Christmas according to the Apostle Paul — Gal 4:4-5 (Pt. 3 of 3)
In the two previous installment in our series on Gal 4:4-5, we have learned four features of the Apostle’s answer to the question, what Child is this who was born at Christmas? We have focused on the Child as the heart of history, on two circumstances of His birth, and on the purpose of His coming. In this final installment we learn two more features of Christmas according to Paul.
What Child, then, is this in the manger? According to Gal 4:5, He is the Child who was born to make us heirs of God. As the Apostle puts it, He came “so that we might receive adoption as sons,” that is, as heirs with full rights and privileges (Gal 4:5). In these words we learn the ultimate goal of the Son’s coming.
We need again to appreciate the significance of Paul’s term here. Adoption was defined by Roman law and widely practiced in Roman life. Roman emperors had adopted men not related to them by blood in order to give them their office and authority. More broadly speaking, when a son was adopted, he was in all legal respects equal with those born into his new family. The adopted son had the same name, the same inheritance, the same standing, and the same rights as the natural-born sons.
To appreciate the stunning reality of our placement as heirs in the household of God, remember how God viewed us before our adoption. Apart from the grace of adoption, we were not “children of God” but “children of disobedience” (Eph. 2:2); we were “by nature” not “children of God” but “children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3)! The point is, in adoption, the Father gives the full rights and privileges that belong to His own Son to those who were neither His children nor His heirs by nature and birth.
The Westminster Larger Catechism captures well Paul’s teaching on adoption in Question 74. By adoption, we are taught, all those justified by faith alone are “received into the number of [God’s] children, have His name put upon them, the Spirit of His Son given to them, are under His fatherly care and dispensations, admitted to all the liberties and privileges of the sons of God, made heirs of all the promises, and fellow-heirs with Christ in glory.” In other words, by adoption, those of us whom God has justified have the same name, the same inheritance, the same standing, and the same rights as the one who is the Son of God.
What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Son of God who became a servant of God that we who were servants of sin might become sons and daughters of God. He is the Child who was born to make us heirs of His Father.
Finally, in reflecting on the first coming of Christ in Gal 4:4-5, the Apostle provides us still one more insight into the question, What Child is this? The Child, he says, is the Son sent forth by His Father. These simple words take us into the background to the Son’s coming: they point us to His pre-existence. He existed before He was sent, and He existed as a person and at that as a distinct person from the Father. The Son, to be named Jesus and exalted as Lord, was (and remains) the only begotten of the Father. He was (and is) of one substance with and equal to the Father (and the Spirit). Although His pre-existence is the only claim we can derive from Paul’s text, that claim is itself consistent with what the rest of Scripture makes explicit: the Child in the manger was the pre-existent Son of the Father, miraculously begotten as to His human nature by the Holy Spirit and miraculously preserved from defilement from the womb of Mary, one person with two natures.
Notice too that, according to Paul, the Father sent forth (sent out) His Son. The Son who came had a commission from His Father. We speak of the Great Commission, but here Paul speaks of the Greatest Commission, the basis of the Great Commission. The Apostle’s words reflect the harmony between the Father and the Son. In the matter of His coming, the Father agreed to send His Son, and the Son agreed to be sent by the Father. What Paul says here points to what he elsewhere calls the eternal purpose of God in Christ (Eph 3:11), the plan of the ages (Eph 1:9-10), in accord with which the Son, anointed by the Holy Spirit, was to obey His Father’s will and thereby become the Heir of all things, including an innumerable seed who would become co-heirs with Him.
According to Paul, then, the Babe in the manger is God with God, the Son with the Father, who has permanently taken to Himself human nature and flesh. He was not always man; He has always been God. Jesus Christ was not first a man upon whom divinity descended. He was first God who took upon Himself humanity. After the Incarnation He is now and will forever be one person with two natures, human and divine.
What Child is this in the manger, then? He is the Child who is the Son sent forth by His Father, the Son who is now and will henceforth always be both God and man.
Throughout this three-part series, we have reflected on the Apostle Paul’s answers to the question politely but persistently posed for us in the Christmas carol by William C. Dix, What Child is This? For all the merit of the answers found in the carol, we need to make sure that we believe what the Scriptures teach about the Babe in the manger. According to the Apostle, He is the Child for whom all of time had waited. He is the Child who was born of a woman and born under the law. Truly this Child was not merely a holiday infant: He was and remains the Eternal Son sent forth by His Father to be born as that holy infant who would fulfill the Greatest Commission of all, that of redeeming us from our sins and making us heirs of God with Him.
This is the final part of Dr. White’s three part series on “Christmas according to the Apostle Paul”. Read parts one and two.