The Birth of Jesus Christ and some implications for Justice

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. (Matthew 1:18-20, ESV)


Joseph – the just man and a true hero of the faith

Joseph is described as a “just man” (ESV) or, one who is “faithful to the law” (NIV, Matt. 1:19)

He is, perhaps, a lesser-known character in the Christmas Narrative. After all, the Virgin Mary, and the child who would save the world, are the heroes who most readily come to mind. In our Christmas nativity, we depict Joseph trudging wearily beside the donkey, which is carrying the heavily pregnant mother of our Lord. But, it seems to me, this just man, who was unwilling to allow his fiancé to be shamed, is something of a hero.

What does justice mean for you? Meeting out judgment is certainly part of it. We have a strong sense of justice, and feel an emotional revulsion towards injustice. Of course, we all love the idea of the police officer capturing all guilty people, that is, until they pull us over for breaking the speed limit!

In fact, even in our own day, various strong nations have struggled with the idea of being “policeman” to the nations around – protecting one’s own citizens and meeting out judgement to nations that err. Is that what justice looks like? Here are some possibilities:-

  • Justice could mean retribution – a rigid interpretation of Jewish law dictated that Mary should be stoned to death. After all, she was carrying a baby out of wedlock, and Joseph knew that he had not fathered the baby. Even a more liberal interpretation of the law required her to be banished from the community.
  • Justice could mean equitable distribution of punishment. This might not be meeting out the harshest sentence. Perhaps justice is shown being equitable and moderate. Middle Eastern Culture would have viewed this turn of events as deeply shameful. Joseph was not honour-bound to stick with Mary, and he would have been seen to be just if he shunned her.

Joseph chooses neither of these courses of action.

  • Justice, as worked out by Joseph, is characterised as loving and compassionate. He interprets the demands of justice, possibly as described by the great Old Testament prophets, Isaiah and Jeremiah, as showing care for the weak, the downtrodden and the outcast.

Of course, we must not forget divine intervention in this whole narrative. An Angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, and encouraged him to accept his betrothed. This message shaped Joseph’s understanding, so he was persuaded that the baby being formed by God in Mary’s womb is a divine gift.

There are many personal and national implications for a view of justice that considers “compassion” alongside a strong sense of “right and wrong”. Here are a couple of my thoughts:


Compassion towards the outsider

There is a place for hearing the prophetic denunciation of our sin, which affronts a holy God. It is actually the big theme of Advent, this season in the Church’s year. People need to appreciate that they cannot just amble into the presence of God, particularly if God gets little more than a cursory look-in for the rest of their life.

However, Joseph’s actions show us that justice also demands that the Church’s message should be heard as one of compassion, mercy and love. Many people are put off by an assumption that the Church is there to condemn bad behaviour. However unfortunate this is, and, perhaps, despite how untrue this might be, this is a common perception. Are we best known for our compassion?

Care for migrants

Perhaps this is more contentious, but I also worry that nations (on both sides of the Atlantic) can appear to adopt a punitive approach to displaced migrants, rather than a compassionate one. For sure, there are some who are seeking harm to the nations they wish to enter. But many, if not most, are fleeing persecution and poverty.

Don’t forget, expectant parents, Joseph and Mary, were displaced, first to Bethlehem, then to Egypt. They became economic migrants, seeking help from a friendly host nation.

Maybe, from Joseph the just man, we can learn that our job is not to police, but to administer compassion and grace. Thankfully, we can leave the judging to our great God and get on with sharing the message of love, mercy and peace, which we find at the centre of the Christmas story, in our Saviour Jesus Christ the Lord.

With Christmas greetings, and hopes for peace


  • I am grateful to Kenneth Bailey Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, for many of these insights into Joseph.

Light in a dark world


A few thoughts on John 1:1-18 (mainly with Christmas preachers in mind)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made.In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify concerning that light, so that through him all might believe. He himself was not the light; he came only as a witness to the light.

The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.10 He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—13 children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.

