What Child Is This?
One of the most beloved carols that Christians sing during the Christmas season is that of William C. Dix, What Child is This? As few other carols do, the lyrics of this selection prompt us to contemplate the identity, the person and work, of the Babe in the manger. In fact, the carol politely but persistently presses us to answer the question: is this Child truly a holy infant or a mere holiday infant?
When we think about that question, most of our reflections focus on the birth announcements in the gospel of Matthew and the gospel of Luke. Those passages certainly have their place. For this series, however, let us consider Christmas according to the Apostle Paul. Yes, even the Apostle reflects on the wonders of the birth of Jesus, and he does so in Galatians 4:4-5.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons.
The Apostle Paul tells us six extraordinary things about Christ as he tells his answers to the question that the carol poses to us.
The Child For Whom all of Time Has Waited
First of all, notice that, according to the Apostle, Jesus is the Child for whom all of time had waited. Paul’s words prompt us to reflect on the timing of Christ’s appearance in the world: “when the fullness of time had come.” The time at which Jesus came is said to have been time at its fullest point, a unique occasion when all the parts of history that had to occur had, in fact, occurred. Each and every detail that had to take place was now in place. Clearly, Paul wants us to realize that the timing of the historical appearance of the Father’s Son was something agreed upon and fixed between the Father and the Son from all eternity. The Apostle Peter adds that the timing of the Son’s arrival was a date that the prophets of old diligently searched out, and it was revealed to them and predicted by them (1 Peter 1:10-12). These words, then, urge on us the realization that the timing of Christ’s birth was according to the determination of God, who, from all eternity, had, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely and unchangeably ordained whatsoever comes to pass. Christ could not have been born either sooner or later.
If, then, the birth of Jesus took place in the fullness of time, what did that fullness look like? We can summarize it in four characteristics. It was a time of political preparation. The Roman Empire had brought the pax Romana (“peace of Rome”) to the then known world and so the world was united as never before (cf. Luke 2:1). It was a time of economic preparation. The Romans had constructed a fine transportation system, focused in five main highways leading from Rome to destinations in the ancient world (cf. Col. 1:23). It was a time of cultural preparation. The Greek language had become the medium of commerce, culture, and philosophy (i.e., the lingua franca), and so it was possible for the gospel and the gospel literature to reach a universal audience. And, finally, it was a time of religious preparation. A famine of the soul, individual and societal, had come upon the world. The failures of paganism and even Judaism, along with a revival of Messianic hopes, characterized much of the ancient world. Thus, in his phrase, “when the fullness of time had come,” the Apostle Paul points us to the truth that, politically, economically, culturally, and religiously speaking, history had been orchestrated by the one true God. In particular, by His singular sovereignty and providence, the histories of Rome and Jerusalem, both of which figured so prominently in our Lord’s sojourn on earth, had converged. The appointed date for the debut of the Son of the Father arrived right on schedule.
The Child “Born of a Woman”
Second, the Apostle’s words in Gal 4:4-5 tell us what Child this is when he says that Jesus is the Child who was “born of a woman.” With these words, Paul begins to reflect on the circumstances of His birth, which in turn directs our attention to the humiliation of the glorious eternal Son. In accord with prophecies such as Gen 3:15 and Isa 7:14, the Son was born of a woman. He was, thus, fully human as well as fully divine, the one and only God-man. The Son of God was sent to be one with us in our humanity.
But there is more to this expression, “born of a woman.” You see, the Apostle knows the history of Jesus’ nativity. At that time, it was customary to speak of being “born of a man,” a custom to which the genealogies of the period bear witness - genealogies other than the one of Jesus. He was born of a woman, indeed of a virgin, as foretold by the prophet Isaiah. This Child was born without a man, born of a woman, the Son of God the Father.
Yet “born of a woman” tells us still more about this Child. He was not only made and formed “in” woman, but “of” her. That is, He was born of her flesh and blood; of these He took part. Such is the first circumstance of His birth to which the Apostle calls our attention as he reflects on the low estate and great humiliation of the Son of the Father.
