The Mission of the Church in the Story of Jesus' Birth
As 2018 draws to a close, we look back on a year in which perhaps the most pressing issue for Reformed Christians is the relationship between the church and the world. How does the church respond to cultural shifts in terms of human identity and sexuality? And what is the mission of the church when it comes to matters of social justice?
It occurs to me as I read the Gospel accounts of Jesus' birth that here the question about the church's mission finds an answer. Consider three episodes in the birth narratives, each of which focuses the purpose of Christ's birth on the spiritual mission of redeeming his people from sin:
In Matthew 1:20-21, Joseph has just learned the troubling news that his fiancée is pregnant. But an angel informs him that the child is conceived by the Holy Spirit. The angel declares: "She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." Notice two things about this declaration. The mission of Jesus is directed toward "his people," that is, the elect. Moreover, the aim for which Jesus was born was salvific, delivering believers from sin.
In Luke 1:30-33, the angel Gabriel reveals to Mary that she will conceive a holy child. Here again, his name will be "Jesus," meaning, "Yahweh saves." His mission is conceived not in terms of the influence he will exert in worldly society but in raising up the kingdom of God: "the Lord God will give 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" (Lk. 1:33).
Luke 2:13-14 reports the angel song before the astonished shepherds outside Bethlehem: "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Here again, the incarnation is directed towards the elect (those with whom he is pleased) so that they would receive peace with God and peace from God. This is the work of the gospel, bringing the spiritual ministry of saving grace into the lives of God's elect people.
How clear and striking it is, as we hear the voices announcing the birth of Jesus, to see the spiritual focus on the gospel work of salvation from sin. The angels did not announce a reform agenda for Herod's regime or a critique of class distinctions in Caesar's Rome. They announced a Savior, born on earth from heaven, as the Son of God incarnate, and his mission of delivering his chosen people from their sin. As we conclude 2018 and look ahead to a new year that may be counted on to be filled with struggle and strife among men, our calling as a Church is to spread forth the good news of the angels: "Unto you is born this day in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord" (Lk. 2:11).