14 The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.

15 (John testified concerning him. He cried out, saying, “This is the one I spoke about when I said, ‘He who comes after me has surpassed me because he was before me.’”) 16 Out of his fullness we have all received grace in place of grace already given. 17 For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known. (NIV)

 John 1:1-4

As we know all good storied begin “Once upon a time”

But the best story begins “In the beginning…”

Gen 1:1 – “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”

John 1:1 – “In the beginning was the word”, or “in the beginning the word already was”

… John’s magnificent Gospel begins by stretching our minds to the eternal existence of God, and the external co-existence between God and the Word.

… The word was with God and the word was God …. “I am the Father are one” (John 10:30)

This is the same one, who at this time, came to “be with us” – Immanuel. The one who was eternally with the Father, took on human flesh and was “with us”.

 What does “word” mean?

Rationality? The word ‘Word’ is the Greek word logos.  John’s Greek thinkers would have been very familiar with the concept.  Dating back to Heraclitus (500BC) the word came to refer to cataloguing, ordering, and sequential thought.  In fact the verb lego from which logos comes has become the name of a popular toy because of the way it encourages the development of building skills.  Other words in English include: Logical; catalogue, developing the same idea.

Certainly in John it is true that Jesus is seen as the logical coherence of this world.  He is its architect and builder, through Him all things were made and nothing was made without Him.

Wisdom? The idea of logos as wisdom spans the gap between Greek and Hebrews ways of thinking.  The Greek sophists saw knowledge as being the height of human development, and the concept was developed by Plato and Socrates.  God is the ‘big idea’, the seat of all knowledge and wisdom.  The Stoics came to see logos as the bridge between the material world and the world of the divine.

The wisdom emphasis in the Old Testament is found particularly in Proverbs and the prophetic writings (see Proverbs 22:17; 8:22-36).  The wise God reveals His plans through His prophets.

This leads us onto the dominant understanding of logos in the Old Testament.

Communication? God’s Word is God in action.

*             In creation: “By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made…” (Psalm 33:6);

*             In calling His people to Himself and producing spiritual life: ‘… so is my word that goes out from my mouth:  It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.’  (Isaiah 55:6);

The ‘Word of the Lord’ is not dry, arid or academic.  Far from it.  God’s word is creative and life-giving.  Through His Word God created the world, and still re-creates them with new spiritual life.

These two ideas come out very clearly in John’s Gospel.  Jesus, the creator of this world, through His Word brings men and women to new life.

John 1:5-8

The light has come – hooray! Praise the Lord? But many want to snuff this light out

The light shines; it penetrates darkness … like the far off lighthouse – slicing through the night.

Darkness doesn’t emanate. ..Darkness is the absence of light

Light reveals other things shine up in its light

Like the brilliance of truth

Like the ugliness of sin

Light is only welcome if you want to see what it illuminates cf John 3:17f.

If it’s not welcome you can seek to snuff it out… Herod tried; the Communists tried; the secularists tried; I tried ….but all you actually can do is shut the door on it… but it will keep pouring in through the cracks. …. Light is welcome but not if you would rather stay in the shadows (e.g. Nicodemus, a great example of one who journeys from darkness to light, Jn 3:2; 19:39)

John was the greatest witness to the light

But however great John was he wasn’t the light. He is the Voice; Jesus is the Word. He is the witness to the light, Jesus is the light.

Hence 1:29 – Don’t look to me, but look to the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.

For us who believe, Jesus is brilliant. Revel in His light; but never forget that the brighter he shines the more people will want to snuff the light out – and the stifle the faithful witness to him.

John – 1:9-13

Twin big themes in John – rejection of the light, powerful and simple transformation through belief and trust in Him.

Many will reject the witness of the Word – He is this dark world’s light (kosmos 73 times in John). As we saw yesterday – the light shines in the darkness and the darkness is unable to overcome it (v5)… this verse might suggest either wilful or just ignorant… but v 10b clearly implies that he came to those who should be most likely to accept him, but they received him not. Even at this pinnacle of God’s self-revelation there remains ignorance and stubborn rejection. Rejection should not be a surprise to us. We should rejoice, though, that this is no “false dawn” the true light has come.

But – a big but! (A turnaround sentence “But God” Eph 2:4) – those who “receive” and “believe” will become children of God. This, of course, is why John wrote this Gospel “these things are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:31).