The Child Born Under the Law
The Apostle’s statement in Gal 4:4 gives us a third insight by which to answer the question, what Child is this? Paul says, He is the Child who was “born under the law.” Added to the phrase “born of a woman,” this phrase refers to a second circumstance that marks His birth, a feature that again points us to His humiliation. What does the Apostle mean by this phrase? He means that the Son was born a servant. That is, born a Jew under Moses, the Son of the Father was born a servant of the Lord His God, to whom He owed a perfect, personal, and perpetual obedience, both active and passive.
From His circumcision eight days after His birth, to His celebration of Passover with His disciples just before His death, every detail of Jesus’ life was under the direction of the law. As a son of Abraham, the Son-born-servant lived under the pedagogy of the ceremonial law. For His sake the ritual ordinances and shadows of the law were instituted, and their principal end and fulfillment were found in Him.
The Son was also born under the moral law and the civil law. As a servant of the Lord, He was subject to all the precepts of the law and to its rewards and penalties. And the law demanded a righteous man, a man who kept the commandments of His God and Father. The Son, says Paul, the One born of a woman, was just such a man. He was born under the law both as a man and as the surety of His people. No wonder the author of Hebrews can say (Heb 10:5, 7) that, “when Christ came into the world, He said, ... ‘Behold, I have come to do Your will, O God, as it is written of Me in the scroll of the book.’”
The Child Sent to Redeem Us
As the Apostle continues to discuss the first advent of Jesus, he provides a fourth part of his answer to the question before us. The Babe in the manger, he tells us, is the Child who was born “to redeem those who were under the law” (Gal 4:4). Here our focus shifts from the circumstances of Jesus’ coming to the purpose of His coming.
We need to pay special attention to the meaning and background of the Apostle’s words here. By “redeem,” Paul has in mind the act of rescuing, releasing, delivering from slavery by the payment of a price. The story of Israel’s redemption provides the backdrop here. The price paid for the nation’s deliverance from Egypt was profound: it was the death of the firstborn. Through Moses Israel learned of God’s penal substitute for their firstborn, and thus Israel offered the Passover lamb and saw their redemption from slavery in Pharaoh’s kingdom to liberty under the Lord their God.
There is, thankfully, a redemption greater than that of Moses. Israel’s deliverance from Egypt exemplified the gospel fully revealed in Jesus Christ. He came as the true Israel and the greater Passover Lamb (1 Cor 5:7; 1 Pet 1:19; John 1:29). He poured Himself out in death for His people (Isa 53:12; Heb 2:10-13; Rev 5:6-9) and thereby brought about the new and true exodus from spiritual slavery in Satan’s kingdom of sin and death (Luke 9:31; Matt 1:21). So great was the redemption wrought by Christ that He brought a benefit that Moses could not provide, namely, the forgiveness of sins, the sinner’s release from legal liability to endure the punishment that sin and its guilt required.
Believe or not, there is still more in the Apostle’s statement! Notice that in Gal 4:4 Paul describes those whom the Son redeems as “those under the law.” By “those under the law,” Paul here describes all whom the Son came to redeem, but what is the point of such a description? His point is to reach those who know they are obliged to obey God’s law from the heart (Deut 6:6; Gal 3:12) but who, in their bondage to sin, are powerless to satisfy its requirements (Deut 5:28-29; 29:4; Gal 3:21). His point is to get the attention of those born beset with original sin for whom the law has proved to be a covenant of condemnation, bondage, and death (2 Cor 3:6-14; Rom 7:10-11; Gal 3:10, 22). For such as these the Apostle has “good tidings of great joy”: the Son came to bring release and rescue to you. In life and in death, the Son rendered to God the obedience required by the law, and on that basis He has asked the Father to apply the merits of His obedience to all sinners who believe. Thus does the Son answer all accusations against His people and quiet their restless consciences. Thus does He gain their access to God and secure their acceptance before God.
The Child Born to Make Us Heirs of His Father
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.
The Child who is the Eternal Son Sent Forth by His Father
Finally, in reflecting on the first coming of Christ in Galatians 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.
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.