save His ancestors--not to praise them.

Matthew calls Jesus "the son of David" nine times in his Gospel and draws attention to the role of Christ's kingly office in the healing of the sick.  Abraham is mentioned in the first verse of Matthew's account to the Jews, and the Great Commission that closes the book of Matthew is a fulfillment of the promise to be a blessing to the nations.  Matthew's narrative of the story of the Wise Men also highlights the message of salvation for all the nations.

Doriani's discussion of the role of "Immanuel" is very helpful--especially his connection to Ahaz and Isaiah.  He also covers the response to the birth of Christ in the story of the Magi, the actions of Herod, and the spiritual battle in which they form a part.  The stories and context of the angel appearing to Joseph and the exodus of Christ into and out of Egypt are also given full consideration--episodes that are often given short shrift.

Ryken's discussion of the songs from Luke contains some of my favorite passages and insights.  From Mary's Magnificat, Zechariah's Benedictus, the angels' Gloria, and Simeon's Nunc Dimittis, the Gospel of Luke shows us the overflowing praise that the work of God demands.  These canticles are significant not just in their praise but in their very composition.  These new songs to the Lord are actually compendiums of what God has said about Himself in His Word. As Ryken points out, Mary quotes or alludes to Genesis, Deuteronomy, 1 Samuel, 2 Samuel, Job, Psalms, Isaiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Habbakuk, and Zephaniah.  One point is very clear, Mary knew Scripture and she knew it extremely well.  God's grace and favor were poured out on one whom He had well prepared.

Ryken carefully considers the texts and prophetic implications of these canticles. As he says of Mary, "God was lifting the humble, and soon he would humble the proud. So her song spanned the past, the present, and the future.  It was about what God had done, what God was doing, and what God would do in days to come" (79).  In discussing Zechariah's song, Ryken explains the doctrine of salvation as articulated in the words of the priest. The assumption inherent in the lyrics is that "God was visiting his people. He was entering our situation from the outside, because without his intervention, we could never be saved.  Salvation is not a human invention, but a divine visitation.  It is not something we achieve by going to God, but something God has done by coming to us in Christ.  No one is ever saved except by the grace of God" (93).  

Ryken further says, "To serve God is to glorify him in our worship an in everything else we do, leading holy lives.  And this is the goal of salvation.  God wants to do something more with us than simply get us to heaven.  His goal is for us to live for his glory, but to do this first we have to be liberated from the selfishness of our sin.  God's salvation is for our sanctification, and this always leads to service" (95).

"The theology of Christmas" is the intent of the third section of the book and the Gospel of John--Jesus is the Divine Word and the Saving Word.  Phillips carefully expounds on the implications of John's very intentional phrases and word choices: In the beginning, logos, life, light, darkness, flesh, tabernacled (dwelt among us), glory, made known, grace, truth.  Such precise and loaded words require explanation and application.  Far too often our familiarity with these phrases may cause us to gloss over the richness and theological depth of what John is saying. Phillip's purpose is to rectify this by providing substantive explanation to these essential doctrines of the faith--the very reason for Christmas: who Christ is and why He came.

John is a beautiful wordsmith and an astute author.  Perhaps this is best seen in his use of the word logos--thus assuming the loaded language of Greek philosophy and subsuming it in the fulfilled promise and reality of Christ.  As the fifth century Christian poet Prudentius wrote in his hymn Corde natus ex parentis (Of the Father's Love Begotten), "This is He whom once the sybils with united voice foretold, Whom the Scriptures of the prophets promised in their faithful word." Even the pagans anticipated the idea and need of the Eternal Word.

Phillips tackles the complexity, paradoxical simplicity, and glory of John's Gospel with clarity and perceptive analysis.

The Incarnation in the Gospels also includes several appendices with resources for worship, suggestions for services, recent advent carols, and meditations on familiar carols.  These are practical and helpful additions to the book and fulfills the desire to respond to the message of the Incarnation with worship, praise, and thanksgiving.

Conceptually and in its execution, this is a fine book with wonderful insights and applications.  Personally, I always appreciate a subject index in addition to the Scriptural index.  In addition, since the authors quote from multiple texts and commentaries throughout the chapters, I would also value a bibliography and perhaps a selected list of additional resources. Perhaps this could also be a place to list some other historic reformed commentaries on the Gospels and pertinent writings from the Church Fathers.

The Incarnation in the Gospels is a resource to which I will return regularly in coming years. And I look forward to future volumes in this series.

We sing to Thee, Immanuel, The Prince of life, salvation's Well,
The Plant of Heaven, the Star of morn, The Lord of Lords, the Virgin-born.
All glory, worship, thanks and praise, That Thou art come in these our days!
Thou Heavenly Guest expected long, We hail Thee with a joyful song.

As each short year goes quickly round, Our Hallelujahs shall resound;
And, when we reckon years no more, May we in Heaven Thy Name adore!

Greg Wilbur is the Chief Musician of Parish Presbyterian Church in Franklin, TN.

Recommended Resources

Hebrews by Richard Phillips
Ryken's Bible Handbook by Philip Ryken
Getting The Message by Daniel Doriani