 The human responsereceive and believe (acceptance and trust that He is the true light) correspond with the supernatural divine work (becoming a child of God) …. John emphasises both the Human response necessary and the Divine action required …

Not of natural descent or a husband’s will – it’s not inherent in being human. …you’re not born a Christian nor do you automatically become one by being born to a certain race or part of the world. It’s not a middle east or a western thing.

Not of human decision – it’s not even a personal lifestyle choice or a matter of personal preference.

You only become a Christian by receiving Jesus and believing in him. then you become a rightful child of God.– not illegitimate – but by receiving and believing you become a true part of the family of God. What a great privilege to be in this family and what a unity this brings about across the ages and around the world! He became a human child so that we, by believing and receiving Him might ourselves become children of God.

 John 1:14-18

It has been said of John’s Gospel that it is “a pool where children may paddle and elephants may wade”.  Maybe you are just getting “your feet wet” as a Christian.  Well, John is a good place to begin, for here we meet Jesus.  But for those who want to go deeper, the Gospel is intellectually stimulating and presents a challenge to our Christian discipleship.

God is invisible and unknowable apart from his self-revelation

  1. Believers get to see his Glory (v14). He pitched his tent among us. Veiled in flesh, yes, but – we get to see the unveiling of God (hence 2:11)… his glory is full of grace and full of truth.
  2. No one has ever seen God, but many people saw Jesus. “Have you ever seen God” – born too late. “Sight” is important for John, hence the signs … but seeing beyond the sign to the significance – the unveiling of God. He shines in this dark world, revealing a gracious God. He is not accessible through law keeping; he can only be known through Christ.

Yes, Good Friday and Easter matter. But so too does Christmas – God stooped low to be with us; to show unfallen humanity; to prepare the way for our salvation and offer grace and truth.

For more see

John the Baptist – facing two directions

The announcement of John the Baptist’s birth is greeted by Zechariah in the words we know as the Benedictus.  The thing that is most striking about this song of praise is the way in which it points in two directions at the same time.  John is the last of the Old Testament prophets, anticipating God’s promised rescue of Israel from the hand of their enemies.

But as we read through Luke 1 it begins to dawn on us that a climactic day has arrived in the birth of John.  Now with John’s coming we shall see that he will prepare the way for one who will finally bring these promises to fruition.  He ‘brings the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of sins’ (Luke 1:77).

It is this description of the significance of Christmas which I find striking.  As Jesus is anticipated by John’s ministry we are told: ‘… the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.’

The imagery used here is very dramatic.  In the same way that we can look towards the glow of an emerging sunrise in the east and anticipate all the freshness and opportunity of a new sunny day, so in Jesus Christ, we have a new day dawning which will bring about forgiveness and peace.  The rising of the sun (Son) of God is truly the dawning of a new day.  It is a day which Zechariah got a first glimpse of.   But we have the great privilege of basking in the glory of the Son of God – enjoying his presence and peace.

Christmas Day is a great day – a Son day.  But it anticipates a great rising of the Son of God.  Having died on the cross to buy peace and forgiveness of sin he rose again on the third day.  The rising Son is the same Emmanuel – God with us now.

Happy Christmas!

Live’s Jesus Changed

St John’s Gospel is a Christmas favourite.  The climax of the Carol Service readings is usually John 1:1-18.  It is well said that John’s Gospel is “a pool where children may paddle and elephants may wade”.  For some years now I have been wrestling with this marvellous Gospel.  Is there a central theme, or key which unlocks the book?  Clearly John’s own explanation is in John 20:30-31 – “Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.”  Some have seen 7 signs and 7 discourses which John has collected in order to demonstrate that Jesus is the Son of God.  I am sure that this makes a lot of sense of the first 12 chapters of the Gospel.

Many have also pointed out that John overlaps numerous themes – such as his demonstration that Jesus is greater than Jacob, Moses and Abraham; that he is the “I am”, everchanging eternal God; that he comes to fulfil the Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacle festivals.  I am sure that John is “layered” in this way, often having more than one theme going on at a time.

However, I have also become convinced that John collects together stories of highly colourful individuals, and groups of people, who themselves have come to have life in the Son of God by believing in his name.  We have Nicodemus in John 3 – a respected Jewish teacher; the Samaritan woman and outcast in John 4; the healing of a paralysed man in John 5; and the healing of a man born blind in John 9.  In each of these encounters the individuals emerge (to a greater or lesser degree) from darkness to light as it dawns on them that Jesus is more than a prophet or a healer, and none other than the Son of God who is worthy of worship.  John interwiews collective encounters with crowds of people who are largely fascinated by Jesus, but more as a celebrity than as Divine; and a hostile and plotting religious establishment.

