The Ignorant, The Faithless, and The Empowered

December 15, 2010

By Lance Johnson

As a bit of a Scrooge, I naturally enjoy John’s account of Christ’s birth. “John’s account?” you may ask. “I didn’t know John wrote an account of the Christmas story.” Well he did. It just starts a little earlier than the others.

It is interesting to see how the four gospel writers handle the birth of Christ. Mark ignores the subject altogether. He simply opens the story of Christ’s terrestrial ministry with John the Baptist’s preparatory work. Matthew gives a rather brief account of Jesus’ birth that focuses on demonstrating that Christ was in fact the Messiah that had been promised and prophesied in the Old Testament and was the royal fulfillment of the Davidic Covenant. Luke gives the fullest account and focuses on the humble circumstances of the birth.

John begins the story of Christ, as the saying goes, at the beginning. The beginning as in, “In the beginning, God . . .” John’s account of Christ’s coming focuses on the eternal Word rather than on the here and now corporal Jesus. I guess part of the reason most of us don’t think of the prologue to John’s gospel as an account of the nativity is that no one has found a way to gain commercially from a world that “was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. (Genesis 1:1)” I admit it is not as cute as the depiction of a baby in a hay trough with livestock, parents, and strangers quietly standing around, but I find it comforting to know that “in the beginning” God’s redemptive plan was in place and included me. For my purpose today, however, I want to pick up the story a little later than “in the beginning” and look at the incarnation.

10 He [referring to the incarnate Christ] was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. 12 But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right [power, authority, privilege] to become children of God, 13 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 ESV)

A. W. Pink, in his commentary on the Gospel of John, makes an astute observation about these four verses. He says that in regard to the arrival of the divine creator of this world, there are three kinds of people–the ignorant, the faithless, and the empowered. Pink doesn’t use those exact descriptors, but he does put people into those categories. To understand his point, we must remember that the birth of Christ was a rather public event. In fact, while the world is full of proud fathers, none of them announced the birth of their firstborn son like God announced the birth of his. I have received quite a few cigars in my day, seen a few billboards, and lately seen photos and videos (some of which I really wished I hadn’t seen) on the internet, but I haven’t heard of anyone sending the heavenly multitudes to announce a birth since the first century. No one can claim that the incarnation was some big secret. Keep that fact in mind.

In spite of the public announcement by the heavenly hosts, the world was blissfully unaware of Jesus’ birth. He was simply another child born in Bethlehem to parents of humble means. Even though he had created the world and everything in it, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the world then and since are simply ignorant of the very fact of his birth, much less the importance of it. As such, they go about their lives with no regard to the presence or significance of the divine Son of God in our midst. They continue to work, play, eat, sleep, and generally carry on as they always have and always will. The birth of the Savior means nothing at all to them. For them ignorance is bliss and pitiable. Of course, their ignorance does not absolve them of their spiritual accountability before the Lord, but that is another story for another time. (See Romans 1.) The fact remains that he came into the world and the world did not know him.

On the other hand, the Jews, Christ’s own people, were not unaware of the Messiah. God had begun to talk to them about the Messiah immediately after Adam brought sin into the human race. As early as Genesis 3, God promised that a Redeemer would come to save his people from their sin. From that time forward, God spoke through the prophets about the coming Messiah. Isaiah’s account is particularly clear and moving.

Furthermore, God took great pains to announce the actual birth of the Messiah to them. Didn’t he send angels to the shepherds? While the biblical account doesn’t give many details, we know the shepherds did not keep the announcement of the Messiah to themselves. Can you imagine them not telling everyone what they had seen that night? In those days there may have not been a local Bethlehem news station, but I am sure that nearly everyone in town knew what had happened to the shepherds by sundown of the next day, and according to Luke 2:18 “all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”

Furthermore, God sent the Wise Men to see Herod to inquire about the Messiah. Herod called the chief priests and the scribes to find out what they knew, which was really quite a lot. However, unlike the shepherds, these religious leaders did not bother to go see the Savior even though they knew he had arrived. They went back to their comfortable ivory towers and rested in their good works and religious activity for their salvation.

Before going further, it needs to be noted that when John referred to the “Jews” he was not referring the entire Jewish people, but to the religious and political leaders of the Jewish people. The common folk were rather accepting of Christ, but the religious establishment was aware of the birth of the Messiah. Yet, in spite of that knowledge they rejected him. While the world in general was guilty of ignorance of the Messiah, the Jews were guilty of willful unbelief. They knew the words of the prophets. They had the signs. They lacked no piece of the puzzle. But, they also had hard and faithless hearts, and there is none so blind as those who refuse to see. They believed more in their privileges, linage, and works than in the very Messiah they were supposedly proclaiming.

God’s purpose in the sacrificial system the priests and scribes were maintaining was to proclaim the coming of the Messiah, the fulfillment of God’s work of salvation, the climax of his redemptive story. But, it is clear they did not believe it themselves. No wonder Christ later called them a generation of vipers. The sad truth is that he came to his own and his own did not receive him.

In spite of the ignorance of the world and the unbelief of the Jews, there were some who did know and did believe. To these he gave the power–the right, the authority, the privilege–to become the children of God. That is why I celebrate the incarnation. Those who did believe did so not because of their lineage (race) or their personal choices, but by the will of the Almighty, Redeeming God. Because of their belief God empowered them to be his people. In spite of the ignorance of the world and the unbelief of the Jews God’s redemptive work was not thwarted. In fact, it was, and remains, right on track and is a great reason to humbly praise the Lord.

Oh, come, all ye faithful,
Joyful and triumphant!
Oh, come ye, oh, come ye to Bethlehem;
Come and behold him
Born the king of angels:
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Oh, come, let us adore him,
Christ the Lord.

(John F Wade)

One Response to “The Ignorant, The Faithless, and The Empowered”

  1. EJK said

    Thanks again Lance for your reflections on the incarnation. I was especially blessed by the text you chose. In particular this thought, “who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.” Your ending reflected this quite well, “In spite of the ignorance of the world and the unbelief of the Jews God’s redemptive work was not thwarted. In fact, it was, and remains, right on track and is a great reason to humbly praise the Lord.”

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