Post 31, Norman H. Young: Christmas through the eyes of a New Testament exegete

What does an Adventist who is also an exegete of the New Testament think about Christmas? Our e-mail inboxes have been filled constantly, during recent weeks, with messages from friends around the planet. Dr Norman Young and his wife Elizabeth arrived on the campus of what is now Avondale College of Higher Education during the first half of 1973; Joan and I arrived in September that year. Norm gracefully carried back to Australia a newly-minted PhD degree from Manchester University, and has in the past 38 years distinguished himself by continuing research into the New Testament. Shared in lectures, sermons, books, papers and articles, his insights have blest many people. I particularly enjoy his presentations on the Gospel of John, a theme reflected in his Christmas letter to family and friends; our copy came three days ago. I reproduce the first part of his letter here, exactly, with Norm’s permission.

A Christmas Meditation:

This is the season for the nativity scene to appear in shop windows and on church lawns. We hear again through Matthew and Luke’s eyes the story of the birth of Jesus. We are regaled with the account of the journey to Bethlehem, of the pregnant Mary riding on the donkey, of the cruel inn-keeper that wouldn’t give them a room, of the stable with the farmyard animals as witnesses to the birth, of the placing of the new-born child in a feed box, of the shepherds hearing the angels sing, and of the star that guided the wise men to Bethlehem.

It’s a story I love, even in its popularised traditional (and inaccurate) form, but given the satiety of it at the present it is with some relief that I consider John’s Gospel. This is because it has nothing of the usual Christmas story: no stable, no wise men, no donkey, no feed box, no expectant Mary, no King Herod, and no shepherds; nothing at all like it. Indeed, I’m tempted to say no … Santa or flashing lights on plastic fake conifer trees. Needless to say, John is not often referred to over Christmas, either in the media or from the pulpit. So contrary to the present trend I choose to paddle against the current and turn to John—a good text you may surmise for “grumpy old men.”

Jesus’ trial was before the Judean elite and the Roman governor Pontius Pilate. The Roman Empire into which Jesus was born was violent, brutal, and rapacious. Both its wealth and its power centred in the elite few. Pilate himself was a typical Roman governor, greedy, brutal, capricious, and corrupt. One part of his interrogation at the trial of Jesus went as follows:

“Are you the king of the Jews?” Pilate asks at the commencement of Jesus’ ordeal before him (18.33).” Jesus’ response is to point out that his kingship does not belong to this world (vv. 36a, 36c); if it were, then of course his followers would now be fighting to prevent him being delivered to the Jews (v. 36b). Warfare is a constant in human kingdoms. Jesus’ kingship is not simply different in origin (not from here, 36c); it is different in nature (otherwise my servants would now be fighting, v. 36b). Jesus’ reference to his kingship being not of this world evokes Pilate’s derisive question: “So you are a king then, aren’t you?” (v. 37). “King” is Pilate’s term, but he does not for a moment believe that Jesus has any regal status. Although Jesus does not disown it, he intimates that Pilate’s understanding of the title is far from the truth.

“You say that I am a king. For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth” (v. 37b). In Pilate’s tough political arena of intrigue, bribery and hubris, truth was as foreign as an elephant in Antarctica. Hence he cynically dismisses Jesus’ assertion with a sneering reply that indicates he thought the pursuit of truth a vain folly: “What is truth?” And having asked the question, he turned and went out to the Jews without showing any interest in Jesus’ possible reply (v. 38).

Today I imagine truth is defined as that which survives our best efforts to invalidate the datum; or perhaps as the point where four or more independent lines of data coalesce. Jesus meant that he had come from God into the world to testify to the truth about God. He is the true bread, the living bread that came down from God. He testifies to what he knows—the truth about God. Make no mistake the God of Jesus is not identical with the God of Moses.

Atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (who sadly died this last week) accuse Christians of cherry picking when it comes to the Hebrew Scriptures. Absolutely correct, and we do so not so much on the basis of rational thought, but rather more on the basis of Jesus, who was born to testify to the truth about God. And that truth is embodied in Jesus (John 14.6-7, 9). “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (1.17). I for one am glad that he was born and came into this world. This man, as the celebrated playwright Dorothy Sayers correctly noted in the title of one of her plays, was born to be King. May Christmas encourage us all to think of the profound and sublime significance of that event.

The “Meditation” then moves to a narration of personal and family events, but returns in its last sentence to a sharing of faith: “Our hope of an afterlife is not because Christians fear non-existence, but because genuine friendships are life-long, and that goes for friendships with the immortal God.”

Arthur Patrick, posted 23 December 2011