But, for all the complexity of this Gospel,  I commend it again as a series of testimonies to the true identity of Jesus, the Son of God.  Yes, John is a record of Jesus’ words and deeds during his time as “Word Made Flesh” on earth.  But I wonder whether sometimes we have overlooked the human drama played out in the lives Jesus changed, as they mirror back for us something of the true identity of Jesus.  They invite us to examine him afresh so that we along with Thomas might say “My Lord and My God” (see 20:28).

I wonder, is that your testimony?  Have you come to worship the Son of God we meet in John, and have Him change your life for good?!

Christmas – A Tall Story? Unwrapping the myth and keeping the Christmas present

The Baby and the Bathwater… 

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, has stirred up the blog sites this week.

He claims that much of the traditional Christian story is myth rather than history.  Lots of what he says is true.  In fact, the letter column of yesterday’s Times (20th December 2007) includes one by Revd Dr Anthony Carr with which I pretty much agree:

I understood and accepted much of what Dr Rowan Williams said about the Christmas story. I would, however, take issue with him on belief in the virginal conception. I use this word deliberately rather than the Virgin Birth because they are two different things.

Both the Roman Catholic Church and the Evangelical Church hold the teaching that the virginal conception is central to their teaching about the nature of Christ and of humankind. Belief in the fall of man means that all people are born with that fallen nature. If Jesus was born of natural parents he could not become the perfect sacrifice for humankind because he, God, would be also tainted with sin, which would be impossible. Rather he took on himself human nature by going through the process of a supernatural conception and a natural birth through the womb of Mary. The whole nature of Christ is changed if belief in the supernatural conception by the Holy Spirit is rejected, and it also makes mockery of the Creeds.

In my adult life I have developed a huge dislike for Father Christmas, which I guess may be why he no longer puts satsumas in the stocking at the end of my bed!  My main problem is that, as a child, he and God the Father got completely scrambled together in my thinking.  They both appeared at Christmas time.  They both had long flowing beards and had apparently lived for ever.  They both rewarded the good with pressies.

The corruption of grace, however, was that, however bad I had been I never got a lump of coal in my stocking and he always came up with the goods, thanking me for his mince pie and sherry, mysteriously in my father’s handwriting!

Separating myth from fact is important.  But at the same time, let’s not lose the historic facts which are absolutely intergral to the Christian faith.  If Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin, lived as a sinless man, died on the cross to atone for our sins and rose again on the third day victorious, we are, as the Apostle Paul aptly said in a hopeless situation.  But if it is preached that Christ has been raised from the dead, how can some of you say that there is no resurrection of the dead? 13 If there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. 14 And if Christ has not been raised, our preaching is useless and so is your faith. 15 More than that, we are then found to be false witnesses about God, for we have testified about God that he raised Christ from the dead. But he did not raise him if in fact the dead are not raised. 16 For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either. 17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.  18 Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ are lost.  19 If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men.  20 But Christ has indeed been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. (1 Cor 15:12-22)

The main thing that is at stake here is whether the Bible is to be trusted as a reliable record of Jesus’ life and mission. 

Anglican mainstream reports the Bishop of Rochester saying at a Cathedral Carol service yesterday  “Down the ages of faith lots of stories have grown up around Christmas. This can be good because it helps people to celebrate the festival. This is true of the music at Christmas, and the great art about the nativity. But Christmas is not just a story. It is solemn and serious. It is about God being with us, God speaking to us and God saving us. The reason that Christmas remains popular even in secular society, is that for a while we see the benign heart of the universe.”  (

So, what is the moral of this story?  By all means, let’s unwrap the Christmas myths which have overlain the Christmas story.  But in doing so, let’s not lose the real Christmas presence, He who came in history to be our salvation.  Wouldn’t it be good if people read the eyewitness accounts of that first Christmas in the four Gospels?  We need to dispel many popular myths about Christmas without losing the Chist.  To fail to do so would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater!