Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
Each year I attempt to read books that focus on the doctrine associated with the Christian year. The beginning of Advent marks the beginning of the Christmas season. This means I now focus my reading on a few books that highlight and emphasize the incarnation, the truth and reality of the miraculous conception, birth and life of Jesus.
During these seasons of reading, I focus on books that are biblical, theological, pastoral and devotional. Most good books include all aspects to some degree, but most focus on one of those aspects more than another. The first three books listed below lean devotionally, with one more evangelistic, while the last one leans doctrinal and theological.
The One True Story: Daily Readings for Advent from Genesis to Jesus
One of those books I am reading as a family, since my youngest is now in college, this entails my wife and me, is Tim Chester’s new work, The One True Story: Daily Readings for Advent from Genesis to Jesus (UK: The Good Book Company, 2016). This book consists of 24 readings, beginning on December 1 and ending on the 24th, Christmas Eve. We are reading this for our evening devotions. Its Christocentric or christotelic reading of the Bible is instructive, and a vital interpretive grid for Christians as they read the whole Bible (cf. Lk. 24:25-27). Christmas and reading Jesus’ birth narrative is often read as a stand-alone story, separate from the longer and larger story into which Jesus is born, and ignorant of the eternity past from which God the Son preexisted, and short-sighted of the ongoing implications of Jesus’ birth, life and death for “us and our salvation” today and for eternity.
The story of the birth of Jesus, notes Chester, is “not just another story. It’s the great story. It’s the story that ties together a thousand other stories. Everything came together on that night in Bethlehem. ‘The fulfillment of the ages,’ Paul calls it. . . . The Christmas story is the one true story because it competes and fulfils all the stories of the Bible But it also goes on being the one true story. This is the story that makes sense of my story and your story. We were made to know God. All our longings only truly find their filfilment in him and through him. The plotlines of our lives are meant to find their resolution in the enjoyment of God. But we’ve set our lives on other trajectories which always lead to disappointing endings. But through the Christmas story God is rewriting the story of human history, bringing it to a glorious climax.”
Chester explains, “Each day we’ll look at one or two stories from the Bible to see how they find their fulfilment in the Christmas story and to explore how the Christmas story connects with our stories.. . . . Each chapter ends with a meditation and a prayer.”
Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ
Another is a work by Tim Keller, Hidden Christmas: The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ (New York: Viking, 2016). This book consists of eight chapters and is a collection of sermons preached by Keller over the years. Keller explains, “each chapter represents at least 10 or so meditations and sermons on each biblical text, delivered in Christmas services across the decades.” I read this one in conjunction with my devotional Bible reading. Not only does this provide examples of preached sermons, so as to glean something homiletically, but it is also good food for the soul, enriching one spiritually.
Keller’s concern is that the secularization of Christmas will blur the truth of historical account revealed in the Bible. Here are the true roots he fears will be lost: “The emphasis on light in darkness comes from the Christian belief that the world’s hope comes from outside of it. The giving of gifts is a natural response to Jesus’ stupendous act of self-giving, when he laid aside his glory and was born into the human race. The concern for the needy recalls that the Son of God was born not into an aristocratic family but into a poor one. The Lord of the universe identified with the least and the most excluded of the human race.” And yet, Keller admits each of these truths is double-edged, since what it states in the positive, also makes a negative statement about our condition that required the incarnation. Here is the way that double-edged sword is wielded: “Jesus comes as Light because we are too spiritually blind to find our own way. Jesus became moral and died because we are too morally ruined to be pardoned any other way. Jesus gave himself to us, and so we must give ourselves wholly to him. We are, therefore, ‘not [our] own’ (1 Corinthians 6:19). Christmas, like God himself, is both more wondrous and more threatening than we imagine.”
The gospel finds its fulfillment in the Lord Jesus, so even though everything cannot be said about Jesus through the story of his birth, the birth, understood for the whole of the incarnation, is the story of Jesus and the gospel. Keller concludes, “To understand Christmas is to understand basic Christianity, the Gospel.”
Christmas Playlist: Four Songs that bring you to the heart of Christmas
The final reading for this Christmas season Alistair Begg’s Christmas Playlist: Four Songs that bring you to the heart of Christmas (UK: The Good Book Company, 2016). This is the shortest of the three, and is actually written for the purpose of giving a copy to unbelievers as an evangelistic work. I am reading this one because I am interested to see how he presents this as an evangelistic work, seeking to learn how to do this more effectively and fruitfully. I am also interested in this work because Begg focuses on the four individuals who sang songs about Jesus’ birth and were recorded by Luke: “a teenage girl, a respected priest, a group of angels and an old man bring readers to the heart of Christmas, showing them the joy and peace that comes from meeting a baby who lay in the food trough and changed eternity.” These are the same people and songs I emphasize in the Advent Devotional I am writing: Mary, Zechariah, the angels and Simeon.
Begg explains, “This book is about Christmas songs, and it invites you to peer at the nativity scene. But not the songs that wash over us, or a scene we can sentimentalize. This book takes us back to the four songs of the first Christmas, which were heard before, during and after the birth of the baby who lies at the heart of the real Christmas. . . . We are going to be looking at the Gospel of Luke, one of the four historical accounts of Jesus in the Bible. And Luke, a doctor writing within living memory of the events he describes, punctuates the story of the birth of Jesus with a series of songs. He doesn’t give us these songs, or poems, for them to wash over us, but for them to change us. This is a playlist that helps us to prepare for Christmas properly, and to celebrate Christmas joyfully.”
God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ
The final one I am reading is one more substantive doctrinally and theologically focusing on the person and work of Christ, the incarnation and its implications more broadly, going beyond Jesus’ birth, is Steve Wellum’s God the Son Incarnate: The Doctrine of Christ (Wheaton: Crossway, 2016).
I always look to deepen and broaden my understanding of the biblical teaching of a doctrine, the theological implications of that doctrine, and how it has been articulated, defended, questioned and/or denied throughout the history of the church. In this new and excellent work, Wellum gives a “systematic summary of Christology from philosophical, biblical, and historical perspectives—concluding that Jesus Christ is God the Son incarnate, both fully divine and fully human,” and he does so while being aware of the present-day context and contemporary trends.
Wellum’s thesis of this work is as follows (p. 29): “Jesus Christ is God the Son incarnate, one person subsisting in and acting through a fully divine nature and a fully human nature according to the attributes of each. The glorious import of this Christological identification is that, in Jesus, God himself rules sovereignly over his creation to judge the world in righteousness and that he becomes a human representative substitute for a redeemed humanity to live in covenant with God.”
Of this work, D. A. Carson concludes, “This is now the handbook to give to theology students and other Christians who want to understand how confessional orthodoxy regarding the doctrine of Christ developed. Highly recommended.” I concur!
How are you deepening and broadening your understanding of Christology? How does that enhance and expand your worship of the God-man, the Lord Jesus Christ? So, to that end, what is on your Christmas reading list?
O Come Let Us Adore Him, Christ the Lord!